Mrs. Bowen sat before the hearth in her salon, with her hands fallen in her lap. At thirty-eight the emotions engrave themselves more deeply in the face than they do in our first youth, or than they will when we have really aged, and the pretty woman looked haggard.
Imogene came in, wearing a long blue robe, flung on as if with desperate haste; her thick hair fell crazily out of a careless knot, down her back. "I couldn't sleep," she said, with quivering lips, at the sight of which Mrs. Bowen's involuntary smile hardened. "Isn't it eleven yet?" she added, with a glance at the clock. "It seems years since I went to bed."
"It's been a long day," Mrs. Bowen admitted. She did not ask Imogene why she could not sleep, perhaps because she knew already, and was too honest to affect ignorance.
The girl dropped into a chair opposite her, and began to pull her fingers through the long tangle of her hair, while she drew her breath in sighs that broke at times on her lips; some tears fell down her cheeks unheeded. "Mrs. Bowen," she said, at length, "I should like to know what right we have to drive any one from Florence? I should think people would call it rather a high-handed proceeding if it were known."
Mrs. Bowen met this feebleness promptly. "It isn't likely to be known. But we are not driving Mr. Colville away."
"He is going."
"Yes; he said he would go."
"Don't you believe he will go?"
"I believe he will do what he says."
"He has been very kind to us all; he has been as good!"
"No one feels that more than I," said Mrs. Bowen, with a slight tremor in her voice. She faltered a moment. "I can't let you say those things to me, Imogene."
"No; I know it's wrong. I didn't know what I was saying. Oh, I wish I could tell what I ought to do! I wish I could make up my mind. Oh, I can't let him go—so. I—I don't know what to think any more. Once it was clear, but now I'm not sure; no, I'm not sure."
"Not sure about what?"
"I think I am the one to go away, if any one."
"You know you can't go away," said Mrs. Bowen, with weary patience.
"No, of course not. Well, I shall never see any one like him."
Mrs. Bowen made a start in her chair, as if she had no longer the power to remain quiet, but only placed herself a little more rigidly in it.
"No," the girl went on, as if uttering a hopeless reverie. "He made every moment interesting. He was always thinking of us—he never thought of himself. He did as much for Effie as for any one; he tried just as hard to make himself interesting to her. He was unselfish. I have seen him at places being kind to the stupidest people. You never caught him choosing out the stylish or attractive ones, or trying to shine at anybody's expense. Oh, he's a true gentleman—I shall always say it. How delicate he was, never catching you up, or if you said a foolish thing, trying to turn it against you. No, never, never, never! Oh dear! And now, what can he think of me? Oh, how frivolous and fickle and selfish he must think me!"
"Imogene!" Mrs. Bowen cried out, but quelled herself again.
"Yes," pursued the girl, in the same dreary monotone, "he thinks I couldn't appreciate him because he was old. He thinks that I cared for his not being handsome! Perhaps—perhaps——" She began to catch her breath in the effort to keep back the sobs that were coming. "Oh, I can't bear it! I would rather die than let him think it—such a thing as that!" She bent her head aside, and cried upon the two hands with which she clutched the top of her chair.
Mrs. Bowen sat looking at her distractedly. From time to time she seemed to silence a word upon her lips, and in fact she did not speak.
Imogene lifted her head at last, and softly dried her eyes. Then, as she pushed her handkerchief back into the pocket of her robe, "What sort of looking girl was that other one?"
"That other one?"
"Yes; you know what I mean: the one who behaved so badly to him before."
"Imogene!" said Mrs. Bowen severely, "this is nonsense, and I can't let you go on so. I might pretend not to know what you mean; but I won't do that; and I tell you that there is no sort of likeness—of comparison——"
"No, no," wailed the girl, "there is none. I feel that. She had nothing to warn her—he hadn't suffered then; he was young; he was able to bear it—you said it yourself, Mrs. Bowen. But now—now, what will he do? He could make fun of that, and not hate her so much, because she didn't know how much harm she was doing. But I did; and what can he think of me?"
Mrs. Bowen looked across the barrier between them, that kept her from taking Imogene into her arms, and laughing and kissing away her craze, with cold dislike, and only said, "You know whether you've really anything to accuse yourself of, Imogene. I can't and won't consider Mr. Colville in the matter; I didn't consider him in what I said to-day. And I tell you again that I will not interfere with you in the slightest degree beyond appearances and the responsibility I feel to your mother. And it's for you to know your own mind. You are old enough. I will do what you say. It's for you to be sure that you wish what you say."
"Yes," said Imogene huskily, and she let an interval that was long to them both elapse before she said anything more. "Have I always done what you thought best, Mrs. Bowen?"
"Yes, I have never complained of you."
"Then why can't you tell me now what you think best?"
"Because there is nothing to be done. It is all over."
"But if it were not, would you tell me?"
"Then I take back my promise not to write to Mr. Colville. I am going to ask him to stay."
"Have you made up your mind to that, Imogene?" asked Mrs. Bowen, showing no sign of excitement, except to take a faster hold of her own wrists with the slim hands in which she had caught them.
"You know the position it places you in?"
"Has he offered himself to you?"
"No!" the girl's face blazed.
"Then, after what's passed, this is the same as offering yourself to him."
Imogene turned white. "I must write to him, unless you forbid me."
"Certainly I shall not forbid you." Mrs. Bowen rose and went to her writing-desk. "But if you have fully made up your mind to this step, and are ready for the consequences, whatever they are——" She stopped, before sitting down, and looked back over her shoulder at Imogene.
"Yes," said the girl, who had also risen.
"Then I will write to Mr. Colville for you, and render the proceeding as little objectionable as possible."
Imogene made no reply. She stood motionless while Mrs. Bowen wrote.
"Is this what you wished?" asked the latter, offering the sheet:——
"Dear Mr. Colville,—I have reasons for wishing to recall my consent to your going away. Will you not come and lunch with us to-morrow, and try to forget everything that has passed during a few days?
"Yours very sincerely,
"Yes, that will do," gasped Imogene.
Mrs. Bowen rang the bell for the porter, and stood with her back to the girl, waiting for him at the salon door. He came after a delay that sufficiently intimated the lateness of the hour. "This letter must go at once to the Hotel d'Atene," said Mrs. Bowen peremptorily.
"You shall be served," said the porter, with fortitude.
As Mrs. Bowen turned, Imogene ran toward her with clasped hands. "Oh, how merciful—how good——"
Mrs. Bowen shrank back. "Don't touch me, Imogene, please!"
It was her letter which Colville found on his table and read by the struggling light of his newly acquired candle. Then he sat down and replied to it.
"Dear Mrs. Bowen,—I know that you mean some sort of kindness by me, and I hope you will not think me prompted by any poor resentment in declining to-morrow's lunch. I am satisfied that it is best for me to go; and I am ashamed not to be gone already. But a ridiculous accident has kept me, and when I came in and found your note I was just going to write and ask your patience with my presence in Florence till Monday morning.
"Yours sincerely, THEODORE COLVILLE."
He took his note down to the porter, who had lain down again in his little booth, but sprang up with a cheerful request to be commanded. Colville consulted him upon the propriety of sending the note to Palazzo Pinti at once, and the porter, with his head laid in deprecation upon one of his lifted shoulders, owned that it was perhaps the very least little bit in the world late.
"Send it the first thing in the morning, then," said Colville.
Mrs. Bowen received it by the servant who brought her coffee to the room, and she sent it without any word to Imogene. The girl came instantly back with it. She was fully dressed, as if she had been up a long time, and she wore a very plain, dull dress, in which one of her own sex might have read the expression of a potential self-devotion.
"It's just as I wish it, Mrs. Bowen," she said, in a low key of impassioned resolution. "Now, my conscience is at rest. And you have done this for me, Mrs. Bowen!" She stood timidly with the door in her hand, watching Mrs. Bowen's slight smile; then, as if at some sign in it, she flew to the bed and kissed her, and so fled out of the room again.
Colville slept late, and awoke with a vague sense of self-reproach, which faded afterward to such poor satisfaction as comes to us from the consciousness of having made the best of a bad business; some pangs of softer regret mixed with this. At first he felt a stupid obligation to keep indoors, and he really did not go out till after lunch. The sunshine had looked cold from his window, and with the bright fire which he found necessary in his room, he fancied a bitterness in the gusts that caught up the dust in the piazza, and blew it against the line of cabs on the other side; but when he got out into the weather he found the breeze mild and the sun warm. The streets were thronged with people, and at all the corners there were groups of cloaked and overcoated talkers, soaking themselves full of the sunshine. The air throbbed, as always, with the sound of bells, but it was a mellower and opener sound than before, and looking at the purple bulk of one of those hills which seem to rest like clouds at the end of each avenue in Florence, Colville saw that it was clear of snow. He was going up through Via Cavour to find Mr. Waters and propose a walk, but he met him before he had got half-way to San Marco.
The old man was at a momentary stand-still, looking up at the Riccardi Palace, and he received Colville with apparent forgetfulness of anything odd in his being still in Florence. "Upon the whole," he said, without preliminary of any sort, as Colville turned and joined him in walking on, "I don't know any homicide that more distinctly proves the futility of assassination as a political measure than that over yonder." He nodded his head sidewise toward the palace as he shuffled actively along at Colville's elbow.
"You might say that the moment when Lorenzino killed Alessandro was the most auspicious for a deed of that kind. The Medici had only recently been restored; Alessandro was the first ruler in Florence, who had worn a title; no more reckless, brutal, and insolent tyrant ever lived, and his right, even such as the Medici might have, to play the despot was involved in the doubt of his origin; the heroism of the great siege ought still to have survived in the people who withstood the forces of the whole German Empire for fifteen months; it seems as if the taking off of that single wretch should have ended the whole Medicean domination; but there was not a voice raised to second the homicide's appeal to the old love of liberty in Florence. The Medici party were able to impose a boy of eighteen upon the most fiery democracy that ever existed, and to hunt down and destroy Alessandro's murderer at their leisure. No," added the old man thoughtfully, "I think that the friends of progress must abandon assassination as invariably useless. The trouble was not that Alessandro was alive, but that Florence was dead. Assassination always comes too early or too late in any popular movement. It may be," said Mr. Waters, with a carefulness to do justice to assassination which made Colville smile, "that the modern scientific spirits may be able to evolve something useful from the principle, but considering the enormous abuses and perversions to which it is liable, I am very doubtful of it—very doubtful."
Colville laughed. "I like your way of bringing a fresh mind to all these questions in history and morals, whether they are conventionally settled or not. Don't you think the modern scientific spirit could evolve something useful out of the old classic idea of suicide?"
"Perhaps," said Mr. Waters; "I haven't yet thought it over. The worst thing about suicide—and this must always rank it below political assassination—is that its interest is purely personal. No man ever kills himself for the good of others."
"That's certainly against it. We oughtn't to countenance such an abominably selfish practice. But you can't bring that charge against euthanasy. What have you to say of that?"
"I have heard one of the most benevolent and tender-hearted men I ever knew defend it in cases of hopeless suffering. But I don't know that I should be prepared to take his ground. There appears to be something so sacred about human life that we must respect it even in spite of the prayers of the sufferer who asks us to end his irremediable misery."
"Well," said Colville, "I suspect we must at least class murder with the ballet as a means of good. One might say there was still some virtue in the primal, eldest curse against bloodshed."
"Oh, I don't by any means deny those things," said the old man, with the air of wishing to be scrupulously just. "Which way are you walking?"
"Your way, if you will let me," replied Colville. "I was going to your house to ask you to take a walk with me."
"Ah, that's good. I was reading of the great siege last night, and I thought of taking a look at Michelangelo's bastions. Let us go together, if you don't think you'll find it too fatiguing."
"I shall be ashamed to complain if I do."
"And you didn't go to Rome after all?" said Mr. Waters.
"No; I couldn't face the landlord with a petition so preposterous as mine. I told him that I found I had no money to pay his bill till I had seen my banker, and as he didn't propose that I should send him the amount back from Rome, I stayed. Landlords have their limitations; they are not imaginative, as a class."
"Well, a day more will make no great difference to you, I suppose," said the old man, "and a day less would have been a loss to me. I shall miss you."
"Shall you, indeed?" asked Colville, with a grateful stir of the heart. "It's very nice of you to say that."
"Oh no. I meet few people who are willing to look at life objectively with me, and I have fancied some such willingness in you. What I chiefly miss over here is a philosophic lift in the human mind, but probably that is because my opportunities of meeting the best minds are few, and my means of conversing with them are small. If I had not the whole past with me, I should feel lonely at times."
"And is the past such good company always?".
"Yes, in a sense it is. The past is humanity set free from circumstance, and history studied where it was once life is the past rehumanised."
As if he found this rarefied air too thin for his lungs, Colville made some ineffectual gasps at response, and the old man continued: "What I mean is that I meet here the characters I read of, and commune with them before their errors were committed, before they had condemned themselves to failure, while they were still wise and sane, and still active and vital forces."
"Did they all fail? I thought some of the bad fellows had a pretty fair worldly success?"
"The blossom of decay."
"Oh! what black pessimism!"
"Not at all! Men fail, but man succeeds. I don't know what it all means, or any part of it; but I have had moods in which it seemed as if the whole, secret of the mystery were about to flash upon me. Walking along in the full sun, in the midst of men, or sometimes in the solitude of midnight, poring over a book, and thinking of quite other things, I have felt that I had almost surprised it."
"But never quite?"
"Oh, it isn't too late yet."
"I hope you won't have your revelation before I get away from Florence, or I shall see them burning you here like the great frate."
They had been walking down the Via Calzioli from the Duomo, and now they came out into the Piazza della Signoria, suddenly, as one always seems to do, upon the rise of the old palace and the leap of its tower into the blue air. The history of all Florence is there, with memories of every great time in bronze or marble, but the supreme presence is the martyr who hangs for ever from the gibbet over the quenchless fire in the midst.
"Ah, they had to kill him!" sighed the old man. "It has always been so with the benefactors. They have always meant mankind more good than any one generation can bear, and it must turn upon them and destroy them."
"How will it be with you, then, when you have read us 'the riddle of the painful earth'?"
"That will be so simple that every one will accept it willingly and gladly, and wonder that no one happened to think of it before. And, perhaps, the world is now grown old enough and docile enough to receive the truth without resentment."
"I take back my charge of pessimism," said Colville. "You are an optimist of the deepest dye."
They walked out of the Piazza and down to the Lung' Arno, through the corridor of the Uffizzi, where the illustrious Florentines stand in marble under the arches, all reconciled and peaceful and equal at last. Colville shivered a little as he passed between the silent ranks of the statues.
"I can't stand those fellows, to-day. They seem to feel such a smirk satisfaction at having got out of it all."
They issued upon the river, and he went to the parapet and looked down on the water. "I wonder," he mused aloud, "if it has the same Sunday look to these Sabbathless Italians as it has to us."
"No; Nature isn't puritan," replied the old minister.
"Not at Haddam East Village?"
"No; there less than here; for she's had to make a harder fight for her life there."
"Ah, then you believe in Nature—you're a friend of Nature?" asked Colville, following the lines of an oily swirl in the current with indolent eye.
"Only up to a certain point." Mr. Waters seemed to be patient of any direction which the other might be giving the talk. "Nature is a savage. She has good impulses, but you can't trust her altogether."
"Do you know," said Colville, "I don't think there's very much of her left in us after we reach a certain point in life? She drives us on at a great pace for a while, and then some fine morning we wake up and find that Nature has got tired of us and has left us to taste and conscience. And taste and conscience are by no means so certain of what they want you to do as Nature was."
"Yes," said the minister, "I see what you mean." He joined Colville in leaning on the parapet, and he looked out on the river as if he saw his meaning there. "But by the time we reach that point in life most of us have got the direction which Nature meant us to take, and there's no longer any need of her driving us on."
"And what about the unlucky fellows who haven't got the direction, or haven't kept it?"
"They had better go back to it."
"But if Nature herself seemed to change her mind about you?"
"Ah, you mean persons of weak will. They are a great curse to themselves and to everybody else."
"I'm not so sure of that," said Colville. "I've seen cases in which a strong will looked very much more like the devil."
"Yes, a perverted will. But there can be no good without a strong will. A weak will means inconstancy. It means, even in good, good attempted and relinquished, which is always a terrible thing, because it is sure to betray some one who relied upon its accomplishment."
"And in evil? Perhaps the evil, attempted and relinquished, turns into good."
"Oh, never!" replied the minister fervently. "There is something very mysterious in what we call evil. Apparently it has infinitely greater force and persistence than good. I don't know why it should be so. But so it appears."
"You'll have the reason of that along with the rest of the secret when your revelation comes," said Colville, with a smile. He lifted his eyes from the river, and looked up over the clustering roofs beyond it to the hills beyond them, flecked to the crest of their purple slopes with the white of villas and villages. As if something in the beauty of the wonderful prospect had suggested the vision of its opposite, he said, dreamily, "I don't think I shall go to Rome to-morrow, after all. I will go to Des Vaches! Where did you say you were walking, Mr. Waters? Oh yes! You told me. I will cross the bridge with you. But I couldn't stand anything quite so vigorous as the associations of the siege this afternoon. I'm going to the Boboli Gardens, to debauch myself with a final sense of nerveless despotism, as it expressed itself in marble allegory and formal alleys. The fact is that if I stay with you any longer I shall tell you something that I'm too old to tell and you're too old to hear." The old man smiled, but offered no urgence or comment, and at the thither end of the bridge Colville said hastily, "Good-bye. If you ever come to Des Vaches, look me up."
"Good-bye," said the minister. "Perhaps we shall meet in Florence again."
"No, no. Whatever happens, that won't."
They shook hands and parted. Colville stood a moment, watching the slight bent figure of the old man as he moved briskly up the Via de' Bardi, turning his head from, side to side, to look at the palaces as he passed, and so losing himself in the dim, cavernous curve of the street. As soon as he was out of sight, Colville had an impulse to hurry after him and rejoin him; then he felt like turning about and going back to his hotel.
But he shook himself together into the shape of resolution, however slight and transient. "I must do something I intended to do," he said, between his set teeth, and pushed on up through the Via Guicciardini. "I will go to the Boboli because I said I would."
As he walked along, he seemed to himself to be merely crumbling away in this impulse and that, in one abortive intent and another. What did it all mean? Had he been his whole life one of these weak wills which are a curse to themselves and others, and most a curse when they mean the best? Was that the secret of his failure in life? But for many years he had seemed to succeed, to be as other men were, hard, practical men; he had once made a good newspaper, which was certainly not a dream of romance. Had he given that up at last because he was a weak will? And now was he running away from Florence because his will was weak? He could look back to that squalid tragedy of his youth, and see that a more violent, a more determined man could have possessed himself of the girl whom he had lost. And now would it not be more manly, if more brutal, to stay here, where a hope, however fleeting, however fitful, of what might have been, had revisited him in the love of this young girl? He felt sure, if anything were sure, that something in him, in spite of their wide disparity of years, had captured her fancy, and now, in his abasement, he felt again the charm of his own power over her. They were no farther apart in years than many a husband and wife; they would grow more and more together; there was youth enough in his heart yet; and who was pushing him away from her, forbidding him this treasure that he had but to put out his hand and make his own? Some one whom through all his thoughts of another he was trying to please, but whom he had made finally and inexorably his enemy. Better stay, then, something said to him; and when he answered, "I will," something else reminded him that this also was not willing but unwilling.