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Chapter 4

IV.

The palace in which Mrs. Vervain had taken an apartment fronted on a broad campo, and hung its empty marble balconies from gothic windows above a silence scarcely to be matched elsewhere in Venice. The local pharmacy, the caffè, the grocery, the fruiterer's, the other shops with which every Venetian campo is furnished, had each a certain life about it, but it was a silent life, and at midday a frowsy-headed woman clacking across the flags in her wooden-heeled shoes made echoes whose garrulity was interrupted by no other sound. In the early morning, when the lid of the public cistern in the centre of the campo was unlocked, there was a clamor of voices and a clangor of copper vessels, as the housewives of the neighborhood and the local force of strong-backed Frinlan water-girls drew their day's supply of water; and on that sort of special parochial holiday, called a sagra, the campo hummed and clattered and shrieked with a multitude celebrating the day around the stands where pumpkin seeds and roast pumpkin and anisette-water were sold, and before the movable kitchen where cakes were fried in caldrons of oil, and uproariously offered to the crowd by the cook, who did not suffer himself to be embarrassed by the rival drama of adjoining puppet-shows, but continued to bellow forth his bargains all day long and far into the night, when the flames under his kettles painted his visage a fine crimson. The sagra once over, however, the campo relapsed into its habitual silence, and no one looking at the front of the palace would have thought of it as a place for distraction-seeking foreign sojourners. But it was not on this side that the landlord tempted his tenants; his principal notice of lodgings to let was affixed to the water-gate of the palace, which opened on a smaller channel so near the Grand Canal that no wandering eye could fail to see it. The portal was a tall arch of Venetian gothic tipped with a carven flame; steps of white Istrian stone descended to the level of the lowest ebb, irregularly embossed with barnacles, and dabbling long fringes of soft green sea-mosses in the rising and falling tide. Swarms of water-bugs and beetles played over the edges of the steps, and crabs scuttled side-wise into deeper water at the approach of a gondola. A length of stone-capped brick wall, to which patches of stucco still clung, stretched from the gate on either hand under cover of an ivy that flung its mesh of shining green from within, where there lurked a lovely garden, stately, spacious for Venice, and full of a delicious, half-sad surprise for whoso opened upon it. In the midst it had a broken fountain, with a marble naiad standing on a shell, and looking saucier than the sculptor meant, from having lost the point of her nose, nymphs and fauns, and shepherds and shepherdesses, her kinsfolk, coquetted in and out among the greenery in flirtation not to be embarrassed by the fracture of an arm, or the casting of a leg or so; one lady had no head, but she was the boldest of all. In this garden there were some mulberry and pomegranate trees, several of which hung about the fountain with seats in their shade, and for the rest there seemed to be mostly roses and oleanders, with other shrubs of a kind that made the greatest show of blossom and cost the least for tendance. A wide terrace stretched across the rear of the palace, dropping to the garden path by a flight of balustraded steps, and upon this terrace opened the long windows of Mrs. Vervain's parlor and dining-room. Her landlord owned only the first story and the basement of the palace, in some corner of which he cowered with his servants, his taste for pictures and bric-à-brac, and his little branch of inquiry into Venetian history, whatever it was, ready to let himself or anything he had for hire at a moment's notice, but very pleasant, gentle, and unobtrusive; a cheat and a liar, but of a kind heart and sympathetic manners. Under his protection Mrs. Vervain set up her impermanent household gods. The apartment was taken only from week to week, and as she freely explained to the padrone hovering about with offers of service, she knew herself too well ever to unpack anything that would not spoil by remaining packed. She made her trunks yield all the appliances necessary for an invalid's comfort, and then left them in a state to be strapped and transported to the station within half a day after the desire of change or the exigencies of her feeble health caused her going. Everything for housekeeping was furnished with the rooms. There was a gondolier and a sort of house- servant in the employ of the landlord, of whom Mrs. Vervain hired them, and she caressingly dismissed the padrone at an early moment after her arrival, with the charge to find a maid for herself and daughter. As if she had been waiting at the next door this maid appeared promptly, and being Venetian, and in domestic service, her name was of course Nina. Mrs. Vervain now said to Florida that everything was perfect, and contentedly began her life in Venice by telling Mr. Ferris, when he came in the evening, that he could bring Don Ippolito the day after the morrow, if he liked.

She and Florida sat on the terrace waiting for them on the morning named, when Ferris, with the priest in his clerical best, came up the garden path in the sunny light. Don Ippolito's best was a little poverty-stricken; he had faltered a while, before leaving home, over the sad choice between a shabby cylinder hat of obsolete fashion and his well-worn three-cornered priestly beaver, and had at last put on the latter with a sigh. He had made his servant polish the buckles of his shoes, and instead of a band of linen round his throat, he wore a strip ot cloth covered with small white beads, edged above and below with a single row of pale blue ones.

As he mounted the steps with Ferris, Mrs. Vervain came forward a little to meet them, while Florida rose and stood beside her chair in a sort of proud suspense and timidity. The elder lady was in that black from which she had so seldom been able to escape; but the daughter wore a dress of delicate green, in which she seemed a part of the young season that everywhere clothed itself in the same tint. The sunlight fell upon her blonde hair, melting into its light gold; her level brows frowned somewhat with the glance of scrutiny which she gave the dark young priest, who was making his stately bow to her mother, and trying to answer her English greetings in the same tongue.

"My daughter," said Mrs. Vervain, and Don Ippolito made another low bow, and then looked at the girl with a sort of frank and melancholy wonder, as she turned and exchanged a few words with Ferris, who was assailing her seriousness and hauteur with unabashed levity of compliment. A quick light flashed and fled in her cheek as she talked, and the fringes of her serious, asking eyes swept slowly up and down as she bent them upon him a moment before she broke abruptly, not coquettishly, away from him, and moved towards her mother, while Ferris walked off to the other end of the terrace, with a laugh. Mrs. Vervain and the priest were trying each other in French, and not making great advance; he explained to Florida in Italian, and she answered him hesitatingly; whereupon he praised her Italian in set phrase.

"Thank you," said the girl sincerely, "I have tried to learn. I hope," she added as before, "you can make me see how little I know." The deprecating wave of the hand with which Don Ippolito appealed to her from herself, seemed arrested midway by his perception of some novel quality in her. He said gravely that he should try to be of use, and then the two stood silent.

"Come, Mr. Ferris," called out Mrs. Vervain, "breakfast is ready, and I want you to take me in."

"Too much honor," said the painter, coming forward and offering his arm, and Mrs. Vervain led the way indoors.

"I suppose I ought to have taken Don Ippolito's arm," she confided in under-tone, "but the fact is, our French is so unlike that we don't understand each other very well."

"Oh," returned Ferris, "I've known Italians and Americans whom
Frenchmen themselves couldn't understand."

"You see it's an American breakfast," said Mrs. Vervain with a critical glance at the table before she sat down. "All but hot bread; that you can't have," and Don Ippolito was for the first time in his life confronted by a breakfast of hot beef-steak, eggs and toast, fried potatoes, and coffee with milk, with a choice of tea. He subdued all signs of the wonder he must have felt, and beyond cutting his meat into little bits before eating it, did nothing to betray his strangeness to the feast.

The breakfast had passed off very pleasantly, with occasional lapses.
"We break down under the burden of so many languages," said Ferris. "It
is an embarras de richesses. Let us fix upon a common maccheronic.
May I trouble you for a poco piú di sugar dans mon café, Mrs. Vervain?
What do you think of the bellazza de ce weather magnifique, Don Ippolito?"

"How ridiculous!" said Mrs. Vervain in a tone of fond admiration aside to Don Ippolito, who smiled, but shrank from contributing to the new tongue.

"Very well, then," said the painter. "I shall stick to my native Bergamask for the future; and Don Ippolito may translate for the foreign ladies."

He ended by speaking English with everybody; Don Ippolito eked out his speeches to Mrs. Vervain in that tongue with a little French; Florida, conscious of Ferris's ironical observance, used an embarrassed but defiant Italian with the priest.

"I'm so pleased!" said Mrs. Vervain, rising when Ferris said that he must go, and Florida shook hands with both guests.

"Thank you, Mrs. Vervain; I could have gone before, if I'd thought you would have liked it," answered the painter.

"Oh nonsense, now," returned the lady. "You know what I mean. I'm perfectly delighted with him," she continued, getting Ferris to one side, "and I know he must have a good accent. So very kind of you. Will you arrange with him about the pay?-such a shame! Thanks. Then I needn't say anything to him about that. I'm so glad I had him to breakfast the first day; though Florida thought not. Of course, one needn't keep it up. But seriously, it isn't an ordinary case, you know."

Ferris laughed at her with a sort of affectionate disrespect, and said good-by. Don Ippolito lingered for a while to talk over the proposed lessons, and then went, after more elaborate adieux. Mrs. Vervain remained thoughtful a moment before she said:-

"That was rather droll, Florida."

"What, mother?"

"His cutting his meat into small bites, before he began to eat. But perhaps it's the Venetian custom. At any rate, my dear, he's a gentleman in virtue of his profession, and I couldn't do less than ask him to breakfast. He has beautiful manners; and if he must take snuff, I suppose it's neater to carry two handkerchiefs, though it does look odd. I wish he wouldn't take snuff."

"I don't see why we need care, mother. At any fate, we cannot help it."

"That's true, my dear. And his nails. Now when they're spread out on a book, you know, to keep it open,-won't it be unpleasant?"

"They seem to have just such fingernails all over Europe-except in
England."

"Oh, yes; I know it. I dare say we shouldn't care for it in him, if he didn't seem so very nice otherwise. How handsome he is!"

William Dean Howells

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