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My Friend the Chauffeur By A. M. Williamson Characters: 20788

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

"Never since Anne Boleyn has a woman so lost her head over a man with a title as Mamma over Prince Dalmar-Kalm," said Beechy, after our week at Venice was half spent. And I wished that, in fair exchange, he would lose his over Aunt Kathryn instead of wasting time on me, and casting his shadow on beautiful days.

Roses and lilies appeared on my writing-desk; they were from him. Specimens of Venetian sweets (crystallized fruits stuck on sticks, like fat martyrs) adorned large platters on the table by the window-gifts from the Prince. If I admired the little gargoylish sea-horses, or the foolish shell ornaments at the Lido, I was sure to find some when I came home. And the man hinted in whispers that the attentions of the Comte and Contessa were for me.

All this was annoying though he put it on the grounds of friendship; and I didn't like the Corraminis, although their influence opened doors that would otherwise have been closed. Through them we saw the Comte de Bardi's wonderful Japanese collection of the Palazzo Vendramin, the finest in the world; through them we had glimpses of the treasures in more than one old palace; they gave us a picnic dinner in their lighted gondola, on the lagoon, with many elaborate courses cooked in chafing-dishes, which the gondoliers served. They took us to Chioggia on their steam yacht which-it seemed-they must let half the year to afford the use of it the other half.

The "County" (as Aunt Kathryn pronounces him) must have been handsome before his good looks were ravaged by smallpox. As it is, Beechy compares his dark face to a "plum cake, from which somebody has picked out all the plums;" and the black eyes, deep set in this scarred mask, gaze out of it with sinister effect. Yet his manner is perfect, witty, and gracious. He speaks English fluently, and might be of any age between thirty-five and fifty. As for the Contessa, she has the profile of a Boadicea (with which I could never feel thoroughly at home if it were mine) and the walk of a bewitched table, so stout she is, and so square. Her principal efforts at conversation with me were in praise of Prince Dalmar-Kalm, so I scarcely appreciated them. Indeed, the Corraminis repelled me, and I was glad to spare all their distinguished society to Aunt Kathryn.

Each day in Venice (not counting the hours spent with them and the Prince) was more wonderful, it seemed, than the day before.

First among my pictures was San Marco, which I went out to see alone early in the morning, but met Mr. Barrymore as I inquired my way. I could have wished for that, though I wouldn't have dreamed of asking him to take me. As we went through the narrow streets of charming shops, we played at not thinking of what was to come. Then, Mr. Barrymore said suddenly, "Now you may look." So I did look, and there it was, the wonder of wonders, more like a stupendous crown of jewels than a church. Like a queen's diadem, it gleamed in the grey-white Piazza, under the burning azure dome of the sky.

"Oh, we've found the key of the rainbow, and come close to it!" I cried. "What a marvel! Can human beings really have made it, or did it make itself as gems form in the rocks, and coral under the sea?"

"The cornice does look as if it were the spray of the sea, tossing up precious stones from buried treasures beneath the waves," he answered. "But you're right. We've got the key of the rainbow, and we can go in."

I walked beside him, awe-struck, as if I were passing under a spell. There could be no other building so beautiful in the world, and it was harder than ever to realize that man had created it. The golden mosaic of the domed roof, arching above the purple-brown of the alabaster walls, was like sunrise boiling over the massed clouds of a dark horizon. Light seemed generated by the glitter of that mosaic; and the small white windows of the dome gained such luminous blues and pale gold glints, from sky without and opal gleams within, that they were changed to stars. The pavement was opaline, too, with a thousand elusive tints and jewelled colours, waving like the sea. It was all I could do not to touch Mr. Barrymore's arm or hand for sympathy.

We didn't speak as we passed out. I was almost glad when the spell was broken by the striking of the great, blue clock opposite San Marco, and the slow procession of the life-size mechanical figures which only open their secret door on fête days, such as this chanced to be.

Watching the stiff saints go through their genuflexions put me in a good mood for an introduction to the pigeons, which I longed to have for friends-strange little stately ruffling things, almost as mechanical in their strut as the figures of the clock; so metallic, too, in their lustre, that I could have believed them made of painted iron.

Some wore short grey Eton jackets, with white blouses showing behind; these were the ladies, and their faces were as different as possible from those of their lovers. So were the dainty little coral feet, for alas! the masculine shoes were the pinker and prettier; and the males, even the baby ones, were absurdly like English judges in wigs and gowns.

It was charming to watch the developments of pigeon love-stories on that blue-and-gold day, which was my first in the Grand Piazza of San Marco. How the lady would patter away, and pretend she didn't know that a rising young judge had his eye upon her! But she would pause and feign to examine a grain of corn, which I or some one else had thrown, just long enough to give him a chance of preening his feathers before her, spreading out his tail, and generally cataloguing his perfections. She would pretend that this demonstration had no effect upon her heart, that she'd seen a dozen pigeons within an hour handsomer than he; but the instant a rival belle chanced (only it wasn't chance really) to hop that way and offer outrageous inducements to flirtation, she decided that, after all, he was worth having-and, alas! sometimes decided too late.

That same afternoon Mr. Barrymore took me to the little church of San Giorgio degli Schiavoni to see the exquisite Carpaccios, because he was of opinion that Aunt Kathryn and Beechy would prefer to go shopping. Yet, after all, who should appear there but Beechy and Sir Ralph!

Beechy thought the dragon a delightful beast, with a remarkable eye for the picturesque, judging from the way in which he had arranged the remains of his victims; and she was sorry for him, dragged into the market-place, so pitifully shrunken, beaten, and mortified was he. She wanted to live in all the medi?val castles of the picture-backgrounds, and was of opinion that the basilisk's real intentions had been misunderstood by the general public of his day. "I should love to have such a comic, trotty beast to lead about in Central Park," said she. "Why the octopi that the people cook and sell in the streets here now, are ever so much horrider. One might run away from them, if you like. Loathsome creatures! I do draw the line at an animal whose face you can't tell from its-er-waist. And only think of eating them! I'd a good deal rather eat a basilisk."

Beechy was also convinced-before she crossed the Bridge of Sighs-that many people, especially Americans, would pay large sums or even commit crimes, in order to be put in prison at Venice. "Such a lovely situation," she argued, "and lots of historical associations too." But afterwards, when she had seen where Marino Faliero lay, and the young Foscari, she was inclined to change her mind. "Still," she said, "it would be an experience; and if you couldn't afford to stop at a hotel, it might be worth trying, if you didn't have to do anything very bad, and were sure of getting a cell on the canal."

Neither Beechy nor Aunt Kathryn cared much for the churches or the pictures, so they and Sir Ralph bargained for Venetian point or the lace of Burano, or went to the glass makers', or had tea at the Lido with the Corraminis, while Mr. Barrymore took me to the Frari, the Miracoli, and other churches that he loved best, or wandered with me among the glorious company of artists at the Accademia, and in the Doges' Palace. But Beechy did join in my admiration and respect (mingled with a kind of wondering pity) for the noble army of marble lions in Venice.

Oh, those poor, splendid lions! How sad they look, how bitter is the expression of their ponderous faces. Especially am I haunted by the left-hand lion in the Piazza degli Lioni, hard by San Marco. What can have happened to him, that he should be so despairing? Whatever it was, he has never got over it, but has concentrated his whole being in one, eight-century-long howl ever since. He is the most impressive of the tribe; but there are many others, big and little, all gloomy, sitting about in Piazzas, or exposed for sale in shops, or squatting on the railings of balconies. When I think of that fair city in the sea, I shall often want to run back and try to comfort some of those lions.

Beechy was with me in this; and as for Aunt Kathryn, even the flattering attentions of the Corraminis did not please her more than our experience at the antiquaries', which we owed to Mr. Barrymore.

We hadn't been in Venice for twenty-four hours before we saw that the Chauffeulier knew the place almost as if he had been born there. He was even well up in the queer, soft Venetian patois, with hardly a consonant left in it, so well up that he announced himself capable of bandying words and measuring swords with the curiosity-shop keepers, if we liked to "collect anything."

At first Aunt Kathryn thought that she wouldn't bother; there would be too much trouble with the custom house at home; but, when Beechy happened to say what a rare thing a marble well-head or a garden statue five hundred years old would be considered in Denver, she weakened, and fell.

The idea popped into Beechy's head just as our gondola (it was towards the end of our week in Venice) was gliding by a beautiful, shabby old palace in a side canal.

A canopy of grape-vines, heavy with hanging clusters of emeralds and here and there an amethyst, shadowed a carved water-gate. Under the jade-green water gleamed the yellow marble of the steps, waving with seaweed like mermaids' hair; and in the dim interior behind the open doors there were vague gleams of gilded chairs,

pale glints of statuary, and rich streaks of colour made by priests' vestments or old altar hangings.

"I don't believe even Mrs. Potter Adriance has got anything like this in her house, though they call it so elegant," remarked Beechy.

That speech was to Aunt Kathryn what valerian is to a pussy cat; for Mrs. Potter Adriance (as I've often heard since I made acquaintance with my relations) is the leader of Denver society, and is supposed once to have said with a certain emphasis: "Who are the Kidders?"

"Perhaps I'll just step in and see what they've got here," said Aunt Kathryn.

"It isn't a cheap place," replied Mr. Barrymore. "This man knows how to charge. If you want any marbles, he has some fine ones; but for other things I'll take you somewhere else, where I promise you shall be amused and not cheated."

"I think our yard at home is big enough for two or three statues; and a marble well-head and a sundial would be lovely," exclaimed Aunt Kathryn.

"We'll look at some," said Mr. Barrymore, motioning to the gondolier. "But now, unless you're to pay six times what everything's worth, you must put yourselves in my hands. Remember, you don't care to glance either at statues, well-heads, or sun-dials."

"But that's what we're here for!" cried Aunt Kathryn.

"Ah, but the man mustn't guess that for the world! We appear to be searching for-let's say, mirrors; but not finding the kind we want, we may deign to look at a few marbles as we pass. We don't fancy the fellow's stock; still, the things aren't bad; we may decide to save ourselves the trouble of going further. Whatever you do, don't mention a price, even in English. Appear bored and indifferent, never pleased or anxious. When I ask if you're willing to pay so and so, drawl out 'no' or 'yes' without the slightest change of expression."

As we landed on the wet marble steps and passed into the region of gilded gleams and pearly glints, our hearts began to beat with suppressed excitement, as if we were secret plotters, scheming to carry through some nefarious design.

Immediately on entering, I caught sight of two marble baby lions sitting on their haunches side by side on the floor with ferocious expressions on their little carved faces.

"I must have those for myself," I murmured to Mr. Barrymore in a painfully monotonous voice, as we passed along a narrow aisle between groves of magnificent antique furniture. "They appeal to me. Fate means us for each other."

But at this moment an agreeable and well-dressed Italian was bowing before us. He was the proprietor of the antiques, and he looked more like a philanthropic millionaire than a person with whom we could haggle over prices. Without glancing at my lions (I knew they were mine; and wanted them to know it) or Aunt Kathryn's statues and well-heads, Mr. Barrymore announced that he would glance about at paintings of old Venice. What had Signore Ripollo of that sort? Nothing at present? Dear me, what a pity! Lacquered Japanese temples, then? What, none of those? Very disappointing. Well, we must be going. Hm! not a bad well-head, that one with the procession of the Bucentaur in bas relief. Too obviously repaired; still, if Signore Ripollo would take three hundred lire for it, the thing might be worth picking up. And that little pair of lions. Perhaps the ladies might think them good enough to keep a door open with, if they didn't exceed fifteen lire each.

Signore Ripollo looked shocked, but laughed politely. He knew Mr. Barrymore, and had greeted him on our entrance as an old acquaintance, though, in his exaggerated Italian way, he gave the Chauffeulier a title more exalted than Beechy had bestowed.

"Milord will always have his joke; the well-head is two thousand lire; the lions fifty each," I thought I understood him to remark.

But not at all. Milord was not joking. Would the Signore sell the things for the price mentioned-yes or no?

The philanthropic millionaire showed now that he was hurt. Why did not Milord ask him to give away the whole contents of his shop?

After this the argument began to move at express speed, and I would have lost track of everything had it not been for the gestures, like danger signals, all along the way. Mr. Barrymore laughed; Signore Ripollo passed from injured dignity to indignation, then to passion; and there we sat on early Renaissance chairs, our outward selves icily regular, splendidly null, our features as hard as those of the stone lions, our bodies in much the same attitudes, on our uncomfortable seats. But inwardly we felt like Torturers of the Inquisition, and I knew by Aunt Kathryn's breathing that she could hardly help exclaiming, "Oh, do pay the poor man whatever he asks for everything."

"Will you give five hundred lire for the well-head?" Mr. Barrymore finally demanded, with a reminder of past warnings in his eye.

"Yes," answered Aunt Kathryn languidly, her hands clenched under a lace boa.

"And will you give twenty lire each for the lions? They are very good." (This to me, drawlingly.)

"Ye-es," I returned, without moving a muscle.

The offers were submitted to Signore Ripollo, who received them with princely scorn, as I had felt sure he would, and my heart sank as I saw my lions vanishing in the smoke of his just wrath.

"Come, we will go; the Signore is not reasonable," said Mr. Barrymore.

We all rose obediently, but our anguish was almost past hiding.

"I can't and won't live without the lions," I remarked in the tone of one who says it is a fine day.

"I will not leave this place without that well-head, the statue of Neptune, and the yellow marble sundial," said Aunt Kathryn in a casual tone which masked a breaking heart.

Nevertheless, Mr. Barrymore continued to lead us towards the door. He bowed to Signore Ripollo; and by this time we were at the steps of the water-gate. The gondoliers were ready. Driven to desperation we were about to protest, when the Italian, with the air of a falsely accused Doge haled to execution, stopped us. "Have your way, milord, as you always do," he groaned. "I paid twice more for these beautiful things than you give me, but-so be it. They are yours."

True to our instructions we dared not betray our feelings; but when the business had actually been arranged, and our gondola had borne us away from the much-injured antiquary, Aunt Kathryn broke out at the Chauffeulier.

"How could you?" she exclaimed. "I never was so sick in my life. That poor man! You've made us rob him. I shall never be able to hold up my head again."

"On the contrary, he's delighted," said Mr. Barrymore jauntily. "If we'd given him what he asked he would have despised us. Now we've earned his respect."

"Well, I never!" gasped Aunt Kathryn inelegantly, forgetful for the moment that she was a Countess. "I suppose I can be happy, then?"

"You can, without a qualm," said Mr. Barrymore.

"Where's that other place you spoke of?" she inquired, half-ashamed. "There's a-a kind of excitement in this sort of thing, isn't there? I feel as if it might grow on me."

"We'll go to Beppo's," replied the Chauffeulier, laughing.

Beppo was a very different man from Signore Ripollo, nor had he a palace with a water-gate to show his wares. We left the gondola, and walked up a dark and narrow rioterrà with coquettish, black-shawled grisettes chatting at glowing fruit-stalls and macaroni shops. There, at a barred iron door, Mr. Barrymore pulled a rope which rang a jangling bell. After a long interval, a little, bent old man in a shabby coat and patched trousers appeared against a background of mysterious brown shadow. Into this shadow we plunged, following him, to be led through a labyrinth of queer passages and up dark stairways to the top of the old, old house. There, in the strangest room I ever saw, we were greeted by a small brown woman, as shabby as her husband, and a supernaturally clever black cat.

A grated window set high up and deep in the discoloured wall, allowed a few rays of yellow sunlight to fall revealingly upon a motley collection of antiquities. Empire chairs were piled upon Louis Quinze writing-desks. Tables of every known period formed a leaning tower in one corner. Rich Persian rugs draped huge Florentine mirrors; priests' vestments trailed from half-open chests of drawers. Brass candlesticks and old Venetian glass were huddled away in inlaid cabinets, and half-hidden with old illuminated breviaries and pinned rolls of lace.

A kind of madness seized Aunt Kathryn. She must have thought of Mrs. Potter Adriance, for suddenly she wanted everything she saw, and said so, sotto voce, to Mr. Barrymore.

Then the bargaining began. And there was nothing Dog-like about Beppo. He laughed high-keyed, sardonic laughter; he scolded, he quavered, he pleaded, he was finally choked with sobs; while as for his wife, she, poor little wisplike body, early succumbed to whatever is Venetian for nervous prostration.

Surely the Chauffeulier could not bear the strain of this agonizing scene? Our consciences heavy with brass candlesticks and Marquise sofas, we stood looking on, appalled at his callousness. Beppo and Susanna cried weakly that this would be their ruin, that we were wringing the last drops of blood from their hearts, we cruel rich ones, and in common humanity I would have intervened had the pair not suddenly and unexpectedly wreathed their withered countenances with smiles.

"What has happened? Are you giving them what they wanted?" I asked breathlessly; for long ago I had lost track of the conversation.

"No; I promised them twenty lire over my first offer for that whole lot," said Mr. Barrymore, indicating a heap of miscellaneous articles reaching half-way to the ceiling, for which, altogether, Beppo had demanded two thousand lire, and our offer had been seven hundred.

I could have prayed the poor old peoples' forgiveness, but to my astonishment, as we went out they beamed with pleasure and thanked us ardently for our generosity.

"Is it sarcasm?" I whispered.

"No, it's pure delight," said Mr. Barrymore. "They've done the best day's work of the season, and they don't mind our knowing it-now it's over."

"Human nature is strange," I reflected.

"Especially in antiquarians," he replied.

But we arrived at the hotel feeling weak, and were thankful for tea.

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