Twenty years earlier, when Mrs. Bowen was Miss Lina Ridgely, she used to be the friend and confidante of the girl who jilted Colville. They were then both so young that they could scarcely have been a year out of school before they left home for the year they were spending in Europe; but to the young man's inexperience they seemed the wisest and maturest of society women. His heart quaked in his breast when he saw them talking and laughing together, for fear they should be talking and laughing about him; he was even a little more afraid of Miss Ridgely than of her friend, who was dashing and effective, where Miss Ridgely was serene and elegant, according to his feeling at that time; but he never saw her after his rejection, and it was not till he read of her marriage with the Hon. Mr. Bowen that certain vague impressions began to define themselves. He then remembered that Lina Ridgely in many fine little ways had shown a kindness, almost a compassion, for him, as for one whose unconsciousness a hopeless doom impended over. He perceived that she had always seemed to like him—a thing that had not occurred to him in the stupid absorption of his passion for the other—and fragments of proof that she had probably defended and advocated him occurred to him, and inspired a vain and retrospective gratitude; he abandoned himself to regrets, which were proper enough in regard to Miss Ridgely, but were certainly a little unlawful concerning Mrs. Bowen.
As he walked away toward his hotel he amused himself with the conjecture whether he, with his forty-one years and his hundred and eighty five pounds, were not still a pathetic and even a romantic figure to this pretty and kindly woman, who probably imagined him as heart-broken as ever. He was very willing to see more of her, if she wished; but with the rain beginning to fall more thick and chill in the darkening street, he could have postponed their next meeting till a pleasanter evening without great self-denial. He felt a little twinge of rheumatism in his shoulder when he got into his room, for your room in a Florentine hotel is always some degrees colder than outdoors, unless you have fire in it; and with the sun shining on his windows when he went out after lunch, it had seemed to Colville ridiculous to have his morning fire kept up. The sun was what he had taken the room for. It was in it, the landlord assured him, from ten in the morning till four in the afternoon; and so, in fact, it was, when it shone; but even then it was not fully in it, but had a trick of looking in at the sides of the window, and painting the chamber wall with a delusive glow. Colville raked away the ashes of his fire-place, and throwing on two or three fagots of broom and pine sprays, he had a blaze that would be very pretty to dress by after dinner, but that gave out no warmth for the present. He left it, and went down to the reading-room, as it was labelled over the door, in homage to a predominance of English-speaking people among the guests; but there was no fire there; that was kindled only by request, and he shivered at the bare aspect of the apartment, with its cold piano, its locked bookcases, and its table, where the London Times, the Neue Freie Presse of Vienna, and the Italie of Rome exposed their titles, one just beyond the margin of the other. He turned from the door and went into the dining-room, where the stove was ostentatiously roaring over its small logs and its lozenges of peat, But even here the fire had been so recently lighted that the warmth was potential rather than actual. By stooping down before the stove, and pressing his shoulder against its brass doors, Colville managed to lull his enemy, while he studied the figures of the woman-headed, woman-breasted hounds developing into vines and foliage that covered the frescoed trellising of the quadrangularly vaulted ceiling. The waiters, in their veteran dress-coats, were putting the final touches to the table, and the sound of voices outside the door obliged Colville to get up. The effort involved made him still more reluctant about going out to Mrs. Bowen's.
The door opened, and some English ladies entered, faintly acknowledging, provisionally ignoring, his presence, and talking of what they had been doing since lunch. They agreed that it was really too cold in the churches for any pleasure in the pictures, and that the Pitti Gallery, where they had those braziers, was the only place you could go with comfort. A French lady and her husband came in; a Russian lady followed; an Italian gentleman, an American family, and three or four detached men of the English-speaking race, whose language at once became the law of the table.
As the dinner progressed from soup to fish, and from the entrée to the roast and salad, the combined effect of the pleasant cheer and the increasing earnestness of the stove made the room warmer and warmer. They drank Chianti wine from the wicker-covered flasks, tied with tufts of red and green silk, in which they serve table wine at Florence, and said how pretty the bottles were, but how the wine did not seem very good.
"It certainly isn't so good as it used to be," said Colville.
"Ah, then you have been in Florhence before." said the French lady, whose English proved to be much better than the French that he began to talk to her in.
"Yes, a great while ago; in a state of pre-existence, in fact," he said.
The lady looked a little puzzled, but interested. "In a state of prhe-existence?" she repeated.
"Yes; when I was young," he added, catching the gleam in her eye. "When I was twenty-four. A great while ago."
"You must be an Amerhican," said the lady, with a laugh.
"Why do you think so? From my accent?"
"Frhom your metaphysics too. The Amerhicans like to talk in that way."
"I didn't know it," said Colville.
"They like to strhike the key of personality; they can't endure not being interhested. They must rhelate everything to themselves or to those with whom they are talking."
"And the French, no?" asked Colville.
The lady laughed again. "There is a large Amerhican colony in Parhis. Perhaps we have learned to be like you."
The lady's husband did not speak English, and it was probably what they had been saying that she interpreted to him, for he smiled, looking forward to catch Colville's eye in a friendly way, and as if he would not have him take his wife's talk too seriously.
The Italian gentleman on Colville's right was politely offering him the salad, which had been left for the guests to pass to one another. Colville thanked him in Italian, and they began to talk of Italian affairs. One thing led to another, and he found that his new friend, who was not yet his acquaintance, was a member of Parliament, and a republican.
"That interests me as an American," said Colville. "But why do you want a republic in Italy?"
"When we have a constitutional king, why should we have a king?" asked the Italian.
An Englishman across the table relieved Colville from the difficulty of answering this question by asking him another that formed talk about it between them. He made his tacit observation that the English, since he met them last, seemed to have grown in the grace of facile speech with strangers; it was the American family which kept its talk within itself, and hushed to a tone so low that no one else could hear it. Colville did not like their mumbling; for the honour of the country, which we all have at heart, however little we think it, he would have preferred that they should speak up, and not seem afraid or ashamed; he thought the English manner was better. In fact, he found himself in an unexpectedly social mood; he joined in helping to break the ice; he laughed and hazarded comment with those who were new-comers like himself, and was very respectful of the opinions of people who had been longer in the hotel, when they spoke of the cook's habit of underdoing the vegetables. The dinner at the Hotel d'Atene made an imposing show on the carte du jour; it looked like ten or twelve courses, but in fact it was five, and even when eked out with roast chestnuts and butter into six, it seemed somehow to stop very abruptly, though one seemed to have had enough. You could have coffee afterward if you ordered it. Colville ordered it, and was sorry when the last of his commensals, slightly bowing him a good-night, left him alone to it.
He had decided that he need not fear the damp in a cab rapidly driven to Mrs. Bowen's. When he went to his room he had his doubts about his dress-coat; but he put it on, and he took the crush hat with which he had provided himself in coming through London. That was a part of the social panoply unknown in Des Vaches; he had hardly been a dozen times in evening dress there in fifteen years, and his suit was as new as his hat. As he turned to the glass he thought himself personable enough, and in fact he was one of those men who look better in evening dress than in any other: the broad expanse of shirt bosom, with its three small studs of gold dropping, points of light, one below the other, softened his strong, almost harsh face, and balanced his rather large head. In his morning coat, people had to look twice at him to make sure that he did not look common; but now he was not wrong in thinking that he had an air of distinction, as he took his hat under his arm and stood before the pier-glass in his room. He was almost tempted to shave, and wear his moustache alone, as he used to do: he had let his beard grow because he found that under the lax social regimen at Des Vaches he neglected shaving, and went about days at a time with his face in an offensive stubble. Taking his chin between his fingers, and peering closer into the mirror, he wondered how Mrs. Bowen should have known him; she must have remembered him very vividly. He would like to take off his beard and put on the youthfulness that comes of shaving, and see what she would say. Perhaps, he thought, with a last glance at his toilet, he was overdoing it, if she were only to have a few people, as she promised. He put a thick neckerchief over his chest so as not to provoke that abominable rheumatism by any sort of exposure, and he put on his ulster instead of the light spring overcoat that he had gone about with all day.
He found that Palazzo Pinti, when you came to it, was rather a grand affair, with a gold-banded porter eating salad in the lodge at the great doorway, and a handsome gate of iron cutting you off from the regions above till you had rung the bell of Mrs. Bowen's apartment, when it swung open of itself, and you mounted. At her door a man in modified livery received Colville, and helped him off with his overcoat so skilfully that he did not hurt his rheumatic shoulder at all; there were half a dozen other hats and coats on the carved chests that stood at intervals along the wall, and some gayer wraps that exhaled a faint, fascinating fragrance on the chilly air. Colville experienced the slight exhilaration, the mingled reluctance and eagerness, of a man who formally re-enters an assemblage of society after long absence from it, and rubbing his hands a little nervously together, he put aside the yellow Abruzzi blanket portière, and let himself into the brilliant interior.
Mrs. Bowen stood in front of the fire in a brown silk of subdued splendour, and with her hands and fan and handkerchief tastefully composed before her. At sight of Colville she gave a slight start, which would have betrayed to him, if he had been another woman, that she had not really believed he would come, and came forward with a rustle and murmur of pleasure to meet him; he had politely made a rush upon her, so as to spare her this exertion, and he was tempted to a long-forgotten foppishness of attitude as he stood talking with her during the brief interval before she introduced him to any of the company. She had been honest with him; there were not more than twenty-five or thirty people there; but if he had overdone it in dressing for so small an affair, he was not alone, and he was not sorry. He was sensible of a better personal effect than the men in frock-coats and cut-aways were making, and he perceived with self-satisfaction that his evening dress was of better style than that of the others who wore it; at least no one else carried a crush hat.—
At forty-one a man is still very much of a boy, and Colville was obscurely willing that Mrs. Bowen, whose life since they last met at an evening party had been passed chiefly at New York and Washington, should see that he was a man of the world in spite of Des Vaches. Before she had decided which of the company she should first present him to, her daughter came up to his elbow with a cup of tea and some bread and butter on a tray, and gave him good-evening with charming correctness of manner. "Really," he said, turning about to take the cup, "I thought it was you, Mrs. Bowen, who had got round to my side with a sash on. How do you and Miss Effie justify yourselves in looking so bewitchingly alike?"
"You notice it, then?" Mrs. Bowen seemed delighted.
"I did every moment you were together to-day. You don't mind my having been so personal in my observations?"
"Oh, not at all," said Mrs. Bowen, and Colville laughed.
"It must be true," he said, "what a French lady said to me at the table-d'hôte dinner to-night: 'the Amerhicans always strhike the note of perhsonality.'" He neatly imitated the French lady's guttural accent.
"I suppose we do," mused Mis. Bowen, "and that we don't mind it in each other. I wish you would say which I shall introduce you to," she said, letting her glance stray invisibly over her company, where all the people seemed comfortably talking.
"Oh, there's no hurry; put it off till to-morrow," said Colville.
"Oh no; that won't do," said Mrs. Bowen, like a woman who has public duties to perform, and is resolute to sacrifice her private pleasure to them. But she postponed them a moment longer. "I hope you got home before the rain," she said.
"Yes," returned Colville. "That is, I don't mind a little sprinkling. Who is the Junonian young person at the end of the room?"
"Ah," said Mrs. Bowen, "you can't be introduced to her first. But isn't she lovely?"
"Yes. It's a wonderful effect of white and gold."
"You mustn't say that to her. She was doubtful about her dress, because she says that the ivory white with her hair makes her look just like white and gold furniture."
"Present me at once, then, before I forget not to say it to her."
"No; I must keep you for some other person: anybody can talk to a pretty girl."
Colville said he did not know whether to smile or shed tears at this embittered compliment, and pretended an eagerness for the acquaintance denied him.
Mrs. Bowen seemed disposed to intensify his misery. "Did you ever see a more statuesque creature—with those superb broad shoulders and that little head, and that thick braid brought round over the top? Doesn't her face, with that calm look in those starry eyes, and that peculiar fall of the corners of the mouth, remind you of some of those exquisite great Du Maurier women? That style of face is very fashionable now: you might think he had made it so."
"Is there a fashion in faces?" asked Colville.
"Why, certainly. You must know that."
"Then why aren't all the ladies in the fashion?"
"It isn't one that can be put on. Besides, every one hasn't got Imogene Graham's figure to carry it off."
"That's her name, then—Imogene Graham. It's a very pretty name."
"Yes. She's staying with me for the winter. Now that's all I can allow you to know for the present. Come! You must!"
"But this is worse than nothing." He made a feint of protesting as she led him away, and named him to the lady she wished him to know. But he was not really sorry; he had his modest misgivings whether he were equal to quite so much young lady as Miss Graham seemed. When he no longer looked at her he had a whimsical impression of her being a heroic statue of herself.
The lady whom Mrs. Bowen left him with had not much to say, and she made haste to introduce her husband, who had a great deal to say. He was an Italian, but master of that very efficient English which the Italians get together with unimaginable sufferings from our orthography, and Colville repeated the republican deputy's saying about a constitutional king, which he had begun to think was neat.
"I might prefer a republic myself," said the Italian, "but I think that gentleman is wrong to be a republican where he is, and for the present. The monarchy is the condition of our unity; nothing else could hold us together, and we must remain united if we are to exist as a nation. It's a necessity, like our army of half a million men. We may not like it in itself, but we know that it is our salvation." He began to speak of the economic state of Italy, of the immense cost of freedom and independence to a people whose political genius enables them to bear quietly burdens of taxation that no other government would venture to impose. He spoke with that fond, that appealing patriotism, which expresses so much to the sympathetic foreigner in Italy: the sense of great and painful uncertainty of Italy's future through the complications of diplomacy, the memory of her sufferings in the past, the spirit of quiet and inexhaustible patience for trials to come. This resolution, which is almost resignation, poetises the attitude of the whole people; it made Colville feel as if he had done nothing and borne nothing yet.
"I am ashamed," he said, not without a remote resentment of the unworthiness of the republican voters of Des Vaches, "when I hear of such things, to think of what we are at home, with all our resources and opportunities."
The Italian would have politely excused us to him, but Colville would have no palliation of our political and moral nakedness; and he framed a continuation of the letter he began on the Ponte Vecchio to the Post-Democrat-Republican, in which he made a bitterly ironical comparison of the achievements of Italy and America in the last ten years.
He forgot about Miss Graham, and had only a vague sense of her splendour as he caught sight of her in the long mirror which she stood before. She was talking to a very handsome young clergyman, and smiling upon him. The company seemed to be mostly Americans, but there were a good many evident English also, and Colville was dimly aware of a question in his mind whether this clergyman was English or American. There were three or four Italians and there were some Germans, who spoke English.
Colville moved about from group to group as his enlarging acquaintance led, and found himself more interested in society than he could ever have dreamed of being again. It was certainly a defect of the life at Des Vaches that people, after the dancing and love-making period, went out rarely or never. He began to see that the time he had spent so busily in that enterprising city had certainly been in some sense wasted.
At a certain moment in the evening, which perhaps marked its advancement, the tea-urn was replaced by a jug of the rum punch, mild or strong according to the custom of the house, which is served at most Florentine receptions. Some of the people went immediately after, but the young clergyman remained talking with Miss Graham.
Colville, with his smoking glass in his hand, found himself at the side of a friendly old gentleman who had refused the punch. They joined in talk by a common impulse, and the old gentleman said, directly, "You are an American, I presume?"
His accent had already established the fact of his own nationality, but he seemed to think it the part of candour to say, when Colville had acknowledged his origin, "I'm an American myself."
"I've met several of our countrymen since I arrived," suggested Colville.
The old gentleman seemed to like this way of putting it. "Well, yes, we're not unfairly represented here in numbers, I must confess. But I'm bound to say that I don't find our countrymen so aggressive, so loud, as our international novelists would make out. I haven't met any of their peculiar heroines as yet, sir."
Colville could not help laughing. "I wish I had. But perhaps they avoid people of our years and discretion, or else take such a filial attitude toward us that we can't recognise them."
"Perhaps, perhaps," cried the old gentleman, with cheerful assent.
"I was talking with one of our German friends here just now, and he complained that the American girls—especially the rich ones—seem very calculating and worldly and conventional. I told him I didn't know how to account for that. I tried to give him some notion of the ennobling influences of society in Newport, as I've had glimpses of it."
The old gentleman caressed his elbows, which he was holding in the palms of his hands, in high enjoyment of Colville's sarcasm. "Ah! very good! very good!" he said. "I quite agree with you, and I think the other sort are altogether preferable."
"I think," continued Colville, dropping his ironical tone, "that we've much less to regret in their unsuspecting, unsophisticated freedom than in the type of hard materialism which we produce in young girls, perfectly wide awake, disenchanted, unromantic, who prefer the worldly vanities and advantages deliberately and on principle, recognising something better merely to despise it. I've sometimes seen them——"
Mrs. Bowen came up in her gentle, inquiring way. "I'm glad that you and Mr. Colville have made acquaintance," she said to the old gentleman.
"Oh, but we haven't," said Colville. "We're entire strangers."
"Then I'll introduce you to Rev. Mr. Waters. And take you away," she added, putting her hand through Colville's arm with a delicate touch that flattered his whole being, "for your time's come at last, and I'm going to present you to Miss Graham."
"I don't know," he said. "Of course, as there is a Miss Graham, I can't help being presented to her, but I had almost worked myself up to the point of wishing there were none. I believe I'm afraid."
"Oh, I don't believe that at all. A simple schoolgirl like that!" Mrs. Bowen's sense of humour had not the national acuteness. She liked joking in men, but she did not know how to say funny things back "You'll see, as you come up to her."