An Afternoon Tea
AMY comes to me, one Sunday, proposing that we shall drink four o’clock tea with a venerable and high-born dame of her acquaintance, — no other than the old, old mother of Venice. “An altogether suitable and delightful person with whom to spend a Sunday hour,” explains Amy ; “ and after the tea there will probably be Latin hymns and psalm-singing.”
Thus it happens that, while countless children and cosmopolitan friends of Venice the daughter are preparing to grace the afternoon concert at the Lido, my girl friend Amy and I, with Pietro, our gondolier, go sailing over the sea to Torcello.
Seven miles away by gondola lives the quiet mother, waiting, lonely and forgotten in a gentle old age. Waiting for what ? Certainly not to he remembered ; waiting perhaps for all old things to be made young. Now and then stray visitors cross the water to the grassgrown piazza: architects, who make careful studies of the bishop’s throne in the cathedral, and the delicate carving of the altar - screens ; art - historians, who crowd their notebooks with details concerning the solemn mosaics and the sad Madonna; painters and poets, longing for more time and more gift of song; happy lovers, longing for nothing except to gather four-leaved clover in the sleepy meadow behind the bell - tower. But these guests come rarely, and for the most part the old, old mother waits alone.
Ancient chronicles tell of a people fleeing before the flames of Altinum, and seeking refuge in the shelter offered by this island of Toreello; how these people, out of joyful and grateful hearts, built a cathedral, now the oldest in Europe ; built also a city, whose fair canals were lined with churches and convents and palaces. This city, through commerce and navigation and the number of its noble families, became rich and illustrious, lived its life, and died. For, owing to various changes in the condition of soil and water, the air grew fever-ladened, and the city was gradually abandoned. Somewhat more than a thousand years after the flight to Toreello, a decree went forth from the republic declaring the island to be no longer habitable, and feom the stones of its fallen palaces the foundations were laid for many a newer home in Venice.
Amy, who reads old chronicles, tells me this story, as our gondola drifts over the path in the sea; passing the sleeping Campo Santo, and Murano with its glass works ; passing a fortification doubly protected by cannon and a shrine to the Virgin ; passing a lonely island having naught upon it save a solitary campanile and a cypress-tree ; passing meadow lands, crumbling walls, deserted buildings, and here and there under an arched bridge of stone.
“ Molto, molto antico,” repeats Pietro, in low-voiced musical utterance. It is the legend which time has written on wall and building and bridge ; it is the refrain of the song which the birds are singing about us, — " Molto, molto antico.”
Turning, the gondola enters a waterway which leads to the grass-grown piazza. On the shore, the bushes are covered with a glow of pomegranate blossoms. At one side, boats heaped high with freshly cut hay await the wind and tide of Monday morning. The largest of these boats is surmounted with a sail of orange hue.
Beyond the piazza, and under the shadow of the cathedral of those men of former days, are a few scattered houses, — the modest paluzzo publico, the octagonal church of Santa Fosca, and the ruins of a chiesetta reported to have been prepared for the temporary reception of the blessed bones of St. Mark. A narrow lane runs under the stone shutters of the cathedral windows to the meadow behind the campanile.
Pietro has already brought our basket and gone back for a nap in his gondola.
“ Is there no one to receive us ? ” I ask.
“ Presently,” replies Amy, as she cuts the cake, and arranges the lamp under the tea-kettle. “ You must remember we have come to visit a very old person, and very old persons can never he hurried. I think I see a little handmaiden now, tripping down the lane.”
The little handmaiden proves to be a dark-eyed child, smilingly willing to bring provisions of water and of cream in the gayly painted, curiously nosed, plumply capacious pitchers of the country.
A young man draws near, of chatty disposition and much courtesy of manner. Can he serve the ladies in any way ? Do the ladies know that yonder little chapel once held the hones of St. Mark ? Have the ladies visited the cathedral ? Have the ladies ascended the campanile ? Finally, will the ladies be graciously pleased to excuse him ? “ I go to ring the vesper bell,” says the young man, politely retiring.
We move the afternoon tea party to the shade of a tall haycock, which affords a view of the octagonal church of Santa Fosca.
The first member of the congregation to arrive is our own little handmaiden, a lace scarf thrown over her pretty head, a gay fan coquettishly held between the dark eyes and the sun. Two old women follow. A priest comes in sight, bearing under his arm a voluminous umbrella the color of nectarines. He deposits this at the feet of a stone Madonna, and disappears behind the crimson curtains of the doorway. In the shade of the haycock we sip our tea, and listen to the chanting voices of priest, old women, and child, to the Latin hymns and the psalm-singing. A hoy joins us, after a time,—a friendly boy, with heavy hair and a tattered hat.
Are we Christians ? Have we been baptized ?
“ Yes,” we answer.
He also. Have we received the communion ?
“ Yes,” we answer again.
Does he go to school ? It is our turn to question now.
No, he has no time; he is obliged to earn his living. Where is our home? Do we have to cross much laud and much water to reach the place ? May he look at our watches ? Would we like some bits of marble as souvenirs ? What relation are we to each other ? How old are we ?
The priest comes out, tucks under his arm the nectarine - colored umbrella, touches his three-cornered hat in the direction of the haycock, and crosses the green inclosure to his house beyond. A moment later, we perceive through the open windows two persons running at full speed from room to room, up stairway and down stairway. A gray-haired woman is being pursued by the padre, fresh from his evening song. Doors are slammed, dishes dashed to the ground, and chairs and tables overthrown. The priest stops at the window, mops his face, and resumes the attack. We hear the woman say: " And those foreign ladies out there! Dio del cielo! what will they ” — But the dangers of the situation prevent the completion of the sentence.
“ She is his aunt,” remarks the friendly boy, who seems neither astonished nor alarmed.
“ How long has the priest been here ? ” Eight years, — eight years too long.” The friendly boy taps his forehead significantly ; in fact he adds, A little mad.”
Meanwhile, from a chaos of unintelligible words, we learn that this domestic trouble has been caused by some unseasonable delay in the preparation of dinner. The sounds and movements indicate that a crisis is approaching. Will the aunt’s body be presently hurled upon us from an upper window ? Are we perhaps to be detained indefinitely on Italian soil, as witnesses of a crime ? Is this afternoon tea party to end in the formalities of a Venetian court-room ?
There is a moment of ominous silence, broken by steps resounding on the stone floor, and the padre walks forth, his three-cornered hat still on his head, his nectarine-colored umbrella still under his arm. Do the ladies understand Italian ? If they do, he wishes to inform them that it is man’s duty to show his superiority; that woman must he kept under, that woman should never he allowed to rise.
Having thus expressed himself, the superior nephew starts off across the meadow. The aunt ventures cautiously out, — somewhat heated, but calm, considering the circumstances. “I am his housekeeper,” she explains, looking not unkindly after the retreating figure. “I am the sister of his mother. It is of no use to make a fuss about what cannot he helped.” A wise woman, truly, this aunt of the priest of Torcello.
Peace again. The black-eyed child, the friendly boy, the courteous young man, the two old women, the excitable padre, and the patient sister of his mother have vanished as completely as if they had been called into existence only that they might assist, by gracious attendance combined with a religious ceremony and a realistic performance, in entertaining the afternoon guests. The cups and the spoons, the lamp and the tea-kettle, are replaced in the basket, under a covering of pomegranate blossoms; and now from the spot where rusty iron crosses stand among tall grasses and purple flowers, the tangled graveyard of Torcello, we climb the stairs of the belltower.
On the northeast is the horizon, on the northwest are the shadowy outlines of mountains ; to the east the silvery grayness of the Adriatic, to the south the still waters of the lagoon, and still farther southward dim shapes of palaces and towers ; for it is from the south that Venice the daughter looks homeward across the sea. Below are the canals over which our gondola drifted a few hours ago ; a little distance to the left is the town of Burano, famed for the making of laces, where young girls are wearying their beautiful eyes as they work the meshes of some bridal veil. At our feet lies the island of the lost city, in whose chief street “ the mower’s scythe swept this day at dawn, and the swaths of the soft grass are now sending up their scent to the night air.”
Good-by, thou dear old mother of Venice ! In spite of thy mad priest, thou hast given us to keep that which thou thyself art, a gentle memory.
We pass again the lonely island, with its solitary campanile and cypress-tree. The bright color fades from the evening sky, and the stars come out.
“ The very same stars,” says Amy reflectively, “that looked upon the burning of Altinum and tho building of cathedral and city ; for the stars must have been quite grown up when the mother of Venice was still a little girl.”
Harriet Lewis Bradley.