Indian Summer by William D. Howells
The next morning's sunshine dispersed the black mood of the night before; but enough of Colville's self-disgust remained to determine him not to let his return to Florence be altogether vain, or his sojourn so idle as it had begun being. The vague purpose which he had cherished of studying the past life and character of the Florentines in their architecture shaped itself anew in the half-hour which he gave himself over his coffee; and he turned it over in his mind with that mounting joy in its capabilities which attends the contemplation of any sort of artistic endeavour. No people had ever more distinctly left the impress of their whole temper in their architecture, or more sharply distinguished their varying moods from period to period in their palaces and temples. He believed that he could not only supply that brief historical sketch of Florence which Mrs. Bowen had lamented the want of, but he could make her history speak an unintelligible, an unmistakeable tongue in every monument of the past, from the Etruscan wall at Fiesole to the cheap, plain, and tasteless shaft raised to commemorate Italian Unity in the next piazza. With sketches from his own pencil, illustrative of points which he could not otherwise enforce, he could make such a book on Florence as did not exist, such a book as no one had yet thought of making. With this object in his mind, making and keeping him young, he could laugh with any one who liked at the vanity of the middle-aged Hoosier who had spoiled a set in the Lancers at Madame Uccelli's party; he laughed at him now alone, with a wholly impersonal sense of his absurdity.
After breakfast he went without delay to Viesseux's reading-room, to examine his catalogue, and see what there was in it to his purpose. While he was waiting his turn to pay his subscription, with the people who surrounded the proprietor, half a dozen of the acquaintances he had made at Mrs. Bowen's passed in and out. Viesseux's is a place where sooner or later you meet every one you know among the foreign residents at Florence; the natives in smaller proportion resort there too; and Colville heard a lady asking for a book in that perfect Italian which strikes envy to the heart of the stranger sufficiently versed in the language to know that he never shall master it. He rather rejoiced in his despair, however, as an earnest of his renewed intellectual life. Henceforth his life would be wholly intellectual. He did not regret his little excursion into society; it had shown him with dramatic sharpness how unfit for it he was.
"Good morning!" said some one in a bland undertone full of a pleasant recognition of the claims to quiet of a place where some others were speaking in their ordinary tones.
Colville looked round on the Rev. Mr. Waters, and took his friendly hand. "Good morning--glad to see you," he answered.
"Are you looking for that short Florentine history for Mrs. Bowen's little girl?" asked Mr. Waters, inclining his head slightly for the reply. "She mentioned it to me."
By day Colville remarked more distinctly that the old gentleman was short and slight, with a youthful eagerness in his face surviving on good terms with the grey locks that fell down his temples from under the brim of his soft felt hat. With the boyish sweetness of his looks blended a sort of appreciative shrewdness, which pointed his smiling lips slightly aslant in what seemed the expectation rather than the intention of humour.
"Not exactly," said Colville, experiencing a difficulty in withholding the fact that in some sort he was just going to write a short Florentine history, and finding a certain pleasure in Mrs. Bowen's having remembered that he had taken an interest in Effie's reading. He had a sudden wish to tell Mr. Waters of his plan, but this was hardly the time or place.
They now found themselves face to face with the librarian, and Mr. Waters made a gesture of waiving himself in Colville's favour.
"No, no!" said the latter; "you had better ask. I am going to put this gentleman through rather an extended course of sprouts."
The librarian smiled with the helplessness of a foreigner, who knows his interlocutor's English, but not the meaning of it.
"Oh, I merely wanted to ask," said Mr. Waters, addressing the librarian, and explaining to Colville, "whether you had received that book on Savonarola yet. The German one."
"I shall see," said the librarian, and he went upon a quest that kept him some minutes.
"You're not thinking of taking Savonarola's life, I suppose?" suggested Colville.
"Oh no. Villari's book has covered the whole ground for ever, it seems to me. It's a wonderful book. You've read it?"
"Yes. It's a thing that makes you feel that, after all, the Italians have only to make a real effort in any direction, and they go ahead of everybody else. What biography of the last twenty years can compare with it?"
"You're right, sir--you're right," cried the old man enthusiastically. "They're a gifted race, a people of genius."
"I wish for their own sakes they'd give their minds a little to generalship," said Colville, pressed by the facts to hedge somewhat. "They did get so badly smashed in their last war, poor fellows."
"Oh, I don't think I should like them any better if they were better soldiers. Perhaps the lesson of noble endurance that they've given our times is all that we have the right to demand of them in the way of heroism; no one can say they lack courage. And sometimes it seems to me that in simply outgrowing the different sorts of despotism that had fastened upon them, till their broken bonds fell away without positive effort on their part, they showed a greater sublimity than if they had violently conquered their freedom. Most nations sink lower and lower under tyranny; the Italians grew steadily more and more civilised, more noble, more gentle, more grand. It was a wonderful spectacle--like a human soul perfected through suffering and privation. Every period of their history is full of instruction. I find my ancestral puritanism particularly appealed to by the puritanism of Savonarola."
"Then Villari hasn't satisfied you that Savonarola wasn't a Protestant?"
"Oh yes, he has. I said his puritanism. Just now I'm interested in justifying his failure to myself, for it's one of the things in history that I've found it hardest to accept. But no doubt his puritanic state fell because it was dreary and ugly, as the puritanic state always has been. It makes its own virtues intolerable; puritanism won't let you see how good and beautiful the Puritans often are. It was inevitable that Savonarola's enemies should misunderstand and hate him."
"You are one of the last men I should have expected to find among the Arrabiati," said Colville.
"Oh, there's a great deal to be said for the Florentine Arrabiati, as well as for the English Malignants, though the Puritans in neither case would have known how to say it. Savonarola perished because he was excessive. I am studying him in this aspect; it is fresh ground. It is very interesting to inquire just at what point a man's virtues become mischievous and intolerable."
These ideas interested Colville; he turned to them with relief from the sense of his recent trivialities; in this old man's earnestness he found support and encouragement in the new course he had marked out for himself. Sometimes it had occurred to him not only that he was too old for the interests of his youth at forty, but that there was no longer time for him to take up new ones. He considered Mr. Waters's grey hairs, and determined to be wiser. "I should like to talk these things over with you--and some other things," he said.
The librarian came toward them with the book for Mr. Waters, who was fumbling near-sightedly in his pocket-book for his card. "I shall be very happy to see you at my room," he said. "Ah, thank you," he added, taking his book, with a simple relish as if it were something whose pleasantness was sensible to the touch. He gave Colville the scholar's far-off look as he turned to go: he was already as remote as the fifteenth century through the magic of the book, which he opened and began to read at once. Colville stared after him; he did not wish to come to just that yet, either. Life, active life, life of his own day, called to him; he had been one of its busiest children: could he turn his back upon it for any charm or use that was in the past? Again that unnerving doubt, that paralysing distrust, beset him, and tempted him to curse the day in which he had returned to this outworn Old World. Idler on its modern surface, or delver in its deep-hearted past, could he reconcile himself to it? What did he care for the Italians of to-day, or the history of the Florentines as expressed in their architectural monuments? It was the problems of the vast, tumultuous American life, which he had turned his back on, that really concerned him. Later he might take up the study that fascinated yonder old man, but for the present it was intolerable.
He was no longer young, that was true; but with an ache of old regret he felt that he had not yet lived his life, that his was a baffled destiny, an arrested fate. A lady came up and took his turn with the librarian, and Colville did not stay for another. He went out and walked down the Lung' Arno toward the Cascine. The sun danced on the river, and bathed the long line of pale buff and grey houses that followed its curve, and ceased in the mist of leafless tree-tops where the Cascine began. It was not the hour of the promenade, and there was little driving; but the sidewalks were peopled thickly enough with persons, in groups, or singly, who had the air of straying aimlessly up or down, with no purpose but to be in the sun, after the rainy weather of the past week. There were faces of invalids, wistful and thin, and here and there a man, muffled to the chin, lounged feebly on the parapet and stared at the river. Colville hastened by them; they seemed to claim him as one of their ailing and aging company, and just then he was in the humour of being very young and strong.
A carriage passed before him through the Cascine gates, and drove down the road next the river. He followed, and when it had got a little way it stopped at the roadside, and a lady and little girl alighted, who looked about and caught sight of him, and then obviously waited for him to come up with them. It was Imogene and Effie Bowen, and the young girl called to him: "We thought it was you. Aren't you astonished to find us here at this hour?" she demanded, as soon as he came up, and gave him her hand. "Mrs. Bowen sent us for our health--or Effie's health--and I was just making the man stop and let us out for a little walk."
"My health is very much broken too, Miss Effie," said Colville. "Will you let me walk with you?" The child smiled, as she did at Colville's speeches, which she apparently considered all jokes, but diplomatically referred the decision to Imogene with an upward glance.
"We shall be very glad indeed," said the girl.
"That's very polite of you. But Miss Effie makes no effort to conceal her dismay," said Colville.
The little girl smiled again, and her smile was so like the smile of Lina Ridgely, twenty years ago, that his next words were inevitably tinged with reminiscence.
"Does one still come for one's health to the Cascine? When I was in Florence before, there was no other place if one went to look for it with young ladies--the Cascine or the Boboli Gardens. Do they keep the fountain of youth turned on here during the winter still?"
"I've never seen it," said Imogene gaily.
"Of course not. You never looked for it. Neither did I when I was here before. But it wouldn't escape me now."
Since he had met them he had aged again, in spite of his resolutions to the contrary; somehow, beside their buoyancy and bloom, the youth in his heart faded.
Imogene had started forward as soon as he joined them, and Colville, with Effie's gloved hand stolen shyly in his, was finding it quite enough to keep up with her in her elastic advance.
She wore a long habit of silk, whose fur-trimmed edge wandered diagonally across her breast and down to the edge of her walking dress. To Colville, whom her girlish slimness in her ball costume had puzzled after his original impressions of Junonian abundance, she did not so much dwindle as seem to vanish from the proportions his visions had assigned her that first night when he saw her standing before the mirror. In this outdoor avatar, this companionship with the sun and breeze, she was new to him again, and he found himself searching his consciousness for his lost acquaintance with her, and feeling as if he knew her less and less. Perhaps, indeed, she had no very distinctive individuality; perhaps at her age no woman has, but waits for it to come to her through life, through experience. She was an expression of youth, of health, of beauty, and of the moral loveliness that comes from a fortunate combination of these; but beyond this she was elusive in a way that seemed to characterise her even materially. He could not make anything more of the mystery as he walked at her side, and he went thinking--formlessly, as people always think--that with the child or with her mother he would have had a community of interest and feeling which he lacked with this splendid girlhood! he was both too young and too old for it; and then, while he answered this or that to Imogene's talk aptly enough, his mind went back to the time when this mystery was no mystery, or when he was contemporary with it, and if he did not understand it, at least accepted it as if it wore the most natural thing in the world. It seemed a longer time now since it had been in his world than it was since he was a child.
"Should you have thought," she asked, turning her face back toward him, "that it would be so hot in the sun to-day? Oh, that beautiful river! How it twists and writhes along! Do you remember that sonnet of Longfellow's--the one he wrote in Italian about the Ponte Vecchio, and the Arno twisting like a dragon underneath it? They say that Hawthorne used to live in a villa just behind the hill over there; we're going to look it up as soon as the weather is settled. Don't you think his books are perfectly fascinating?"
"Yes," said Colville; "only I should want a good while to say it."
"I shouldn't!" retorted the girl. "When you've said fascinating, you've said everything. There's no other word for them. Don't you like to talk about the books you've read?"
"I would if I could remember the names of the characters. But I get them mixed up."
"Oh, I never do! I remember the least one of them, and all they do and say."
"I used to."
"It seems to me you used to do everything."
"It seems to me as if I did."
"'I remember, when I think, That my youth was half divine.'"
"Oh, Tennyson--yes! He's fascinating. Don't you think he's fascinating?"
"Very," said Colville. He was wondering whether this were the kind of talk that he thought was literary when he was a young fellow.
"How perfectly weird the 'Vision of Sin' is!" Imogene continued. "Don't you like weird things?"
"Weird things?" Colville reflected. "Yes; but I don't see very much in them any more. The fact is, they don't seem to come to anything in particular."
"Oh, I think they do! I've had dreams that I've lived on for days. Do you ever have prophetic dreams?"
"Yes; but they never come true. When they do, I know that I didn't have them."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that we are all so fond of the marvellous that we can't trust ourselves about any experience that seems supernatural. If a ghost appeared to me I should want him to prove it by at least two other reliable, disinterested witnesses before I believed my own account of the matter."
"Oh!" cried the girl, half puzzled, half amused. "Then of course you don't believe in ghosts?"
"Yes; I expect to be one myself some day. But I'm in no hurry to mingle with them."
Imogene smiled vaguely, as if the talk pleased her, even when it mocked the fancies and whims which, after so many generations that have indulged them, she was finding so fresh and new in her turn.
"Don't you like to walk by the side of a river?" she asked, increasing her eager pace a little. "I feel as if it were bearing me along."
"I feel as if I were carrying it," said Colville. "It's as fatiguing as walking on railroad ties."
"Oh, that's too bad!" cried the girl. "How can you be so prosaic? Should you ever have believed that the sun could be so hot in January? And look at those ridiculous green hillsides over the river there! Don't you like it to be winter when it is winter?"
She did not seem to have expected anything from Colville but an impulsive acquiescence, but she listened while he defended the mild weather. "I think it's very well for Italy," he said. "It has always seemed to me--that is, it seems to me now for the first time, but one has to begin the other way--as if the seasons here had worn themselves out like the turbulent passions of the people. I dare say the winter was much fiercer in the times of the Bianchi and Neri."
"Oh, how delightful! Do you really believe that?"
"No, I don't know that I do. But I shouldn't have much difficulty in proving it, I think, to the sympathetic understanding."
"I wish you would prove it to mine. It sounds so pretty, I'm sure it must be true."
"Oh, then, it isn't necessary. I'll reserve my arguments for Mrs. Bowen."
"You had better. She isn't at all romantic. She says it's very well for me she isn't--that her being matter-of-fact lets me be as romantic as I like."
"Then Mrs. Bowen isn't as romantic as she would like to be if she hadn't charge of a romantic young lady?"
"Oh, I don't say that. Dear me! I'd no idea it could be so hot in January." As they strolled along beside the long hedge of laurel, the carriage slowly following them at a little distance, the sun beat strong upon the white road, blotched here and there with the black irregular shadows of the ilexes. The girl undid the pelisse across her breast, with a fine impetuosity, and let it swing open as she walked. She stopped suddenly. "Hark! What bird was that?"
"'It was the nightingale, and not the lark,'" suggested Colville lazily.
"Oh, don't you think Romeo and Juliet is divine?" demanded Imogene, promptly dropping the question of the bird.
"I don't know about Romeo," returned Colville, "but it's sometimes occurred to me that Juliet was rather forth-putting."
"You know she wasn't. It's my favourite play. I could go every night. It's perfectly amazing to me that they can play anything else."
"You would like it five hundred nights in the year, like Hazel Kirke? That would be a good deal of Romeo, not to say Juliet."
"They ought to do it out of respect to Shakespeare. Don't you like Shakespeare?"
"Well, I've seen the time when I preferred Alexander Smith," said Colville evasively.
"Alexander Smith? Who in the world is Alexander Smith?"
"How recent you are! Alexander Smith was an immortal who flourished about the year 1850."
"That was before I was born. How could I remember him? But I don't feel so very recent for all that."
"Neither do I, this morning," said Colville. "I was up at one of Pharaoh's balls last night, and I danced too much."
He gave Imogene a droll glance, and then bent it upon Effie's discreet face. The child dropped her eyes with a blush like her mother's, having first sought provisional counsel of Imogene, who turned away. He rightly inferred that they all had been talking him over at breakfast, and he broke into a laugh which they joined in, but Imogene said nothing in recognition of the fact.
With what he felt to be haste for his relief she said, "Don't you hate to be told to read a book?"
"I used to--quarter of a century ago," said Colville, recognising that this was the way young people talked, even then.
"Used to?" she repeated. "Don't you now?"
"No; I'm a great deal more tractable now. I always say that I shall get the book out of the library. I draw the line at buying. I still hate to buy a book that people recommend."
"What kind of books do you like to buy?"
"Oh, no kind. I think we ought to get all our books out of the library."
"Do you never like to talk in earnest?"
"Well, not often," said Colville. "Because, if you do, you can't say with a good conscience afterward that you were only in fun."
"Oh! And do you always like to talk so that you can get out of things afterward?"
"No. I didn't say that, did I?"
"Very nearly, I should think."
"Then I'm glad I didn't quite."
"I like people to be outspoken--to say everything they think," said the girl, regarding him with a puzzled look.
"Then I foresee that I shall become a favourite," answered Colville. "I say a great deal more than I think."
She looked at him again with envy, with admiration, qualifying her perplexity. They had come to a point where some moss-grown, weather-beaten statues stood at the corners of the road that traversed the bosky stretch between the avenues of the Cascine. "Ah, how beautiful they are!" he said, halting, and giving himself to the rapture that a blackened garden statue imparts to one who beholds it from the vantage-ground of sufficient years and experience.
"Do you remember that story of Heine's," he resumed, after a moment, "of the boy who steals out of the old castle by moonlight, and kisses the lips of the garden statue, fallen among the rank grass of the ruinous parterres? And long afterward, when he looks down on the sleep of the dying girl where she lies on the green sofa, it seems to him that she and that statue are the same?"
"Oh!" deeply sighed the young girl. "No, I never read it. Tell me what it is. I must read it."
"The rest is all talk--very good talk; but I doubt whether it would interest you. He goes on to talk of a great many things---of the way Bellini spoke French, for example. He says it was bloodcurdling, horrible, cataclysmal. He brought out the poor French words and broke them upon the wheel, till you thought the whole world must give way with a thunder-crash. A dead hush reigned in the room; the women did not know whether to faint or fly; the men looked down at their pantaloons, and tried to realise what they had on."
"Oh, how perfectly delightful! how shameful!" cried the girl. "I must read it. What is it in? What is the name of the story?"
"It isn't a story," said Colville. "Did you ever see anything lovelier than these statues?"
"No," said Imogene. "Are they good?"
"They are much better than good--they are the very worst rococo."
"What makes you say they are beautiful, then?"
"Why, don't you see? They commemorate youth, gaiety, brilliant, joyous life. That's what that kind of statues was made for--to look on at rich, young, beautiful people and their gallantries; to be danced before by fine ladies and gentlemen playing at shepherd and shepherdesses; to be driven past by marcheses and contessinas flirting in carriages; to be hung with scarfs and wreaths; to be parts of eternal fetes champetres. Don't you see how bored they look? When I first came to Italy I should have detested and ridiculed their bad art; but now they're exquisite--the worse, the better,"
"I don't know what in the world you do mean," said Imogene, laughing uneasily.
"Mrs. Bowen would. It's a pity Mrs. Bowen isn't here with us. Miss Effie, if I lift you up to one of those statues, will you kindly ask it if it doesn't remember a young American signor who was here just before the French Revolution? I don't believe it's forgotten me."
"No, no," said Imogene. "It's time we were walking back. Don't you like Scott!" she added. "I should think you would if you like those romantic things. I used to like Scott so much. When I was fifteen I wouldn't read anything but Scott. Don't you like Thackeray? Oh, he's so cynical! It's perfectly delightful."
"Cynical?" repeated Colville thoughtfully. "I was looking into The Newcomes the other day, and I thought he was rather sentimental"
"Sentimental! Why, what an idea! That is the strangest thing I ever heard of. Oh!" she broke in upon her own amazement, "don't you think Browning's 'Statue and the Bust' is splendid? Mr. Morton read it to us--to Mrs. Bowen, I mean."
Colville resented this freedom of Mr. Morion's, he did not know just why; then his pique was lost in sarcastic recollection of the time when he too used to read poems to ladies. He had read that poem to Lina Ridgely and the other one.
"Mrs. Bowen asked him to read it," Imogene continued.
"Did she?" asked Colville pensively.
"And then we discussed it afterward. We had a long discussion. And then he read us the 'Legend of Pornic,' and we had a discussion about that. Mrs. Bowen says it was real gold they found in the coffin; but I think it was the girl's 'gold hair.' I don't know which Mr. Morion thought. Which do you? Don't you think the 'Legend of Pornic' is splendid?"
"Yes, it's a great poem, and deep," said Colville. They had come to a place where the bank sloped invitingly to the river. "Miss Effie," he asked, "wouldn't you like to go down and throw stones into the Arno? That's what a river is for," he added, as the child glanced toward Imogene for authorisation, "to have stones thrown into it."
"Oh, let us!" cried Imogene, rushing down to the brink. "I don't want to throw stones into it, but to get near it--to get near to any bit of nature. They do pen you up so from it in Europe!" She stood and watched Colville skim stones over the current. "When you stand by the shore of a swift river like this, or near a railroad train when it comes whirling by, don't you ever have a morbid impulse to fling yourself forward?"
"Not at my time of life," said Colville, stooping to select a flat stone. "Morbid impulses are one of the luxuries of youth." He threw the stone, which skipped triumphantly far out into the stream. "That was beautiful, wasn't it, Miss Effie?"
"Lovely!" murmured the child.
He offered her a flat pebble. "Would you like to try one?"
"It would spoil my gloves," she said, in deprecating refusal.
"Let me try it!" cried Imogene. "I'm not afraid of my gloves."
Colville yielded the pebble, looking at her with the thought of how intoxicating he should once have found this bit of wilful abandon, but feeling rather sorry for it now. "Oh, perhaps not?" he said, laying his hand upon hers, and looking into her eyes.
She returned his look, and then she dropped the pebble and put her hand back in her muff, and turned and ran up the bank. "There's the carriage. It's time we should be going." At the top of the bank she became a mirror of dignity, a transparent mirror to his eye. "Are you going back to town, Mr. Colville?" she asked, with formal state. "We could set you down anywhere!"
"Thank you, Miss Graham. I shall be glad to avail myself of your very kind offer. Allow me." He handed her ceremoniously to the carriage; he handed Effie Bowen even more ceremoniously to the carriage, holding his hat in one hand while he offered the other. Then he mounted to the seat in front of them. "The weather has changed," he said.
Imogene hid her face in her muff, and Effie Bowen bowed hers against Imogene's shoulder.
A sense of the girl's beauty lingered in Colville's thought all day, and recurred to him again and again; and the ambitious intensity and enthusiasm of her talk came back in touches of amusement and compassion. How divinely young it all was, and how lovely! He patronised it from a height far aloof.
He was not in the frame of mind for the hotel table, and he went to lunch, at a restaurant. He chose a simple trattoria, the first he came to, and he took his seat at one of the bare, rude tables, where the joint saucers for pepper and salt, and a small glass for toothpicks, with a much-scraped porcelain box for matches, expressed an uncorrupted Florentinity of custom. But when he gave his order in offhand Italian, the waiter answered in the French which waiters get together for the traveller's confusion in Italy, and he resigned himself to whatever chance of acquaintance might befall him. The place had a companionable smell of stale tobacco, and the dim light showed him on the walls of a space dropped a step or two lower, at the end of the room, a variety of sketches and caricatures. A waiter was laying a large table in this space, and when Colville came up to examine the drawings he jostled him, with due apologies, in the haste of a man working against time for masters who will brook no delay. He was hurrying still when a party of young men came in and took their places at the table, and began to rough him for his delay. Colville could recognise several of them in the vigorous burlesques on the walls, and as others dropped in the grotesque portraitures made him feel as if he had seen them before. They all talked at once, each man of his own interests, except when they joined in a shout of mockery and welcome for some new-comer. Colville, at his risotto, almost the room's length away, could hear what they thought, one and another, of Botticelli and Michelangelo; of old Piloty's things at Munich; of the dishes they had served to them, and of the quality of the Chianti; of the respective merits of German and Italian tobacco; of whether Inglehart had probably got to Venice yet; of the personal habits of Billings, and of the question whether the want of modelling in Simmons's nose had anything to do with his style of snoring; of the overrated colouring of some of those Venetian fellows; of the delicacy of Mino da Fiesole, and of the genius of Babson's tailor. Babson was there to defend the cut of his trousers, and Billings and Simmons were present to answer for themselves at the expense of the pictures of those who had called their habits and features into question. When it came to this all the voices joined in jolly uproar. Derision and denial broke out of the tumult, and presently they were all talking quietly of a reception which some of them were at the day before. Then Colville heard one of them saying that he would like a chance to paint some lady whose name he did not catch, and "She looks awfully sarcastic," one of the young fellows said.
"They say she is," said another. "They say she's awfully intellectual."
"Boston?" queried a third.
"No, Kalamazoo. The centre of culture is out there now."
"She knows how to dress, anyhow," said the first commentator. "I wonder what Parker would talk to her about when he was painting her. He's never read anything but Poe's 'Ullalume.'"
"Well, that's a good subject--'Ullalume.'"
"I suppose she's read it?"
"She's read 'most everything, they say."
"What's an Ullalume, anyway, Parker?"
One of the group sprang up from the table and drew on the wall what he labelled "An Ullalume." Another rapidly depicted Parker in the moment of sketching a young lady; her portrait had got as far as the eyes and nose when some one protested: "Oh, hello! No personalities."
The draughtsman said, "Well, all right!" and sat down again.
"Hall talked with her the most. What did she say, Hall?"
"Hall can't remember words in three syllables, but he says it was mighty brilliant and mighty deep."
"They say she's a niece of Mrs. Bowen's. She's staying with Mrs. Bowen."
Then it was the wisdom and brilliancy and severity of Imogene Graham that these young men stood in awe of! Colville remembered how the minds of girls of twenty had once dazzled him. "And yes," he mused, "she must have believed that we were talking literature in the Cascine. Certainly I should have thought it an intellectual time when I was at that age," he owned to himself with forlorn irony.
The young fellows went on to speak of Mrs. Bowen, whom it seemed they had known the winter before. She had been very polite to them; they praised her as if she were quite an old woman.
"But she must have been a very pretty girl," one of them put in.
"Well, she has a good deal of style yet."
"Oh yes, but she never could have been a beauty like the other one."
On her part, Imogene was very sober when she met Mrs. Bowen, though she had come in flushed and excited from the air and the morning's adventure. Mrs. Bowen was sitting by the fire, placidly reading; a vase of roses on the little table near her diffused the delicate odour of winter roses through the room; all seemed very still and dim, and of another time, somehow.
Imogene kept away from the fire, sitting down, in the provisional fashion of women, with her things on; but she unbuttoned her pelisse and flung it open. Effie had gone to her room.
"Did you have a pleasant drive?" asked Mrs. Bowen.
"Very," said the girl.
"Mr. Morton brought you these roses," continued Mrs. Bowen.
"Oh," said Imogene, with a cold glance at them.
"The Flemmings have asked us to a party Thursday. There is to be dancing."
"Yes." As if she now saw reason to do so, Mrs. Bowen laid the book face downward in her lap. She yawned a little, with her hand on her mouth. "Did you meet any one you knew?"
"Yes; Mr. Colville." Mrs. Bowen cut her yawn in half. "We got out to walk in the Cascine, and we saw him coming in at the gate. He came up and asked if he might walk with us."
"Did you have a pleasant walk?" asked Mrs. Bowen, a breath more chillily than she had asked if they had a pleasant drive.
"Yes, pleasant enough. And then we came back and went down the river bank, and he skipped stones, and we took him to his hotel."
"Was there anybody you knew in the Cascine?"
"Oh no; the place was a howling wilderness. I never saw it so deserted," said the girl impatiently. "It was terribly hot walking. I thought I should burn up."
Mrs. Bowen did not answer anything; she let the book lie in her lap.
"What an odd person Mr. Colville is!" said Imogene, after a moment. "Don't you think he's very different from other gentlemen?"
"Oh, he has such a peculiar way of talking."
"What peculiar way?"
"Oh, I don't know. Plenty of the young men I see talk cynically, and I do sometimes myself--desperately, don't you know. But then I know very well we don't mean anything by it."
"And do you think Mr. Colville does? Do you think he talks cynically?"
Imogene leaned back in her chair and reflected. "No," she returned slowly, "I can't say that he does. But he talks lightly, with a kind of touch and go that makes you feel that he has exhausted all feeling. He doesn't parade it at all. But you hear between the words, don't you know, just as you read between the lines in some kinds of poetry. Of course it's everything in knowing what he's been through. He's perfectly unaffected; and don't you think he's good?"
"Oh yes," sighed Mrs. Bowen. "In his way."
"But he sees through you. Oh, quite! Nothing escapes him, and pretty soon he lets out that he has seen through you, and then you feel so flat! Oh, it's perfectly intoxicating to be with him. I would give the world to talk as he does."
"What was your talk all about?"
"Oh, I don't know. I suppose it would have been called rather intellectual."
Mrs. Bowen smiled infinitesimally. But after a moment she said gravely, "Mr. Colville is very much older than you. He's old enough to be your father."
"Yes, I know that. You feel that he feels old, and it's perfectly tragical. Sometimes when he turns that slow, dull, melancholy look on you, he seems a thousand years old."
"I don't mean that he's positively old," said Mrs. Bowen. "He's only old comparatively."
"Oh yes; I understand that. And I don't mean that he really seems a thousand years old. What I meant was, he seems a thousand years off, as if he were still young, and had got left behind somehow. He seems to be on the other side of some impassable barrier, and you want to get over there and help him to our side, but you can't do it. I suppose his talking in that light way is merely a subterfuge to hide his feeling, to make him forget."
Mrs. Bowen fingered the edges of her book. "You mustn't let your fancy run away with you, Imogene," she said, with a little painful smile.
"Oh, I like to let it run away with me. And when I get such a subject as Mr. Colville, there's no stopping. I can't stop, and I don't wish to stop. Shouldn't you have thought that he would have been perfectly crushed at the exhibition he made of himself in the Lancers last night? He wasn't the least embarrassed when he met me, and the only allusion he made to it was to say that he had been up late, and had danced too much. Wasn't it wonderful he could do it? Oh, if I could do that!"
"I wish he could have avoided the occasion for his bravado," said Mrs. Bowen.
"I think I was a little to blame, perhaps," said the girl. "I beckoned him to come and take the vacant place."
"I don't see that that was an excuse," returned Mrs. Bowen primly.
Imogene seemed insensible to the tone, as it concerned herself; it only apparently reminded her of something. "Guess what Mr. Colville said, when I had been silly, and then tried to make up for it by being very dignified all of a sudden?"
"I don't know. How had you been silly?"
The servant brought in some cards. Imogene caught up the pelisse which she had been gradually shedding as she sat talking to Mrs. Bowen, and ran out of the room by another door.
They did not recur to the subject. But that night, when Mrs. Bowen went to say good night to Effie, after the child had gone to bed, she lingered.
"Effie," she said at last, in a husky whisper, "what did Imogene say to Mr. Colville to-day that made him laugh?"
"I don't know," said the child. "They kept laughing at so many things."
"Yes; he laughed. Do you mean toward the last, when he had been throwing stones into the river?"
"It must have been then."
The child stretched herself drowsily. "Oh I couldn't understand it all. She wanted to throw a stone in the river, but he told her she had better not. But that didn't make him laugh. She was so very stiff just afterward that he said the weather had changed, and that made us laugh."
"Was that all?"
"We kept laughing ever so long. I never saw any one like Mr. Colville. How queerly the fire shines on your face! It gives you such a beautiful complexion."
"Yes, lovely." The child's mother stooped over and kissed her. "You're the prettiest mamma in the world," she said, throwing her arms round her neck. "Sometimes I can't tell whether Imogene is prettier or not, but to-night I'm certain you are. Do you like to have me think that?"
"Yes--yes. But don't pull me down so; you hurt my neck. Good night."
The child let her go. "I haven't said my prayer yet, mamma. I was thinking."
"Well, say it now, then," said the mother gently.
When the child had finished she turned upon her cheek. "Good night, mamma."
Mrs. Bowen went about the room a little while, picking up its pretty disorder. Then she sat down in a chair by the hearth, where a log was still burning. The light of the flame flickered upon her face, and threw upon the ceiling a writhing, fantastic shadow, the odious caricature of her gentle beauty.