Read CHAPTER IX of The Bravo, free online book, by James Fenimore Cooper, on

“Here art thou in appointment fresh and fair,
Anticipating time with starting courage.”

It has been seen that the gondolas, which were to contend in the race, had been towed towards the place of starting, in order that the men might enter on the struggle with undiminished vigor. In this precaution, even the humble and half-clad fisherman had not been neglected, but his boat, like the others, was attached to the larger barges to which this duty had been assigned. Still, as he passed along the canal, before the crowded balconies and groaning vessels which lined its sides, there arose that scornful and deriding laugh, which seems ever to grow more strong and bold, as misfortune weighs most heavily on its subject.

The old man was not unconscious of the remarks of which he was the subject; and, as it is rare indeed that our sensibilities do not survive our better fortunes, even he was so far conscious of a fall as not to be callous to contempt thus openly expressed. He looked wistfully on every side of him, and seemed to seek in every eye he encountered, some portion of the sympathy which his meek and humble feelings still craved. But even the men of his caste and profession threw jibes upon his ear; and though, of all the competitors, perhaps the one whose motive most hallowed his ambition, he was held to be the only proper subject of mirth. For the solution of this revolting trait of human character we are not to look to Venice and her institutions, since it is known that none are so arrogant, on occasions, as the ridden, and that the abject and insolent spirits are usually tenants of the same bosom.

The movement of the boats brought those of the masked waterman, and the subjects of those taunts, side by side.

“Thou art not the favorite in this strife,” observed the former, when a fresh burst of jibes was showered on the head of his unresisting associate. “Thou hast not been sufficiently heedful of thy attire, for this is a town of luxury, and he who would meet applause must appear on the canals in the guise of one less borne upon by fortune.”

“I know them! I know them!” returned the fisherman; “they are led away by their pride, and they think ill of one who cannot share in their vanities. But, friend unknown, I have brought with me a face, which, old though it be, and wrinkled, and worn by the weather like the stones of the sea-shore, is uncovered to the eye, and without shame.”

“There may be reasons which thou knowest not, why I wear a mask. But if my face be hid the limbs are bare, and thou seest there is no lack of sinews to make good that which I have undertaken. Thou should’st have thought better of the matter ere thou puttest thyself in the way of so much mortification. Defeat will not cause the people to treat thee more tenderly.”

“If my sinews are old and stiffened, Signor Mask, they are long used to toil. As to shame, if it is a shame to be below the rest of mankind in fortune, it will not now come for the first time. A heavy sorrow hath befallen me, and this race may lighten the burden of grief. I shall not pretend that I hear this laughter, and all these scornful speeches, as one listens to the evening breeze on the Lagunes for a man is still a man, though he lives with the humblest, and eats of the coarsest. But let it pass, Sant’ Antonio will give me heart to bear it.”

“Thou hast a stout mind, fisherman, and I would gladly pray my patron to grant thee a stronger arm, but that I have much need of this victory myself. Wilt thou be content with the second prize, if, by any manner of skill, I might aid thy efforts? for, I suppose, the metal of the third is as little to thy taste as it is to my own.”

“Nay, I count not on gold or silver.”

“Can the honor of such a struggle awaken the pride of one like thee?”

The old man looked earnestly at his companion, but he shook his head without answer. Fresh merriment, at his expense, caused him to bend his face towards the scoffers, and he perceived they were just then passing a numerous group of his fellows of the Lagunes, who seemed to feel that his unjustifiable ambition reflected, in some degree, on the honor of their whole body.

“How now, old Antonio!” shouted the boldest of the band, “is it not enough that thou hast won the honors of the net, but thou would’st have a golden oar at thy neck?”

“We shall yet see him of the senate!” cried a second.

“He standeth in need of the horned bonnet for his naked head,” continued a third. “We shall see the brave Admiral Antonio sailing in the Bucentaur, with the nobles of the land!”

Their sallies were succeeded by coarse laughter. Even the fair in the balconies were not uninfluenced by these constant jibes, and the apparent discrepancy between the condition and the means of so unusual a pretender to the honors of the regatta. The purpose of the old man wavered, but he seemed goaded by some inward incentive that still enabled him to maintain his ground. His companion closely watched the varying expression of a countenance that was far too little trained in deception to conceal the feelings within; and, as they approached the place of starting, he again spoke.

“Thou mayest yet withdraw,” he said; “why should one of thy years make the little time he has to stay bitter, by bearing the ridicule of his associates for the rest of his life?”

“St. Anthony did a greater wonder when he caused the fishes to come up on the waters to hear his preaching, and I will not show a cowardly heart at a moment when there is most need of resolution.”

The masked waterman crossed himself devoutly; and, relinquishing all further design to persuade the other to abandon the fruitless contest, he gave all his thoughts to his own interest in the coming struggle.

The narrowness of most of the canals of Venice, with the innumerable angles and the constant passing, have given rise to a fashion of construction and of rowing that are so peculiar to that city and its immediate dependencies as to require some explanation. The reader has doubtless already understood that a gondola is a long, narrow, and light boat, adapted to the uses of the place, and distinct from the wherries of all other towns. The distance between the dwellings on most of the canals is so small, that the width of the latter does not admit of the use of oars on both sides, at the same time. The necessity of constantly turning aside to give room for others, and the frequency of the bridges and the corners, have suggested the expediency of placing the face of the waterman in the direction in which the boat is steering, and, of course, of keeping him on his feet. As every gondola, when fully equipped, has its pavilion in the centre, the height of the latter renders it necessary to place him who steers on such an elevation as will enable him to overlook it. From these several causes a one-oared boat in Venice is propelled by a gondolier, who stands on a little angular deck in its stern, formed like the low roof of a house, and the stroke of the oar is given by a push, instead of a pull, as is common elsewhere. This habit of rowing erect, however, which is usually done by a forward, instead of a backward movement of the body, is not unfrequent in all the ports of the Mediterranean, though in no other is there a boat which resembles the gondola in all its properties or uses. The upright position of the gondolier requires that the pivot on which the oar rests should have a corresponding elevation; and there is, consequently, a species of bumkin raised from the side of the boat to the desired height, and which, being formed of a crooked and very irregular knee of wood, has two or three row-locks, one above the other, to suit the stature of different individuals, or to give a broader or a narrower sweep of the blade as the movement shall require. As there is frequent occasion to cast the oar from one of these row-locks to the other, and not unfrequently to change its side, it rests in a very open bed; and the instrument is kept in its place by great dexterity alone, and by a perfect knowledge of the means of accommodating the force and the rapidity of the effort to the forward movement of the boat and the resistance of the water. All these difficulties united render skill in a gondolier one of the most delicate branches of a waterman’s art, as it is clear that muscular strength alone, though of great aid, can avail but little in such a practice.

The great canal of Venice, following its windings, being more than a league in length, the distance in the present race was reduced nearly half, by causing the boats to start from the Rialto. At this point, then, the gondolas were all assembled, attended by those who were to place them. As the whole of the population which before had been extended along the entire course of the water, was now crowded between the bridge and the Bucentaur, the long and graceful avenue resembled a vista of human heads. It was an imposing sight to look along that bright and living lane, and the hearts of each competitor beat high, as hope, or pride, or apprehension, became the feeling of the moment.

“Gino of Calabria,” cried the marshal who placed the gondolas, “thy station is on the right. Take it, and St. Januarius speed thee!”

The servitor of Don Camillo assumed his oar, and the boat glided gracefully into its berth.

“Thou comest next, Enrico of Fusina. Call stoutly on thy Paduan patron, and husband thy strength; for none of the main have ever yet borne away a prize in Venice.”

He then summoned, in succession, those whose names have not been mentioned, and placed them side by side, in the centre of the canal.

“Here is place for thee, Signore,” continued the officer, inclining his head to the unknown gondolier; for he had imbibed the general impression that the face of some young patrician was concealed beneath the mask, to humor the fancy of some capricious fair. “Chance hath given thee the extreme left.”

“Thou hast forgotten to call the fisherman,” observed the masker, as he drove his own gondola into its station.

“Does the hoary fool persist in exposing his vanity and his rags to the best of Venice?”

“I can take place in the rear,” meekly observed Antonio. “There may be those in the line it doth not become one like me to crowd, and a few strokes of the oar, more or less, can differ but little in so long; a strife.”

“Thou hadst better push modesty to discretion, and remain.”

“If it be your pleasure, Signore, I would rather see what St. Anthony may do for an old fisherman, who has prayed to him, night and morning, these sixty years?”

“It is thy right; and, as thou seemest content with it, Keep the place thou hast in the rear. It is only occupying it a little earlier than thou would’st otherwise. Now, recall the rules of the games, hardy gondoliers, and make your last appeal to your patrons. There is to be no crossing, or other foul expedients; naught except ready oars, and nimble wrists. He who varies needlessly from his line until he leadeth, shall be recalled by name; and whoever is guilty of any act to spoil the sports, or otherwise to offend the patricians, shall be both checked and punished. Be ready for the signal.”

The assistant, who was in a strongly manned boat, fell back a little, while runners, similarly equipped, went ahead to order the curious from the water. These preparations were scarcely made, when a signal floated on the nearest dome. It was repeated on the campanile, and a gun was fired at the arsenal. A deep but suppressed murmur arose in the throng, which was as quickly succeeded by suspense.

Each gondolier had suffered the bows of his boat to incline slightly towards the left shore of the canal, as the jockey is seen, at the starting-post, to turn his courser aside, in order to repress its ardor, or divert its attention. But the first long and broad sweep of the oar brought them all in a line again, and away they glided in a body.

For the first few minutes there was no difference in speed, nor any sign by which the instructed might detect the probable evidence of defeat or success. The whole ten, which formed the front line, skimmed the water with an equal velocity, beak to beak, as if some secret attraction held each in its place, while the humble, though equally light bark of the fisherman steadily kept its position in the rear.

The boats were soon held in command. The oars got their justest poise and widest sweep, and the wrists of the men accustomed to their play. The line began to waver, It undulated, the glittering prow of one protruding beyond the others; and then it changed its form. Enrico of Fusina shot ahead, and, privileged by success, he insensibly sheered more into the centre of the canal, avoiding by the change the eddies, and the other obstructions of the shore. This manoeuvre which, in the language of the course, would have been called “taking the track,” had the additional advantage of throwing upon those who followed some trifling impediment from the back-water. The sturdy and practised Bartolomeo of the Lido, as his companions usually called him, came next, occupying the space on his leader’s quarter, where he suffered least from the reaction caused by the stroke of his oar. The gondolier of Don Camillo, also, soon shot out of the crowd, and was seen plying his arms vigorously still farther to the right, and a little in the rear of Bartolomeo. Then came in the centre of the canal, and near as might be in the rear of the triumphant waterman of the main, a dense body, with little order and varying positions, compelling each other to give way, and otherwise increasing the difficulties of their struggle. More to the left, and so near to the palaces as barely to allow room for the sweep of his oar, was the masked competitor, whose progress seemed retarded by some unseen cause, for he gradually fell behind all the others, until several boats’ lengths of open water lay between him and even the group of his nameless opponents. Still he plied his arms steadily, and with sufficient skill. As the interest of mystery had been excited in his favor, a rumor passed up the canal, that the young cavalier had been little favored by fortune in the choice of a boat. Others, who reflected more deeply on causes, whispered of the folly of one of his habits taking the risk of mortification by a competition with men whose daily labor had hardened their sinews, and whose practice enabled them to judge closely of every chance of the race. But when the eyes of the multitude turned from the cluster of passing boats to the solitary barge of the fisherman, who came singly on in the rear, admiration was again turned to derision.

Antonio had cast aside the cap he wore of wont, and the few straggling hairs that were left streamed about his hollow temples, leaving the whole of his swarthy features exposed to view. More than once, as the gondola came on, his eyes turned aside reproachfully, as if he keenly felt the stings of so many unlicensed tongues applied to feelings which, though blunted by his habits and condition, were far from extinguished. Laugh arose above laugh, however, and taunt succeeded taunt more bitterly, as the boats came among the gorgeous palaces which lined the canal nearer to the goal. It was not that the owners of these lordly piles indulged in the unfeeling triumph, but their dependants, constantly subject themselves to the degrading influence of a superior presence, let loose the long-pent torrents of their arrogance on the head of the first unresisting subject which offered.

Antonio bore all these jibes manfully, if not in tranquillity, and always without retort, until he again approached the spot occupied by his companions of the Lagunes. Here his eye sank under the reproaches, and his oar faltered. The taunts and denunciations increased as he lost ground, and there was a moment when the rebuked and humbled spirit of the old man seemed about to relinquish the contest. But dashing a hand across his brow, as if to clear a sight which had become dimmed and confused, he continued to ply the oar, and, happily, he was soon past the point most trying to his resolution. From this moment the cries against the fisherman diminished, and as the Bucentaur, though still distant, was now in sight, interest in the issue of the race absorbed all other feelings.

Enrico still kept the lead; but the judges of the gondolier’s skill began to detect signs of exhaustion in his faltering stroke. The waterman of the Lido pressed him hard, and the Calabrian was drawing more into a line with them both. At this moment, too, the masked competitor exhibited a force and skill that none had expected to see in one of his supposed rank. His body was thrown more upon the effort of the oar, and as his leg was stretched behind to aid the stroke, it discovered a volume of muscle, and an excellence of proportion, that excited murmurs of applause. The consequence was soon apparent. His gondola glided past the crowd in the centre of the canal, and by a change that was nearly insensible, he became the fourth in the race. The shouts which rewarded his success had scarcely parted from the multitude, ere their admiration was called to a new and an entirely unexpected aspect in the struggle.

Left to his own exertions, and less annoyed by that derision and contempt which often defeat even more generous efforts, Antonio had drawn nearer to the crowd of nameless competitors. Though undistinguished in this narrative, there were seen, in that group of gondoliers, faces well known on the canals of Venice, as belonging to watermen in whose dexterity and force the city took pride. Either favored by his isolated position, or availing himself of the embarrassment these men gave to each other, the despised fisherman was seen a little on their left, coining up abreast, with a stroke and velocity that promised further success. The expectation was quickly realized. He passed them all, amid a dead and wondering silence, and took his station as fifth in the struggle.

From this moment all interest in those who formed the vulgar mass was lost. Every eye was turned towards the front, where the strife increased at each stroke of the oar, and where the issue began to assume a new and doubtful character. The exertions of the waterman of Fusina were seemingly redoubled, though his boat went no faster. The gondola of Bartolomeo shot past him; it was followed by those of Gino and the masked gondolier, while not a cry betrayed the breathless interest of the multitude. But when the boat of Antonio also swept ahead, there arose such a hum of voices as escapes a throng when a sudden and violent change of feeling is produced in their wayward sentiments. Enrico was frantic with the disgrace. He urged every power of his frame to avert the dishonor, with the desperate energy of an Italian, and then he cast himself into the bottom of the gondola, tearing his hair and weeping in agony. His example was followed by those in the rear, though with more governed feelings, for they shot aside among the boats which lined the canal, and were lost to view.

From this open and unexpected abandonment of the struggle, the spectators got the surest evidence of its desperate character. But as a man has little sympathy for the unfortunate when his feelings are excited by competition, the defeated were quickly forgotten. The name of Bartolomeo was borne high upon the winds by a thousand voices, and his fellows of the Piazzetta and the Lido called upon him, aloud, to die for the honor of their craft. Well did the sturdy gondolier answer to their wishes, for palace after palace was left behind, and no further change was made in the relative positions of the boats. But, like his predecessor, the leader redoubled his efforts with a diminished effect, and Venice had the mortification of seeing a stranger leading one of the most brilliant of her regattas. Bartolomeo no sooner lost place, than Gino, the masker, and the despised Antonio, in turn, shot by, leaving him who had so lately been first in the race, the last. He did not, however, relinquish the strife, but continued to struggle with the energy of one who merited a better fortune.

When this unexpected and entirely new character was given to the contest, there still remained a broad sheet of water between the advancing gondolas and the goal. Gino led, and with many favorable symptoms of his being able to maintain his advantage. He was encouraged by the shouts of the multitude, who now forgot his Calabrian origin in his success, while many of the serving-men of his master cheered him on by name. All would not do. The masked waterman, for the first time, threw the grandeur of his skill and force into the oar. The ashen instrument bent to the power of an arm whose strength appeared to increase at will, and the movements of his body became rapid as the leaps of the greyhound. The pliant gondola obeyed, and amid a shout which passed from the Piazzetta to the Rialto, it glided ahead.

If success gives force and increases the physical and moral energies, there is a fearful and certain reaction in defeat. The follower of Don Camillo was no exception to the general law, and when the masked competitor passed him the boat of Antonio followed as if it were impelled by the same strokes. The distance between the two leading gondolas even now seemed to lessen, and there was a moment of breathless interest when all there expected to see the fisherman, in despite of his years and boat, shooting past his rival.

But expectation was deceived. He of the mask, notwithstanding his previous efforts, seemed to sport with the toil, so ready was the sweep of his oar, so sure its stroke, and so vigorous the arm by which it was impelled. Nor was Antonio an antagonist to despise. If there was less of the grace of a practised gondolier of the canals in his attitudes than in those of his companion, there was no relaxation in the force of his sinews. They sustained him to the last with that enduring power which had been begotten by threescore years of unremitting labor, and while his still athletic form was exerted to the utmost there appeared no failing of its energies.

A few moments sent the leading gondolas several lengths ahead of their nearest followers. The dark beak of the fisherman’s boat hung upon the quarter of the more showy bark of his antagonist, but it could do no more. The port was open before them, and they glanced by church, palace, barge, mystick, and felucca, without the slightest inequality in their relative speed. The masked waterman glanced a look behind as if to calculate his advantage, and then bending again to his pliant oar he spoke, loud enough to be heard only by him who pressed so hard upon his track.

“Thou hast deceived me, fisherman!” he said “there is more of manhood in thee yet than I had thought.”

“If there is manhood in my arms there is childlessness and sorrow at the heart,” was the reply.

“Dost thou so prize a golden bauble? Thou art second; be content with thy lot.”

“It will not do; I must be foremost or I have wearied my old limbs in vain!”

This brief dialogue was uttered with an ease that showed how far use had accustomed both to powerful bodily efforts, and with a firmness of tones that few could have equalled in a moment of so great physical effort. The masker was silent, but his purpose seemed to waver. Twenty strokes of his powerful oar-blade and the goal was attained: but his sinews were not so much extended, and that limb which had shown so fine a development of muscle, was less swollen and rigid. The gondola of old Antonio glided abeam.

“Push thy soul into the blade,” muttered he of the mask, “or thou wilt yet be beaten!”

The fisherman threw every effort of his body on the coming effort, and he gained a fathom. Another stroke caused the boat to quiver to its centre, and the water curled from its bows like the ripple of a rapid. Then the gondola darted between the two goal-barges, and the little flags that marked the point of victory fell into the water. The action was scarce noted ere the glittering beak of the masquer shot past the eyes of the judges, who doubted for an instant on whom success had fallen. Gino was not long behind, and after him came Bartolomeo, fourth and last in the best contested race which had ever been seen on the waters of Venice.

When the flags fell, men held their breaths in suspense. Few knew the victor, so close had been the struggle. But a flourish of the trumpets soon commanded attention, and then a herald proclaimed that

“Antonio, a fisherman of the Lagunes, favored by his holy patron of the Miraculous Draught, had borne away the prize of gold while a waterman who wore his face concealed, but who hath trusted to the care of the blessed San Giovanni of the Wilderness, is worthy of the silver prize, and that the third had fallen to the fortunes of Gino of Calabria, a servitor of the illustrious Don Camillo Monforte, Duca di Sant’ Agata, and lord of many Neapolitan Seignories.”

When this formal announcement was made, there succeeded a silence like that of the tomb. Then there arose a general shout among the living mass, which bore on high the name of Antonio as if they celebrated the success of some conqueror. All feeling of contempt was lost in the influence of his triumph. The fishermen of the Lagunes, who so lately had loaded their aged companion with contumely, shouted for his glory with a zeal that manifested the violence of the transition from mortification to pride; and, as has ever been and ever will be the meed of success, he who was thought least likely to obtain it was most greeted with praise and adulation when it was found that the end had disappointed expectation. Ten thousand voices were lifted in proclaiming his skill and victory, and young and old, the fair, the gay, the noble, the winner of sequins and he who lost, struggled alike to catch a glimpse of the humble old man, who had so unexpectedly wrought this change of sentiment in the feelings of a multitude.

Antonio bore his triumph meekly. When his gondola had reached the goal he checked its course, and, without discovering any of the usual signs of exhaustion, he remained standing, though the deep heaving of his broad and tawny chest proved that his powers had been taxed to their utmost. He smiled as the shouts arose on his ear, for praise is grateful even to the meek; still he seemed oppressed with an emotion of a character deeper than pride. Age had somewhat dimmed his eye, but it was now full of hope. His features worked, and a single burning drop fell on each rugged cheek. The fisherman then breathed more freely.

Like his successful antagonist, the waterman of the mask betrayed none of the debility which usually succeeds great bodily exertion. His knees were motionless, his hands still grasped the oar firmly, and he too kept his feet with a steadiness that showed the physical perfection of his frame. On the other hand, both Gino and Bartolomeo sank in their respective boats as they gained the goal in succession; and so exhausted was each of these renowned gondoliers, that several moments elapsed before either had breath for speech. It was during this momentary pause that the multitude proclaimed its sympathy with the victor by their longest and loudest shouts. The noise had scarcely died away, however, before a herald summoned Antonio of the Lagunes, the masked waterman of the Blessed St. John of the Wilderness, and Gino the Calabrian, to the presence of the Doge, whose princely hand was to bestow the promised prizes of the regatta.