By Ways Of Venice
( Originally Published 1896 )
"I SAY, Geof ; is n't that Colonel Steele's gondola over there ? "
" Why, yes ! " Geof, cried, with mock surprise ; " how clever of you to see it ! And, I say, Oliver, don't you think that looks a little like the tower of San Giorgio ? Red, you know ; rather marked, eh?"
The two young men were coming home from an early sketching-bout, as was evident from a glance at the gondola, which was distinctly in undress. Old Pietro knew better than to carry his best cushions and brasses on such occasions ; nor did he display the long, black broad-cloth,—the strassino—which gives such distinction to a gondola, falling in ample folds from the carved back of the seat, and hiding the rougher finish of the stern. Under the awning, on the very rusty and dilapidated cushions, sat Kenwick, and beside him, face up, was an oil-sketch of a half-grown boy, sitting at the prow of a fishing-boat, dangling his bare brown legs over the water, which gave back a broken reflection of the bony members. A red sail, standing out in full sunshine, furnished the background to the figure, but somehow, the interest centred in the thin legs, which the boy himself was regarding with studious approval. The legs were so extremely well drawn that one did not wonder at their owner's satisfaction in them.
Pity you can't paint as well as you can chaff, the artist observed, glancing from his own clever sketch to his friend's block, which was leaning, face inward, against the side of the boat.
Geof was lolling on the steps, his legs somewhat entangled among the easels, paint-boxes, and the like that cumbered the floor of the boat, one arm resting on the deck of the prow. Like many athletic men, he had a gift for looking outrageously lazy. At Kenwick's retort, he turned from the contemplation of San Giorgio, knocked the ashes out of his pipe, and folding his hands behind his head, bestowed an amiable grin upon his astute friend. He wondered just why Kenwick found it worth while to dissemble.
" The best thing you ever did was that poppy sketch," he remarked, regarding his companion with half-closed, indolent eyes. " But then, you haven't often the wit to choose such a good subject. I wish you were not so confoundedly afraid of doing anything pretty."
" My dear fellow," Kenwick retorted ; " you may be a very decent architect, but I '11 be hanged if you have the first inkling of what art means."
From which interchange of amenities, the average listener might not have inferred, what was nevertheless true, that the two men had a high opinion of one another's talents. Happily, there was no one to be misled, for Pietro, with all his advantages, had not yet mastered a word of English. The only feature of the situation intelligible to him, was, that Kenwick, too, discarded his pipe at this juncture, and the gondolier was, accordingly, obliged to stow away his own half-finished cigarette,—4th. quality,—in the cavernous recesses of the stern. He had been counting upon smoking it out before arriving at the Palazzo Darino, though he had scented danger from the moment his eye fell upon Vittorio's gondola. A gondolier, however, is early schooled to study any whim rather than his own, and presently Pietro observed, rather than inquired : " To San Giorgio, Signore ? "
" Sicuro ! "
The red banner was hanging limp in the lee of the island, the prow of the boat being tied to a ring in the masonry, while Vittorio sat at the forward end, holding her off, lest a passing steamboat or out-ward bound coaster should drive her against the wall. Under the awning was a glimpse of light draperies, and, as Pietro's gondola drew near, the young men could hear a fresh, girlish voice reading aloud.
"We're not in visiting trim," Geof called, gathering himself together, as they came up ; ` but we must know what you are improving your minds upon."
" We are reading Ruskin," May re-plied, in her most edifying tone of voice.
" Oh, St. Mark's Rest," said Kenwick. " You 're getting enlightened about the pillars."
" It 's very interesting," Pauline declared. " You know he tells us to have our gondola moored over here, and read what he has to say. Doesn't everybody do it?"
" Well, I don't think you'll ever find San Giorgio fringed with gondolas,"
Kenwick mocked ; " but I 'm sure it shows a beautiful spirit in those who do come. I recognize Miss May's docility."
" You are quite right," said May, with dignity. " It was I who proposed it. Do you read Ruskin, Mr. Daymond ? "
" Of course I do. One would be lost without him, here in Venice."
" We almost got lost with him the other day," she rejoined. " We poked about in the rain in search of a San Giorgio on the wall of a house, who was described as ` vigorous in disciplined career of accustomed conquest.' We found the right bridge, with an unpronounceable name, and we turned and looked back, just as we were bid, and never a San Giorgio did we find. Imagine our disappointment when a shopkeeper told us that San Giorgio was partite ! "
" He was probably partito on his `career of accustomed conquest,' " Pauline observed. " Is that what you two artists have been about ? "
" We have been making a couple of daubs and abusing each other," said Geof.
" Yes," Kenwick declared ; " Daymond spends his time washing in sails and clouds and watery wastes, and won't take the trouble to draw a figure."
" Oh, well," said Daymond, philosophically, " I know that if I should ever want to exhibit, which Heaven forbid ! Kenwick could well afford to put in the figures at ten francs the dozen. I don't suppose you mind being interrupted," he added, tentatively.
" No, indeed," said May. " Our scene was in need of figures, too. Even Uncle Dan failed us. He hates to be read to, and he would n't come and moor."
" Besides," said Pauline ; " he wanted to go and sit at Florian's and watch the children feeding the pigeons. He says he shouldn't grow old if he lived in Venice."
" He had better, then," said Daymond. " Venice is very becoming to old things. Don't you want to come and see some of those Madonnas we were telling you about, with parasols over their heads ? "
"Good," May agreed, promptly giving Ruskin the go-by. " And why don't you come in our gondola? You don't want all that clutter going about with you.,,
" I 'm afraid if we don't go home and brush up, we shall have the appearance of a clutter in your boat," said Geof.
" Speak for yourself," Kenwick pro-tested. He flattered himself that he was as well dressed in painting rig as under any other circumstances ; and quite right he was, too. For Oliver Kenwick had no mannish contempt for appearances. He could not have done justice to the ragged shirt and begrimed legs of a model, if he had been wearing such a superannuated coat as Geoffrey Daymond elected to paint in. Yet, as the two men stepped into Vittorio's gondola, it was he of the shabby apparel who seemed to give character to the group, while Oliver Kenwick would have made very little impression, if he had chosen to refrain from conversation. This he rarely did, however, and he lost no time in engaging May's attention.
" It 's a pity we haven't time this morning to row out to St. George in the Seaweed," he said. " There's a Ma-donna there, on the angle of the wall, that 's worth seeing. When we do go, you will have to guess whom it is like."
" Probably Pauline," May ventured ; " One keeps seeing her in the Madonnas and saints."
" No, it 's not your sister," said Kenwick, with unmistakable meaning.
" You don't mean me ! " May ex-claimed ; " No mortal artist could make a Madonna of me ! "
" This may not have been done by a mortal artist. At any rate nobody knows who did it. But it 's a lovely thing ; " and Kenwick paused, with a view to doing full justice to the implication.
" Have you never painted Pietro ? " Pauline was asking, as she watched the striking figure of the old gondolier, rowing homeward. He had rescued his cigarette, which he was smoking, with a dandified air, as he made leisurely progress across the basin. Pietro had been a handsome young blade in his day, and there were moments when he recalled the fact.
" Oh, no ; I 'm not up to that kind of thing," Geof answered ; " you know I don't pretend to paint. My business is with bricks and mortar. It 's only when I'm loafing that I dabble in colors."
" Yet I liked your sketch of my sister, particularly."
" You don't mean it," Geof exclaimed ; "why, that 's worth knowing ! "
He looked thoughtfully at the graceful young creature in question, once more engaged in animated conversation. She was pretty,—no doubt of it,—preposterously pretty ! The coloring of face and head was delicious, and there was nothing slip-shod about the modelling, either. All bright and clear and significant. She made him think of a perfectly cut jewel.
It was rather odd that it should have been possible to hit off anything so definite, so almost matter-of-fact, in a mere sketch.
" I suppose it was because I didn't try for too much," he said aloud. " The sketch was only a hint."
As he turned his eyes from May's face to that of her sister, it was hardly more than a glance he bestowed upon the latter. He was impressed with the fact that it was impossible to subject the nevertheless perfectly unconscious countenance, whose eyes met his so frankly, to the candid scrutiny he had given her sister.
" I'm afraid I shouldn't succeed as well with you," he remarked.
" I wouldn't try, if I were you," Pauline laughed ; " I can't get even a photo-graph that my friends will accept. Have you any good portrait of your mother ? "
" No ; Kenwick tried her two years ago, but it wasn't a go."
" Of course not"
" Why, of course not ? "
" Yes ; why, of course not ? " Kenwick demanded. The sound of his name had naturally attracted his attention, and, quite as naturally he was piqued by what he heard.
Pauline hesitated a moment, not disconcerted, but reflecting.
" Perhaps only because you 're not an old master," she said ; " Mrs. Daymond ought to have been painted three or four hundred years ago."
" And whom should you have chosen to do it ? " Geoffry asked. It struck him that this was quite his own view, only he had never thought it out before.
" Let me think," said Pauline. " Not any of the great Venetians. They were too,—well, too gorgeous."
" Raphael ? " May suggested.
" No, not Raphael. Ah ! Now I know ! Sodoma could have done it."
" That's true," said Geoffry. " It ought to have been Sodoma." Then, " I believe you feel about my mother something as I do," he added, as May and Kenwick entered upon a lively discussion of their views upon the Siennese painter, in which they seemed able to discover nothing in common beyond a great decision of opinion.
The gondola was making its way down narrow canals, whose placid water found the loveliest Gothic windows and hanging balconies to reflect, and under innumerable bridges, each more delectable than the last. Now and then they stopped at some door-way opening upon the water, where they landed, and, passing through a ware-room golden with heaps of polenta, or dusky with bronzes and wrought iron, they came out into a court-yard embellished by an exquisite old stone stair-case, with quaint carved balustrade and leisurely landings, where beauteous dames of bygone centuries may have paused, as they descended, decked in rich brocades and costly jewels. Or again, an antique well-head, half-concealed by tools and lumber, kept its legend in faithful bronze or marble. The Madonnas, under their iron canopie& looked down, serene and beneficent, standing, here, above a little frequented court ; there, over the gateway of an old palace. There was one which Pauline was the first to espy, as they approached it under the arch of a bridge. The figure was upon the angle of a wall, glassed just where two canals met at her feet. Above her head was a square canopy, over the edge of which delicate green vines and tendrils waved, while in and out among them, tiny birds flitted and chirped.
As Vittorio rested on his oar, Kenwick took pains to assure May that there were no longer any lights burned before these Madonnas, and Vittorio was called upon to account for the omission. While he eagerly claimed that the Madonna at his ferry was never left without a light between sundown and sunrise ;—mai, mai ! —Pauline replied to a remark that Geoffry had made an hour previous.
" The feeling one has about your mother," she said, " almost makes a Catholic of one. You can see how natural it is for these poor fellows to worship the Madonna, and how much better it must make them."
" It is humanizing," Geoffry admitted. " There 's no doubt of it ; " and there-upon it struck him, for the first time, that there was a look of his mother in Pauline Beverly's face. Perhaps that accounted for something that had perplexed him of late.