Pulse Of The Sea
( Originally Published 1896 )
By the end of another week the life in Venice had come to seem the only life in the world, and even May admitted that there was something mythical about wheels and tram-ways and such prosaic devices for getting about on dry land. Both she and Pauline had acquired some little skill with the forward oar, for, as Uncle Dan justly observed, now that they sometimes succeeded in keeping the oar in the row-lock for twenty consecutive strokes, they were really very little hindrance to the progress of the boat ! May declared that no person of a practical turn would ever take naturally to so unpractical an arrangement as that short-lipped makeshift, designed to eject an oar at the first stroke. Geoffry Daymond agreed with her in this, as in most of her opinions. He declared in confidence to his mother that her views must either be accepted or flatly contradicted, for they possessed no atmosphere, and they consequently afforded no debatable ground.
Kenwick, on the other hand, very rarely saw fit to agree with the positive young person who looked so pretty when she was crossed, or with any one else, for the matter of that. He told May that she would row better if she were not so wool-gathering, merely for the pleasure of hearing her scornful disclaimer ; and when Pauline pointed out that she was herself the wool-gatherer, although her oar was quite as tractable as her sister's, he assured her that she was as much a child of the fleeting hour as himself.
It was Kenwick's method to talk to people about themselves, with a judicious linking together of his own peculiarities and theirs. He imagined that that sort of thing lent a piquancy to conversation. The aim of Oliver Kenwick's life was to be effective ; his art had suffered from it, and even in social matters he sometimes had the misfortune to overshoot the mark.
" Uncle Dan," Pauline had asked, one day, after an hour spent in Kenwick's society, " what is the reason Mr. Ken-wick makes so little impression? "
"Because he doesn't tally," May put in.
" Well," said Uncle Dan, scowling perplexedly ; " I don't quite make him out. But we've always had a feeling in our family that some of the Kenwicks were not quite our own kind ; an expression of opinion on Uncle Dan's part which owed its careful moderation to the fact that he had accepted and still treasured the poppy sketch. For there was one thing that the Colonel deferred to even more than to his prejudices, and that was his sense of obligation.
He therefore submitted, with a very good grace, to seeing' a good deal of the young man, and if it occasionally irked him to have Stephen Kenwick's grandson about, he found his account in the spirit and ease with which his two Pollys dealt with the situation.
Kenwick, of course, attached himself ostensibly to the Daymond party. He seemed to bear Geof no grudge because of his defection in the matter of the tramp among the Dolomites, which he himself, indeed, had appeared ready enough to relinquish. Without any preconcerted plan it usually happened that the two gondolas fell in with one another in the course of the afternoon, an arrangement which was much facilitated by the brilliant-hued banners floating at the respective prows.
"There's the flag-ship over by San Servolo," Geof would exclaim, seizing an oar and giving immediate chase ; or they would cruise about in an aimless way until Kenwick dropped the remark that the Colonel had said something about a trip to Murano that day.
The casual nature of Kenwick's allusions to the Colonel's party afforded Geof no little amusement. His pleasure in Oliver's society had always partaken somewhat of the admiring sentiment a plain man entertains for a clever comedian. Being himself incapable of dissimulation, even in a good cause, he was the more disposed to condone any harm-less exercise of a gift which he could never hope to acquire.
" I'm afraid they won't catch up with us any more, now that we have two oars," said May, one afternoon, as the red banner sped swiftly past the Riva, bound for the Porto del Lido. The day was bright and warm, and the pretty linen awning with its crimson lining was spread above their heads, somewhat obstructing their view. " I wish I could see whether they were coming," she added, with out-spoken solicitude. " It 's so much more fun to be a flotilla ! "
" I think they will find us," said Pauline, smiling to herself, as if she had pleasant thoughts. She would trust Geoffry Daymond to overtake them. Pauline was no match-maker, but, as she told herself, it was the sort of thing that was always happening in the family, and Geof's liking for May was as obvious as it was natural.
" Do you think, Vittorio, that we can really go out on the Adriatic ? " May asked.
Vittorio had been at the forward oar for a day or two, and tomorrow his brother was to be dismissed and he was to return to his post.
" Hardly out upon the Adriatic," he said, and, turning, he laid his oar flat across between the two gunwales and balanced himself upon it in order to look under the flaps of the awning into the face of the Signorina. Vittorio was of a pre-eminently social disposition, and he liked to be in visible touch with his listeners. It was indeed refreshing to see his handsome face and brilliant smile once more. It quite flashed in upon them, being in full sunshine, as they looked out upon it from their shady covert.
" The new break-water runs out a very long distance into the open sea on either side," he explained ; " and we shall hardly get to the end of it. But we can see over it, and there will be the bright sails such as the Signorina likes."
" How nice he is ! " said May ; " now the other one would have said : ` No, Signorina,' and that would have been the end of it."
Yet, even as she spoke, a quick compunction seized her. She had never been able to rid her mind of a disquieting conviction that all was not well with this grave, taciturn being, whose personality was not less haunting than his bearing was unobtrusive. She did not remember that she had ever before felt so much concern for an indifferent per-son, and, being of an active temperament, she could not be content with a passive solicitude. It seemed to her that some-thing must be done about it, and that it devolved upon her to solve the problem. Perhaps if she were to offer to give the man a gondola he would admit that he was miserable in that dreary hospital, and that he longed for the free life of the lagoons. The project appealed, indeed, so strongly, both to her imagination and to her judgment, that she had already made a mental readjustment of her finances to that end. There was a certain white silk trimmed with pale green miroir velvet that she had once dreamed of, which had some-how transformed itself in her mind into a slim black bark, fitted out in the most approved style with cushions and sea-horses, and tufted cords.
" I ought to be willing to dance in my tennis dress the rest of my days," she told herself; "for the sake of changing the whole course of a poor man's life ! "
The familiar call took her quite by surprise, and looking out from under the awning, she espied the Daymond seahorse on its blue ground, already close upon them. Geof was at the oar and Kenwick was sitting beside Mrs. Daymond.
" What do you say to our making an exchange of prisoners, Colonel Steele? " asked Mrs. Daymond. " You shall have one of my young men if you will give me one of your girls."
" Oh, may I come to you?" Pauline begged, mindful of her little air-castle ;—for the Colonel always managed, when he could, to get Geoffry into his own boat, and the young man was already engaged in an animated conversation with her sister.
" Do come," said Mrs. Daymond. " And Mr. Kenwick, I shall have to give you up, for I can't spare an oar."
" Doesn't Mr. Kenwick row ? " asked May, lifting a pair of satirical eyebrows.
" Not for other people," Kenwick laughed. " I keep my strength for paddling my own canoe " ; and, having seen Pauline safely established beside Mrs. Daymond, he stepped into the Colonel's boat, quite unconscious of the scarcity of encouragement he had received.
The Colonel welcomed him the more hospitably perhaps, for a consciousness of having been somewhat remiss at the outset. He need have had no misgivings, however, for Kenwick was so happily constituted as to consider a slight to himself quite inconceivable.
" It was very sweet of you to come to us," said Mrs. Daymond, as the gondolas glided away from each other. " We particularly wanted you this afternoon."
"I am glad of that," said Pauline, with one of her still smiles that seemed to give out as much warmth as brightness.
They had passed the island of Santa Elena, and were upon the broad path of the sea-going vessels, which was deserted to-day, save for one yellow sail, yet a long way off, that stood out in full sunshine against the quiet northern sky. The tide was coming in, though not yet strongly, and they were avoiding the current by keeping in toward the shore of the Lido.
Geof was rowing, with power and pre-precision, as his habit was. It struck Pauline that he would have been a capital gondolier ; and then she remembered that when he got her Uncle Dan talking about the war the other. day,--a feat, by the way, which few succeeded in accomplishing,—she had thought to herself, what a superb soldier he would have made. Presently her eye wandered from the rhythmically swaying figure at the oar to the wide reaches of the seaward path, where the yellow sail showed, clear and remote as a golden bugle-note, its reflection dropping like an echo, far, far down into the depths. The other gondola had fallen back a few lengths, as was apt to be the case.
" Did you ever wonder why your men give us the right of way ? " Mrs. Daymond asked. Her voice fell in so naturally with the dip of the oars and the lapping of the tide against the prow, that Pauline suddenly became aware of those pleasant sounds, which had escaped her notice till then.
" I should suppose of course your gondola ought to go first," she answered.
" Oh, no," Mrs. Daymond laughed ; " it is not out of deference to me. It is only because Pietro is an old man, and they don't like to hurry him. Is n't that a pretty trait ? "
" Yes, indeed ! Is Pietro very old ? "
" He is sixty-four. He rows as well as ever, only he has n't quite the endurance he used to have. He was my husband's gondolier."
" And you have had him all these years ? "
" Yes ; since before Geof was born. Geof is twenty-nine," she added thought-fully ; "just the age of his father when we first met. He is like his father, only happier."
" Happier ? " Pauline repeated, wonderingly.
" Yes ; my husband had peculiar sorrows."
They were close upon the bright sail now, and they found that it was striped with red and tipped with purple. The slight breeze had dropped and the sail hung loose, glowing in the sunshine as the boat floated homeward with the tide. Two men lay asleep in the shadow of the sail, and the man at the rudder had let his pipe go out. As the gondola came alongside the boat, a small yellow dog sprang up and barked sharply at them, his body, from tip to tail, violently agitated with the whirr of the internal machinery. The helmsman, thus roused, pulled out a match and lighted his pipe ; the sunshine was so bright that the light of the match was obliterated. Mrs. Daymond and Pauline watched the little drama rather absently.
" There are more sails," Geof re-marked, nodding his head toward the mouth of the port, where brilliant bits of color hovered like butterflies in the sun.
Pauline did not say how pretty they were, but Geof, stooping to look under the awning into her face, did not feel that she was unresponsive. He had discovered before this that she had other means of expression than audible speech.
They had come about the end of the Lido, and were following the line of the break-water, and presently Mrs. Daymond broke the silence :
" My husband was a Southern Unionist," she said. " The war was an inevitable tragedy to him."
Pauline felt instinctively that it was not often that Mrs. Daymond spoke in this way of her husband to one who had not known him. She listened with a sense of being singled out for a great honor.
" He would have given his life for his country," Mrs. Daymond was saying : " He would have given his life for the Union,—but he was bound hand and foot, and he came away."
They were far, far out now, still rowing toward the open sea. As Mrs. Daymond paused, they could hear the voice of the Colonel, speaking to Vittorio, in his peculiar Italian, only a shade less English than his own tongue.
" And your husband came to Venice ? "
" Yes ; it was here that we met. He had been gathering material in many places for a history of Venice, and he had come here to write. We spent three years here, summer and winter. He was fond of rough weather, and we get plenty of that here. And he was fond of work."
She paused again, watching the measured stroke of her son's oar.
" One summer we went into the Tyrol for a few weeks, and while we were away there was a fire, and all my husband's notes and manuscripts were burnt."
" Burnt ? " Pauline repeated, with a catch of consternation in her voice.
There was not a trace of bitterness in the speaker's face ; on the contrary, its usual clear serenity seemed touched to something higher and deeper.
" Then it was," she said, " that my husband had his great opportunity. He began his work again from the beginning. His courage did not flag for a single instant."
"He was a brave soldier after all," said Pauline.
" Yes ; and he fell on the field. There was a terrible epidemic of fever, and he went about among the people doing them inestimable service in many ways. I could not go with him because of Geof, and,—I saw the end from the beginning. As I was saying, Pietro used to row us as long ago as that. He has carried Geof in his arms many a time. Ah ! Now we feel the swell ! "
As she spoke, the long, slow roll of the sea lifted their light bark like a piece of drift-wood upon its sweeping crest, letting it sink again in a strange and solemn rhythm. The actual rise and fall of the water was so slight that it was scarcely apparent to the eye ; yet it had the reach and significance of an elemental force, and the gondola rose and sank with a certain tremor, foreign to its usual graceful motion.
" Perhaps we had better turn back, Geof," said Mrs. Daymond.
" Very well ; but not until Miss Beverly has seen the sails outside."
Pauline went forward and stood upon the upper step, steadying herself by the oarsman's proffered shoulder. The motion seemed stronger, now that she was on her feet.
" Hold harder," said Geof ; " you won't enjoy it if you don't feel safe.—There ! That 's right."
Over the line of the jetty was the deep blue Adriatic, sweeping to the horizon, its nearer reaches dotted with brilliant sails, shining in every shade of red and yellow and ruddy brown. The long, outer shore of the Lido, stretching far away to the tower of Malamocco, was edged with white, as the gentle curve of the waves broke with a toss of spray upon the sand.
" You like it? " Geof inquired, looking up into her face.
" It 's as pretty as a tune," she said. " A tune with a lot of harmony to make it really sing. Do you know what I mean ? "
" Perfectly," he answered.
Then, as she stepped down and went back to her seat : " I 'm going home as passenger," he announced. " We shall have the tide with us and Pietro won't need my help."
" That 's right," said Mrs. Daymond. " We want you over here."
The sun had got low enough to shine in under the flaps of the awning, and Geof lifted the canvas from its iron rods, and handed it over to Pietro, who stowed it away, rods and all, in the stern of the gondola. The world seemed to open up immensely bright and big, and the sky struck them with the force of a revelation.
" There, I call this grand ! " Geof cried, taking possession of the chair.
" I 've been feeling like an outcast or a galley-slave, or some such unlucky wretch, laboring away at the oar, with you two having the pick of everything inside."
"You seemed depressed ! " his mother said, with amused appreciation of his lament.
They had turned toward home, and were just coming up with the Colonel's gondola. The men were resting on their oars, while the passengers stood up to survey the view beyond the jetty.
" You didn't come out far enough to get the swell," said Pauline.
" Yes, we did," May answered. " But we did n't like it ; so we came back."
" Miss May was pretty badly frightened," Kenwick observed, with his most brilliant smile.
" Nonsense ! " cried May ; " I was no more frightened than anybody else ! But I did n't like it. It felt so horribly big, and made us seem so little."
" And you were perfectly right, Polly," said Uncle Dan, placing his hand upon the small, gloveless one that lay on his arm. " The sea is no place for a gondola. I am sure Mrs. Daymond agrees with us."
" I think we both sympathize with May," she answered, glancing with interest at the charming young face, which was not quite clear of a certain puzzled disturbance.
Half-an-hour later they rounded the end of the Lido and came in full sight of the city, its domes and towers grouping themselves in ever changing perspective against the western sky. They overtook two or three of the brilliant sails they had passed on their outward way, still drifting city-ward with the tide. The men had taken to their oars, and were helping the boats along.
As they drew near the poor, denuded island of Santa Elena, where only the vine-grown Abbey remains, of all its ancient loveliness, a cascade of lark-notes came pouring down from the sky. They strained their eyes to catch a glimpse of the birds, lost to sight in the dazzling ether, and as they looked, one tiny creature, with wings outspread, came singing down to earth.
The gondolas were nearing home, when Geof asked abruptly : " How did you like it, Miss Beverly,—being caught in the ocean swell ? "
" I agree with May that it was rather solemn and awful," she answered ; and then, with a slightly deepening color " but—I liked it."