James Fenimore Cooper.

The Bravo online

. (page 9 of 33)
Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperThe Bravo → online text (page 9 of 33)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

near to her sides as the fall of the ponderous oars would allow. As each
effort of the crew sent the galley further from the land, the living
train seemed to extend itself, by some secret principle of expansion;
nor was the chain of its apparent connexion entirely broken, until the
Bucentaur had passed the island, long famous for its convent of
religious Arminians. Here the movement became slower, in order to permit
the thousand gondolas to approach, and then the whole moved forward, in
nearly one solid phalanx, to the landing of the Lido.

The marriage of the Adriatic, as the ceremony was quaintly termed, has
been too often described to need a repetition here. Our business is
rather with incidents of a private and personal nature than with
descriptions of public events, and we shall pass over all that has no
immediate connexion with the interest of the tale.

When the Bucentaur became stationary, a space around her stern was
cleared, and the Doge appeared in a rich gallery, so constructed as to
exhibit the action to all in sight. He held a ring, glittering with
precious stones, on high, and, pronouncing the words of betrothal, he
dropped it upon the bosom of his fancied spouse. Shouts arose, trumpets
blew their blasts, and each lady waved her handkerchief, in felicitation
of the happy union. In the midst of the fracas - which was greatly
heightened by the roar of cannon on board the cruisers in the channel,
and from the guns in the arsenal - a boat glided into the open space
beneath the gallery of the Bucentaur. The movement of the arm which
directed the light gondola was dexterous and still strong, though the
hairs of him who held the oar were thin and white. A suppliant eye was
cast up at the happy faces that adorned the state of the prince, and
then the look was changed intently to the water. A small fisherman's
buoy fell from the boat, which glided away so soon, that, amid the
animation and uproar of that moment, the action was scarce heeded by the
excited throng.

The aquatic procession now returned towards the city, the multitude
rending the air with shouts at the happy termination of a ceremony, to
which time and the sanction of the sovereign pontiff had given a species
of sanctity that was somewhat increased by superstition. It is true that
a few among the Venetians themselves regarded these famous nuptials of
the Adriatic with indifference; and that several of the ministers of the
northern and more maritime states, who were witnesses on the occasion,
had scarcely concealed, as they cast glances of intelligence and pride
among themselves, their smiles. Still, such was the influence of
habit - for so much does even arrogant assumption, when long and
perseveringly maintained, count among men - that neither the increasing
feebleness of the Republic, nor the known superiority of other powers on
the very element which this pageant was intended to represent as the
peculiar property of St. Mark, could yet cover the lofty pretension with
the ridicule it merited. Time has since taught the world that Venice
continued this idle deception for ages after both reason and modesty
should have dictated its discontinuance; but, at the period of which we
write, that ambitious, crapulous, and factitious state was rather
beginning to feel the symptomatic evidence of its fading circumstances,
than to be fully conscious of the swift progress of a downward course.
In this manner do communities, like individuals, draw near their
dissolution, inattentive to the symptoms of decay, until they are
overtaken with that fate which finally overwhelms empires and their
power in the common lot of man.

The Bucentaur did not return directly to the quay, to disburden itself
of its grave and dignified load. The gaudy galley anchored in the centre
of the port, and opposite to the wide mouth of the great canal. Officers
had been busy, throughout the morning, in causing all the shipping and
heavy boats, of which hundreds lay in that principal artery of the city,
to remove from the centre of the passage, and heralds now summoned the
citizens to witness the regatta, with which the public ceremonies of the
day were to terminate.

Venice, from her peculiar formation and the vast number of her watermen,
had long been celebrated for this species of amusement. Families were
known and celebrated in her traditions for dexterous skill with the oar,
as they were known in Rome for feats of a far less useful and of a more
barbarous nature. It was usual to select from these races of watermen
the most vigorous and skilful; and after invoking the aid of
patron-saints, and arousing their pride and recollections by songs that
recounted the feats of their ancestors, to start them for the goal, with
every incitement that pride and the love of victory could awaken.

Most of these ancient usages were still observed. As soon as the
Bucentaur was in its station, some thirty or forty gondoliers were
brought forth, clad in their gayest habiliments, and surrounded and
supported by crowds of anxious friends and relatives. The intended
competitors were expected to sustain the long-established reputations of
their several names, and they were admonished of the disgrace of
defeat. They were cheered by the men, and stimulated by the smiles and
tears of the other sex. The rewards were recalled to their minds; they
were fortified by prayers to the saints; and then they were dismissed,
amid the cries and the wishes of the multitude, to seek their allotted
places beneath the stern of the galley of state.

It has already been mentioned in these pages, that the city of Venice is
divided into two nearly equal parts by a channel much broader than that
of the ordinary passages of the town. This dividing artery, from its
superior size and depth, and its greater importance, is called the Grand
Canal. Its course is not unlike that of an undulating line, which
greatly increases its length. As it is much used by the larger boats of
the bay - being, in fact, a sort of secondary port - and its width is so
considerable, it has throughout the whole distance but one bridge, the
celebrated Rialto. The regatta was to be held on this canal, which
offered the requisites of length and space, and which, as it was lined
with most of the palaces of the principal senators, afforded all the
facilities necessary for viewing the struggle.

In passing from one end of this long course to the other, the men
destined for the race were not permitted to make any exertion. Their
eyes roamed over the gorgeous hangings, which, as is still wont
throughout Italy on all days of festa, floated from every window, and on
groups of females in rich attire, brilliant with the peculiar charms of
the famed Venetian beauty, that clustered in the balconies. Those who
were domestics, rose and answered to the encouraging signals thrown from
above, as they passed the palaces of their masters; while those who were
watermen of the public, endeavored to gather hope among the sympathizing
faces of the multitude.

At length every formality had been duly observed, and the competitors
assumed their places. The gondolas were much larger than those commonly
used, and each was manned by three watermen in the centre, directed by a
fourth, who, standing on the little deck in the stern, steered, while he
aided to impel the boat. There were light, low staffs in the bows, with
flags, that bore the distinguishing colors of several noble families of
the Republic, or which had such other simple devices as had been
suggested by the fancies of those to whom they belonged. A few
flourishes of the oars, resembling the preparatory movements which the
master of fence makes ere he begins to push and parry, were given; a
whirling of the boats, like the prancing of curbed racers, succeeded;
and then, at the report of a gun, the whole darted away as if the
gondolas were impelled by volition. The start was followed by a shout,
which passed swiftly along the canal, and an eager agitation of heads
that went from balcony to balcony, till the sympathetic movement was
communicated to the grave load under which the Bucentaur labored.

For a few minutes the difference in force and skill was not very
obvious. Each gondola glided along the element apparently with that ease
with which a light-winged swallow skims the lake, and with no visible
advantage to any one of the ten. Then, as more art in him who steered,
or greater powers of endurance in those who rowed, or some of the latent
properties of the boat itself came into service, the cluster of little
barks which had come off like a closely-united flock of birds taking
flight together in alarm, began to open, till they formed a long and
vacillating line in the centre of the passage. The whole train shot
beneath the bridge so near each other as to render it still doubtful
which was to conquer, and the exciting strife came more in view of the
principal personages of the city.

But here those radical qualities which insure success in efforts of this
nature manifested themselves. The weaker began to yield, the train to
lengthen, and hopes and fears to increase, until those in front
presented the exhilarating spectacle of success, while those behind
offered the still more noble sight of men struggling without hope.
Gradually the distances between the boats increased, while that between
them and the goal grew rapidly less, until three of those in advance
came in, like glancing arrows, beneath the stern of the Bucentaur, with
scarce a length between them. The prize was won, the conquerors were
rewarded, and the artillery gave forth the usual signals of rejoicing.
Music answered to the roar of cannon and the peals of bells, while
sympathy with success, that predominant and so often dangerous principle
of our nature, drew shouts even from the disappointed.

The clamor ceased, and a herald proclaimed aloud the commencement of a
new and different struggle. The last, and what might be termed the
national race, had been limited by an ancient usage to the known and
recognised gondoliers of Venice. The prize had been awarded by the
state, and the whole affair had somewhat of an official and political
character. It was now announced, however, that a race was to be run, in
which the reward was open to all competitors, without question as to
their origin, or as to their ordinary occupations. An oar of gold, to
which was attached a chain of the same precious metal, was exhibited as
the boon of the Doge to him who showed most dexterity and strength in
this new struggle; while a similar ornament of silver was to be the
portion of him who showed the second-best dexterity and bottom. A mimic
boat of less precious metal was the third prize. The gondolas were to be
the usual light vehicles of the canals, and as the object was to display
the peculiar skill of that city of islands, but one oarsman was allowed
to each, on whom would necessarily fall the whole duty of guiding, while
he impelled his little bark. Any of those who had been engaged in the
previous trial were admitted to this; and all desirous of taking part in
the new struggle were commanded to come beneath the stern of the
Bucentaur within a prescribed number of minutes, that note might be had
of their wishes. As notice of this arrangement had been previously
given, the interval between the two races was not long.

The first who came out of the crowd of boats which environed the vacant
place that had been left for the competitors, was a gondolier of the
public landing, well known for his skill with the oar, and his song on
the canal.

"How art thou called, and in whose name dost thou put thy chance?"
demanded the herald of this aquatic course.

"All know me for Bartolomeo, one who lives between the Piazzetta and the
Lido, and, like a loyal Venetian, I trust in San Teodoro."

"Thou art well protected; take thy place and await thy fortune."

The conscious waterman swept the water with a back stroke of his blade,
and the light gondola whirled away into the centre of the vacant spot,
like a swan giving a sudden glance aside.

"And who art thou?" demanded the official of the next that came.

"Enrico, a gondolier of Fusina. I come to try my oar with the braggarts
of the canals."

"In whom is thy trust?"

"Sant' Antonio di Padua?"

"Thou wilt need his aid, though we commend thy spirit. Enter, and take
place." - "And who art thou?" he continued, to another, when the second
had imitated the easy skill of the first.

"I am called Gino of Calabria, a gondolier in private service."

"What noble retaineth thee?"

"The illustrious and most excellent Don Camillo Monforte, Duca and Lord
of Sant' Agata in Napoli, and of right a senator in Venice."

"Thou should'st have come of Padua, friend, by thy knowledge of the
laws! Dost thou trust in him thou servest for the victory?"

There was a movement among the senators at the answer of Gino; and the
half-terrified varlet thought he perceived frowns gathering on more than
one brow. He looked around in quest of him whose greatness he had
vaunted, as if he sought succor.

"Wilt thou name thy support in this great trial of force?" resumed the

"My master," uttered the terrified Gino, "St. Januarius, and St. Mark."

"Thou art well defended. Should the two latter fail thee, thou mayest
surely count on the first!"

"Signor Monforte has an illustrious name, and he is welcome to our
Venetian sports," observed the Doge, slightly bending his head towards
the young Calabrian noble, who stood at no great distance in a gondola
of state, regarding the scene with a deeply-interested countenance. This
cautious interruption of the pleasantries of the official was
acknowledged by a low reverence, and the matter proceeded.

"Take thy station, Gino of Calabria, and a happy fortune be thine," said
the latter; then turning to another, he asked in surprise - "Why art thou

"I come to try my gondola's swiftness."

"Thou art old, and unequal to this struggle; husband thy strength for
daily toil. An ill-advised ambition hath put thee on this useless

The new aspirant had forced a common fisherman's gondola, of no bad
shape, and of sufficient lightness, but which bore about it all the
vulgar signs of its daily uses, beneath the gallery of the Bucentaur. He
received the reproof meekly, and was about to turn his boat aside,
though with a sorrowing and mortified eye, when a sign from the Doge
arrested his arm.

"Question him, as of wont," said the prince.

"How art thou named?" continued the reluctant official, who, like all of
subordinate condition, had far more jealousy of the dignity of the
sports he directed, than his superior.

"I am known as Antonio, a fisherman of the Lagunes."

"Thou art old!"

"Signore, none know it better than I. It is sixty summers since I first
threw net or line into the water."

"Nor art thou clad as befitteth one who cometh before the state of
Venice in a regatta."

"I am here in the best that I have. Let them who would do the nobles
greater honor, come in better."

"Thy limbs are uncovered - thy bosom bare - thy sinews feeble - go to; thou
art ill advised to interrupt the pleasures of the nobles by this

Again Antonio would have shrunk from the ten thousand eyes that shone
upon him, when the calm voice of the Doge once more came to his aid.

"The struggle is open to all," said the sovereign; "still I would advise
the poor and aged man to take counsel; give him silver, for want urges
him to this hopeless trial."

"Thou hearest; alms are offered thee; but give place to those who are
stronger and more seemly for the sport."

"I will obey, as is the duty of one born and accustomed to poverty. They
said the race was open to all, and I crave the pardon of the nobles,
since I meant to do them no dishonor."

"Justice in the palace, and justice on the canals," hastily observed the
prince. "If he will continue, it is his right. It is the pride of St.
Mark that his balances are held with an even hand."

A murmur of applause succeeded the specious sentiment, for the powerful
rarely affect the noble attribute of justice, however limited may be its
exercise, without their words finding an echo in the tongues of the

"Thou hearest - His Highness, who is the voice of a mighty state, says
thou mayest remain; - though thou art still advised to withdraw."

"I will then see what virtue is left in this naked arm," returned
Antonio, casting a mournful glance, and one that was not entirely free
from the latent vanity of man, at his meagre and threadbare attire. "The
limb hath its scars, but the infidels may have spared enough, for the
little I ask."

"In whom is thy faith?"

"Blessed St. Anthony, of the Miraculous Draught."

"Take thy place. - Ha! here cometh one unwilling to be known! How now!
who appears with so false a face?"

"Call me, Mask."

"So neat and just a leg and arm need not have hid their follow, the
countenance. Is it your Highness's pleasure that one disguised should be
entered for the sports?"

"Doubt it not. A mask is sacred in Venice. It is the glory of our
excellent and wise laws, that he who seeketh to dwell within the privacy
of his own thoughts, and to keep aloof from curiosity by shadowing his
features, rangeth our streets and canals as if he dwelt in the security
of his own abode. Such are the high privileges of liberty, and such it
is to be a citizen of a generous, a magnanimous, and a free state."

A thousand bowed in approbation of the sentiment, and a rumor passed
from mouth to mouth that a young noble was about to try his strength in
the regatta, in compliment to some wayward beauty.

"Such is justice!" exclaimed the herald, in a loud voice, admiration
apparently overcoming respect, in the ardor of the moment. "Happy is he
that is born in Venice, and envied are the people in whose councils
wisdom and mercy preside, like lovely and benignant sisters! On whom
dost thou rely?"

"Mine own arm."

"Ha! this is impious! None so presuming may enter into these privileged

The hurried exclamation of the herald was accompanied by a general stir,
such as denotes sudden and strong emotion in a multitude.

"The children of the Republic are protected by an even hand," observed
the venerable prince. "It formeth our just pride, and blessed St. Mark
forbid that aught resembling vain-glory should be uttered! but it is
truly our boast that we know no difference between our subjects of the
islands or those of the Dalmatian coast; between Padua or Candia; Corfu
or St. Giorgio. Still it is not permitted for any to refuse the
intervention of the saints."

"Name thy patron, or quit the place," continued the observant herald,

The stranger paused, as if he looked into his mind, and then he
answered -

"San Giovanni of the Wilderness."

"Thou namest one of blessed memory!"

"I name him who may have pity on me, in this living desert."

"The temper of thy soul is best known to thyself, but this reverend rank
of patricians, yonder brilliant show of beauty, and that goodly
multitude, may claim another name. - Take thy place."

While the herald proceeded to take the names of three or four more
applicants, all gondoliers in private service, a murmur ran through the
spectators, which proved how much their interest and curiosity had been
awakened by the replies and appearance of the two last competitors. In
the meantime, the young nobles who entertained those who came last,
began to move among the throng of boats, with the intention of making
such manifestations of their gallant desires and personal devotion, as
suited the customs and opinions of the age. The list was now proclaimed
to be full, and the gondolas were towed off, as before, towards the
starting point, leaving the place beneath the stern of the Bucentaur,
vacant. The scene that followed, consequently passed directly before the
eyes of those grave men, who charged themselves with most of the private
interests, as well as with the public concerns of Venice.

There were many unmasked and high-born dames, whirling about in their
boats, attended by cavaliers in rich attire, and here and there appeared
a pair of dark lustrous eyes, peeping through the silk of a visor, that
concealed some countenance too youthful for exposure in so gay a scene.
One gondola, in particular, was remarked for the singular grace and
beauty of the form it held, qualities which made themselves apparent,
even through the half-disguise of the simple habiliments she wore. The
boat, the servants, and the ladies, for there were two, were alike
distinguished for that air of severe but finished simplicity, which
oftener denotes the presence of high quality and true taste, than a more
lavish expenditure of vulgar ornament. A Carmelite, whose features were
concealed by his cowl, testified that their condition was high, and lent
a dignity to their presence by his reverend and grave protection. A
hundred gondolas approached this party, and after as many fruitless
efforts to penetrate the disguises, glided away, while whispers and
interrogatories passed from one to another, to learn the name and
station of the youthful beauty. At length, a gay bark, with watermen in
gorgeous liveries, and in whose equipment there was a studied display of
magnificence, came into the little circle that curiosity had drawn
together. The single cavalier who occupied the seat, arose, for few
gondolas appeared that day with their gloomy-looking and mysterious
pavilions, and saluted the masked females with the ease of one
accustomed to all presences, but with the reserve of deep respect.

"I have a favorite follower in this race," he said gallantly, "and one
in whose skill and force I put great trust. Until now I have uselessly
sought a lady of a beauty and merit so rare, as to warrant that I should
place his fortune on her smiles. But I seek no further."

"You are gifted with a keen sight, Signore, that you discover all you
seek beneath these masks," returned one of the two females, while their
companion, the Carmelite, bowed graciously to the compliment, which
seemed little more than was warranted by the usage of such scenes.

"There are other means of recognition than the eyes, and other sources
of admiration than the senses, lady. Conceal yourselves as you will,
here do I know that I am near the fairest face, the warmest heart, and
the purest mind of Venice!"

"This is bold augury, Signore," returned she who was evidently the
oldest of the two, glancing a look at her companion as if to note the
effect of this gallant speech. "Venice has a name for the beauty of its
dames, and the sun of Italy warms many a generous heart."

"Better that such noble gifts should be directed to the worship of the
Creator than of the creature," murmured the monk.

"Some there are, holy father, who have admiration for both. Such I would
fain hope is the happy lot of her who is favored with the spiritual
counsel of one so virtuous and wise as yourself. Here I place my
fortune, let what may follow; and here would I gladly place a heavier
stake, were it permitted."

As the cavalier spoke, he tendered to the silent fair a bouquet of the
sweetest and most fragrant flowers; and among them were those to which
poets and custom have ascribed the emblematic qualities of constancy and
love. She, to whom this offering of gallantry was made, hesitated to
accept it. It much exceeded the reserve imposed on one of her station
and years to allow of such homage from the other sex, though the
occasion was generally deemed one that admitted of more than usual
gallantry; and she evidently shrank, with the sensitiveness of one whose
feelings were unpractised, from a homage so public.

"Receive the flowers, my love," mildly whispered her companion - "the
cavalier who offers them simply intends to show the quality of his

"That will be seen in the end," hastily returned Don Camillo - for it was
he. "Signora, adieu; we have met on this water when there was less
restraint between us."

He bowed, and, signing to his gondolier, was quickly lost in the crowd
of boats. Ere the barks, however, were separated, the mask of the silent
fair was slightly moved as if she sought relief from the air; and the
Neapolitan was rewarded for his gallantry by a momentary glance at the
glowing countenance of Violetta.

"Thy guardian hath a displeased eye," hurriedly observed Donna Florinda.
"I wonder that we should be known!"

"I should more wonder that we were not. I could recall the noble
Neapolitan cavalier amid a million. Thou dost not remember all that I

Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperThe Bravo → online text (page 9 of 33)