IN the previous chapter I recorded the surprise I felt at Miss Trevor'_cceptance of Doctor Nikola's invitation to a gondola excursion. Almost a_uddenly as she had shown her fear of him, she had recovered her tranquility, and the result, as I have stated, was complete perplexity on my part. With _nited desire to reserve our energies for the evening, we did not arrange _ong excursion for that afternoon, but contented ourselves with a visit to th_hurch of SS. Giovanni e Paolo. Miss Trevor was quite recovered by this time, and in very good spirits. She and Glenbarth were on the most friendly terms, consequently my wife was a most happy woman.
"Isn't it nice to see them together?" she whispered, as we crossed the hal_nd went down the steps to our gondola. "They are suited to each other almos_s—well, if I really wanted to pay you a compliment, which you don't deserve, I should say as we are! Do you notice how prettily she gives him her hand s_hat he can help her into the boat?"
"I do," I answered grimly. "And it only shows the wickedness of the girl. Sh_s as capable of getting into the boat without assistance as he is."
"And yet you yourself help her every time you get the chance," my wif_etorted. "I have observed you take the greatest care that she should no_all, even when the step has been one of only a few inches, and I have bee_eft to get down by myself. Perhaps you cannot recall that day at Capri?"
"I have the happiest recollections of it," I replied. "I helped her quite hal_ dozen times."
"And yet you grudge that poor boy the opportunities that you yourself wer_nce eager to enjoy. You cannot deny it."
"I am not going to attempt to deny it," I returned. "I do grudge him hi_hances. And why shouldn't I? Has she not the second prettiest hands, and th_econd neatest ankle, in all Europe?"
My wife looked up at me with a suspicion of a smile hovering around her mouth.
When she does that her dimples are charming.
"And the neatest?" she inquired, as if she had not guessed. Women can do tha_ort of thing with excellent effect.
"Lady Hatteras, may I help you into the gondola?" I said politely, and fo_ome reason, best known to herself, the reply appeared to satisfy her.
Of one thing there could be no sort of doubt. Miss Trevor had taken a decide_iking to Glenbarth, and the young fellow's delight in her company was mor_han equal to it. By my wife's orders I left them together as much as possibl_uring the afternoon, that is to say as far as was consistent with the dutie_f an observant chaperon. For instance, while we were in the right aisle o_he church, examining the mausoleum of the Doge, Pietro Mocenningo, and th_tatues of Lombardi, they were in the choir proper, before the famous tomb o_ndrea Vendramin, considered by many to be the finest of its kind in Venice.
As we entered the choir, they departed into the left transept. I fancy, however, Glenbarth must have been a little chagrined when she, playing he_and according to the recognised rules, suggested that they should turn bac_n search of us. Back they came accordingly, to be received by my wife with _peech that still further revealed to me the duplicity of women.
"You are two naughty children," she said, with fairly simulated wrath. "Wher_n earth have you been? We have been looking for you everywhere!"
"You are so slow," put in Miss Trevor, and then she added, without a quaver i_er voice or a blush upon her cheek, "We dawdled about in order to let yo_atch us up."
I thought it was time for me to interfere.
"Perhaps I should remind you young people that at the present moment you ar_n a church," I said. "Would it not be as well, do you think, for you t_reserve those pretty little prevarications until you are in the gondola? Yo_ill be able to quarrel in greater comfort there. It will also give Phylli_ime to collect her thoughts, and to prepare a new indictment."
My wife treated me to a look that would have annihilated another man. Afte_hat I washed my hands of them and turned to the copy of Titian's Martyrdom o_aint Peter, which Victor Emmanuel had presented to the church in place of th_riginal, which had been destroyed. Later on we made our way, by a long serie_f tortuous thoroughfares, to the piazza of Saint Mark, where we intended t_it in front of Florian's cafe and watch the people until it was time for u_o return and dress for dinner.
As I have already said, Miss Trevor had all the afternoon been in the best o_pirits. Nothing could have been happier than her demeanour when we left th_hurch, yet when we reached the piazza everything was changed. Apparently sh_as not really unhappy, nor did she look about her in the frightened way tha_ad struck me so unpleasantly on the previous evening. It was only her manne_hat was strange. At first she was silent, then, as if she were afraid w_ight notice it, she set herself to talk as if she were doing it for mer_alking's sake. Then, without any apparent reason, she became as silent as _ouse once more. Remembering what had happened that morning before breakfast, I did not question her, nor did I attempt to rally her upon the subject. T_ave done either would have been to have risked a recurrence of th_atastrophe we had so narrowly escaped earlier in the day. I accordingly lef_er alone, and my wife, in the hope of distracting her attention, entered upo_n amusing argument with Glenbarth upon the evils attendant upon excessiv_moking, which was the young man's one, and, so far as I knew, only failing.
Unable to combat her assertions he appealed to me for protection.
"Take my part, there's a good fellow," he said pathetically. "I am not stron_nough to stand against Lady Hatteras alone."
"No," I returned; "you must fight your own battles. When I see a chance o_aving a little peace I like to grasp it. I am going to take Miss Trevor t_aya's shop on the other side of the _piazza,_ in search of new photographs.
We will leave you to quarrel in comfort here."
So saying Miss Trevor and I left them and made our way to the famous shop, where I purchased for her a number of photographs, of which she had expresse_er admiration a few days before. After that we rejoined my wife and Glenbart_nd returned to our hotel for dinner.
Nikola, as you may remember, had arranged to call for _us_ with his gondol_t half-past eight, and ten minutes before that time I suggested that th_adies should prepare themselves for the excursion. I bade them wrap up wel_or I knew by experience that it is seldom warm upon the water at night. Whe_hey had left us the Duke and I strolled into the balcony.
"I hope to goodness Nikola won't frighten Miss Trevor this evening," said m_ompanion, after we had been there a few moments. (I noticed that he spok_ith an anxiety that was by no means usual with him.) "She _is_ awfull_ensitive, you know, and when he likes he can curdle the very marrow in you_ones. I shouldn't have liked her to have heard that story he told us thi_orning. I suppose there is no fear of his repeating it to-night?"
"I should not think so," I returned. "Nikola has more tact in his littl_inger than you or I have in our whole bodies. He would be scarcely likely t_ake such a mistake. No, I rather fancy that to-night we shall see a new sid_f his character. For my own part I am prepared to confess that I am lookin_orward to the excursion with a good deal of pleasure."
"I am glad to hear it," Glenbarth replied, as I thought with a savour o_arcasm in his voice. "I only hope you won't have reason to regret it."
This little speech set me thinking. Was it possible that Glenbarth was jealou_f Nikola? Surely he could not be foolish enough for that. That Miss Trevo_ad made an impression upon him was apparent, but it was full early for him t_row jealous, and particularly of such a man.
While I was thinking of this the ladies entered the room, and at the sam_oment we heard Nikola's gondola draw up at the steps. I thought Miss Trevo_ooked a little pale, but though still very quiet she was more cheerful tha_he had been before dinner.
"Our guide has arrived," I remarked, as I closed the windows behind us. "W_ad better go down to the hall. Miss Trevor, if you will accompany me, th_uke will bring Phyllis. We must not keep Nikola waiting."
We accordingly left our apartments and proceeded downstairs.
"I trust you are looking forward to your excursion, Miss Trevor?" I said as w_escended the stairs. "If I am not mistaken you will see Venice to-night unde_ircumstances such as you could never have dreamed of before."
"I do not doubt it," she answered simply. "It will be a night to remember."
Little did she guess how true her prophecy was destined to be. It was indeed _ight that every member of the party would remember all his, or her, lif_ong. When we had reached the hall, Nikola had just entered it, and was in th_ct of sending up a servant to announce his arrival. He shook hands with m_ife, with Miss Trevor, afterwards with Glenbarth and myself. His hand was, a_sual, as cold as ice and his face was deathly pale. His tall, lithe figur_as concealed by his voluminous coat, but what was lost in one direction wa_ompensated for by the mystery that it imparted to his personality. For sam_eason I thought of Mephistopheles as I looked at him, and in many ways th_llustration does not seem an altogether inapt one.
"Permit me to express the gratification I feel that you have consented t_llow me to be your guide this evening, Lady Hatteras," he said as h_onducted my wife towards the boat. "While it is an impertinence on my part t_magine that I can add to your enjoyment of Venice, I fancy it is, nevertheless, in my power to show you a side of the city with which you ar_ot as yet acquainted. The night being so beautiful, and believing that yo_ould wish to see all you can, I have brought a gondola without a cabin. _rust I did not do wrong."
"I am sure it will be delightful," my wife answered. "It would have bee_nendurable on such a beautiful evening to be cooped up in a close cabin.
Besides, we should have seen nothing."
By this time we were on the steps, at the foot of which the gondola i_uestion, a large one of its class, was lying. As soon as we had boarded he_he gondolier bent to his oar the boat shot out into the stream, and th_xcursion, which, as I have said, we were each of us to remember all ou_ives, had commenced. If I shut my eyes now I can recall the whole scene: th_till moonlit waters of the canal, the houses on one side of which wer_rilliantly illuminated by the moon, the other being entirely in the shadow.
Where we were in mid stream a boat decorated with lanterns passed us. I_ontained a merry party, whose progress was enlivened by the strains of th_nvariable _Finiculi Finicula._ The words and the tune ring in my memory eve_ow. Years before we had grown heartily sick of the song; now, however, i_ossessed a charm that was quite its own.
"How pretty it is," remarked my wife and Miss Trevor almost simultaneously.
And the former added, "I could never have believed that it possessed such _ealth of tenderness."
"Might it not be the association that is responsible?" put in Nikola gravely.
"You have probably heard that song at some time when you have been so happ_hat all the world has seemed the same. Hearing it to-night has unconsciousl_ecalled that association, and _Finiculi Finicula,_ once so despised, immediately becomes a melody that touches your heart strings and so wins fo_tself a place in your regard that it can never altogether lose."
We had crossed the canal by this time; the gondola with the singers proceedin_owards the Rialto bridge. The echo of the music still lingered in our ears, and seemed the sweeter by reason of the distance that separated us from it.
Turning to the gondolier, who in the moonlight presented a picturesque figur_n the stern of the boat, Nikola said something in Italian. The boat's hea_as immediately turned in the direction of a side-street, and a moment late_e entered it. It is not my intention, nor would it be possible for me, t_ttempt to furnish you with a definite description of the route we followed.
In the daytime I flatter myself that I have a knowledge of the Venice of _ourist; if you were to give me a pencil and paper I believe I would be abl_o draw a rough outline of the city, and to place St. Mark's Cathedral, Galaghetti's Hotel, the Rialto bridge, the Arsenal, and certainly the railwa_tation, in something like their proper positions. But at night, when I hav_eft the Grand Canal, the city becomes a sealed book to me. On this particula_vening, every street when once we had left the fashionable quarter behind us, seemed alike. There was the same darkness, the same silence, and the sam_eflection of the lights in the water. Occasionally we happened upon place_here business was still being transacted, and where the noise of voices smot_he air with a vehemence that was like sacrilege. A few moments would the_lapse, and then we were plunged into a silence that was almost unearthly. Al_his time Nikola kept us continually interested. Here was a house with _istory as old as Venice itself; there the home of a famous painter; yonde_he birthplace of a poet or a soldier, who had fought his way to fame by pe_r by sword. On one side of the street was the first dwelling of one who ha_een a plebeian and had died a Doge; while on the other side was that of a ma_ho had given his life to save his friend. Nor were Nikola's illustration_onfined to the past alone. Men whose names were household words to us ha_receded us, and had seen Venice as we were seeing it now. Of each he coul_ell us something we had never heard before. It was the perfect mastery of hi_ubject, like that of a man who plays upon an instrument of which he has mad_ lifelong study, that astonished us. He could rouse in our hearts suc_motions as he pleased; could induce us to pity at one moment, and to loathin_t the next; could make us see the city with his eyes, and in a measure t_ove it with his own love. That Nikola did entertain a deep affection for i_as as certain as his knowledge of its history.
"I think I may say now," he said, when we had been absent from the hotel fo_pwards of an hour, "that I have furnished you with a superficial idea of th_ity. Let me attempt after this to show you something of its inner life. Tha_t will repay you I think you will admit when you have seen it."
Once more he gave the gondolier an order. Without a word the man entered _arrow street on the right, then turned to the left, after which to the righ_gain. What were we going to see next? That it would be something interestin_ had not the least doubt. Presently, the gondolier made an indescribabl_ovement with his oar, the first signal that he was about to stop. With tw_trokes he brought the boat alongside the steps, and Nikola, who was the firs_o spring out, assisted the ladies to alight. We were now in a portion o_enice with which I was entirely unacquainted. The houses were old and loft_hough sadly fallen to decay. Where shops existed business was still bein_arried on, but the majority of the owners of the houses in the neighbourhoo_ppeared to be early birds, for no lights were visible in their dwellings.
Once or twice men approached us and stared insolently at the ladies of ou_arty. One of these, more impertinent than his companions, placed his han_pon Miss Trevor's arm. In a second, without any apparent effort, Nikola ha_aid him upon his back.
"Do not be afraid, Miss Trevor," he said; "the fellow has only forgotte_imself for a moment."
So saying he approached the man, who scrambled to his feet, and addressed hi_n a low voice.
"No, no, your excellency," the rascal whined; "for the pity of the blesse_aints. Had I known it was you I would not have dared."
Nikola said something in a whisper to him; what it was I have not the leas_dea, but its effect was certainly excellent, for the man slunk away withou_nother word.
After this little incident we continued our walk without further opposition, took several turnings, and at last found ourselves standing before a lo_oorway. That it was closely barred on the inside was evident from the sound_hat followed when, in response to Nikola's knocks, some one commenced to ope_t. Presently an old man looked out. At first he seemed surprised to see us, but when his eyes fell upon Nikola all was changed. With a low bow he invite_im, in Russian, to enter.
Crossing the threshold we found ourselves in a church of the smallest possibl_escription. By the dim light a priest could be seen officiating at the hig_ltar, and there were possibly a dozen worshippers present. There was an ai_f secrecy about it all, the light, the voices, and the precautions taken t_revent a stranger entering, that appealed to my curiosity. As we turned t_eave the building the little man who had admitted us crept up to Nikola'_ide and said something in a low voice to him. Nikola replied, and at the sam_ime patted the man affectionately upon the shoulder. Then with the sam_bsequious respect the latter opened the door once more, and permitted us t_ass out, quickly barring it behind us afterwards however.
"You have seen many churches during your stay in Venice, Lady Hatteras,"
Nikola remarked, as we made our way back towards the gondola, "I doubt ver_uch, however, whether you have ever entered a stranger place of worship tha_hat."
"I know that I have not," my wife replied. "Pray who were the people we sa_here? And why was so much secrecy observed?"
"Because nearly all the poor souls you saw there are either suspected o_anted by the Russian Government. They are fugitives from injustice, if I ma_o express it, and it is for that reason that they are compelled to worship, as well as live, in hiding."
"But who are they?"
"Nihilists," Nikola answered. "A poor, hot-headed lot of people, who, seein_heir country drifting in a wrong direction, have taken it into their heads t_ry and remedy matters by drastic measures. Finding their efforts hopeless, their properties confiscated, and they themselves in danger of death, o_xile, which is worse, they have fled from Russia. Some of them, the richest, manage to get to England, some come to Venice, but knowing that the Italia_olice will turn them out _sans ceremonie_ if they discover them, they ar_ompelled to remain in hiding until they are in a position to procee_lsewhere."
"And you help them?" asked Miss Trevor in a strange voice, as if his answe_ere a foregone conclusion.
"What makes you think that?" Nikola inquired.
"Because the doorkeeper knew you, and you spoke so kindly to him."
"The poor fellow has a son," Nikola replied; "a hot-headed young rascal wh_as got into trouble in Moscow. If he is caught he will without doubt go t_iberia for the rest of his life. But he will not be caught."
Once more Miss Trevor spoke as if with authority and in the same hushed voice.
"You have saved him?"
"He has been saved," Nikola replied. "He left for America this morning. Th_ld fellow was merely expressing to me the gratification he felt at having go_im out of such a difficulty. Now, here is our gondola. Let us get into it. W_till have much to see, and time is not standing still with us."
Once more we took our places, and once more the gondola proceeded on its way.
To furnish you with a complete _resume_ of all we saw would take too long, and would occupy too great a space. Let it suffice that we visited places, th_ere existence of which I had never heard of before.
One thing impressed me throughout. Wherever we went Nikola was known, and no_nly known, but feared and respected. His face was a key that opened ever_ock, and in his company the ladies were as safe, in the roughest parts o_enice, as if they had been surrounded by a troop of soldiery. When we ha_een all that he was able to show us it was nearly midnight, and time for u_o be getting back to our hotel.
"I trust I have not tired you?" he said, as the ladies took their places i_he gondola for the last time.
"Not in the least," both answered at once, and I fancy my wife spoke not onl_or herself but also for Miss Trevor when she continued, "we have spent a mos_elightful evening."
"You must not praise the performance until the epilogue is spoken," Nikol_nswered. "I have still one more item on my programme."
As he said this the gondola drew up at some steps, where a solitary figure wa_tanding, apparently waiting for us. He wore a cloak and carried a somewha_ulky object in his hand. As soon as the boat came alongside Nikola sprang ou_nd approached him. To our surprise he helped him into the gondola and place_im in the stern.
"To-night, Luigi," he said, "you must sing your best for the honour of th_ity."
The young man replied in an undertone, and then the gondola passed down a by- street and a moment later we were back in the Grand Canal. There was not _reath of air, and the moon shone full and clear upon the placid water. Neve_ad Venice appeared more beautiful. Away to the right was the piazza, with th_athedral of Saint Mark; on our left were the shadows of the islands. Th_ilence of Venice, and there is no silence in the world like it, lay upo_verything. The only sound to be heard was the dripping of the water from th_ondolier's oar as it rose and fell in rhythmic motion. Then the musician dre_is fingers across the strings of his guitar, and after a little prelud_ommenced to sing. The song he had chosen was the _Salve d'amora_ fro_Faust,_ surely one of the most delightful melodies that has ever occurred t_he brain of a musician. Before he had sung a dozen bars we were entranced.
Though not a strong tenor, his voice was one of the most perfect I have eve_eard. It was of the purest quality, so rich and sweet that the greates_onnoisseur could not tire of it. The beauty of the evening, the silence o_he lagoon, and the perfectness of the surroundings, helped it to appeal to u_s no music had ever done before. It was significant proof of the effec_roduced upon us, that when he ceased not one of us spoke for some moments.
Our hearts were too full for words. By the time we had recovered ourselves th_ondola had drawn up at the steps of the hotel, and we had disembarked. Th_uke and I desired to reward the musician; Nikola, however, begged us to d_othing of the kind.
"He sings to-night to please me," he said. "It would hurt him beyond word_ere you to offer him any other reward." After that there was nothing more t_e said, except to thank him in the best Italian we could muster for the trea_e had given us.
"Why on earth does he not try his fortune upon the stage?" asked my wife, whe_e had disembarked from the gondola and had assembled on the steps. "With suc_ voice he might achieve a European reputation."
"Alas," answered Nikola, "he will never do that. Did you notice hi_nfirmity?"
Phyllis replied that she had not observed anything extraordinary about him.
"The poor fellow is blind," Nikola answered very quietly. "He is a singing- bird shut up always in the dark. And now, good night. I have trespassed to_ong upon your time already."
He bowed low to the ladies, shook hands with the Duke and myself, and then, before we had time to thank him for the delightful evening he had given us, was in his gondola once more and out in midstream. We watched him until he ha_isappeared in the direction of the Rio del Consiglio, after we entered th_otel and made our way to our own sitting-room.
"I cannot say when I have enjoyed myself so much," said my wife, as we stoo_alking together before bidding each other good night.
"It has been delightful," said Glenbarth, whose little attack of jealous_eemed to have quite left him. "Have you enjoyed it, Hatteras?"
I said something in reply, I cannot remember what, but I recollect that, as _id so, I glanced at Miss Trevor's face. It was still very pale, but her eye_hone with extraordinary brilliance.
"I hope you have had a pleasant evening," I said to her a few moments later, when we were alone together.
"Yes, I think I can say that I have," she answered, with a far-away look upo_er face. "The music was exquisite. The thought of it haunts me still."
Then, having bade me good night, she went off with my wife, leaving me t_ttempt to understand why she had replied as she had done.
"And what do you think of it, my friend?" I inquired of Glenbarth, when we ha_aken our cigars out into the balcony.
"I am extremely glad we went," he returned quickly. "There can be no doub_hat you were right when you said that it would show us Nikola's character i_ new light. Did you notice with what respect he was treated by everybody w_et, and how anxious they were not to run the risk of offending him?"
"Of course I noticed it, and you may be sure I drew my own conclusions fro_t," I replied.
"And those conclusions were?"
"That Nikola's character is even more inexplicable than before."
After that we smoked in silence for some time. At last I rose and tossed wha_emained of my cigar over the rails into the dark waters below.
"It is getting late," I said. "Don't you think we had better bid each othe_ood night?"
"Perhaps we had, and yet I don't feel a bit tired."
"Are you quite sure that you have had a pleasant day?"
"Quite sure," he said, with a laugh. "The only thing I regret is having hear_hat wretched story this morning. Do you recall the gusto with which Nikol_elated it?" I replied in the affirmative, and asked him his reason fo_eferring to it now.
"Because I could not help thinking of it this evening, when his voice was s_leasant and his manner so kind. When I picture him going back to that hous_o-night, to that dreadful room, to sleep alone in that great building, i_airly makes me shudder. Good night, old fellow, you have treated me royall_o-day; I could scarcely have had more sensations compressed into my wakin_ours if I'd been a king."