AURORA THE MAGNIFICENT
AUTHOR OF "THE TRUTH ABOUT CAMILLA," "THE UNKNOWN QUANTITY," ETC.
ILLUSTRATED BY GERALD LEAKE
THE CENTURY CO.
Copyright, 1916, 1917, by
The Century Co.
Published, March, 1917
MY SISTER GRACE
WITHOUT WHOM THIS BOOK
WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN.
MY DEAR HELEN R——,
WITHOUT WHOM IT WOULD
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
Alone in her room later ... she looked at the other portrait Frontispiece
After it she still stood a moment, looking toward the sanctuary 20
"I thought," said Mrs. Hawthorne, "that you were going to come and take us sight-seeing" 82
Aurora, clasping her hands in a delight that could find no words to express it, made a sound like the coo of a dove 200
Gerald turned, and beheld that lady 272
Aurora's eyes, fixed and starry, rested upon the little flame 290
Aurora, with a comedy of pride, threw up her chin, lifted her arms, and turned as if on a pivot 316
"Come, let us reason together, Aurora" 384
AURORA THE MAGNIFICENT
Near sunset, one day in early October, not too long ago for some of us to remember with distinctness, Mr. Foss, United States consul at Florence, Italy, took a cab, as on other days, to the Porta Romana. Here, where the out-of-town tariff comes into effect, he paid his man, and set out to walk the rest of the way, thus meeting the various needs he felt: that for economy,—he was a family man with daughters to clothe,—that for exercise,—his wife told him he was growing fat,—and the need in general for an opportunity to think. He had found that walking aided reflection, that walking in beautiful places started the spring of apt and generous ideas. Though in his modest way a scholar, he was not as yet an author, but Florence had inspired him with the desire to write a book.
Just beyond the Roman Gate begins the long Viale dei Colli,—Avenue of the Hills,—which climbs and winds, broad, shady, quiet, between lines of gardens and villas, occupied largely by foreigners, to the Piazzale, whence Michelangelo's boyish colossus gazes with a slight frown across Florence, outspread at his feet. Mr. Foss, as he mounted the easy grade, and noted with a liking unabated after years the pleasantness of each habitation glimpsed through iron railings and embowering green, thought how privileged a person should feel, after all, whose affairs involved residence in Italy.
This recognized good fortune had not been properly tasted before another aspect of the thing presented itself for consideration....
The consul felt a sigh trying to escape him, and turning from the images whose obtrusion had called it up from the depths, directed his attention to a different set of subjects, unwilling at the moment to be troubled.
The glories and iniquities of that great family whose cannon-balls—or pills?—adorn so many of the 'scutcheons on Florentine street-corners and palace-fronts are what he selected as the theme for his meditations, a choice which seems less odd when we know that his book, the labor and pleasure of his spare hours, was a study of the Medici.
He had not been busy many minutes with their supplanted policies and extinct ambitions before these dropped back into the past whence he had drawn them, and his mind gave itself over to an exercise more curious than reconstructing a dead epoch. A shortish, stoutish man, with a beginning of baldness on his crown and gray in his mustache, was trying by the whole force of a sympathetic imagination to fit himself into the shoes, occupy the very skin, of a delicate young girl, to look at the world through her eyes and feel life with her pulses.
Thus absorbed, he hardly saw the posts of his own carriage gate; he passed unnoticing between his flower-beds, up his stone steps and came to himself only when, rubbing the hands he had just washed, he entered the dining-room and saw his wife.
"Where are the girls?" he asked even before kissing her, for the most casual eye must be informed by the blank look of the table that instead of being laid for half a dozen as usual, it was prepared for a meagre two.
Mrs. Foss was fond of sitting in the dining-room, which had a glass door into the garden on the side farthest from the road. There she read her book while waiting for dinnertime and her husband. The good gentleman did not always come directly home from his office. He had the love of dropping into dim churches, of loitering on bridges, of fingering the junk in old shops, but he was considerately never late for dinner.
Mrs. Foss rose to receive her husband's salutation, and while answering his question settled herself at the table; for she had caught sight of a domestic peeping in at the door to see if the masters were there to be served.
"Leslie and Brenda went to call on the Hunts," she gave her account, "and presently the Hunts' man came with a note from Mrs. Hunt, asking if the girls could stay to dine and go to the theater. A box had just been sent them. I was very glad to give my consent. Charlie will probably be one of the party and bring them home. Or perhaps Gerald. Or they will be put in a cab. I was delighted of the diversion for Brenda."
"And where's Lily?"
"She, too, is off having a good time. Fraeulein was invited by some German friends who were giving a Kinder-sinfonie. Awful things, if you want my opinion. She asked if she might go and take Lily, and the poor child was so eager about it I thought I would just for once let her sit up late. She has so few pleasures of the kind."
Mrs. Foss had helped the soup, with a ladle, out of a tureen.
It was after her husband and she had emptied their soup-plates in companionable silence that, leaning back to wait for the next course, she asked her regular daily question.
"Well, anything new? Anything interesting at the consulate?"
Mr. Foss seemed in good faith to be searching his mind. Then he answered vaguely:
"No; nothing in particular." All at once he smiled a smile of remembrance. "Yes, I saw some Americans to-day." He nodded, after an interval, with an appearance of relish. "The real thing."
"In what way, Jerome? But, first of all, who were they?"
"Wait a moment. I stuck their cards in my pocket to show you. They came to see me at the consulate. No, they are in my other coat. One of them was Mrs. Something Hawthorne, the other Miss Estelle Something."
"What did they want?"
"Everything—quite frankly everything. They have grown tired of their hotel; they speak nothing but English and don't know a soul. They came to find out from me how to go about getting a house and servants, horses and carriage."
"Did they think that was part of a consul's duty?"
"They didn't think. They cast themselves on the breast of a fellow-countryman. They caught at a plank."
"A house, horses. They are rich, then."
"So one would judge. Oh, yes, they're rich in a jolly, shameless, old-fashioned American way."
"Well, it's a nice way." Mrs. Foss added limitingly: "When they're also generous. One has noticed, however, hasn't one,"—she seemed on second thought to be taking back something of her approval,—"a certain reticence, as a rule, with regard to the display of wealth in people of any real culture?"
"These aren't, my dear. It's as plain as that they're rich. And, for a change, let me whisper to you, I found it pleasant. Not one tiresome word about art did they utter in connection with this, their first, visit to Italy."
"I can see you liked them, but what you have so far said doesn't entirely help me to see why. Rich and ignorant Americans, unfortunately—A light breaks upon me! They were pretty!"
A twinkle came into the consul's eyes, looking over at his wife, as one is amused sometimes by a joke old and obvious.
His pause before answering seemed filled with an effort to visualize the persons in question.
"Upon my word, Etta, I couldn't tell you." He laughed at his inability.
"By that token they were not beauties," said the wife.
"It seems likely you are right. At the same time"—he was still mentally regarding his visitors—"one would never think of wishing them other than they are."
"Describe them if you can. What age women?"
"My dear, there again you have me. Let us say that they are in the flower of life. One of them, so much I did remark, was rather more blooming than the other. Perhaps she was younger."
"The married one. But perhaps it was only the difference between a rose and—" he searched—"let us say a bunch of mignonette. The rose—here I believe I tread safely on the road of description—had of that flower the roundness and solidity, if nothing else."
"We will call it well developed, nobly planned. But what would be the good of telling you the color of these ladies' hair and eyes had I noticed it? It will help you much more effectively to pick them out in a crowd to be told they are very American."
"Voices, too, I suppose."
"Of course. You don't strictly mean high and nasal, do you? All I can say with any positiveness is that one of them had what I will call a warm voice—a voice, to make my meaning quite clear, like the crimson heart on a valentine."
"I am enlightened. Was it the mignonette one?"
"No; the hardy-garden rose."
"And what did she say to you in her warm crimson voice?"
"I have told you. She called for help."
"You said, I hope, that your wife and daughters would be very happy to call on them and be of use if they could."
The time-tried, well-mated friends were looking over at each other across the table, not expressing any more than at all times the quiet, daily desire of each to further the interests and comforts of the other.
"Where are they staying?" the lady continued to question.
"Hotel de la Paix."
"And they haven't any letters, introductions, addresses, anything?"
"Where are they from?"
"Let me see. Did they mention it? My dear, if they did, I don't recall it."
"No. If I am to guess, I shouldn't guess that."
"H-m, they might be. No, I guess they're Yankees."
"If so, not aggressively. Where do most people come from? There's nothing very distinctive about most."
"Perhaps it will be on their cards."
Then the Fosses talked of other things. But when Mrs. Foss, after dinner, went upstairs for her scarf,—it was too cool now to sit out of doors in the evening without a wrap,—she remembered the cards, and took them out of her husband's pocket.
"Miss Estelle Madison," she read. "Mrs. Aurora Hawthorne." There was nothing else. She continued a little longer to look at the bits of pasteboard in her hand. "Well-sounding names, both of them—like names in a play. Mrs. Aurora. She's a widow, then." Mrs. Foss considered. "Or else divorced."
* * * * *
Jerome Foss sat out in the garden on fine evenings with his cigar, and watched the serene oncoming of the night, because he loved to do this. His wife stayed with him to be company, when, without an old-fashioned ideal of married life, her natural bent would have urged her indoors, where the lamps were, to read or sew or even play patience. But she lingered contentedly and all seemed to her as it should be, with the two of them sitting near each other in their garden chairs before the family door-stone, he smoking, she getting the benefit of it by now and then fanning his smoke toward her face. She liked the odor.
They only spoke to each other, as is common with married people, when they had something to say, and so were often silent for long spaces. That they had talked a great deal lately in the seclusion of their bedroom, away from the ears of the children, was a reason why they should not be very communicative to-night. They had threshed out the matter foremost in their minds so thoroughly that there could be little to add. Now and then, however, when they were alone, scraps of conversation would occur, part of the long discussion continued from day to day; which fragments, isolated from their context, might have sounded odd enough to any one overhearing.
Thus it was to-night. After half an hour without a syllable, Mrs. Foss's voice came out of the dark.
"When I was a young girl, there was a music-master, Jerome," she opened, with no more preface than a shooting-star. "I don't know that he was particularly fascinating, but he seemed so to me. I suppose he was thirty, I was seventeen or eighteen. It was during my year at Miss Meiggs's. Whether he really did anything to win my young affections I can't tell at this distance, but at the time I imagined all sorts of things, that he looked at me differently from the other girls, that his voice was different when he addressed me, that an extreme delicacy was all that kept him from declaring his love. Oh, I used to wish on the first star, and I used to pull daisies to pieces, and I practiced, how I practiced! Well, there was a rich girl in the school, older than I and not nearly so good looking. The moment she graduated he proposed to her. How did I feel? Jerome, the sun went out for good and all the day I heard of their engagement. It was as serious as anything could ever be in this world.—I'm sure I have told you about that music-master before, Jerome.—Well, and what happened? At the age of twenty-two I cheerfully married you. And I was not a scarred and burnt-out crater either, was I?... In the interval, let me not neglect to mention, there had been other flirtations and minor affairs. Thank Heaven, those things pass," the words came out devoutly. "It seems at the time as if only death could end it, but two or three years will do a lot. And it's God's mercy makes it so. How else could life be carried on?"
"In my case, Etta," the consul followed her story, after an interval, "it was a landlady's daughter. I don't believe I have ever spoken of her to you. I was in college, but I boarded outside the buildings. I wrote to my father and begged him to let me go into business so that I could earlier support a wife and family. The wise man let me go down to a fruit-farm in Florida. You have noticed that I know something about orange-growing. It was not quite a year before the dear divinity whose name was Lottie found it too long to wait. I posted home. The room I had once rented from her mother was let to a handsomer man. I took up my studies where I had dropped them, and to all appearance there was little harm done. But for a long time I thought I should die a bachelor."
"I know. Your cousin Fannie told me about it in the early days, before we were engaged. It all goes to show.... And there again was Selina Blackstone, one of my girlhood friends. She had a cough and they thought her lungs affected and sent her South. There she met an unhappy boy in the same case, only he, as it proved, really was in a bad way with his lungs. The poor things fell desperately in love with each other, but her parents wouldn't hear of their marrying, in which course they were right. Now you would have thought from her face that the separation was going to kill her. It didn't, that's all. He died, and she married. And it can't be said of her that she was either shallow, or fickle, or heartless. I knew her very well. Merely, time did the work that time was set to do."
There was in the lady's tone an effect of protest against any view, determination against any theory, but her own.
"There are the cases like Miss Seymour's, however," Mr. Foss brought in softly, as one calls to another's attention a lapse of memory or a slip in logic.
"Miss Seymour? Blanche? What about her?"
"That she is Miss Seymour, my dear, and to my mind a melancholy lesson. Because Nature so plainly had not planned her for an old maid. Her mother—who told me? I think it was Miss Brown—interfered with her marrying the man she wished to, and she has accepted nothing in his place. It has been an empty life. And so it goes. One can't be sure, Etta."
"Jerome," Mrs. Foss's voice rose to a sharper protest and firmer rejection, "those are the cases we simply must not allow ourselves to think about. If we begin to think of cases like that...."
She did not finish and he said no more, but in the darkness through which the fiery point of his cigar continued for some time to glow, it is to be feared the faces of both went on to reflect for nobody to see the working of those thoughts precisely which Mrs. Foss had said with so much emphasis they must guard against.
Upon a day not much later in the month—a goodly day which thousands without a doubt were thinking all too short for the useful or merely delectable things they wanted to do—a certain young man in Florence would, if he could, have treated this mellow golden masterpiece of autumn's like a bad sketch, torn it across and dropped it into the waste-basket. What is one to do with a day when nothing that has been invented seems enough fun to pay for the bother? He did not wish to paint, he did not wish to read, or to play on the piano, as he sometimes did in solitude, with one hand, to solace himself by re-framing a remembered melody. He did not wish to go out, but was restless from staying in. He did not want to see the face of friend or foe, but could no longer endure to be alone.
He stood for a moment in the middle of the floor, with his hands over his face, the ends of his fingers pressing back his eyeballs, and got in his throat a taste of the bitter waters which he felt as a perpetual pool in the center of his heart. Next minute he sneered at himself, like a schoolmaster at a boy who blubbers, and without further paltering put on his hat, took up a very slender cane with a slender grasp of yellow ivory, and ran down the long stairs of his house to the street.
"Air and exercise, air and exercise!" This prescription he repeated to himself, and, surely enough, in a quarter of an hour felt better.
He was on Via Tornabuoni. Passing Giacosa's, he glanced in to see if it were any one he knew taking tea so early behind the great plate glass window. No, they were chance English. He halted before a shop farther on to look at a display of jewelry, wondering that there should be fools enough in the whole world to support one such dealer in turquoise trinkets that at once drop out their stones; crude, big mosaics, and everlasting little composition-silver copies of the Strozzi lantern.
He crossed the street and entered the bank, where he found the usual table strewn with weeklies and monthlies for the advantage of those clients who must be asked to wait. He seated himself with his face so directed that if an acquaintance should enter, he need not bow, and turned over the magazines one after the other. It hurt him like a direct personal injury to find these authors all alike so shallow, dishonest, giving the public not their thought or their experience, but something, anything, it would buy.
"A little more air and exercise is what I evidently need," said the young man, and again went out into the streets.
He turned toward the river, and had not followed the Lungarno for more than ten yards before it was with him as when, looking out of the window in despair at the weather, we see a break in the clouds. His step took on alertness; his face lighted in the very nicest way.
The young lady on whom his eyes were fastened from afar did not see him. She came at her usual step, a happy mean between quick and slow, accompanied by a hatless serving-woman carrying a music-roll. She looked straight before her, but her glance was absent. The passers could not but notice her,—she had beauty enough for that, and was besides conspicuous in wearing a costume entirely white,—but she was not noticing them or the eyes that turned to keep her a moment longer in sight. She looked rather shut in herself, rather silent; not really proud and cold, but proud and cold as the feeling and modest and young have to look if they are to keep their sacred precincts from the intrusions of curiosity.
The young man approaching questioned her face to see if it were sad. No, as far as he could tell, she was not in any way troubled. At the same time he knew that it was neither a face nor a nature to be easily read. Still, not to find her visibly sad comforted him.
She did not recognize the young man till he was almost near enough to touch her, and she had heard her name called, "Brenda!"
Then her face showed a genuine, if moderate, pleasure.
"What are you doing?" he asked, with the freedom of a familiarity reaching back over long years. He shortened his step to keep time with hers, which she at the same moment lengthened.
"I have been for my singing-lesson."
"And where are you going?"
"I haven't seen you for ages."
"You haven't come. One never sees you, one never meets you anywhere any more."
Her English was different from the ordinary in having occasional Italian turns and intonations. His partook of the same defect, but in a lesser degree.
"But I have come," he stood up for himself, "and you were all out except Lily. Didn't she tell you I was there? We had a long talk. She told me her plans for the future. She is going to keep a school for poor children. We discussed their diet and their flannels and every point of their bringing-up. We invented things to do on holidays to give them a good time. There is only one thing I can see leaving a doubt of this school coming into being. It is that Lily has moments, she confessed to me, of thinking almost equally well of a castle with a moat and drawbridge and a page to walk before her carrying her prayer-book on a cushion. She's a funny young one."
"It's partly Fraeulein."
"How are they all?"
"Well, thank you. At least, I suppose they are well." She gave a slight laugh at the humor of this. "You could hardly imagine how little I see of them."
"What has happened?"
"They have been going around with some new people, some Americans. They have been helping them to shop, and showing them the way one does things over here. Mother, you know, is always so ready."
"Your mother is a dear."
"Leslie is just like her. But I am sure they both enjoy it, too. They have not been home to lunch for a week."
"Oh, I am not needed where there are already two who do the thing so much better than I could. I have not even seen the people. My day is very full, you know. Piano and singing-lessons, and I am painting again this winter, with Galletti, and I am going to a course of conferenze on Italian literature. That involves a lot of reading. There are, besides, the other, the usual things, the—" Her voice stuck; then, as she went on, deepened with the depth of a suppressed impatience. "I wish one might be allowed not to do what is meant for pleasure unless one takes pleasure in it. But going to teas and parties is apparently as much a duty as school or church. Mother and Leslie at least seem to think it so for me."
"I see their point, Brenda dear, don't you?" He was not looking at her as with a gentle brotherliness he spoke this.
"You don't go to many parties yourself, Gerald."
"I am afraid nothing I do is fit to be an example to anybody. But it doesn't matter about me. About you it does. I can't say to you all I think. It would sound fulsome, and from such an old chum might make you laugh. But, being as you are, Brenda, surely your mother is right in thinking of le monde as the proper setting for you. You know I'm not fond of le monde, but it's because it hasn't enough such ornaments as yourself. With the life that lies before you—"
"Who can possibly know what my life will be?" the girl asked quickly, almost roughly.
"True, Brenda. I dare say I am talking like a fool." He left off, wondering that for a moment he should actually have been speaking on the side of convention.
They walked a few rods in silence. They had crossed the bridge, and were headed for Porta Romana, the handmaiden trotting in their tracks, when at a corner Gerald stopped, and, as if to change the subject, or to regain favor by a felicitous suggestion, said:
"Do you remember my telling you of a painting I came upon in a little old church on this street? Scuola di Giotto, they call it, but the thing is undoubtedly Sienese. Have you the time? Shall we take a moment to see it?"
"I should be glad. If you will walk home with me afterward, Gerald, I might tell Gemma she can go."
There was an exchange of Italian between the young lady and the maid, after which the latter turned, and with a busy, delighted effect about the rear view of her walked back across the bridge to spend her gift of an hour in what divertisements we shall never know.
The church was closed. Gerald pulled the bell-handle of the next door. A priest opened to them, and, seeing at a glance what was wanted, guided them through a white-washed corridor to a living-room where a crucifix hung on the wall and the table had a red cloth; by this into a dim and stony sacristy, whence they emerged into the back of a darkling little church, with shadowy candlesticks and kneeling-benches, the whole full of a cold, complex odor of old incense and old humanity and, one could fancy, old prayers.
The priest brought a lighted taper and, crossing to one of the side altars, held it near the painting, which was all that well-dressed people ever came for outside of hours.
The reddish light trembled over the figure of a majestic virgin, in the diadem and mantle of a princess, bearing the palm of martyrs in her hand. It was a very simple and noble face, beautiful in a separate way, which not every one would perceive, so little in common had it with the present-day fair ladies whose photographs are sold.
Gerald had taken the light from the priest's hands and was lifting, lowering, shading it, experimenting, to bring out all that might still be seen of the withdrawn image on its faintly glinting field of gold. His face was keen with interest; the love of beautiful things in this moment of satisfaction smoothed away from it every line of dejection and irritability.
Brenda was examining the picture with an attention equal to his, but, if one might so describe it, of a different color. Her admiration got its life largely from Gerald's, whose tastes in art she was in the habit of adopting blindfold. Of this, however, she was not aware, and gazed doing good to her soul by the conscious and deliberate contemplation of a masterpiece.
"Do you remember a great calm, white figure in the communal palace at Siena?" Gerald asked, "with other figures of Virtues on the same wall? Doesn't this remind you of them?"
Brenda answered abstractedly:
"Yes," and continued to look. "How amazing they are!" she fervently exclaimed. He supposed she meant the saint's hands or eyes, but she explained, "The Italians."
He did not take up the idea either to agree or to dispute; his mind was busy with one Italian only, the painter of the picture before him.
The young girl's interest flagged sooner than his own; he felt her melt from his side while he continued seeking proof in this detail and that of the painter's identity.
When he turned to find her and to follow, she was kneeling on one of the wooden forms, her gloved hands joined, her face toward the high altar.
He approved the courtesy of it, done, as he knew, in order that the priest, who stood aside, waiting for them to finish, should not think these barbarians who came into his church to see a work of art had no respect for his shrines and holies. Having returned the light to the priest Gerald himself, while waiting for Brenda, took a melancholy religious attitude, his hat and cane held against his breast, and sent his thoughts gropingly upward, where the solitary thing they encountered was his poor mother in heaven. Heaven and the changes undergone by those who enter there he could never make very real to himself. He thought of her as she used to be, affectionate and ill.
At the stir of Brenda rising from her knees he, too, stirred, ready to depart. She was bowing to the altar, making an obeisance so deep, so beautifully reverent, that the priest could never have guessed she was not a Catholic. After it she still stood a moment, looking toward the sanctuary, like one with last fond words to say after the farewell; and this excess of either regard for the priest's feelings or else a devoutness he had not suspected in her quickened Gerald's attention. And there in the dimness he saw what he had not seen in the broad light of day, that his friend's little face, which had presented the effect of a house with all the blinds drawn down, was lighted up behind the blinds—oh, lighted as if for a feast!
He felt himself at sea. He had thought he knew the circumstances. Some part, of course, nobody could know unless Brenda chose to tell them. But what reason there should be for positive joy—
A suspicion flashed across his mind. He looked at her more closely, and put it away.
She might have been the wisest of the virgins, the one who before any other heard the music of the bridegroom and was first to light her lamp. She stood as if listening to his footsteps.
That such a simile should have been possible to Gerald shows how much the expression of Brenda's face centered attention on itself, for her white serge dress was in the fashion of that year, and it was not a fashion to be remembered with any artistic joy. Gerald was never reconciled to it.
He had the power to detach himself and at will see persons as if he looked at them for the first time. So for a moment he saw Brenda as a thing solely of form and color, a white shape against a ground of gloom, and took new account of the fact that the little girl who had had pigtails when he first knew her, and gone to the Diaconesse with lunch-basket and satchel of books, had from one season to the next, stealthily, as it were, and while his back was turned, become beautiful.
More than that. He was looking at Brenda—he recognized it with a pulse of exquisite interest—in her exact and particular hour. He had surprised a rose at its moment of transition from bud to bloom, that delicate and perfect moment when the natural beauty which women and fruits and flowers have in common, reaching its height, hangs poised—for such a pitifully short time, alas!—before it changes, if not declines, to something less dewily fresh, less heart-movingly untouched, less complete.
The artist could not long in this case be regarding the girl as part of a picture; his human relation to the owner of that lifted profile brought him back to wondering in what the quiet ecstasy it breathed could have its source. He was touched by it, by the whole character, at the moment, of her face, with its strength so nullified by gentleness.
When the will is strong and nature sensitive, what arms has youth with which to prevail? What but the power to keep still and hold on? Nothing was in Brenda's face so marked as that power, except, in this moment of undisguise, while she thought herself unwatched, its singular happiness, a mingling of tenderness, dedication, hope.
The genuine sympathy he felt for her made Gerald deserving of the intuition that blessed him while he stood there trying to divine. An interpretation of her secret offered itself, worthier of him as of her than the suspicion of erewhile; one so beautiful, indeed, that he felt uplifted by standing in its presence. All he had most cared for in his life, the things that had touched and inspired him,—visions of painters, dreams of poets, scenes of beauty, sweet of human intercourse,—all the influences that make life dignified and fair, seemed in their essence to be in the air around him, like scents of flowers in the dark....
The wish to pray came over him again, yet he wanted to weep, too, because as soon as his heart expanded a little the rusty splinter of a knife corroding there reminded him that lofty sentiments, sincerities, idealisms, have as their fruit in this life—dust, derision! He wondered that without being any older one could feel as old as he did while watching Brenda transfigured by her poor young dream.
Now for the second time she curtseyed to the altar. The priest moved, Gerald moved, all three passed up the aisle, to a faint chink of coins in Gerald's pocket where he groped for a fee. At the main altar the priest dipped a rapid genuflexion.
As soon as they were outside Brenda began to talk about the picture, to ask questions, as if the art of the Italians had been of all things nearest to her heart, and Gerald was drawn into holding in the street while they walked a sort of lecture on the primitives.
All the while, in an independent corner of his brain he was reflecting upon the absurdity of supposing that because he was an old familiar of the Fosses, and so fond of them all, he knew anything of their affairs these days, when he saw them so seldom. Ever so many things could have happened without his knowledge. The girls might have new friends and admirers just as they had hats and dresses that he had never seen.
They were making their way while talking toward Porta Romana, and were often obliged to step off the narrow sidewalk to make room for other passers, the street being busy at that time of day.
Brenda was in the midst of an entirely pertinent remark when her voice softly died, like the flame of a candle sucked out by a draft or like a music-box run down. Gerald, looking round for the end of her sentence, saw that she had sighted an acquaintance on the other side of the street.
She nodded, without a smile, slowly. Just so must Beatrice have bowed in these same streets of Florence when she passed the dreamy passionate youth through whom we are acquainted with her name.
Gerald's eyes traveled across the way to see who might be the recipient of the lady's most sweet salute, and hurriedly uncovered to an officer of the Italian army who, holding his hand to his cap, stood at attention till the two had passed.
Was the man pale or was it that one had never before noticed, meeting him indoors and at evening, how strongly the black of his mustache and brows contrasted with his skin? The suspicion that had for a moment troubled Gerald in church returned as a stronger infection. Had Brenda expected this? Did they concert such meetings?
He might have said to himself that a tryst which consisted in crossing glances from opposite sides of the street was very innocent. In a moment he did see that as the villas fuori la porta must be reached through the porta, a lover whose lady lived on Vial dei Colli might without previous arrangement hope for a glimpse of her by walking in its neighborhood.
As we have seen him doing more than once this afternoon, Gerald here tried to get his clue from Brenda herself, her face, her atmosphere. Yet he knew, as has already been said, that it was Brenda Foss's way to keep these as much as she could from telling anything to the world. This wariness notwithstanding a tinge of unaccustomed rose had spread through the clear white of her cheek; her eyes had in them noticeably more life. Emotion or mere self-consciousness?
On one point only he was satisfied: Brenda had done nothing that involved deceit. Into the very structure of her face, which had almost nothing left of the American look, was built a certain Puritan truthfulness. She could conceal if she must, but hated to shuffle, to prevaricate. She concealed exactly because of that.
"Go on with the Sienese masters, Gerald," she bade him, collectedly. "I am listening, and learning a lot."
As they passed under the great arch of the Roman Gate, Gerald was saying modestly:
"I don't know anything about them, really. I've just been impressed by a thing or two. This Lorenzetti, for instance—" And so on up the viale to the house.
In the drawing-room they found Mrs. Foss and Leslie, who, just home from town, tired and thirsty, had had tea brought to them, and were strengthening themselves before even taking off their hats.
Their welcome to Gerald was mingled with reproaches of the sort that flatters more than it hurts.
"It's perfect ages since we saw you. We thought you had forgotten us. What have you been doing this long, long time?"
"It is you, who are never at home, my dear friends," Gerald took his turn. "I was here a fortnight or so ago. Didn't Lily tell you? Of course she told you, and you have forgotten, so it's I, properly, who should be calling names."
"Have you been quite well, Gerald?" Mrs. Foss asked in her maternal voice, after a more careful look at him.
"I am glad you have come. I have been on the point more than once of sending for you, but the days fly so! We have been busy, too."
She had poured cups of tea for Gerald and Brenda. All four were seated and refreshing themselves.
It was a very large room, but a corner had been so arranged as to look shut in and cozy. There stood the tea-table convenient to the sofa and, surrounding it, a few chosen chairs in which one could sink and lean back and be comfortable.
"Have you had a tiring day?" Brenda asked her mother, somewhat as if she were tired herself at the mere thought of such a day as she supposed her mother to have had.
"No," Mrs. Foss answered briskly; "it's rather fun. I don't mean that one doesn't get tired after a fashion. Has Brenda told you, Gerald, how we have lately been occupied?"
"Some new people, I think she said."
"Yes, some nice, funny Americans."
"Funny, you say?"
"I say it fondly, Gerald. Let me tell you a little about them, and you will see what I mean. They are going to spend the winter here and wanted a house. What house do you think they selected?"
"You really mustn't set me riddles, Mrs. Foss."
"For years we have seen it every time we drive to the Cascine, and seen it with a certain curiosity—always deserted, always with closed blinds, in its way the most beautiful house in Florence."
"The most—I can't think what house you mean."
"Of course not, with your tastes. But imagine some nice, rich Americans, without either art education or the smallest affectation of such a thing, and ask yourself what they would like. Why, a big, square, clean-looking, new-looking, wealthy-looking house, of course, set in a nice garden, with, at the end of the garden, a nice stable. I was thankful to find the place had been kept up."
"But is there—on the Lungarno, did you say?"
"It is that house we have called the Haughty Hermitage, Gerald," Brenda helped him.
"Oh, that! But surely one doesn't live in a house like that!"
"Your excellent reason?" inquired Leslie.
"I don't know,"—he hesitated,—"but surely one doesn't live in a house like that!"
They had to laugh at the expression brought into his face by his sense of a mysterious incongruity.
"No," he went on with knitted brows to reject the idea; "a house like that—one doesn't come all the way from America to live in a house which has no more atmosphere than that!"
"Ah, but that's the point, Gerald," said Mrs. Foss. "What you call atmosphere these people avoid as they would an unsanitary odor. Atmosphere! What would you say if you saw the things Leslie and I have been helping them to buy and put into it! I love to buy, you know, even when not for myself. I thought with joy, 'Now I shall at least go through the form of acquiring certain objects I have lusted after for years.' Delightful old things Jerome has discovered in antiquarians' places, and that we shall never be able to afford. Do you think I could persuade them to take one of these? I represented that the worm-holes could be stopped up and varnished over, that the missing bits of inlay, precious crumbs of pearl and ivory, could be replaced, the tapestries renovated. In vain. They want everything new—hygienically new, fresh, and shining. And, Gerald, prejudice apart, the idea is not without its good side. The result is not so bad as you may think. Why, after all, should my taste, your taste, prevail in their house, will you tell me?"
"For no reason in the world. This liberal view comes the easier to me that I do not expect ever to see the interesting treasures you may have collected from Peyron's and Janetti's."
"If it were no worse than that!" put in Leslie, and laughed a covered laugh.
Mrs. Foss explained, after a like little laugh of her own.
"You see, things that we have seen till we have utterly ceased to see them, the things that nobody who really lives in Florence ever dreams of buying, are new to these people. They love them. As a result, you can guess. There will be in their apartments alabaster plates with profiles of Dante and Michelangelo on a black center. There will be mosaic tables with magnolias and irises. There will be Pliny's doves. Think of it! There will be green bronze lamps and lizards—"
"And the fruit—tell about that, Mother!" Leslie prompted.
"There will be on the sideboard in the dining-room a perpetual dish of magnificent fruit, marble, realistic to a degree. You know the kind."
"And you could stand by and let them—you and Leslie!" spoke Brenda, in an astonishment almost seriously reproachful.
"My dear," Leslie took up their common defense, "one's feeling in this case is: What does it matter? A little more, a little less.... It all goes together. When they have those curtains, they might as well have that fruit."
"At the same time, my dear children, let me tell you that the effect is not displeasing," insisted Mrs. Foss. "Such at least is my humble opinion. In its way it's all right. They are people of a certain kind, and they have bought what they like, not what they thought they ought to like. Thousands of people, if it were not for you artists perverting them, would be thinking a marble lemon that you can't tell from a real one a rare and dear possession. These people haven't known any artists. They are innocent."
"They're awfully good fun," Leslie started loyally in to make up for anything she had said which might seem to savor of mockery or dispraise. "One enjoys being with them, if they aren't our usual sort. They are in good spirits, really good—good spirits with roots to them. And that's such a treat these days!"
From which it was supposable that Leslie had been living in circles where the gaiety was hollow. The suggestion did not escape Gerald. But, then, Leslie, just turned twenty-four, was rather given to judging these days as if she remembered something less modern, an affectation found piquant by her friends in a particularly young-looking, blond girl with a short nose. Gerald might have hoped that her sigh meant nothing had not Leslie, awake to the implication of her remark as soon as she had made it, gone hurriedly on to call attention away from it.
"Yes, it's pleasant to be with them. It's a change. The world seems simple and life easy. Life is easy, with all that money. Besides, Mrs. Hawthorne really is something of a dear. After all, if people make much of one, one is pretty sure to like them. Haven't you found it so, Gerald?"
"I don't know. I am trying to remember if there is anybody who has made much of me."
"We have made much of you."
"And don't think I temperately like you. I adore you all, as you well know. You're the only people I do. By that sign there has been nobody else kind enough to make much of me."
"You're so bad lately, Gerald; that's why," Mrs. Foss affectionately chide him. "You never go anywhere. You neglect your friends. What have you been doing with yourself? Is it work?"
"No; not more than usual. I work, but I'm not exactly absorbed—obsessed by it. I don't know—" He seemed to search, and after a moment summed up his vague difficulties: "It seems a case for quoting 'Hamlet.'" He was bending forward, his elbows resting on his knees, as they could do easily, his chair being low and his thin legs long. His thin, long hands played with that slender cane of his, which he had set down and taken up again, while he tried to recall the passage, and mumbled snatches of it: "'This goodly firmament—congregation of vapors—Man delights not me—no, nor'—the rest of it."
"But it won't do, Gerald dear; it won't do at all," Mrs. Foss addressed him anxiously, between scolding and coaxing. "Shake yourself, boy! Force yourself a little; it will be good for you. Make yourself go to places till this mood is past. What is it? Bad humor, spleen, hypochondria? It doesn't belong with one of your age. We miss you terribly, dear. Here we have had two of our Fridays, and you have not been. And we have always counted on you. Charming men are scarce at parties the world over. The Hunts have begun their little dances, too. One used to see you there. And at Madame Bentivoglio's. She was asking what had become of you. Promise, Gerald, that we shall see you at our next Friday! We want to make it a nice, gay season. Will you promise? Oh, here's Lily. Why didn't you tell us, Lily, that Gerald had come to see us when we were out?"
A long-legged, limp-looking little girl with spectacles had come in. A minute before she had been passing the door on her way to walk, and catching the sound of a male voice in the drawing-room, insisted upon listening till she had made sure whose it was. At the name Gerald she had pulled away from her governess and burst into the drawing-room.
She stood still a moment after this impulsive entrance, and the governess turned toward Mrs. Foss a face that, benign and enlightened though it was, called up the memory of faces seen in good-humored German comic papers. The expression of her smile said to the company that she was guiltless in the matter of this invasion. Could one use severity toward a little girl who suffered from asthma and weak eyes?
Lily, after her pause, went half shyly, half boldly to Gerald. He did not kiss her,—she was ten years old,—but placed an arm loosely around her as she stood near his knee.
"Did you forget it, Lily?"
"No, Mother, I didn't forget, but I never thought to speak of it. You didn't tell me to, did you, Gerald?"
"No, we had so much else to talk about. Well, Lily, have you decided what color the uniform must be for our orphanage? The thing is important. It makes a great difference in an orphan's disposition whether she goes dressed in a dirty gray or a fine, bright apricot yellow."
"Gerald,"—Lily lowered her voice to make their conversation more private,—"will you be the cuckoo?" As he gazed, she went earnestly on: "We can't find anybody to do the cuckoo. I am going to be the nightingale. Fraeulein is going to be the drum. Leslie is going to be the Wachtel. Mother is going to be the triangle. Brenda will play the piano. Papa says that if he is to take part he must be the one who sings on the comb and tissue-paper. But I am afraid to let him. You know he hasn't a good ear. That leaves the cuckoo, the comb, and the rattle still to find before we can have our Kinder-sinfonie. Which should you like to be, Gerald?"
"What an opening for musical talent! But, my dear little lady, I'm not a bit of good. I can't follow music by note any more than a cuckoo. I am so sorry."
"But, Gerald, all you have to do is—"
"I have told you, Lili," said the governess in German, "that we would take the gardener's boy and drill him for the cuckoo. Come now quickly, dear child; we must go for our walk."
The casual, unimportant talk of ordinary occasions went on after the interruption.
"And what do you hear from that charming friend of yours, the abbe, Gerald?" And, "I hope you have good news from your son, Mrs. Foss." And, "Do you know whether the Seymours have come back from the country?"
Gerald left the Fosses, warmed by his renewed sense of their friendship, and believing that he would go very soon again to see them. But he did not, and his feeling of shame was more definite than his gratitude when he in time received a note from Mrs. Foss, kind as ever, asking him to dine.
There was dancing at the Fosses' on two Fridays in the month. It was their contribution toward the gaiety of the winter. They did not often give a formal dinner, and when such an entertainment appeared to be called for from them, planned it with forethought to make it serve as many ends as it would. Every careful housewife will understand.
It was with Leslie that Mrs. Foss talked such matters over. The eldest daughter was so sufficient as adjutant that one did not inquire whether Brenda would have been useful if needed. The latter took no part in the domestic councils which had for object to decide who should be asked to dinner and of what the dinner should consist.
The question whom to invite to meet Professor Longstreet had taken Mrs. Foss and Leslie time and reflection. The Fosses' only son had a great regard for this man, one of the faculty during his period at Harvard, and now that the travels of the professor's sabbatical year brought him to Florence, the family was anxious to entertain him as dear John, studying medicine in far-off Boston, would have wished.
The professor was engaged upon a new translation of the "Divine Comedy." The guests had therefore better be chosen among their literary acquaintance, thought Mrs. Foss. But Leslie was of the opinion that they would do better to make the requisite just any gift or grace, and keep an eye on having the company compose well and the table look beautiful.
When she reminded her mother that a dinner was owing the Balm de Brezes, and that this would be a chance to pay the debt, Mrs. Foss objected:
"But I want to ask Gerald. I felt sorry for him last time he came. We must look after him a little bit, you know."
Leslie did not show herself in any wise disposed to set aside Gerald's claim, but expressed the idea that Gerald probably would not mind meeting the De Brezes now. After all, the memories sweet and sour associated with them had had time to lose their edge. And they could be seated at the opposite end of the table.
It was finally decided to ask the Balm de Brezes, Gerald, the Felixsons, Miss Cecilia Brown, and Gideon Hart, all intelligent, all people who could talk. It was further frugally resolved to have the dinner on a Friday and let it be followed by the usual evening party, thus making the same embellishment of the house do for two occasions, as well as augmenting their visitor's opportunity to make acquaintance with the Anglo-American colony in Florence.
* * * * *
All had been going so well, the guests were in such happy and talkative form, that the minor matter of taking food had dragged, and the diners were not ready to rise when a servant whispered to Mrs. Foss that the first evening guest had arrived.
Mrs. Foss's eyes found those of Leslie, who understood the words soundlessly framed, and excused herself from the table.
In the garnished and waiting drawing-room, lighted with candles, like a shrine, and looking vast, with the furniture taken out of the way, she found the Reverend Arthur Spottiswood, of whom it was not easy to think that eagerness to dance had driven him to come so sharply on time. He looked serious-minded, almost somber, and Leslie, though prepared to be vivacious with peer or pauper, found it all duty and little fun to make conversation with him until the next arrival should come to her relief. The gentleman was Brenda's adorer, but Brenda would never, if she could help it, let him have one moment with her. His love-charged eye inspired in her the simple desire to flee. Singularly, this was, with one notable exception, beautiful Brenda's only conquest, while Leslie, who was just ordinarily pretty and wore a pince-nez, received tribute and proposals from almost every unattached young fellow who drifted inside the circle of her wide invisible net. Boys in particular had to pass through her hands, receive good advice from her, be encouraged in their work, cheered in their distance from home, and refused, and consoled for the refusal, and sent away finally rather improved than otherwise. With very little sentiment, she had a kind and cozy quality, like her mother.
The Satterlees were next to arrive, mother with son and daughter, and Leslie was warm as never before in her welcome to them. The Reverend Arthur was gently shed from her and with pleasure picked up by Isabel Satterlee, who was charmed to have any kind of man to talk with.
Then arrived a group of unrelated people living for the moment at the same pension in town and coming in the same conveyance. Among them was Percy Lavin, who had the extraordinary tenor voice, and along with it an exuberance of confidence in his future that made him as destructive of coherence in company as a large frisking pup. Leslie had at the very first meeting felt that it would be her sacred mission to attend to that young man.
The hired pianist had come, he was unrolling his sheets of dance-music and rolling them the contrary way. Mr. Hunt, the English banker, with his wife and daughters, had come; and Maestro Vannuccini with his signora on his arm; and a glittering young officer or two; and Landini, Hunt's partner; and Charlie Hunt, the banker's nephew.
Charlie, bold through long acquaintance, asked, "Where are the others?"
Leslie told him, whereupon the young man said "Oh!" and his "Oh" sounded blank, whether because it was apparent to him through her answer that there had been indiscretion in his question, or because he wondered at there being a dinner-party in this house and he not asked to it. Leslie paid no attention, for at that moment the diners were beginning to appear.
The drawing-room had two doors in the same wall: people coming from the dining-room would enter by one of these, while those who came from the street entered by the other, after passing through the small reception-room where they left their things, and the larger reception-room intervening between this and the drawing-room. Charlie Hunt, talking with Mrs. Satterlee, let a casual eye roll away from her middle-aged agreeableness to see who was entering by that different door from the one which had given him passage. Curiosity, pure and simple.
Ah, so. Madame Balm de Breze, spare, sharp, high-nosed, beaked and clawed like a bird—a picked bird. Very elegant. It was clear to Charlie Hunt why with a dinner to give one should care to secure her and her husband. They looked so fiendishly aristocratic.
The Felixsons. Naturally. Felixson had to be asked when the guest of honor was a scholar. Mrs. Felixson's warm brilliancy to-night bore testimony to a good dinner. Abundance of meats and wines always turned her a burning pink. It looked to Charlie like a new frock she was wearing; he did not remember seeing her in it before.
Gideon Hart, the old sculptor. It was his picturesque white hair and beard that people liked to see at their tables, for the old fellow, thought Hunt, was phenomenally a bore. In this case patriotism explained his presence. America quaintly loved his name.
And Cecilia Brown. But was it really Cecilia?... What had she been doing to herself?... Oh. Her hair. Her hair was cropped and curled all over her head like wicked Caracalla's. That was the fashion in England, he had heard, where she had been spending the summer.
But who was this, at the end of the procession, after Mrs. Foss and Brenda and the consul?
Hunt had a genuine surprise. Gerald Fane.
Now, wherefore Gerald Fane rather than Charlie Hunt?
Mrs. Foss, coming into the drawing-room, felt a glow of pleasure at the scene meeting her eyes. The occasion, the success of it, had lifted life for her above its usual plane. She could feel how blessed she was in ways she did not sufficiently consider on common days when common cares blinded her. It was a beautiful home, this of hers; here was a beautiful room, with its mirrors and flowers and candle-light and happy guests. She smiled at everybody and everything with a brooding sweetness.
Her sense of herself was satisfactory too at the moment. She felt her dress—an old one, rejuvenated—to be becoming. She was young to have grown children. Her blond hair did not show the silver threads among it. She was as handsome in her older way as she had been when young, and she was sure she was nicer. She had family and friends, all full of regard for her. Her smile reflected the state of her mind and did one good to see.
Her eyes resting upon Brenda—whom the reverend Arthur had tried to capture the moment she appeared, and been baffled—Mrs. Foss in the optimism of her mood said to herself that all would very likely go well in that quarter; they ought not to worry as they did.
The pianist had struck up a polka. One still danced the polka in those days, and the schottische and the dear old lancers, though the waltz was already the favorite.
The floor was at first sparsely, then ever more thickly, sown with hopping and revolving couples. Hunt, one arm curled around a young waist in pink muslin, had enough of his mind to spare from the amount of talk one has breath for while dancing to continue in a line of thought started by an annoying little smart where a shred of skin had been rubbed off his vanity when he saw Gerald come from the dining-room. He mentally looked at himself and looked at Gerald, and after comparing the pictures felt his astonishment increase. He could admit, as an excuse for inviting Gerald instead of himself, that Gerald was an artist, and this dinner had presumably been planned with the idea of having it literary-artistic. But then—an artist! Gerald was so little of one. One never heard of his selling a painting. In the darkest corners of his friends' rooms you sometimes discovered one of his queer things—a gift, hung there as a compliment. One might, furthermore, grant that it did not matter that a man should be agreeable in appearance. But Gerald was not even agreeable in disposition; he did not try to make himself agreeable. What did the Fosses see in him?
The music had worked through a mighty flourish to a banging final chord. Hunt escorted his lady to a chair, took the fan from her hand to fan her with,—himself a little, too,—and while talking let his dark eye stray from her and go roving, as was the habit of his eye.
It plunged through an open door into the quietly lighted library, where the consul and his distinguished guest and a few more of the older or staider people had withdrawn from the tumult and were having smokes and conversation. They were considering a marble fragment, passing it from hand to hand.
Hunt knew that fragment, and at sight of it looked cynical. The consul, who had discovered it immured in an ancient garden-wall, believed it to have been carved by Orcagna.
Old Hart had it in his hand. What he said could hardly be heard at that distance; he passed it to Gerald with a look that seemed to ask for corroboration. Gerald held it long and gazed seriously, with that conceit in his own judgment which made him sometimes dispute the attributions in no less a gallery than the Uffizi—say that a Verocchio was not a Verocchio, a Giorgione not a Giorgione.
Charlie strained to catch some syllable of what he said. Vainly. The pianist was preluding. Bertie Bentivoglio came to ask the girl in pink to dance with him. From the chair she left empty Charlie moved nearer to the library door, of half a mind to join the group in there. But Gerald, upon whom Leslie had impressed it that he must do his duty and let there be no wall-flowers, when the prelude had developed into a waltz returned the marble into Hart's hand and came to the door. Whereupon Charlie changed his mind and after saying "Hello, Gerald!" turned again, and the young men stood looking over the scene side by side, two figures contrasting in reality nearly as much as they did in Charlie's mental image of them for purposes of comparison.
Any Rosina who sold buttonhole bouquets at the theater door could have seen that Charlie was handsome, with his pale brown smoothness and regularity of feature; the pretty mustache accentuating and not concealing the neat and agreeable mold of his lip; the fine whiteness of his teeth, his civilized and silken look altogether. The defects of his face, if one could call them that, did not appear at first glance or even at second. His forehead had begun to gain on his hair,—it ran up at the sides in two points,—and his slightly prominent eyes were brown in the same sense as a horn button or a bit of chestnut-shell is brown,—while some eyes that we remember were brown like woodland pools with autumn leaves at the bottom! He did not look English, yet did not look quite Italian either. He was in fact both, and the thing evenly balanced. The banker Hunt's brother had married an Italian; Charlie had been born in Italy and hardly ever stirred out of it; on the other hand he had found his society largely among the English and Americans in Florence.
As he stood there, conforming gracefully to a recognized canon of manly beauty, his neighbor Gerald, who would not have been noticed one way or the other for his looks, yet from being beside him took on an indescribable effect of eccentricity. The bone showed plainly around his eye-sockets and at the bridge of his nose. One eyebrow became different from the other the moment he regarded a thing analytically; and when he smiled those who noticed such things could detect that nature had marked him for recognition: there showed beneath his mustache three of the broad front middle teeth whereof two are the common portion. For the remainder, a slight beard veiled the character of his chin and jaw and a little disguised the thinness of his throat. Above a large forehead his dark hair rose on end in a bristling bank, like that of most Italian men at the time. He looked solitary, unsociable, critical, but not altogether ungentle. His forehead was full of the suggestion of thoughts, his gray-blue eyes were full of the reflection of feelings, that you could be comfortably sure he would not trouble you with.
"Well, Gerald, what are you doing with yourself these days?" asked Charlie as they stood looking on, delaying to seek partners for the dance. "Immortal masterpieces?"
This innocuous playfulness somehow jarred. Gerald looked down at Charlie from the side of his eye,—he was by a couple of inches or so the taller,—then asked in his turn, a little crustily:
"Do you really want to know?"
"Why, no, my dear fellow, I don't, if that's your reply. It was not curiosity. I was only showing an amiable interest." His tone conveyed that he had intended no offense and refused to take any; the disagreeableness should be all on the same side.
"Thank you for the interest. I am doing much as usual," Gerald answered, placated.
"Who is this professor from America whom the very select are invited to meet?" Charlie asked after an interval, as if they had been on the best of terms again.
The playfulness again was innocent, again might have been regarded as almost an attempt to flatter; nevertheless it again jarred upon Gerald. It was by an effort that he answered soberly and literally, without betraying that the point of irony had irritated him, as, he did not doubt, it was meant to irritate.
"Another translation of Dante?" Charlie made merry, when Gerald had finished telling as much as he knew about the professor. "I tell you what—I will set myself to translating the 'Divine Comedy'! It will give me distinction, and then—it 's very simple,—I will never show my translation!"
There was surely no harm in this. It was just stupid. Charlie's esprit was never of any fineness. He and Gerald had known each other from the days when both went to M. Demonget's school, whence, without having been friends, they had emerged intimates. It would have been ridiculous for either to try to impress the other by the profundity of his thoughts. Charlie was right in thinking of himself as standing in a relation to Gerald that made him free to expose ideas in their undress. And yet it was on this evening and this occasion that Gerald said to himself for the first time definitely that he did not like Charlie Hunt. An antipathy existing perhaps from the beginning had risen to the point where it crossed the threshold of consciousness. No, he neither liked nor thought well of him.
Luckily, it did not much matter, their relations were superficial. Belonging in the same circles they must meet from time to time; but if Gerald avoided him whenever it was decently feasible, he need not often suffer as at this moment from the repressed nervous need to repudiate in explicit terms his person, his society, his manners, his morals, everything that was his. By way of beginning this avoidance, Gerald cast his eyes more particularly about him in search of a partner. Charlie's eyes too were wandering over the small and scattered number of ladies still available to late comers.
Both of them knew every one present. Charlie had picked out with his eye a still youthful mama, who would not, he believed, refuse to dance, but would jest and appear flattered and, when after some hesitation she consented, lean in his arms only a little more heavily than her daughter. Gerald had singled a slender, faded woman in garments of ivory lace, who, seated near Mme. Vannuccini in the far corner of the room, was devoting herself to conversation as if she really had not cared to dance. Gerald was moved to go and give her the chance of refusing, if she were in total earnest. He remembered Blanche Seymour as a passionate dancer still when he began to go to grownup parties.
Now her hair was gray, her face had lines, but she did not look accustomed to them; there was plaintiveness in her expression, as if she had been a young girl, really, made up for an elderly part in theatricals, and did not like her part. It was some sense of this which was attracting Gerald to her across the room. Leslie had ordered him to dance, so dance he must. But the glare of festivity all around him did something to his inner self comparable to a light too bright making the eyes ache. Leslie would have told him that he picked up his party by the wrong end. The general gaiety instead of infecting him, reinforced his feeling that everybody, beneath the surface, was perplexed, bleeding, afraid of the future, and had good cause to be.
The dinner had been interesting,—he had not been much affected, he was glad to find, by the presence of the De Brezes,—but he had risen from it haunted by the conviction that the Fosses were not happy. Nobody, if one examined into it, was happy; all this pretense was pathetic to the point of dreariness. Gerald knew everybody's affairs to some extent, after spending most of his life in the same community, and a little city where gossip is an elegant occupation. This person had made bad investments; that one was crippled by the necessity to pay a son's debts; this couple did not live in harmony, the husband was said to be infatuated with a dancer. The fact that so much of their own fault entered into people's misfortunes, while rousing rage, forced him to pity, because the limitation of their intelligence had so much to do with people's faults. He was in fact oppressed by the sense of the limits set to all the lives around him in this beautiful little Florence, his home, his love, sometimes his despair: the narrow actual opportunities after the boundless illusions and hopes of youth; the limited outlook, the limited breathing-room, the limited fortunes. Bars at the windows, closed doors on every hand.
It was with the feeling that Miss Seymour was no more truly in holiday spirits than was he that he turned toward her, as toward a spot of shadow amid too fervid sunshine. It would be more congenial, drifting with her to the languid measure of this very modern, morbidly emotional waltz, knowing that, whatever their light talk, they alike felt life to be a sad affair, than going through livelier evolutions with a young person who would secretly desire him to flatter and flirt. An instinct founded less upon male conceit than knowledge of his world drove the young bachelor determined to remain unattached to seek in preference women who would found no smallest hope upon his notice of them.
So, keeping at the edge of the room in order to be out of the way of the dancers, he started on his way to Miss Seymour, while Charlie, whose mood was as different from Gerald's as was his eye,—that brown eye which looked upon the world as a barrel of very passable oysters, of which he would open as many as he could get hold of,—started after.
The approach of a stormily whirling couple, waltzing all' italiana, and then another and still another following, forced them to suspend their journey. While they prudently waited, "Who is that?" came from Charlie in a voice of acute curiosity.
Gerald, after half a glance at him, mechanically looked in the same direction.
There stood at the door opening from the reception-room an unknown.
When it was said that our young men knew everybody at the Fosses' soiree, it was not strictly meant that there might not be a person or two whom they had not seen before: a plain little visiting cousin whom the Bentivoglios had begged permission to bring; a new face of a young Italian introduced by a fellow officer. But at the door now, displacing a good deal of air, stood a real and striking unknown, in a Paris dress and diamonds and a smile.
Gerald did not take the trouble to answer Charlie; to himself he said that this was perhaps Mrs. Hawthorne, the Fosses' new friend.
Mrs. Foss had hastened to meet her. Leslie, disengaging herself from a partner, left him standing in the middle of the room while she hastened likewise. It must be Mrs. Hawthorne.
Gerald took back his eyes, and continued on his way to Miss Seymour. But Charlie, always alive to the possibilities of a new acquaintance, always eager to be first in the field, dropped his quest of the mama. With an air of nonchalant abstraction he went to stand in the neighborhood of the new arrival, conveniently at hand for an introduction. He saw then that there were two fine new birds; the light and size of the one had at first obscured the other, though she, too, had on a Paris dress and diamonds and a smile. But the dress—though there could be little difference in the women's age, both were young, without being unripe girls,—was of soberer tones: a sage green moire with pale coffee-colored lace; and the jewels were more modest, and the smile was smaller, its beam did not carry so far, nor was perched on so considerable an eminence.
As he had known she would do, Mrs. Foss after a moment looked about her for men to introduce. And there he was.
Mrs. Hawthorne. Miss Madison.
Leslie had at the same moment brought up Captain Viviani, who spoke a little English, and liked very much to practise it with the charming American ladies, as he told them.
Mrs. Foss lingered awhile, helping the progress of the acquaintance by bits of elucidation and compliment, then, when the thing was under way, withdrew so adroitly that she was not missed. A young man, coming up to importune Leslie for a promised dance, was allowed to carry her off; Miss Madison, assured by the capitano that he could dance the American waltz, trusted herself, though a little doubtfully, to his arms; and Charlie was left with Mrs. Hawthorne.
"Shall we take a turn?" he offered.
"Me?" The lady gave him a look sidewise from dewy blue eyes, as if to see whether he were serious. He perceived that she with effort kept her dimples from denting in. He could not be sure what the joke was. But she went on, as if there had been no joke: "I was brought up a Baptist. My pa and ma considered it wicked to dance, so would never let me learn. It doesn't look very wicked to me."
She watched the dancers with an earnestly following eye, preoccupied, he supposed, with the moral aspect of their embraces and gyrations.
"It looks easy enough," she said, with suppressed excitement, immensely fascinated. "I should think anybody could do that. You hop on this foot, you slide, you hop on that foot, you slide. I believe I could do it. No, no, I mustn't let myself be tempted. I don't want to be a sight." Her voice had wavered; it suddenly came out bold. "My land!" she exclaimed full-bloodedly, "there goes a woman who's not a bit slimmer than me! Look here, let's try. Not right before everybody. I see a side room where it's nice and dark. Come on in there." As, hardly muffling a gleam of peculiar and novel amusement, he escorted her toward the room indicated, she reassured him, "I'm big, but I'm light on my feet."
Charlie was afterward fond of telling that he had taught Mrs. Hawthorne to dance. But the single lesson he gave her did not of a truth take her beyond the point where, holding hands with him, like children, and counting one-two-three, she tried hopping on this foot, then on the other. For Mrs. Foss, who seemed to have specially at heart that the new people should enjoy themselves, in her idea of securing this end, brought one person after the other to be introduced.
How carefully selected these were, or how diplomatically prepared, the good hostess alone could know.
"Oh, I'm having such a good time!" Mrs. Hawthorne sighed from a full and happy heart, later in the evening, having gone to sit beside her hostess on the little corner sofa which that tired woman had selected for a moment's rest. The dancing was passing before them. "It's the loveliest party I ever was to. What delightful friends you have, Mrs. Foss, and what a lot of them! I've made ever so many friends, too, this evening. Mrs. Satterlee has told me about the Home she's interested in, and Miss Seymour about the church-fair, and I've had a good talk with the minister. Those are three nice girls of the banker's, aren't they? Florence, Francesca, and Beatrice, commonly known as Flick, Fran, and Trix, they told me. Mr. Hunt, the nephew, is nice, too; we get on like sliding down-hill. They're all going to come and see me.—Mrs. Foss,"—her attention had veered,—"do look at that little fellow playing the piano! Isn't he great! But isn't he comical, too! I've been noticing him all the evening. He fascinates me. I never heard such splendid playing. The bouncing parts make my feet twitch to dance, but the sighful, wind-in-the-willow parts make me want to just lean back and close my eyes. I could listen till the cows come home. I call it a wonderful gift."
Mrs. Foss looked over at the little Italian, the unpretentious musical hack whom one sent for when there was to be dancing, and paid—it was all he asked—so very little. Her eyebrows went up a point as she smiled. It was true, she remarked it for the first time, that his hands flew over the keys with an air of breezy virtuosity. He raised them from the keyboard and brought them down again with the action of a snorting high-stepping horse. When the passage was loud he nearly lifted himself off the stool with pounding; when it was soft he tickled the ivories with the delicacy of raindrops, at the same time diminishing his person till he seemed the size of a fairy. Now and then he tossed his head, as if champing a bit, and the bunch of black frizz over his left temple trembled. A decidedly comic figure he appeared to Mrs. Foss.
"I will tell Signor Ceccherelli what you say," she amiably promised. "I am sure it will please him."
Leslie, whose responsibilities kept her from dancing her young fill at her own parties, sought Mrs. Hawthorne still later in the evening, when she thought that lady might have had enough of Mr. Hunt senior sitting beside her. The heavy old banker was not considered very entertaining, and everybody in Florence knew his way of sticking at the side of a good-looking woman. Lest this one, so evidently making herself pleasant, should be unduly taxed, Leslie stepped in to free her, tactfully interested the banker in a game of cards going on upstairs, and took the place he vacated—took it for just a minute, as a bird perches.
"No, you don't!" Mrs. Hawthorne laid a hand on her arm when she seemed near dashing off to bring somebody else to present. "You've done the social act till you ought to be tired, if you aren't. Sit here by me a moment and take it easy. This party doesn't need any nursing. It's the loveliest party I ever was to."
Leslie looked off in front of her to verify the statement, and unreluctantly settled down on the little sofa to rest awhile. She liked Mrs. Hawthorne. One could not help liking her, as she had had occasion to assert and reassert in defense against a vague body of reasons for not adopting the new-comer into the sacred circle of friends, or launching her on the waters of their little world. Now, as they chatted, she said to herself again that if Mrs. Hawthorne's homeliness of phrase were not a simple thing of playfulness, a disclaimer of the affectation of elegance in talk as stilted, bumptious, unsuited to a proper modesty, it could very well pass for that. Mrs. Hawthorne seldom expressed herself quite seriously. As she seldom looked serious either, one could hardly hear her say it was the loveliest party she ever was to without suspecting her of a humorous intention. By the sly gleam of her eye one should know she was doing it to amuse you, imitating a child, a country-woman, a shop-girl, for the sake of promoting an easy pleasantness. With her bearing of entire dignity, her honest handsomeness, her air of secure and generous wealth, she was truly not one whom the ordinary public would feel disposed to seek reasons for excluding. Leslie and her mother had refrained from presenting to her particular persons in the company. All remarks heard from those who had been presented led to an almost certainty that the new Americans were a success.
"Do look at Estelle!" exclaimed Mrs. Hawthorne. "She's been dancing one dance after the other, and sits there now looking cool as a cucumber. I would have her life if it could make me into a bone like her. Miss Foss,"—she was diverted from the envious contemplation of Estelle,—"who is that lovely girl over there?"
"Which one? There are so many to-night!"
"The white one with the knob of dark hair down in her neck. An Italian, I guess. Rather small. See who I mean? There. She's going to speak to the little fellow at the piano."
Leslie looked, but did not at once answer. The girl in white was indeed strangely, at this moment poignantly, lovely. Some intensity of repressed feeling made her cheek of a white-rose pallor, and her dark eyes, those spots of velvet shadow, mysteriously deep. She had gone where the piano stood in a bower of palm and bamboo, with Signor Ceccherelli seated before it, busy wiping the sweat of his brow. More than one had gone to him that evening to ask for some favorite piece. She was perhaps just requesting him to play The Blue Danube, or La Manola or Bavardage, and it was merely the romantic way of her beauty to express a sense of doom. She spoke quietly to the pianist, who looked at her while she spoke and when she ceased made with his head a motion of assent. She turned and went from the room.
"It is my sister Brenda," said Leslie. "How singular you should not recognize her!"
"I've never met her, my dear. You don't remember. The time I came to tea she was in town taking a music lesson. The time I came to dinner she was in bed with a headache. Well, well, she's not a bit like the rest of you, is she? I took her for an Italian."
"She was only twelve when we came over here, it has somehow molded her. I was seventeen; too old, I fancy, to change. Brenda is going back to America before long, to be with our aunt, father's sister, for whom Brenda was named. It was only decided a day or two ago, when we heard from some friends who are going and will take her under their wing. And if she goes there's no telling when she will come back, you see, because with every change of administration father may be recalled. And Italy has been her home so long, all her friends are here. It's no wonder she doesn't look exactly light of heart."
"No, poor child!"
There was a sympathetic silence, after which, "Who is that?" Mrs. Hawthorne asked, to take their minds off the intrusive sadnesses of life. With her gaze across the room she counted, "One, two, three, four, to the left of the piano, with his hands behind him and a round glass in his eye."
Leslie looked over at a figure of whom it was natural to ask who that was, it so surely looked like Somebody—though Mrs. Hawthorne had very likely asked because, merely, in her eyes he was queer. It was an oldish man, dressed with marked elegance, white tie, white waistcoat, white flower at his lapel. The whole of worldly wisdom dwelt in his weary eye. He had yellow and withered cheeks, black hair with a dash of white above the ears, and a mustache whose thickest part curved over his mouth like a black lacquer box-lid, while its long ends, stiff as thorns of a thorn-tree, projected on either side far beyond his face.
"His name is Balm de Breze, vicomte. He is by birth a Belgian, I think; the title, however, is French. He has lived mostly in Paris, but now spends about half of his time here. He married a friend of ours, an American. There is Amabel, in ruby velvet, just inside the library door. A good deal younger than he, yet they seem appropriately matched, somehow."
"She looks about as foreign as he does. Who's the one she's talking to, handsome, dark as night? Never saw such a dark skin before except on a cullud puss'n."
"I know. He might be an Arab, only he's very good Tuscan. It's Mr. Landini,—Hunt and Landini."
"Ah, the bankers. They do my business, but I've never seen the heads before to-night."
Mrs. Hawthorne's eyes wandered, as if she said, "Whom else do I want to know about?" and Leslie made internal comment upon the fact that Mrs. Hawthorne's interest was quickened by those individuals precisely whom they had withheld, for reasons, from presenting to her.
Mrs. Hawthorne suddenly pressed closer, and with a little chuckle grasped Leslie's knee, by this affectionate touch to make herself forgiven for the disrespect about to be shown.
"And who's Stickly-prickly?"
Leslie had to laugh, too. Impossible not to know which one was meant of all the people in the direction of Mrs. Hawthorne's glance. He was leaning against the wall between two chairs deserted by the fair, looking off with a slightly mournful indifference at everything and at nothing. His mustache ended in upturned points, his beard was pointed, his hair stood up in little points. He gave the impression besides of one whose nervous temper put out porcupine shafts to keep you off.
"It's one of our very best friends, Mrs. Hawthorne. Dear old Gerald! Mr. Fane. Shall I go get him and bring him over?"
"No, don't. I should be scared of him."
"Let me! His prickles are harmless. He has heard us speak of you so much! See, he is looking over at us wistfully, in a way that plainly suggests our course. Here comes Charlie Hunt, who will keep you amused while I fetch Gerald; then we will go in together and have an ice."
Charlie Hunt, modern moth without fear or shyness, but with a great deal of caution, was indeed returning for the third or fourth time to Mrs. Hawthorne's side, drawn by the sparkle of eyes and tresses and smiles and diamonds. Francesca had already described him that evening to another young lady as dancing attendance on the new American. He dropped into the seat vacated by Leslie, addressed Mrs. Hawthorne as if they had been friends for at least weeks, and made conversation joyfully easy by getting at once on to a playful footing.
Leslie meanwhile steered her course toward Gerald. The music had started up again, men were presenting themselves to maidens with their request for the favor.... Leslie threaded her way between the first on the floor. Her eyes were naturally turned toward the object of her search; some intention toward him was probably apparent in her look. As if he had not seen it, or as if, having seen it, he scented in her approach some conspiracy against his peace, Gerald in a moment during which her eye was not on him quietly vanished.
Missing him, Leslie looked about in some surprise, then entered the door by which inevitably he must have passed. She gave a glance around the library; Gerald did not seem to be there. Mystified, she looked more carefully at the faces to be seen through the thin tobacco smoke. No, Gerald's was not among them. Gerald, acquainted with the house, knew the door, of course, of the kind frequent in Italian houses, the little door indistinguishable from the wall, by which one could leave the library, and after crossing the landing of the kitchen stairs, reach the dining-room. From the dining-room, then, one could come into the entrance hall, whence go upstairs, or out into the garden, or, as one pleased, back into the drawing-room. Leslie did not think the matter of sufficient importance to pursue the chase farther.
The dancing was suspended while the musician had sandwiches and glasses of a fragrant and delicious-looking but weak punch. The Fosses' waiter knew him well and fraternally attended to his wants.
The dining-room, though large, would not permit all the couples to enter at once, so ices and cakes were borne from the table by cavaliers to expectant ladies in the antechamber, on the stairs, and in the farther rooms.
The musician after eating to his satisfaction took the time for a cigarette, which he enjoyed, not in the library, but in cool and peaceful isolation on the top step of the kitchen stairs. Refreshed, he briskly went back to his piano, persuaded that the young people were sighing to see him there. With new vigor he struck up a march. The crowd in the dining-room thinned.
Mrs. Hawthorne and Miss Madison, with Charlie Hunt and Doctor Chandler, one of the Americans from the pension, lingered on in the corner where, with the migration of so many to the ball-room, all four had been able to find chairs. Mrs. Hawthorne, of the fair moon-face, was as a matter of course eating sweet stuff; Miss Madison, contrariwise, sipped a small cup of black coffee. Miss Madison, no need to say, had a neat jaw-bone to show—collarbones, too. She was not pretty, her features were hardly worth describing, but yet it was an attractive face, as merry as it was fundamentally shrewd, as sensible as it was sprightly. The frank, almost business-like manner of her setting out to have a good time at the party ensured her having at least a lively one, and her partners not finding it slow. She at once and impartially interested herself in the men brought up to her, and sought to interest them. Her flirtatiousness was, however, sedate—in its way, moral—not intended to have any result beyond the enlivenment of the hour.
Miss Madison had been finding exhilaration and delight this evening in dancing, and when presently the alluring strains of a waltz came floating to their ears, she looked at Chandler, and he in the same manner looked at her; whereupon she rose, as if words had been exchanged, took his arm, and they deserted for the ball-room. Charlie Hunt was left ensconced in an intimate nook alone with Mrs. Hawthorne.
But he had hardly a moment in which to enjoy the feeling of advantage this gave him before his cousin Francesca came looking for him. They were going, she said. Father was sleepy, and mother said they must go. If he wanted a lift home, he must hurry up. Charlie had come with them, on the box near the driver, there being five already inside the landau. Gallantry should perhaps have made him answer that rather than be dragged away at this moment he would walk. But gallantry was dumb. Charlie was not fond of walking. It was a great convenience, an economy as well, being permitted to make use of his aunt's carriage.
Having delivered her message, Francesca had gone to put on her things, and Charlie, after expressions of regret over the inevitable, asked Mrs. Hawthorne whither she would wish to be taken before he left.
Let him not bother, she answered; she could find her friends without help.
They separated. Walking slowly, she looked for faces of acquaintances. She glanced in at the ball-room door. They were dancing still, but not nearly so many. She turned into the reception-room, whence she could reenter the ball-room at the other end without danger of collision, and reach that comfortable blue satin sofa, now standing empty. There she would sit looking on till Estelle joined her, when they would set about making their adieux. The carriage must have been waiting for them ever so long.
She had sat a minute, unconsciously smiling to herself, because the sensations and impressions of the evening were all so pleasant, when something occurred to her as desirable to be done. She rose to carry out her idea.
The dancing had stopped; the floor was clear except in the neighborhood of the walls, where couples stood or sat recovering breath and coolness. She started to cross the long room. She did not skirt it because the direct line to her destination was by the middle; she did not go fast because there was no occasion, and it was not her way. She advanced like a goodly galleon pushing along the sea with finely curved bows, all sails set to catch the breeze. Her mind was entirely on her idea, and she did not at first feel herself to be conspicuous. But all the eyes in the room, before she had gone half her way, were fastened upon her, a natural and legitimate mark. One might now without impertinence have the satisfaction of a good look at the newly come American who had taken the big house on the Lungarno; the women might study the fashion of her hair and dress.
She was smiling faintly, but fixedly; she smiled, indeed, all the time, as if smiles had been an indispensable article of wear at a party. The least of her smiles brought dimples into view, and her dimples seemed multitudinous, though there were really only three in her face and one of those irregular things called apple-seeds. Her agreeably blunted features and peachy roundness of cheek belonged to a good-humored, unimposing type, which took on a certain nobility in her case from being carried high on a strong, round neck over a splendid broad breast, partly bare this evening, and seen to be white as milk, as swans'-down, as pearl.
If one had tried to define the look which left one so little doubt as to her nationality, one would perhaps have said it was a combination of fearlessness and accessibility. She feared not you, nor should you fear her; she counted on your friendliness, you might count on hers.
She was a person simple in the main. The colors she had selected to wear accorded with the rest, showing little intricacy of taste. The two silks composing her dress were respectively the blue of a summer morning and the pink of a rose. From cushioned and dimpled shoulders the bodice tapered to as fine a waist as a Paris dressmaker had found possible to bring about in a woman who, despite a veritable yearning to look slender, cared also for freedom to breathe, and, as she said with a sigh, guessed she must make up her mind to be happy without looking like a toothpick. At the back of the waist, the dress leapt suddenly out and away from the dorsal column—every lady's dress did that for a season or two at the time we are telling of, and at every step she took the back of her skirt gave a bob, for the bustle was supplemented by three or four concealed semi-circles of thin steel, reeds we called them, which hit against you as you went and sprang lightly away from your heels.
The arrangement of Mrs. Hawthorne's hair equalled in artificiality the mode of her dress: the front locks were clipped and twisted into little curls, the back locks drawn to the top of the head, where they were disposed in silken loops and rolls, at the top of which, like a flag planted on a hill, stood an aigrette, a sparkle and two whiffs.
It may not sound pretty, it was not, but the eye of that day had become used to it, as eyes have since become used to fashions no prettier, and as Mrs. Hawthorne's hair was of a soft sunny tint it was that evening admired by more than one, as was her intrinsically ugly beautiful gown, which gave a little jerky rebound every time she placed one of those neat solid satin-shod feet before the other in her progress across the now attentive room.
She had taken off her long white gloves to eat a cake—or cakes; she was carrying them loosely swinging from one dimpled hand.
In the middle of the room self-consciousness overtook her. With the awakening sense of eyes upon her, she looked first to one side, then to the other. Her smile broadened while growing by just a tinge sheepish; she seemed to waver and consider turning from her course and finishing her journey close along the wall, like a mouse....
She finally did not, nor yet hurried. She made her smile explain to whoever was looking on that a person was excusable for making this sort of mistake, that it hurt nobody, that one need not and did not care; that she was sure they did not like her any less for it; they would not if they knew how void of offense toward them all was her heart; that having exposed herself to being looked at, she hoped they liked her looks. Her dress was a very good dress, her laces were very good lace, and the maid who had done her hair was considered a first-rate hand at doing hair.
So she was carrying it off, and her smile was only a little self-conscious, only a shade embarrassed, when from among the men standing near the library door, for which she was directly making, there stepped out one to meet her, not unlike a slender needle darting toward a large, rounded magnet as it comes into due range.
More sensitive than she, feeling the situation much more uncomfortably for his country-woman than she felt it for herself, a foreign-looking fellow, who had not quite forgotten that he was an American, after a moment's hard struggle against his impulse, hastened forward to shorten for her that uncompanioned course across the floor under ten thousand search-lights.
"I'm looking for somebody," said Mrs. Hawthorne, with the smile of a child.
The voice which had made one man think of the crimson heart on a valentine reminded this other of rough velvet.
He showed his eccentric three front teeth in a responding smile that had a touch of the faun, and asked whimsically:
"Will I do?"
"Help me to find Mr. Foss, and you'll do perfectly," she said merrily. "I haven't seen him more than just to shake hands this whole evening, and I do want to have a little talk before I go."
"If I am not mistaken, we shall find him in the library." He offered his arm.
"I may have appeared to be doing something else, Mrs. Hawthorne, but I have really been looking for you the last hour," said the consul when he had been found. "I wanted to have a little talk. How are you enjoying Florence?"
"Oh, we're having an elegant time, thanks to that dear wife of yours and that dear girl, Leslie. I don't know what we should have done without them and you."
"But the city itself, Florence, doesn't it enchant you?"
"We—ell, yes. N-n-n-no. Yes and no. That's it. You want me to tell the truth, don't you? Some of it does, and some of it doesn't. Some of it, I guess, will take me a long time to get used to. It's terribly different from what we expected—I, in particular. You see, I came here because an old friend used to talk so much about it. Florence the Fair! The City of Lilies! He said Italy was the most beautiful country in the world, and Florence the most beautiful city in Italy. So my expectations were way up.—Oh, I don't know; it's hard to tell. I don't exactly remember now what I did expect. I guess my picture of it was something like the New Jerusalem on an Easter day. But I shall get used to this, like to the taste of olives. It must be all right, for the friend I was speaking of had the finest mind I've ever known. I'm green as turnip-tops, of course, but I shall get educated up to it, I suppose. Give me time."
"Mrs. Hawthorne, hear me prophesy," said Mr. Foss. "In six months you will love it all. It's the fate of us who come here from new countries. It will steal in upon you, grow upon you, beset and besot you, till you like no other place in the world so well."
"Will it? Well, if you say so. The Judge—the friend I was speaking of,—said so much of the same kind that the minute I thought of coming to Europe, right after I'd said, 'I'll go to Paris,' I said to myself, 'I'll go to Florence.'"