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Chapter 22

XXII.

At the hotel in Trieste, to which Lydia went with her uncle before taking the train for Venice, she found an elderly woman, who made her a courtesy, and, saying something in Italian, startled her by kissing her hand.

"It's our Veronica," her uncle explained; "she wants to know how she can serve you." He gave Veronica the wraps and parcels he had been carrying. "Your aunt thought you might need a maid."

"Oh, no!" said Lydia. "I always help myself."

"Ah, I dare say," returned her uncle. "You American ladies are so—up to snuff, as you say. But your aunt thought we'd better have her with us, in any case."

"And she sent her all the way from Venice?"

"Yes."

"Well, I never did!" said Lydia, not lightly, but with something of contemptuous severity.

Her uncle smiled, as if she had said something peculiarly acceptable to him, and asked, hesitatingly, "When you say you never did, you know, what is the full phrase?"

Lydia looked at him. "Oh! I suppose I meant I never heard of such a thing."

"Ah, thanks, thanks!" said her uncle. He was a tall, slender man of fifty-five or sixty, with a straight gray mustache, and not at all the typical Englishman, but much more English-looking than if he had been. His bearing toward Lydia blended a fatherly kindness and a colonial British gallantry, such as one sees in elderly Canadian gentlemen attentive to quite young Canadian ladies at the provincial watering-places. He had an air of adventure, and of uncommon pleasure and no small astonishment in Lydia's beauty. They were already good friends; she was at her ease with him; she treated him as if he were an old gentleman. At the station, where Veronica got into the same carriage with them, Lydia found the whole train very queer-looking, and he made her describe its difference from an American train. He said, "Oh, yes—yes, engine," when she mentioned the locomotive, and he apparently prized beyond its worth the word cow-catcher, a fixture which Lydia said was wanting to the European locomotive, and left it very stubby. He asked her if she would allow him to set it down; and he entered the word in his note-book, with several other idioms she had used. He said that he amused himself in picking up these things from his American friends. He wished to know what she called this and that and the other thing, and was equally pleased whether her nomenclature agreed or disagreed with his own. Where it differed, he recorded the fact, with her leave, in his book. He plied her with a thousand questions about America, with all parts of which he seemed to think her familiar; and she explained with difficulty how very little of it she had seen. He begged her not to let him bore her, and to excuse the curiosity of a Britisher, "As I suppose you'd call me," he added.

Lydia lifted her long-lashed lids half-way, and answered, "No,
I shouldn't call you so."

"Ah, yes," he returned, "the Americans always disown it. But I don't mind it at all, you know. I like those native expressions." Where they stopped for refreshments he observed that one of the dishes, which was flavored to the national taste, had a pretty tall smell, and seemed disappointed by Lydia's unresponsive blankness at a word which a countryman of hers—from Kentucky—had applied to the odor of the Venetian canals. He suffered in like measure from a like effect in her when he lamented the complications that had kept him the year before from going to America with Mrs. Erwin, when she revisited her old stomping-ground.

As they rolled along, the warm night which had fallen after the beautiful day breathed through the half-dropped window in a rich, soft air, as strange almost as the flying landscape itself. Mr. Erwin began to drowse, and at last he fell asleep; but Veronica kept her eyes vigilantly fixed upon Lydia, always smiling when she caught her glance, and offering service. At the stations, so orderly and yet so noisy, where the passengers were held in the same meek subjection as at Trieste, people got in and out of the carriage; and there were officers, at first in white coats, and after they passed the Italian frontier in blue, who stared at Lydia. One of the Italians, a handsome young hussar, spoke to her. She could not know what he said; but when he crossed over to her side of the carriage, she rose and took her place beside Veronica, where she remained even after he left the carriage. She was sensible of growing drowsy. Then she was aware of nothing till she woke up with her head on Veronica's shoulder, against which she had fallen, and on which she had been patiently supported for hours. "Ecco Venezia!" cried the old woman, pointing to a swarm of lights that seemed to float upon an expanse of sea. Lydia did not understand; she thought she was again on board the Aroostook, and that the lights she saw were the lights of the shipping in Boston harbor. The illusion passed, and left her heart sore. She issued from the glare of the station upon the quay before it, bewildered by the ghostly beauty of the scene, but shivering in the chill of the dawn, and stunned by the clamor of the gondoliers. A tortuous course in the shadow of lofty walls, more deeply darkened from time to time by the arch of a bridge, and again suddenly pierced by the brilliance of a lamp that shot its red across the gloom, or plunged it into the black water, brought them to a palace gate at which they stopped, and where, after a dramatic ceremony of sliding bolts and the reluctant yielding of broad doors on a level with the water, she passed through a marble-paved court and up a stately marble staircase to her uncle's apartment. "You're at home, now, you know," he said, in a kindly way, and took her hand, very cold and lax, in his for welcome. She could not answer, but made haste to follow Veronica to her room, whither the old woman led the way with a candle. It was a gloomily spacious chamber, with sombre walls and a lofty ceiling with a faded splendor of gilded paneling. Some tall, old-fashioned mirrors and bureaus stood about, with rugs before them on the stone floor; in the middle of the room was a bed curtained with mosquito-netting. Carved chairs were pushed here and there against the wall. Lydia dropped into one of these, too strange and heavy-hearted to go to bed in that vastness and darkness, in which her candle seemed only to burn a small round hole. She longed forlornly to be back again in her pretty state-room on the Aroostook; vanishing glimpses and echoes of the faces and voices grown so familiar in the past weeks haunted her; the helpless tears ran down her cheeks.

There came a tap at her door, and her aunt's voice called, "Shall I come in?" and before she could faintly consent, her aunt pushed in, and caught her in her arms, and kissed her, and broke into a twitter of welcome and compassion. "You poor child! Did you think I was going to let you go to sleep without seeing you, after you'd come half round the world to see me?" Her aunt was dark and slight like Lydia, but not so tall; she was still a very pretty woman, and she was a very effective presence now in the long white morning-gown of camel's hair, somewhat fantastically embroidered in crimson silk, in which she drifted about before Lydia's bewildered eyes. "Let me see how you look! Are you as handsome as ever?" She held the candle she carried so as to throw its light full upon Lydia's face. "Yes!" she sighed. "How pretty you are! And at your age you'll look even better by daylight! I had begun to despair of you; I thought you couldn't be all I remembered; but you are,—you're more! I wish I had you in Rome, instead of Venice; there would be some use in it. There's a great deal of society there,—English society; but never mind: I'm going to take you to church with me to-morrow,—the English service; there are lots of English in Venice now, on their way south for the winter. I'm crazy to see what dresses you've brought; your aunt Maria has told me how she fitted you out. I've got two letters from her since you started, and they're all perfectly well, dear. Your black silk will do nicely, with bright ribbons, especially; I hope you haven't got it spotted or anything on the way over." She did not allow Lydia to answer, nor seem to expect it. "You've got your mother's eyes, Lydia, but your father had those straight eyebrows: you're very much like him. Poor Henry! And now I'm having you get something to eat. I'm not going to risk coffee on you, for fear it will keep you awake; though you can drink it in this climate with comparative impunity. Veronica is warming you a bowl of bouillon, and that's all you're to have till breakfast!"

"Why, aunt Josephine," said the girl, not knowing what bouillon was, and abashed by the sound of it, "I'm not the least hungry. You oughtn't to take the trouble—"

"You'll be hungry when you begin to eat. I'm so impatient to hear about your voyage! I am going to introduce you to some very nice people, here,—English people. There are no Americans living in Venice; and the Americans in Europe are so queer! You've no idea how droll our customs seem here; and I much prefer the English. Your poor uncle can never get me to ask Americans. I tell him I'm American enough, and he'll have to get on without others. Of course, he's perfectly delighted to get at you. You've quite taken him by storm, Lydia; he's in raptures about your looks. It's what I told him before you came; but I couldn't believe it till I took a look at you. I couldn't have gone to sleep without it. Did Mr. Erwin talk much with you?"

"He was very pleasant. He talked—as long as he was awake," said Lydia.

"I suppose he was trying to pick up Americanisms from you; he's always doing it. I keep him away from Americans as much as I can: but he will get at them on the cars and at the hotels. He's always asking them such ridiculous questions, and I know some of them just talk nonsense to him."

Veronica came in with a tray, and a bowl of bouillon on it; and Mrs. Erwin pulled up a light table, and slid about, serving her, in her cabalistic dress, like an Oriental sorceress performing her incantations. She volubly watched Lydia while she ate her supper, and at the end she kissed her again. "Now you feel better," she said. "I knew it would cheer you up more than any one thing. There's nothing like something to eat when you're homesick. I found that out when I was off at school."

Lydia was hardly kissed so much at home during a year as she had been since meeting Mrs. Erwin. Her aunt Maria sparely embraced her when she went and came each week from the Mill Village; anything more than this would have come of insincerity between them; but it had been agreed that Mrs. Erwin's demonstrations of affection, of which she had been lavish during her visit to South Bradfield, might not be so false. Lydia accepted them submissively, and she said, when Veronica returned for the tray, "I hate to give you so much trouble. And sending her all the way to Trieste on my account,—I felt ashamed. There wasn' a thing for her to do."

"Why, of course not!" exclaimed her aunt. "But what did you think I was made of? Did you suppose I was going to have you come on a night-journey alone with your uncle? It would have been all over Venice; it would have been ridiculous. I sent Veronica along for a dragon."

"A dragon? I don't understand," faltered Lydia.

"Well, you will," said her aunt, putting the palms of her hands against Lydia's, and so pressing forward to kiss her. "We shall have breakfast at ten. Go to bed!"

William Dean Howells

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