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The Lovely Lady
by Mary Austin
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"Well, anyway," her husband finished, "we could have managed with a legacy."

"Yes, we do need money dreadfully, don't we, Bertie?" she sighed. "But I don't believe I had anything to do with it."

That was all very well for Mrs. Burton Henderson, but Peter's sister Ellen had a different opinion. "Peter," she had said the evening after Peter had sent his trunk out of the house and locked up his suitcase to keep her from putting anything more into it, "you're not thinking of her, are you? You're not going to take that abroad with you."

"No, Ellen, I haven't thought of her for a long time except to wish her happiness. You mustn't let that worry you."

"Just the same," said Ellen, "if anything happens to you over there—if you never come back to me, I shall never forgive her."

"I shall come back. I am sorry you should feel so bitter about it."

He could not, especially now that it was gone, very well explain to Ellen about the House; for all the years that it had stood there just beyond the edge of dreams with the garden spread around it and a lovely wood before, she had never heard of it. There had been so many ways to it once, paths to it began in pictures, great towered gates of music gave upon its avenues, and if he had not spoken of it, it was because as he had made himself believe when she did come, that Eunice Goodward would come into it of first right. He could not have blamed her for not wishing to live in it—from the first he had never blamed her. He might have managed even had she pulled it about his ears to rebuild it in some fashion, but this was the bitterest, that he knew now for a certainty there had never been any House and the certainty made him ridiculous.

It had been rather the worse that, with all the suddenness of this discovery, he had not been able to avoid the habit of setting out for it, seeking in dreams the relief of desolation in knowing that no dreams could come. As often as he heard music or saw in the soft turn of a cheek or the slender line of a wrist, what had moved him so in hers he felt himself urged forward on old trails, only to be scared from them by the apparition of himself as Eunice had evoked it from her bright surpassing surfaces, as a man unaccomplished in passion, unprovocative. All the gates to the House opened upon dreadful hollows of self-despising into which Peter fell and floundered, so that he took to going that way as little as possible, taking wide circuits about it continually in the way of business, being rather pleased with himself when at the end of two years he could no longer feel any pang of loss nor any remembering thrill of what the House had been—until he discovered that also he could not feel some other things, the pen between his fingers and the rise of the stairs under him. He forgot Eunice Goodward, and then one day he forgot to go home after office hours, and they found him sitting still at his desk in the dark, trying to remember whether he ought to put down the blotting-pad and the paper weight on top of that, or if, on the whole, it were not better to put the paper weight, as being the heavier article, first.

It was after that the doctor told him to go as far away from his business as possible and keep on staying away.

"But if I am going to die, doctor," Peter carefully explained, "I would much rather do it in my own country."

"Ah," the doctor warned him, "that's just the difficulty. You won't die."

And that was how Peter happened to be leaning over the forward rail of an Atlantic steamer on his way to Italy, which he had chosen because the date of sailing happened to be convenient. But he knew, as he stood looking down at the surface of the water, rough-hewn by the wind, that whatever the doctor said to Lessing, or Ellen surmised, he would get no good there except as it showed him the way to the House of the Shining Walls.

He did not remember where in the blind pointless ring through which the steamer chugged and wallowed as though it were a superior sort of water beetle and the horizon a circle of its own making, he began to get sufficiently acquainted with his fellow passengers, to understand that they were most of them going abroad in the interest of unrealized estates, and abounded in confidence. To see them forever forward and agaze at the lit shores of Spain and the Islands of Desire, roused in him the faint savour of expectation. Which, however, did not prevent him from finding Naples squalid, and Rome, where he arrived in the middle of the tourist season, too modern in a cheap, second-rate sort of way. He could remember when Rome had furnished some excellent company for the House, and suffered in the places of renown an indeterminable pang like the ache of an amputated stump. It seemed, on occasion, as if the old trails might lie down the hollow of the Forum, under the arch of that broken aqueduct, beside the dark Volsinian mere; but when Peter arrived at any of these places he found them prepossessed by Germans gabbling out of Baedekers. The Sistine Chapel made the back of his neck ache and he came no nearer than seven tourists to the noble quietude of the Vatican can marbles.

"I must remember," said Peter to himself, "that I am a very sick man, and crowds annoy me."

Then he went into the country and saw the gray of the olives above the springing grass, like the silver bloom on a green plum, and began to experience the pangs of recovery. He found Hadrian's Villa and the garden of the Villa d'Este, and remembered other things. He remembered the flat malachite-coloured pools, the definite, pointed cypresses and the fountain's soft incessant rain—as it had been in the House. As it was in the House. For he understood in Italy what was still the most bitter to know, that though it might yet be somewhere in the world, he was never to find it any more. Toward all that once had led him thither, his sense was locked and sealed. He remembered Eunice Goodward—the fact of her—how tall she was as she walked beside him—but not how at the soft brushing of her hair as she turned, his blood had sung to her; nor all the weeks of their engagement like a morning full of wings. And he could not yet recall so much as the bare reasons for her break with him except that they had been unhappy ones.

It had been a part of a long plan that he and Eunice should have seen Italy together, but for the moment he did not wish her there. He was sure she would have been in the way of his getting something that glimmered at him from the coign of castellated walls all awash about their base with purpled shadow, that strove to say itself in intricate fine tracery of tower and shrine, and failed and fell away before the sodden quality of his mind.

So he drifted northward with the spring, and saw the anemones blowing and the bloomy violet wonder the world, suffering incredible aching intimations of the recrudescence of desire. Afterward he came to Florence, where he had heard there were pictures, and hoped to have some peace; but at Florence they were all too busy being painted or prayed to, the remote Madonnas, the wounded Saints, the comfortable plump Venuses; the lean Christs too stupefied with candle smoke to take any account of an American gentleman in a plain business suit, who looked homely and ill and competent. Sometimes in Santa Croce or in the long gallery over the bridge, the noise of the city would remove from him and the faces would waver and lean out of their frames, as if, had the occasion allowed, they would have said the word to set him on his way. But there was always a guard about or a tourist stalking some uncatalogued prey and it never came to anything.

"What you really want," said a man at his hotel to whom he had half whimsically complained of their inarticulateness—one of those remarkable individuals who had done nothing so successfully in so many cities of Europe that he was supposed to know the exact month for doing it most delightfully in any one of them—"what you really want is Venice. It's an off season there; you'll meet nobody but Germans, and if you go about in your own gondola you needn't mind them."

So Peter went to Venice, and on the way there he met the Girl from Home.



VI

He knew at once that she was from Home, though as she sat opposite him with the fingers of her mended gloves laced under her chin and her face turned away to miss no point of the cypresses and warm, illumined walls, there was nothing to prove that any one of a hundred towns might not have produced her. Peter remembered what sort of people wore gloves like that in Bloombury—the minister's wife, the school teacher, his mother and Ellen—and was instantly sure she would not have been travelling through Italy first-class except at the instigation of the large, widowed and distrustful woman with whom she got on at Padua. This lady, also, Peter understood very well. He thought it likely she sat in rocking chairs a great deal at home and travelled to improve her mind. She had, moreover, a general air of proclaiming the unwarrantableness of railway acquaintances, which alone would have prevented Peter from asking the girl, as he absurdly wanted to, if they had painted the new school-house yet, and if there had been much water that year in Miller's pond.

As she sat so with her round hat pushed askew by the window-glass, there was some delicate reminder about her that streaked the rich Italian landscape with vestiges of Bloombury.

He looked out of the window where she looked and saw the white straight-sided villas change to green-shuttered farmhouses, and fine old Roman roads lead on to Harmony. It was all there for him in its unexpectedness, as freshly touching as those reminders of his mother which he came upon occasionally where Ellen kept them laid by in lavender; as if the girl had shaken from the folds of her jacket of unmistakable Bloombury cut, Youth for him—his own—anybody's Youth—no limp and yellowed keepsake, but all crisply done up and ready for putting on. So sharp for the moment was his sense of accepting the invitation to put it on with her as the best possible traveller's guise, especially for seeing Venice in, that catching the speculative eye of the large lady turned upon him, he quailed sensibly. She had the air of having detected him in an attempt to establish a relation with her companion on the ground of their common youngness, and finding herself much more a match for him both in years and in respect to their common origin. Whatever passed between the two women, and something did pass wordlessly, with hardly so much substance as a look, remained there, not intrusively, but as proof that what he had been seeking was still going on in some far but attainable place. It was the first movement of an accomplished recovery, for Peter to find himself resisting the implication of his appearance in favour of what was coming to him out of the retouched, sensitive surfaces of his past.

He knew so well as he looked at the girl, what had produced her. She was leaning a little from the window in a way that brought more of her face into view, and though from where he sat Peter could have very little notion of the points of the nearing landscape, he knew by what he saw of her, that somewhere across the low runnels in the windy reeds she had caught sight of the "sea birds' nest."

He did not on that account change his position so that he might have a glimpse of the dark hills of Arqua or the towers of Venice repeating themselves in the lustrous, spacious sea. Sitting opposite the girl, he saw in her following eyes the silver trails of water and the dim procession down them of old loves, old wars, old splendours, much better than the thin line of the landscape presented them to his weary sense. He leaned back as far as the stiff seat allowed, watching the Old World shine on her face, where the low light, striking obliquely on the water, turned it white above black shoals of weed. For the first time since his illness his mind slipped the leash of maimed desire, and as if it parted for him there beyond the window of the railway carriage, struck into the trail to the House. The walls of it rose up straight and shining, gilded purely; the windows arching to summer blueness, let in with them the smell of the wilding rose at the turn of the road and the evening clamour of the birds in Bloombury wood.

All this time Peter had been sitting in an Italian railway carriage, knee to knee with a pirate bearded Austrian Jew who gave him the greatest possible occasion for wishing the window opened, and when the jar of the checked train drew him into consciousness again, he was at a loss to know what had set him off so far until he caught sight of the girl. She was buttoning on her jacket with fingers that trembled with excitement as she constrained herself to the recapitulation of the two suitcases, the hat box and three parcels which her companion in order to have well in hand, had been alternately picking up and dropping ever since they sighted the tower of San Georgio dark against the sea streaked west.

"Two and one is three and three is six and the 'Baedeker' and the umbrellas," said the girl. "No, I don't have to look in the address book. I have it by heart. Casa Frolli, the Zattera." Then the roar of the train split into the sharp cries of the facchinos that carried them forward like an explosion into Venice as it rose statelily from the rippling lustre. Around it wove the black riders with still, communicating prows, so buoyant, so mysteriously alive and peering, like some superior sea creatures risen magically from below the frayed reflection of the station lights. Much as Peter felt that he owed to the vivid presence of the girl, his new capacity to see and feel it so as it burst upon them, he hadn't found the courage to address her. So it was with a distinct sense of deprivation that he saw her with her companion grasping the side of the gondola as if by that method to keep it afloat, disappearing down the dim water lanes in the direction of the Zattera.



VII

It was the evidence of how far he had come on the road to recovery that he was able, when he woke in his bed at the Britania, to allow full play to the suggestion that he had experienced nothing more than the natural reversion of age to the bright vividness of the past. "Though I didn't expect," he admitted as he lay fronting in the wide old mirrors, interminable reflections of a pillow dinted by his too-early whitened head, "I really did not expect to have it begin at forty-two." Having made this concession to his acceptance of himself as a man done with youngness of any sort, he lay listening to the lip-lapping of the water and the sounds that came up from the garden just below him, the clink of cups and the women's easy laughter, and wondered what it could have been about that girl to set him dreaming of all the women who had ever interested him.

It did not occur to him then, nor in the interval in which the tang of his dream intervened between him and the full flavour of Venice, that he had not thought once of Eunice Goodward, but only of those who had touched his life without hurting it. He was so far indeed from thinking of women again as beings from whom hurts were expected to come, that he blamed himself for not having made an occasion out of their enforced companionship, for speaking to the girl in the train if he should meet her again.

"I must be twice her age," he told himself determinedly, "and no doubt she has been brought up to be respectful to her elders."

He looked out very carefully, therefore, as he drifted about the canals, for a large, widowed lady and a girl in a round hat who might have come from Bloombury, but he did not find her that day nor the next, nor the day after, and in the meantime Venice took him.

The ineffable consolation of its beauty stole upon him like the breath of its gardens, as it rose delicately from its sea station, murmurous like a shell with the whisper of joyous adventure. It was, as he told himself, a part of the sense of renewal which the girl had afforded him, that he was able to accept its incomparable charm as the evidence of the continuity of the world of youth and passion. His being able to see it so was a sort of consolation for having, by the illusive quality of his dreams, missed them both on his own account.

It was not, however, until the morning of the fourth day that it drew him as he had known in the beginning it inevitably must, to the core of Venice, where in the wide piazza full of sleepy light, the great banners dropped from their staves broad splashes of colour between the slaty droves of doves. High over the door the gold horses of Lysippus breasted the gold air made shadowless by the approaching temporale. He was so far then from anything that had to do with his dream that it was not for some moments after he had turned into St. Mark's, obsessed of the sense of life unconquerable and pervading, that he began to take notice of what he saw there in the dim wonder. It was first of all the smell of stale incense and the mutter of the mass, and then as he bowed instinctively to the elevated Host, the snare of the intricate mosaic pavement; so by degrees appreciation cleared to the seductive polish of the pillars, the rows of starred candles, and beyond that to the clear gold of the walls, with all the pictures wrought flatly upon them ... as it had been in the House!

It was some time before he was able to draw up out of his boyhood memories, so newly made a gift to him, the stray, elucidating fact of his father's early visit to this spot and the possibility of his dream having shaped itself about some unremembered account of it. He climbed up to the galleries to give himself room to that wonder of memory which had failed to preserve to him any image of how his father looked, and yet had so furnished all his imagination. Which didn't make any less of a wonder of his knowing as he stood there, Peter Weatheral, of the firm of Weatheral, Lessing & Co., Real Estate Brokers, what it was all about.

"It's a picture-book of the heart of man," he concluded, and no sooner had he shaped this thought in his mind than he heard it uttered for him on the opposite side of the pillar in a voice made soft by indulgent tenderness, "Just a great picture-book." He leaned forward at the sound far enough to have a glimpse of the Girl from Home, and smiled at her.

"So you've found that out, have you?" It was not strange to find himself addressing her friendlily nor to hear her answer him.

"Just a picture-book," she repeated. "It explains so much. What the saints were to them, and the Holy Personages. Monkish tales to prey upon their superstition, we were taught. But you can see here what they really were, the wonder tales of a people, the fairy wonder and the blessed happenings come true as they do in dreams. Oh, it must have been a good time when the saints were on the earth."

"You believe in them, then?"

"Here in San Marco, yes. But not when I am in Bloombury."

"Oh!" cried Peter, "are you really from Bloombury? I knew you were from up country but I hardly dared to hope—if you will permit me——" He searched for his card which she accepted without looking at it.

"You are Mr. Peter Weatheral, aren't you? Mrs. Merrithew thought she recognized you yesterday."

"Is that why she glared at me so? But anyway I am obliged to her, though I haven't vestige of a recollection of her."

"She didn't suppose you had. Her husband sold you some land once. But of course everybody in Bloombury knows the Mr. Weatheral who went from there to the city and made his fortune."

"A sorry one," said Peter. "But if you are really from Bloombury why don't I remember you? I go there with Ellen every summer, and she knows everybody."

"Yes; she is so kind. Everybody says that. But I'm really from Harmony. I taught the Bloombury school last year. I am Savilla Dassonville."

"Oh, I knew your father then! Now that I come to think of it, it was he who laid the foundation of my greatness," Peter smiled whimsically. "And I knew your mother; she was a very lovely lady."

He realized as the girl's eyes filled with tears, that this must have been the child at whose birth, he had heard, the mother had died. "But I suppose we mustn't talk about Bloombury in San Marco," he blamed his inadvertence, "though that doesn't seem to want talking about either. When you said that just now about its being a picture-book, I was thinking how like it was to one of those places I used to go to in my youth—you know where you go in your mind when you don't like the place where you are. So like. I used to call it the House of the Shining Walls."

"I know," she nodded, "mine is a garden."

"Is?" said Peter. "There's where you have the advantage of me."

"Oh!" she exclaimed, spreading her hands toward the pictured wall and the springing domes, "isn't this the evidence that it is always. Let us look."

The mass was over and the crowd departing; they moved from page to page to the storied wall and identified in it the springs of a common experience.

"It's like nothing so much," said Miss Dassonville, "as the things I've seen the children make at school, with bits of coloured stone and broken china and rags of tinsel or whatever treasures, laid out in a pattern on the ground."

"Something like that," admitted Peter.

"And that's why," said Miss Dassonville, "it doesn't make me feel at all religious. Just—just—maternal."

It appeared by this time they had become well enough acquainted for Peter to remark that she didn't seem to feel under any obligation to experience the prescribed and traditional thrill.

"Well, I'm divided in my mind. I don't want to overlook any of the facts, and I want to give the poor imprisoned things a chance, if they have anything to say that the guide books have missed, to get it off their minds. I've always heard that celebrities grow tired of being forever taken at their public valuation. I've got a Baedeker and a Hare and The Stones of Venice but I neglect them quite as much as I read them, don't you?"

They had come down into the nave and she went about stroking the fair marbles delicately as though there sprang a conscious communication from the touch. He felt his mind accommodating to the ease of hers with a movement of release. They spent so much time in the church that when they issued on the Piazza at last it was with amazement to discern that the cloud mass which an hour before had piled ethereal tones of blueness above Frauli, lit cavernously by soundless flashes, had dissolved in rain.

"And I haven't even an umbrella," explained Miss Dassonville with a real dismay.

"But I'll take you home in my gondola," it appeared to him providentially provided for this contingency; "it is here at the Piazzetta."

"Oh, have you a gondola, and is it as much of a help as people say? Mrs. Merrithew hates walking, but we didn't know if we should like it."

They whisked around the corner under the arcade of the ducal palace, and almost before they reached the traghetto the shower was stayed and the sun came out on the lucent water. Peter allowed Miss Dassonville to give the direction lest she should think it a liberty of him to have noticed and remembered it, but he added something to it that caused her, as they swung out into the canal, to enter an expostulation.

"But this is not the way to the Casa Frolli!"

"It's one way; besides, it isn't raining any more, and if you are thinking of taking a gondola you ought to make a trial trip or two, and it's worth seeing how the palace looks from the canal."

The rain began again in a little while, whitening the water; the depth of it blackened to the cloud but the surface frothed like quicksilver under the steady patter. The awning was up and they were safe against a wetting, but Peter saw the girl shiver in the slight chill, and looking at her more attentively he perceived that she might recently have been ill. The likeness to her mother came out then in spite of her plainness, the hands, the eyes, the pleasant way of smiling; it was that no doubt which had set him on the trail of his old dreams. He tried, more for the purpose of avoiding it than for any curiosity, to remember what he had ever heard of David Dassonville that would account for his daughter's teaching school when she evidently wasn't able for it, but he talked of Mrs. Merrithew.

"I must call on her," he said, "as soon as she will permit me. But tell me, what business did I do with her husband?"

"It was a mortgage—those poor McGuires, you know, were in such trouble, and you——"

"Yes, I was always nervous about mortgages. I was bitten by one once. But dear me, I did not expect to have my youthful indiscretions coming out like this. What else did she tell you?"

The girl laughed delightedly. "Well, we did rather talk you over. She said you were such a good son. Even when you were a young man on a salary your mother had a best black silk and a second best."

"Women are the queerest!" Peter commented at large. "It was always such a comfort to Ellen that mother had a good silk to be buried in. Now what is there talismanic about silk?"

"It's evidence," she smiled, "and that's what women require most."

"Well, I hope Mrs. Merrithew will accept it as evidence that I am a suitable person to take you out in a gondola this evening. You haven't seen Venice by night?"

"Only as we came from the station. I'm sure she would like you to call, and I hope she will like the gondola."

"Oh, she will like it," Peter assured Miss Dassonville as he helped her out in front of the Casa Frolli; "it will remind her of a rocking chair."

Mrs. Merrithew did like the gondola; she liked everything:—the spacious dark, the scudding forms like frightened swans, the sound of singing on the water, the soft bulks of foliage that overhung them in the narrow calle, the soundless hatchet-faced prows that rounded on them from behind dim palaces; and she liked the gondola so much that she asked Peter "right out" what it cost him.

"We would have taken one ourselves," she explained without waiting, "only we didn't feel able to afford it. Fifty francs a week they wanted to charge us, but maybe that was because we were Americans; they think Americans can do everything over here. But I suppose you get yours cheap at the hotel?"

"Oh, much cheaper."

"How much?"

"Forty francs," hazarded Peter. "I'm sure I could get you one for that. Unless ... if you don't mind...." He made what he hadn't done yet under any circumstances, a case out of his broken health to explain how by not getting up very early and by taking some prescribed exercise, Giuseppe and the gondola had to lie unused half the mornings, which was very bad for them.... "So," he persuaded them, "if you would be satisfied with it for half a day, I would be very much obliged to you if you would take it ... share and share alike." There was as much hesitation in Peter's speech as if it had really been the favour he seemed to make it, though in fact it grew out of his attempt to fashion his offer by what he saw in the dusk of Miss Dassonville's face. "In the evenings," he finished, "we could take it turn about. There are a great many evenings when I don't go out at all."

"Me, too," consented Mrs. Merrithew cheerfully. "I get tired easy, but you and Savilla could go." The proposal appealed to her as neighbourly, and it was quite in keeping with the character of a successful business man, as he was projected on the understanding of Bloombury, to wish not to keep paying for a thing of which he had no use. "I think we might as well close with it at once, don't you, Savilla?"

"If you are sure it's only forty francs——" Miss Dassonville was doubtful.

"Quite sure," Peter was very prompt. "You see they keep them so constantly employed at the hotel"—which seemed satisfactorily to make way for the arrangement that the gondola was to call for the two ladies the next morning.

"Giuseppe," Weatheral demanded as he stepped out of the gondola at the hotel landing, "how much do I pay you?"

"Sixty francs, Signore."

Peter had no doubt the extra ten was divided between his own man and the gondolier, but he was not thinking of that.

"I have a very short memory," he said, "and I have told the Signora and the Signorina forty francs. If they ask you, you are to tell them forty francs; and listen, Beppe, every franc over that you tell them, I shall deduct from your pourboire when I leave, do you understand?"

"Si, Signore."



VIII

A morning or two after the arrangement about the gondola Peter was leaning over the bridge of San Moise watching the sun on the copper vessels the women brought to the fountain, when his man came to him. This Luigi he had picked up at Naples for the chief excellence of his English and a certain seraphic bearing that led Peter to say to him that he would cheerfully pay a much larger wage if he could only be certain Luigi would not cheat him.

"Oh Signore! In Italy? Impossible!"

"In that case," said Peter, "if you can't be honest with me, be as honest as you can"—but he had to accept the lifted shoulders and the Raphael smile as his only security. However, Luigi had made him comfortable and as he approached him now it was without any misgiving.

"I have just seen Giuseppe and the gondola," he announced. "They are at the Palazza Rezzonico, and after that they go to San Georgio degli Sclavoni. There are pictures there."

"Oh!" said Peter.

"It is a very little way to the San Georgio," volunteered Luigi as they remained, master and man, looking down into the water in the leisurely Venetian fashion. "Across the Piazza," said Luigi, "a couple of turns, a bridge or two and there you are;" and after a long pause, "The signore is looking very well this morning. Exercise in the sea air is excellent for the health."

"Very," said Peter. "I shall go for a walk, I think. I shall not need you, Luigi."

Nevertheless Luigi did not lose sight of him until he was well on his way to Saint George of the Sclavoni which announced itself by the ramping fat dragon over the door. There was the young knight riding him down as of old, and still no Princess.

"She must be somewhere on the premises," said Peter to himself. "No doubt she has preserved the traditions of her race by remaining indoors." He had not, however, accustomed his eyes to the dusk of the little room when he heard at the landing the scrape of the gondola and the voices of the women disembarking.

"If we'd known you wanted to come," explained Mrs. Merrithew heartily, "we could have brought you in the boat." That was the way she oftenest spoke of it, and other times it was the gondola.

Peter explained his old acquaintance with the charging saint and his curiosity about the lady, but when the custodian had brought a silver paper screen to gather the little light there was upon the mellow old Carpaccio, he looked upon her with a vague dissatisfaction.

"It's the same dragon and the same young man," he admitted. "I know him by the hair and by the determined expression. But I'm not sure about the young lady."

"You are looking for a fairy-tale Princess," Miss Dassonville declared, "but you have to remember that the knight didn't marry this one; he only made a Christian of her."

They came back to it again when they had looked at all the others and speculated as to whether Carpaccio knew how funny he was when he painted Saint Jerome among the brethren, and whether in the last picture he was really in heaven as Ruskin reported.

"So you think," said Peter, "she'd have been more satisfactory if the painter had thought Saint George meant to marry her?"

"More personal and convincing," the girl maintained.

"There's one in the Belle Arti that's a lot better looking to my notion," contributed Mrs. Merrithew.

"Oh, but that Princess is running away," the girl protested.

"It's what any well brought up young female would be expected to do under the circumstances," declared the elder lady; "just look at them fragments. It's enough to turn the strongest."

"It does look a sort of 'After the Battle,'" Peter admitted. "But I should like to see the other one," and he fell in very readily with Mrs. Merrithew's suggestion that he should come in the gondola with them and drop into the Academy on the way home. They found the Saint George with very little trouble and sat down on one of the red velvet divans, looking a long time at the fleeing lady.

"And you think," said Peter, "she would not have run away?"

"I think she shouldn't; when it's done for her."

"But isn't that—the running away I mean—the evidence of her being worth doing it for, of her fineness, of her superior delicacy?"

"Well," Miss Dassonville was not disposed to take it lightly, "if a woman has a right to a fineness that's bought at another's expense. They can't all run away, you know, and I can't think it right for a woman to evade the disagreeable things just because some man makes it possible."

"I believe," laughed Peter, "if you had been the Princess you would have killed the dragon yourself. You'd have taken a little bomb up your sleeve and thrown it at him." He had to take that note to cover a confused sense he had of the conversation being more pertinent than he could at that moment remember a reason for its being.

"Oh, I've been delivered to the dragons before now," she said. "It's going on all the time." She moved a little away from the picture as if to avoid the personal issue.

"What beats me," commented Mrs. Merrithew, "is that there has to be a young lady. You'd think a likely young man, if he met one of them things, would just kill it on general principles, the same as a snake or a spider."

"Oh," said Peter, "it's chiefly because they are terrifying to young ladies that we kill them at all. Yes, there has to be a young lady." He was aware of an accession of dreariness in the certainty that in his case there never could be a young lady. But Miss Dassonville as she began to walk toward the entrance gave it another turn.

"There is always a young lady. The difficulty is that it must be a particular one. No one takes any account of those who were eaten up before the Princess appeared."

"But you must grant," said Peter, with an odd sense of defending his own position, "that when one got done with a fight like that, one would be entitled to something particular."

"Oh, if it came as a reward," she laughed. "But nowadays we've reversed the process. One makes sure of the Princess first, lest when the dragon is killed she should prove to have gone away with one of the bystanders."

Something that clicked in Peter's mind led him to look sharply from one to the other of the two women. In Bloombury they had a way, he knew, of not missing any point of their neighbours' affairs, but their faces expressed no trace of an appreciation of anything in the subject being applicable to his. The flick of memory passed and left him wondering why it should be.

He caught himself looking covertly at the girl as the gondola swung into open water, to discover in her the springs of an experience such as lay at the source of his own desolation. He perceived instead under her slight appearance a certain warmth and colour like a light behind a breathed-on window-pane. Illness, overwork, whatever dragon's breath had dimmed her surfaces, she gave the impression of being inwardly inexhaustibly alight and alive. Something in her leaped to the day, to the steady pacing of the gondola on the smooth water tessellated by the sun in blue and bronze and amber, to the arched and airy palaces that rose above it.

The awning was up; there was strong sun and pleasant wind: from hidden gardens they smelled the oleanders. Peter felt the faint stir of rehabilitation like the breath of passing presences.

The mood augmented in him as he drifted late that evening on the lagoon beyond the Guidecca, after the sun was gone down and the sea and the sky reflected each to each, one roseate glow like a hollow shell of pearl. Lit peaks of the Alps ranged in the upper heaven, and nearer the great dome of the Saluti signalled whitely; below them, all the islands near and far floated in twilit blueness on the flat lagoon. There was by times, a long sea swell, and no sound but the tread of the oar behind like a woman's silken motion. It drew with it films of recollection in which his mood suspended like gossamer, a mood capable of going on independently of his idea of himself as a man cut off from those experiences, intimations of which pressed upon him everywhere by line and form and colour.

It had come back, the precious intimacy of beauty, with that fullness sitting there in the gondola, he realized with the intake of the breath to express it and the curious throbbing of the palms to grasp. He was able to identify in his bodily response to all that charged the decaying wonder of Venice with opulent personality, the source of his boyish dreams. It was no woman, he told himself, who had gone off with the bystanders while he had been engaged with the dragons of poverty and obligation, but merely the appreciations of beauty. There had never been any woman, there was never going to be. He began to plan how he should explain his discovery and the bearing of it, to Miss Dassonville. It would be a pity if she were making the same mistake about it. He leaned back in the cushioned seat and watched the silver shine of the prow delicately peering out its way among the shadowy islands; lay so still and absorbed that he did not know which way they went nor what his gondolier inquired of him, and presently realized without surprise that the Princess was speaking to him.

He felt her first, warm and friendlily, and then he heard her laughing. He knew she was the Princess though she had no form or likeness.

"But which are you?" he whispered to the laughter.

"The right one."

"The one who stayed or the one who ran away?"

"Oh, if you don't know by this time! I have come to take you to the House."

"Are you the one who was always there?"

"The Lovely Lady; there was never any other."

"And shall I go there as I used?" asked Peter, "and be happy there?"

"You are free to go; do you not feel it?"

"Oh, here—I feel many things. I am just beginning to understand how I came to lose the way to it."

"Are you so sure?"

"Quite." Peter's new-found certainty was strong in him. "I made the mistake of thinking that the House was the House of Love, and it is really the House of Beauty. I thought if I found the one to love, I should live in it forever. But now that I have found the way back to it I see that was a mistake."

"How did you find it?"

"Well, there is a girl here——"

"Ah!" said the Princess.

"She is young," Peter explained; "she looks at things the way I used to, and that somehow brought me around to the starting-point again."

"I see," said the Princess; the look she turned on him was full of a strange, secret intelligence which as he returned it without knowing what it was about, afforded Peter the greatest satisfaction. "Do you know me now," she said at last, "which one I am?"

"The right one, I am sure of that."

"But which?"

"I know now," Peter answered, "but I am certain that in the morning I shall not be able to remember."

It was true as Peter had said that the next morning he was in as much doubt as ever about the princesses. He thought he would go and have a look at them but forgot what he had come for once he had entered the spacious quiet of the Academy. Warmed still from his contact of the night before he found the pictures sentient and friendly. He found trails in them that led he knew now where, and painted waters that lapped the fore-shore of remembrance.

After an hour in which he had seen the meaning of the pictures emerge from the frontier of mysticism which he knew now for the reflection of his own unstable state, and proceed toward him by way of his intelligence, he heard the Princess say at his shoulder, at least he thought it might have been the Princess for the first word or two, until he turned and saw Miss Dassonville. She was staring at the dim old canvases patched with saints, and her eyes were tender.

"They are not really saints, you know, they are only a sort of hieroglyphics that spell devotion. It isn't as though they had the breath of life breathed into them and could come down from their canvases as some of them do."

"Oh," he protested, "did you think of that for yourself? It was the Princess who said it to me."

"The Princess of the Dragon?"

"She came to me last night on the lagoon. It was wonderful,—the water shine and the rosy glow. I was wishing I had insisted on your coming, and all at once there was the Princess."

"The one who stayed or the one who ran away?"

"She declined to commit herself. I suppose it's one of the things a man has to find out." He experienced a great lift of his spirit in the girl's light acceptance of his whimsicality, it was the sort of thing that Eunice Goodward used to be afraid to have any one hear him say lest they should think it odd. It occurred to him as he turned and walked beside Miss Dassonville that if he had come to Italy with Eunice there might have been a great deal that she would not have liked to hear. He could think things of that sort of her now with a queer lightness as of ease after strain, and yet not think it a merit of Miss Dassonville's so to ease him. They walked through the rooms full of the morning coolness, and let the pictures say what they would to them.

"It is strange to me," said the girl, "the reality of pictures; as if they had reached a point under the artist's hand where they became suddenly independent of him and went about saying a great deal more than he meant and perhaps more than he could understand. I am sure they must have a world of their own of picture rock and tree and stone, where they go when they are not being looked at on their canvases."

"Oh, haven't you found them, then?"

"In dreams you mean? Not in Bloombury; they don't get so far from home. One of these little islands I suspect, that lie so low and look so blue and airy."

"Will you go with me in the gondola to discover it?"

"To-night?"

"To-morrow." He was full of a plan to take her and Mrs. Merrithew to the Lido that same evening to have dinner, and to come home after moonrise, to discover Venice. She agreed to that, subject to Mrs. Merrithew's consent, and they went out to find that lady at a bead shop where she spent a great many hours in a state of delightful indecision.

Mrs. Merrithew proving quite in the mood for it, they went to the Lido with an extra gondolier—Miss Dassonville had stipulated for one who could sing—and came home in time to see Venice all a-flower, with the continual slither of the gondolas about it like some slim sort of moth. They explored Saint George of the Sea Weed after that, took tea in the public gardens and had a day at Torcello. On such occasions when Peter and Mrs. Merrithew talked apart, the good lady who got on excellently with the rich Mr. Weatheral grew more than communicative on the subject of Savilla Dassonville. It was not that she talked of the girl so much nor so freely, but that she left him with the sense of her own exasperation at the whole performance. It was a thin little waif of a story as it came from Mrs. Merrithew, needing to be taken in and comforted before it would yield even to Peter, who as a rich man had come to have a fair discernment in pitiable cases, the faint hope of a rescue. There had been, to begin with, the death of the girl's mother at her birth, followed by long years of neglect growing out of just that likeness to the beloved wife which first excited her father's aversion and afterward became the object of a jealous, insistent tenderness.

After his wife's death, Dave Dassonville had lost his grip on his property as he had on all the means of living. Later he was visited by a stringency which Mrs. Merrithew was inclined to impute to a Providence, which, however prompt it had been in the repayment of the slight to the motherless infant, had somehow failed to protect her from its consequences. Savilla's girlhood had been devoted to nursing her father to his grave, to which he had gone down panting for release; after that she had taught the village school.

The winter before, tramping through the heavy snow, she had contracted a bronchitis that had developed so alarmingly as to demand, by the authority of the local doctor, "a trip somewhere"—"and nobody," said Mrs. Merrithew, "but me to go with her."

"Not," she added, "that I'm complainin'. Merrithew left me well off, and there's no denyin' travellin's improvin' to the mind, though at my age it's some wearin' to the body. I'm glad," she further confided to Peter at Torcello, "she takes so to Venice. It's a lot more comfortable goin' about in a gondola. At Rome, now, I nearly run my legs off."

It was later when Savilla had been kept at home by a slight indisposition from a shower that caught them unprepared, she expressed her doubt of a winter in Italy being anything more than a longer stick with which to beat a dog.

"She will have spent all her money on it, and the snow will be just as deep in Bloombury next year. There isn't anything really the matter with her, but she's just too fine for it. It's like seeing a clumsy person handlin' one of them spun glass things, the way I have to sit still and see Providence dealing with Savilla Dassonville. It may be sort of sacrilegious to say so, but I declare it gives me the fidgets."

It ought of course to have given Peter, seeing the interest he took in her, a like uneasiness; but there was something in the unmitigated hardness of her situation that afforded him the sort of easement he had, inexplicably, in the plainness of her dress. His memory was not working well enough yet for him to realize that it was relief from the strain of the secondary feminity that had fluttered and allured in Eunice Goodward.

It was even more unclearly that he recognized that it had been a strain. All this time he had been forgetting her—and how completely he had forgotten her this new faculty for comparison was proof—he had still been enslaved by her appearance. It was an appearance, that of Eunice's, which he admired still in the young American women at the expensive hotels where he had put up, and admitted as the natural, the inevitable sign of an inward preciousness. But if he allowed to himself that he would never have spoken to Savilla Dassonville that day at San Marco, if she had been to the eye anything that Eunice Goodward was, he told himself it was because he was not sure from behind which of those charming ambuscades the arrows of desolation might be shot. If he gave himself up now to the play of the girl's live fancy he did so in the security of her plainness, out of which no disturbing surprises might come. And she left him, in respect to her hard conditions, without even the excuse for an attitude. Eunice had been poor in her world, and had carried it with just that admixture of bright frankness and proud reserve which, in her world, supported such a situation with most charm. She made as much use of her difficulties as a Spanish dancer of her shawl; but Savilla Dassonville was just poor, and that was the end of it. That he got on with her so well by the simple process of talking out whatever he was most interested in, occurred to Peter as her natural limitation. It was not until they had been going out together for a week or more, in such fashion as his mending health allowed, that he had moments of realizing, in her swift appropriations of Venice, rich possibilities of the personal relations with which he believed himself forever done. Oddly it provoked in him the wish to protect, when the practical situation had left him dry and bare.

It was the evening of the Serenata. They were all there in the gondola, Mrs. Merrithew and the girl, with Luigi squatting by Giuseppe, not too far from the music float that sprang mysteriously from the black water in arching boughs of red and gold and pearly Aladdin's fruit. Behind them the lurking prows rustled and rocked drunkenly with the swell to which they seemed at times attentively to lean. They could make out heads crowded in the gondolas, and silver gleams of the prows as they drifted past palaces lit intermittently by a red flare that wiped out for the moment, the seastain and disfiguring patches of restoration.

They had passed the palace of Camerleigh. The jewel-fruited arbour folded and furled upon itself to pass the slow curve of the Rialto, and suddenly, Peter's attention, drawn momentarily from the music, was caught by that other bright company leaning from deserted balconies, swarming like the summer drift between the pillars of dark loggias. They were all there, knights and saints and ladies, out of print and paint and marble, and presently he made out the Princess. She was leaning out of one of the high, floriated windows, looking down on him with pleased, secret understanding as she might have smiled from her palace walls on the festival that brought the young knight George home with the conquered dragon. It was the compressed and pregnant meaning of her gaze that drew his own upward, and it was then when the Lovely Lady turned and waved her hand at him that he felt the girl stir strangely beside him.

"How full the night is of the sense of presences," she said, "as if all the loved marbles came to life and the adored had left their canvases. I cannot think but it is so."

"Oh, I am sure of it."

She moved again with the vague restlessness of one stared upon by innumerable eyes. "How one would like to speak," she said. "They seem so near us."

There was a warm tide of that nearness rising in Peter's blood. As the music flowed out again in summer fullness, he put out his arm along the back of the seat instinctively in answer to the girl's shy turning, the natural movement of their common equity in the night's unrealized wonder.



IX

"Peter! oh, Peter!"

It was dark in the room when Peter awoke, but he knew it was morning by the salt smell which he thought came into the room from the cove beyond Bloombury pastures, until he roused in his bed and knew it for the smell of the lagoons. He looked out to see the beginning of rose light on the world and understood that he was called. He did not hear the voice again but out there in the shimmering space the call awaited him. It might be the Princess.

He dressed and got down quietly into the shadowed city and waked a frowsy gondolier asleep in his gondola. They spoke softly, both of them, before the morning hush, as they swung out into the open water between the towers of San Georgio fairily dim, and the pillars of the saints; the city floated in a mist of blueness, the dome of the Saluti faintly pearled.

"Dove, Signore?" The gondolier feathered his oar.

"Un giro"—Peter waved his arm seaward; the dip of the oar had a stealthy sound in the deserted dawning. They passed the public gardens and saw the sea widen and the morning quicken. Islands swam up out of silver space, took form and colour, and there between the islands he saw the girl. She had gotten another oar from Giuseppe and stood delighting in the free motion; her sleeves were rolled up, her hat was off, her hair blew out; alive and pliant she bent to the long sweep of it, and her eyes were on the morning wonder. But when she caught sight of Peter she looked only at him and he knew that her seeing him appearing thus on the shining water was its chief and exquisite wonder, and that she did not know what he saw. The gondolier steered straight for the girl without advice; he had thought privately that the Signore Americano was a little mad, but he knew now with what manner of madness.

They drew close and drifted alongside. Peter did not take his eyes from the girl's eyes lest for her to look away ever so slightly from there to his face would be to discover that he knew; and he did not know how he stood with himself toward that knowledge.

"Oh," she said breathlessly, "I wanted you—I called you—and you came! You did not know where I was and yet you came?"

"I heard you calling."

She left her oar and sat down; Peter laid his hand on the edge of her gondola and they drifted side by side.

"May I come with you?" he asked presently.

She made a little gesture, past all speech. Peter held up a hand full of silver toward his gondolier and laid it on the seat as he stepped lightly over. The man slid away from them without word or motion, and together they faced the morning. It was one thin web of rose and gold over lakes of burnished light; islands lifted in mirage, floated miraculously upon the verge of space. Behind them the mainland banked like a new created world over which waited the Hosts of the ranked Alps. Winged boats from Murano slid through the flat lagoons.

There was very little to say. Peter was aware chiefly, in what came from her to him, of the wish to be very tender toward it, of having it in hand to support her securely above the abyss into which he felt at the least rude touch of his, she must immeasurably fall. At the best he could but keep with her there at the point of her unconsciousness by knowing the truth himself, as he felt amazingly that he did know it with all the completeness of his stripped and beggared past.

They drifted and saw the morning widen into the working-day. Market boats piled with fruit, fish in shining heaps, wood boats of Istria, went by with Madonna painted sails. Among the crowded goods the women sat Madonna-wise and nursed their bambini, or cherishing the recurrent hope, knitted interminably. If he wanted any evidence of what he admitted between the girl and himself it flashed out for him in the faces of the market wives, on whom labour and maternity sat not too heavily to cloud the primal radiance. It was there in their soft Buon giorno in the way they did not, as the gondola drew beside them, cover their fruitful breasts from her tender eyes, in the way most fall, they grasped in the high mood of the forestieri a sublimity untouched by the niceties of bargaining. A man in the state of mind to which the girl's visible shine confessed, could hardly be expected to stickle at the price of the few figs and roses which served as an easy passage from the wonder of their meeting to the ground of their accustomed gay pretences. They made of Peter's purchases of fruit and flowers a market garden of their own from which they had but just come on hopeful errands. They made believe again as boats thickened like winged things in a summer garden, to be bent upon discovery, and slid with pretended caution under the great ships stationed by the Giudecca, from which they heard sailors singing. They shot with exaggerated shivers past a slim cruiser and suddenly Miss Dassonville clutched Peter by the arm.

"Oh!" she cried: "Do you see it? That little dark, impudent-looking one, and the flag?"

Peter saw; he was not quite, he reminded her, even in the intoxication of a morning on the lagoons with her, quite in that state where he couldn't see his country's flag when it was pointed out to him. They came alongside with long strokes, and sniffed deliciously.

"Ah—um—um——" said Miss Dassonville. "I know what that is. It's ham and eggs. How long since you've had a real American breakfast?"

"Not since I left the steamer," Peter confessed. "Now if I were to smell hot cakes I shouldn't be able to stand it. I should go aboard her."

Miss Dassonville saluted softly as they went under the bright banner.

"'Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light,'" she began to sing and immediately a large, blooming face rose through a mist of faded whisker at the prow and they saw all the coast of Maine looking down on them from the rail of the Merrythought.

"United States, ahoy?" it said.

They came close under and Miss Dassonville hailed in return; as soon as the captain saw her face smiling up at him he beamed on it as the women in the boats had done.

"We smelled your breakfast," she explained, and the man laughed delightedly.

"I know what kind these Dagoes give ye. Come up and have some."

Peter and the girl consulted with their eyes.

"Are you going to have hot cakes?" she demanded.

"I will if you come; darned if I don't."

"We're coming, then."

It was part of the task that Peter had set himself, to persevere for Savilla Dassonville the film of unconsciousness that lay delicately like the bloom of a rare fruit over all that was at that moment going on in her, that made him hasten as soon as Captain Dunham had announced himself, to introduce her particularly by name. To forestall in the jolly sailor the natural interpretation of their appearance together at this hour and occasion, he had to lend himself to the only other reasonable surmise. If they were not, as he saw it on the tip of the good captain's tongue to propose, newly married, they were in a hopeful way to be. The consciousness of himself as accessory to so delightful an arrangement passed from the captain to Peter with almost the obviousness of a wink, as he surrendered himself to the charm of the girl's ethereal excitement.

He understood perfectly that his not being able to feel more of a drop from the pregnant mystery of her call and his high response to it, to the homely incident of breakfast, was due to Miss Dassonville's obliviousness of its being one. It was for her, in fact, no drop at all but rather as if they had pulled out for a moment into this little shoal of neighbourly interest and comfortable food, the better to look back at the perfect wonder of it, as from the deck of the Merrythought toward the fair front of the ducal palace and the blue domes of St. Mark's behind the rearing lion.

Although he had parted from her that morning with no hint of an arrangement for a next meeting, it had become a part of the day's performance for Peter to call for the two ladies in the afternoon, so much so that his own sense of the unusualness of finally letting the gondola go off without him, and his particular wish at this juncture not to mark his intercourse with any unusualness, led him to send off with it as many roses as Luigi could find at that season on the Piazza. Afterward, as he recalled that he had never sent flowers to Miss Dassonville before, and as he had that morning furnished her from the market boats past her protesting limitation, it was perhaps a greater emphasis to his desertion.

However, it seemed that the roses and nothing but the roses might serve as a bridge, delicate and dizzying, to support them from the realization of their situation, into which he had no intention of letting Miss Dassonville fall. He stayed in his room most of that afternoon, knowing that he was shut up with a very great matter, not able to feel it so because of the dryness of his heart, nor to think what was to be done about it because of the lightness of his brain.

It occurred to him at last that at St. Mark's there might be reflective silences and perhaps resolution. He felt it warm from the stored-up veneration of the world, and though he said to himself, as he climbed to the galleries, that it was to give himself the more room to think, he knew that it must have been in his mind all the time that the girl was there, as it was natural she should have come to the place where they had met. Even before he caught the outline of her dress against the pillar he found himself crossing over to the organ loft the better to observe her. Knowledge reached him incredibly across the empty space, as to what, over and above the pictured saints, she faced there in the vault, lit so faintly by the shining of its golden walls. The service of the benediction going on in the church below furnished him with the figure of what came to him from her as she laid up her thoughts on an altar before that mysterious intimation of maternity which presages in right women the movement of passion. He felt himself caught up in it purely above all sense of his personal insufficiency.

Back in his hotel after dinner he found he had still to let the roses answer for him as he sat out on his balcony and realized oddly that though he had no right to go to Miss Dassonville again until he had thought out to its furthermost his relation to her, he could, incontinently, think better in her company.

It was not wholly then with surprise, since he felt himself so much in need of some compelling touch, that he heard, after an hour of futile battling, the Princess speak to him.

She stood just beyond him in the shadow of the wistaria that went up all the front of the balcony, and called him by his name.

"Ah," said Peter "I know now who you are. You are the one who stayed."

"How did you find out?"

"Because the one who ran away was the one he would have married."

He did not look at the Princess, but he saw the shadow of her that the moon made, mixed with the lace of the wistaria leaves, tremble.

"Well," said she, "and what are you going to do about it?"

"You know then...?"

"I was there on the water with you this morning.... It was I that showed you the way, but you had no eyes for anything."

It was the swift recurrent start of what he had had eyes for that kept Peter silent long enough for the Princess to have asked him again what he was going to do about it, and then——

"The other night—with the music—she knew that I was there?"

"Oh—she!" He was taken all at once with the completeness with which in his intimate attitude to things, Savilla did know. "She knows everything."

"What was there so different about the other one?"

"Everything ... she was beautiful ... she was air and fire ... she made the earth rock under me."

"And did you go to her calling?"

"I would have risen out of death and dust at her slightest word ... I would have followed where her feet went over all the world."

"And why did you never?"

"I suppose," said Peter, "it was because she never called."

"This one," suggested the Princess, "would be prettier if she were not so thin; and she wouldn't have to wear shirtwaists if you married her. She makes them herself, you know. Why did the other one run away?"

"That's just the difficulty. I can't remember." He wished sincerely within himself that he might; it seemed it would have served him somehow with Miss Dassonville. "I've been very ill," he apologized.

"Anyway, you'd be getting what everybody wants."

"And that is——"

"A woman of your own ... understanding and care ... and children. I was in the church with you ... you saw——"

"But I don't want to talk about it."

"What do you want then?"

"To be the prince in a fairy tale, I suppose," Peter sighed.

"Oh, you're all of that to her. The half god—the unmatched wonder. When she watched your coming across the water this morning—I know the look that should go to a slayer of dragons. It seems to me," said the Princess severely, "it is you who are running away."

She was wise enough to leave him with that view of it though it was not by any means leaving him more comfortable. He tried for relief to figure himself as by the Princess' suggestion, he must seem to Savilla Dassonville. But if he was really such to her why could he not then play the Deliverer in fact, rescue her from untended illness, from meagreness and waste? Why not, in short, marry her, except for a reason—oh, there was reason enough if he could only remember it!

He heard Luigi moving softly in the room behind, and presently when the door clicked he rose and went in and taking the lamp held it high over him, turning with it fronting the huge mirror in its gilded frame. If there were a good reason why he couldn't marry Savilla Dassonville, he ought to have found it in his own lean frame, the face more drawn than was justified by his years, lined about the eyes, the hand that held the accusing lamp broadened by labours that no scrupulosity of care denied. Weatheral, of Weatheral, Lessing & Co., unaccomplished, unaccustomed. He put down the lamp heavily, leaning forward in his chair as he covered his face with his hands and groaned in them, fully remembering.



X

He had been sitting just so in his library with the lamp behind him and the hollow flare of the coals making an excellent starting place for the House which was now so near him that the mere exhibition in shop windows of the stuffs with which it was being modernly renewed, was enough to set him off for it. It was so near now, that since the announcement of their engagement in September, he had moved through all its obligations benumbed by the white, blinding flash thrown backward from its consummating moment, the moment of her cry to him, of their welding at the core of light and harmony, bounded inevitably by the approaching date of marriage. It had been, he recalled on some one of those occasions of social approval by which it appeared engagements in the Best Society proceeded, that he had sat thus, waiting until the clock ticked on the moment when he might properly join her, sat so full of the sense of her that for the instant he accepted her unannounced appearance at the darkened doorway as the mere extension of his white-heated fancy. The next moment as she charged into the circle of the lamp he saw that the umbra of some strange electrical excitement hung about her. It fairly crackled between them as he rose hurriedly to his feet.

"You have come, Eunice! You have come——"

But he saw well enough what she had come for. She laid the case on the table, but as she tugged impatiently at her glove, the fringe of her wrap caught the clasp of it and scattered the jewels on the cloth. She tried then to put the ring beside them, but her hand shook so that it fell and rolled upon the floor behind them. Peter picked it up quietly, but he did not offer it to her hand again.

"I have come," said Eunice, "to say what in my mother's house I was afraid of being interrupted in saying; what you must see, what my mother won't see."

"I see you are greatly excited about something!"

"I'm not, I'm not.... That is ... I am, but not in the way you think," she was sharp with insistence; "that is what you and mother always say, that I'm nervous or excited, and all the time you don't see."

"What is it I don't see, Eunice?"

"That I can't stand it, that I can't go on with it, that it is dreadful to me,—dreadful!"

"What is dreadful?"

"Everything, being engaged—being married and giving up...." It was fairly racked out of her by some inward torture to which he had not the key.

"Of course, Eunice, if you don't wish to be married so soon——" Peter was all at sea. He brought a chair for her, and perceiving that he would go on standing as long as she did, she sat upon the edge of it but kept both the arms as a measure of defence. The slight act of doing something for her restored him for the moment to reality; he bent over her. "I've never wanted to hurry you, dearest—— It shall be when you say." She put up her hands suddenly with a shivering movement.

"Oh, never, never at all; never to you!"

Peter could feel that working its track of desolation inward, but the first instinctive movement of his surface was to close over the wound. He took it as he knew he could only take it: as the explosive crisis of the virginal resistance which he remembered he had heard came to girls when marriage loomed upon them. He took a turn down the room to steady himself, praying dumbly for the right word.

"It isn't as if I didn't respect you"—she was eager in explanation, hurried and stumbling—"as if I didn't know how good you are ... it is only, because we are so different."

"How different, Eunice?"

"Oh ... older, I suppose." She grew quieter; it appeared on the whole they were getting on. "I care for so many things, you know—dancing—and bridge—young things—and you are always reading and reading. Oh! I couldn't stand it."

So it was out now. She was jealous of his books, a little. Well, he had been self-absorbed. It occurred to him dimly that the thing to have done if he had known a little more about women, had practised with them, was to have provoked her at this point to the tears which should have sealed the renewal of his claim to her. What he said was, very quietly:

"Of course I never meant, Eunice, that you shouldn't have everything you want."

"Oh," she seemed to have found a suffocating quality in his gentleness, against which she struck out with drowning gestures, "if you could only understand what it would mean to me never to have anybody I liked to talk to about things,—anybody I liked to be with all the time!" She was choked and aghast at the enormity of it.

"But I thought...." Peter was not able to go on with that. "Isn't there anybody you like to be with, Eunice?"

"Yes," said Eunice. "Burton Henderson."

Mutinous and bright she looked at him out of the chair with a hand on either arm of it poised for flight or defence. After an interval Peter heard his own voice out of a fog rising to the conventional utterance.

"Of course, if you have learned to love him——"

"I've loved him all the time." She was so bent on making this clear to him that she was careless what went down before her. "From the very beginning," she said, "but he had so little money, and mother ... I promised you, I know, but it's not as if I ever said I loved you."

She should have spared him that! He had not put out a hand to hold her that he should be so pierced through with needless cruelty. But she was bent on clearing her skirts of him.

"Do you think," she expostulated to his stricken silence, "that if I'd cared in the least I'd have made it so easy for you? Can't you see that it was all arranged, that we jumped at you?" All the time she sat opposite him, thrusting swift and hard, there was no diminution of her appealing beauty, the flaming rose of her cheeks and the soft, dark flare of her hair. As if she felt how it belied at every turn the quality of her unyielding intention, her voice railed against him feverishly. "I suppose you think I'm mercenary, and I thought I was, too. You don't know how people like us need money sometimes. All the things we like cost so—all the real things. And poor mamma, she needed things; she'd never had them, and I thought that I could stand being married to you if I could get them that way.... Maybe I could, you know, if you'd been different, more like us I mean. But there was such a lot you didn't understand ... things you hadn't even heard about. I found that out as soon as we were engaged. There wasn't a thing between us; not a thing."

It poured scalding hot on Peter's sensitive surfaces: made sensitive by the way in which even in this hour her beauty moved him. He felt tears starting in his heart and prayed they might not come to his face. "So you see as we hadn't anything in common it would be better for us not to go on with it even"—she broke a little at this—"even if there hadn't been anybody else. You see that, don't you?" She dared him to deny it rather than begged the concession of him as she gathered herself for departure.

"I see that."

"You never really belonged to our set, you know——" She rose now and he rose blindly with her; he hoped that she was done, but there was something still. "It hasn't been easy to go through with it.... Mother isn't going to make it any easier. It's natural for her to want me to have everything that money would mean, and I thought that if you would just keep away from her ... you owe something to Burton and me for what we've been through, I think ... just leave it to me to manage in my own way...."

"I shall never trouble you, Eunice."

He came close to her then to open the door, seeing that she was to leave him, and he saw too that she had suffered, was at the very ebb and stony bottom of emotion as she hung for the moment in the doorway searching for some winged shaft of separation that should cut her off from the remotest implication of the situation. She found at last the barbedest. All the succeeding time after he closed the door on her was marked for Peter, not by the ticked moments but by successive waves of anguish as that poisoned arrow worked its way to his secret places.

"It isn't as if I had ever loved you; I owe it to Mr. Henderson to remind you that I never said I did.... You know I never liked to have you kiss me."

He had in the months that succeeded to that last sight of Eunice Goodward, moments of unbearably wanting to go to her to try for a little to ease his torment in a more tender recognition of it—days when he would have taken from her, gratefully even if she had fooled him and he had seen her do it, whatever would have saved him from the certainty that never even in those first exquisite moments had she been his. The sharp edge of her young sufficiency had lopped off the right limb of his manhood. Never, even in his dreams, if life had allowed him to dream again, should he be able to see himself in any other guise than the meagre, austere front which his obligation to his mother and Ellen had obliged him to present to destiny. She had beggared him of all those aptitudes for passionate relations, by the faith in which he had kept himself inwardly alive. The capacity for loving died in him with the knowledge of not being able to be loved.

Out of the anaesthesia of exhaustion from which Italy had revived him, it rolled back upon him that by just the walled imperviousness that shut Eunice Goodward from the appreciation of his passion, he was prevented now from Savilla Dassonville.



XI

It was odd, then, having come to this conclusion in the middle of the night, that when he joined the ladies in the morning he should have experienced a sinking pang in not being able any longer to be sure what Miss Dassonville thought of him. There was in her manner, as she thanked him for the flowers, nothing to ruffle the surface of the bright, impersonal companionship which she had afforded him for weeks past.

The occasion which brought them together was an agreement entered into some days earlier, to go and look at palaces, and as they turned past the Saluti to the Grand Canal, he found himself wondering if there had not been a touch of fatuity in his reading of the incident of the morning before. He had gone so far in the night as to think even of leaving Venice, and saw himself now forlornly wishing for some renewal of yesterday's mood to excuse him from the caddishness that such a flight implied.

It came out a little later, perhaps, when after traversing many high and resounding marble halls, with a great many rooms opening into one another in a way that suggested rather the avoidance of privacy than its security, they found themselves in one of those gardens of shut delight of which the exteriors of Venetian houses give so little intimation.

As she went about from bough to bough of the neglected roses, turned all inward as if they took their florescence from that still lighted human passion which had found its release and centre there, her face glowed for the moment with the colour of her quick sympathies. She turned it on him with an unconscious, tender confidence, which not to meet seemed to Peter, in that gentle enclosure full of warmth and fragrance, to assume the proportions of a betrayal.

He did meet it there as she came back to him for the last look from the marble balustrade by which they had descended, covering her hand, there resting, lingeringly with his own. He was awakened only to the implication of this movement by the discovery that she had deeply and exquisitely blushed.

It was a further singularity in view of the conviction with which Peter had come through the night, that the mood of protectingness which the girl provoked in him should have multiplied itself in pointing out to him how many ways, if he had not made up his mind not to marry her at all, such a marriage could be made to serve its primal uses. She had turned up her cuff to trail her hand overside as they slid through the lucent water, and the pretty feminine curve of it had brought to mind what the Princess had told him of the shirt-waists she made herself. He decided that she made them very well. But she was too thin for their severity—and if he married her he would have insisted on her wearing them now and then as a tender way to prevent her suspecting that it was on their account he had thought of not marrying her. The revealed whiteness of her wrist, the intimacy of her relaxed posture, for though her mind had played into his as freely as a child in a meadow, she had been always, as regards her person, a little prim with him, had lent to their errand of house visiting a personal note in which it was absurdly apt for them to have run across Captain Dunham of the Merrythought at the door of the Consulate. Mr. Weatheral had some papers which Lessing had sent him to acknowledge there, and it was a piece of the morning's performance, when he had come back from that business, to find that the meeting had taken on—from some mutual discovery of the captain's and Mrs. Merrithew's of a cousin's wife's sister who had married one of the Applegates who was a Dunham on the mother's side—quite the aspect of a family party. It came in the end to the four of them going off at Peter's invitation to have lunch together in a cafe overhanging the calle. He told himself afterward that he would not have done it if he had recalled in time the friendly seaman's romantic appreciation of the situation between himself and Miss Dassonville. He saw himself so intrigued by it that, by the time lunch was over, he felt himself in a position which to his own sensitiveness, demanded that he must immediately leave Venice or propose to Miss Dassonville. To see the way he was going and to go on in it, had for him the fascination of the abyss. He caught himself in the act even of trying to fix Miss Dassonville's eye to include her by complicity in the beguilement of the captain, a business which she seemed to have undertaken on her own account on quite other grounds. He perceived with a kind of pride for her that she had the ways of elderly sea-going gentlemen by heart. It was something even if she had failed to charm Peter, that she shouldn't be found quite wanting in it by other men.

When they had put him back aboard of the Merrythought they had come to such a pitch among them all, that as the captain leaned above the rail to launch an invitation, he addressed it to Miss Dassonville, as, if not quite the giver of the feast, the mistress of the situation.

"When are you coming to lunch with me?" demanded the captain.

"Never!" declared Miss Dassonville. "It would be quite out of the question to have hot cakes for luncheon, and I absolutely refuse to come for anything less."

"There's something quite as good," asserted the captain, "that I'll bet you haven't had in as long."

"Better than hot cakes?" Miss Dassonville was skeptical.

"Pie," said the captain.

"Oh, Pie!" in mock ecstasy. "Well, I'd come for pie," and with that they parted.

Peter had plenty of time for considering where he found himself that afternoon, for the ladies were bent on a shopping expedition on which they had rather pointedly given him to understand he was not expected to attend. He had tried that once, and had hit upon the excellent device, in face of the outrageous prices proposed by the dealers, of having them settle upon what they would like and sending Luigi back to bargain for it. All of which would have gone very well if Mrs. Merrithew, in the delight of his amazing success, had not gone back to the shop the next day to duplicate his purchases. Peter had never heard what occurred on that occasion, but he had noticed that they never talked in his presence of buying anything again. Bloombury people, he should have remembered, had perfectly definite notions about having things done for them.

He walked, therefore, on this afternoon in the Public Gardens and tried to reconstruct in their original force the reasons for his not marrying Savilla Dassonville. They had come upon him overwhelmingly in the recrudescence of memory, reasons rooted very simply in his man's hunger for the lift, the dizzying eminence of desire. He liked the girl well enough but he did not want her as he had wanted Eunice Goodward, as he wanted expansively at this moment to want something, somebody—who was not Eunice—he was perfectly clear on this point—but should be in a measure all she stood for to him. He had renewed in the night, though in so short a time, not less acutely, all the wounded misery of what Eunice had forced upon him. He was there between the dark and dawn, and here again in the cool of the garden, to taste the full bitterness of the conviction that he was not good enough to be loved. He was not to be helped from that by the thought, which came hurrying on the heels of the other, that Savilla Dassonville loved him. He had a moment of almost hating her as she seemed to plead with him, by no motion of her own he was obliged to confess for those raptures, leaping fires, winged rushes, which should have been his portion of their situation.

He hated her for the certainty that if he went away now quietly without saying anything, it would be to visit on her undeservedly all that had come to him from Eunice. For she would know; she would not, as he had been, be blind to the point of requiring the spoken word. If he left her now it would be to the unavoidable knowledge that, as the Princess had said of him, he would be running away. He would be running from the evidences of a moneyless, self-abnegating youth, from the plain surfaces of efficiency and womanliness, not hedged about and enfolded, but pushed to the extremity of its use. He had, however, when he had taken that in from every side, the grace to be ashamed of it.

He was ashamed, too, of finding himself at their next meeting involved in a wordless appeal to be helped from his state to some larger grounds. If the girl had but appealed to him he could have done with a fine generosity what he felt was beyond him to invite. He could have married Savilla Dassonville to be kind to her; what he didn't enjoy was putting it on a basis of her being kind to him.

Miss Dassonville, however, afforded him no help beyond the negative one of not talking too much and taking perhaps a shade less interest in Venice. They had two quiet days together in which it was evident, whatever Peter settled with himself as to his relation to the girl, it had taken on for Mrs. Merrithew the pointedness known in Bloombury as "attentions." She paid in to the possibilities of the situation the tribute of her absence for long sessions in which, so far as Peter could discover, the situation rather fell to the ground. It began to appear that he had missed as he was doomed with women, the crucial instant, and was to come out of this as of other encounters, empty. And then quite suddenly the girl put out a hand to him.

It was along about the end of the afternoon they had come out of the church of Saint George the Greater, which as being most accessible had been left to the latter end of their explorations. Mrs. Merrithew had just sent Giuseppe back for a shawl which she had dropped in the cloister. They sat rocking in the gondola looking toward the fairy arcade of the ducal palace and the pillars of the saints, and suddenly Miss Dassonville spoke to excuse her quietness.

"I must look all I can," she said; "we are leaving the day after to-morrow."

If she had retired behind Mrs. Merrithew's comfortable breadth in order to deliver her shot the more effectively, she missed seeing how plumply it landed in the midst of Peter's defences and scattered them.

"Leaving Venice?" he said. "Leaving me?" It took a moment for that fact, dropping the depth of his indecision, to show him where he stood. "But I thought you understood," he protested, "that I wanted you to stay ... to stay with me...." He leaned across Mrs. Merrithew's broad lap in a great fear of not being sufficiently plain. "Make her understand," he said, "that I want her to stay always."

"I guess," said Mrs. Merrithew, a dry smile twinkling in the placidity of her countenance, "you'd better take me right home first, and then you can explain to her yourself."



XII

"And you are sure," asked Peter, "that you are not going to mind my being so much older?"

"Oh, I'm going to mind it: There will be times when I shall be afraid of not living up to it. But the most part of my minding will be, since you are so much better acquainted with life than I am, that in any matter in which we shouldn't agree I shall be so much the more sure of your being right. It's going to be a great help to us, having something like that to go by."

"Oh," said Peter, "you put it very prettily, my dear."

He was aware as soon as he had said it, that she would have a way always of putting things prettily, and that not for the sake of any prettiness, but because it was so intrinsically she saw them. It would make everything much simpler that she was always sufficiently to be believed.

"It isn't, you know," she went on, "as if I should have continually to prop up my confidence with my affection as I might with a man of less experience. Oh!" she threw out her arms with a beautiful upward motion, "you give me so much room, Peter."

"Well, more than I would give you at this moment if we were not in a gondola on a public highway!"

He amazed himself at the felicity with which during the three days of their engagement he had been able to take that note with her, still more at the entertainment of her shy response. It gave him a new and enlarged perception of himself as a man acquainted with passion. All that had been withheld from him, by the mere experience of missing, he was able to bestow with largesse. The witchery and charm that had been done on him, he worked—if he were but to put his arm about her now, to draw her so that her head rested on his shoulder, with a certain pressure, he could feel all her being flower delicately to that beguilement. He had promised himself, when he had her promise, that she should never miss anything, and he had a certain male satisfaction in being able to make good. What he did now, in deference to their being as they were in the full light of day and the plying traffic, was to say:

"Then if I were to put it to you in the light of my superior experience, that I considered it best for us to be married right away, I shouldn't expect you to contradict me."

"Oh, Peter!"

"We can't keep Mrs. Merrithew on forever, you know," he suggested, "and we've such a lot to do—there's Greece and Egypt and the Holy Land——"

"But can we—be married in Venice, I mean?"

"That," said Peter, "is what I'm waiting your permission to find out."

He spent the greater part of the afternoon at that business without, however, getting satisfaction. "Marriage in Italy," the consul told him, "is a sort of world-without-end affair. Even if you cable for the necessary papers it will be a matter of a month or six weeks before the ceremony could be accomplished. You'll do better to go to Switzerland with the young lady."

For the present he went back to her with a list of the required certificates, and another item which he brought out later as a corrective for the disappointment for the first.

"My birth and baptismal certificates? I haven't any," said Miss Dassonville, "and I don't believe you have either; and I don't want to go to Switzerland."

"No," said Peter, "even that takes three weeks."

"Why can't he marry us himself—the consul, I mean? I thought wherever the flag went up was territory of the United States."

"If you will come along with me in the morning we can ask him," Peter suggested, and on the way there he loosed for her benefit the second item of his yesterday's discovery. They slid past the facade of a certain palace and she kissed the tip of her finger to it lightly. "It's as if we had a secret between us," she explained, "the secret of the garden. Besides, I shall always love it because it was there I first suspected that you—cared. When did you begin to care, Peter?"

"Since before I can remember. Would you like to live in it?"

"In this palace? Here in Venice?"

"It's for rent," he told her; "the consul has it."

"But could we afford it?"

"Well," said Peter, "if you like it so much, at the rate things are here, we can pull it up by the roots and take it back to Bloombury."

They lost themselves in absurd speculations as to the probable effect on the villagers of that, and so failed to take note as their gondola nosed into the green shadow under the consulate, of the Merrythought's launch athwart the landing, until the captain himself hailed them.

"This port," he declared, "is under embargo. I have been waiting here since half tide and there's nothing doing. Somebody's in there chewing red tape, but I don't calculate to let anybody else have a turn at it until I get my bit wound up an' tied in a knot. Now don't tell me you've got business in there?"

"We want to find out something."

"Well, when ye find it, it won't be what ye want," asserted the captain gloomily. "It never is in these Dago countries." He motioned his own boat aside from the landing. "If ye want to go inside and set on a chair," he suggested, "I'll not hender ye. I like the water best myself. I hope your business will stand waiting."

"To everybody but ourselves," said Peter. "You see," he caught the permission lightly from Miss Dassonville's eyes, "we want to get married."

"Ho!" said the captain, chirking up. "I could 'a' told ye that the fust time I laid eyes on ye. But I'll tell ye this: ye can't do nothing in a hurry in this country. The only place where a man can do things up as soon as he thinks of 'em is on the blue water. We don't have red tape on shipboard, I can tell you. The skipper's the law and the government."

"Could you marry people?"

"Well, I ain't to say in the habit of it, but it's the law that I could."

"Then if we get tangled up with the consul," said Peter, "we'll have to fall back on you," and they took it as an excellent piece of fooling which they were later to come back to as a matter of serious resort.

"Of course," said the consul, "I could marry you and it would be legal if you chose to count it so at home, but if you are thinking of taking a house here and of making an extended residence I shouldn't advise it. As to Captain Dunham's suggestion, it's not wholly a bad one. Not being in Italy, the Italians can't take exception to it, and if it is properly witnessed and recorded at home it ought to stand."

They couldn't of course take it in all at once that they were simply to sail out there into the ethereal blueness and to come back from it with the right to live together. However, it made for a great unanimity of opinion as they talked it over on the way home, that, since so much was lacking from Peter's marriage that he had dreamed went to it, and so much more had come into Savilla's than she had dared to imagine, it mattered very little what else was added or left out.

"I suppose," suggested Miss Dassonville, "Mrs. Merrithew will think it dreadful." But as it turned out Mrs. Merrithew thought very well of it.

"On a United States boat with a United States minister—there is one here I've found out—it seems a lot safer than to trust to these foreign ways. If you was to be married in Italian I should never be certain you wouldn't wake up some morning and find yourself not married. And then how should I feel!" As to the palace plan, she threw herself into it with heavy alacrity. "I s'pose I've got to see you through," she said, "and it will give me something to think about. I don't suppose you have any intention that way, but an engaged couple isn't very good company."

It transpired that the Merrythought would put out to the high seas on the twenty-second, and it was in the flutter of their practical adjustments to meet this date that Peter found the ten days of his engagement move so swiftly; to engage servants, to interview tradespeople, to prune the neglected garden—it was Savilla's notion that they should do this themselves—all the stir of domestic life made so many points of advantage to support him above that dryness of despair from which he had moments of feeling himself all too hardly rescued. He had come up out of it sufficiently by the help that Italy afforded, to glimpse once more the country of his dreams, only by this act of his marriage to turn his back on it forever. Savilla Dassonville was a dear little thing; if it came to that, a revered and valued thing, but she was not, he had never pretended it, the Lovely Lady, and the door that shut them in as man and wife was to shut her forever out of his life. And yet though this was his accepted, his official position, it was remarkable even to himself how much less frequently as the preparations for his marriage went forward, he found himself obliged to fall back upon it; how much more he projected himself into his future as the adored and protecting male. He recalled in this connection that the Princess had said to him that he should visit his House no more, and it was part of the proof of the notion he entertained toward himself as a man done with the imaginative life, that he accepted it with no more fuss about it. He had in fact his mind's eye on a piece of ground which Lessing could buy for him, on the river, an hour from the city, where he could manage for Savilla at least, a generous substitute for dreams, and a situation for himself for which he began to discover more appetite than he would have believed. It was likely, he thought, that he would himself take a turn at planning the garden.

THE END

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