The next time Colville came he found himself alone with Imogene, who asked him what he had been doing all day.
"Oh, living along till evening. What have you?"
She did not answer at once, nor praise his speech for the devotion implied in it. After a while she said: "Do you believe in courses of reading? Mr. Morton has taken up a course of reading in Italian poetry. He intends to master it."
"Yes. Do you think something of the kind would be good for me?"
"Oh, if you thirst for conquest. But I should prefer to rest on my laurels if I were you."
Imogene did not smile. "Mr. Morton thinks I should enjoy a course of Kingsley. He says he's very earnest."
"Oh, immensely. But aren't you earnest enough already, my dear?"
"Do you think I'm too earnest?"
"No; I should say you were just right."
"You know better than that. I wish you would criticise me sometimes."
"Oh, I'd rather not."
"Why? Don't you see anything to criticise in me? Are you satisfied with me in every way? You ought to think. You ought to think now. Do you think that I am doing right in all respects? Am I all that I could be to you, and to you alone? If I am wrong in the least thing, criticise me, and I will try to be better."
"Oh, you might criticise back, and I shouldn't like that."
"Then you don't approve of a course of Kingsley?" asked the girl.
"Does that follow? But if you're going in for earnestness, why don't you take up a course of Carlyle?"
"Do you think that would be better than Kingsley?"
"Not a bit. But Carlyle's so earnest that he can't talk straight."
"I can't make out what you mean. Wouldn't you like me to improve?"
"Not much," laughed Colville. "If you did, I don't know what I should do. I should have to begin to improve too, and I'm very comfortable as I am."
"I should wish to do it to—to be more worthy of you," grieved the girl, as if deeply disappointed at his frivolous behaviour.
He could not help laughing, but he was sorry, and would have taken her hand; she kept it from him, and removed to the farthest corner of the sofa. Apparently, however, her ideal did not admit of open pique, and she went on trying to talk seriously with him.
"You think, don't you, that we oughtn't to let a day pass without storing away some thought—suggestion——"
"Oh, there's no hurry," he said lazily. "Life is rather a long affair—if you live. There appears to be plenty of time, though people say not, and I think it would be rather odious to make every day of use. Let a few of them go by without doing anything for you! And as for reading, why not read when you're hungry, just as you eat? Shouldn't you hate to take up a course of roast beef, or a course of turkey?"
"Very well, then," said Imogene. "I shall not begin Kingsley."
"Yes, do it. I dare say Mr. Morton's quite right. He will look at these things more from your own point of view. All the Kingsley novels are in the Tauchnitz. By all means do what he says."
"I will do what you say."
"Oh, but I say nothing."
"Then I will do nothing."
Colville laughed at this too, and soon after the clergyman appeared. Imogene met him so coldly that Colville felt obliged to make him some amends by a greater show of cordiality than he felt. But he was glad of the effort, for he began to like him as he talked to him; it was easy for him to like people; the young man showed sense and judgment, and if he was a little academic in his mind and manners, Colville tolerantly reflected that some people seemed to be born so, and that he was probably not artificial, as he had once imagined from the ecclesiastical scrupulosity of his dress.
Imogene ebbed away to the piano in the corner of the room, and struck some chords on it. At each stroke the young clergyman, whose eyes had wandered a little toward her from the first, seemed to vibrate in response. The conversation became incoherent before Mrs. Bowen joined them. Then, by a series of illogical processes, the clergyman was standing beside Imogene at the piano, and Mrs. Bowen was sitting beside Colville on the sofa.
"Isn't there to be any Effie, to-night?" he asked.
"No. She has been up too much of late. And I wished to speak with you—about Imogene."
"Yes," said Colville, not very eagerly. At that moment he could have chosen another topic.
"It is time that her mother should have got my letter. In less than a fortnight we ought to have an answer."
"Well?" said Colville, with a strange constriction of the heart.
"Her mother is a person of very strong character; her husband is absorbed in business, and defers to her in everything."
"It isn't an uncommon American situation," said Colville, relieving his tension by this excursion.
Mrs. Bowen ignored it. "I don't know how she may look at the affair. She may give her assent at once, or she may decide that nothing has taken place till—she sees you."
"I could hardly blame her for that," he answered submissively.
"It isn't a question of that," said Mrs. Bowen. "It's a question of—others. Mr. Morton was here before you came, and I know he was interested in Imogene—I am certain of it. He has come back, and he sees no reason why he should not renew his attentions."
"No—o—o," faltered Colville.
"I wish you to realise the fact."
"But what would you——"
"I told you," said Mrs. Bowen, with a full return of that severity whose recent absence Colville had found so comfortable, "that I can't advise or suggest anything at all."
He was long and miserably silent. At last, "Did you ever think," he asked, "did you ever suppose—that is to say, did you ever suspect that—she—that Imogene was—at all interested in him?"
"I think she was—at one time," said Mrs. Bowen promptly.
Colville sighed, with a wandering disposition to whistle.
"But that is nothing," she went on. "People have many passing fancies. The question is, what are you going to do now? I want to know, as Mr. Morton's friend."
"Ah, I wish you wanted to know as my friend, Mrs. Bowen!" A sudden thought flashed upon him. "Why shouldn't I go away from Florence till Imogene hears from her mother? That seemed to me right in the first place. There is no tie that binds her to me. I hold her to nothing. If she finds in my absence that she likes this young man better—" An expression of Mrs. Bowen's face stopped him. He perceived that he had said something very shocking to her; he perceived that the thing was shocking in itself, but it was not that which he cared for. "I don't mean that I won't hold myself true to her as long as she will. I recognise my responsibility fully. I know that I am answerable for all this, and that no one else is; and I am ready to bear any penalty. But what I can't bear is that you should misunderstand me, that you should—I have been so wretched ever since you first began to blame me for my part in this, and so happy this past fortnight that I can't—I won't—go back to that state of things. No; you have no right to relent toward me, and then fling me off as you have tried to do to-night! I have some feeling too—some rights. You shall receive me as a friend, or not at all! How can I live if you——"
She had been making little efforts as if to rise; now she forced herself to her feet, and ran from the room.
The young people looked up from their music; some wave of the sensation had spread to them, but seeing Colville remain seated, they went on with their playing till he rose. Then Imogene called out, "Isn't Mrs. Bowen coming back?"
"I don't know; I think not," answered Colville stupidly, standing where he had risen.
She hastened questioning toward him. "What is the matter? Isn't she well?"
Mr. Morton's face expressed a polite share in her anxiety.
"Oh yes; quite, I believe," Colville replied.
"She heard Effie call, I suppose," suggested the girl.
"Yes, yes; I think so; that is—yes. I must be going. Good night."
He took her hand and went away, leaving the clergyman still there; but he lingered only for a report from Mrs. Bowen, which Imogene hurried to get. She sent word that she would join them presently. But Mr. Morion said that it was late already, and he would beg Miss Graham to say good-night for him. When Mrs. Bowen returned Imogene was alone.
She did not seem surprised or concerned at that. "Imogene, I have been talking to Mr. Colville about you and Mr. Morton."
The girl started and turned pale.
"It is almost time to hear from your mother, and she may consent to your engagement. Then you must be prepared to act."
"To make it known. Matters can't go on as they have been going. I told Mr. Colville that Mr. Morton ought to know at once."
"Why ought he to know?" asked Imogene, doubtless with that impulse to temporise which is natural to the human soul in questions of right and interest. She sank into the chair beside which she had been standing.
"If your mother consents, you will feel bound to Mr. Colville?"
"Yes," said the girl.
"And if she refuses?"
"He has my word. I will keep my word to him," replied Imogene huskily. "Nothing shall make me break it."
"Very well, then!" exclaimed Mrs. Bowen. "We need not wait for your mother's answer. Mr. Morton ought to know, and he ought to know at once. do. He is in love with you."
"Oh," moaned the girl.
"Yes; you can't deny it. And it's cruel, it's treacherous, to let him go on thinking that you are free."
"I will never see him again."
"Ah! that isn't enough. He has a claim to know why. I will not let him be treated so."
They were both silent. Then, "What did Mr. Colville say?" asked Imogene.
"He? I don't know that he said anything. He——" Mrs. Bowen stopped.
Imogene rose from her chair.
"I will not let him tell Mr. Morton. It would be too indelicate."
"And shall you let it go on so?"
"No. I will tell him myself."
"How will you tell him?"
"I will tell him if he speaks to me."
"You will let it come to that?"
"There is no other way. I shall suffer more than he."
"But you will deserve to suffer, and your suffering will not help him."
Imogene trembled into her chair again.
"I see," said Mrs. Bowen bitterly, "how it will be at last. It will be as it has been from the first." She began to walk up and down the room, mechanically putting the chairs in place, and removing the disorder in which the occupancy of several people leaves a room at the end of an evening. She closed the piano, which Imogene had forgot to shut, with a clash that jarred the strings from their silence. "But I will do it, and I wonder——"
"You will speak to him?" faltered the girl.
"Yes!" returned Mrs. Bowen vehemently, and arresting herself in her rapid movements. "It won't do for you to tell him, and you won't let Mr. Colville."
"No, I can't," said Imogene, slowly shaking her head. "But I will discourage him; I will not see him anymore." Mrs. Bowen silently confronted her. "I will not see any one now till I have heard from home."
"And how will that help? He must have some explanation, and I will have to make it. What shall it be?"
Imogene did not answer. She said: "I will not have any one know what is between me and Mr. Colville till I have heard from home. If they try to refuse, then it will be for him to take me against their will. But if he doesn't choose to do that, then he shall be free, and I won't have him humiliated a second time before the world. This time he shall be the one to reject. And I don't care who suffers. The more I prize the person, the gladder I shall be; and if I could suffer before everybody I would. If people ever find it out, I will tell them that it was he who broke it off." She rose again from her chair, and stood flushed and thrilling with the notion of her self-sacrifice. Out of the tortuous complexity of the situation she had evolved this brief triumph, in which she rejoiced as if it were enduring success. But she suddenly fell from it in the dust. "Oh, what can I do for him? How can I make him feel more and more that I would give up anything, everything, for him! could see that he was unhappy, as I did once! If I could see that he was at all different since—since——Oh, what I dread is this smooth tranquillity! If our lives could only be stormy and full of cares and anxieties and troubles that I could take on myself, then, then I shouldn't be afraid of the future! But I'm afraid they won't be so—no, Mrs. Bowen, do you think he cares for me?"
Mrs Bowen turned white; she did not speak.
had forced myself on him through a mistake, and he had taken me to save me from the shame of knowing that I had made a mistake. Do you think that is true? If you can only tell me that it isn't—Or, no! If it is true, tell me that! That would be real mercy."
The other trembled, as if physically beaten upon by this appeal. But she gathered herself together rigidly. "How can I answer you such a thing as that? I mustn't listen to you; you mustn't ask me." She turned and left the girl standing still in her attitude of imploring. But in her own room, where she locked herself in, sobs mingled with the laughter which broke crazily from her lips as she removed this ribbon and that jewel, and pulled the bracelets from her wrists. A man would have plunged from the house and walked the night away; a woman must wear it out in her bed.