Bianca by W. E. Norris
Not long since, I was one among a crowd of nobodies at a big official
reception in Paris when the Marchese and Marchesa di San Silvestro were
announced. There was a momentary hush; those about the doorway fell back
to let this distinguished couple pass, and some of us stood on tiptoe to
get a glimpse of them; for San Silvestro is a man of no small importance
in the political and diplomatic world, and his wife enjoys quite a
European fame for beauty and amiability, having had opportunities of
displaying both these attractive gifts at the several courts where she has
acted as Italian ambassadress. They made their way quickly up the long
room,—she short, rather sallow, inclined toward embonpoint, but with
eyes whose magnificence was rivalled only by that of her diamonds; he
bald-headed, fat, gray-haired, covered with orders,—and were soon
out of sight. I followed them with a sigh which caused my neighbour to ask
me jocosely whether the marchesa was an old flame of mine.
"Far from it," I answered. "Only the sight of her reminded me of bygone
days. Dear, dear me! how time does slip on! It is fifteen years since I
saw her last."
I moved away, looking down rather ruefully at the waistcoat to whose
circumference fifteen years have made no trifling addition, and wondering
whether I was really as much altered and aged in appearance as the
Fifteen years—it is no such very long time; and yet I dare say that
the persons principally concerned in the incident which I am about to
relate have given up thinking about it as completely as I had done, until
the sound of that lady's name, and the sight of her big black eyes,
recalled it to me, and set me thinking of the sunny spring afternoon on
which my sister Anne and I journeyed from Verona to Venice, and of her
naive exclamations of delight on finding herself in a real gondola,
gliding smoothly down the Grand Canal. My sister Anne is by some years my
senior. She is what might be called an old lady now, and she certainly was
an old maid then, and had long accepted her position as such. Then, as
now, she habitually wore a gray alpaca gown, a pair of gold-rimmed
spectacles, gloves a couple of sizes too large for her, and a shapeless,
broad-leaved straw hat, from which a blue veil was flung back and streamed
out in the breeze behind her, like a ship's ensign. Then, as now, she was
the simplest, the most kind-hearted, the most prejudiced of mortals; an
enthusiastic admirer of the arts, and given, as her own small contribution
thereto, to the production of endless water-colour landscapes, a trifle
woolly, indeed, as to outline, and somewhat faulty as to perspective, but
warm in colouring, and highly thought of in the family. I believe, in
fact, that it was chiefly with a view to the filling of her portfolio that
she had persuaded me to take her to Venice; and, as I am constitutionally
indolent, I was willing enough to spend a few weeks in the city which, of
all cities in the world, is the best adapted for lazy people. We engaged
rooms at Danielli's, and unpacked all our clothes, knowing that we were
not likely to make another move until the heat should drive us away.
The first few days, I remember, were not altogether full of enjoyment for
one of us. My excellent Anne, who has all her brother's virtues, without
his failings, would have scouted the notion of allowing any dread of
physical fatigue to stand between her and the churches and pictures which
she had come all the way from England to admire; and, as Venice was an old
haunt of mine, she very excusably expected me to act as cicerone to her,
and allowed me but little rest between the hours of breakfast and of the
table d'hote. At last, however, she conceived the modest and
felicitous idea of making a copy of Titian's "Assumption"; and, having
obtained the requisite permission for that purpose, set to work upon the
first of a long series of courageous attempts, all of which she
conscientiously destroyed when in a half-finished state. At that rate it
seemed likely that her days would be fully occupied for some weeks to
come; and I urged her to persevere, and not to allow herself to be
disheartened by a few brilliant failures; and so she hurried away, early
every morning, with her paint-box, her brushes, and her block, and I was
left free to smoke my cigarettes in peace, in front of my favourite cafe
on the Piazza San Marco.
I was sitting there one morning, watching, with half-closed eyes, the
pigeons circling overhead under a cloudless sky, and enjoying the fresh
salt breeze that came across the ruffled water from the Adriatic, when I
was accosted by one of the white-coated Austrian officers by whom Venice
was thronged in those days, and whom I presently recognised as a young
fellow named Von Rosenau, whom I had known slightly in Vienna the previous
winter. I returned his greeting cordially, for I always like to associate
as much as possible with foreigners when I am abroad, and little did I
foresee into what trouble this fair-haired, innocent-looking youth was
destined to lead me.
I asked him how he liked Venice, and he answered laughingly that he was
not there from choice. "I am in disgrace," he explained. "I am always in
disgrace, only this time it is rather worse than usual. Do you remember my
father, the general? No? Perhaps he was not in Vienna when you were there.
He is a soldier of the old school, and manages his family as they tell me
he used to manage his regiment in former years, boasting that he never
allowed a breach of discipline to pass unpunished, and never will. Last
year I exceeded my allowance, and the colonel got orders to stop my leave;
this year I borrowed from the Jews, the whole thing was found out, and I
was removed from the cavalry, and put into a Croat regiment under orders
for Venice. Next year will probably see me enrolled in the police; and so
it will go on, I suppose, till some fine morning I shall find myself
driving a two-horse yellow diligence in the wilds of Carinthia, and
blowing a horn to let the villagers know that the imperial and royal mail
After a little more conversation we separated, but only to meet again,
that same evening, on the Piazza San Marco, whither I had wandered to
listen to the band after dinner, and where I found Von Rosenau seated with
a number of his brother officers in front of the principal cafe. These
gentlemen, to whom I was presently introduced, were unanimous in
complaining of their present quarters. Venice, they said, might be all
very well for artists and travellers; but viewed as a garrison it was the
dullest of places. There were no amusements, there was no sport, and just
now no society; for the Italians were in one of their periodical fits of
sulks, and would not speak to, or look at, a German if they could possibly
avoid it. "They will not even show themselves when our band is playing,"
said one of the officers, pointing toward the well-nigh empty piazza. "As
for the ladies, it is reported that if one of them is seen speaking to an
Austrian, she is either assassinated or sent off to spend the rest of her
days in a convent. At all events, it is certain that we have none of us
any successes to boast of, except Von Rosenau, who has had an affair, they
say, only he is pleased to be very mysterious about it."
"Where does she live, Von Rosenau?" asked another. "Is she rich? Is she
noble? Has she a husband, who will stab you both? or only a mother, who
will send her to a nunnery, and let you go free? You might gratify our
curiosity a little. It would do you no harm, and it would give us
something to talk about."
"Bah! he will tell you nothing," cried a third. "He is afraid. He knows
that there are half a dozen of us who could cut him out in an hour."
"Von Rosenau," said a young ensign, solemnly, "you would do better to make
a clean breast of it. Concealment is useless. Janovicz saw you with her in
Santa Maria della Salute the other day, and could have followed her home
quite easily if he had been so inclined."
"They were seen together on the Lido, too. People who want to keep their
secrets ought not to be so imprudent."
"A good comrade ought to have no secrets from the regiment."
"Come, Von Rosenau, we will promise not to speak to her without your
permission if you will tell us how you managed to make her acquaintance."
The object of all these attacks received them with the most perfect
composure, continuing to smoke his cigar and gaze out seaward, without so
much as turning his head toward his questioners, to whom he vouchsafed no
reply whatever. Probably, as an ex-hussar and a sprig of nobility, he may
have held his head a little above those of his present brother officers,
and preferred disregarding their familiarity to resenting it, as he might
have done if it had come from men whom he considered on a footing of
equality with himself. Such, at least, was my impression; and it was
confirmed by the friendly advances which he made toward me, from that day
forth, and by the persistence with which he sought my society. I thought
he seemed to wish for some companion whose ideas had not been developed
exclusively in barrack atmosphere; and I, on my side, was not unwilling to
listen to the chatter of a lively, good-natured young fellow, at
intervals, during my long idle days.
It was at the end of a week, I think, or thereabouts, that he honoured me
with his full confidence. We had been sea-fishing in a small open boat
which he had purchased, and which he managed without assistance; that is
to say, that we had provided ourselves with what was requisite for the
pursuit of that engrossing sport, and that the young count had gone
through the form of dropping his line over the side and pulling it up,
baitless and fishless, from time to time, while I had dispensed with even
this shallow pretence of employment, and had stretched myself out full
length upon the cushions which I had thoughtfully brought with me,
inhaling the salt-laden breeze, and luxuriating in perfect inaction, till
such time as it had become necessary for us to think of returning
homeward. My companion had been sighing portentously every now and again
all through the afternoon, and had repeatedly given vent to a sound as
though he had been about to say something, and had as often checked
himself, and fallen back into silence. So that I was in a great measure
prepared for the disclosure that fell from him at length as we slipped
before the wind across the broad lagoon, toward the haze and blaze of
sunset which was glorifying the old city of the doges.
"Do you know," said he, suddenly, "that I am desperately in love?" I said
I had conjectured as much; and he seemed a good deal surprised at my
powers of divination. "Yes," he resumed, "I am in love; and with an
Italian lady too, unfortunately. Her name is Bianca,—the Signorina
Bianca Marinelli,—and she is the most divinely beautiful creature
the sun ever shone upon."
"That," said I, "is of course."
"It is the truth; and when you have seen her, you will acknowledge that I
do not exaggerate. I have known her nearly two months now. I became
acquainted with her accidentally—she dropped her handkerchief in a
shop, and I took it to her, and so we got to be upon speaking terms, and—and—But
I need not give you the whole history. We have discovered that we are all
the world to each other; we have sworn to remain faithful to each other
all our lives long; and we renew the oath whenever we meet. But that,
unhappily, is very seldom! for her father, the Marchese Marinelli,
scarcely ever lets her out of his sight; and he is a sour, narrow-minded
old fellow, as proud as he is poor, an intense hater of all Austrians; and
if he were to discover our attachment, I shudder to think of what the
consequences might be."
"And your own father—the stern old general of whom you told me—what
would he say to it all?"
"Oh, he, of course, would not hear of such a marriage for a moment. He
detests and despises the Venetians as cordially as the marchese abhors the
Tedeschi; and, as I am entirely dependent upon him, I should not
dream of saying a word to him about the matter until I was married, and
nothing could be done to separate me from Bianca."
"So that, upon the whole, you appear to stand a very fair chance of
starvation, if everything turns out according to your wishes. And pray, in
what way do you imagine that I can assist you toward this desirable end?
For I take it for granted that you have some reason for letting me into
Von Rosenau laughed good-humouredly.
"You form conclusions quickly," he said. "Well, I will confess to you that
I have thought lately that you might be of great service to me without
inconveniencing yourself much. The other day, when you did me the honour
to introduce me to your sister, I was very nearly telling her all. She has
such a kind countenance; and I felt sure that she would not refuse to let
my poor Bianca visit her sometimes. The old marchese, you see, would have
no objection to leaving his daughter for hours under the care of an
English lady; and I thought that perhaps when Miss Jenkinson went out to
work at her painting—I might come in."
"Fortunate indeed is it for you," I said, "that your confidence in the
kind countenance of my sister Anne did not carry you quite to the point of
divulging this precious scheme to her. I, who know her pretty well, can
tell you exactly the course she would have pursued if you had. Without one
moment's hesitation, she would have found out the address of the young
lady's father, hurried off thither, and told him all about it. Anne is a
thoroughly good creature; but she has little sympathy with love-making,
still less with surreptitious love-making, and she would as soon think of
accepting the part you are so good as to assign to her as of forging a
He sighed, and said he supposed, then, that they must continue to meet as
they had been in the habit of doing, but that it was rather
"It says something for your ingenuity that you contrive to meet at all," I
"Well, yes, there are considerable difficulties, because the old man's
movements are so uncertain; and there is some risk too, for, as you heard
the other day, we have been seen together. Moreover, I have been obliged
to tell everything to my servant Johann, who waylays the marchese's
housekeeper at market in the mornings, and finds out from her when and
where I can have an opportunity of meeting Bianca. I would rather not have
trusted him; but I could think of no other plan."
"At any rate, I should have thought you might have selected some more
retired rendezvous than the most frequented church in Venice."
He shrugged his shoulders. "I wish you would suggest one within reach," he
said. "There are no retired places in this accursed town. But, in fact, we
see each other very seldom. Often for days together the only way in which
I can get a glimpse of her is by loitering about in my boat in front of
her father's house, and watching till she shows herself at the window. We
are in her neighborhood now, and it is close upon the hour at which I can
generally calculate upon her appearing. Would you mind my making a short
detour that way before I set you down at your hotel?"
We had entered the Grand Canal while Von Rosenau had been relating his
love-tale, and some minutes before he had lowered his sail and taken to
the oars. He now slewed the boat's head round abruptly, and we shot into a
dark and narrow waterway, and so, after sundry twistings and turnings,
arrived before a grim, time-worn structure, so hemmed in by the
surrounding buildings that it seemed as if no ray of sunshine could ever
penetrate within its walls.
"That is the Palazzo Marinelli," said my companion. "The greater part of
it is let to different tenants. The family has long been much too poor to
inhabit the whole of it, and now the old man only reserves himself four
rooms on the third floor. Those are the windows, in the far corner; and
there—no!—yes!—there is Bianca."
I brought my eyeglass to bear upon the point indicated just in time to
catch sight of a female head, which was thrust out through the open window
for an instant, and then withdrawn with great celerity.
"Ah," sighed the count, "it is you who have driven her away. I ought to
have remembered that she would be frightened at seeing a stranger. And now
she will not show herself again, I fear. Come; I will take you home.
Confess now—is she not more beautiful than you expected?"
"My dear sir, I had hardly time to see whether she was a man or a woman;
but I am quite willing to take your word for it that there never was
anybody like her."
"If you would like to wait a little longer—half an hour or so—she
might put her head out again," said the young man, wistfully.
"Thank you very much; but my sister will be wondering why I do not come to
take her down to the table d'hote. And besides, I am not in love
myself, I may perhaps be excused for saying that I want my dinner."
"As you please," answered the count, looking the least bit in the world
affronted; and so he pulled back in silence to the steps of the hotel,
where we parted.
I don't know whether Von Rosenau felt aggrieved by my rather unsympathetic
reception of his confidence, or whether he thought it useless to discuss
his projects further with one who could not or would not assist him in
carrying them out; but although we continued to meet daily, as before, he
did not recur to the interesting subject, and it was not for me to take
the initiative in doing so. Curiosity, I confess, led me to direct my
gondolier more than once to the narrow canal over which the Palazzo
Martinelli towered; and on each occasion I was rewarded by descrying, from
the depths of the miniature mourning-coach which concealed me, the
faithful count, seated in his boat and waiting in patient faith, like
another Ritter Toggenburg, with his eyes fixed upon the corner window; but
of the lady I could see no sign. I was rather disappointed at first, as
day after day went by and my young friend showed no disposition to break
the silence in which he had chosen to wrap himself; for I had nothing to
do in Venice, and I thought it would have been rather amusing to watch the
progress of this incipient romance. By degrees, however, I ceased to
trouble myself about it; and at the end of a fortnight I had other things
to think of, in the shape of plans for the summer, my sister Anne having
by that time satisfied herself that, all things considered, Titian's
"Assumption" was a little too much for her.
It was Captain Janovicz who informed me casually one evening that Von
Rosenau was going away in a few days on leave, and that he would probably
be absent for a considerable time.
"For my own part," remarked my informant, "I shall be surprised if we see
him back in the regiment at all. He was only sent to us as a sort of
punishment for having been a naughty boy, and I suppose now he will be
forgiven, and restored to the hussars."
"So much for undying love," thinks I, with a cynical chuckle. "If there is
any gratitude in man, that young fellow ought to be showering blessings on
me for having refused to hold the noose for him to thrust his head into."
Alas! I knew not of what I was speaking. I had not yet heard the last of
Herr von Rosenau's entanglement, nor was I destined to escape from playing
my part in it. The very next morning, after breakfast, as I was poring
over a map of Switzerland, "Murray" on my right hand and "Bradshaw" on my
left, his card was brought to me, together with an urgent request that I
would see him immediately and alone; and before I had had time to send a
reply, he came clattering into the room, trailing his sabre behind him,
and dropped into the first arm-chair with a despairing self-abandonment
which shook the house to its foundations.
"Mr. Jenkinson," said he, "I am a ruined man!"
I answered rather drily that I was very sorry to hear it. If I must
confess the truth, I thought he had come to borrow money of me.
"A most cruel calamity has befallen me," he went on; "and unless you will
consent to help me out of it—"
"I am sure I shall be delighted to do anything in my power," I
interrupted, apprehensively; "but I am afraid—"
"You cannot refuse me till you have heard what I have to say. I am aware
that I have no claim whatever upon your kindness; but you are the only man
in the world who can save me, and, whereas the happiness of my whole life
is at stake, the utmost you can have to put up with will be a little
inconvenience. Now I will explain myself in as few words as possible,
because I have only a minute to spare. In fact, I ought to be out on the
ramparts at this moment. You have not forgotten what I told you about
myself and the Signorina Martinelli, and how we had agreed to seize the
first opportunity that offered to be privately married, and to escape over
the mountains to my father's house, and throw ourselves upon his mercy?"
"I don't remember your having mentioned any such plan."
"No matter—so it was. Well, everything seemed to have fallen out
most fortunately for us. I found out some time ago that the marchese would
be going over to Padua this evening on business, and would be absent at
least one whole day, and I immediately applied for my leave to begin
to-morrow. This I obtained at once through my father, who now expects me
to be with him in a few days, and little knows that I shall not come
alone. Johann and the marchese's housekeeper arranged the rest between
them. I was to meet my dear Bianca early in the morning on the Lido;
thence we were to go by boat to Mestre, where a carriage was to be in
waiting for us; and the same evening we were to be married by a priest, to
whom I have given due notice, at a place called Longarone. And so we
should have gone on, across the Ampezzo Pass homeward. Now would you
believe that all this has been defeated by a mere freak on the part of my
colonel? Only this morning, after it was much too late to make any
alteration in our plans, he told me that he should require me to be on
duty all to-day and to-morrow, and that my leave could not begin until the
next day. Is it not maddening? And the worst of it is that I have no means
of letting Bianca know of this, for I dare not send a message to the
palazzo, and there is no chance of my seeing her myself; and of course she
will go to the Lido to-morrow morning, and will find no one there. Now, my
dear Mr. Jenkinson—my good, kind friend—do you begin to see
what I want you to do for me?"
"Not in the very least."
"No? But it is evident enough. Now listen. You must meet Bianca to-morrow
morning; you explain to her what has happened; you take her in the boat,
which will be waiting for you, to Mestre; you proceed in the
travelling-carriage, which will also be waiting for you, to Longarone; you
see the priest, and appoint with him for the following evening; and the
next day I arrive, and you return to Venice. Is that clear?"
The volubility with which this programme was enunciated so took away my
breath that I scarcely realised its audacity.
"You will not refuse; I am sure you will not," said the count, rising and
hooking up his sword, as if about to depart.
"Stop, stop!" I exclaimed. "You don't consider what you are asking. I
can't elope with young women in this casual sort of way. I have a
character—and a sister. How am I to explain all this to my sister, I
should like to know?"
"Oh, make any excuse you can think of to her. Now, Mr. Jenkinson, you know
there cannot be any real difficulty in that. You consent then? A thousand,
thousand thanks! I will send you a few more instructions by letter this
evening. I really must not stay any longer now. Good-bye."
"Stop! Why can't your servant Johann do all this instead of me?"
"Because he is on duty like myself. Good-bye."
"Stop! Why can't you postpone your flight for a day? I don't so much mind
meeting the young lady and telling her all about it."
"Quite out of the question, my dear sir. It is perfectly possible that the
marchese may return from Padua to-morrow night, and what should we do
then? No, no; there is no help for it. Good-bye."
"Stop! Hi! Come back!"
But it was too late. My impetuous visitor was down the staircase and away
before I had descended a single flight in pursuit, and all I could do was
to return to my room and register a vow within my own heart that I would
have nothing to do with this preposterous scheme.
Looking back upon what followed across the interval of fifteen years, I
find that I can really give no satisfactory reason for my having failed to
adhere to this wise resolution. I had no particular feeling of friendship
for Von Rosenau; I did not care two straws about the Signorina Bianca,
whom I had never seen; and certainly I am not, nor ever was, the sort of
person who loves romantic adventures for their own sake. Perhaps it was
good-nature, perhaps it was only an indolent shrinking from disobliging
anybody, that influenced me—it does not much matter now. Whatever
the cause of my yielding may have been, I did yield. I prefer to pass over
in silence the doubts and hesitations which beset me for the remainder of
the day; the arrival, toward evening, of the piteous note from Von
Rosenau, which finally overcame my weak resistance to his will; and the
series of circumstantial false statements (I blush when I think of them)
by means of which I accounted to my sister for my proposed sudden
Suffice it to say that, very early on the following morning, there might
have been seen, pacing up and down the shore on the seaward side of the
Lido, and peering anxiously about him through an eyeglass, as if in search
of somebody or something, the figure of a tall, spare Englishman, clad in
a complete suit of shepherd's tartan, with a wide-awake on his head, a
leather bag slung by a strap across his shoulder, and a light coat over
his arm. Myself, in point of act, in the travelling-costume of the epoch.
I was kept waiting a long time—longer than I liked; for, as may be
supposed, I was most anxious to be well away from Venice before the rest
of the world was up and about; but at length there appeared, round the
corner of a long white wall which skirted the beach, a little lady,
thickly veiled, who, on catching sight of me, whisked round, and
incontinently vanished. This was so evidently the fair Bianca that I
followed her without hesitation, and almost ran into her arms as I swung
round the angle of the wall behind which she had retreated. She gave a
great start, stared at me, for an instant, like a startled fawn, and then
took to her heels and fled. It was rather ridiculous; but there was
nothing for me to do but to give chase. My legs are long, and I had soon
headed her round.
"I presume that I have the honour of addressing the Signorina Marinelli?"
I panted, in French, as I faced her, hat in hand.
She answered me by a piercing shriek, which left no room for doubt as to
"For the love of Heaven, don't do that!" I entreated, in an agony. "You
will alarm the whole neighbourhood and ruin us both. Believe me, I am only
here as your friend, and very much against my own wishes. I have come on
the part of Count Albrecht von Rosenau, who is unable to come himself,
Here she opened her mouth with so manifest an intention of raising another
resounding screech that I became desperate, and seized her by the wrists
in my anxiety. "Sgridi ancora una volta," says I, in the purest lingua
Toscana, "e la lascero qui—to get out of this mess as
best you can—cosi sicuro che il mio nome e Jenkinsono!"
To my great relief she began to laugh. Immediately afterward, however, she
sat down on the shingle and began to cry. It was too vexatious: what on
earth was I to do?
"Do you understand English?" I asked, despairingly.
She shook her head, but sobbed out that she spoke French; so I proceeded
to address her in that language.
"Signorina, if you do not get up and control your emotion, I will not be
answerable for the consequences. We are surrounded by dangers of the most—compromising
description; and every moment of delay must add to them. I know that the
officers often come out here to bathe in the morning; so do many of the
English people from Danielli's. If we are discovered together there will
be such a scandal as never was, and you will most assuredly not become
Countess von Rosenau. Think of that, and it will brace your nerves. What
you have to do is to come directly with me to the boat which is all ready
to take us to Mestre. Allow me to carry your hand-bag."
Not a bit of it! The signorina refused to stir.
"What is it? Where is Alberto? What has happened?" she cried. "You have
told me nothing."
"Well, then, I will explain," I answered, impatiently. And I explained
But, dear me, what a fuss she did make over it all! One would have
supposed, to hear her, that I had planned this unfortunate complication
for my own pleasure, and that I ought to have been playing the part of a
suppliant instead of that of a sorely tried benefactor. First she was so
kind as to set me down as an imposter, and was only convinced of my
honesty when I showed her a letter in the beloved Alberto's handwriting.
Then she declared that she could not possibly go off with a total
stranger. Then she discovered that, upon further consideration, she could
not abandon poor dear papa in his old age. And so forth, and so forth,
with a running accompaniment of tears and sobs. Of course she consented at
last to enter the boat; but I was so exasperated by her silly behaviour
that I would not speak to her, and had really scarcely noticed whether she
was pretty or plain till we were more than half-way to Mestre. But when we
had hoisted our sail, and were running before a fine, fresh breeze toward
the land, and our four men had shipped their oars and were chattering and
laughing under their breath in the bows, and the first perils of our
enterprise seemed to have been safely surmounted, my equanimity began to
return to me, and I stole a glance at the partner of my flight, who had
lifted her veil, and showed a pretty, round, childish face, with a clear,
brown complexion, and a pair of the most splendid dark eyes it has ever
been my good fortune to behold. There were no tears in them now, but a
certain half-frightened, half-mischievous light instead, as if she rather
enjoyed the adventure, in spite of its inauspicious opening. A very little
encouragement induced her to enter into conversation, and ere long she was
prattling away as unrestrainedly as if we had been friends all our lives.
She asked me a great many questions. What was I doing in Venice? Had I
known Alberto long? Was I very fond of him? Did I think that the old Count
von Rosenau would be very angry when he heard of his son's marriage? I
answered her as best I could, feeling very sorry for the poor little soul,
who evidently did not in the least realise the serious nature of the step
which she was about to take; and she grew more and more communicative. In
the course of a quarter of an hour I had been put in possession of all the
chief incidents of her uneventful life.
I had heard how she had lost her mother when she was still an infant; how
she had been educated partly by two maiden aunts, partly in a convent at
Verona; how she had latterly led a life of almost complete seclusion in
the old Venetian palace; how she had first met Alberto; and how, after
many doubts and misgivings, she had finally been prevailed upon to
sacrifice all for his sake, and to leave her father, who,—stern,
severe, and suspicious, though he had always been generous to her,—had
tried to give her such small pleasures as his means and habits would
permit. She had a likeness of him with her, she said,—perhaps I
might like to see it. She dived into her travelling-bag as she spoke, and
produced from thence a full-length photograph of a tall, well-built
gentleman of sixty or thereabouts, whose gray hair, black moustache, and
intent, frowning gaze made up an ensemble more striking than attractive.
"Is he not handsome—poor papa?" she asked.
I said the marchese was certainly a very fine-looking man, and inwardly
thanked my stars that he was safely at Padua; for looking at the breadth
of his chest, the length of his arm, and the somewhat forbidding cast of
his features, I could not help perceiving that "poor papa" was precisely
one of those persons with whom a prudent man prefers to keep friends than
And so, by the time that we reached Mestre, we had become quite friendly
and intimate, and had half forgotten, I think, the absurd relation in
which we stood toward each other. We had rather an awkward moment when we
left the boat and entered our travelling-carriage; for I need scarcely say
that both the boatmen and the grinning vetturino took me for the
bridegroom whose place I temporarily occupied, and they were pleased to be
facetious in a manner which was very embarrassing to me, but which I could
not very well check. Moreover, I felt compelled so far to sustain my
assumed character as to be specially generous in the manner of a buona
mano to those four jolly watermen, and for the first few miles of our
drive I could not help remembering this circumstance with some regret, and
wondering whether it would occur to Von Rosenau to reimburse me.
Probably our coachman thought that, having a runaway couple to drive, he
ought to make some pretence, at least, of fearing pursuit; for he set off
at such a furious pace that our four half-starved horses were soon beat,
and we had to perform the remainder of the long, hot, dusty journey at a
foot's pace. I have forgotten how we made the time pass. I think we slept
a good deal. I know we were both very tired and a trifle cross when in the
evening we reached Longarone, a small, poverty-stricken village, on the
verge of that dolomite region which, in these latter days, has become so
frequented by summer tourists.
Tourists usually leave in their wake some of the advantages as well as the
drawbacks of civilisation; and probably there is now a respectable hotel
at Longarone. I suppose, therefore, that I may say, without risk of laying
myself open to an action for slander, that a more filthy den than the osteria
before which my charge and I alighted no imagination, however disordered,
could conceive. It was a vast, dismal building, which had doubtless been
the palace of some rich citizen of the republic in days of yore, but which
had now fallen into dishonoured old age. Its windows and outside shutters
were tightly closed, and had been so, apparently, from time immemorial; a
vile smell of rancid oil and garlic pervaded it in every part; the
cornices of its huge, bare rooms were festooned with blackened cobwebs,
and the dust and dirt of ages had been suffered to accumulate upon the
stone floors of its corridors. The signorina tucked up her petticoats as
she picked her way along the passages to her bedroom, while I remained
behind to order dinner of the sulky, black-browed padrona to whom I had
already had to explain that my companion and I were not man and wife, and
who, I fear, had consequently conceived no very high opinion of us.
Happily the priest had already been warned by telegram that his service
would not be required until the morrow; so I was spared the nuisance of an
interview with him.
After a time we sat down to our tete-a-tete dinner. Such a dinner! Even
after a lapse of all these years I am unable to think of it without a
shudder. Half famished though we were, we could not do much more than look
at the greater part of the dishes which were set before us; and the climax
was reached when we were served with an astonishing compote, made up, so
far as I was able to judge, of equal proportions of preserved plums and
mustard, to which vinegar and sugar had been superadded. Both the
signorina and I partook of this horrible mixture, for it really looked as
if it might be rather nice; and when, after the first mouthful, each of us
looked up, and saw the other's face of agony and alarm, we burst into a
simultaneous peal of laughter. Up to that moment we had been very solemn
and depressed; but the laugh did us good, and sent us to bed in somewhat
better spirits; and the malignant compote at least did us the service of
effectually banishing our appetite.
I forbear to enlarge upon the horrors of the night. Mosquitos, and other
insects, which, for some reason or other, we English seldom mention, save
under a modest pseudonym, worked their wicked will upon me till daybreak
set me free; and I presume that the fair Bianca was no better off, for
when the breakfast hour arrived I received a message from her to the
effect that she was unable to leave her room.
I was sitting over my dreary little repast, wondering how I should get
through the day, and speculating upon the possibility of my release before
nightfall, and I had just concluded that I must make up my mind to face
another night with the mosquitos and their hardy allies, when, to my great
joy, a slatternly serving-maid came lolloping into the room, and announced
that a gentleman styling himself "il Conte di Rosenau" had arrived
and demanded to see me instantly. Here was a piece of unlooked-for good
fortune! I jumped up, and flew to the door to receive my friend, whose
footsteps I already heard on the threshold.
"My dear, good soul!" I cried, "this is too delightful! How did you manage——"
The remainder of my sentence died away upon my lips; for, alas! it was not
the missing Alberto whom I had nearly embraced, but a stout, red-faced,
white-moustached gentleman, who was in a violent passion, judging by the
terrific salute of Teutonic expletives with which he greeted my advance.
Then he, too, desisted as suddenly as I had done, and we both fell back a
few paces, and stared at each other blankly. The new-comer was the first
to recover himself.
"This is some accursed mistake," said he, in German.
"Evidently," said I.
"But they told me that you and an Italian young lady were the only
strangers in the house."
"Well, sir," I said, "I can't help it if we are. The house is not of a
kind likely to attract strangers; and I assure you that, if I could
consult my own wishes, the number of guests would soon be reduced by one."
He appeared to be a very choleric old person. "Sir," said he, "you seem
disposed to carry things off with a high hand; but I suspect that you know
more than you choose to reveal. Be so good as to tell me the name of the
lady who is staying here."
"I think you are forgetting yourself," I answered with dignity. "I must
decline to gratify your curiosity."
He stuck his arms akimbo, and planted himself directly in front of me,
frowning ominously. "Let us waste no more words," he said. "If I have made
a mistake, I shall be ready to offer you a full apology. If not—But
that is nothing to the purpose. I am Lieutenant-General Graf von Rosenau,
at your service, and I have reason to believe that my son, Graf Albrecht
von Rosenau, a lieutenant in his Imperial and Royal Majesty's 99th Croat
Regiment, has made a runaway match with a certain Signorina Bianca
Marinelli of Venice. Are you prepared to give me your word of honour as a
gentleman and an Englishman that you are not privy to this affair?"
At these terrible words I felt my blood run cold. I may have lost my
presence of mind; but I don't know how I could have got out of the dilemma
even if I had preserved it.
"Your son has not yet arrived," I stammered.
He pounced upon me like a cat upon a mouse, and gripped both my arms above
the elbow. "Is he married?" he hissed, with his red nose a couple of
inches from mine.
"No," I answered, "he is not. Perhaps I had better say at once that if you
use personal violence I shall defend myself, in spite of your age."
Upon this he was kind enough to relax his hold.
"And pray, sir," he resumed, in a somewhat more temperate tone, after a
short period of reflection, "what have you to do with all this?"
"I am not bound to answer your questions, Herr Graf," I replied; "but, as
things have turned out, I have no special objection to doing so. Out of
pure good-nature to your son, who was detained by duty in Venice at the
last moment, I consented to bring the Signorina Marinelli here yesterday,
and to await his arrival, which I am now expecting."
"So you ran away with the girl, instead of Albrecht, did you? Ho, ho, ho!"
I had seldom heard a more grating or disagreeable laugh.
"I did nothing of the sort," I answered, tartly. "I simply undertook to
see her safely through the first stage of her journey."
"And you will have the pleasure of seeing her back, I imagine; for as for
my rascal of a boy, I mean to take him off home with me as soon as he
arrives; and I can assure you that I have no intention of providing myself
with a daughter-in-law in the course of the day."
I began to feel not a little alarmed. "You cannot have the brutality to
leave me here with a young woman whom I am scarcely so much as acquainted
with on my hands!" I ejaculated, half involuntarily. "What in the world
should I do?"
The old gentleman gave vent to a malevolent chuckle. "Upon my word, sir,"
said he, "I can only see one course open to you as a man of honour. You
must marry her yourself."
At this I fairly lost all patience, and gave the Graf my opinion of his
conduct in terms the plainness of which left nothing to be desired. I
included him, his son, and the entire German people in one sweeping
anathema. No Englishman, I said, would have been capable of either
insulting an innocent lady, or of so basely leaving in the lurch one whose
only fault had been a too great readiness to sacrifice his own convenience
to the interests of others. My indignation lent me a flow of words such as
I should never have been able to command in calmer moments; and I dare say
I should have continued in the same strain for an indefinite time, had I
not been summarily cut short by the entrance of a third person.
There was no occasion for this last intruder to announce himself, in a
voice of thunder, as the Marchese Marinelli. I had at once recognised the
original of the signorina's photograph, and I perceived that I was now in
about as uncomfortable a position as my bitterest enemy could have desired
for me. The German old gentleman had been very angry at the outset; but
his wrath, as compared with that of the Italian, was as a breeze to a
hurricane. The marchese was literally quivering from head to foot with
concentrated fury. His face was deadly white, his strongly marked features
twitched convulsively, his eyes blazed like those of a wild animal. Having
stated his identity in the manner already referred to, he made two strides
toward the table by which I was seated, and stood glaring at me as though
he would have sprung at my throat. I thought it might avert consequences
which we should both afterward deplore if I were to place the table
between us; and I did so without loss of time. From the other side of that
barrier I adjured my visitor to keep cool, pledging him my word, in the
same breath, that there was no harm done as yet.
"No harm!" he repeated, in a strident shout that echoed through the bare
room. "Dog! Villain! You ensnare my daughter's affections—you entice
her away from her father's house—you cover my family with eternal
disgrace—and then you dare to tell me there is no harm done! Wait a
little, and you shall see that there will be harm enough for you. Marry
her you must, since you have ruined her; but you shall die for it the next
day! It is I—I, Ludovico Marinelli—who swear it!"
I am aware that I do but scant justice to the marchese's inimitable style.
The above sentences must be imagined as hurled forth in a series of yells,
with a pant between each of them. As a melodramatic actor this terrific
Marinelli would, I am sure, have risen to the first rank in his
"Signore," I said, "you are under a misapprehension. I have ensnared
nobody's affections, and I am entirely guiltless of all the crimes which
you are pleased to attribute to me."
"What? Are you not, then, the hound who bears the vile and dishonoured
name of Von Rosenau?"
"I am not. I bear the less distinguished, but, I hope, equally respectable
patronymic of Jenkinson."
But my modest disclaimer passed unheeded, for now another combatant had
thrown himself into the fray.
"Vile and dishonoured name! No one shall permit himself such language in
my presence. I am Lieutenant-General Graf von Rosenau, sir, and you shall
answer to me for your words."
The Herr Graf's knowledge of Italian was somewhat limited; but, such as it
was, it had enabled him to catch the sense of the stigma cast upon his
family, and now he was upon his feet, red and gobbling, like a
turkey-cock, and prepared to do battle with a hundred irate Venetians if
The marchese stared at him in blank amazement. "You!" he ejaculated—"you
Von Rosenau! It is incredible—preposterous. Why, you are old enough
to be her grandfather."
"Not old enough to be in my dotage,—as I should be if I permitted my
son to marry a beggarly Italian,—nor too old to punish impertinence
as it deserves," retorted the Graf.
"Your son? You are the father then? It is all the same to me. I will fight
you both. But the marriage shall take place first."
"It shall not."
"Insolent slave of an Italian, I will make you eat your words!"
"Triple brute of a German, I spit upon you!"
During this animated dialogue I sat apart, softly rubbing my hands. What a
happy dispensation it would be, I could not help thinking, if these two
old madmen were to exterminate each other, like the Kilkenny cats! Anyhow,
their attention was effectually diverted from my humble person, and that
was something to be thankful for.
Never before had I been privileged to listen to so rich a vocabulary of
vituperation. Each disputant had expressed himself, after the first few
words, in his own language, and between them they were now making hubbub
enough to bring the old house down about their ears. Up came the padrona
to see the fun; up came her fat husband, in his shirt-sleeves and
slippers; and her long-legged sons, and her tousle-headed daughters, and
the maid-servant, and the cook, and the ostler—the whole
establishment, in fact, collected at the open folding-doors, and watched
with delight the progress of this battle of words. Last of all, a poor
little trembling figure, with pale face and eyes big with fright, crept
in, and stood, hand on heart, a little in advance of the group. I slipped
to her side, and offered her a chair, but she neither answered me nor
noticed my presence. She was staring at her father as a bird stares at a
snake, and seemed unable to realise anything except the terrible fact that
he had followed and found her.
Presently the old man wheeled round, and became aware of his daughter.
"Unhappy girl!" he exclaimed, "what is this that you have done?"
I greatly fear that the marchese's paternal corrections must have
sometimes taken a more practical shape than mere verbal upbraidings; for
poor Bianca shrank back, throwing up one arm, as if to shield her face,
and, with a wild cry of "Alberto! come to me!" fell into the arms of that
tardy lover, who at that appropriate moment had made his appearance,
unobserved, upon the scene.
The polyglot disturbance that ensued baffles all description. Indeed, I
should be puzzled to say exactly what took place, or after how many
commands, defiances, threats, protestations, insults, and explanations, a
semblance of peace was finally restored. I only know that, at the
expiration of a certain time, three of us were sitting by the open window,
in a softened and subdued frame of mind, considerately turning our backs
upon the other two, who were bidding each other farewell at the farther
end of the room.
It was the faithless Johann, as I gathered, who was responsible for this
catastrophe. His heart, it appeared, had failed him when he had discovered
that nothing less than a bona-fide marriage was to be the outcome of the
meetings he had shown so much skill in contriving, and, full of penitence
and alarm, he had written to his old master, divulging the whole project.
It so happened that a recent storm in the mountains had interrupted
telegraphic communication, for the time, between Austria and Venice, and
the only course that had seemed open to Herr von Rosenau was to start
post-haste for the latter place, where, indeed, he would have arrived a
day too late had not Albrecht's colonel seen fit to postpone his leave. In
this latter circumstance also the hand of Johann seemed discernible. As
for the marchese, I suppose he must have returned rather sooner than had
been expected from Padua, and finding his daughter gone, must have
extorted the truth from his housekeeper. He did not volunteer any
explanation of his presence, nor were any of us bold enough to question
As I have said before, I have no very clear recollection of how an
understanding was arrived at and bloodshed averted and the padrona and her
satellites hustled downstairs again. Perhaps I may have had some share in
the work of pacification. Be that as it may, when once the exasperated
parents had discovered that they both really wanted the same thing,—namely,
to recover possession of their respective offspring, to go home, and never
meet each other again,—a species of truce was soon agreed upon
between them for the purpose of separating the two lovers, who all this
time were locked in each other's arms, in the prettiest attitude in the
world, vowing loudly that nothing should ever part them.
How often since the world began have such vows been made and broken—broken,
not willingly, but of necessity—broken and mourned over, and, in due
course of time, forgotten! I looked at the Marchese di San Silvestro the
other night, as she sailed up the room in her lace and diamonds, with her
fat little husband toddling after her, and wondered whether, in these days
of her magnificence, she ever gave a thought to her lost Alberto—Alberto,
who has been married himself this many a long day, and has succeeded to
his father's estates, and has numerous family, I am told. At all events,
she was unhappy enough over parting with him at the time. The two old
gentlemen, who, as holders of the purse-strings, knew that they were
completely masters of the situation, and could afford to be generous,
showed some kindliness of feeing at the last. They allowed the poor lovers
an uninterrupted half-hour in which to bid each other adieu forever, and
abstained from any needless harshness in making their decision known. When
the time was up, two travelling-carriages were seen waiting at the door.
Count von Rosenau pushed his son before him into the first; the marchese
assisted the half-fainting Bianca into the second; the vetturini cracked
their whips, and presently both vehicles were rolling away, the one toward
the north, the other toward the south. I suppose the young people had been
promising to remain faithful to each other until some happier future time
should permit of their union, for at the last moment Albrecht thrust his
head out of the carriage window, and, waving his hand, cried, "A
rivederci!" I don't know whether they ever met again.
The whole scene, I confess, had affected me a good deal, in spite of some
of the absurdities by which it had been marked; and it was not until I had
been alone for some time, and silence had once more fallen upon the
Longarone osteria, that I awoke to the fact that it was my
carriage which the Marchese Marinelli had calmly appropriated to his own
use, and that there was no visible means of my getting back to Venice that
day. Great was my anger and great my dismay when the ostler announced this
news to me, with a broad grin, in reply to my order to put the horses to
"But the marchese himself—how did he get here?" I inquired.
"Oh, he came by the diligence."
"And the count—the young gentleman?"
"On horseback, signore; but you cannot have his horse. The poor beast is
half dead as it is."
"Then will you tell me how I am to escape from your infernal town? For
nothing shall induce me to pass another night here."
"Eh! there is the diligence which goes through at two o'clock in the
There was no help for it. I sat up for that diligence, and returned by it
to Mestre, seated between a Capuchin monk and a peasant farmer whose whole
system appeared to be saturated with garlic. I could scarcely have fared
worse in my bed at Longarone.
And so that was my reward for an act of disinterested kindness. It is only
experience that can teach a man to appreciate the ingrained thanklessness
of the human race. I was obliged to make a clean breast of it to my
sister, who of course did not keep the secret long; and for some time
afterward I had to submit to a good deal of mild chaff upon the subject
from my friends. But it is an old story now, and two of the actors in it
are dead, and of the remaining three I dare say I am the only one who
cares to recall it. Even to me it is a somewhat painful reminiscence.