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Chapter 9

IX.

Florida began to prepare the bed for her mother's lying down.

"What are you doing that for, my dear?" asked Mrs. Vervain. "I can't go to bed at once."

"But mother"-

"No, Florida. And I mean it. You are too headstrong. I should think you would see yourself how you suffer in the end by giving way to your violent temper. What a day you have made for us!"

"I was very wrong," murmured the proud girl, meekly.

"And then the mortification of an apology; you might have spared yourself that."

"It didn't mortify me; I didn't care for it."

"No, I really believe you are too haughty to mind humbling yourself. And Don Ippolito had been so uniformly kind to us. I begin to believe that Mr. Ferris caught your true character in that sketch. But your pride will be broken some day, Florida."

"Won't you let me help you undress, mother? You can talk to me while you're undressing. You must try to get some rest."

"Yes, I am all unstrung. Why couldn't you have let him come in and talk awhile? It would have been the best way to get me quieted down. But no; you must always have your own way Don't twitch me, my dear; I'd rather undress myself. You pretend to be very careful of me. I wonder if you really care for me."

"Oh, mother, you are all I have in the world!"

Mrs. Vervain began to whimper. "You talk as if I were any better off.
Have I anybody besides you? And I have lost so many."

"Don't think of those things now, mother."

Mrs. Vervain tenderly kissed the young girl. "You are good to your mother. Don Ippolito was right; no one ever saw you offer me disrespect or unkindness. There, there! Don't cry, my darling. I think I had better lie down, and I'll let you undress me."

She suffered herself to be helped into bed, and Florida went softly about the room, putting it in order, and drawing the curtains closer to keep out the near dawn. Her mother talked a little while, and presently fell from incoherence to silence, and so to sleep.

Florida looked hesitatingly at her for a moment, and then set her candle on the floor and sank wearily into an arm-chair beside the bed. Her hands fell into her lap; her head drooped sadly forward; the light flung the shadow of her face grotesquely exaggerated and foreshortened upon the ceiling.

By and by a bird piped in the garden; the shriek of a swallow made itself heard from a distance; the vernal day was beginning to stir from the light, brief drowse of the vernal night. A crown of angry red formed upon the candle wick, which toppled over in the socket and guttered out with a sharp hiss.

Florida started from her chair. A streak of sunshine pierced shutter and curtain. Her mother was supporting herself on one elbow in the bed, and looking at her as if she had just called to her.

"Mother, did you speak?" asked the girl.

Mrs. Vervain turned her face away; she sighed deeply, stretched her thin hands on the pillow, and seemed to be sinking, sinking down through the bed. She ceased to breathe and lay in a dead faint.

Florida felt rather than saw it all. She did not cry out nor call for help. She brought water and cologne, and bathed her mother's face, and then chafed her hands. Mrs. Vervain slowly revived; she opened her eyes, then closed them; she did not speak, but after a while she began to fetch her breath with the long and even respirations of sleep.

Florida noiselessly opened the door, and met the servant with a tray of coffee. She put her finger to her lip, and motioned her not to enter, asking in a whisper: "What time is it, Nina? I forgot to wind my watch."

"It's nine o'clock, signorina; and I thought you would be tired this morning, and would like your coffee in bed. Oh, misericordia!" cried the girl, still in whisper, with a glance through the doorway, "you haven't been in bed at all!"

"My mother doesn't seem well. I sat down beside her, and fell asleep in my chair without knowing it."

"Ah, poor little thing! Then you must drink your coffee at once. It refreshes."

"Yes, yes," said Florida, closing the door, and pointing to a table in the next room, "put it down here. I will serve myself, Nina. Go call the gondola, please. I am going out, at once, and I want you to go with me. Tell Checa to come here and stay with my mother till I come back."

She poured out a cup of coffee with a trembling hand, and hastily drank it; then bathing her eyes, she went to the glass and bestowed a touch or two upon yesterday's toilet, studied the effect a moment, and turned away. She ran back for another look, and the next moment she was walking down to the water-gate, where she found Nina waiting her in the gondola.

A rapid course brought them to Ferris's landing. "Ring," she said to the gondolier, "and say that one of the American ladies wishes to see the consul."

Ferris was standing on the balcony over her, where he had been watching her approach in mute wonder. "Why, Miss Vervain," he called down, "what in the world is the matter?"

"I don't know. I want to see you," said Florida, looking up with a wistful face.

"I'll come down."

"Yes, please. Or no, I had better come up. Yes, Nina and I will come up."

Ferris met them at the lower door and led them to his apartment. Nina sat down in the outer room, and Florida followed the painter into his studio. Though her face was so wan, it seemed to him that he had never seen it lovelier, and he had a strange pride in her being there, though the disorder of the place ought to have humbled him. She looked over it with a certain childlike, timid curiosity, and something of that lofty compassion with which young ladies regard the haunts of men when they come into them by chance; in doing this she had a haughty, slow turn of the head that fascinated him.

"I hope," he said, "you don't mind the smell," which was a mingled one of oil-colors and tobacco-smoke. "The woman's putting my office to rights, and it's all in a cloud of dust. So I have to bring you in here."

Florida sat down on a chair fronting the easel, and found herself looking into the sad eyes of Don Ippolito. Ferris brusquely turned the back of the canvas toward her. "I didn't mean you to see that. It isn't ready to show, yet," he said, and then he stood expectantly before her. He waited for her to speak, for he never knew how to take Miss Vervain; he was willing enough to make light of her grand moods, but now she was too evidently unhappy for mocking; at the same time he did not care to invoke a snub by a prematurely sympathetic demeanor. His mind ran on the events of the day before, and he thought this visit probably related somehow to Don Ippolito. But his visitor did not speak, and at last he said: "I hope there's nothing wrong at home, Miss Vervain. It's rather odd to have yesterday, last night, and next morning all run together as they have been for me in the last twenty-four hours. I trust Mrs. Vervain is turning the whole thing into a good solid oblivion."

"It's about-it's about-I came to see you"-said Florida, hoarsely. "I mean," she hurried on to say, "that I want to ask you who is the best doctor here?"

Then it was not about Don Ippolito. "Is your mother sick?" asked Ferris, eagerly. "She must have been fearfully tired by that unlucky expedition of ours. I hope there's nothing serious?"

"No, no! But she is not well. She is very frail, you know. You must have noticed how frail she is," said Florida, tremulously.

Ferris had noticed that all his countrywomen, past their girlhood, seemed to be sick, he did not know how or why; he supposed it was all right, it was so common. In Mrs. Vervain's case, though she talked a great deal about her ill-health, he had noticed it rather less than usual, she had so great spirit. He recalled now that he had thought her at times rather a shadowy presence, and that occasionally it had amused him that so slight a structure should hang together as it did-not only successfully, but triumphantly.

He said yes, he knew that Mrs. Vervain was not strong, and Florida continued: "It's only advice that I want for her, but I think we had better see some one-or know some one that we could go to in need. We are so far from any one we know, or help of any kind." She seemed to be trying to account to herself, rather than to Ferris, for what she was doing. "We mustn't let anything pass unnoticed"…. She looked at him entreatingly, but a shadow, as of some wounding memory, passed over her face, and she said no more.

"I'll go with you to a doctor's," said Ferris, kindly.

"No, please, I won't trouble you."

"It's no trouble."

"I don't want you to go with me, please. I'd rather go alone." Ferris looked at her perplexedly, as she rose. "Just give me the address, and I shall manage best by myself. I'm used to doing it."

"As you like. Wait a moment." Ferris wrote the address. "There," he said, giving it to her; "but isn't there anything I can do for you?"

"Yes," answered Florida with awkward hesitation, and a half-defiant, half-imploring look at him. "You must have all sorts of people applying to you, as a consul; and you look after their affairs-and try to forget them"-

"Well?" said Ferris.

"I wish you wouldn't remember that I've asked this favor of you; that you'd consider it a"-

"Consular service? With all my heart," answered Ferris, thinking for the third or fourth time how very young Miss Vervain was.

"You are very good; you are kinder than I have any right," said Florida, smiling piteously. "I only mean, don't speak of it to my mother. Not," she added, "but what I want her to know everything I do; but it would worry her if she thought I was anxious about her. Oh! I wish I wouldn't."

She began a hasty search for her handkerchief; he saw her lips tremble and his soul trembled with them.

In another moment, "Good-morning," she said briskly, with a sort of airy sob, "I don't want you to come down, please."

She drifted out of the room and down the stairs, the servant-maid falling into her wake.

Ferris filled his pipe and went out on his balcony again, and stood watching the gondola in its course toward the address he had given, and smoking thoughtfully. It was really the same girl who had given poor Don Ippolito that cruel slap in the face, yesterday. But that seemed no more out of reason than her sudden, generous, exaggerated remorse both were of a piece with her coming to him for help now, holding him at a distance, flinging herself upon his sympathy, and then trying to snub him, and breaking down in the effort. It was all of a piece, and the piece was bad; yes, she had an ugly temper; and yet she had magnanimous traits too. These contradictions, which in his reverie he felt rather than formulated, made him smile, as he stood on his balcony bathed by the morning air and sunlight, in fresh, strong ignorance of the whole mystery of women's nerves. These caprices even charmed him. He reflected that he had gone on doing the Vervains one favor after another in spite of Florida's childish petulancies; and he resolved that he would not stop now; her whims should be nothing to him, as they had been nothing, hitherto. It is flattering to a man to be indispensable to a woman so long as he is not obliged to it; Miss Vervain's dependent relation to himself in this visit gave her a grace in Ferris's eyes which she had wanted before.

In the mean time he saw her gondola stop, turn round, and come back to the canal that bordered the Vervain garden.

"Another change of mind," thought Ferris, complacently; and rising superior to the whole fitful sex, he released himself from uneasiness on Mrs. Vervain's account. But in the evening he went to ask after her. He first sent his card to Florida, having written on it, "I hope Mrs. Vervain is better. Don't let me come in if it's any disturbance." He looked for a moment at what he had written, dimly conscious that it was patronizing, and when he entered he saw that Miss Vervain stood on the defensive and from some willfulness meant to make him feel that he was presumptuous in coming; it did not comfort him to consider that she was very young. "Mother will be in directly," said Florida in a tone that relegated their morning's interview to the age of fable.

Mrs. Vervain came in smiling and cordial, apparently better and not worse for yesterday's misadventures.

"Oh, I pick up quickly," she explained. "I'm an old campaigner, you know. Perhaps a little too old, now. Years do make a difference; and you'll find it out as you get on, Mr. Ferris."

"I suppose so," said Ferris, not caring to have Mrs. Vervain treat him so much like a boy. "Even at twenty-six I found it pleasant to take a nap this afternoon. How does one stand it at seventeen, Miss Vervain?" he asked.

"I haven't felt the need of sleep," replied Florida, indifferently, and he felt shelved, as an old fellow.

He had an empty, frivolous visit, to his thinking. Mrs. Vervain asked if he had seen Don Ippolito, and wondered that the priest had not come about, al day. She told a long story, and at the end tapped herself on the mouth with her fan to punish a yawn.

Ferris rose to go. Mrs. Vervain wondered again in the same words why
Don Ippolito had not been near them all day.

"Because he's a wise man," said Ferris with bitterness, "and knows when to time his visits." Mrs. Vervain did not notice his bitterness, but something made Florida follow him to the outer door.

"Why, it's moonlight!" she exclaimed; and she glanced at him as though she had some purpose of atonement in her mind.

But he would not have it. "Yes, there's a moon," he said moodily.
"Good-night."

"Good night," answered Florida, and she impulsively offered him her hand. He thought that it shook in his, but it was probably the agitation of his own nerves.

A soreness that had been lifted from his heart, came back; he walked home disappointed and defeated, he hardly knew why or in what. He did not laugh now to think how she had asked him that morning to forget her coming to him for help; he was outraged that he should have been repaid in this sort, and the rebuff with which his sympathy had just been met was vulgar; there was no other name for it but vulgarity. Yet he could not relate this quality to the face of the young girl as he constantly beheld it in his homeward walk. It did not defy him or repulse him; it looked up at him wistfully as from the gondola that morning. Nevertheless he hardened his heart. The Vervains should see him next when they had sent for him. After all, one is not so very old at twenty-six.

William Dean Howells

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