When Colville came in the morning, Mrs. Bowen received him. They shook hands, and their eyes met in the intercepting glance of the night before.
"Imogene will be here in a moment," she said, with a naturalness that made him awkward and conscious.
"Oh, there is no haste," he answered uncouthly. "That is, I am very glad of the chance to speak a moment with you, and to ask your—to profit by what you think best. I know you are not very well pleased with me, and I don't know that I can ever put myself in a better light with you—the true light. It seems that there are some things we must not do even for the truth's sake. But that's neither here nor there. What I am most anxious for is not to take a shadow of advantage of this child's—of Imogene's inexperience, and her remoteness from her family. I feel that I must in some sort protect her from herself. Yes—that is my idea. But should be very willing, if you thought best, to go away and stay away till she has heard from her people, and let her have that time to think it all over again. She is very young—so much younger than I! Or, if you thought it better, I would stay, and let her remain free while I held myself bound to any decision of hers. I am anxious to do what is right. At the same time"—he smiled ruefully—"there is such a thing as being so disinterested that one may seem uninterested. I may leave her so very free that she may begin to suspect that I want a little freedom myself. What shall I do? I wish to act with your approval."
Mrs. Bowen had listened with acquiescence and intelligence that might well have looked like sympathy, as she sat fingering the top of her hand-screen, with her eyelids fallen. She lifted them to say, "I have told you that I will not advise yon in any way. I cannot. I have no longer any wish in this matter. I must still remain in the place of Imogene's mother; but I will do only what you wish. Please understand that, and don't ask me for advice any more. It is painful." She drew her lower lip in a little, and let the screen fall into her lap.
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Bowen, to do anything—say anything—that is painful to you," Colville began. "You know that I would give the world to please you——" The words escaped him and left him staring at her,
"What are you saying to me, Theodore Colville?" she exclaimed, flashing a full-eyed glance upon him, and then breaking into a laugh, as unnatural for her. "Really, I don't believe you know!"
"Heaven knows I meant nothing but what I said," he answered, struggling stupidly with a confusion of desires which every man but no woman will understand. After eighteen hundred years, the man is still imperfectly monogamous. "Is there anything wrong in it?"
"Oh no! Not for you," she said scornfully.
"I am very much in earnest," he went on hopelessly, "in asking your opinion, your help, in regard to how I shall treat this affair."
"And I am still more in earnest in telling you that I will give you no opinion, no help. I forbid you to recur to the subject." He was silent, unable to drop his eyes from hers. "But for her," continued Mrs. Bowen, "I will do anything in my power. If she asks my advice I will give it, and I will give her all the help I can."
"Thank you," said Colville vaguely.
"I will not have your thanks," promptly retorted Mrs. Bowen, "for I mean you no kindness. I am trying to do my duty to Imogene, and when that is ended, all is ended. There is no way now for you to please me—as you call it—except to keep her from regretting what she has done."
"Do you think I shall fail in that?" he demanded indignantly.
"I can offer you no opinion. I can't tell what you will do."
"There are two ways of keeping her from regretting what she has done; and perhaps the simplest and best way would be to free her from the consequences, as far as they're involved in me," said Colville.
Mrs. Bowen dropped herself back in her armchair. "If you choose to force these things upon me, I am a woman, and can't help myself. Especially, I can't help myself against a guest."
"Oh, I will relieve you of my presence," said Colville. "I've no wish to force anything upon you—least of all myself." He rose, and moved toward the door.
She hastily intercepted him. "Do you think I will let you go without seeing Imogene? Do you understand me so little as that? It's too late for you to go! You know what I think of all this, and I know, better than you, what you think. I shall play my part, and you shall play yours. I have refused to give you advice or help, and I never shall do it. But I know what my duty to her is, and I will fulfil it. No matter how distasteful it is to either of us, you must come here as before. The house is as free to you as ever—freer. And we are to be as good friends as ever—better. You can see Imogene alone or in my presence, and, as far as I am concerned, you shall consider yourself engaged or not, as you choose. Do you understand?"
"Not in the least," said Colville, in the ghost of his old bantering manner. "But don't explain, or I shall make still less of it."
"I mean simply that I do it for Imogene and not for you."
"Oh, I understand that you don't do it for me."
At this moment Imogene appeared between the folds of the portière, and her timid, embarrassed glance from Mrs. Bowen to Colville was the first gleam of consolation that had visited him since he parted with her the night before. A thrill of inexplicable pride and fondness passed through his heart, and even the compunction that followed could not spoil its sweetness. But if Mrs. Bowen discreetly turned her head aside that she need not witness a tender greeting between them, the precaution was unnecessary. He merely went forward and took the girl's hand, with a sigh of relief. "Good morning, Imogene," he said, with a kind of compassionate admiration.
"Good morning," she returned half-inquiringly.
She did not take a seat near him, and turned, as if for instruction, to Mrs. Bowen. It was probably the force of habit. In any case, Mrs. Bowen's eyes gave no response. She bowed slightly to Colville, and began, "I must leave Imogene to entertain you for the present, Mr.—"
"No!" cried the girl impetuously; "don't go." Mrs. Bowen stopped. "I wish to speak with you—with you and Mr. Colville together. I wish to say—I don't know how to say it exactly; but I wish to know—You asked him last night, Mrs. Bowen, whether he wished to consider it an engagement?"
"I thought perhaps you would rather hear from your mother—"
"Yes, I would be glad to know that my mother approved; but if she didn't, I couldn't help it. Mr. Colville said he was bound, but I was not. That can't be. I wish to be bound, if he is."
"I don't quite know what you expect me to say."
"Nothing," said Imogene. "I merely wished you to know. And I don't wish you to sacrifice anything to us. If you think best, Mr. Colville will not see me till I hear from home; though it won't make any difference with me what I hear."
"There's no reason why you shouldn't meet," said Mrs. Bowen absently.
"If you wish it to have the same appearance as an Italian engagement——"
"No," said Mrs. Bowen, putting her hand to her head with a gesture she had; "that would be quite unnecessary. It would be ridiculous under the circumstances. I have thought of it, and I have decided that the American way is the best."
"Very well, then," said Imogene, with the air of summing up; "then the only question is whether we shall make it known or not to other people."
This point seemed to give Mrs. Bowen greater pause than any. She was a long time silent, and Colville saw that Imogene was beginning to chafe at her indecision. Yet he did not see the moment to intervene in a debate in which he found himself somewhat ludicrously ignored, as if the affair were solely the concern of these two women, and none of his.
"Of course, Mrs. Bowen," said the girl haughtily, "if it will be disagreeable to you to have it known——"
Mrs. Bowen blushed delicately—a blush of protest and of generous surprise, or so it seemed to Colville. "I was not thinking of myself, Imogene. I only wish to consider you. And I was thinking whether, at this distance from home, you wouldn't prefer to have your family's approval before you made it known."
"I am sure of their approval. Father will do what mother says, and she has always said that she would never interfere with me in—in—such a thing."
"Perhaps you would like all the more, then, to show her the deference of waiting for her consent."
Imogene started as if stopped short in swift career; it was not hard for Colville to perceive that she saw for the first time the reverse side of a magnanimous impulse. She suddenly turned to him.
"I think Mrs. Bowen is right," he said gravely, in answer to the eyes of Imogene. He continued, with a flicker of his wonted mood: "You must consider me a little in the matter. I have some small shreds of self-respect about me somewhere, and I would rather not be put in the attitude of defying your family, or ignoring them."
"No," said Imogene, in the same effect of arrest.
"When it isn't absolutely necessary," continued Colville. "Especially as you say there will be no opposition."
"Of course," Imogene assented; and in fact what he said was very just, and he knew it; but he could perceive that he had suffered loss with her. A furtive glance at Mrs. Bowen did not assure him that he had made a compensating gain in that direction, where, indeed, he had no right to wish for any.
"Well, then," the girl went on, "it shall be so. We will wait. It will only be waiting. I ought to have thought of you before; I make a bad beginning," she said tremulously. "I supposed I was thinking of you; but I see that I was only thinking of myself." The tears stood in her eyes. Mrs. Bowen, quite overlooked in this apology, slipped from the room.
"Imogene!" said Colville, coming toward her.
She dropped herself upon his shoulder. "Oh, why, why, why am I so miserable?"
"Miserable, Imogene!" he murmured, stroking her beautiful hair.
"Yes, yes! Utterly miserable! It must be because I'm unworthy of you—unequal every way. If you think so, cast me off at once. Don't be weakly merciful!"
The words pierced his heart. "I would give the world to make you happy, my child!" he said, with perfidious truth, and a sigh that came from the bottom of his soul. "Sit down here by me," he said, moving to the sofa; and with whatever obscure sense of duty to her innocent self-abandon, he made a space between them, and reduced her embrace to a clasp of the hand she left with him. "Now tell me," he said, "what is it makes you unhappy?"
"Oh, I don't know," she answered, drying her averted eyes. "I suppose I am overwrought from not sleeping, and from thinking how we should arrange it all."
"And now that it's all arranged, can't you be cheerful again?"
"You're satisfied with the way we've arranged it? Because if—"
"Oh, perfectly—perfectly!" She hastily interrupted. "I wouldn't have it otherwise. Of course," she added, "it wasn't very pleasant having some one else suggest what I ought to have thought of myself, and seem more delicate about you than I was."
"Some one else?"
"You know! Mrs. Bowen."
"Oh! But I couldn't see that she was anxious to spare me. It occurred to me that she was concerned about your family."
"It led up to the other! it's all the same thing."
"Well, even in that case, I don't see why you should mind it. It was certainly very friendly of her, and I know that she has your interest at heart entirely."
"Yes; she knows how to make it seem so."
don't understand this. Don't you think Mrs. Bowen likes you?"
"She detests me."
"Oh, no, no, no! That's too cruel an error. You mustn't think that. I can't let you. It's morbid. I'm sure that she's devotedly kind and good to you."
"Being kind and good isn't liking. I know what she thinks. But of course I can't expect to convince you of it; no one else could see it."
"No!" said Colville, with generous fervour.
"Because it doesn't exist and you mustn't imagine it. You are as sincerely and unselfishly regarded in this house as you could be in your own home. I'm sure of that. I know Mrs. Bowen. She has her little worldlinesses and unrealities of manner, but she is truth and loyalty itself. She would rather die than be false, or even unfair. I knew her long ago—"
"Yes," cried the girl, "long before you knew me!"
"And I know her to be the soul of honour," said Colville, ignoring the childish outburst. "Honour—like a man's," he added. "And, Imogene, I want you to promise me that you'll not think of her any more in that way. I want you to think of her as faithful and loving to you, for she is so. Will you do it?"
Imogene did not answer him at once. Then she turned upon him a face of radiant self-abnegation. "I will do anything you tell me. Only tell me things to do."
The next time he came he again saw Mrs. Bowen alone before Imogene appeared. The conversation was confined to two sentences.
"Mr. Colville," she said, with perfectly tranquil point, while she tilted a shut book to and fro on her knee, "I will thank you not to defend me."
Had she overheard? Had Imogene told her? He answered, in a fury of resentment for her ingratitude that stupefied him. "I will never speak of you again."
Now they were enemies; he did not know how or why, but he said to himself, in the bitterness of his heart, that it was better so; and when Imogene appeared, and Mrs. Bowen vanished, as she did without another word to him, he folded the girl in a vindictive embrace.
"What is the matter?" she asked, pushing away from him.
"Yes; you seem so excited."
"Oh, nothing," he said, shrinking from the sharpness of that scrutiny in a woman's eyes, which, when it begins the perusal of a man's soul, astonishes and intimidates him; he never perhaps becomes able to endure it with perfect self-control. "I suppose a slight degree of excitement in meeting you may be forgiven me." He smiled under the unrelaxed severity of her gaze.
"Was Mrs. Bowen saying anything about me?"
"Not a word," said Colville, glad of getting back to the firm truth again, even if it were mere literality.
"We have made it up," she said, her scrutiny changing to a lovely appeal for his approval. "What there was to make up."
"I told her what you had said. And now it's all right between us, and you mustn't be troubled at that any more. I did it to please you."
She seemed to ask him with the last words whether she really had pleased him, as if something in his aspect suggested a doubt; and he hastened to reassure her. "That was very good of you. I appreciate it highly. It's extremely gratifying."
She broke into a laugh of fond derision. "I don't believe you really cared about it, or else you're not thinking about it now. Sit down here; I want to tell you of something I've thought out." She pulled him to the sofa, and put his arm about her waist, with a simple fearlessness and matter-of-course promptness that made him shudder. He felt that he ought to tell her not to do it, but he did not quite know how without wounding her. She took hold of his hand and drew his lax arm taut. Then she looked up into his eyes, as if some sense of his misgiving had conveyed itself to her, but she did not release her hold of his hand.
"Perhaps we oughtn't, if we're not engaged?" she suggested, with such utter trust in him as made his heart quake.
"Oh," he sighed, from a complexity of feeling that no explanation could wholly declare, "we're engaged enough for that, I suppose."
"I'm glad you think so," she answered innocently. "I knew you wouldn't let me if it were not right." Having settled the question, "Of course," she continued, "we shall all do our best to keep our secret; but in spite of everything it may get out. Do you see?"
"Well, of course it will make a great deal of remark."
"Oh yes; you must be prepared for that, Imogene," said Colville, with as much gravity as he could make comport with his actual position.
"I am prepared for it, and prepared to despise it," answered the girl. "I shall have no trouble except the fear that you will mind it." She pressed his hand as if she expected him to say something to this.
"I shall never care for it," he said, and this was true enough. "My only care will be to keep you from regretting. I have tried from the first to make you see that I was very much older than you. It would be miserable enough if you came to see it too late."
"I have never seen it, and I never shall see it, because there's no such difference between us. It isn't the years that make us young or old—who is it says that? No matter, it's true. And I want you to believe it. I want you to feel that I am your youth—the youth you were robbed of—given back to you. Will you do it? Oh, if you could, I should be the happiest girl in the world." Tears of fervour dimmed the beautiful eyes which looked into his. "Don't speak!" she hurried on. "I won't let you till I have said it all. It's been this idea, this hope, with me always—ever since I knew what happened to you here long ago—that you might go back in my life and take up yours where it was broken off; that I might make your life what it would have been—complete your destiny—"
Colville wrenched himself loose from the hold that had been growing more tenderly close and clinging. "And do you think I could be such a vampire as to let you? Yes, yes; I have had my dreams of such a thing; but I see now how hideous they were. You shall make no such sacrifice to me. You must put away the fancies that could never be fulfilled, or if by some infernal magic they could, would only bring sorrow to you and shame to me. God forbid! And God forgive me, if I have done or said anything to put this in your head! And thank God it isn't too late yet for you to take yourself back."
"Oh," she murmured. "Do you think it is self-sacrifice for me to give myself to you? It's self-glorification! You don't understand—I haven't told you what I mean, or else I've told it in such a way that I've made it hateful to you. Do you think I don't care for you except to be something to you? I'm not so generous as that. You are all the world to me. If I take myself back from you, as you say, what shall I do with myself?"
"Has it come to that?" asked Colville. He sat down again with her, and this time he put his arm around her and drew her to him, but it seemed to him he did it as if she were his child. "I was going to tell you just now that each of us lived to himself in this world, and that no one could hope to enter into the life of another and complete it. But now I see that I was partly wrong. We two are bound together, Imogene, and whether we become all in all or nothing to each other, we can have no separate fate."
The girl's eyes kindled with rapture. "Then let us never speak of it again. I was going to say something, but now I won't say it."
"Yes, say it."
"No; it will make you think that I am anxious on my own account about appearances before people."
"You poor child, I shall never think you are anxious on your own account about anything. What were you going to say?"
"Oh, nothing! It was only—are you invited to the Phillipses' fancy ball?"
"Yes," said Colville, silently making what he could of the diversion, "I believe so."
"And are you going—did you mean to go?" she asked timidly.
"Good heavens, no! What in the world should I do at another fancy ball? I walked about with the airy grace of a bull in a china shop at the last one."
Imogene did not smile. She faintly sighed. "Well, then, I won't go either."
"Did you intend to go?"
"Why, of course you did, and it's very right you should. Did you want me to go?"
"It would bore you."
"Not if you're there." She gave his hand a grateful pressure. "Come, I'll go, of course, Imogene. A fancy ball to please you is a very different thing from a fancy ball in the abstract."
"Oh, what nice things you say! Do you know, I always admired your compliments? I think they're the most charming compliments in the world."
"I don't think they're half so pretty as yours; but they're more sincere."
"No, honestly. They flatter, and at the same time they make fun of the flattery a little; they make a person feel that you like them, even while you laugh at them."
"They appear to be rather an intricate kind of compliment—sort of salsa agradolce affair—tutti frutti style—species of moral mayonnaise."
"No—be quiet! You know what I mean. What were we talking about? Oh! I was going to say that the most fascinating thing about you always was that ironical way of yours."
"Have I an ironical way? You were going to tell me something more about the fancy ball."
"I don't care for it. I would rather talk about you."
"And I prefer the ball. It's a fresher topic—to me."
"Very well, then. But this I will say. No matter how happy you should be, I should always want you to keep that tone of persiflage. You've no idea how perfectly intoxicating it is."
"Oh yes, I have. It seems to have turned the loveliest and wisest head in the world."
"Oh, do you really think so? I would give anything if you did."
"Think I was pretty," she pleaded, with full eyes. "Do you?"
"No, but I think you are wise. Fifty per cent, of truth—it's a large average in compliments. What are you going to wear?"
"Wear? Oh! At the ball! Something Egyptian, I suppose. It's to be an Egyptian ball. Didn't you understand that?"
"Oh yes. But I supposed you could go in any sort of dress."
"You can't. You must go in some Egyptian character."
"How would Moses do? In the bulrushes, you know. You could be Pharaoh's daughter, and recognise me by my three hats. And toward the end of the evening, when I became very much bored, I could go round killing Egyptians."
"No, no. Be serious. Though I like you to joke, too. I shall always want you to joke. Shall you, always?"
"There may be emergencies when I shall fail—like family prayers, and grace before meat, and dangerous sickness."
"Why, of course. But I mean when we're together, and there's no reason why you shouldn't?"
"Oh, at such times I shall certainly joke."
"And before people, too! I won't have them saying that it's sobered you—that you used to be very gay, and now you're cross, and never say anything."
"I will try to keep it up sufficiently to meet the public demand."
"And I shall want you to joke me, too. You must satirise me. It does more to show me my faults than anything else, and it will show other people how perfectly submissive I am, and how I think everything you do is just right."
"If I were to beat you a little in company, don't you think it would serve the same purpose?"
"No, no; be serious."
"No, about me. I know that I'm very intense, and you must try to correct that tendency in me."
"I will, with pleasure. Which of my tendencies are you going to correct?"
"You have none."
"Well, then, neither have you. I'm not going to be outdone in civilities."
"Oh, if people could only hear you talk in this light way, and then know what I know!"
Colville broke out into a laugh at the deep sigh which accompanied these words. As a whole, the thing was grotesque and terrible to him, but after a habit of his, he was finding a strange pleasure in its details.
"No, no," she pleaded. "Don't laugh. There are girls that would give their eyes for it."
"As pretty eyes as yours?"
"Do you think they're nice?"
"Yes, if they were not so mysterious."
"Yes, I feel that your eyes can't really be as honest as they look. That was what puzzled me about them the first night I saw you."
"No—did it, really?"
"I went home saying to myself that no girl could be so sincere as that Miss Graham seemed."
"Did you say that?"
"Words to that effect."
"And what do you think now?"
"Ah, I don't know. You had better go as the Sphinx."
Imogene laughed in simple gaiety of heart.
"How far we've got from the ball!" she said, as if the remote excursion were a triumph. "What shall we really go as?"
"Isis and Osiris."
"Weren't they gods of some kind?"
"Little one-horse deities—not very much."
"It won't do to go as gods of any kind. They're always failures. People expect too much of them."
"Yes," said Colville. "That's human nature under all circumstances. But why go to an Egyptian ball at all?"
"Oh, we must go. If we both stayed away it would make talk at once, and my object is to keep people in the dark till the very last moment. Of course it's unfortunate your having told Mrs. Amsden that you were going away, and then telling her just after you came back with me that you were going to stay. But it can't be helped now. And I don't really care for it. But don't you see why I want you to go to all these things?"
"All these things?"
"Yes, everything you're invited to after this. It's not merely for a blind as regards ourselves now, but if they see that you're very fond of all sorts of gaieties, they will see that you are—they will understand——"
There was no need for her to complete the sentence. Colville rose. "Come, come, my dear child," he said, "why don't you end all this at once? I don't blame you. Heaven knows I blame no one but myself! I ought to have the strength to break away from this mistake, but I haven't. I couldn't bear to see you suffer from pain that I should give you even for your good. But do it yourself, Imogene, and for pity's sake don't forbear from any notion of sparing me. I have no wish except for your happiness, and now I tell you clearly that no appearance we can put on before the world will deceive the world. At the end of all our trouble I shall still be forty——"
She sprang to him and put her hand over his mouth. "I know what you're going to say, and I won't let you say it, for you've promised over and over again not to speak of that any more. Oh, do you think I care for the world, or what it will think or say?"
"Yes, very much."
"That shows how little you understand me. It's because I wish to defy the world—"
"Imogene! Be as honest with yourself as you are with me."
"I am honest."
"Look me in the eyes, then."
She did so for an instant, and then hid her face on his shoulder.
"You silly girl," he said. "What is it you really do wish?"
"I wish there was no one in the world but you and me."
"Ah, you'd find it very crowded at times," said Colville sadly. "Well, well," he added, "I'll go to your fandangoes, because you want me to go."
"That's all I wished you to say," she replied, lifting her head, and looking him radiantly in the face. "I don't want you to go at all! I only want you to promise that you'll come here every night that you're invited out, and read to Mrs. Bowen and me."
"Oh, I can't do that," said Colville; "I'm too fond of society. For example, I've been invited to an Egyptian fancy ball, and I couldn't think of giving that up."
"Oh, how delightful you are! They couldn't any of them talk like you."
He had learned to follow the processes of her thought now. "Perhaps they can when they come to my age."
"There!" she exclaimed, putting her hand on his mouth again, to remind him of another broken promise. "Why can't you give up the Egyptian ball?"
"Because I expect to meet a young lady there—a very beautiful young lady."
"But how shall you know her if she's disguised?"
"Why, I shall be disguised too, you know."
"Oh, what delicious nonsense you do talk! Sit down here and tell me what you are going to wear."
She tried to pull him back to the sofa. "What character shall you go in?"
"No, no," he said, resisting the gentle traction. "I can't; I have urgent business down-town."
"Oh! Business in Florence!"
"Well, if I stayed, I should tell you what disguise I'm going to the ball in."
"I knew it was that. What do you think would be a good character for me?"
"I don't know. The serpent of old Nile would be pretty good for you."
"Oh, I know you don't think it!" she cried fondly. She had now let him take her hand, and he stood holding it at arm's-length. Effie Bowen came into the room. "Good-bye," said Imogene, with an instant assumption of society manner.
"Good-bye," said Colville, and went out.
"Oh, Mr. Colville!" she called, before he got to the outer door.
"Yes," he said, starting back.
She met him midway of the dim corridor. "Only to—" She put her arms about his neck and sweetly kissed him.
Colville went out into the sunlight feeling like some strange, newly invented kind of scoundrel—a rascal of such recent origin and introduction that he had not yet had time to classify himself and ascertain the exact degree of his turpitude. The task employed his thoughts all that day, and kept him vibrating between an instinctive conviction of monstrous wickedness and a logical and well-reasoned perception that he had all the facts and materials for a perfectly good conscience. He was the betrothed lover of this poor child, whose affection he could not check without a degree of brutality for which only a better man would have the courage. When he thought of perhaps refusing her caresses, he imagined the shock it would give her, and the look of grief and mystification that would come into her eyes, and he found himself incapable of that cruel rectitude. He knew that these were the impulses of a white and loving soul; but at the end of all his argument they remained a terror to him, so that he lacked nothing but the will to fly from Florence and shun her altogether till she had heard from her family. This, he recalled, with bitter self-reproach was what had been his first inspiration; he had spoken of it to Mrs. Bowen, and it had still everything in its favour except that it was impossible.
Imogene returned to the salotto, where the little girl was standing with her face to the window, drearily looking out; her back expressed an inner desolation which revealed itself in her eyes when Imogene caught her head between her hands, and tilted up her face to kiss it.
"What is the matter, Effie?" she demanded gaily.
"Oh yes, there is."
"Nothing that you will care for. As long as he's pleasant to you, you don't care what he does to me."
"What has he done to you?"
"He didn't take the slightest notice of me when I came into the room. He didn't speak to me, or even look at me."
Imogene caught the little grieving, quivering face to her breast "He is a wicked, wicked wretch! And I will give him the awfulest scolding he ever had when he comes here again. I will teach him to neglect my pet. I will let him understand that if he doesn't notice you, he needn't notice me. I will tell you, Effie—I've just thought of a way. The next time he comes we will both receive him. We will sit up very stiffly on the sofa together, and just answer Yes, No, Yes, No, to everything he says, till he begins to take the hint, and learns how to behave himself. Will you?"
A smile glittered through the little girl's tears; but she asked, "Do you think it would be very polite?"
"No matter, polite or not, it's what he deserves. Of course, as soon as he begins to take the hint, we will be just as we always are."
Imogene despatched a note, which Colville got the next morning, to tell him of his crime, and apprise him of his punishment, and of the sweet compunction that had pleaded for him in the breast of the child. If he did not think he could help play the comedy through, he must come prepared to offer Effie some sort of atonement.
It was easy to do this: to come with his pockets full of presents, and take the little girl on his lap, and pour out all his troubled heart in the caresses and tendernesses which would bring him no remorse. He humbled himself to her thoroughly, and with a strange sincerity in the harmless duplicity, and promised, if she would take him back into favour, that he would never offend again. Mrs. Bowen had sent word that she was not well enough to see him; she had another of her headaches; and he sent back a sympathetic and respectful message by Effie, who stood thoughtfully at her mother's pillow after she had delivered it, fingering the bouquet Colville had brought her, and putting her head first on this side, and then on that to admire it.
"I think Mr. Colville and Imogene are much more affectionate than they used to be," she said.
Mrs. Bowen started up on her elbow. "What do you mean, Effie?"
"Oh, they're both so good to me."
"Yes," said her mother, dropping back to her pillow. "Both?"
"Yes; he's the most affectionate."
The mother turned her face the other way. "Then he must be," she murmured.
"What?" asked the child.
"Nothing. I didn't know I spoke."
The little girl stood a while still playing with her flowers. "I think Mr. Colville is about the pleasantest gentleman that comes here. Don't you, mamma?"
"He's so interesting, and says such nice things. I don't know whether children ought to think of such things, but I wish I was going to marry some one like Mr. Colville. Of course I should want to be tolerably old if I did. How old do you think a person ought to be to marry him?"
"You mustn't talk of such things, Effie," said her mother.
"No; I suppose it isn't very nice." She picked out a bud in her bouquet, and kissed it; then she held the nosegay at arm's-length before her, and danced away with it.