ANTONIO was young, handsome, and a gondolier. He lacked but two things: a gondola of his own, and an Englishman. He was too poor to buy a gondola, and though he occasionally hired an old and extremely dilapidated one, and trusted to his handsome face to enable him to capture a party of foreign ladies, his profits had to be divided with the owner of the gondola, and were thus painfully small. The traghetto brought him in a few francs per month, and he picked up other small sums by serving as second oar, whenever tourists could be convinced that a second oar was necessary. Still, Antonio was desperately poor, and he and his young wife were often uncomfortably hungry.
Now, if the Madonna would only send him an Englishman, even if it were only for a single year, Antonio could easily save enough money to buy himself a beautiful gondola, besides living in the lap of luxury. His brother Spiro had owned an Englishman for only seven months and a half, and already he was a capitalist, with his own gondola, and, figure it to yourself!—with four hundred francs in the savings bank! And Spiro had done nothing to deserve this blessing, for he was notoriously an unbeliever, and never went inside a church except when he was escorting English ladies, when, of course, he prayed with fervor at the most conspicuous shrine, which was worth at least ten extra soldi of buona mano. Whereas, Antonio was deeply religious, and at least once a year gave a wax candle to the Blessed Virgin of Santa Maria Zobenigo. "But patience!" said Antonio daily to himself. "Some day the Madonna will grow weary, and will say, ' Give that Antonio an Englishman, so that I can have a little peace and quiet.' And then the Englishman will appear, and Antonio's fortune will be made."
Of course Antonio knew of every foreigner who came to Venice with the intention of making a prolonged stay. There is no detective police in the world that can be compared with the Venetian gondolier in learning the ways and purposes of tourists. To know all about the foreigner is at once his business and his capital. The Englishman who comes to Venice and determines to spend six months or a year in that enchanted city, may reach this decision on a Saturday night and mention it to no living soul. Yet by the following Monday morning all the gondoliers in Venice know that there is an Englishman to be striven for, and they have even settled in their own minds precisely what apartment he will probably hire. How they arrive at this knowledge it is not for me to say. There are mysteries in the Venice of to-day, as there were in the Venice of the Ten and of the Three.
Now, it fell out that one day Antonio learned that an Englishman and his wife, a young couple, who had every appearance of sweet temper and scant knowledge of the world, had arrived at the Albergo Luna, and had told the porter that they intended to take a house and live forever in Venice. The porter was an intimate friend of Antonio, and had been promised a handsome commission on any foreigner whom he might place in Antonio's hands. Within an hour after receiving the precious information, Antonio had put on his best shirt, had said ten Aves at lightning speed, had promised the Blessed Virgin two half-pound wax candles in case he should land this desirable Englishman, and was back again at the Luna and waiting to waylay his prey.
The porter presented Antonio, and asserted that, as a combination of professional skill and moral beauty, Antonio was simply unique. Mr. Mildmay, the Englishman in question, was pleased with Antonio's clean shirt, and Mrs. Mildmay was captivated by his chestnut curls, and the frank, innocent expression of the young fellow's face. He was hired on the spot, with the new gondola which he professed to own, for 150 francs per month, including his board. He was to bring his gondola and his recommendations to the hotel to be inspected that afternoon, and was to begin his duties on the following day, the Mildmays having already secured an apartment in advance of their arrival in Venice.
The long-hoped-for fortune had arrived at last. "He is a man of excellent heart, the paron," said Antonio to the porter. "He will be as wax in my hands; already I love him and the sweet parona. You shall have your share of him, my Zuane. No one can say that I am not a just man."
Antonio hurried at once from the hotel with a note from the porter to a dealer in gondolas, certifying that the bearer had secured a most eligible Englishman. He had to pay a heavy price for the hire by the month of a nearly new gondola, but the payments were to form part of the purchase-money, and Antonio did not grudge the price. Then he stopped at his house to show the new gondola to his wife, and tell her the blessed news, and then, armed with his baptismal certificate, and an old letter from a notary, informing him that the funeral expenses of his father must be paid or serious consequences would follow, he returned to the hotel.
The Mildmays were satisfied with the gondola, and with Antonio's recommendations; for they could not read Italian handwriting, and when Antonio informed them that the notary's letter was a certificate that he was the most honest man in Venice, and that it had been given him by a German Prince whom he had served ten years, they were not in a position to contradict the assertion. Moreover, they were already half in love with the handsome and happy face of their gondolier, and would have taken him without any recommendation at all, sooner than have taken an old and ugly gondolier with the recommendation of the British Consul and the resident chaplain. The next day Antonio entered upon his duties, and began the joyous task of making hay while the sun of the Englishman shone on him.
The gondolier in private service in Venice does many things wholly unconnected with his boat. He usually waits on his master's table ; he polishes the concrete floors, and he is sent on every variety of errand. Antonio was tireless, respectful, and cheerful, and the Mildmays agreed that he was an ideal servant. Of course they responded to his suggestion that he needed a livery, and he was soon furnished at their expense with a handsome suit of heavy blue cloth, a picturesque hat, a silk sash, and an overcoat. He looked very handsome in his new dress, and the difference between what he paid the tailor and what he charged his master provided his wife and his little boy with their entire wardrobe for the coming winter.
Venice is a cold city after the winter fogs begin, and when Antonio advised the Mildmays to lay in their entire stock of firewood in September instead of waiting until the price should be higher, they said to one another what a comfort it was to have a servant who really looked after their interests. So Antonio was commissioned to buy the wood, and he bought it. He made a handsome commission on the transaction, and, in addition, he had about one-fifth of the whole amount of wood delivered at his own residence. It is true that this was not quite enough to provide him fuel for the entire winter, but the deficiency could easily be remedied by simply carrying home three or four sticks under his coat every night, and Antonio was not a man who shrank from any honest labor when the good of his family was in view.
About ten days after the arrival of his Englishman, Antonio informed him that the gondola needed to go to the squero to have its bottom cleaned, at a cost of ten francs. This, however, he insisted upon paying out of his own pocket, because the foulness of the bottom had been incurred before he entered Mr. Mildmay's service. This scrupulous display of honesty still further convinced the Englishman that he had the pearl of gondoliers, and when the next day Antonio asked him to give him as a loan, to be deducted from his future wages, fifty francs, wherewith to make certain essential but wholly unintelligible repairs to the gondola, Mr. Mildmay was of his wife's opinion that it would be a shame to require the poor man ever to repay it.
The first thing that shook the Mildmays* confidence in Antonio was a little incident in connection with a chicken. They had had a pair of roast fowls for dinner and had eaten only one, intending to have the other served cold for luncheon the next day. When late in the evening Mrs. Mildmay accidentally discovered Antonio in the act of going out of the house with the cold fowl stuffed under his coat, she demanded an explanation. "It is true, parona" said Antonio, "that I took the fowl. And why? Because all the evening I had seen you and the paron sitting together in such love and happiness that my heart bled for poor Antonio, who has no happy fireside at which to sit. And so I said to myself, 'Antonio! surely you deserve a little happiness as well as these good and noble people! Take the cold fowl, and eat it with love and gratitude in your heart!'"
Mrs. Mildmay could not scold him after this defense, and she simply contented herself with telling him that he might keep the fowl for this time, but that such a method of equalizing the benefits of fortune must not occur again. Antonio promised both her and himself that it should not, and though he continued to keep his wife's table fully supplied from that of the Mildmays, the latter never again found him in possession of surreptitious chickens.
One day Antonio found a gold piece, twenty francs in fact, on the floor of his gondola. He knew it must have been dropped by the paron, and he promptly brought it to him. "How wrong I was," said Mrs. Mildmay, "to doubt the poor fellow because of that affair of the chicken. No one would ever have been the wiser if he had kept that twenty-franc piece, but he brought it to us like an honest man." For once she was right in believing Antonio to be honest Nothing could have induced him to sully his soul and hands by unlawfully detaining his master's money. He was determined to make all the money out of his providential Englishman that he could make in ways that every gondolier knows to be perfectly legitimate, but he was no thief, and Mr. Mildmay could fearlessly have trusted him with all the money in his purse.
Antonio was now one of the happiest men in Venice, but one morning he came to Mr. Mildmay with a face of pathetic sadness, and asked for a day's holiday. "It is not for pleasure that I ask it," he said; "my only pleasure is to serve the best of masters. But my little boy is dead, and is to be buried to-day. I should like to go with the coffin to San Michele."
Mr. Mildmay was unspeakably touched by the man's sorrow and the quiet heroism with which he bore it. He gave him the day's holiday and fifty francs towards the funeral expenses of his child. When Antonio appeared in the morning, quiet, sad, but scrupulously anxious to do his whole duty, the Mildmays felt that they really loved the silent and stricken man.
Misfortune seemed suddenly to have run amuck at Antonio. A week after the death of his child, he announced in his usual quiet way that his wife was dead. It was very sudden, so he said. He did not know exactly what was the disease, but he thought it was rheumatism. The Mildmays thought it strange that rheumatism should have carried off a woman only twenty-two years old, but strange things happen in Venice, and the climate is unquestionably damp. Antonio only asked for a half-holiday to attend the funeral, and he added that unless the paron could advance him two hundred francs of his wages, he should be unable to save his wife from being buried in the common ditch. Of course, this could never be permitted, and Antonio received the two hundred francs, and Mrs. Mildmay told her husband that if he should think of deducting it from the unhappy man's wages, she could never respect him again.
For a time the darts of death spared the household of Antonio. The gondola made its alleged monthly visit to the squero to have its bottom cleaned at Mr. Mildmay's expense, and the amount of repairs and paint which it needed did seem unexpectedly large. But Antonio was not foolishly grasping. So long as he doubled his wages by tradesmen's commissions, and by little devices connected with the keeping of the gondola, he felt that he was combining thrift with prudence. He made, however, one serious mistake, of which he afterwards repented when it was too late. Instead of giving the Madonna the two wax candles which he had promised her, he gave her two stearine candles, trusting that she would not notice the difference. It was not in keeping with his honest and religious character, and there were times when the recollection of it made him feel uneasy.
As the winter wore on, Antonio's devotion to his employers never slackened. Beyond the commissions which it is but just and right that the faithful gondolier should exact from those dogs of tradesmen, even if they did charge the same commissions in his master's bills, he was tireless in protecting the Mildmays from imposition. He was never too tired to do anything that he was asked to do, and although, when his brother Spiro was temporarily out of employment, Antonio discovered that there was nearly always too much wind to render it safe to take the gondola out with a single oarsman, and that he would therefore furnish a second oarsman in the person of Spiro at his master's expense, he never intimated that he was not ready to row hour after hour while the Mildmays explored the city and the lagoon. Mr. Mildmay was fascinated by the narrow Venetian streets, and spent hours exploring alone every part of the city. He was probably perfectly safe in so doing, for highway robbery and crimes of violence are almost unknown in Venice; but, for all that, he was always, though without his knowledge, accompanied on his walking excursions by the stealthy arid unsuspected Antonio, who kept out of sight, but in readiness to come to his assistance should the necessity arise.
Toward Spring Antonio thought it best to have his wife's mother die, but to his surprise Mr. Mildmay did not offer to pay the old lady's funeral expenses. He drew the line at mothers-in-law, and Antonio received only his half-holiday to accompany the corpse to the cemetery. This miscarriage made Antonio think more than ever of that failure to keep his promise to the Madonna in the matter of the wax candles, and he sometimes wondered if she were capable of carrying her resentment so far as to take his Englishman from him.
There is gas in Venice, but the judicious householder does not use it, save when he desires to enshroud his rooms in a twilight gloom. If he wishes a light strong enough to read by, he burns petroleum. It was, of course, Antonio who supplied the petroleum to the Mildmay household, and equally, of course, he bought the poorest quality and charged for the dearest. Now, in spite of all the care which a timid person may lavish on a lamp burning cheap petroleum, it is nearly certain sooner or later to accomplish its mission of setting somebody or something on fire, and Antonio's petroleum, which was rather more explosive than gunpowder, unaccountably spared the inmates of the casa Mildmay until the month of March, when it suddenly asserted itself.
It happened in this way. One evening Mrs. MiJdmay took a lamp in her hand and started to cross the wide and slippery floor of her drawing-room. The rug on which she trod moved under her, and in the effort to save herself she dropped the lamp. It broke, and in an instant she was in a blaze.
Antonio was in the ante-room. The door was open and he saw the accident. He sprang to Mrs. Mildmay's assistance. He did not attempt to avoid the flames, but rushed directly through the pool of blazing oil, burning his feet and ankles horribly. He seized Mrs. Mildmay and tore away her dress with his bare hands. He had nothing to wrap around her, for he was wearing no coat at the time, but he clasped her close in his arms, and smothered the flames that had caught her petticoat by pressing her against his bosom. She escaped with nothing worse than a slightly burned finger, but Antonio's hands, arms, feet, and ankles were burned to the bone. By this time Mr. Mildmay, who had been in his study, heard his wife calling for help, and made his appearance.
Antonio asked the parona's permission to sit down for a moment, and then fainted away. The cook was called and sent for the doctor. She met Antonio's brother in the calle, close to the house, and sent him upstairs. With his help Antonio was carried to Mrs. Mildmay's bedroom and laid on the bed, and before the doctor came the wounded man regained consciousness and thanked the Mildmays for their care of him.
The doctor, after dressing the wounds, said that the man might very probably recover. But Antonio announced that he was about to die, on hearing which decision the doctor changed his mind.
"When a Venetian of the lower class gives up, and says he is going to die," said the doctor, "no medical science can save him. Your man will die before morning, if he has really lost all hope. There! he says he wants a priest; you might as well order his coffin at once. I can do nothing to save him."
"Paron" said Antonio, presently, "would you, in your great goodness, permit my wife to come to see me for the last time?"
"You shall have anything you want, my brave fellow," replied Mr. Mildmay, "but I thought your wife was dead."
"I was mistaken about it," said Antonio. "It was her twin sister who died, and they were so much alike that their own mother could not tell them apart. No, my poor wife is still alive. May she bring my little boy with her?"
"Tell her to bring anybody you may want to see," replied his master, "but I certainly thought your little boy was buried last January."
"The paron is mistaken, if he will pardon me for saying so. It was my little girl who died. Was it not so, Spiro?"
Spiro confirmed Antonio's statement, like a loyal brother who is afraid of no fraternal lie, and Mr. Mildmay had not the heart to trouble the sufferer with any more doubts of his veracity.
Antonio was duly confessed, and received absolution. "Did you tell the father about the candles?" whispered Spiro after the priest had gone.
"I thought," answered Antonio, "that perhaps the Madonna had not yet noticed that they were not wax, and that it would not be wise to tell her of it, just as one is going where she is."
In the early morning Antonio died with the smile of an innocent little child on his face. "I have served the dear paron faithfully," he said, just as he died. "I know he will take care of my wife and child. And he will take Spiro as his gondolier."
Mr. Mildmay religiously carried out Antonio's dying, request. He installed Spiro in the place of the dead man, and he settled an annuity on Zanze, the disconsolate widow. He gave Antonio a grave all to himself in San Michele, and a beautiful white marble tombstone, with the epitaph, "Brave, Faithful, and Honest." He came to know somewhat later how Antonio had enriched himself at his expense, but he said to his wife: "After all, my dear, Antonio was strictly honest according to his own code. I think I have known some Englishmen of unblemished reputation, whose honesty, according to the English code, could not be compared with that of the poor boy who gave his life for yours."
- A selection from "The Strand."