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Chapter 15

XV

Mrs. Bowen came in to them, looking pale and pain-worn, as she did that evening when she would not let Colville go away with the other tea-taking callers to whom she had made her headache an excuse. The eyelids which she had always a little difficulty in lifting were heavy with suffering, and her pretty smile had an effect of very great remoteness. But there was no consciousness of anything unusual or unexpected in his presence expressed in her looks or manner. Colville had meant to take Imogene by the hand and confront Mrs. Bowen with an immediate declaration of what had happened; but he found this impossible, at least in the form of his intention; he took, instead, the hand of conventional welcome which she gave him, and he obeyed her in taking provisionally the seat to which she invited him. At the same time the order of his words was dispersed in that wonder, whether she suspected anything, with which he listened to her placid talk about the weather; she said she had thought it was a chilly day outdoors; but her headaches always made her very sensitive.

"Yes," said Colville, "I supposed it was cold myself till I went out, for I woke with a tinge of rheumatism." He felt a strong desire to excuse, to justify what had happened, and he went on, with a painful sense of Imogene's eyes bent in bewildered deference upon him. "I started out for a walk with Mr. Waters, but I left him after we got across the Ponte Vecchio; he went up to look at the Michelangelo bastions, and I strolled over to the Boboli Gardens—where I found your young people."

He had certainly brought himself to the point, but he seemed actually further from it than at first, and he made a desperate plunge, trying at the same time to keep something of his habitual nonchalance. "But that doesn't account for my being here. Imogene accounts for that. She has allowed me to stay in Florence."

Mrs. Bowen could not turn paler than her headache had left her, and she now underwent no change of complexion. But her throat was not clear enough to say to the end, "Allowed you to stay in—" The trouble in her throat arrested her again.

Colville became very red. He put out his hand and took Imogene's, and now his eyes and Mrs. Bowen's met in the kind of glance in which people intercept and turn each other aside before they have reached a resting-place in each other's souls. But at the girl's touch his courage revived—in some physical sort. "Yes, and if she will let me stay with her, we are not going to part again."

Mrs. Bowen did not answer at once, and in the hush Colville heard the breathing of all three.

"Of course," he said, "we wished you to know at once, and I came in with Imogene to tell you."

"What do you wish me," asked Mrs. Bowen, "to do?"

Colville forced a nervous laugh. "Really, I'm so little used to this sort of affair that I don't know whether I have any wish. Imogene is here with you, and I suppose I supposed you would wish to do something."

"I will do whatever you think best."

"Thank you: that's very kind of you." He fell into a silence, in which he was able only to wish that he knew what was best, and from which he came to the surface with, "Imogene's family ought to know, of course."

"Yes; they put her in my charge. They will have to know. Shall I write to them?"

"Why, if you will."

"Oh, certainly."

"Thank you."

He had taken to stroking with his right hand the hand of Imogene which he held in his left, and now he looked round at her with a glance which it was a relief not to have her meet. "And till we can hear from them, I suppose you will let me come to see her?"

"You know you have always been welcome here."

"Thank you very much." It seemed as if there ought to be something else to say, but Colville could not think of anything except: "We wish to act in every way with your approval, Mrs. Bowen. And I know that you are very particular in some things"—the words, now that they were said, struck him as unfortunate, and even vulgar—"and I shouldn't wish to annoy you—"

"Oh, I understand. I think it will be—I have no doubt you will know how to manage all that. It isn't as if you were both—"

"Young?" asked Colville. "No; one of us is quite old enough to be thoroughly up in the convenances. We are qualified, I'm afraid, as far as that goes," he added bitterly, "to set all Florence an example of correct behaviour."

He knew there must be pain in the face which he would not look at; he kept looking at Mrs. Bowen's face, in which certainly there was not much pleasure, either.

There was another silence, which became very oppressive before it ended in a question from Mrs. Bowen, who stirred slightly in her chair, and bent forward as if about to rise in asking it. "Shall you wish to consider it an engagement?"

Colville felt Imogene's hand tremble in his, but he received no definite prompting from the tremor. "I don't believe I know what you mean."

"I mean, till you have heard from Imogene's mother."

"I hadn't thought of that. Perhaps under the circumstances—" The tremor died out of the hand he held; it lay lax between his. "What do you say, Imogene?"

"I can't say anything. Whatever you think will be right—for me."

"I wish to do what will seem right and fair to your mother."

"Yes."

Colville heaved a hopeless sigh. Then with a deep inward humiliation, he said, "Perhaps if you know Imogene's mother, Mrs. Bowen, you can suggest—advise—You—"

"You must excuse me; I can't suggest or advise anything. I must leave you perfectly free." She rose from her chair, and they, both rose too from the sofa on which he had seated himself at Imogene's side. "I shall have to leave you, I'm afraid; my head aches still a little. Imogene!" She advanced toward the girl, who stood passively letting her come the whole distance. As if sensible of the rebuff expressed in this attitude, she halted a very little. Then she added, "I hope you will be very happy," and suddenly cast her arms round the girl, and stood long pressing her face into her neck. When she released her, Colville trembled lest she should be going to give him her hand in congratulation. But she only bowed slightly to him, with a sidelong, aversive glance, and walked out of the room with a slow, rigid pace, like one that controls a tendency to giddiness.

Imogene threw herself on Colville's' breast. It gave him a shock, as if he were letting her do herself some wrong. But she gripped him fast, and began to sob and to cry. "Oh! oh! oh!"

"What is it?—what is it, my poor girl?" he murmured. "Are you unhappy? Are you sorry? Let it all end, then!"

"No, no; it isn't that! But I am very unhappy—yes, very, very unhappy! Oh, I didn't suppose I should ever feel so toward any one. I hate her!"

"You hate her?" gasped Colville.

"Yes, I hate her. And she—she is so good to me! It must be that I've done her some deadly wrong, without knowing it, or I couldn't hate her as I know I do."

"Oh no," said Colville soothingly; "that's just your fancy. You haven't harmed her, and you don't hate her."

"Yes, yes, I do! You can't understand how I feel toward her."

"But you can't feel so toward her long," he urged, dealing as he might with what was wholly a mystery to him. She is so good—"

"It only makes my badness worse, and makes me hate her more."

"I don't understand. But you're excited now. When you're calmer you'll feel differently, of course. I've kept you restless and nervous a long time, poor child; but now our peace begins, and everything will be bright and—" He stopped: the words had such a very hollow sound.

She pushed herself from him, and dried her eyes. "Oh yes."

"And, Imogene—perhaps—perhaps—Or, no; never mind, now. I must go away—" She looked at him, frightened but submissive. "But I will be back to-night, or perhaps to-morrow morning. I want to think—to give you time to think. I don't want to be selfish about you—I want to consider you, all the more because you won't consider yourself. Good-bye." He stooped over and kissed her hair. Even in this he felt like a thief; he could not look at the face she lifted to his.

Mrs. Bowen sent word from her room that she was not coming to dinner, and Imogene did not come till the dessert was put on. Then she found Effie Bowen sitting alone at the table, and served in serious formality by the man, whom she had apparently felt it right to repress, for they were both silent. The little girl had not known how to deny herself an excess of the less wholesome dishes, and she was perhaps anticipating the regret which this indulgence was to bring, for she was very pensive.

"Isn't mamma coming at all?" she asked plaintively, when Imogene sat down, and refused everything but a cup of coffee. "Well," she went on, "I can't make out what is coming to this family. You were all crying last night because Mr. Colville was going away, and now, when he's going to stay, it's just as bad. I don't think you make it very pleasant for him. I should think he would be perfectly puzzled by it, after he's done so much to please you all. I don't believe he thinks it's very polite. I suppose it is polite, but it doesn't seem so. And he's always so cheerful and nice. I should think he would want to visit in some family where there was more amusement. There used to be plenty in this family, but now it's as dismal! The first of the winter you and mamma used to be so pleasant when he came, and would try everything to amuse him, and would let me come in to get some of the good of it; but now you seem to fly every way as soon as he comes in sight of the house, and I'm poked off in holes and corners before he can open his lips. And I've borne it about as long as I can. I would rather be back in Vevay. Or anywhere." At this point her own pathos overwhelmed her, and the tears rolling down her cheeks moistened the crumbs of pastry at the corners of her pretty mouth. "What was so strange, I should like to know, about his staying, that mamma should pop up like a ghost, when I told her he had come home with us, and grab me by the wrist, and twitch me about, and ask me all sorts of questions I couldn't answer, and frighten me almost to death? I haven't got over it yet. And I don't think it's very nice. It used to be a very polite family, and pleasant with each other, and always having something agreeable going on in it; but if it keeps on very much longer in this way, I shall think the Bowens are beginning to lose their good-breeding. I suppose that if Mr. Colville were to go down on his knees to mamma and ask her to let him take me somewhere now, she wouldn't do it." She pulled her handkerchief out of her pocket, and dried her eyes on a ball of it. "I don't see what you've been crying about, Imogene. You've got nothing to worry you."

"I'm not very well, Effie," returned the girl gently. "I haven't been well all day."

"It seems to me that nobody is well any more. I don't believe Florence is a very healthy place. Or at least this house isn't. I think it must be the drainage. If we keep on, I suppose we shall all have diphtheria. Don't you, Imogene?"

"Yes," asserted the girl distractedly.

"The girls had it at Vevay frightfully. And none of them were as strong afterward. Some of the parents came and took them away; but Madame Schebres never let mamma know. Do you think that was right?"

"No; it was very wrong."

"I suppose Mr. Colville will have it if we do. That is, if he keeps coming here. Is he coming any more?"

"Yes; he's coming to-morrow morning."

"Is he?" A smile flickered over the rueful face. "What time is he coming?"

"I don't know exactly," said Imogene, listlessly stirring her coffee. "Some time in the forenoon."

"Do you suppose he's going to take us anywhere?"

"Yes—I think so. I can't tell exactly."

"If he asks me to go somewhere, will you tease mamma? She always lets you, Imogene, and it seems sometimes as if she just took a pleasure in denying me."

"You mustn't talk so of your mother, Effie."

"No; I wouldn't to everybody. I know that she means for the best; but I don't believe she understands how much I suffer when she won't let me go with Mr. Colville. Don't you think he's about the nicest gentleman we know, Imogene?"

"Yes; he's very kind."

"And I think he's handsome. A good many people would consider him old-looking, and of course he isn't so young as Mr. Morton was, or the Inglehart boys; but that makes him all the easier to get along with. And his being just a little fat, that way, seems to suit so well with his character." The smiles were now playing across the child's face, and her eyes sparkling. "I think Mr, Colville would make a good Saint Nicholas—the kind they have going down chimneys in America. I'm going to tell him, for the next veglione. It would be such a nice surprise."

"No, better not tell him that," suggested Imogene.

"Do you think he wouldn't like it?"

"Yes."

"Well, it would become him. How old do you suppose he is, Imogene? Seventy-five?"

"What an idea!" cried the girl fiercely. "He's forty-one."

"I didn't know they had those little jiggering lines at the corners of their eyes so quick. But forty-one is pretty old, isn't it? Is Mr. Waters—"

"Effie," said her mother's voice at the door behind her, "will you ring for Giovanni, and tell him to bring me a cup of coffee in here?" She spoke from the portière of the salotto.

"Yes, mamma. I'll bring it to you myself."

"Thank you, dear," Mrs. Bowen called from within.

The little girl softly pressed her hands together. "I hope she'll let me stay up! I feel so excited, and I hate to lie and think so long before I get to sleep. Couldn't you just hint a little to her that I might stay up? It's Sunday night."

"I can't, Effie," said Imogene. "I oughtn't to interfere with any of your mother's rules."

The child sighed submissively and took the coffee that Giovanni brought to her. She and Imogene went into the salotto together. Mrs. Bowen was at her writing-desk. "You can bring the coffee here, Effie," she said.

"Must I go to bed at once, mamma?" asked the child, setting the cup carefully down.

The mother looked distractedly up from her writing. "No; you may sit up a while," she said, looking back to her writing.

"How long, mamma?" pleaded the little girl.

"Oh, till you're sleepy. It doesn't matter now."

She went on writing; from time to time she tore up what she had written.

Effie softly took a book from the table, and perching herself on a stiff, high chair, bent over it and began to read.

Imogene sat by the hearth, where a small fire was pleasant in the indoor chill of an Italian house, even after so warm a day as that had been. She took some large beads of the strand she wore about her neck into her mouth, and pulled at the strand listlessly with her hand while she watched the fire. Her eyes wandered once to the child.

"What made you take such an uncomfortable chair, Effie?"

Effie shut her book over her hand. "It keeps me wakeful longer," she whispered, with a glance at her mother from the corner of her eye.

"I don't see why any one should wish to be wakeful," sighed the girl.

When Mrs. Bowen tore up one of her half-written pages Imogene started nervously forward, and then relapsed again into her chair. At last Mrs. Bowen seemed to find the right phrases throughout, and she finished rather a long letter, and read it over to herself. Then she said, without leaving her desk, "Imogene, I've been trying to write to your mother. Will you look at this?"

She held the sheet over her shoulder, and Imogene came languidly and took it; Mrs. Bowen dropped her face forward on the desk, into her hands, while Imogene was reading.

"FLORENCE, March 10, 18—

"Dear Mrs. Graham,—I have some very important news to give you in regard to Imogene, and as there is no way of preparing you for it, I will tell you at once that it relates to her marriage.

"She has met at my house a gentleman whom I knew in Florence when I was here before, and of whom I never knew anything but good. We have seen him very often, and I have seen nothing in him that I could not approve. He is Mr. Theodore Colville, of Prairie des Vaches, Indiana, where he was for many years a newspaper editor; but he was born somewhere in New England. He is a very cultivated, interesting man; and though not exactly a society man, he is very agreeable and refined in his manners. I am sure his character is irreproachable, though he is not a member of any church. In regard to his means I know nothing whatever, and can only infer from his way of life that he is in easy circumstances.

"The whole matter has been a surprise to me, for Mr. Colville is some twenty-one or two years older than Imogene, who is very young in her feelings for a girl of her age. If I could have realised anything like a serious attachment between them sooner, I would have written before. Even now I do not know whether I am to consider them engaged or not. No doubt Imogene will write you more fully.

"Of course I would rather not have had anything of the kind happen while have been careless or imprudent about her. I interfered as far as I could, at the first moment I could, but it appears that it was then too late to prevent what has followed.—Yours sincerely, EVALINA BOWEN."

Imogene read the letter twice over, and then she said, "Why isn't he a society man?"

Probably Mrs. Bowen expected this sort of approach. "I don't think a society man would have undertaken to dance the Lancers as he did at Madam Uccelli's," she answered patiently, without lifting her head.

Imogene winced, but "I should despise him if he were merely a society man," she said. "I have seen enough of them. I think it's better to be intellectual and good."

Mrs. Bowen made no reply, and the girl went on. "And as to his being older, I don't see what difference it makes. If people are in sympathy, then they are of the same age, no difference how much older than one the other is. I have always heard that." She urged this as if it were a question.

"Yes," said Mrs. Bowen.

"And how should his having been a newspaper editor be anything against him?"

Mrs. Bowen lifted her face and stared at the girl in astonishment. "Who said it was against him?"

"You hint as much. The whole letter is against him."

"Imogene!"

"Yes! Every word! You make him out perfectly detestable. I don't know why you should hate him, He's done everything he could to satisfy you."

Mrs. Bowen rose from her desk, putting her hand to her forehead, as if to soften a shock of headache that her change of posture had sent there. "I will leave the letter with you, and you can send it or not as you think best. It's merely a formality, my writing to your mother. Perhaps you'll see it differently in the morning. Effie!" she called to the child, who with her book shut upon her hand had been staring at them and listening intently. "It's time to go to bed now."

When Effie stood before the glass in her mother's room, and Mrs. Bowen was braiding her hair and tying it up for the night, she asked ruefully, "What's the matter with Imogene, mamma?"

"She isn't very happy to-night."

"You don't seem very happy either," said the child, watching her own face as it quivered in the mirror. "I should think that now Mr. Colville's concluded to stay, we would all be happy again. But we don't seem to. We're—we're perfectly demoralised!" It was one of the words she had picked up from Colville.

The quivering face in the glass broke in a passion of tears, and Effie sobbed herself to sleep.

Imogene sat down at Mrs. Bowen's desk, and pushing her letter away, began to write.

"FLORENCE, March 10, 18—.

"DEAR MOTHER,—-I inclose a letter from Mrs. Bowen which will tell you better than I can what I wish to tell. I do not see how I can add anything that would give you more of an idea of him, or less, either. No person can be put down in cold black and white, and not seem like a mere inventory. I do not suppose you expected me to become engaged when you sent me out to Florence, and, as Mrs. Bowen says, I don't know whether I am engaged or not. I will leave it entirely to Mr. Colville; if he says we are engaged, we are. I am sure he will do what is best. I only know that he was going away from Florence because he thought I supposed he was not in earnest, and I asked him to stay.

"I am a good deal excited to-night, and cannot write very clearly. But I will write soon again, and more at length.

"Perhaps something will be decided by that time. With much love to father,

"Your affectionate daughter,

"Imogene."

She put this letter into an envelope with Mrs. Bowen's, and leaving it unsealed to show her in the morning, she began to write again. This time she wrote to a girl with whom she had been on terms so intimate that when they left school they had agreed to know each other by names expressive of their extremely confidential friendship, and to address each other respectively as Diary and Journal. They were going to write every day, if only a line or two; and at the end of a year they were to meet and read over together the records of their lives as set down in these letters. They had never met since, though it was now three years since they parted, and they had not written since Imogene came abroad; that is, Imogene had not answered the only letter she had received from her friend in Florence. This friend was a very serious girl, and had wished to be a minister, but her family would not consent, or even accept the compromise of studying medicine, which she proposed, and she was still living at home in a small city of central New York. Imogene now addressed her—

"DEAR DIARY,—You cannot think how far away the events of this day have pushed the feelings and ideas of the time when I agreed to write to you under this name. Till now it seems to me as if I had not changed in the least thing since we parted, and now I can hardly know myself for the same person. O dear Di! something very wonderful has come into my life, and I feel that it rests with me to make it the greatest blessing to myself and others, or the greatest misery. If I prove unworthy of it or unequal to it, then I am sure that nothing but wretchedness will come of it.

"I am engaged—yes!—and to a man more than twice my own age. It is so easy to tell you this, for I know that your large-mindedness will receive it very differently from most people, and that you will see it as I do. He is the noblest of men, though he tries to conceal it under the light, ironical manner with which he has been faithful to a cruel disappointment. It was here in Florence, twenty years ago, that a girl—I am ashamed to call her a girl—trifled with the priceless treasure that has fallen to me, and flung it away. You, Di, will understand how I was first fascinated with the idea of trying to atone to him here for all the wrong he had suffered. At first it was only the vaguest suggestion—something like what I had read in a poem or a novel—that had nothing to do with me personally, but it grew upon me more and more the more I saw of him, and felt the witchery of his light, indifferent manner, which I learned to see was tense with the anguish he had suffered. She had killed his youth; she had spoiled his life: if I could revive them, restore them! It came upon me like a great flash of light at last, and as soon as this thought took possession of me, I felt my whole being elevated and purified by it, and I was enabled to put aside with contempt the selfish considerations that had occurred to me at first. At first the difference between our ages was very shocking to me; for I had always imagined it would be some one young; but when this light broke upon me, I saw that he was young, younger even than I, as a man is at the same age with a girl. Sometimes with my experiences, the fancies and flirtations that every one has and must have, however one despises them, I felt so old beside him; for he had been true to one love all his life, and he had not wavered for a moment. If I could make him forget it, if I could lift every feather's weight of sorrow from his breast, if I could help him to complete the destiny, grand and beautiful as it would have been, which another had arrested, broken off—don't you see, Di dear, how rich my reward would be?

"And he, how forbearing, how considerate, how anxious for me, how full of generous warning he has been! always putting me in mind, at every step, of the difference in years between us; never thinking of himself, and shrinking so much from even seeming to control me or sway me, that I don't know really whether I have not made all the advances!

"I cannot write his name yet, and you must not ask it till I can; and I cannot tell you anything about his looks or his life without seeming to degrade him, somehow, and make him a common man like others.

"How can I make myself his companion in everything? How can I convince him that there is no sacrifice for me, and that he alone is giving up? shall be helped, and I hope that I shall be tried, for that is the only way for me to be helped. I feel strong enough for anything that people can say. I should welcome criticism and opposition from any quarter. But I can see that he is very sensitive—it comes from his keen sense of the ridiculous—and if I suffer, it will be on account of this grand unselfish nature, and I shall be glad of that.

"I know you will understand me, Di, and I am not afraid of your laughing at these ravings. But if you did I should not care. It is such a comfort to say these things about him, to exalt him, and get him in the true light at last.

"Your faithful JOURNAL.

"I shall tell him about you, one of the first things, and perhaps he can suggest some way out of your trouble, he has had so much experience of every kind. You will worship him, as I do, when you see him; for you will feel at once that he understands you, and that is such a rest.

"J."

Before Imogene fell asleep, Mrs. Bowen came to her in the dark, and softly closed the door that opened from the girl's room into Effie's. She sat down on the bed, and began to speak at once, as if she knew Imogene must be awake. "I thought you would come to me, Imogene; but as you didn't, I have come to you, for if you can go to sleep with hard thoughts of me to-night, I can't let you. You need me for your friend, and I wish to be your friend; it would be wicked in me to be anything else; I would give the world if your mother were here; but I tried to make my letter to her everything that it should be. If you don't think it is, I will write it over in the morning."

"No," said the girl coldly; "it will do very well. I don't wish to trouble you so much."

"Oh, how can you speak so to me? Do you think that I blame Mr. Colville? Is that it? I don't ask you—I shall never ask you—how he came to remain, but I know that he has acted truthfully and delicately. I knew him long before you did, and no one need take his part with me." This was not perhaps what Mrs. Bowen meant to say when she began. "I have told you all along what I thought, but if you imagine that I am not satisfied with Mr. Colville, you are very much mistaken. I can't burst out into praises of him to your mother: that would be very patronising and very bad taste. Can't you see that it would?"

"Oh yes."

Mrs. Bowen lingered, as if she expected Imogene to say something more, but she did not, and Mrs. Bowen rose. "Then I hope we understand each other," she said, and went out of the room.

William Dean Howells

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