The narrow slant of water that could be seen between the posts of the felza was rippling with little steely waves. The line of the heavy beak cut the opening between the tapering point of the Lido and the misty outline of Tre Porti. Inside the white lighthouse tower a burnished man- of-war lay at anchor, a sluggish mass like a marble wharf placed squarely in the water. From the lee came a slight swell of a harbor-boat puffing its devious course to the Lido landing. The sea-breeze had touched the locust groves of San Niccolo da Lido, and caught up the fragrance of the June blossoms, filling the air with the soft scent of a feminine city.
When the scrap of the island Sant’ Elena came enough into the angle to detach itself from the green mass of the Giardino Pubblico, the prow swung softly about, flapping the little waves, and pointed in shore where a bridge crossed an inlet into the locust trees.
“You can see the Italian Alps,” Miss Barton remarked, pulling aside the felza curtains and pointing lazily to the snow masses on the blue north horizon. “That purplish other sea is the Trevisan plain, and back of it is Castelfranco–Giorgione’s Castelfranco–and higher up where the blue begins to break into the first steps of the Alps is perched Asolo–Browning’s Asolo. Oh! It is so sweet! a little hill town! And beyond are Bassano and Belluno, and somewhere in the mist before you get to those snow-heads is Pieve da Cadore.” Her voice dropped caressingly over the last vowels. The mere, procession of names was a lyric sent across sea to the main.
“They came over them, then, the curious ones,” the younger man of the two who lounged on cushions underneath the felza remarked, as if to prolong the theme. “To the gates of Paradise,” he continued, while his companion motioned to the gondolier. “And they broke them open, but they could never take the swag after all.”
He laughed at her puzzled look. He seemed to mock her, and his face became young in spite of the bald-looking temples and forehead, and the copperish skin that indicated years of artificial heat.
“They got some things,” the older man put in, “and they have been living off ‘em ever since.”
“But they never got it,” persisted his companion, argumentatively. “Perhaps they were afraid.”
The gondola was gliding under the stone bridge, skilfully following the line of the key-stones in the arch. It passed out into a black pool at the feet of the Church of San Niccolo. The marble bishop propped up over the pediment of the door lay silently above the pool. The grove of blossoming locusts dropped white-laden branches over a decaying barca chained to the shore.
“What is ‘it’?” the girl asked, slowly turning her face from the northern mountains. She seemed to carry a suggestion of abundance, of opulence; of beauty made of emphasis. “You,” the young man laughed back, enigmatically.
“They came again and again, and they longed for you, and would have carried you away by force. But their greedy arms snatched only a few jewels, a dress or two, and you they left.”
The girl caught at a cluster of locust blossoms that floated near.
“It is an allegory.”
“I’ll leave Niel to untie his riddles.” Their companion lit his pipe and strode ashore. “I am off for an hour with the Adriatic. Don’t bother about me if you get tired of waiting.”
He disappeared in the direction of the Lido bathing stablimento. The two gathered up cushions and rugs, and wandered into the grove. The shade was dark and cool. Beyond were the empty acres of a great fort grown up in a tangle of long grass like an abandoned pasture. Across the pool they could see the mitred bishop sleeping aloft in the sun, and near him the lesser folk in their graves beside the convent wall.