I WAS standing in the old Florentine monastery of San Marco, in the quiet company of Fra Angelico angels, when a child entered who might well have been a Fra Angelico angel herself, rounded face and floating hair being of such fair and delicate coloring. She crossed the cell, surveyed one of the faded frescoes gravely, and said aloud, “ Is this mentioned in Baedeker?”
I replied that I would look, and opened my guidebook.
Thus began my acquaintance with the little English girl Dorothy.
Amy and Frederick Alexander came in shortly after this, stopped to chat for a moment, then passed on to consider the other rooms of the convent.
“ Your friends are very nice ones,” observed Dorothy, as the two disappeared. “ Will you please tell me their names ? ”
I told her; also that Amy and I sometimes called Mr. Alexander “ the Lord Byron Boy,” because we thought he resembled youthful portraits of that poet; that we had met him several months before in Venice, and had been meeting him constantly ever since, which was of course perfectly natural when three persons were traveling in the same direction.
“ Perfectly natural,” assented Dorothy, now proceeding to give me a brief account of her own affairs. She had spent her seven years in Italy, with the exception of a summer in England, where her papa and mamma were at present. Her papa was a sculptor; his studio was in Florence ; they lived in an apartment; she had a German governess. “ In fact,” said the child, “ while papa and mamma are away, I seem to have two of them, because Fräulein Klara has a friend visiting her. I believe they are engaged or married, I am not sure which. I am not sure, either, whether they are girls or women. Mamma calls them girls, and they call themselves ‘uns Mädchens.’ I just left them in Savonarola’s cell; they always linger so everywhere. How old does one have to be to become a woman ? ”
“ Sometimes no older than seven,” I answered ; “ sometimes one is never old enough : it depends on the person.”
Dorothy continued her description of the Fräuleins : “ They dress exactly alike, and the other day they bought some books, and had them marked with their initials all mixed in together.”
“ Interwoven,” I suggested.
“ Interwoven,” repeated Dorothy, as she put the word in the safety of a mental corner for future needs. “ Is n’t it rather queer for two women to be engaged or married ? I thought, for that, the persons had to be a pretty young lady and a very handsome young man, like your friends.”
I remarked that it was not unusual for one woman to give a lifelong devotion to another ; cases of such devotion had become famous in history ; there were even stranger things in the way of engagements and marriages, — had she ever been in Venice ?
Oh yes, twice, and she was going again, she and the Fräuleins; they were only waiting for the moon to be full.
“ A very curious thing used to take place in Venice, in the days when a Doge lived in the palace on the Piazza. Every year, at the feast of the Ascension, the Doge went out beyond the Lido, borne by a magnificent barge, and followed by a train of richly dressed people; and there were roses in golden bowls, and clouds of incense, and a ceremony as if for a wedding, and the Doge, extending his hand over the water, let fall a ring, saying, ‘ With this ring We thee wed.’ He did not speak these words for himself, but for Venice, for this was her marriage with the sea. Now these weddings no longer occur on Ascension Day, and although people are continually losing their hearts to Venice, she herself always remains faithful to the memory of the days of the Doges.”
“ I suppose you know a great many things,” said Dorothy, who had listened with flattering attention. “ Do you know about Florence, — are you worthy to see it ? Have you been shown the old, old map of the world in the library of San Lorenzo ? It has n’t any America on it, because it was made before that sentence got into the geography where it says, ‘ The earth is round like a ball or an orange.’ Everything is quite flat, and the four winds are blowing themselves very red in the face. There is a wind in each corner. It must have been very interesting to go to school when they made maps in that way.”
“ Is there a turtle on the old map in San Lorenzo ? ” I asked. “ Before people knew that the earth was round, some of them thought it was carried about on the back of a turtle.”
“ Did they ? ” said Dorothy. “ Fräulein Klara never spoke of that. I had two little turtles once ; their names were Shadrach and Abednego. They came from Venice. You can buy two for half a franc on the Piazza in front of St. Mark’s. You did n’t tell me if you were worthy to see Florence.”
I replied that I had n’t the least idea what she meant, but without knowing would confess that I was most unworthy ; that Florence seemed to me like a dull town on a dull river bordered by dull houses. Still, I had only come the evening before, and it took time to form correct impressions. Of course I knew it was not a dull town, because I had read so much about it.
“ Have you read about the little boy who went to ride at midnight on the back of the bronze boar ? ”
I was again obliged to confess ignorance.
“ Dear Hans Christian Andersen wrote it. You can see the boar for yourself at the Mercato Nuovo. It is really a fountain. If you will tell me where you live, I will bring you the book.”
I said that would be very kind, and that Frederick Alexander would be delighted to read the story to Amy and me ; he was very fond of reading to us.
Dorothy asked for more information regarding Frederick Alexander. Did he speak Italian, and what was he going to be ?
Yes, he spoke Italian, and he was going to be an architect. At present it occupied all his time to explain pictures to us and to bring us flowers. In Rome he had brought roses ; in Naples, armfuls of yellow laburnum; here in Florence he brought lilies, tall white lilies, fresh every morning.
After dinner, that night, as I opened my books, trying if possible to learn how best one might become worthy to see Florence, Amy came in and sat down by my side for a moment without saying anything; then she went into the next room, and I heard her at the piano playing a happy little tune to herself in the dark. After this Frederick Alexander knocked at my door, took possession of the chair Amy had just left, unfolded his hopes, his happiness, stated his age, which was twenty-five, his worldly prospects, which were most favorable, and concluded these glad and not wholly unexpected confidences by fervently thanking me for my good wishes and willingness to accept him as the lover of the party. But indeed, what could I do otherwise, since he had asked Amy to marry him and she had said yes, and there was absolutely no reason for objecting to either question or answer?
When Dorothy and I exchanged addresses in the monastery of San Marco, we made the joyful discovery that we were living on adjacent floors in the same house ; and when, later in the day, Dorothy appeared at my door with the promised copy of Andersen’s fairy tales, in true neighborly fashion, she offered her services as an occasional guide to various delightful places in and about Florence, provided these services would be agreeable.
Before accepting the tempting proposal, I suggested conscientiously that possibly Dorothy’s mamma or the Fräuleins might not wholly approve of these attentions so generously bestowed upon an utter stranger.
“ But you are not a stranger,” returned Dorothy. “ I knew you at once. Did n’t you know me at once ? You acted as if you did.”
“ If I acted so,” I said, “ it must have been for the reason that a good many people are something like mechanical toys: you pull certain strings, and certain things happen. You pulled the string which made me act as if I knew you at once ; whereas, on the contrary, I did not know you at all, and was wondering to myself, What kind of a little girl is this who inquires if one is worthy to see Florence, and why should she ask such a question ? ”
“ I asked,” explained Dorothy, “ because just before I met you I was at Santa Maria Novella with the Fräuleins, and some American ladies were reading aloud before two old pictures ; and what they read and the pictures together made them say they were not worthy to see Florence, and never should be. They did n’t seem to care very much. The book is by Mr. Ruskin. Fräulein Klara has one ; I will ask her to lend it to you. Then you can read what the American ladies read, and see if you are worthy.”
There was a reception in the salon of our pension that evening, and I had the pleasure of meeting the Fräuleins. They were charming and gracious, and assured me I need feel no hesitation in accepting Dorothy’s proposal, provided the child’s presence did not disturb my own plans.
This matter comfortably settled, the next day, when Dorothy’s lessons were over, we went together to the smaller cloister of Santa Maria Novella, where, half hidden behind an old tomb, are two frescoes from the hand of Master Giotto. Referring to one of these, Mr. Ruskin says, “ If you can be pleased with this, you can see Florence. But if not — by all means amuse yourself there, if you find it amusing, as long as you like ; you can never see it.”
“ Are you going to be pleased ? ” asked Dorothy in rather a responsible tone.
“ They are very interesting,” I answered cautiously.
At this point Amy and Frederick Alexander appeared, and passed on, unmindful alike of our presence and of Master Giotto’s frescoes, although they had included the latter as an important part of their afternoon programme. I mentioned the engagement, and how happy we were about it.
“ Counting the Fräuleins, that makes four engaged,” said Dorothy thoughtfully. “ What else is there besides being engaged ? Of course we don’t want to do exactly the same thing.”
I proposed a club.
What was that ?
A number of persons who met regularly for a certain object, as, for instance, in order to take walks. A club always had a name. We might call ours the Italian Ramblers, because our object was rambling. Dorothy approved ; and thus was established, in the smaller cloister of Santa Maria Novella, before Master Giotto’s frescoes, a delightful association, having no bylaws, no fees, no restrictions, except those common to all men, women, and children trying to conduct themselves in a proper manner.
After this we rambled almost every afternoon, going many times again to the place of our first meeting, the old monastery of San Marco, with its memories of Fra Angelico and Savonarola; climbing Dante’s narrow stairway in the Via San Martino, assisting at the noonday feeding of stray pussies in the hospitable close of San Lorenzo, refreshing ourselves at the fountain of the bronze boar, and gazing untiringly at the lovely babies of the House of the Innocents. One day we went up from the town to Fiesole, fair Fiesole, where Fra Angelico, walking in the gardens, worked out in thought his tender fancies, or lost himself in loving remembrance of the Master.
Clean forespent, forespent ;
Into the woods my Master came,
Forespent with love and shame.
But the olives, they were not blind to Him,
The little gray leaves were kind to Him,
The thorn-tree had a mind to Him,
As into the woods He came.”
“ What is that you are saying over ? ” asked Dorothy. “ Are you making a poem ? ”
I repeated the lines, explaining that they were written by a poet who was dead ; that they reminded me of Fra Angelico. I thought he would have liked them.
“ A great many people are dead,” observed Dorothy, “ such nice people, — your poet, and Fra Angelico, and dear Hans Christian Andersen. The Fräuleins never say ‘ dead ; ’ they call it heimgegangen. How can one be heimgegangen and at the same time waiting in the tomb for the Day of Judgment ? I don’t care for Day of Judgment pictures, do you ? There is such a lot of horrid things going on. When I die, I want an angel to hurry down to me with a little golden crown and a palm branch. What do you think of Day of Judgment pictures, dearest Rambler ? ”
I replied, cautiously again, that many of them seemed to me not unlike the old map of which she had spoken, the one without any America, or perhaps an even older map, dating from the time when people believed that the earth was carried about on the back of a turtle, — interesting, but highly imaginary; and, speaking of turtles, if there were any left in Venice, I promised myself the pleasure of presenting her with two on the occasion of our first Venetian ramble. For as affairs had developed we were going to Venice together, — the four engaged persons, Dorothy and I. A few days later we said a rivederci to beloved Florence, and journeyed on and on until we crossed fields that in the moonlight shone like a sea of silver ; then we had the smell of the real sea, then the sea itself, then the long bridge, and then the guard calling at our carriage door, “ Venezia ! Venezia! ”
We left the train and entered our gondola. A sound of music drifted in welcome across the water ; a moonbeam played with Dorothy’s hair ; the moon itself, round and golden, looked out of the sky as if saying, “ Venice spelled with a c and Venise spelled with an s, Venedig spelled in German and Venezia spelled in Italian, — let the world name her what it will, I alone have the right to name her bellissima, since it is through me and for me that she becomes ‘ the most beautiful.’ ”
The following day we started forth, a pilgrim-like procession, in the direction of St. Mark’s. Various distractions, however, separated us on the way, among others the replacing of the lost Shadrach and Abednego ; and once separated, we did not meet again until dinner. This was our first and last attempt at seeing things in complete company, and Dorothy and I were able to pursue our rambles with even fewer interruptions than in Florence.
One morning, and, as it chanced, the feast of the Ascension, we had been in the church of St. James of the Deep Stream, in the market-place at the foot of the Rialto. As we came out I said, “ When you are older, and read Mr. Ruskin’s Stones of Venice, remember this church in the market-place, for it was exactly here that once upon a time the very first stone of all was laid in the name of St. James the Fisher ; it was here that little Venice must have lived and played when she was about your age, before she grew up and became a signorina.”
“ And married the sea,” continued Dorothy. “ Don’t you remember, you told me the Doge went out in a magnificent barge, with incense burning and with roses in golden bowls, and let fall a ring, saying, ‘ With this ring We thee wed ; ’ and although people have kept losing their hearts to Venice ever since, she herself is always missing the Doges, and sad because there can be no more weddings ? ”
I complimented Dorothy on her excellent memory, and we crossed the market-place, stopping for a moment to buy flowers and cherries, when we noticed, directly at my companion’s feet, a silver heart, doubtless lost from some neck ribbon. “ How curious,” I said, “ that just as we were talking about losing hearts to Venice, we should find one which Venice had lost for you ! ”
“ Perhaps it is her little-girl heart,” returned Dorothy, quick to follow out a fancy ; “ you were saying she lived somewhere near here when she was a little girl.”
I replied that it was true there were happy little-girl hearts, and fluttering young-lady hearts, and quiet hearts that came later when people had been through a good deal. I was sure that Venice must have had all three kinds.
“ Like St. Paul’s three skulls,” said Dorothy. “ Mr. Alexander has seen them : St. Paul’s little-boy skull and his young-man skull in Rome, and his oldman skull in some other place. But the Fräuleins tell me it is impossible to have three skulls, and that Mr. Alexander was talking nonsense. I suppose hearts and skulls are quite different, — or are you talking nonsense ? ”
“ Not exactly; that is, not as much as Mr. Alexander, because, as you say, hearts and skulls are quite different; ” and I added that it was a very pretty adventure to find a heart in Venice on Ascension Day.
After our walk I did not see Dorothy again until supper-time, when she brought me a bunch of jasmine from the garden trellis, and asked if I would go out with her a little while that evening; it was something very important.
Supper finished, therefore, we went down to the water-door of the house, where Pietro, our pet gondolier, was waiting. He wore a fine new blue sash, had a pink rose in the band of his hat, and there were roses fastened in a decorative way to the side of the gondola.
We glided through the side canal behind the house, in and out among all the mystery and shadows of the canals beyond, past silent doors and gateways, under palace and garden wall ; Dorothy chatting with Pietro in soft Italian sounds falling on the ear like the cooing of doves, I leaning back among the cushions and enjoying that peculiar feeling of repose which can come only in Venice and in a gondola, when we emerged from the twilight and stillness into the life of the broad liver just beyond the Rialto, and in the neighborhood of the little church of St. James.
“ I was telling Fräulein Klara what happened this morning,” began Dorothy, now addressing herself in my direction, “ and she said, just as you did, that it was a very pretty adventure ; and then she went out with me to buy the roses and a new sash for Pietro, and a little silver heart which I am going to give in exchange for the one I found. It ’s all my own idea, only Fräulein Klara encouraged it.”
I loosened the jasmine bouquet, and made a wreath for Dorothy’s hair.
“ What a pity Shadrach and Abednego were not invited to come with us ! ”
“ They were invited,” said Dorothy, “ and they are here.” She produced a small pasteboard box in which the two turtles were peacefully reposing on a lettuce leaf. “ Do you know a nice verse about hearts ? Not having a ring, we can’t say, ‘ With this ring We thee wed,’ the way the Doges did.”
I knew a very nice verse, only it was too beautiful except to use seriously.
Dorothy assured me there could be nothing more serious than her present intentions. I said I thought I understood, and that the ceremony about to be performed meant from henceforth Dorothy would always have a particular fondness for things Venetian, would study their history, would make sketches of boats and bridges and doorways like Amy, would write poems about Venice like the Lord Byron Boy, — a habit lately discovered, — or perhaps even like Lord Byron himself.
“ So sweet of you to plan ahead,” said Dorothy. “ I had only planned as far as the ceremony ; it seems to take a number of persons to plan for everything. Now please be ready with your verse when I say ‘ Amen.’ ”
“ Dearest Venice,” the child began in Italian, and she let fall into the water the heart procured for this purpose, while Pietro, with ready response to the spirit of the moment, lifted his hat, and stood uncovered and smiling, — “ dearest Venice, I love you forever and ever, and forever after that. Amen.”
Heart’s love will meet thee again,”
Pietro turned the gondola and guided it slowly homeward down the Grand Canal, singing, —
No le vogio piu lazar ! ”
Other gondolas drifted about us to listen, and thus we had music and flowers and a throng of attendants, all according to tradition; but only Dorothy with the jasmine wreath resting on her fair hair, and Pietro with his rose, and Shadrach and Abednego, and myself knew the secret of the hour, — that once again a romance and an espousal had been enacted with Venice on Ascension Day.
Harriet Lewis Bradley.