Imogene scrutinised him as if to extract some personal meaning from his words, and then turned her head away. The clergyman addressed him with what was like a respectful toleration of the drolleries of a gifted but eccentric man, the flavour of whose talk he was beginning to taste.
"You don't really mean that one shouldn't come to Italy as well informed as possible?"
"Well, I did," said Colville, "but I don't."
The young man pondered this, and Imogene started up with an air of rescuing them from each other—as if she would not let Mr. Morton think Colville trivial or Colville consider the clergyman stupid, but would do what she could to take their minds off the whole question. Perhaps she was not very clear as to how this was to be done; at any rate she did not speak, and Mrs. Bowen came to her support, from whatever motive of her own. It might have been from a sense of the injustice of letting Mr. Morton suffer from the complications that involved herself and the others. The affair had been going very hitchily ever since they started, with the burden of the conversation left to the two men and that helpless girl; if it were not to be altogether a failure she must interfere."
"Did you ever hear of Gratiano when you were in Venice?" she asked Mr. Morton.
"Is he one of their new water-colourists?" returned the young man. "I heard they had quite a school there now."
"No," said Mrs. Bowen, ignoring her failure as well as she could; "he was a famous talker; he loved to speak an infinite deal of nothing more than any man in Venice."
"An ancestor of mine, Mr. Morton," said Colville; "a poor, honest man, who did his best to make people forget that the ladies were silent. Thank you, Mrs. Bowen, for mentioning him. I wish he were with us to-day."
The young man laughed. "Oh, in the Merchant of Venice!"
"No other," said Colville.
"I confess," said Mrs. Bowen, "that I am rather stupid this morning. I suppose it's the softness of the air; it's been harsh and irritating so long. It makes me drowsy."
"Don't mind us," returned Colville. "We will call you at important points." They were driving into a village at which people stop sometimes to admire the works of art in its church. "Here, for example, is—What place is this?" he asked of the coachman.
"I should know it again by its beggars." Of all ages and sexes they swarmed round the carriage, which the driver had instinctively slowed to oblige them, and thrust forward their hands and hats. Colville gave Effie his small change to distribute among them, at sight of which they streamed down the street from every direction. Those who had received brought forward the halt and blind, and did not scruple to propose being rewarded for this service. At the same time they did not mind his laughing in their faces; they laughed too, and went off content, or as nearly so as beggars ever are. He buttoned up his pocket as they drove on more rapidly. "I am the only person of no principle—except Effie—in the carriage, and yet I am at this moment carrying more blessings out of this village than I shall ever know what to do with. Mrs. Bowen, I know, is regarding me with severe disapproval. She thinks that I ought to have sent the beggars of San Domenico to Florence, where they would all be shut up in the Pia Casa di Ricovero, and taught some useful occupation. It's terrible in Florence. You can walk through Florence now and have no appeal made to your better nature that is not made at the appellant's risk of imprisonment. When I was there before, you had opportunities of giving at every turn."
"You can send a cheque to the Pia Casa," said Mrs. Bowen.
"Ah, but what good would that do me? When I give I want the pleasure of it; I want to see my beneficiary cringe under my bounty. But I've tried in vain to convince you that the world has gone wrong in other ways. Do you remember the one-armed man whom we used to give to on the Lung' Arno? That persevering sufferer has been repeatedly arrested for mendicancy, and obliged to pay a fine out of his hard earnings to escape being sent to your Pia Casa."
Mrs. Bowen smiled, and said, Was he living yet? in a pensive tone of reminiscence. She was even more than patient of Colville's nonsense. It seemed to him that the light under her eyelids was sometimes a grateful light. Confronting Imogene and the young man whose hopes of her he was to destroy at the first opportunity, the lurid moral atmosphere which he breathed seemed threatening to become a thing apparent to sense, and to be about to blot the landscape. He fought it back as best he could, and kept the hovering cloud from touching the earth by incessant effort. At times he looked over the side of the carriage, and drew secretly a long breath of fatigue. It began to be borne in upon him that these ladies were using him ill in leaving him the burden of their entertainment. He became angry, but his heart softened, and he forgave them again, for he conjectured that he was the cause of the cares that kept them silent. He felt certain that the affair had taken some new turn. He wondered if Mrs. Bowen had told Imogene what she had demanded of him. But he could only conjecture and wonder in the dreary undercurrent of thought that flowed evenly and darkly on with the talk he kept going. He made the most he could of the varying views of Florence which the turns and mounting levels of the road gave him. He became affectionately grateful to the young clergyman when he replied promptly and fully, and took an interest in the objects or subjects he brought up.
Neither Mrs. Bowen nor Imogene was altogether silent. The one helped on at times wearily, and the other broke at times from her abstraction. Doubtless the girl had undertaken too much in insisting upon a party of pleasure with her mind full of so many things, and doubtless Mrs. Bowen was sore with a rankling resentment at her insistence, and vexed at herself for having yielded to it. If at her time of life and with all her experience of it, she could not rise under this inner load, Imogene must have been crushed by it.
Her starts from the dreamy oppression, if that were what kept her silent, took the form of aggression, when she disagreed with Colville about things he was saying, or attacked him for this or that thing which he had said in times past. It was an unhappy and unamiable self-assertion, which he was not able to compassionate so much when she resisted or defied Mrs. Bowen, as she seemed seeking to do at every point. Perhaps another would not have felt it so; it must have been largely in his consciousness; the young clergyman seemed not to see anything in these bursts but the indulgence of a gay caprice, though his laughing at them did not alleviate the effect to Colville, who, when he turned to Mrs. Bowen for her alliance, was astonished with a prompt snub, unmistakable to himself, however imperceptible to others.
He found what diversion and comfort he could in the party of children who beset them at a point near the town, and followed the carriage, trying to sell them various light and useless trifles made of straw—fans, baskets, parasols, and the like. He bought recklessly of them and gave them to Effie, whom he assured, without the applause of the ladies, and with the grave question of the young clergyman, that the vendors were little Etruscan girls, all at least twenty-five hundred years old. "It's very hard to find any Etruscans under that age; most of the grown-up people are three thousand."
The child humoured his extravagance with the faith in fable which children are able to command, and said, "Oh, tell me about them!" while she pushed up closer to him, and began to admire her presents, holding them up before her, and dwelling fondly upon them one by one.
"Oh, there's very little to tell," answered Colville. "They're mighty close people, and always keep themselves very much to themselves. But wouldn't you like to see a party of Etruscans of all ages, even down to little babies only eleven or twelve hundred years old, come driving into an American town? It would make a great excitement, wouldn't it?"
"It would be splendid."
"Yes; we would give them a collation in the basement of the City Hall, and drive them out to the cemetery. The Americans and Etruscans are very much alike in that—they always show you their tombs."
"Will they in Fiesole?"
"How you always like to burrow into the past!" interrupted Imogene.
"Well, it's rather difficult burrowing into the future," returned Colville defensively. Accepting the challenge, he added: "Yes, I should really like to meet a few Etruscans in Fiesole this morning. I should feel as if I'd got amongst my contemporaries at last; they would understand me."
The girl's face flushed. "Then no one else can understand you?"
"Apparently not. I am the great American incompris."
"I'm sorry for you," she returned feebly; and, in fact, sarcasm was not her strong point.
When they entered the town they found the Etruscans preoccupied with other visitors, whom at various points in the quaint little piazza they surrounded in dense groups, to their own disadvantage as guides and beggars and dealers in straw goods. One of the groups reluctantly dispersed to devote itself to the new arrivals, and these then perceived that it was a party of artists, scattered about and sketching, which had absorbed the attention of the population. Colville went to the restaurant to order lunch, leaving the ladies to the care of Mr. Morton. When he came back he found the carriage surrounded by the artists, who had turned out to be the Inglehart boys. They had walked up to Fiesole the afternoon before, and they had been sketching there all the morning. With the artist's indifference to the conventional objects of interest, they were still ignorant of what ought to be seen in Fiesole by tourists, and they accepted Colville's proposition to be of his party in going the rounds of the Cathedral, the Museum, and the view from that point of the wall called the Belvedere. They found that they had been at the Belvedere before without knowing that it merited particular recognition, and some of them had made sketches from it—of bits of architecture and landscape, and of figure amongst the women with straw fans and baskets to sell, who thronged round the whole party again, and interrupted the prospect. In the church they differed amongst themselves as to the best bits for study, and Colville listened in whimsical despair to the enthusiasm of their likings and dislikings. All that was so far from him now; but in the Museum, which had only a thin interest based upon a small collection of art and archeology, he suffered a real affliction in the presence of a young Italian couple, who were probably plighted lovers. They went before a grey-haired pair, who might have been the girl's father and mother, and they looked at none of the objects, though they regularly stopped before them and waited till their guide had said his say about them. The girl, clinging tight to the young man's arm, knew nothing but him; her mouth and eyes were set in a passionate concentration of her being upon him, and he seemed to walk in a dream of her. From time to time they peered upon each other's faces, and then they paused, rapt and indifferent to all besides.
The young painters had their jokes about it; even Mr. Morton smiled, and Mrs. Bowen recognised it. But Imogene did not smile; she regarded the lovers with an interest in them scarcely less intense than their interest in each other; and a cold perspiration of question broke out on Colville's forehead. Was that her ideal of what her own engagement should be? Had she expected him to behave in that way to her, and to accept from her a devotion like that girl's? How bitterly he must have disappointed her! It was so impossible to him that the thought of it made him feel that he must break all ties which bound him to anything like it. And yet he reflected that the time was when he could have been equal to that, and even more.
After lunch the painters joined them again, and they all went together to visit the ruins of the Roman theatre and the stretch of Etruscan wall beyond it. The former seems older than the latter, whose huge blocks of stone lie as firmly and evenly in their courses as if placed there a year ago; the turf creeps to the edge at top, and some small trees nod along the crest of the wall, whose ancient face, clean and bare, looks sternly out over a vast prospect, now young and smiling in the first delight of spring. The piety or interest of the community, which guards the entrance to the theatre by a fee of certain centesimi, may be concerned in keeping the wall free from the grass and vines which are stealing the half-excavated arena back to forgetfulness and decay; but whatever agency it was, it weakened the appeal that the wall made to the sympathy of the spectators.
They could do nothing with it; the artists did not take their sketch-blocks from their pockets. But in the theatre, where a few broken columns marked the place of the stage, and the stone benches of the auditorium were here and there reached by a flight of uncovered steps, the human interest returned.
"I suspect that there is such a thing as a ruin's being too old," said Colville. "Our Etruscan friends made the mistake of building their wall several thousand years too soon for our purpose."
"Yes," consented the young clergyman. "It seems as if our own race became alienated from us through the mere effect of time, don't you think, sir? I mean, of course, terrestrially."
The artists looked uneasy, as if they had not counted upon anything of this kind, and they began to scatter about for points of view. Effie got her mother's leave to run up and down one of the stairways, if she would not fall. Mrs. Bowen sat down on one of the lower steps, and Mr. Morton took his place respectfully near her.
"I wonder how it looks from the top?" Imogene asked this of Colville, with more meaning than seemed to belong to the question properly.
"There is nothing like going to see," he suggested. He helped her up, giving her his hand from one course of seats to another. When they reached the point which commanded the best view of the whole, she sat down, and he sank at her feet, but they did not speak of the view.
"Theodore, I want to tell you something," she said abruptly. "I have heard from home."
"Yes?" he replied, in a tone in which he did his best to express a readiness for any fate.
"Mother has telegraphed. She is coming out. She is on her way now. She will be here very soon."
Colville did not know exactly what to say to these passionately consecutive statements. "Well?" he said at last.
"Well"—she repeated his word—"what do you intend to do?"
"Intend to do in what event?" he asked, lifting his eyes for the first time to the eyes which he felt burning down upon him.
"If she should refuse?"
Again he could not command an instant answer, but when it came it was a fair one. "It isn't for me to say what I shall do," he replied gravely. "Or, if it is, I can only say that I will do whatever you wish."
"Do you wish nothing?"
"Nothing but your happiness."
"Nothing but my happiness!" she retorted. "What is my happiness to me? Have I ever sought it?"
"I can't say," he answered; "but if I did not think you would find it—"
"I shall find it, if ever I find it, in yours," she interrupted. "And what shall you do if my mother will not consent to our engagement?"
The experienced and sophisticated man—for that in no ill way was what Colville was—felt himself on trial for his honour and his manhood by this simple girl, this child. He could not endure to fall short of her ideal of him at that moment, no matter what error or calamity the fulfilment involved. "If you feel sure that you love me, Imogene, it will make no difference to me what your mother says. I would be glad of her consent; I should hate to go counter to her will; but I know that I am good enough man to be true and keep you all my life the first in all my thoughts, and that's enough for me. But if you have any fear, any doubt of yourself, now is the time—"
Imogene rose to her feet as in some turmoil of thought or emotion that would not suffer her to remain quiet.
"Oh, keep still!" "Don't get up yet!" "Hold on a minute, please!" came from the artists in different parts of the theatre, and half a dozen imploring pencils were waved in the air.
"They are sketching you," said Colville, and she sank compliantly into her seat again.
"I have no doubt for myself—no," she said, as if there had been no interruption.
"Then we need have no anxiety in meeting your mother," said Colville, with a light sigh, after a moment's pause. "What makes you think she will be unfavourable?"
"I don't think that; but I thought—I didn't know but—"
"Nothing, now." Her lips were quivering; he could see her struggle for self-control, but he could not see it unmoved.
"Poor child!" he said, putting out his hand toward her.
"Don't take my hand; they're all looking," she begged.
He forbore, and they remained silent and motionless a little while, before she had recovered herself sufficiently to speak again.
"Then we are promised to each other, whatever happens," she said.
"And we will never speak of this again. But there is one thing. Did Mrs. Bowen ask you to tell Mr. Morton of our engagement?"
"She said that I ought to do so."
"And did you say you would?"
"I don't know. But I suppose I ought to tell him."
"I don't wish you to!" cried the girl.
"You don't wish me to tell him?"
"No; I will not have it!"
"Oh, very well; it's much easier not. But it seems to me that it's only fair to him."
"Did you think of that yourself?" she demanded fiercely.
"No," returned Colville, with sad self-recognition. "I'm afraid I'm not apt to think of the comforts and rights of other people. It was Mrs. Bowen who thought of it."
"I knew it!"
"But I must confess that I agreed with her, though I would have preferred to postpone it till we heard from your family." He was thoughtfully silent a moment; then he said, "But if their decision is to have no weight with us, I think he ought to be told at once."
"Do you think that I am flirting with him?"
"Imogene!" exclaimed Colville reproachfully.
"That's what you imply; that's what she implies."
"You're very unjust to Mrs. Bowen, Imogene."
"Oh, you always defend her! It isn't the first time you've told me I was unjust to her."
"I don't mean that you are willingly unjust, or could be so, to any living creature, least of all to her. But I—we—owe her so much; she has been so patient."
"What do we owe her? How has she been patient?"
"She has overcome her dislike to me."
"And—and I feel under obligation to her for—in a thousand little ways; and I should be glad to feel that we were acting with her approval; I should like to please her."
"You wish to tell Mr. Morton?"
"I think I ought."
"To please Mrs. Bowen! Tell him, then! You always cared more to please her than me. Perhaps you stayed in Florence to please her!"
She rose and ran down the broken seats and ruined steps so recklessly and yet so sure-footedly that it seemed more like a flight than a pace to the place where Mrs. Bowen and Mr. Morton were talking together.
Colville followed as he could, slowly and with a heavy heart. A good thing develops itself in infinite and unexpected shapes of good; a bad thing into manifold and astounding evils. This mistake was whirling away beyond his recall in hopeless mazes of error. He saw this generous young spirit betrayed by it to ignoble and unworthy excess, and he knew that he and not she was to blame.
He was helpless to approach her, to speak with her, to set her right, great as the need of that was, and he could see that she avoided him. But their relations remained outwardly undisturbed. The artists brought their sketches for inspection and comment, and, without speaking to each other, he and Imogene discussed them with the rest.
When they started homeward the painters said they were coming a little way with them for a send-off, and then going back to spend the night in Fiesole. They walked beside the carriage, talking with Mrs. Bowen and Imogene, who had taken their places, with Effie between them, on the back seat; and when they took their leave, Colville and the young clergyman, who had politely walked with them, continued on foot a little further, till they came to the place where the highway to Florence divided into the new road and the old. At this point it steeply overtops the fields on one side, which is shored up by a wall some ten or twelve feet deep; and here round a sharp turn of the hill on the other side came a peasant driving a herd of the black pigs of the country.
Mrs. Bowen's horses were, perhaps, pampered beyond the habitual resignation of Florentine horses to all manner of natural phenomena; they reared at sight of the sable crew, and backing violently uphill, set the carriage across the road, with its hind wheels a few feet from the brink of the wall. The coachman sprang from his seat, the ladies and the child remained in theirs as if paralysed.
Colville ran forward to the side of the carriage. "Jump, Mrs. Bowen! jump, Effie! Imogene—"
The mother and the little one obeyed. He caught them in his arms and set them down. The girl sat still, staring at him with reproachful, with disdainful eyes.
He leaped forward to drag her out; she shrank away, and then he flew to help the coachman, who had the maddened horses by the bit.
"Let go!" he heard the young clergyman calling to him; "she's safe!" He caught a glimpse of Imogene, whom Mr. Morton had pulled from the other side of the carriage. He struggled to free his wrist from the curb-bit chain of the horse, through which he had plunged it in his attempt to seize the bridle. The wheels of the carriage went over the wall; he felt himself whirled into the air, and then swung ruining down into the writhing and crashing heap at the bottom of the wall.
When Colville came to himself his first sensation was delight in the softness and smoothness of the turf on which he lay. Then the strange colour of the grass commended itself to his notice, and presently he perceived that the thing under his head was a pillow, and that he was in bed. He was supported in this conclusion by the opinion of the young man who sat watching him a little way off, and who now smiled cheerfully at the expression in the eyes which Colville turned inquiringly upon him.
"Where am I?" he asked, with what appeared to him very unnecessary feebleness of voice.
The young man begged his pardon in Italian, and when Colville repeated his question in that tongue, he told him that he was in Palazzo Pinti, whither he had been brought from the scene of his accident. He added that Colville must not talk till the doctor had seen him and given him leave, and he explained that he was himself a nurse from the hospital, who had been taking care of him.
Colville moved his head and felt the bandage upon it; he desisted in his attempt to lift his right arm to it before the attendant could interfere in behalf of the broken limb. He recalled dimly and fragmentarily long histories that he had dreamed, but he forbore to ask how long he had been in his present case, and he accepted patiently the apparition of the doctor and other persons who came and went, and were at his bedside or not there, as it seemed to him, between the opening and closing of an eye. As the days passed they acquired greater permanence and maintained a more uninterrupted identity. He was able to make quite sure of Mr. Morton and of Mr. Waters; Mrs. Bowen came in, leading Effie, and this gave him a great pleasure. Mrs. Bowen seemed to have grown younger and better. Imogene was not among the phantoms who visited him; and he accepted her absence as quiescently as he accepted the presence of the others. There was a cheerfulness in those who came that permitted him no anxiety, and he was too weak to invite it by any conjecture. He consented to be spared and to spare himself; and there were some things about the affair which gave him a singular and perhaps not wholly sane content. One of these was the man nurse who had evidently taken care of him throughout. He celebrated, whenever he looked at this capable person, his escape from being, in the odious helplessness of sickness, a burden upon the strength and sympathy of the two women for whom he had otherwise made so much trouble. His satisfaction in this had much to do with his recovery, which, when it once began, progressed rapidly to a point where he was told that Imogene and her mother were at a hotel in Florence, waiting till he should be strong enough to see them. It was Mrs. Bowen who told him this with an air which she visibly strove to render non-committal and impersonal, but which betrayed, nevertheless, a faint apprehension for the effect upon him. The attitude of Imogene and her mother was certainly not one to have been expected of people holding their nominal relation to him, but Colville had been revising his impressions of events on the day of his accident; Imogene's last look came back to him, and he could not think the situation altogether unaccountable.
"Have I been here a long time?" he asked, as if he had not heeded what she told him.
"About a fortnight," answered Mrs. Bowen.
"And Imogene—how long has she been away?"
"Since they knew you would get well."
"I will see them any time," he said quietly.
"Do you think you are strong enough?"
"I shall never be stronger till I have seen them," he returned, with a glance at her. "Yes; I want them to come to-day. I shall not be excited; don't be troubled—if you were going to be," he added. "Please send to them at once."
Mrs. Bowen hesitated, but after a moment left the room. She returned in half an hour with a lady who revealed even to Colville's languid regard evidences of the character which Mrs. Bowen had attributed to Imogene's mother. She was a large, robust person, laced to sufficient shapeliness, and she was well and simply dressed. She entered the room with a waft of some clean, wholesome perfume, and a quiet temperament and perfect health looked out of her clear, honest eyes—the eyes of Imogene Graham, though the girl's were dark and the woman's were blue. When Mrs. Bowen had named them to each other, in withdrawing, Mrs. Graham took Colville's weak left hand in her fresh, strong, right, and then lifted herself a chair to his bedside, and sat down.
"How do you do to-day, sir?" she said, with a touch of old-fashioned respectfulness in the last word. "Do you think you are quite strong enough to talk with me?"
"I think so," said Colville, with a faint smile. "At least I can listen with fortitude."
Mrs. Graham was not apparently a person adapted to joking. "I don't know whether it will require much fortitude to hear what I have to say or not," she said, with her keen gaze fixed upon him. "It's simply this: I am going to take Imogene home."
She seemed to expect that Colville would make some reply to this, and he said blankly, "Yes?"
"I came out prepared to consent to what she wished, after I had seen you, and satisfied myself that she was not mistaken; for I had always promised myself that her choice should be perfectly untrammelled, and I have tried to bring her up with principles and ideas that would enable her to make a good choice."
"Yes," said Colville again. "I'm afraid you didn't take her temperament and her youth into account, and that she disappointed you."
"No; I can't say that she did. It isn't that at all. I see no reason to blame her for her choice. Her mistake was of another kind."
It appeared to Colville that this very sensible and judicial lady found an intellectual pleasure in the analysis of the case, which modified the intensity of her maternal feeling in regard to it, and that, like many people who talk well, she liked to hear herself talk in the presence of another appreciative listener. He did not offer to interrupt her, and she went on. "No, sir, I am not disappointed in her choice. I think her chances of happiness would have been greater, in the abstract, with one nearer her own age; but that is a difference which other things affect so much that it did not alarm me greatly. Some people are younger at your age than at hers. No, sir, that is not the point." Mrs. Graham fetched a sigh, as if she found it easier to say what was not the point than to say what was, and her clear gaze grew troubled. But she apparently girded herself for the struggle. "As far as you are concerned, Mr. Colville, I have not a word to say. Your conduct throughout has been most high-minded and considerate and delicate."
It is hard for any man to deny merits attributed to him, especially if he has been ascribing to himself the opposite demerits. But Colville summoned his dispersed forces to protest against this.
"Oh, no, no," he cried. "Anything but that. My conduct has been selfish and shameful. If you could understand all—"
"I think I do understand all—at least far more, I regret to say, than my daughter has been willing to tell me. And I am more than satisfied with you. I thank you and honour you."
"Oh no; don't say that," pleaded Colville. "I really can't stand it."
"And when I came here it was with the full intention of approving and confirming Imogene's decision. But I was met at once by a painful and surprising state of things. You are aware that you have been very sick?"
"Dimly," said Colville.
"I found you very sick, and I found my daughter frantic at the error which she had discovered in herself—discovered too late, as she felt." Mrs. Graham hesitated, and then added abruptly, "She had found out that she did not love you."
"Didn't love me?" repeated Colville feebly.
"She had been conscious of the truth before, but she had stifled her misgivings insanely, and, as I feel, almost wickedly, pushing on, and saying to herself that when you were married, then there would be no escape, and she must love you."
"Poor girl! poor child! I see, I see."
"But the accident that was almost your death saved her from that miserable folly and iniquity. Yes," she continued, in answer to the protest in his face, "folly and iniquity. I found her half crazed at your bedside. She was fully aware of your danger, but while she was feeling all the remorse that she ought to feel—that any one could feel—she was more and more convinced that she never had loved you and never should. I can give you no idea of her state of mind."
"Oh, you needn't! you needn't! Poor, poor child!"
"Yes, a child indeed. If it had not been for the pity I felt for her—But no matter about that. She saw at last that if your heroic devotion to her"—Colville did his best to hang his pillowed head for shame—"if your present danger did not awaken her to some such feeling for you as she had once imagined she had; if they both only increased her despair and self-abhorrence, then the case was indeed hopeless. She was simply distracted. I had to tear her away almost by force. She has had a narrow escape from brain-fever. And now I have come to implore, to demand"—Mrs. Graham, with all her poise and calm, was rising to the hysterical key—"her release from a fate that would be worse than death for such a girl. I mean marrying without the love of her whole soul. She esteems you, she respects you, she admires you, she likes you; but—" Mrs. Graham pressed her lips together, and her eyes shone.
"She is free," said Colville, and with the words a mighty load rolled from his heart. "There is no need to demand anything."
"There hasn't been an hour, an instant, during—since I—we—spoke together that I wouldn't have released her if I could have known what you tell me now."
"Of course!—of course!"
"I have had my fears—my doubts; but whenever I approached the point I found no avenue by which we could reach a clearer understanding. I could not say much without seeming to seek for myself the release I was offering her."
"Naturally. And what added to her wretchedness was the suspicion at the bottom of all that she had somehow forced herself upon you— misunderstood you, and made you say and do things to spare her that you would not have done voluntarily." This was advanced tentatively. In the midst of his sophistications Colville had, as most of his sex have, a native, fatal, helpless truthfulness, which betrayed him at the most unexpected moments, and this must now have appeared in his countenance. The lady rose haughtily. She had apparently been considering him, but, after all, she must have been really considering her daughter. "If anything of the kind was the case," she said, "I will ask you to spare her the killing knowledge. It's quite enough for me to know it. And allow me to say, Mr. Colville, that it would have been far kinder in you—"
"Ah, think, my dear madam!" he exclaimed. "How could I?"
She did think, evidently, and when she spoke it was with a generous emotion, in which there was no trace of pique.
"You couldn't. You have done right; I feel that, and I will trust you to say anything you will to my daughter."
"To your daughter? Shall I see her?"
"She came with me. She wished to beg your forgiveness."
Colville lay silent. "There is no forgiveness to be asked or granted," he said, at length. "Why should she suffer the pain of seeing me?—for it would be nothing else. What do you think? Will it do her any good hereafter? I don't care for myself."
"I don't know what to think," said Mrs. Graham. "She is a strange child. She may have some idea of reparation."
"Oh, beseech her from me not to imagine that any reparation is due! Where there has been an error there must be blame; but wherever it lies in ours, I am sure it isn't at her door. Tell her I say this; tell her that I acquit her with all my heart of every shadow of wrong; that I am not unhappy, but glad for her sake and my own that this has ended as it has." He stretched his left hand across the coverlet to her, and said, with the feebleness of exhaustion, "Good-bye. Bid her good-bye for me."
Mrs. Graham pressed his hand and went out. A moment after the door was flung open, and Imogene burst into the room. She threw herself on her knees beside his bed. "I will pray to you!" she said, her face intense with the passions working in her soul. She seemed choking with words which would not come; then, with an inarticulate cry that must stand for all, she caught up the hand that lay limp on the coverlet; she crushed it against her lips, and ran out of the room.
He sank into a deathly torpor, the physical refusal of his brain to take account of what had passed. When he woke from it, little Effie Bowen was airily tiptoeing about the room, fondly retouching its perfect order. He closed his eyes, and felt her come to him and smooth the sheet softly under his chin. Then he knew she must be standing with clasped hands admiring the effect. Some one called her in whisper from the door. It closed, and all was still again.
Colville got himself out of the comfort and quiet of Mrs. Bowen's house as soon as he could. He made the more haste because he felt that if he could have remained with the smallest trace of self-respect, he would have been glad to stay there for ever.
Even as it was, the spring had advanced to early summer, and the sun was lying hot and bright in the piazzas, and the shade dense and cool in the narrow streets, before he left Palazzo Pinti; the Lung' Arno was a glare of light that struck back from the curving line of the buff houses; the river had shrivelled to a rill in its bed; the black cypresses were dim in the tremor of the distant air on the hill-slopes beyond; the olives seemed to swelter in the sun, and the villa walls to burn whiter and whiter. At evening the mosquito began to wind his tiny horn. It was the end of May, and nearly everybody but the Florentines had gone out of Florence, dispersing to Villa Reggio by the sea, to the hills of Pistoja, and to the high, cool air of Siena. More than once Colville had said that he was keeping Mrs. Bowen after she ought to have got away, and she had answered that she liked hot weather, and that this was not comparable to the heat of Washington in June. She was looking very well, and younger and prettier than she had since the first days of their renewed acquaintance in the winter. Her southern complexion enriched itself in the sun; sometimes when she came into his room from outdoors the straying brown hair curled into loose rings on her temples, and her cheeks glowed a deep red.
She said those polite things to appease him as long as he was not well enough to go away, but she did not try to detain him after his strength sufficiently returned. It was the blow on the head that kept him longest. After his broken arm and his other bruises were quite healed, he was aware of physical limits to thinking of the future or regretting the past, and this sense of his powerlessness went far to reconcile him to a life of present inaction and oblivion. Theoretically he ought to have been devoured by remorse and chagrin, but as a matter of fact he suffered very little from either. Even in people who are in full possession of their capacity for mental anguish one observes that after they have undergone a certain amount of pain they cease to feel.
Colville amused himself a good deal with Effie's endeavours to entertain him and take care of him. The child was with him every moment that she could steal from her tasks, and her mother no longer attempted to stem the tide of her devotion. It was understood that Effie should joke and laugh with Mr. Colville as much as she chose; that she should fan him as long as he could stand it; that she should read to him when he woke, and watch him when he slept. She brought him his breakfast, she petted him and caressed him, and wished to make him a monster of dependence and self-indulgence. It seemed to grieve her that he got well so fast.
The last night before he left the house she sat on his knee by the window looking out beyond the firefly twinkle of Oltrarno, to the silence and solid dark of the solemn company of hills beyond. They had not lighted the lamps because of the mosquitoes, and they had talked till her head dropped against his shoulder.
Mrs. Bowen came in to get her. "Why, is she asleep?"
"Yes. Don't take her yet," said Colville.
Mrs. Bowen rustled softly into the chair which Effie had left to get into Colville's lap. Neither of them spoke, and he was so richly content with the peace, the tacit sweetness of the little moment, that he would have been glad to have it silently endure forever. If any troublesome question of his right to such a moment of bliss obtruded itself upon him, he did not concern himself with it.
"We shall have another hot day to-morrow," said Mrs. Bowen at length. "I hope you will find your room comfortable."
"Yes: it's at the back of the hotel, mighty high, and wide, and no sun ever comes into it except when they show it to foreigners in winter. Then they get a few rays to enter as a matter of business, on condition that they won't detain them. I dare say I shall stay there some time. I suppose you will be getting away from Florence very soon.
"Yes. But I haven't decided where to go yet."
"Should you like some general expression of my gratitude for all you've done for me, Mrs. Bowen?"
"No; I would rather not. It has been a great pleasure—to Effie."
"Oh, a luxury beyond the dreams of avarice." They spoke in low tones, and there was something in the hush that suggested to Colville the feasibility of taking into his unoccupied hand one of the pretty hands which the pale night-light showed him lying in Mrs. Bowen's lap. But he forbore, and only sighed. "Well, then, I will say nothing. But I shall keep on thinking all my life."
She made no answer.
"When you are gone, I shall have to make the most of Mr. Waters," he said.
"He is going to stop all summer, I believe."
"Oh yes. When I suggested to him the other day that he might find it too hot, he said that he had seventy New England winters to thaw out of his blood, and that all the summers he had left would not be more than he needed. One of his friends told him that he could cook eggs in his piazza in August, and he said that he should like nothing better than to cook eggs there. He's the most delightfully expatriated compatriot I've ever seen."
"Do you like it?"
"It's well enough for him. Life has no claims on him any more. I think it's very pleasant over here, now that everybody's gone," added Colville, from a confused resentfulness of collectively remembered Days and Afternoons and Evenings. "How still the night is!"
A few feet clapping by on the pavement below alone broke the hush.
"Sometimes I feel very tired of it all, and want to get home," sighed Mrs. Bowen.
"Well, so do I."
"I can't believe it's right staying away from the country so long." People often say such things in Europe.
"No, I don't either, if you've got anything to do there."
"You can always make something to do there."
"Oh yes." Some young young men, breaking from a street near by, began to sing. "We shouldn't have that sort of thing at home."
"No," said Mrs. Bowen pensively.
"I heard just such singing before I fell asleep the night after that party at Madame Uccelli's, and it filled me with fury."
"Why should it do that?"
"I don't know. It seemed like voices from our youth—Lina."
She had no resentment of his use of her name in the tone with which she asked: "Did you hate that so much?"
"No; the loss of it."
They both fetched a deep breath.
"The Uccellis have a villa near the baths of Lucca," said Mrs. Bowen. "They have asked me to go."
"Do you think of going?" inquired Colville. "I've always fancied it must be pleasant there."
"No; I declined. Sometimes I think I will just stay on in Florence."
"I dare say you'd find it perfectly comfortable. There's nothing like having the range of one's own house in summer." He looked out of the window on the blue-black sky.
"'And deepening through their silent spheres, Heaven over heaven rose the night,'"
he quoted. "It's wonderful! Do you remember how I used to read Mariana in the South to you and poor Jenny? How it must have bored her! What an ass I was!"
"Yes," said Mrs. Bowen breathlessly, in sympathy with his reminiscence rather than in agreement with his self-denunciation.
Colville broke into a laugh, and then she began to laugh to; but not quite willingly as it seemed.
Effie started from her sleep. "What—what is it?" she asked, stretching and shivering as half-wakened children do.
"Bed-time," said her mother promptly, taking her hand to lead her away. "Say good-night to Mr. Colville."
The child turned and kissed him. "Good night," she murmured.
"Good night, you sleepy little soul!" It seemed to Colville that he must be a pretty good man, after all, if this little thing loved him so.
"Do you always kiss Mr. Colville good-night?" asked her mother when she began to undo her hair for her in her room.
"Sometimes. Don't you think it's nice?"
"Oh yes; nice enough."
Colville sat by the window a long time thinking Mrs. Bowen might come back; but she did not return.
Mr. Waters came to see him the next afternoon at his hotel.
"Are you pretty comfortable here?" he asked.
"Well, it's a change," said Colville. "I miss the little one awfully."
"She's a winning child," admitted the old man. "That combination of conventionality and naivete is very captivating. I notice it in the mother."
"Yes, the mother has it too. Have you seen them to-day?"
"Yes; Mrs. Bowen was sorry to be out when you came."
"I had the misfortune to miss them. I had a great mind to go again to-night."
The old man said nothing to this. "The fact is," Colville went on, "I'm so habituated to being there that I'm rather spoiled."
"Ah, it's a nice place," Mr. Waters admitted.
"Of course I made all the haste I could to get away, and I have the reward of a good conscience. But I don't find that the reward is very great."
The old gentleman smiled. "The difficulty is to know conscience from self-interest."
"Oh, there's no doubt of it in my case," said Colville. "If I'd consulted my own comfort and advantage, I should still be at Palazzo Pinti."
"I dare say they would have been glad to keep you."
"Do you really think so?" asked Colville, with sudden seriousness. "I wish you would tell me why. Have you any reason—grounds? Pshaw! I'm absurd!" He sank back into the easy-chair from whose depths he had pulled himself in the eagerness of his demand, and wiped his forehead with his handkerchief. "Mr. Waters, you remember my telling you of my engagement to Miss Graham?"
"That is broken off—if it were ever really on. It was a great mistake for both of us—a tragical one for her, poor child, a ridiculous one for me. My only consolation is that it was a mistake and no more; but I don't conceal from myself that I might have prevented it altogether if I had behaved with greater wisdom and dignity at the outset. But I'm afraid I was flattered by an illusion of hers that ought to have pained and alarmed me, and the rest followed inevitably, though I was always just on the point of escaping the consequences of my weakness—my wickedness."
"Ah, there is something extremely interesting in all that," said the old minister thoughtfully. "The situation used to be figured under the old idea of a compact with the devil. His debtor was always on the point of escaping, as you say, but I recollect no instance in which he did not pay at last. The myth must have arisen from man's recognition of the inexorable sequence of cause from effect, in the moral world, which even repentance cannot avert. Goethe tries to imagine an atonement for Faust's trespass against one human soul in his benefactions to the race at large; but it is a very cloudy business."
"It isn't quite a parallel case," said Colville, rather sulkily. He had, in fact, suffered more under Mr. Waters's generalisation than he could from a more personal philosophy of the affair.
"Oh no; I didn't think that," consented the old man.
"And I don't think I shall undertake any extended scheme of drainage or subsoiling in atonement for my little dream," Colville continued, resenting the parity of outline that grew upon him in spite of his protest. They were both silent for a while, and then Colville cried out, "Yes, yes; they are alike. I dreamed, too, of recovering and restoring my own lost and broken past in the love of a young soul, and it was in essence the same cruelly egotistic dream; and it's nothing in my defence that it was all formless and undirected at first, and that as soon as I recognised it I abhorred it."
"Oh yes, it is," replied the old man, with perfect equanimity. "Your assertion is the hysterical excess of Puritanism in all times and places. In the moral world we are responsible only for the wrong that we intend. It can't he otherwise."
"And the evil that's suffered from the wrong we didn't intend?"
"Ah, perhaps that isn't evil."
"It's pain, yes."
"And to have wrung a young and innocent heart with the anguish of self-doubt, with the fear of wrong to another, with the shame of an error such as I allowed, perhaps encouraged her to make—"
"Yes," said the old man. "The young suffer terribly. But they recover. Afterward we don't suffer so much, but we don't recover. I wouldn't defend you against yourself if I thought you seriously in the wrong. If you know yourself to be, you shouldn't let me."
Thus put upon his honour, Colville was a long time thoughtful. "How can I tell?" he asked. "You know the facts; you can judge."
"If I were to judge at all, I should say you were likely to do a greater wrong than any you have committed."
"I don't understand you."
"Miss Graham is a young girl, and I have no doubt that the young clergyman—what was his name?"
"Morton. Do you think—do you suppose there was anything in that?" demanded Colville, with eagerness, that a more humorous observer than Mr. Waters might have found ludicrous. "He was an admirable young fellow, with an excellent head and a noble heart. I underrated him at one time, though I recognised his good qualities afterward; but I was afraid she did not appreciate him."
"I'm not so sure of that," said the old man, with an astuteness of manner which Colville thought authorised by some sort of definite knowledge.
"I would give the world if it were so!" he cried fervently.
"But you are really very much more concerned in something else."
"In what else?"
"Can't you imagine?"
"No," said Colville; but he felt himself growing very red in the face.
"Then I have no more to say."
"Yes, speak!" And after an interval Colville added, "Is it anything about—you hinted at something long ago—Mrs. Bowen?"
"Yes;" the old man nodded his head. "Do you owe her nothing?"
"Owe her nothing? Everything! My life! What self-respect is left me! Immeasurable gratitude! The homage of a man saved from himself as far as his stupidity and selfishness would permit! Why, I—I love her!" The words gave him courage. "In every breath and pulse! She is the most beautiful and gracious and wisest and best woman in the world! I have loved her ever since I met her here in Florence last winter. Good heavens! I must have always loved her! But," he added, falling from the rapture of this confession, "she simply loathes me!"
"It was certainly not to your credit that you were willing at the same time to marry some one else."
"Willing! I wasn't willing! I was bound hand and foot! Yes—I don't care what you think of my weakness—I was not a free agent. It's very well to condemn one's-self, but it may be carried too far; injustice to others is not the only injustice, or the worst. What I was willing to do was to keep my word—to prevent that poor child, if possible, from ever finding out her mistake."
If Colville expected this heroic confession to impress his listener he was disappointed. Mr. Waters made him no reply, and he was obliged to ask, with a degree of sarcastic impatience, "I suppose you scarcely blame me for that?"
"Oh, I don't know that I blame people for things. There are times when it seems as if we were all puppets, pulled this way or that, without control of our own movements. Hamlet was able to browbeat Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with his business of the pipe; but if they had been in a position to answer they might have told him that it required far less skill to play upon a man than any other instrument. Most of us, in fact, go sounding on without any special application of breath or fingers, repeating the tunes that were played originally upon other men. It appears to me that you suffered yourself to do something of the kind in this affair. We are a long time learning to act with common-sense or even common sanity in what are called matters of the affections. A broken engagement may be a bad thing in some cases, but I am inclined to think that it is the very best thing that could happen in most cases where it happens. The evil is done long before; the broken engagement is merely sanative, and so far beneficent."
The old gentleman rose, and Colville, dazed by the recognition of his own cowardice and absurdity, did not try to detain him. But he followed him down to the outer gate of the hotel. The afternoon sun was pouring into the piazza a sea of glimmering heat, into which Mr. Waters plunged with the security of a salamander. He wore a broad-brimmed Panama hat, a sack coat of black alpaca, and loose trousers of the same material, and Colville fancied him doubly defended against the torrid waves not only by the stored cold of half a century of winters at Haddam East Village, but by an inner coolness of spirit, which appeared to diffuse itself in an appreciable atmosphere about him. It was not till he was gone that Colville found himself steeped in perspiration, and glowing with a strange excitement.
Colville went back to his own room, and spent a good deal of time in the contemplation of a suit of clothes, adapted to the season, which had been sent home from the tailor's just before Mr. Waters came in. The coat was of the lightest serge, the trousers of a pearly grey tending to lavender, the waistcoat of cool white duck. On his way home from Palazzo Pinti he had stopped in Via Tornabuoni and bought some silk gauze neckties of a tasteful gaiety of tint, which he had at the time thought very well of. But now, as he spread out the whole array on his bed, it seemed too emblematic of a light and blameless spirit for his wear. He ought to put on something as nearly analogous to sackcloth as a modern stock of dry-goods afforded; he ought, at least, to wear the grave materials of his winter costume. But they were really insupportable in this sudden access of summer. Besides, he had grown thin during his sickness, and the things bagged about him. If he were going to see Mrs. Bowen that evening, he ought to go in some decent shape. It was perhaps providential that he had failed to find her at home in the morning, when he had ventured thither in the clumsy attire in which he had been loafing about her drawing-room for the past week. He now owed it to her to appear before her as well as he could. How charmingly punctilious she always was herself!
As he put on his new clothes he felt the moral support which the becomingness of dress alone can give. With the blue silk gauze lightly tied under his collar, and the lapels of his thin coat thrown back to admit his thumbs to his waistcoat pockets, he felt almost cheerful before his glass. Should he shave? As once before, this important question occurred to him. His thinness gave him some advantages of figure, but he thought that it made his face older. What effect would cutting off his beard have upon it? He had not seen the lower part of his face for fifteen years. No one could say what recent ruin of a double chin might not be lurking there. He decided not to shave, at least till after dinner, and after dinner he was too impatient for his visit to brook the necessary delay.
He was shown into the salotto alone, but Effie Bowen came running in to meet him. She stopped suddenly, bridling.
"You never expected to see me looking quite so pretty," said Colville, tracing the cause of her embarrassment to his summer splendour. "Where is your mamma?"
"She is in the dining-room," replied the child, getting hold of his hand. "She wants you to come and have coffee with us."
"By all means—not that I haven't had coffee already, though."
She led the way, looking up at him shyly over her shoulder as they went.
Mrs. Bowen rose, napkin in lap, and gave him a hand of welcome. "How are you feeling to-day?" she asked, politely ignoring his finery.
"Like a new man," he said. And then he added, to relieve the strain of the situation, "Of the best tailor's make in Florence."
"You look very well," she smiled.
"Oh, I always do when I take pains," said Colville. "The trouble is that I don't always take pains. But I thought I would to-night, in upon a lady."
"Effie will feel very much flattered," said Mrs. Bowen.
"Don't refuse a portion of the satisfaction," he cried.
"Oh, is it for me too?"
This gave Colville consolation which no religion or philosophy could have brought him, and his pleasure was not marred, but rather heightened, by the little pangs of expectation, bred by long custom, that from moment to moment Imogene would appear. She did not appear, and a thrill of security succeeded upon each alarm. He wished her well with all his heart; such is the human heart that he wished her arrived home the bretrothed of that excellent, that wholly unobjectionable young man, Mr. Morton.
"Will you have a little of the ice before your coffee?" asked Mrs. Bowen, proposing one of the moulded creams with her spoon.
"Yes, thank you. Perhaps I will take it in place of the coffee. They forgot to offer us any ice at the table d'hote this evening."
"This is rather luxurious for us," said Mrs. Bowen. "It's a compromise with Effie. She wanted me to take her to Giacosa's this afternoon."
"I thought you would come," whispered the child to Colville.
Her mother made a little face of mock surprise at her. "Don't give yourself away, Effie."
"Why, let us go to Giacosa's too," said Colville, taking the ice. "We shall be the only foreigners there, and we shall not even feel ourselves foreign. It's astonishing how the hot weather has dispersed the tourists. I didn't see a Baedeker on the whole way up here, and I walked down Via Tornabuoni across through Porta Rosso and the Piazza della Signoria and the Uffizzi. You've no idea how comfortable and home-like it was—all the statues loafing about in their shirt sleeves, and the objects of interest stretching and yawning round, and having a good rest after their winter's work."
Effie understood Colville's way of talking well enough to enjoy this; her mother did not laugh.
"Walked?" she asked.
"Certainly. Why not?"
"You are getting well again. You'll soon be gone too."
"I've got well. But as to being gone, there's no hurry. I rather think I shall wait now to see how long you stay."
"We may keep you all summer," said Mrs. Bowen, dropping her eyelids indifferently.
"Oh, very well. All summer it is, then. Mr. Waters is going to stay, and he is such a very cool old gentleman that I don't think one need fear the wildest antics of the mercury where he is."
When Colville had finished his ice, Mrs. Bowen led the way to the salotto; and they all sat down by the window there and watched the sunset die on San Miniato. The bronze copy of Michelangelo's David, in the Piazzale below the church, blackened in perfect relief against the pink sky and then faded against the grey while they talked. They were so domestic that Colville realised with difficulty that this was an image of what might be rather than what really was; the very ease with which he could apparently close his hand upon the happiness within his grasp unnerved him. The talk strayed hither and thither, and went and came aimlessly. A sound of singing floated in from the kitchen, and Effie eagerly asked her mother if she might go and see Maddalena. Maddalena's mother had come to see her, and she was from the mountains.
"Yes, go," said Mrs. Bowen; "but don't stay too long."
"Oh, I will be back in time," said the child, and Colville remembered that he had proposed going to Giacosa's.
"Yes; don't forget." He had forgotten it himself.
"Maddalena is the cook," explained Mrs. Bowen. "She sings ballads to Effie that she learned from her mother, and I suppose Effie wants to hear them at first hand."
"Oh yes," said Colville dreamily.
They were alone now, and each little silence seemed freighted with a meaning deeper than speech.
"Have you seen Mr. Waters to-day?" asked Mrs. Bowen, after one of these lapses.
"Yes; he came this afternoon."
"He is a very strange old man. I should think he would be lonely here."
"He seems not to be. He says he finds company in the history of the place. And his satisfaction at having got out of Haddam East Village is perennial."
"But he will want to go back there before he dies."
"I don't know. He thinks not. He's a strange old man, as you say. He has the art of putting all sorts of ideas into people's heads. Do you know what we talked about this afternoon?"
"No, I don't," murmured Mrs. Bowen.
"About you. And he encouraged me to believe—imagine—that I might speak to you—ask—tell you that—I loved you, Lina." He leaned forward and took one of the hands that lay in her lap. It trembled with a violence inconceivable in relation to the perfect quiet of her attitude. But she did not try to take it away. "Could you—do you love me?"
"Yes," she whispered; but here she sprang up and slipped from his hold altogether, as with an inarticulate cry of rapture he released her hand to take her in his arms.
He followed her a pace or two. "And you will—will be my wife?" he pursued eagerly.
"Never!" she answered, and now Colville stopped short, while a cold bewilderment bathed him from head to foot. It must be some sort of jest, though he could not tell where the humour was, and he could not treat it otherwise than seriously.
"Lina, I have loved you from the first moment that I saw you this winter, and Heaven knows how long before!"
"Yes; I know that."
"And every moment."
"Oh, I know that too."
"Even if I had no sort of hope that you cared for me, I loved you so much that I must tell you before we parted—"
"I expected that—I intended it."
"You intended it! and you do love me! And yet you won't—Ah, I don't understand!"
"How could you understand? I love you—I blush and burn for shame to think that I love you. But I will never marry you; I can at least help doing that, and I can still keep some little trace of self-respect. How you must really despise me, to think of anything else, after all that has happened! Did you suppose that I was merely waiting till that poor girl's back was turned, as you were? Oh, how can you be yourself, and still be yourself? Yes, Jenny Wheelwright was right. You are too much of a mixture, Theodore Colville"—her calling him so showed how often she had thought of him so—"too much for her, too much for Imogene, too much for me; too much for any woman except some wretched creature who enjoys being trampled on and dragged through the dust, as you have dragged me."
"I dragged you through the dust? There hasn't been a moment in the past six months when I wouldn't have rolled myself in it to please you."
"Oh, I knew that well enough! And do you think that was flattering to me?"
"That has nothing to do with it. I only know that I love you, and that I couldn't help wishing to show it even when I wouldn't acknowledge it to myself. That is all. And now when I am free to speak, and you own that you love me, you won't—I give it up!" he cried desperately. But in the next breath he implored, "Why do you drive me from you, Lina?"
"Because you have humiliated me too much." She was perfectly steady, but he knew her so well that in the twilight he knew what bitterness there must be in the smile which she must be keeping on her lips. "I was here in the place of her mother, her best friend, and you made me treat her like an enemy. You made me betray her and cast her off."
"Yes, you! I knew from the very first that you did not really care for her, that you were playing with yourself, as you were playing with her, and I ought to have warned her."
"It appears to me you did warn her," said Colville, with some resentful return of courage.
"I tried," she said simply, "and it made it worse. It made it worse because I knew that I was acting for my own sake more than hers, because I wasn't—disinterested." There was something in this explanation, serious, tragic, as it was to Mrs. Bowen, which made Colville laugh. She might have had some perception of its effect to him, or it may have been merely from a hysterical helplessness, but she laughed too a little.
"But why," he gathered courage to ask, "do you still dwell upon that? Mr. Waters told me that Mr. Morton—that there was—"
"He is mistaken. He offered himself, and she refused him. He told me."
"Do you think she would do otherwise, with you lying here between life and death? No: you can have no hope from that."
Colville, in fact, had none. This blow crushed and dispersed him. He had not strength enough to feel resentment against Mr. Waters for misleading him with this ignis fatuus.
"No one warned him, and it came to that," said Mrs. Bowen. "It was of a piece with the whole affair. I was weak in that too."
Colville did not attempt to reply on this point. He feebly reverted to the inquiry regarding himself, and was far enough from mirth in resuming it.
"I couldn't imagine," he said, "that you cared anything for me when you warned another against me. If I could—"
"You put me in a false position from the beginning. I ought to have sympathised with her and helped her instead of making the poor child feel that somehow I hated her. I couldn't even put her on guard against herself, though I knew all along that she didn't really care for you, but was just in love with her own fancy for you, Even after you were engaged I ought to have broken it off; I ought to have been frank with her; it was my duty; but I couldn't without feeling that I was acting for myself too, and I would not submit to that degradation. No! I would rather have died. I dare say you don't understand. How could you? You are a man, and the kind of man who couldn't. At every point you made me violate every principle that was dear to me. I loathed myself for caring for a man who was in love with me when he was engaged to another. Don't think it was gratifying to me. It was detestable; and yet I did let you see that I cared for you. Yes, I even tried to make you care for me—falsely, cruelly, treacherously."
"You didn't have to try very hard," said Colville, with a sort of cold resignation to his fate.
"Oh no; you were quite ready for any hint. I could have told her for her own sake that she didn't love you, but that would have been for my sake too; and I would have told you if I hadn't cared for you and known how you cared for me. I've saved at least the consciousness of this from the wreck."
"I don't think it's a great treasure," said Colville. "I wish that you had saved the consciousness of having been frank even to your own advantage."
"Do you dare to reproach me, Theodore Colville? But perhaps I've deserved this too."
"No, Lina, you certainly don't deserve it, if it's unkindness, from me. I won't afflict you with my presence: but will you listen to me before I go?"
She sank into a chair in sign of assent. He also sat down. He had a dim impression that he could talk better if he took her hand, but he did not venture to ask for it. He contented himself with fixing his eyes upon as much of her face as he could make out in the dusk, a pale blur in a vague outline of dark.
"I want to assure you, Lina—Lina, my love, my dearest, as I shall call you for the first and last time!—that I do understand everything, as delicately and fully as you could wish, all that you have expressed, and all that you have left unsaid. I understand how high and pure your ideals of duty are, and how heroically, angelically, you have struggled to fulfil them, broken and borne down by my clumsy and stupid selfishness from the start. I want you to believe, my dearest love—you must forgive me!—that if I didn't see everything at the time, I do see it now, and that I prize the love you kept from me far more than any love you could have given me to the loss of your self-respect. It isn't logic—it sounds more like nonsense, I am afraid—but you know what I mean by it. You are more perfect, more lovely to me, than any being in the world, and I accept whatever fate you choose for me. I would not win you against your will if I could. You are sacred to me. If you say we must part, I know that you speak from a finer discernment than mine, and I submit. I will try to console myself with the thought of your love, if I may not have you. Yes, I submit."
His instinct of forbearance had served him better than the subtlest art. His submission was the best defence. He rose with a real dignity, and she rose also. "Remember," he said, "that I confess all you accuse me of, and that I acknowledge the justice of what you do—because you do it." He put out his hand and took the hand which hung nerveless at her side. "You are quite right. Good-bye." He hesitated a moment. "May I kiss you, Lina?" He drew her to him, and she let him kiss her on the lips.
"Good-bye," she whispered. "Go—"
"I am going."
Effie Bowen ran into the room from the kitchen.
"Aren't you going to take—" She stopped and turned to her mother. She must not remind Mr. Colville of his invitation; that was what her gesture expressed.
Colville would not say anything. He would not seize his advantage, and play upon the mother's heart through the feelings of her child, though there is no doubt that he was tempted to prolong the situation by any means. Perhaps Mrs. Bowen divined both the temptation and the resistance. "Tell her," she said, and turned away.
"I can't go with you to-night, Effie," he said, stooping toward her for the inquiring kiss that she gave him. "I am—going away, and I must say good-bye."
The solemnity of his voice alarmed her. "Going away!" she repeated.
"Yes—away from Florence. I'm afraid I shall not see you again."
The child turned from him to her mother again, who stood motionless. Then, as if the whole calamitous fact had suddenly flashed upon her, she plunged her face against her mother's breast. "I can't bear it!" she sobbed out; and the reticence of her lamentation told more than a storm of cries and prayers.
"Oh, you must stay!" said Lina, in the self-contemptuous voice of a woman who falls below her ideal of herself.
In the levities which the most undeserving husbands permit themselves with the severest of wives, there were times after their marriage when Colville accused Lina of never really intending to drive him away, but of meaning, after a disciplinary ordeal, to marry him in reward of his tested self-sacrifice and obedience. He said that if the appearance of Effie was not a coup de theatre contrived beforehand, it was an accident of no consequence whatever; that if she had not come in at that moment, her mother would have found some other pretext for detaining him. This is a point which I would not presume to decide. I only know that they were married early in June before the syndic of Florence, who tied a tricolour sash round his ample waist for the purpose, and never looked more paternal or venerable than when giving the sanction of the Italian state to their union. It is not, of course, to be supposed that Mrs. Colville was contented with the civil rite, though Colville may have thought it quite sufficient. The religious ceremony took place in the English chapel, the assistant clergyman officiating in the absence of the incumbent, who had already gone out of town.
The Rev. Mr. Waters gave away the bride, and then went home to Palazzo Pinti with the party, the single and singularly honoured guest at their wedding feast, for which Effie Bowen went with Colville to Giacosa's to order the ices in person. She has never regretted her choice of a step father, though when Colville asked her how she would like him in that relation she had a moment of hesitation, in which she reconciled herself to it; as to him she had no misgivings. He has sometimes found himself the object of little jealousies on her part, but by promptly deciding all questions between her and her mother in Effie's favour he has convinced her of the groundlessness of her suspicions.
In the absence of any social pressure to the contrary, the Colvilles spent the summer in Palazzo Pinti. Before their fellow-sojourners returned from the villeggiatura in the fall, however, they had turned their faces southward, and they are now in Rome, where, arriving as a married couple, there was no inquiry and no interest in their past.
It is best to be honest, and own that the affair with Imogene has been the grain of sand to them. No one was to blame, or very much to blame; even Mrs. Colville says that. It was a thing that happened, but one would rather it had not happened.
Last winter, however, Mrs. Colville received a letter from Mrs. Graham which suggested, if it did not impart, consolation. "Mr. Morton was here the other day, and spent the morning. He has a parish at Erie, and there is talk of his coming to Buffalo."
"Oh, Heaven grant it!" said Colville, with sudden piety.
"Why?" demanded his wife.
"Well, I wish she was married."
"You have nothing whatever to do with her."
It took him some time to realise that this was the fact.
"No," he confessed; "but what do you think about it?"
"There is no telling. We are such simpletons! If a man will keep on long enough—But if it isn't Mr. Morton, it will be some one else—some young person."
Colville rose and went round the breakfast table to her. "I hope so," he said. "I have married a young person, and it would only be fair."
This magnanimity was irresistible.