This rapid enumeration of calamities so great robbed them of terror and pathos, yet Gerald had somewhat the startled, shocked feeling of a man who knows he has been struck by a bullet, though his nerves have not yet announced it by suffering.
Aurora, who after the passing of years could think of these things without tears, yet in speaking of them to a sympathetic hearer had obvious difficulty in keeping a stiff upper lip. Gerald turned away his eyes while with her hand she covered and tried to stop her mouth's trembling.
"Poor child!" he said, with a sincerity which saved the words from insignificance.
"Yes," she half laughed. "Wouldn't one think it enough to sort of subdue anybody, take the starch out of them for some time? When I came out of that house of sickness I couldn't think of anything else but sickness and death. It stuck to me like the smell of disinfectants after you've been in a hospital. I couldn't think of anything but that it would take me next. I supposed I must be affected, too. But the doctor examined me, and do you know what he said? 'Sound as a trout,' he said. 'You're so sound,' he said, 'you're so healthy, that we'll have to shoot you to get you to the resurrection.' Then I felt better. He was a new doctor that we'd called in toward the end. He knew how I was situated, and as he seemed to think I'd make a good nurse, he got me a chance in the City Hospital, where I could get my training. And Hattie, dear Hattie, what a friend she's been! She and her ma and pa made me come and make my home with them. It's since then that we've been like sisters."
At the sound, appositely occurring, of a cough in the neighboring room, Aurora stopped and listened.
"Dear me!" she whispered. "D'you suppose she's lying awake?"
"She may be coughing in her sleep," he suggested.
"Yes," Aurora said dubiously, after further listening, and hearing nothing more. "And if I should go in to see, I might wake her. The bell-rope is right at the head of her bed; all she has to do is pull it if she wants somebody to come. I was entertaining you with the story of my life, wasn't I? Where had I got to? Oh, yes. There in the hospital I just loved it. Perhaps you can't see how I could. I just did. I had lots of hard work. The training was sort of thrown in in my case with other duties, but there were the other nurses and the house-doctors, I grew chummy with them all. I had fun with the patients, too. You don't know how much good it does you to watch anybody get well; the majority get well. It's good for them, besides, to have you jolly."
"Your gaiety of heart makes me think of the grass, Aurora, the blessed ineradicable grass, that will grow anywhere, that you see pushing up between the paving-stones of the hard city, and finding a foothold on the blank of the rock, and fringing the top of the ruined castle, and hiding the new-made graves."
Aurora, always simple-mindedly charmed with a compliment, paused long enough to investigate Gerald's comparison, then resumed, with the effect of taking a plunge into deep waters:
"But it was there I met the fellow who did me the worst turn of any....
"They brought him in with broken ribs one rainy night, after he'd been knocked down in the street by a team and kicked by the horses. I wasn't his regular nurse, but I was in and out of his room, and if he rang while his regular nurse was at her meals, I'd go. Everybody knows that when a man's sick he's liable to get sweet on this or that one of his nurses.
"How I could have been mistaken in Jim Barton I can't see now. Since knowing him, if I ever see anybody that looks a bit like him, I shun them like poison, because I know as well as I need to that however nice they may appear, you can't depend upon them. But before I knew him I'd never stop to distrust anybody.
"It began with our setting up jokes together; he could be awfully funny even when he was swearing like a pirate about his luck landing him in a hospital. Bad language didn't seem so awful coming from him, because he was so light-complexioned and boyish-looking. He was only passing through the city, in an awful hurry to get West, when he got hurt, and he was madder than a hornet at the delay. But after a while he quieted down, because he'd got something else to think about, which was getting me to go along with him to California, where he'd bought a share in a mine. And me, star idiot of the world, it seemed the grandest thing that had ever happened. I'd never had anybody in love with me that way before. The boys had always liked me, but I'd been like another fellow among them, and I'd never more than just been silly for a week or two at a time over one fellow and another at a distance. And here was a solid offer from a perfectly splendid man who had everything, money included. They'd found several thousand dollars on him when he was picked up. And the yarns he told about gold-mines!... But it wasn't that, it wasn't the gold-mines, it was 'the way with him' that caught me. I guess when you're in love you're no judge of your man. We two, I tell you, seemed made for each other. He was as fond of a good time as I, and he loved fun, like me. We were going to California to make our everlasting fortune. You'd have thought there was no more doubt about it than the Gospels being true. And the good times we were going to have while doing it were nothing to the good times we'd have after, when I'd have my diamonds and he'd have his horses and things. As I said, the diamonds weren't needed; I'd have gone with him anywhere just for the fun of being together. I couldn't see what I'd done to deserve my blessings. I guess he was in love, too, as far as it was in him to be; I'll do him that justice.
"Hattie and her ma, while they had nothing to say against Jim, wanted me to wait awhile. But Jim couldn't wait. The moment he was well enough he wanted to be off. And I didn't care much about waiting either. I felt as if I'd known him all my life. So they said nothing more and gave us a perfectly lovely wedding from their house. They didn't see through him any more than I did, and in a way it wasn't strange, because he wasn't hiding anything in particular or misrepresenting anything. He believed all he said about the big money he was going to make and the grand times we should have. He was born with the sort of nature that always believes things are going to turn out right without labor and perseverance on your part. He wasn't fond of work, that's sure. What we ought to have done was find out something about his past; but even that, I guess, wouldn't have opened our eyes, with him before us looking like one of ourselves. And it wasn't a very long past; he was young. He came of good folks, I guess. I never saw them, but there are ways of telling. Good folks, but not wealthy, and so as to get rich easily he had tried one thing after another. He was quick' discouraged, and the moment the thing didn't look so big or easy he wanted to throw it over and try something else. Then I've come to the conclusion he loved change for its own sake—go somewhere else, take a new name, and start a new business, talking big. It came out after he died that he'd been known under half a dozen names in as many States. There simply wasn't anything to him. I don't believe he meant to act like a skunk, but, then, he hadn't any principles either to keep him from acting like a skunk, or meaner than a skunk, when it came to getting himself out of difficulty. And I, for my sins, had to marry such a fellow as that! It was like there had stood the good times I'd always wanted, right before me in the body, and I took them for better, for worse, and got what my ma said I deserved to get when she tried to cure me of my fancy for good times!"
"Don't!" protested Gerald, softly. "Don't regard as wrong what was so natural. All who have the benefit of knowing you must thank the stars which permitted your beautiful love of life to survive the dreadfulness of which you have given me a glimpse."
"The dreadfulness, Geraldino! I haven't told you anything yet of the dreadfulness. I haven't come to it. I haven't come to what makes her"—she nodded toward the portrait,—"look like that."
"Then tell me!" he encouraged her.
"It isn't Jim. When I think of Jim, it only makes me mad. My heart is hard as stone toward him." She clenched her jaws and looked, in fact, rather grim. "That he's dead doesn't change it. I hope I forgive him as a Christian ought to who asks forgiveness for her own trespasses. I know I don't feel revengeful. There wasn't enough to Jim for me to wish him punished in hell. But if you think I have any sentiment because I used to love him, or that I was sorry I woke up from my fool dream when I once had seen it was a dream—Not a bit of it. There was a time, though, when I first began to suspect and understand, that makes me rather sick to think of even now. I was so far from home, you see. I hadn't a friend, and I wouldn't for worlds have written back to my old friends that I'd made a bad bargain—not while I wasn't dead sure. And I kept on hoping.
"At first we had a real good time. We lived in a miner's cottage, but that seemed sort of jolly. I'd been used to hard work all my life, so I didn't mind that, and I wanted him to have as nice a home as any man could on the same money. So I cleaned and contrived and baked and brewed and fixed up. I wanted him to be pleased with me and proud among the other men. But pretty soon I found I didn't care to make acquaintances, because I was ashamed of the way Jim did. He kept putting all his money into the mine, sending good money after bad, and let me keep house on nothing, and then was in a worse and worse temper because the mine didn't pan out and things weren't more comfortable at home. I began to wake up in the night and lie there in a cold sweat, clean scairt. I haven't told you that we were looking for an addition to the family. That's one reason I was so scairt. But I shut my teeth, and said I to myself, 'This baby's going to have a chance if his mother can give it to him by not getting excited or letting things prey on her mind.' So I kept a hold on myself and didn't let anything count except guarding that baby. I seemed to care more about it than all the rest of the world put together. Oh, I can't begin to tell you how much more than for all the rest of the world put together. I don't know that a man would understand."
"Yes, he would; of course he would," spoke Gerald, gently reverent, yet a little impatient; then he qualified his assertion: "He could imagine, I mean to say, how you would have felt that way."
"Well, that matter was going to be put safely through, no matter what. The first mistake I made was not making friends with my women neighbors, so that everybody in Elsinore supposed that Jim's wife was the same stripe as he,—or that's what I thought they supposed,—and when I needed friends I couldn't think of any to turn to except those at home. The other mistake I made was not to write them at home and tell them the truth and then wait for them to send me money to come. But I guess my mind stopped working when the shock came."
Aurora appeared to brace herself, while decently considering how to minimize to her audience the brutality of her next revelation.
"Jim cleared out one night while I was asleep, taking every cent we'd got and every last thing he could hope to turn into a cent," she said, hardening her voice and lips. Gerald was given a moment in which to visualize the situation, before she went on: "I guess, as I said before, that I wasn't in my right mind for a spell; all I could think of was getting home to my own folks, and I was going to do it somehow, though I hadn't a cent. I hadn't even my wedding-ring. I'd put it off because my finger had grown fatter, and he'd taken even that to go and try his luck somewhere else.—What do you think of it?" she mechanically added.
She was pale, remembering these things. Gerald drew in a long, unsteady breath, oppressed.
"I was going to get home somehow," Aurora repeated, "and I wasn't going to waste time waiting for anything. And how was I going to do it? I don't suppose I really thought; I followed instinct like an animal. I hid in a freight-car going East—"
A definite difficulty here stopped Aurora. While she felt for words in which to clothe what followed, the images in her mind made her eyes, which were not seeing the things actually before them, more descriptive of the anguish of remembered scenes than her words were likely to be.
"I'm going to skip all that, Gerald." With a gesture, she suddenly rolled up a part of her story and threw it aside. "But when I came to see and understand rightly again, weeks after, in a hospital at Denver, I cried, oh! how I cried, and didn't care what became of me. Because I'd lost him; they hadn't succeeded in saving him. He had lived, mind you," she emphasized with pride—"he had lived a little while, he was all right, perfect in every way—a son."
His due of tears was not withheld from the wee frustrated god. Aurora gave up talking, so as to have her cry in quietness.
Gerald, holding back a sound of distress, twisted on his chair, not daring to recall himself to Aurora's notice either by speaking or touching her.
"I'm plain sorry for myself," she explained her tears while trying to stop them. "You can't be sorry, for their own sakes, for the little children who go back to God without knowing anything of this life's troubles. It's for myself I'm sorry. I never can bring up those times without the feeling of them coming over me again, and then, as I tell you, I'm sorry for that poor fool in her empty house, and then in the thundering freight-car, and then in the hospital. I see her outside of me just as plain as I would another person. Then, too"—she dried her eyes as if this time for good—"I feel a burning here"—she touched her breast—"like anger. Angry. I feel angry at being robbed, in a way I never seem to get over. To think I might have had him all my life, like millions of other women, and I never even saw him! And he was as real to me all those months before!... I don't see how I could have loved him more than I did. I'm hungry for him sometimes, just as I might be for food. And then I'm angry and rebellious. But I couldn't tell you against who. It isn't God, certainly. He's our best friend, all we've got to rely on. And He's been mighty good to me. There in Denver, when I hadn't a friend or a penny, He raised up friends for me and gave me the most wonderful luck.
"I stayed right there in Denver till less than a year ago. I guess you've heard me speak of the Judge. The doctor in the hospital where they carried me was his son; that's how it all came about—friends, good luck, money, everything. When I say I found friends, let me mention that I found enemies, too, the meanest, the bitterest! I—but there"—she interrupted herself as, on the very verge of further confidences, a change of mind was effected in her by sudden weariness or by a deterrent thought, or both—"I guess I've talked enough about myself for one evening. I didn't have a soft time of it there in Denver," she summed up the remainder of her story, "but I'd got back to being my old self. You'd never have known what I'd been through. I was just about as you've known me here. Funny, isn't it,"—Aurora seemed almost ashamed, apologetic,—"how the disposition you're born with hangs on?"
"Golden disposition," Gerald commented soothingly. Timid about looking directly at her just yet, he looked instead at the portrait, whereon lay the shadow of the events just related.
After a little period of thought in silence Aurora said, with the shamefaced air she took when venturing to talk of high things:
"I heard a sermon once on the text, 'Mary kept all these things in her heart.' The minister said that it wasn't only Mary who did this, but ordinary women, so often. And I know from myself how true it is. You see a woman all dressed up at a party, laughing with the others, dancing perhaps, and she'll be saying inside of herself, 'If baby had lived, he'd have been three years old.' Or thirteen, or thirty. I've no doubt it goes on as long as she lives. And she can see him before her just as plain, as he would have been.... My baby would have been five last October."
Gerald remembered how sweet he had always thought it of her to wish to stop and fondle little children, often wee beggars, stuffing little grimy fists with pennies, not avoiding to touch soiled little cheeks with her clean gloves. He had attributed this propensity to a simple womanly talent for motherliness.
"I've got this to be thankful for," she came out again from silence, farther down along the line of her meditations, "that he did live for a few hours. I've got a son, just as much as if he'd grown to be a man." She was dry-eyed, almost joyful in this.
"Yes, yes," hurried Gerald, consolingly; "that's what you must always think of—that and not the other things. You must lay hold of that thought and feel rich in it. But hear me, dear friend—me, trying to suggest ways to you of being brave and cheerful! You, who do from god-given temperament what I can only see as a right aim of aspiration, by light of a certain philosophy arrived at in my own way, through my own experiences. Philosophy is not the right word, either; the feeling I have is mainly esthetic. In order not to be too unhappy in this world, in order to have a little serenity, we must forgive everything, Aurora; that is what I have clearly seen. It's the only way. We must forgive events just as we forgive persons. And we must love life. I who so much of the time hate life, yet know better. We must love it as we must love our enemies. The wherefore is a mystery, but peace of heart and beauty of life are involved with doing it. We mustn't mind being wounded, crucified. We mustn't mind anything, Aurora! We mustn't be angry, the gestures of it are ugly. I, who am always being angry, who sometimes groan aloud my thoughts are so blasphemously bitter, I am telling you what I at bottom know. The game is so unfair, it calls for magnanimity on our part to stake handsomely and lose patiently. Patience, that's it! We must be patient—patient as a cab-horse! Pride and dignity demand that we be patient, absolutely. For the sake of certain beautiful things and sweet people in the world, we must give it a good name. But hear me! Hear me giving counsels to you—you who without formulating these ideas act on them, whilst with me they are things which I see as fit to be done but can never hope to do."
"You, too, Gerald, poor boy," was Aurora's simple reply—"you, too, have had lots to try you."
He swept aside by a gesture the subject of his trials, removed it altogether from the horizon, unwilling really that the interest be shifted from her to him. She was equally determined, now that he had sympathized with her, to sympathize with him.
"I know you have," she insisted; "I know you've had lots to try you, just as you knew that I'd had lots. And you're so high-strung, so sensitive ... I never knew anybody like you. But there are good times coming for you; I'm sure of it."
"I don't in the least expect them." He laughed a little harshly. He had winced at her description of him as sensitive, high-strung. "Dear incurable optimist, I don't in the least expect them. It's not because there will be compensation that I hold it the decentest thing to put up with the mechancetes of fate, fate's ingenious stabs in the tender, as they come, without giving the exhibition of one's vulnerability, or poisoning one's system with hate!"
"But there will," she continued to insist, "there will be compensations. I know it just as well.... You have so much talent, it's perfectly wonderful, and it's only a question of time your having the success you deserve. I, of course, am not educated up to your paintings, but even I am beginning to see something more than I did at first. I can see, for instance, that almost any fine painter, with a command of his colors, could have done the picture down-stairs, but that only you in the whole world could have done this one here. But, I say again, my opinion isn't worth anything. But there's Leslie, who knows all about art and such things, doesn't she? Well, she 's told me how wonderful you are. From what she's told me I'm perfectly sure you'll make your mark in the world."
Again Gerald swept her words aside like noxious obscuring cobwebs. "What is, few know, and what will be, nobody knows whatever," he said. "But of all things, I beg, I beg you will not think of me as a misunderstood genius! Art is not a passion with me, it is—an interest. And don't hold out for a lure that will reconcile me, my dear friend, anything so vulgar as success! The single hope I have, when I am the most hopeful, is that simply my metal, my resistance, may never quite fail. I shall not have success, dear lady, though in your kindness you predict it. I shall go on and on seeing with different eyes from other people, carving my cherry-stones in my own way, and made unsociable by the failure of others to see how superior my way is. I shall go on growing more eccentric and solitary, and call myself lucky quite beyond my merits if those particular snares which the devil Melancholy sets for the solitary may be escaped, that I may neither drink, nor drug myself, nor shoot myself, nor marry the cook!"
"Don't talk like that, Gerald!" cried Aurora. "Don't say anything so awful! Now keep still while I talk, listen while I tell you. You're going on painting in your own way, but some one—see?—some one is going to arise bright enough to recognize how perfectly wonderful your pictures are. Keep still. You mustn't despise success, you know, success is what everybody needs and wants. You're going to succeed. Keep still. Stupid people will want to buy your pictures because the people who know about such things have told the public how wonderful they are. Then you'll grow rich and famous. You won't be either eccentric or solitary. You'll have hosts of admiring friends. I guess you could have them now, if you wanted to. You won't be melancholy. You'll be happy. In your home there will be a nice wife. Why are you supposing you'll never marry? A dear true beautiful girl who thinks the world of you and that you think the world of. And when you're an old gentleman with your grandchildren playing at your knee, you'll say to yourself, 'Aurora told me so!'"
She was all cheering smiles and dimples again.
"Be sure you remember now," she said, holding up a finger and shaking it to mark her bidding, "to say to yourself, 'Aurora told me so!'"
It was a pity almost that Gerald should not have gone home at that point. He would have left with undividedly fond and approving feelings; he would have left tied to Aurora by a thousand sweet humanities in common, as well as impressed afresh by the depth and mysteriousness of woman. But he had either forgotten or was disregarding the hour—the clock on the mantelpiece, like most ornamental clocks, was not going; the bliss of being warm for the first time in days, warm through and through, warm to the middle of his heart, made him careless of correctness; and so he stayed on, to be rudely jarred by and by out of his contentment, and take with him finally into the night a renewed, even sharpened, perception of those exasperating faults which made Mrs. Hawthorne, as he named it, impossible.
Because they seemed to be on such solid terms of friendship after the long evening before the fire, when they had sorrowed together and sympathized; when he had been permitted to hold and press her hands; when with a veritable mutual outgoing of the heart they had vied in prophesying for each other fair and happy days, Gerald found the boldness—and found it without much strain—the boldness to utter a request which had burned on his lips before, but which he had repressed, saying to himself that what Mrs. Hawthorne did was no affair of his.
"Aurora," he said—she was after this evening Mrs. Hawthorne to him only in the hearing of others,—"Aurora, I want to ask a favor, a great favor."
"Go ahead. I guess it's granted."
"I wish I felt sure; but I'm afraid. Say you will not take part in the amateur variety show at mi-careme."
"Sakes!" cried Aurora, staring at him with round eyes. "Ask me something easy! Ask me something else! I can't do that."
"You can. Of course you can, if you wish to. You have only to give some excuse."
"An excuse? Not for a farm! I don't want to. I've bound myself. They expect me as much as anything. I couldn't back out. It's so near the time, too. Why, it's to make money for the Convalescents' Home. I'm a big feature of the show."
"I know you are, and I have a perfect horror of what you may do. I can't bear to think of the public sitting there gaping at you and laughing."
"The public will be composed of friends. It's all private. Give it up? Not much! I tell you, it's nuts to me! I expect to have lots of fun. You've never seen, Geraldino, how funny I can be. You'll see that night."
"The voice runs that you're going to appear as a nigger mammy and sing plantation songs."
"Oh, does it? Well, that seems innocent. What objection do you see to that?"
"I did not call my request reasonable, dearest Aurora. I begged a personal favor. You know the sort of nerves I have. It is like pouring acid on them to think of you making a show of yourself."
She laughed, but would not yield; she treated his proposition like a spoiled child's demand for the moon, and, after condescending to tease like a boy, he woke suddenly to the fact of being ridiculous. He dropped the subject with the abruptness that causes the opponent nearly to topple over in surprise.
He had sat for a long moment in silence when, realizing that this appeared ill-humored and a piece of effrontery, he started in haste to talk again, choosing the first subject that came into his mind, which was a thing he had meant to tell Aurora this evening, but had not remembered until this moment. The wide distance between the subject he dropped and the subject he took up would show, it was hoped, how definitely he washed his hands of her doings.
"If you have wished for revenge on our friend Antonia," he said, "you can be satisfied. She is in the most singular sort of difficulty."
"Oh, is she? I'm sorry," said Aurora. "Bless you! I never wished her any harm."
"I went to see her yesterday. I had saved up my grievance and felt the need to lay it before her. I think one should give an old friend who has behaved badly the chance to make reparation, don't you? After being angry as you saw me, I yet did not want to break with her. She was very kind to me when I was young. At the same time I could not let her rudeness to you pass. But I found her in such trouble already when I went to see her yesterday that I said not one word of my grievance. It will have to wait."
"You needn't think you must pick her up on my account. I don't care. But what was the matter?"
"Two of her oldest friends, through an unaccountable mistake, turned into enemies. Both insist that under cover of a mask at the last veglione she insulted them. Unfortunately, her best friends are not kept by their actual knowledge of her from thinking it just possible she might desire to amuse herself with getting a claw into them. She has more than once given offense to her friends by putting them into her books. But Antonia swore to me that she was innocent, and begged me to convince De Breze. The villa she lives in is his property, and he has requested her to vacate it. The other aggrieved one, General Costanzi, she fears may succeed in preventing the publication of her next novel by threat of a libel suit."
"Well, that sounds bad. But what do they say she's done?"
"The poor woman doesn't even know what she is supposed to have said; insulted them is all she can gather. Both maintain that though she tried to alter her voice they recognized her, and will not accept her word for it that she wore no such disguise as they describe. Which reminds me that the offender, or the offender's double, for I have an idea there were two masked alike, came into your box early in the evening with a companion. You have not forgotten—that black domino with the crow's beak?"
Aurora jumped on her seat with a cry of "Goodness gracious!"
"What is it?" he asked, looking at her more attentively. She appeared aghast.
She did not answer at once, tensely trying to think.
"Well," she finally exclaimed, relaxing into limpness, "I've been and gone and done it!"
And as he waited—
"I guess I did that insulting," she added, and wiped her brow.
He thought for a moment that she might be acting out a joke, but in the next accepted her perturbation as genuine.
"Can't you see through it even now I've told you?" she asked.
He shook his head.
"Did you suppose I didn't really know those two who came into the box, the one who roared and the one who cawed? Well, I'm a better actress than I supposed."
"And did you really suppose I was going home to bed just as the fun was at its height? There again you're simpler than I thought. Land! Don't I wish now that I had gone home!"
"We'd heard so much from everybody of the pranks they play at these vegliones of yours that we wanted to play one, too—we wanted to intrigue you and a lot of other people. The trouble seems to be we did it too well. Land! I wish I hadn't done it! I wish Heaven I'd consulted you, or some one—We hatched it all up with Italo and Clotilde."
"Italo and Clotilde!"
"They were the two who came into the box and didn't say a word, for fear of being known by their voices. Then, after you had so politely seen us off, Estelle and I in the carriage put on black dominos and crows' beaks, and after driving around a couple of blocks came back and found Italo and Clotilde waiting for us. Clotilde had put off her black domino in the dressing-room; she was dressed under it exactly like her brother. D'you see now how we worked it? Estelle took Clotilde's arm, and I took Italo's; we separated and kept apart, and it was as if there had only been one couple, the same as there had been since the beginning of the evening."
"I've been dying to tell you about it ever since, but I just haven't told you. I don't know what I was waiting for. I guess I was enjoying letting you stay fooled. I had the greatest time, bad cess to it! talking to some people I knew and to a lot that I didn't. Italo would whisper to me beforehand what to say, and I'd say it. I didn't always know what it was about, but nothing was further from my mind than to wish to insult anybody. I was so excited I didn't always notice what I did say, it just seemed playful and funny and in the spirit of the rest. I went up to Charlie Hunt and spoke to him. I put a flea in his ear, and I'm positive from his face that he didn't know me. I came near going up to you when you were talking with that Mr. Guerra, but I was too much afraid you'd recognize me; you're so sharp, and, then, you're the one most particularly who has heard me talk with my English accent, which I put on on the night of the veglione so as not to be known."
"Your English accent? That explains."
"Your English accent is a caricature of Antonia's."
"I don't have to tell you, I suppose, that I had no idea of personating Antonia."
"The very difference between the original and your imitation might seem the result of an effort on her part to disguise her speech."
"I've been a fool, of course, and some of the blame is mine, but just let me get hold of Italo and watch me shake the teeth out of his confounded little head. I remember perfectly speaking to the old general that we saw at Antonia's that day and to the old viscount who came to my ball."
"Do you remember what you said?"
"Not exactly, but in both cases it seemed harmless. I wouldn't have said it if it hadn't seemed harmless. I couldn't have wished to insult them, how could any one suppose it? To the general it was something about a horse."
Gerald gave a sound of raging disgust.
Aurora waited, watching him.
"Was it very bad?" she asked finally, and held her breath for his answer.
"Just as bad as possible. Ceccherelli deserves to be flayed. Is the man mad? And what, may I ask, did you say to De Breze?"
"I only remember it was something about ermine. I forgot until this moment that I meant to ask Italo what the joke was about ermine. Was that too very bad?"
"Just as bad as possible. No, rather worse. Both relate to ancient bits of scandal that no one would dare refer to—that would place a man referring to them in the necessity to fight a duel. Mind you, mean and discredited scandal. I won't resurrect it to enlighten you. You can interrogate Signor Ceccherelli, who has really distinguished himself in his quality of habitue of this house and your particular friend."
"I know you're angry, Gerald; I don't wonder you're ready to call names. But the thing is simple, isn't it, after all, now that I understand. The harm done isn't such as can never be mended. All I have to do is write to Antonia and tell her I was the black crow, or, if you advise, write to the two gentlemen I've offended."
"Heavens, no! you can't do that!"
"Why can't I?"
"You can't; that's all. You can't admit that that little vermin is on terms of intimacy with you permitting his prompting your Carnival witticisms, and you can't hope to make any one in Florence believe you didn't understand what you were saying."
"Yes, I can, my friend; I can make them believe. I can speak the truth. I can, at all events, prove that Antonia had nothing whatever to do with it."
"No, no, no, I tell you! You can do nothing whatever about it. Your name must not be allowed to appear in the matter at all. It would serve Ceccherelli right that his part in the disgraceful business should be known, dangerous little beast that he is. He would receive a lesson, and an excellent thing it would be; but that, again, might involve you. One couldn't trust him to keep your name out of it. Besides, it would very likely ruin him, disgusting little beggar."
"You leave him to me! He roared his throat to a frazzle the other night, and can't make a sound, but he'll come round as soon as he's better, and then if I don't give it to him! Little cuss!... But I'm to blame, too, Gerald. You told me over and over that I oughtn't to encourage him to gossip as I did, but I went right on doing it because it was as good as a play to hear him tell his queer stories in his queer English. It amused me, I've no other excuse. I sort of knew all the time that it was wrong. And so he got bolder and bolder and finally overstepped the line. And now I've got my come-uppance. I'll settle him, trust me, and I'll write to Antonia, and I'll write the two gentlemen, if you'll just tell me where to write."
"Must I tell you again that you are above all things to do nothing of the kind? Not certainly if you think of continuing to live in Florence. Leave the matter to me. I am well acquainted with everybody in question and shall be able to satisfy them, I hope, while leaving them completely in the dark as to the real culprit."
Mrs. Hawthorne appeared to hesitate.
"I really should feel better if I could confess," she said. "It would take a whole load off my chest. You see, I don't know your ways of doing over here; that would be my way. They might all forgive me and say I was just a fool. But if they didn't, and, as you seem to fear, made Florence too unpleasant to hold me, luckily I'm not tied down. I'm free. I can pull up stakes when I please and go pitch my tent elsewhere."
"The delightful independence of riches! The grandeur and detachment of your point of view!" he spoke in a flare of excited bitterness. "What you have said is equivalent to saying that your friends of Florence are a matter of complete indifference to you!"
"I love my friends of Florence, and you know it, Gerald Fane! And I don't believe they'd ever turn against me, no matter what trouble I'd made for myself at that confounded veglione. So I don't look to leaving Florence just yet a while. You know I was only talking. I felt perfectly safe—But it's astonishing to me, dear boy, how ready you are to get mad at me. When you know me so well, too. You ought to be ashamed."
"I am, dear. It's my temper that's bad. And you're so kind," he meekly subsided. "But you are trying, you know," he added, after a moment, with returning vivacity, "what with the extreme bad taste of your masked ball adventures, and your obstinate determination to publish them, and then your insane obstinacy to make a show of yourself as a colored nurse in this vaudeville—But I forgot, I had sworn to myself not to speak of that again. May I count upon you at least to leave entirely to me the matter of exculpating Antonia to General Costanzi and De Breze?"
"Oh, very well, if you think best."
"Will you promise solemnly to be silent on the whole matter?"
"All right. But I don't like it, Gerald. If I've done wrong, I should feel lots easier in my mind if I could tell."
"That feeling of yours is precisely what I wish to guard against. Do believe that in this matter the old Florentine I am knows better than you. Promise."
"All right, I promise."
After a moment, "There's no chance, is there, of your changing your mind about the other matter"—he asked sheepishly,—"the matter which I must not mention? No, I supposed not. I am perfectly aware of my presumption in making any suggestion to you on the subject. But if you knew how the thought of it torments me...."
"You'll get over it when you see me. You'll just laugh with the rest."
"Enough. Good night," he said stiffly, but it is doubtful that the word of leave-taking was anything more than a mode of expressing displeasure, or that departure would immediately have succeeded upon his rising from his chair, had not a sound of coughing from the neighboring room called up before him an image of Harriet Estelle, wide awake, with a stern and feverish eye fixed on the clock.
He was startled into a consciousness of the lateness of the hour.
"Good night!" he repeated in a guilty whisper. "I daren't look at my watch. I'm afraid I've kept you shockingly late."
* * * * *
The night, when Gerald went out into it, was quieter and dryer. The streets were altogether empty. He had quite forgotten having felt ill earlier in the evening, and did not remember it even when he found his teeth chattering as a result of coming out into the penetrating night air after sitting so close to the fire. A thing he did remember, as he took out the large iron key to the door of home, was that after all Helen Aurora telling him her story he did not know how she came to be Mrs. Hawthorne. There must have been a second marriage there in Denver, one of those little-considered episodes in American life, perhaps, that are hardly thought worth mentioning. She sometimes spoke of "the judge." She had spoken to-night of a doctor, son of the judge. No, he decided, it could not be either of them. The second husband, whoever he had been, had clearly not been important, and he was dead, for Mrs. Foss had told him explicitly that Aurora was a real, and not what is called in America a grass, widow. From this second husband it must have been that she derived her wealth.
Even had Aurora been able to apprehend the measure and quality, the fine shades, of Gerald's dislike to the thought of her doing a turn in the society variety-show, it is more than doubtful that she would have let it weigh against her strong desire to take part. It is fine to have such delicate sensibilities regarding the dignity of another, but it is foolishness to entertain anything of the sort regarding your own.
"If there's one thing I love, it's to dress up and play I'm somebody else," Aurora had said when first the subject of the benefit performance was discussed.
Mrs. Hawthorne was so certain to give generously to the cause of the convalescents that it was felt only fair to flatter her by seeking to enlist the service of her talents; but apart from this, the promise of her appearance was counted upon to create interest. She being obviously less restricted by conventions than other people, there existed a permanent curiosity as to what she might do next; and it could not be denied that she could, when she chose, be funny.
With the exception of one peculiar and superfastidious man, nobody had the smallest objection to seeing her distort her fine mouth in comic grimaces, or lend her fine figure to clownish acts. There were those, of course, who called Mrs. Hawthorne vulgar; but too many persons liked her for the charge of vulgarity to go undisputed or become loud. A good many had reason to like her.
Aurora felt so sure of the general friendliness that not the smallest pang of doubt, of deterring nervousness, assailed her while preparing her scene; and when she once occupied the center of the stage the spirit of frolic so possessed, the laughter of the people so elated and spurred, her, that she would have turned somersaults to amuse them, and done it with success, no doubt, for all that Aurora did on this occasion was funny and successful. Aurora, intoxicated with applause, was that night in her simple way inspired. Her state was, in fact, dangerous, discretion deserted her, and before the end, carried away by the desire to please further, make laugh more, she had done a foolish thing—a thing which she half knew, even while she did it, to be foolish, perhaps wrong. But not having leisure to think, she took the risk, and in time found herself, as a result of her mistake, to have made an enemy; yes, changed her dear and helpful friend Charlie Hunt into a secret enemy.
In an old palace on Via dei Bardi a stage had been set, filling one fourth of the vast saloon. A goodly representation of Anglo-American society in Florence crowded the rest. Beautifully hand-written programs acquainted these, through thin disguises of name, with the personalities of the performers. Only one name was really mysterious—Lew Dockstader.
After a lively overture by piano, violin, and harp, the three Misses Hunt, in Japanese costume, gave a prettily kittenish rendering of "Three Little Maids from School," selection from one of those Gilbert and Sullivan operettas latterly enchanting both England and America. The tub-shaped Herr Spiegelmeyer, dressed like a little boy and announced as an infant prodigy, played a concerto of prodigious difficulty and length. Lavin, of the tenor voice rich in poetry and prospects, humbled himself to sing, "There was a Lady Loved a Swine," with "Humph, quoth he"—s almost too realistic. Then came Lew Dockstader.
Now, report had spread that Mrs. Hawthorne was to appear as a negress; no one was prepared to see her appear as a negro. The surprise, when it dawned on this one and the other that that stove-black face with rolling eyes and big red and white smile, that burly body incased in old, bagging trousers, those shuffling feet shod in boots a mile too large for them and curling up at the toe, belonged to Mrs. Hawthorne, the surprise was in itself a success. Then, as has been said, Aurora was undeniably in the vein that evening.
She had seen Lew Dockstader, the negro minstrel, once in her life, but at the impressionable age, when you see and remember for good. It had been the great theatrical event of her life. "What, haven't seen Lew Dockstader! Don't know who he is!" thus she still would measure a person's ignorance of what is best in drama and song. She loved Lew. When she impersonated him she did not try to imitate him, she simply felt herself to be he.
In this character she now told a string of those funny anecdotes which Americans love to swap. She sang divers songs, pitched among her big, velvety chest tones: "Children, Keep in de Middle ob de Road," "Fluey, Fluey," "Come, Ride dat Golden Mule." With the clumsy nimbleness and innocent love of play of a Newfoundland pup, she flung out her enormous feet in the dance.
The crimson curtains drew together upon her retreat amid unaffected applause. Recalled, she gave the encore prepared for such an event. Recalled over and over, like singers of topical songs, to hear what she would say next, Aurora, a little off her head with the new wine of glory, exhausted her bag of parlor tricks to satisfy an audience so kind. Then it was that she made her mistake. Recalled still again, she invented on the spot one last thing to do. She recited a poem indelibly learned at public school, giving it first as a newly landed Jewish pupil would pronounce it, then a small Irishman, then a small Italian, finally an English child. To add the latter was her mistake, because her caricature of the English speech was very special.
The sound of it started an idea buzzing in the head of one of her audience—Charlie Hunt, who sat well in front, and in applauding raised his hands above the level of his head so that actors and audience alike might be encouraged by seeing that he gave the patronage of his approval.
He did not immediately connect Aurora's English with a rankling remembered episode, but the thing was burrowing in his subconsciousness, and an arrow of light before long pierced his brain. He reconsidered the conclusion upon which he had rested with regard to the black crow who at the veglione had put to him an impertinent question. Could it be that not the particular lady whom he had fixed upon in his mind, as being fond of Landini, consequently jealous of Mrs. Hawthorne, had by it expressed her spite, but that—? He saw in a flash a different possibility.
When the show was over and the performers had issued from the dressing-rooms in the clothes of saner moments, Charlie Hunt approached Mrs. Hawthorne, who, flushed with excitement, was looking almost too much like an American Beauty rose. He paid his compliments in a tone tinged with irony, all the while watching her with a penetrating, inquiring, ironical eye. But the irony was wasted. She was too pleasantly engrossed to perceive it.
"Has anybody here seen Mr. Fane?" she asked after a time, when her glances had vainly sought him in every corner.
Estelle told her that she had not set eyes on him the whole evening; and, which was more conclusive, little Lily Foss said he had not been there.
Aurora, unable to see beyond the footlights, had never dreamed but Gerald was among the audience. Her capers had at moments been definitely directed at him. Discovering that he had kept away, she was not so much hurt as puzzled.
"Who'd have thought he cared enough about it to be so mean!" she said to herself. "Well," she said further, "let him alone. He'll come round in a day or two."
She really expected him that same day. When he did not come, or the day after, or the day after that, she tried to recall passage for passage their talk on the subject of the show. She did not remember his saying anything that amounted to giving her a choice between renouncing it or renouncing his friendship.
Then she reviewed all she knew of him; and his present conduct, if he were by this avoidance trying to punish her for doing what it was the prerogative of her native independence to do, did not seem in accordance with his known regard for the rights of others.
Aurora did not know what to think. From hour to hour she looked for a call, a message, a letter, and because the time while waiting seemed long, she neglected to note that the actual time elapsed was not more than Gerald had sometimes allowed to pass without her attributing his silence to offence. He had his work, he had other friends; Abbe Johns might be in town again visiting him. This silence, however, had a different value, she thought, from other silences. They had seemed so much better friends after their confidences that long evening over the fire; she expected more of him than she had done before it.
At other moments she was disposed to find fault with herself. She supposed she was a big coarse thing, unable to appreciate the feelings of a man who apparently hadn't as many thicknesses of skin as other folks.
It was at such a moment, when she made allowances for him, that she thought of writing, making it easy for him to drop his grouch and return. But here Aurora felt a difficulty. Aurora thought well, in a general way, of her powers as a letter-writer, and she was proud of her beautifully legible Spencerian hand; but for such a letter as she wished to send Gerald fine shades of expression were needed beyond what she could compass. She was fond of Gerald; in this letter she must not be too fond, yet she must be fond enough. What hope that a blockhead would strike the exact middle of so fine a line?
She could obviate the difficulty by sending him a formal invitation to dinner. But suppose she should receive formal regrets?
After that the whole thing must be left to him; the tactful letter meant to hurry him back would no longer be possible.
"Oh, bother!" said Aurora, and formed a better, bolder plan.
Aurora had not seen the plays, had not read the books, where the going of the heroine to visit the hero at his house for whatever good reason under the sun has such damaging results for her fair fame. Aurora was innocent of good society's hopeless narrowness on the subject. If she made a secret of her plan to Estelle it was merely because Estelle had permitted herself wise words one day, warnings, with regard to Gerald, in whom she specifically did not wish her friend to "become interested."
"You're too different," Estelle had said. "You're like a fish and a bird. I won't say I don't like him. He's nice in a way, but it's not our way, Nell. You'd be miserable with him, first or last."
"My dear," Aurora had replied, "if you knew the sort of thing we talk about when you're not there you wouldn't worry. If you can see Gerald Fane in the part of my beau you must be cracked. And if you think I'm soft on him, you're only a little bit less cracked. Can't you see we're just friends? It's nice for him to come here and it's nice for us to have him. We want friends, don't we?"
"All I say is don't go ahead with your eyes shut till you find before you know it that you're landed in a case of, 'Mother, I can't live without him!' For, Nell, it won't do, you know it won't."
"My dearest girl, of course I know, but not half so well as he knows! Bless you, Hat, do you forget all Leslie told us about him and his affair? And do you forget my little affair? Do you suppose either of us wants to try again?"
"Indeed, I hope you will try again, both of you. But not together, Nell. I've got the man all picked out for you; you know perfectly I mean Tom Bewick. There's the one for you, Nell. Big, healthy, kind. Good sense. Good temper. Your own kind of person, Nell, and not a queer bird from a menagerie. Don't go and spoil everything by getting tangled up over here. You know as well as I do that Gerald Fane, take him just as a man, can't hold a candle to Doctor Tom."
"I've never thought of comparing them. I don't see any use in doing it. Tom's Tom and Gerald's Gerald. So far as Gerald goes, you can set your heart at rest and bank on this: I know just as well as you do, and he knows just as well as I do, that we couldn't pull in harness together any more than—just as you say, a fish and a bird. Neither of us is thinking of such a thing. But why mustn't a fish and a bird have anything to say to each other? He might like the cut of her fins and she might fancy the color of his wings. They could sympathize together, couldn't they, if nothing else?" Aurora's eyebrows had with this tried to signify her entire capacity to take care of herself and her own business.
But not wishing to rouse any further uneasiness in her friend, she no more after that spoke frankly of Gerald whenever he came into her mind. And when she declined Estelle's invitation to go with her to Mlle. Durand's, where she would hear the pupils of the latter recite Corneille and Racine, she did not tell her what she had planned to do instead, fully intending, however, to reveal it later.
* * * * *
Gerald meanwhile did not flatter himself imagining Aurora unhappy because he stayed away longer than had lately been quite usual. Time dragged with him, but the calendar told him that just so many days, no more, had passed. He pictured her going her cheerful gait, occasionally saying, perhaps, "I wonder what has become of Stickly-prickly?"
He had not gone to the mid-Lent entertainment as a matter of course. Aurora had shown small knowledge of him when she thought he would consent to see her disport herself before the public as a negress. On the day after, when he learned that she had been the star of the evening as a negro, his frenzied disgust itself warned him of the injustice, the impropriety, of exhibiting it to her. He chose to remain away until it should have sufficiently worn down to be governable. By that time the poor man had developed an illness, that cold of which for some weeks he had been carrying around in his bones the premonition.
With reddened eyelids and thickened nose, a sore throat and a cough, he felt himself no fit object for a lady's sight. He stayed in to take care of himself.
Giovanna knew what to do for her signorino when he was raffreddato. She built a little fire in the studio; she brought his light meals to him in his arm-chair before it. She administered remedies. His bed was warmed at night by her scaldino. Gaetano was sent to Vieusseux's for an armful of books. All day Gerald sat by the fire and read, and sometimes dozed and dreamed, and read again. And days passed, while his cold held on.
He thought of writing Aurora to tell her. But if he told her, she would at once come to see him; of so much one could be sure. And he did not want her to come. The eccentric fellow did not want her to come precisely because he wanted her to come so much.
"This is the way it begins," he said to himself, with horror, when he became fully aware that his nerves, now that he could not go to find Aurora when he chose, were suggesting to him all the time that the presence of Aurora was needed to quiet that sense of want, of maladjustment to conditions, haunting him like the desire for sleep.
At sight of his danger he became very clear-headed. The man who sees a snare and walks into it deserves his fate, surely.
"It is time to stop it," he said. And he laid down for himself new rules of life.
Fortunately, he had at hand some absorbing books. Dostoiewsky's "Crime and Punishment" could effectively take him out of himself.
But the print was fine and crowded, he was weakened by illness, he was forced now and then to stop and rest with swimming head. Then at once would return, like the demon in fair disguise tempting some hermit of the desert, the thought, "What is Aurora doing? If Aurora knew I was ill, she would come." And the imagination of her coming would shed a feverish gladness all along those petulant, ill-treated, starved nerves. "What have I to do with Aurora, or Aurora with me?" he would ask, furiously, the incongruity of what had happened to him calling forth sometimes a desperate laugh. But Nature laughs at man's ideas of congruity; remembering that, he could only hold his hands against his eyes and try to press the image of Aurora out of existence.
Gerald, however, was much stronger than his nerves. He could see his own case, even with a pulse at ninety, as well as another man's. And his will was firmer than might have been thought. He knew something of a human man's constitution, how it can circumvent a man, or how a man, well on his guard, can circumvent it. He formed the project of interrupting his visits to the Hermitage.
After this resolution he regarded those returns of earth-born desire for Aurora's balmy touch and tranquilizing neighborhood as a man who had taken an heroic and sure remedy against ague might regard the fluctuations in his body of heat and cold continuing still for a little while. As to how Aurora would take his defection, all should be managed with so much art and politeness that the most sensitive could not be hurt. By the time the new important work which he would make his excuse was accomplished, his cure would have been accomplished as well.
Meanwhile, each time the door-bell rang—it was not often, certainly—his attention was taken from his book, and he listened. And so, on Mlle. Durand's French afternoon, Gerald, having heard the bell, was listening, but with his face to the fire and his back to the door. When Giovanna knocked, "Forward!" he said, without turning. The door opened.
"C'e quella signora." "There is that lady," dubiously announced Giovanna.
Gerald turned, and beheld that lady filling the doorway.
Then it was as if a bright trumpet-blast of reality, breaking upon a bad dream, dispelled it; or as if a fresh wind, blowing over stagnant water, swept away the cloud of noxious gnats. All he had latterly been thinking and feeling seemed to Gerald insane, sickly, the instant he beheld Aurora's comradely smile. He was ashamed; he found himself on the verge of stupid, unexplainable tears.
"Well!" said Aurora.
At the sound they were placed back on the exact footing of their last meeting, before thinking and conjecturing about each other in absence had built up between them barriers of illusion.
"Well!" he said, but less pleasantly, because he was mortified by the awareness of himself as an uninviting sight, with his old dressing-gown, neglected beard, and the unpicturesque manifestations of a cold.
But Aurora's face was reassuring; she did not confuse him with the accidents of his dressing-gown and beard and cold. Aurora's face beamed, so much was she rejoicing in her own excellent sense, which had told her that one look at each other would do a thousand times more to make things right between them than innumerable letters could have done.
"I didn't know what to think," she said, "so I came to find out. First I'd think you were mad at me, then I'd think you had gone away and written me, and the letter hadn't reached me, Gaetano had lost it on the road. Then I'd think you might be sick, and there was nobody to let your friends know. I don't know what I didn't think of. What made you not send me word?"
"I did not know you would be uneasy. I did not rightly measure, it seems, the depth of your kindness. I should certainly have written to you before long in case I had continued unable to go to see you."
"How long have you been sick?"
"I am not sick, dearest lady. I only have a cold. In order to make it go away more quickly I have to remain in the house. But how good, how very good of you to come! Sit down, please do, and warm yourself. I will ring for Giovanna, and she will make us some tea."
Aurora, smiling all the time with the pleasure she felt in not finding him angry or estranged or in any way altered toward her, took the arm-chair from which he had just risen, while he drew a lighter chair to the other side of the chimney-place. His fires were not like hers. Two half-burned sticks and a form of turf smoldered sparingly on a mound of hot ashes; he eagerly cast on a fagot, and added wood with, for once, an extravagant hand. Then, looking over at her, he smiled, too.
"Now tell me all about yourself," she commanded. "I want to know what you're doing for this cold of yours."
"Please let us not talk about my cold," he at once refused. "Let us talk about something agreeable. Tell me the news. I have not seen any one for days. I have been living in Russia with a poor young man who had committed a murder, also with a most sympathetic being who found the world outside an institution for the feeble-minded too much for him." By a gesture toward the books on the table he gave her a clue to his meaning.
"You say you haven't seen any one for days," she said. "Now the Fosses, for instance, who are your best friends, don't you let them know when you're shut in?"
"You have no conception, evidently, of my bearishness, dear friend. They have. They never wonder when they do not see me or hear from me for weeks."
"I know, and it seems funny; it seems sort of forlorn to me. I saw them the other day and asked if any one had seen you since the night of the show. They said no, but didn't seem to think anything about it."
"It's not really long since then. How are they all?"
"All right, and busy as bees. They've no time to come and see me, or anybody else, I guess. Brenda's coming back to be married in May, and they're flying round getting her things ready. All her linen is being beautifully embroidered...."
They went on talking, without much thought of what they said. It was immaterial, really, what they said, or even whether they listened to each other, while they had in common the comfort of sitting together in front of the fire after a long separation filled with doubts and dismays. She told him about the Convalescents' Home, the sum they had raised for it. No word, prudently, was spoken by either of her share in raising it. He told her about the Russian novels. A third person might perfectly have been present, for anything intimate in their conversation. Gerald was scrupulously careful, for his part, that this should be so. The third person would never have divined how far for the moment that chimney-corner transcended, in the sentiments of the parties seated before it, any other corner of the earth.
Aurora's attention became closer when Gerald related his interviews with De Breze and Costanzi, both of whom he had succeeded in convincing that Antonia had had nothing to do with intriguing them at the veglione, and had left to digest as best they could their curiosity concerning the mysterious masker mistaken for her. He had been obliged to give his word that he knew on absolutely good authority who this person was.
His attention, on the other hand, was complete when she told him how she had dealt with Ceccherelli; she was considerate enough to-day to make the effort to pronounce the gentleman's cognomen.
"I was savage at him, you remember," she said. "I was going to take his head off. Then when it came to it, and I had told him what I thought of him and the whole disgraceful scrape he had got me into—Oh, I went for him, hammer and tongs! Incidentally, I made him tell me what it was I had said. Pretty bad, wasn't it!—Well, do you know, he cried, he felt so. He just cried on his knees, and didn't try to get rid of any of the blame. All he wanted was that I should forgive him. And what could I do? As long, particularly, as I knew that a good deal of the fault was my own.... So now he comes to the house with a look as if he'd just been baptized. And he tells me only stories fit, he says, for a convent. Here is a sample, if you'd like to hear. Mrs. X, as he called her, who lives in a palace not a thousand miles, he said, from Piazza degli Anti-nory, and who had given Mr. B. reasons for not liking her, was seen by him, in a suspiciously simple dress, going suspiciously on foot, in a little suspiciously out of the way street, at a considerable distance from Piazza degli Anti-nory. The gentleman followed her stealthily into a house he saw her enter, thinking, you know, he would find out something to her discredit. And what did he find out but that she was secretly visiting and relieving the poor! The brilliant society lady, whom he wished to be revenged on because, as I gathered, she had scorned his dishonorable love-making, was secretly the angel of the poor.... Don't you think that's a nice story? He tells me nothing now that's less nice than that. We're reformed characters. He has asked my permission to dedicate to me a beautiful piece of music he has just composed, and which is called—but in French—'Prayer of the Evening.'"
Both of them were pleasantly aware of a tray placed on the table near them, as if descended from heaven, laden with teapot, bread and butter, jam. Neither of them really saw Giovanna, who brought it in, or was struck by the stern expression of her face.
Aurora, never sorry of something to eat, turned her attention to the tray. Gerald wished to serve her, and she first noticed his weakness when she saw the teapot tremble slightly in his hand. She went on chattering, but she was observing him.
"Is your carriage waiting before the door?" he suddenly asked, after a space during which she had suspected that he was not properly attending to what she said. Aurora's monogram, daintily executed, adorned the door-panels of her carriage.
"Yes," she answered. "Why?"
As if he had not heard, he changed the subject. After a while he asked, again irrelevantly:
"How was it that Miss Madison did not come with you this afternoon?"
"She was going to a different tea-party." Supposing that his question was a way of politely desiring news of Miss Madison, she went on to talk of her.
"She was going to her French teacher's, who is having a French afternoon where they're supposed to talk nothing but French. What would I have been doing there? But Estelle is getting to talk the French language exactly as well as her own.... That reminds me. A thing I've wanted to tell you. If you should notice that Busteretto seems to be rather more her dog than mine, don't you say anything, or care. The fact is Estelle loves him more than I do. That's all there is about it. Which isn't saying that I don't love him. But Estelle's silly over him, in the regular old maid way, as I tell her. When he wouldn't eat his dinner this noon, I had all I could do to make her eat hers, she was so troubled. And nothing ailed him, I guess, but that he'd picked up something in the kitchen. What I wanted to say was, don't you think it's because I don't value your present, if you should notice by and by that I seem to have given up my claims to Busteretto. That sort of alive present has a will of its own. The little thing took to her from the first more than he did to me. Shall I tell Estelle that you wished to be remembered?"
"She'll be sorry to hear you're sick. Don't say that again, Gerald," she silenced him, letting her anxiety at last plainly appear. "Don't tell me you aren't sick, for I know better. It's been taking away my appetite to see you make believe to eat, and choke over it. Your cough is so tight it sounds as if it tore your lungs. Give me your hand. It's as hot, dear boy, and as dry!... Wait, let me feel your pulse."
He knew that his pulse was high, that his temples ached, that a disposition to shiver accompanied the volcanic heat of his blood.
He laughed at her light-headedly while with serious concentration she counted the beats in his wrist.
"I'm going to stop at Doctor Gage's on my way home," she said, letting go his hand, and not heeding what he said. "And I'm going to tell him to come and see you."
"Please do not! If I need a doctor, there is my own, an Italian, the same for years."
"An Italian? Do you think they're as good?"
"Better for my own case."
"Gerald, it's my advice to you to go right to bed and let your doctor come and prescribe. A cold is nothing in a way, but a neglected cold can grow into a mean sort of thing. Say you'll do it. Don't you know how good it will feel to you just to give in and go to bed and let some one else do all the looking after you? Oh, I wish I could speak Italian enough to have a talk with your Giovanna."
"Giovanna has taken care of me and my malanni for years. She gives me tar-water, and rice-water, and tamarind-water, and linden-tea, and cassia. She threatened me this morning with a sinapism if I were not better by evening. I shall be better. I do not wish for a sinapism."
"Is that a poultice on your chest? I guess it's what you need. Now, if I have any influence with you, Gerald, if you love me one little bit, you'll promise to go right to bed, and you'll give me your doctor's address so that on my way home I can leave word for him to come."
"You shall not take that trouble. I can send Gaetano."
"You promise me you'll do it, then?"
"I seem to have been left no choice, dear lady."
"That's real sweet of you. You'll go to bed the minute I've gone?"
"Yes. But don't go quite yet!"
"With that temperature, I don't see how you can care who stays or who goes, or anything in the world but to lay your head down on a pillow. I won't stay any longer now. Go to bed like a good boy. To-morrow I'll run in and see how you're getting along."
His last word was, after a moment of seeming embarrassment:
"I hope Miss Madison will be able to come with you next time."
"Yes, yes," said Aurora, lightly, taking it for a mere amiable message with which he was charging her for Estelle.
* * * * *
Fever no doubt colored all Gerald's dreams that night, and was in part responsible next day for his thoughts, as he passed from languor to restlessness, and from impatience back to the peace of the certain knowledge that before evening he should have visitors—fair visitors.
When it seemed to him nearly time for them, he ordered Giovanna to make the room of a beautiful and perfect neatness, hiding all the medicine bottles and humble signs that one is mortal. She was directed to lay across his white counterpane that square of brocade which often formed a background for his portraits. She was asked to brush his hair and beard, and wrap his shoulders in an ivory-white shawl, thick with silk embroideries, which had been his mother's. In a little green bronze tripod a black pastille was set burning, which sent up, slow, thin, and wavering, a gray spiral of perfume.
Keenly as he was waiting, he yet did not know when the ladies arrived. He opened his eyes, and they were there, shedding around them a beautiful freshness of health and the world outside. Estelle, in a soft green velvet edged with silver fur, held toward him an immense bunch of flowers. Aurora, in a wine-colored cloth bordered with bands of black fox, tendered a basket heaped with fruit. Both smiled, and had the kind look of angels.
They sat down beside his bed. They talked with him; all was just as usual. They asked the old questions pertinent to the case, he made the old answers, and by an effort kept up for some minutes a drawing-room conversation with them.
Then Aurora said:
"Hush! You mustn't talk any more!" And when he thought she was going away, he wondered to see her take off her gloves.
She stood over him; he wondered what she meant to do. She felt of his forehead with her cool hand. With her palms, which were like her voice, of a velvet not too soft, she smoothed his forehead and temples; she stroked them over and over in a way that seemed to draw the ache out of his brain. Her fingers moved soothingly, magnetically, all around his eye-sockets, pressing down the eyelids and comforting them.
At first he resisted. Perversely he frowned, as if the thing increased his pain, annoyed him beyond words. He all but cried out to the well-meaning hands to stop.
"Doesn't it feel good?" asked Aurora, anxiously.
He relaxed. Without opening his eyes, he nodded to thank her, and as he yielded himself up to the hands it seemed to him that those passes drew his spirit after them quite out of his body.
* * * * *
"I don't think I'll go up with you," Estelle said unexpectedly when on the next day they stopped before the narrow yellow door in Borgo Pinti. "I'll wait here in the carriage. I'm nervous myself to-day. Give my best regards to Gerald. I hope you'll find him better."
Aurora did not take time to examine into the possible reasons for her friend's choice. She climbed the long stairs sturdily, managing her breath so that she did not have to stop and rest on the way.
She followed the stern Giovanna, unsubdued by the latter's hard and jealous looks, to the door of her master's chamber.
She went toward the bed, smiling at the sick man over an armful of white lilacs.
He half rose in his bed and quickly, disconnectedly, impetuously, said:
"My dear friend, this is most good of you. I'm sure I thank you very much. I'm very, very much better, as you can see. I shall be out again in a day or two." He was visibly trembling; his eyes flared with excitement. "That being the case, my dear lady, I earnestly beg you will not trouble to come like this every day." He stopped to choke and cough, then wrenching himself free from strangulation—"Aurora,"—he changed his key and tune,—"do let me be ill in peace! Here I am on my back, with a loosened grip on everything, and it's taking an unfair advantage to invade my privacy as you do. Take away those lilacs with you, won't you, please? We haven't any more vases to put them in; they'd have to be stuck in a bedroom water-jug. Giovanna won't let me have flowers in my room, anyhow; she says they are bad for me. Don't be offended! I know you mean nothing but to be kind, but the thing you are doing is devilish.... What do you think I am made of? I don't want you to be offended, but I have got to say what I can to keep you from coming to this house and troubling me in my illness. I have got to say it plainly and fully because you, Aurora, never understand anything that is not said to you in so many words. I might try and try my best to convey the same idea to you in a gentle and gentlemanly way, and not a scrap of good would be done. I've got to talk like a beast. I wish to be alone. Is that clear? I've just struggled and waded my way out of one quagmire; I do not wish to enter another. Is that plain? I wish to feel free to be ill as much and as long as I choose. It concerns nobody. It concerns nobody if I die. It would be an excellent thing, saving me the trouble later of blowing out my brains.... My God, Aurora, have you understood?" he almost shouted.
"Yes," said Aurora in a voice that sounded pale, even as her face looked pale. "I have understood, and I won't come again. Just one thing, Gerald. Put your arms under the bed clothes and keep them there."
* * * * *
"Whether he's better or worse I truly couldn't tell you," Aurora said in answer to Estelle's first question. After a moment she added, "I can't make him out."
Estelle saw that she was deeply troubled, and, herself troubled at the sight, did not press her for explanations.
During the drive home Aurora made only one other remark. It was delivered with a certain emphasis.
"One thing I know: I sha'n't go there again in a hurry!"
Her lilacs, after wondering a moment what to do with them, she had quietly deposited outside Gerald's entrance-door.
* * * * *
It was unimaginable, of course, that the childhood's friend should so disregard the rules of the game as to leave her old playmate's curiosity long unsatisfied. Estelle accordingly learned before evening that Gerald had been guilty of an attack of nerves, in the course of which he had said something which Aurora did not like. What this was Aurora would not tell, saying it seemed unfair to repeat things Gerald had spoken while he was not himself and which he perhaps did not mean. From which Estelle judged that Aurora had already softened since she returned to the carriage looking as grim as she was grieved.
That Aurora had something on her mind no observant person could fail to see, and Estelle was not unprepared to hear her say as she did on the third morning at breakfast, after fidgeting a moment with a pinch of bread:
"I'm so uneasy I don't know what to do. That boy is much sicker than he knows," she went on to justify her disquietude, "and he's in a bad mood for getting well. I don't believe Italian doctors know much, anyhow. I've heard that they still put leeches on you. All he has to take care of him, day and night, is that old servant-woman What's-her-name, who, he told me himself, doctors him with herb-tea. I'm so uneasy! The sort of cold he has, I tell you, can turn any minute into something you don't want. He's all run down and a bad subject for pneumonia. I'm thinking I shall have to just go to the door and find out how he is."
"You could send a servant to inquire," suggested Estelle.
Aurora appeared to reflect; she might have been trying to find a reason for not taking the hint, but she said, "No; I should feel better satisfied to go myself."
At the last moment, when they were ready to start, Estelle found Busteretto's nose hot, and decided not to go. She stayed at home and called a doctor. For some days the pet had not seemed to her in quite his usual form.
Aurora, climbing Gerald's stairs this time, felt very uncertain and rather small. The street door, when she had pulled the bell-handle, had unlatched with a click, but no voice had called down, and when she reached the top landing the door in front of her stood forbiddingly closed. She waited for some minutes, wondering whether she were doing right. Suppose Gerald were enough better to be up again and, Giovanna being out, should himself come to open the door. How would she feel, caught slinking back, after she had been requested loudly and roundly to stay away?
Well, set aside how she felt, the object of her coming would have been reached, wouldn't it? She would know that he was better. She rang and listened.
Certain, as soon as she heard them, whose footsteps were on the other side of the door, she held in readiness her Italian. She counted on understanding Giovanna's answer to her question, for she had, as she boasted, "quite a vocabulary." But much more than to this she trusted to the talent which Italians have for making their meaning clear through pantomime and facial expression.
As soon, in fact, as Giovanna opened the door, and before the woman had said a word in reply to "Come sta Signor Fane?" Aurora had understood.
Giovanna's eyes, stained with recent weeping, looked up at the visitor without severity or aversion, seeking for sympathy; the unintelligible account she gave of her master's condition was broken up with sighs.
Aurora felt her heart turn cold, and such agitation seize her as made her reckless of all but one thing.
"I shall have to see for myself," she thought.
With the haste of fear, she flew before Giovanna down the long hallway, around the dark corner, to the door of Gerald's room. It was half open. Checking herself on the threshold, she thrust in her head.
He was so lying in his bed that beyond the outlined shape under the covers she could see of him only a dark spot of hair. And she felt she must see his face, whether asleep or awake, to get some idea.... She tiptoed in with the least possible noise. At once, without turning, he asked something in Italian, and speaking forced him to cough; and after he had finished coughing, Aurora, who was near, could hear his breathing rustle within him like wind among dead leaves.
Giovanna had gone to the head of his bed and whispered a communication. Upon which he twisted sharply around, and Aurora, moved by an overpowering impulse, rushed to his side.
"Hush!" she said at once. "Don't try to talk; it makes you cough. I just wanted to know how you were. It would be funny, now don't you think so yourself, if, such friends as we've been, I should stop caring anything about you because you were cross the other day? I had to come and see if there wasn't something we could do for you."
The attempt to speak choked him again; he had to lift himself finally quite up from his pillow to get breath. Quicker than Giovanna, Aurora snatched up a gray shawl from a chair to put over his shoulders. The room felt to her stagnantly cold. He stopped her hand in the act of folding him in, and she knew that it was not the Gerald of last time, this one who, with an afflictive little moan, clasped and pressed her hand.
She hushed him, every time he tried to speak, until his breathing had quieted down, when he came out despite her forbidding with a ragged, interrupted, but obstinate eagerness:
"How can I ever thank you enough for coming, dear, dear Aurora? I have lived in one prolonged nightmare ever since I saw you, knowing I had behaved like a blackguard, and fearing I should never have a chance to beg your pardon. I thought I should never see you again. And here you are, so generous, so kind!"
"Hush, Gerald! Don't make anything of it. Of course I came. Keep quiet now; you mustn't try to talk."
"Dearest woman," he insisted, with his voice full of tears, "I don't even know what I said to you, but I know that the whole thing was atrocious. You standing there like a big angel, with your innocent arms full of flowers, and I barking at you like a cur!"
"Nothing of the sort. You were sick. Who lays up anything against a sick man?"
"Excuse it in me like this, Aurora, if you can: that having such regard for you, I had pride before you and could not endure that you should see me when I felt myself to be a disgusting object. So, mortified to the point of torture, I lost my temper,—I've got that bad habit, you know,—and insanely railed to keep you off."
"And didn't succeed. Come, come; what nonsense all this is! Put it out of your mind and think of nothing but getting well. Now you—"
"It is not nearly so important that I should get well," he testily persisted, "as that I should ask your forgiveness. It has been weighing upon me and burning like bedclothes of hot iron, the horror of having so meanly and ungratefully offended you."
"Why should you feel so bad about it as long as I don't? Put it all out of your mind, just as I do out of mine. There, it's all right. Now keep still except to answer my questions. You've had the doctor?"
"What's he giving you?"
"You can see—there on the stand—those bottles."
"And hot things on your chest?"
"Yes; semedilino. I don't know what you call it in English."
"Flaxseed, I guess. How can poor old Giovanna do everything for you?"
"I don't know," he answered vaguely. "She does."
Perceiving that by a reaction from his excitement he was suddenly fatigued to the point of no longer being able to speak at all or even keep his eyes open, she asked nothing more, but with a practised hand straightened his bolster, smoothed his pillow and drew the covers evenly and snugly up to his chin.
"Don't you be afraid," he heard her say above him, as it seemed to him a long time after, at the same moment that he felt her give his shoulder a little squeeze to impress her saying: "I won't let anything happen to you."
* * * * *
He entered a state which was neither quite sleep nor quite waking. He was not dreaming, yet the world within his eyelids was peopled with creatures and varied by incidents departing from the known and foreseen. Something malevolent pertained to the personalities, something disquieting to the actions; suffering and oppression resulted from his inability to get away from them. They came and went, one scene melted into another, sometimes beautiful, sometimes repulsive, a sickly disagreeableness being common to all, and the fatigue involved with watching the spectacle of them weighing like a physical burden.
But yet beneath the unrest of fever dreams there was in Gerald, after Aurora's visit, as if a substratum of quiet and content. As a good Catholic, having confessed and received absolution, would be less troubled by either his symptoms or any visions that might come of Satan and his imps, so Gerald, with the weight of his sins of brutality and ingratitude lifted off him, could feel almost passive with regard to the rest.
He had moments through the night of recognizing the deceptiveness of his senses. He knew, for instance, that the solemn clerical gentleman in a long black coat and tall hat whom he saw most tiresomely coming toward him down the street every time he opened his eyes was only a medicine bottle full of dark fluid, outlined against the dim candle-shine. And he knew that the tower of ice, solitary amid snows, lighthouse or tower of defense on some arctic coast, was nothing but a glass of water. And when it seemed to him, late, late in the night, that Aurora was in the room, he knew off and on that it was Giovanna, who through one of those metamorphoses common in fever had taken the likeness of Aurora. She lifted him to make him drink, and supported him while she held the glass to his lips, then laid him easily back. The delusions of fever had the sweet and foolish impossibility of fairy-stories: Aurora, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, placing upon his stiff and lacerated breast balsamic bandages of assuaging and beneficient warmth!...
The night was full of torrid heat and fiery light, in which everything looked unnatural, shifting, uncertain, but daylight, when it finally came, was of a crude coldness; under it everything returned to be itself, meager and stationary, and he knew that it was no phantasmagorical Aurora making preparations to wash his face.
He spoke no word to signify either pleasure or displeasure. He let it be, like a destiny too strong to withstand. With this acceptance there took place in him, body and spirit, a relaxing, as when supporting arms are felt by one who had been fearing a fall.
In his not very clear-headed reflections upon himself and his state, he had passed into a different category of men, where what he did, particularly as regarded worldly proprieties, had little importance, because, ill as he felt, there seemed to him such a strong probability of his actions having no result. If, on the other hand, he could manage to pull through—and he found he cared to do this, cared so much more than he had supposed he ever could care, on such desperate days as those which had sometimes seen him re-examining his revolver—if he should recover, the gladness of his good fortune would outweigh any inconvenience created by his weakness now. Life is, and should be, dearer to man than anything else, except honor. He found it difficult to separate the idea of honor from life, and make it oppose letting this robust guardian angel fulfil her promise not to "let anything happen to him."
* * * * *
Gerald had too often heard those well-meaning lies which friends and nurses tell the sick, to place faith altogether in Aurora's cheerful asseverations from day to day that he was getting better.
Yet Aurora was not feigning. She entertained no doubt that with proper care he would get well. And she was providing the care. Hence a confidence which she did not allow any of those chilly creepy fears which come at about three o'clock in the morning to undermine. She was so strongly resolved to get him well, and felt so capable of doing it, that it would not seem unlikely her very hands in touching him had virtue and imparted health.
He said very little, even when the exertion of talking had ceased to make him cough. The fact that talk fatigued him was reinforced by his old fancy that talk was superfluous. One lived, one looked, one felt....
She was glad he so willingly kept quiet, because as long as he had fever it was so much the best thing he could do. He did not have to tell her that he took comfort in having her there, that everything she did for him was exactly right, that her touch was blessed and had no more strangeness for him than that of a sister—nay, than his own. She too understood those wordless things which are shed from one person, like a radiance, and inhaled by another, like a scent.
In the long silences, she sometimes read a little by the shaded candle—she had chosen the night watch for her share and let his devoted old Giovanna wait on her master during the day. But very often she sat in her easy-chair near the bed doing nothing, just thinking her thoughts, marveling at the queerness, the surprises of life. Who could have dreamed that first time she entered this big brick-floored, white-washed room, and nearly cried because she found it so dreary, that she would come to feel at home in it; that by her doing the brown earthenware stove in the corner, cold since Mrs. Fane's day, would again glow and purr; that over and over she would watch the row of flower-pots out on the terrace, with the stiff straw-colored remains in them of last year's carnations, grow slowly visible in the dawn; that from their pastel portrait the eyes of the mother would watch her placing compresses on the brow of the son!
* * * * *
Before going for her rest, she always waited to see the doctor, who made an early visit. After they had reissued together from the sickroom, he was interviewed by her with the help of an interpreter, Clotilde, who was in and out of the house during all that period, making herself useful. Estelle instead came only for a moment daily, having a case of her own to nurse, who was down, poor crumb, with those measles-mumps-whooping cough of puppyhood, distemper.