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Chapter 24

XXIV.

The next morning Veronica brought Lydia a little scrawl from her aunt, bidding the girl come and breakfast with her in her room at nine.

"Well, my dear," her aunt called to her from her pillow, when she appeared, "you find me flat enough, this morning. If there was anything wrong about going to the opera last night, I was properly punished for it. Such wretched stuff as I never heard! And instead of the new ballet that they promised, they gave an old thing that I had seen till I was sick of it. You didn't miss much, I can tell you. How fresh and bright you do look, Lydia!" she sighed. "Did you sleep well? Were you lonesome while we were gone? Veronica says you were reading the whole evening. Are you fond of reading?"

"I don't think I am, very," said Lydia. "It was a book that I began on the ship. It's a novel." She hesitated. "I wasn't reading it; I was just looking at it."

"What a queer child you are! I suppose you were dying to read it, and wouldn't because it was Sunday. Well!" Mrs. Erwin put her hand under her pillow, and pulled out a gossamer handkerchief, with which she delicately touched her complexion here and there, and repaired with an instinctive rearrangement of powder the envious ravages of a slight rash about her nose. "I respect your high principles beyond anything, Lydia, and if they can only be turned in the right direction they will never be any disadvantage to you." Veronica came in with the breakfast on a tray, and Mrs. Erwin added, "Now, pull up that little table, and bring your chair, my dear, and let us take it easy. I like to talk while I'm breakfasting. Will you pour out my chocolate? That's it, in the ugly little pot with the wooden handle; the copper one's for you, with coffee in it. I never could get that repose which seems to come perfectly natural to you. I was always inclined to be a little rowdy, my dear, and I've had to fight hard against it, without any help from either of my husbands; men like it; they think it's funny. When I was first married, I was very young, and so was he; it was a real love match; and my husband was very well off, and when I began to be delicate, nothing would do but he must come to Europe with me. How little I ever expected to outlive him!"

"You don't look very sick now," began Lydia.

"Ill," said her aunt. "You must say ill. Sick is an Americanism."

"It's in the Bible," said Lydia, gravely.

"Oh, there are a great many words in the Bible you can't use," returned her aunt. "No, I don't look ill now, and I'm worlds better. But I couldn't live a year in any other climate, I suppose. You seem to take after your mother's side. Well, as I was saying, the European ways didn't come natural to me, at all. I used to have a great deal of gayety when I was a girl, and I liked beaux and attentions; and I had very free ways. I couldn't get their stiffness here for years and years, and all through my widowhood it was one wretched failure with me. Do what I would, I was always violating the most essential rules, and the worst of it was that it only seemed to make me the more popular. I do believe it was nothing but my rowdiness that attracted Mr. Erwin; but I determined when I had got an Englishman I would make one bold strike for the proprieties, and have them, or die in the attempt. I determined that no Englishwoman I ever saw should outdo me in strict conformity to all the usages of European society. So I cut myself off from all the Americans, and went with nobody but the English."

"Do you like them better?" asked Lydia, with the blunt, child-like directness that had already more than once startled her aunt.

"Like them! I detest them! If Mr. Erwin were a real Englishman, I think I should go crazy; but he's been so little in his own country —all his life in India, nearly, and the rest on the Continent,—that he's quite human; and no American husband was ever more patient and indulgent; and that's saying a good deal. He would be glad to have nothing but Americans around; he has an enthusiasm for them,—or for what he supposes they are. Like the English! You ought to have heard them during our war; it would have made your blood boil! And then how they came crawling round after it was all over, and trying to pet us up! Ugh!"

"If you feel so about them," said Lydia, as before, "why do you want to go with them so much?"

"My dear," cried her aunt, "to beat them with their own weapons on their own ground,—to show them that an American can be more European than any of them, if she chooses! And now you've come here with looks and temperament and everything just to my hand. You're more beautiful than any English girl ever dreamt of being; you're very distinguished-looking; your voice is perfectly divine; and you're colder than an iceberg. Oh, if I only had one winter with you in Rome, I think I should die in peace!" Mrs. Erwin paused, and drank her chocolate, which she had been letting cool in the eagerness of her discourse. "But, never mind," she continued, "we will do the best we can here. I've seen English girls going out two or three together, without protection, in Rome and Florence; but I mean that you shall be quite Italian in that respect. The Italians never go out without a chaperone of some sort, and you must never be seen without me, or your uncle, or Veronica. Now I'll tell you how you must do at parties, and so on. You must be very retiring; you're that, any way; but you must always keep close to me. It doesn't do for young people to talk much together in society; it makes scandal about a girl. If you dance, you must always hurry back to me. Dear me!" exclaimed Mrs. Erwin, "I remember how, when I was a girl, I used to hang on to the young men's arms, and promenade with them after a dance, and go out to supper with them, and flirt on the stairs,—such times! But that wouldn't do here, Lydia. It would ruin a girl's reputation; she could hardly walk arm in arm with a young man if she was engaged to him." Lydia blushed darkly red, and then turned paler than usual, while her aunt went on. "You might do it, perhaps, and have it set down to American eccentricity or under-breeding, but I'm not going to have that. I intend you to be just as dull and diffident in society as if you were an Italian, and more than if you were English. Your voice, of course, is a difficulty. If you sing, that will make you conspicuous, in spite of everything. But I don't see why that can't be turned to advantage; it's no worse than your beauty. Yes, if you're so splendid- looking and so gifted, and at the same time as stupid as the rest, it's so much clear gain. It will come easy for you to be shy with men, for I suppose you've hardly ever talked with any, living up there in that out-of-the-way village; and your manner is very good. It's reserved, and yet it isn't green. The way," continued Mrs. Erwin, "to treat men in Europe is to behave as if they were guilty till they prove themselves innocent. All you have to do is to reverse all your American ideas. But here I am, lecturing you as if you had been just such a girl as I was, with half a dozen love affairs on her hands at once, and no end of gentlemen friends. Europe won't be hard for you, my dear, for you haven't got anything to unlearn. But some girls that come over!—it's perfectly ridiculous, the trouble they get into, and the time they have getting things straight. They take it for granted that men in good society are gentlemen,—what we mean by gentlemen."

Lydia had been letting her coffee stand, and had scarcely tasted the delicious French bread and the sweet Lombard butter of which her aunt ate so heartily. "Why, child," said Mrs. Erwin, at last, "where is your appetite? One would think you were the elderly invalid who had been up late. Did you find it too exciting to sit at home looking at a novel? What was it? If it's a new story I should like to see it. But you didn't bring a novel from South Bradfield with you?"

"No," said Lydia, with a husky reluctance. "One of the—passengers gave it to me."

"Had you many passengers? But of course not. That was what made it so delightful when I came over that way. I was newly married then, and with spirits—oh dear me!—for anything. It was one adventure, the whole way; and we got so well acquainted, it was like one family. I suppose your grandfather put you in charge of some family. I know artists sometimes come out that way, and people for their health."

"There was no family on our ship," said Lydia. "My state-room had been fixed up for the captain's wife—"

"Our captain's wife was along, too," interposed Mrs. Erwin. "She was such a joke with us. She had been out to Venice on a voyage before, and used to be always talking about the Du-cal Palace. And did they really turn out of their state-room for you?"

"She was not along," said Lydia.

"Not along?" repeated Mrs. Erwin, feebly. "Who—who were the other passengers?"

"There were three gentlemen," answered Lydia.

"Three gentlemen? Three men? Three—And you—and—" Mrs. Erwin fell back upon her pillow, and remained gazing at Lydia, with a sort of remote bewildered pity, as at perdition, not indeed beyond compassion, but far beyond help. Lydia's color had been coming and going, but now it settled to a clear white. Mrs. Erwin commanded herself sufficiently to resume: "And there were—there were—no other ladies?"

"No."

"And you were—"

"I was the only woman on board," replied Lydia. She rose abruptly, striking the edge of the table in her movement, and setting its china and silver jarring. "Oh, I know what you mean, aunt Josephine, but two days ago I couldn't have dreamt it! From the time the ship sailed till I reached this wicked place, there wasn't a word said nor a look looked to make me think I wasn't just as right and safe there as if I had been in my own room at home. They were never anything but kind and good to me. They never let me think that they could be my enemies, or that I must suspect them and be on the watch against them. They were Americans! I had to wait for one of your Europeans to teach me that,—for that officer who was here yesterday—"

"The cavaliere? Why, where—"

"He spoke to me in the cars, when Mr. Erwin was asleep! Had he any right to do so?"

"He would think he had, if he thought you were alone," said Mrs. Erwin, plaintively. "I don't see how we could resent it. It was simply a mistake on his part. And now you see, Lydia—"

"Oh, I see how my coming the way I have will seem to all these people!" cried Lydia, with passionate despair. "I know how it will seem to that married woman who lets a man be in love with her, and that old woman who can't live with her husband because he's too good and kind, and that girl who swears and doesn't know who her father is, and that impudent painter, and that officer who thinks he has the right to insult women if he finds them alone! I wonder the sea doesn't swallow up a place where even Americans go to the theatre on the Sabbath!"

"Lydia, Lydia! It isn't so bad as it seems to you," pleaded her aunt, thrown upon the defensive by the girl's outburst. "There are ever so many good and nice people in Venice, and I know them, too,—Italians as well as foreigners. And even amongst those you saw, Miss Landini is one of the kindest girls in the world, and she had just been to see her old teacher when we met her,—she half takes care of him; and Lady Fenleigh's a perfect mother to the poor; and I never was at the Countess Tatocka's except in the most distant way, at a ball where everybody went; and is it better to let your uncle go to the opera alone, or to go with him? You told me to go with him yourself; and they consider Sunday over, on the Continent, after morning service, any way!"

"Oh, it makes no difference!" retorted Lydia, wildly. "I am going away. I am going home. I have money enough to get to Trieste, and the ship is there, and Captain Jenness will take me back with him. Oh!" she moaned. "He has been in Europe, too, and I suppose he's like the rest of you; and he thought because I was alone and helpless he had the right to—Oh, I see it, I see now that he never meant anything, and—Oh, oh, oh!" She fell on her knees beside the bed, as if crushed to them by the cruel doubt that suddenly overwhelmed her, and flung out her arms on Mrs. Erwin's coverlet—it was of Venetian lace sewed upon silk, a choice bit from the palace of one of the ducal families—and buried her face in it.

Her aunt rose from her pillow, and looked in wonder and trouble at
the beautiful fallen head, and the fair young figure shaken with sobs.
"He—who—what are you talking about, Lydia? Whom do you mean? Did
Captain Jenness—"

"No, no!" wailed the girl, "the one that gave me the book."

"The one that gave you the book? The book you were looking at last night?"

"Yes," sobbed Lydia, with her voice muffled in the coverlet.

Mrs. Erwin lay down again with significant deliberation. Her face was still full of trouble, but of bewilderment no longer. In moments of great distress the female mind is apt to lay hold of some minor anxiety for its distraction, and to find a certain relief in it. "Lydia," said her aunt in a broken voice, "I wish you wouldn't cry in the coverlet: it doesn't hurt the lace, but it stains the silk." Lydia swept her handkerchief under her face but did not lift it. Her aunt accepted the compromise. "How came he to give you the book?"

"Oh, I don't know. I can't tell. I thought it was because—because— It was almost at the very beginning. And after that he walked up and down with me every night, nearly; and he tried to be with me all he could; and he was always saying things to make me think—Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear! And he tried to make me care for him! Oh, it was cruel, cruel!"

"You mean that he made love to you?" asked her aunt.

"Yes—no—I don't know. He tried to make me care for him, and to make me think he cared for me."

"Did he say he cared for you? Did he—"

"No!"

Mrs. Erwin mused a while before she said, "Yes, it was cruel indeed, poor child, and it was cowardly, too."

"Cowardly?" Lydia lifted her face, and flashed a glance of tearful fire at her aunt. "He is the bravest man in the world! And the most generous and high-minded! He jumped into the sea after that wicked Mr. Hicks, and saved his life, when he disliked him worse than anything!"

"Who was Mr. Hicks?"

"He was the one that stopped at Messina. He was the one that got some brandy at Gibraltar, and behaved so dreadfully, and wanted to fight him."

"Whom?"

"This one. The one who gave me the book. And don't you see that his being so good makes it all the worse? Yes; and he pretended to be glad when I told him I thought he was good,—he got me to say it!" She had her face down again in her handkerchief. "And I suppose you think it was horrible, too, for me to take his arm, and talk and walk with him whenever he asked me!"

"No, not for you, Lydia," said her aunt, gently. "And don't you think now," she asked after a pause, "that he cared for you?"

"Oh, I did think so,—I did believe it; but now, now—"

"Now, what?"

"Now, I'm afraid that may be he was only playing with me, and putting me off; and pretending that he had something to tell me when he got to Venice, and he never meant anything by anything."

"Is he coming to—" her aunt began, but Lydia broke vehemently out again.

"If he had cared for me, why couldn't he have told me so at once, and not had me wait till he got to Venice? He knew I—"

"There are two ways of explaining it," said Mrs. Erwin. "He may have been in earnest, Lydia, and felt that he had no right to be more explicit till you were in the care of your friends. That would be the European way which you consider so bad," said Mrs. Erwin. "Under the circumstances, it was impossible for him to keep any distance, and all he could do was to postpone his declaration till there could be something like good form about it. Yes, it might have been that." She was silent, but the troubled look did not leave her face. "I am sorry for you, Lydia," she resumed, "but I don't know that I wish he was in earnest." Lydia looked up at her in dismay. "It might be far less embarrassing the other way, however painful. He may not be at all a suitable person." The tears stood in Lydia's eyes, and all her face expressed a puzzled suspense. "Where was he from?" asked Mrs. Erwin, finally; till then she had been more interested in the lover than the man.

"Boston," mechanically answered Lydia.

"What was his name?"

"Mr. Staniford," owned Lydia, with a blush.

Her aunt seemed dispirited at the sound. "Yes, I know who they are," she sighed.

"And aren't they nice? Isn't he—suitable?" asked Lydia, tremulously.

"Oh, poor child! He's only too suitable. I can't explain to you, Lydia; but at home he wouldn't have looked at a girl like you. What sort of looking person is he?"

"He's rather—red; and he has—light hair."

"It must be the family I'm thinking of," said Mrs. Erwin. She had lived nearly twenty years in Europe, and had seldom revisited her native city; but at the sound of a Boston name she was all Bostonian again. She rapidly sketched the history of the family to which she imagined Staniford to belong. "I remember his sister; I used to see her at school. She must have been five or six years younger than I; and this boy—"

"Why, he's twenty-eight years old!" interrupted Lydia.

"How came he to tell you?"

"I don't know. He said that he looked thirty-four."

"Yes; she was always a forward thing too,—with her freckles," said Mrs. Erwin, musingly, as if lost in reminiscences, not wholly pleasing, of Miss Staniford.

"He has freckles," admitted Lydia.

"Yes, it's the one," said Mrs. Erwin. "He couldn't have known what your family was from anything you said?"

"We never talked about our families."

"Oh, I dare say! You talked about yourselves?"

"Yes."

"All the time?"

"Pretty nearly."

"And he didn't try to find out who or what you were?"

"He asked a great deal about South Bradfield."

"Of course, that was where he thought you had always belonged." Mrs. Erwin lay quiescent for a while, in apparent uncertainty as to how she should next attack the subject. "How did you first meet?"

Lydia began with the scene on Lucas Wharf, and little by little told the whole story up to the moment of their parting at Trieste. There were lapses and pauses in the story, which her aunt was never at a loss to fill aright. At the end she said, "If it were not for his promising to come here and see you, I should say Mr. Staniford had been flirting, and as it is he may not regard it as anything more than flirtation. Of course, there was his being jealous of Mr. Dunham and Mr. Hicks, as he certainly was; and his wanting to explain about that lady at Messina—yes, that looked peculiar; but he may not have meant anything by it. His parting so at Trieste with you, that might be either because he was embarrassed at its having got to be such a serious thing, or because he really felt badly. Lydia," she asked at last, "what made you think he cared for you?"

"I don't know," said the girl; her voice had sunk to a husky whisper. "I didn't believe it till he said he wanted me to be his—conscience, and tried to make me say he was good, and—"

"That's a certain kind of man's way of flirting. It may mean nothing at all. I could tell in an instant, if I saw him."

"He said he would be here this afternoon," murmured Lydia, tremulously.

"This afternoon!" cried Mrs. Erwin. "I must get up!"

At her toilette she had the exaltation and fury of a champion arming for battle.

William Dean Howells

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