Indian Summer by William D. Howells
Colville got himself out of the comfort and quiet of Mrs. Bowen's house as soon as he could. He made the more haste because he felt that if he could have remained with the smallest trace of self-respect, he would have been glad to stay there for ever.
Even as it was, the spring had advanced to early summer, and the sun was lying hot and bright in the piazzas, and the shade dense and cool in the narrow streets, before he left Palazzo Pinti; the Lung' Arno was a glare of light that struck back from the curving line of the buff houses; the river had shrivelled to a rill in its bed; the black cypresses were dim in the tremor of the distant air on the hill-slopes beyond; the olives seemed to swelter in the sun, and the villa walls to burn whiter and whiter. At evening the mosquito began to wind his tiny horn. It was the end of May, and nearly everybody but the Florentines had gone out of Florence, dispersing to Villa Reggio by the sea, to the hills of Pistoja, and to the high, cool air of Siena. More than once Colville had said that he was keeping Mrs. Bowen after she ought to have got away, and she had answered that she liked hot weather, and that this was not comparable to the heat of Washington in June. She was looking very well, and younger and prettier than she had since the first days of their renewed acquaintance in the winter. Her southern complexion enriched itself in the sun; sometimes when she came into his room from outdoors the straying brown hair curled into loose rings on her temples, and her cheeks glowed a deep red.
She said those polite things to appease him as long as he was not well enough to go away, but she did not try to detain him after his strength sufficiently returned. It was the blow on the head that kept him longest. After his broken arm and his other bruises were quite healed, he was aware of physical limits to thinking of the future or regretting the past, and this sense of his powerlessness went far to reconcile him to a life of present inaction and oblivion. Theoretically he ought to have been devoured by remorse and chagrin, but as a matter of fact he suffered very little from either. Even in people who are in full possession of their capacity for mental anguish one observes that after they have undergone a certain amount of pain they cease to feel.
Colville amused himself a good deal with Effie's endeavours to entertain him and take care of him. The child was with him every moment that she could steal from her tasks, and her mother no longer attempted to stem the tide of her devotion. It was understood that Effie should joke and laugh with Mr. Colville as much as she chose; that she should fan him as long as he could stand it; that she should read to him when he woke, and watch him when he slept. She brought him his breakfast, she petted him and caressed him, and wished to make him a monster of dependence and self-indulgence. It seemed to grieve her that he got well so fast.
The last night before he left the house she sat on his knee by the window looking out beyond the firefly twinkle of Oltrarno, to the silence and solid dark of the solemn company of hills beyond. They had not lighted the lamps because of the mosquitoes, and they had talked till her head dropped against his shoulder.
Mrs. Bowen came in to get her. "Why, is she asleep?"
"Yes. Don't take her yet," said Colville.
Mrs. Bowen rustled softly into the chair which Effie had left to get into Colville's lap. Neither of them spoke, and he was so richly content with the peace, the tacit sweetness of the little moment, that he would have been glad to have it silently endure forever. If any troublesome question of his right to such a moment of bliss obtruded itself upon him, he did not concern himself with it.
"We shall have another hot day to-morrow," said Mrs. Bowen at length. "I hope you will find your room comfortable."
"Yes: it's at the back of the hotel, mighty high, and wide, and no sun ever comes into it except when they show it to foreigners in winter. Then they get a few rays to enter as a matter of business, on condition that they won't detain them. I dare say I shall stay there some time. I suppose you will be getting away from Florence very soon.
"Yes. But I haven't decided where to go yet."
"Should you like some general expression of my gratitude for all you've done for me, Mrs. Bowen?"
"No; I would rather not. It has been a great pleasure--to Effie."
"Oh, a luxury beyond the dreams of avarice." They spoke in low tones, and there was something in the hush that suggested to Colville the feasibility of taking into his unoccupied hand one of the pretty hands which the pale night-light showed him lying in Mrs. Bowen's lap. But he forbore, and only sighed. "Well, then, I will say nothing. But I shall keep on thinking all my life."
She made no answer.
"When you are gone, I shall have to make the most of Mr. Waters," he said.
"He is going to stop all summer, I believe."
"Oh yes. When I suggested to him the other day that he might find it too hot, he said that he had seventy New England winters to thaw out of his blood, and that all the summers he had left would not be more than he needed. One of his friends told him that he could cook eggs in his piazza in August, and he said that he should like nothing better than to cook eggs there. He's the most delightfully expatriated compatriot I've ever seen."
"Do you like it?"
"It's well enough for him. Life has no claims on him any more. I think it's very pleasant over here, now that everybody's gone," added Colville, from a confused resentfulness of collectively remembered Days and Afternoons and Evenings. "How still the night is!"
A few feet clapping by on the pavement below alone broke the hush.
"Sometimes I feel very tired of it all, and want to get home," sighed Mrs. Bowen.
"Well, so do I."
"I can't believe it's right staying away from the country so long." People often say such things in Europe.
"No, I don't either, if you've got anything to do there."
"You can always make something to do there."
"Oh yes." Some young young men, breaking from a street near by, began to sing. "We shouldn't have that sort of thing at home."
"No," said Mrs. Bowen pensively.
"I heard just such singing before I fell asleep the night after that party at Madame Uccelli's, and it filled me with fury."
"Why should it do that?"
"I don't know. It seemed like voices from our youth--Lina."
She had no resentment of his use of her name in the tone with which she asked: "Did you hate that so much?"
"No; the loss of it."
They both fetched a deep breath.
"The Uccellis have a villa near the baths of Lucca," said Mrs. Bowen. "They have asked me to go."
"Do you think of going?" inquired Colville. "I've always fancied it must be pleasant there."
"No; I declined. Sometimes I think I will just stay on in Florence."
"I dare say you'd find it perfectly comfortable. There's nothing like having the range of one's own house in summer." He looked out of the window on the blue-black sky.
"'And deepening through their silent spheres, Heaven over heaven rose the night,'"
he quoted. "It's wonderful! Do you remember how I used to read Mariana in the South to you and poor Jenny? How it must have bored her! What an ass I was!"
"Yes," said Mrs. Bowen breathlessly, in sympathy with his reminiscence rather than in agreement with his self-denunciation.
Colville broke into a laugh, and then she began to laugh to; but not quite willingly as it seemed.
Effie started from her sleep. "What--what is it?" she asked, stretching and shivering as half-wakened children do.
"Bed-time," said her mother promptly, taking her hand to lead her away. "Say good-night to Mr. Colville."
The child turned and kissed him. "Good night," she murmured.
"Good night, you sleepy little soul!" It seemed to Colville that he must be a pretty good man, after all, if this little thing loved him so.
"Do you always kiss Mr. Colville good-night?" asked her mother when she began to undo her hair for her in her room.
"Sometimes. Don't you think it's nice?"
"Oh yes; nice enough."
Colville sat by the window a long time thinking Mrs. Bowen might come back; but she did not return.
Mr. Waters came to see him the next afternoon at his hotel.
"Are you pretty comfortable here?" he asked.
"Well, it's a change," said Colville. "I miss the little one awfully."
"She's a winning child," admitted the old man. "That combination of conventionality and naivete is very captivating. I notice it in the mother."
"Yes, the mother has it too. Have you seen them to-day?"
"Yes; Mrs. Bowen was sorry to be out when you came."
"I had the misfortune to miss them. I had a great mind to go again to-night."
The old man said nothing to this. "The fact is," Colville went on, "I'm so habituated to being there that I'm rather spoiled."
"Ah, it's a nice place," Mr. Waters admitted.
"Of course I made all the haste I could to get away, and I have the reward of a good conscience. But I don't find that the reward is very great."
The old gentleman smiled. "The difficulty is to know conscience from self-interest."
"Oh, there's no doubt of it in my case," said Colville. "If I'd consulted my own comfort and advantage, I should still be at Palazzo Pinti."
"I dare say they would have been glad to keep you."
"Do you really think so?" asked Colville, with sudden seriousness. "I wish you would tell me why. Have you any reason--grounds? Pshaw! I'm absurd!" He sank back into the easy-chair from whose depths he had pulled himself in the eagerness of his demand, and wiped his forehead with his handkerchief. "Mr. Waters, you remember my telling you of my engagement to Miss Graham?"
"That is broken off--if it were ever really on. It was a great mistake for both of us--a tragical one for her, poor child, a ridiculous one for me. My only consolation is that it was a mistake and no more; but I don't conceal from myself that I might have prevented it altogether if I had behaved with greater wisdom and dignity at the outset. But I'm afraid I was flattered by an illusion of hers that ought to have pained and alarmed me, and the rest followed inevitably, though I was always just on the point of escaping the consequences of my weakness--my wickedness."
"Ah, there is something extremely interesting in all that," said the old minister thoughtfully. "The situation used to be figured under the old idea of a compact with the devil. His debtor was always on the point of escaping, as you say, but I recollect no instance in which he did not pay at last. The myth must have arisen from man's recognition of the inexorable sequence of cause from effect, in the moral world, which even repentance cannot avert. Goethe tries to imagine an atonement for Faust's trespass against one human soul in his benefactions to the race at large; but it is a very cloudy business."
"It isn't quite a parallel case," said Colville, rather sulkily. He had, in fact, suffered more under Mr. Waters's generalisation than he could from a more personal philosophy of the affair.
"Oh no; I didn't think that," consented the old man.
"And I don't think I shall undertake any extended scheme of drainage or subsoiling in atonement for my little dream," Colville continued, resenting the parity of outline that grew upon him in spite of his protest. They were both silent for a while, and then Colville cried out, "Yes, yes; they are alike. I dreamed, too, of recovering and restoring my own lost and broken past in the love of a young soul, and it was in essence the same cruelly egotistic dream; and it's nothing in my defence that it was all formless and undirected at first, and that as soon as I recognised it I abhorred it."
"Oh yes, it is," replied the old man, with perfect equanimity. "Your assertion is the hysterical excess of Puritanism in all times and places. In the moral world we are responsible only for the wrong that we intend. It can't he otherwise."
"And the evil that's suffered from the wrong we didn't intend?"
"Ah, perhaps that isn't evil."
"It's pain, yes."
"And to have wrung a young and innocent heart with the anguish of self-doubt, with the fear of wrong to another, with the shame of an error such as I allowed, perhaps encouraged her to make--"
"Yes," said the old man. "The young suffer terribly. But they recover. Afterward we don't suffer so much, but we don't recover. I wouldn't defend you against yourself if I thought you seriously in the wrong. If you know yourself to be, you shouldn't let me."
Thus put upon his honour, Colville was a long time thoughtful. "How can I tell?" he asked. "You know the facts; you can judge."
"If I were to judge at all, I should say you were likely to do a greater wrong than any you have committed."
"I don't understand you."
"Miss Graham is a young girl, and I have no doubt that the young clergyman--what was his name?"
"Morton. Do you think--do you suppose there was anything in that?" demanded Colville, with eagerness, that a more humorous observer than Mr. Waters might have found ludicrous. "He was an admirable young fellow, with an excellent head and a noble heart. I underrated him at one time, though I recognised his good qualities afterward; but I was afraid she did not appreciate him."
"I'm not so sure of that," said the old man, with an astuteness of manner which Colville thought authorised by some sort of definite knowledge.
"I would give the world if it were so!" he cried fervently.
"But you are really very much more concerned in something else."
"In what else?"
"Can't you imagine?"
"No," said Colville; but he felt himself growing very red in the face.
"Then I have no more to say."
"Yes, speak!" And after an interval Colville added, "Is it anything about--you hinted at something long ago--Mrs. Bowen?"
"Yes;" the old man nodded his head. "Do you owe her nothing?"
"Owe her nothing? Everything! My life! What self-respect is left me! Immeasurable gratitude! The homage of a man saved from himself as far as his stupidity and selfishness would permit! Why, I--I love her!" The words gave him courage. "In every breath and pulse! She is the most beautiful and gracious and wisest and best woman in the world! I have loved her ever since I met her here in Florence last winter. Good heavens! I must have always loved her! But," he added, falling from the rapture of this confession, "she simply loathes me!"
"It was certainly not to your credit that you were willing at the same time to marry some one else."
"Willing! I wasn't willing! I was bound hand and foot! Yes--I don't care what you think of my weakness--I was not a free agent. It's very well to condemn one's-self, but it may be carried too far; injustice to others is not the only injustice, or the worst. What I was willing to do was to keep my word--to prevent that poor child, if possible, from ever finding out her mistake."
If Colville expected this heroic confession to impress his listener he was disappointed. Mr. Waters made him no reply, and he was obliged to ask, with a degree of sarcastic impatience, "I suppose you scarcely blame me for that?"
"Oh, I don't know that I blame people for things. There are times when it seems as if we were all puppets, pulled this way or that, without control of our own movements. Hamlet was able to browbeat Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with his business of the pipe; but if they had been in a position to answer they might have told him that it required far less skill to play upon a man than any other instrument. Most of us, in fact, go sounding on without any special application of breath or fingers, repeating the tunes that were played originally upon other men. It appears to me that you suffered yourself to do something of the kind in this affair. We are a long time learning to act with common-sense or even common sanity in what are called matters of the affections. A broken engagement may be a bad thing in some cases, but I am inclined to think that it is the very best thing that could happen in most cases where it happens. The evil is done long before; the broken engagement is merely sanative, and so far beneficent."
The old gentleman rose, and Colville, dazed by the recognition of his own cowardice and absurdity, did not try to detain him. But he followed him down to the outer gate of the hotel. The afternoon sun was pouring into the piazza a sea of glimmering heat, into which Mr. Waters plunged with the security of a salamander. He wore a broad-brimmed Panama hat, a sack coat of black alpaca, and loose trousers of the same material, and Colville fancied him doubly defended against the torrid waves not only by the stored cold of half a century of winters at Haddam East Village, but by an inner coolness of spirit, which appeared to diffuse itself in an appreciable atmosphere about him. It was not till he was gone that Colville found himself steeped in perspiration, and glowing with a strange excitement.