"Isn't this rather sudden?" asked the minister, with less excitement than the fact might perhaps have been expected to create in a friend. "I thought you intended to pass the winter in Florence."
"Yes, I did—sit down, please—but I find myself obliged to cut my stay short. Won't you take off your coat?" he asked, taking off his own.
"Thank you; I've formed the habit of keeping it on indoors," said Mr. Waters. "And I oughtn't to stay long, if you're to be off so soon."
Colville gave a very uncomfortable laugh. "Why, the fact is, I'm not off so very soon unless you help me."
"Ah?" returned the old gentleman, with polite interest.
"Yes, I find myself in the absurd position of a man who has reckoned without his host. I have made all my plans for going, and have had my hotel bill sent to me in pursuance of that idea, and now I discover that I not only haven't money enough to pay it and get to Rome, but I haven't much more than half enough to pay it. I have credit galore," he said, trying to give the situation a touch of liveliness, "but the bank is shut."
Mr. Waters listened to the statement with a silence concerning which Colville was obliged to form his conjectures. "That is unfortunate," he said sympathetically, but not encouragingly.
Colville pushed on desperately. "It is, unless you can help me, Mr. Waters. I want you to lend me fifty dollars for as many hours."
Mr. Waters shook his head with a compassionate smile. "I haven't fifty francs in cash. You are welcome to what there is. I'm very forgetful about money matters, and haven't been to the bankers."
"Oh, don't excuse yourself to me, unless you wish to embitter my shame. I'm obliged to you for offering to share your destitution with me. I must try to run my face with the landlord," said Colville.
"Oh no," said Mr. Waters gently. "Is there such haste as all that?"
"Yes, I must go at once."
"I don't like to have you apply to a stranger," said the old man, with fatherly kindness. "Can't you remain over till Monday? I had a little excursion to propose."
"No, I can't possibly stay; I must go to-night," cried Colville.
The minister rose. "Then I really mustn't detain you, I suppose. Good-bye." He offered his hand. Colville took it, but could not let it go at once. "I would like extremely to tell you why I'm leaving Florence in such haste. But I don't see what good it would do, for I don't want you to persuade me to stay."
The old gentleman looked at him with friendly interest.
"The fact is," Colville proceeded, as if he had been encouraged to do so, "I have had the misfortune—yes, I'm afraid I've had the fault—to make myself very displeasing to Mrs. Bowen, and in such a way that the very least I can do is to take myself off as far and as soon as I conveniently can."
"Yes?" said Mr. Waters, with the cheerful note of incredulity in his voice with which one is apt to respond to others' confession of extremity. "Is it so bad as that? I've just seen Mrs. Bowen, and she told me you were going."
"Oh," said Colville, with disagreeable sensation, "perhaps she told you why I was going."
"No," answered Mr. Waters; "she didn't do that." Colville imagined a consciousness in him, which perhaps did not exist. "She didn't allude to the subject further than to state the fact, when I mentioned that I was coming to see you."
Colville had dropped his hand. "She was very forbearing," he said, with bitterness that might well have been incomprehensible to Mr. Waters upon any theory but one.
"Perhaps," he suggested, "you are precipitate; perhaps you have mistaken; perhaps you have been hasty. These things are often the result of impulse in women. I have often wondered how they could make up their minds; I believe they certainly ought to be allowed to change them at least once."
Colville turned very red. "What in the world do you mean? Do you imagine that I have been offering myself to Mrs. Bowen?"
"Wasn't it that which you wished to—which you said you would like to tell me?"
Colville was suddenly silent, on the verge of a self-derisive laugh. When he spoke, he said gently: "No; it wasn't that. I never thought of offering myself to her. We have always been very good friends. But now I'm afraid we can't be friends any more—at least we can't be acquaintances."
"Oh!" exclaimed Mr. Waters. He waited a while as if for Colville to say more, but the latter remained silent, and the old man gave his hand again in farewell. "I must really be going. I hope you won't think me intrusive in my mistaken conjecture?"
"It was what I supposed you had been telling me——"
"I understand. You mustn't be troubled," said Colville, though he had to own to himself that it seemed superfluous to make this request of Mr. Waters, who was taking the affair with all the serenity of age concerning matters of sentiment. "I wish you were going to Rome with me," he added, to disembarrass the moment of parting.
"Thank you. But I shall not go to Rome for some years. Shall you come back on your way in the spring?"
"No, I shall not come to Florence again," said Colville sadly.
"Ah, I'm sorry. Good-bye, my dear young friend. It's been a great pleasure to know you." Colville walked down to the door of the hotel with his visitor and parted with him there. As he turned back he met the landlord, who asked him if he would have the omnibus for the station. The landlord bowed smilingly, after his kind, and rubbed his hands. He said he hoped Colville was pleased with his hotel, and ran to his desk in the little office to get some cards for him, so that he might recommend it accurately to American families.
Colville looked absently at the cards. "The fact is," he said, to the little bowing, smiling man; "I don't know but I shall be obliged to postpone my going till Monday." He smiled too, trying to give the fact a jocose effect, and added, "I find myself out of money, and I've no means of paying your bill till I can see my bankers."
After all his heroic intention, this was as near as he could come to asking the landlord to let him send the money from Rome.
The little man set his head on one side.
"Oh, well, occupy the room until Monday, then," he cried hospitably. "It is quite at your disposition. You will not want the omnibus?"
"No, I shall not want the omnibus," said Colville, with a laugh, doubtless not perfectly intelligible to the landlord, who respectfully joined him in it.
He did not mean to stop that night without writing to Mrs. Bowen, and assuring her that though an accident had kept him in Florence till Monday, she need not be afraid of seeing him again. But he could not go back to his room yet; he wandered about the town, trying to pick himself up from the ruin into which he had fallen again, and wondering with a sort of alien compassion what was to become of his aimless, empty existence. As he passed through the Piazza San Marco he had half a mind to pick a pebble from the gardened margin of the fountain there and toss it against the Rev. Mr. Waters's window, and when he put his skull-cap out, to ask that optimistic agnostic what a man had best do with a life that had ceased to interest him. But, for the time being, he got rid of himself as he best could by going to the opera. They professed to give Rigoletto, but it was all Mrs. Bowen and Imogene Graham to Colville.
It was so late when he got back to his hotel that the outer gate was shut, and he had to wake up the poor little porter, as on that night when he returned from Madame Uccelli's. The porter was again equal to his duty, and contrived to light a new candle to show him the way to his room. The repetition, almost mechanical, of this small chicane made Colville smile, and this apparently encouraged the porter to ask, as if he supposed him to have been in society somewhere—
"You have amused yourself this evening?
"Oh, very much."
"I am glad. There is a letter for you.'
"A letter! Where?"
"I sent it to your room. It came just before midnight."
Mrs. Bowen sat before the hearth in her salon, with her hands fallen in her lap. At thirty-eight the emotions engrave themselves more deeply in the face than they do in our first youth, or than they will when we have really aged, and the pretty woman looked haggard.
Imogene came in, wearing a long blue robe, flung on as if with desperate haste; her thick hair fell crazily out of a careless knot, down her back. "I couldn't sleep," she said, with quivering lips, at the sight of which Mrs. Bowen's involuntary smile hardened. "Isn't it eleven yet?" she added, with a glance at the clock. "It seems years since I went to bed."
"It's been a long day," Mrs. Bowen admitted. She did not ask Imogene why she could not sleep, perhaps because she knew already, and was too honest to affect ignorance.
The girl dropped into a chair opposite her, and began to pull her fingers through the long tangle of her hair, while she drew her breath in sighs that broke at times on her lips; some tears fell down her cheeks unheeded. "Mrs. Bowen," she said, at length, "I should like to know what right we have to drive any one from Florence? I should think people would call it rather a high-handed proceeding if it were known."
Mrs. Bowen met this feebleness promptly. "It isn't likely to be known. But we are not driving Mr. Colville away."
"He is going."
"Yes; he said he would go."
"Don't you believe he will go?"
"I believe he will do what he says."
"He has been very kind to us all; he has been as good!"
"No one feels that more than I," said Mrs. Bowen, with a slight tremor in her voice. She faltered a moment. "I can't let you say those things to me, Imogene."
"No; I know it's wrong. I didn't know what I was saying. Oh, I wish I could tell what I ought to do! I wish I could make up my mind. Oh, I can't let him go—so. I—I don't know what to think any more. Once it was clear, but now I'm not sure; no, I'm not sure."
"Not sure about what?"
"I think I am the one to go away, if any one."
"You know you can't go away," said Mrs. Bowen, with weary patience.
"No, of course not. Well, I shall never see any one like him."
Mrs. Bowen made a start in her chair, as if she had no longer the power to remain quiet, but only placed herself a little more rigidly in it.
"No," the girl went on, as if uttering a hopeless reverie. "He made every moment interesting. He was always thinking of us—he never thought of himself. He did as much for Effie as for any one; he tried just as hard to make himself interesting to her. He was unselfish. I have seen him at places being kind to the stupidest people. You never caught him choosing out the stylish or attractive ones, or trying to shine at anybody's expense. Oh, he's a true gentleman—I shall always say it. How delicate he was, never catching you up, or if you said a foolish thing, trying to turn it against you. No, never, never, never! Oh dear! And now, what can he think of me? Oh, how frivolous and fickle and selfish he must think me!"
"Imogene!" Mrs. Bowen cried out, but quelled herself again.
"Yes," pursued the girl, in the same dreary monotone, "he thinks I couldn't appreciate him because he was old. He thinks that I cared for his not being handsome! Perhaps—perhaps——" She began to catch her breath in the effort to keep back the sobs that were coming. "Oh, I can't bear it! I would rather die than let him think it—such a thing as that!" She bent her head aside, and cried upon the two hands with which she clutched the top of her chair.
Mrs. Bowen sat looking at her distractedly. From time to time she seemed to silence a word upon her lips, and in fact she did not speak.
Imogene lifted her head at last, and softly dried her eyes. Then, as she pushed her handkerchief back into the pocket of her robe, "What sort of looking girl was that other one?"
"That other one?"
"Yes; you know what I mean: the one who behaved so badly to him before."
"Imogene!" said Mrs. Bowen severely, "this is nonsense, and I can't let you go on so. I might pretend not to know what you mean; but I won't do that; and I tell you that there is no sort of likeness—of comparison——"
"No, no," wailed the girl, "there is none. I feel that. She had nothing to warn her—he hadn't suffered then; he was young; he was able to bear it—you said it yourself, Mrs. Bowen. But now—now, what will he do? He could make fun of that, and not hate her so much, because she didn't know how much harm she was doing. But I did; and what can he think of me?"
Mrs. Bowen looked across the barrier between them, that kept her from taking Imogene into her arms, and laughing and kissing away her craze, with cold dislike, and only said, "You know whether you've really anything to accuse yourself of, Imogene. I can't and won't consider Mr. Colville in the matter; I didn't consider him in what I said to-day. And I tell you again that I will not interfere with you in the slightest degree beyond appearances and the responsibility I feel to your mother. And it's for you to know your own mind. You are old enough. I will do what you say. It's for you to be sure that you wish what you say."
"Yes," said Imogene huskily, and she let an interval that was long to them both elapse before she said anything more. "Have I always done what you thought best, Mrs. Bowen?"
"Yes, I have never complained of you."
"Then why can't you tell me now what you think best?"
"Because there is nothing to be done. It is all over."
"But if it were not, would you tell me?"
"Then I take back my promise not to write to Mr. Colville. I am going to ask him to stay."
"Have you made up your mind to that, Imogene?" asked Mrs. Bowen, showing no sign of excitement, except to take a faster hold of her own wrists with the slim hands in which she had caught them.
"You know the position it places you in?"
"Has he offered himself to you?"
"No!" the girl's face blazed.
"Then, after what's passed, this is the same as offering yourself to him."
Imogene turned white. "I must write to him, unless you forbid me."
"Certainly I shall not forbid you." Mrs. Bowen rose and went to her writing-desk. "But if you have fully made up your mind to this step, and are ready for the consequences, whatever they are——" She stopped, before sitting down, and looked back over her shoulder at Imogene.
"Yes," said the girl, who had also risen.
"Then I will write to Mr. Colville for you, and render the proceeding as little objectionable as possible."
Imogene made no reply. She stood motionless while Mrs. Bowen wrote.
"Is this what you wished?" asked the latter, offering the sheet:——
"Dear Mr. Colville,—I have reasons for wishing to recall my consent to your going away. Will you not come and lunch with us to-morrow, and try to forget everything that has passed during a few days?
"Yours very sincerely,
"Yes, that will do," gasped Imogene.
Mrs. Bowen rang the bell for the porter, and stood with her back to the girl, waiting for him at the salon door. He came after a delay that sufficiently intimated the lateness of the hour. "This letter must go at once to the Hotel d'Atene," said Mrs. Bowen peremptorily.
"You shall be served," said the porter, with fortitude.
As Mrs. Bowen turned, Imogene ran toward her with clasped hands. "Oh, how merciful—how good——"
Mrs. Bowen shrank back. "Don't touch me, Imogene, please!"
It was her letter which Colville found on his table and read by the struggling light of his newly acquired candle. Then he sat down and replied to it.
"Dear Mrs. Bowen,—I know that you mean some sort of kindness by me, and I hope you will not think me prompted by any poor resentment in declining to-morrow's lunch. I am satisfied that it is best for me to go; and I am ashamed not to be gone already. But a ridiculous accident has kept me, and when I came in and found your note I was just going to write and ask your patience with my presence in Florence till Monday morning.
"Yours sincerely, THEODORE COLVILLE."
He took his note down to the porter, who had lain down again in his little booth, but sprang up with a cheerful request to be commanded. Colville consulted him upon the propriety of sending the note to Palazzo Pinti at once, and the porter, with his head laid in deprecation upon one of his lifted shoulders, owned that it was perhaps the very least little bit in the world late.
"Send it the first thing in the morning, then," said Colville.
Mrs. Bowen received it by the servant who brought her coffee to the room, and she sent it without any word to Imogene. The girl came instantly back with it. She was fully dressed, as if she had been up a long time, and she wore a very plain, dull dress, in which one of her own sex might have read the expression of a potential self-devotion.
"It's just as I wish it, Mrs. Bowen," she said, in a low key of impassioned resolution. "Now, my conscience is at rest. And you have done this for me, Mrs. Bowen!" She stood timidly with the door in her hand, watching Mrs. Bowen's slight smile; then, as if at some sign in it, she flew to the bed and kissed her, and so fled out of the room again.
Colville slept late, and awoke with a vague sense of self-reproach, which faded afterward to such poor satisfaction as comes to us from the consciousness of having made the best of a bad business; some pangs of softer regret mixed with this. At first he felt a stupid obligation to keep indoors, and he really did not go out till after lunch. The sunshine had looked cold from his window, and with the bright fire which he found necessary in his room, he fancied a bitterness in the gusts that caught up the dust in the piazza, and blew it against the line of cabs on the other side; but when he got out into the weather he found the breeze mild and the sun warm. The streets were thronged with people, and at all the corners there were groups of cloaked and overcoated talkers, soaking themselves full of the sunshine. The air throbbed, as always, with the sound of bells, but it was a mellower and opener sound than before, and looking at the purple bulk of one of those hills which seem to rest like clouds at the end of each avenue in Florence, Colville saw that it was clear of snow. He was going up through Via Cavour to find Mr. Waters and propose a walk, but he met him before he had got half-way to San Marco.
The old man was at a momentary stand-still, looking up at the Riccardi Palace, and he received Colville with apparent forgetfulness of anything odd in his being still in Florence. "Upon the whole," he said, without preliminary of any sort, as Colville turned and joined him in walking on, "I don't know any homicide that more distinctly proves the futility of assassination as a political measure than that over yonder." He nodded his head sidewise toward the palace as he shuffled actively along at Colville's elbow.
"You might say that the moment when Lorenzino killed Alessandro was the most auspicious for a deed of that kind. The Medici had only recently been restored; Alessandro was the first ruler in Florence, who had worn a title; no more reckless, brutal, and insolent tyrant ever lived, and his right, even such as the Medici might have, to play the despot was involved in the doubt of his origin; the heroism of the great siege ought still to have survived in the people who withstood the forces of the whole German Empire for fifteen months; it seems as if the taking off of that single wretch should have ended the whole Medicean domination; but there was not a voice raised to second the homicide's appeal to the old love of liberty in Florence. The Medici party were able to impose a boy of eighteen upon the most fiery democracy that ever existed, and to hunt down and destroy Alessandro's murderer at their leisure. No," added the old man thoughtfully, "I think that the friends of progress must abandon assassination as invariably useless. The trouble was not that Alessandro was alive, but that Florence was dead. Assassination always comes too early or too late in any popular movement. It may be," said Mr. Waters, with a carefulness to do justice to assassination which made Colville smile, "that the modern scientific spirits may be able to evolve something useful from the principle, but considering the enormous abuses and perversions to which it is liable, I am very doubtful of it—very doubtful."
Colville laughed. "I like your way of bringing a fresh mind to all these questions in history and morals, whether they are conventionally settled or not. Don't you think the modern scientific spirit could evolve something useful out of the old classic idea of suicide?"
"Perhaps," said Mr. Waters; "I haven't yet thought it over. The worst thing about suicide—and this must always rank it below political assassination—is that its interest is purely personal. No man ever kills himself for the good of others."
"That's certainly against it. We oughtn't to countenance such an abominably selfish practice. But you can't bring that charge against euthanasy. What have you to say of that?"
"I have heard one of the most benevolent and tender-hearted men I ever knew defend it in cases of hopeless suffering. But I don't know that I should be prepared to take his ground. There appears to be something so sacred about human life that we must respect it even in spite of the prayers of the sufferer who asks us to end his irremediable misery."
"Well," said Colville, "I suspect we must at least class murder with the ballet as a means of good. One might say there was still some virtue in the primal, eldest curse against bloodshed."
"Oh, I don't by any means deny those things," said the old man, with the air of wishing to be scrupulously just. "Which way are you walking?"
"Your way, if you will let me," replied Colville. "I was going to your house to ask you to take a walk with me."
"Ah, that's good. I was reading of the great siege last night, and I thought of taking a look at Michelangelo's bastions. Let us go together, if you don't think you'll find it too fatiguing."
"I shall be ashamed to complain if I do."
"And you didn't go to Rome after all?" said Mr. Waters.
"No; I couldn't face the landlord with a petition so preposterous as mine. I told him that I found I had no money to pay his bill till I had seen my banker, and as he didn't propose that I should send him the amount back from Rome, I stayed. Landlords have their limitations; they are not imaginative, as a class."
"Well, a day more will make no great difference to you, I suppose," said the old man, "and a day less would have been a loss to me. I shall miss you."
"Shall you, indeed?" asked Colville, with a grateful stir of the heart. "It's very nice of you to say that."
"Oh no. I meet few people who are willing to look at life objectively with me, and I have fancied some such willingness in you. What I chiefly miss over here is a philosophic lift in the human mind, but probably that is because my opportunities of meeting the best minds are few, and my means of conversing with them are small. If I had not the whole past with me, I should feel lonely at times."
"And is the past such good company always?".
"Yes, in a sense it is. The past is humanity set free from circumstance, and history studied where it was once life is the past rehumanised."
As if he found this rarefied air too thin for his lungs, Colville made some ineffectual gasps at response, and the old man continued: "What I mean is that I meet here the characters I read of, and commune with them before their errors were committed, before they had condemned themselves to failure, while they were still wise and sane, and still active and vital forces."
"Did they all fail? I thought some of the bad fellows had a pretty fair worldly success?"
"The blossom of decay."
"Oh! what black pessimism!"
"Not at all! Men fail, but man succeeds. I don't know what it all means, or any part of it; but I have had moods in which it seemed as if the whole, secret of the mystery were about to flash upon me. Walking along in the full sun, in the midst of men, or sometimes in the solitude of midnight, poring over a book, and thinking of quite other things, I have felt that I had almost surprised it."
"But never quite?"
"Oh, it isn't too late yet."
"I hope you won't have your revelation before I get away from Florence, or I shall see them burning you here like the great frate."
They had been walking down the Via Calzioli from the Duomo, and now they came out into the Piazza della Signoria, suddenly, as one always seems to do, upon the rise of the old palace and the leap of its tower into the blue air. The history of all Florence is there, with memories of every great time in bronze or marble, but the supreme presence is the martyr who hangs for ever from the gibbet over the quenchless fire in the midst.
"Ah, they had to kill him!" sighed the old man. "It has always been so with the benefactors. They have always meant mankind more good than any one generation can bear, and it must turn upon them and destroy them."
"How will it be with you, then, when you have read us 'the riddle of the painful earth'?"
"That will be so simple that every one will accept it willingly and gladly, and wonder that no one happened to think of it before. And, perhaps, the world is now grown old enough and docile enough to receive the truth without resentment."
"I take back my charge of pessimism," said Colville. "You are an optimist of the deepest dye."
They walked out of the Piazza and down to the Lung' Arno, through the corridor of the Uffizzi, where the illustrious Florentines stand in marble under the arches, all reconciled and peaceful and equal at last. Colville shivered a little as he passed between the silent ranks of the statues.
"I can't stand those fellows, to-day. They seem to feel such a smirk satisfaction at having got out of it all."
They issued upon the river, and he went to the parapet and looked down on the water. "I wonder," he mused aloud, "if it has the same Sunday look to these Sabbathless Italians as it has to us."
"No; Nature isn't puritan," replied the old minister.
"Not at Haddam East Village?"
"No; there less than here; for she's had to make a harder fight for her life there."
"Ah, then you believe in Nature—you're a friend of Nature?" asked Colville, following the lines of an oily swirl in the current with indolent eye.
"Only up to a certain point." Mr. Waters seemed to be patient of any direction which the other might be giving the talk. "Nature is a savage. She has good impulses, but you can't trust her altogether."
"Do you know," said Colville, "I don't think there's very much of her left in us after we reach a certain point in life? She drives us on at a great pace for a while, and then some fine morning we wake up and find that Nature has got tired of us and has left us to taste and conscience. And taste and conscience are by no means so certain of what they want you to do as Nature was."
"Yes," said the minister, "I see what you mean." He joined Colville in leaning on the parapet, and he looked out on the river as if he saw his meaning there. "But by the time we reach that point in life most of us have got the direction which Nature meant us to take, and there's no longer any need of her driving us on."
"And what about the unlucky fellows who haven't got the direction, or haven't kept it?"
"They had better go back to it."
"But if Nature herself seemed to change her mind about you?"
"Ah, you mean persons of weak will. They are a great curse to themselves and to everybody else."
"I'm not so sure of that," said Colville. "I've seen cases in which a strong will looked very much more like the devil."
"Yes, a perverted will. But there can be no good without a strong will. A weak will means inconstancy. It means, even in good, good attempted and relinquished, which is always a terrible thing, because it is sure to betray some one who relied upon its accomplishment."
"And in evil? Perhaps the evil, attempted and relinquished, turns into good."
"Oh, never!" replied the minister fervently. "There is something very mysterious in what we call evil. Apparently it has infinitely greater force and persistence than good. I don't know why it should be so. But so it appears."
"You'll have the reason of that along with the rest of the secret when your revelation comes," said Colville, with a smile. He lifted his eyes from the river, and looked up over the clustering roofs beyond it to the hills beyond them, flecked to the crest of their purple slopes with the white of villas and villages. As if something in the beauty of the wonderful prospect had suggested the vision of its opposite, he said, dreamily, "I don't think I shall go to Rome to-morrow, after all. I will go to Des Vaches! Where did you say you were walking, Mr. Waters? Oh yes! You told me. I will cross the bridge with you. But I couldn't stand anything quite so vigorous as the associations of the siege this afternoon. I'm going to the Boboli Gardens, to debauch myself with a final sense of nerveless despotism, as it expressed itself in marble allegory and formal alleys. The fact is that if I stay with you any longer I shall tell you something that I'm too old to tell and you're too old to hear." The old man smiled, but offered no urgence or comment, and at the thither end of the bridge Colville said hastily, "Good-bye. If you ever come to Des Vaches, look me up."
"Good-bye," said the minister. "Perhaps we shall meet in Florence again."
"No, no. Whatever happens, that won't."
They shook hands and parted. Colville stood a moment, watching the slight bent figure of the old man as he moved briskly up the Via de' Bardi, turning his head from, side to side, to look at the palaces as he passed, and so losing himself in the dim, cavernous curve of the street. As soon as he was out of sight, Colville had an impulse to hurry after him and rejoin him; then he felt like turning about and going back to his hotel.
But he shook himself together into the shape of resolution, however slight and transient. "I must do something I intended to do," he said, between his set teeth, and pushed on up through the Via Guicciardini. "I will go to the Boboli because I said I would."
As he walked along, he seemed to himself to be merely crumbling away in this impulse and that, in one abortive intent and another. What did it all mean? Had he been his whole life one of these weak wills which are a curse to themselves and others, and most a curse when they mean the best? Was that the secret of his failure in life? But for many years he had seemed to succeed, to be as other men were, hard, practical men; he had once made a good newspaper, which was certainly not a dream of romance. Had he given that up at last because he was a weak will? And now was he running away from Florence because his will was weak? He could look back to that squalid tragedy of his youth, and see that a more violent, a more determined man could have possessed himself of the girl whom he had lost. And now would it not be more manly, if more brutal, to stay here, where a hope, however fleeting, however fitful, of what might have been, had revisited him in the love of this young girl? He felt sure, if anything were sure, that something in him, in spite of their wide disparity of years, had captured her fancy, and now, in his abasement, he felt again the charm of his own power over her. They were no farther apart in years than many a husband and wife; they would grow more and more together; there was youth enough in his heart yet; and who was pushing him away from her, forbidding him this treasure that he had but to put out his hand and make his own? Some one whom through all his thoughts of another he was trying to please, but whom he had made finally and inexorably his enemy. Better stay, then, something said to him; and when he answered, "I will," something else reminded him that this also was not willing but unwilling.
When he entered the beautiful old garden, its benison of peace fell upon his tumult, and he began to breathe a freer air, reverting to his purpose to be gone in the morning and resting in it, as he strolled up the broad curve of its alley from the gate. He had not been there since he walked there with one now more like a ghost to him than any of the dead who had since died. It was there that she had refused him; he recalled with a grim smile the awkwardness of getting back with her to the gate from the point, far within the garden, where he had spoken. Except that this had happened in the fall, and now it was early spring, there seemed no change since then; the long years that had elapsed were like a winter between.
He met people in groups and singly loitering through the paths, and chiefly speaking English; but no one spoke to him, and no one invaded the solitude in which he walked. But the garden itself seemed to know him, and to give him a tacit recognition; the great, foolish grotto before the gate, with its statues by Bandinelli, and the fantastic effects of drapery and flesh in party-coloured statues lifted high on either side of the avenue; the vast shoulder of wall, covered thick with ivy and myrtle, which he passed on his way to the amphitheatre behind the palace; the alternate figures and urns on their pedestals in the hemicycle, as if the urns were placed there to receive the ashes of the figures when they became extinct; the white statues or the colossal busts set at the ends of the long, alleys against black curtains of foliage; the big fountain, with its group in the centre of the little lake, and the meadow, quiet and sad, that stretched away on one side from this; the keen light under the levels of the dense pines and ilexes; the paths striking straight on either hand from the avenue through which he sauntered, and the walk that coiled itself through the depths of the plantations; all knew him, and from them and from the winter neglect which was upon the place distilled a subtle influence, a charm, an appeal belonging to that combination of artifice and nature which is perfect only in an Italian garden under an Italian sky. He was right in the name which he mockingly gave the effect before he felt it; it was a debauch, delicate, refined, of unserious pensiveness, a smiling melancholy, in which he walked emancipated from his harassing hopes, and keeping only his shadowy regrets.
Colville did not care to scale the easy height from which you have the magnificent view, conscious of many photographs, of Florence. He wandered about the skirts of that silent meadow, and seeing himself unseen, he invaded its borders far enough to pluck one of those large scarlet anemones, such as he had given his gentle enemy. It was tilting there in the breeze above the unkempt grass, and the grass was beginning to feel the spring, and to stir and stretch itself after its winter sleep; it was sprinkled with violets, but these he did not molest. He came back to a stained and mossy stone bench on the avenue, fronting a pair of rustic youths carved in stone, who had not yet finished some game in which he remembered seeing them engaged when he was there before. He had not walked fast, but he had walked far, and was warm enough to like the whiffs of soft wind on his uncovered head. The spring was coming; that was its breath, which you know unmistakably in Italy after all the kisses that winter gives. Some birds were singing in the trees; down an alley into which he could look, between the high walls of green, he could see two people in flirtation: he waited patiently till the young man should put his arm round the girl's waist, for the fleeting embrace from which she pushed it and fled further down the path.
"Yes, it's spring," thought Colville; and then, with the selfishness of the troubled soul, he wished that it might be winter still and indefinitely. It occurred to him now that he should not go back to Des Vaches, for he did not know what he should do there. He would go to New York: though he did not know what he should do in New York, either.
He became tired of looking at the people who passed, and of speculating about them through the second consciousness which enveloped the sad substance of his misgivings like an atmosphere; and he let his eyelids fall, as he leaned his head back against the tree behind his bench. Then their voices pursued him through the twilight that he had made himself, and forced him to the same weary conjecture as if he had seen their faces. He heard gay laughter, and laughter that affected gaiety; the tones of young men in earnest disquisition reached him through the veil, and the talk, falling to whisper, of girls, with the names of men in it; sums of money, a hundred francs, forty thousand francs, came in high tones; a husband and wife went by quarrelling in the false security of English, and snapping at each other as confidingly as if in the sanctuary of home. The man bade the woman not be a fool, and she asked him how she was to-endure his company if she was not a fool.
Colville opened his eyes to look after them, when a voice that he knew called out, "Why, it is Mr. Colville!"
It was Mrs. Amsden, and pausing with her, as if they had passed him in doubt, and arrested themselves when they had got a little way by, were Effie Bowen and Imogens Graham. The old lady had the child by the hand, and the girl stood a few paces apart from them. She was one of those beauties who have the property of looking very plain at times, and Colville, who had seen her in more than one transformation, now beheld her somehow clumsy of feature, and with the youth gone from her aspect. She seemed a woman of thirty, and she wore an unbecoming walking dress of a fashion that contributed to this effect of age. Colville was aware afterward of having wished that she was really as old and plain as she looked.
He had to come forward, and put on the conventional delight of a gentleman meeting lady friends.
"It's remarkable how your having your eyes shut estranged you," said Mrs. Amsden. "Now, if you had let me see you oftener in church, where people close their eyes a good deal for one purpose or another, I should have known you at once."
"I hope you haven't lost a great deal of time, as it is, Mrs. Amsden," said Colville. "Of course I should have had my eyes open if I had known you were going by."
"Oh, don't apologise!" cried the old thing, with ready enjoyment of his tone.
"I don't apologise for not being recognisable; I apologise for being visible," said Colville, with some shapeless impression that he ought to excuse his continued presence in Florence to Imogene, but keeping his eyes upon Mrs. Amsden, to whom what he said could not be intelligible. "I ought to be in Turin to-day."
"In Turin! Are you going away from Florence?"
"I'm going home."
"Why, did you know that?" asked the old lady of Imogene, who slightly nodded, and then of Effie, who also assented. "Really, the silence of the Bowen family in regard to the affairs of others is extraordinary. There never was a family more eminently qualified to live in Florence. I dare say that if I saw a little more of them, I might hope to reach the years of discretion myself some day. Why are you going away? (You see I haven't reached them yet!) Are you tired of Florence already?"
"No," said Colville passively; "Florence is tired of me."
"You're quite sure?"
"Yes; there's no mistaking one of her sex on such a point."
Mrs. Amsden laughed. "Ah, a great many people mistake us, both ways. And you're really going back to America. What in the world for?"
"I haven't the least idea."
"Is America fonder of you than Florence?"
"She's never told her love. I suspect it's merely that she's more used to me."
They were walking, without any volition of his, down the slope of the broad avenue to the fountain, where he had already been.
"Is your mother well?" he asked of the little girl. It seemed to him that he had better not speak to Imogene, who still kept that little distance from the rest, and get away as soon as he decently could.
"She has a headache," said Effie.
"Oh, I'm sorry," returned Colville.
"Yes, she deputed me to take her young people out for an airing," said Mrs. Amsden; "and Miss Graham decided us for the Boboli, where she hadn't been yet. I've done what I could to make the place attractive. But what is an old woman to do for a girl in a garden? We ought to have brought some other young people—some of the Inglehart boys. But we're respectable, we Americans abroad; we're decorous, above all things; and I don't know about meeting you here, Mr. Colville. It has a very bad appearance. Are you sure that you didn't know I was to go by here at exactly half-past four?"
"I was living from breath to breath in the expectation of seeing you. You must have noticed how eagerly I was looking out for you."
"Yes, and with a single red anemone in your hand, so that I should know you without being obliged to put on my spectacles."
"You divine everything, Mrs. Amsden," he said, giving her the flower.
"I shall make my brags to Mrs. Bowen when I see her," said the old lady. "How far into the country did you walk for this?"
"As far as the meadow yonder."
They had got down to the sheet of water from which the sea-horses of the fountain sprang, and the old lady sank upon a bench near it. Colville held out his hand toward Effie. "I saw a lot of violets over there in the grass."
"Did you?" She put her hand eagerly into his, and they strolled off together. After a first motion to accompany them, Imogene sat down beside Mrs. Amsden, answering quietly the talk of the old lady, and seeming in nowise concerned about the expedition for violets. Except for a dull first glance, she did not look that way. Colville stood in the border of the grass, and the child ran quickly hither and thither in it, stooping from time to time upon the flowers. Then she came out to where he stood, and showed her bunch of violets, looking up into the face which he bent upon her, while he trifled with his cane. He had a very fatherly air with her.
"I think I'll go and see what they've found," said Imogene irrelevantly, to a remark of Mrs. Amsden's about the expensiveness of Madame Bossi's bonnets.
"Well," said the old lady. Imogene started, and the little girl ran to meet her. She detained Effie with her admiration of the violets till Colville lounged reluctantly up. "Go and show them to Mrs. Amsden," she said, giving back the violets, which she had been smelling. The child ran on. "Mr. Colville, I want to speak with you."
"Yes," said Colville helplessly.
"Why are you going away?"
"Why? Oh, I've accomplished the objects—or no-objects—I came for," he said, with dreary triviality, "and I must hurry away to other fields of activity." He kept his eyes on her face, which he saw full of a passionate intensity, working to some sort of overflow.
"That is not true, and you needn't say it to spare me. You are going away because Mrs. Bowen said something to you about me."
"Not quite that," returned Colville gently.
"No; it was something that she said to me about you. But it's the same thing. It makes no difference. I ask you not to go for that."
"Do you know what you are saying, Imogene?"
Colville waited a long moment. "Then, I thank you, you dear girl, and I am going to-morrow, all the same. But I shan't forget this; whatever my life is to be, this will make it less unworthy and less unhappy. If it could buy anything to give you joy, to add some little grace to the good that must come to you, I would give it. Some day you'll meet the young fellow whom you're to make immortal, and you must tell him of an old fellow who knew you afar off, and understood how to worship you for an angel of pity and unselfishness. Ah, I hope he'll understand, too! Good-bye." If he was to fly, that was the sole instant. He took her hand, and said again, "Good-bye." And then he suddenly cried, "Imogene, do you wish me to stay?"
"Yes!" said the girl, pouring all the intensity of her face into that whisper.
"Even if there had been nothing said to make me go away—should you still wish me to stay?"
He looked her in the starry, lucid eyes, where a divine fervour deepened. He sighed in nerveless perplexity; it was she who had the courage.
"It's a mistake! You mustn't! I am too old for you! It would be a wrong and a cruelty! Yes, you must let me go, and forget me. I have been to blame. If Mrs. Bowen has blamed me, she was right—I deserved it; I deserved all she could say against me."
"She never said anything against you. Do you think I would have let her? No; it was I that said it, and I blamed you. It was because I thought that you were—you were—"
"Trifling with you? How could you think that?"
"Yes, I know now how it was, and it makes you seem all the grander to me. Did you think I cared for your being older than I was? I never cared for it—I never hardly thought of it after the very first. I tried to make you understand that, and how it hurt me to have you speak of it. Don't you think that I could see how good you were? Do you suppose that all I want is to be happy? I don't care for that—I despise it, and I always hate myself for seeking my own pleasure, if I find myself doing it. I have seen enough of life to know what that comes to! And what hurt me worst of all was that you seemed to believe that I cared for nothing but amusing myself, when I wished to be something better, higher! It's nothing whether you are of my age or not, if—if—you care for me."
"All that I ask is to be with you, and try to make you forget what's been sad in your life, and try to be of use to you in whatever you are doing, and I shall be prouder and gladder of that than anything that people call happiness."
Colville stood holding her hand, while she uttered these ideas and incoherent repetitions of them, with a deep sense of powerlessness. "If I believed that I could keep you from regretting this—"
"What should I regret? I won't let you depreciate yourself—make yourself out not good enough for the best. Oh, I know how it happened! But now you shall never think of it again. No; I will not let you. That is the only way you could make me regret anything."
"I am going to stay," said Colville. "But on my own terms. I will be bound to you, but you shall not be bound to me."
"You doubt me! I would rather have you go! No; stay. And let me prove to you how wrong you are. I mustn't ask more than that. Only give me the chance to show you how different I am from what you think—how different you are, too."
"Yes. But you must be free."
"What are they doing so long there?" asked Mrs. Amsden of Effie, putting her glasses to her eyes. "I can't see."
"They are just holding hands," said the child, with an easy satisfaction in the explanation, which perhaps the old lady did not share. "He always holds my hand when he is with me."
"Does he, indeed?" exclaimed Mrs. Amsden, with a cackle. She added, "That's very polite of him, isn't it? You must be a great favourite with Mr. Colville. You will miss him when he's gone."
"Yes. He's very nice."
Colville and Imogene returned, coming slowly across the loose, neglected grass toward the old woman's seat. She rose as they came up.
"You don't seem to have succeeded so well in getting flowers for Miss Graham as for the other ladies. But perhaps you didn't find her favourite over there. What is your favourite flower, Miss Graham? Don't say you have none! I didn't know that I preferred scarlet anemones. Were there no forget-me-nots over there in the grass?"
"There was no occasion for them," answered Colville.
"You always did make such pretty speeches!" said the old lady. "And they have such an orphic character, too; you can interpret them in so many different ways. Should you mind saying just what you meant by that one?"
"Yes, very much," replied Colville.
The old lady laughed with cheerful resignation. She would as lief report that reply of his as another. Even more than a man whom she could entangle in his speech she liked a man who could slip through the toils with unfailing ease. Her talk with such a man was the last consolation which remained to her from a life of harmless coquetries.
"I will refer it to Mrs. Bowen," she said. "She is a very wise woman, and she used to know you a great while ago."
"If you like, I will do it for you, Mrs. Amsden. I'm going to see her."
"To renew your adieux? Well, why not? Parting is such sweet sorrow! And if I were a young man I would go to say good-bye to Mrs. Bowen as often as she would let me. Now tell me honestly, Mr. Colville, did you ever see such an exquisite, perfect creature?"
"Oh, that's asking a good deal."
"To tell you a thing honestly. How did you come here, Mrs. Amsden?"
"In Mrs. Bowen's carriage. I sent it round from the Pitti entrance to the Porta Romana. It's waiting there now, I suppose."
"I thought you had been corrupted, somehow. Your zeal is carriage-bought. It is a delightful vehicle. Do you think you could give me a lift home in it?"
"Yes, indeed. I've always a seat for you in my carriage. To Hotel d'Atene?"
"No, to Palazzo Pinti."
"This is deliciously mysterious," said Mrs. Amsden, drawing her shawl up about her shoulders, which, if no longer rounded, had still a charming droop. One realises in looking at such old ladies that there are women who could manage their own skeletons winningly. She put up her glasses, which were an old-fashioned sort, held to the nose by a handle, and perused the different persons of the group. "Mr. Colville concealing an inward trepidation under a bold front; Miss Graham agitated but firm; the child as much puzzled as the old woman. I feel that we are a very interesting group—almost dramatic."
"Oh, call us a passage from a modern novel," suggested Colville, "if you're in the romantic mood. One of Mr. James's."
"Don't you think we ought to be rather more of the great world for that? I hardly feel up to Mr. James. I should have said Howells. Only nothing happens in that case!"
"Oh, very well; that's the most comfortable way. If it's only Howells, there's no reason why I shouldn't go with Miss Graham to show her the view of Florence from the cypress grove up yonder."
"No; he's very particular when he's on Italian ground," said Mrs. Amsden, rising. "You must come another time with Miss Graham, and bring Mrs. Bowen. It's quite time we were going home."
The light under the limbs of the trees had begun to grow more liquid. The currents of warm breeze streaming through the cooler body of the air had ceased to ruffle the lakelet round the fountain, and the naiads rode their sea-horses through a perfect calm. A damp, pierced with the fresh odour of the water and of the springing grass, descended upon them. The saunterers through the different paths and alleys were issuing upon the main avenues, and tending in gathering force toward the gate.
They found Mrs. Bowen's carriage there, and drove first to her house, beyond which Mrs. Amsden lived in a direct line. On the way Colville kept up with her the bantering talk that they always carried on together, and found in it a respite from the formless future pressing close upon him. He sat with Effie on the front seat, and he would not look at Imogene's face, which, nevertheless, was present to some inner vision. When the porter opened the iron gate below and rang Mrs. Bowen's bell, and Effie sprang up the stairs before them to give her mother the news of Mr. Colville's coming, the girl stole her hand into his.
"Shall you—tell her?"
"Of course. She must know without an instant's delay."
"Yes, yes; that is right. Oh!—Shall I go with you?"
Mrs. Bowen came in to them, looking pale and pain-worn, as she did that evening when she would not let Colville go away with the other tea-taking callers to whom she had made her headache an excuse. The eyelids which she had always a little difficulty in lifting were heavy with suffering, and her pretty smile had an effect of very great remoteness. But there was no consciousness of anything unusual or unexpected in his presence expressed in her looks or manner. Colville had meant to take Imogene by the hand and confront Mrs. Bowen with an immediate declaration of what had happened; but he found this impossible, at least in the form of his intention; he took, instead, the hand of conventional welcome which she gave him, and he obeyed her in taking provisionally the seat to which she invited him. At the same time the order of his words was dispersed in that wonder, whether she suspected anything, with which he listened to her placid talk about the weather; she said she had thought it was a chilly day outdoors; but her headaches always made her very sensitive.
"Yes," said Colville, "I supposed it was cold myself till I went out, for I woke with a tinge of rheumatism." He felt a strong desire to excuse, to justify what had happened, and he went on, with a painful sense of Imogene's eyes bent in bewildered deference upon him. "I started out for a walk with Mr. Waters, but I left him after we got across the Ponte Vecchio; he went up to look at the Michelangelo bastions, and I strolled over to the Boboli Gardens—where I found your young people."
He had certainly brought himself to the point, but he seemed actually further from it than at first, and he made a desperate plunge, trying at the same time to keep something of his habitual nonchalance. "But that doesn't account for my being here. Imogene accounts for that. She has allowed me to stay in Florence."
Mrs. Bowen could not turn paler than her headache had left her, and she now underwent no change of complexion. But her throat was not clear enough to say to the end, "Allowed you to stay in—" The trouble in her throat arrested her again.
Colville became very red. He put out his hand and took Imogene's, and now his eyes and Mrs. Bowen's met in the kind of glance in which people intercept and turn each other aside before they have reached a resting-place in each other's souls. But at the girl's touch his courage revived—in some physical sort. "Yes, and if she will let me stay with her, we are not going to part again."
Mrs. Bowen did not answer at once, and in the hush Colville heard the breathing of all three.
"Of course," he said, "we wished you to know at once, and I came in with Imogene to tell you."
"What do you wish me," asked Mrs. Bowen, "to do?"
Colville forced a nervous laugh. "Really, I'm so little used to this sort of affair that I don't know whether I have any wish. Imogene is here with you, and I suppose I supposed you would wish to do something."
"I will do whatever you think best."
"Thank you: that's very kind of you." He fell into a silence, in which he was able only to wish that he knew what was best, and from which he came to the surface with, "Imogene's family ought to know, of course."
"Yes; they put her in my charge. They will have to know. Shall I write to them?"
"Why, if you will."
He had taken to stroking with his right hand the hand of Imogene which he held in his left, and now he looked round at her with a glance which it was a relief not to have her meet. "And till we can hear from them, I suppose you will let me come to see her?"
"You know you have always been welcome here."
"Thank you very much." It seemed as if there ought to be something else to say, but Colville could not think of anything except: "We wish to act in every way with your approval, Mrs. Bowen. And I know that you are very particular in some things"—the words, now that they were said, struck him as unfortunate, and even vulgar—"and I shouldn't wish to annoy you—"
"Oh, I understand. I think it will be—I have no doubt you will know how to manage all that. It isn't as if you were both—"
"Young?" asked Colville. "No; one of us is quite old enough to be thoroughly up in the convenances. We are qualified, I'm afraid, as far as that goes," he added bitterly, "to set all Florence an example of correct behaviour."
He knew there must be pain in the face which he would not look at; he kept looking at Mrs. Bowen's face, in which certainly there was not much pleasure, either.
There was another silence, which became very oppressive before it ended in a question from Mrs. Bowen, who stirred slightly in her chair, and bent forward as if about to rise in asking it. "Shall you wish to consider it an engagement?"
Colville felt Imogene's hand tremble in his, but he received no definite prompting from the tremor. "I don't believe I know what you mean."
"I mean, till you have heard from Imogene's mother."
"I hadn't thought of that. Perhaps under the circumstances—" The tremor died out of the hand he held; it lay lax between his. "What do you say, Imogene?"
"I can't say anything. Whatever you think will be right—for me."
"I wish to do what will seem right and fair to your mother."
Colville heaved a hopeless sigh. Then with a deep inward humiliation, he said, "Perhaps if you know Imogene's mother, Mrs. Bowen, you can suggest—advise—You—"
"You must excuse me; I can't suggest or advise anything. I must leave you perfectly free." She rose from her chair, and they, both rose too from the sofa on which he had seated himself at Imogene's side. "I shall have to leave you, I'm afraid; my head aches still a little. Imogene!" She advanced toward the girl, who stood passively letting her come the whole distance. As if sensible of the rebuff expressed in this attitude, she halted a very little. Then she added, "I hope you will be very happy," and suddenly cast her arms round the girl, and stood long pressing her face into her neck. When she released her, Colville trembled lest she should be going to give him her hand in congratulation. But she only bowed slightly to him, with a sidelong, aversive glance, and walked out of the room with a slow, rigid pace, like one that controls a tendency to giddiness.
Imogene threw herself on Colville's' breast. It gave him a shock, as if he were letting her do herself some wrong. But she gripped him fast, and began to sob and to cry. "Oh! oh! oh!"
"What is it?—what is it, my poor girl?" he murmured. "Are you unhappy? Are you sorry? Let it all end, then!"
"No, no; it isn't that! But I am very unhappy—yes, very, very unhappy! Oh, I didn't suppose I should ever feel so toward any one. I hate her!"
"You hate her?" gasped Colville.
"Yes, I hate her. And she—she is so good to me! It must be that I've done her some deadly wrong, without knowing it, or I couldn't hate her as I know I do."
"Oh no," said Colville soothingly; "that's just your fancy. You haven't harmed her, and you don't hate her."
"Yes, yes, I do! You can't understand how I feel toward her."
"But you can't feel so toward her long," he urged, dealing as he might with what was wholly a mystery to him. She is so good—"
"It only makes my badness worse, and makes me hate her more."
"I don't understand. But you're excited now. When you're calmer you'll feel differently, of course. I've kept you restless and nervous a long time, poor child; but now our peace begins, and everything will be bright and—" He stopped: the words had such a very hollow sound.
She pushed herself from him, and dried her eyes. "Oh yes."
"And, Imogene—perhaps—perhaps—Or, no; never mind, now. I must go away—" She looked at him, frightened but submissive. "But I will be back to-night, or perhaps to-morrow morning. I want to think—to give you time to think. I don't want to be selfish about you—I want to consider you, all the more because you won't consider yourself. Good-bye." He stooped over and kissed her hair. Even in this he felt like a thief; he could not look at the face she lifted to his.
Mrs. Bowen sent word from her room that she was not coming to dinner, and Imogene did not come till the dessert was put on. Then she found Effie Bowen sitting alone at the table, and served in serious formality by the man, whom she had apparently felt it right to repress, for they were both silent. The little girl had not known how to deny herself an excess of the less wholesome dishes, and she was perhaps anticipating the regret which this indulgence was to bring, for she was very pensive.
"Isn't mamma coming at all?" she asked plaintively, when Imogene sat down, and refused everything but a cup of coffee. "Well," she went on, "I can't make out what is coming to this family. You were all crying last night because Mr. Colville was going away, and now, when he's going to stay, it's just as bad. I don't think you make it very pleasant for him. I should think he would be perfectly puzzled by it, after he's done so much to please you all. I don't believe he thinks it's very polite. I suppose it is polite, but it doesn't seem so. And he's always so cheerful and nice. I should think he would want to visit in some family where there was more amusement. There used to be plenty in this family, but now it's as dismal! The first of the winter you and mamma used to be so pleasant when he came, and would try everything to amuse him, and would let me come in to get some of the good of it; but now you seem to fly every way as soon as he comes in sight of the house, and I'm poked off in holes and corners before he can open his lips. And I've borne it about as long as I can. I would rather be back in Vevay. Or anywhere." At this point her own pathos overwhelmed her, and the tears rolling down her cheeks moistened the crumbs of pastry at the corners of her pretty mouth. "What was so strange, I should like to know, about his staying, that mamma should pop up like a ghost, when I told her he had come home with us, and grab me by the wrist, and twitch me about, and ask me all sorts of questions I couldn't answer, and frighten me almost to death? I haven't got over it yet. And I don't think it's very nice. It used to be a very polite family, and pleasant with each other, and always having something agreeable going on in it; but if it keeps on very much longer in this way, I shall think the Bowens are beginning to lose their good-breeding. I suppose that if Mr. Colville were to go down on his knees to mamma and ask her to let him take me somewhere now, she wouldn't do it." She pulled her handkerchief out of her pocket, and dried her eyes on a ball of it. "I don't see what you've been crying about, Imogene. You've got nothing to worry you."
"I'm not very well, Effie," returned the girl gently. "I haven't been well all day."
"It seems to me that nobody is well any more. I don't believe Florence is a very healthy place. Or at least this house isn't. I think it must be the drainage. If we keep on, I suppose we shall all have diphtheria. Don't you, Imogene?"
"Yes," asserted the girl distractedly.
"The girls had it at Vevay frightfully. And none of them were as strong afterward. Some of the parents came and took them away; but Madame Schebres never let mamma know. Do you think that was right?"
"No; it was very wrong."
"I suppose Mr. Colville will have it if we do. That is, if he keeps coming here. Is he coming any more?"
"Yes; he's coming to-morrow morning."
"Is he?" A smile flickered over the rueful face. "What time is he coming?"
"I don't know exactly," said Imogene, listlessly stirring her coffee. "Some time in the forenoon."
"Do you suppose he's going to take us anywhere?"
"Yes—I think so. I can't tell exactly."
"If he asks me to go somewhere, will you tease mamma? She always lets you, Imogene, and it seems sometimes as if she just took a pleasure in denying me."
"You mustn't talk so of your mother, Effie."
"No; I wouldn't to everybody. I know that she means for the best; but I don't believe she understands how much I suffer when she won't let me go with Mr. Colville. Don't you think he's about the nicest gentleman we know, Imogene?"
"Yes; he's very kind."
"And I think he's handsome. A good many people would consider him old-looking, and of course he isn't so young as Mr. Morton was, or the Inglehart boys; but that makes him all the easier to get along with. And his being just a little fat, that way, seems to suit so well with his character." The smiles were now playing across the child's face, and her eyes sparkling. "I think Mr, Colville would make a good Saint Nicholas—the kind they have going down chimneys in America. I'm going to tell him, for the next veglione. It would be such a nice surprise."
"No, better not tell him that," suggested Imogene.
"Do you think he wouldn't like it?"
"Well, it would become him. How old do you suppose he is, Imogene? Seventy-five?"
"What an idea!" cried the girl fiercely. "He's forty-one."
"I didn't know they had those little jiggering lines at the corners of their eyes so quick. But forty-one is pretty old, isn't it? Is Mr. Waters—"
"Effie," said her mother's voice at the door behind her, "will you ring for Giovanni, and tell him to bring me a cup of coffee in here?" She spoke from the portiere of the salotto.
"Yes, mamma. I'll bring it to you myself."
"Thank you, dear," Mrs. Bowen called from within.
The little girl softly pressed her hands together. "I hope she'll let me stay up! I feel so excited, and I hate to lie and think so long before I get to sleep. Couldn't you just hint a little to her that I might stay up? It's Sunday night."
"I can't, Effie," said Imogene. "I oughtn't to interfere with any of your mother's rules."
The child sighed submissively and took the coffee that Giovanni brought to her. She and Imogene went into the salotto together. Mrs. Bowen was at her writing-desk. "You can bring the coffee here, Effie," she said.
"Must I go to bed at once, mamma?" asked the child, setting the cup carefully down.
The mother looked distractedly up from her writing. "No; you may sit up a while," she said, looking back to her writing.
"How long, mamma?" pleaded the little girl.
"Oh, till you're sleepy. It doesn't matter now."
She went on writing; from time to time she tore up what she had written.
Effie softly took a book from the table, and perching herself on a stiff, high chair, bent over it and began to read.
Imogene sat by the hearth, where a small fire was pleasant in the indoor chill of an Italian house, even after so warm a day as that had been. She took some large beads of the strand she wore about her neck into her mouth, and pulled at the strand listlessly with her hand while she watched the fire. Her eyes wandered once to the child.
"What made you take such an uncomfortable chair, Effie?"
Effie shut her book over her hand. "It keeps me wakeful longer," she whispered, with a glance at her mother from the corner of her eye.
"I don't see why any one should wish to be wakeful," sighed the girl.
When Mrs. Bowen tore up one of her half-written pages Imogene started nervously forward, and then relapsed again into her chair. At last Mrs. Bowen seemed to find the right phrases throughout, and she finished rather a long letter, and read it over to herself. Then she said, without leaving her desk, "Imogene, I've been trying to write to your mother. Will you look at this?"
She held the sheet over her shoulder, and Imogene came languidly and took it; Mrs. Bowen dropped her face forward on the desk, into her hands, while Imogene was reading.
"FLORENCE, March 10, 18—
"Dear Mrs. Graham,—I have some very important news to give you in regard to Imogene, and as there is no way of preparing you for it, I will tell you at once that it relates to her marriage.
"She has met at my house a gentleman whom I knew in Florence when I was here before, and of whom I never knew anything but good. We have seen him very often, and I have seen nothing in him that I could not approve. He is Mr. Theodore Colville, of Prairie des Vaches, Indiana, where he was for many years a newspaper editor; but he was born somewhere in New England. He is a very cultivated, interesting man; and though not exactly a society man, he is very agreeable and refined in his manners. I am sure his character is irreproachable, though he is not a member of any church. In regard to his means I know nothing whatever, and can only infer from his way of life that he is in easy circumstances.
"The whole matter has been a surprise to me, for Mr. Colville is some twenty-one or two years older than Imogene, who is very young in her feelings for a girl of her age. If I could have realised anything like a serious attachment between them sooner, I would have written before. Even now I do not know whether I am to consider them engaged or not. No doubt Imogene will write you more fully.
"Of course I would rather not have had anything of the kind happen while Imogene was under my charge, though I am sure that you will not think I have been careless or imprudent about her. I interfered as far as I could, at the first moment I could, but it appears that it was then too late to prevent what has followed.—Yours sincerely, EVALINA BOWEN."
Imogene read the letter twice over, and then she said, "Why isn't he a society man?"
Probably Mrs. Bowen expected this sort of approach. "I don't think a society man would have undertaken to dance the Lancers as he did at Madam Uccelli's," she answered patiently, without lifting her head.
Imogene winced, but "I should despise him if he were merely a society man," she said. "I have seen enough of them. I think it's better to be intellectual and good."
Mrs. Bowen made no reply, and the girl went on. "And as to his being older, I don't see what difference it makes. If people are in sympathy, then they are of the same age, no difference how much older than one the other is. I have always heard that." She urged this as if it were a question.
"Yes," said Mrs. Bowen.
"And how should his having been a newspaper editor be anything against him?"
Mrs. Bowen lifted her face and stared at the girl in astonishment. "Who said it was against him?"
"You hint as much. The whole letter is against him."
"Yes! Every word! You make him out perfectly detestable. I don't know why you should hate him, He's done everything he could to satisfy you."
Mrs. Bowen rose from her desk, putting her hand to her forehead, as if to soften a shock of headache that her change of posture had sent there. "I will leave the letter with you, and you can send it or not as you think best. It's merely a formality, my writing to your mother. Perhaps you'll see it differently in the morning. Effie!" she called to the child, who with her book shut upon her hand had been staring at them and listening intently. "It's time to go to bed now."
When Effie stood before the glass in her mother's room, and Mrs. Bowen was braiding her hair and tying it up for the night, she asked ruefully, "What's the matter with Imogene, mamma?"
"She isn't very happy to-night."
"You don't seem very happy either," said the child, watching her own face as it quivered in the mirror. "I should think that now Mr. Colville's concluded to stay, we would all be happy again. But we don't seem to. We're—we're perfectly demoralised!" It was one of the words she had picked up from Colville.
The quivering face in the glass broke in a passion of tears, and Effie sobbed herself to sleep.
Imogene sat down at Mrs. Bowen's desk, and pushing her letter away, began to write.
"FLORENCE, March 10, 18—.
"DEAR MOTHER,—-I inclose a letter from Mrs. Bowen which will tell you better than I can what I wish to tell. I do not see how I can add anything that would give you more of an idea of him, or less, either. No person can be put down in cold black and white, and not seem like a mere inventory. I do not suppose you expected me to become engaged when you sent me out to Florence, and, as Mrs. Bowen says, I don't know whether I am engaged or not. I will leave it entirely to Mr. Colville; if he says we are engaged, we are. I am sure he will do what is best. I only know that he was going away from Florence because he thought I supposed he was not in earnest, and I asked him to stay.
"I am a good deal excited to-night, and cannot write very clearly. But I will write soon again, and more at length.
"Perhaps something will be decided by that time. With much love to father,
"Your affectionate daughter,
She put this letter into an envelope with Mrs. Bowen's, and leaving it unsealed to show her in the morning, she began to write again. This time she wrote to a girl with whom she had been on terms so intimate that when they left school they had agreed to know each other by names expressive of their extremely confidential friendship, and to address each other respectively as Diary and Journal. They were going to write every day, if only a line or two; and at the end of a year they were to meet and read over together the records of their lives as set down in these letters. They had never met since, though it was now three years since they parted, and they had not written since Imogene came abroad; that is, Imogene had not answered the only letter she had received from her friend in Florence. This friend was a very serious girl, and had wished to be a minister, but her family would not consent, or even accept the compromise of studying medicine, which she proposed, and she was still living at home in a small city of central New York. Imogene now addressed her—
"DEAR DIARY,—You cannot think how far away the events of this day have pushed the feelings and ideas of the time when I agreed to write to you under this name. Till now it seems to me as if I had not changed in the least thing since we parted, and now I can hardly know myself for the same person. O dear Di! something very wonderful has come into my life, and I feel that it rests with me to make it the greatest blessing to myself and others, or the greatest misery. If I prove unworthy of it or unequal to it, then I am sure that nothing but wretchedness will come of it.
"I am engaged—yes!—and to a man more than twice my own age. It is so easy to tell you this, for I know that your large-mindedness will receive it very differently from most people, and that you will see it as I do. He is the noblest of men, though he tries to conceal it under the light, ironical manner with which he has been faithful to a cruel disappointment. It was here in Florence, twenty years ago, that a girl—I am ashamed to call her a girl—trifled with the priceless treasure that has fallen to me, and flung it away. You, Di, will understand how I was first fascinated with the idea of trying to atone to him here for all the wrong he had suffered. At first it was only the vaguest suggestion—something like what I had read in a poem or a novel—that had nothing to do with me personally, but it grew upon me more and more the more I saw of him, and felt the witchery of his light, indifferent manner, which I learned to see was tense with the anguish he had suffered. She had killed his youth; she had spoiled his life: if I could revive them, restore them! It came upon me like a great flash of light at last, and as soon as this thought took possession of me, I felt my whole being elevated and purified by it, and I was enabled to put aside with contempt the selfish considerations that had occurred to me at first. At first the difference between our ages was very shocking to me; for I had always imagined it would be some one young; but when this light broke upon me, I saw that he was young, younger even than I, as a man is at the same age with a girl. Sometimes with my experiences, the fancies and flirtations that every one has and must have, however one despises them, I felt so old beside him; for he had been true to one love all his life, and he had not wavered for a moment. If I could make him forget it, if I could lift every feather's weight of sorrow from his breast, if I could help him to complete the destiny, grand and beautiful as it would have been, which another had arrested, broken off—don't you see, Di dear, how rich my reward would be?
"And he, how forbearing, how considerate, how anxious for me, how full of generous warning he has been! always putting me in mind, at every step, of the difference in years between us; never thinking of himself, and shrinking so much from even seeming to control me or sway me, that I don't know really whether I have not made all the advances!
"I cannot write his name yet, and you must not ask it till I can; and I cannot tell you anything about his looks or his life without seeming to degrade him, somehow, and make him a common man like others.
"How can I make myself his companion in everything? How can I convince him that there is no sacrifice for me, and that he alone is giving up? These are the thoughts that keep whirling through my mind. I hope I shall be helped, and I hope that I shall be tried, for that is the only way for me to be helped. I feel strong enough for anything that people can say. I should welcome criticism and opposition from any quarter. But I can see that he is very sensitive—it comes from his keen sense of the ridiculous—and if I suffer, it will be on account of this grand unselfish nature, and I shall be glad of that.
"I know you will understand me, Di, and I am not afraid of your laughing at these ravings. But if you did I should not care. It is such a comfort to say these things about him, to exalt him, and get him in the true light at last.
"Your faithful JOURNAL.
"I shall tell him about you, one of the first things, and perhaps he can suggest some way out of your trouble, he has had so much experience of every kind. You will worship him, as I do, when you see him; for you will feel at once that he understands you, and that is such a rest.
Before Imogene fell asleep, Mrs. Bowen came to her in the dark, and softly closed the door that opened from the girl's room into Effie's. She sat down on the bed, and began to speak at once, as if she knew Imogene must be awake. "I thought you would come to me, Imogene; but as you didn't, I have come to you, for if you can go to sleep with hard thoughts of me to-night, I can't let you. You need me for your friend, and I wish to be your friend; it would be wicked in me to be anything else; I would give the world if your mother were here; but I tried to make my letter to her everything that it should be. If you don't think it is, I will write it over in the morning."
"No," said the girl coldly; "it will do very well. I don't wish to trouble you so much."
"Oh, how can you speak so to me? Do you think that I blame Mr. Colville? Is that it? I don't ask you—I shall never ask you—how he came to remain, but I know that he has acted truthfully and delicately. I knew him long before you did, and no one need take his part with me." This was not perhaps what Mrs. Bowen meant to say when she began. "I have told you all along what I thought, but if you imagine that I am not satisfied with Mr. Colville, you are very much mistaken. I can't burst out into praises of him to your mother: that would be very patronising and very bad taste. Can't you see that it would?"
Mrs. Bowen lingered, as if she expected Imogene to say something more, but she did not, and Mrs. Bowen rose. "Then I hope we understand each other," she said, and went out of the room.
When Colville came in the morning, Mrs. Bowen received him. They shook hands, and their eyes met in the intercepting glance of the night before.
"Imogene will be here in a moment," she said, with a naturalness that made him awkward and conscious.
"Oh, there is no haste," he answered uncouthly. "That is, I am very glad of the chance to speak a moment with you, and to ask your—to profit by what you think best. I know you are not very well pleased with me, and I don't know that I can ever put myself in a better light with you—the true light. It seems that there are some things we must not do even for the truth's sake. But that's neither here nor there. What I am most anxious for is not to take a shadow of advantage of this child's—of Imogene's inexperience, and her remoteness from her family. I feel that I must in some sort protect her from herself. Yes—that is my idea. But I have to do this in so many ways that I hardly know how to begin. I should be very willing, if you thought best, to go away and stay away till she has heard from her people, and let her have that time to think it all over again. She is very young—so much younger than I! Or, if you thought it better, I would stay, and let her remain free while I held myself bound to any decision of hers. I am anxious to do what is right. At the same time"—he smiled ruefully—"there is such a thing as being so disinterested that one may seem uninterested. I may leave her so very free that she may begin to suspect that I want a little freedom myself. What shall I do? I wish to act with your approval."
Mrs. Bowen had listened with acquiescence and intelligence that might well have looked like sympathy, as she sat fingering the top of her hand-screen, with her eyelids fallen. She lifted them to say, "I have told you that I will not advise yon in any way. I cannot. I have no longer any wish in this matter. I must still remain in the place of Imogene's mother; but I will do only what you wish. Please understand that, and don't ask me for advice any more. It is painful." She drew her lower lip in a little, and let the screen fall into her lap.
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Bowen, to do anything—say anything—that is painful to you," Colville began. "You know that I would give the world to please you——" The words escaped him and left him staring at her,
"What are you saying to me, Theodore Colville?" she exclaimed, flashing a full-eyed glance upon him, and then breaking into a laugh, as unnatural for her. "Really, I don't believe you know!"
"Heaven knows I meant nothing but what I said," he answered, struggling stupidly with a confusion of desires which every man but no woman will understand. After eighteen hundred years, the man is still imperfectly monogamous. "Is there anything wrong in it?"
"Oh no! Not for you," she said scornfully.
"I am very much in earnest," he went on hopelessly, "in asking your opinion, your help, in regard to how I shall treat this affair."
"And I am still more in earnest in telling you that I will give you no opinion, no help. I forbid you to recur to the subject." He was silent, unable to drop his eyes from hers. "But for her," continued Mrs. Bowen, "I will do anything in my power. If she asks my advice I will give it, and I will give her all the help I can."
"Thank you," said Colville vaguely.
"I will not have your thanks," promptly retorted Mrs. Bowen, "for I mean you no kindness. I am trying to do my duty to Imogene, and when that is ended, all is ended. There is no way now for you to please me—as you call it—except to keep her from regretting what she has done."
"Do you think I shall fail in that?" he demanded indignantly.
"I can offer you no opinion. I can't tell what you will do."
"There are two ways of keeping her from regretting what she has done; and perhaps the simplest and best way would be to free her from the consequences, as far as they're involved in me," said Colville.
Mrs. Bowen dropped herself back in her armchair. "If you choose to force these things upon me, I am a woman, and can't help myself. Especially, I can't help myself against a guest."
"Oh, I will relieve you of my presence," said Colville. "I've no wish to force anything upon you—least of all myself." He rose, and moved toward the door.
She hastily intercepted him. "Do you think I will let you go without seeing Imogene? Do you understand me so little as that? It's too late for you to go! You know what I think of all this, and I know, better than you, what you think. I shall play my part, and you shall play yours. I have refused to give you advice or help, and I never shall do it. But I know what my duty to her is, and I will fulfil it. No matter how distasteful it is to either of us, you must come here as before. The house is as free to you as ever—freer. And we are to be as good friends as ever—better. You can see Imogene alone or in my presence, and, as far as I am concerned, you shall consider yourself engaged or not, as you choose. Do you understand?"
"Not in the least," said Colville, in the ghost of his old bantering manner. "But don't explain, or I shall make still less of it."
"I mean simply that I do it for Imogene and not for you."
"Oh, I understand that you don't do it for me."
At this moment Imogene appeared between the folds of the portiere, and her timid, embarrassed glance from Mrs. Bowen to Colville was the first gleam of consolation that had visited him since he parted with her the night before. A thrill of inexplicable pride and fondness passed through his heart, and even the compunction that followed could not spoil its sweetness. But if Mrs. Bowen discreetly turned her head aside that she need not witness a tender greeting between them, the precaution was unnecessary. He merely went forward and took the girl's hand, with a sigh of relief. "Good morning, Imogene," he said, with a kind of compassionate admiration.