Near the Palace of the Doges in Venice there is a wide marble bridge which is crossed by hundreds of busy feet all day long. But few of the people who pass that way ever notice a little marble picture, close to the pavement, tucked away into a corner of the bridge. It is the picture of a gentle-faced Madonna with her Baby, and underneath are two quaint-looking boats, with some words cut out in the marble.
Sometimes when a gondola goes gliding under the bridge some one with noticing eyes will see the little marble picture and ask the gondolier why it was put there.
"Signorina," says the gondolier, "there is a wonderful and true story about that little Madonna. I cannot tell you the story now because there is so much noise and confusion in these little canals. But some night when we are out on the great lagunes I will tell you why the Madonna and the boats are there."
And this is the story which the gondolier tells under the stars, out on the calm, still water of the lagunes. The far-away lights of Venice shine like a circlet of diamonds with their long reflections in the calm waters. The world seems to our eyes like a crystal globe, for who can tell where the sky begins and the water ends, or which are the most real, the stars overhead, or their twin reflections below? The fireflies come out and breathe and vanish and glow again. A little flame of blue fire breaks the surface of the water as the oar dips down. There is magic in everything around, which well befits the telling of the old Venetian legend.
Long years ago there lived an old fisherman in Venice. He was an honest, hard-working old man, who had nothing in the world but his nets and his fishing-boat. But what more would you have?
At night he tied up his boat under the wide, white bridge, and slept there snugly until the morning. It was as good as a marble palace to him.
Of course there were storms in winter, but his boat was always safe in the shelter of the bridge until one terrible night.
The winter was almost past, for it was in the month of February, when a storm burst over Venice, such as no one had ever seen before, and no one has ever seen since. For three days the storm raged, and the waters rose higher and higher until it seemed as if Venice would be swept from her foundations.
The old fisherman in his little boat was moored as usual under the bridge, but the mad swirl of the waters broke the moorings and he was swept out into the open, and only managed with great difficulty to reach the steps by the Riva of San Marco. There he landed wet through and greatly fearing what would happen next. There was nothing to do but to sit down and wait patiently for the storm to cease, while the angry waves beat against his little boat, and the night grew darker and darker.
Presently, as he sat there alone, a man came down the steps and stood beside him. The old fisherman knew most of the Venetian people by sight, but he had never seen this man before.
"Fisherman," said the stranger, "wilt thou row me across the water to San Giorgio?"
Now the island on which San Giorgio stands was not far off, but between was a grey belt of raging waves lashed ever higher and higher by the fierce gathering storm.
The old fisherman pointed to the waves and then to his little boat.
"How can I row thee across?" he shouted, for he needs must shout to be heard above the roar of the wind; "my boat would be dashed to pieces in a moment, and we would both be drowned."
"I must reach San Giorgio to-night," said the stranger, "and I will pay thee generously."
Well, seeing it was the will of heaven and hearing that he would be well paid, the old fisherman entered the boat with the stranger and managed to push off from the shore. What then was his amazement to find that it was quite easy to guide the boat. The tempest still raged around him, but the waves seemed to spread themselves out in a smooth pathway before them.
It was not long, therefore, before they reached San Giorgio, and there the stranger landed, bidding the old fisherman wait for him.
Presently the stranger came out of the church again and with him came a young knight. He was straight as an arrow, upright as a dart, and his face was very good to look upon, it was so brave and beautiful.
Both the men entered the boat, and the stranger, turning to the fisherman, said quietly, "Now, thou shalt row us over to San Niccolo di Lido."
"But how is that possible?" cried the old fisherman, throwing out his hands. "Even were it fair weather it would be impossible to row so far with but one oar."
"It shall be possible for thee," answered the stranger calmly, "and remember thou shalt be paid generously."
Well, the fisherman looked at the wide stretch of angry waters and then at the quiet face of the stranger, and took up his oar again.
"We shall certainly all be drowned," he said. But he pushed off once more and set out in the direction of San Niccolo di Lido.
And just as it had happened before, the waves spread themselves out smoothly under the little boat, and the fisherman rowed without the slightest difficulty until they came to San Niccolo di Lido.
Then both the men got out, again bidding the fisherman wait for them.
This time they came back with an old man, dressed in the robes of a bishop. He had a kind, gentle face, and even to look at him comforted the heart of the frightened old fisherman.
"Now, row to the gates of the two castles," said the stranger, when all three were safely in the boat.
"But that is the open sea," said the fisherman, trembling with fear; "we shall be certainly overwhelmed."
"Row boldly," said the stranger, "and fear naught."
The winds howled and the waves roared, and the tempest shrieked louder than ever. It seemed impossible that a little boat could live in such angry waters.
And lo! when they came to the gates of the sea, a terrible sight met the eyes of the old fisherman. Sweeping down upon them, full in front, was a huge ship or galley with all sails set. The ship was crowded in every corner with black demons whose shrieks rang even louder than the scream of the wind.
On and on they came, tearing through the waves, and the old fisherman fell on his knees and began to say his prayers, for he thought in another moment his boat would be swallowed up.
But the stranger and the knight and the old bishop rose to their feet, and with uplifted hands they calmly made the Sign of the Cross as the demon ship came near. Instantly the waters grew still, the wind dropped, and the demon ship disappeared with a sound like the crack of thunder.
"Now row us back from whence we came," said the stranger.
And the trembling old fisherman obeyed, wondering greatly what all this could mean. One thing he felt sure of. That demon ship had been on its way to overwhelm and destroy Venice, and he rejoiced to think his beloved city was now safe.
So back they went to San Niccolo di Lido, and there they left the old bishop; then on to San Giorgio, and there the brave knight silently landed.
But when the old fisherman rowed back to the Riva di San Marco, and the stranger was about to land, he began to bethink himself of the promised payment.
"Miracles are wonderful things," he said to himself, "but I want something more than miracles."
So he stood with his hat in his hand, and asked the stranger to pay him as he had promised.
"Thou art right," said the stranger. "I must not forget thee. Thou shalt be well rewarded. Dost thou know for whom thou hast worked to-night? I am Saint Mark, the patron saint of this city. The young knight we took with us was the brave Saint George, and the bishop was none other than the good Saint Nicholas. Together we have saved Venice. For had it not been for us the demons would utterly have destroyed her. To-morrow thou shalt go to the Doge and tell him all thou hast seen, and how Venice was saved with thy help, and he will reward thee."
The old fisherman shook his head.
"And how will the Doge know that I speak the truth?" he asked. For though he held Saint Mark in great reverence, and felt how great an honour it was for the saint to talk with him, he still felt a little anxious about the payment.
Then Saint Mark drew a ring off his finger and handed it to the old fisherman.
"Take this ring," he said, "and show it to the Doge, and tell him I gave it to thee. Then should he still doubt thy word, bid him look in the treasury of San Marco, and he will find the ring is no longer there."
So the old fisherman took the ring and thanked the Saint. And the next day he went as early as possible to the Doge and told him the whole story of what had happened, showing him the ring.
The Doge sent quickly to search in the treasury for the Saint's ring, which was always kept there, but they found it had disappeared. So they were sure that it was Saint Mark himself who had given it to the old fisherman. Whereupon there was a great thanksgiving service held in Venice, and a solemn procession went to each of the three churches, where the bones of the saints were enshrined.
The old fisherman was not only rewarded with gold, but a certain privilege was granted to him. He alone was allowed the right of selling the silver sand from the shore of the Lido. So he grew richer than any fisherman in Venice, but in spite of his riches he always lived in his little boat under the white marble bridge. And when he died the city rulers ordered that little marble picture to be made, with the boats carved beneath it, in memory of the old fisherman who had helped to save Venice that terrible night from the vengeance of the demon crew.