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Chapter 24

XXIV.

The tide of travel began to set northward in April. Many English, many Americans appeared in Florence from Naples and Rome; many who had wintered in Florence went on to Venice and the towns of northern Italy, on their way to Switzerland and France and Germany.

The spring was cold and rainy, and the irresolute Italian railroads were interrupted by the floods. A tawny deluge rolled down from the mountains through the bed of the Arno, and kept the Florentine fire-department on the alert night and day. "It is a curious thing about this country," said Mr. Hinkle, encountering Baron Belsky on the Ponte Trinita, "that the only thing they ever have here for a fire company to put out is a freshet. If they had a real conflagration once, I reckon they would want to bring their life-preservers."

The Russian was looking down over the parapet at the boiling river. He lifted his head as if he had not heard the American, and stared at him a moment before he spoke. "It is said that the railway to Rome is broken at Grossetto."

"Well, I'm not going to Rome," said Hinkle, easily. "Are you?"

"I was to meet a friend there; but he wrote to me that he was starting to Florence, and now—"

"He's resting on the way? Well, he'll get here about as quick as he would in the ordinary course of travel. One good thing about Italy is, you don't want to hurry; if you did, you'd get left."

Belsky stared at him in the stupefaction to which the American humor commonly reduced him. "If he gets left on the Grossetto line, he can go back and come up by Orvieto, no?"

"He can, if he isn't in a hurry," Hinkle assented.

"It's a good way, if you've got time to burn."

Belsky did not attempt to explore the American's meaning. "Do you know," he asked, "whether Mrs. Lander and her young friend are still in Florence?

"I guess they are."

"It was said they were going to Venice for the summer."

"That's what the doctor advised for the old lady. But they don't start for a week or two yet."

"Oh!"

"Are you going to Miss Milray's, Sunday night? Last of the season, I believe."

Belsky seemed to recall himself from a distance.

"No—no," he said, and he moved away, forgetful of the ceremonious salutation which he commonly used at meeting and parting. Hinkle looked after him with the impression people have of a difference in the appearance and behavior of some one whose appearance and behavior do not particularly concern them.

The day that followed, Belsky haunted the hotel where Gregory was to arrive with his pupil, and where the pupil's family were waiting for them. That night, long after their belated train was due, they came; the pupil was with his father and mother, and Gregory was alone, when Belsky asked for him, the fourth or fifth time.

"You are not well," he said, as they shook hands. "You are fevered!"

"I'm tired," said Gregory. "We've bad a bad time getting through."

"I come inconveniently! You have not dined, perhaps?"

"Yes, Yes. I've had dinner. Sit down. How have you been yourself?"

"Oh, always well." Belsky sat down, and the friends stared at each other. "I have strange news for you."

"For me?"

"You. She is here."

"She?"

"Yes. The young girl of whom you told me. If I had not forbidden myself by my loyalty to you—if I had not said to myself every moment in her presence, 'No, it is for your friend alone that she is beautiful and good!'—But you will have nothing to reproach me in that regard."

"What do you mean?" demanded Gregory.

"I mean that Miss Claxon is in Florence, with her protectress, the rich Mrs. Lander. The most admired young lady in society, going everywhere, and everywhere courted and welcomed; the favorite of the fashionable Miss Milray. But why should this surprise you?"

"You said nothing about it in your letters. You—"

"I was not sure it was she; you never told me her name. When I had divined the fact, I was so soon to see you, that I thought best to keep it till we met."

Gregory tried to speak, but he let Belsky go on.

"If you think that the world has spoiled her, that she will be different from what she was in her home among your mountains, let me reassure you. In her you will find the miracle of a woman whom no flattery can turn the head. I have watched her in your interest; I have tested her. She is what you saw her last."

"Surely," asked Gregory, in an anguish for what he now dreaded, "you haven't spoken to her of me?"

"Not by name, no. I could not have that indiscretion—"

"The name is nothing. Have you said that you knew me—Of course not! But have you hinted at any knowledge—Because—"

"You will hear!" said Belsky; and he poured out upon Gregory the story of what he had done. "She did not deny anything. She was greatly moved, but she did not refuse to let me bid you hope—"

"Oh!" Gregory took his head between his hands. "You have spoiled my life!"

"Spoiled" Belsky stopped aghast.

"I told you my story in a moment of despicable weakness—of impulsive folly. But how could I dream that you would ever meet her? How could I imagine that you would speak to her as you have done?" He groaned, and began to creep giddily about the room in his misery. "Oh, oh, oh! What shall I do?"

"But I do not understand!" Belsky began. "If I have committed an error—"

"Oh, an error that never could be put right in all eternity!"

"Then let me go to her—let me tell her—"

"Keep away from her!" shouted Gregory. "Do you hear? Never go near her again!"

"Gregory!"

"Ah, I beg your pardon! I don't know what I'm doing-saying. What will she think—what will she think of me!" He had ceased to speak to Belsky; he collapsed into a chair, and hid his face in his arms stretched out on the table before him.

Belsky watched him in the stupefaction which the artistic nature feels when life proves sentient under its hand, and not the mere material of situations and effects. He could not conceive the full measure of the disaster he had wrought, the outrage of his own behavior had been lost to him in his preoccupation with the romantic end to be accomplished. He had meant to be the friend, the prophet, to these American lovers, whom he was reconciling and interpreting to each other; but in some point he must have misunderstood. Yet the error was not inexpiable; and in his expiation he could put the seal to his devotion. He left the room, where Gregory made no effort to keep him.

He walked down the street from the hotel to the Arno, and in a few moments he stood on the bridge, where he had talked with that joker in the morning, as they looked down together on the boiling river. He had a strange wish that the joker might have been with him again, to learn that there were some things which could not be joked away.

The night was blustering, and the wind that blew the ragged clouds across the face of the moon, swooped in sudden gusts upon the bridge, and the deluge rolling under it and hoarsely washing against its piers. Belsky leaned over the parapet and looked down into the eddies and currents as the fitful light revealed them. He had a fantastic pleasure in studying them, and choosing the moment when he should leap the parapet and be lost in them. The incident could not be used in any novel of his, and no one else could do such perfect justice to the situation, but perhaps afterwards, when the facts leading to his death should be known through the remorse of the lovers whom he had sought to serve, some other artist-nature could distil their subtlest meaning in a memoir delicate as the aroma of a faded flower.

He was willing to make this sacrifice, too, and he stepped back a pace from the parapet when the fitful blast caught his hat from his head, and whirled it along the bridge. The whole current of his purpose changed, and as if it had been impossible to drown himself in his bare head, he set out in chase of his hat, which rolled and gamboled away, and escaped from his clutch whenever he stooped for it, till a final whiff of wind flung it up and tossed it over the bridge into the river, where he helplessly watched it floating down the flood, till it was carried out of sight.

William Dean Howells