Miss Graham did, indeed, somehow diminish in the nearer perspective. She ceased to be overwhelming. When Colville lifted his eyes from bowing before her he perceived that she—was neither so very tall nor so very large, but possessed merely a generous amplitude of womanhood. But she was even more beautiful, with a sweet and youthful radiance of look that was very winning. If she had ceased to be the goddess she looked across the length of the salon, she had gained much by becoming an extremely lovely young girl; and her teeth, when she spoke, showed a fascinating little irregularity that gave her the last charm.
Mrs. Bowen glided away with the young clergyman, but Effie remained at Miss Graham's side, and seemed to have hold of the left hand which the girl let hang carelessly behind her in the volume of her robe. The child's face expressed an adoration of Miss Graham far beyond her allegiance to her mother.
"I began to doubt whether Mrs. Bowen was going to bring you at all," she said frankly, with an innocent, nervous laugh, which made favour for her with Colville. "She promised it early in the evening."
"She has used me much worse, Miss Graham," said Colville. "She has kept me waiting from the beginning of time. So that I have grown grey on my way up to you," he added, by an inspiration. "I was a comparatively young man when Mrs. Bowen first told me she was going to introduce me."
"Oh, how good!" said Miss Graham joyously. And her companion, after a moment's hesitation, permitted herself a polite little titter. She had made a discovery; she had discovered that Mr. Colville was droll.
"I'm very glad you like it," he said, with a gravity that did not deceive them.
"Oh yes," sighed Miss Graham, with generous ardour. "Who but an American could say just such things? There's the loveliest old lady here in Florence, who's lived here thirty years, and she's always going back and never getting back, and she's so homesick she doesn't know what to do, and she always says that Americans may not be better than other people, but they are different."
"That's very pretty. They're different in everything but thinking themselves better. Their native modesty prevents that."
"I don't exactly know what you mean," said Miss Graham, after a little hesitation.
"Well," returned Colville, "I haven't thought it out very clearly myself yet. I may mean that the Americans differ from other people in not thinking well of themselves, or they may differ from them in not thinking well enough. But what I said had a very epigrammatic sound, and I prefer not to investigate it too closely."
This made Miss Graham and Miss Effie both cry out "Oh!" in delighted doubt of his intention. They both insensibly drifted a little nearer to him.
"There was a French lady said to me at the table-d'hote this evening that she knew I was an American, because the Americans always strike the key of personality." He practised these economies of material in conversation quite recklessly, and often made the same incident or suggestion do duty round a whole company.
"Ah, I don't believe that," said Miss Graham.
"That the Americans always talk about themselves."
"I'm not sure she meant that. You never can tell what a person means by what he says—or she."
"Perhaps the French lady meant that we always talk about other people. That's in the key of personality too."
"But I don't believe we do," said Miss Graham. "At any rate, she was talking about us, then."
"Oh, she accounted for that by saying there was a large American colony in Paris, who had corrupted the French, and taught them our pernicious habit of introspection."
"Do you think we're very introspective?"
"I know I'm not. I hardly ever think about myself at all. At any rate, not till it's too late. That's the great trouble. I wish I could. But I'm always studying other people. They're so much more interesting."
"Perhaps if you knew yourself better you wouldn't think so," suggested Colville.
"Yes, I know they are. I don't think any young person can be interesting."
"Then what becomes of all the novels? They're full of young persons."
"They're ridiculous. If I were going to write a novel, I should take an old person for a hero—thirty-five or forty." She looked at Colville, and blushing a little, hastened to add, "I don't believe that they begin to be interesting much before that time. Such flat things as young men are always saying! Don't you remember that passage somewhere in Heine's Pictures of Travel, where he sees the hand of a lady coming out from under her mantle, when she's confessing in a church, and he knows that it's the hand of a young person who has enjoyed nothing and suffered nothing, it's so smooth and flower-like? After I read that I hated the look of my hands—I was only sixteen, and it seemed as if I had had no more experience than a child. Oh, I like people to go through something. Don't you?"
"Well, yes, I suppose I do. Other people."
"No; but don't you like it for yourself?"
"I can't tell; I haven't been through anything worth speaking of yet."
Miss Graham looked at him dubiously, but pursued with ardour: "Why, just getting back to Florence, after not having been here for so long—I should think it would be so romantic. Oh dear! I wish I were here for the second time."
"I'm afraid you wouldn't like it so well," said Colville. "I wish I were here for the first time. There's nothing like the first time in everything."
"Do you really think so?"
"Well, there's nothing like the first time in Florence."
"Oh, I can't imagine it. I should think that recalling the old emotions would be perfectly fascinating."
"Yes, if they'd come when you do call them. But they're as contrary-minded as spirits from the vasty deep. I've been shouting around here for my old emotions all day, and I haven't had a responsive squeak."
"Oh!" cried Miss Graham, staring full-eyed at him. "How delightful!" Effie Bowen turned away her pretty little head and laughed, as if it might not be quite kind to laugh at a person's joke to his face.
Stimulated by their appreciation, Colville went on with more nonsense. "No; the only way to get at your old emotions in regard to Florence is to borrow them from somebody who's having them fresh. What do you think about Florence, Miss Graham?"
"I? I've been here two months."
"Then it's too late?"
"No, I don't know that it is. I keep feeling the strangeness all the time. But I can't tell you. It's very different from Buffalo, I can assure you."
"Buffalo? I can imagine the difference. And it's not altogether to the disadvantage of Buffalo."
"Oh, have you been there?" asked Miss Graham, with a touching little eagerness. "Do you know anybody in Buffalo?"
"Some of the newspaper men; and I pass through there once a year on my way to New York—or used to. It's a lively place."
"Yes, it is," sighed Miss Graham fondly.
"Do the girls of Buffalo still come out at night and dance by the light of the moon?"
"Ah, I see," said Colville, peering at her under his thoughtfully knitted brows, "you do belong to another era. You don't remember the old negro minstrel song."
"No," said Miss Graham. "I can only remember the end of the war."
"How divinely young!" said Colville. "Well," he added, "I wish that French lady could have overheard us, Miss Graham. I think she would have changed her mind about Americans striking the note of personality in their talk."
"Oh!" exclaimed the girl reproachfully, after a moment of swift reflection and recognition, "I don't see how you could let me do it! You don't suppose that I should have talked so with every one? It was because you were another American, and such an old friend of Mrs. Bowen's."
"That is what I shall certainly tell the French lady if she attacks me about it," said Colville. He glanced carelessly toward the end of the room, and saw the young clergyman taking leave of Mrs. Bowen; all the rest of the company were gone. "Bless me!" he said, "I must be going."
Mrs. Bowen had so swiftly advanced upon him that she caught the last words. "Why?" she asked.
"Because it's to-morrow, I suspect, and the invitation was for one day only."
"It was a season ticket," said Mrs. Bowen, with gay hospitality, "and it isn't to-morrow for half an hour yet. I can't think of letting you go. Come up to the fire, all, and let's sit down by it. It's at its very best."
Effie looked a pretty surprise and a pleasure in this girlish burst from her mother, whose habitual serenity made it more striking in contrast, and she forsook Miss Graham's hand and ran forward and disposed the easy-chairs comfortably about the hearth.
Colville and Mrs. Bowen suddenly found themselves upon those terms which often succeed a long separation with people who have felt kindly toward each other at a former meeting and have parted friends: they were much more intimate than they had supposed themselves to be, or had really any reason for being.
"Which one of your guests do you wish me to offer up, Mrs. Bowen?" he asked, from the hollow of the arm-chair, not too low, which he had sunk into. With Mrs. Bowen in a higher chair at his right hand, and Miss Graham intent upon him from the sofa on his left, a sense of delicious satisfaction filled him from head to foot. "There isn't one I would spare if you said the word."
"And there isn't one I want destroyed, I'm sorry to say," answered Mrs. Bowen. "Don't you think they were all very agreeable?"
"Yes, yes; agreeable enough—agreeable enough, I suppose. But they stayed too long. When I think we might have been sitting here for the last half-hour, if they'd only gone sooner, I find it pretty hard to forgive them."
Mrs. Bowen and Miss Graham exchanged glances above his head—a glance which demanded, "Didn't I tell you?" for a glance that answered, "Oh, he is!" Effie Bowen's eyes widened; she kept them fastened upon Colville in silent worship.
He asked who were certain of the company that he had noticed, and Mrs. Bowen let him make a little fun of them: the fun was very good-natured. He repeated what the German had said about the worldly ambition of American girls; but she would not allow him so great latitude in this. She said they were no worldlier than other girls. Of course, they were fond of society, and some of them got a little spoiled. But they were in no danger of becoming too conventional.
Colville did not insist. "I missed the military to-night, Mrs. Bowen," he said. "I thought one couldn't get through an evening in Florence without officers?"
"We have them when there is dancing," returned Mrs. Bowen.
"Yes, but they don't know anything but dancing," Miss Graham broke in. "I like some one who can talk something besides compliments."
"You are very peculiar, you know, Imogene," urged Mrs. Bowen gently. "I don't think our young men at home do much better in conversation, if you come to that, though."
"Oh, young men, yes! They're the same everywhere. But here, even when they're away along in the thirties, they think that girls can only enjoy flattery. I should like a gentleman to talk to me without a single word or look to show that he thought I was good-looking."
"Ah, how could he he?" Colville insinuated, and the young girl coloured.
"I mean, if I were pretty. This everlasting adulation is insulting."
"Mr. Morton doesn't flatter," said Mrs. Bowen thoughtfully, turning the feather screen she held at her face, now edgewise, now flatwise, toward Colville.
"Oh no," owned Miss Graham. "He's a clergyman."
Mrs Bowen addressed herself to Colville. "You must go to hear him some day. He's very interesting, if you don't mind his being rather Low Church."
Colville was going to pretend to an advanced degree of ritualism; but it occurred to him that it might be a serious matter to Mrs. Bowen, and he asked instead who was the Rev. Mr. Waters.
"Oh, isn't he lovely?" cried Miss Graham. "There, Mrs. Bowen! Mr. Waters's manner is what I call truly complimentary. He always talks to you as if he expected you to be interested in serious matters, and as if you were his intellectual equal. And he's so happy here in Florence! He gives you the impression of feeling every breath he breathes here a privilege. You ought to hear him talk about Savonarola, Mr. Colville."
"Well," said Colville, "I've heard a great many people talk about Savonarola, and I'm rather glad he talked to me about American girls."
"American girls!" uttered Miss Graham, in a little scream. "Did Mr. Waters talk to you about girls?"
"Yes. Why not? He was probably in love with one once."
"Mr. Waters?" cried the girl. "What nonsense!"
"Well, then, with some old lady. Would you like that better?"
Miss Graham looked at Mrs. Bowen for permission, as it seemed, and then laughed, but did not attempt any reply to Colville.
"You find even that incredible of such pyramidal antiquity," he resumed. "Well, it is hard to believe. I told him what that German said, and we agreed beautifully about another type of American girl which we said we preferred."
"Oh! What could it be?" demanded Miss Graham.
"Ah, it wouldn't be so easy to say right off-hand," answered Colville indolently.
Mrs. Bowen put her hand under the elbow of the arm holding her screen. "I don't believe I should agree with you so well," she said, apparently with a sort of didactic intention.
They entered into a discussion which is always fruitful with Americans—the discussion of American girlhood, and Colville contended for the old national ideal of girlish liberty as wide as the continent, as fast as the Mississippi. Mrs. Bowen withstood him with delicate firmness. "Oh," he said, "you're Europeanised."
"I certainly prefer the European plan of bringing up girls," she replied steadfastly. "I shouldn't think of letting a daughter of mine have the freedom I had."
"Well, perhaps it will come right in the next generation, then; she will let her daughter have the freedom she hadn't."
"Not if I'm alive to prevent it," cried Mrs. Bowen.
Colville laughed. "Which plan do you prefer, Miss Graham?"
"I don't think it's quite the same now as it used to be," answered the girl evasively.
"Well, then, all I can say is that if I had died before this chance, I had lived a blessed time. I perceive more and more that I'm obsolete. I'm in my dotage; I prattle of the good old times, and the new spirit of the age flouts me. Miss Effie, do you prefer the Amer——"
"No, thank you," said her mother quickly.
"Effie is out of the question. It's time you were in bed, Effie."
The child came with instant submissiveness and kissed her mother good-night; she kissed Miss Graham, and gave her hand to Colville. He held it a moment, letting her pull shyly away from him, while he lolled back in his chair, and laughed at her with his sad eyes. "It's past the time I should be in bed, my dear, and I'm sitting up merely because there's nobody to send me. It's not that I'm really such a very bad boy. Good night. Don't put me into a disagreeable dream; put me into a nice one." The child bridled at the mild pleasantry, and when Colville released her hand she suddenly stooped forward and kissed him.
"You're so funny!" she cried, and ran and escaped beyond the portière.
Mrs. Bowen stared in the same direction, but not with severity. "Really, Effie has been carried a little beyond herself."
"Well," said Colville, "that's one conquest since I came to Florence. And merely by being funny! When I was in Florence before, Mrs. used to go about quite freely with either of them. They were both very pretty, and we were all very young. Don't you think it was charming?" Mrs. Bowen coloured a lovely red, and smiled, but made no other response. "Florence has changed very much for the worse since that time. There used to be a pretty flower-girl, with a wide-flapping straw hat, who flung a heavy bough full of roses into my lap when she met me driving across the Carraja bridge. I spent an hour looking for that girl to-day, and couldn't find her. The only flower-girl I could find was a fat one of fifty, who kept me fifteen minutes in Via Tornabuoni while she was fumbling away at my button-hole, trying to poke three second-hand violets and a sickly daisy into it. Ah, youth! youth! I suppose a young fellow could have found that other flower-girl at a glance; but my old eyes! No, we belong, each of us, to our own generation. Mrs. Bowen," he said, with a touch of tragedy—whether real or affected, he did not well know himself—in his hardiness, "what has become of Mrs. Pilsbury?"
"Mrs. Milbury, you mean?" gasped Mrs. Bowen, in affright at his boldness.
"Milbury, Bilbury, Pilsbury—it's all one, so long as it isn't——"
"They're living in Chicago!" she hastened to reply, as if she were afraid he was going to say, "so long as it isn't Colville," and she could not have borne that.
Colville clasped his hands at the back of his head and looked at Mrs. Bowen with eyes that let her know that he was perfectly aware she had been telling Miss Graham of his youthful romance, and that he had now touched it purposely. "And you wouldn't," he said, as if that were quite relevant to what they had been talking about—"you wouldn't let Miss Graham go out walking alone with a dotard like me?"
"Certainly not," said Mrs. Bowen.
Colville got to his feet by a surprising activity. "Good-bye, Miss Graham." He offered his hand to her with burlesque despair, and then turned to Mrs. Bowen. "Thank you for such a pleasant evening! What was your day, did you say?"
"Oh, any day!" said Mrs. Bowen cordially, giving her hand.
"Do you know whom you look like?" he asked, holding it.
The ladies stirred softly in their draperies after he was gone. They turned and faced the hearth, where a log burned in a bed of hot ashes, softly purring and ticking to itself, and whilst they stood pressing their hands against the warm fronts of their dresses, as the fashion of women is before a fire, the clock on the mantel began to strike twelve.
"Was that her name?" asked Miss Graham, when the clock had had its say. "Lina Ridgely?"
"No; that was my name," answered Mrs. Bowen.
"Oh yes!" murmured the young girl apologetically.
"She led him on; she certainly encouraged him. It was shocking. He was quite wild about it."
"She must have been a cruel girl. How could he speak of it so lightly?"
"It was best to speak of it, and have done with it," said Mrs. Bowen. "He knew that I must have been telling you something about it."
"Yes. How bold it was! A young man couldn't have done it! Yes, he's fascinating. But how old and sad he looked, as he lay back there in the chair!"
"Old? I don't think he looked old. He looked sad. Yes, it's left its mark on him."
The log burned quite through to its core, and fell asunder, a bristling mass of embers. They had been looking at it with downcast heads. Now they lifted their faces, and saw the pity in each other's eyes, and the beautiful girl impulsively kissed the pretty woman good-night.