( Originally Published 1896 )
"THIS is Vittorio's gondola, is it not, Nanni ? " asked May, who had an eye for details and had
instantly identified the boat.
" Si, Signorina."
They had spent the morning sight-seeing, and now they were, according to Uncle Dan, having their reward, coasting along the outer shore of the Giudecca, in the heavenly afternoon light. The Colonel much preferred the easy social conditions of the gondola to the restraint, not to say chill, of church and chapel, where a man must not wear his hat nor speak above a whisper.
May was sitting, as she liked to do, in the little gondola chair, whence she commanded every point of the compass ; a position which had the further advantage of facilitating communication with the gondolier.
"Why don't you use your own gondola ? " she persisted.
D'or an instant Uncle Dan's loyalty wavered, and he wondered whether Polly were not perhaps a trifle forward for so young a girl. He had not been struck by it before, and even now he would have challenged such a heresy in another ; but, really,---
" Because this is the better gondola," Nanni replied, in the grave, impersonal tone which was in such marked contrast with his brother's eager alacrity.
"I wish Vittorio would get well," May exclaimed, impatiently ; " this man is n't half as nice."
" Don't you think so ? " Pauline queried. " He is a perfect gondolier."
" Yes ; but he is so unapproachable. One could never get confidential with him ; one would never ask him about his wife and children, and think how delighted Vittorio was to tell us about each individual bambino ! "
" It would not be of much use to ask him," Uncle Dan interposed hastily. ` For he hasn't any."
" I have an idea he is poor," said Pau-line. " Even poorer than the rest of them. I wonder what is the reason."
" So do I," said May. " Nanni, is your gondola a very old one ? "
" Si, Signorina ; very old."
" What a pity ! It must be very bad for you. Which is your ferry ? "
" I don't belong to any."
" But I thought every gondolier be-longed to a ferry."
There was no reply.
" Isn't that so ? " May insisted.
" Si, Signorina, but I am no longer a gondolier."
" Why ; what are you ? "
At this juncture Uncle Dan felt it imperatively necessary to interpose again.
" That's San Clementi," he observed.
indicating an island half-a-mile away, composed apparently, of red brick and window-glass.
" How lovely i " May exclaimed ; and the indiscriminating response betrayed inattention.
" What are you? " she asked again.
" I do not live in Venice, Signorina ; my home is in Milan."
" In Milan ? What do you do there ? " " I am attached to a hospital."
There was something peculiarly provocative of curiosity in the laconic replies of the man. May wondered whether his reticence was due to modesty or to moroseness. Perhaps she could find out.
" What do you do at the hospital ? " she asked.
For the first time his eyes met hers directly, as he said, with something al-most like a challenge in his voice : " I am one of its servants, Signorina."
Yes, May thought, it was moroseness ; he was unhappy, and no wonder.
" What a pity ! " she cried, with very genuine compassion in her voice. " It can't be half so nice as being a gondolier."
But Nanni was again intent upon his work, rowing with long, steady strokes, his eyes fixed upon the course of the gondola.
Do you like it as well ? " she asked, with a quite inexplicable sense of temerity. She felt herself on the verge of being overawed by the stately reticence of this hospital servant.
"It is my work," said Nanni, in a gentler tone. " A man's work is his life."
" But if you had a good gondola and a place at a traghetto, would n't you rather come back to Venice ? "
" No, Signorina ; I love my work."
" Polly, you ought to have been a lawyer," Uncle Dan remarked, highly amused at the insuccess of her catechizing, which he by this time perceived to be harmless.
They had turned in to one of the canals of the Giudecca, that great crescent island whose curve follows the southern line of the city, as the outer arc of a rainbow follows the inner. Not a breath stirred the water of the canal, upon which theirs was the only moving craft. Moored close to the low, brick coping of the quay, which bordered one side of the rio, were two or three fishing boats, their broad hulls black, their rudder arms rudely carved and gaily decorated. Here a gorgeous red sail hung loose in the still air ; there, a voluminous brown net, bordered with rings and bobbers, was stretched between two stout masts, drying in the sun. Curious great bulging baskets, dingy brown in color and shaped like giant sea-urchins, depended from the gunwales, half immersed in water, the mortal remains of small, crab-like creatures sticking to their sides. All this picturesqueness, and more besides, was reflected in the placid water. On the one hand was the quay, with its irregular row of houses done in delicious sun-baked colors, in front of which women in sulphur shawls and children in variegated rags were sunning themselves and passing the time of day. On the other side, a tumble-down wall of brick, that once was red, rose out of the water in such formless dilapidation that one could not tell where the reality merged into the reflection ; while masses of verdure from a hidden garden tossed their heads above it, or tumbled over it as if enchanted to get a glimpse of themselves in the dark, cool water below. A wooden bridge spanned the canal, glassed perfectly in the still water, and somebody's wash, hung out to dry at one end of the rustic railing, blended acceptably in the quaint harmony of the picture.
Nanni had been rowing slowly, and just there, perceiving that the attention of his passengers was arrested, he stayed his oar. A bird, hidden somewhere among the foliage in the garden, chose that moment for making a melodious observation to his mate, while a somewhat timid and tentative baby-voice from the quay lisped : " Un soldino," not with any business intention but merely by way of practice. The whole thing was so in-credibly pretty that there was nothing to be said about it, and for a number of seconds no one spoke.
Then May exclaimed : " I'm so afraid somebody will say something ! " upon which the others laughed, and instantly the oar was put in motion again, the gondola gliding forward under the bridge and past other ruinous, verdure-crowned walls.
" What a shame this man should not be a gondolier," May cried, returning to the charge, with unabated interest. " It does seem as if we might perhaps do something about it."
She glanced up at the grave face, half inclined to press the subject further. The man was gazing straight over the prow of the gondola, not more intent than his brother often was, yet the young girl felt abashed and deterred from her purpose.
If it were Vittorio, she told herself, she might be sure that the dark features would break into a flashing smile when she spoke to him. But this man could not be depended upon to look pleased at any casual notice bestowed upon him. She wondered why ; she wondered why he was so different. Had he always been like that, or was it his life of exile and servitude ? Nothing could convince her that he really liked his work in the hospital, far away from his beautiful Venice. There was some mystery about it, and she hated to be baffled.
" Yes, I always like poking about in the Giudecca," Uncle Dan was saying. " It 's chock full of pretty bits, and then you keep coming out on the lagoon again, and like as not there are marsh-birds or people wading about after shell-fish. There 's always something going on on the lagoons."
" Why, I should have said that the lagoon was the quietest place in the world," Pauline remarked.
" It is," Uncle Dan admitted. " That's why you are so sure to notice any little thing that happens to be going on ! "
Meanwhile the gondolier had unconsciously suited his action to their word, and they had come out upon the lagoon again, and now they were skirting the pretty green Giudecca shore, where scar-let poppies stood bright and motionless in the still sunshine.
" Oh, I want some of those poppies," cried May. " Nanni, could we go ashore and get some of those flowers ? How do you call them? "
" They are papaveri, Signorina," he answered ; " I will get you some."
" But I want to get them myself."
" That would not be possible, Signorina ; it is difficult to land."
He rowed slowly for a few seconds more, and then he backed water and brought the gondola in toward the shore which rose several feet above the water and was formed of loose earth and stones. May, forced to admit that she could not herself land, seated herself on the gondola steps whence she could watch the proceedings. The gondola was creeping closer and closer to the shore„ sidling in, for it was only here and there that the water was deep enough to carry the boat. Presently Nanni laid the blade of the oar flat upon the grass and so drew the boat gently in. Then, still keeping his hold upon the shore with the blade of the oar, he laid the other end across the stern, and, assuring himself that the balance was perfect, he found a foothold in the loose earth, and, with one long step, gained the top of the embankment. The gondola gave somewhat beneath his foot, and the stern rose as it righted it-self, but the oar-blade did not yield its curiously tenacious hold.
" How nice of him, not to tell us to sit still," May exclaimed. " One does like to be treated like an intelligent being ! "
She watched the tall figure moving here and there, stooping to pick half-a-dozen blossoms, giving an occasional glance at the gondola meanwhile, to make sure that all was well. Presently the figure disappeared in the hollow.
" One feels quite abandoned," Pauline remarked. " What would become of us if the boat were to glide off? "
" We could wade ashore," May suggested. "It doesn't appear to be more than a foot deep anywhere."
" I rather think Nanni would have to do the wading," said Uncle Dan.
The tide was going out, slipping so quietly to the sea that here, at this re-mote anchorage, the receding of the water was imperceptible. The marsh had not yet begun to prick through the sinking tide, and as the eye wandered across the wide, unbroken stretches of the la-goon, it seemed like a vast sea of glass. The day was so clear and so still that the distant spires of Malamocco and Poveglia were mirrored in the lagoon. To the young eyes of the girls, the twin pictures, against their respective backgrounds of sky and water, were as clear-cut as an etching held in the hand.
" Are those real islands, Uncle Dan ? " asked Pauline.
But before Uncle Dan could make a fitting rejoinder, May exclaimed : " Oh, look at the poppies ! " and all eyes were turned to the shore.
Nanni had suddenly appeared, close above them, a perfect glory of scarlet poppies in his hand. The sun shone full upon them, till they fairly blazed with color against the background of his dark figure. He dropped on one knee, reaching down to place the flowers in the Signorina's outstretched hand, and as she looked up brightly to thank him, the two figures, with their sharply contrasted coloring, made a startlingly pretty picture in the exquisite setting of water and sky.
" Lungo ! "
The voice rang out musically, as most sounds do, across the water, and, turning, May saw another gondola corn-jug up astern. The curve of the shore had hidden it from view until that moment.
" Do stay just as you are for a minute," cried the sanie voice, descending to English. " We are out after effects, and we want those poppies."
" Of course you do," said May, " but you can't have them."
" Yes, we can, if you'll only hold them in your hand and let us pilfer with our brushes. You won't lose a single poppy and we shall have them all."
" If you had any artistic sense you would rather have those tilting about on the shore," said May ; " but if you prefer an indiscriminate mass of color you are welcome."
Geoffry Daymond's companion meanwhile was paying his respects to Pauline and the Colonel, who were old acquaintances.
" May, you have never meet Mr. Kenwick, I think," said Pauline.
" Oh, yes, I have," May declared ; " but it was ages ago and he never would take any notice of me."
" Do let me make up for it now," Kenwick begged, rapidly setting his pallette, by way of elucidating his request.
" How long ago is ages ago ?' asked Daymond.
" Four years ago last winter," was the unhesitating reply. " It was when I was fifteen and Mr. Kenwick used to come to see my sisters."
" My memory does not go back as far as that," said Kenwick. " I'm a child of the hour."
He was a man well on in the thirties, who looked as if he had lived hard ; and since there was nothing in his chosen calling to account for such an impression, the observer was led to seek its origin in the realm of speculation. He had, to be sure, painted several good pictures, but that was ten years ago. Since then he had lived on his reputation, materially reinforced by a not inconsiderable income. As Pauline watched his face, it struck her that his smile, which she had always objected to, had grown positively glittering in its intensity. Uncle Dan, for his part, thought the young man seemed amusing, but he wished he had not happened to be old Stephen Kenwick's grandson.
" Then we may have you ? " Geoffry was asking.
" I thought it was the poppies you wanted," said May, suspiciously.
" It is ! it is ! " cried Kenwick with fervor.
" But you make such a pretty setting," Daymond explained ; " your dress, you know, and the general color-scheme."
" What fun to be a color-scheme," cried May. " Uncle Dan, do you think I might be a color-scheme ?
" I don't know that you can help it," was Uncle Dan's rejoinder, intended to express a proper resignation, but betraying, quite unconsciously, an appreciation of more than the pale blue gown as a background.
Then Nanni, having returned to his post, was directed to row out a little from shore, and presently the two artists were at work, rapidly sketching in the bright figure with the slim black prow for a foil, and the silvery reaches of the lagoon beyond.
Uncle Dan was sitting in the chair where he could watch the faces of the young men. There was something in Kenwick's manner that antagonized him ; it was, somehow, too appreciative.
" I make a condition," the Colonel exclaimed abruptly, in his voice of martinet. " If there 's a likeness the sketch is forfeited."
" I'm safe," Geoffry laughed. " I never got a likeness in my life."
" I will be as evasive as possible," said Kenwick, somewhat nettled ; " but it 's rather late to impose conditions."
" Am I holding the poppies right ? " asked May, after what seemed to her a long interval of silence. " I 'm afraid they will begin to droop pretty soon."
" The poppies are all right," Geoffry assured her.
" Does that mean the rest of it isn't ? I posed for the girls in a studio once, and they said I did it very well."
" Girls usually pose well," Renwick observed upon which May concluded, most illogically, that he was conceited.
Pauline, meanwhile, had not turned toward the other gondola which lay astern of theirs. She was watching her sister and wishing she could sketch. She thought, if she could, she should rather do her as she received the poppies from the hands of the gondolier. She had one of her prettiest looks then, and the little touch of action was more characteristic. There was something conventional, and therefore not quite natural in this passive pose ; May was not in the habit of sitting still to be looked at.
" Would you like to see Miss Beverly?"
The other gondola had glided up close alongside, and Daymond held out his sketch. Faithful to his bond, and to his professed disabilities, he had scarcely hinted at the face, but the pose was charmingly successful, and the scheme of color was all he had promised. Bright as the poppies were, and well as they were indicated, without being individualized, in the sketchy handling, the really high light of the picture was caught in the golden hair, which gleamed against the silvery blending of water and sky, and was thrown into still brighter relief by the graceful black prow curving beyond it, but a little off the line.
" It is lovely," said Pauline, as she handed it to May.
" How pretty ! " cried May ;; and then, recovering her presence of mind : " I don't see how you got such a good red."
Uncle Dan, meanwhile, was examining Kenwick's sketch.
" How the devil did you get that likeness ? " he exclaimed, forgetting, for an instant, the condition he had made.
" Then the thing is forfeited," Ken-wick remarked.
" That's a fact," the Colonel answered, turning upon the artist a glance of quick distrust. " What 's to be done about it?"
" That is for you to say," Kenwick replied. " The sketch is yours."
The Colonel's face flushed. He had a very lively appreciation of a graceful act, and he was really delighted with the picture.
" Why, bless my soul ! " he cried ; " that 's a present worth having ! Eh, Polly ? "
" Indeed it is ! " Pauline agreed, cordially, taking the picture from her uncle's hand and studying it attentively.
" All the same," she said, as they were rowing towards home, half-an-hour later ; " I should much rather have had Mr. Daymond's sketch. It is not a likeness yet there 's twice as much of May in it."
" Do you think so ?" May queried, doubtfully. " Seems to me he did n't give me any nose."
" Oh, yes, he did ; there was a little dot that did very well for a nose And, besides, there is n't very much of you in your nose."
" I wish you had told me that my hat was tipped up on one side," May continued, reproachfully. She was examining Kenwick's sketch with much interest.
" It would have spoiled it if it had n't been ; your hair would n't have showed half as well."
" Perhaps not ; and the hair does look pretty," May admitted. " Dc> you re-member how pretty Mamma's hair was, Uncle Dan ? "
" Of course I do. It was prettier than yours," the Colonel declared, cheerfully perjuring his soul in the cause of discipline.
" So I thought," said May. " There 's always something better than ours. I wonder how it would seem to have anything really superlative."
As the gondola came up to the steps of the Venezia, May turned, and looking back at the gondolier, said : " The pataveri are beautiful, Nanni."
She was delighted with her acquisition of a new word, and still more so with the flash of pleasure her thanks called forth.
" No, he is not morose," she assured herself, as she stood on the balcony, a few minutes later, and watched the gondola gliding away in the golden afternoon light. The man was rowing slowly, against the tide, but presently the long, slim boat, with the long, slim figure at the stern, rounded the bend of the canal and vanished.