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Chapter 7

VII.

Ferris stood cleaning his palette, after Don Ippolito was gone, scraping the colors together with his knife and neatly buttering them on the palette's edge, while he wondered what the priest meant by pumping him in that way. Nothing, he supposed, and yet it was odd. Of course she had a bad temper….

He put on his hat and coat and strolled vaguely forth, and in an hour or two came by a roundabout course to the gondola station nearest his own house. There he stopped, and after an absent contemplation of the boats, from which the gondoliers were clamoring for his custom, he stepped into one and ordered the man to row him to a gate on a small canal opposite. The gate opened, at his ringing, into the garden of the Vervains.

Florida was sitting alone on a bench near the fountain. It was no longer a ruined fountain; the broken-nosed naiad held a pipe above her head, and from this rose a willowy spray high enough to catch some colors of the sunset then striking into the garden, and fell again in a mist around her, making her almost modest.

"What does this mean?" asked Ferris, carelessly taking the young girl's hand. "I thought this lady's occupation was gone."

"Don Ippolito repaired the fountain for the landlord, and he agreed to pay for filling the tank that feeds it," said Florida. "He seems to think it a hard bargain, for he only lets it play about half an hour a day. But he says it's very ingeniously mended. He didn't believe it could be done. It is pretty.

"It is, indeed," said the painter, with a singular desire, going through him like a pang, likewise to do something for Miss Vervain. "Did you go to Don Ippolito's house the other day, to see his traps?"

"Yes; we were very much interested. I was sorry that I knew so little about inventions. Do you think there are many practical ideas amongst his things? I hope there are-he seemed so proud and pleased to show them. Shouldn't you think he had some real inventive talent?"

"Yes, I think he has; but I know as little about the matter as you do." He sat down beside her, and picking up a twig from the gravel, pulled the bark off in silence. Then, "Miss Vervain," he said, knitting his brows, as he always did when he had something on his conscience and meant to ease it at any cost, "I'm the dog that fetches a bone and carries a bone; I talked Don Ippolito over with you, the other day, and now I've been talking you over with him. But I've the grace to say that I'm ashamed of myself."

"Why need you be ashamed?" asked Florida. "You said no harm of him. Did you of us?"

"Not exactly; but I don't think it was quite my business to discuss you at all. I think you can't let people alone too much. For my part, if I try to characterize my friends, I fail to do them perfect justice, of course; and yet the imperfect result remains representative of them in my mind; it limits them and fixes them; and I can't get them back again into the undefined and the ideal where they really belong. One ought never to speak of the faults of one's friends: it mutilates them; they can never be the same afterwards."

"So you have been talking of my faults," said Florida, breathing quickly. "Perhaps you could tell me of them to my face."

"I should have to say that unfairness was one of them. But that is common to the whole sex. I never said I was talking of your faults. I declared against doing so, and you immediately infer that my motive is remorse. I don't know that you have any faults. They may be virtues in disguise. There is a charm even in unfairness. Well, I did Bay that I thought you had a quick temper,"-

Florida colored violently.

-"but now I see that I was mistaken," said Ferris with a laugh.

"May I ask what else you said?" demanded the young girl haughtily.

"Oh, that would be a betrayal of confidence," said Ferris, unaffected by her hauteur.

"Then why have you mentioned the matter to me at all?"

"I wanted to clear my conscience, I suppose, and sin again. I wanted to talk with you about Don Ippolito."

Florida looked with perplexity at Ferris's face, while her own slowly cooled and paled.

"What did you want to say of him?" she asked calmly.

"I hardly know how to put it: that he puzzles me, to begin with. You know I feel somewhat responsible for him."

"Yes."

"Of course, I never should have thought of him, if it hadn't been for your mother's talk that morning coming back from San Lazzaro."

"I know," said Florida, with a faint blush.

"And yet, don't you see, it was as much a fancy of mine, a weakness for the man himself, as the desire to serve your mother, that prompted me to bring him to you."

"Yes, I see," answered the young girl.

"I acted in the teeth of a bitter Venetian prejudice against priests. All my friends here-they're mostly young men with the modern Italian ideas, or old liberals-hate and despise the priests They believe that priests are full of guile and deceit, that they are spies for the Austrians, and altogether evil."

"Don Ippolito is welcome to report our most secret thoughts to the police," said Florida, whose look of rising alarm relaxed into a smile.

"Oh," cried the painter, "how you leap to conclusions! I never intimated that Don Ippolito was a spy. On the contrary, it was his difference from other priests that made me think of him for a moment. He seems to be as much cut off from the church as from the world. And yet he is a priest, with a priest's education. What if I should have been altogether mistaken? He is either one of the openest souls in the world, as you have insisted, or he is one of the closest."

"I should not be afraid of him in any case," said Florida; "but I can't believe any wrong of him."

Ferris frowned in annoyance. "I don't want you to; I don't, myself. I've bungled the matter as I might have known I would. I was trying to put into words an undefined uneasiness of mine, a quite formless desire to have you possessed of the whole case as it had come up in my mind. I've made a mess of it," said Ferris rising, with a rueful air. "Besides, I ought to have spoken to Mrs. Vervain."

"Oh no," cried Florida, eagerly, springing to her feet beside him. "Don't! Little things wear upon my mother, so. I'm glad you didn't speak to her. I don't misunderstand you, I think; I expressed myself badly," she added with an anxious face. "I thank you very much. What do you want me to do?"

By Ferris's impulse they both began to move down the garden path toward the water-gate. The sunset had faded out of the fountain, but it still lit the whole heaven, in whose vast blue depths hung light whiffs of pinkish cloud, as ethereal as the draperies that floated after Miss Vervain as she walked with a splendid grace beside him, no awkwardness, now, or self-constraint in her. As she turned to Ferris, and asked in her deep tones, to which some latent feeling imparted a slight tremor, "What do you want me to do?" the sense of her willingness to be bidden by him gave him a delicious thrill. He looked at the superb creature, so proud, so helpless; so much a woman, so much a child; and he caught his breath before he answered. Her gauzes blew about his feet in the light breeze that lifted the foliage; she was a little near-sighted, and in her eagerness she drew closer to him, fixing her eyes full upon his with a bold innocence. "Good heavens! Miss Vervain," he cried, with a sudden blush, "it isn't a serious matter. I'm a fool to have spoken to you. Don't do anything. Let things go on as before. It isn't for me to instruct you."

"I should have been very glad of your advice," she said with a disappointed, almost wounded manner, keeping her eyes upon him. "It seems to me we are always going wrong"-

She stopped short, with a flush and then a pallor.

Ferris returned her look with one of comical dismay. This apparent readiness of Miss Vervain's to be taken command of, daunted him, on second thoughts. "I wish you'd dismiss all my stupid talk from your mind," he said. "I feel as if I'd been guiltily trying to set you against a man whom I like very much and have no reason not to trust, and who thinks me so much his friend that he couldn't dream of my making any sort of trouble for him. It would break his heart, I'm afraid, if you treated him in a different way from that in which you've treated him till now. It's really touching to listen to his gratitude to you and your mother. It's only conceivable on the ground that he has never had friends before in the world. He seems like another man, or the same man come to life. And it isn't his fault that he's a priest. I suppose," he added, with a sort of final throe, "that a Venetian family wouldn't use him with the frank hospitality you've shown, not because they distrusted him at all, perhaps, but because they would be afraid of other Venetian tongues."

This ultimate drop of venom, helplessly distilled, did not seem to rankle in Miss Vervain's mind. She walked now with her face turned from his, and she answered coldly, "We shall not be troubled. We don't care for Venetian tongues."

They were at the gate. "Good-by," said Ferris, abruptly, "I'm going."

"Won't you wait and see my mother?" asked Florida, with her awkward self-constraint again upon her.

"No, thanks," said Ferris, gloomily. "I haven't time. I just dropped in for a moment, to blast an innocent man's reputation, and destroy a young lady's peace of mind."

"Then you needn't go, yet," answered Florida, coldly, "for you haven't succeeded."

"Well, I've done my worst," returned Ferris, drawing the bolt.

He went away, hanging his head in amazement and disgust at himself for his clumsiness and bad taste. It seemed to him a contemptible part, first to embarrass them with Don Ippolito's acquaintance, if it was an embarrassment, and then try to sneak out of his responsibility by these tardy cautions; and if it was not going to be an embarrassment, it was folly to have approached the matter at all.

What had he wanted to do, and with what motive? He hardly knew. As he battled the ground over and over again, nothing comforted him save the thought that, bad as it was to have spoken to Miss Vervain, it must have been infinitely worse to speak to her mother.

William Dean Howells

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