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My Friend the Chauffeur By A. M. Williamson Characters: 22626

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

"Nobody can ever quite know Venice who goes by rail from Padua," said the Chauffeulier to me, when we had started in the car. "The sixteen miles of road between the two places is a link in Venetian history, and you'll understand what I mean without any explanation as you pass along."

This made me post my wits at the windows of my eyes, and tell them not to dare sleep for an instant, lest I should disappoint expectations. But, after all, the meaning I had to understand was not subtle, though it was interesting.

The way was practically one long street of time-worn palaces and handsome villas which had once been the summer retreats of the rich Venetians; and I guessed it without being told. I guessed, too, that the owners came no more or seldom; that they were not so rich as they had been, or that, because of railways and automobiles, it was easier and more amusing to go further afield. But what I didn't know without telling was that the proprietors had been accustomed, in the good old leisurely days, to step into their gondolas in front of their own palaces in Venice and come up the Brenta to their summer homes without setting foot to ground.

If I hadn't been told, too, that the Brenta was a river big in Venetian history if not in size, I should have taken it for one of my favourite canals, with its slow traffic of lazy barges, and its hundred canals crossing it with long green arms that stretched north and south to the horizon. But at Stra I must have respected it in any case; and it was near Stra, also, that we passed the most important palace of any on that strange, flat road. The very garden wall told that here was a house which must have loomed large in historic eyes, and through magnificent gateways we caught flashing glimpses of a noble building in a neglected park.

"It belonged to the Pisani, a famous family of Venice," said the Chauffeulier as we sailed by. "But Napoleon took it-as he took so many other good things in this part of the world-and gave it to his stepson Eugène Beauharnais."

"I've never thought about Napoleon in connection with Venice, somehow," I said.

"But you will, when your gondola takes you under the huge palace where he lived," he answered.

"Talking of gondolas, I forgot to tell you what a nice plan the Prince has for us," said Aunt Kathryn, with the air of breaking news. "As soon as I mentioned at what time you had arranged to leave Padua, he said he would telegraph to some dear friends of his at Venice, the Conte and Contessa Corramini, to send their beautiful gondola to meet us at Mestre (wherever that is) so that we needn't go into Venice by train across the bridge. Isn't that lovely of him?"

No one would have answered if it hadn't been for Mr. Barrymore. He said that it was a very good plan indeed, and would be pleasanter for us than the one he had made, which he'd meant for a surprise. He had telegraphed from Padua to the Hotel Britannia, where we would stay, ordering gondolas to the tram-way station in Mestre to save our sneaking into Venice by the back-door. Now those gondolas would do very well for our luggage, while the party of five made the journey more luxuriously.

"Party of six, you mean, unless the Prince has had an accident," amended Beechy.

"No; for I shan't be with you. I must drive the car to the garage at Mestre, and see that she's all right. Moray'll be with you to arrange everything at the Britannia, which you'll find one of the nicest places in the world, and I'll come when I can. Now, here's the turning for Mestre, and you must look for something interesting on the sky-line to the right, before long."

I couldn't help being disappointed, because I'd wanted the Chauffeulier to be with us when I saw Venice first; but I couldn't say that; and I'm afraid he thought, as everybody was silent, that nobody cared.

There was nothing to show the turning to Mestre, except a small tablet that we might easily have missed; and the road was laughably narrow, running along a causeway with a deep ditch on either hand. Aunt Kathryn was so afraid that a horse would come round one of the sharp bends walking on its hind legs, that she was miserable, but I trusted Mr. Barrymore and enjoyed the country-real country now, with no more palaces, villas, or beautiful arcaded farmhouses.

The distance was hidden by long, waving grasses, over which the blue line of the Corinthian Alps seemed to hover like a cloud. There was a pungent smell of salt and of seaweed in the air, that meant the nearness of the lagoon-and Venice. Then, suddenly, the "something" Mr. Barrymore had told us to look for, grew out of the horizon-dim and mysterious, yet not to be mistaken; hyacinth-blue streaks that were pinnacles and campanili, bubbles that were domes, floating between the gold of the sunset and the grey-green of the tall grass, for no water was visible yet.

"Venice!" I whispered; but though Beechy and Aunt Kathryn each cried: "Oh, there it is! I saw it first!" they were so absorbed in a discussion as to what the Prince's friends ought to be called, and they soon lost interest in the vision.

"Conte! It's like Condy's Fluid!" said Beechy. "I won't call him 'Conte.' I should laugh in his face. If plain Count isn't good enough for him, and Countess for her, I shall just say 'You'-so there!"

Soon we saw a great star-shaped fortress as we ran into a town, which was Mestre; and at the same time we lost shadow-Venice. Passing a charming villa set back behind an avenue of cypresses and plane trees that gave an effect of dappling moonlight even in full day, some one in the tall gateway waved his hand.

"By Jove, it's Leo Bari, the artist!" exclaimed Sir Ralph. "I forgot his people lived here. I know him well; he comes to the Riviera to paint. Do slow down, Terry."

So "Terry" slowed down, and a handsome, slim young man ran up, greeting Sir Ralph gaily in English. He was introduced to us, and his sister, a lovely Italian girl with Titian hair, was invited to leave the becoming background of the gateway to make our acquaintance.

They were interested in the details of our tour, especially when they heard that, after a week in Venice, we were going into Dalmatia.

"Why, I'm going down to Ragusa to paint," said he. "I've been before, but this time I take my sister Beatrice. She paints too. We go by the Austrian Lloyd to-morrow. Perhaps we see you there?"

"Have you ever been down as far as Cattaro?" asked Aunt Kathryn, from whose tongue the names of Dalmatian towns fall trippingly, since she "acquired" a castle and a title there.

"Oh, yes, and to Montenegro," replied the artist.

"And do you remember the houses of the neighbourhood?" went on Aunt Kathryn.

"It is already but two years I was there, so a house would have to be young for me not to remember," replied the young man, unconscious of the funny little twist of his English.

"I am thinking of a very old house; Slosh-er-the Castle of Hrvoya. Have you seen it?"

"Ah, that old ruin!" exclaimed the artist. "I seen it, yes. But there is not more much Schloss Hrvoya to see, only the rock for it to stand."

Poor Aunt Kathryn! I was sorry for her. But she bore the blow well, and, after all, it's the title, not the castle for which she cares most-that, and the right to smear everything with crowns.

"Perhaps I'll ask you to paint Hrvoya for me some day," she said. But afterwards, when we had bidden the handsome brother and sister au revoir, she remarked that she was afraid Mr. Bari hadn't an artistic eye.

The good-byes said, we swept through the picturesque town to make up for lost time, and presently encountered a little electric tram running seaward on a causeway. We followed over a grass-grown road, and suddenly found Venice again, so near that we could actually distinguish one building from another. Beyond a broad stretch of water the dream city floated on the sea.

"Look; I did this for you, so that you would go into Venice in a way worthy of yourself," the Prince murmured in my ear, when the car had stopped, joining his which was waiting. He waved his hand towards a wonderful gondola, with a gesture such as Aladdin's Genie might have used to indicate the magic palace. The glossy black coat of the swan-like thing brought out the full value of the rich gold ornaments. A long piece of drapery trailed into the water behind, and two gondoliers, like bronze statues dressed in dark blue, crimson, and white, stood up tall and erect against a background of golden sea and sky.

They helped us in, hat in hand; and not the Chauffeulier's absence nor the Prince's presence could spoil for me the experience that followed.

Sunk deep in springy cushions, I half sat, half lay, while the bronze statues swayed against the gold, softly plying their long oars, and wafting me-me-to Venice.

I felt as if I were moving from the wings of a vast theatre onto the stage to play a heroine's part. Evening bells, chanting a paen to the sunset, floated across the wide water faint as spirit-chimes, and they were the leitmotif for my entrance.

"What a shame to be in motoring things!" I said to Beechy. "Women should have special gondola dresses; I see that already-a different one each day. I should like to have a deep crimson gown and a pale green one-lilac too, perhaps, and sunrise-pink, all made picturesquely, not in any stiff modern way."

"The costume of your Sisterhood would be pretty in a gondola," Beechy answered. And again that coldness fell upon me which I always feel at a reminder, intentional or unintentional, of the future. But the chill was gone in a moment-lost in the luminous air, which had a strange brilliancy, as if reflected from a stupendous mirror. I had never seen anything even remotely resembling it before. It was as though we were living inside a great opal, like flies in amber. And it seemed that in a world so wonderful everything one did, or looked, or thought, ought to be wonderful too, lest it should be out of tune with all surrounding beauty.

Sea and sky were of one colour, except that the sea appeared to be on fire underneath its glassy surface. The violet sky was strewn with blown rose-petals and golden feathers; the tiny waves were of violet ruffled with rose and gold, and spattered with jewelled sparks which might be flashes from a Doge's vanished ring.

In the distance, sails of big ships were beaten into gold leaf by the sinking sun; and nearer, there were other sails bright as flowers-a sea picture-gallery of Madonnas, of arrow-wounded hearts, of martyred saints, or bright-robed earthly ladies.

We were rowing straight into the sunset, straight into fairy-land, and I knew it; but-what would happen when the rose-and-golden glory had swallowed us up?

The sparkle of the water and air got into my blood, and I felt that it must be sparkling too, like champagne. I was more alive than I had ever been when I was on earth; for of course this was not earth-this Venice to which I was going.

No other road but this water-road could have consoled me for the thought that there would be no more motoring for a week. And clearly it was a road of which it was necessary for the gondoliers to know every oar-length; for it was defined by stakes, standing up out of the lago

on singly, or gathered into clusters like giant bunches of asparagus.

Turning my back to the arched railway bridge, which accompanied us too far, I looked only at sky and water, and at Venice rising from the sea.

The tide was running out, the Prince said (among other chatterings, while I wished everybody woven in a magic spell of silence) and the gondola made swift progress, rocking lightly like a shell, over the bright ripples of the lagoon.

The nearer we drew to Venice the more like a vision of enchantment did the city seem. Not a sound came to us, for the music of the bells had died. All was still as in a dream-for in dreams, does one ever hear a sound? I think I never have. And now the gold had faded from the clouds, leaving them pink and violet, transparent as gauze, through which the rising moon sifted silver dust. How could the others talk? I did not understand.

Aunt Kathryn was saying, "If I hire a gondolier, I want to get a singer." As if he were a sewing-machine, or a canary-bird! And Beechy was complaining that she felt "very funny;" she believed the motion of the gondola was making her seasick, just as she used to be in her cradle, when she was too young to protest except by a howl.

It was a relief to my feelings when we turned out of the wide lagoon into a canal, for then they did at least speak of the scene around them, asking questions about the tall palaces that walled us in; who lived here; who lived there; what was the name or history of that?

The odour of seaweed was more pungent, and there was a smell of water mingling with it too; something like fresh cucumbers, and the roots of flowers when they have just been pulled out of the earth. I could not have believed that water could have such clearness and at the same time hold so many colours, as the water in this, my first canal of Venice. It was like a greenish mirror, full of lights, and wavering reflected tints from the crumbling palaces whose old bricks, mellow pink, gold, and purple, showed like veins through the skin of peeling stucco. Down underneath the shining mirror, one could see the old marble steps, leading up to the shut mystery of water gates. There were shimmering gleams of pearly white and ivory yellow, under beardy trails of moss old as the marble out of which it grew. And over high walls, delicate branches of acacia and tamarisk beckoned us, above low-hung drapery of wistaria, that dropped purple tassels to the lapping water's edge.

So we wound through one narrow, palace-walled Rio after another, until Venice began to seem like a jewelled net, with its carved precious stones intricately strung on threads of silver; and then suddenly, to my surprise, we burst into a great canal.

I saw a bridge, which I knew from many pictures must be the Rialto, but there was no disappointment, no flatness in the impression of having seen this all before, for not the greatest genius who ever lived could paint Venice at her every day best. Palace after palace; and by-and-by a church with a front carved in ivory by the growing moonlight, thrown up against a background of rose.

"Palladio, it must be!" I cried.

"Yes; it's San Georgio Maggiore, Terry Barrymore's favourite church in Venice," said Sir Ralph, who had been almost as silent as I. "And here we are at the Hotel Britannia."

"Why, it has a garden!" exclaimed Aunt Kathryn. "I never thought of a garden in Venice."

"There are several of the loveliest in Italy," replied Sir Ralph. "But the Britannia's the only hotel that has one."

"My friend's palazzo has a courtyard garden with a wonderful old marble well-head, and beautiful statues," said the Prince. "He and his wife are coming to call on you to-morrow, and you will have the opportunity of thanking them for their gondola. Also, they will probably invite you to leave the hotel, and visit them during the rest of your stay, as they are very hospitable."

"I'll wager you won't want to leave the Britannia, once you are settled there," said Sir Ralph quickly. "It's the most comfortable hotel in Venice, and Terry and I have wired for rooms with balconies overlooking the Grand Canal, and the garden. There isn't a palace going that I would forsake the Britannia for."

By this time the gondola had slipped between some tall red posts, and brought us to the steps of the hotel. I was glad that they were marble steps and that the house had once been a palace, otherwise I should not have felt I was making the most of Venice.

If I live to be a hundred (one of the Sisters is close on eighty) I shall never forget that first night in the City of the Sea


It was good to see Mr. Barrymore back again for dinner in the big red and gold, brightly frescoed dining-room; and it was he who suggested that we should have coffee in the garden, at a table on a balcony built over the water, and then go out in gondolas.

We hired three; and as there are only two absolutely delightful seats in a gondola, I was trembling lest the Prince should fall to my unlucky lot, when Aunt Kathryn called to him, "Oh, do sit with me, please. I want to ask about your friends who are coming to see us." So of course he went to her, and Sir Ralph jumped in with Beechy; therefore the Chauffeulier was obliged to be nice to me, whether he liked or not. We all kept close together, and soon the three gondolas, following many others, grouped round a lighted music-barge like a pyramid of illuminated fruit floating on the canal.

Either the voices were sweet, or they had the effect of being sweet in the moonlight on the water; but the airs they sang got strangely tangled with the songs in other barges, so that I longed to unwind one skein of tunes from another, and wasn't sorry to steal away into the silence at last


We were not the only ones who flitted. The black forms of gondolas moved soundlessly hither and thither on the surface of the dark lagoon, their single lights like stars in the blue darkness.

Far away twinkled the lamps of the Lido, where Byron and Shelley used to ride on the lonely sands. Near-by, on the Piazzetta where the twin columns towered against the silver sky, white bunches of lights glimmered like magic night-blooming flowers, with bright roots trailing deep down into the river.

We talked of the countless great ones of the world who had lived and died in Venice, and loved it well; of Byron, who slept in Marino Faliero's dreadful cell before he wrote his tragedy; of Browning, whose funeral had passed in solemn state of gondolas down the Grand Canal; of Wagner, who found inspiration in this sea and sky, and died looking upon them from his window in the Palazzo Vendramin. But through our talk I could hear Aunt Kathryn in her gondola close by, saying how like the Doge's palace was to a big bird-cage she once had; and the Prince was continually turning his head to see if we were near, which was disturbing. We had nothing to say that all the world might not have heard, yet instinctively we spoke almost in whispers, the Chauffeulier and I, not to miss a gurgle of the water nor the dip of an oar, which in the soft darkness made the light flutter of a bird bathing.

I remembered suddenly how Sir Ralph had said one day, "You'll like Terry in Venice." I did like Terry in Venice; and I liked him better than ever at the moment of our return to the hotel, for there began a little adventure of which he became the hero.

As I stepped out of the gondola there was a flash and a splash. "Oh my gold bag!" I exclaimed. "Your present, Aunt Kathryn. It's in the canal; I shall never see it again."

"Yes, you will," said Mr. Barrymore. "I-"

"If there was much money in it, you had better have a professional diver come early to-morrow morning from the Arsenal," the Prince broke in.

"I know an amateur diver who will get back the bag to-night-now, within the next half-hour I hope," went on the Chauffeulier.

"Indeed? Where do you propose to find him at this time?" asked the Prince.

"I shall find him inside the hotel, and have him out here, ready for work in ten minutes," said Mr. Barrymore.

"What fun!" exclaimed Beechy. "We'll wait here in the moonlight and see him dive. It will be lovely."

Mr. Barrymore was gone before she finished.

It was nearly eleven o'clock. The music-barges had gone; the hotel garden was deserted, and scarcely a moving star of light glided over the canal. Our three gondolas, drawn up like carriages at the marble steps of the Britannia, where the water lapped and gurgled, awaited the great event. The Prince pooh-poohed the idea that Mr. Barrymore could find a diver, or that, if he did, the bag could be retrieved in such an amateurish way. But I had learned that when our Chauffeulier said a thing could be done, it would be done, and I confidently expected to see him returning accompanied by some obviously aquatic creature.

What I did see however, was a great surprise. Something moved in the garden, under the curtain of creepers that draped the nearest overhanging balcony. Then a tall, marble statue, "come alive," vaulted over the iron railing and dropped into the lagoon.

It didn't seem at all strange that a marble statue should "come alive" in Venice; but what did seem odd was that it should exactly resemble Mr. Barrymore, feature for feature, inch for inch.

"Hullo, Terry, I didn't know you meant to do that!" exclaimed Sir Ralph. "You are a lightning change artist."

For it was the Chauffeulier, in a bathing suit which he must have hurriedly borrowed from one of the landlord's tall young sons, and he was swimming by the side of my gondola.

"I meant nothing else," laughed the statue in the water, the moon shining into his eyes and on his noble white throat as he swam. "Now, Miss Destrey, show me exactly how you stood when you dropped your bag, and I think I can promise that you shall have it again in a few minutes."

"If I'd dreamed of this I wouldn't have let you do it," I said.

"Why not? I'm awfully happy, and the water feels like warm silk. Is this where you dropped it? Look out for a little splash, please. I'm going down."

With that he disappeared under the canal, and stayed down so long that I began to be frightened. It seemed impossible that any human being could hold his breath for so many minutes; but just as my anxiety reached boiling point, up he came, dripping, laughing, his short hair in wet rings on his forehead, and in his hand, triumphantly held up, the gold bag.

"I knew where to grope for it, and I felt it almost the first thing," he said. "Please forgive my wet fingers."

"Why, there's something red on the gold. It's blood!" I stammered, forgetting to thank him.

"Is there? What a bore! But it's nothing. I grazed the skin of my hands a little, grubbing about among the stones down there, that's all."

"It's a great deal," I said. "I can't bear to think you've been hurt for me."

"Why, I don't even feel it," said the Chauffeulier. "It's the bag that suffers. But you can have it washed."

Yes, I could have it washed. Yet, somehow, it would seem almost sacrilegious. I made up my mind without saying a word, that I would not have the bag washed. I would keep it exactly as it was, put sacredly away in some box, in memory of this night.

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