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Chapter 25

XXV.

Mr. Erwin entered about the completion of her preparations, and without turning round from her glass she said, "I want you to think of the worst thing you can, Henshaw. I don't see how I'm ever to lift up my head again." As if this word had reminded her of her head, she turned it from side to side, and got the effect in the glass, first of one ear-ring, and then of the other. Her husband patiently waited, and she now confronted him. "You may as well know first as last, Henshaw, and I want you to prepare yourself for it. Nothing can be done, and you will just have to live through it. Lydia—has come over—on that ship—alone,—with three young men,—and not the shadow—not the ghost—of another woman—on board!" Mrs. Erwin gesticulated with her hand-glass in delivering the words, in a manner at once intensely vivid and intensely solemn, yet somehow falling short of the due tragic effect. Her husband stood pulling his mustache straight down, while his wife turned again to the mirror, and put the final touches to her personal appearance with hands which she had the effect of having desperately washed of all responsibility. He stood so long in this meditative mood that she was obliged to be peremptory with his image in the glass. "Well?" she cried.

"Why, my dear," said Mr. Erwin, at last, "they were all Americans together, you know."

"And what difference does that make?" demanded Mrs. Erwin, whirling from his image to the man again.

"Why, of course, you know, it isn't as if they were—English." Mrs. Erwin flung down three hair-pins upon her dressing-case, and visibly despaired. "Of course you don't expect your countrymen—" His wife's appearance was here so terrible that he desisted, and resumed by saying, "Don't be vexed, my dear. I—I rather like it, you know. It strikes me as a genuine bit of American civilization."

"American civilization! Oh, Henshaw!" wailed Mrs. Erwin, "is it possible that after all I've said, and done, and lived, you still think that any one but a girl from the greenest little country place could do such a thing as that? Well, it is no use trying to enlighten English people. You like it, do you? Well, I'm not sure that the Englishman who misunderstands American things and likes them isn't a little worse than the Englishman who misunderstands them and dislikes them. You all misunderstand them. And would you like it, if one of the young men had been making love to Lydia?"

The amateur of our civilization hesitated and was serious, but he said at last, "Why, you know, I'm not surprised. She's so uncommonly pretty. I—I suppose they're engaged?" he suggested.

His wife held her peace for scorn. Then she said, "The gentleman is of a very good Boston family, and would no more think of engaging himself to a young girl without the knowledge of her friends than you would. Besides, he's been in Europe a great deal."

"I wish I could meet some Americans who hadn't been in Europe," said Mr. Erwin. "I should like to see what you call the simon-pure American. As for the young man's not engaging himself, it seems to me that he didn't avail himself of his national privileges. I should certainly have done it in his place, if I'd been an American."

"Well, if you'd been an American, you wouldn't," answered his wife.

"Why?"

"Because an American would have had too much delicacy."

"I don't understand that."

"I know you don't, Henshaw. And there's where you show yourself an Englishman."

"Really," said her husband, "you're beginning to crow, my dear. Come,
I like that a great deal better than your cringing to the effete
despotisms of the Old World, as your Fourth of July orators have it.
It's almost impossible to get a bit of good honest bounce out of an
American, nowadays,—to get him to spread himself, as you say."

"All that is neither here nor there, Henshaw," said his wife. "The question is how to receive Mr. Staniford—that's his name—when he comes. How are we to regard him? He's coming here to see Lydia, and she thinks he's coming to propose."

"Excuse me, but how does she regard him?"

"Oh, there's no question about that, poor child. She's dead in love with him, and can't understand why he didn't propose on shipboard."

"And she isn't an Englishman, either!" exulted Mr. Erwin. "It appears that there are Americans and Americans, and that the men of your nation have more delicacy than the women like."

"Don't be silly," said his wife. "Of course, women always think what they would do in such cases, if they were men; but if men did what women think they would do if they were men, the women would be disgusted."

"Oh!"

"Yes. Her feeling in the matter is no guide."

"Do you know his family?" asked Mr. Erwin.

"I think I do. Yes, I'm sure I do."

"Are they nice people?"

"Haven't I told you they were a good Boston family?"

"Then upon my word, I don't see that we've to take any attitude at all. I don't see that we've to regard him in one way or the other. It quite remains for him to make the first move."

As if they had been talking of nothing but dress before, Mrs. Erwin asked: "Do you think I look better in this black mexicaine, or would you wear your écru?"

"I think you look very well in this. But why—He isn't going to propose to you, I hope?"

"I must have on something decent to receive him in. What time does the train from Trieste get in?"

"At three o'clock."

"It's one, now. There's plenty of time, but there isn't any too much. I'll go and get Lydia ready. Or perhaps you'll tap on her door, Henshaw, and send her here. Of course, this is the end of her voice,—if it is the end."

"It's the end of having an extraordinarily pretty girl in the house. I don't at all like it, you know,—having her whisked away in this manner."

Mrs. Erwin refused to let her mind wander from the main point. "He'll be round as soon as he can, after he arrives. I shall expect him by four, at the latest."

"I fancy he'll stop for his dinner before he comes," said Mr. Erwin.

"Not at all," retorted his wife, haughtily. And with his going out of the room, she set her face in a resolute cheerfulness, for the task of heartening Lydia when she should appear; but it only expressed misgiving when the girl came in with her yachting-dress on. "Why, Lydia, shall you wear that?"

Lydia swept her dress with a downward glance.

"I thought I would wear it. I thought he—I should seem—more natural in it. I wore it all the time on the ship, except Sundays. He said— he liked it the best."

Mrs. Erwin shook her head. "It wouldn't do. Everything must be on a new basis now. He might like it; but it would be too romantic, wouldn't it, don't you think?" She shook her head still, but less decisively. "Better wear your silk. Don't you think you'd better wear your silk? This is very pretty, and the dark blue does become you, awfully. Still, I don't know—I don't know, either! A great many English wear those careless things in the house. Well, wear it, Lydia! You do look perfectly killing in it. I'll tell you: your uncle was going to ask you to go out in his boat; he's got one he rows himself, and this is a boating costume; and you know you could time yourselves so as to get back just right, and you could come in with this on—"

Lydia turned pale. "Oughtn't I—oughtn't I—to be here?" she faltered.

Her aunt laughed gayly. "Why, he'll ask for me, Lydia."

"For you?" asked Lydia, doubtfully.

"Yes. And I can easily keep him till you get back. If you're here by four—"

"The train," said Lydia, "arrives at three."

"How did you know?" asked her aunt, keenly.

Lydia's eyelids fell even lower than their wont.

"I looked it out in that railroad guide in the parlor."

Her aunt kissed her. "And you've thought the whole thing out, dear, haven't you? I'm glad to see you so happy about it."

"Yes," said the girl, with a fluttering breath, "I have thought it out, and I believe him. I—" She tried to say something more, but could not.

Mrs. Erwin rang the bell, and sent for her husband. "He knows about it, Lydia," she said.

"He's just as much interested as we are, dear, but you needn't be worried. He's a perfect post for not showing a thing if you don't want him to. He's really quite superhuman, in that,—equal to a woman. You can talk Americanisms with him. If we sat here staring at each other till four o'clock,—he must go to his hotel before he comes here; and I say four at the earliest; and it's much more likely to be five or six, or perhaps evening,—I should die!"

Mr. Erwin's rowing was the wonder of all Venice. There was every reason why he should fall overboard at each stroke, as he stood to propel the boat in the gondolier fashion, except that he never yet had done so. It was sometimes his fortune to be caught on the shallows by the falling tide; but on that day he safely explored the lagoons, and returned promptly at four o'clock to the palace.

His wife was standing on the balcony, looking out for them, and she smiled radiantly down into Lydia's anxiously lifted face. But when she met the girl at the head of the staircase in the great hall, she embraced her, and said, with the same gay smile, "He hasn't come yet, dear, and of course he won't come till after dinner. If I hadn't been as silly as you are, Lydia, I never should have let you expect him sooner. He'll want to go to his hotel: and no matter how impatient he is, he'll want to dress, and be a little ceremonious about his call. You know we're strangers to him, whatever you are."

"Yes," said Lydia, mechanically. She was going to sit down, as she was; of her own motion she would not have stirred from the place till he came, or it was certain he would not come; but her aunt would not permit the despair into which she saw her sinking.

She laughed resolutely, and said, "I think we must give up the little sentimentality of meeting him in that dress, now. Go and change it, Lydia. Put on your silk,—or wait: let me go with you. I want to try some little effects with your complexion. We've experimented with the simple and familiar, and now we'll see what can be done in the way of the magnificent and unexpected. I'm going to astonish the young man with a Venetian beauty; you know you look Italian, Lydia."

"Yes, he said so," answered Lydia.

"Did he? That shows he has an eye, and he'll appreciate what we are going to do."

She took Lydia to her own room, for the greater convenience of her experiments, and from that moment she did not allow her to be alone; she scarcely allowed her to be silent; she made her talk, she kept her in movement. At dinner she permitted no lapse. "Henshaw," she said, "Lydia has been telling me about a storm they had just before they reached Gibraltar. I wish you would tell her of the typhoon you were in when you first went out to India." Her husband obeyed; and then recurring to the days of his civil employment in India, he told stories of tiger-hunts, and of the Sepoy mutiny. Mrs. Erwin would not let them sit very long at table. After dinner she asked Lydia to sing, and she suffered her to sing all the American songs her uncle asked for. At eight o'clock she said with a knowing little look at Lydia, which included a sub-wink for her husband, "You may go to your café alone, this evening, Henshaw. Lydia and I are going to stay at home and talk South Bradfield gossip. I've hardly had a moment with her yet." But when he was gone, she took Lydia to her own room again, and showed her all her jewelry, and passed the time in making changes in the girl's toilette.

It was like the heroic endeavor of the arctic voyager who feels the deadly chill in his own veins, and keeps himself alive by rousing his comrade from the torpor stealing over him. They saw in each other's eyes that if they yielded a moment to the doubt in their hearts they were lost.

At ten o'clock Mrs. Erwin said abruptly, "Go to bed, Lydia!" Then the girl broke down, and abandoned herself in a storm of tears. "Don't cry, dear, don't cry," pleaded her aunt. "He will be here in the morning, I know he will. He has been delayed."

"No, he's not coming," said Lydia, through her sobs.

"Something has happened," urged Mrs. Erwin.

"No," said Lydia, as before. Her tears ceased as suddenly as they had come. She lifted her head, and drying her eyes looked into her aunt's face. "Are you ashamed of me?" she asked hoarsely.

"Ashamed of you? Oh, poor child—"

"I can't pretend anything. If I had never told you about it at all, I could have kept it back till I died. But now—But you will never hear me speak of it again. It's over." She took up her candle, and stiffly suffering the compassionate embrace with which her aunt clung to her, she walked across the great hall in the vain splendor in which she had been adorned, and shut the door behind her.

William Dean Howells

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