"Why, when was this?"
"Two weeks ago."
"My poor little Lily, how came I not to be told of it? And you sent me such a beautiful remembrance when I was ill!—Well, Lily, I know now why you won't take me. I'm not much like Sir William Wallace, that's a fact. I might grow like him in courage and prowess, perhaps, to please you, but I know that I should never be beautiful in kilts. It shall be as you say, dear. We'll be brother and sister instead. And now tell me more about this book, these Scottish.... Lily, do you see Mrs. Hawthorne on the doorstep? Do you gather that the signs she is making are meant for us? We came up together and I think she may wish to say she is ready to go, and will give me a lift back to town...."
* * * * *
"We came up together!" With great frequency in these days Gerald was going somewhere with Mrs. Hawthorne, not alone with her, but making one of four in an amiable party. Sometimes it was his fate to make conversation by the hour with Estelle, while Doctor Tom monopolized Aurora; on the other hand, he sometimes would succeed in getting his fingers among Occasion's hair, and secure Aurora for his share, while Dr. Tom was apportioned with the slenderer charmer. But the behavior of all was civilized and urbane, and if a thorn pricked or nettle burned, the sufferer concealed his pain and spoiled nobody's fun.
Gerald would in reality have preferred to stay away, almost as much as Estelle and possibly Doctor Tom would have preferred him to do so. But just there the incalculable, the ungovernable, in human nature came into play. A golden thread, a mere hair, strong as a steel cable, drew him to the place where he could expect to find no comfort, and had no object to accomplish except just to be there, with his eyebrows one higher than the other.
Either Estelle liked to annoy him, or she was unfortunate in doing it without malice.
"Don't they make a noble-looking couple?" she asked him, gazing at Aurora and Tom outlined side by side against the light of the window.
"Yes," he felt obliged to say, and followed it quickly, without apology for the indiscretion of the question: "Are they going to marry?"
"That remains to be seen," she said in a way which made one desire to set the dog on her. "I cherish the hope. May I offer you another cigarette?"
He sometimes remained scandalously late in the evening after dining, in spite of—oh, by so much!—knowing better. He would wait, with an artist's beautiful air of time-forgetfulness, for Dr. Tom to get up to go. He would instantly, as if remembering himself, get up to go, too, and walk with the doctor as far as his hotel, they talking together like men with respect for each other's brains, and appreciation of each other's character and company, no subject of contention in the world.
Gerald pushed courtesy so far as to go with the doctor, by themselves, on certain visits to hospitals, to certain games of pallone, certain monasteries which ladies are not permitted to enter, Aurora rejoicing in the opportunities to "get good and acquainted" which she saw these two dear friends of hers take.
* * * * *
After the drive back from the wedding, Gerald resisted Aurora's suggestion that he enter the house with them and remain to dine. This he did with well-masked resentfulness. As it was not Dr. Bewick's last evening, but the evening before his last, Gerald did not see that delicacy strictly demanded his sacrifice. But Estelle had without so many compliments informed him that he was not to accept. She had particular reasons, she darkly enlightened him, for the request.
So, with a paltry excuse, he jumped out of the carriage before it reached the gate, and stood looking after it, holding his hat—the glossy tuba which Giovanna had with her elbow stroked and stroked the right way of the silk, when she laid out her signorino's outfit for the wedding.
Earlier than usual after dinner Estelle retired, "to write up her diary," she said. Tom was left to have with Aurora that conversation which Estelle had besought him to have, and of which by a significant motion of the face she had reminded him before leaving the room. He came to the point very soon, the sooner to get it over.
"Nell," he said, and, leaning back, with one arm flung along the top of the sofa, the other offering to his lips a thick cigar, waited long enough for her to wonder what was coming, "you spend too much money."
Without shadow of attempt at evasion, she said:
"Tom, I do."
"You've got to retrench, girl. You've got to be more careful."
"Yes, I suppose I've got to."
"Let's be practical. How are you going to do it?"
"I don't know, Tom. It's so easy to spend and so hard to hold on to your money! If any one had told me a year ago I could get rid of as much money in one year as I have done, I shouldn't have known how I could do it without opening the window and throwing it out."
"Well, I'm glad you don't deny a bent toward extravagance."
"I don't deny anything that means I spend a lot of money. I have more sense. The facts are there."
"You've already broken into your capital, haven't you?"
"Did Hattie tell you that or did you guess? It's true, I have; but—" she tried to place the harm done in a harmless light—"it isn't so bad but that if I saved for a little while I could make it up again."
"If! True; but are you going to, Nell? That's the question."
"Oh, Tom, I never ought to have been given any money if I was to hold on to it!" Aurora almost groaned. "I didn't know at first. I was pleased as Punch. I lay awake nights just to gloat and feel grand. I tell you, I meant to hold on to it! I tell you, it wasn't going to get away from me after that good fight we made for it! But—" the effect of a mental groan was repeated—"the whole thing isn't as I thought it would be, not a bit."
She stopped, and while she tried to coordinate her ideas, Dr. Tom quietly waited for explanation or illustration of her meaning.
"I don't like money, there's the whole of it!" she gave him the sum of her attempt in one cast.
Dr. Tom continued to wait, smoking.
"In fact, I hate it."
Dr. Tom continued to wait, without interrupting, or trying to help her disentangle her thought, of which he had in truth no inkling.
"I hate it, and I love it, both. That's truer, I suppose. But I can't be at rest with it."
"Never fear, girl,"—his tone was humorous,—"you'll get used to it. Just from watching you, I should have fancied you were pretty well used to it already."
"When I was a child it was just the same way with candy," she went on with her own train of thought, not minding his; "I loved it—and gobbled it right up. Some of the girls made theirs last and last. I ate mine at once. And it wasn't only because I was a pig with no self-control. I wanted to have done with it and go back to a sensible life. With this money I have the same feeling—and then another feeling that I sort of can't account for, as if I wanted to get rid of it because there was something wrong in me having it."
"That money? You sure earned it!" he came out vigorously. "Don't be a goose, Nell."
"I wasn't thinking of what you think. But I'm afraid I am a goose, Tom, an awful goose, and I'm ashamed of it. I somehow can't feel it right—there!—to have more than the rest. Come right down to it, I feel mean in having something the rest haven't got, and keeping it from them, like a nasty fat boy stuffing pie with a lot of hungry ragamuffins looking on. I know it isn't good common sense, or how could rich people be so all right and calm in their minds as they are, and have everybody's respect? Rich people are all right, I've always sort of looked up to them, with their advantages and things. I haven't a bit of fault to find. But Tom, I suppose the amount of it is I was born poor and I go on having the feelings of the poor. If any one asks me for anything and appears to need it, I've got to give it or feel too mean to live. Me, Nell, who was poor myself for so long, how would I look hardening my heart against any one who came and wanted to borrow? I'd be ashamed to look them in the eye."
"With that view of it, of course I can see why your money wouldn't last long."
"Oh, I'm extravagant besides, I'll own to that; that's the real trouble. I want to buy everything that takes my eye, I want to make everything run smooth, like on greased wheels, and to have all the faces around me look pleased, and everybody liking me. I love the feeling of luxury and festivity, and oh, I just love a grand good time! That's what the money was given to me for, wasn't it, so that I could have a grand good time? But when I've indulged myself, Tom, I wouldn't have the face, if I had the heart, to say no to anybody that came along and wanted me to indulge them, too. Now, I don't want you to go thinking this is generosity, Tom, or a good heart, or that I have any sneaking idea in my own bosom that it's anything of the sort. I'd be a regular—low-down—soggy—sinful sowbug, I'd be too dirt-mean to live, if I pretended it was that. When I was poor I never was generous; I never thought of it. I worked hard for what I got; and was in the same boat exactly as the rest; I was entitled to the little bit I'd worked for. But now it's different. It's like I'd won the big prize in the lottery. I can't be stingy with it and not blush. I can't sit there like a swollen wood-tick and be rich all by myself."
"All right, Nell; all right. It's a perfectly understandable way of looking at it, if it is rather far-fetched. But good-by to the hard-earned thousands. You won't have a smitch of them left."
"Good-by, then, and good riddance!" cried Aurora violently, almost pettishly. "I don't really like them, anyhow. It's too easy just to write your name on a check. At first I thought I was living in a fairy-tale; but once you've got used to it, it doesn't compare with the fun you get the old-fashioned way, working hard for a thing, and planning, and going to price it, and saving, and finally getting it, and that proud! People who haven't been poor simply don't know. Why, that one poor little silver bangle I had when I was fifteen did more to give me pure joy than any of the beautiful things I've bought this whole last year. I'm sorry if it seems ungrateful to my bloated bank-account, but it's true. Another thing, Tom. I was brought up to work. I won't say I liked it. I don't think many people who've got to work do like it. But since I gave it up, nothing I've found has really filled its place to give me an appetite and the feeling I'd a right to a good time. To sit back and let others work while you fan your face—I can't help it, I feel a sort of disgrace in it. I know better, it's just the way I feel. I know all the while that's the way the world was planned, some to be rich and some to be poor—Think how rich King Solomon was! And your dear father!—some to work and some not, with changes round about once in a while, like in my case, and crosses and trials and temptations belonging to every state, and the love of God and a quiet heart possible in every state. And I've always had such respect for moneyed people and their refined ways.... But if you want me to start in now and do differently from what I've been doing, I tell you truly, I don't know how I'm going to do it, Tom. I'd rather not have the money at all."
"You won't have it, Nell, dear. You've only to keep on, and you won't have it."
"All right. Then I'll go back to work and never happier in my life. I'm strong and able, I've got years of work in me. And if you think I've grown so devoted to all these frills that I couldn't give them up, you'll see!"
"Of course I haven't the faintest right to control your use of your money—"
"But of course you have, Tom,"—her tone changed at once, and was eagerly humble,—"every right. You can take it away from me any moment you please. Who has a right, I should like to know, if not you?"
"Well, then, Nell, I'm going to make a suggestion. What you have said shows me that simple advice would be of no use in this case. Don't think, girl, that I don't get at your way of seeing the matter. If I appear cold toward it, if I don't seem to sympathize, it's because the logical results would land you in a hole from which I'd feel a call by and by to try to pull you out. See?—As a promise to keep inside of your income would apparently embitter life to you, I won't ask for it, merely suggesting the fitness of trying to observe such a restriction. Even as regards your power to throw it away, there'll be a lot more of it to throw if you respect your capital. However, the money is yours, to do exactly what you please with, but this I ask: empower me to turn some part of it into an annuity, unalienable and modestly sufficient."
"An annuity? What's that?"
"A sum of money so fixed that you receive the interest as long as you live and have no power over the sum itself. It's not yours to use, to transfer or yet to bequeath. In your case the one safe investment, the single way I see to keep you out of the poorhouse."
"Do you say so! All right, Tom; do what you think best. But see here. Whatever you arrange for me that way, you've got to arrange for Hattie, too, or it wouldn't be fair. I won't think of it unless you'll do the same for both. If I hadn't a penny left in the world, you know the Carvers would take me in in a minute. Then if you do it, don't you see," she brought in slyly, "when I've spent my money, there'll always be Hattie's for me to fall back on. Don't let her know you're doing it, Tom, but fix it."
"All right. Two comfortable little annuities, enough to be independent on, and be taken care of if you're sick."
"That's it, Tom. Then everybody's mind will be set at rest. And this I promise: I'll try to be a good girl."
That subject being dropped, there was silence for a minute or two, while Tom thoughtfully smoked.
Aurora's face was a living rose with the excitement of their discussion. She put her hands to her cheeks to feel how they burned, then turned to Tom to laugh with him over it. The pink of her face enhanced the blueness of her eyes. It was not unusual for persons sitting near Aurora, women as well as men, to feel a sudden desire to squeeze her in their arms and tell her how sweet she was. Tom found himself saying a thing he had taken a solemn engagement with himself not to say.
"I had hoped"—his utterance was slow and heavy—"to find a different solution to the difficulty."
Her face questioned him, and at once looked troubled.
"I was going to try to take over all your difficulties and bundle them up with my own; but," he continued, after a moment, with force, "I'm not going to do it."
"That's right, Tom," she came out eagerly, without pretending not to understand. "If I know what you mean—don't do it! Oh, I'm so grateful, I can't tell you, that you've made up your mind that way. Because, dear Tom, whatever you wanted me to do, seems to me I'd have to do it. I don't see how I could say no to anything you asked me. It would break my heart, I guess, if I had to hold out against a real wish of yours. I couldn't do it. All the same, I know we wouldn't make just the happiest kind of couple—'cause why, we're too like brother and sister, Tom. It would be unnatural. I feel toward you, Tom, just like an own, own sister—not those mean old things, Idell and Cora, who are your sisters—but I feel toward you as I would to my own brother Charlie. There's nothing I wouldn't do for you. But if I had to marry you, there'd be something about it—well, I don't know. I can't explain. Haven't you seen how there are things that are perfect for one use and no good at all for another? I'm a pretty good nurse, ain't I, Tom? But what would I be as a bareback circus-rider?"
"We aren't going to talk about it, Nell. I told you I had given it up. But," he went on after a heavy moment, unable entirely to subjugate his humanity—"but I wish now I had asked you before you left home."
She was too oppressed with misery to speak at once, so he amplified.
"But it seemed rather more—I don't want to call it by any such big word as chivalrous,—it seemed rather whiter not to urge it, when circumstances might have seemed to lay a compulsion on you. Then it seemed better to let all the talk, the unpleasantness, in Denver die down first. Then, too, I wanted you to see the world; I liked the thought of you having your fling. But," he reiterated, "I can't help wishing I had followed my instinct and asked you before I let you go. Tell the truth, Nell. Wouldn't you have had me then?"
"I suppose, Tom, that I should have you now if you asked me. But then or now," she brought in quickly, "it would be a mistake. I couldn't love you more dearly, Tom, than I do, good big brother that you've been. Dear me, all we've been through together! Then all the fun we've had! We couldn't change to something different without all being spoiled. You don't seem to know, but I do, that I'm not the woman for you in that way. We're too much alike, Tom. What you want is a little dainty woman, delicate, quick, bright-minded, something, to find an example near at hand, like Hattie Carver. A big fellow like you wants someone to cherish and protect. How would any one go to work protecting and cherishing a little darling big as a moose!"
"I might have known"—Doctor Tom made his reflections aloud,—"that a good big husky man wouldn't have a chance with a good big husky girl while a sickly, sad-eyed, spindle-shanked son of a gun was hanging round!"
"There's nothing in that, I should think you'd know," said Aurora, quickly. "I like him, of course, and I like to have him round. Haven't you found him good company yourself? But that's just friendship. Friendship like between a fish and a bird, and no more prospect of a different ending than that. If that's troubling you, you can set your mind at rest, Tom."
"It's none of my business, anyhow," said the doctor, brusquely, flinging down his cigar and walking away from her to the mantelpiece, where he stood looking up at her portrait, but thinking of that other portrait of her, with its wizardry and strange truth, which she had not failed to show him.
"Tom, if I thought you could feel bitter, I should die, that's all," cried Aurora, jumping up and following. "You've been such a friend to me! Do you suppose I forget? Never was there such a friend. And you know, now don't you, Tom, that I think the whole, whole world of you?" Arms were clasped around his neck,—large arms, solid and polished as marble, but tender as mother birds; a head was pressed hard against his shoulder. "There never could anybody take your place with me. You'd only have to call over land and sea, and I'd come flying to serve you, to nurse you in sickness or help you in sorrow. Give me a good hug, Tom. Give me a good kiss, and say you know I mean every word!—Now, isn't this better than to see me across the table at breakfast, with my hair in curlers, and to have me snooping round being jealous of your female patients?"
"No, it's not better; but it's pretty good."
"Do you mean to tell me, Tom, that you'd be any more likely to cut my name in a tree, or kiss my stolen glove, than I'd be to wish on the first star you loved me or write poetry about my feelin's?"
"Nell, I'm not telling; the subject is closed. But any time there's anything I can do for you, anything in this world, Nell, you know you've only got to sing out."
"You'll marry, Tom dear, by and by."
"Very well. If you say so, I'll marry. But what I said will hold good if I do. It will hold good, too, if you marry, Nell. Oh, let's talk about something else."
The change of subject could hardly be effected in less time than it takes to reverse engines; a minute or two passed before Aurora inquired concerning the number of hours' travel between Florence and Liverpool, then about his steamer, his stateroom and the exact time of his starting.
"Nine o'clock in the evening. I see, so as to have daylight for the Alps. You'll dine here of course and we'll take you to the station."
He judged it more prudent to dine at his hotel and meet them afterwards at the station near train-time.
"Then—" sighed Aurora, sorrowfully, "this is our last evening! For I heard you and the consul planning for to-morrow evening together, and he to read you some chapters of his book. A compliment, Tom. He's never offered to read us any of it. I'm only sorry the idea didn't ripen sooner, so that we needn't be robbed of your very last evening. We must make the most of our time, then. Suppose we go into the garden, Tom, and walk across the street to the river—I don't have to put anything on for just that step. It's so pretty, looking upstream at the bridges, and across at the hills your pa was so fond of. Wasn't the Judge just crazy about Florence! For the longest time after I came I couldn't see why, but I'm beginning."
A tired look overspread Estelle's face, when, returning home after seeing Dr. Bewick off on his way to Paris, they found Gerald waiting.
She said to herself, in tempestuous inward irritation, that it was inconceivable a young man so well up in the ways of the world shouldn't know any better.
It could not be said that Estelle did not like Gerald Fane. Considered by himself, she did like him, much more, she believed, than he liked her. His odd distinction, too subtle and complex to describe, aroused in her a vague hunger of the mind. But considered in relation to Aurora, he "was on her nerves," she said.
"That he shouldn't know any better—" she mentally scolded, behind her tired look, "than to obtrude himself the very first minute after Doctor Tom's departure!"
But Gerald was not thinking he showed a horrid want of tact. The other way, rather. He saw himself as the intimate old friend who comes to call right after the funeral, and by his presence console a little, and brighten, the bereaved.
Aurora's red eyes smote him at once. Aurora was still in tearful mood. The sense not only of her dear friend going, but going with a secret weight on his heart that it had been in her power to prevent, made her own heart miserably heavy, too. For the moment Tom counted for her more than all else, and she reproached herself that when he had done so much for her she had not been willing to do such an ordinary little thing for him as to marry him; and she reproached herself because it was a relief, despite her great wish to be loyal, to think they should not meet again until all that was well in the past.
Estelle hoped to hear her friend say to Gerald something to the effect that she was in no mood for a social call; but Aurora welcomed the visitor with unaffected warmth and sat down in her hat to talk with him. So Estelle said primly that it was late, and she was tired; if they would excuse her, she would go to bed.
Aurora talked about Tom and nothing but Tom. Sweetly, sighfully, she spoke, as more than once before, of those many things he had done for her, but spoke of them this evening more amply; his care of her, a penniless patient, in that hospital where she woke up after a space of unconsciousness; his unremitting kindness when she lived in his house and took care of his father, the dear old judge, who was sick three long years before he died; the proof of goodness more remarkable still which he gave after that.
A tremulous hope flickered up in Gerald that she would go on and tell him about the latter, perhaps filling in some of the lacunae which her history had for him. Much had come out in their many hours of talk, but he had found her circumspect with regard to certain parts of her life, and had never put a question. In one so frank, her avoidance appeared a result of dislike to remembering those unmentioned links in the chain of events.
But this evening again she stopped short of telling him what he would have liked to know—how Bewick was connected with her wealth. For it had come to her from no second husband: she had not been twice married.
She broke off with the words, "Oh, some time I'll tell you the whole story. I don't feel like it now. It always makes me so mad!"
If Aurora had been pledged to Bewick, thought Gerald, the most natural thing would have been to tell him of it this evening. In her expatiating upon all she owed to Bewick, Gerald felt a wish to explain how it was that without being engaged to him she could commit the impropriety of publicly weeping over his departure.
It seemed to Gerald rather late in the day for him to seek an excuse to call at the Hermitage; yet on the afternoon following Dr. Bewick's departure he sought for one—one having reference to Estelle. He took with him a propitiatory little volume containing translations of well-known poems by one Amiel. Estelle was regarded as being immensely interested in French; she daily translated themes back and forth from her own language into that of Moliere. These singularly neat and exact productions of Amiel's should delight—and disarm her.
Gerald did not dislike Estelle, far from it. He did justice to her as a good, true-hearted, self-improving American. Taken by herself, he felt for her decided regard; but taken in connection with Aurora he would sometimes have liked delicately to lift her between finger and thumb and drop her into a well.
When he entered the red-and-green room, the very least bit timidly, with his book in his hand, he perceived almost at once that something unusual was in the air, and the shades of feeling between himself and Estelle became for the moment of no importance.
Nothing was said at first of the cause for Aurora's air of repressed excitement, as she knit on a pink and white baby-jacket, or the cloudy annoyance puckering Estelle's brow as she stitched on her silk tapestry. The ladies might merely have been quarrelling, thought the visitor, and made himself as far as he could a soothing third, chatting with Estelle about Amiel and with Aurora about young Mrs. Sebastian, whose baby was to rejoice in the little garment half-finished between her hands.
"Gerald," Aurora interrupted him in the middle of a sentence, letting her hands and work drop in her lap, "something so queer and unpleasant has happened!"
He raised both eyebrows in solicitous participation, and mutely questioned.
"It's about Charlie Hunt. I never would have imagined—you wouldn't either."
"My imagination, dear friend, is more far-reaching in some ways than yours," he quickly corrected her, "and has had more practice than yours in ways of unpleasantness. But do tell me what it is that has happened."
"Charlie Hunt! Charlie Hunt!" she repeated, like one unable to make herself believe a thing. "Charlie Hunt to turn nasty like that from one day to the next!"
"He was here to dinner just two weeks ago and perfectly all right. We had a nice, long chat together on the sofa. But he didn't make his party-call quite as soon as he usually does, so when I saw him at Brenda's wedding I thought of course he'd come up and tell me how busy he'd been or some other taradiddle. But he didn't come near me. I was sort of surprised,—still, there were so many people there that he knew, and we didn't stay quite to the end, you remember. I didn't even think enough about it to mention it to Estelle. Well, this forenoon I went to the bank, and when I'd got my money, I happened to catch sight of Charlie, in the side-room, you know, where his desk is. I thought I'd like to speak to him. He's always wanted me to ask for him when I went to the bank, and I've done it more than once, and we've had five minutes' chat. I was just going to tease him a little bit about coming to see me so seldom nowadays, when he used to come so often, and ask about the lady in the case. There really is one, I guess. Italo told me. So I asked the old boy—you know the one I mean, the old servant of the bank, who's always there, to tell Mr. Hunt that Mrs. Hawthorne would like to speak with him, and then I took a seat, and in a minute in came Charlie, with just his usual look.
"Now, I want to tell you that I've never had one unpleasant word with Charlie Hunt; I've always liked him real well. I put down my foot against letting him run me and my house, but there never was a word said about it. I balked, but I didn't kick. All along I've been just as nice to him as I know how, except just one moment, when I stuck a little pin into him the night of the veglione, not supposing that he'd ever know who did it.
"Well, I was sitting there at the table with the newspapers, and he came and stood near, without taking a chair, as if he hadn't much time to spare. I began to talk and joke about his cutting me dead at the wedding, and he listened and talked back in a common-enough way, only I noticed that he once or twice called me Mrs. Barton instead of Mrs. Hawthorne. Now I must go back and tell you that some time ago when I was at the bank he casually asked me if I knew of any Mrs. Helen Barton in Florence, and he showed me two letters in the same handwriting, one addressed to the English bank, and the other to the American bank, Florence, that had been there at Hunt & Landini's for some time, and no one had called for and they didn't know what to do with. Now, the instant my eye lit on those letters I knew who'd written them, what was in them, and who they were meant for. All letters for Estelle and me, you know, are first sent to Estelle's house in East Boston, to be forwarded to us wherever we might be in Europe; but that letter had escaped. That letter was from a queer kind of sour, unsuccessful woman called Iona Allen, who boarded once at the same house with me on Springfield Street,—the languishing kind of critter that I never could stand, who hadn't the gumption of a half-drowned chicken, who'd never stuck to anything or put any elbow-grease into the work on hand, and whined all the time, and was looking out for some one to support her. I guessed she'd heard of my money and was writing me a sweet letter of congratulations, along with a hard-luck story. I'd have liked to get hold of her letter, but didn't exactly see how I could. I said to Charlie, 'Let me take it; perhaps I can find the one it's meant for among my acquaintances.' But he didn't seem to think that could be done; so there the matter dropped. I didn't care much. Iona Allen can look for some one nearer home to support her.
"Well, to go back. When Charlie Hunt had called me Mrs. Barton for the third time I realized from his way of doing it that it wasn't a slip of the tongue, and I stopped him short and said:
"'What makes you call me Mrs. Barton all of a sudden?'"
"'It's your name, isn't it?' he said, with a queer look.
"'No,' I came right out strong and bold. And I wasn't lying either. It isn't my name. I don't really know what my name is. It's Hawthorne as much as it's anything. Jim changed his name half a dozen times, and the name he married me under I found out wasn't his real name.
"Charlie Hunt stood there a moment as if thinking it over, looking at me with the meanest grin; then he said with that hateful, sarcastic look of a person who thinks he's being smart in getting back at you:
"'Is that as true,' he said, 'as that you never indulged in carnival humor masked as a crow?' Then I knew he'd somehow got on to the truth about that night at the veglione. But I wasn't going to give it away.
"'You know what you're driving at better than I do,' I said. And then I said: 'What's it all about? What's your game?' And he said, as if I'd been a common swindler that he'd found out:
"Then I felt myself get mad.
"'You're a mean little pest,' I said, but between my teeth, and not so that any one but he could hear me. And 'You're an evil-minded little scalawag,' I said. 'You certainly don't know me if you think I've done anything in this world to be ashamed of. Go ahead,' I said; 'do what you please. Don't for one single instant think that I'm afraid of you or that you can do me any harm.' And I left him standing there, with his grin, and flounced out. But what do you think of it, Gerald? Why should Charlie Hunt behave like that to me?"
"I could judge better if I knew what you said to him at the veglione."
"It wasn't very bad. It might provoke him for a minute to know that it was I who said it, but it oughtn't to make him mad enough to bite. I went up to him, and I said close to his ear, in my good English:
"'You amusing little match-maker,' I said, 'what do you hope to get from your dusky friend marrying that absard American? How much do you know about her?' I said. 'Are you even sure she's as rich as she seems?' Then he said, polite but stiff:
"'You have the advantage of me, madam, in knowing what you're talking about. Pray go on with your tasteful pleasantries,' he said; 'I'm thinking I've heard your voice before.' Upon which I shut my mouth and dusted down the opera-house on Italo's arm. I was crazy that evening, I guess, with the crowd and excitement and all. When I get to training, I can't resist the impulse; I don't know where to stop. But that wasn't enough to make him want to stick a knife in me, was it? It was only fun. It was true. He had seemed to be trying to manage me so's I'd take a fancy to Landini, and I couldn't for the life of me see what it mattered to him."
"I tell Aurora," came in Estelle, "that a little joke like that would rankle terribly in any but a real goodnatured man."
"My dear Aurora," said Gerald, excited and darkly flushed, "your little joke would not have had to contain a sting nearly as sharp to rouse against you such vanity as Hunt's, unless, let me add, there were some counterweight of self-interest to keep him back. It is known that Charlie has only some parts and habits of a human being, not all. One almost, in pure justice, cannot blame him. But scorn him—oh, as for that!... He could be with you day after day, and take all you would give, and at the end of a year feel no tie; he could hear you slandered, and not take your defence; he could make a joke at your expense, if one came into his mind that he thought sufficiently witty, and never have a sense of meanness! He would have had nothing to overcome. He would only learn better if he perceived some loss of consideration, and consequent advantage to himself. That would make him more cautious, but not make him more aware. And you cannot call him wicked any more than upon any occasion you could call him good. But he's damnable!"
Consuming anger lighted up Gerald's face, his voice trembled with intensity of feeling, his vehemence now and then by jerks lifted his heels off the floor. "He is not properly a man at all," he went on to characterize his old schoolmate; "he is just an insect en grand. He satisfies his instincts precisely as an insectivorous insect does—the rest are there to furnish something to his life. Nothing else, he knows nothing outside. Now that you have offended him he probably won't do you any great harm. He's not a devil, and the world he lives in does not tolerate anything very black. He'd injure himself in trying to injure you. But he'll do you what harm he easily and safely can. He's nothing big, he could do nothing big, he hasn't a passion in him. He's like this: from the moment he had ceased to get any good of frequenting your house, even if you had not done the smallest thing to vex him, he would pass on a bit of gossip harmful to you for the simple glory of appearing for one moment a little better informed than the rest. No more than that. He would be capable of that; he wouldn't even have to hate you. For Charlie Hunt, as Leslie once perspicaciously said—Charlie Hunt has no real inside!"
Both women sat staring at Gerald, impressed by his heat. When he stopped, they continued for a minute in blank silence, revolving his words and readjusting their estimates, while their eyes traveled up and down, up and down the room, drawn after his figure that wrathily paced the floor.
"How do you suppose he found out about the black crow? For I'm perfectly sure he didn't know me at the time," said Aurora presently.
"That might easily enough happen in some roundabout way," said Estelle, "as long as Italo and Clotilde both knew it. They might let the cat out of the bag without intending to. He talks so much. Never knew such a talker. But what I want to know is how he knew your name was Barton."
"I've told you what I think. He's heard you call me Nell. Tom, too, called me Nell. That may have given him the hint. Then he simply opened Iona Allen's letter and read it. Something was in it, no doubt, that enabled him to put two and two together. Perhaps the name Bewick. Iona would have heard of that. She would write to say now I'd climbed out of poverty and hard work she knew I wouldn't mind lending a hand to an old friend not so fortunate. Something like that. She'd be sure to whine and beg. And Charlie Hunt, little bunch of meanness! would imagine he could hold over me the fact that I was poor once and what he would think low in the scale, because he thought I'd be ashamed of it. But no such thing. If I changed my name coming here, it wasn't on any such account as that. I'm gladder than ever now that I told Mrs. Foss all about it. I did, Gerald, quite soon after we first came, and she said, though it was in a way a mistake, she didn't see any real harm in it. As long as I'd begun that way, she said, better not make a sensation by changing back or saying anything about it. She thought my reasons were very natural. It wasn't as if I were misleading anybody, or anybody were losing money by me. I'd have told you too, Gerald, in a minute, as far as wanting just to conceal anything goes. But Gerald and I"—she seemed to place the matter before an invisible judge and jury—"never talk together of ugly things, do we, Gerald? He's more delicate-minded by a good deal than I am. With him particularly, though we've been such intimate friends, I shrank from it. There's not much poetry about me, I know that, but there'd be even less if I had to have it known all I've been through. And since the first of our association we've always lived in a sweet sort of world, haven't we, Gerald? I'd be ready, just the same, to tell you the whole story any moment you wanted to hear...."
At Gerald's swift instinctive gesture, she went on without further considering the proposition she had made. "As I said before, I don't know what my own real front-door name is. I was born Goodwin. I married Barton, but Barton wasn't Jim's real name. Aurora Hawthorne is what I called myself when we were young ones and played ladies, Hat and I. I came over here to cut loose from all the bothers that had made the last year in Denver a nightmare. I didn't want to be connected with that dirty mess any more in anybody's mind or my own. I wanted it to be like taking a bath and starting new, feeling clean. Then, if I was Aurora Hawthorne, Hattie had to be Estelle Madison, which was her name in our old play-days. Neither of us thought of anything when we planned it but its being a grand lark. And at first, in hotels, what did it matter? But since we've been here and had friends, we've felt sorry more than once, because it seemed like telling a lie. And then we were afraid of things that might come up—just like this that has, in fact. But there wasn't anything to do about it. Because if we confessed now most anybody would think our reason for changing names must have been something disgraceful, just as it happens if a person who kills another by accident goes and hides the corpse, everybody takes it for granted it was murder. So, if Charlie Hunt tells—"
"I'm not nearly as much afraid of his telling that you are here under an assumed name," said Estelle, "as that you were the black crow, and it getting to the ears of Antonia and Co."
"Well, what could they do?"
"Spoil Florence for us pretty thoroughly, I'm afraid, Nell."
"Oh, nonsense!" cried Aurora, but after a moment added in a tone of lessened assurance, "Bother!" and after another moment burst forth, with one hand clapped to her curly front hair: "To think that Tom was here yesterday, and this had to happen to-day, when he's half-way to Paris! I wish he hadn't gone. I wish I had him here to back me up."
"Why don't you telegraph for him?" suggested Estelle, eagerly.
"Oh, no, I wouldn't do that,"—Aurora's vehemence subsided,—"it's not important enough for that."
"My dear Aurora," said Gerald, stopping in front of her, his whole person expressing hurt and remonstrance little short of indignation, "if your wishing for Doctor Bewick signifies that you do not feel you have friends near you on whose attachment you can count, surely you do wrong to some of us!"
Though his tone scolded Aurora sharply for her lack of faith, Estelle's ear caught a trembling edge to his voice expressive of deep feeling. Estelle had the good sense to see that Gerald must inevitably desire to make more exposition of his allegiance, and the good feeling to know that this could be done better if she were not present. Gerald, with his little peace-offering, was at the moment in favor with Estelle. His explicitness, his righteous violence, his entire adequacy on the subject of Charlie Hunt, had charmed her. She also wanted Aurora to have any comfort the hour might afford. She on the spot feigned to understand Busteretto's pawing of her dress as an expression of desire to go into the garden and see the little sparrows. She swept him up from the floor with one hand and, tucking him under her arm, slipped out of the room.
Gerald stood grasping his elbows. He had a look like that of some man, known so far as a harmless retiring burgher, about to make a public confession which will change all, bringing his head perhaps to the block; or the look of a man on the verge of a precipice, still half resisting the desire to jump, yet knowing that he will jump, nothing can save him from it; the look of a man, in fine, pregnant with intention, but walking in a dream.
There was silence for a minute after Estelle left the room. Then Gerald said very stiffly, very formally:
"If you would do me the honor, dearest Aurora, the very great honor, of consenting to take my name, the right I should have to defend you would be—would be—part of my great happiness."
Aurora stared at him. Beneath the frank investigation of her eyes his own dropped in modesty and insuperable embarrassment.
There was another silence before he added:
"I would try very much to make you happy."
Aurora repressed the first words that came to her lips,—and set aside the next ones that rose in her mind to say. Silence again reigned for a moment. Then, with the serious face, almost invisibly rippling, that betokened in her a secret and successful fight against laughter, she said in what she called her good English, faintly reminiscent of Antonia's:
"I am aware, my dear Gerald, of the honor, the very great honor, you do me. I thank you—for coming up to the scratch like a little man. But the feeling I have that I could never be warthy of so much honor deceydes me to declane. Gerald," she went on, discarding her English, "don't say another word! You dear, dear boy! The things you want to defend me against don't amount to a row of pins when all I've got to do if it comes to the pinch is pack my grip and clear out. Thank you all the same, you pet, for your kindness. Don't think of it again. I am sort of glad, though, you've got that proposal out of your system. Now we can go back to a sensible life."
Aurora, of the excellent three-times-a-day appetite, Aurora of the good sound slumbers, picked at her food and slept brokenly for part of a week at that period, such was her impatience at the dragging length of time, the emptiness of time, undiversified and unenhanced by the presence in her house of any man devoted to her. No odor of tobacco smoke in the air, no cane in the corner; Tom on his way to America, Gerald hurt or cross or both. But, the ladies agreed, when Aurora had told Estelle the latest about Gerald, her refusal could not possibly occasion a cessation of relations, since his offer, chivalrous and unpremeditated, had been at most a cute and endearing exhibition of character. His sensitiveness could not be long recovering, and everything would be as before.
Aurora had been half prepared for his staying away all Saturday; but having been justified in that, she the more confidently looked for him on Sunday. It is simply incredible, as almost everybody has felt at least once in his life, how long the hours can be when you are waiting for something.
At the end of a singularly unprofitable day, Aurora sat in the red and green room with all the windows open to the sweet airs and odors of May, and no lamp lighted that might attract night-moths, or, worse, the thirsty, ferocious Florentine zanzara. She just sat, not doing a thing. Estelle after a while left her, to retire to her own quarters, close the windows and make a light.
Aurora watched the dark blue velvet sky over Bellosguardo, and thought.
A tinkling of mandolins, a thrumming of guitars, informed her of street-singers stationed under her windows. A tenor voice rose in the song she was so fond of, La Luna Nova, mingling at the end of the verse with other male voices that repeated the second half of it. It sounded infinitely sweet out in the warm spring night.
After La Luna Nova they sang Fra i rami, fulgida, and Vedi, che bianca Luna, and Dormi pure, all things she particularly liked. The voices struck her as being nearer than the garden railing; she thought the singers must have found the carriage gate open and slipped in without noise. She bent forth a little, and as she could not see them imagined them standing among the shrubs. She propped her elbows on the window-rail and listened, grateful for this bath of sweetness to her spirit after the day's profound ennui.
Estelle came softly into the dark room and joined her; they leaned side by side.
Mi sono innamorato d'una stella, Sognai, Io t'amero, one sweet and sentimental song succeeded the other.
Clotilde had entered too, on tiptoe, and stood listening, just behind the others.
"It is a serenade," she whispered. "It is a compliment."
A serenade!... Aurora thrilled with a pleasant surmise. There was only one person in Florence of whom she could conceive as offering her the compliment of a serenade. She listened with a new keenness of pleasure.
After the concert had prolonged itself through some dozen pieces—
"You must invite them to enter," whispered Clotilde, presumably versed in the ceremonial of such adventures, "and offer them something for their tired throats, a little wine...."
"Oh, you think we ought...?"
"But yes, it would be courtesy."
"Go you, then, Clotilde, and show them in and order up the wine. We'll be down in a minute."
As they entered the dining-room, Clotilde burst into a peal of delighted laughter at the well-managed surprise, while Italo hastened forward to take Aurora's hand and bow over it half way to the floor.
It was within Aurora's breast as if in the dark one had clasped as she thought a sweetheart, to find when the light came that her arms were entwined around the dancing-master, or the tailor. But only for an instant. She was really touched and charmed. She became more and more eloquent in expressing delight.
The singers were presented to her individually, dark-eyed and smiling young Italians of the people, who knew no language but their own Florentine and spoke to Aurora in that, not expecting to be understood or to understand, except through smiles.
Clotilde, busy, bustling, poured for them wine which she knew to be excellent, and there was a bright half hour for all. Italo wore an air relating him to all the successful heroes that have been, to Caesar as well as to Paganini, who also had a great nose. To manage a thing well in small justifies pride, giving earnest as it does that a large thing, such as a siege, or a symphony, would by the same capacity be managed equally well. Italo that night carried his head like one who respects the size of his nose. He was quick, he was witty, he was amiable. He had about him something a little splendid, even, due to his feeling of having been splendid—or nothing—in his tribute to the patroness from whose horn of plenty so much had overflowed into his hands.
Aurora beckoned Clotilde aside to say in her ear, "Will you run upstairs like a good girl and get my porte-monnaie?... Would it be all right, do you think?"
Clotilde made the face and gesture of one in doubt, and if anything averse, but not insuperably. The bounty of royalty, or of rich Americans, is not felt as alms.
"Go, then," whispered Aurora, "and get the purse that you'll find under some silk stockings in my second drawer, the little purse with gold in it."
One of the petty difficulties of life to Aurora since she had lived in foreign lands had been the so often arising necessity to think quickly what it would be proper to give. As the amount of the gratuity did not much matter to her she had felt a desperate wish often for the power of divination, by which to know what would be expected. On some occasions it had seemed to Aurora that it would be more delicate not to offer money; but experience had taught her that if she offered enough no offense would be taken. These singers were all poor young fellows, Clotilde had told her, musically gifted, but plying ordinary trades. This one was a wood-carver, that one a gilder. They had been taught by her brother the fine songs composing that magnificent serenade.
The gold pieces distributed among them with words and smiles of thanks were received with such charming manners that the giver—for the first moment faintly embarrassed—was soon set at her ease. When it came to the promoter and leader of the serenade, Aurora felt no more uncertainty. Money had so often gone from her hand to his. She with generous ease, as if passing a box of candy to children, tendered him some three or four times as much as to the others.
But there Italo showed what he was made of. He took a step backward and stood with soldierly rigidity, one hand held with the palm toward her, like a shield and defense against her intention to belittle him and his token of homage by a reward. His look said, and said dramatically, that her thought of him did him wrong; it said that he was ashamed of her for not knowing better. Yet there was no real dissatisfaction in it, since her want of delicacy permitted the exhibition of his delicacy, and afforded him the opportunity to make that gesture....
Her hand dropped, her whole being drooped and confusedly apologized. Then the hand that had interposed between them, uncompromising as a hot flat-iron, changed outline and pointed at a half faded rose pinned on her breast. Quickly she unfastened it and held it toward the outstretched hand. It was taken, it was held to Italo's lips while he made one of those deep bows that bent him double; then the stem of the rose was pulled through his buttonhole and secured with a pin from Aurora's dress. The great little man shook his locks and went on to the next subject.
Aurora was impressed. She was pleased with Italo in a new way, and said to herself that she must make him some rich little, but unobjectionable little, gift to remember this occasion by, a gold pencil, or a pearl scarf-pin, or a cigar case to be proud of.
She went to bed with her head full of serenade and serenaders, her head all lighted up inside with the glory of having been the object of a tribute so flattering. When after reading her chapter she blew out the candle, she knew that to-night she should sleep, and make up for the two bad nights just passed. If Gerald were so foolish as to feel annoyed and wish to stay away, he would just have to feel annoyed and stay away until he felt different. His mood couldn't help wearing off in time. But it did seem to her extraordinary that even now, after knowing him so long, she could tell so little of the workings of Gerald's mind. All, of course, because he was—such a considerable part of him—a foreigner.
* * * * *
Aurora was one of those healthy sleepers who have no care to guard themselves against the morning light. Her windows stood open, her bed was protected from winged intruders by a veil of white netting gathered at the top into the great overshadowing coronet.
She was in the fine midst of those sweetest slumbers that come after a pearly wash of dawn has cleaned sky and hilltops from the last smoke-stain of the night, when a sense of some one else in the room startled her awake. There stood near the door of her dressing-room an unknown female, wearing intricate gold ear-pendants and a dingy cotton dress without any collar.
"Chi e voi?" inquired Aurora, lifting her head.
"I am the Ildegonda," answered the woman, whose smile and everything about her apologized, and deprecated displeasure. She must be the kitchen-maid, fancied Aurora, engaged by Clotilde, and not supposed to show her nose above the subterranean province of the kitchen.
"There is the signorino down in the garden," Ildegonda acquitted herself of the charge laid upon her by the donor of the silver franc still rejoicing her folded fingers, "who says if you will have the amiability to place yourself one moment at the window he would desire to say a word to you."
The signorino. That had become the informal title by which the servants announced a guest who was let in so very frequently. Aurora understood finestra, window, and dire una parola, to say a word, and then that the signorino was giu in giardino.
"All right." Aurora nodded to the Ildegonda, inviting her by a motion of the hand to go away again.
Aurora rose and softly closed the door which, when open, made an avenue for sound from her room to Estelle's. She slipped her arms into a sky-blue dressing-gown, and with a heart spilling over with playful joy, eyes spilling over with childish laughter, went to look out of the window, the one farthest from Estelle's side of the house.
"Good morning! Good morning!" came on the instant from the waiting, upturned face below. "Forgive me for rousing you so early," was said in a voice subdued so as to reach, if possible, no other ears, "but you promised you would go with me one day to Vallombrosa, and one has to start early, for it is far. Will you come?"
"Will I come? Will I come? Wait and see! Got your horses and carriage?"
"Standing at the gate. How long will it take you to get ready?"
"Oh, I'll hurry like anything."
"'Wash, dress, be brief in praying. Few beads are best when once we go a Maying.'"
"I won't pray, I won't put on beads. But, see here, what about what they call in this country my collation? You know I'm a gump on an empty stomach."
"We'll have our coffee on the road, at a little inn-table out of doors in the sunrise."
"Fine! By-by. See you again in about twenty minutes."
Every fiber composing Aurora twittered with a distinct and separate glee while she hurried through her toilet, a little breathless, a little distracted, and mortally afraid Estelle would hear and come to ask questions. From her wardrobe she drew the things best suited to the day and her humor: a white India silk all softly spotted with appleblossoms, of which she had said when she considered acquiring it that it was too light-minded for her age and size, but yet, vaulting over those objections, had bought and had made up according to its own merits and not hers; a white straw hat with truncated steeple crown, the fashion of that year, small brim faced with moss-green velvet, bunch of green ostrich-tips, right at the front, held in place by band and buckle.
Her parasol was a thing of endless lace ruffles, her wrap a thing of vanity.
She passed out through the dressing-room, she crept down the stairs, laughing at her own remark that it was awfully like an elopement. The house was not yet astir; only the Ildegonda sweeping out the kitchen, and old Achille out in the garden picking early insects off his plants.
At the door she greeted Gerald with all the joy of meeting again a playmate. He had on the right playmate's face. She gave him both hands, and he clasped them to the elbow, shaking them with satisfactory fire, while their eyes laughed a common recognition of the adventure as a lark.
At the gate waited the open carriage, a city-square cabriolet, but clean and in repair, drawn by two strong little brown horses, with rosettes and feathers in their jingling bridles, ribbons in their whisking braided tails, and driven by a brown young man of twenty, with a feather, too, in his hat, which he wore aslant and crushed down over his right ear. To make the excursion pleasanter to himself, he was by permission taking along a companion of his own age, who occupied the low seat beside his elevated one, and in contrast with his vividness, the pride of life expressed by his cracking whip, the artistically singular sounds he made in his throat to encourage the horses, was a washed-out personality, good at most to do the jumping off and on, to readjust harness, to investigate the brake, or to offer alms from the lady in the carriage to the old man breaking stones in the roadside dust.
They were off; they sped through the gate of the Holy Cross, the fresh young horses making excellent time. Out of the city, along the river, across it, past hamlets, past villas, past churches and camposanti, past vineyards and poderi and peasants' dwellings....
It seemed to Aurora that never had there been such a day, so fresh and unstained and perfect, a day inspiring such gladness in being. The sense of that priceless boon, the freedom of a whole long day together, elated her with a joy that knew only one shadow, and that unremarked for the first half of it—the shortness of the longest earthly day.
Now the horses slowed in their pace; the ascent had begun among the shady chestnut-trees. The driver's friend scrambled down and plodded alongside the horses; the driver himself descended and walked, cheering on his beasts with noises that nearly killed Aurora, she declared.
As it took them between four and five hours to reach their destination, and as Aurora chattered all the time, with little intervals of talk by Gerald, to report their conversation is unfeasible. Aurora, wanting in all that varied knowledge which those who are fond of reading get from books, had yet a lot to say that some unprejudiced ears found worth while. The dwellers upon earth and their ways had for her an immense and piercing interest. In vain had circumstances circumscribed her early life: neighbors, Sunday-school teacher, minister, village drunkard, fourth of July orator, had furnished comedy for her every day. The human happenings falling within her ken became good stories in their passage through a mind quick in its perception of inconsequence, faulty logic, pretense, all that constitutes the funny side of things. Aurora's love of the funny story amounted to a fault. Aurora was not always above promoting laughter by narratives no subtler than a poke in your ribs. Aurora, in the vein of funny stories, could upon occasion be Falstaffian. But only one half of humanity had a chance to find out the latter. When in company of the other sex, by instinct and upbringing alike she minded her Ps and Qs.
Gerald said that Aurora on that day regaled him with over a thousand comic anecdotes, this being the expression of her frolicsome and exuberant mood. He furnished her with a few to add to her store, Italian ones, proving that he was not wholly without some share of her gift in that line; but he now and then politely stopped her flow and led her to admire with him the beauties of the road, natural or architectural, a distant glimpse, a form, a fragrance. He would explain things to her, impart scraps of pertinent history, which she would appear trying to appreciate and imprint on her memory.
As he leaned back in the carriage at her side, bathed in the wavering green and gold light of the chestnut-trees among which the road wended, a recent description of him, which she had said over to herself, to qualify it by mitigating adjectives, seemed to her to have become altogether unfair. Gerald's face, beneath the brim of his pliable white straw, bent down over the eyes and turned up at the back, Italian style, did not look sickly. On the contrary, it looked better and stronger since his illness; he even had a little color. He was not sad-eyed, either, that she could see, though his eyes must always be the thoughtful kind. As for spindle-shanked, he filled his loose woolen clothes better than before.
He had made himself modestly fine for the day to be spent in company of the fair: he had on a necktie which, if expressive of mood, declared his outlook on life to be cheerfuller: it was a vibrant tone of violet that accorded agreeably with his gray suit. A rose-geranium leaf and a stem or two of rusty-gold gaggia, odors that he loved, occupied at his buttonhole the place of those decorations which distinguished elderly gentlemen are sometimes envied for, and which—it is a commonplace—are not worthy to be exchanged for the flower Youth sticks at his coat to aid him to charm.
It grew very warm; the way, though pleasant, was beginning to seem long when they arrived. The old monastery, now a school of forestry; the Cross of Savoy, where pilgrims rest and dine, gleamed white in the cloudless noon, amid the century-old trees that long ago, before Dante's time even, earned for the spot its beautiful name of Vallombrosa, Umbrageous Vale.
Aurora was by this time starving again, and Gerald knew the pleasure of purveying to the demands of a stomach as untroubled by any back-thought relating to its functioning as that of a big bloomy goddess seated before a meal of ambrosia. He suggested that she accompany her artichoke omelet, her cutlet with the sauce of anchovy, parsley and mustard, by a little red wine. But she would not, even to be companionable. She could never bring herself to touch wine, any more than to use powder on her cheeks, which in truth did not need it, or a pencil to her eyebrows, which would have looked better for that accentuation.
In a state of physical and mental well-being such as can be bought only by an early rising, an inconsiderable breakfast, a long ride in the warmth of Tuscan mid-May, an abundant and repairing repast, taken, amid sweet conventual coolness, in company which leaves nothing to wish for beyond it, they went forth to spend the time that must be granted the horses for rest before the return to Florence.
After loitering in the inn garden, they went to look at the memorials relating to Saint John Gualberto, founder of the monastery. She listened to the picturesque history of his life, death, and miracles, but was not to be rendered sober-minded by any such thing. In the midst of Gerald's instructive account of the holy abbot's endeavors to purify the monastic orders from the stain of simony, her hand clutched his, and doing a delicate cake-walk she compelled him along with her, announcing, "The Hornet and the Bumble-bee went walking hand in hand!" Fancying this prank not to have been without success, she next performed an improvised pas seul illustrative of the text, "The mountains shall skip like little lambs!"
There was artfulness, as has been suspected, in Aurora's frequent jests upon her size. Their gross exaggeration was fondly counted upon to make her appear sylphlike by comparison with the images she raised.
To relieve the seriousness of Short Lessons on Great Subjects she presently invented interrupting them at intervals to introduce Gerald and herself to some rock or tree or mountain, as if it had been a poor person standing by neglected. "Jack Sprat," she said, "and The Fat!" "A busted cream-puff," she said, "and a drink of water!" Further, "Dino and Retta!" Finally, with imagination running dry, "Gerry and Rory!"
Yes, by such little jokes—what Leslie called Jokes of the First Category, Aurora sought to enliven the hour for Gerald. He never omitted to laugh, without being able to enter enough into her fun to join her in the same species. An incapacity. Still, there was no disguising the basking enjoyment possessing him, his love of her gaiety, if not at all moments of the form it took.
Finding it entrancing up there, they decided not to start for home till the last minute possible. A limit was set to the time they might linger by the necessity for some degree of daylight in making the descent. From the edge of the curving road the mountain dropped away without the protection of any parapet.
When they had found their ideal place in which to sit on the warm earth in the shade and look off over valleys and mountains into azure space, Aurora at last consented to be still. She became dreamy, appeared sweetly fatigued, and was for a long time mute.
Though the mere quality of her voice still had power to stir Gerald's heart to pleasure, yet to be silent with Aurora was pleasure of a different order from hearing her voice of rough velvet recount preposterous events or propound humorous riddles.
* * * * *
It looked from where they sat as if the land had at some time been fluid, and been tossing, green and purple, in a majestic storm, when some great word of command had fixed it in the midst of motion, and the waves became Apennines; then in an hour of peculiar affection for that plot of the earth a faultless artist from the skies had been set to oversee nature and man at their work there, and prevent the intrusion of one note not in harmony with his most distinguished dream.
"If Italy should perish and all else remain," said Gerald, whose eyes had been feasting on beauties of line and color such as he conceived were not to be found outside this land of his idolatry, "the world would be irreparably impoverished. If all the world besides should perish and Italy remain, the world could still boast of infinite riches."
Aurora gave a nod of at least partial assent. She was growing accustomed to the thought that Italy was the fairest of countries and Florence the fairest of Italian cities. She found herself beginning to like this creed.
In the quiet that descended upon them the native piety in each groped for some acknowledgment to make of his consciousness at the moment of unusual blessing. In him it took the form of a renewal, more devoted perhaps than ever, of the determination to maintain an uncompromising purity of aim in his work. The incomparable scene stimulated within him a sense of power to produce things rivaling what lay under his eyes; he, atom, rivaling his Maker in the creation of beauty. In her it was a determination of greater loyalty toward the Provider of undeservedly happy days to man, whose heart is wicked from his birth, as her mother had been wont to tell her.
Hearing her hum very softly to herself, he asked what she sang. She said, her mother's favorite hymn, and gave it aloud, with the words:
Father, what e'er of earthly bliss Thy sovereign will denies, Accepted at Thy throne of grace Let this petition rise:
Give me a calm, a thankful heart, From every murmur free; The blessings of Thy grace impart And make me live to Thee.
Like one with an impeccable ear, but with small esteem for his gifts as a singer, Gerald murmured the melody after her, just audibly, to show he cared to have his share in her memories.
But mainly the two of them thought of each other.
Gerald, regarding Aurora's hands as they lay in her lap—innocent-looking, loyal-looking, rather large hands, which during his illness he had liked to think were Madonna hands, but when seen in health they were not, really—was amazed to remember the day when their making passes over his face had filled him with perverse repugnance.
And Aurora, remembering the first time she had seen Gerald and nicknamed him Stickly-prickly, while feeling him more than three thousand miles removed from her, was amazed....
So they sat, two little dots, two trembling threads, against the screen of the universe and eternity, and their two selves, under the spell of a world-old enchantment, loomed so large to each that the universal and the eternal were to them two little dots, two threads.
* * * * *
Gerald saw how the afternoon was mellowing toward sunset.... And the important things of the day had not been touched upon.
Our hero had traversed great spaces in the region of sentiment during the two days allowed the Hermitage to stand or crumble without him. The first of them had been spent far from it, even as Aurora supposed, for the sake of letting the impression of having been laughed at wear off a little. Already for some time before that forced climax Gerald had been haunted by the feeling that he ought to offer himself to Aurora, as it were to regularize his status in her house. After hanging around as he had been doing, one might almost say that good manners demanded it. Her fashion, on that evening in the garden, of treating the idea that he could be enamoured of her assured him that she would refuse. He would have done his duty, and they would continue to drift, he shutting his eyes to the penalty awaiting his self-indulgence, the taxes of pain rolling up for the hour when her necessary departure would involve the uprooting of every last little flower in that wretched garden of his heart. With such a mental pattern of the future he had gone to bed at the end of the first day.
On the next morning something perhaps in deep dreams which he did not remember, or in the happy manner of the new day lighting a scarlet geranium on the terrace ledge, or simply perhaps the whisper of an angel, had effected a change. A heart-throb, a stroke of magic, had so lifted him up that over the top of the wall edging the road of life for him he had seen a thrilling garden outstretched, smiling in the sun, a sight that so enkindled him with the witchery of its promises that he felt he should seek for a way into that garden till he found it; should, if necessary, demolish the wall.
That day he went walking on the hills beyond Settignano, and the new light, the intoxication, persisted—the vision of himself as Aurora's lover. Why not? An escape from the past, a different adventure from all prefigured in his dull expectations before.... In his theory of living Gerald had always admitted the gallant advisability of burning ships. There was room in his theory of living for just such a divergence from design as he now meditated. When the call comes, summon it to never so improbable places, the poet and artist obeys. He had gone to bed on the second night with these thoughts and a plan for the morrow.
Now that morrow was wearing to an end and all the floating splendid courageous thoughts and feelings, brave in the assurance, along with the determination, of victory, must be somehow caught and compressed and turned into the language—how poverty-stricken, how stale!—of a proposal of marriage; even as a great variegated, gold-shot, butterfly-tinted, cloud-light tissue of the Orient is drawn into a colorless whipcord twist that it may pass through a little ring.
As he revolved in his mind what he should say to start with, Gerald saw appropriateness for the first time in the methods of the historic Gaul, who seized by her hair the charming creature whom he felt allied to him by deep things, seated her on the horse before him, and rode away. But what he would have liked so much the best would have been to lay his head in Aurora's willing lap, embrace her knees tenderly, and have her understand all without a word being spoken.
Now he cleared his throat, took a reasonable air, a tone almost of banter, to say what, influenced by the long precedent of their converse together, he could say only in that manner, covering up as best he could the fact that his heart trembled and burned.
"Shall we resume our conversation of last Friday?" he asked, with a fine imitation of the comradely ease which had marked all their intercourse that day.
He was looking over the valley, as if still preoccupied with its beauty rather than with her.
Thus misled, she did not guess right. She said:
"About Charlie, you mean? Just fancy, I haven't thought of him once all day! Little varmint! Don't I wish I had the spanking of him! But I guess it would lame my arm."
"Not about Charlie. I asked would you marry me, and you said you would not. Will you to-day?"
"Not for a farm!" she answered, with emphasis equal to her precipitation.
"Why not?" he asked, undisconcerted.
"Come, let us reason together, Aurora." He changed position, arranging himself on his elbow so as to be able to look at her. His eyes were steady. "For a man to ask a woman to marry him is of course the greatest piece of impertinence of which he could be guilty. But from such impertinences, Auroretta, has been derived every beautiful thing that has blessed our poor world from the beginning. No man is good enough for any woman, let that stand for an axiom. But there again, Auroretta, it's not according to merit that those rewards, gentle and beautiful ladies, are dispensed. I have rather less to offer than any man in the world, but I am bold because you, dear, are just the one to be blind."
"Oh, it's not that, of course," said Aurora, hurriedly.
"Don't suppose for a moment that I am troubled by the size of your fortune or the size of my own. You haven't any money, dear. Others have your money. I have almost to laugh at the splendid speed with which that open granary of yours will be eaten clean by all the birds coming to pick one seed at a time."
"You needn't laugh, then. Some of it is going to be pinned to me solid, so that nothing can get it away from me, not even I myself."
"I am sorry to hear it. The other was so complete. Well, if you had nothing, I should still have just enough to keep us from hunger, though perhaps not from cold in these dear old stone houses of Italy. And you—I know you well enough to be sure of it—you are exactly the one to learn how much there can be in life besides its luxuries. Since my illness, too, Aurora, let me confide to you, there have been in me reawakenings.... I have felt the beginning—I am speaking with reference to my work,—I have felt intimations—No, it is too difficult to express without seeming to boast, which is horribly unlucky. In short, I have felt that I might do the turn still of forcing a careless generation to pay attention."
"Oh, Gerald, how nice it is to have you say that!" she warmly rejoiced. "I'm so glad to hear it!"
"Now tell me why it is you won't marry me. Stop, dear. Don't say because you are not in love with me. I have difficulty in seeing how any one in her right senses could be in love with me. It would be enough, dear, that you should be to me as you were during those happy, happy days when I was so beastly ill. You are so generous, it would be merely fulfilling your nature. And I, upon my word, dear, would try to deserve it. I would give you reason to be kind. I am not without scraps of honor—wholly; I would do my best to make you happy."
"No,"—she shook her head decidedly,—"no, Gerry," she added, to take the sharp edge off her refusal, "no, Gerry; Rory won't."
"You have only to lose by it, that is obvious, and I to gain, and nothing could equal the indecency of insistence on my part; but I feel that I am going to persist to the point of persecution. You are fond of me, you know. I only dare to say you are fond of me because you have said it yourself more than once. And you are always sincere, and I wouldn't be likely to forget. Now, if you are fond of me,—very, very fond, you have said repeatedly,—why do you refuse? I wouldn't be a bore of a husband, I promise. I would leave you a great deal of liberty."
"No, Geraldino; no."
"You needn't tell me there's somebody else. I don't believe it. Though you feel only fondness for me, I know that you are not in love with anybody else. When one is in love, there is no room in life for such warm and dear friendship as you have frankly shown me. It's that, after all, which has given me courage."
"No, no; there's nobody else."
"Well, then, why can't you? Why won't you?"
"I—" She hesitated, as if to think. There was a silence. Then she asked slowly, like one who finds some difficulty in laying her tongue on the right words: "Do you remember all those things you said that evening in the garden, the night you came in to meet Tom for the first time? How you wouldn't for anything in the whole world let yourself get tangled up again with caring for a person?"
"Perfectly. I could only picture it as meaning more of trouble and unrest. But things change, dear. We change. There has taken place in me since that, no matter for what reason, an increase of self-confidence and confidence in fate such as turns men into nuisances or makes them successful. In the last twenty-four hours particularly. Now, as I look at the inconvenience of getting tangled up again with caring for a person, I find I don't mean at all to suffer. I mean to bother you until you say yes, and then to be happy. You could never wilfully torment me, I know; you are incapable of it. Then, when you have graciously consented to marry me, I feel as if I might build up my life on new lines."
"I can't, Geraldino; I can't."
"You can't. So you have said. And I have asked you to tell me your reasons, that I may combat them one by one."
"It's no use. We're too different."
"That we are different, thank God! is a reason for and not against."
"No, no; not when it's such a huge difference. We're like—a bird and a fish."
"Don't call me a fish. I object."
"We don't think the same about hardly anything."
"But we feel alike on everything of importance."
"There's hardly a thing I do that's quite right as you see it. No, don't take the trouble to contradict me; let me do the talking for a minute. You're so critical and so conventional and so correct! No matter how much you say you aren't, you are. And while we're like this I don't have to care. I rather enjoy shocking you. And while I'm none of your business, you don't have to care what I do or what I'm like. We can have our fun and be awfully fond of each other, and it's all serene and right. But if I were Mrs. Gerald Fane, all my faults and shortcomings, my not knowing the things that everybody in your society knows, my not having any elegant accomplishments, would show up so glaring that I should know you must be mortified. You couldn't help it."
"Stop, dear! You enrage me. You put me beside myself. You are so superficial. And dense. And you hold me up to myself in the features of a beastly cad! I won't have it. For one thing, let me tell you that if I were the Lord Ronald Macdonald of that song we've heard Miss Felixson sing, and you were that canny lass Leezie Lindsay, I should know jolly well that after I'd carried you off to the Hielands my bride and my darling to be, it would be a very short time before Lady Ronald Macdonald had all the airs and tricks of speech of my sisters and cousins. That, however, is neither here nor there. Who wants you to be different? Aurora, if you only knew yourself! Ceres, or Summer, or Peace sitting among the wheat-sheaves, what would it matter that she had not been educated at a fashionable boarding-school? Let her just breathe and be,—beautiful, benign, and any man not utterly a fool will prefer to lie at her knees, keeping still while her silence appeases and reconciles him, to hearing the most brilliant conversation of a lady novelist."
"You can talk beautifully, Gerald, that's one sure thing; but talk me over you can't. Seems to me I should have to be crazy to forget all in a moment what I've said over and over to myself, and drilled myself not to lose sight of. After you asked me the other day, though I knew it was just on the spur of the moment, I thought it all out in the night as much as if it had been serious, and I saw what would be the one safe course for little me. I mustn't; that's all there is to it. Everything is wrong for it to turn out happy in the end. I'm terribly fond of you, but I should be scared to death of you, simply scared to death, as a husband. We're not the same kind. If I could forget it on my own account, I have only to remember how it would strike Estelle. And Estelle's got no end of horse sense. It's according to horse sense we must act when it comes to settling the real things of life. I expect"—she had the effect of turning a page or a corner; she dropped from heights of argument to low plains—"I expect I shall be big as a mountain by and by. I don't see any help for it. I starve myself, I drink hot water, I take exercise,—nearly walk my legs off,—and the next time I get weighed I've gained three pounds! What's the use? Then, I'm older than you."
"Not at all. I'm older than the everlasting hills; you are the youngest thing that lives."
"That's all right, but you were twenty-eight your last birthday, and I'm thirty. I'm afraid my character's already pretty well fixed in its present form. When it comes over me, for instance, to play the clown, I've got to do it or burst. And you're naturally a tyrant, you know."
"I am. I am critical, carping, conventional, and a tyrant, everything you say, but just because I am those things, you ought to be able to see, dear Aurora—because I am those things and know it, they are the things least to be feared in me. Do you suppose Marcus Aurelius was really calm and philosophical? Because he, on the contrary, was anxious and passionate, he wrote those maxims to try to live by. When you would go and be a negress, did I make a scene? I gnashed my teeth and gnawed my knuckles, but when I saw you afterward, wasn't I decently decent?"
"Yes, but you took to your bed. If I were Mrs. Gerald, and the Pope of Rome sent for me to do Lew Dockstader for him and his cardinals, you know you wouldn't let me go."
"You are wrong. I should make a point of it. I should only ask to be permitted to retire into solitude until all the vulgar people had stopped talking about it."
"Ah, you're a dear, funny boy; but put it out of your mind, Geraldino, do, dear, when we're so happy as it is. Let's go on just as we've been going; you know yourself that it's the wisest, and what really you would prefer. If you've asked me to-day—mind, I don't say you have; but if you have—to save my vanity and back up the proposal you didn't really mean the other day,—because you're always such a gentleman; you'd rather die than not behave like a gentleman,—let it go at that. But if you should feel now that you've got to back up your declaration that you're going to persist and follow this up, just ask me over again every few days to show there's no unkind feeling, and I promise it will be safe; I'll refuse you every time. It'll be our little standing joke. For don't you go dreaming that I'm going to let go of you! You can call me pudgy if I let you get away. I love you too dearly. Wasn't everything all right and lovely until the other day when you came out with that stilted speech, 'doing you the honor'? We'll take up again just where we left off, and bimeby make fun of all this. You who've read all the books ever written, don't you know of cases where two like us went on being just friends, and taking comfort in each other on and on to the end of the tale?"
"There have been examples, yes, a very few, and not on the whole encouraging."
"You know we never thought of anything else until three days ago, and were perfectly contented. Let's call all this in between a mistake, like taking the wrong road and having to turn back to be where we were before. Let's go back."
"Yes, let's go back. I won't bore you any more."
He had all in an instant changed to cool dryness. They would get no further along with talk on this occasion, that was clear. And to clasp her knees, laying his head on her lap, and penetrate her in silence with the conviction that they belonged together in a manner that turned all the sensible things she said into folly, could not be done outside the world of dreams and fancies. He jumped to his feet.
"I meant, you know, let's go back to Florence. I'm afraid it's high time. We ought to have daylight at least until we get to the foot of the mountain."
"Not at all."
"Good friends as ever?"
"Oh, I've had such a beautiful day!" she sighed, getting up by the help of his two hands, and brushing down her dress. "I certainly do love to be with you!"
With the inconsequence of a woman she wanted, in order to console him for rejecting him, to make him sure she loved him deeply nevertheless; and so she said, turning upon him eyes of sweetest, sincerest affection, "I certainly do love to be with you!"
* * * * *
In the carriage they were silent, like people tired out by the long day, talked out, and certain of each other's consent to be still.
The two young fellows on the box were quiet, too. The horses now needed no encouragement to go; the scraping of the brake gave evidence rather of the need to hold them back. The driver's friend, named appropriately Pilade, sat hunched with chilly sleepiness; but Angelo, the driver, was kept visibly alert by the responsibility of making a safe descent in the fast-failing light. Owing to the dilatoriness of the signori they had been later in starting than was prudent.
When they emerged at last from the shadow of the chestnut-trees and the brake blessedly was released, it was accomplished evening. The dome of the firmament spread above them so wonderful for darkly luminous serenity that the signori behind in the carriage arranged themselves to contemplate it comfortably, with their feet on the forward bench, their heads propped on the back of the seat.
Thus they passed through glimmering hamlets, between high walls of orchards, past iron gates opening into cypress avenues with dim villas at the other end, terraces of vine-garlanded olive-trees, all of a dark silvery blue, and did not vouchsafe a look at anything but the inverted cup of the nocturnal sky.
Even this they did not see more than in a secondary way, for the interposing thoughts and images.
The eyes of both were wide, and in their fixity the lights of heaven were glassed. The face of the one burned with a red spot on the visibly-defined cheek-bone; the cheeks of the other were, for a marvel, pale.
Aurora, uplifted on a great wonder and pride and illogical happiness, was thinking of the days to come, the immediate to-morrows, rich in a tenderness profounder still than that which had linked her before to the companion staring at the stars beside her; she thought of how she should through a wise firmness and God's help steer their course into ways of a safer and longer happiness than that which he had tendered.
"It would seem rather unnecessary—" came from him through the transparent darkness in what was to the young driver's ears a monotonous bar of insignificant sound, "it would seem to me almost imbecile, to say to you that I love you, when for months I have been hovering around you, as must have been evident to the dullest, like the care-burthened honey-fly, possessed with the fixed desire to hide his murmurs in the rose. When for months I have been, in fact, like a dog with his nose on your footprints, asking nothing but to lie down at your feet with his muzzle on your shoe."
She impulsively felt for his hand, and pushed her own into it. "Don't say another word, Gerald. I daresn't do what you wish, I just daresn't. I'm plain scared to! And I'm such a fool that I'm nearer to it this minute than I like to be by a long sight. I'm fond enough of you for almost anything, and you know it, but I must keep my level head. It can't be done—a greyhound tied down to a mudturtle. I know what I'm like,—no disparagement meant, Mrs. Hawthorne,—and what you're like, and I won't let myself forget. I'm looking out first of all for myself, but I'm looking out for you, too, dear boy. Don't say any more about it to-night, Gerald, please, with the stars shining like that, and the air so sweet that all the fairy-tales you ever heard seem possible. I want to keep solid earth under my feet."
Gerald was not so devoid of the right masculine spark as not to recognize the moment for one of which advantage should be taken by any creature capable of growing a mustache. The thing to be done was to put his arms around her like a man, and lay his head on her shoulder like a child, and treat as not existing the barriers which she described as dividing them.
Often enough in his life Gerald had wished he might have been a masterful man, capable of the like things. But already a vague sickness of soul had succeeded his momentarily dominant mood. Distrust filled him—of his own character, his aims, his talent, his health, and his destiny. His dreams had but recently taken the form in which he had that day expressed them; he had not grown into them. Under the depressing effect of failure he was no more sure than she had professed to be that the proposed union would not be a rash mistake. He saw the wisdom of a return to his gray policy of wanting nothing, asking nothing. Heaviness possessed him; he made no motion.
Signs of the nearing city came thicker and thicker; the street lamps became frequent and consecutive. Aurora sat up and composed her appearance. The lighted house-fronts threw back the skies to inexpressible altitudes.
She continued aloud for Gerald to hear a conversation she had been holding mentally:
"Estelle says we must go away somewhere for the summer, because it's awfully hot down here in Florence, we're told. We're thinking of taking some sort of place at the seashore for the bathing season. You'll be coming down to visit us, won't you? Then by and by, when I've had pretty near enough of the kind of life I'm leading, tell you what I'm thinking I'll do. Give up the house I've got and take another, different, and fit it up for a children's hospital, a small one, of course, to be within my means, and run it myself, and do what I can of the nursing. I've been thinking of it for some time as a good thing to do instead of spending my money and nothing to show for it. It would be something to do for the sake of little Dan, to make it so it wouldn't be the same as if he never had passed through the world. Then I shall have my work just as you have yours, Gerald. And so we'll live on, each so interested in all the other does. And you'll come to see me, and I'll go to see you—chaperoned, if you insist, though I understand a studio can be visited without impropriety, and—"
"You can leave me out of your plans for the future. I am going away to forget you."
"Oh, no, you're not. You're coming to see me to-morrow. Five o'clock at the very latest, hear?"
"I'm afraid you will have to excuse me."
"You wouldn't break my heart like that for anything, Gerald Fane! You wouldn't let the foolish doings of this day destroy all the months have built up! You're not so mean. When I tell you it'll be all right and just as it was before—"
But he stubbornly would not agree, and they quarreled, as so often, half in play, half in real exasperation, each calling the other selfish.
But at her door, when he took her hands to thank her for the day she had given him, he dropped quite naturally, "Until to-morrow, then," and she entered her great white hall with a happy, shining face.
* * * * *
In the half-light of the solitary hall-lamp the white-and-gold door between the curving halves of the stairway stood open on to the blackness of the unlighted ball-room. At the threshold appeared Estelle, and stood with folded arms until the servant who answered the bell had been heard retreating down the back stairs. She came forward with a tired, troubled, pallid, and severe face.
"Well, I'm glad you've got back!" she said, as much as to say that she had given up looking for her. And as Aurora unexpectedly cast mischievous, muscular arms around her and tried to squeeze the breath out of her, she gasped amid spasms of resistance: "Stop! Don't try to pacify me! I'm in no mood for fooling! I'm as cross with you as I can be!"
"You little slate-pencil! You little lemon-drop, you!" said Aurora, squeezing harder, then suddenly letting go.
"I'm in no mood to be funny, you—you county-fair prize punkin! I've been worried half to death. Where've you been so long, 'way into the night, long past eleven o'clock?"
"Didn't you find my note on the pin-cushion? That informed you where I've been."
"I thought you must have met with an accident, to make you so terribly late, or else made up your mind to go off with that young man for good and all. Tell you the truth, I didn't quite know which I should prefer, which would be better for you in the end."
"Do you mean to tell me you've been sitting here all day stewing and fretting about that? Didn't you ever in your life go buggy-riding with a feller, and did it always ends with the grand plunge? You know it didn't. You know you could ride from Provincetown to Boston, with the moon shining, too, and not even exchange a chaste salute."
"Nell, there's one thing I know, and it's that my scolding and warning and beseeching will do exactly as much good as an old cow mooing with her neck stretched over a stone wall. You know what I think. I've had plenty of time for reflection, walking up and down the floor in there in the dark; and long before you finally got home I'd made up my mind not to be an idiot and make myself a nuisance trying to influence you. It's your funeral. What you choose to do is none of my business. What I said when you came in just escaped me.—Stand off and let me look at you."
While making the request, she herself drew off to get a more comprehensive view of her friend.
Something of the sunshine, the mountain sweetness, the unpolluted breezes and wide perspectives of the heights, the dreams of the starlit homeward ride, the triumph in man's love, was shining forth from Aurora, with her fresh sunburn, her untidied hair, and softly luminous eyes. Estelle felt herself suddenly on the point of tears. But she stiffened.
"Well, you do look as if you'd had a good time, you crazy thing!" she said dryly. "What made you put your best dress on if you were going to sit round on the ground? You've got it all grass stains. Oh, Nell," she melted, "while you've been off gallivanting, I've just about worried myself sick over a paper Leslie left. I've been longing for you to get back to see what you make of it."
"A paper? What do you mean?"
"A newspaper. Come on upstairs. I left it on the desk. Leslie called in the forenoon, but I had gone out. Then she came again in the afternoon, so I knew it must be something special. But I simply couldn't bring myself to see her and let her know you'd gone off for the whole day with Gerald Fane. So I got the maid to tell her we were both out. Everybody does that over here. Anyhow, I went and stood on the terrace while the maid was delivering my message. So Leslie went off, but she left this Italian paper for the maid to give us. And, my dear,—now don't faint,—there's a long piece in it about you."