All I knew of her antecedents and life outside of these visits was what Luigi told me. She was born, he said, in the shipyards, and at the moment lived in the top of the rookery nearest the bridge. She had an only sister, who was ten years older; the mother was the wife of a crab fisherman who had died some years before; the two children and mother were cared for by a brother crab fisherman. His son Francesco, if report were true, was to marry the sister when she turned fifteen, Francesco being four years older. This last reference to Francesco came with a shake of the head and a certain expression in Luigi’s eyes which told me at once that his opinion of the prospective groom was not for publication— a way he has when he dislikes somebody and is too polite to express it.
“Fishes for crabs, like his father?” I asked.
“Yes, crabs and young girls,” he answered with a frown. “A poor lot, these crab catchers, Signore. Was it the charcoal or a brush you wanted?”
Francesco did not interest me,—nor did the grownup sister; nor the mother, over whom Luigi also shrugged his shoulders. It was Loretta’s chubbiness that delighted my soul.
Even at five she was a delightful little body, and full of entrancing possibilities. One can always tell what the blossom will be from the bud. In her case, all the essentials of beauty were in evidence: dark, lustrous velvety eyes; dazzling teeth—not one missing; jet-black hair—and such a wealth of it, almost to her shoulders; a slender figure, small hands and feet; neat, well-turned ankles and wrists, and rounded plump arms above the elbows.
“What do you intend to do, little one, when you grow up?” I asked her one morning. She was sitting beside me, her eyes following every movement of my brush.
“Oh, what everybody does. I shall string beads and then when I get big like my sister I shall go to the priest and get married, and have a ring and new shoes and a beautiful, beautiful veil all over my hair.”
“So! And have you picked him out yet?”
“Oh, no, Signore! Why, I am only a little girl. But he will surely come,—they always come.”
These mornings in the gondola continued until she was ten years old. Sometimes it was a melon held high in the air that tempted her; or a basket of figs, or some huge bunches of grapes; or a roll and a broiled fish from a passing cook-boat: but the bait always sufficed. With a little cry of joy the beads would be dropped, or the neighbor’s child passed to another or whatever else occupied her busy head and small hands, and away she would run to the water steps and hold out her arms until Luigi rowed over and lifted her in. She had changed, of course, in these five years, and was still changing, but only as an expanding bud changes. The eyes were the same and so were the teeth—if any had dropped out, newer and better ones had taken their places; the hair though was richer, fuller, longer, more like coils of liquid jet, with a blue sheen where the sky lights touched its folds. The tight, trim little figure, too, had loosened out in certain places—especially about the chest and hips. Before many years she would flower into the purest type of the Venetian—the most beautiful woman the world knows.