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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

At Venice

By Virginia Wales Johnson (1849–1916)

[Born in Brooklyn, N. Y., 1849. Died, 1916. The House of the Musician. 1887.]

GESUALDA was in the kitchen. Bianca paused irresolutely.

“We must tell her that we are going out,” she demurred, with a doubtful glance at Marina.

“Let her alone. We shall return in half an hour,” said the elder sister, yawning slightly.

“Gesualda seems to have lost her head this morning,” said Bianca. “I believe it is the lottery.”

“Who knows?” was the enigmatical response.

The walk was not as purposeless as it at first appeared. Marina left Bianca gazing in at the window of a jeweller’s shop, retraced her steps along a narrow calle, and entered the Monte di Pietà, where she unhesitatingly pawned the valuable watch and chain of her father.

Before rejoining Bianca, she sought a stand of gondoliere of the vicinity, and, avoiding the older men, talked long and earnestly with a young fellow of sturdy build, and a good-humored, insouciant physiognomy.

As a result of the colloquy, Marina sprang lightly into the gondola, and was taken around the corner into a dark little canal, where, beneath an arching bridge, she divided the money received for the watch into two piles. One portion she thrust into the hand of the bewildered gondoliere, and restored the other to her own purse.

“Listen! We must go over there to meet an old servant of our family this morning,” she explained. “It is an affair of property and creditors, my friend. If you take us swiftly, the rest of this sum of money will belong to you as well.”

The gondoliere shrugged his broad shoulders.

“Altro! I do not object to running a little risk now and then, and one must live. The wind is rising, signora, and soon”——

“It is perfectly safe at this hour,” interposed Marina imperiously.

Bianca was astonished to hear the voice of her sister calling to her by name from the water. Approaching the bridge, she discerned Marina in the gondola, leaning back languidly among the cushions.

“We are to go on the canal in such weather!” exclaimed the young girl, shrinking back.

“The weather is good, signorina,” protested the gondoliere eagerly.

The money intoxicated him, and he longed to claim the rest.

“I am tired,” said Marina. “Let us go back thus.”

Relieved of her vague apprehensions, Bianca entered the gondola. Marina’s hand, cold, but firm as steel, closed on her wrist, as if holding her prisoner. Bianca did not attempt to release her soft arm. They would be home as soon as the pigeon delivered the note, she reasoned, and Gerard would laugh at her fears. Still she did not like the glitter of Marina’s eye, her quiet demeanor, the set look of her mouth.

The gondola threaded rapidly the most sheltered by-ways, then suddenly swept out on the broader space where the tide was beginning to run high.

The sea-flood threatened the city.

Bianca uttered a wondering cry.

“Oh, why are we here?” she demanded piteously. The grasp of Marina’s fingers on her wrist tightened.

“Don’t be a fool!” she whispered, in menacing accents. “The gondoliere must suspect nothing, or he might be tempted to rob us. Listen. Something has happened to Gesualda, and she has sent for us to come over here immediately. Child! The message was very curious. I will tell you later, when the man yonder is not all ears. Oh, I do not believe it is a misfortune! Hush! Gesualda must have found a treasure.”

“A treasure?” gasped Bianca, and her blue eyes dilated with childish surprise. “Gesualda should have told us at home, and not have sent for us out here, when sirocco is beginning to blow.”

“We can return as soon as we find her. Do you fear that the artist will miss you too much?” inquired Marina, with a bitter sneer.

Bianca blushed and became silent.

The light craft skimmed over the water in the direction of the sandy ledge, until Marina indicated a spot where she wished to land.

She allowed Bianca to first step ashore.

“Look for Gesualda, and bid her hasten back with us,” she urged.

“How can Gesualda be here, when we left her in the kitchen at home?” protested Bianca, with fresh misgivings.

“You must ask her that question. Go!”

Bianca, thus admonished, and fearful of the threatening aspect of sea and sky, lost no time in obeying.

“Gesualda!” she called aloud, running over the sands, and looking eagerly about for the stout and familiar figure of the nurse.

Marina placed the remainder of the sum promised in the palm of the gondoliere.

“Now go back while the canal is safe,” she said.

The man stared at her doubtfully.

“How will the ladies return?” he demurred.

“Oh, we are not going back to-day,” she replied with a smile. “Our old servant lives among the fisher-folk yonder.”

“To-morrow there will be a sea-flood in the city,” warned the gondoliere, shaking his head.

“Then we will remain,” said Marina Bardi, still smiling. “Ah! I like the storm.”

“Gesualda is not here,” cried Bianca, retracing her steps. “I have searched for her. Oh, it is some trick, Marina mia. Did the dwarf tell you? Let us go back at once.”

Marina was walking toward her. The gondola had turned in the direction of the town.

Bianca paused, grew pale, and reeled beneath the shock of terror and bewilderment. Oh, why had she consented to enter the gondola at all? She read her own doom in the stern look fixed upon her by Marina, and, falling on her knees, burst into sobs and tears.

“Oh, what is it?” shrieked the girl. “What has happened, that we may not go home in the gondola? You will drive me mad if you look at me like that.”

Marina threw herself down on the sands beside her cowering companion, and, taking the blonde head of Bianca between her hands, covered curls and brow with hot and rapid kisses.

“I love thee, little one!” she said wildly. “Ah, I have brought thee away safely from all evil. Child, Gesualda is not here. We are alone, the Bardi daughters, dearest. This is the end. Even our house will soon be taken from us. There remains for us only to die.”

At these words Bianca, flushed and panting, tore herself, by a desperate effort, from the arms encircling her, and fled towards the sandy brink of shore, screaming aloud for help.

The gondola was rapidly disappearing, and the wind bore away the sound of her voice unheard.

Marina followed her.

“Shriek thyself hoarse, and weep thyself blind, my beautiful angel. No one will hear,” she said tauntingly.

Bianca wrung her hands together in an agony of despair, and continued to strain her eyes gazing over the waters. Surely help must come!

Marina approached nearer. The contemplation of the girl’s agitation and fear seemed to inspire in her a savage joy, much as a feline creature plays with the trembling prey before devouring it.

“Did you love the artist?” she demanded fiercely.

“Yes,” faltered Bianca.

“Poor child! I save thee from all the miseries of deception and cruel desertion.”

“But Gerard loves me,” said Bianca wonderingly.

“Loves thee!” echoed the elder sister with scornful bitterness. “Loves thee with a boy’s sportive fancy, and until he meets another girl with a skin as white and hair as yellow as thine! Loves thee as an artist, until he finds a new model. We have sheltered a traitor beneath our roof.”

“It is false! Oh, he is good, and he loves me,” cried Bianca, with sudden spirit.

The next moment she cowered before Marina’s look, fell again on her knees, and, stretching out her hands towards the city, began to pray with a fervor of appeal urged by despair.

Gerard must have received her note by the faithful pigeon. Gesualda must have missed her nursling by this time, and be arousing the neighbors by her cries and lamentations, to hasten to the rescue.

The quivering lips framed every supplication ever taught them in the parish church, and implored the aid of all the saints of the calendar. Buoyed up by her own supplications, she beheld Gerard, as in a vision, coming over the water, the St. George strong to rescue.

Marina observed her curiously. She listened without respect, but also without derision.

“What use to pray?” she scoffed. “The saints will not hear. They never help trouble and pain. Do I not know?”

Then Bianca cast herself at Marina’s feet, and besought to be spared. Why should they die, when life was so beautiful?

In all her fawning caresses and tears, instinct prompted the girl to gain time, to divert the sombre thoughts of her sister, and avert the danger, even by an hour, a moment, hanging over their heads.

“No!” retorted Marina.

Gradually she ceased to listen to the appeals of the young creature clinging to her feet. She had finished with the wearisome bondage called life. The straw of Gerard’s devotion, at which she had caught with eager fingers, had broken, casting her back into the gulf; and as the ground crumbled beneath her feet, she had taken Bianca with her. Bianca was to be the lamb sacrificed on this altar of a terrible vengeance. She saved the child in her innocence. Bianca should not be left behind to suffer for the love of man.

The exaltation of her mood was fast gaining upon her. She cast aside her hat and loosened the heavy masses of her black hair, turning a look of irrepressible longing towards the sea. Out there amidst the tossing surges were to be found oblivion, annihilation.

The spot was isolated, and the weather rendered the scene one of most tragic desolation. The sisters stood on a waste of sand, which wended inland in irregular mounds, seamed by sluggish pools and winding channels. The low-hanging clouds seemed to mingle their dun-colored masses with the billows of the Adriatic, which were tawny and crested with foam, as they beat on the shore with ever-increasing violence. Lightning flashed on the horizon, and the tide flowing towards Venice in the channels had acquired the tint of jadestone.

Not a human being was in sight. A sail flitted before the blast, and several sea-birds winged their flight across the Lido. The gondola could not have made its way here at this hour.

Time had ceased for Marina Bardi. Bianca, exhausted by her own supplications, lay prone on the ground, stunned by the thunder of the surf and the rush of the wind.

“Enough!” exclaimed Marina, arousing her victim roughly. “I have listened patiently and long. Finish.”

She dragged the trembling Bianca to an upright posture, and took from her bosom a thin and flat bottle which contained a white liquid.

“Half for thee, and half for me,” she said.

A wail of despair was wrung from Bianca’s lips at these words; but only the sea-birds answered her, by a harsh note, as they flew past overhead.

Marina had found this vial in the chest of the musician’s chamber. The glass stopple was covered with skin, and by way of label Leonardo Bardi had written:

  • The Great Temptation.
  • She now tore off the skin covering the cork, and proffered it to Bianca.

    “Drink!” she commanded.

    Bianca received the fatal bottle in her cold hands, and looked fixedly at her sister. Escape was impossible. Hope was spent.

    Marina’s eyes wavered, shifted, and she averted her head. No! Even in the shadowy land beyond, she could not confront the ordeal of having watched Bianca put the bottle to her lips.

    There was a momentary silence before Marina extended her fingers to receive back the vial. Even then she moved away, without again looking at her companion. She heard a feeble cry behind her, and was dimly aware that Bianca had fallen insensible on the sands.

    The distant city was already a blank, the girl on the sands forgotten; for before her extended the sea, storm-driven.

    “Enrico mio!” she cried aloud; and the mingled voices of the tossing surges and the wind caught up the name, until the prolonged echo filled all space.

    The sirocco lifted her tangled hair, the salt spray blinded her, the wide-spreading circles of white foam obliterated her footsteps.

    What did she behold, pausing there on the brink of eternity? A leaf caught in the eddy of the tempest, a creature of the dust blaspheming against her Creator,—surely in the awful flash of awakening, as the lightning sparkled on the dim horizon, and in the emptiness and darkness of her soul’s misery, she saw

  • “The grave’s mouth, the heaven’s gate, God’s face
  • With implacable love evermore.”
  • And so slept.