On the day when Doctor Batoni had agreed that with prudence there would be nothing more to fear, the patient might be regarded as having entered convalescence, Aurora covered him with a wide and warming smile.
"Je suis son bonne amie," thus she translated the explanation of her unconcealed happiness, "I'm a good friend of his," nodding at the old man with the full sweetness of her dimples; blushing a little, too, with the pride of addressing him directly in French.
That morning Aurora was so happy she could not hurry; humming an old psalm tune she dawdled about her room, the longer to enjoy her thoughts.
When she finally slept it was more deeply than usual, and she woke with a start of fear that it was past the time. The line of sky showing between the curtains retained no remembrance of the day. It must be late, certainly. Then she heard a faint stirring just outside her door, the thing probably which had drawn her out of a sound sleep. It was the rustle of some person listening at the crack.
She bounced from bed and went to open. It was as she expected, Giovanna; come, she supposed, to see if she were ready to go on duty. At Giovanna's first words, though she did not entirely understand them, she became uneasy, because Giovanna interspersed them with sighs. Her voice sounded as if she might have been crying.
Aurora had grown accustomed to the fact that those hard old eyes of Giovanna's took easily to tears, and that she sighed by the thousand the moment she was in anxiety over her signorino. She knew she must not take Giovanna's fears at her own valuation. She gathered from her gestures now, combined with her talk, that Gerald, so quiet until to-day, had become restless. Giovanna impersonated him tossing and throwing his arms out of the bed-covers. Aurora, though not permitting herself to be alarmed, hurried with her dressing.
"Ain't it always so," she questioned her own image in the glass, "that the moment you feel safe something goes wrong?"
When she tiptoed into the big dim room where Gerald lay, she could not at first make out what it was that had troubled Giovanna to the point of tears. He seemed quiet enough. After she had taken his pulse and temperature, her heart subsided with a blessed relief.
He could not tell her, because he did not himself know, that just because he was better he, paradoxically, was worse. Thoughts and responsibilities had begun to trouble him again.
"Should you mind very much," he asked suddenly, "if I worked off my nervousness by singing? I have kept still, so as not to worry you, exactly as long as I can."
"Certainly," she said, "go ahead. I never knew you were a singer. What are you going to sing?"
She waited with a certain curiosity.
He began chanting. "B, a, ba; B, e, be—babe! B, i, bi—babebi! B, o, bo—babebibo! B, u, bu—babebibobu!" Then he went on to the letter C, "C, a, ca! C, e, ce—cace! C, i, ci—caceci!" and to D, and so on, one after the other, through all the consonants in the alphabet.
"The queerest rigmarole you ever heard!" Aurora called that simple Italian spelling-exercise for little beginners. It might have been funny to hear him, only it was disquieting, he did it so earnestly and so obstinately kept it up.
When he had finished, Aurora held a sedative powder all nicely wrapped in a wet wafer ready for him. He knew what it was and gratefully gulped it, composing himself after it to wait in patience and self-control for its operation. Aurora, reposing on the magic of drugs like a witch on the power of incantations, watched for the drooping of his eyelids and relaxing of his frown.
He had lain still for so long that she was congratulating herself upon the result thus easily obtained, when he opened his eyes, twice as wide-awake as before, and began to talk, as if really the object of an opiate were not to stupefy a man, but to rouse him fully. Under its influence he was almost garrulous. His vivacity partook of delirium. All that passed through his mind pressed forward indiscriminately into utterance, as if the sentinels placed on guard over his thoughts had been taking an hour off.
Aurora heard him in wonder and perplexity. He was not incoherent, he was not extravagant. He was merely talkative, expansive, and this in his case was obviously pathological. She wondered also to see how handsome he could look, with his eyes alight; his cheek-bones burning, pink as paint; his hair, grown long, lying in dark locks over a luminous forehead.
She tried to think of something that would abate all this. She was searching her nurse's memory for some further sedative by which to counteract a first one gone wrong, when the thread of her medical meditation snapped, her attention fastened upon what Gerald was saying. Because she had a suspicion that it was about Violet he was talking. And she had from the first been curious about Violet and his feelings with regard to her. As curious as if she had been jealous.
"There is a person—" he said, in the suppressed voice of one communicating a secret, "of whom I used to dream very often. Not because I wished to. In the days when I wished to, she came seldom. But when I dreaded it, she began to come, and do what I would, oppose to her what hardness I could, she could be so sinisterly dreadful and unkind that it was like a knife in me. Try to shut her out as I might, she would force her way in and make me suffer. Why? Why did she want to?... I will tell you what I believe. Some women feel their beauty to depend upon their power to create suffering. If not happy suffering, then the other kind. If men grow indifferent to it, they feel their beauty passing, and if it goes there is nothing left that they care for. The unremitting quest of their lives therefore is to feed the blood of men to their beauty, and if they can not do it in any other manner they pick the locks of sleep and get at them in that way. But the last time this person came, a surprise awaited her. And the same, I will confess, awaited me. My heart was like so much sawdust, so far as one drop of blood that she could wring from it. And now she won't come again, I believe, for why should she come? She will look a little anxiously in the glass, very likely, to see if she has begun to fade. I should be sorry to know that the least of her golden hairs had faded—they were so lovely. It's wrong all the same to practise sorcery. You don't, Aurora, that is one reason why I like to be with you. Women as God made them are strong enough, He knows! It's unfair to use sorcery besides, to make themselves beautiful to the point of distraction, and desired to the point of pain. And then their barbarous methods! That low game of using a man's weakness for the increase of their own glory, making a jealous fool wilfully out of a decent fellow, and a baby out of a self-respecting man. You, Aurora, you are good as good bread, you are restful as a bank of moss. You would never do what the others do. Would you, Aurora? You needn't answer me. I know."
"If what you mean is that I'm not much of a co-quette," she came in quickly, to prevent his continuing, "I guess you're right. Take it since I was born, I've been called a good many things, but in all my life I don't remember anybody calling me that,—a co-quette. But you're talking lots more than is good for you, brother. Now I want you to quiet down and give those sleepy-drops a chance to work. Here I've fixed you something else that will help them. It's just a drink with nothing in it but something nice and cooling. Smells pleasant, doesn't it? This'll do the trick."
Slipping an arm under his neck, she lifted him, propped him against herself, and held the glass to his mouth. Instead of words pouring out, the calming draught flowed in. It was a slow process; he drank by small swallows and wished after each one to stop, but she gently forced him to go on. When it was finished and he turned his head away from the glass, he found it resting on her shoulder. He settled his cheek warmly against it, like a child burying his face in the pillow. With a long sigh he relaxed.
"Now, Aurora," he said solemnly, "be per—fect—ly still."
He was very still, too. After a long moment he half lifted his head and with a long soft sigh replaced it, as if to renew his sense of a resting-place so sweet. With all her heart Aurora lent herself to this, glad to witness, as she thought, the belated effect of the soporific. In a few minutes he would be asleep.
"Aurora," he suddenly said, wakeful as earlier, but without moving his heavy head or opening his eyes, "do you remember the first evening I ever saw you? You came down the middle of the room all by yourself, like something in the theater, where the stage has been cleared for the principal character to make an effect. You were a fine large lady in a sky-blue frock with bursts of pink, your hair spangled with diamonds, a fan in one hand, a long pair of gloves in the other. That at least is what everybody else saw that looked at you. But me, what I seemed to see was America coming toward me draped in the stars and stripes. Now you know how I feel about my dear country. If I loved it why should I have fixed my abode once and for all over here? And yet when I saw it coming toward me across the room, with your eyes and smile and look of Home, I felt like the tiredest traveler and exile in the whole world, who wants nothing, nothing, but to get Home again. It was like a moment's insanity. I almost wonder that I resisted it, the desire to lay my head on your shoulder and cry, Aurora, and tell you about it, then never move again, or say another word."
Aurora readjusted her position so as to make his leaning on her even easier. She brought a warm cover safe-guardingly around him.
"Poor Geraldino!" she pitied him in the lonely past.
"Then do you remember the first time I went to see you," he asked, "and you introduced me, dearest woman, room by room, to the somewhat gruesome mysteries of your house? You walked before me holding a lamp. In the ball-room, hazy with vastness, you held the lamp high, like a torch. And I had a vision of you as America again, or Liberty, or Something, lighting the way for me.... But I treated the fancy as one treats fancies. I did not in the least intend to cultivate the acquaintance begun with your picking me up by the loose skin of the neck and plumping me down on the little seat of your victoria."
"Why—Gerald!" she drawled in a tone of reproach purposely funny. "Didn't you want to come?"
"I wanted not to come!" he answered, with normal spirit. "But you kept saying Jump in. When a lady has said Jump in three times it acts like a spell, a man has got to jump."
"But when it came to the hot bread and syrup, brother, you know you were glad to be there. You kept your superior look, but you ate all I buttered for you. It did me good to see you."
"Yes," he grew dreamy again, "it took me back. It took me back to so many things I had nearly forgotten. And when at the end of the evening I was leaving, do you remember, Aurora, wrapping in paper some pieces of maple-sugar and forcing me to take them home in my pocket? I felt absurdly like a little boy and again you seemed like big America; something exhaled from you that made me think of slanting silver-gray roofs and the New England spring of appleblossoms and warbling robins; yes, and of October foliage intolerably bright, and Fourth of July celebrations. Not things I dote on, exactly, but things I was born to, and restful to me after my years of chasing what is not to be caught, wanting what is not to be had, seeking all the time to adjust myself, to adjust myself, to the harshness of life, the treachery, the unaccountability, the relentlessness—restful as this heavenly shoulder, on which I have wished how many hundred times to lay my head like this and not move again, or speak again, or have anything ever change. Aurora, don't say a word, dear. Particularly, kindest Aurora, don't make any of your little jokes. Keep perfectly still, like a good darling, and let me forget everything except where my head is, and be perfectly happy."
As seriously as if a god had commanded it, Aurora preserved the silence and immobility requested of her, only making her shoulder as much wider and softer and more comforting as she could by wanting it to be so.
When by and by she felt him slip a little as he began to lose himself in sleep, she clasped her hands around him supportingly and held him in place.
A single candle burned in the room, with a book to shade it. Aurora's eyes, fixed and starry, rested upon the little flame where it was reflected in a mirror on the wall opposite, but she did not see it at all, so absorbed was she in her thoughts. In her feelings, too. In the wonder of the hour. This remarkable Gerald, with his head packed full of knowledge, with his speech that charmed you as whistling does an adder, with his capacity to paint pictures that the rest could not even understand, and then his rarity, the sweetness of his manners, the fascination of all that unknown in him which came, she had concluded, from his foreign bringing-up—he had wanted ever since he first saw her just to lay his head on her shoulder and rest....
Her common ordinary shoulder. What did he see in her? Taking for granted that he saw something, Aurora attributed this unknown quality in herself to God, and thanked Him. She tightened her clasp about Gerald, the better to feel him there. The power of the sleeping-potion had overtaken him completely. Thoughts that moistened her eyes resulted from feeling her arms full of the breathing warmth of a beloved form. Those defrauded maternal arms! That other, who would have been five years old at this time, and would have been called little Dan, after Dan, her big father, how she would have nursed him through his childish ailments, how she would have held him and rocked him! No, she would never stop yearning over him. One must suppose that God knows best.
Gerald's breathing was deep and quiet. When sure that it could be done without waking him, she let him gently down on to the pillow.
She stood beside the bed for a few minutes, in her soft garment of cashmere and swansdown which made no more sound when she moved than did her velvet shoes; she watched him sleep with emotions of gratitude beyond possibility of expression to any one but that old intimate, God. He was getting well so surely and fast. He would shortly be as well as ever.
Confident that he would want nothing more for the rest of the night, she arranged herself in her easy-chair for a good sleep, too.
* * * * *
On the next day she divined from his half troubled look at her, and the shy modesty of his manner, that he was wondering whether he had actually babbled last night, or in a mild delirium dreamed the whole thing. Not from her might he find out. Her easy, matter-of-fact way made any such passage seem at least unlikely.
Having slept during the night she did not retire to rest during the day, but let Giovanna go about her long neglected affairs and in her place looked after Gerald, who had waked from his deep sleep immensely refreshed. He would not need a constant watcher beside him after this, during night or day.
"What shall I do to amuse you?" she asked him, to make an interruption after she had felt him watching her through half closed lids for some time. "Don't you want me to read to you?"
"I think not, Aurora. Thank you just as much."
"Well, then, how shall I entertain you? Do you want me to be a gold-fish for you?"
"How do you 'be a gold-fish,' Aurora?"
"Look!" But the instant she changed her face into a gold-fish's and waggled up through imaginary water, opening and shutting her mouth like a rubber valve, he hid his eyes, crying sharply, "Please stop! I don't want to see it."
The gold-fish personality was dropped.
"Very well, then," she said, with unimpaired serenity, "shall I do a squirrel gnawing a nut? Every family its own circus."
"If you do it, I will not look. How can you endure, lovely as you are, to make yourself ugly—grotesque?"
"Aren't you rather hard to suit to-day, mister? Shall I be a hen, then, scratching for her chicks? That's mild."
"No, no, no. Yes. No. I don't know about the hen. Let me have a sample."
He watched her, critically and provisionally, while with comfortable, motherly, half-suppressed chest-sounds, and a round eye cocked for finds among the dirt, remarkably altogether the appearance of a pensive white hen, she made believe to scratch up the earth with her feet. A rather sympathetic performance, he allowed, her imitation of the hen, calling up before one the vision of a farmyard, a brood of downy yellow chicks, a duckpond, sunshine, green things.
He let her do it as long as she would, or rather until to vary the thing she increased the comic beyond the line he fixed. When midday found him grudgingly laughing at her cackling, it seemed improbable certainly that midnight had seen him sleeping in her arms. But underlying their laughter was a consciousness in each that day of a thing uniting them which had not been there before.
* * * * *
Sitting bolstered up in bed to eat his first real meal, he looked, with his long hair parted in the middle and brushed down over his hollow temples, like one of those old masters in the Ewe-fitsy, Aurora told him. A St. John the Baptist, she specified.
She chipped the top off his egg and cut finger sizes of bread for him, so that he might have it in the foreign way he preferred.
While he languidly ate, yet with pleasure, the door softly swung inward, revealing faces of women,—Estelle, Clotilde, Livvy, Giovanna,—all equally kind, all craning for the delight of a peep at him eating his soft-boiled egg.
Because he was still weak, tears came into his eyes, and because he could not permit them to be seen, he waved and haggardly smiled toward the smiling and nodding faces without inviting them nearer.
Women! women!... What a great deal of room they had occupied in his life! How much he owed them for affection,—mother, sister, servant-girl, friends....
* * * * *
He had known from whispers and rustlings, from a sort of instinct, latterly from Giovanna's own lips, that his house since the coming of "that lady" to undertake the government of his sickroom had been full of people, making practical and easy the carrying out of her plots. Abundance of people and abundance of money. Old Giovanna grumbled bitterly at this invasion, but she did it inside of herself, sanely recognizing that she had subject for gratitude. Her hot dark eye looked all she thought, and her lips moved as she soundlessly said all she felt; but when she dropped into the dark church of Santa Maria degli Angeli for a moment's devotion she did not fail to ask Maria to bless "that lady" and give her great good. After which she begged Her by the seven swords of Her sorrow to hasten the day that should clear the house of the whole horde of strangers, and permit her to resume the quiet life with her signorino.
Gerald, whose nature felt the oppression of material benefits as much as Giovanna felt jealousy with regard to her rights and loves, resolved that the sole seemly return for generosity in this case would be an equal generosity, consisting in an acceptance pure of every shadow, either of obligation, or reserve, or regret.
* * * * *
Since the doctor said it would do the invalid no harm to admit a visitor or two, Aurora wrote to Mrs. Foss. She came at once with Leslie. Both on the occasion of this call were perfect, in tact, in warmth, in friendship. And yet with them, and the sense of the World and the World's point of view which they inevitably brought, change entered the house.
The vacuous, almost happy languor of the sick was replaced in Gerald by an irritable gloominess, decently repressed, but unconcealable.
"There's no mistake; you're getting well," remarked Aurora, when the unrest of a mind troubled by many things expressed itself in indignation against innocent inanimate objects, a drop of candle wax for burning, an ivory paper-cutter for snapping in his impatient hand. "You're getting well. I guess I can go home and feel easy about you."
And sooner than Giovanna had dared to hope when most fervently she invoked the Holy Mother, lo! the intruders, mistress and maids, bag and baggage, had left in their places room and silence. So much sooner than expected that Giovanna, clasping in her hands an incredible fee, almost found it in herself to feel regret.
On their last day together Gerald had asked Aurora to find the key of a certain desk-drawer and to bring him the miniature strong-box locked in it. He had taken out one by one, to show her, the little store of trinkets once belonging to his mother and given her from among them the one he thought most charming, an old silver cross studded with amethysts and pearls.
Her own house, when she reentered it, looked faintly unfamiliar, as if she had been away much longer than she had by actual count. But her big soft bed looked good to her, she told Estelle, after the bed of granite framed in iron she had lately occupied.
She was in high good spirits. Gerald out of the woods, the amethyst cross, Estelle and her beautiful commodious house returned to, vistas ahead of good times and heart satisfactions, a sense of success and the richness of life—Aurora was in splendid spirits.
Estelle and she slept together on the first night, so as to be able to buzz until morning, as they had used to do in their young days, when one of them was allowed to go on a visit to the other and stay overnight. There ensued a very orgy of talk, a going over of all that had happened since their separation, quite as if they had not once seen each other in the interval.
It might have been thought, when their remarks finally became far spaced, as they did between two and three of the morning, that this happened because the streams were running dry as well as because the talkers were growing sleepy; but no such thing. Each had loads more that she might have told; but each, as had not been the case in the old days, was keeping back something from the other. Each locked in her breast a secret.
There had naturally been talk of Gerald. Estelle was immensely nice about him, and Aurora appeared immensely frank, but yet both knew that he was to be a delicate subject between them thenceforward, and that thoughts relating to him could not be exchanged without reserve.
There had been laughter over Estelle's subterfuges in order not to let it be learned from her, and this without directly lying, that Aurora was actually living at Gerald's. "It's a case of a cold," she had explained her friend's non-appearance upon one occasion, without mentioning whose cold.
The details of Busteretto's illness and danger had caused him to be reached for in the dark and kissed and cuddled anew.
"My, but it's nice to have you back!" Estelle said in the morning, fixing a bright, fond gaze upon her friend across the little table in the bedroom, where they sat in their wrappers eating breakfast. "A penny for your thoughts, Nell. What are you thinking about?"
Nell smiled rather foolishly, then, putting Satan behind her in the shape of a temptation to prevaricate, said:
"I was thinking what they were doing over there. Whether Gerald has had a good night, and about Giovanna, and what it's all like without me. It's hard for me now to think of the place without me. I miss myself there."
"I suppose you'll be driving round to inquire sometime in the course of the day," Estelle said, with true generosity; at which Aurora tried to look as if she were not sure; she would think about it.
With arms around each other's waists they went through all the rooms for Aurora to renew her pleasure in them after absence. They came to a standstill before her portrait in the drawing-room.
"There's no mistake, he's talented," Estelle admitted good-humoredly, after a considerable silence. "That's a fine portrait."
Aurora did not say she thought so, too. Alone in her room later, while Estelle was dressing to go out together, she looked at the other portrait to see if she were "any nearer educated up to it." It seemed to her she was, a little bit.
She started to dress. Being given to homely rather than poetic fancies, she subsequently thought of herself as having been, during the process of making herself fine for the afternoon drive and call, like some Cape Cod young one trotting happily along with her tin pail full of blueberries, just before a big dog sprang out of the roadside tangle and jostled the pail out of her hand, so that all the berries were spilled....
Even as she was buttoning her gloves a letter came for her with a parcel. All rosy with delight, she quickly found in her purse a reward for Gaetano, the bringer. Without too much hurry, like a person not eager to shorten a solid enjoyment, she opened the letter. It did not strike her as surprising, certainly not as ominous, that Gerald should write when he might expect to see her so soon. She read:
This is the fourth letter, dearest Aurora, that I have written you since waking, after a very bad night, in such a black humor that you would know I am quite myself again and life has resumed for me its natural colors. I destroyed those letters one after the other because, although written with the effort of my whole being to be what you call sweet, they sounded to me insufferably disagreeable. And now whatever I write I shall have to send because if I destroy this letter also I shall not have time to write another before you come to see me as you promised. And the reason for my wretched night was that I was haunted by all the reasons there are why you should not come. They are so difficult to put into words that I despair, after three attempts, of doing it in any but an offensive manner. Pity, Aurora, the plight of your poor patient; permit him not to go into them. Just—don't come.
Alas! that cannot be all. I have the vision of your puzzled face. Well, then, it is for yourself, in part. I have no excuse for profiting by a kindness that may be harmful to you. It is my duty to regard for you the conventions you are big-heartedly willing to disregard. I deplore the fact that I was ever so weak as to forget it.
But it is also for myself, who must not further be demoralized and spoiled.
I must not, moreover, be laid further under obligations of gratitude, the less, my dear Aurora, that gratitude is not precisely what I feel. No. I so little dote upon life that I should be glad if a merciful angel's attention had not been drawn to me, and I perhaps might have escaped the dreary prolongation of years. I am sorry, but so it is.
Pray do not conceive any relation between what I have just written and the request that follows. Will you be so kind as to return the object belonging to me which I miss from the little table-drawer at the head of my bed? You had no right to take it.
Vincent Johns is coming in a day or two. Do not think of me, therefore, as lonely or neglected.
I find I must hurry or be too late. This letter is beastly and ought to be torn up like the others. It simply cannot; it must go. I can only pray, Aurora, that you will understand.
* * * * *
Aurora went back to the beginning and read the letter a second time. Then she turned to the accompanying parcel and noticed that it was done up in a shabby piece of old newspaper. It contained a pair of fur-lined velvet shoes, a bow-knot of blue satin ribbon, and a bottle of almond milk, things of her own which through carelessness had been left behind. She could not know that the honest Giovanna alone was responsible for this return of her property. Coming at that moment, it formed the occasion for two stinging tears rising to the edge of Aurora's eyes. She swept them away with the back of her glove, and forbade any more to follow. To prevent them she took her lips between her teeth, and with all her strength called upon her pride.
She read Gerald's letter over again, really trying to understand, to be fair, to interpret it in the high-minded way he would wish.
"When all is said, it amounts to this,"—she reached the end of that exercise by a short cut,—"he wants to be let alone."
And after every allowance had been made for him, and all due deference paid to his excellent reasons, still it seemed to her what she couldn't call anything but a poor return. Because his letter was bound to hurt her, and he must have known it. His sending it, therefore, argued a lack of any very deep affection for her. After she had come, just from his own words and actions, to supposing....
"This is what you get for not remembering that if a person is practically a foreigner you can never expect to know them except in spots," she admonished herself.
* * * * *
After they had driven in the Cascine and around the Viali for the sunshine and air, Aurora asked suddenly:
"Haven't we had enough of this?" and ordered the coachman to go home.
"Why!" exclaimed Estelle, astonished, "I thought we were going to Gerald Fane's to see how he's getting along!"
"No, I guess we won't. I think it's time, after living with him for three weeks, that I began to look after my reputation, don't you?" said Aurora, with a forced lightness of rather bitter effect.
"I had a note from him, anyhow, just before we came out," she added after a moment. "He's doing all right."
Estelle understood that something was wrong. Aurora could not successfully pretend with her. Aurora's transparent face, as she now took note of it, betrayed hidden perplexity and chagrin. Estelle asked no questions, not needing to be told that Gerald's note had worked the change. Despite her affection for her friend, indeed, just because of that affection, Estelle was quietly glad of it. Her thought caressed the secret which has been referred to, a scheme which for some weeks had given her an excited feeling of having between her fingers the thread of the Fates.
After Estelle had gone to her own room for the night, Aurora sat down to compose an answer to Gerald's letter. She had reflected a good deal since receiving it, and out of confusion and complexity singled one clear and simple thought or two.
Gerald had never said or intimated that she had forced herself upon him when he was too ill to help it; but the truth was she had done that, after all his shying rocks at her, too, to keep her off. Nor had Gerald suggested that one of his reasons for wishing her not to haunt his bedside was a fear of her becoming inconveniently fond of him. A hint could be found, if one chose, that he feared becoming too fond of her, but of the other no vestige, no shadow, or ghost of a shadow. Yet by those two points the spirit of Aurora's reply must be inspired. Centuries of civilization have ground into the female of the species one particular lesson.
So the irascible man's nervous, hurried and harried scrawl, written with sputtering pen that at several places tore clean through the paper, and written under the compulsion of his soul and his good sense, received from the best of women an answer in her calmest hand, deliberately calculated to give him pain, at the same time as to convey to him unambiguously that, as far as she was concerned, he was freer than the birds of the air. She wrote:
My dear friend Gerald,
What I want principally to say is just don't worry. Don't worry for fear I'll come, and don't worry for fear I won't understand, and don't worry because you think my feelings may be hurt. And above all the rest, don't worry about gratitude, for I don't feel you owe me any at all. Don't you think for a moment that I saved your life. You were not as sick as you imagine, I guess. It was a very light case, or how would you have got over it so soon? You were not near as sick, according to all accounts, as poor Busteretto, who has been having what they call here the cimurro. I took you in hand because I am a nurse and I couldn't keep my hands off, just as an old fire-engine horse will start to gallop when he hears a fire-alarm even if he isn't on the job. If it had been Italo Ceccherelli who was sick I would have been tempted in just the same way; so you see there is no occasion for gratitude. Put it out of your mind.
Now about the thing I took from the drawer of your night-stand. I am very sorry I can't give it back, because I flung it out in the middle of the river. That is what I did with it, and I am not sorry either. You know that we at home don't look upon certain things as you apparently do over here. We think it a disgrace for a man to kill himself. I myself am old-fashioned enough to think that that door leads to hell. I have been astonished to find that over here it is thought quite respectable, that some Italians look upon it as an honorable way, for instance, of paying their debts, and a natural way of getting over an unhappy love-affair. As I know you have a good many foreign ideas, and as you have once or twice made a remark that showed me you thought of that solution of difficulties as a possible one, I grabbed your nasty old pistol when I found it in the little drawer, and it reposes now at the bottom of the Arno. Don't get another, Gerald. No burglars are going to enter your house to steal your Roman tear-bottle or your books. When you are so blue you feel like killing yourself, say your prayers. I am very glad your friend the abbe is going to come and stay with you. He is a good influence, I feel sure, and a good friend.
I suppose I shall see you again some time, even if I don't do the visiting. But don't be in any hurry, not on my account. I hope that in the meantime you will get back your strength quickly. Remember that you will have to be very careful for quite a long time, because a relapse is an awfully mean thing.
Good-by, my dear Gerald. Please accept the very best wishes of
Yours sincerely, Aurora Hawthorne.
P.S. I did not write four letters and tear three of them up, like you. I wrote one and corrected it, and here I have copied it out for you, hoping that in it I have made my meaning as clear to you as you made yours clear to me in your letter.
When the latter occurrences had shaken down in Aurora's mind, Gerald's letter, which she from time to time re-read, impressed her as a most gentle and reasonable production of his pen, while her own letter, preserved in the original scribble, appeared to her horrid, cutting, and uncalled for.
But there was now nothing to do about it. The state of mind created in her by the whole episode prepared her to welcome with open arms any diversion, any event which would restore to her self-conceit a little vitality or lay on her heart a little balm; and so when, at the psychological moment, Doctor Thomas Bewick surprisingly turned up in Florence,—it may be remembered that he was Estelle's choice for Nell,—Nell fell on his neck quite literally, and gave him a full, sonorous kiss.
"Tom! Tom!" she cried in delight, "how good it is to see you!"
This happened in her formal drawing-room, whither she had gone on the servant's announcement that a gentleman from America, who had given no card or name, asked to see her.
Their greeting over, she ran out into the hall, screaming joyfully:
"Hat! Hat! Come down this minute! Hurry up! You'll never guess who's here!"
In reply to which summons Estelle came hurrying down the stairs with an innocent, expectant air.
"If it isn't Doctor Bewick!" she exclaimed, without giving herself away by one false inflection. "Why, Doctor Bewick, this is simply too awfully nice! What are you doing over here? Who would have expected to see you?"
"Tom," said Aurora, "I was never in my life so glad to see any one. I didn't know how much I'd missed you till I saw you. You good old thing! You nice old boy! Aren't you a brick to have come! My soul, my soul! I didn't know till this minute how tired I am of foreigners and half-foreigners and quarter-foreigners and all their ways. I was hungry for home-folks and didn't know it. Now, please God, we'll have some talk where we know that when we use the same words we mean the same thing, and aren't wondering all the time what's really in the other's mind!"
The man to whom this was said absorbed it with a face fixed in smiles of pleasure. He was a big blond man, disposed to corpulence, and looking somewhat like a fresh-faced, gigantic boy until his eye met yours and gave the note of a fine, mature intelligence, open on every side, and unobtrusively gathering in what it had no strong impulse afterward to give out again in any open form of self-expression.
Tolerant, not from any vagueness of judgment; easy to get on with, but not to drive or to deceive, he looked strikingly the good fellow, yet kept you in respect. An air of capability, a consciousness of definite achievements, went coupled in him with the humor that would prevent bumptiousness however great the matter for pride. A quiet carelessness of other people's opinions formed part of his effect of poise; the opinions of dukes would have affected him as little as those of rag-pickers, unless they recommended themselves to that judicial spot in his brain at which he tried them. He was level-headed, unsentimental, but kind, of a kindness that like good-humor seemed almost physical, and made him stop to stroke the kitchen cat as well as see to it that the negress's baby had the right milk for its orphaned stomach.
He looked at Aurora with smiling scrutiny, and facially expressed a vast appreciation. She looked back at him with eyes of laughing tenderness. Avoiding to speak directly to her the compliments rising in his mind, he turned to Estelle.
"Hasn't she blossomed out!"
"Isn't she wonderful?" chimed in that friend, enthusiastically.
Aurora, with a comedy of pride, threw up her chin, lifted her arms, and turned as if on a pivot, to show herself off in her elegance. She had on the wine-colored street-dress bordered with black fox; over its white satin waistcoat embroidered with gold hung in a splendid loop her pink corals. The restraining Paris corset gave to her luxuriant form a charming modish correctness of line.
"Oh, Tom,"—she sank happily on the sofa beside him,—"we're having the time of our lives! Just wait till you see me in company, and hear me put on my good English, when, instead of calling things lovely or horrid, I call them amusing or beastly or impossible. But your turn first. Give us the Denver news."
* * * * *
After dinner that evening, in the midst of Italo's brilliant performance, a caller came,—a thin, oldish, English-speaking lady whose black dress made no pretense of following the fashion.
Aurora had met her at Mrs. Satterlee's during a meeting appointed to raise funds for the Protestant orphanage. When this philanthropist, after a little talk of other things, mentioned the relict of a mason, left with five young children, Estelle and Dr. Bewick took it as a hint to withdraw beyond earshot. The two ladies were left talking in undertones; after a minute they found themselves alone in the room.
Estelle preceded Dr. Bewick across the hall to the dining-room, deserted and orderly, where the drop-light rained its direct brightness only on the rich and variegated tapestry cover of the table beneath it. From the sideboard—whence the marble fruit had for some time been missing—she brought a bottle of aerated water and a glass to set before him; she found him an ash-tray, and seated herself beside the table near him in such a way as to get, through the parted half-doors, a glimpse of the visitor when she should leave.
Before speaking, she exchanged with the doctor a look of intelligence.
"You see what I mean?" she asked little above a whisper.
Dr. Bewick looked all around the room with leisurely appraising eyes, then nodded understanding. There was no intimation that he was not ready to listen, but he did not seem quite ready to talk. His white shirt-bosom was remarkably broad as he leaned back in his chair in the slightly lolling fashion of large, good-humored men. For all the nonchalance of his attitude, he looked, from evening tie to thin-soled dress-boots, beautifully spruce, as Aurora had remarked, and made an appropriate pendant to her in her Parisian finery.
Approval of him was written large on Estelle's pleasant, alert countenance; a quiet, comprehensive liking for her sat as plainly in the eyes reflecting her slim person and evening-frock of beaded net. Being Nell's friends made them friends, a thing not so common as one wishes. Through her they felt almost on the familiar terms of old friendship, although Estelle had never met Dr. Tom Bewick before he came to New York to see them off on their great four-stacked ocean-steamer.
"You see what I mean?" she asked, and, not expecting a regular answer, did not wait for it. "Now that woman won't leave until she has secured support for the mason's five children, and she'll do this without the smallest difficulty. In a day or two some one else will come, with the sad case of a poor father out of work who is going to have to sell his blind daughter's canary unless Nell steps in to relieve their wants. And Nell will step in. Word has been passed, just as they say a tramp at home marks a house where he's been given a meal, and every case of want in this town, it seems to me, is hopefully brought to Nell. And she listens every time; she doesn't get sick of it. And you know, Doctor, that her circumstances don't warrant it."
Bewick, as Estelle stopped for some comment on his side, made a slight motion of chin and eyelids that partly or deprecatingly agreed with her. He took the cigar out of his mouth, but having knocked the ash off, replaced it, to listen further and not for the moment speak.
"It's positively funny, the things Nell has been doing with her money," Estelle went on, in a tone that did not disguise the fact of her glorying in this prodigality while being justly frightened by it. "It's not just the ordinary charities, churches, hospitals, etc.,—all of those send in their regular bills, as you might say. It's a Swiss music-box for the crippled son of the spazzaturaio, or street-cleaner; it's a marriage-portion for this one and funeral expenses for that one; it's filling the mendicant nuns' coal-cellar, it's clothing a whole orphan-school in a cheerfuller color! Clotilde and Italo call her attention to every deserving case, and are guided in this by the simple knowledge that Nell can't hold on to her money. Of course it's her good heart. She's done a lot for them and their family, too, I've discovered. I don't know just how much, but I can guess by their look of licking their chops. I'm not saying they aren't all right—honest, sincere, and so forth—or that I don't like them. It's Nell's own fault that she's imposed on. I don't doubt that they're as devoted as they seem, it's only right they should be. It's right the whole city of Florence should be. I was thinking only the other day as we drove through Viale Lorenzo the Magnificent that it would be appropriate for a grateful city to rechristen our street Viale Aurora the Magnificent."
Tom Bewick laughed, nodding to himself with an effect of relish. He murmured, "Aurora the Magnificent!"
"Aurora the Magnificent—Aurora the Magnificent is all very well," Estelle took up again with animation, "but she's already spending her capital."
Bewick did not allow himself to appear startled or troubled; still, he was made pensive by this. His look at Estelle invited her to go on and tell him the rest, just how bad it was. She was leaning forward, with her elbows on the table, one hand slipping the rings on and off a finger of the other, in her quick way.
"You know what her income is. It would have provided for all this,"—she took in the luxury around them by a gesture of the head,—"but no income can suffice to set up in housekeeping all the picturesque paupers in Florence. That's why I was so anxious for you to come, and wrote you as I did. You can curb her; I can't. I have no influence with her in that way, and I simply can't sit still and see her throw away all this good money that was intended to provide her with comforts for the rest of her life. Unless somebody looks after it, she won't have a penny left. You must talk to her, Doctor Bewick. Don't let her know, though, that I put you up to it. You can ask a plain question, as it's right and natural for you to do, then when she answers you can lecture her. She'll take it from you."
Bewick, with his sensible face, looked as if he saw justice and reason in all Miss Madison had said to him; yet he did not go on with the subject. It might be that he felt delicate, in a masculine way, about uttering to a lady's best friend any criticism of that lady's mode of doing or being—criticism which he might feel no difficulty perhaps in voicing to herself. Estelle took this into consideration and, his reticence notwithstanding, relied on him to do his duty.
A diversion occurred in the shape of a knock at the door—the door leading to the kitchen-stairs. It was but the scratch of one fingernail on the wood. Tiny as the sound was, it did not have to be repeated before Estelle ran to open. A small four-footed person entered, the bigness of a baby's muff and the whiteness of a marquis's powdered wig. Estelle caught him up from the floor and with a coo of affection, "What um doing in the kitchen, little rogums?" set him on the table, under the lamp, for Doctor Tom to see how utterly beautiful he was and have the points and characteristics of a Maltese terrier explained to him.
Busteretto was reaching dog's estate, his shape had taken on a degree of subtlety, his hair was growing long and straight and like leaves of the weeping willow. Estelle lifted the white fringe depending from his brow, and exposed to the light two great limpid brown eyes, incredibly sweet and intelligent. It was as wonderful, in its way, as if a blind beggar, insignificant and easy to pass by as he stood at the street-corner, should take off black goggles suddenly, and you should perceive that he was a masking angel come to test the hearts of men.
"Did you ever see such a little sweetheart?" gasped Estelle.
"A pretty little fellow," spoke the doctor commendingly. With the instinct to relieve discomfort he raised the veil of hair again as soon as Estelle had let it drop, and looking further into the beautiful eyes, that with the neat nose made a triangle of dark spots effective as mouches on Columbine's cheek,—"Why don't you tie up his hair like this to keep it out of the way?" he asked.
"We mustn't! Mr. Fane, who gave him to Nell, says it would be bad for him, he might go blind. They're that kind of eyes and need the shield from the light. Mr. Fane knows all about this Maltese breed of dogs."
"Is he the same one who painted her portrait?" Dr. Tom deviated from the subject of the dog, over whose eyes the curtain was allowed to drop again.
"Yes, he's an artist."
"And the same one she nursed through an illness?" asked Dr. Tom after a moment, with the mere amount of interest apparently of one asking for a topographical detail, so that he may get his bearings.
"Yes. You'd know, wouldn't you, that she'd have to, if she thought he wasn't getting the right care and didn't see any other way of providing it."
"Well, Skip," Dr. Tom returned his attention to the dog, "you're a fine little fellow. Yes, sir." He held out a large pink hand and received in it immediately a wee gentlemanly hand of fur and horn, rather smaller than any of his fingers. "Good dog," he said, and regarded their friendship as sealed. But next minute, because Estelle had whispered to him, "Make believe to strike me," he lifted his fist menacingly against her, and on the instant, with the courage of a David, there dashed against him a little wild white flurry, not to bite—the skin of man is sacred—but by a show of pearly teeth and the growlings of a lion to frighten the giant off.
"Good dog!" cheered Tom and leaned back laughing, "Well done!"
* * * * *
Because it was very late when Dr. Bewick left the ladies to return to his hotel they immediately repaired to their respective rooms; but before Estelle had got to bed, Aurora, half undressed, came strolling into her maidenly bower of temperate green and white.
A vague depression of spirits had overtaken Aurora, reaction, perhaps, from the excitements of the day, and she sought her friend with the instinct to make herself feel better by talking it off.
She dropped on a chair, and in silence continued to braid her hair for the night.
"Isn't he the nicest fellow!" began Estelle, setting the keynote for joyous confidences.
"Isn't he just!" replied Aurora. "I want him to have the best time in the three weeks he's going to spend here. We've got to show him all the beauties of Florence, and then I want him to know all our friends. We must have some tea-parties and some dinners. I want it to be just as gay. Who is there I ought to lay myself out for, if not Tom Bewick?"
"I quite agree with you. Let's plan."
"No, to-morrow'll do. It's too late. I'm tired." The motions of Aurora's fingers were suspended among the strands of her hair. She fell into a muse. "Seeing Tom"—she came out of it again, and went on braiding—"has brought back, along with some things I never want to forget, such a lot of things I don't want to think of!"
"I suppose it would."
"His sisters, for instance. He doesn't look a bit like them, really—nasty bugs, godless, gutless pigs—but yet he brings them up before me. Idell rather more than Cora, and Idell was the meanest of the two, and her husband the miserablest, sneakingest cuss. Oh, how I hate the bunch of them! And I oughtn't, you know. You oughtn't to go on hating your enemies after you've got the better of them. But the moment I think of that trio, Cora Bewick—sour-bellied old maid!—and Idell Friebus, and her rotten little pea-green husband—pin-headed insect! flap-eared fool!—I get mad. If you could really know, Hat, the cold-heartedness and wicked-mindedness of those people! How they ever happened in Tom's family Goodness only knows. And such a fine father! The Judge was as good as any of those old fellows in the Bible, I do believe. That patient, that considerate, and that just! More than just; what he did was more than just, and those girls of his simply couldn't stand it. They couldn't stand it, after they had neglected him all through his illness so that it was a scandal, that he should treat the person who had done their daughters' duty for them the same as he treated them, no better and no worse, but just the same. The things those people did to me, Hat, the things they said about me—"
"I know, I know; you've told me," said Hattie, soothingly and deterringly.
"The things those people did to me, and the things they said about me,"—Nell, not to be deterred, repeated intensely,—"if I'd ever wanted to give up my share, those things they did and said would have made me hold on like grim death just to spite them. Oh,"—she broke off, and flung her finished braids back over her shoulders,—"why do I let myself think of them? I grow so hot! It's the sight of Tom that has started me back to thinking of all that excitement and disgustingness. Dear good Tom, who stood by me like a trump! I do wish, Hat, I didn't hate so hard when I hate. We've taken pride in my family, I'm afraid, in being good haters, as if it were part of the same trait that makes you loyal and true to your friends. But perhaps it's a mistake. I know that Gerald said once"—she yielded to the obscure desire to hear the air vibrate, as it had not done for some time, with the syllables of his name—"Gerald said once, when we were talking of things, 'We must forgive everything,' he said; 'we must forgive happenings the same as we must people.' And Gerald, you know, when he's in sober earnest, has some good ideas."
"Talking about Gerald," Estelle came in quickly, glad of a change from the other subject, "did Livvy tell you that our cook met Giovanna at the market, and Giovanna told her that her master was doing finely; that he hadn't yet been out of doors, but that he sat at the open window in the sunshine? I'd been meaning to ask you."
"Oh." Aurora quietly took it, and thought it over a minute. "No, she hadn't told me. I suppose those long stairs would keep him from going out till he was good and strong. Did she say anything else?"
"Only that Giovanna was buying a chicken, and the abbe, she said, was still staying with them."
* * * * *
The ladies of the Hermitage did the honors of Florence with modest pride and a certain glibness. Before the early old masters, Aurora said to Tom:
"At first I couldn't stand them. I guffawed at the idea of there being anything to admire in them. Even now I can't pretend I like them; but I keep still and pray for light. Isn't that the beginning of polish?"
Tom was taken to make calls. Aurora took upon herself to explain Florentine society to him.
"There are little stories about most everybody," she said, "so you have to be pretty careful. If a certain General is present, for instance, whom I may have a chance to point out to you, you don't want to talk of horses, because his fiery steed bolted with him during an engagement once and his enemies caricatured him running away. Then if a certain viscount is present, whom I may have a chance to introduce to you, you don't want to talk of ermine, because that little animal is a feature in his coat of arms, and his coat of arms along with his title of nobility, scandal says, came as a reward from a royal personage for marrying the lady who was his first wife. So you'll have to look out, Tom, or you may be called upon to fight a duel."
The most splendid dinner that could be planned in council with Clotilde and the cook was prepared to honor the friend from home. To this were bidden the Fosses, Aurora's best friends; the Hunts, her next best; Manlio, whom she wished Tom to see as a truly beautiful specimen of Italian; and Landini, because she was curious to know what Tom thought of him.
Aurora had not seen the latter since the night of the veglione. Finding that he had not called during the interval, she had been glad to hope that his suspected mysterious project for making her his own had been dropped. That being the case, she was not at all averse to seeing him. On the contrary.
Charlie Hunt she had not seen since the variety-show. Learning that he also had not once come during her absence, she thought that this admitted of some simple explanation which he would give on the night of the dinner.
Charlie, receiving the invitation, pondered a while before accepting. He considered himself to have been insulted, rather, by Mrs. Hawthorne. Still, he could not be absolutely sure. If, anyhow, she did not know that he knew the black crow to have been none other than herself there would be nothing in his going to her dinner-party which laid him open to scorn. And he felt more disposed to go than not. The dinner would be festive, costly, succulent. Then he desired before breaking with her—if breach there must be, which would depend upon the subtlest circumstances—to persuade her that two enormous porcelain jars owned by a dealer of his acquaintance were the very thing needed in that bare-looking ball-room of hers. There was a third reason. A lady whose friendship had latterly—since the night of the veglione, in fact—taken on the glow of roses and the warmth of wine, had taken it into her charming head to be jealous, fantastically, of Mrs. Hawthorne. Charlie, whose manly vanity his good fortune had, not unnaturally, reinforced; Charlie, who if he were loved much must always love less than the other, felt a certain stimulation in exhibitions of jealousy with regard to himself. He thought well of the results of saying, "I cannot come this evening, cara, I am dining at the Hawthorne's." So he accepted Aurora's invitation.
The dinner was superlative, but it was written he should leave the house finally in a bad humor. The feasted guest was a big Western American, of the immensely rich and not very interesting type, whom he had seen once or twice at the bank. Aurora's fond esteem for this man was open and shameless. Whether he were a "has been," an "is," or a "to be," Charlie could not determine, but only in the character of suitor could he see him in the picture.
The dark face of Landini, his Chief, across the dinner table, when his eyes sought it was indecipherable to him; but, shut as it was, he was reminded by it, not to the improvement of his spirits, of a little personal hope, a just and rational hope, which might have to be relinquished. After dinner he got his hostess into a quiet corner for a chat.
"Where's Gerald?" pure curiosity made him ask, with that impertinence which his friends were accustomed to and took lightly, because curiosity and impertinence were part and parcel of Charlie, and if you cared sufficiently for his attractive smoothness and flashing smile to wish them near you, you must put up with the bad breeding underlying his good manners. "Where's Gerald?" he asked familiarly.
"Gerald isn't well enough yet to be out," Aurora answered him, with imperfect candor. "You didn't know he'd been ill? Why, how funny! He's been having what you call here a 'fluxion of the chest.'"
This ignorance of Charlie's comforted her by proving that the news of her nursing Gerald had not spread over the town like wildfire, as she had been warned it would. Florence was not so bad or nimble a gossip as she had feared.
"I was as nice to Charlie Hunt that last evening as ever in my life," she afterward declared, "and I thought he seemed all right."
When he spoke of the precious porcelain jars, however, she did cut short his appetizing description with:
"Don't speak of it. I daresn't, Charlie. I've been lectured so much for extravagance, I daresn't buy a toothpick. If these jars you speak of cost nine francs instead of nine hundred, I couldn't, I tell you. I guess Florence has got all she's going to out of me. I've turned over a new leaf."
Aurora had all evening been so entirely her kind and jolly self that Charlie had almost forgotten the black crow. At this check, and the barren prospect opening out beyond, he remembered it, and felt a vicious little desire to pay her back for the pin she had stuck into him under, as she idiotically supposed, an impenetrable disguise. He went away, as has been said, in a bad humor.
The loveliness of Florence at this point of the year, while inspiring poets, made the rest feel helpless before the task of finding words for it. Even Aurora, who could not be called contemplative, or highly susceptible to influences of form and color, was heard to heave an occasional great sigh, so was her heart oppressed, she could not think why, during their drives among the hills around Florence, by the sight of the spring flowers,—tulips, narcissi, fleur-de-lys, imagine it, growing wild, as if gold pieces should lie scattered in the road for passers to pick up!—and by the sight of the warm and tender tones of the sky, and by the silver sparks of windows flashing back the sun where the hazy city houses huddled around the Duomo's brown head and shoulders, majestically lifted above them.
It was something in the air, Aurora thought, which forced her to sigh with that half-sweet oppression and fatigue: the air was fragrant with a scent which seemed to her upon sniffing it analytically to be the breath of hyacinths; and the air was warm, it "let her down," she said.
Why, instead of delicious contentment, is a sort of melancholy, of unrest, created in us by the beauty of spring, will somebody tell?
Aurora, when she thought she could do it without attracting the notice of the other two, would slip from their presence sometimes, so as to have a few minutes by herself and stop pretending to be so everlastingly light of heart. For nothing in the world would she have had Tom know but that his visit made her happy to the point of forgetting every subject of care or annoyance.
Estelle, too, she would have preferred to deceive. She did her best, and for hours at a time appeared serene and merry. During these periods she sometimes did actually lose the sense of anxious suspense; but it kept itself alive as an undercurrent to her laughter.
When she saw how well Tom and Estelle got along together, she became less timid about arranging little absences from them; she even—such a common feminine mind had Aurora—saw in the congeniality which permitted them to remain for half an hour in each other's company without boredom the foundation of a dream, dim and distant, it is true—the dream of seeing Estelle one day settled in a fine home of her own. She feared, though, there might be bridges to cross before that event. She dreaded the bridges. She wished Tom might be diverted from what she feared was his purpose. How satisfactory, if Estelle might prove the diversion. Estelle would really have suited Tom much better than the person of, she feared, his actual choice.
Of all this she was somewhat disconnectedly thinking when she ran away from them one evening after dinner, leaving him still at the table smoking his cigar, while Estelle hunted up in a guide-book for his benefit some little matter of altitudes. A flash of good sense showed her the previousness of her calculations, and she mentally withdrew her hand from meddling. Fate would take its own way, anyhow.
She had gone upstairs with the excuse of wanting a fan. Her fan had easily been found, but instead of returning to her guests, "They won't miss me if I do stay away for ten minutes," she said, and walked to the end of the broad hallway, out through the door that stood open on to the portico roof—once glassed over for a party and dedicated to Flirtation.
How long ago that seemed! Here Gerald, a quite new acquaintance, had told her about Manlio and Brenda. Poor young things, so unhappy then, and now exultant. Brenda was just back from America. The wedding was set for the ninth of May. Only eight days more to wait.
As Aurora, leaning over the balustrade and letting her eyes rest on the garden, thought of their assured and perfect happiness, she remembered a gross fly in the ointment. She had been told that Brenda would have to agree to bring up her children in the Catholic church. The thing had seemed to Aurora appalling. Upon her dropping some hint of her sentiment to the caller who had communicated the fact, she had been further told that very likely Brenda too would in time become a Catholic—as if that made it any better. A descendant of the Pilgrim Fathers to become a Roman Catholic! Any one but a heathen to change his religion!...
The figure of Abbe Johns rose before her mind. She refrained from judgment in his case. His case, for intangible reasons, seemed separate and different. But fear, as of formless bugaboos in the dark, burned in her heart at the idea of his influence perhaps being able, creepily, stealthily, to convert Gerald.
She turned her face upward to the sky of May and sent forth a little prayer into the crystal clearness of the space lying between her and the ear which she conceived of as receiving it, the ear of a Baptist God, as opposed to a Roman Catholic God surrounded by saints and candles and incense and tin flowers.
As she did this a high pink cloud caught her eye. Embers of sunset were glowing over the river at the other side of the house. The sight of the pink cloud, so pretty and far away, comforted Aurora like a good omen. She felt better and, her reverie borrowing a ray from the cloud, went on to rejoice in the pleasantness of the garden which she might for the time being call hers. So different from the gardens at home, but in its set way how attractive it was, how suited to people with leisure, and a certain stability of taste, and a liking for privacy!
Why, in that garden—which wasn't very large, either—you could almost get lost among narrow paths bordered with shrubs. Even if the wide wrought-iron front-gate were open, and the carriage-gate at the side open as at this moment, you could be just as much shut off from outside as in your own room, if you took your sewing or your book to that little open air round with walls of smooth-trimmed laurel, and a stone table in the middle, and stone seats.
Old Achille down there, still busy watering,—Achille who belonged to the garden and was hired along with it, was a regular artist, thought Aurora. The great oval bed in front of the house was at this season like a huge bouquet, all arranged in a beautiful pattern. Then he had edged every path with a band of pansies just inside the band of ivy overrunning the mossy border stones—the sweetest thing. His pride was pansies, he had planted them everywhere, the finest she had ever seen. He had taken a prize once at a horticultural show, for his pansies.
The light died out of the pink cloud, and Aurora's pleasure in her garden gradually died out too, while the quality of irony in her many blessings smote her. For what is the use of having everything money can buy or the bounty of spring afford if you at the same time are troubled with a toothache? All this, so grand in itself, was like a good gift wasted, as long as she was in a state of quarrel with her friend. It was full two weeks since their exchange of letters. Two weeks of absolute silence. Could it be possible that she should never see or hear from Gerald again?
No, it could not, she said. It was part of having faith in him to deny the possibility of his remaining furious forever at her hateful letter. No, she would not believe it of him; she thought better of him. She was much mistaken if he could be so mean. She would be willing to bet—
There, in fact, he was, at this very moment, entering the carriage-gate.
After one mad throb of incredulous exultation, Aurora's thoughts and feelings were for a long minute limited to an intense and immobile watchfulness. He walked over the gravel with his eyes on the door under the portico. You would have thought his purpose set, and that he would not pause until he had rung the bell.
But you would have thought wrong. Half-way between the gate and the house he stood still and looked at the ground. He was holding the slender cane one knew so well like a weapon of defense, as if ready to make a resolute slash with it to vindicate his irresolution.
After a moment he turned, grinding his heel into the earth. It was then that a voice called out above him, "Hello, Gerald!"
He turned again and removed his straw hat. He and the lady leaning from the terrace looked at each other for the space of a few heart-beats with mechanical, constrained smiles. Then she asked:
"Aren't you going to come in?"
Instead of making the obvious answer and setting about the obvious thing, he appeared to be debating the point within himself. At the end of his hesitation, he asked:
"Could I prevail upon you to give me five minutes in the garden?"
"Why, certainly," answered Aurora, appreciating the fact that Estelle would be superfluous at the peace-making that must follow.
She went very lightly down the stairs. She could hear Estelle's and Tom's voices still in the dining-room. Instead of going out by the usual door, too near to their sharp ears, she turned with soft foot into the big ball-room and passed out through that.
The great oval mound of flowers spread its odoriferous carpet before the steps leading down from the house. She turned her back upon it and followed a path bordered with pansies and ivy till Gerald saw her and came to take her hand, saying:
"How good of you!"
"Well," she sighed, put by the bliss of her relief into a mood of splendid carelessness as to how she, for her part, should carry off the situation,—looking after her dignity and all that. "How jolly this is! And you're all right again, Gerald. You're well enough to walk on your legs and come and tell me so. Yes, you're looking quite yourself again. Well,"—she sighed again heartily,—"it's good for sore eyes to see you. You're sure now it's all right for you to be out of doors after sunset? Hadn't we better go in?"
"This air is like a warm bath. I must not keep you long, anyhow."
"Oh, I haven't got a thing to do," she precipitately assured him. "Come, we'll walk up and down the path,—hadn't we better?—so as not to be standing still. Go ahead, now; tell me all about yourself. How do you feel? Have you got entirely rid of your cough? And the stitch in your side?"
He would only speak to answer, she soon found; the moment she stopped talking silence fell. Had he nothing to say to her, then? Or did he find it difficult somehow to talk? She was so determined to make the atmosphere cozy, friendly, happy—make the atmosphere as it had used to be between them—so determined, that she jabbered on like a magpie, like a mill, about this, that, and the other, sprinkling in little jokes in her own manner, and little stories in her own taste, accompanied by her rich—on this occasion slightly nervous gurgle.
"Aurora dear," he said at last, with an effect of mournful patience as much as of protest, "what makes you? I am here to beg your forgiveness, and you put me off with what Mrs. Moriarty said to Mrs. O'Flynn. Do you call it kind?"
A knot tied itself in Aurora's throat, which she could not loosen so as to go on. If she had tried to speak she would have betrayed the fact that those simple words had, like a pump, fetched the tears up from her heart into her throat. He had his chance now to do all the talking.
"Couldn't we sit down somewhere for a minute? Should you mind?" His gesture vaguely designated the green inclosure, where the stone table stood, pale among the dark laurels.
But when they were seated, he only pressed his hands into his eye-sockets and kept them there.
"I am ridiculous!" he muttered and shook himself straight. After an ineffectual, suffocated attempt to begin, "I am ridiculous!" he said again, and without further concession to weakness started in: "I ought to have written you, Aurora. But I had seemed to be so unfortunate in writing I did not dare to try it again. Heaven knows what I wrote. I don't; but it must have been a prodigy of caddishness to offend you so deeply. It doesn't do much good to say I am sorry."
"Your letter was all right," broke in Aurora. "I only didn't understand at first. Afterwards I did. I tell you, that letter was all right."
"It was written in a mood—a perplexity, a despair, you have no means of understanding, dear Aurora. When your answer showed me what I had done, I could have cut my throat, but I could not have come to tell you I was not the monster of ingratitude I appeared to be. Not that a man can't get out of bed, if there is reason enough, and take himself somehow where he wants to be, but because of a sick man's unreasonable nerves, which can start him raving and make him a thing to laugh at. I had the common sense, thank Heaven! to see that I must wait. Then, as the days passed, it all quieted down. Vincent was with me, a tranquilizing neighborhood.
"It seemed finally as if it might be almost better to let things rest as they were, to let that be the way of separating from you. I had almost made up my mind to do it, Aurora. Vincent has had me out for various airings, I have gone on several walks alone, but till to-day I avoided to take the road toward this house. I am so used to pain that I've grown stoical, you know, Aurora. I can stand any pain. I shut my teeth and say, 'It will have to stop some time.' But all at once it became too strong for me—not the pain, or the wish to see you, but the feeling that I could not bear to have you thinking me ungrateful. I, who hate ingratitude as the blackest thing in the wide world, to pass with you, with you, for an ungrateful beast!"
"Don't! don't, Gerald!" Aurora hushed him. "I can't let you talk like that. You know you couldn't be ungrateful, nor I couldn't think it of you."
"No, I'm not ungrateful. I'm not, dear," he caressingly asseverated, and closing her two hands between his treasured them against his cheek. "I want you to be altogether sure of it. If I did not recognize the enormity of my debt to you, Aurora, what a clod I must be! Not, mind you, because, it is just possible to think, I owe you my life. Not that, but because you were so kind. Because you were so kind, so kind—" he reiterated feelingly, "and I a troublesome, cantankerous, distinctly unappetizing object in his helpless bed. Don't think there was one touch or gesture of these dear hands that take away headaches that I do not remember with gratitude."
"There was nothing to be grateful for, nothing at all," insisted Aurora.
"And so when I wrote you in that brutal manner, dear,—"
"That letter was all right," Aurora vigorously snatched away from him the turn to talk, in order to defend him from this misery of compunction. "It was prompted by the most gentlemanly feelings, by real unselfishness and consideration for me. You didn't want me talked about on your account, and you put it as delicately as possible. Only I was a fool; I went off the handle, and wrote while I was mad and hurt and wanted to hurt back. But, bless you, I understand it all perfectly now. You needn't say another word. I understand the letter, Gerald, and I understand you."
"I am afraid," he said, letting go her hands and drawing a little apart, as if the most complete misunderstanding, after all, separated them,—"I am afraid you do not entirely. But this much at least is clear to you, isn't it, dear, that whatever I may be, I am not ungrateful? Whatever I may do, you are to remember that I couldn't be ungrateful to you, Aurora. If I should seem to be behaving ever so, ever so shabbily, still you must know that behind it, under it, I am the very contrary of ungrateful." He pressed his hands to his eyes again, and was still for a minute, before announcing, "I shall not come to see you for a long time."
The astonished and acute attention of her whole being was indefinably expressed by the silence in which she now listened.
"I am going to keep away from you," he went on, "till I feel out of danger."
"Why, what's the matter now?" she asked, with the vehemence of her surprise and disappointment.
"A trifle, woman dear. Oh, Lord, I see I shall have to go into it! Haven't you the imagination to see, you unaccountable person, how an unhappy mortal might be affected by such circumstances as destiny so lately prepared for your poor servant's trying? Day by day, night after night, that insidious kindness, that penetrating gentleness, that stupefying atmosphere of a woman's care and sympathy.... Didn't you tell me once yourself—" Gerald's voice stiffened, and he pulled himself up again, discarding weakness,—"Didn't you once tell me yourself—in your impossible English, almost as bad as mine—that a sick man is 'liable to fall in love with his nurse?' And, dear girl, I will not do it. I categorically refuse. It is too horrible. I have done with all that. I have just managed to creep up on to the dry sand, and you ask me to embark again on those same waters. I will not do it. It is finished. That slavery! that unrest! and fever! and jealousy! No, not again. I have served my sentence. Too many times I have waked in the black of night and waited for daylight, wishing I had been dust for a hundred years. I know now that in order to have a little peace a person must not want anything. That is the price. We mustn't want anything, Aurora. We mustn't want anything, we mustn't mind anything, we mustn't care about anything, we must submit to everything!" This counsel of perfection came from Gerald almost in a sob. "We sha'n't be happy like that, naturally, but we sha'n't be too wretched for expression, either. It's the lesson of life. I have learned it, and I will not expose myself to the old chances again. 'He who loves for the first time is a god,' says the poet, 'but he who loves for the second time is a fool,' he goes on to say. And so, Aurora—"
"You make me laugh!" exclaimed Aurora in a snort of simple scorn.
"And so, Aurora, I am going to keep away from you for—I am not at the present moment quite able to say how long."
"You're going to do nothing of the sort! There now!" burst from Aurora. "I'm not going to permit any such foolishness." She firmly proceeded to pile up a barricade against his preposterous intention. "Now, Gerald, you pay attention to what I say, child. Can't you see for yourself, now you've put it into words, what nonsense all this is? You could no more, in your sane and waking moments, be sentimentally in love with me, and you know it, than, I guess, I could with you, fond of you as I am. No, that isn't putting it strongly enough," she gallantly amended; "you couldn't do it, it stands to reason, even so easily as I could. What you felt was just the result of you being so weak, all full of fever dreams and delusions. And you still believe in it a little because you aren't yet good and strong. I thought you were, just at first, because you come so near looking it. But I know that condition. After a sickness you plump up, you get back your color, and all the while you can be so weak you could burst out crying if any one pointed a finger at you. You're trembling with nervousness this minute. You're all sunk together, as if your backbone couldn't hold you up. It's because the weakness of your illness is still on you, as anybody could see. Now you listen to what I've got to say. The wisest thing you can do, young man, instead of keeping away and having ideas and waiting till these gradually wear off—the best thing you can do, I say, is to stay right at my side and get sobered up by contact with things as they actually are. Not only the best thing, but a lot fairer to me, doesn't it seem so to you? How do you think I like to have you go kiting off the moment I've got you back again? When I've missed you so! Now, Geraldino, rely on Auroretta. Let her manage this case. Don't you be afraid; she'll cure you in two frisks."
"It just might be, you know, that you were right," said Gerald, dubiously, with the modesty of tone that would beseem a girl after a bucket of cold water had quelled her hysterics. "The truth is you do not appear to me this evening at all as I have been carrying you in my remembrance."
Aurora laughed and reinforced her expression of jolly matter-of-factness, looking into his eyes with eyes of sanative fun.
He looked back at her with meditative scrutiny, one eyebrow raised a little above the other.
She had reigned in his thoughts very largely in her appearance of his nurse, with her soft, loose robes, the blue of pensive twilights, her fair hair in easy-feeling braids, her white hands bare of ornaments. She sat near him now in a snug satin dinner-dress full of whalebones and hooks and eyes. It had elbow sleeves terminating in full frills of Duchess lace; a square-cut neck, likewise be-laced, framing an open space in part obscured again by a jeweled medallion on a gold chain. She had on rings and bracelets, a bow-knot in her hair. She had in fact "dressed up" for Tom Bewick, wishing him to see with his eyes what good she got out of the fortune with whose origin he was acquainted.
"Gracious goodness!" She bounced to her feet. "Here I was forgetting! Gerald," she said in haste, "I'm sorry, but we'll have to go indoors. They'll be wondering where I am, and starting the hunt for me."
"They? You have guests?"
"Only one. Come in, Gerald. I want you to meet him. You've heard me speak of Judge Bewick in Denver, where I lived so long. Well, this is his son, Doctor Thomas Bewick. He's in Florence just for a visit. It's a wonder, come to think of it, that you haven't heard of his being here. We've been going everywhere and seeing everything and giving dinner-parties. Well, never tell me again that news spreads so fast in Florence! Come on. I want you to know each other. You'll be sure to like him."
"I don't think I will. I mean that I don't think I will go into the house with you, Aurora."
"Now, Gerald," she said in a warning voice, at which black clouds of impending displeasure loomed over the horizon, "this isn't the way to begin. Don't be odd and trying. I should feel hurt, now truly, if I had to think your regard for me wasn't equal to doing such a little thing for me as this. Tom's one of my very best friends, and he's heard us talk so much of you. He's seen your painting of me. I do want you to know him, and I want him to know you. Then, too, Gerald dear, and this is the main reason, I want you to get good and rested, and to take a little wine before you start for home. Though you say the air is like a warm bath, your hands are cold, I notice."
Too tired from the emotions of the evening to make any valid resistance, emptied in fact of all feeling except a flat sort of bewilderment, Gerald followed, like a little boy in fear of rough-handling from his so much bigger nurse.
They found Estelle and Tom in the parlor.
"Well, I was wondering what had become of you!" cried Estelle as Aurora appeared in the doorway, and behind her shoulder the shadowy, unexpected face of Gerald.
"Tom," said Aurora, "this is my friend Mr. Fane that you've heard us talk so much about, the painter, you know, who painted that picture of me up there. And this is Doctor Bewick, Gerald, to whom I am under a thousand obligations, besides the obligation of his having probably saved my life out in Denver, not so many years ago, when I was dangerously ill."
Aurora was luminous with gladness. Aurora was so glad that she had not the concentration or the decency to attempt to hide it. She did not know of the flagrant betrayal of her feelings; she was not guarding against it, because her delight itself absorbed all her powers of thought. She stood there, a monument unveiled. And all the reason for it that one could see was that pindling, hollow-eyed young fellow who had entered the room in her wake.
Those who have not quarreled with a loved one, and known the pain of the fear that he may be lost to them, will surely never know the keenest joy. It takes the escape, the contrast, to make happiness shine out as brightly as it is capable of doing.
The two men, after conversation had engaged between them, promoted and helped along by the greater lingual readiness of the ladies, observed each other. This they did indirectly and as if doing nothing of the kind. But Estelle, as profoundly uneasy as if she had foreseen already the fate of the fat to end in the fire, was aware of it. She noted in Gerald's stiffly adjusted face the unself-conscious eyebrows, formidably different one from the other; she noted how Doctor Tom, sturdy and self-collected as he was, kept knocking the ashes of his cigar into an inkstand full of ink.
It struck her whimsically that she had seen before something kindred to what was taking place under her eyes: in a barnyard at home, two crimson-helmeted champions, with neck-feathers slightly risen on end, standing opposed, ocularly taking each other's measure.
The Brenda who came back from America was not quite the one who had gone there. Gerald saw it in the first instant. She had gained in definiteness, assurance, even in beauty. But a silver haze, a fairy bloom, an aureole, was mysteriously departed from her. She had left her teens behind.
Yet in her stainless white, her bridal veil, a slender coronal of orange blossoms on her dark hair, and the light of love in her dark eyes, how wonderful she was! That Manlio, pale as a statue with the force of his emotion, should wear a look of almost superhuman beatitude was only natural and proper. Of those who assisted at the ceremony many were deeply moved, and few altogether untouched: to be in the church at that moment gave one the importance of being accessory to a high romance.
At the wedding reception something of this quality of emotion continued still to possess the invited guests as long as Brenda and Manlio, beneath their arch of flowers, stood smiling response to congratulations and compliments.
It was in the general experience not unlike that part of the opera where, to a matchless music, the god of flame and the glowing hearth lauds the loveliness of woman and the strength of man's pursuit; and the other gods, uplifted, look at one another with washed eyes, feeling anew how wonderful they all are, how wonderful it all is.
The heart of Leslie, nevertheless, as she bustled about, seeing to it that every one was provided with refreshment, confessed a point of bitterness. In a way, it was envy of Brenda. Not of her happiness, or her husband, of course. But she did wish the man lived and would present himself who could inspire her with such feelings as Brenda's. The kind of man who cared for her she somehow never cared for—a serious barrier to experiencing a grande passion. And on this day of wedding-bells it seemed a pity. The girl of many offers felt sad.
Mrs. Foss smiled a pleased, incessant smile, not "realizing" the thing which was happening, as she told her sister-in-law who had come over from America with the bride. Her chick had developed tendencies unknown among the breed, taken to the water and swum away with a swan. But the mother had confidence. She believed in marriage. The institution had been justified by her example and Jerome's. Her eyes sought him out, a little anxiously, to peruse his face. The idea could not for a moment be admitted that he had a favorite among his children, but yet it was acknowledged that Brenda had always in a very special way been near to her father's heart. From his calm and serenity in conversation with that nice big Doctor Bewick, Mrs. Foss was able to hope that he too did not "realize."
Aurora watched the bride and groom with fairly fascinated eyes, but from a certain distance. They had been nice, they had thanked her handsomely for her handsome present, but nothing could modify her regretful certitude that Brenda did not care for her. And it might so easily have been she and not the good Aunt Brenda who secured for the sposo his career of silver lace and sabre.... And Brenda, innocently unknowing, would just the same not have liked her. But there! Beautiful Brenda didn't go about loving everybody. She had the more glory to confer upon the one. Oh, harmoniously matched, high-removed pair! Oh, hymeneal crowning of tenderness and truth!... Aurora in a kind of awe wondered what elevated things those pale rose lips of the bride would say to the bridegroom when, the turmoil of festivity ended, they were in nuptial solitude. Impossible to imagine! It must be something altogether beyond other brides; and his words must make those of all other lovers sound common and poor.
* * * * *
When the arch of flowers was empty and the happy pair had left for the train, Lily and Gerald went strolling about the garden hand in hand.
Lily had been a bridesmaid, Gerald an usher. Both were in the fine apparel of their parts; thoughts of weddings hummed in both of their heads.
"Well, Lily," said the young man idly, in their walk between odorous lines of wall-flowers and heliotrope, "I suppose you too will soon be getting married."
"Oh, no!" Lily shook her head. "There is nobody I could marry."
"Why, I thought, Lily," he said, "that you were going to marry me!"
"No, Gerald," she replied promptly, but with gentleness and regret, so as not to hurt his feelings.
"I might come and live with you," she added, after a second, "and keep house for you. A cottage in the country, with beehives and ducks and a little donkey.... Gerald, do you know about Sir William Wallace?"
Though a chasm appeared to divide this subject from the last, Gerald shrewdly supposed a connection between them.
"Very little. You tell me."
"You haven't read 'The Scottish Chiefs'? I took it without permission and kept it out of Fraeulein's sight. It grows light early now, you know, and I read it for hours before getting up. Then whenever I could, I read it in the daytime. And after they had left me at night, I read it with the pink candles of my birthday cake. I cried so much that when I finished I was ill with a fever and had to be kept in bed for three days."