Colville had not done what he meant in going to Mrs. Bowen's; in fact, he had done just what he had not meant to do, as he distinctly perceived in coming away. It was then that in a luminous retrospect he discovered his motive to have been a wish to atone to her for behaviour that must have distressed her, or at least to explain it to her. She had not let him do this at once; an instant willingness to hear and to condone was not in a woman's nature; she had to make him feel, by the infliction of a degree of punishment, that she had suffered. But before she ended she had made it clear that she was ready to grant him a tacit pardon, and he had answered with a silly sarcasm the question that was to have led to peace. He could not help seeing that throughout the whole Carnival adventure she had yielded her cherished reluctances to please him, to show him that she was not stiff or prudish, to convince him that she would not be a killjoy through her devotion to conventionalities which she thought he despised. He could not help seeing that he had abused her delicate generosity, insulted her subtle concessions. He strolled along down the Arno, feeling flat and mean, as a man always does after a contest with a woman in which he has got the victory; our sex can preserve its self-respect only through defeat in such a case. It gave him no pleasure to remember that the glamour of the night before seemed still to rest on Imogene unbroken; that, indeed, was rather an added pain. He surprised himself in the midst of his poignant reflections by a yawn. Clearly the time was past when these ideal troubles could keep him awake, and there was, after all, a sort of brutal consolation in the fact. He was forty-one years old, and he was sleepy, whatever capacity for suffering remained to him. He went to his hotel to catch a little nap before lunch. When he woke it was dinner-time. The mists of slumber still hung about him, and the events of the last forty-eight hours showed vast and shapelessly threatening through them.
When the drama of the table d'hôte reached its climax of roast chestnuts and butter, he determined to walk over to San Marco and pay a visit to Mr. Waters. He found the old minister from Haddam East Village, Massachusetts, Italianate outwardly in almost ludicrous degree. He wore a fur-lined overcoat indoors; his feet, cased in thick woollen shoes, rested on a strip of carpet laid before his table; a man who had lived for forty years in the pungent atmosphere of an air-tight stove, succeeding a quarter of a century of roaring hearth fires, contented himself with the spare heat of a scaldino, which he held his clasped hands over in the very Italian manner; the lamp that cast its light on the book open before him was the classic lucerna, with three beaks, fed with olive oil. He looked up at his visitor over his spectacles, without recognising him, till Colville spoke. Then, after their greeting, "Is it snowing heavily?" he asked.
"It isn't snowing at all. What made you think that?"
"Perhaps I was drowsing over my book and dreamed it. We become very strange and interesting studies to ourselves as we live along."
He took up the metaphysical consideration with the promptness of a man who has no small-talk, and who speaks of the mind and soul as if they were the gossip of the neighbourhood.
"At times the forty winters that I passed in Haddam East Village seem like an alien experience, and I find myself pitying the life I lived there quite as if it were the life of some one else. It seems incredible that men should still inhabit such climates."
"Then you're not homesick for Haddam East Village?"
"Ah! for the good and striving souls there, yes; especially the souls of some women there. They used to think that it was I who gave them consolation and spiritual purpose, but it was they who really imparted it. Women souls—how beautiful they sometimes are! They seem truly like angelic essences. I trust that I shall meet them somewhere some time, but it will never be in Haddam East Village. Yes, I must have been dreaming when you came in. I thought that I was by my fire there, and all round over the hills and in the streets the snow was deep and falling still. How distinctly, he said, closing his eyes, as artists do in looking at a picture, I can see the black wavering lines of the walls in the fields sinking into the drifts! the snow billowed over the graves by the church where I preached! the banks of snow around the houses! the white desolation everywhere! I ask myself at times if the people are still there. Yes, I feel as blessedly remote from that terrible winter as if I had died away from it, and were in the weather of heaven."
"Then you have no reproach for feeble-spirited fellow-citizens who abandon their native climate and come to live in Italy?"
The old man drew his fur coat closer about him and shrugged his shoulders in true Florentine fashion. "There may be something to say against those who do so in the heyday of life, but I shall not be the one to say it. The race must yet revert in its decrepitude, as I have in mine, to the climates of the South. Since I have been in Italy I have realised what used to occur to me dimly at home—the cruel disproportion between the end gained and the means expended in reclaiming the savage North. Half the human endeavour, half the human suffering, would have made the whole South Protestant and the whole East Christian, and our civilisation would now be there. No, I shall never go back to New England. New England? New Ireland——New Canada! Half the farms in Haddam are in the hands of our Irish friends, and the labour on the rest is half done by French Canadians. That is all right and well. New England must come to me here, by way of the great middle West and the Pacific coast."
Colville smiled at the Emersonian touch, but he said gravely, "I can never quite reconcile myself to the thought of dying out of my own country."
"Why not? It is very unimportant where one dies. A moment after your breath is gone you are in exile for ever—or at home for ever."
Colville sat musing upon this phase of Americanism, as he had upon many others. At last he broke the silence they had both let fall, far away from the topic they had touched.
"Well," he asked, "how did you enjoy the veglione?"
"Oh, I'm too old to go to such places for pleasure," said the minister simply. "But it was very interesting, and certainly very striking: especially when I went back, toward daylight, after seeing Mrs. Bowen home."
"Did you go back?" demanded Colville, in some amaze.
"Oh yes. I felt that my experience was incomplete without some knowledge of how the Carnival ended at such a place."
"Oh! And do you still feel that Savonarola was mistaken?"
"There seemed to be rather more boisterousness toward the close, and, if I might judge, the excitement grew a little unwholesome. But I really don't feel myself very well qualified to decide. My own life has been passed in circumstances so widely different that I am at a certain disadvantage."
"Yes," said Colville, with a smile; "I daresay the Carnival at Haddam East Village was quite another tiling."
The old man smiled responsively. "I suppose that some of my former parishioners might have been scandalised at my presence at a Carnival ball, had they known the fact merely in the abstract; but in my letters home I shall try to set it before them in an instructive light. I should say that the worst thing about such a scene of revelry would be that it took us too much out of our inner quiet. But I suppose the same remark might apply to almost any form of social entertainment."
"But human nature is so constituted that some means of expansion must be provided, or a violent explosion takes place. The only question is what means are most innocent. I have been looking about," added the old man quietly, "at the theatres lately."
"Have you?" asked Colville, opening his eyes, in suppressed surprise.
"Yes; with a view to determining the degree of harmless amusement that may be derived from them. It's rather a difficult question. I should be inclined to say, however, that I don't think the ballet can ever be instrumental for good."
Colville could not deny himself the pleasure of saying, "Well, not the highest, I suppose."
"No," said Mr. Waters, in apparent unconsciousness of the irony. "But I think the Church has made a mistake in condemning the theatre in toto. It appears to me that it might always have countenanced a certain order of comedy, in which the motive and plot are unobjectionable. Though I don't deny that there are moods when all laughter seems low and unworthy and incompatible with the most advanced state of being. And I confess," he went on, with a dreamy thoughtfulness, "that I have very great misgivings in regard to tragedy. The glare that it throws upon the play of the passions—jealousy in its anguish, revenge glutting itself, envy eating its heart, hopeless love—their nakedness is terrible. The terror may be salutary; it may be very mischievous. I am afraid that I have left some of my inquiries till it is too late. I seem to have no longer the materials of judgment left in me. If I were still a young man like you——"
"Am I still a young man?" interrupted Colville sadly.
"You are young enough to respond to the appeals that sometimes find me silent. If I were of your age I should certainly investigate some of these interesting problems."
"Ah, but if you become personally interested in the problems, it's as bad as if you hadn't the materials of judgment left; you're prejudiced. Besides, I doubt my youthfulness very much."
"You are fifty, I presume?" suggested Mr. Waters, in a leading way.
"Not very near—only too near," laughed Colville. "I'm forty-one."
"You are younger than I supposed. But I remember now that at your age I had the same feeling which you intimate. It seemed to me then that I had really passed the bound which separates us from the further possibility of youth. But I've lived long enough since to know that I was mistaken. At forty, one has still a great part of youth before him—perhaps the richest and sweetest part. By that time the turmoil of ideas and sensations is over; we see clearly and feel consciously. We are in a sort of quiet in which we peacefully enjoy. We have enlarged our perspective sufficiently to perceive things in their true proportion and relation; we are no longer tormented with the lurking fear of death, which darkens and embitters our earlier years; we have got into the habit of life; we have often been ailing and we have not died. Then we have time enough behind us to supply us with the materials of reverie and reminiscence; the terrible solitude of inexperience is broken; we have learned to smile at many things besides the fear of death. We ought also to have learned pity and patience. Yes," the old man concluded, in cheerful self-corroboration, "it is a beautiful age."
"But it doesn't look so beautiful as it is," Colville protested. "People in that rosy prime don't produce the effect of garlanded striplings upon the world at large. The women laugh at us; they think we are fat old fellows; they don't recognise the slender and elegant youth that resides in our unwieldy bulk."
"You take my meaning a little awry. Besides, I doubt if even the ground you assume is tenable. If a woman has lived long enough to be truly young herself, she won't find a man at forty either decrepit or grotesque. He can even make himself youthful to a girl of thought and imagination."
"Yes," Colville assented, with a certain discomfort.
"But to be truly young at forty," resumed Mr. Waters, "a man should be already married."
"I sometimes feel," continued the old man, "that I made a mistake in yielding to a disappointment that I met with early in life, and in not permitting myself the chance of retrieval. I have missed a beautiful and consoling experience in my devotion to a barren regret."
Colville said nothing, but he experienced a mixed feeling of amusement, of repulsion, and of curiosity at this.
"We are put into the world to be of it. I am more and more convinced of that. We have scarcely a right to separate ourselves from the common lot in any way. I justify myself for having lived alone only as a widower might. I—lost her. It was a great while ago."
"Yes," said Colville, after the pause which ensued; "I agree with you that one has no right to isolate himself, to refuse his portion of the common lot; but the effects of even a rebuff may last so long that one has no heart to put out his hand a second time—for a second rap over the knuckles. Oh, I know how trivial it is in the retrospect, and how what is called a disappointment is something to be humbly grateful for in most cases; but for a while it certainly makes you doubtful whether you were ever really intended to share the common lot." He was aware of an insincerity in his words; he hoped that it might not be perceptible, but he did not greatly care.
Mr. Waters took no notice of what he had been saying. He resumed from another point. "But I should say that it would be unwise for a man of mature life to seek his happiness with one much younger than himself. I don't deny that there are cases in which the disparity of years counts for little or nothing, but generally speaking, people ought to be as equally mated in age as possible. They ought to start with the same advantages of ignorance. A young girl can only live her life through a community of feeling, an equality of inexperience in the man she gives her heart to. If he is tired of things that still delight her, the chances of unhappiness are increased."
"Yes, that's true," answered Colville gravely. "It's apt to be a mistake and a wrong."
"Oh, not always—not always," said the old minister. "We mustn't look at it in that way quite. Wrongs are of the will." He seemed to lapse into a greater intimacy of feeling with Colville. "Have you seen Mrs. Bowen to-day? Or—ah! true! I think you told me."
"No," said Colville. "Have we spoken of her? But I have seen her."
"And was the little one well?"
"Very much better."
"Pretty creatures, both of them," said the minister, with as fresh a pleasure in his recognition of the fact as if he had not said nearly the same thing once before, "You've noticed the very remarkable resemblance between mother and daughter?"
"There is a gentleness in Mrs. Bowen which seems to me the last refinement of a gracious spirit," suggested Mr. Waters. "I have never met any lady who reconciled more exquisitely what is charming in society with what is lovely in nature."
"Yes," said Colville. "Mrs. Bowen always had that gentle manner. I used to know her here as a girl a great while ago."
"Did you? I wonder you allowed her to become Mrs. Bowen."
This sprightliness of Mr. Waters amused Colville greatly. "At that time I was preoccupied with my great mistake, and I had no eyes for Mrs. Bowen."
"It isn't too late yet," said Mr. Waters, with open insinuation.
A bachelor of forty is always flattered by any suggestion of marriage; the suggestion that a beautiful and charming woman would marry him is too much for whatever reserves of modesty and wisdom he may have stored up Colville took leave of the old minister in better humour with himself than he had been for forty-eight hours, or than he had any very good reason for being now.
Mr. Waters came with him to the head of the stairs and held up the lamp for him to see. The light fell upon the white locks thinly straggling from beneath his velvet skull-cap, and he looked like some mediaeval scholar of those who lived and died for learning in Florence when letters were a passion there almost as strong as love.
The next day Colville would have liked to go at once and ask about Effie, but upon the whole he thought he would not go till after he had been at the reception where he was going in the afternoon. It was an artist who was giving the reception; he had a number of pictures to show, and there was to be tea. There are artists and artists. This painter was one who had a distinct social importance. It was felt to be rather a nice thing to be asked to his reception; one was sure at least to meet the nicest people.
This reason prevailed with Colville so far as it related to Mrs. Bowen, whom he felt that he would like to tell he had been there. He would speak to her of this person and that—very respected and recognised social figures,—so that she might see he was not the outlaw, the Bohemian, he must sometimes have appeared to her. It would not be going too far to say that something like an obscure intention to show himself the next Sunday at the English chapel, where Mrs. Bowen went, was not forming itself in his mind. As he went along it began to seem not impossible that she would be at the reception. If Effie's indisposition was no more serious than it appeared yesterday, very probably Mrs. Bowen would be there. He even believed that he recognised her carriage among those which were drawn up in front of the old palace, under the painter's studio windows.
There were a great number of people of the four nationalities that mostly consort in Italy. There were English and Americans and Russians and the sort of Italians resulting from the native intermarriages with them; here and there were Italians of pure blood, borderers upon the foreign life through a literary interest, or an artistic relation, or a matrimonial intention; here and there, also, the large stomach of a German advanced the bounds of the new empire and the new ideal of duty. There were no Frenchmen; one may meet them in more strictly Italian assemblages, but it is as if the sorrows and uncertainties of France in these times discouraged them from the international society in which they were always an infrequent element. It is not, of course, imaginable that as Frenchmen they have doubts of their merits, but that they have their misgivings as to the intelligence of others. The language that prevailed was English—in fact, one heard no other,—and the tea which our civilisation carries everywhere with it steamed from the cups in all hands. This beverage, in fact, becomes a formidable factor in the life of a Florentine winter. One finds it at all houses, and more or less mechanically drinks it.
"I am turning out a terrible tea toper," said Colville, stirring his cup in front of the old lady whom his relations to the ladies at Palazzo Pinti had interested so much. "I don't think I drink less than ten cups a day; seventy cups a week is a low average for me. I'm really beginning to look down at my boots a little anxiously."
Mrs. Amsden laughed. She had not been in America for forty years, but she liked the American way of talking better than any other. "Oh, didn't you hear about Inglehart when he was here? He was so good-natured that he used to drink all the tea people offered him, and then the young ladies made tea for him in his studio when they went to look at his pictures. It almost killed him. By the time spring came he trembled so that the brush flew out of his hands when he took it up. He had to hurry off to Venice to save his life. It's just as bad at the Italian houses; they've learned to like tea."
"When I was here before, they never offered you anything but coffee," said Colville. "They took tea for medicine, and there was an old joke that I thought I should die of, I heard it so often about the Italian that said to the English woman when she offered him tea, 'Grazie; sto bene.'"
"Oh, that's all changed now."
"Yes; I've seen the tea, and I haven't heard the joke."
The flavour of Colville's talk apparently encouraged his companion to believe that he would like to make fun of their host's paintings with her; but whether he liked them, or whether he was principled against that sort of return for hospitality, he chose to reply seriously to some ironical lures she threw out.
"Oh, if you're going to be good," she exclaimed, "I shall have nothing more to say to you. Here comes Mr. Thurston; I can make him abuse the pictures. There! You had better go away to a young lady I see alone over yonder, though I don't know what you will do with one alone." She laughed and shook her head in a way that had once been arch and lively, but that was now puckery and infirm—it is affecting to see these things in women—and welcomed the old gentleman who came up and superseded Colville.
The latter turned, with his cup still in his hand, and wandered about through the company, hoping he might see Mrs. Bowen among the groups peering at the pictures or solidly blocking the view in front of them. He did not find her, but he found Imogene Graham standing somewhat apart near a window. He saw her face light up at sight of him, and then darken again as he approached.
"Isn't this rather an unnatural state of things?" he asked when he had come up. "I ought to be obliged to fight my way to you through successive phalanxes of young men crowding round with cups of tea outstretched in their imploring hands. Have you had some tea?"
"Thank you, no; I don't wish any," said the young girl, so coldly that he could not help noticing, though commonly he was man enough to notice very few things.
"How is Effie to-day?" he asked quickly.
"Oh, quite well," said Imogene.
"I don't see Mrs. Bowen," he ventured further.
"No," answered the girl, still very lifelessly; "I came with Mrs. Fleming." She looked about the room as if not to look at him.
He now perceived a distinct intention to snub him. He smiled. "Have you seen the pictures? There are two or three really lovely ones."
"Mrs. Fleming will be here in a moment, I suppose," said Imogene evasively, but not with all her first coldness.
"Let us steal a march on her," said Colville briskly. "When she comes you can tell her that I showed you the pictures."
"I don't know," faltered the girl.
"Perhaps it isn't necessary you should," he suggested.
She glanced at him with questioning trepidation.
"The respective duties of chaperone and protégée are rather undefined. Where the chaperone isn't there to command, the protégée isn't there to obey. I suppose you'd know if you were at home?"
"Let me imagine myself at a loan exhibition in Buffalo. Ah! that appeal is irresistible. You'll come, I see."
She hesitated; she looked at the nearest picture, then followed him to another. He now did what he had refused to do for the old lady who tempted him to it; he made fun of the pictures a little, but so amiably and with so much justice to their good points that the painter himself would not have minded his jesting. From time to time he made Imogene smile, but in her eyes lurked a look of uneasiness, and her manner expressed a struggle against his will which might have had its pathos for him in different circumstances, but now it only incited him to make her forget herself more and more; he treated her as one does a child that is out of sorts—coaxingly, ironically.
When they had made the round of the rooms Mrs. Fleming was not at the window where she had left Imogene; the girl detected the top of her bonnet still in the next room.
"The chaperone is never there when you come back with the protégée," said Colville. "It seems to be the nature of the chaperone."
Imogene turned very grave. "I think I ought to go to her," she murmured.
"Oh no; she ought to come to you; I stand out for protégée's rights."
"I suppose she will come directly."
"She sees me with you; she knows you are safe."
"Oh, of course," said the girl. After a constraint which she marked by rather a long silence, she added, "How strange a roomful of talking sounds, doesn't it? Just like a great caldron boiling up and bubbling over. Wouldn't you like to know what they're all saying?"
"Oh, it's quite bad enough to see them," replied Colville frivolously.
"I think a company of gentlemen with their hats off look very queer, don't you?" she asked, after another interval.
"Well, really," said Colville, laughing, "I don't know that the spectacle ever suggested any metaphysical speculations to me. I rather think they look queerer with their hats on."
"Though there is not very much to choose. We're a queer-looking set, anyway."
He got himself another cup of tea, and coming back to her, allowed her to make the efforts to keep up the conversation, and was not without a malicious pleasure in her struggles. They interested him as social exercises which, however abrupt and undexterous now, were destined, with time and practice, to become the finesse of a woman of society, and to be accepted, even while they were still abrupt and undexterous, as touches of character. He had broken up that coldness with which she had met him at first, and now he let her adjust the fragments as she could to the new situation. He wore that air of a gentleman who has been talking a long time to a lady, and who will not dispute her possession with a new-comer.
But no one came, though, as he cast his eyes carelessly over the company, he found that it had been increased by the accession of eight or ten young fellows, with a refreshing light of originality in their faces, and little touches of difference from the other men in their dress.
"Oh, there are the Inglehart boys!" cried the girl, with a flash of excitement.
There was a sensation of interest and friendliness in the company as these young fellows, after their moment of social intimidation, began to gather round the pictures, and to fling their praise and blame about, and talk the delightful shop of the studio.
The sight of their fresh young faces, the sound of their voices, struck a pang of regret that was almost envy to Colville's heart.
Imogene followed them with eager eyes. "Oh," she sighed, "shouldn't you like to be an artist?"
"I should, very much."
"Oh, I beg your pardon; I forgot. I knew you were an architect."
"I should say I used to be, if you hadn't objected to my perfects and preterits."
What came next seemed almost an accident.
"I didn't suppose you cared for my objections, so long as I amused you." She suddenly glanced at him, as if terrified at her own words.
"Have you been trying to amuse me?" he asked.
"Oh no. I thought——"
"Oh, then," said Colville sharply, "you meant that I was amusing myself with you?" She glanced at him in terror of his divination, but could not protest. "Has any one told you that?" he pursued, with sudden angry suspicion.
"No, no one," began Imogene. She glanced about her, frightened. They stood quite alone where they were; the people had mostly wandered off into the other rooms. "Oh, don't—I didn't mean—I didn't intend to say anything——"
"But you have said something—something that surprises me from you, and hurts me. I wish to know whether you say it from yourself."
"I don't know—yes. That is, not——Oh, I wish Mrs. Fleming——"
She looked as if another word of pursuit would put it beyond her power to control herself.
"Let me take you to Mrs. Fleming," said Colville, with freezing hauteur; and led the way where the top of Mrs. Fleming's bonnet still showed itself. He took leave at once, and hastily parting with his host, found himself in the street, whirled in many emotions. The girl had not said that from herself, but it was from some woman; he knew that by the directness of the phrase and its excess, for he had noticed that women who liked to beat about the bush in small matters have a prodigious straightforwardness in more vital affairs, and will even call grey black in order clearly to establish the presence of the black in that colour. He could hardly keep himself from going to Palazzo Pinti.
But he contrived to go to his hotel instead, where he ate a moody dinner, and then, after an hour's solitary bitterness in his room, went out and passed the evening at the theatre. The play was one of those fleering comedies which render contemptible for the time all honest and earnest intention, and which surely are a whiff from the bottomless pit itself. It made him laugh at the serious strain of self-question that had mingled with his resentment; it made him laugh even at his resentment, and with its humour in his thoughts, sent him off to sleep in a sottish acceptance of whatever was trivial in himself as the only thing that was real and lasting.
He slept late, and when Paolo brought up his breakfast, he brought with it a letter which he said had been left with the porter an hour before. A faint appealing perfume of violet exhaled from the note, and mingled with the steaming odours of the coffee and boiled milk, when Colville, after a glance at the unfamiliar handwriting of the superscription, broke the seal.
"DEAR MR. COLVILLE,—I don't know what you will think of my writing to you, but perhaps you can't think worse of me than you do already, and anything will be better than the misery that I am in. I have not been asleep all night. I hate myself for telling you, but I do want you to understand how I have felt. I would give worlds if I could take back the words that you say wounded you. I didn't mean to wound you. Nobody is to blame for them but me; nobody ever breathed a word about you that was meant in unkindness.
"I am not ashamed of writing this, whatever you think, and I will sign my name in full. IMOGENE GRAHAM."
Colville had commonly a good appetite for his breakfast, but now he let his coffee stand long un-tasted. There were several things about this note that touched him—the childlike simplicity and directness, the generous courage, even the imperfection and crudity of the literature. However he saw it afterward, he saw it then in its true intention. He respected that intention; through all the sophistications in which life had wrapped him, it awed him a little. He realised that if he had been younger he would have gone to Imogene herself with her letter. He felt for the moment a rush of the emotion which he would once not have stopped to examine, which he would not have been capable of examining. But now his duty was clear; he must go to Mrs. Bowen. In the noblest human purpose there is always some admixture, however slight, of less noble motive, and Colville was not without the willingness to see whatever embarrassment she might feel when he showed her the letter, and to invoke her finest tact to aid him in re-assuring the child.
She was alone in her drawing-room, and she told him in response to his inquiry for their health that Imogene and Effie had gone out to drive. She looked so pretty in the quiet house dress in which she rose from the sofa and stood, letting him come the whole way to greet her, that he did not think of any other look in her, but afterward he remembered an evidence of inner tumult in her brightened eyes.
He said, smiling, "I'm so glad to see you alone," and this brought still another look into her face, which also he afterward remembered. She did not reply, but made a sound in her throat like a bird when it stirs itself for flight or song. It was a strange, indefinite little note, in which Colville thought he detected trepidation at the time, and recalled for the sort of expectation suggested in it. She stood waiting for him to go on.
"I have come to get you to help me out of trouble."
"Yes?" said Mrs. Bowen, with a vague smile. "I always supposed you would be able to help yourself out of trouble. Or perhaps wouldn't mind it if you were in it."
"Oh yes, I mind it very much," returned Colville, refusing her banter, if it were banter. "Especially this sort of trouble, which involves some one else in the discomfort." He went on abruptly: "I have been held up to a young lady as a person who was amusing himself with her, and I was so absurd as to be angry when she told me, and demanded the name of my friend, whoever it was. My behaviour seems to have given the young lady a bad night, and this morning she writes to tell me so, and to take all the blame on herself, and to assure me that no harm was meant me by any one. Of course I don't want her to be distressed about it. Perhaps you can guess who has been writing to me."
Colville said all this looking down, in a fashion he had. When he looked up he saw a severity in Mrs. Bowen's pretty face, such as he had not seen there before.
"I didn't know she had been writing to you, but I know that you are talking of Imogene. She told me what she had said to you yesterday, and I blamed her for it, but I'm not sure that it wasn't best."
"Oh, indeed!" said Colville. "Perhaps you can tell me who put the idea into her head?"
"Yes; I did."
A dead silence ensued, in which the fragments of the situation broken by these words revolved before Colville's thought with kaleidoscopic variety, and he passed through all the phases of anger, resentment, wounded self-love, and accusing shame.
At last, "I suppose you had your reasons," he said simply.
"I am in her mother's place here," she replied, tightening the grip of one little hand upon another, where she held them laid against the side of her waist.
"Yes, I know that," said Colville; "but what reason had you to warn her against me as a person who was amusing himself with her? I don't like the phrase; but she seems to have got it from you; I use it at third hand."
"I don't like the phrase either; I didn't invent it."
"You used it."
"No; it wasn't I who used it. I should have been glad to use another, if I could," said Mrs. Bowen, with perfect steadiness.
"Then you mean to say that you believe I've been trifling with the feelings of this child?"
"I mean to say nothing. You are very much older; and she is a romantic girl, very extravagant. You have tried to make her like you."
"I certainly have. I have tried to make Effie Bowen like me too."
Mrs. Bowen passed this over in serenity that he felt was not far from contempt.
He gave a laugh that did not express enjoyment.
"You have no right to laugh!" she cried, losing herself a little, and so making her first gain upon him.
"It appears not. Perhaps you will tell me what I am to do about this letter?"
"That is for you to decide." She recovered herself, and lost ground with him in proportion.
"I thought perhaps that since you were able to judge my motives so clearly, you might be able to advise me."
"I don't judge your motives," Mrs. Bowen began. She added suddenly, as if by an after-thought, "I don't think you had any."
"I'm obliged to you."
"But you are as much to blame as if you had."
"And perhaps I'm as much to blame as if I had really wronged somebody?"
"It's rather paradoxical. You don't wish me to see her any more?"
"I haven't any wish about it; you must not say that I have," said Mrs. Bowen, with dignity.
Colville smiled. "May I ask if you have?"
"Not for myself."
"You put me on very short allowance of conjecture."
"I will not let you trifle with the matter!" she cried. "You have made me speak, when a word, a look, ought to have been enough. Oh, I didn't think you had the miserable vanity to wish it!"
Colville stood thinking a long time and she waiting. "I see that everything is at an end. I am going away from Florence. Good-bye, Mrs. Bowen." He approached her, holding out his hand. But if he expected to be rewarded for this, nothing of the kind happened. She shrank swiftly back.
"No, no. You shall not touch me."
He paused a moment, gazing keenly at her face, in which, whatever other feeling showed, there was certainly no fear of him. Then with a slight bow he left the room.
Mrs. Bowen ran from it by another door, and shut herself into her own room. When she returned to the salotto, Imogene and Effie were just coming in. The child went to lay aside her hat and sacque; the girl, after a glance at Mrs. Bowen's face, lingered inquiringly.
"Mr. Colville came here with your letter, Imogene."
"Yes," said Imogene faintly. "Do you think I oughtn't to have written it?"
"Oh, it makes no difference now. He is going away from Florence."
"Yes?" breathed the girl.
"I spoke openly with him."
"I didn't spare him. I made him think I hated and despised him."
Imogene was silent. Then she said, "I know that whatever you have done, you have acted for the best."
"Yes, I have a right that you should say that—I have a right that you should always say it. I think he has behaved very foolishly, but I don't blame him——"
"No! I was to blame."
"I don't know that he was to blame, and I won't let you think he was."
"Oh, he is the best man in the world!"
"He gave up at once; he didn't try to defend himself. It's nothing for you to lose a friend at your age; but at mine——"
"I know it, Mrs. Bowen."
"And I wouldn't even shake hands with him when he was going; I——"
"Oh, I don't see how you could be so hard!" cried Imogene. She put up her hands to her face, and broke into tears. Mrs. Bowen watched her, dry eyed, with her lips parted, and an intensity of question in her face.
"Imogene," she said at last, "I wish you to promise me one thing."
"Not to write to Mr. Colville again."
"No, no; indeed I won't, Mrs. Bowen!" The girl came up to kiss her; Mrs. Bowen turned her cheek.
wish you to promise me this only because you don't feel sure of yourself about him. If you care for him—if you think you care for him—then I leave you perfectly free."
The girl looked up, scared. "No, no; I'd rather you wouldn't leave me free—you mustn't; I shouldn't know what to do."
"Very well, then," said Mrs. Bowen.
They both waited a moment, as if each were staying for the other to speak. Then Imogene asked, "Is he—going soon?"
"I don't know," said Mrs. Bowen. "Why should he want to delay? He had better go at once. And I hope he will go home—as far from Florence as he can. I should think he would hate the place."
"Yes," said the girl, with a quivering sigh; "it must be hateful to him." She paused, and then she rushed on with bitter self-reproach. "And I—I have helped to make it so! O Mrs. Bowen, perhaps it's I who have been trifling with him Trying to make him believe—no, not trying to do that, but letting him see that I sympathised—Oh, do you think I have?"
"You know what you have been doing, Imogene," said Mrs. Bowen, with the hardness it surprises men to know women use with each other, they seem such tender creatures in the abstract. "You have no need to ask me."
"As you say, I warned you from the first."
"Oh yes; you did."
"I couldn't do more than hint; it was too much to expect——"
"Oh, yes, yes."
"And if you couldn't take my hints, I was helpless."
"Yes; I see it."
"I was only afraid of saying too much, and all through that miserable veglione business I was trying to please you and him, because I was afraid I had said too much—gone too far. I wanted to show you that I disdained to be suspicious, that I was ashamed to suppose that a girl of your age could care for the admiration of a man of his."
"Oh, I didn't care for his admiration. I admired him—and pitied him."
Mrs. Bowen apparently would not be kept now from saying all that had been rankling in her breast. "I didn't approve of going to the veglione. A great many people would be shocked if they knew I went; I wouldn't at all like to have it known. But I was not going to have him thinking that I was severe with you, and wanted to deny you any really harmless pleasure."
"Oh, who could think that? You're only too good to me. You see," said the girl, "what a return I have made for your trust. I knew you didn't want to go to the veglione. If I hadn't been the most selfish girl in the world I wouldn't have let you. But I did. I forced you to go, and then, after we got there, I seized every advantage, and abused your kindness till I wonder I didn't sink through the floor. Yes; I ought to have refused to dance—if I'd had a spark of generosity or gratitude I would have done it; and I ought to have come straight back to you the instant the waltz was done. And now see what has come of it! I've made you think he was trifling with me, and I've made him think that I'm a false and hollow-hearted thing."
"You know best what you have done, Imogene," said Mrs. Bowen, with a smiling tearfulness that was somehow very bitter. She rose from the sofa, as if to indicate that there was no more to be said, and Imogene, with a fresh burst of grief, rushed away to her own room.
She dropped on her knees beside her bed, and stretched out her arms upon it, an image of that desolation of soul which, when we are young, seems limitless, but which in later life we know has comparatively narrow bounds beyond the clouds that rest so blackly around us.