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Chapter 6

VI

It was so long since Colville had been at a dancing party that Mrs. Bowen's offer to take him to Madame Uccelli's had first struck his sense of the ludicrous. Then it had begun to flatter him; it implied that he was still young enough to dance if he would, though he had stipulated that they were not to expect anything of the kind from him. He liked also the notion of being seen and accepted in Florentine society as the old friend of Mrs. Bowen's, for he had not been long in discovering that her position in Florence was, among the foreign residents, rather authoritative. She was one of the very few Americans who were asked to Italian houses, and Italian houses lying even beyond the neutral ground of English-speaking intermarriages. She was not, of course, asked to the great Princess Strozzi ball, where the Florentine nobility appeared in the mediaeval pomp—the veritable costumes—of their ancestors; only a rich American banking family went, and their distinction was spoken of under the breath; but any glory short of this was within Mrs. Bowen's reach. So an old lady who possessed herself of Colville the night before had told him, celebrating Mrs. Bowen at length, and boasting of her acceptance among the best English residents, who, next after the natives, seem to constitute the social ambition of Americans living in Italian cities.

It interested him to find that some geographical distinctions which are fading at home had quite disappeared in Florence. When he was there before, people from quite small towns in the East had made pretty Lina Ridgely and her friend feel the disadvantage of having come from the Western side of an imaginary line; he had himself been at the pains always to let people know, at the American watering-places where he spent his vacations, that though presently from Des Vaches, Indiana, he was really born in Rhode Island; but in Florence it was not at all necessary. He found in Mrs. Bowen's house people from Denver, Chicago, St. Louis, Boston, New York, and Baltimore, all meeting as of apparently the same civilisation, and whether Mrs. Bowen's own origin was, like that of the Etruscan cities, lost in the mists of antiquity, or whether she had sufficiently atoned for the error of her birth by subsequent residence in the national capital and prolonged sojourn in New York, it seemed certainly not to be remembered against her among her Eastern acquaintance. The time had been when the fact that Miss Graham came from Buffalo would have gone far to class her with the animal from which her native city had taken its name; but now it made no difference, unless it was a difference in her favour. The English spoke with the same vague respect of Buffalo and of Philadelphia; and to a family of real Bostonians Colville had the courage to say simply that he lived in Des Vaches, and not to seek to palliate the truth in any sort. If he wished to prevaricate at all, it was rather to attribute himself to Mrs. Bowen's city in Ohio.

She and Miss Graham called for him with her carriage the next night, when it was time to go to Madame Uccelli's.

"This gives me a very patronised and effeminate feeling," said Colville, getting into the odorous dark of the carriage, and settling himself upon the front seat with a skill inspired by his anxiety not to tear any of the silken spreading white wraps that inundated the whole interior. "Being come for by ladies!" They both gave some nervous joyful laughs, as they found his hand in the obscurity, and left the sense of a gloved pressure upon it. "Is this the way you used to do in Vesprucius, Mrs. Bowen?"

"Oh no, indeed!" she answered. "The young gentlemen used to find out whether I was going, and came for me with a hack, and generally, if the weather was good, we walked home."

"That's the way we still do in Des Vaches. Sometimes, as a tremendous joke, the ladies come for us in leap-year. How do you go to balls in Buffalo, Miss Graham? Or, no; I withdraw the embarrassing question." Some gleams from the street lamps, as they drove along, struck in through the carriage windows, and flitted over the ladies' faces and were gone again. "Ah! this is very trying. Couldn't you stop him at the next corner, and let me see how radiant you ladies really are? I may be in very great danger; I'd like to know just how much."

"It wouldn't be of any use," cried the young girl gaily. "We're all wrapped up, and you couldn't form any idea of us. You must wait, and let us burst upon you when we come out of the dressing-room at Madame Uccelli's."

"But then it may be too late," he urged. "Is it very far?"

"Yes," said Mrs. Bowen. "It's ridiculously far. It's outside the Roman Gate. I don't see why people live at that distance."

"In order to give the friends you bring the more pleasure of your company, Mrs. Bowen."

"Ah! that's very well. But you're not logical."

"No," said Colville; "you can't be logical and complimentary at the same time. It's too much to ask. How delicious your flowers are!" The ladies each had a bouquet in her hand, which she was holding in addition to her fan, the edges of her cloak, and the skirt of her train.

"Yes," said Mrs. Bowen; "we are so much obliged to you for them."

"Why, I sent you no flowers," said Colville, startled into untimely earnest.

"Didn't you?" triumphed Mrs. Bowen. "I thought gentlemen always sent flowers to ladies when they were going to a ball with them. They used to, in Columbus."

"And in Buffalo they always do," Miss Graham added.

"Ah! they don't in Des Vaches," said Colville. They tried to mystify him further about the bouquets; they succeeded in being very gay, and in making themselves laugh a great deal. Mrs. Bowen was even livelier than the young girl.

Her carriage was one of the few private equipages that drove up to Madame Uccelli's door; most people had not even come in a remise, but, after the simple Florentine fashion, had taken the little cabs, which stretched in a long line up and down the way; the horses had let their weary heads drop, and were easing their broken knees by extending their forelegs while they drowsed; the drivers, huddled in their great-coats, had assembled around the doorway to see the guests alight, with that amiable, unenvious interest of the Italians in the pleasure of others. The deep sky glittered with stars; in the corner of the next villa garden the black plumes of some cypresses blotted out their space among them.

"Isn't it Florentine?" demanded Mrs. Bowen, giving the hand which Colville offered in helping her out of the carriage a little vivid pressure, full of reminiscence and confident sympathy. A flush of youth warmed his heart; he did not quail even when the porter of the villa intervened between her and her coachman, whom she was telling when to come back, and said that the carriages were ordered for three o'clock.

"Did you ever sit up so late as that in Des Vaches?" asked Miss Graham mischievously.

"Oh yes; I was editor of a morning paper," he explained. But he did not like the imputation of her question.

Madame Uccelli accepted him most hospitably among her guests when he was presented. She was an American who had returned with her Italian husband to Italy, and had long survived him in the villa which he had built with her money. Such people grow very queer with the lapse of time. Madame Uccelli's character remained inalienably American, but her manners and customs had become largely Italian; without having learned the language thoroughly, she spoke it very fluently, and its idioms marked her Philadelphia English. Her house was a menagerie of all the nationalities; she was liked in Italian society, and there were many Italians; English-speaking Russians abounded; there were many genuine English, Germans, Scandinavians, Protestant Irish, American Catholics, and then Americans of all kinds. There was a superstition of her exclusiveness among her compatriots, but one really met every one there sooner or later; she was supposed to be a convert to the religion of her late husband, but no one really knew what religion she was of, probably not even Madame Uccelli herself. One thing you were sure of at her house, and that was a substantial supper; it is the example of such resident foreigners which has corrupted the Florentines, though many native families still hold out against it.

The dancing was just beginning, and the daughter of Madame Uccelli, who spoke both English and Italian much better than her mother, came forward and possessed herself of Miss Graham, after a polite feint of pressing Mrs. Bowen to let her find a partner for her.

Mrs. Bowen cooed a gracious refusal, telling Fanny Uccelli that she knew very well that she never danced now. The girl had not much time for Colville; she welcomed him, but she was full of her business of starting the dance, and she hurried away without asking him whether she should introduce him to some lady for the quadrille that was forming. Her mother, however, asked him if he would not go out and get himself some tea, and she found a lady to go with him to the supper-room. This lady had daughters whom apparently she wished to supervise while they were dancing, and she brought Colville back very soon. He had to stand by the sofa where she sat till Madame Uccelli found him and introduced him to another mother of daughters. Later he joined a group formed by the father of one of the dancers and the non-dancing husband of a dancing wife. Their conversation was perfunctory; they showed one another that they had no pleasure in it.

Presently the father went to see how his daughter looked while dancing; the husband had evidently no such curiosity concerning his wife; and Colville went with the father, and looked at Miss Graham. She was very beautiful, and she obeyed the music as if it were her breath; her face was rapt, intense, full of an unsmiling delight, which shone in her dark eyes, glowing like low stars. Her abandon interested Colville, and then awed him; the spectacle of that young, unjaded capacity for pleasure touched him with a profound sense of loss. Suddenly Imogene caught sight of him, and with the coming of a second look in her eyes the light of an exquisite smile flashed over her face. His heart was in his throat.

"Your daughter?" asked the fond parent at his elbow. "That is mine yonder in red."

Colville did not answer, nor look at the young lady in red. The dance was ceasing; the fragments of those kaleidoscopic radiations were dispersing themselves; the tormented piano was silent.

The officer whom Imogene had danced with brought her to Mrs. Bowen, and resigned her with the regulation bow, hanging his head down before him as if submitting his neck to the axe. She put her hand in Colville's arm, where he stood beside Mrs. Bowen. "Oh, do take me to get something to eat!"

In the supper-room she devoured salad and ices with a childish joy in them. The place was jammed, and she laughed from her corner at Colville's struggles in getting the things for her and bringing them to her. While she was still in the midst of an ice, the faint note of the piano sounded. "Oh, they're beginning again. It's the Lancers!" she said, giving him the plate back. She took his arm again; she almost pulled him along on their return.

"Why don't you dance?" she demanded mockingly.

"I would if you'd let me dance with you."

"Oh, that's impossible! I'm engaged ever so many deep." She dropped his arm instantly at sight of a young Englishman who seemed to be looking for her. This young Englishman had a zeal for dancing that was unsparing; partners were nothing to him except as a means of dancing; his manner expressed a supreme contempt for people who made the slightest mistake, who danced with less science or less conscience than himself. "I've been looking for you," he said, in a tone of cold rebuke, without looking at her. "We've been waiting."

Colville wished to beat him, but Imogene took his rebuke meekly, and murmured some apologies about not hearing the piano before. He hurried her off without recognising Colville's existence in any way.

The undancing husband of the dancing wife was boring himself in a corner; Colville decided that the chances with him were better than with the fond father, and joined him, just as a polite officer came up and entreated him to complete a set. "Oh, I never danced in my life," he replied; and then he referred the officer to Colville. "Don't you dance?"

"I used to dance," Colville began, while the officer stood looking patiently at him. This was true. He used to dance the Lancers, too, and very badly, seventeen years before. He had danced it with Lina Ridgely and the other one, Mrs. Milbury. His glance wandered to the vacant place on the floor; it was the same set which Miss Graham was in; she smiled and beckoned derisively. A vain and foolish ambition fired him. "Oh yes, I can dance a little," he said.

A little was quite enough for the eager officer. He had Colville a partner in an instant, and the next he was on the floor.

"Oh, what fun!" cried Miss Graham; but the fun had not really begun yet.

Colville had forgotten everything about the Lancers. He walked round like a bear in a pen: he capered to and fro with a futile absurdity; people poked him hither and thither; his progress was attended by rending noises from the trains over which he found his path. He smiled and cringed, and apologised to the hardening faces of the dancers: even Miss Graham's face had become very grave.

"This won't do," said the Englishman at last, with cold insolence. He did not address himself to any one; he merely stopped; they all stopped, and Colville was effectively expelled the set? another partner was found for his lady, and he wandered giddily away. He did not know where to turn; the whole room must have seen what an incredible ass he had made of himself, but Mrs. Bowen looked as if she had not seen.

He went up to her, resolved to make fun of himself at the first sign she gave of being privy to his disgrace. But she only said, "Have you found your way to the supper-room yet?"

"Oh yes; twice," he answered, and kept on talking with her and Madame Uccelli. After five minutes or so something occurred to Colville. "Have you found the way to the supper-room yet, Mrs. Bowen?"

"No!" she owned, with a small, pathetic laugh, which expressed a certain physical faintness, and reproached him with insupportable gentleness for his selfish obtuseness.

"Let me show you the way," he cried.

"Why, I am rather hungry," said Mrs. Bowen, taking his arm, with a patient arrangement first of her fan, her bouquet, and her train, and then moving along by his side with a delicate footed pace, which insinuated and deprecated her dependence upon him.

There were only a few people in the supper-room, and they had it practically to themselves. She took a cup of tea and a slice of buttered bread, with a little salad, which she excused herself from eating because it was the day after her headache. "I shouldn't have thought you were hungry, Mrs. Bowen," he said, "if you hadn't told me so," and he recalled that, as a young girl, her friend used to laugh at her for having such a butterfly appetite; she was in fact one of those women who go through life the marvels of such of our brutal sex as observe the ethereal nature of their diet. But in an illogical revulsion of feeling. Colville, who was again cramming himself with all the solids and fluids in reach, and storing up a vain regret against the morrow, preferred her delicacy to the magnificent rapacity of Miss Graham: Imogene had passed from salad to ice, and at his suggestion had frankly reverted to salad again and then taken a second ice, with the robust appetite of perfect health and perfect youth. He felt a desire to speak against her to Mrs. Bowen, he did not know why and he did not know how; he veiled his feeling in an open attack. "Miss Graham has just been the cause of my playing the fool, with her dancing. She dances so superbly that she makes you want to dance too—she made me feel as if I could dance."

"Yes," said Mrs. Bowen; "it was very kind of you to complete the set. I saw you dancing," she added, without a glimmer of guilty consciousness in her eyes.

It was very sweet, but Colville had to protest. "Oh no; you didn't see me dancing; you saw me not dancing. I am a ruined man, and I leave Florence to-morrow; but I have the sad satisfaction of reflecting that I don't leave an unbroken train among the ladies of that set. And I have made one young Englishman so mad that there is a reasonable hope of his not recovering."

"Oh no; you don't think of going away for that!" said Mrs. Bowen, not heeding the rest of his joking.

"Well, the time has been when I have left Florence for loss," said Colville, with the air of preparing himself to listen to reason.

"You mustn't," said Mrs. Bowen briefly.

"Oh, very well, then, I won't," said Colville whimsically, as if that settled it.

Mrs. Bowen would not talk of the matter any more; he could see that with her kindness, which was always more than her tact, she was striving to get away from the subject. As he really cared for it no longer, this made him persist in clinging to it; he liked this pretty woman's being kind to him. "Well," he said finally, "I consent to stay in Florence on condition that you suggest some means of atonement for me which I can also make a punishment to Miss Graham."

Mrs. Bowen did not respond to the question of placating and punishing her protégée with sustained interest. They went back to Madame Uccelli, and to the other elderly ladies in the room that opened by archways upon the dancing-room.

Imogene was on the floor, dancing not merely with unabated joy, but with a zest that seemed only to freshen from dance to dance. If she left the dance, it was to go out on her partner's arm to the supper-room. Colville could not decently keep on talking to Mrs. Bowen the whole evening; it would be too conspicuous; he devolved from frump to frump; he bored himself; he yawned in his passage from one of these mothers or fathers to another. The hours passed; it was two o'clock; Imogene was going out to the supper-room again. He was taking out his watch. She saw him, and "Oh, don't!" she cried, laughing, as she passed.

The dancing went on; she was waltzing now in the interminable german. Some one had let down, a window in the dancing-room, and he was feeling it in his shoulder. Mrs. Bowen, across the room, looked heroically patient, but weary. He glanced, down at the frump on the sofa near, and realised that she had been making a long speech to him, which, he could see from her look, had ended in some sort of question.

Three o'clock came, and they had to wait till the german was over. He felt that Miss Graham was behaving badly, ungratefully, selfishly; on the way home in the carriage he was silent from utter boredom and fatigue, but Mrs. Bowen was sweetly sympathetic with the girl's rapture. Imogene did not seem to feel his moodiness; she laughed, she joked, she told a number of things that happened, she hummed the air of the last waltz. "Isn't it divine?" she asked. "Oh! I feel as if I could dance for a week." She was still dancing; she gave Colville's foot an accidental tap in keeping time on the floor of the carriage to the tune she was humming. No one said anything about a next meeting when they parted at the gate of Palazzo Pinti, and Mrs. Bowen bade her coachman drive Colville to his hotel. But both the ladies' voices called good-night to him as he drove away. He fancied a shade of mocking in Miss Graham's voice.

The great outer door of the hotel was locked, of course, and the poor little porter kept Colville thumping at it some time before he unlocked it, full of sleepy smiles and apologies. "I'm sorry to wake you up," said Colville kindly.

"It is my duty," said the porter, with amiable heroism. He discharged another duty by lighting a whole new candle, which would be set down to Colville's account, and went before him to his room, up the wide stairs, cold in their white linen path, and on through the crooked corridors haunted by the ghosts of extinct tables d'hôte, and full of goblin shadows. He had recovered a noonday suavity by the time he reached Colville's door, and bowed himself out, after lighting the candles within, with a sweet plenitude of politeness, which Colville, even in his gloomy mood, could not help admiring in a man in his shirt sleeves, with only one suspender up.

If there had been a fire, Colville would have liked to sit down before it, and take an account of his feelings, but the atmosphere of a bed-chamber in a Florentine hotel at half-past three o'clock on a winter morning is not one that invites to meditation; and he made haste to get into bed, with nothing clearer in his mind than a shapeless sense of having been trifled with. He ought not to have gone to a dancing party, to begin with, and then he certainly ought not to have attempted to dance; so far he might have been master of the situation, and was responsible for it; but he was, over and above this, aware of not having wished to do either, of having been wrought upon against his convictions to do both. He regarded now with supreme loathing a fantastic purpose which he had formed while tramping round on those women's dresses, of privately taking lessons in dancing, and astonishing Miss Graham at the next ball where they met. Miss Graham? What did he care for that child? Or Mrs. Bowen either, for the matter of that? Had he come four thousand miles to be used, to be played with, by them? At this point Colville was aware of the brutal injustice of his mood. They were ladies, both of them, charming and good, and he had been a fool; that was all. It was not the first time he had been a fool for women. An inexpressible bitterness for that old wrong, which, however he had been used to laugh at it and despise it, had made his life solitary and barren, poured upon his soul; it was as if it had happened to him yesterday.

A band of young men burst from one of the narrow streets leading into the piazza and straggled across it, letting their voices flare out upon the silence, and then drop extinct one by one. A whole world of faded associations flushed again in Colville's heart. This was Italy; this was Florence; and he execrated the hour in which he had dreamed of returning.

William Dean Howells

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