The gondolier does not differ noticeably from any other man whose business it is to convey his fellow creatures from one spot to another. The continual practice of assisting richer people than oneself to do things that oneself never does except for a livelihood would seem to engender a sardonic cast of mind. Where the gondolier chiefly differs from, say, the London cabman, is in his gift of speech. Cabmen can be caustic, sceptical, critical, censorious, but they do occasionally stop for breath. There is no need for a gondolier ever to do so either by day or night; while when he is not talking he is accompanying every movement by a grunt.
It is this habit of talking and bickering which should make one very careful in choosing a lodging. Never let it be near a traghetto; for at traghetti there is talk incessant, day and night: argument, abuse, and raillery. The prevailing tone is that of men with a grievance. The only sound you never hear there is laughter.
The passion for bickering belongs to watermen, although loquacity is shared by the whole city. The right to the back answer is one which the Venetian cherishes as jealously, I should say, as any; so much so that the gondolier whom your generosity struck dumb would be an unhappy man in spite of his windfall.
[Illustration: THE DOGANA (WITH S. GIORGIO MAGGIORE JUST VISIBLE)]
The gondolier assimilates to the cabman also in his liking to be overpaid. The English and Americans have been overpaying him for so many years that to receive now an exact fare from foreigners fills him with dismay. From Venetians, who, however, do not much use gondolas except as ferry boats, he expects it; but not from us, especially if there is a lady on board, for she is always his ally (as he knows) when it comes to pay time. A cabman who sits on a box and whips his horse, or a chauffeur who turns a wheel, is that and nothing more; but a gondolier is a romantic figure, and a gondola is a romantic craft, and the poor fellow has had to do it all himself, and did you hear how he was panting? and do look at those dark eyes! And there you are! Writing, however, strictly for unattended male passengers, or for strong-minded ladies, let me say (having no illusions as to the gondolier) that every gondola has its tariff, in several languages, on board, and no direct trip, within the city, for one or two persons, need cost more than one franc and a half. If one knows this and makes the additional tip sufficient, one is always in the right and the gondolier knows it.
One of the prettiest sights that I remember in Venice was, one Sunday morning, a gondolier in his shirt sleeves, carefully dressed in his best, with a very long cigar and a very black moustache and a flashing gold ring, lolling back in his own gondola while his small son, aged about nine, was rowing him up the Grand Canal. Occasionally a word of praise or caution was uttered, but for the most part they went along silently, the father receiving more warmth from the consciousness of successful paternity than we from the sun itself.