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Chapter 18

XVIII

The young clergyman whom Colville saw talking to Imogene on his first evening at Mrs. Bowen's had come back from Rome, where he had been spending a month or two, and they began to meet at Palazzo Pinti again. If they got on well enough together, they did not get on very far. The suave house-priest manners of the young clergyman offended Colville; he could hardly keep from sneering at his taste in art and books, which in fact was rather conventional; and no doubt Mr. Morton had his own reserves, under which he was perfectly civil, and only too deferential to Colville, as to an older man. Since his return, Mrs. Bowen had come back to her salon. She looked haggard; but she did what she could to look otherwise. She was always polite to Colville, and she was politely cordial with the clergyman. Sometimes Colville saw her driving out with him and Effie; they appeared to make excursions, and he had an impression, very obscure, that Mrs. Bowen lent the young clergyman money; that he was a superstition of hers, and she a patron of his; he must have been ten years younger than she; not more than twenty-five.

The first Sunday after his return, Colville walked home with Mr. Waters from hearing a sermon of Mr. Morton's, which they agreed was rather well judged, and simply and fitly expressed.

"And he spoke with the authority of the priest," said the old minister. "His Church alone of all the Protestant Churches has preserved that to its ministers. Sometimes I have thought it was a great thing."

"Not always?" asked Colville, with a smile.

"These things are matters of mood rather than conviction with me," returned Mr. Waters. "Once they affected me very deeply; but now I shall so soon know all about it that they don't move me. But at times I think that if I were to live my life over again, I would prefer to be of some formal, some inflexibly ritualised, religion. At solemnities—-weddings and funerals—I have been impressed with the advantage of the Anglican rite: it is the Church speaking to and for humanity—or seems so," he added, with cheerful indifference. "Something in its favour," he continued, after a while, "is the influence that every ritualised faith has with women. If they apprehend those mysteries more subtly than we, such a preference of theirs must mean a good deal. Yes; the other Protestant systems are men's systems. Women must have form. They don't care for freedom."

"They appear to like the formalist too, as well as the form," said Colville, with scorn not obviously necessary.

"Oh yes; they must have everything in the concrete," said the old gentleman cheerfully.

"I wonder where Mr. Morton met Mrs. Bowen first," said Colville.

"Here, I think. I believe he had letters to her. Before you came I used often to meet him at her house. I think she has helped him with money at times."

"Isn't that rather an unpleasant idea?"

"Yes; it's disagreeable. And it places the ministry in a dependent attitude. But under our system it's unavoidable. Young men devoting themselves to the ministry frequently receive gifts of money."

"I don't like it," cried Colville.

"They don't feel it as others would. I didn't myself. Even at present I may be said to be living on charity. But sometimes I have fancied that in Mr. Morton's case there might be peculiarly mitigating circumstances."

"What do you mean?"

"When I met him first at Mrs. Bowen's I used to think that it was Miss Graham in whom he was interested——"

"I can assure you," interrupted Colville, "that she was never interested in him."

"Oh no; I didn't suppose that," returned the old man tranquilly. "And I've since had reason to revise my opinion. I think he is interested in Mrs. Bowen."

"Mrs. Bowen! And you think that would be a mitigating circumstance in his acceptance of money from her? If he had the spirit of a man at all, it would make it all the more revolting."

"Oh no, oh no," softly pleaded Mr. Waters. "We must not look at these things too romantically. He probably reasons that she would give him all her money if they were married."

"But he has no right to reason in that way," retorted Colville, with heat. "They are not married; it's ignoble and unmanly for him to count upon it. It's preposterous. She must be ten years older than he."

"Oh, I don't say that they're to be married," Mr. Waters replied. "But these disparities of age frequently occur in marriage. I don't like them, though sometimes I think the evil is less when it is the wife who is the elder. We look at youth and age in a gross, material way too often. Women remain young longer than men. They keep their youthful sympathies; an old woman understands a young girl. Do you—or do I—understand a young man?"

Colville laughed harshly. "It isn't quite the same thing, Mr. Waters. But yes; I'll admit, for the sake of argument, that I don't understand young men. I'll go further, and say that I don't like them; I'm afraid of them. And you wouldn't think," he added abruptly, "that it would be well for me to marry a girl twenty years younger than myself."

The old man glanced up at him with innocent slyness. "I prefer always to discuss these things in an impersonal way."

"But you can't discuss them impersonally with me; I'm engaged to Miss Graham. Ever since you first found me here after I told you I was going away I have wished to tell you this, and this seems as good a time as any—or as bad." The defiance faded from his voice, which dropped to a note of weary sadness. "Yes, we're engaged—or shall be, as soon as she can hear from her family. I wanted to tell you because it seemed somehow your due, and because I fancied you had a friendly interest in us both."

"Yes, that is true," returned Mr. Waters. "I wish you joy." He went through the form of offering his hand to Colville, who pressed it with anxious fervour.

"I confess," he said, "that I feel the risks of the affair. It's not that I have any dread for my own part; I have lived my life, such as it is. But the child is full of fancies about me that can't be fulfilled. She dreams of restoring my youth somehow, of retrieving the past for me, of avenging me at her own cost for an unlucky love affair that I had here twenty years ago. It's pretty of her, but it's terribly pathetic—it's tragic. I know very well that I'm a middle-aged man, and that there's no more youth for me. I'm getting grey, and I'm getting fat; I wouldn't be young if I could; it's a bore. I suppose I could keep up an illusion of youthfulness for five or six years more; and then if I could be quietly chloroformed out of the way, perhaps it wouldn't have been so very bad."

"I have always thought," said Mr. Waters dreamily, "that a good deal might be said for abbreviating hopeless suffering. I have known some very good people advocate its practice by science."

"Yes," answered Colville. "Perhaps I've presented that point too prominently. What I wished you to understand was that I don't care for myself; that I consider only the happiness of this young girl that's somehow—I hardly know how—been put in my keeping. I haven't forgotten the talks that we've had heretofore on this subject, and it would be affectation and bad taste in me to ignore them. Don't be troubled at anything you've said; it was probably true, and I'm sure it was sincere. Sometimes I think that the kindest—the least cruel—thing I could do would be to break with her, to leave her. But I know that I shall do nothing of the kind; I shall drift. The child is very dear to me. She has great and noble qualities; she's supremely unselfish; she loves me through her mistaken pity, and because she thinks she can sacrifice herself to me. But she can't. Everything is against that; she doesn't know how, and there is no reason why. I don't express it very well. I think nobody clearly understands it but Mrs. Bowen, and I've somehow alienated her."

He became aware that his self-abnegation was taking the character of self-pity, and he stopped.

Mr. Waters seemed to be giving the subject serious attention in the silence that ensued. "There is this to be remembered," he began, "which we don't consider in our mere speculations upon any phase of human affairs; and that is the wonderful degree of amelioration that any given difficulty finds in the realisation. It is the anticipation, not the experience, that is the trial. In a case of this kind, facts of temperament, of mere association, of union, work unexpected mitigations; they not only alleviate, they allay. You say that she cherishes an illusion concerning you: well, with women, nothing is so indestructible as an illusion. Give them any chance at all, and all the forces of their nature combine to preserve it. And if, as you say, she is so dear to you, that in itself is almost sufficient. I can well understand your misgivings, springing as they do from a sensitive conscience; but we may reasonably hope that they are exaggerated. Very probably there will not be the rapture for her that there would be if—if you were younger; but the chances of final happiness are great—yes, very considerable. She will learn to appreciate what is really best in you, and you already understand her. Your love for her is the key to the future. Without that, of course——"

"Oh, of course," interrupted Colville hastily. Every touch of this comforter's hand had been a sting; and he parted with him in that feeling of utter friendlessness involving a man who has taken counsel upon the confession of half his trouble.

Something in Mrs. Bowen's manner when he met her next made him think that perhaps Imogene had been telling her of the sympathy he had expressed for her ill-health. It was in the evening, and Imogene and Mr. Morton were looking over a copy of The Marble Faun, which he had illustrated with photographs at Rome. Imogene asked Colville to look at it too, but he said he would examine it later; he had his opinion of people who illustrated The Marble Faun with photographs; it surprised him that she seemed to find something novel and brilliant in the idea.

Effie Bowen looked round where she was kneeling on a chair beside the couple with the book, and seeing Colville wandering neglectedly about before he placed himself, she jumped down and ran and caught his hand.

"Well, what now?" he asked, with a dim smile, as she began to pull him toward the sofa. When he should be expelled from Palazzo Pinti he would really miss the worship of that little thing. He knew that her impulse had been to console him for his exclusion from the pleasures that Imogene and Mr. Morton were enjoying.

"Nothing. Just talk," she said, making him fast in a corner of the sofa by crouching tight against him.

"What about? About which is the pleasantest season?"

"Oh no; we've talked about that so often. Besides, of course you'd say spring, now that it's coming on so nicely."

"Do you think I'm so changeable as that? Haven't I always said winter when this question of the seasons was up? And I say it now. Shan't you be awfully sorry when you can't have a pleasant little fire on the hearth like this any more?"

"Yes; I know. But it's very nice having the flowers, too. The grass was all full of daisies to-day—perfectly powdered with them."

"To-day? Where?"

"At the Cascine. And in under the trees there were millions of violets and crow's-feet. Mr. Morton helped me to get them for mamma and Imogene. And we stayed so long that when we drove home the daisies had all shut up, and the little pink leaves outside made it look like a field of red clover. Are you never going there any more?"

Mrs. Bowen came in. From the fact that there was no greeting between her and Mr. Morton, Colville inferred that she was returning to the room after having already been there. She stood a moment, with a little uncertainty, when she had shaken hands with him, and then dropped upon the sofa beyond Effie. The little girl ran one hand through Colville's arm, and the other through her mother's, and gripped them fast. "Now I have got you both," she triumphed, and smiled first into her face, and then into his.

"Be quiet, Effie," said her mother, but she submitted.

"I hope you're better for your drive to-day, Mrs. Bowen. Effie has been telling me about it."

"We stayed out a long time. Yes, I think the air did me good; but I'm not an invalid, you know."

"Oh no."

"I'm feeling a little fagged. And the weather was tempting. I suppose you've been taking one of your long walks."

"No, I've scarcely stirred out. I usually feel like going to meet the spring a little more than half-way; but this year I don't, somehow."

"A good many people are feeling rather languid, I believe," said Mrs. Bowen.

"I hope you'll get away from Florence," said Colville.

"Oh," she returned, with a faint flush, "I'm afraid Imogene exaggerated that a little." She added, "You are very good."

She was treating him more kindly than she had ever done since that Sunday afternoon when he came in with Imogene to say that he was going to stay. It might be merely because she had worn out her mood of severity, as people do, returning in good-humour to those with whom they were offended, merely through the reconciling force of time. She did not look at him, but this was better than meeting his eye with that interceptive glance. A strange peace touched his heart. Imogene and the young clergyman at the table across the room were intent on the book still; he was explaining and expatiating, and she listening. Colville saw that he had a fine head, and an intelligent, handsome, gentle face. When he turned again to Mrs. Bowen it was with the illusion that she had been saying something; but she was, in fact, sitting mute, and her face, with its bright colour, showed pathetically thin.

"I should imagine that Venice would be good for you," he said.

"It's still very harsh there, I hear. No; when we leave Florence, I think we will go to Switzerland."

"Oh, not to Madame Schebres's," pleaded the child, turning upon her.

"No, not to Madame Schebres," consented the mother. She continued, addressing Colville: "I was thinking of Lausanne. Do you know Lausanne at all?"

"Only from Gibbon's report. It's hardly up to date."

"I thought of taking a house there for the summer," said Mrs. Bowen, playing with Effie's fingers. "It's pleasant by the lake, I suppose."

"It's lovely by the lake!" cried the child. "Oh, do go, mamma! I could get a boat and learn to row. Here you can't row, the Arno's so swift."

"The air would bring you up," said Colville to Mrs. Bowen. "Switzerland's the only country where you're perfectly sure of waking new every morning."

This idea interested the child. "Waking new!" she repeated.

"Yes; perfectly made over. You wake up another person. Shouldn't you think that would be nice?"

"No."

"Well, I shouldn't, in your place. But in mine, I much prefer to wake up another person. Only it's pretty hard on the other person."

"How queer you are!" The child set her teeth for fondness of him, and seizing his cheeks between her hands, squeezed them hard, admiring the effect upon his features, which in some respects was not advantageous.

"Effie!" cried her mother sternly; and she dropped to her place again, and laid hold of Colville's arm for protection. "You are really very rude. I shall send you to bed."

"Oh no, don't, Mrs. Bowen," he begged. "I'm responsible for these violences. Effie used to be a very well behaved child before she began playing with me. It's all my fault."

They remained talking on the sofa together, while Imogene and Mr. Morton continued to interest themselves in the book. From time to time she looked over at them, and then turned again to the young clergyman, who, when he had closed the book, rested his hands on its top and began to give an animated account of something, conjecturably his sojourn in Rome.

In a low voice, and with pauses adjusted to the occasional silences of the young people across the room, Mrs. Bowen told Colville how Mr. Morton was introduced to her by an old friend who was greatly interested in him. She said, frankly, that she had been able to be of use to him, and that he was now going back to America very soon; it was as if she were privy to the conjecture that had come to the surface in his talk with Mr. Waters, and wished him to understand exactly how matters stood with the young clergyman and herself. Colville, indeed, began to be more tolerant of him; he succeeded in praising the sermon he had heard him preach.

"Oh, he has talent," said Mrs. Bowen.

They fell into the old, almost domestic strain, from which she broke at times with an effort, but returning as if helplessly to it. He had the gift of knowing how not to take an advantage with women; that sense of unconstraint in them fought in his favour; when Effie dropped her head wearily against his arm, her mother even laughed in sending her off to bed; she had hitherto been serious. Imogene said she would go to see her tucked in, and that sent the clergyman to say good-night to Mrs. Bowen, and to put an end to Colville's audience.

In these days, when Colville came every night to Palazzo Pinti, he got back the tone he had lost in the past fortnight. He thought that it was the complete immunity from his late pleasures, and the regular and sufficient sleep, which had set him firmly on his feet again, but he did not inquire very closely. Imogene went two or three times, after she had declared she would go no more, from the necessity women feel of blunting the edge of comment; but Colville profited instantly and fully by the release from the parties which she offered him. He did not go even to afternoon tea-drinkings; the "days" of the different ladies, which he had been so diligent to observe, knew him no more. At the hours when society assembled in this house or that and inquired for him, or wondered about him, he was commonly taking a nap, and he was punctually in bed every night at eleven, after his return from Mrs. Bowen's.

He believed, of course, that he went there because he now no longer met Imogene elsewhere, and he found the house pleasanter than it had ever been since the veglione. Mrs. Bowen's relenting was not continuous, however. There were times that seemed to be times of question and of struggle with her, when she vacillated between the old cordiality and the later alienation; when she went beyond the former, or lapsed into moods colder and more repellent than the latter. It would have been difficult to mark the moment when these struggles ceased altogether, and an evening passed in unbroken kindness between them. But afterwards Colville could remember an emotion of grateful surprise at a subtle word or action of hers in which she appeared to throw all restraint—scruple or rancour, whichever it might be—to the winds, and become perfectly his friend again. It must have been by compliance with some wish or assent to some opinion of his; what he knew was that he was not only permitted, he was invited, to feel himself the most favoured guest. The charming smile, so small and sweet, so very near to bitterness, came back to her lips, the deeply fringed eyelids were lifted to let the sunny eyes stream upon him. She did, now, whatever he asked her. She consulted his taste and judgment on many points; she consented to resume, when she should be a little stronger, their visits to the churches and galleries: it would be a shame to go away from Florence without knowing them thoroughly. It came to her asking him to drive with her and Imogene in the Cascine; and when Imogene made some excuse not to go, Mrs. Bowen did not postpone the drive, but took Colville and Effie.

They drove quite down to the end of the Cascine, and got out there to admire the gay monument, with the painted bust, of the poor young Indian prince who died in Florence. They strolled all about, talking of the old times in the Cascine, twenty years before; and walking up the road beside the canal, while the carriage slowly followed, they stopped to enjoy the peasants lying asleep in the grass on the other bank. Colville and Effie gathered wild-flowers, and piled them in her mother's lap when she remounted to the carriage and drove along while they made excursions into the little dingles beside the road. Some people who overtook them in these sylvan pleasures reported the fact at a reception to which they were going, and Mrs. Amsden, whose mind had been gradually clearing under the simultaneous withdrawal of Imogene and Colville from society, professed herself again as thickly clouded as a weather-glass before a storm. She appealed to the sympathy of others against this hardship.

Mrs. Bowen took Colville home to dinner; Mr. Morton was coming, she said, and he must come too. At table the young clergyman made her his compliment on her look of health, and she said, Yes; she had been driving, and she believed that she needed nothing but to be in the air a little more, as she very well could, now the spring weather was really coming. She said that they had been talking all winter of going to Fiesole, where Imogene had never been yet; and upon comparison it appeared that none of them had yet been to Fiesole except herself. Then they must all go together, she said; the carriage would hold four very comfortably.

"Ah! that leaves me out," said Colville, who had caught sight of Effie's fallen countenance.

"Oh no. How is that? It leaves Effie out."

"It's the same thing. But I might ride, and Effie might give me her hand to hold over the side of the carriage; that would sustain me."

"We could take her between us, Mrs. Bowen," suggested Imogene. "The back seat is wide."

"Then the party is made up," said Colville, "and Effie hasn't demeaned herself by asking to go where she wasn't invited."

The child turned inquiringly toward her mother, who met her with an indulgent smile, which became a little flush of grateful appreciation when it reached Colville; but Mrs. Bowen ignored Imogene in the matter altogether.

The evening passed delightfully. Mr. Morton had another book which he had brought to show Imogene, and Mrs. Bowen sat a long time at the piano, striking this air and that of the songs which she used to sing when she was a girl: Colville was trying to recall them. When he and Imogene were left alone for their adieux, they approached each other in an estrangement through which each tried to break.

"Why don't you scold me?" she asked. "I have neglected you the whole evening."

"How have you neglected me?"

"How? Ah! if you don't know——"

"No. I dare say I must be very stupid. I saw you talking with Mr. Morton, and you seemed interested. I thought I'd better not intrude."

She seemed uncertain of his intention, and then satisfied of its simplicity.

"Isn't it pleasant to have Mrs. Bowen in the old mood again?" he asked.

"Is she in the old mood?"

"Why, yes. Haven't you noticed how cordial she is?

"I thought she was rather colder than usual."

"Colder!" The chill of the idea penetrated even through the density of Colville's selfish content. A very complex emotion, which took itself for indignation, throbbed from his heart. "Is she cold with you, Imogene?"

"Oh, if you saw nothing——"

"No; and I think you must be mistaken. She never speaks of you without praising you."

"Does she speak of me?" asked the girl, with her honest eyes wide open upon him.

"Why, no," Colville acknowledged. "Come to reflect, it's I who speak of you. But how—how is she cold with you?"

"Oh, I dare say it's a delusion of mine. Perhaps I'm cold with her."

"Then don't be so, my dear! Be sure that she's your friend—true and good. Good night."

He caught the girl in his arms, and kissed her tenderly. She drew away, and stood a moment with her repellent fingers on his breast.

"Is it all for me?" she asked.

"For the whole obliging and amiable world," he answered gaily.

William Dean Howells

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