When Gerald asked Mrs. Hawthorne to sit for him, she stared in his face without a word.
"Don't be afraid," he hastened to reassure her; "I engage to paint a portrait you will like."
She felt herself blush for the dismay she had not been able to conceal, and to hide this embarrassment she lifted to her face—not the handkerchief or the bouquet with which beauty is wont to cover the telltale signal in the cheek, but a wee dog, as white as a handkerchief and no less sweet than a bouquet. She rubbed her nose fondlingly in the soft silk of his breast, while, tickled, he tried, with baby growls and an exposure of sharp pin teeth, to get a bite at it.
Gerald looked on with simple pleasure. Because he had given Aurora that dog. On the day of making a scene because she was to receive a dog from Hunt he had set to work to find one for her himself, the prior possession of which would make it natural to decline Charlie's, if, as Gerald doubted, Charlie's offer had been anything more than facile compliment. And now, instead of the torment to his nerves of seeing her fondle and kiss a brute of Charlie's, he had the not disagreeable spectacle of her pressing to her warm and rosy face an animal that related her caresses, even if loosely and distantly, to a less unworthy object. Sour and sad, dried up and done with women, a man still has feelings.
It would be unfair not to add that something better than primeval jealousy actuated Gerald, at the same time as, no doubt, some tincture of that. A sort of impersonal delicacy made the idea disagreeable to him of a dear, nice woman cherishing with the foolish fondness such persons bestow on their pets the gift of a friend whom she, in taking his loyalty for granted, overrated, as he thought.
The dog he had selected to present to her belonged to a breed for which he had respect as well as affection, crediting to Maltese terriers, besides all the sterling dog virtues, a discretion, a fineness of feeling, rare enough among humans. That Gerald kept no dog was due to the fact that he was still under the impression of the illness and death of his last, Lucile's pet and his mother's, who had been his companion until a year or two before, a senile, self-controlled little personage of the Maltese variety.
Having decided to give Mrs. Hawthorne a dog, Gerald had spent some hours watching the several components of one litter as they disported themselves in the flagged court of a peasant house, and had fixed upon one dusty ball of fluff rather than another upon solid indications of character.
Snowy after strenuous purifications at the hands of Giovanna, sweet-smelling from the pinch of orris powder rubbed in his fur, and brave with a cherry ribbon, he was taken from the breast of Gerald's overcoat and deposited in the hands of Aurora, whose delight expressed itself in sounds suggestive of an ogreish craving to eat the little beast, interspersed with endearments of dim import, such as, "Diddums! Wasums! Tiddledewinkums!" Estelle's did the same. There was no difference in the affection the two instantly bestowed on this dog. Aurora remarked later on that Busteretto couldn't be blamed for not knowing which was his mother.
Sensitively timid, yet bold in his half dozen inches with curiosity of life and the exuberant gladness of youth, Busteretto could frisk and he could tremble. He was cowed by the sight of fearful things, beetles and big dogs, but next moment, with budding valor, would dash to investigate them. He twinkled when he ran, his bark lifted him off his four feet. Withal something exquisite marked him even among Maltese puppies, which Aurora felt without art to define it. She said he reminded her of the new moon when it is no bigger than a fingernail. If with the tip of his rose-petal tongue he laid the lick of fondness and approval on the end of your nose, you felt two things: that the salute had come directed by the purest heart-guidance, and that the nose had something about it subtly right. You were flattered.
When Gerald encouraged Mrs. Hawthorne to decide for herself how she should like to be painted, with what habiliments, appurtenances and surroundings, she decided first of all to have Busteretto on her lap,—but that was afterward given up: he wiggled. Then her white ostrich fan in her hand, her pearls around her neck, her diamond stars in her hair, a cluster of roses at her corsage, her best dress on, and an opera-cloak thrown over the back of her chair.
Catching, as she thought, a look of irony on Gerald's face, she had a return of suspicion.
"See here," she said, observing him narrowly, "there's no trick about this, is there?"
"Not the shadow of one. Please trust me, Mrs. Hawthorne. This is to be a portrait entirely satisfactory as well as entirely resembling. It is like you to desire to be painted with your plumes and pearls and roses, and they are very becoming. I shall put them in with pleasure. I know you do not believe I can paint a portrait to suit you. Very well. Grant me the favor of a chance to try. We shall see."
It was true that she did not believe it, but she was so willing to hope. One of the upstairs rooms at the back was chosen for the sittings because the light through its windows was the least variable. The necessary artist's baggage was brought over from Gerald's, and the work began.
Charcoal in hand, he regarded Mrs. Hawthorne quietly and lengthily through half-closed eyes.
"You have not one good feature," he said, as if thinking aloud.
"Oh!"—she started out of the pose they had after much experimenting decided upon—"oh! is that the way you're going to pay me for keeping still on a chair by the hour?"
"You have no eyebrows to speak of."
"What do you mean? Yes, I have, too; lots of them; lovely ones. Only they don't show up. They're fair, to match my hair."
"You are undershot."
"Your lower jaw closes outside of your upper."
"Oh, but so little! Just enough to take the curse off an otherwise too perfect beauty."
As she curled up the corners of her mouth in an affected smirk, he quickly shifted his glance, with a horrible suspicion that she was crossing her eyes. As she had pronounced the word perfect "parfect," he presumed that she was making herself look, for the remainder, like Antonia. It was her latest vaudeville turn, imitating Antonia. He was careful not to look again in her direction until she had stopped doing what annoyed him furiously. He could not hope to make her understand to what point the debasing of beauty to brutal comic uses wounded him.
"Faultless features," he went on after a time, in commentary on his earlier remark, "do not by any means always make a beautiful face," politely leading her to suppose he meant that to be without them was no great misfortune.
Estelle came into the room for company. She brought her sewing, one of those elegant pieces of handiwork that give to idleness a good conscience. Gerald felt her delicately try to get acquainted with him. She was not as altogether void of intellectual curiosity as her friend. She would seem to care about discovering further what sort of man he was mentally, what his ideas were on a variety of subjects. Also, but even more delicately, to interest him, just a little bit, in her own self and ideas.
He was grateful to her, and did what he could to show himself responsive. With the portrait began the period of a less perfunctory relation between them. They had talks sometimes that Aurora declared, without trace of envy, were 'way above her head.
Estelle was waking to an interest in the art and history of the Old World. She was "reading up" on these things. She was also "working at" her French, and would in a little systematic way she had excuse herself at the same hour daily, saying she must go and get her lessons. Not feeling quite the enterprise to study two languages at one time, she had given the preference to French, as being the more generally useful in Europe.
Gerald now made the acquaintance of a new member of the household. She came into the room bearing a small tray with a hot-water pot and a cup. She took this to Aurora, who helped herself to plain hot water, explaining:
"I am trying to 'redooce.' This is good for what ails me, they say. But I could never in the world think of it. Clotilde thinks of it for me, and she's that punctual! Clotilde, you're too punctual with this stuff. You don't suppose I like it?"
"But think, Madame, of the sylph's form that it will give you!" replied Clotilde, in respectably good English.
"I do think of it. Give me another cup. Mr. Fane, this is Miss—no, I won't launch on that name. It's Italo's sister, who has saved our lives and become our greatest blessing."
Clotilde exposed in smiling a fine array of white teeth. She was not at all like her brother, but well-grown, white and pink beneath her neat head-dress of crisp black hair. She impressed Gerald as belonging to a different and better class. If she were vulgar, it was at least not in the same way. She appeared like that paradox, a lady of the working-class, with a distinguishing air of capability, good humor, and openness. The latter Gerald was not disposed absolutely to trust, but he was glad to trust all the rest.
No sooner had she left the room than Aurora and Estelle in one voice started telling him about her. He learned that she and Italo were not what they called "own" brother and sister, but only half. Their father, being left by the death of his wife with a young family on his hands, had in feeble despair married the cook, become the father of one more child, and died. Italo was that latest born. The children of the first wife had then been taken by her folks, while their step-mother retained her own chick, assisted from a distance by the prouder portion of the family to educate and give him a trade. He had chosen an art instead, and by it was rising in the world. There had been published a waltz of his composing, dedicated by permission to a name with a coronet over it. He lived with and supported his good soul of a mother, and saw something of his half-brethren, all of them through lack of fortune condemned to small ways of life, like himself.
Clotilde, the best-hearted, was his favorite and he hers. She recognized his gifts, she further regarded him as a man of spirit, or wit.
"It must be," reflected Gerald, "that the fellow can stir up a laugh."
He knew him only as a fixture at the piano, but could well accommodate the idea of a species of buffoonery to that boldly jutting nose of his. He fancied that maldicenza, gossip further spiced with backbiting, would form the chief baggage of his wit. If he possessed sharp ears, his opportunities for picking up knowledge of other people's affairs were certainly unusual. He passed from house to house, playing accompaniments, drumming for dancing, so insignificant on his screw-stool that many no doubt talked before him as if nobody had been there.
Gerald did not dislike Ceccherelli, really, only had him on his nerves in relation to Aurora. He felt him, indeed, rather likeable at a distance, as part of a story; he had the good point of being an individual. Gerald was in general touched to benevolence at sight of a poor devil elated by his little draught of success. To Ceccherelli without a doubt the patronage of the wealthy American represented success. Ceccherelli pulling out his gold watch was a disarming vision.
Gerald cherished a hope, born of curiosity, that he might witness some exhibition of Ceccherelli's spirito, or wit, and upon an evening when the pianist dropped in after dinner was on the alert for manifestations....
It may here be inserted that upon being asked to remain for dinner Gerald had artfully delayed answering until he had made sure that Clotilde did not dine with the ladies. Their familiarity had made him fear it. Highly as he was prepared to esteem Clotilde, the meal would, with her making the fourth, have lost for him those points on account of which he prized it. But he gathered that she found it more convenient to take her meals in private. In rejoicing for himself, he rejoiced also for her, eating in holy peace, as he pictured her doing, the dishes of her country, cooked with oil and onion; pouring the wine of her country from a good fat flask such as never found its place on the table of the strangers.
To go back: Gerald when after dinner the pianist came to make music for the ladies, was hoping for some example of that brightness for which he had a reputation with three persons, possibly more. But Ceccherelli remained on the piano-stool and never once raised his voice. Estelle and Aurora went in turns to chat with him there, but not one witty word reached Gerald. Then he had the sense to see that it was he, Gerald, who acted as a spoil-feast, a dampener. He got an outside view of himself, stiff, dry, critical, ungenial-looking. It was not to be wondered at that the flow of spirits was dried up in the man of temperament by his vicinity. He suspected, catching a side-look from the pianist's small brown eye, that the little man who did not care to speak aloud in his hearing yet had plenty to say on the subject of him in a different entourage.
This notwithstanding, it was only when Gerald got whiffs and echoes of Ceccherelli through Aurora that he called him a pest.
"Italo says," she began, after a silence such as often fell while she posed and he painted, "that Mr. Landini has the evil eye."
"Glad to hear you say so. I don't believe there's any such thing, myself. But Italo swears there is, and has told me story upon story to prove it. He wants me to wear a coral horn and poke it at Mr. Landini whenever he comes near me."
"Wherefore a coral horn? You can more cheaply, and quite as effectually, make horns of your fingers, like this. I should strongly advise you not to let the object of this precaution catch you doing it.... I should think, Mrs. Hawthorne, you would be ashamed to let that inferior little individual corrupt your mind."
Fancying it teased him, she pursued, "What do you think he says besides? That Mr. Landini's color isn't natural, but a juice, he says, a dye, that he stains himself with."
"For the love of Heaven, why?"
"That's what I wanted to know. Why go to all that trouble for the sake of looking like a darkey? But Italo says, says Italo, that it gives him more success with the ladies. His difference from other men obliges them to look at him, then his eyes do the rest."
"I only hope your laugh is sincere, Mrs. Hawthorne, and that you do not allow this poisonous nonsense to affect your feelings towards—"
"Don't be afraid. If I did, I shouldn't be having him to dinner, should I? And he's coming to-night."
"Yes. Quite a party. You weren't asked, because we know you now. You would have managed by sly questions to find out who else was coming and then you wouldn't have come."
"Well, who is coming? There is nothing sly about that."
"I sha'n't tell you. This much I will tell you, though—" she added with the frankness usual to her, "I don't look forward to it much."
It was on the end of his tongue to ask next morning how her dinner had gone off, but on second thoughts he left it for her to speak of when she was ready.
She at first appeared much as on other days, but when she had lapsed into silence and fallen into thought her expression became a shade gloomy. He had noticed that when her eyes were rather more grey than blue it was the sign of a cloud in her sky.
"Might one ask the lady sitting for her picture to look pleasant?" he said.
"Yes, yes," she remembered herself; "I will try to look pleasant. But I feel cross."
"Well?... What went wrong with your dinner?"
"Oh, I made a fool of myself."
"That sounds serious. Was it?"
"Yes. No. Oh, I don't know. I don't suppose it was really serious.... But the whole thing has made me cross."
She labored under an urgent necessity to tell somebody all about it, that was evident.
"You see," she plunged without preamble into her confidence, "from the beginning, I didn't want that party! I love to have folks to dinner, any number, all the time. You know I just love a jollification. But this was different, as I knew it was going to be. It began with Charlie Hunt telling me—or, not exactly telling, I forget how it came out—that yesterday was his birthday. I said, 'Come and celebrate with us!' I was thinking of making a big cake and sticking it full of pink candles. And from that simple beginning, blessed if I know how it happened, except my always wanting to say yes to anything anybody proposes, it came to be a regular dinner-party, the kind they give over here, with courses and wines and finger-bowls, all the frills, and twelve people, not friends of mine at all, barely acquaintances, but people Charlie Hunt thought it would be nice to ask. Well, it was my fault, every bit of it, and nobody else's. I've no business to say all those joyful yeses if I don't mean them. Good enough for me if I have to swallow my pill afterwards without so much as making a face. It wasn't so bad, after all, everything went all right, thanks to Clotilde and Charlie. Only I wasn't having much fun. Charlie had planned how people should sit, and Mr. Landini was on one side of me, and he was making himself terribly agreeable. He means all right, but his talk, as I guess you know, isn't a bit my kind. And last night, I don't mind telling you—" her voice dropped to a note confidentially low, "with his compliments and incinerations, you'd almost have thought he was sweet on me. Only I know better. And so, as I say, I wasn't having much fun. Then I don't know what got into me. They were passing the fruit. I got up and went to the sideboard and took one of those fine hot-house looking peaches out of our permanent assortment that needs dusting every few days, and I came back to my seat and offered that marble fruit with a fetching smile to Mr. Landini. He looked as if he felt I was bestowing a very particular favor. He took it—and it dropped out of his hand on to the plate with a crash that laid it in smithereens.... You can see why I am cross."
"I shouldn't be surprised, dear woman, if he were cross, too."
"He was perfect! I respected him! Liked him better than I ever had before! I never saw anything so well done as the way he carried it off! I was never so uncomfortable in all my life, though we united in laughing, ha, ha.... Charlie would have taken my head off, if he had dared, afterwards in a corner of the parlor. But the first word he said, I cut in, short as pie-crust, 'Young man,' I said, 'if you aren't careful I shall sit on you. Do you know how much I weigh?' And I meant it."
Gerald prudently placed a paint-brush across his mouth, and shut his teeth on it as on a bridle-bit, to excuse his saying nothing in the way of comment on what he had heard.
Mrs. Hawthorne told him next day at the first opportunity, like one eager to make reparation for an injustice, "It's all right now! A beautiful plate came yesterday afternoon from Ginori's where my dinner-set was bought—a plate, you know, to match the one that got broken. As if I cared anything about the old plate! And along with it Mr. Landini's card, with such a nice message written on it. Don't you think it white in him? When it was all my fault. And in the evening Charlie Hunt came and was sweet as pie. We're just as good friends as ever. I'm ashamed of myself for having felt so put out. Forget anything I said that didn't seem quite kind. He's all right. It's me that's crochety.... Isn't that picture far enough along for you to let me see it?"
"No, Mrs. Hawthorne."
"Will you let me see it when it's far enough along?"
"I think you're real mean. How much longer will it take to finish it?"
"Does sitting bore you so much?"
"Land, no! Bore me? I perfectly love it! It's like taking a sea-voyage with some one. You see more of them in a week or two than you would in the same number of years on land. I'm getting to feel I know you quite well."
"Wasn't it clever of me to think of the portrait?"
"Go 'way! D'you see anything green in my eye? As I was saying, I'm getting to know you pretty well. You get mad awful' easy, don't you? But you don't hate people, really, nearly as much as I do, that it takes a lot to make mad. There are people in this world that I hate—oh, how I hate 'em! I hate 'em so I could almost put their eyes out. But you, Stickly-prickly, when it comes right down to it, I notice you make a lot of allowance for people. Do you know, when it comes right down to it, you're one of the patientest persons I know. I'd take my chances with you for a judge a lot sooner than I'd like to with loads of people who aren't half so ready to call you a blame' fool."
"While you have been making these valuable discoveries in character, what do you suppose I have been doing, Mrs. Hawthorne?" asked Gerald, after the time it would take to bow ceremoniously in acknowledgement of a compliment.
"Oh, finding out things about me, I suppose."
"Not things. One thing. I had known you for some length of time before my felicitous invention of the portrait, you remember, and as you are barely more elusive than the primary colors, or more intricate than the three virtues, I did not suppose I had anything more to learn. But I had. It can't be said I didn't suspect it. I had seen signs of it. I smelled it, as it were. But I had no idea of its extent, its magnitude, its importance. It is simply amazing, bewildering, funny."
"For goodness' sake, what?" she cried, breathless with interest.
"I can't tell you. It would ill become me to say. The least mention of it on my part would be the height of impertinence. The thing is none of my business. Be so kind as to resume the pose, Mrs. Hawthorne, and to keep very, very still, like a good girl. Do not speak, please, for some time; I am working on your mouth."
Gerald had indeed been astonished, amused, appalled. He had in a general way known that Mrs. Hawthorne was prodigal, the impression one received of her at first sight prepared one to find her generous; but he had formed no idea of the ease and magnificence with which she got rid of money.
In the time so far devoted to painting her he had grown quite accustomed to a little scene that almost daily repeated itself—a scene which he, busy at his side of the room, was presumably not supposed to see, or, if he saw it, to think anything about.
Clotilde would come in with a look of great discretion, a smile of great modesty, and stand hesitating, like a person with a communication to make, but not sufficient boldness to interrupt. Aurora, always glad to drop the pose, would excuse herself to Gerald and ask what Clotilde wanted. Clotilde would then approach and speak low,—not so low, however, but that in spite of him messages and meanings were telegraphed to Gerald's brain. The look itself of the unsealed envelopes in Clotilde's hand was to Gerald's eye full of information. She would sometimes extract and unfold a document for Aurora to look at; but Aurora would wave it aside with a careless, "You know I couldn't read it if I wanted to." At the end of the murmured conference Aurora would say, "Will you go and get my porte-monnaie? It's in my top drawer," and when this had been brought, her dimpled hand would take from it and give to Clotilde bills of twenty, of fifty, of a hundred francs, hardly appearing to count. Sometimes she would say: "I'm afraid I haven't enough. I shall have to make out a check."
Gerald's flair, and knowledge of his Florence, enabled him perfectly to divine what was in question. He was only puzzled as to why these transactions should not have taken place at a more private hour, and acutely observed that they took place when they could, this being when Estelle was out of the way. Clotilde also had flair.
After Clotilde had retired, Aurora one morning, having imperfectly understood what her money was wanted for, puckered her brows over the letters that, through an oversight, had remained in her hands. She held one out to Gerald to translate. It was from the united chorus-singers of Florence, a simple, direct, and ingenuous appeal for a gratuity. Another letter was from a poor young girl who wished for money to buy her wedding outfit. Another from a poor man out of work.
Gerald could have laughed. But he did not; nor made any remark. He did not dislike seeing those voracious maws stuffed with a fat morsel. He knew as much of the real poverty in Florence as of the innocent impudence of many poor, with their lingering medieval outlook upon the relations of the poor and the rich. He sided with those against these. Singularly, perhaps, he regarded himself as belonging among the latter, the rich. He was glad the chorus-singers and the sposina and the worried padre di famiglia were going to be made glad by rich crumbs from Aurora's board. But he could not help uneasiness for the future, when the famished locusts, still approaching single scout, should precipitate themselves in battalions, when the whole of Florence should have got the glad tidings and gathered impetus....
Well, Clotilde was there. Clotilde would know pertinent discourses to hold to the brazen beggars when their shamelessness passed bounds. Meanwhile Gerald could see that she enjoyed this distributing of good things among her fellow-citizens. Not that she was strongly disposed to charity. He did not believe she gave away anything of her own, but she loved to see Aurora give. After a life spent in a home where the lumps of sugar were counted and the coffee-beans kept under lock and key, it attracted her like wild, incredible romance.
It would have hurt her to behold this unproductive output, no doubt, had it not been a mere foreigner who lost what her own people gained,—money, besides, that could never have benefited her, and that came nearer to benefiting her when spent in that manner than in another. Clotilde, loyal in service, giving more than good measure, offering all the pleasant fruits of a visible devotion, could yet not be expected to have—or, to state it more fairly, was not supposed by Gerald to have—any real bowels for this outsider, who might for one thing be drawing from bottomless gold-mines, or, if she were not, would suffer a ruin she had richly deserved. And might it not in aftertimes profit her, Clotilde, to have been instrumental to this person and that in obtaining money from the millionaire? The shops recognized such a title to reward, and offered it regularly to such private middlemen as herself for a careful guiding of the dispensing hand, and this without the feeling on any side that it was the payment of the unjust steward.
Gerald did not in the least despise Clotilde, poor Clotilde, with her nose like a little white trumpet between her downy pink and white cheeks, for this business-like outlook and use of her position. It would have been different if she had been a friend and gentleman.
* * * * *
The portrait did not progress rapidly. Gerald was not hurrying. On Gerald's lips as he painted there played an ambiguous smile, privately derisive of his work and the fun he was having.
No problems, no effort, none of those searching doubts of oneself that produce heart-sickness; nor yet any of those exaltations that cause one to forget the hour of meals. Curious that it should have been fun all the same!... His reply to which was that only a very poor observer could think it curious that the lower man within a man should feel it fun to be indulged. Fortunately, a natural limit was set to this Capuan period.
He would come from the winter world into the room which the American kept enervatingly warm, a pernicious practice. One could not deny, however, that the body relaxed in it with a sense of well-being, after steeling itself to resist the insidious Italian cold, exuding from damp pavements and blown on the sharp tramontana; that cold which is never, if measured by the thermometer, severe, but against which clothing seems ineffectual. The blood does not react against it; the blood shrinks away, and stagnates around the heart.
He would change his coat for a velveteen jacket, not in order to be picturesque, but to keep his coat-cuffs clean. He was as particular as an old maid, Aurora told him, before he had been caught absentmindedly wiping paint off on his hair.
The fair model would get her chair-legs into correspondence with certain chalk-marks on the carpet, be helped to find her pose, and having made herself comfortable, turn on him blue eyes, with a faint brown shadow under them—blue eyes that wore a sheepish look until she presently forgot she was sitting for her picture. She was pressed to keep her opera-cloak over her shoulders, lest she take cold in her decollete; the high fur collar made an effective background for her face. Then he would fall to painting, and the hours of the forenoon would fly.
An amiable woman would now and then make a remark, easily jocular. Another amiable woman—soothing presences, both—would answer. Or he would answer; there would be an interlude of familiar talk, rest, and laughing, and throwing a ball for a scampering puppy. At noon an end to labor. He would remain for lunch, that meal of cheery luxury, immorally abundant. After it he would still linger in this house, bright and warm with fires, smoking cigarettes in a chair as luxuriously soft as those curling clouds on which are seen throning the gods in ceiling frescos, and grow further day by day into the intimacy of the amiable women. In full afternoon they would ask him if he would go out with them in their carriage, take an airing, and return for dinner; or, if he obstinately declined, might they set him down somewhere. He would make a point of not accepting, and hurry off afoot with his damp umbrella.
Although Gerald had enlightened contempt for the sensuous comfort he was taking in the fleshpots of the Hermitage, there was in it one element which he did not analyze merely to despise.
He was aware of it most often after Estelle had left the room. He settled down then for a time of heightened well-being. It was observable that the sitter also took on a faintly different air. Often at that moment she would vaguely, purposelessly, smile over to him, and he would smile in absolute reciprocity. They would not seize the opportunity for more personal exchange of talk. All would go on as before. He had nothing to say to Aurora or she to him that could not have been said before an army of witnesses. Yet it was to him as if a touch of magic had removed an impediment, and the mysterious effluvium which made the vicinity of Mrs. Hawthorne calming, healing to him, had a chance to flow and steep his nerves in a blessed quiet, a quiet which—one hardly knows how to describe such a thing—was at the same time excitement.
Gerald did not really care for talking. He could, it was true, sit up all night with Vincent Johns, discussing this subject and that; he could split hairs and wander into every intricacy of argument with men and artists; with women too he could sometimes be litigious. The bottom truth was nevertheless that he did not care for talking. It had happened to him to sigh for a world where nobody talked forever and ever.
What he cared for was faces. They were what discoursed to you, told the veracious story of lives and emotions—not lamely, as words do, mingling the trivial with the significant, but altogether perfectly. It rested with you to understand.
Mrs. Hawthorne in talk was cheap as echoes of a traveling-circus tent: you had the simple fooling of the clown, the plain good sense of the farmer's wife, the children's ebullient joy in the show. But Mrs. Hawthorne in silence and abstraction was allied to things august and mysterious, things far removed from her own thoughts. These, while she sat in her foolish jewels, unsuitable by day, were very likely busy with her house, her dressmaker, the doings of her little set, gossip, the personal affairs—who knows?—of the painter painting her. But, profounder than words or thoughts, Mrs. Hawthorne's essential manner of being related her to those forces of the world which the ancient mind figured in the shapes of women. There was something present in her of the basic kindness of old Earth, who wants to feed everybody, is ready to give her breast to all the children. Her robust joyousness reposed, one felt, on a reality, some great fact that made angers and anxieties irrational.
The student of faces could not have maintained that he got these impressions of his sitter through his eyes. It was more, after all, like a reflection received on the sensitive plate of his heart.
One day Gerald began to hurry. He had had enough of it. The portrait was finished in a few hours. The ladies were not permitted to see it. They were made to wait until it was varnished and framed in one of the great, bright Florentine frames of which they were so fond.
Gerald, while they took their first long, rapt look, stood at one side, with a smile like a faun's when a faun is Mephistophelian.
Aurora, clasping her hands in a delight that could find no words to express it, made a sound like the coo of a dove.
Estelle echoed this exclamation, but her charmed surprise did not ring so true, if any one had been watchful enough to seize the shade of difference. Because, not having been made to give a promise, she had from time to time taken a look privately at the painting during its progress. Aurora had known of this and been sorely tempted to do the same, but had resisted the temptation, afraid of Gerald's bad opinion.
"My soul!" she murmured, really much moved.
Of course she knew that the portrait flattered her; but she felt as Lauras and Leonoras and Lucastas no doubt felt when their poets celebrated them under ideal forms in which their friends and families may have had trouble to recognize them. The pride of having inspired an immortal masterpiece must have stirred their hearts to gratitude toward the gifted beings able to see them disencumbered from their faults, and fix them for the contemplation of their own eyes and their neighbors' as they had been at the best moment of their brightest hour.
In the days when La Grande Mademoiselle was painted as Minerva, Aurora's portrait might have been called "Mrs. Hawthorne as Venus." The expression of her face was as void of history as the fair goddess's. The tender beam of pleasure lighting it suggested that she might that moment have been awarded the apple. The portrait was, nevertheless, in a way, "Aurora all over," as Estelle pronounced it; but an Aurora whose imperfections had been smoothed out of existence, and with them her humor; an Aurora whose good working complexion, as she called it, had been turned to lilies and roses, her hair of mortal gold to immortal sunshine, and those sagacious orbs of blue, which made friends for her by their twinkle, into melting azure stars.
The painter had, besides, glorified every detail of the setting: the rich fabric of the dress, the creamy feathers of the fan, even the roses of the breast-knot. The pearls and diamonds he had amused himself with making larger than they were, and filled these with a winking fire, those with a lambent luster. But Gerald had no mind when he indulged in satire to be gross. The whole was dainty, as shimmering as a soap-bubble, and of a fineness that rightly commended it to lovers of beautiful surfaces.
"I don't care," burst from Aurora, as if in reply to an inaudible criticism, "I just love it! I don't care if it is flattered. I could hug you for it, Gerald Fane. I think it's perfectly lovely. It's going to be a solid satisfaction. By and by, when my double chin has caught up with me, and I'm a homely old thing, and nobody knows what I did look like in my prime, I'll have this to show them. By that time, with my brain weakening, I hope I shall have come to thinking it was as like me as two peas. There's some reason for living now."
Every caller was taken to see the portrait, and heard Mrs. Hawthorne's opinion of the talented artist. The majority of visitors candidly shared her admiration, though not one woman among them can have failed to say to herself that the portrait was flattered. But with a portrait of oneself to have executed, who would not prefer the brush that makes beautiful?
Interest spread in the painter, whose work few even of the Florentines knew except from hearsay. No one who saw Mrs. Hawthorne's portrait was very clearly aware—such is fame!—that it was for Fane a departure. Until it came to Leslie. She stood a long time before the painting, then exclaimed:
"What a joke!"
But she was inclined to take the same view as Mrs. Hawthorne, that when he could paint like that it was a pity Gerald should not do it oftener, to build up a reputation and fill his purse. She only would have advised him not to go quite so far another time in the same direction.
* * * * *
As Gerald, the portrait finished, came no more to the house, fairly as if modesty could not have endured the compliments showered upon him, Aurora with a communication to make had to square herself before her desk in the room of the red flowers and painstakingly pen a note.
Aurora, when taking pains, wrote the cleanest, clearest, most characterless hand that was ever seen outside of a school copy-book, and took pride in it. Aurora's language, when she applied herself to composition, lost the last vestige of color and life. She wrote:
"My dear Mr. Fane:
"You have not been to see us for a long time, and so I am obliged to write what I have to say. It is that our friends cannot say enough in praise of your portrait of me, and Mrs. Bixby, an American who is staying at the pension Trollope, wants to have one just like it—one, of course, I mean, as much like her as that is like me, but not a bit more. But before she decides she wants to know what it will cost. And that brings me to the question, What is the price of my picture? Please, let me beg you to make it a figure I shall not blush to pay for such a fine piece of work. Make it a price that agrees with my estimate of the picture rather than your very modest one. I shall be glad, you ought to know, to pay anything you say. You couldn't, if you tried, make it seem too much for me to pay for such a fine piece of work. I have got up in the middle of the night and gone down to look at it with a candle, and stood till I began to sneeze, I like it so much, though I know it's too good-looking. So please set a good price on it and not make me feel mean taking it. Then I'll tell Mrs. Bixby what I paid. She's got plenty of money, and even if she beats you down, it will be better if she knows I paid a big price. You have such a wonderful talent it ought to make your fortune, and so it will by and by. Don't forget that we are always glad to see you and that you haven't been for quite a while.
"Yours sincerely, "Aurora Hawthorne.
"P.S. What do you think Busteretto did? He saw me pouring some water into a bowl and imagined I was going to give him a bath. So he went to hide under the grate. Then of course he had to have a bath, which he wouldn't have had to otherwise. He sends much love.
"Another P.S. I meant to tell you we have got a box for the veglione (I hope that is the way to spell it) on the last night of the Carnival. We have only asked the Fosses so far, and we want you to be sure to save that night to come with us."
Gerald, having read, sat down and wrote, with a disregard to the delicacy of his hair-lines and the shading of his down-strokes that would have furnished a poor example to anybody:
"The portrait, my dear Mrs. Hawthorne, is a gift, for which I will not even accept thanks, as it is, your kind opinion notwithstanding, absolutely without value. One sole point of interest it has, that of a future curiosity—the only thing of the kind that will have been painted in his whole lifetime by
"Your devoted friend, "G. F.
"Shall I find you at home this evening?"
No festivity has quite the vast and varied glitter of a veglione. It takes a whole city to make a party so big and bright. And the last veglione of the season is rather brighter than the rest, as if the spirit of revelry, inexhausted at the end of Carnival, made haste to use itself up in fireworks before the cold dawn of Ash Wednesday.
The opera-house is cleared of its rows of seats, the stage united to the parquet by a sloping floor. Every one of the boxes, rising tier above tier in a jeweled horseshoe, offers the sight of a merry supper-party, with spread table, twinkling candelabra, flowers, gala display.
Crowding floor and stage and lobbies, swarm the maskers. In the center of the great floor the corps de ballet, regiment of sylphs in tulle petticoats and pale-pink tights, performs its characteristic evolutions to the pulsating strains of the opera orchestra. The public dances in the remaining space—dances, promenades, and plays pranks, the special diversion of the evening being to "intrigue" some one. They are heard speaking in high squeaks, in bass rumbles, in any way that may disguise the voice. Many are in costume,—Mephistos, Pierrots, Figaros, Harlequins, but the most are in simple domino.
When a lady wishes to descend among the crowd she, in the darkness at the back of the box, slips a domino over her ball-dress, a mask over her features, and goes forth unknown to all save the cavalier on whose arm she leans.
The only uncovered faces belong to gentlemen. These look often a little foolish, a little bored, because the uncovered faces are the natural objects of the maskers' impertinences, their part the rather barren amusement of trying to divine who it is endeavoring to intrigue, or puzzle, them, and wittily to parry personalities often more pointed than the drawing-room permits.
The party in Aurora's box was large for the size of the box. She had gone on inviting people, then brought hampers and hampers of good things with which to feed them. There were the Fosses, Charlie with all the Hunt girls, Landini, Lavin, the American doctor, the American dentist, and Gerald.
Also Manlio. The Fosses had brought him. He had returned from furlough some time before. It was known now to everybody that he was the fidanzato of Brenda Foss. There was no talk of his leaving the army; on the contrary, he was rumored to have prospects of early advancement to the grade of captain; wherefore the general public took it for granted that the bride's parents were providing the indispensable marriage portion.
Aurora's eyes, at a moment when Manlio's attention was elsewhere, rested on him with a brooding, shining look. The symptoms of a great happiness, though modestly muffled, were plain in his face. The Beautiful One was coming back in the spring, already near, to marry him.
Aurora's affectionate look was just tinged with regret. She had suffered a disappointment in connection with Manlio. An obstinate and uncompromising woman beyond the ocean, when invited to join in a harmless conspiracy, had preferred to do actually, to the tune of eight thousand dollars, what the grasping creature should have been satisfied with merely appearing to do. The happiness that pierced through Manlio's calm, like a strong light through pale marble, came to him from the bride elect's aunt, and Aurora felt robbed.
But Mrs. Foss's hand found hers under the table and gave it a warm squeeze, whereupon Aurora's heart swelled in a way it had of doing. When such a dilation took place, something simultaneously happened to her eyes: the surrounding world was revealed to them as "too lovely for anything." Dimples declared her joy.
"Won't somebody have something more?" she asked, with the spoon in her hand poised over a bowl still half full of chicken mayonnaise.
But every one was done with eating; all were in haste to go down on to the floor and find amusement, perhaps adventure, amid the fluctuating, fascinating crowd.
The box was fairly deserted when the door opened again, and the eyes of those left in it, turning to see who entered, were met by two unknown maskers.
One wore the costume of a bravo of old times, picturesque, disreputable, an operatic Sparafucile in tattered mantle and ragged plume. The other was in a black satin domino, and had the face of a crow, a great black beak projecting from a black mask.
They stood a little way inside of the door as if waiting to be addressed. There was silence for a moment, while the others waited likewise. Within the eye-holes of their masks the eyes of the intruders glittered in the glassy, baffling way of eyes behind masks.
Aurora, unused to the mode of procedure at a veglione, asked helplessly in a whisper of Landini:
"What shall I say to them?"
He spoke for her then, in Italian, because he thought it probable that these were Florentines who had come into a strange box for a lark.
"Good evening," he said. "Will you speak, or sing, and let us know what we can do for your service?"
The bravo, lifting two long hands in loose and torn black gloves, rapidly made signs, like the deaf and dumb.
"You speak too loud," said Gerald. "We are deafened. Let the lady speak."
The black domino, with a shrug of the shoulders and a gesture of black-gloved hands excusing the limitations of a bird, answered by a simple caw.
Aurora now found her tongue and her cue:
"And is it yourselves?" she burst in rollickingly. "Proud to meet you! Will you partake?"
With a hospitable sweep of the arm, intelligible to speakers of any language, she made them free of her supper-table, where the candles still twinkled over an appetizing abundance.
Gerald watched sharply, saying to himself: "If they accept, we shall at least see their chins."
But upon the invitation Sparafucile, with farcical demonstrations of greed, reached forth his long fingers in the flapping gloves, seized cakes, white grapes, mandarins, nuts, and stuffed them into his wide pockets; while the black domino grasped the neck of a bottle of champagne and possessed herself of a glass. A caw of thanks issued from the black beak, and from the bravo, as with their booty the two retreated to the door, there proceeded, as unexpected as upsetting, a whoop of rejoicing so loud that those near him fell back as if from the danger of an explosion. In the midst of this consternation the maskers were gone.
"My land! did you hear that?" cried Aurora, who had clapped both hands over the pit of her stomach. "Goodness! he's scared the liver-pin out of me! Who d'you suppose they were?"
Landini lost not another minute before asking Mrs. Hawthorne if they should go down together for a turn.
Gerald had been on the point of asking the same thing. He had almost uttered the first word when Landini anticipated him. He felt a sharp prick of annoyance with himself for not having been quicker as much as with Landini for having been so quick. A little jealousy was quite in order with regard to Mrs. Hawthorne now, on the simple ground of that more intimate footing of friendship established between them by the portrait. With the expression of courteous mournfulness proper in an outrivaled cavalier, he made the gesture silently of having been at the lady's service. Manlio did the same.
The singular blonde, with Nubian lip and Parisian hair, Miss Deliverance Jones, or, more commonly, Livvy, who spent this evening at the farther end of the box making her own reflections on the European doings of which she got glimpses, held up a white satin domino for her mistress's arms. Gerald precipitated himself, took it from the maid and held it in her place. He tried to meet his friend's glance, hoping for some faintest sign of participation in his regret at not having been "spryer." For the space of a second, just before she fastened on her mask, he caught her eye. Brief and bright as the illumination of summer lightning, a look of fun flashed over her face. She winked at him.
Landini ceremoniously held his arm for her and Gerald saw them leave together with a lessened objection.
Gerald had for some time past suspected that Landini was paying court to Mrs. Hawthorne. Whether the lady were aware of it he could not tell. Gerald had not believed the man had a chance, although, women being incalculable, one can never feel quite easy. But now he could almost have found it in himself to pity the somewhat singular man—Italian in fact, English in manner, Oriental in looks,—if so were he had built up any little practical dream on the fair widow's acceptance of him. To the possibility of a sentimental dream Gerald did not accord one single thought.
He seated himself, to wait for their return. Only Manlio was left in the box besides himself. Manlio, consecrated to the worship of one afar, cared little to mix with the profane and noisy multitude. As Gerald leaned forth to see the couple that had just left them reappear down-stairs, Manlio, whose eyes followed his, remarked very sincerely, when the large easily-recognized white domino came into sight "E buona!" which can be translated either, "She is kind," or "She is good."
Gerald felt the warmth of an increased liking for him, because of the perspicacity he showed. They lighted cigarettes, and together looked over the marvelous scene, so rich in color and life, while they talked of things that bore no relation to it, serious things and manly—politics.
Charlie came in with Francesca, who at the door doffed her domino and mask. Both, heated from dancing, were ready for a rest and a little more of the Champagne-cup.
"By the way, Gerald," said Charlie, "that's a jolly good painting, old chap, you made of our charming hostess."
"Glad you like it!" answered Gerald carelessly, without irony.
He did not at the moment dislike Charlie.
He was genially inclined to-night toward all the world. While he had been tying on his white cravat before the glass in preparation for the veglione, it had dawned on him, to his surprise and glimmering relief, that he felt something resembling pleasure in the prospect of the confused and promiscuous affair he was enlisted for. He had constated that something like normal responsiveness to the common exterior solicitations to enjoyment was returning to his spirit, his nerves. The tang of life was pleasant to his palate.
A dim gladness moved him, as at coming across a precious thing one had supposed lost, in remembering that he was young....
He laid all this to the mere passage of time, and thanked the gods that unless one dies of one's hurts one finally recovers.
Under these circumstances it is conceivable that he should not momentarily feel hate or impatience toward any fellow-passenger on the amusing old Ship of the World.
Scraps of poetry stirred in the wells of memory where they are dropped and lost sight of. "I feel peaceful as old age," he quoted.
But his eye falling on the white carnation which Giovanna, knowing her signorino was going in serata, had provided for his buttonhole, lines less grey came to his lips: "Neque tu choreas...." He fished for the half-forgotten words. "Donec virenti canities abest...."
Because a positive sense of health pervaded him, he, with a philosophy founded upon observation, remarked that by this sign no doubt he was on the verge of an illness. But he absentmindedly neglected the practices preventive of misfortune, believed in not solely by the popolino of Italy, but recommended to him in boyhood by the excellent physician who after curing his mumps had taught him to make horns with his fingers against calamity of any sort that might threaten.
So, being in a good humor, and made further contented by the uplifting privilege of a broad unmistakable wink from a lady, he did not dislike Charlie as usual; he even, as he looked at him, lustrous-eyed, clear-skinned, smooth, lighting his cigarette at a candle, wondered why one should not like him. He had his good qualities. Mere vitality is one. Those points of conduct that called upon him the disdain of persons more fastidious with regard to their actions, secret or revealed, than he, were not productive, after all, of much harm....
With eyes narrowed, as when he was examining a face to paint it, Gerald watched the handsome fellow in an animated cousinly dispute with Francesca—with the result, really against his hope, of finding himself, instead of aided by his effort of good-will to discover new virtues, confirmed in his previous disesteem. He could make himself almost love Charlie by picturing him afflicted, humiliated, sorrowful. But he could not picture him sorrowful except for narrowly personal misfortunes, such as poverty, sickness. One could not even be sure, with a face of so little generosity or moral consciousness as Charlie's, that he would under all circumstances be incapable of active malignity....
The latter thought Gerald had the justice to sweep aside with an unspoken apology.
"Of course, you, Charlie, never could admit that a cousin and a female might know better than you!" Francesca was contending noisily. "It happens that I have lately looked up, with some care, the costumes of the trecento...."
"My dear girl!" interrupted Charlie. "You will be insisting next that an incroyable is a Greek, or that creature, that sort of Italian bandit who gave the disgusting roar, is a French marquis.... Lend me your glass, will you? I think I see some one I know."
"It's Trix," he said after a moment, "making signs to us from the Sartorio's box. They want us to come over. Come on, let's go."
Manlio and Gerald were again left alone in the silent company of the pale coffee-with-milk-colored maid, who unnoticed crept nearer and nearer the front of the box to peep at the brilliant house.
Gerald was beginning to think that Landini kept Mrs. Hawthorne rather longer than was fair when the door opened to let them in, with Estelle and Leslie and Percy and Doctor Baldwin, all laughing together.
"Well, have you intrigued any one?" Gerald asked Aurora.
"Me? Oh, I wouldn't be up to any such pranks," she said. "Has any one been intriguing you?"
"I haven't been down, Mrs. Hawthorne. I have stayed quietly here, hoping to go down with you, if you will be so good, merely intriguing myself meanwhile—" he dropped his voice so as to be heard of her only,—"with wondering what kept you so awfully long."
"Interesting company, funny sights."
"Are you too tired to come down again and give me a dance?"
"Bless your soul, I'm not tired, but I'm going home."
"Man, do you know what time it is?"
"I know, of course. But you can't mean you are going home. You only came at midnight, and it's less than half-past two. Hosts of people stay until the big chandelier goes out."
"Ah, don't try to talk me over! It's time I sought my downy, if I want to get up in the morning. We're going to begin Lent like good girls, Estelle and I, by going to church."
Gerald was certain these excuses were hollow. It was obvious, at the same time, that Mrs. Hawthorne was bent on leaving. He was vexed. He wondered what her real reason was, as men so often do, after women have taken pains to give them in detail their reasons, and tried, ignoring what she said, to get some light from her face.
It looked to him excited in a smothered way. He at once connected this repressed excitement with Landini; but then, the face was mirthful, too, in the same lurking manner, and the proposals of a serious man could hardly affect even the most frivolous quite like a comic valentine.
He finally preferred the simplest interpretation: she had seen as much as she wanted to; she was prosaically sleepy and going home to bed.
"Good night," she said. "Come soon to see us! Adieu; no, ory-vwaw."
"Am I not permitted to take you to your carriage?"
After seeing them tucked in their snug coupe and hearing this wheel off, Gerald returned to the great hall. He without question would remain until the big light was extinguished. Colors, forms, sparkle, golden haze—a painter must be dead or a duffer to leave before the gay glory of it faded and was dispersed in the gray dawn.
The scene viewed from near had its cheapness, its crudity, like those poor painted faces of the dancers pirouetting in the midst of a public they can more surely enchant from the distance of the stage. The costumes, so many of them, came from humble costumers who let them from year to year without renewal of the tinsel or freshening of the ribbons. But those very things gave to this page of life its depth of interest, gave reality to this romance.
The ball was taking a slightly rougher, noisier character as it approached the end. Some of the boxes were darkened, but the floor was full, even after the tired ballerine had been permitted by the management to go home.
Gerald himself now became one of the slightly bored-looking men he had observed earlier, strolling about, claque under arm, in the rigid black and white which took on an effect of austerity amid the blossom-colors of the costumes. He sincerely hoped no one would approach him to intrigue him, and the hope found expression, more than he knew, in his countenance. He felt unable to meet such an adventure in a manner that would satisfy his taste. It marked a fundamental difference between him, at bottom a New-Englander, and his friends of Latin blood, he thought, that he had not the limberness, the laisser-aller, the lack of self-consciousness and stupid shame, which enables them so good-humoredly to take the chance of appearing fools. And so before this romance he was only a reader; they were it—the romance.
He could deplore his own gray role, but not change it; he therefore wished anew, every time a merry masker looked as though she might intend accosting him that she would think better of it and leave him in deserved neglect. He had his wish; he was in the whole evening teased by nobody whatever.
His eyes, straying over the crowd, sought for known faces. All Florence had turned out for the occasion, but some of it had by this time gone home. Most of the men he knew had women on their arms, and from their silence or talkativeness one might without undue cynicism determine whether these were their own wives and daughters or wives and daughters of others.
A tall, gray-whiskered old gentleman in uniform passed him—none other than Antonia's friend, General Costanzi—who was trying to retain all his dignity while beset by two frolicsome little creatures looking like the chorus in "Faust," who, suspended one on each of his arms, were trying to win from him a promise to take them to supper. He sent toward Gerald a look of comical long-suffering, to which Gerald replied by a nod vaguely congratulatory, and a smile that courteously wished him luck in that lottery.
The painter Castagnola, broad-blown, debonair, passed him, in a costume of sterling and royal magnificence, copied from a portrait of Francis First whom he in feature resembled. At his side, with gold cymbals in her hands, went a figure in floating robes of daffodil gauze, a dancer from one of the frescoes of Pompeii, wearing a mask—four inches of black velvet—only for the form. Her bare shoulders and arms, of an insolent beauty, forbade any mistake as to her identity. Gerald knew, like the rest, that it was Castagnola's model.
Charlie passed him, at a little distance, with a laughing lady hitched to his elbow. Her mask swung from her hand—the ball was wearing to its end, and masks are hot. The hood of her rose-colored domino had been pushed back from a mass of ruffled black hair; her eyes and teeth gleamed with equal brightness and directness of purpose. It was suggested to Gerald by her air and manner that she had forgotten the spectators. Her freedom from constraint was shared by Charlie. Seeing them together reminded Gerald that Charlie was after all Italian,—one forgot it sometimes. He tried to remember which of the bits of scandal tossed on to the dust-heap at the back of his memory was the one fitting this Signora Sartorio.
They passed out of sight, and he forgot them in the interest of the next thing.
Carlo Guerra, like him alone, stopped to chat with him. Guerra, a pleasant figure in Anglo-American as well as Florentine circles, with his fine head of a monk whom circumstances have rendered worldly, had, before inheriting his comfortable income, been a journalist. He still enjoyed above all things the exercise of the critical faculty, and had much to say this evening about a recent exhibition of paintings.
Gerald was hearing it with proper interest when some part of his attention was drawn away by a sound across the house. It was, softened by distance, that species of lion's roar, incredibly large as issuing from a human throat, and comical from such a disproportion, which had startled the audience several times already that evening. Gerald turned, without much thinking, to look off in the direction whence it came and single out the figure with which it was associated, when he was surprised to find the figure he sought almost under his nose. Not more than six feet from him were to be seen the tattered mantle and ragged plume of Sparafucile; likewise the thick crow's-beak of the black domino.
The two were looking at him and, his impression was, laughing. He fancied they were on the point of speaking to him,—he had thought earlier in the evening when they came into the box that they might be acquaintances,—but the crow suddenly pressed tittering against the bandit, pushing and pulling him away. In a moment they were lost among the crowd.
Who, then, had been accountable for the roar at the other end of the house? An imitator? A double? Gerald suspected a masked-ball device intended to intrigue. He gave it no more thought, but proceeded, started on that line by the episode, to reflect on the singularity, yes, the crassness, of Mrs. Hawthorne's determination to leave the ball early. The secret of it was, of course, that she had no imagination, no education of the imagination. A veglione was caviar to her. This wonderful scene, beheld for the first time, perhaps the only time in life, and she had had to go to bed just as if they had been in Boston or Charlestown! If one must go to church in such a case, it was Gerald's opinion, one does not go to bed at all. But she belonged to the class of people who would miss the last act of an opera rather than miss a train or allow the beans to burn. A bread-and-butter person, a sluggish, fat-brained person, elementary, not awakened and sharpened to appreciation and wonder. If he had not been in such a good humor he might have been cross, scornful of her; as it was, he indulgently thought her merely too flatly healthy in every taste for anything but the wilds of Cape Cod to which she sometimes playfully referred.
He here perceived that he had entirely lost the thread of Guerra's talk, and that Guerra, probably aware of it, had moved to another subject. It was hearing the name Hawthorne that had startled him to attention.
"I saw you earlier in the evening in a box with Mrs. Hawthorne," Guerra said, "whom, you remember, I had the pleasure of meeting at Mrs. Grangeon's."
After considering a moment with a half-smile, he nodded and pronounced in the tone of an impartial critic, "Simpatica!" Then, after considering another moment, nodded again. "Ha gli occhi di donna buona." Which means, or nearly, "She has good eyes." And Gerald's esteem for Guerra was immensely raised, for while thinking very well of him, he would yet not have expected a man like Guerra to discern so much at a first meeting. A worldling like Guerra might so naturally have said "E bella!" for Aurora that evening in her best frock, had been bella—beautiful; or he might have said, "Begli occhi!" for her shining blue eyes admitted of that description. That Guerra had said what he said indicated finer feeling than Gerald had given him credit for.
Still lingering in desultory talk, the former journalist now asked:
"Have you seen the Grangeon?"
"No," said Gerald. "Is she here?"
"Yes; she is with the Rostopchine, in a box of the third order." He looked up and around to find the box with his eyes, and after a moment indicated it to Gerald. "There! Do you see them? The Rostopchine in pale purple, and the Grangeon in an Indian thing all incrusted with green beetle-wings, a thing for a museum. They are talking with a uniform whom I do not know. She was speaking of you this evening—Antonia, asking me what you are doing. She has great faith in your talent."
Gerald's lip curled a little sourly, and he stood looking upward without reply.
Turning to look down through her jeweled lorgnette and running her eyes over the crowd, Antonia now saw him. Recognition lighted her face to unexpected liveliness. She fluttered her hand to him demonstratively.
After bowing and smiling, he stood quietly, with face upturned, receiving her showered greetings.
He had a certain knowledge of Antonia. She was capable of entirely dropping the remembrance of her bad treatment of him; perhaps forgetting it really, but likelier choosing merely that he should forget it. She permitted herself the caprices of a spoiled beauty.
A classic golden fillet this evening bound her gray locks; a jewel depending from it sparkled upon the deeply lined forehead of a brain-worker. Her irreparably withered neck was clasped by an Indian necklace, showy as a piece of stage jewelry. Light-minded smiles wreathed her heavy face. Where her sleeves stopped there began the soft and serried wrinkles of those long, long buttonless gloves which Sarah Bernhardt had brought into fashion.
It was not difficult to see in what illusion Antonia chose to live to-night. Her readers might even, perhaps, have determined which of her own heroines she personated.
For all these things Gerald liked his old friend the more.
Her lips framed the words, "Come up! Come up!" while her hand made the equivalent signs.
He nodded assent, and with Guerra walking beside him started on his way. Guerra under the central box excused himself and turned back, having already paid his respects. Gerald, once out in the lobby, advanced more uncertainly, finally hesitated and stopped.
He was not sure he wished to see Antonia in circumstances which would not allow him to express his resentment of her behavior toward the friend whom with her formal permission he had brought to her house. It was owed to Mrs. Hawthorne not to let the incident pass. He had ceased to be furious at Antonia; he had not written in cold blood the wrathful, finishing letter planned in heat of brain. That, after all, was Antonia as he had always known her and been her friend: Antonia, capable of heroisms and generosities, fineness and insight, density and petulance. One could not drop the great woman into the waste-basket because on one occasion more she had been perverse and the sufferer happened to be oneself. But the great woman, thought Gerald, needed a sober word spoken to her. In conclusion, he would not go to see her, no, until he could have it out with her.
And so instead of seeking Antonia in her box, Gerald cut short his difficulty by going home. It was high time; it had been Lent for hours. If Antonia were intrigata at his failure to appear, it would only be in keeping with the fanciful circumstances of the hour and place.
Early in Lent the weather treated Florence to what Aurora and Estelle called a cold snap. Their surprise and indignation were extreme. That Italy, sunny Italy, should feel herself free to have these alpine or polar fancies!
Estelle showed what she thought of it by taking cold. Aurora affected wearing her furs in the house. To increase their sense of ill usage, they would now and then turn their faces away from the fire and sigh, admiring how the air was dimmed by a puff of silver smoke. These pilgrims from a Northern climate, who knew so well the sensation of breath freezing in the nostrils and numbness seizing the nose when on certain winter days they stepped from their houses into the snow-piled streets at home, could not admit that in the City of Flowers one should catch sight of one's breath,—indoors, too.
The little monthly roses, shivering but brave, blooming still, or blooming already, out in the garden, bore witness, after all, to the clemency of the winter, and upheld the city's title to its name. The garden altogether was nearly as green as ever. Against alaternus, ivy, myrtle, laurestine the season could not prevail. Aurora decided that the blame for their discomfort rested with the house; she planned drastic and fundamental improvements which it was quite certain the noble landlord would not permit her to carry out.
What with Estelle being half sick and herself, as she claimed, half frozen, Aurora at the end of a day during which the sun had not lighted the world by one feeblest ray, and the night had closed down thick and damp, was just a little disposed to low spirits. She had not been out, and nobody had come to see her. She felt the weariness that follows for certain sociable natures upon a long stretch of hours without renewal from outside.
She sensibly reacted against it by making the sitting-room as cozy as she could, drawing close the crushed-strawberry curtains, piling wood on the fire, placing a screen so that it shielded her chair and table from the draft; and, seated in her chimney-corner, took up a piece of knitting.
She was not very fond of reading, and she was fond of knitting large soft woolly afghans, of which she made presents to her friends. Reading seemed to her, anyhow, a rather idle thing to be doing. Knitting came under the head of work. How often had her story-paper been snatched from her when she was a girl, and a sock to knit thrust in her hand, with the bidding to be about something useful. How she had hated it. But now that she was free she still had a better conscience when she knit.
To the click of her long wooden needles she thought, with more pleasure than was afforded by any other vision at the moment, of a hot water bottle gently warming the bed into which she meant to creep at exactly nine o'clock. This hour she had set when at eight already the temptation to go to bed and forget the unsatisfactory day in sound warm slumbers had been so strong as to make yielding to it appear wrong.
These vestiges of Puritanism Aurora did not recognize as such, but yet her mind as she was practicing self-discipline turned, without seeking for the reason, toward the person who had done most to inculcate in her the doctrine that if you like to do a thing that itself is almost surely a sign of the thing being wicked, and that if you dislike it it is very probably your duty.
While she continued to appear the signora to whom the servants' eyes were accustomed, albeit a trifle more absent and unsmiling, she was to herself a young girl in a far country, living and moving in scenes of difficulty and misunderstanding with a sharp-chinned, narrow-chested, timidly-beloved just woman—her mother, long since laid to rest....
There was nothing from outside to dispel the faint heartache accompanying this retrospection; wind and rain against the windows were more proper to increase the melancholy, and Aurora, suddenly sick of staying up to be blue, wound her yarn to start for bed. But first, for just a moment, she would go down-stairs, she thought, and have a look at her portrait, for that was the most comforting thing to do that she could think of. She loved her portrait as a child loves its favorite toy.
This she was intending when the sound of the door-bell at once stopped and cheered her by the possibility it held out of some diversion. Vitale entered with a package.
Catching in what he said the name Gaetano, Aurora took it to mean that Gaetano had brought the package. He was waiting below, she did not doubt. Gaetano was Giovanna's nephew, and had more than once come on errands from Gerald. Saying, "Aspettare!" she hastened into her room for the porte-monnaie which resided in her top drawer. From this she drew a reward that should make the journey through night and rain from Gerald's house to hers seem no hardship. Her blues had vanished.
Before removing the rain-splashed newspaper, she gazed for a moment at the package, trying to guess what it could be. It was square, flat, about a foot and a half one way by a foot the other. What was Gerald Fane sending her like that without any enlightening missive? A note might be inside. She cut the string, took off the newspaper, to find a second wrapper of clean white drawing-paper. After touching and pinching, she guessed the object to be a picture-frame and picture. Filled with curiosity, she pulled off the last wrapping, and with a face at first very blank stared before her....
It was a painting, one of the kind she had seen at Gerald's studio and not liked.
Different though it was from the portrait down-stairs,—as different as poverty from riches, as twilight from day,—she could yet see that this also was meant for a portrait of herself. She remembered tying that blue neckerchief over her head and under her chin one evening, trying to look like an Italian in her pezzola, to make the others laugh.
She stood the picture on the chair which she had pulled up before her so as to rest her feet on the rung, off the stone floor, still to be felt, she imagined, through the rug. Of course it was herself, but how disappointing—disappointing enough to shed tears over—to have this held up to her after that lovely being down-stairs! How unkind of her friend Gerald!
Unfair, too, for although this, in not being a beauty, was obviously more like her than the other, she could not admit that it was any truer. She could not believe that she ever really looked like this, though she knew that it was the way she sometimes felt. How had Gerald known she ever felt like this?
That she was a person who ate well, slept well, felt well, loved fun, was giving and gay—that was all most people knew, or were entitled to know, of her; all she knew of herself a good deal of the time. Such things could never be the whole of any person, of course. Every one has had something to overcome. Some persons have had to overcome and overcome and overcome, one thing after another, one thing after another, that has tried to drag and keep them down. She had had—probably because, as her mother often told her, she was born with such a lot of the devil in her—a great many trials sent to her, for her discipline, no doubt, her cleansing; but she had come out of them still unreduced, still eager for a good time.
All persons are made up, in a way, of these experiences of the past, but they don't expose them in their faces, they forget them as much as they can.
Yes, as much as they can. How much is that? The only true sorrows being involved with one's affections, and the objects of one's love never far from one's thoughts, how much could a person be said to forget her sorrows, really?
Aurora reflected upon this for some time, staring the while at her portrait. The face looking back from the canvas was very like her, had she but known it, at this exact moment, while the thoughts produced, the memories wakened, by it substituted for her ordinary hardiness the delicate look of a capacity for pain.
As she gazed at the portrait longer she liked it better; from minute to minute she became more reconciled, and found herself finally almost attracted. Something from it penetrated her for which she had no definition. It was perhaps the dignity of humanity confronting her in that strong and simple face framed by the kerchief, like a woman of the people's,—her own face, but not certainly as she saw it in the mirror; a humanity that out of the common materials offered to it day by day had rejected all that was mean and contrived to build up nobleness.
Half perceiving that this portrait in its different way flattered her as much if not more than the portrait down-stairs, she, while modestly refusing to be fooled by the compliment, yet felt a motion of affectionate gratitude toward Gerald for the sympathy which had enabled him to pierce beneath the surface and see that Bouncing Betsy had her feelings, too, her history; yes, her bitter tragedy.
While continuing with her eyes on the picture, she from time to time wiped them, and when the door-bell rang again, aware of being "a sight," took the precaution of retiring to her bedroom, so that if Vitale should come to announce a visit,—it was not yet nine o'clock,—she could the better make him understand that he must excuse her to the visitor; she was going to bed.
But learning from the servant that Signor Fane was below, she changed her mind, and chose unhesitatingly from her stock of useful infinitives the appropriate two: "Dire venire."
Gerald found her by the fire, her fur-cloak over her shoulders, her woolly afghan in her hands, and the picture on the chair before her.
"Well?" he asked expectantly, looking at it, too, after they had shaken hands.
"You've made me feel sorry for myself. What's the use?" she answered in a little sigh, keeping her reddened eyes turned away from him. "Hush! Wait a moment! I was forgetting," she added, in comedy anticlimax, like a housewife who in the midst of a scene of sentiment should smell the dinner scorching. She jumped up, and went without the least noise to close the door to Estelle's room, returning from which she illogically fell to talking in a whisper.
"Estelle's gone to bed. She's got a snow-balling old cold. I've rubbed her chest with liniment, and tied up her throat in a compress, and given her hot lemonade, and she lies there with a hot water bottle at her feet and grease on her nose, and let's hope she'll feel better in the morning."
"Let's hope, indeed. I'm very sorry to hear she's ill. But she's sure to be better by to-morrow, isn't she, with all that care and those remedies. I hope you haven't a cold, too, Mrs. Hawthorne. You almost look," he said innocently, "as if you had. This weather is dreadful. You haven't, have you, dear friend?"
"No; I guess what you see is just that I've been crying. Don't say anything about it. Don't notice it. Never mind. Come and sit down by the fire and get warm. Your hand was like ice."
"It's very bad out, and not much better in, except here by your generous fireside. I haven't been warm all day."
"Why didn't you come before? It isn't what I call balmy here, but I expect it's balmier than at your place."
With her kindly unconstraint she reached for one of his hands to test its temperature. With a little cry of "Mercy me!" she closed his numb fingers between her palms to warm them, as if the blaze could not have accomplished this end so well as they.
He let it be, not with the same unconsciousness in the matter as she, but hoping that the soft, warm infolding would somehow do him good. He had come in the rather desperate hope of being done good to. As he had been about to start out, having intended, when he sent the portrait, to follow close upon it, he had found himself feeling so ill—feeling, at the end of the dismal day, so indescribably burdened and ill and apprehensive of worse things—that he had been on the point of giving it up. But then the wish itself to escape from his bad feelings had impelled him forth toward the spot glowing warmer and cheerier in his thoughts than any other, where, if he could forget how ill he felt, he would naturally feel better. Aurora's house during the days of painting the first portrait had come to feel remarkably like home to him.
So when Aurora released his hand, saying, "Let's have the other," he docilely gave it to her, though the fire had already partly thawed it. Gratefully, with the hand set free, he covered both her kind hands, which loved so much to warm things and feed things and pet things and give away money.
Overcoming his ordinary stiffness, he pressed them right manfully, to signify that he would not speak of her tears if she wished him not to, but here was his sympathy, and with it his penitence, if so were that, as she intimated, he had had a share in making them flow.
"So you are all alone this evening?" he asked in the voice that makes whatever is said seem affectionate and comforting.
"Yes. I haven't even Busteretto. I let Estelle keep him on the foot of her bed. She's perfectly devoted to him. And Clotilde is busy in her own corner of the house, going over the bills. It takes lots of time."
"And where is the musician in ordinary, the gifted Italo?" he inquired, with a smile meant to draw from her a smile.
She was caught without difficulty. "The gifted Checkerberry hasn't been round lately," she smiled. "He won't expose himself to the night air for some time. He's got laryngitis so he can't talk above a whisper." Her eye twinkled and she laughed, though what she communicated was not on the face of it very funny.
He was perhaps calling attention to this when he said, "Poor devil!"
"Yes," she agreed, achieving sobriety, "it's bad weather for laryngitis," and went on with the weather, dropping Italo. "It's been a mean sort of day, hasn't it? I haven't set foot outside. I was already feeling kind of blue and making up my mind to go to bed when Gaetano came with your present."
There was an intimation in her glance that this event had not made the world appear any rosier.
Both turned to look at the picture. Their hands loosened naturally; they sat apart.
"Can't you see why I had to paint it, Mrs. Hawthorne?" he asked, speaking eagerly, and as if pressing his defense.
"How could I endure to have that thing down-stairs stand as my idea, my sole idea, of you? And how could I bear to make you a gift, a sole gift, of a piece of work I do not respect? This may be worth no more,—I think differently,—but it is at least the best I can produce. It has my sanction. You, too, believe me, will prefer it to the other after a while."
She shook her head a little disconsolately.
"The other you can, if you must, keep in your drawing-room to make an agreeable spot of color," he went on, reversing their parts and trying to induce in her a lighter humor; "it has that perfectly legitimate use. In your drawing-room, you know, Auroretta, among the pictures of your choosing, it does not, in our Italian idiom, altogether disappear. This one you will keep out of sight, but will look at now and then, if you please; and I quite trust you, with time, to recognize that it was painted by some one who understood and honored you more than there was any evidence of his doing when he perpetrated, for a joke, that bonbon-box subject down-stairs."
Mrs. Hawthorne, with soft and saddened eyes fixed on the portrait, again shook her head, sighing, "Poor thing!"
"Not at all!" he protested almost peevishly. "Please not to suggest by pitying her that I have not represented there a fine, big, strong thing, built to stand up under anything! I could slay, with pleasure, at any time"—he diverged, carried away by a long-standing disgust,—"the pestiferous asses who call my things morbid. I am too careful to keep true to what I see. The difference between them—I mean the critics who call me morbid—and myself, is in the degree of sight."
"Don't get excited, Geraldino!" she checked fumings which she did not entirely understand. "What I meant was that looking at her has made me think of all the things that have gone wrong with me in my whole life. Don't you call that a tribute? You couldn't have painted this picture if you hadn't suspected those things, and, honest, I don't see how you could suspect them. Ever since I came over here I've been so jolly. Seems to me I've been nothing but jolly. I've been having such a good time! How you could see under it, I don't know. As a matter of fact, I've always been jolly between-times. Give me half a chance, let me get out of the frying-pan, I'd be ready in a minute to go on a picnic. But I've not been spared my troubles, Geraldino; you were right there."
At this reference to many sorrows, he found a thing to do more expressive than words. Sitting near each other as they were, he could reach her without rising; he bent forward and touched his lips commiseratingly to her hand.
He might have known that it would bring her story, but he had not schemed for this, and, unwilling, yet eager, to hear, was a prey to compunctions on more than one ground when, after a little gulp and sniff, she burst forth:
"I've seen perfectly dreadful times, Geraldino. Some of them were the sort of thing you can get over, but some of them—upon my word, I wonder at myself how I've got over them as I have. The queer thing is—I haven't, in a way. It will come over me sometimes, in the queerest places, at the oddest moments, that I am still that woman to whom such awful things happened, that I, playing my silly monkey-shines, am that heart-broken woman."
"I know," murmured Gerald, and took her plump hands steadyingly between his hard, thin ones.
"I've never had any sense," she let herself go. "Anybody can see that; and when I was younger I had even less, naturally, than I have now. Always, always, I wanted so to be happy! I wanted to have a good time. I was born wanting to have a good time. And everything was against it. But I managed somehow. One way or another, I got to the circus 'most every time. My mother used to wonder what my finish would be, and try to lick the Old Boy out of me. But it couldn't be done. I'm just like my father, my dear old pa, who was a sinner. He let ma have her way in everything, as he thought it right to do. Not, I guess, because he always liked her way, but because after my sister, who was a beautiful child, died in such a terrible way that I can't even bear to mention it,—she caught fire,"—Aurora hurriedly interjected, "ma came so near going out of her senses that pa humored her in everything. He thought the world of her; so did we all, but it couldn't be called a happy home. There were three boys, besides me,—I was the last,—and we were all such everlastingly lively young ones, and ma was so strict! Pa was away most of the time getting a living. My pa, you know, was a pilot. It wasn't a fat living for so many of us, but that wouldn't have mattered long as we had enough to eat. But ma, poor soul, because of that twist her mind had taken through sorrow, was always seeing something wrong in everything we did; she never could be quiet or contented. The boys didn't get so much of it: they were off out of doors and later at their trades; but me, I was kept in to help with the housework, and kept in for company, and kept in for no other reason, I guess, than because my wicked heart longed so to go out and play with the girls and boys. I dare say it was good for me. Ma meant all right, that I know, but ma was all along a sick woman. We realized later that though she was round and about, busy every minute, she was sick for years with the trouble that finally took her away. I don't want you to think I didn't have a real good mother, for I did—a first-rate mother who did her honest best to make a good woman of me."
"I know, I know." By a reminding pressure of her hands he begged she would trust him not to misunderstand.
"But my pa—you should have known my pa!" Aurora's face brightened immensely, and Gerald suspected that it was like him she looked when she screwed her lips to one side in a manner humorously suggesting a pipe at the corner of her mouth, and said in a voice not her own, "Golly, Nell, can't you whistle for a snifter?" He could almost see a sailor's chin-whiskers.
"He took me with him once in a while. Golly, those were good times, if you please! Free as air, all the peanuts I could eat, out in the boat with my pa, and catch fish, and catch a steamer if we could. We had an 8 big as a house on our sail. He was as good a seaman, my pa was, as any in East Boston, but he wasn't a hustler. But there, if he'd been a hustler, he wouldn't have been my pa. Wouldn't for a house with a brownstone front have had my pa any different from what he was. Grandma was just the same sort, God bless her! easy-going, jolly, come a day, go a day, do as she please and let you do as you please. I used to have such lovely times at her house, summers, down on the Cape, before my sister died!
"It was there I first knew Hattie—Estelle. Her aunt's house was next to my grandma's. I used to think her the luckiest child that ever was born. Seemed to me she had just about everything—a gold locket and chain, bronze boots, and paper dolls by the dozen. We used to play together, day in day out, one of those plays that last all the time, where you pretend you're some one else and act it out in all you do. We kept it up for years. I don't see that we've changed much with growing up. Seems to me we were pretty near the same then as we are now, having our spats, but having lots of fun, and wanting to share everything. Estelle lived in East Boston, too, and was going to be a school-teacher. It seemed to me that to be a school-teacher was just about the finest thing anybody could do. That would have been my ambition, to be a school-teacher. But I never got beyond the grammar school, I was needed at home to help mother. Then my poor pa died—an accident down in the docks,"—Aurora, lowering her voice, began to hurry and condense,—"then Ben, then Joe, then—will you believe it?—Charlie, that I loved best. They all had the same delicate constitution as ma, it turned out, and a predisposition to the same trouble. Then finally, after going through with so much, my poor mother went, too, and for that I could only be thankful. And I had taken care of them all. I wasn't twenty-three when I was the last left. Doesn't it seem strange! I sometimes can't believe it even now."