Indian Summer by William D. Howells
Colville went to Palazzo Pinti next day with the feeling that he was defying Mrs. Bowen. Upon a review of the facts he could not find himself so very much to blame for the occurrences of the night before, and he had not been able to prove to his reason that Mrs. Bowen had resented his behaviour. She had not made a scene of any sort when he came in with Imogene; it was natural that she should excuse herself, and should wish to be with her sick child: she had done really nothing. But when a woman has done nothing she fills the soul of the man whose conscience troubles him with an instinctive apprehension. There is then no safety, his nerves tell him, except in bringing the affair, whatever it is, to an early issue--in having it out with her. Colville subdued the cowardly impulse of his own heart, which would have deceived him with the suggestion that Mrs. Bowen might be occupied with Effie, and it would be better to ask for Miss Graham. He asked for Mrs. Bowen, and she came in directly.
She smiled in the usual way, and gave her hand, as she always did; but her hand was cold, and she looked tired, though she said Effie was quite herself again, and had been asking for him. "Imogene has been telling her about your adventure last night, and making her laugh."
If it had been Mrs. Bowen's purpose to mystify him, she could not have done it more thoroughly than by this bold treatment of the affair. He bent a puzzled gaze upon her. "I'm glad any of you have found it amusing," he said;--"I confess that I couldn't let myself off so lightly in regard to it." She did not reply, and he continued: "The fact is, I don't think I behaved very well. I abused your kindness to Miss Graham."
"Abused my kindness to Miss Graham?"
"Yes. When you allowed her to dance at the veglione, I ought to have considered that you were stretching a point. I ought to have taken her back to you very soon, instead of tempting her to go and walk with me in the corridor."
"Yes," said Mrs. Bowen. "So it was you who proposed it? Imogene was afraid that she had. What exemplary young people you are! The way each of you confesses and assumes all the blame would leave the severest chaperone without a word."
Her gaiety made Colville uncomfortable. He said gravely, "What I blame myself most for is that I was not there to be of use to you when Effie----"
"Oh, you mustn't think of that at all. Mr. Waters was most efficient. My admirer in the red mask was close at hand, and between them they got Effie out without the slightest disturbance. I fancy most people thought it was a Carnival joke. Please don't think of that again."
Nothing could be politer than all this.
"And you won't allow me to punish myself for not being there to give you even a moral support?"
"Certainly not. As I told Imogene, young people will be young people; and I knew how fond you were of dancing."
Though it pierced him, Colville could not help admiring the neatness of this thrust. "I didn't know you were so ironical, Mrs. Bowen."
"Ironical? Not at all."
"Ah! I see I'm not forgiven."
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean."
Imogene and Effie came in. The child was a little pale, and willingly let him take her on his knee, and lay her languid head on his shoulder. The girl had not aged overnight like himself and Mrs. Bowen; she looked as fresh and strong as yesterday.
"Miss Graham," said Colville, "if a person to whom you had done a deadly wrong insisted that you hadn't done any wrong at all, should you consider yourself forgiven?"
"It would depend upon the person," said the girl, with innocent liveliness, recognising the extravagance in his tone.
"Yes," he said, with an affected pensiveness, "so very much depends upon the person in such a case."
Mrs. Bowen rose. "Excuse me a moment; I will be back directly. Don't get up, please," she said, and prevented him with a quick withdrawal to another room, which left upon his sense the impression of elegant grace, and a smile and sunny glance. But neither had any warmth in it.
Colville heaved an involuntary sigh. "Do you feel very much used up?" he asked Imogene.
"Not at all," she laughed. "Do you?"
"Not in the least. My veglione hasn't ended yet. I'm still practically at the Pergola. It's easy to keep a thing of that sort up if you don't sleep after you get home."
"Didn't you sleep? I expected to lie awake a long time thinking it over; but I dropped asleep at once. I suppose I was very tired. I didn't even dream."
"You must have slept hard. You're pretty apt to dream when you're waking."
"How do you know?"
"Ah, I've noticed when you've been talking to me. Better not! It's a bad habit; it gives you false views of things. I used----"
"But you mustn't say you used! That's forbidden now. Remember your promise!"
"My promise? What promise?"
"Oh, if you've forgotten already."
"I remember. But that was last night."
"No, no! It was for all time. Why should dreams be so very misleading? I think there's ever so much in dreams. The most wonderful thing is the way you make people talk in dreams. It isn't strange that you should talk yourself, but that other people should say this and that when you aren't at all expecting what they say."
"That's when you're sleeping. But when you're waking, you make people say just what you want. And that's why day dreams are so bad. If you make people say what you want, they probably don't mean it."
"Don't you think so?"
"Half the time. Do you ever have day dreams?" he asked Effie, pressing her cheek against his own.
"I don't know what they are," she murmured, with a soft little note of polite regret for her ignorance, if possibly it incommoded him.
"You will by and by," he said, "and then you must look out for them. They're particularly bad in this air. I had one of them in Florence once that lasted three months."
"What was it about?" asked the child.
Imogene involuntarily bent forward.
"Ah, I can't tell you now. She's trying to hear us."
"No, no," protested the girl, with a laugh. "I was thinking of something else."
"Oh, we know her, don't we?" he said to the child, with a playful appeal to that passion for the joint possession of a mystery which all children have.
"We might whisper it," she suggested.
"No; better wait for some other time." They were sitting near a table where a pencil and some loose leaves of paper lay. He pulled his chair a little closer, and, with the child still upon his knee, began to scribble and sketch at random. "Ah, there's San Miniato," he said, with a glance from the window. "Must get its outline in. You've heard how there came to be a church up there? No? Well, it shows the sort of man San Miniato really was. He was one of the early Christians, and he gave the poor pagans a great deal of trouble. They first threw him to the wild beasts in the amphitheatre, but the moment those animals set eyes on him they saw it would be of no use; they just lay down and died. Very well, then; the pagans determined to see what effect the axe would have upon San Miniato: but as soon as they struck off his head he picked it up, set it back on his shoulders again, waded across the Arno, walked up the hill, and when he came to a convenient little oratory up there he knelt down and expired. Isn't that a pretty good story? It's like fairies, isn't it?"
"Yes," whispered the child.
"What nonsense!" said Imogene. "You made it up."
"Oh, did I? Perhaps I built the church that stands there to commemorate the fact. It's all in the history of Florence. Not in all histories; some of them are too proud to put such stories in, but I'm going to put every one I can find into the history I'm writing for Effie. San Miniato was beheaded where the church of Santa Candida stands now, and he walked all that distance."
"Did he have to die when he got to the oratory?" asked the child, with gentle regret.
"It appears so," said Colville, sketching. "He would have been dead by this time, anyway, you know."
"Yes," she reluctantly admitted.
"I never quite like those things, either, Effie," he said, pressing her to him. "There were people cruelly put to death two or three thousand years ago that I can't help feeling would be alive yet if they had been justly treated. There are a good many fairy stories about Florence; perhaps they used to be true stories; the truth seems to die out of stories after a while, simply because people stop believing them. Saint Ambrose of Milan restored the son of his host to life when he came down here to dedicate the Church of San Giovanni. Then there was another saint, San Zenobi, who worked a very pretty miracle after he was dead. They were carrying his body from the Church of San Giovanni to the Church of Santa Reparata, and in Piazza San Giovanni his bier touched a dead elm-tree that stood there, and the tree instantly sprang into leaf and flower, though it was in the middle of the winter. A great many people took the leaves home with them, and a marble pillar was put up there, with a cross and an elm-tree carved on it. Oh, the case is very well authenticated."
"I shall really begin to think you believe such things," said Imogene. "Perhaps you are a Catholic."
Mrs. Bowen returned to the room, and sat down.
"There's another fairy story, prettier yet," said Colville, while the little girl drew a long deep breath of satisfaction and expectation. "You've heard of the Buondelmonti?" he asked Imogene.
"Oh, it seems to me as if I'd had nothing but the Buondelmonti dinned into me since I came to Florence!" she answered in lively despair.
"Ah, this happened some centuries before the Buondelmonte you've been bored with was born. This was Giovanni Gualberto of the Buondelmonti, and he was riding along one day in 1003, near the Church of San Miniato, when he met a certain man named Ugo, who had killed one of his brothers. Gualberto stopped and drew his sword; Ugo saw no other chance of escape, and he threw himself face downward on the ground, with his arms stretched out in the form of the cross. 'Gualberto, remember Jesus Christ, who died upon the cross praying for His enemies.' The story says that these words went to Gualberto's heart; he got down from his horse, and in sign of pardon lifted his enemy and kissed and embraced him. Then they went together into the church, and fell on their knees before the figure of Christ upon the cross, and the figure bowed its head in sign of approval and pleasure in Gualberto's noble act of Christian piety."
"Beautiful!" murmured the girl; the child only sighed.
"Ah, yes; it's an easy matter to pick up one's head from the ground, and set it back on one's shoulders, or to bring the dead to life, or to make a tree put forth leaves and flowers in midwinter; but to melt the heart of a man with forgiveness in the presence of his enemy--that's a different thing; that's no fairy story; that's a real miracle; and I believe this one happened--it's so impossible."
"Oh yes, it must have happened," said the girl.
"Do you think it's so very hard to forgive, then?" asked Mrs. Bowen gravely.
"Oh, not for ladies," replied Colville.
She flushed, and her eyes shone when she glanced at him.
"I'm sorry to put you down," he said to the child; "but I can't take you with me, and I must be going."
Mrs. Bowen did not ask him to stay to lunch; he thought afterward that she might have relented as far as that but for the last little thrust, which he would better have spared.
"Effie dear," said her mother, when the door closed upon Colville, "don't you think you'd better lie down a while? You look so tired."
"Shall I lie down on the sofa here?"
"No, on your bed."
"I'll go with you, Effie," said Imogene, "and see that you're nicely tucked in."
When she returned alone, Mrs. Bowen was sitting where she had left her, and seemed not to have moved. "I think Effie will drop off to sleep," she said; "she seems drowsy." She sat down, and after a pensive moment continued, "I wonder what makes Mr. Colville seem so gloomy."
"Does he seem gloomy?" asked Mrs. Bowen unsympathetically.
"No, not gloomy exactly. But different from last night. I wish people could always be the same! He was so gay and full of spirits; and now he's so self-absorbed. He thinks you're offended with him, Mrs. Bowen."
"I don't think he was very much troubled about it. I only thought he was flighty from want of sleep. At your age you don't mind the loss of a night."
"Do you think Mr. Colville seems so very old?" asked Imogene anxiously.
Mrs. Bowen appeared not to have heard her. She went to the window and looked out. When she came back, "Isn't it almost time for you to have a letter from home?" she asked.
"Why, no. I had one from mother day before yesterday. What made you think so?"
"Imogene," interrupted Mrs. Bowen, with a sudden excitement which she tried to control, but which made her lips tremble, and break a little from her restraint, "you know that I am here in the place of your mother, to advise you and look after you in every way?"
"Why, yes, Mrs. Bowen," cried the girl, in surprise.
"It's a position of great responsibility in regard to a young lady. I can't have anything to reproach myself with afterward."
"Have I always been kind to you, and considerate of your rights and your freedom? Have I ever interfered with you in any way that you think I oughtn't?"
"What an idea! You've been loveliness itself, Mrs. Bowen!"
"Then I want you to listen to me, and answer me frankly, and not suspect my motives."
"Why, how could I do that?"
"Never mind!" cried Mrs. Bowen impatiently, almost angrily. "People can't help their suspicions! Do you think Mr. Morton cares for you?"
The girl hung her head.
"Imogene, answer me!"
"I don't know," answered Imogene coldly; "but if you're troubled about that, Mrs. Bowen, you needn't be; I don't care anything for Mr. Morton."
"If I thought you were becoming interested in any one, it would be my duty to write to your mother and tell her."
"Of course; I should expect you to do it."
"And if I saw you becoming interested in any one in a way that I thought would make you unhappy, it would be my duty to warn you."
"Of course, I don't mean that any one would knowingly try to make you unhappy?"
"Men don't go about nowadays trying to break girls' hearts. But very good men can be thoughtless and selfish."
"Yes; I understand that," said Imogene, in a falling accent.
"I don't wish to prejudice you against any one. I should consider it very wrong and wicked. Besides, I don't care to interfere with you to that degree. You are old enough to see and judge for yourself."
Imogene sat silent, passing her hand across the front of her dress. The clock ticked audibly from the mantel.
"I will not have it left to me!" cried Mrs. Bowen. "It is hard enough, at any rate. Do you think I like to speak to you?"
"Of course it makes me seem inhospitable, and distrustful, and detestable."
"I never thought of accusing you," said the girl, slowly lifting her eyes.
"I will never, never speak to you of it again," said Mrs. Bowen, "and from this time forth I insist upon your feeling just as free as if I hadn't spoken." She trembled upon the verge of a sob, from which she repelled herself.
Imogene sat still, with a sort of serious, bewildered look.
"You shall have every proper opportunity of meeting any one you like."
"And I shall be only too gl-glad to take back everything!"
Imogene sat motionless and silent. Mrs. Bowen broke out again with a sort of violence; the years teach us something of self-control, perhaps, but they weaken and unstring the nerves. In this opposition of silence to silence, the woman of the world was no match for the inexperienced girl.
"Have you nothing to say, Imogene?"
"I never thought of him in that way at all. I don't know what to say yet. It--confuses me. I--I can't imagine it. But if you think that he is trying to amuse himself----"
"I never said that!"
"No, I know it."
"He likes to make you talk, and to talk with you. But he is perfectly idle here, and--there is too much difference, every way. The very good in him makes it the worse. I suppose that after talking with him every one else seems insipid."
Mrs. Bowen rose and ran suddenly from the room.
Imogene remained sitting cold and still.
No one had been named since they spoke of Mr. Morton.