Chapter XXI

When Colville came to himself his first sensation was delight in the softness and smoothness of the turf on which he lay. Then the strange colour of the grass commended itself to his notice, and presently he perceived that the thing under his head was a pillow, and that he was in bed. He was supported in this conclusion by the opinion of the young man who sat watching him a little way off, and who now smiled cheerfully at the expression in the eyes which Colville turned inquiringly upon him.

"Where am I?" he asked, with what appeared to him very unnecessary feebleness of voice.

The young man begged his pardon in Italian, and when Colville repeated his question in that tongue, he told him that he was in Palazzo Pinti, whither he had been brought from the scene of his accident. He added that Colville must not talk till the doctor had seen him and given him leave, and he explained that he was himself a nurse from the hospital, who had been taking care of him.

Colville moved his head and felt the bandage upon it; he desisted in his attempt to lift his right arm to it before the attendant could interfere in behalf of the broken limb. He recalled dimly and fragmentarily long histories that he had dreamed, but he forbore to ask how long he had been in his present case, and he accepted patiently the apparition of the doctor and other persons who came and went, and were at his bedside or not there, as it seemed to him, between the opening and closing of an eye. As the days passed they acquired greater permanence and maintained a more uninterrupted identity. He was able to make quite sure of Mr. Morton and of Mr. Waters; Mrs. Bowen came in, leading Effie, and this gave him a great pleasure. Mrs. Bowen seemed to have grown younger and better. Imogene was not among the phantoms who visited him; and he accepted her absence as quiescently as he accepted the presence of the others. There was a cheerfulness in those who came that permitted him no anxiety, and he was too weak to invite it by any conjecture. He consented to be spared and to spare himself; and there were some things about the affair which gave him a singular and perhaps not wholly sane content. One of these was the man nurse who had evidently taken care of him throughout. He celebrated, whenever he looked at this capable person, his escape from being, in the odious helplessness of sickness, a burden upon the strength and sympathy of the two women for whom he had otherwise made so much trouble. His satisfaction in this had much to do with his recovery, which, when it once began, progressed rapidly to a point where he was told that Imogene and her mother were at a hotel in Florence, waiting till he should be strong enough to see them. It was Mrs. Bowen who told him this with an air which she visibly strove to render non-committal and impersonal, but which betrayed, nevertheless, a faint apprehension for the effect upon him. The attitude of Imogene and her mother was certainly not one to have been expected of people holding their nominal relation to him, but Colville had been revising his impressions of events on the day of his accident; Imogene's last look came back to him, and he could not think the situation altogether unaccountable.

"Have I been here a long time?" he asked, as if he had not heeded what she told him.

"About a fortnight," answered Mrs. Bowen.

"And Imogene--how long has she been away?"

"Since they knew you would get well."

"I will see them any time," he said quietly.

"Do you think you are strong enough?"

"I shall never be stronger till I have seen them," he returned, with a glance at her. "Yes; I want them to come to-day. I shall not be excited; don't be troubled--if you were going to be," he added. "Please send to them at once."

Mrs. Bowen hesitated, but after a moment left the room. She returned in half an hour with a lady who revealed even to Colville's languid regard evidences of the character which Mrs. Bowen had attributed to Imogene's mother. She was a large, robust person, laced to sufficient shapeliness, and she was well and simply dressed. She entered the room with a waft of some clean, wholesome perfume, and a quiet temperament and perfect health looked out of her clear, honest eyes--the eyes of Imogene Graham, though the girl's were dark and the woman's were blue. When Mrs. Bowen had named them to each other, in withdrawing, Mrs. Graham took Colville's weak left hand in her fresh, strong, right, and then lifted herself a chair to his bedside, and sat down.

"How do you do to-day, sir?" she said, with a touch of old-fashioned respectfulness in the last word. "Do you think you are quite strong enough to talk with me?"

"I think so," said Colville, with a faint smile. "At least I can listen with fortitude."

Mrs. Graham was not apparently a person adapted to joking. "I don't know whether it will require much fortitude to hear what I have to say or not," she said, with her keen gaze fixed upon him. "It's simply this: I am going to take Imogene home."

She seemed to expect that Colville would make some reply to this, and he said blankly, "Yes?"

"I came out prepared to consent to what she wished, after I had seen you, and satisfied myself that she was not mistaken; for I had always promised myself that her choice should be perfectly untrammelled, and I have tried to bring her up with principles and ideas that would enable her to make a good choice."

"Yes," said Colville again. "I'm afraid you didn't take her temperament and her youth into account, and that she disappointed you."

"No; I can't say that she did. It isn't that at all. I see no reason to blame her for her choice. Her mistake was of another kind."

It appeared to Colville that this very sensible and judicial lady found an intellectual pleasure in the analysis of the case, which modified the intensity of her maternal feeling in regard to it, and that, like many people who talk well, she liked to hear herself talk in the presence of another appreciative listener. He did not offer to interrupt her, and she went on. "No, sir, I am not disappointed in her choice. I think her chances of happiness would have been greater, in the abstract, with one nearer her own age; but that is a difference which other things affect so much that it did not alarm me greatly. Some people are younger at your age than at hers. No, sir, that is not the point." Mrs. Graham fetched a sigh, as if she found it easier to say what was not the point than to say what was, and her clear gaze grew troubled. But she apparently girded herself for the struggle. "As far as you are concerned, Mr. Colville, I have not a word to say. Your conduct throughout has been most high-minded and considerate and delicate."

It is hard for any man to deny merits attributed to him, especially if he has been ascribing to himself the opposite demerits. But Colville summoned his dispersed forces to protest against this.

"Oh, no, no," he cried. "Anything but that. My conduct has been selfish and shameful. If you could understand all--"

"I think I do understand all--at least far more, I regret to say, than my daughter has been willing to tell me. And I am more than satisfied with you. I thank you and honour you."

"Oh no; don't say that," pleaded Colville. "I really can't stand it."

"And when I came here it was with the full intention of approving and confirming Imogene's decision. But I was met at once by a painful and surprising state of things. You are aware that you have been very sick?"

"Dimly," said Colville.

"I found you very sick, and I found my daughter frantic at the error which she had discovered in herself--discovered too late, as she felt." Mrs. Graham hesitated, and then added abruptly, "She had found out that she did not love you."

"Didn't love me?" repeated Colville feebly.

"She had been conscious of the truth before, but she had stifled her misgivings insanely, and, as I feel, almost wickedly, pushing on, and saying to herself that when you were married, then there would be no escape, and she must love you."

"Poor girl! poor child! I see, I see."

"But the accident that was almost your death saved her from that miserable folly and iniquity. Yes," she continued, in answer to the protest in his face, "folly and iniquity. I found her half crazed at your bedside. She was fully aware of your danger, but while she was feeling all the remorse that she ought to feel--that any one could feel--she was more and more convinced that she never had loved you and never should. I can give you no idea of her state of mind."

"Oh, you needn't! you needn't! Poor, poor child!"

"Yes, a child indeed. If it had not been for the pity I felt for her--But no matter about that. She saw at last that if your heroic devotion to her"--Colville did his best to hang his pillowed head for shame--"if your present danger did not awaken her to some such feeling for you as she had once imagined she had; if they both only increased her despair and self-abhorrence, then the case was indeed hopeless. She was simply distracted. I had to tear her away almost by force. She has had a narrow escape from brain-fever. And now I have come to implore, to demand"--Mrs. Graham, with all her poise and calm, was rising to the hysterical key--"her release from a fate that would be worse than death for such a girl. I mean marrying without the love of her whole soul. She esteems you, she respects you, she admires you, she likes you; but--" Mrs. Graham pressed her lips together, and her eyes shone.

"She is free," said Colville, and with the words a mighty load rolled from his heart. "There is no need to demand anything."

"I know."

"There hasn't been an hour, an instant, during--since I--we--spoke together that I wouldn't have released her if I could have known what you tell me now."

"Of course!--of course!"

"I have had my fears--my doubts; but whenever I approached the point I found no avenue by which we could reach a clearer understanding. I could not say much without seeming to seek for myself the release I was offering her."

"Naturally. And what added to her wretchedness was the suspicion at the bottom of all that she had somehow forced herself upon you-- misunderstood you, and made you say and do things to spare her that you would not have done voluntarily." This was advanced tentatively. In the midst of his sophistications Colville had, as most of his sex have, a native, fatal, helpless truthfulness, which betrayed him at the most unexpected moments, and this must now have appeared in his countenance. The lady rose haughtily. She had apparently been considering him, but, after all, she must have been really considering her daughter. "If anything of the kind was the case," she said, "I will ask you to spare her the killing knowledge. It's quite enough for me to know it. And allow me to say, Mr. Colville, that it would have been far kinder in you--"

"Ah, think, my dear madam!" he exclaimed. "How could I?"

She did think, evidently, and when she spoke it was with a generous emotion, in which there was no trace of pique.

"You couldn't. You have done right; I feel that, and I will trust you to say anything you will to my daughter."

"To your daughter? Shall I see her?"

"She came with me. She wished to beg your forgiveness."

Colville lay silent. "There is no forgiveness to be asked or granted," he said, at length. "Why should she suffer the pain of seeing me?--for it would be nothing else. What do you think? Will it do her any good hereafter? I don't care for myself."

"I don't know what to think," said Mrs. Graham. "She is a strange child. She may have some idea of reparation."

"Oh, beseech her from me not to imagine that any reparation is due! Where there has been an error there must be blame; but wherever it lies in ours, I am sure it isn't at her door. Tell her I say this; tell her that I acquit her with all my heart of every shadow of wrong; that I am not unhappy, but glad for her sake and my own that this has ended as it has." He stretched his left hand across the coverlet to her, and said, with the feebleness of exhaustion, "Good-bye. Bid her good-bye for me."

Mrs. Graham pressed his hand and went out. A moment after the door was flung open, and Imogene burst into the room. She threw herself on her knees beside his bed. "I will pray to you!" she said, her face intense with the passions working in her soul. She seemed choking with words which would not come; then, with an inarticulate cry that must stand for all, she caught up the hand that lay limp on the coverlet; she crushed it against her lips, and ran out of the room.

He sank into a deathly torpor, the physical refusal of his brain to take account of what had passed. When he woke from it, little Effie Bowen was airily tiptoeing about the room, fondly retouching its perfect order. He closed his eyes, and felt her come to him and smooth the sheet softly under his chin. Then he knew she must be standing with clasped hands admiring the effect. Some one called her in whisper from the door. It closed, and all was still again.