CARLOTTA looked out of the window with a little sigh. The blue Alps were speeding backward into faint distance, and even the lower slopes with their mingled chestnut and olive trees were vanishing. Life among the hills had been so good that, though set Venice-ward, her face wore a look of regret. Nothing had been said, yet she knew perfectly well what Aunt Isabel’s sudden longing for Saint Mark’s and a glimpse of the Lido shore meant.
Upon this Chequer-board, of Nights and Days,”
murmured Carlotta, glancing toward Aunt Isabel, who was resting with closed eyes against her silken traveling pillow in the corner. Well, the game had been strictly according to the rules, and there was only one move left. After all, Mr. Thornton would do, must do, for this life was wearing on her and any change would be relief. His coats, his ties, and his manners were irreproachable; he was so gravely respectful to her, to Aunt Isabel, — to his dinner, if it was well cooked and served ! Carlotta dimpled mischievously as she thought of him ; then the piquant brown face with its level brows and rebellious mouth grew grave against the windowpane. It was one of the faces of the wistful rich, unsatisfied from very fulfillment of desire, hungry for hunger.
It flashed with sudden interest as she glanced away from the window; she had not noticed before the two little ladies opposite. They were German evidently, tiny and old and wrinkled. Their quaint bonnets dated from the reign of the emperor’s grandfather; they wore lace mitts over their shriveled little hands; the black silk gowns had imperceptible darns here and there, fine and beautiful as only such fingers can make. Both were proudly erect, and their eyes were as the eyes of sixteen years.
Carlotta tried not to listen, but it was not her fault that she had been well trained in German. She could not help understanding that they were Catholics from Munich on a pilgrimage to Rome, and she divined that the little knitted purses which they anxiously fingered now and then held the savings of a lifetime in German homes where the pfennigs had been counted twice.
“Dost think the guard will ask us to pay the extra fare?” asked the smaller of the two.
“Nay,” said the other. “I have heard before of those put into the seats of the first clas, when those of the third were all taken.”
The girl glanced anxiously at Aunt Isabel, but that lady was reading Baedeker with her most expensive expression. She was not used to traveling with darns, however skillfully made. Presently the lesser of the pilgrims said, —
“Lotta, dost remember how when we were maidens we longed to go to Italy ?”
The withered lips of the other opened:
and she repeated it all, down to
Geliebte, zielin! ”
“Thou wert to marry a poet and I an artist, and we were to go on a long honeymoon,” murmured the listener. The taller of the two gazed out of the window as she spoke.
“Instead, thou didst become Frau Doctor and I Frau Professor. I little dreamed in those days of my ten! Learning has gone out of fashion, and if I have been always at home it is not the fault of mein Mann, who has often gone hungry for me! Funerals cost heavily, and I have buried four.”
“Ten are harder to keep than seven,” admitted the Frau Doctor. “I could have come sooner but for my Rudolph, who would marry at twenty. He had debts that must be paid, though the saints know that I despise gambling.”
“Ah, but I am glad that thou hast waited!” cried the Frau Professor, “Our dream has come true: we go to Italy together! If I were but sure that Löttchen would not forget the mending of her father’s socks!”
Carlotta looked steadily out of the window, glad that Aunt Isabel did not know German. The girl’s face, worldly-wise and yet unworldly, was tense with sympathy.
“Venice I have longed for all my life,” confessed the Frau Doctor softly; “to see her if but once, with her green canals and her marble palaces.”
The Frau Professor was thoughtful.
“It is for the Pope’s blessing that we have come,” she said slowly, “and that is good to have, for the sins of a lifetime, — good when one has ten or even seven to answer for.”
“But Venice is very wonderful.”
“There is not money enough for both,” said the Frau Professor sternly.
As they talked, all their girlhood came back to them, German girlhood with its visions and romance. The soft, brown old eyes shone like stars, and the hunger and thirst for beauty leaped into life again, keen, after the starved years of toil and childbearing and poverty. Suddenly the Frau Doctor leaned forward, answering the irresistible call of the olive and the vine through the windows.
“Löttchen,” she whispered, “what if we went to Venice instead ? ”
“I was thinking of that,” confessed the other, “but I dared not speak. If I could have but one week of beauty before I grow too old to see!”
There was silence, while Carlotta held her breath. The little old ladies looked at each other with that in their eyes which had never been there before, rebellion touched with daring.
“ Verona ! ” shouted the guard. “Change for Vicenza, Padua, Venice! Where do the ladies go ?” he asked, with his head at the window.
“Venice,” said Carlotta, rising and touching Aunt Isabel on the shoulder.
“Venice,” whispered the Frau Professor fearfully.
To outwit one massive chaperon and the two fugitives was a task for an upright American girl who had never before been a conspirator, and Carlotta smiled with delight at her success when the train started for Venice and the four who had traveled from the North together found themselves in the same position as before. The guard was an honest one and faithfully reported the gold piece which had paid the difference between two third-class and two first-class tickets. Carlotta blushed guiltily when the two little ladies, all unaware of her action, smiled timidly as they saw her, and sank, trembling at their own audacity, upon the soft cushions. Venice!
As the train sped on through the soft land of fig-trees and of trailing vines, the girl saw that her protégées had emptied the contents of their little netted purses into their laps and were counting their few pieces of gold.
“Eighty marks,” murmured the Frau Professor.
“Ninety,” reported the Frau Doctor. “It has always been said that it is cheap in Italy. Can we live, do you think, on three francs a day ?”
Carlotta leaned forward, flushing guiltily, moved by an impulse that she did not understand. Aunt Isabel’s disapproving face only added to her desire for one free, rebellious moment before entering that world of ultimate conventionality where Mr. Thornton lived and moved and had his being.
“I beg your pardon,” she said, in halting German, “but I heard you speak of Venice. The Hotel Allegra where we go is very good. You could live there” — she paused, for she was not used to lying — “for t♠hree francs a day,”
They looked at her, wondering and grateful, then poured out their thanks. Suddenly the Frau Doctor gave a little cry. The train had passed Mestre, and beyond the waterways rose the city of the sea, roof, dome, and tower outlined in mellow color against a soft blue sky. The two old faces flushed with guilty joy: if this were sin, ah, it was sweet! A little later, as they came out of the station to the streets of rippling water, two pairs of mitt-clad hands met for one ecstatic moment. Carlotta beckoned to her gondolier, white-clad, red-sashed, and smiling, and the gondola moved out into the green canal.
“Carlotta!” stormed Aunt Isabel, when she saw her companions, “you must be mad! Tell Antonio to put me ashore! I shall jump from the gondola if you persist in taking these creatures with us.”
“Hush!” whispered Carlotta, with her finger at her lips. “They are people of very great importance.” Then to a conscience that accused her of white lies she retorted, “People as good as they are of the greatest importance, really, in the world.”
The runaways leaned luxuriously back in their cushioned seat, lulled by the gentle splashing of the oar. The gondolas gliding by over the pale green water, the Gothic palaces with their marble steps fretted by little waves and with delicate reflections trembling below, made up a dream of beauty from which they feared to waken.
“ Liebchen,” whispered the Frau Professor, “ist es möglich?” and Carlotta watched them, wishing that she too were young. Suddenly her eyes twinkled and a gracious smile broke the thundercloud of Aunt Isabel’s face. A well-groomed gentleman was baring his slightly bald crown to the damp air in greeting; his non-committal eyes betrayed a question as they rested on the two rusty figures in the gondola.
“How distinguished Mr. Thornton always is,” said Aunt Isabel after he had passed; but Carlotta was in a brown study and said never a word.
“A suite of rooms, please, for these two ladies,” Carlotta insisted to the hotel manager, whose customary radiant smile half froze upon his lips when he saw her two companions; Mrs. Isabel AshtonStone had indignantly gone up in the “lift.” “A suite of rooms, please, for these two ladies, and you are to tell them that it will cost them, with pension, you understand, three francs a day.”
“Yes, mademoiselle!” Italian wit is quick to comprehend.
Though it was for the garçon to carry the two queer old-fashioned carpet-bags, and though it was for the manager himself to accompany mademoiselle and her guests to the elaborately carved doorway, it was Carlotta’s privilege to usher the two little ladies into the gorgeous apartment where Renaissance ceilings hovered over gilt and plush furniture of something worse than Louis Quinze style. For the Frau Doctor there was an overhanging frescoed Aurora of puffy clouds and rosy cheeks and fluttering draperies; for the Frau Professor, a plump Venus rising from a deep blue sea; for each, an antique bed with high posts of wonderful carving. In the salon which they shared was an enormous chandelier of bad modem glass with fluting of pink and blue and livid yellow ; and outside, oh, joy of joys! a stone balcony, with cushioned railing, overlooking the Grand Canal.
“Löttchen!” The Frau Doctor flung herself into the Frau Professor’s arms, and there were actual tears of joy on withered cheeks and withered lips.
“Ja wohl,” said the manager as he went away, with a knowing look at Carlotta, “ drei franc den Tag.”
Dinner was served for them in their salon that night, a wonderful procession of dishes and of deft waiters; later, each little lady went to sleep marveling at the enchanted doors which had swung open to admit her to fairyland. The next morning, however, the Frau Doctor woke to trouble. Dreaming under the rose and gold Aurora, she became aware that the sunshine was brilliant and that it was late in the morning. She slipped to the Frau Professor’s doorway, but only an empty bed and silence awaited her there. Ten minutes after, with gray hair flying, yet with hands encased in mitts, she burst into Carlotta’s parlor, sobbing, —
“Ach Gott, she is drowned! She has walked into the canal!”
Carlotta failed to find her; the city guards failed to find her; the bell-boys from the hotel failed to find her, and it was nearly noon when the fugitive appeared, having been rowed home in state by a gorgeous gondolier, an alert, cleanshaven young American sitting at her side.
“Are you sure that this is right, Frau Professor?” he asked respectfully, but doubtfully, as he helped her ashore.
“Quite,” she smiled up at him, a dimple, forgotten for thirty years, showing in her cheek. “The Hotel Allegra means everything to us because of the association with Byron, and we are most comfortable here for three francs a day.”
The puzzled look upon the young man’s face changed to frank pleasure when he saw Carlotta, who had come back, flushed, from her long search, and was grasping both hands of the runaway. Breathlessly the Frau Professor told her story to the group of people who had gathered about.
“I stole away to see Saint Mark’s by myself at sunrise — Ach, wie reizend it would be! I lost my way; it was dreadful, the alleys so narrow, the dirt, the people! I walked for hours, but I found a friend: it is Herr Winfield, one of my husband’s pupils,” she explained to the Frau Doctor and Carlotta.
The stranger listened quietly: Carlotta looked at him, first with a feeling that she had known a long time ago that face, half-boyish, half-grave, with its clear look of cheek and eye. No, after all it was only the type that was familiar in this strange country, the home type, with its slender, lithe young strength. Presently he slipped to her side.
“I don’t understand,” he said abruptly. “What — how — Is the Frau Professor in her right mind ? Why is she here ?”
“Nobody is ever in his or her right mind in Venice,” said the girl, the twinkle in his gray eyes kindling an answering twinkle in hers. “The Frau Professor is only a shade madder than the rest of us. She started on a pilgrimage to Rome, but ran away and came here instead.”
He looked at her blankly.
“I’ll telegraph to Herr Westbruch.”
“No, no, no,” said Carlotta vehemently. “It is the one moment of beauty and of freedom in all her life. She is perfectly safe: she is under my protection,”
He had not meant to laugh, but Carlotta was so small!
“And you ?”
“I am under hers,” said Carlotta, joining in.
The young man’s eyes looked down with great satisfaction at the girl’s winsome brown face and trim figure in the pale brown gown; then they traveled to the marble stairway of the Hotel Allegra.
“She must be under some delusion,” he muttered doubtfully. “I hate to leave her like this. Three francs a day!”
“It is quite true,” said Carlotta, flushing. “A — a special arrangement was made.”
“Oh, I say,” he burst out suddenly; then he lowered his voice. The Frau Professor was busy explaining it all to the Frau Doctor. “Let me help, won’t you ? I know her, you see. I ’ve partaken of her seminar coffee many a time, and the Herr Professor and I were great chums. In a way I have a right, don’t you think ? You don’t know me, of course, but I’m a good American citizen, Robert Winfield, at your service.”
“Then you must be my cousin Philip’s friend, — Philip Stanwood?”
“Phil Stanwood? I should think so!
Ought n’t we to shake hands on the strength of that ? ”
Carlotta drew a bit nearer with a sigh of relief.
“It’s a horrid, snobbish, vulgar thing that I am doing,” she confessed, “but I could n’t help it; nobody could who heard them talking about it, and now I’m scared.”
“You’ve got to let me help,” he declared stoutly. “If you don’t,” he threatened, watching the look of doubt that swept over Carlotta’s face and was lost somewhere about the slightly pointed chin, “I’ll tell them! You look after them at the hotel: I don’t see how to get around that, but I’m responsible for all the shows and the moonlight gondoliering.”
Carlotta shook her head, but the sense as of a weight lifted from her shoulders brought a look of relief to her face.
“Do let me! I’m here all by myself and lonely enough. Why, the Frau Professor was like a mother to me,” he went on, with a growing sense of his nearness. “Not a word! Now we must have some grand expedition this afternoon.”
The Frau Professor accepted gratefully. Yes, he might make arrangements to take them, and Miss Stone would go, of course. It was much cheaper, she whispered thriftily, when there were four. Robert Winfield vanished with a glance of wicked triumph.
The two young strangers wore that afternoon, as they took their charges to the Piazza, the indulgent look that a benevolent aunt and uncle might have worn in taking the children out in the swan boats on the lake. A little cry arose from the Frau Professor.
“Anna, it is Saint Mark’s!”
Full sunlight fell upon the façade, and rose window and mosaics burned with splendor hard for the eye to bear. Above, the angel wings and crosses stood bright against the blue, while the dull gold of the fretted portals was touched from shades of bronze to light. Through the central portal they entered the rich shadow of the interior, and hand in hand the two old friends tottered over the uneven mosaic pavement and fell upon their knees before a jeweled shrine. The youngsters followed into the dim splendor of the wonderful spot, and looked at each other with some curious new sense of the beauty before them: wrought gold-work of the Orient with its cunning arabesque and tracery of interwoven lines; brown walls, or green, of polished stone or alabaster, with soft light falling here and there from bronze lamps on the face of a kneeling child or bowed gray head. Robert Winfield stood with bared head in the shadow.
“I wish that I might, too,” said Carlotta softly, and he smiled as one who understands.
“ Carlotta,” said Aunt Isabel that evening, before table d’hôte, “Mr. Thornton was here this afternoon and you missed him.”
Carlotta said nothing.
“He is coming again to-night, and he has, he confided to me, something special to say to you.”
The rebellious look about the girl’s mouth deepened; for some reason she felt less resigned than she had been yesterday to being a pawn in Aunt Isabel’s hands.
“I am sorry,” she said politely; when she was as polite as this the elder lady always scented danger; “ I am very sorry, but I have promised to take my little ladies out in a gondola. It is moonlight, you know.”
“You must be mad!” cried Mrs. Ashton-Stone. She had not supposed that any further occurrence in connection with these disgraceful protégées could heighten her wrath, “I entreat you, I command you, to be at home this evening. It is most important.”
“Are you afraid that, if Mr. Thornton does n’t ask me to-night to marry him, he will never ask me?” inquired Carlotta. She enjoyed the next minute immensely : Aunt Isabel always thought you were vulgar if you put into plain words what she was thinking. “You see, I’ve promised, and father always told me to keep my promises. If I stay I shall have to ask my friends to stay with me and meet Mr. Thornton.”
It was a very bewitching little lady who made her excuses that evening to the caller whom Aunt Isabel was entertaining. He was preoccupied, perhaps repeating to himself the phrases that he had resolved to say, and an air of responsibility hovered over his well-brushed head. It was an engagement with some old friends, very old friends, pleaded the girl, smiling at Aunt Isabel out of the filmy gold scarf that she had thrown over her head. He responded with great warmth as he held the door open for her to go out: it was so charming, so conventional a Carlotta that, not knowing how perilous her extreme politeness was, he felt as if all his phrases had been uttered and the answer had been yes.
From the canal of the Giudecca, as the gondola glided over the moonlit water, the little old ladies saw that night a wonderful city of silver gray rising from the waves under a sky which had not forgotten its noonday blue. The very craft of fairyland plied about with moving lights that cast long beams of gold below. From the silence here they passed into the brilliance of the Grand Canal, where a concert was going on, the lanterns of the improvised bridge of boats shining out gayly, the notes of song sounding back from silent palaces, and then their gondola moved on into the narrow canal behind the doge’s palace.
A palace and a prison on each hand,”
began the tremulous voice of the Frau Doctor, who had been sitting as in a trance, and the Frau Professor took up the strain: —
As from the stroke of an enchanter’s wand ; ”
and, as the two voices went on in unison, even to
Robert Winfield slipped to Carlotta’s side.
“Isn’t this great?” he asked. The girl nodded; something of the elder ladies’ vivid enjoyment was quivering in her nerves.
“I feel unequal to my part,” he confessed. “I ought to have long hair and a rolling collar, or else a dagger and a cloak. Would I make a good Giaour, do you think ? ”
“I think,” said Carlotta, “from one day’s observation, that you would probably do well whatever you undertook.”
“Neither one of us fits into their Venice,” he said mournfully. “You ought to have ringlets on each side of your face find a rosebud in your hair, and you ought to wear a silly smile, like this.”
His grotesque imitation of the smiles of Inez and of Ada was misunderstood, and to the two romantic fugitives a final touch of perfectness was lent the scene by the sight of the two young heads together and the sound of the merry laughter that wakened echoes from the silent walls.
“Löttchen,” said the Frau Doctor mysteriously that night as she unhooked her little black silk gown, “it is not for us that the young Herr is so attentive.”
“He was most attached to mein Mann,” maintained the Frau Professor, who was doing her hair up on a hairpin to make it wave.
“But, Carlotta is very beautiful,” insisted the Frau Doctor.
“Yes,” the other admitted, “though I prefer blue eyes and golden hair myself in a young girl.”
Now began a carefully ordered life; Robert Winfield had a talent for organization. Deliberately, and with assurance that would have been impertinence in any one else, he attached himself to the fugitives. As soon as breakfast was over he appeared, he said, for orders, but in reality, with a well-made plan for the day. Now it was a visit to the quaint church of San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, where the beautiful youth of Carpaccio forever fights the dragon in the sunlighttouched brown shadows; now it was the Academy, where the Frau Professor cried in the tones of one who had seen a vision, “Anna, it is Titian’s Assumption!” Though the two did not fall upon their knees, their faces were as of those kneeling. The two young people shared, while dimly understanding, the sheer delight that the old ladies took in beauty of color, dim gold and red of quaint early altar pieces, the clear blue of Bellini’s Madonna robes, the gorgeous garments of Veronese’s men and women, the wonderful twilight hues of blended purple in the far distance of Titian’s sunsets; and the perceptions of youth were freshly touched to finer issues. It was a situation which made many practical demands upon Carlotta and the lad, and they met them unflinchingly. Their joy in the foreverchanging beauty of sunshine upon golden sails, and the afterglow of sunset in the west, was tinged with an undercurrent of care: it was for them to see that their guests were enjoying it to the full.
By the end of the second day Robert Winfield had told Carlotta the main facts in his career, from boyish adventure, through college, and on to his study of architecture abroad. By the end of the third day they were old friends. His dogged air of assumption that her responsibilities were his responsibilities, his perfectly respectful air of ownership in her troubles fast won her liking. The sincerity of his nature, with its touch of audacity, brought strength to her mood of incipient rebellion. They were soon upon an easy footing, and it was as if all their lives they had been chaperoning little old ladies in Venice.
“I knew that it was going to be fun, but it is twice as much fun doing it with you,” Carlotta admitted on the fourth day.
Mrs. Ashton-Stone, angry, had shut herself up with her maid, saying that her nerves were tired and she needed rest. Mr. Thornton Carlotta almost forgot, and, when she remembered, she planned some new expedition to drive the thought from her mind. Once or twice, in turning a watery corner, she met him, and the look of well-bred concealed vexation with which he glanced at her companions was always the same. His air of puzzled gravity checked Carlotta’s gay laugh, and she hastily put her hand to her collar or touched her cuffs. The sight of him always made her wonder if anything were wrong about her attire or her hair. On the fifth day, indeed, he called, but Carlotta gave him no chance to speak. When his look became most earnest she went and summoned her two guests to her side, laughingly making them known as Tante Anna and Tante Lotta.
“I was named for Aunt Lotta, you know,” she said gravely.
Timidly they stood in their shabby gowns before the perfectly tailored man, and it was hard to tell who was the most embarrassed. It was their one moment of unhappiness in this enchanted world, where every moment meant new rapture. To breakfast luxuriously in bed under smiling Venus and tripping Aurora; to float all day long, somewhere, anywhere, between earth and sky; to come home to long table d’hôte dinners which, from soup on through entrées to the. last flavor of dessert, were like some solemn Wagner drama moving majestically to its end, — could dreams of Paradise do more ? If it be bliss to count each moment of each day, letting it slip past with regret; to touch one’s self fearfully, afraid that the touch may mean awakening, — they knew it to the full, and for the first time in their lives.
The fifth day and the sixth, Aunt Isabel still kept her room. Whether she was really ill or whether this was the last move to make, Carlotta never knew. The four sightseers still worked industriously at Venice, and Mr. Thornton still hovered with puzzled eyes upon the outside of the situation. Then, perhaps because he found a constantly retreating Carlotta more winsome than a Carlotta dragged forward by the compelling hand of a chaperon, he nerved himself for a final effort. Chance seemed to decree that he should not see the girl alone,—chance, forsooth! There was a surer way to reach her; the royal mail should make known his desire. Thus it happened that an elegant little note came up on Carlotta’s breakfast tray on the ninth morning. Carlotta was very silent that day, and Robert Winfield’s jests passed unheeded. That letter on the bureau — must she say yes ? That sense of resignation to her fate which she had felt during those last days in the Engadine had deserted her, for from the brave eyes looking out of the old, wrinkled faces opposite had come some deep sense of values that accused all her life of lack.
That night she wrote an exquisitely polite note to Mr. Thornton, one that might have served in the Complete Letter-Writer as a model of a refusal of an offer of marriage.
The little old ladies had grown bold and daring as the days went on. They loved to sit in the piazza, at Florian’s, sipping coffee, chatting with their compatriots, and gazing, with eyes that never grew tired, at the many-colored life before them: the loungers at the cafés, the brown-faced sailors in trim suits of white, touched with blue; the endless stream of tourists, English, American, and German; the bare-headed Venetian women going to the cathedral to pray. The innocent air of dissipation with which they came home brought endless amusement to Carlotta.
To-day the two sat at a tiny round table, sipping the coffee and nibbling little cakes, and they fell to discussing Carlotta and the lad. Fate had indeed been good to them in adding to the undying charm of their dream city something that they divined as romance.
“I saw him give her a flower,” said the Frau Doctor, nibbling the crumbs.
“What flower?” eagerly asked the Frau Professor, who was versed in the language of leaf and blossom.
“A rose,” said the Frau Doctor; “and yet she did not blush, but took it as naturally as if he were her brother.”
“Ach, Gott!” sighed the Frau Professor. “There is no real romance longer in the world.”
“They act as if they had known each other all their lives,” admitted the Frau Doctor mournfully. “There is no flutter, no embarrassment as there ought to be between two young people. They are so practical! Do you think,” she whispered eagerly, “there is really anything between them ? ”
The Frau Professor nodded portentously.
“But I never see him looking at her;” there was misgiving in the Frau Doctor’s tone.
“Ah,” said the other sagely, “I have seen him not looking at her.”
One of the subjects of their discourse here sauntered toward them, and they hastily made place for him and spread their little cakes out invitingly as he lifted his hat.
“We were talking of Carlotta,” ventured the Frau Professor, bent on plumbing the depth of sentiment, that she had seen in the young man’s eyes. “She is very charming, do you not think?”
“Most American girls are,” he answered shrewdly.
“Ah, but she has something all her own, so etwas süsses !”
“Maybe,” he said casually. “I’ve been pretty busy, you know.”
The Frau Professor, piqued by his coldness, winked at her friend.
“ Others have noticed if you have not,” she said mysteriously. “I think from many signs that she has a suitor, one Mr. Thornton.”
Even the nonchalance of youth could not keep away the look of anxiety that crawled from Robert Winfield’s mouth up to his eyes.
“I suppose we must wish him good luck!” He took out his handkerchief to pass it across his forehead, perhaps to hide a rising flush, and with it fluttered upon the table a tiny brown bow which had yesterday been worn upon Carlotta’s gown. A look of triumph flashed from the Frau Doctor’s eyes, and she stepped upon her companion’s foot as she started to pick it up. Both pretended not to see the way in which he manoeuvred to get it again under pretense of tossing it away.
They had asked for a sign, those foolish old souls, and they had it; yet they looked in vain for another. There were intricate voyages through cool, green, shadowed side canals, under unnumbered beautiful bridges, past sculptured doorways and windows of old palaces which were forever trembling into being, again dissolving in the reflections below, the carven leaves and flowers seeming to grow and to fade in an instant of time, yet they caught but rare hints of the love story in which they longed to have a share. Once or twice, indeed, the Frau Doctor, growing wiser under her companion’s keener wit, detected theyoungman in the act of not looking at Carlotta, but turning his eyes away with an effort that evidently gave him pain; yet that which marked the depth of intimacy between the two, the speechless companionship that needed no words, escaped the elder folk. One shadowed day they came out by the soft-tinted Dogana, with the seminary garden at its side, a sheltered spot of cypresses, acacias, and stone pines. From Santa Maria delle Salute, looking, with its great dome and circling buttresses, like a huge shell cast up by the waves, came the music of the mass that was being chanted there, faint as the perpetual wave-taught melody that comes from the heart of a shell. The little ladies crossed themselves, then fixed their eyes upon the lovers. The stage was set for romance, but the actors would not step upon it. All that they saw was a sinewy youth who picked up a light wrap and threw it round the shoulders of the maiden at his side.
“See here,” he said abruptly, “you take such good care of other people that you ought to know how to take care of yourself. This thing is going to wear you all out.”
“But it’s my responsibility; I undertook it.” Carlotta’s voice was a bit weary.
“I suppose you know that you are giving them the time of their lives ? Lend Aunt Anna and Aunt Lotta to me tomorrow, won’t you ? I’ve got my Byron down fine and I want to show it off.
yet how few !
Queer, is n’t it, how people who have had so much real life can care about that rot ? ”
Carlotta looked gratefully at him; she was getting used to his way of taking all the responsibility while seeming to take none. What thoughts she had regarding him as they took their charges home she never told; but they evidently added to the indignation with which she received her chaperon’s remonstrances that evening. A slow flush crept over her brown cheeks.
“You have no right to speak to me that way,” said Carlotta.
“I have every right when I see you entering upon a flirtation, a vulgar flirtation, with a most undesirable young man.”
“Stop!” cried Carlotta. “The young man has nothing whatever to do with it.”
Mrs. Ashton-Stone looked like a bronze allegorical figure of Scorn.
“He manages to have something to do with most of your expeditions.”
“But that is n’t because of me,” said Carlotta vehemently. “You don’t see, — you don’t understand motives different from your own. I have been absentminded, I admit, but it is only because I have been completely absorbed in thinking about those little ladies. And I’ve never had such a good time in all my life, never.”
There were tears in Carlotta’s eyes. “Mr. Winton — Winfield — what is his name ?—is evidently very attractive,” sneered the elder lady. “ Your father was just like you. He always had, together with some very fine feelings, a streak of something coarse. He, too, liked low people.”
Carlotta swallowed —to her credit be it said — all the remarks that she might have made.
“I am getting so tired of waiting,” said Mrs. Ashton-Stone, almost tearfully. “Mr. Thornton was just ready to speak when we left the Engadine. Now we have n’t seen him for three days.”
“Mr. Thornton will never speak,” said Carlotta firmly.
“Why not?” demanded Aunt Isabel.
“Because he has written,” returned triumphant Carlotta.
“You haven’t refused him?”
“I was very polite,” ventured Carlotta.
Mrs. Ashton-Stone fell into an armchair, a crumpled heap of jet and lace and injured womanhood.
“May I ask why?” If words could wither, Carlotta would have become smaller than she was. Instead, her soul seemed to stand erect in her little body.
“Because,” said Carlotta, “at last I saw him suddenly as he really is.”
“Those dreadful little old women!” moaned Mrs. Ashton-Stone as she left the room. Unlike the British, she knew when to retreat.
The next day Carlotta refused to go with her friends to see the glass-making at Murano. The old ladies, tenderly solicitous, came back with a gift for her, a string of hideous glass beads, yellow and blue. The next day she pleaded headache; the next she frankly protested that she did n’t wish to go anywhere. Robert Winfield cornered her at last after a long pursuit.
“I have n’t done anything to offend you, have I?” he asked, going, as was his wont, straight to the point. Carlotta shook her head, smiling. With a quick leaping of the heart she was wondering if he could.
“Then why have you cast us off?”
“I have had headaches, and — ”
“You are looking particularly well,” he observed skeptically. “Do you want to know what they are coaxing for now ? They want to go way out to the jumpingoff place, Torcello, where the whole show started.”
“You will take them?” asked Carlotta eagerly.
“Of course,” he nodded. “I don’t suppose you would come, too?”
“No-o,” hesitated Carlotta. “I don’t think I ought.”
“It’s an all-day jaunt,” he suggested. “Tante Lotta and Tante Anna will be deadly tired of me.”
“Never!” said the girl. “I should enjoy it immensely, but—”
“It will be a hard day,” he suggested artfully. “Perhaps it would make you too tired.”
“It isn’t that,” said Carlotta indignantly. “Don’t you know that I never back out of things for such a reason as that?”
“I had supposed so,” he admitted.
“I should like every minute of it,” confessed the girl.
“Then you are coming,” he said with finality, and it was even so. Foolish suspicion and scruple could not live in this vigorous young presence.
It was a perfect day, of cool air touching cool water, and the freshness brought faint rose color to withered cheeks and smooth. Silently they moved away from the city, past the crumbling walls and the beautiful cypresses of San Michele, and, slow stroke by stroke, glided over the shallow blue silvery water toward the north. Gulls hovered above on wide white wings, lighting on narrow sandbanks to search for fish among the iridescent pools. A day of drifting, distant sails, rose-colored or golden-brown; of pale blue of early morning deepening upon sky and sea; of beauty reaching even to the summits of the snow-touched Alps upon the north beyond the distant cypresses and poplars of the far shore. It was noonday when they drew near the silent islands of a silent sea, Torccllo, Mazzorbo, Burano, and glided ghostwise down the silent canals between stretches of sea lavender, or under trailing vines of grape and of ivy that hung over the faded brick walls.
The little old ladies brightened to keen interest under the desolation here where the leaning tower of Burano hinted of a world falling to decay; where the dry canals of Torcello, the bridge overgrown with weeds, the grassy road, looked as if none had passed that way for countless years. They had a subdued luncheon in the shade of an acacia tree, and then the little ladies lost themselves in the beginnings of Venice, among the dim mosaics, the quaint, decaying capitals of the cathedral with its fragments of carven face and flower.
“I wish you would tell me what’s the matter,” said Robert Winfield from the shadow of the acacia.
“There is n’t anything,” protested the girl.
“But you are very different.”
“I look very much the same.”
Carlotta had caught her own reflection in a stagnant pool of the dry canal.
“Well, you are n’t.”
“Don’t you like change? I do.”
“Not in you,” he protested.
Inside the cathedral the Frau Professor and the Frau Doctor were studying the Judgment Day in quaint mosaic; outside, Carlotta knew that her judgment day had come.
“It’s my blamed (I beg your pardon) sense of assurance, I suppose; but I never doubted, from the time I first set eyes on you, that you were going to care, too.”
“Too?” said Carlotta.
“Yes, too. No, it is n’t conceit. There are odd minutes, you know, when you seem to see into the heart of things and know all there is to be known; and that was one of them, when I first saw you standing with the little old ladies chattering around you. It seemed then as if you had been waiting there always for me to come, and I had been always coming, only losing my way and making mistakes. I can’t tell you all, only, when I saw your face I had the feeling that I had arrived. Very likely heaven is like that: you wake up suddenly and find that you are there, that’s all.”
Carlotta did not break the intense, sun-stricken stillness of the place. “I wonder,” he said wistfully at length, “what you are going to do with me ? All that there is of me is at your disposal.”
A hint of the old mirth gleamed through the little mist in Carlotta’s eyes.
“But,” she began softly, and then waited. The two aged ones, who now came out chattering about the mosaics, were surprised by Carlotta’s delight in seeing them. They started back, and through the late afternoon came the gracious influence of wide horizon lines, and of free, floating wings, Venice, ever ahead with her bubble-like domes, her curious towers, lying upon the heart of the sea. The blue water flushed to faint purple and rose, and burned at last to gold in the pathway of the setting sun, and all the iridescence of earth and cloud seemed reflected in the young man’s face.
To Carlotta’s great surprise, Mrs. Ashton-Stone begged to be allowed to join the expedition to San Giovanni e Paolo the next day. She was charming with the little German ladies, most affectionate with Carlotta, and her way with Mr. Robert Winfield was such as no youth of twenty-five could resist. With the rustle of her silken draperies in his ears he walked from stately tomb to stately tomb, and his heart swelled high with hope. Carlotta paced before him, and Carlotta had not said him nay. Here was Carlotta’s aunt and guardian about to give what wonderfully sweet consent!
“It is a great relief to know that you have helped amuse my niece during these days when I have been ill. The little German ladies—”
“The little German ladies have been as happy as two children at their first pantomime,” said the lad joyously, “We have had no end of a good time watching them.”
“I presume so.” Mrs. Ashton-Stone was watching him closely. “It has been a great resource to Miss Stone. Matters were rather awkward for her. You must have noticed Mr. Thornton’s great interest in her, though perhaps she has concealed her interest in him.”
The tomb of Doge Tommaso Mocenigo with its delicate marble carving seemed suddenly to become the tomb of all his hopes and longings, yes, of love itself, as the lad gazed steadily; yet he smiled as he answered,—
“Yes, I had noticed it.”
Mrs. Ashton-Stone looked at him with admiration: he had good pluck.
“The matter can have but one outcome, I hope, as do all her friends. They are entirely suited to each other, and Mr. Thornton can give her the position that she wants and deserves.”
Fate played into the lady’s hands, for, as the two strolled on, they became aware that Mr. Thornton was standing with Carlotta in one of the choir chapels. There was that in Carlotta’s downcast face and the man’s air of respectful devotion which made Mrs. Stone’s heart beat high with hope, though it brought despair to the lad. She hurried him away, her finger on her lips, and it was fifteen minutes later that Carlotta found them wandering about the piazza. The agitation visible in the girl’s eyes and mouth brought home with a final sting to Robert Winfield an already overmastering sense that he had been a fool. If Carlotta had cared would she not have written him a word or line to end this hard suspense ? Proof as weighty as the massive presence of Mrs. Stone lay on his heart like lead. Carlotta looked wistfully at him, waiting for one more look of quiet understanding, such as they had shared since yesterday, but in vain. He said good-by abruptly, without a word to her as he left his companions at the hotel, then gave some lengthy directions to his gondolier. The Frau Doctor lingered timidly, but he did not see her, and she went almost tearfully upstairs.
“Anna,” cried the Frau Professor as the other entered the gorgeous apartment, “I have news.”
“I, too,” said the Frau Doctor, sighing and wiping her brow with a black-bordered handkerchief.
“Aber, mine is more important,” insisted the Frau Professor.
“Impossible!” The Frau Professor pricked up her ears; it must be something important indeed to make Anna hold her own in this way.
“I heard that woman,” whispered the Frau Professor, “talking to Robert about Carlotta and Mr. Thornton, and she made him misunderstand. I was studying the next tomb and they did not see me.”
“Ah, that explains!” The Frau Doctor clasped her hands. “That tells all; and Mr. Thornton was there in the church, spoiling everything. Robert goes away and comes not back. I heard him tell Guido. Guido was sent to the hotel to tell the man that all must be packed. The boy takes the afternoon train; he goes, and we do not see him again.” The Frau Doctor was frankly weeping now. Suddenly her face brightened. “Ach, Himmel, but it is good news you bring after all! I thought he was going because Carlotta had sent him, as she sent Mr. Thornton, away.”
“We must act,” said the Frau Professor. “We go at once to his hotel and reveal all.”
“Not to the hotel,” pleaded the Frau Doctor. “That would be unmaidenly. We go to his train this afternoon and hold him back.”
They did so. Trembling at their own audacity, amazed at the price asked for the gondola, they secretly embarked in a quiet spot where no one could see, and stole, the last of a long line of Venetian conspirators, through side canals and around sinister corners, to the railway station. They had still an hour to wait before the train left, and they paced up and down, hand in hand, anxiously scanning the faces of all the voyagers they could see. He came at last, sitting very erect and looking neither to the right hand nor to the left, the fine manliness of the young face all the more visible for the absence of the boyish color that had been there yesterday.
“Robert,” whispered the Frau Professor, as he stepped ashore. He started nervously, then looked with wide-opened eyes. Were the little ladies mad, as he had half suspected all along ? The Frau Doctor took his arm; the Frau Professor laid her hand on his shoulder, and they led him away.
“It is all a mistake,” said the former. “You go not away.”
“It is a misunderstanding,” said the latter.
“There is no truth in it. Carlotta herself has told me all.”
He looked from one to the other with eyes that vainly begged an explanation.
“Carlotta is not for him!” almost shouted the Frau Professor at last. “It was the second time she sent him away, this morning at San Giovanni.”
“She cares not for Mr. Thornton; she cares for you and you only,” confided the Frau Doctor, cuddling closer.
As they explained, coaxed, wheedled, the surprise in his face gave way to indignation, and indignation faded before a radiant joy that brought color to the lad’s cheeks and light to his eyes. He could not be angry with the two who were thus intruding unbidden into the secret places of his heart, when their solicitude for him betrayed itself in the trembling hands and moistened eyes. They took possession of him, and would not let him go; assured him of Carlotta’s undying affection, and would have ordered away the man who brought his trunks if they had but known the necessary Italian. When Robert Winfield refused to go back to his hotel, they urged the Hotel Allegra upon him, assuring him that it was sumptuous and cheap, only three francs a day. With this his hurt pride melted, for the words brought back the whole innocent conspiracy, and the delight he had had with Carlotta through all the summer days. They prevailed at last, though he declined the hospitality of the Hotel Allegra, and they bore him away in triumph; never a doge of the glorious days of Venice came home more proudly with the captives and spoils of war than did they with their prisoner.
They wisely did not try to determine the time and place of the lovers’ meeting, but left fate to have its way, and so it happened that the old life was resumed the next morning as if no break had occurred. Mrs. Ashtop-Stone was disheartened by the wonted appearance of Robert Winfield, ready to act as escort to whatever part of the enchanted country his friends might choose. Her sudden courtesy to the little German ladies disappeared as suddenly as it had come, for she divined that it was they who had undone all that she had achieved. She left them in disdain, and the four companions fared forth in the old way. Carlotta, as they threaded the streets of water in the cool shadow, where now and then long sprays of wmodbine or of clematis trailed against their faces as they skirted garden walls, had no look of reproach for the young man’s unkindness of yesterday, which perhaps goes to show that she lacked something of full perfection of feminine nature, as her aunt often assured her. The two little ladies chatted in an intentionally natural manner as they landed at the stone steps of a garden upon the Giudecca, and passed the sculptured lions that guarded the gates.
“Now,” said the Frau Professor in an explosive whisper, grasping the hand of her friend, and the two disappeared down a long ilex avenue that led to the lagoon. Their purpose was so evident that man and maid burst into a laugh, and the minute that had threatened to be all pathos was turned to mirth. Together they walked the even garden paths in all the sweetness of tall white lilies, climbing roses, and ripening peach and pear.
“I am told that you started to leave Venice rather abruptly,” said Carlotta. “I should have thought that you would have come to say good-by.”
“I’ve no defense to make, my Lady Doge,” he said penitently. “Take me down the fatal stairway and over the Bridge of Sighs. I deserve my sentence, whatever it is.”
“It is a secret sentence,” said Carlotta serenely, “and must be whispered.”
“And now, my lady,” said the victim, taking both hands of the judge within his own, “if you really care, why did you not tell me that day at Torcello ? Do you know in what nethermost pit of torture you have kept me since then ? ”
Carlotta’s brown eyes were lighted by soft, inward fire.
“Because I cared so much, after knowing you only two weeks, that I was ashamed. Because I wanted to be sure that it is the better part of me that cares.”
“And are you sure?”
Carlotta bowed her head.
“The very inmost heart and soul of me,” she said softly.
A cricket chirped in the sparse grass, and all the rest was silence; gulls flew low on great white wings above the garden, then soared high into the blue; the little old ladies, looking under the drooping grapevine that stretched from one mulberry tree to another, saw the lad’s tall head bent reverently to Carlotta’s, and turned away, their faded eyes dim with happiness.