In that still air of the Florentine winter, time seems to share the arrest of the natural forces, the repose of the elements. The pale blue sky is frequently overcast, and it rains two days out of five; sometimes, under extraordinary provocation from the north a snow-storm whirls along under the low grey dome, and whitens the brown roofs, where a growth of spindling weeds and grass clothes the tiles the whole year round, and shows its delicate green above the gathered flakes. But for the most part the winds are laid, and the sole change is from quiet sun to quiet shower. This at least is the impression which remains in the senses of the sojourning stranger, whose days slip away with so little difference one from another that they seem really not to have passed, but, like the grass that keeps the hillsides fresh round Florence all the winter long, to be waiting some decisive change of season before they begin.
The first of the Carnival sights that marked the lapse of a month since his arrival took Colville by surprise. He could not have believed that it was February yet if it had not been for the straggling maskers in armour whom he met one day in Via Borgognissanti, with their visors up for their better convenience in smoking. They were part of the chorus at one of the theatres, and they were going about to eke out their salaries with the gifts of people whose windows the festival season privileged them to play under. The silly spectacle stirred Colville's blood a little, as any sort of holiday preparation was apt to do. He thought that it afforded him a fair occasion to call at Palazzo Pinti, where he had not been so much of late as in the first days of his renewed acquaintance with Mrs. Bowen. He had at one time had the fancy that Mrs. Bowen was cool toward him. He might very well have been mistaken in this; in fact, she had several times addressed him the politest reproaches for not coming, but he made some evasion, and went only on the days when she was receiving other people, and when necessarily he saw very little of the family.
Miss Graham was always very friendly, but always very busy, drawing tea from the samovar, and looking after others. Effie Bowen dropped her eyes in re-established strangeness when she brought the basket of cake to him. There was one moment when he suspected that he had been talked over in family council, and put under a certain regimen. But he had no proof of this, and it had really nothing to do with his keeping away, which was largely accidental. He had taken up, with as much earnestness as he could reasonably expect of himself, that notion of studying the architectural expression of Florentine character at the different periods. He had spent a good deal of money in books, he had revived his youthful familiarity with the city, and he had made what acquaintance he could with people interested in such matters. He met some of these in the limited but very active society in which he mingled daily and nightly. After the first strangeness to any sort of social life had worn off, he found himself very fond of the prompt hospitalities which his introduction at Mrs. Bowen's had opened to him. His host—or more frequently it was his hostess—had sometimes merely an apartment at a hotel; perhaps the family was established in one of the furnished lodgings which stretch the whole length of the Lung' Arno on either hand, and abound in all the new streets approaching the Cascine, and had set up the simple and facile housekeeping of the sojourner in Florence for a few months; others had been living in the villa or the palace they had taken for years.
The more recent and transitory people expressed something of the prevailing English and American aestheticism in the decoration of their apartments, but the greater part accepted the Florentine drawing-room as their landlord had imagined it for them, with furniture and curtains in yellow satin, a cheap ingrain carpet thinly covering the stone floor, and a fire of little logs ineffectually blazing on the hearth, and flickering on the carved frames of the pictures on the wall and the nakedness of the frescoed allegories in the ceiling. Whether of longer or shorter stay, the sojourners were bound together by a common language and a common social tradition; they all had a Day, and on that day there was tea and bread and butter for every comer. They had one another to dine; there were evening parties, with dancing and without dancing. Colville even went to a fancy ball, where he was kept in countenance by several other Florentines of the period of Romola. At all these places he met nearly the same people, whose alien life in the midst of the native community struck him as one of the phases of modern civilisation worthy of note, if not particular study; for he fancied it destined to a wider future throughout Europe, as the conditions in England and America grow more tiresome and more onerous. They seemed to see very little of Italian society, and to be shut out from practical knowledge of the local life by the terms upon which they had themselves insisted. Our race finds its simplified and cheapened London or New York in all its Continental resorts now, but nowhere has its taste been so much studied as in Italy, and especially in Florence. It was not, perhaps, the real Englishman or American who had been considered, but a forestière conventionalised from the Florentine's observation of many Anglo-Saxons. But he had been so well conjectured that he was hemmed round with a very fair illusion of his national circumstances.
It was not that he had his English or American doctor to prescribe for him when sick, and his English or American apothecary to compound his potion; it was not that there was an English tailor and an American dentist, an English bookseller and an English baker, and chapels of every shade of Protestantism, with Catholic preaching in English every Sunday. These things were more or less matters of necessity, but Colville objected that the barbers should offer him an American shampoo; that the groceries should abound in English biscuit and our own canned fruit and vegetables, and that the grocers' clerks should be ambitious to read the labels of the Boston baked beans. He heard—though he did not prove this by experiment—that the master of a certain trattoria had studied the doughnut of New England till he had actually surpassed the original in the qualities that have undermined our digestion as a people. But above all it interested him to see that intense expression of American civilisation, the horse-car, triumphing along the magnificent avenues that mark the line of the old city walls; and he recognised an instinctive obedience to an abtruse natural law in the fact that whereas the omnibus, which the Italians have derived from the English, was not filled beyond its seating capacity, the horse-car was overcrowded without and within at Florence, just as it is with us who invented it.
"I wouldn't mind even that," he said one day to the lady who was drawing him his fifth or sixth cup of tea for that afternoon, and with whom he was naturally making this absurd condition of things a matter of personal question; "but you people here pass your days in a round of unbroken English, except when you talk with your servants. I'm not sure you don't speak English with the shop people. I can hardly get them to speak Italian to me."
"Perhaps they think you can speak English better," said the lady.
This went over Florence; in a week it was told to Colville as something said to some one else. He fearlessly reclaimed it as said to himself, and this again was told. In the houses where he visited he had the friendly acceptance of any intelligent and reasonably agreeable person who comes promptly and willingly when he is asked, and seems always to have enjoyed himself when he goes away. But besides this sort of general favour, he enjoyed a very pleasing little personal popularity which came from his interest in other people, from his good-nature, and from his inertness. He slighted no acquaintance, and talked to every one with the same apparent wish to be entertaining. This was because he was incapable of the cruelty of open indifference when his lot was cast with a dull person, and also because he was mentally too lazy to contrive pretences for getting away; besides he did not really find anybody altogether a bore, and he had no wish to shine. He listened without shrinking to stories that he had heard before, and to things that had already been said to him; as has been noted, he had himself the habit of repeating his ideas with the recklessness of maturity, for he had lived long enough to know that this can be done with almost entire safety.
He haunted the studios a good deal, and through a retrospective affinity with art, and a human sympathy with the sacrifice which it always involves, he was on friendly terms with sculptors and painters who were not in every case so friendly with one another. More than once he saw the scars of old rivalries, and he might easily have been an adherent of two or three parties. But he tried to keep the freedom of the different camps without taking sides; and he felt the pathos of the case when they all told the same story of the disaster which the taste for bric-à-brac had wrought to the cause of art; how people who came abroad no longer gave orders for statues and pictures, but spent their money on curtains and carpets, old chests and chairs, and pots and pans. There were some among these artists whom he had known twenty years before in Florence, ardent and hopeful beginners; and now the backs of their grey or bald heads, as they talked to him with their faces towards their work, and a pencil or a pinch of clay held thoughtfully between their fingers, appealed to him as if he had remained young and prosperous, and they had gone forward to age and hard work. They were very quaint at times. They talked the American slang of the war days and of the days before the war; without a mastery of Italian, they often used the idioms of that tongue in their English speech. They were dim and vague about the country, with whose affairs they had kept up through the newspapers. Here and there one thought he was going home very soon; others had finally relinquished all thoughts of return. These had, perhaps without knowing it, lost the desire to come back; they cowered before the expensiveness of life in America, and doubted of a future with which, indeed, only the young can hopefully grapple. But in spite of their accumulated years, and the evil times on which they had fallen, Colville thought them mostly very happy men, leading simple and innocent lives in a world of the ideal, and rich in the inexhaustible beauty of the city, the sky, the air. They all, whether they were ever going back or not, were fervent Americans, and their ineffaceable nationality marked them, perhaps, all the more strongly for the patches of something alien that overlaid it in places. They knew that he was or had been a newspaper man; but if they secretly cherished the hope that he would bring them to the dolce lume of print, they never betrayed it; and the authorship of his letter about the American artists in Florence, which he printed in the American Register at Paris, was not traced to him for a whole week.
Colville was a frequent visitor of Mr. Waters, who had a lodging in Piazza San Marco, of the poverty which can always be decent in Italy. It was bare, but for the books that furnished it; with a table for his writing, on a corner of which he breakfasted, a wide sofa with cushions in coarse white linen that frankly confessed itself a bed by night, and two chairs of plain Italian walnut; but the windows, which had no sun, looked out upon the church and the convent sacred to the old Socinian for the sake of the meek, heroic mystic whom they keep alive in all the glory of his martyrdom. No two minds could well have been further apart than the New England minister and the Florentine monk, and no two souls nearer together, as Colville recognised with a not irreverent smile.
When the old man was not looking up some point of his saint's history in his books, he was taking with the hopefulness of youth and the patience of age a lesson in colloquial Italian from his landlady's daughter, which he pronounced with a scholarly scrupulosity and a sincere atonic Massachusetts accent. He practised the language wherever he could, especially at the trattoria where he dined, and where he made occasions to detain the waiter in conversation. They humoured him, out of their national good-heartedness and sympathy, and they did what they could to realise a strange American dish for him on Sundays—a combination of stockfish and potatoes boiled, and then fried together in small cakes. They revered him as a foreign gentleman of saintly amiability and incomprehensible preferences; and he was held in equal regard at the next green-grocer's where he spent every morning five centessimi for a bunch of radishes and ten for a little pat of butter to eat with his bread and coffee; he could not yet accustom himself to mere bread and coffee for breakfast, though he conformed as completely as he could to the Italian way of living. He respected the abstemiousness of the race; he held that it came from a spirituality of nature to which the North was still strange, with all its conscience and sense of individual accountability. He contended that he never suffered in his small dealings with these people from the dishonesty which most of his countrymen complained of; and he praised their unfailing gentleness of manner; this could arise only from goodness of heart, which was perhaps the best kind of goodness after all.
None of these humble acquaintance of his could well have accounted for the impression they all had that he was some sort of ecclesiastic. They could never have understood—nor, for that matter, could any one have understood through European tradition—the sort of sacerdotal office that Mr. Waters had filled so long in the little deeply book-clubbed New England village where he had outlived most of his flock, till one day he rose in the midst of the surviving dyspeptics and consumptives and, following the example of Mr. Emerson, renounced his calling for ever. By that time even the pale Unitarianism thinning out into paler doubt was no longer tenable with him. He confessed that while he felt the Divine goodness more and more, he believed that it was a mistake to preach any specific creed or doctrine, and he begged them to release him from their service. A young man came to fill his place in their pulpit, but he kept his place in their hearts. They raised a subscription of seventeen hundred dollars and thirty-five cents; another being submitted to the new button manufacturer, who had founded his industry in the village, he promptly rounded it out to three thousand, and Mr. Waters came to Florence. His people parted with him in terms of regret as delicate as they were awkward, and their love followed him. He corresponded regularly with two or three ladies, and his letters were sometimes read from his pulpit.
Colville took the Piazza San Marco in on his way to Palazzo Pinti on the morning when he had made up his mind to go there, and he stood at the window looking out with the old man, when some more maskers passed through the place—two young fellows in old Florentine dress, with a third habited as a nun.
"Ah," said the old man gently, "I wish they hadn't introduced the nun! But I suppose they can't help signalising their escape from the domination of the Church on all occasions. It's a natural reaction. It will all come right in time."
"You preach the true American gospel," said Colville.
"Of course; there is no other gospel. That is the gospel."
"Do you suppose that Savonarola would think it had all come out right," asked Colville, a little maliciously, "if he could look from the window with us here and see the wicked old Carnival, that he tried so hard to kill four hundred years ago, still alive? And kicking?" he added, in cognisance of the caper of one of the maskers.
"Oh yes; why not? By this time he knows that his puritanism was all a mistake, unless as a thing for the moment only. I should rather like to have Savonarola here with us; he would find these costumes familiar; they are of his time. I shall make a point of seeing all I can of the Carnival, as part of my study of Savonarola, if nothing else."
"I'm afraid you'll have to give yourself limitations," said Colville, as one of the maskers threw his arm round the mock-nun's neck. But the old man did not see this, and Colville did not feel it necessary to explain himself.
The maskers had passed out of the piazza, now, and "Have you seen our friends at Palazzo Pinti lately?" said Mr. Waters.
"Not very," said Colville. "I was just on my way there."
"I wish you would make them my compliments. Such a beautiful young creature."
"Yes," said Colville; "she is certainly a beautiful girl."
"I meant Mrs. Bowen," returned the old man quietly.
"Oh, I thought you meant Miss Graham. Mrs. Bowen is my contemporary, and so I didn't think of her when you said young. I should have called her pretty rather than beautiful."
"No; she's beautiful. The young girl is good-looking—I don't deny that; but she is very crude yet."
Colville laughed. "Crude in looks? I should have said Miss Graham was rather crude in mind, though I'm not sure I wouldn't have stopped at saying young."
"No," mildly persisted the old man; "she couldn't be crude in mind without being crude in looks."
"You mean," pursued Colville, smiling, but not wholly satisfied, "that she hasn't a lovely nature?"
"You never can know what sort of nature a young girl has. Her nature depends so much upon that of the man whose fate she shares."
"The woman is what the man makes her? That is convenient for the woman, and relieves her of all responsibility."
"The man is what the woman makes him, too, but not so much so. The man was cast into a deep sleep, you know——"
"And the woman was what he dreamed her. I wish she were."
"In most cases she is," said Mr. Waters.
They did not pursue the matter. The truth that floated in the old minister's words pleased Colville by its vagueness, and flattered the man in him by its implication of the man's superiority. He wanted to say that if Mrs. Bowen were what the late Mr. Bowen had dreamed her, then the late Mr. Bowen, when cast into his deep sleep, must have had Lina Ridgely in his eye. But this seemed to be personalising the fantasy unwarrantably, and pushing it too far. For like reason he forbore to say that if Mr. Waters's theory were correct, it would be better to begin with some one whom nobody else had dreamed before; then you could be sure at least of not having a wife to somebody else's mind rather than your own. Once on his way to Palazzo Pinti, he stopped, arrested by a thought that had not occurred to him before in relation to what Mr. Waters had been saying, and then pushed on with the sense of security which is the compensation the possession of the initiative brings to our sex along with many responsibilities. In the enjoyment of this, no man stops to consider the other side, which must wait his initiative, however they mean to meet it.
In the Por San Maria Colville found masks and dominoes filling the shop windows and dangling from the doors. A devil in red and a clown in white crossed the way in front of him from an intersecting street; several children in pretty masquerading dresses flashed in and out among the crowd. He hurried to the Lung' Arno, and reached the palace where Mrs. Bowen lived, with these holiday sights fresh in his mind. Imogene turned to meet him at the door of the apartment, running from the window where she had left Effie Bowen still gazing.
"We saw you coming," she said gaily, without waiting to exchange formal greetings. "We didn't know at first but it might; be somebody else disguised as you. We've been watching the maskers go by. Isn't it exciting?"
"Awfully," said Colville, going to the window with her, and putting his arm on Effie's shoulder, where she knelt in a chair looking out. "What have you seen?"
"Oh, only two Spanish students with mandolins," said Imogene; "but you can see they're beginning to come."
"They'll stop now," murmured Effie, with gentle disappointment; "it's commencing to rain."
"Oh, too bad!" wailed the young girl. But just then two mediaeval men-at-arms came in sight, carrying umbrellas. "Isn't that too delicious? Umbrellas and chain-armour!"
"You can't expect them to let their chain-armour get rusty," said Colville. "You ought to have been with me—minstrels in scale-armour, Florentines of Savonarola's times, nuns, clowns, demons, fairies—no end to them."
"It's very well saying we ought to have been with you; but we can't go anywhere alone."
"I didn't say alone," said Colville. "Don't you think Mrs. Bowen would trust you with me to see these Carnival beginnings?" He had not meant at all to do anything of this kind, but that had not prevented his doing it.
"How do we know, when she hasn't been asked?" said Imogene, with a touch of burlesque dolor, such as makes a dignified girl enchanting, when she permits it to herself. She took Effie's hand in hers, the child having faced round from the window, and stood smoothing it, with her lovely head pathetically tilted on one side.
"What haven't I been asked yet?" demanded Mrs. Bowen, coming lightly toward them from a door at the side of the salon. She gave her hand to Colville with the prettiest grace, and a cordiality that brought a flush to her cheek. There had really been nothing between them but a little unreasoned coolness, if it were even so much as that; say rather a dryness, aggravated by time and absence, and now, as friends do, after a thing of that kind, they were suddenly glad to be good to each other.
"Why, you haven't been asked how you have been this long time," said Colville.
"I have been wanting to tell you for a whole week," returned Mrs. Bowen, seating the rest and taking a chair for herself. "Where have you been?"
"Oh, shut up in my cell at Hotel d'Atene, writing a short history of the Florentine people for Miss Effie."
"Effie, take Mr. Colville's hat," said her mother. "We're going to make you stay to lunch," she explained to him.
"Is that so?" he asked, with an effect of polite curiosity.
"Yes." Imogene softly clapped her hands, unseen by Mrs. Bowen, for Colville's instruction that all was going well. If it delights women to pet an undangerous friend of our sex, to use him like one of themselves, there are no words to paint the soft and flattered content with which his spirit purrs under their caresses. "You must have nearly finished the history," added Mrs. Bowen.
"Well, I could have finished it," said Colville, "if I had only begun it. You see, writing a short history of the Florentine people is such quick work that you have to be careful how you actually put pen to paper, or you're through with it before you've had any fun out of it."
"I think Effie will like to read that kind of history," said her mother.
The child hung her head, and would not look at Colville; she was still shy with him; his absence must have seemed longer to a child, of course.
At lunch they talked of the Carnival sights that had begun to appear. He told of his call upon Mr. Waters, and of the old minister's purpose to see all he could of the Carnival in order to judge intelligently of Savonarola's opposition to it.
"Mr. Waters is a very good man," said Mrs. Bowen, with the air of not meaning to approve him quite, nor yet to let any notion of his be made fun of in her presence. "But for my part I wish there were not going to be any Carnival; the city will be in such an uproar for the next two weeks."
"O Mrs. Bowen!" cried Imogene reproachfully; Effie looked at her mother in apparent anxiety lest she should be meaning to put forth an unquestionable power and stop the Carnival.
"The last Carnival, I thought there was never going to be any end to it; I was so glad when Lent came."
"Glad when Lent came!" breathed Imogene, in astonishment; but she ventured upon nothing more insubordinate, and Colville admired to see this spirited girl as subject to Mrs. Bowen as her own child. There is no reason why one woman should establish another woman over her, but nearly all women do it in one sort or another, from love of a voluntary submission, or from a fear of their own ignorance, if they are younger and more inexperienced than their lieges. Neither the one passion nor the other seems to reduce them to a like passivity as regards their husbands. They must apparently have a fetish of their own sex. Colville could see that Imogene obeyed Mrs. Bowen not only as a protégée but as a devotee.
"Oh, I suppose you will have to go through it all," said Mrs. Bowen, in reward of the girl's acquiescence.
"You're rather out of the way of it up here," said Colville. "You had better let me go about with the young ladies—if you can trust them to the care of an old fellow like me."
"Oh, I don't think you're so very old, at all times," replied Mrs. Bowen, with a peculiar look, whether indulgent or reproachful he could not quite make out.
But he replied, boldly, in his turn: "I have certainly my moments of being young still; I don't deny it. There's always a danger of their occurrence."
"I was thinking," said Mrs. Bowen, with a graceful effect of not listening, "that you would let me go too. It would be quite like old times."
"Only too much honour and pleasure," returned Colville, "if you will leave out the old times. I'm not particular about having them along." Mrs. Bowen joined in laughing at the joke, which they had to themselves. "I was only consulting an explicit abhorrence of yours in not asking you to go at first," he explained.
"Oh yes; I understand that."
The excellence of the whole arrangement seemed to grow upon Mrs. Bowen. "Of course," she said, "Imogene ought to see all she can of the Carnival. She may not have another chance, and perhaps if she had, he wouldn't consent."
"I'll engage to get his consent," said the girl. "What I was afraid of was that I couldn't get yours, Mrs. Bowen."
"Am I so severe as that?" asked Mrs. Bowen softly.
"Quite," replied Imogene.
"Perhaps," thought Colville, "it isn't always silent submission."
For no very good reason that any one could give, the Carnival that year was not a brilliant one. Colville's party seemed to be always meeting the same maskers on the street, and the maskers did not greatly increase in numbers. There were a few more of them after nightfall, but they were then a little more bacchanal, and he felt it was better that the ladies had gone home by that time. In the pursuit of the tempered pleasure of looking up the maskers he was able to make the reflection that their fantastic and vivid dresses sympathised in a striking way with the architecture of the city, and gave him an effect of Florence which he could not otherwise have had. There came by and by a little attempt at a corso in Via Cerratani and Via Tornabuoni. There were some masks in carriages, and from one they actually threw plaster confetti; half a dozen bare-legged boys ran before and beat one another with bladders, Some people, but not many, watched the show from the windows, and the footways were crowded.
Having proposed that they should see the Carnival together, Colville had made himself responsible for it to the Bowen household. Imogene said, "Well is this the famous Carnival of Florence?"
"It certainly doesn't compare with the Carnival last year," said Mrs. Bowen.
"Your reproach is just, Mrs. Bowen," he acknowledged. "I've managed it badly. But you know I've been out of practice a great while there in Des Vaches."
"Oh, poor Mr. Colville!" cried Imogene. "He isn't altogether to blame."
"I don't know," said Mrs. Bowen, humouring the joke in her turn. "It seems to me that if he had consulted us a little earlier, he might have done better."
He drove home with the ladies, and Mrs. Bowen made him stay to tea. As if she felt that he needed to be consoled for the failure of his Carnival, she was especially indulgent with him. She played to him on the piano some of the songs that were in fashion when they were in Florence together before.
Imogene had never heard them; she had heard her mother speak of them. One or two of them were negro songs, such as very pretty young ladies used to sing without harm to themselves or offence to others; but Imogene decided that they were rather rowdy. "Dear me, Mrs. Bowen! Did you sing such songs? You wouldn't let Effie!"
"No, I wouldn't let Effie. The times are changed. I wouldn't let Effie go to the theatre alone with a young gentleman."
"The times are changed for the worse," Colville began. "What harm ever came to a young man from a young lady's going alone to the theatre with him?"
He stayed till the candles were brought in, and then went away only because, as he said, they had not asked him to stay to dinner.
He came nearly every day, upon one pretext or another, and he met them oftener than that at the teas and on the days of other ladies in Florence; for he was finding the busy idleness of the life very pleasant, and he went everywhere. He formed the habit of carrying flowers to the Palazzo Pinti, excusing himself on the ground that they were so cheap and so abundant as to be impersonal. He brought violets to Effie and roses to Imogene; to Mrs. Bowen he always brought a bunch of the huge purple anemones which grow so abundantly all winter long about Florence. "I wonder why purple anemones?" he asked her one day in presenting them to her.
"Oh, it is quite time I should be wearing purple," she said gently.
"Ah, Mrs. Bowen!" he reproached her. "Why do I bring purple violets to Miss Effie?"
"You must ask Effie!" said Mrs. Bowen, with a laugh.
After that he stayed away forty-eight hours, and then appeared with a bunch of the red anemones, as large as tulips, which light up the meadow grass when it begins to stir from its torpor in the spring. "They grew on purpose to set me right with you," he said, "and I saw them when I was in the country."
It was a little triumph for him, which she celebrated by putting them in a vase on her table, and telling people who exclaimed over them that they were some Mr. Colville gathered in the country. He enjoyed his privileges at her house with the futureless satisfaction of a man. He liked to go about with the Bowens; he was seen with the ladies driving and walking, in most of their promenades. He directed their visits to the churches and the galleries; he was fond of strolling about with Effie's daintily-gloved little hand in his. He took her to Giocosa's and treated her to ices; he let her choose from the confectioner's prettiest caprices in candy; he was allowed to bring the child presents in his pockets. Perhaps he was not as conscientious as he might have been in his behaviour with the little girl. He did what he could to spoil her, or at least to relax the severity of the training she had received; he liked to see the struggle that went on in the mother's mind against this, and then the other struggle with which she overcame her opposition to it. The worst he did was to teach Effie some picturesque Western phrases, which she used with innocent effectiveness; she committed the crimes against convention which he taught her with all the conventional elegance of her training. The most that he ever gained for her were some concessions in going out in weather that her mother thought unfit, or sitting up for half-hours after her bed-time. He ordered books for her from Goodban's, and it was Colville now, and not the Rev. Mr. Morton, who read poetry aloud to the ladies on afternoons when Mrs. Bowen gave orders that she and Miss Graham should be denied to all other comers.
It was an intimacy; and society in Florence is not blind, and especially it is not dumb. The old lady who had celebrated Mrs. Bowen to him the first night at Palazzo Pinti led a life of active questions as to what was the supreme attraction to Colville there, and she referred her doubt to every friend with whom she drank tea. She philosophised the situation very scientifically, and if not very conclusively, how few are the absolute conclusions of science upon any point!
"He is a bachelor, and there is a natural affinity between bachelors and widows—much more than if he were a widower too. If he were a widower I should say it was undoubtedly mademoiselle. If he were a little bit younger, I should have no doubt it was madame; but men of that age have such an ambition to marry young girls! I suppose that they think it proves they are not so very old, after all. And certainly he isn't too old to marry. If he were wise—which he probably isn't, if he's like other men in such matters—there wouldn't be any question about Mrs. Bowen. Pretty creature! And so much sense! Too much for him. Ah, my dear, how we are wasted upon that sex!"
Mrs. Bowen herself treated the affair with masterly frankness. More than once in varying phrase, she said: "You are very good to give us so much of your time, Mr. Colville, and I won't pretend I don't know it. You're helping me out with a very hazardous experiment. When I undertook to see Imogene through a winter in Florence, I didn't reflect what a very gay time girls have at home, in Western towns especially. But I haven't heard her breathe Buffalo once. And I'm sure it's doing her a great deal of good here. She's naturally got a very good mind; she's very ambitious to be cultivated. She's read a good deal, and she's anxious to know history and art; and your advice and criticism are the greatest possible advantage to her."
"Thank you," said Colville, with a fine, remote dissatisfaction. "I supposed I was merely enjoying myself."
He had lately begun to haunt his banker's for information in regard to the Carnival balls, with the hope that something might be made out of them.
But either there were to be no great Carnival balls, or it was a mistake to suppose that his banker ought to know about them. Colville went experimentally to one of the people's balls at a minor theatre, which he found advertised on the house walls. At half-past ten the dancing had not begun, but the masks were arriving; young women in gay silks and dirty white gloves; men in women's dresses, with enormous hands; girls as pages; clowns, pantaloons, old women, and the like. They were all very good-humoured; the men, who far outnumbered the women, danced contentedly together. Colville liked two cavalry soldiers who waltzed with each other for an hour, and then went off to a battery on exhibition in the pit, and had as much electricity as they could hold. He liked also two young citizens who danced together as long as he stayed, and did not leave off even for electrical refreshment. He came away at midnight, pushing out of the theatre through a crowd of people at the door, some of whom were tipsy. This certainly would not have done for the ladies, though the people were civilly tipsy.