"For goodness' sakes! About me? Why? Where?"
"There. It isn't marked, and I was the longest time trying to discover why Leslie had left the paper. After I'd gone all over it hunting for a marked passage, I thought it must be a mistake and that she'd simply left it because she was tired of carrying it round, and the maid hadn't understood. But going over it column by column, I at last saw the word Hawthorne and those other names. 'Una Americana'—'An American'—the article is entitled. It looks to me, Nell, as if your whole life's history might be printed there."
"For the land's sake! Now, who do you suppose can have done that? What on earth would anybody want to—"
"I've been puzzling over it and puzzling over it till I'm about played out trying to make sense of it, and my head aches like fury. Oh, never mind my head! Now you've got back I don't care."
"And your French doesn't help you to translate it?"
"Yes, it does help—some. I can pick out lots of words, and here and there a whole sentence; but what I can't get at is the spirit of the whole, whether it's meant to be friendly or not."
"Have you tried with a dictionary? Where's the dictionary? Get it, and we'll pick it out if it takes all night."
"Indeed, I wish I had a dictionary. Mine's French-English. I asked Clotilde if she had an Italian-English or an Italian-French, and she said yes, but at home. Isn't it provoking? I certainly wasn't going to show this to her, and get her to translate it for me before I'd consulted with you."
"Bother!" said Aurora, thoughtfully, with her eyes on the cryptic print. Estelle sat close, examining the sheet over her shoulder. "Elena means Helen, doesn't it? I guess it must, as it comes here before Barton. They've got my old name. And there's Bewick—Bewick, and here's Colorado. They've got the whole thing, fast enough. It's the doing of an enemy; there can be no doubt of that."
"I know who you're thinking about."
"Charlie Hunt, of course. Scamp! Worm! Cockroach! Low down, ungrateful, pop-eyed pig!" Nor did the reviling stop there. For the space of about forty seconds Aurora was unpublishable.
"But how on earth did he get at it?" wondered Estelle.
"After he'd opened that letter of mine, he wrote to the amiable writer thereof and asked for information."
"Honestly, Nell, I don't think he's had time."
"I guess he has—just time. The languishing Iona hurried for once. Well, I don't care!" Aurora folded the paper tight and flung it from her. "Enemies may do what they please; I've got friends. If everything comes out as it really happened, I haven't anything to fear, except that it's mighty unpleasant. It's only lies, and people believing them, that could do me harm. I've got friends in Florence. Oh, not many true ones, I don't suppose. It's paying my way that has made me popular, I'm not such a gump as not to know that. But some true friends I've got, and their backing will be my stay. One friend I've got—" Pride and a sudden battle-light flashed in Aurora's eye. "One friend I've got, who if I gave the word would kill Charlie Hunt for this, or put him in a fair way to dying. I do believe, Hat, that Gerald Fane would call Charlie Hunt out to fight a duel to punish him for a slur on me. Oh, he can fence just as well as the Italians he was brought up with. I've seen the fencing-swords in his studio. But"—she calmed down—"I wouldn't permit that sort of thing. It's ridiculous. I don't believe in it."
Cooling to normal, she laughed, with a return to the light of reality. "He doesn't believe in it, either, I shouldn't suppose."
Leslie, arriving early next day, read off the newspaper article, making a free translation of it, as follows:
* * * * *
When a thing is too successful, it is seldom natural; and so when there appeared in our city a signora, blond of hair, azure of eye, with the complexion of delicate, luminous roses, red and white, whose name was at once Aurora and Albaspina,—Hawthorne,—floral counterpart of dawn, we should have had suspicions. That we had none does not prevent our feeling no very great surprise when we learn that the bearer of the poetic and more than appropriate name is called in sober truth Elena Barton. The more beautiful name was adopted by a child acting out its fairy-stories; it was remembered and re-adopted by a woman when she wished to detach her life from a past which neither charity, fidelity, nor devotion to a sacred duty had succeeded in keeping from sorrow and the deadly aspersions of malignity.
The gentilissima person of the irradiating smile, which, however briefly seen, must be long remembered, whom we have grown accustomed this winter to meeting in the salons where assembles all that is most distinguished among foreigners, whose name we have grown accustomed to finding foremost in every work of charity, has a title to our esteem far beyond the ordinary member of an indolent and favored class. To alleviate suffering has been the chosen work of those hands that Florence also has found ever open and ready with their help. It was in effect the extent of their beneficence which brought about the black imbroglio from which Elena Barton chose to flee and take refuge in the City of Flowers under the soave and harmonious name by which we know her.
Her life had been for several years devoted to the care of an old man afflicted with a most malignant and terrible cancer in the face. She had filled toward him so perfectly the part of a daughter that his gratitude made her upon his death an equal sharer in his fortune with the children of his blood. Thence the law-case Bewick versus Barton, which for a period filled the city of Denver in Colorado of the United States as if with poisonous fumes. The literal daughters, two in number, who had shown no filial love for the unfortunate old man, in trying to annul their father's will, left nothing undone or unspoken that could help their turpe, or evil, purpose, even attempting to prove that not only had the devoted nurse been their father's amante—[You can guess what that is, Aurora. They are much simpler here than we at home about calling things by their names, and much more outspoken on all subjects], but had likewise been the amante of the son, sole member of the family who supported her claim to the share of the fortune appointed by the father. Justice in the event prevailed, but a tired and broken woman emerged from the conflict. What to do to regain a little of that pleasure in living which blackening calumnies and rodent ill-will, even when not victorious, can destroy in the upright and feeling nature? The imagination which had prompted in childhood the acting out of fairy-stories here came into play: Leave behind the scene of sorrows, take ship, and point the prow toward the land of orange and myrtle, of golden marbles and wine-colored sunsets; change name, begin again, do good under a beautiful appellation which the poor should learn to love and speak in their prayers to the last of their days....
* * * * *
"The rest, Aurora dear, is pure flattery, which it becomes me not to speak nor you to hear. I won't read it."
"Well, I never!" breathed Aurora. "Who did it?"
"We did it! My father and your Doctor Bewick and Carlo Guerra and I. We did it to be before anybody else, set the worst that could be brought up against you in a light that explains and justifies. We did our best to fix the public mind and show it what it should think. You know what the mind of the public is. We've hypnotized the beast, I hope; it has taken its bent from us."
"This was the way of it, my dear. The day after Brenda's wedding I was at the Fontanas,—she was a Miss Andrews, you know, of Indianapolis,—and there was Charlie, too, and there was likewise Madame Sartorio, who is Colonel Fontana's niece by his first marriage. We were talking in a little group when something, I forget what, was said about you, Aurora. Charlie—for what reason would be hard to think, unless one had a sharp scent for what goes on under one's nose—Charlie interrupted, to introduce as a sort of parenthesis, 'Mrs. Hawthorne, whose real name, by the way, is Helen Barton.' The others were naturally taken aback, except Madame Sartorio, who could not quite disguise a cat-smile. For a moment none of us knew what to say, and Charlie went on, with his air of knowing such a lot more than anybody else—
"'Yes. It seems that all winter we have been warming in our bosom, so to speak, the heroine of a cause celebre at a place called Colorado in America.'"
"That was enough for me. I stopped him.
"'Don't say any more, Charlie. All I wish to know about Mrs. Hawthorne is what she cares to tell me herself,' and I insisted that the conversation should return to other things.
"When I got home I told mother, and she repeated to me what you, Aurora, confided to her when we first knew you. We told father, and when Doctor Bewick came that evening to say good-by we consulted, and here in this newspaper you have the result, put into Italian journalese by Carlo Guerra, whom we called in to aid us. He likes you so much, Aurora; did you know it? He met you at Antonia's. So there you have the whole story. I'm bitterly ashamed of Charlie, my dear, and I'm sorry about him, too. One never looked upon him as a particularly fine fellow, still, one liked him. He had never done anything that disqualified him for a sort of liking, and we've all grown up together." Leslie wrinkled her forehead in puzzlement. "It's curious, somehow, to think of him, who, we have said so often, has no real inside, as being sufficiently under the dominion of a passion to care to please his lady by offering up you, who have, after all, been to him a source of a good many pleasures, with your open house, invitations to dinner, and so on. I don't quite understand it."
"Never mind about him!" Aurora flicked him aside. "I don't care. And you say Tom helped. And he never told me, or wrote me a word about it. I had a letter from him this morning. Well, well. You certainly did make a good-sounding story of it, among you. And the main facts are true, far as they go; I can't say they aren't. But, oh, my dear Leslie, there was a lot more to it than that. I've got to tell you, so's not to feel like a fraud. You're so sharp; you know me pretty well by this time, and I guess you don't suppose in me any of those awfully 'fine feelin's' that could make a blighted flower of me because, while innocent as a babe unborn, I'd been dragged through the courts by wicked enemies. My enemies were pretty wicked; I stick to that. Cora Bewick, off living abroad studying some strange religion, while her kind old pa was dying at home, and she never once coming near him till he was under ground; Idell Friebus, never coming into his room except with her nose wrinkled up with disgust at the smell of disinfectants—or disgust at him, it was none too plain which. They made a fine pair of daughters. But when it came to fighting over the will, the lawyers on the Bewick side gave out just what it was that a perfectly noble woman would have done in my place of the old man's nurse. And my lawyers would have it that everything that didn't accord with that ideal simply must be kept dark, or public feeling would go against us. It's that that made it so nasty—pretending, and avoiding this, and keeping off the other. It amounted to lying, no matter what they said. But they told me if I didn't do as my counsel instructed me, the result would be the worst lie of all. I should be believed guilty of just that undue influence I was accused of, and lose the money into the bargain. So I had to hedge and shuffle and mislead.... And me under oath to tell the truth! You needn't wonder if I'm sick still at the thought of it, or wonder that I'd like to forget it. The truth was I did know beforehand the Judge meant to leave me one fourth of his money, and I was tickled to death. I gloried in it. I loved to imagine the rage it would throw his wicked daughters in, and his mean little miserable son-in-law. I was glad, besides, out and out, to think I should have the money. I plain wanted it, I did. Maybe a real noble woman wouldn't have. Maybe it showed a degraded nature. Well, that's the way it was. Sometimes I feel disposed to be ashamed of it, but mostly I don't. For one thing, I felt then and I feel now, I deserved that money by a long sight more than those bad-hearted girls of his. I was a comfort to Judge Bewick. I won't say I earned the money, it was too much: but there were some hours of my tending him, poor soul, when it did seem to me a nurse came pretty near earning anything the patient could afford to pay. All the same, I would have done what I did for the old boy if he hadn't had a cent, I had so much respect for him, as much as for my own father, and I felt I owed so much to his son. Then about his son, the doctor. If Cora's old nurse-girl, who was kept on in the house as a servant, though she was past her usefulness, lied in court when she said she saw Tom and me kissing at such an hour, in such a place, still, the truth was that I had at different times kissed Tom. You can't tell why it seems all right to you to kiss one man when it would seem a very queer thing to do to kiss another. When Tom had been away for any length of time, I always kissed him when he came back; it seemed natural to both of us. But there in court I had to try to appear as if I never could have descended to committing such an immoral act, as well as to give the impression that if I'd known the old man had any notion of making me co-heir with his own children I would have strained every nerve to stop it, called them all in to help me curb him if necessary. Pshaw! the humbug of it turns my stomach now. Leslie, my verdict is, you can't come through a law-suit clean. I'd give a good deal to cut that page out of my life."
Aurora's eyes, filled with the shadows of the past, and her face, with the dimples expunged, were to Leslie almost unfamiliar. Aurora, oppressed in her moral nature, gave a glimpse of herself that would change and enlarge the composite of her aspects carried in Leslie's mind.
"There, stop thinking of it!" said Estelle. "You always work yourself up so."
"The point of my coming bright and early like this," Leslie nimbly managed a diversion, "was, as you have guessed, to catch you before you could possibly go out. My mother desires you, dear ladies, to accompany me back to lunch—a triumphal lunch, Aurora, to grace which she has collected those special pillars of society whose countenance and support ought to make you scornful of any little weed-like growth of gossip that might sprout up from seed of Charlie's sowing. You know them all more or less, having been associated with every one of them in some form of beneficence. I might more accurately describe it: having donated largely to each of their pet charities. It is not a very admirable world—" Leslie's young face took that little air of knowing the world which sometimes amused old gentlemen so much, "it is a selfish society, not indisposed, or, I am afraid, altogether displeased, to believe evil of its neighbor, and not always disinclined to turn and rend its favorites. But it would be a pity, really, if you should have poured forth upon it as you have done, Aurora, money and smiles, bouquets and banquets and sunbeams, good-will and baby-socks and knitted afghans, and it did not rise up when you are attacked and say, 'No. An exception has to be made in this case. We have all been bought!'"
Aurora, who had been listening with expanded, gathering-in eyes, cheeks flushing deeper and deeper, turned her head sharply away to try to keep from falling or being seen two unaccountable tears half blinding her.
The sight of her, by infection, moistened the eyes of the other women.
Estelle sought a quick way out of the emotional silence.
"Nell," she said, albeit with cracked voice, "if we're going out to lunch, I guess we ought to be dressing. Go along, child, put on your best bib and tucker."
"Oh, my best bib and tucker!" wailed Aurora. "Sent to the cleaner's this morning, all green stains at the back!"
* * * * *
If Leslie had not called it a triumphal lunch, it might not have appeared so very different from any other women's lunch at the season of roses. Leslie herself, though, found in it the flavor of old-fashioned romance, just faintly platitudinous, in which poetic justice is done. Mrs. Foss, the more simple-minded organizer of it, felt that she should remember it as an occasion when she had risen to the level, placed the right cards in the fist of destiny, and created an event worthy to take rank at least with those little triumphs of good housewives at whose home the president of their husband's company arrived one night unlocked for and was entertained with brilliant credit.
To the heroine of the feast, no need to say it was an inexpressibly exciting, grand, and memorable occasion. Aurora hardly knew herself, so much the object of attention and graciousness. She was in the mood to give half of her goods to the poor. After the hostess had risen and made a little speech, Aurora, unexpectedly to herself, and as if under inspiration, responded by a little speech of her own, composed on the spot. It was drowned at the end by hand-clapping all around the table. Aurora seemed to herself to be living in a fairy-story.
* * * * *
As it was after five o'clock when she reached home, she was sure she would find Gerald waiting for her. She had the whole day long been looking forward with a sweet agitation to the moment of being with him and telling him all about it.
She was more disappointed than she remembered ever being, even as a child, not to find him or any word from him. She did not allow it to become later by more than half an hour before she scratched a line and sent the coachman to his house with it.
The man came back with nothing but the barren information, received from Giovanna, that the signorino was absent, having gone to Leghorn.
"Well, here's a pretty howdydo!" thought Aurora, sore with surprise and the smart of injury. "If every time I refuse him he's going off like this to stay away for days and days, what am I going to do?"
"If this is the way it was going to be, and I'd known it before, I'd have kept better watch over my affections," said Aurora to herself, reflecting upon Gerald in Leghorn, where he was bending his will industriously, no doubt, to the work of forgetting her.
Beside the large sharp thorn of this thought, she was troubled by what was a small, merely uncomfortable thorn: the knowledge of Gerald exposed so closely to the influence of Vincent, that persuasive young man of God, who bowed to images and believed in the Pope. At the end of every wearisome day she gave thanks that for still another twenty-four hours she had by grace of strength from on high been able to fight off the temptation to write to Gerald.
This for nine days—the nine days it takes for a wonder to become a commonplace or a scandal to lose its prominent place in conversation. Then, in the way once sweetly habitual, there came a rapping at the door, the entrance of a servant, and the announcement, "C'e il signorino."
Aurora for a second either did not really grasp the import of the words or did not trust her senses. She asked:
"What signorino? Signorino What?"
"The signorino who has come back," said the servant, unable on the instant to recall the foreign name. And if he had felt interest in the complexion of one so far removed from him as his mistress, he might have seen her turn the hue of a classic sunrise.
On her way down the stairs Aurora rejected the idea of a tumultuous reproachful greeting, such as, "Where have you been so long, you mean thing?" Or of a cool and cutting one, such as, "You're quite a stranger." She decided to behave like a nice person, and show respect for her friend's freedom, after having so explicitly left it to him.
The Italians performing the service of the house arranged it according to their own ideas of fitness, and on this warm afternoon the drawing-room was in soft-colored twilight, the Persian blinds being clasped, and their lower panels pushed out a very little so as to let in a modicum of the whiteness of day.
Gerald stood, very collected, if a trifle pale, holding, like a proper votary, a bouquet—starry handful of sweet white hedge-roses,—which he offered as soon as Aurora entered, saying he had picked them for her that morning in the country near Castel di Poggio.
The meeting, in Aurora's jubilant sense of it, went off beautifully. She said in a pleasant, easy tone and her company English,
"So you've got back. It's awfully nice to see you again. How well you are looking. I was sure a change would do you good."
And Gerald said yes, he had found the sea air tonic. He had been staying with the Johns, Vincent's mother lived in Leghorn. He had worked a little, made a few drawings. Digressing, he mentioned a trifling gift he had brought her, and produced a small brass vessel, fitted with two hinged lids, meant to contain grains of incense for the altar. He said he had found it in an antiquarian's shop and thought she might care for it to drop her rings into; he supposed she took them off at night. Its shape seemed to him to possess more than common elegance.
Aurora called it adorable, and his giving it to her sweet. They talked as if they had been making believe, for the benefit of an audience, to be the most ordinary friends.
And each of them meanwhile, with heart and head gone slightly insane in secret, was considering a marvel. The long separation—it had been long to them—had recreated for both something of the capacity to receive a fresh impression of the other. The marvel to Aurora was that this choice being, with his intellectual brow (that was her adjective for Gerald's brow) his difference from others, all in the way of superiority to them, the indescribable fascination residing in his every feature, mood, or word, should be walking the world unclaimed and unattached, for her to take if she were so minded. Her to take! It was vertiginous.
And the marvel to him was, in beholding that bounteous temple of a soul, with its radiance of life, its share, so rich, of the mysterious something which made the earliest men care to build homes; its gifts, so large, of comfort and warmth—the marvel was that he should have dared aspire to conquer it, should have set that to himself as a thing he was going to persevere in trying to do until—until he had done it, he, puny, poor in inducements, light of weight.
The two of them, there could be no doubt of it, had passed within the portals after which a change comes over the eyes, and those who enter see each other endowed with qualities raising the capacity for wonder to an ecstasy: so much engaging beauty, so much dearness, are not to be believed!... It can never be established whether the eyes only see truly when under this charm, or whether then more than at other times illusion makes of them its fool.
If he had been analytical on the subject of his sentiment for Aurora, as so often on other subjects, and said to himself that he saw this woman in a golden transfiguring light because he was in good primordial fashion in love with her—because, that is to say, obscure affinities of flesh and blood united with the esteem created by her virtues to make of him a candle which the touch of her finger-tip miraculously could light—he would have felt it as a blessed and not a base secret at the bottom of his attachment.
While they talked of the weather, as they fell to doing when they had disposed of the subject of the little incense-holder; and, after that, while they talked of Leghorn and the various seaside places which Aurora had to choose from for her summer sojourn, a vastly deep conversation was taking place between them, which we think it not amiss to report, because by the nature of things the words they would say aloud on this occasion would be meager and colorless by comparison with the things they would feel and to some extent convey to each other through mere proximity.
"O Aurora," exhaled from Gerald, while, looking not far from his usual self, he said that Ardenza by the sea, a mere three miles from Leghorn, was a very pretty place, "Aurora, you are warmth, you are shelter, you are rest. I have no hearth or home except as you let me in out of the desperate cold of loneliness, and grant me to warm myself at your big heart. You should see, woman dear, that my thankfulness would make you happy. Nature, the divine, so formed you that my love would kindle yours. And when you had given your hand into mine I should find paths of violets, enchanted paths, for us to walk in which you could never find without me, nor I find for myself. Put up no petty shield against me, Aurora; fight me with no petty lance, for I verily am that guest you were awaiting when on balmy spring evenings you felt, and knew not why, that your life was incomplete."
And Aurora, mechanically pulling off her rings and putting them into the brass receptacle, then taking them out of it and putting them back on her fingers, while she chattered, describing the advantages of a furnished villa at Antiniano, to be preferred because they were some Italian friends of Leslie's who desired to let it, was in her inmost speaking to the inmost of Gerald. The hardly self-conscious meanings within her bosom made as if an extension of her in the air, comparable to the halo around the moon on a misty night; and this atomized radiance had language, it said: "Oh, to draw your head down where it desires to be! To warm and comfort you! To be to you everything you need! I lean to you, I cling to you like a vine with every winding tendril. But I am so afraid of you! so afraid! I am of common, you of finest, clay. How can I give into any hand so much power to hurt me? If I were to dare it, then find I could not make you happy, your disappointment would be my heart-break, and my tragedy might spoil your life. But this know, Gerald, dearer to me for having been so unhappy, nothing my life could contain without you would seem to me so good as life with you in a poor workman's attic, under falling snow, and I to make it home for you!"
While two souls thus trembled and gravitated toward each other, bathing in each other's light, it is almost mortifying to have to show to what degree that which took place at the surface was different and inferior; to what degree the fine abandon of words spoken and actions performed in thought was replaced by a shivering prudence keeping guard on one side, and on the other a deplorable timidity trying awkwardly to be bold.
Heard through the door, the scene that ensued between these two curious lovers, when they had worked their way through preliminaries and come to the point at which they had parted after the day at Vallombrosa, must particularly have seemed lacking in purple and poetry; for then the soft light in Aurora's eyes would not have been seen, nor the deep flash in Gerald's, as he by a point scored felt himself nearer to the goal.
"Now, what made you run off like that, I want to know," Aurora asked in the flowing American which she reserved for real friends and sincere moments, "after you'd said when you left me at the door, 'Good-by till to-morrow'?"
"My reasons were several, all simple," he replied, with a faun-look up from the corner of his eye, which watched her expression. "First, I wished to flee from that newspaper article—dreadful!—till the danger of any reference to it in my hearing was greatly reduced. Then, aside from a slight natural need to recover myself, I felt I must for manners' sake allow a little time to pass before I approached you again on the subject of marrying me. One scruples to make himself a bore. It therefore would be better not to see you, and, in order not to see you, better not to be in town. Lastly, Auroretta, I conceived the infernal ambition to make you suffer from absence the minutest fraction of what I should suffer myself."
"Don't say a word! I've missed you so my bones felt hollowed out!"
"Reflect then, my dearest, upon the sufferings you are preparing for yourself if you haven't a kinder answer for me than the other day to the same question. All the reasons you gave for saying no were such bad ones, founded upon a bad opinion of me. I can't take your refusal for final, don't you see, without first being sure I have convinced you at least that you are wrong in thinking me a fish or a mudturtle, and wrong in attributing a lack of intelligence to me which could betray me into confusing great things with little, little with great."
"Oh, Gerald, you oughtn't to keep on trying! I do wish you wouldn't! No! Don't say any more about it!" she pleaded in weak anguish. "You oughtn't to go on battering against the little bit of common sense I've got left."
"Common sense! I advise you to speak of it!" he affected to jeer, remarkably braced by her misery. "Common sense, as represented by a decent concern for your good name, ought to prompt you enter as quickly as you can into an engagement with me. I met our dear Doctor Batoni in the street yesterday on my way home from the station, and he amiably asked how was my fidanzata, or betrothed? It was a difficult moment for me, because he told me that you had told him you were that."
"I told him nothing of the sort! I said I was your friend, in French."
"A friend, in French, may mean a good deal. Save your reputation, dear; I give you the chance."
"What nonsense! I explained to him as well as I could, in French, that I was there taking care of you because I was your friend."
"You are hopelessly compromised. Look to me to set you right."
"Gerald, I shall do nothing of the kind."
"Ah, I see that your prejudices hold firm. I was afraid of it when I came." His mask of flippancy slipped for a moment; deep feeling made his voice uncertain. "I am not that hardy and masterful man, Aurora, who could break them down and clutch you above their ruin. But you will find me very faithful to a hope—which, in fact, to relinquish now would be beyond what I can expect of my courage." He resumed bluffness. "I told Vincent he might look for my return to-morrow."
"No, sir!" she came out with lively directness. "You're not going back to Leghorn if I can help it! I—I have a plan."
"You have a plan? From your face I am afraid not a good one. You look so dubious."
"Perhaps it isn't a good one, but it's the only way I can see. Listen." She looked down at her hands, and kept him waiting. "One evening last winter at a party a young Italian naval officer got talking to me in a green bower under a pink paper lantern away from the rest. Something in the atmosphere, I guess, made him want to talk to somebody of his love-affairs, and he chose me, though we scarcely knew each other. He told me he had been very much in love with an American girl, but they hadn't the money to marry on or the hope of ever having it—like Brenda and Manlio at first. Yet they couldn't keep apart, and so they just became engaged, knowing it couldn't end as an engagement is supposed to do. In that way they could see each other all they wanted, and be seen together without anybody making a remark. And then when she was obliged to go home and it had to end, it looked merely like a broken engagement."
"And you propose—"
"We might try it, Gerald. Then if it didn't work well, if I found I was all the time outraging your sensibilities, and you hurting my feelings, we'd call it off. In any case we'd give ourselves plenty of time to realize our foolishness. And you'd promise that when the time came you'd go like a lamb, with a pleasant face, not saving up anything against me. Make up your mind, now, that it'll have to be a long, long engagement—if we don't repent and break it off inside a week. But as it seems so likely we will, let's don't tell the others right off, Gerald; not, anyhow, for a week or ten days."
"Admired Aurora, it surely is the most immoral proposition that ever came from fair lady so well brought up as you!" cried Gerald, in a proper state of excitement. But yet, such were his limitations, nothing in any proportion with the throbbing fire inside him, the immensity of his incredulous joy, appeared on his outside, where merely the mollified lines of his face gave him a look of greater youth, and his cool-colored eyes let through a faint testimony of the inward light. "I accept without hesitation. I promise whatever you ask. From this moment onward we are fidanzati, then. And, my blessed Auroretta, you who are such a hand at calling names, have your servant's permission to call him all the names you can think of that signify an ineffable blunderer on the day when you succeed in freeing yourself from him!"
Many more things were said, not worth recording. But at last devout silence reigned. In the twilight room, with all the bad pictures and trivial ornamentation, to shut out the offense of which he had once closed his eyes, Gerald now closed them again to concentrate more perfectly upon the rapture of feeling Aurora's shoulder beneath his cheek.
The servant who opened the door for Leslie on this softly brilliant June morning, being well accustomed to admitting her, obligingly anticipated her question, "Are the ladies at home?"
"The signorina is in the salottino," he said. From which Leslie understood that the person whom she chiefly had come to see was out. It did not really matter, for she had time to wait. Aurora was likely to come back for lunch.
She released the man from attendance by a little wave of her hand, "Never mind announcing me!" and directed her footsteps toward the tall white-and-gold door standing partly open.
On her way to it she picked up off the floor a small lawn handkerchief.
The ball-room impressed her anew as being very vast, very empty, furnished almost solely as it was by the sparkling chandeliers, every pendant of which to-day was gay with reflections of the green and flowery and sun-washed outdoors.
She turned toward the salottino, remotely wondering by what chance Estelle was preferring it to the favorite red and green sitting-room upstairs. The salottino had utility when a party was going on, but to sit and embroider or study French surrounded by all those fountains of love....
A sharp bark preceded the tumbling out through the salottino door of a little white mop on feet. Upon recognizing Leslie, this performed evolutions expressive of great joy.
She had stopped to pat the excited little swirl of silk when Estelle came forward to see who was there.
With delighted good mornings the women exchanged the foreign salute, which Leslie had adopted and Estelle submitted to, a mere touching of cheeks while the lips kiss the air.
They sat down on the rococo settee to talk, Leslie, quick of eye, wondering what had happened to give Estelle that unusual air, an air of—no, it was indefinable. Excitement had a share in it, and possibly chagrin, and, it almost seemed, exaltation. The chief thing about it, however, was that she was trying to conceal it; doing her best, but it was a poor best, to appear natural. Leslie graciously allowed her to suppose she was succeeding, and entered at once upon the reason for her early call.
"I really think, Estelle, that the villa at Antiniano would suit Aurora. As for you, I am positive, my dear, that you would adore it. It is a little out of the thick of things, but has a very fine view of the sea, also a very pretty garden. Certain conveniences, of course, it hasn't, but, then, you mustn't expect those of an Italian villa. I saw Madame Rossi yesterday, and she said she wished you would make an excursion to Antiniano to see for yourselves. She is sure you would be charmed. One request she would make: that the peasant family be allowed to continue in their little corner of the house, where they wouldn't be the least in your way, and then that the little donkey should be allowed to remain in the stable. But in return you could use him, she said."
"Yes, or harness him. For the country, why not, my dear? They are ever so strong little beasts."
Estelle began to laugh, presumably at the picture of Aurora on donkey-back, or, with herself, exhilarating the country-side by the vision of them drawn in a donkey-cart. Leslie joined in her merriment, but expostulatingly, and, warned by a note in Estelle's laugh, watched her with suspicion while it developed into a nervous cackle. She saw her cover her eyes with one hand, and with the other vainly feel in her pocket. She was crying. Leslie tendered the little handkerchief found on the floor, and knew then that it had dried tears before on that same day. She waited, tactfully silent, merely placing a condoling hand over her friend's.
"I might as well tell you," Estelle got out, when her crying fit permitted her to speak, "that Aurora isn't going to take any villa at Antiniano this summer.... She's gone away."
"Gone away? What do you mean?" asked Leslie, surprised into a very complete blankness of expression.
"What I say." And in her incalculable frame of mind Estelle again was laughing. "Oh, I don't know which to do, whether to laugh or cry!" she explained, with eyes bright at once from laughter and from tears. "One moment I laugh, next moment I cry. I feel as if I were walking in my sleep. I guess what I need is a nerve-pill."
"You say that Aurora has gone away. Where?"
"Where Gerald pleases, I guess. She's gone with him."
"With Gerald? Now, my dear friend, please explain. You laugh, you cry. You say Aurora has gone away with Gerald. Please collect yourself and tell me what it means. 'Gone away with Gerald.' How do you mean gone away with him?"
"I mean they have eloped, or as good as."
"No, no; people don't elope when there is neither an inconvenient husband, nor unamenable parents, nor any possible reason why they should not have each other if they wish to."
"I wonder what you would call it, then. As late as twelve o'clock last night I didn't know a thing about it, and this morning early they left together in a carriage, with her trunk strapped on the back."
Leslie lifted her hands to her temples and pressed them as if to keep her head from a dangerous expansion with the size of the new idea that must find a home there.
"So it was in earnest!" she said aloud, yet as if speaking to herself. "Mother has won her bet, and I have lost. Well,"—she tossed her head and faced Estelle,—"I am glad of it. We knew, of course, that there was something, and we felt that nothing nicer could happen than that they should make a match of it. Mother prophesied they would. But I did not believe it. I was afraid of Gerald—that disposition in him to consider too finely, to halt on the brink, that negative, renunciatory way he has settled into. I thought the thing would end in mere philandering. I am glad"—she threw the weight of conviction on the word,—"glad it hasn't! I don't see, my dear Estelle, what you can find to cry about."
"Is that the way it strikes you?"
"My dear, I couldn't say which I thought the luckier, Gerald to get Aurora, or Aurora to get Gerald."
"You surprise me. To me it seems just about the riskiest combination that could be imagined. I have felt it all along. Those two have no more in common, I have said, than a bird and a fish."
"Nonsense, my dear girl! Nonsense!"
"I have heard him get so impatient with her because simply she didn't pronounce a word right. I've seen him so annoyed he nearly trembled trying to choke it down."
"But did she mind? I mean, his impatience?"
"I can't say she did; but—"
"There you have it. They are marvelously suited. Listen and let me talk to you for your comfort. This, do you hear, is exactly the most delightful thing that could have happened. Haven't you noticed that complex natures are rather given to uniting with simple ones, and finding happiness with them? An artist—how often!—marries his model, a philosopher marries a peasant."
"Go on!" sighed Estelle. "Go on! I love you for making me feel better!" Her eyes moistened again in an almost luxurious melancholy.
"One of the reasons for mother and me wishing for this consummation was the broadening of life it would afford Gerald. Gerald doesn't think about money. Aurora's money, all the same, will do a lot for him in making possible his getting away from here, where the truth is he stagnates. Then, too, she will cure him of his morbidness. He sees red if one so much as breathes the suggestion that his art is morbid. But of course it is."
"Aurora said they might go to live in Paris, because she thought it would be good for his art."
"Now that's what I want to hear about. Go on and tell me what Aurora said and what happened between midnight and their extraordinary elopement, as you call it. But, first of all, why, in the name of common sense, did they elope? From what did they elope?"
"From me, I guess. I don't see what else. Oh, yes, I do. From the talk there would be. But principally, I suspect, he hurried her into it to make sure of her, for she, too, had her moments of doubting the wisdom of what she was doing. That much I know. They had only been engaged two weeks, and all that time I didn't even know they were engaged. I hadn't been nice about Gerald, I feel bound to confess, so she thought best not to tell me. She didn't want to hear how I would take it, we've been so used to speaking our minds to each other. He came oftener than ever and stayed longer, till it got so I made a point of getting up and making an excuse to leave the room. It was my way of being spiteful. But Nell didn't take it up with me in private, as I expected she would. They were tickled to death to have me leave the room, I can see now. She went around the house singing an Easter carol and fixing flowers in the vases, with a look of cheerfulness apart from me that made her seem like a stranger. I was pretty sore, I can tell you, but I wouldn't speak of it. I don't know how I thought it would end. Funny, I can't remember how everything looked so short a time ago as yesterday, but I know I was eaten up with mean thoughts. I went to bed last night thinking to myself, 'Well, Nell Goodwin, if you think I'm going to stand much more of this, you're mistaken. There'll be some plain talk before long.' And I fell asleep. First thing I knew I was awake, looking to see who'd come into my room. And there was Nell in her night-dress, holding her hand round the candle so it wouldn't shine in my eyes. I simply can't tell you what it was like,—the candle lighting nothing but her made her seem like a vision in the middle of a glory. Nobody can know how fond I am of Nell, what friends we've been since little bits of girls. All I could think of was that she'd come to make up with me, she couldn't wait another minute. It would have been just like her. And while I waited for her to speak first, I thought with my heart just melting what a lovely big thing she is, with that sort of fair look to her neck, and those warm cheeks, and something so kind about her from head to foot. She put down the candle and, instead of going into explanations, bent over and gave me a good hug. And I said, hugging back: 'You better had, you horrid thing! You better had!' Then she sat down on the bed. 'Hat,' she said, 'I was going to do a mean thing, but I'm not going to do it. I was going to slip away without a word, but I'm going to tell you the whole story. I'm going to marry Gerald,' she said.
"Then she went on to tell me, and what do you think, I didn't say one word in objection, not one! Because I could see she was dead in love, and what was the use except to spoil her happiness, and I didn't want to. She told me how they'd decided it would be just as well not to wait, but take a short cut. If they stayed in Florence, she said, she'd feel they must have a big wedding and ask all their friends, and then she should have to have a trousseau; it would all take lots of time, and Gerald would so hate the fuss and the chatter. So they'd made up their minds to go off to Leghorn without a word to anybody,—whose business is it anyhow but their own?—and be married just as soon as it could be done, where they wouldn't get so much as the echo of any remarks on their haste or the way they preferred to do. She'll be staying with Mrs. Johns till the ceremony. She said she should write your mother from there. Then she showed me Gerald's ring that she'd been wearing on a chain round her neck where I wouldn't see it, and she talked about Gerald's wonderfulness. She's perfectly wrapped up in him. All I hope is he appreciates it."
"His inducing her to elope with him would seem to indicate some warmth of feeling on his part. The suggestion can hardly have come from her."
"You're right. I guess it's as bad with him as with her. She talked about the wonderfulness of his love, such as she never could have believed, and never could deserve. She said she could be happy with Gerald in a garret that let the snow leak in. Oh, they're both crazy. What do you think she gave as one reason for this haste? 'Life is short,' she said, 'and love is long!' Gerald must have said it to her before she said it to me, but what do you think of it? 'Life is short and love is long!'"
"Do you mean"—asked Leslie, with the least touch of severity,—"that I ought to share in a cynical view of that saying? I can't, my dear Estelle. There are my father and mother, you know. In their quiet way they bear out the idea that love may be as long as life."
"Yes, of course," said Estelle hurriedly, with a faint air of shame. "My father and mother, too, make a united couple."
"My belief is that when two people marry who are in love as they ought to be, and who in addition are good—By good I think I mean people—" Leslie, with her look of wisdom beyond her years, paused to take a survey of life, "—people who have a sense of the other person's rights, and, as a matter of heart, not principle, feel the other's claims just a little more strongly than their own—in the case of such people, when the passion they marry on dies out with their growing older, as we generally see it do, something takes its place that deserves the name of love every bit as much."
"Aurora is good," said Estelle, from her soul. "You would never know how good unless you had stood in need of kindness."
"Gerald is good, too," said Leslie, with an effect of more impartiality but no less positiveness. "He would disdain to be anything else."
"What is wrong with me is that I'm selfish, I guess," said Estelle, looking contrite, "and don't like having to give her up to him, after all the beautiful things we'd planned together. What I ought to feel is nothing but thankfulness for her having such a chance of happiness, and then thankfulness for all she did, trying to make up for her desertion."
Without transition, Estelle went back to the story of the past night. "You can imagine there wasn't any more sleep for that spell. I got up, and we went to her room, where she had all the lights lighted and was in the middle of packing her trunk. She only took one, and about a quarter of her things. Gerald's going to design wonderful costumes for her, the style he prefers. I could see she's ready to do just anything to please him. I'd already noticed how she'd altered her way of doing her hair, but wasn't smart enough to recognize the signs!... While she was at work packing she planned for my summer,—that I'm to invite Mademoiselle Durand to go traveling with me, so I can improve my French at the same time as give that poor hard-working creature a real vacation and treat. Then when they go to Venice, she wants me to join them, and the three of us have a regular jamboree. Then next winter, after I've got home, she wants me to go to Colorado to visit the Grand Canyon and see the great sights of my native country before settling down again in East Boston. She made me a present of Ami."
"I've changed his name from Busteretto. Don't you like it better? Little Tweetums! He's the only darling I've got left!" She pressed a kiss on the warm top of his head. "She made me a present of all the clothes and things she wasn't taking with her. She made me a present of everything in this house that we didn't find in it when we took it—turned it all over to me to do what I please with. And I'm sure I don't know what I shall do with it all unless I set up a store. Anything you see and think you'd like to have, please say so."
"She gave you all these things? Do you mean it?" asked Leslie, surprised despite what she had already known of Aurora.
"Yes, and along with the things, of course, the responsibility of settling up everything, dismissing the servants, sending Livvy back to New York. Such a job! Luckily, there's no hurry; the lease doesn't expire until October. When you came I'd been sort of looking round. I was just wondering what to do about this Fountain of Love. Nell paid a frightful lot for these four panels. I'd been trying to see if they could be carefully peeled off and the wall behind restored, and while I was looking the sight of that winter scene broke me all up. It doesn't tell a very cheerful tale, you know, this series of pictures. After what I'd just been through, saying good-by to them, it worked on me like a bad omen."
"Don't be foolish. Then you saw Gerald, too, before they left?"
"Yes. I could have done without, but she'd have been hurt. So I shook hands, and managed to wish him joy. He was nice, but, then, Gerald always is that. I've never for a moment said anything different. He said he wanted me to feel that I hadn't lost a sister, but acquired a brother. Just as they were driving off I remembered something, and called after Nell, 'What about your portrait?' for I couldn't think she meant to give me that along with the rest. Gerald said before she could speak, 'Take it away!' And Nell said right off, 'Oh, yes. Keep it, Hattie; keep it!' That lovely portrait he painted of her! I don't see how she could bear to part with it. But, of course, now she has him she can have as many portraits as she wants. Come and tell me what you think, whether it would be safe to pack it, frame and all, or better to unframe it, or, better still, to take the canvas off the stretcher and roll it."
Accordingly, they left the room of the cupids and garlands, traversed the vasty ball-room where the chandeliers, like two huge ear-rings, divided up the light into twinkling diamond and rainbow showers, entered the drawing-room of the dignified sixteenth-century chairs, which from the first had suffered an undeserved neglect, and passed thence into the familiar parlor of the multitudinous baubles and the grand piano and the portrait; performing in the contrary direction the pilgrimage on which, at a period which seemed so immemorably far as to have become legendary, Gerald had followed Aurora walking before him with a light.
They stood beneath the portrait, and with the image present to their minds of painter and sitter hasting on their way to be wed, saw this equivocal masterpiece with a difference. Not Aurora alone looked forth from the canvas,—throat of lily, cheek of rose, heaven-blue eyes, smile and ringlets of immitigable sunniness. Gerald, self-depicted in every subtle brush-stroke, looked, too.
"It takes sober, solid, careful people to be interesting when they commit a rashness," thought Leslie. Then, with a little surge of envy in her well-regulated breast, "To be swept off one's feet," she thought, "how educative it must be, how enlarging."
But a doubt fell, shadow-like, across her vision of future fortunes. If a person never found it possible to fall in love with those who fell in love with her, would it necessarily follow that the Some One she should someday love would regard her with coldness?
Estelle gazed upward at the portrait with a wistful, well-nigh solemn look. Not being able, hampered by a dog in her arms, to clasp her hands, she expressed the same impulse by clasping the dog close to her breast in token that her wishes for her dearest friend's good were more than wishes, were a prayer.
She felt a hand laid lightly on her forearm.
"You needn't be afraid," said Leslie, "they'll be happy."
[Transcriber's Note: As originally published, this book had two consecutive chapters labeled as "CHAPTER XV." Chapter numbers have been resequenced in this text.]