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Chapter 5

V

Colville fell asleep with the flattered sense which abounds in the heart of a young man after his first successful evening in society, but which can visit maturer life only upon some such conditions of long exile and return as had been realised in his. The looks of these two charming women followed him into his dreams; he knew he must have pleased them, the dramatic homage of the child was evidence of that; and though it had been many years since he had found it sufficient cause of happiness to have pleased a woman, the desire to do so was by no means extinct in him. The eyes of the girl hovered above him like stars; he felt in their soft gaze that he was a romance to her young heart, and this made him laugh; it also made him sigh.

He woke at dawn with a sharp twinge in his shoulder, and he rose to give himself the pleasure of making his own fire with those fagots of broom and pine twigs which he had enjoyed the night before, promising himself to get back into bed when the fire was well going, and sleep late. While he stood before the open stove, the jangling of a small bell outside called him to the window, and he saw a procession which had just issued from the church going to administer the extreme unction to some dying person across the piazza. The parish priest went first, bearing the consecrated wafer in its vessel, and at his side an acolyte holding a yellow silk umbrella over the Eucharist; after them came a number of facchini in white robes and white hoods that hid their faces; their tapers burned sallow and lifeless in the new morning light; the bell jangled dismally.

"They even die dramatically in this country," thought Colville, in whom the artist was taken with the effectiveness of the spectacle before his human pity was stirred for the poor soul who was passing. He reproached himself for that, and instead of getting back to bed, he dressed and waited for the mature hour which he had ordered his breakfast for. When it came at last, picturesquely borne on the open hand of Giovanni, steaming coffee, hot milk, sweet butter in delicate disks, and two white eggs coyly tucked in the fold of a napkin, and all grouped upon the wide salver, it brought him a measure of the consolation which good cheer imparts to the ridiculous human heart even in the house where death is. But the sad incident tempered his mind with a sort of pensiveness that lasted throughout the morning, and quite till lunch. He spent the time in going about the churches; but the sunshine which the day began with was overcast, as it was the day before, and the churches were rather too dark and cold in the afternoon. He went to Viesseux's reading-room and looked over the English papers, which he did not care for much; and he also made a diligent search of the catalogue for some book about Florence for little Effie Bowen: he thought he would like to surprise her mother with his interest in the matter. As the day waned toward dark, he felt more and more tempted to take her at her word, when she had said that any day was her day to him, and go to see her. If he had been a younger man he would have anxiously considered this indulgence and denied himself, but after forty a man denies himself no reasonable and harmless indulgence; he has learned by that time that it is a pity and a folly to do so.

Colville found Mrs. Bowen's room half full of arriving and departing visitors, and then he remembered that it was this day she had named to him on the Ponte Vecchio, and when Miss Graham thanked him for coming his first Thursday, he made a merit of not having forgotten it, and said he was going to come every Thursday during the winter. Miss Graham drew him a cup of tea from the Russian samovar which replaces in some Florentine houses the tea-pot of Occidental civilisation, and Colville smiled upon it and upon her, bending over the brazen urn with a flower-like tilt of her beautiful head. She wore an aesthetic dress of creamy camel's-hair, whose colour pleased the eye as its softness would have flattered the touch.

"What a very Tourguéneffish effect the samovar gives!" he said, taking a biscuit from the basket Effie Bowen brought him, shrinking with redoubled shyness from the eyebrows which he arched at her. "I wonder you can keep from calling me Fedor Colvillitch. Where is your mother, Effie Bowenovna?" he asked of the child, with a temptation to say Imogene Grahamovna.

They both looked mystified, but Miss Graham said, "I'm sorry to say you won't see Mrs. Bowen today. She has a very bad headache, and has left Effie and me to receive. We feel very incompetent, but she says it will do us good."

There were some people there of the night before, and Colville had to talk to them. One of the ladies asked him if he had met the Inglehart boys as he came in.

"The Inglehart boys? No. What are the Inglehart boys?"

"They were here all last winter, and they've just got back. It's rather exciting for Florence." She gave him a rapid sketch of that interesting exodus of a score of young painters from the art school at Munich, under the head of the singular and fascinating genius by whose name they became known. "They had their own school for a while in Munich, and then they all came down into Italy in a body. They had their studio things with them, and they travelled third class, and they made the greatest excitement everywhere, and had the greatest fun. They were a great sensation in Florence. They went everywhere, and were such favourites. I hope they are going to stay."

"I hope so too," said Colville. "I should like to see them."

"Dear me!" said the lady, with a glance at the clock. "It's five! I must be going."

The other ladies went, and Colville approached to take leave, but Miss Graham detained him.

"What is Tourguéneffish?" she demanded.

"The quality of the great Russian novelist, Tourguéneff," said Colville, perceiving that she had not heard of him.

"Oh!"

"You ought to read him. The samovar sends up its agreeable odour all through his books. Read Lisa if you want your heart really broken.

"I'm glad you approve of heart-breaks in books. So many people won't read anything but cheerful books. It's the only quarrel I have with Mrs. Bowen. She says there are so many sad things in life that they ought to be kept out of books."

"Ah, there I perceive a divided duty," said Colville. "I should like to agree with both of you. But if Mrs. Bowen were here I should remind her that if there are so many sad things in life that is a very good reason for putting them in books too."

"Of course I shall tell her what you said."

"Why, I don't object to a certain degree of cheerfulness in books; only don't carry it too far—that's all."

This made the young girl laugh, and Colville was encouraged to go on. He told her of the sight he had seen from his window at daybreak, and he depicted it all very graphically, and made her feel its pathos perhaps more keenly than he had felt it. "Now, that little incident kept with me all day, tempering my boisterous joy in the Giottos, and reducing me to a decent composure in the presence of the Cimabues; and it's pretty hard to keep from laughing at some of them, don't you think?"

The young people perceived that he was making fun again; but he continued with an air of greater seriousness. "Don't you see what a very good thing that was to begin one's day with? Why, even in Santa Croce, with the thermometer ten degrees below zero in the shade of Alfieri's monument, I was no gayer than I should have been in a church at home. I suppose Mrs. Bowen would object to having that procession go by under one's window in a book; but I can't really see how it would hurt the reader, or damp his spirits permanently. A wholesome reaction would ensue, such as you see now in me, whom the thing happened to in real life."

He stirred his tea, and shook with an inward laugh as he carried it to his lips.

"Yes," said Miss Graham thoughtfully, and she looked at him searchingly in the interval of silence that ensued. But she only added, "I wish it would get warmer in the churches. I've seen hardly anything of them yet."

"From the way I felt in them to-day," sighed Colville, "I should think the churches would begin to thaw out about the middle of May. But if one goes well wrapped up in furs, and has a friend along to rouse him and keep him walking when he is about to fall into that lethargy which precedes death by freezing, I think they may be visited even now with safety. Have you been in Santa Maria Novella yet?"

"No," said Miss Graham, with a shake of the head that expressed her resolution to speak the whole truth if she died for it, "not even in Santa Maria Novella."

"What a wonderful old place it is! That curious façade, with the dials and its layers of black and white marble soaked golden-red in a hundred thousand sunsets! That exquisite grand portal!" He gesticulated with the hand that the tea-cup left free, to suggest form and measurement as artists do. "Then the inside! The great Cimabue, with all that famous history on its back—the first divine Madonna by the first divine master, carried through the streets in a triumph of art and religion! Those frescoes of Ghirlandajo's with real Florentine faces and figures in them, and all lavished upon the eternal twilight of that choir—but I suppose that if the full day were let in on them, once, they would vanish like ghosts at cock-crow! You must be sure to see the Spanish chapel; and the old cloister itself is such a pathetic place. There's a boys' school, as well as a military college, in the suppressed convent now, and the colonnades were full of boys running and screaming and laughing and making a joyful racket; it was so much more sorrowful than silence would have been there. One of the little scamps came up to me, and the young monk that was showing me round, and bobbed us a mocking bow and bobbed his hat off; then they all burst out laughing again and raced away, and the monk looked after them and said, so sweetly and wearily, 'They're at their diversions: we must have patience.' There are only twelve monks left there; all the rest are scattered and gone." He gave his cup to Miss Graham for more tea.

"Don't you think," she asked, drawing it from the samovar, "that it is very sad having the convents suppressed?"

"It was very sad having slavery abolished—for some people," suggested Colville; he felt the unfairness of the point he had made.

"Yes," sighed Miss Graham.

Colville stood stirring his second cup of tea, when the portière parted, and showed Mrs. Bowen wistfully pausing on the threshold. Her face was pale, but she looked extremely pretty there.

"Ah, come in, Mrs. Bowen!" he called gaily to her. "I won't give you away to the other people. A cup of tea will do you good."

"Oh, I'm a great deal better," said Mrs. Bowen, coming forward to give him her hand. "I heard your voice, and I couldn't resist looking in."

"That was very kind of you," said Colville gratefully: and her eyes met his in a glance that flushed her face a deep red. "You find me here—I don't know why!—in my character of old family friend, doing my best to make life a burden to the young ladies."

"I wish you would stay to a family dinner with us," said Mrs. Bowen, and Miss Graham brightened in cordial support of the hospitality. "Why can't you?"

"I don't know, unless it's because I'm a humane person, and have some consideration for your headache."

"Oh, that's all gone," said Mrs. Bowen. "It was one of those convenient headaches—if you ever had them, you'd know—that go off at sunset."

"But you'd have another to-morrow."

"No, I'm safe for a whole fortnight from another."

"Then you leave me without an excuse, and I was just wishing I had none," said Colville.

After dinner Mrs. Bowen sent Effie to bed early to make up for the late hours of the night before, but she sat before the fire with Miss Graham rather late, talking Colville over, when he was gone.

"He's very puzzling to me," said Miss Graham. "Sometimes you think he's nothing but an old cynic, from his talk, and then something so sweet and fresh comes out that you don't know what to do. Don't you think he has really a very poetical mind, and that he's putting all the rest on?"

"I think he likes to make little effects," said Mrs. Bowen judiciously. "He always did, rather."

"Why, was he like this when he was young?"

"I don't consider him very old now."

"No, of course not. I meant when you knew him before." Miss Graham had some needlework in her hand; Mrs. Bowen, who never even pretended to work at that kind of thing, had nothing in hers but the feather screen.

"He is old, compared with you, Imogene; but you'll find, as you live along, that your contemporaries are always young. Mr. Colville is very much improved. He used to be painfully shy, but he put on a bold front, and now the bold front seems to have become a second nature with him."

"I like it," said Miss Graham, to her needle.

"Yes; but I suspect he's still shy, at heart. He used to be very sentimental, and was always talking Ruskin. I think if he hadn't talked Ruskin so much, Jenny Milbury might have treated him better. It was very priggish in him."

"Oh, I can't imagine Mr. Colville's being priggish!"

"He's very much improved. He used to be quite a sloven in his dress; you know how very slovenly most American gentlemen are in their dress, at any rate. I think that influenced her against him too."

"He isn't slovenly now," suggested Miss Graham.

"Oh no; he's quite swell," said Mrs. Bowen, depriving the adjective of slanginess by the refinement of her tone.

"Well," said Miss Graham, "I don't see how you could have endured her after that. It was atrocious."

"It was better for her to break with him, if she found out she didn't love him, than to marry him. That," said Mrs. Bowen, with a depth of feeling uncommon for her, "would have been a thousand times worse."

"Yes, but she ought to have found out before she led him on so far."

"Sometimes girls can't. They don't know themselves; they think they're in love when they're not. She was very impulsive, and of course she was flattered by it; he was so intellectual. But at last she found that she couldn't bear it, and she had to tell him so."

"Did she ever say why she didn't love him?"

"No; I don't suppose she could. The only thing I remember her saying was that he was 'too much of a mixture.'"

"What did she mean by that?"

"I don't know exactly."

"Do you think he's insincere?"

"Oh no. Perhaps she meant that he wasn't single-minded."

"Fickle?"

"No. He certainly wasn't that in her case."

"Undecided?"

"He was decided enough with her—at last."

Imogene dropped the hopeless quest, "How can a man ever stand such a thing?" she sighed.

"He stood it very nobly. That was the best thing about it; he took it in the most delicate way. She showed me his letter. There wasn't a word or a hint of reproach in it; he seemed to be anxious about nothing but her feeling badly for him. Of course he couldn't help showing that he was mortified for having pursued her with attentions that were disagreeable to her; but that was delicate too. Yes, it was a very large-minded letter,"

"It was shocking in her to show it."

"It wasn't very nice. But it was a letter that any girl might have been proud to show."

"Oh, she couldn't have done it to gratify her vanity!"

"Girls are very queer, my dear," said Mrs. Bowen, as if the fact were an abstraction. She mused upon the flat of her screen, while Miss Graham plied her needle in silence.

The latter spoke first. "Do you think he was very much broken by it?"

"You never can tell. He went out west then, and there he has stayed ever since. I suppose his life would have been very different if nothing of the kind had happened. He had a great deal of talent. I always thought I should hear of him in some way."

"Well, it was a heartless, shameless thing! I don't see how you can speak of it so leniently as you do, Mrs. Bowen. It makes all sorts of coquetry and flirtation more detestable to me than ever. Why, it has ruined his life!"

"Oh, he was young enough then to outlive it. After all, they were a boy and girl."

"A boy and girl! How old were they?"

"He must have been twenty-three or four, and she was twenty."

"My age! Do you call that being a girl?"

"She was old enough to know what she was about," said Mrs. Bowen justly.

Imogene fell back in her chair, drawing out her needle the full length of its thread, and then letting her hand fall. "I don't know. It seems as if I never should be grown up, or anything but a child. Yes, when I think of the way young men talk, they do seem boys. Why can't they talk like Mr. Colville? I wish I could talk like him. It makes you forget how old and plain he is."

She remained with her eyelids dropped in an absent survey of her sewing, while Mrs. Bowen regarded her with a look of vexation, impatience, resentment, on the last refinement of these emotions, which she banished from her face before Miss Graham looked up and said, with a smile "How funny it is to see Effie's infatuation with him! She can't take her eyes off him for a moment, and she follows him round the room so as not to lose a word he is saying. It was heroic of her to go to bed without a murmur before he left to-night."

"Yes, she sees that he is good," said Mrs. Bowen.

"Oh, she sees that he's something very much more. Mr. Waters is good."

Miss Graham had the best of the argument, and so Mrs. Bowen did not reply.

"I feel," continued the young girl, "as if it were almost a shame to have asked him to go to that silly dancing party with us. It seems as if we didn't appreciate him. I think we ought to have kept him for high aesthetic occasions and historical researches."

"Oh, I don't think Mr. Colville was very deeply offended at being asked to go with us."

"No," said Imogene, with another sigh, "he didn't seem so. I suppose there's always an undercurrent of sadness—of tragedy—in everything for him."

"I don't suppose anything of the kind," cried Mrs. Bowen gaily. "He's had time enough to get over it."

"Do people ever get over such things?"

"Yes—men."

"It must be because he was young, as you say. But if it had happened now?"

"Oh, it couldn't happen now. He's altogether too cool and calculating."

"Do you think he's cool and calculating?"

"No. He's too old for a broken heart—a new one."

"Mrs. Bowen," demanded the girl solemnly, "could you forgive yourself for such a thing if you had done it?"

"Yes, perfectly well, if I wasn't in love with him."

"But if you'd made him think you were?" pursued the girl breathlessly.

"If I were a flirt—yes."

"I couldn't," said Imogene, with tragic depth.

"Oh, be done with your intensities, and go to bed, Imogene," said Mrs. Bowen, giving her a playful push.

William Dean Howells

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