In the long-ago days, when Venice was as rich as she was beautiful, there lived in one of her marble palaces a great and powerful merchant. Year after year he had heaped up his riches until the people said he had more gold than any one else in the city, and that he cared for nothing else but the pleasure of making money. But there they were wrong, for there was one thing the merchant loved almost better than his gold, and that was his only son, Bartolo.
Bartolo was very different from his father, and in many ways was a great disappointment to the old merchant-prince. The child never seemed to have any sense of the value of money. Give him a handful of pennies, and instead of saving them up they would be all gone before an hour had passed. It was always the same story.
"Such a poor old beggar asked alms of me at the church door, my father, and he gave me such a goodly blessing for but two small coins. And then I found the little Beppino weeping since his only penny had slipped through his fingers and rolled plump into the canal. Thou wouldst not have left him uncomforted, and besides, his thanks were worth many pennies."
"Thou art but a fool," growled his father. "Blessings and thanks indeed! Much good may they do thee, and far may they go towards filling thy empty purse."
But in spite of many scoldings Bartolo could never learn to hoard his money or refuse to help those who asked for his aid. Even when he grew to be a young man of twenty, it was ever the same.
"It is now time that thou shouldst learn to make money, as well as to spend it," said his father one day. "I shall send thee forthwith on a trial trip in one of my merchant ships. See, here are three hundred gold pieces with which thou shalt trade. They are not thine own but given thee on trust, and thou shalt not lend them or give them away, but shalt bring back to me something in exchange. Look to it that thou prove worthy of my trust."
Bartolo took the money gladly and promised to do all that his father had said. Many a time had he watched the great ships spread their sails and ride gallantly out to sea, and often had he followed them with longing eyes as they swept along the waterway. But now he, too, would go sailing off towards those distant lands of which he had so often dreamed.
All was new and strange and wonderful to him as Venice was left behind, and he began his first voyage on the green sea. How eagerly he looked forward to the time when they should reach the far-off countries where he was to see such wonders and trade with his father's gold. But the ships had not sailed many days before an island came in sight, and when they reached it the captain sent a boatload of sailors ashore that they might bring off a fresh supply of water.
When the sailors returned to the ship they were very much excited and told a strange tale. There on the island they had found a company of men who looked like brigands, but who said that they were Christian slaves, just escaped from the Turks. These men had implored the sailors to help them as they had very little food and were in great distress.
As soon as Bartolo heard all this he jumped into the boat and bade the sailors row him to the island, that he might see for himself who these men were and what help they might need.
The escaped slaves very soon saw what manner of man Bartolo was. And because he had such a kind heart and was so anxious to help every one, they made their story as sad as possible, and ended up by begging him to give them money.
"But I have no money of my own to give you," said Bartolo simply. "I can but give you food and clothing."
"No money?" said the men roughly. "Then how comes it that thou art sailing as master of that great ship?"
"The ship belongs to my father, and the money that I have is his also, lent to me on trust," answered Bartolo. "I am bound by my promise not to give it away, but to trade with it and bring back merchandise in its stead."
A gleam came into the greedy eyes of the men as they listened.
"That is well," they said, "for thou canst then lay out thy money wisely in buying our great treasure."
"What treasure is that?" asked Bartolo in surprise, for the men had said they possessed nothing.
"A treasure indeed," said one of them with a hoarse laugh, "the most beautiful maiden thine eyes have ever rested upon. She is a princess, daughter of the Grand Turk. When we escaped from the palace we contrived to carry her off with us, and now we mean to make her serve our ends in one way or another. Either we shall sell her for gold, or make her suffer in revenge for all the misery her people have caused us these many years."
"I do not buy slaves," said Bartolo haughtily, "and what use would a beautiful maiden be to me?"
"Come now," said the man, "thou mayest at least look at our treasure, even if thou hast no mind to buy her."
Then with cruel, rough hands they dragged forward a young, helpless girl and placed her in front of Bartolo. Never before had he seen anything half so lovely, and he almost held his breath as he gazed earnestly at her. Her gauzy dress of silken tissue was torn and soiled, and she looked like a delicate flower which had been carelessly plucked and left to fade. But in spite of all she had suffered, her beauty shone out like a gleam of heaven's sunshine in a dark place. Her long golden hair had escaped from its fastening and half wrapped her round as with a mantle, and her wonderful star-like eyes seemed to shine as from an inward light.
It was plain that she had been but cruelly treated, for the look she cast at Bartolo was one of terror. She seemed so unhappy that his heart was wrung with pity, and he began to wonder if he could not buy her and save her from the cruelty of her captors.
"Well, and how much do you want for your treasure?" he said, as he turned to the men who watched him with eager looks.
"Six hundred golden pieces," they said at once.
"Then I certainly cannot buy her," said Bartolo, "for I have only three hundred zecchini all told."
But the men began to consult together, for they wanted to get rid of the princess, and needed the money immediately, so with a very bad grace they told Bartolo he might have her at that price.
"Though indeed thou mightest well give us more," they grumbled, "seeing how rich are her clothes and how precious is that jewelled star which she wears round her neck."
But seeing there was indeed no more money to be had, they took all that they could get, and Bartolo carried off the beautiful maiden back to the ship with him.
Now, as all the money was gone and there was nothing left with which to buy merchandise, it seemed useless to go farther, and so the ship was turned homewards and they set sail once more for Venice.
At first the beautiful princess was more frightened than ever, but ere long, when she saw how gently she was treated, she began to take courage. The best state-room was given to her, and she was waited upon as if she were a queen, while every one was ready to do her bidding. So the frightened look began to die out of her star-like eyes, and she grew more beautiful than ever. No one could understand her at first, for she spoke a language that sounded strange in their ears, but very soon she learned to say "Bartolo," and whenever she wanted anything, or if she was lonely or unhappy, her soft voice would be heard calling "Bartolo, Bartolo." When he came he was sure to make everything right.
After that Bartolo began to teach her other words, and especially taught her to say "Father" over and over again. He was very anxious that the old merchant should be pleased with the beautiful girl whom he was bringing home in exchange for the gold.
So the pleasant days flew swiftly by. But though the maiden seemed happy, there were times when the look of misery and fear would cloud her eyes again. She could not yet understand where she was going. She knew she was a slave, and feared she might be sold once more, and that perhaps a worse fate awaited her.
At last they came in sight of Venice, and Bartolo was rejoiced to see his beautiful city again. But for the first time he began to wonder what his father would think of this adventure. It would be wiser, he thought, to see him alone and tell him all about it, before bringing the maiden home. So he left the princess in the ship, promising ere long to return and fetch her.
The old merchant was overjoyed to see his son, and embraced him again and again.
"But how is it that thou hast returned so soon?" he asked.
Then Bartolo began to tell his tale, and as he went on the merchant's brow grew blacker and blacker, and when the story was finished with the account of how the three hundred golden zecchini had been paid for the maiden, the old man's rage knew no bounds.
"Alas! that I should have a fool for a son," he shouted. "Dost thou dream that thou canst ever get half the money for her that thou hast given?"
"Get money for her?" said Bartolo. "What? Dost thou imagine I intend to sell her?"
"And what else is she good for?" asked his father. "If thou wilt not sell her, I will, and that right quickly too."
"Thou shalt not as much as touch her," said Bartolo, getting angry too, "and if thou darest to interfere with her in any way, I will appeal to the Sindaco for protection."
The old merchant had never seen his son angry before, and as, in spite of his loud talk, he was rather a coward, he became somewhat frightened at Bartolo's wrath.
"Come, come," he said in a gentler tone, "I will not touch her. Let me but see this wonderful treasure."
So Bartolo went back to the ship and brought the maiden to his father's house, and as they returned together he tried to make her understand where they were going to, by saying "Father" over and over again.
The sun had been hiding behind a cloud, and the room looked grey and cheerless as the maiden came timidly forward. But just at that moment the cloud passed and a burst of sunshine flooded the room with light. It shone upon the silvery gauze of the princess's dress, it lightened into a cloud of glory the waves of her golden hair, and played with tiny points of light upon the sparkling jewels of the star upon her breast, until she seemed wrapped round in a halo of living flame. Her starry eyes shone with excitement, and as she came nearer and said "Father" in her soft voice, the old man started as if he had seen a vision, and then bowed his head and kissed her hand as if doing homage to a queen.
There was no more talk of selling the treasure, for the old merchant began to love her almost as much as he loved his son. And when the maiden had learned to speak their language, she guided the household affairs so skilfully, and attended to all their wants so carefully, that Bartolo and his father wondered what they had ever done without her.
"Bartolo," said the old man one day, "pray what dost thou mean to do with this beautiful maiden?"
Bartolo looked up with troubled eyes.
"I too have been thinking of that," he said. "Methinks we should send her to some convent where the good nuns would teach her our faith so that she may be baptized, and then perchance we may wed her to some great prince."
"Now, by my faith," said the old merchant crossly, "thou art more foolish than ever I had supposed. Why not marry her thyself?"
But Bartolo opened his eyes wide in wonder and surprise.
"Marry her!" he repeated; "but she is a princess, and would never marry a common merchant."
"Oh, go thy own foolish way," said his father; "I wash my hands of thee."
Bartolo shook his head gravely, and ere long he so arranged matters that the princess was received into a convent. There she was taught many things, and at last was baptized by the name of Stellante. They chose that name because her eyes were like the stars, and because she always wore upon her breast the beautiful star-like jewel, which was her only possession.
But it was not long before the good nuns sent for Bartolo and told him that their charge was very unhappy and constantly prayed to be allowed to go home. Not till then did Bartolo come to know that his beautiful Stellante really loved him and could not be happy without him. So they were married, and it seemed as if life was all to be as gay as a summer's morning.
But at the end of a year the old merchant began to grow restless and called his son to him.
"Thou hast well learned how to spend money," he said, "but never how to make it. Once more I will give thee three hundred zecchini and a good ship, and to-morrow thou shalt sail away on a fresh venture."
Sorrow fell on the heart of Stellante when she knew that she must be left alone. Day and night she sat and wove a fine chain of her own golden hair, and when it was finished she hung thereon her jewelled star and clasped it round the neck of her beloved Bartolo.
"Thou shalt never part with it," she said. "The chain of my hair will bind my heart to thine—the star will serve to remind thee of Stellante."
So Bartolo set out once more, but this time he was not eager to go, but rather counted the days until he should return.
The first place at which the ship stopped was the little town of Amalfi, with its great convent perched on the side of the vine-clad hill. The people of Amalfi were then a greedy, grasping race, who cared for nothing but gain and bargaining, and as Bartolo crossed the market-place he saw to his surprise that a dead man lay there among the merchandise.
"How is this?" he asked of one of the passers-by; "do you allow a man to lie unburied in your streets?"
That is a man who died in debt," said the other carelessly, "and his creditors will not allow him to be buried until all his debts are paid."
That, of course, was more than Bartolo could suffer, and before long he had paid all the poor man's debts, and the body was laid to rest. Then Bartolo felt he must help the widow and children, and when all was done there was not a penny left of the three hundred golden zecchini.
"Well," said Bartolo to himself, "this time, at any rate, my father cannot disapprove, for surely he would himself have acted as I have done." So he sailed back to Venice in good spirits, longing to see Stellante again.
No words can describe the rage and fury of the old merchant when he heard how his son had spent the gold pieces.
"Never darken my doors again!" he screamed. "From this day forth I cast thee out, and thou art no longer a son of mine. The Turkish girl and the dead man may be thy protectors."
Very sorrowfully then did Bartolo turn away, but scarcely had he gone ten steps when a little hand was slipped into his and he found Stellante by his side.
"Thou canst not come with me, little Star," he said. "I have no home now to which to take thee. Stay rather in peace and comfort with my father."
"But I cannot live without thee," said Stellante, "and didst thou not hear what thy father said? The Turkish girl will indeed be thy protector."
So together they went out to seek their fortune, and Stellante began to sew the most wonderful pieces of embroidery, such as no one had ever before seen in Venice. When these were sold they brought in such a great price that there was money enough on which to live in ease and comfort. Bartolo, too, found work to do, and while he was away Stellante sewed her embroidery and began to make three great pieces of tapestry, the stitches of which were so fine and varied that a whole year passed before the work was finished.
Now it happened at the end of a year that a great fair was held to which buyers and sellers came from all the country round. Stellante therefore took the tapestry and bade Bartolo carry it to the fair where he might chance to sell it.
"But above all things," she warned him, "do not breathe my name to any one or tell who has done the work, and do not take less than a hundred gold zecchini for each piece."
The days of the fair went past and many people came to look and admire the wonderful pieces of tapestry, but they all shook their heads when they heard of the great price which was asked for them. No one was found who would offer even fifty zecchini. Bartolo began to feel downcast and heavy-hearted, for it was near the end of the fair, and he feared he would be forced to carry back the tapestry unsold. But on the very last day some strange foreign-looking men came to look at the work and seemed to think the price not too great.
"We come with a commission from the King of France," they told Bartolo. "He wishes his palace to be hung with the rarest and most beautiful tapestry, and these pieces are the most exquisite we have seen. But before we buy them we would wish to learn who has done this wonderful work?"
"I must not tell the name of the worker," answered Bartolo; "that must go untold."
Then the men consulted together and finally bade Bartolo bring the tapestry on board their ship which was lying at anchor close by. It must be delivered to the captain, they said, and he would pay for it himself.
But when Bartolo had carried the precious load on board and the captain had examined it closely, he still refused to pay the money.
"This is a woman's work," he said, "and how am I to know that thou hast not stolen it?"
Bartolo was very angry when he heard this, so angry indeed that he forgot the warning given him by Stellante.
"It is my wife's work," he said proudly, "and I am selling it for her."
"Nevertheless you shall prove your words," answered the captain. "Bring thy wife here that I may pay her the money herself."
So Bartolo went home and told Stellante all that had happened, and how in his anger he had broken his promise.
"All that cannot now be mended," said Stellante; "but thou shouldst not have left the tapestry behind. Now we shall lose the work of a whole long year."
"Nay, but thou wilt come with me and claim the money, Stellante?" said Bartolo anxiously, for he could not bear to think of losing that exquisite work.
Stellante shook her head.
"Wiser not, dear heart," she said. "Rather let us lose the work than risk an unknown danger."
But Bartolo gave her no rest until she consented to do as he wished, and at last they went back together to the great foreign ship.
The captain's rough manner changed when he saw the beautiful maiden with the star-like eyes, and he courteously invited her to descend to his cabin that he might at once pay her the money. But no sooner had she disappeared below than the cry of "Bartolo! Bartolo!" rang out, and when her husband rushed forward he was seized by two sailors and received a blow on the head which felled him to the deck and he became unconscious.
How long it was that he lay there, Bartolo never knew, but when he came to himself the ship was sailing far out to sea and there was no land in sight. Not a sound came from the cabin, and the sailors told him roughly that Stellante was dead. So he sank back in black despair once more.
Now the sailors were speaking falsely when they said that Stellante was dead, for Stellante was alive and in safe keeping, but in another part of the ship.
These men were none other than the servants of the Grand Turk, her father, who had sent them out to seek all over the world for his lost daughter. Vainly had they searched all these years and not a clue had they found until one of them had caught sight of the beautiful tapestry, and knew that the secret of that exquisite work was known only to the Sultan's daughters. Thus they had laid their plans to carry off Stellante, and were now on their way back to Turkey to carry her home to her father. Of course the Grand Turk would have nothing to say to Bartolo, who was but a common man and a Christian to boot, and the captain was anxious to get rid of him as soon as possible. That very day, when the ship was sailing past a desert island, the captain commanded that the captive should be put ashore and left there to starve.
Bound hand and foot poor Bartolo was left helpless upon the desolate shore. His life would soon have been ended had not one of the sailors in pity turned back and cut the ropes which were tied so tightly round him.
"It may give thee a chance of life, poor wretch," said the sailor, as he hurried after his companions.
Weak and ill from all the hardships and suffering he had undergone, Bartolo could scarcely stand upright, and as he tried to climb up the hill in search of water to cool his parched throat, he often stumbled and fell. It was drawing towards evening now, and only the last faint twittering of the birds was heard as they settled to rest in the branches of the thick trees. The flowers that go to rest had folded their petals and closed their cups, and not a sound was soon to be heard but the lap of the waves on the shore below.
Suddenly the clear call of a vesper bell broke the heavy silence and Bartolo paused in amazement. Could he be dreaming? No, there was the sound of the bell again, and as he looked up he saw the dim outline of a little chapel upon the brow of the hill. Perhaps if he could climb that steep path there might be some one there who could help him. His feet dragged wearily on, and all the time he wondered if, after all, he wanted help, or if it would not be better to lie down and die.
Darker and darker it grew, and then one pale star shone out through the deep blue, and breathed its pure silver light upon the poor stumbling form, as if to light a beacon of hope in the black darkness of his despair.
With a start Bartolo turned and caught a glint of that silver point of light, and stretching out his hands, he called aloud in the bitterness and longing of his heart, "Stellante, Stellante, where art thou, star of my heart?" Then the darkness seemed to close in around him and he knew no more.
But close at hand an old hermit was kneeling in the little chapel, and when the strange cry fell upon his ear, he rose quickly from his knees and hurried out to see who it was that needed his help. Very gently he carried Bartolo into his poor cell and laid him upon the bed of dried leaves, and held a cup of cool water to his lips.
For many weeks the good old hermit tenderly nursed the stranger back to life, but could not find out who he was or whence he came. There was but one cry always upon his lips, "Stellante, Stellante," and nothing more.
Then by-and-bye as health returned Bartolo told his story little by little, and the old man listened with pitying look.
"Grieve not so bitterly, my son," he said at length. "Something tells me that the star of thy life is not yet set. Be sure that Stellante lives and some day thou wilt again behold her."
"Thou meanest, perchance, in Paradise?" said Bartolo drearily; "but, Father, that seems a long, long way off."
But the old hermit shook his head and still bade Bartolo not despair.
"Meanwhile, my son, what wilt thou do here?" he asked. "Shall we set up a signal upon the hilltop that some passing ship may stay its course and carry thee hence?"
"No, no," said Bartolo quickly, "let me rather live here quietly with thee. The world has been no friend to me, and I am done with it."
The old hermit thought deeply for a few minutes and then laid his hand tenderly on Bartolo's bowed head.
"I am old now," he said, "and my span of life grows short. If thou wilt tarry here with me my days will indeed be brighter for thy presence. But either thou must leave at once before I grow to love thee and depend on thee too much, or else thou must promise me that whatever comes thou wilt never part from me."
"That will I promise with all my heart," said Bartolo, and he knelt to receive the hermit's blessing.
So the days went by and the hermit and Bartolo lived their simple life together. There was much to do in the garden, digging and planting and training the vines, and there was the little chapel to sweep out, and the bell to ring for matins and vespers. They scarcely noticed how quickly the days slipped by until one day they counted up that a whole year had passed since Bartolo had been left upon the island.
They were sitting that afternoon, talking happily together as they looked across the blue mirror of the sea, when they suddenly caught sight of a ship sailing towards the island with widespread sails like a white butterfly. As it came nearer, and its flag could be seen, the hermit rose quickly to his feet and turned to Bartolo.
"My son," he said, "we must hide ourselves in some safe place. The men on board that ship are Turkish pirates, and should they land and find us here we would fare badly at their hands."
Swiftly then Bartolo and the old hermit made their way to the little chapel, which was well built and had a strong oaken door. This door they made stronger still by piling against it inside their few wooden benches, and the store of winter firewood which they had already gathered.
So well and quickly did Bartolo work that when the pirates, with a shout of triumph, discovered their hiding-place and tried to force the door, they could not move it an inch. Again and again they tried and then they grew impatient, for they had but little time to spare.
"Come out," they shouted to Bartolo; "we will let thee go unharmed if thou wilt open the door."
"But wilt thou also spare the holy man, my father?" said Bartolo from inside.
"No, no," shouted the pirates, "the price of thy freedom shall be the life of the old man."
"Then will we die together," said Bartolo calmly.
The pirates drew off for a little to consider what was to be done. They had no means of setting fire to the little chapel, and it was now time to return to their ship.
"Come, then," they shouted at last, "open the door and both your lives shall be spared."
Even the rough pirates were touched by the sight of the two figures that came slowly out of the chapel. The old hermit, frail and aged, and the young man to whom he clung with trembling hands and who guided his tottering steps with loving care while he gazed fearlessly into the faces of their captors.
"Thou art a brave man," said the pirate chief, "and we love bravery wherever we find it. It is true that henceforth ye are doomed to be slaves, but I will promise that when thou art sold thou shalt not be parted from thy aged father whose life thou hast saved."
The chief was as good as his word, and when the ship arrived at Constantinople, Bartolo and the old hermit were sold to the Sultan's gardener, and were set to work together in the palace gardens.
But what had become of Stellante all this time? On that evil day when the captain of the Turkish vessel told her he had discovered who she was, and that he meant to carry her back to Turkey, she cried aloud as she always did in any trouble, "Bartolo, Bartolo," feeling sure he would come and rescue her. Never before had he failed her, never before had her cry fallen unheeded on his ears. And when he did not answer she was ready to believe what the captain so grimly told her, that Bartolo was dead.
They could do as they liked with her then, she cared for nothing, and it was easy to keep her a close prisoner until Bartolo was safely put out of the way upon the desert island. Like a lily with a broken stem she sat bowed with grief and refused all comfort.
Then at last the ship sailed into the harbour and the captain delivered the long-lost princess to her father the Sultan. But there was no joy in Stellante's heart, and the light of the stars had faded from her eyes.
The Sultan scarcely knew his beautiful daughter again in this pale, sad maiden, and he listened kindly to her story, though she dared not tell him that she had become a Christian.
"I am weary and broken-hearted," she said when she had finished her tale; "let me live for a while alone in peace and quietness, my father."
"Thou shalt do whatever pleaseth thee best," said the Sultan, ready to promise anything in his delight at having her back once more.
So Stellante lived in a separate part of the palace all alone, with only one old black slave called Rachel to wait upon her.
Life seemed like a long grey road stretching out before her, flat and uninteresting, and she shivered as she sat day after day gazing into the future which looked so empty, cold, and grey.
"Your Highness," said the old black slave one day, "are all Christians as sad as thou?"
Stellante started and looked up.
"Nay," she said, "the Christians are happier than any other people."
Old Rachel smiled and half shook her head, and for the first time Stellante began to feel ashamed of her selfish sorrowing and for the ceaseless moan she made over her unhappiness. Little by little she taught the old woman what it meant to be a Christian, and she grew almost happy as she watched the interest and light dawn in the kind old eyes. Then together they made plans to help the poor slaves whom they could see working in the palace grounds, and at night Rachel would steal out and carry food and medicine and many comforts which Stellante's skilful fingers had prepared during the day.
Gradually the heavy grey cloud lifted off Stellante's life, and the long dull road was marked by shining white pebbles of peaceful, happy days. But in spite of her work there were many dreary hours to pass through, and the light that once more shone in her starry eyes was often dimmed by the tears that rose from her sad heart.
One day, as she stood by the window gazing out at the bright sunshine and gay flowers, she wondered if light and happiness would ever really fill her broken heart again. There was a far-away look in her eyes, for she was thinking of Venice and those dream-like days of pure delight, when the fairy isles of the lagunes seemed to beckon her over the sea of glass, with the reflections of their tiny spires like a long finger mirrored in the silent waters. It was all so real to her then that a strain of soft music seemed to mingle in the delight of that vision, and the words of a song she loved floated on the air.
"Bartolo, Bartolo," she cried softly to herself with sobbing breath, and then she looked to find the picture gone, as it had so often vanished before. But though the vision had fled the song still floated on the air, and the words came clear and distinct to her ear from the garden beneath.
It was no dream voice, some one was singing down there in the garden, but although Stellante could not see the singer from her window, she felt sure it must be some poor Italian prisoner who had been carried off from his sunny land to toil as a slave in the Sultan's garden. The thought troubled her, and she called Rachel at once and bade her go out and make careful search among the slaves and find out if one among them was an Italian.
It seemed to Stellante that Rachel was absent a very long time, and she paced the room with impatient steps, scarcely knowing why she felt so restless, except that the song she had heard had wakened old memories that crowded like dim ghosts around her.
"Hast thou then found the singer?" she cried out eagerly, when she heard Rachel's steps slowly mounting the stairs that led to her mistress's room.
"Have patience, my princess," panted the old woman, "and I will tell thee all, if thou wilt but give me time to find my breath again."
Stellante twisted her fingers together and tapped the floor with one impatient foot. It was hard to wait even a few seconds. But presently the old woman began her tale.
"Thou art right," she said; "the gardener has a new slave who talks a strange language which they call Italian, and they say, too, that he is a Christian. He is a young man, and my heart ached with pity as I watched him, for he looks so sad and worn. Nevertheless I doubt if we can help him much, for I do not think it is the hard work and rough usage that makes him miserable. For when he thought no one was near I saw him draw out from his breast a jewelled star, which was hung round his neck by a golden chain, and as he kissed it he sighed as if his heart would break, and the jewels shone wet with his tears. But, my princess, why dost thou look so pale, and why dost thou tremble greatly?"
For Stellante had grown as white as a lily, and she swayed forward as if she had not strength to stand.
"Didst thou say a jewelled star, and that it was hung by a golden chain?" she cried. "O Bartolo, Bartolo, can it indeed be thou?"
The poor old slave-woman feared for a moment that her beloved princess had lost her reason. But her fears were turned to joy when, half laughing and half sobbing, Stellante told her of the braided chain of her own golden hair, and the jewelled star which she had herself hung around her husband's neck.
"It can be no other than he," Stellante breathed, "and oh, Rachel, thou must help me to see him to-night."
But Rachel looked grave, and mournfully shook her head.
"That cannot be," she said. "Wert thou once seen outside the palace doors, the Sultan, thy father, would instantly send to have thee executed."
"Some way must be found," answered Stellante calmly. "Even if I am discovered, I must see this stranger at once and know who he is."
Long and earnestly they talked together until at last a plan was arranged. It was dangerous, but since Stellante had made up her mind to go, the only way was to dress herself in Rachel's flowing garments, hold the veil close over her face, and then go and stand at the well where the slaves came to draw water after sundown.
In the shadow of a great tree which overhung the well, Stellante waited that evening, with bowed head and closely veiled face. Scarce a look was cast upon her, for the old slave-woman used often to stand there, and the slaves who came with weary feet to draw water from the well did not often notice her. Eagerly Stellante watched their sad, worn faces as the dreary procession passed on. The light was slowly fading now, and as the last man passed by, hope seemed to die out in her heart. No, he was not there, it was all a mistake, and now she must go back to her loneliness once more.
But as, with a sob, she turned to go she heard another step draw near, and in the dim light she saw a tired figure with bowed shoulders come slowly towards the well. She needed not to look closer at his face, her heart knew even the echo of that footfall, and with a half-cry she sprang forward to meet her husband.
"Who art thou?" said Bartolo, startled out of his dreams by this strange, closely veiled woman, who had clasped her arms around his neck.
"Bartolo! Bartolo!" she cried, and needed to say no more, for Bartolo's arms were round her and he held her close to his heart.
"Stellante, star of my life," he whispered, "tell me thou art real and no dream which will but vanish and leave my arms empty when I awake."
Meanwhile in the palace the slow hours dragged by, and the old slave-woman sat and watched with anxious, fearful heart. She started at every noise and wrung her hands in despair as time went on and her princess did not return.
"She is discovered," she wailed aloud. "Oh, why did I ever allow her to run into so certain a danger?"
But even as she lamented, a soft knock sounded on the door, and when with trembling hands old Rachel opened it, Stellante glided in. There was no need to ask if she had found what she sought, the light in her eyes and the wonder of her beauty seemed to cast a spell even over the old slave-woman, and she could only kneel and kiss Stellante's hands and bathe them with her thankful tears.
There was much now to think about and difficult matters to plan, for Stellante had made up her mind that not only should she and Bartolo escape, but that they would take with them all the Christian slaves. The difficulty, however, was not so great since Stellante had gold enough and to spare, and could pay for all the help they needed.
In a wonderfully short time the arrangements were made. A good ship was hired to be ready to sail at nightfall from the harbour, and all the slaves were warned to meet on the shore at sundown, where boats would be waiting to carry them off to the ship.
One by one the slaves silently gathered at the appointed place, and Bartolo carefully placed Stellante and old Rachel in the first boat and then directed the men where to go.
But as he rapidly counted them over an anxious look came into his eyes, and he asked in a troubled voice, "Where is the old man, my father?"
No one had seen him, and in the hurry of departure all seemed to have forgotten him.
Just then lights began to shine in all the palace windows, and a distant roar of voices was heard.
"Our escape has been discovered," cried the men. "Quick, quick, let us cast off or all will be lost."
"Bartolo, Bartolo," cried Stellante, "oh, come quickly," and she stretched out her arms to try to draw him into the boat.
"Nay, I cannot come without the old man," said Bartolo. "I have promised."
"Then we must all perish together," said the men in despair.
"Not so," said Bartolo quickly. "Cast away and row off to the ship with all speed. I will stay and search for the old hermit."
"You shall not stay," cried Stellante wildly, "or I will stay with thee."
But even as she spoke the boat was pushed off and Bartolo was left alone upon the seashore. In vain she prayed and entreated to be taken back; the men grimly held to their oars, and took no notice of her cries, for it was a matter of life and death to all of them, and they knew a Turkish vessel would soon be ready to sail in pursuit. Half fainting, Stellante was lifted on board, and all night long she lay with her head on old Rachel's lap, white and silent as death. It was a terrible night for all on board. The Turkish ship gained fast upon them, and would ere long have recaptured them had not a dense mist come suddenly rolling in from the sea and hidden them in its great white, friendly folds. But even then they anxiously watched and waited for the dawn, never knowing where their enemy might be.
Towards daybreak the mist began to melt into a gentle rain, and the pale face upon old Rachel's lap began to show signs of returning life as the cool, refreshing drops fell upon the white cheeks. Gradually all the sad truth came back to Stellante and she stood upright, with the strength given her by her anger and despair. With flashing eyes she called the men traitors and cowards.
"He had helped you all, to him you owed your escape, and yet you sailed away in safety and left him alone and defenceless to face the rage and revenge of your masters," she cried.
The men hung their heads and answered nothing. They could not reason with her, but so great was her grief and anger that they feared she would throw herself into the sea.
But like most fierce storms Stellante's anger soon spent itself, and ere long she sat sobbing, with her head leaning against old Rachel's shoulder.
"Princess," said the old woman, "anger and reproaches cannot help us; let us rather pray that all may yet be well."
But Stellante only shook her head, she could not even pray, and alone the old woman quietly told her beads and prayed for the safety of Bartolo and the old man.
Stellante sat silent, but presently she lifted her head and seemed to listen to some far-off sound. Then she stood up and ran swiftly to the side of the ship. There was a quick movement among the men, for they did not know what she meant to do, but she only lifted her finger and bade them be silent, and stood there with that listening look, and eyes which strove to pierce the mist. Then by-and-bye they, too, heard the sound of oars dipped in regular cadence, and through the mist the dim outline of a boat was seen to glide nearer and nearer, manned by two ghostly figures. Slowly they drew near and then a shout of joy went up from all on board, for they saw that the two grey figures were indeed their lost comrades, Bartolo and the old hermit.
Eager hands helped them on board and anxious voices asked how they had fared, but they were too tired to speak until they had been revived by food and wine. Then with Stellante's hand clasped close in his, Bartolo told how he had gone back and found the old man, and how in the uproar no one had noticed them and they had managed to escape unseen into the friendly mist which had hidden them, too, from their enemies. The old hermit had rowed with wonderful strength and seemed to have eyes that could pierce the mist, for he had directed the boat's course so well that they had come straight to their own vessel.
Merrily then the good ship sailed along, leaving the unfriendly shores and cruel pursuers far behind, and daily it drew nearer that dear land they called home. But as each brow grew lighter and each heart grew happier there was one person who became sadder and quieter as the days passed by. This was the old hermit, and when at last the long purple line on the horizon showed that land would soon be near, he called all the men together and bade them listen to a tale he had to tell.
It was the story of Bartolo's life which the old man told to the listening company. It began with all the kind little deeds which their captain had done when he was but a child in Venice, and it then went on to his rescue of Stellante and all the adventures which came after. There were many things told which even Bartolo himself had forgotten, and he was amazed at the knowledge which the old hermit possessed. As he listened to the list of his good deeds he grew shamefaced, especially when all the men shouted with one accord, "Long live our captain!"
But the old hermit held up his hand and asked for silence, that he might go on with his story.
"There is but little more to tell," he said, "but now I would explain to you my own share in this story. I am none other than that poor, disgraced debtor whom Bartolo found in the market-place of Amalfi, and laid to rest in a peaceful grave. In the world of shadows I was permitted to know what dangers threatened him, and allowed to return to earth for a space to watch over and protect him. There upon the desert island I waited for him, and ever since I have helped and guided him. Now, my children, my time is ended. Bartolo, you have no longer need of me, for thy other protector, the star of thy life, shines clear upon thy pathway once more, and peace and happiness await thee as the just reward of thy kind deeds."
Then as they looked, the old man was gone, and they knew he had been indeed a guardian angel sent to protect and help him who had never failed to help and protect others that needed his care.
So, hand in hand, Stellante and Bartolo began life once more in beautiful Venice, and the blessing they had earned was like a golden ring around them, keeping out all evil, and closing them in with love and peace and true happiness.