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I saw her but four times, though I remember them vividly; she made her impression on me. I thought her very pretty and very interesting--a touching specimen of a type with which I had had other and perhaps less charming associations. I'm sorry to hear of her death, and yet when I think of it why SHOULD I be? The last time I saw her she was certainly not--! But it will be of interest to take our meetings in order.
The first was in the country, at a small tea-party, one snowy night of some seventeen years ago. My friend Latouche, going to spend Christmas with his mother, had insisted on my company, and the good lady had given in our honour the entertainment of which I speak. To me it was really full of savour--it had all the right marks: I had never been in the depths of New England at that season. It had been snowing all day and the drifts were knee-high. I wondered how the ladies had made their way to the house; but I inferred that just those general rigours rendered any assembly offering the attraction of two gentlemen from New York worth a desperate effort.
Mrs. Latouche in the course of the evening asked me if I "didn't want to" show the photographs to (268) some of the young ladies. The photographs were in a couple of great portfolios, and had been brought home by her son, who, like myself, was lately returned from Europe. I looked round and was struck with the fact that most of the young ladies were provided with an object of interest more absorbing than the most vivid sun-picture. But there was a person alone near the mantel-shelf who looked round the room with a small vague smile, a discreet, a disguised yearning, which seemed somehow at odds with her isolation. I looked at her a moment and then chose. "I should like to show them to that young lady."
"Oh yes," said Mrs. Latouche, "she's just the person. She doesn't care for flirting--I'll speak to her." I replied that if she didn't care for flirting she wasn't perhaps just the person; but Mrs. Latouche had already, with a few steps, appealed to her participation. "She's delighted," my hostess came back to report; "and she's just the person--so quiet and so bright." And she told me the young lady was by name Miss Caroline Spencer--with which she introduced me.
Miss Caroline Spencer was not quite a beauty, but was none the less, in her small odd way, formed to please. Close upon thirty, by every presumption, she was made almost like a little girl and had the complexion of a child. She had also the prettiest head, on which her hair was arranged as nearly as possible like the hair of a Greek bust, though indeed it was to be doubted if she had ever seen a Greek bust. She was "artistic," I suspected, so far as the polar influences of North Verona could allow for such yearnings or (269) could minister to them. Her eyes were perhaps just too round and too inveterately surprised, but her lips had a certain mild decision and her teeth, when she showed them, were charming. About her neck she wore what ladies call, I believe, a "ruche" fastened with a very small pin of pink coral, and in her hand she carried a fan made of plaited straw and adorned with pink ribbon. She wore a scanty black silk dress. She spoke with slow soft neatness, even without smiles showing the prettiness of her teeth, and she seemed extremely pleased, in fact quite fluttered, at the prospect of my demonstrations. These went forward very smoothly after I had moved the portfolios out of their corner and placed a couple of chairs near a lamp. The photographs were usually things I knew--large views of Switzerland, Italy and Spain, landscapes, reproductions of famous buildings, pictures and statues. I said what I could for them, and my companion, looking at them as I held them up, sat perfectly still, her straw fan raised to her under-lip and gently, yet, as I could feel, almost excitedly, rubbing it. Occasionally, as I laid one of the pictures down, she said without confidence, which would have been too much: "Have you seen that place?" I usually answered that I had seen it several times--I had been a great traveller, though I was somehow particularly admonished not to swagger--and then I felt her look at me askance for a moment with her pretty eyes. I had asked her at the outset whether she had been to Europe; to this she had answered "No, no, no"--almost as much below her breath as if the image of such an event scarce, for solemnity, brooked phrasing. (270) But after that, though she never took her eyes off the pictures, she said so little that I feared she was at last bored. Accordingly when we had finished one portfolio I offered, if she desired it, to desist. I rather guessed the exhibition really held her, but her reticence puzzled me and I wanted to make her speak. I turned round to judge better and then saw a faint flush in each of her cheeks. She kept waving her little fan to and fro. Instead of looking at me she fixed her eyes on the remainder of the collection, which leaned, in its receptacle, against the table.
"Won't you show me that? " she quavered, drawing the long breath of a person launched and afloat but conscious of rocking a little.
"With pleasure," I answered, "if you're really not tired."
"Oh I'm not tired a bit. I'm just fascinated." With which as I took up the other portfolio she laid her hand on it, rubbing it softly. "And have you been here too?"
On my opening the portfolio it appeared I had indeed been there. One of the first photographs was a large view of the Castle of Chillon by the Lake of Geneva. "Here," I said, "I've been many a time. Isn't it beautiful?" And I pointed to the perfect reflexion of the rugged rocks and pointed towers in the clear still water. She didn't say "Oh enchanting!" and push it away to see the next picture. She looked a while and then asked if it weren't where Bonnivard, about whom Byron wrote, had been confined. I assented, trying to quote Byron's verses, but not quite bringing it off.
(271) She fanned herself a moment and then repeated the lines correctly, in a soft flat voice but with charming conviction. By the time she had finished, she was nevertheless blushing. I complimented her and assured her she was perfectly equipped for visiting Switzerland and Italy. She looked at me askance again, to see if I might be serious, and I added that if she wished to recognise Byron's descriptions she must go abroad speedily--Europe was getting sadly dis-Byronised. "How soon must I go?" she thereupon enquired.
"Oh I'll give you ten years."
"Well, I guess I can go in THAT time," she answered as if measuring her words.
"Then you'll enjoy it immensely," I said; "you'll find it of the highest interest." Just then I came upon a photograph of some nook in a foreign city which I had been very fond of and which recalled tender memories. I discoursed (as I suppose) with considerable spirit; my companion sat listening breathless.
"Have you been VERY long over there?" she asked some time after I had ceased.
"Well, it mounts up, put all the times together."
"And have you travelled everywhere?"
"I've travelled a good deal. I'm very fond of it and happily have been able."
Again she turned on me her slow shy scrutiny. "Do you know the foreign languages?"
"After a fashion."
"Is it hard to speak them?"
(272) "I don't imagine you'd find it so," I gallantly answered.
"Oh I shouldn't want to speak--I should only want to listen." Then on a pause she added: "They say the French theatre's so beautiful."
"Ah the best in the world."
"Did you go there very often?"
"When I was first in Paris I went every night."
"Every night!" And she opened her clear eyes very wide. "That to me is"--and her expression hovered--"as if you tell me a fairy-tale." A few minutes later she put to me: "And which country do you prefer?"
"There's one I love beyond any. I think you'd do the same."
Her gaze rested as on a dim revelation and then she breathed "Italy?"
"Italy," I answered softly too; and for a moment we communed over it. She looked as pretty as if instead of showing her photographs I had been making love to her. To increase the resemblance she turned off blushing. It made a pause which she broke at last by saying: "That's the place which--in particular--I thought of going to."
"Oh that's the place--that's the place!" I laughed.
She looked at two or three more views in silence. "They say it's not very dear."
"As some other countries? Well, one gets back there one's money. That's not the least of the charms."
"But it's ALL very expensive, isn't it?"
(273) "Europe, you mean?"
"Going there and travelling. That has been the trouble. I've very little money. I teach, you know," said Miss Caroline Spencer.
"Oh of course one must have money," I allowed; "but one can manage with a moderate amount judiciously spent."
"I think I should manage. I've saved and saved up, and I'm always adding a little to it. It's all for that." She paused a moment, and then went on with suppressed eagerness, as if telling me the story were a rare, but possibly an impure satisfaction. "You see it hasn't been only the money--it has been everything. Everything has acted against it. I've waited and waited. It has been my castle in the air. I'm almost afraid to talk about it. Two or three times it has come a little nearer, and then I've talked about it and it has melted away. I've talked about it too much," she said hypocritically--for I saw such talk was now a small tremulous ecstasy. "There's a lady who's a great friend of mine--she doesn't want to go, but I'm always at her about it. I think I must tire her dreadfully. She told me just the other day she didn't know what would become of me. She guessed I'd go crazy if I didn't sail, and yet certainly I'd go crazy if I did."
"Well," I laughed, "you haven't sailed up to now--so I suppose you ARE crazy."
She took everything with the same seriousness. "Well, I guess I must be. It seems as if I couldn't think of anything else--and I don't require photographs to work me up! I'm always right ON it. It (274) kills any interest in things nearer home--things I ought to attend to. That's a kind of craziness."
"Well then the cure for it's just to go," I smiled--"I mean the cure for this kind. Of course you may have the other kind worse," I added--"the kind you get over there."
"Well, I've a faith that I'll go SOME time all right!" she quite elatedly cried. "I've a relative right there on the spot," she went on, "and I guess he'll know how to control me." I expressed the hope that he would, and I forget whether we turned over more photographs; but when I asked her if she had always lived just where I found her, "Oh no sir," she quite eagerly replied; "I've spent twenty-two months and a half in Boston." I met it with the inevitable joke that in this case foreign lands might prove a disappointment to her, but I quite failed to alarm her. "I know more about them than you might think"--her earnestness resisted even that. "I mean by reading--for I've really read considerable. In fact I guess I've prepared my mind about as much as you CAN--in advance. I've not only read Byron--I've read histories and guide-books and articles and lots of things. I know I shall rave about everything."
" 'Everything' is saying much, but I understand your case," I returned. "You've the great American disease, and you've got it 'bad'--the appetite, morbid and monstrous, for colour and form, for the picturesque and the romantic at any price. I don't know whether we come into the world with it--with the germs implanted and antecedent to experience; rather perhaps we catch it early, almost before developed (275) consciousness--we FEEL, as we look about, that we're going (to save our souls, or at least our senses) to be thrown back on it hard. We're like travellers in the desert--deprived of water and subject to the terrible mirage, the torment of illusion, of the thirst-fever. They hear the plash of fountains, they see green gardens and orchards that are hundreds of miles away. So we with OUR thirst--except that with us it's MORE wonderful: we have before us the beautiful old things we've never seen at all, and when we do at last see them--if we're lucky!--we simply recognise them. What experience does is merely to confirm and consecrate our confident dream."
She listened with her rounded eyes. "The way you express it's too lovely, and I'm sure it will be just like that. I've dreamt of everything--I'll know it all!"
"I'm afraid," I pretended for harmless comedy, "that you've wasted a great deal of time."
"Oh yes, that has been my great wickedness!" The people about us had begun to scatter; they were taking their leave. She got up and put out her hand to me, timidly, but as if quite shining and throbbing.
"I'm going back there--one HAS to," I said as I shook hands with her. "I shall look out for you."
Yes, she fairly glittered with her fever of excited faith. "Well, I'll tell you if I'm disappointed." And she left me, fluttering all expressively her little straw fan.
A few months after this I crossed the sea eastward again and some three years elapsed. I had been living in Paris and, toward the end of October, went from that city to the Havre, to meet a pair of relatives who had written me they were about to arrive there. On reaching the Havre I found the steamer already docked--I was two or three hours late. I repaired directly to the hotel, where my travellers were duly established. My sister had gone to bed, exhausted and disabled by her voyage; she was the unsteadiest of sailors and her sufferings on this occasion had been extreme. She desired for the moment undisturbed rest and was able to see me but five minutes--long enough for us to agree to stop over, restoratively, till the morrow. My brother-in-law, anxious about his wife, was unwilling to leave her room; but she insisted on my taking him a walk for aid to recovery of his spirits and his land-legs.
The early autumn day was warm and charming, and our stroll through the bright-coloured busy streets of the old French seaport beguiling enough. We walked along the sunny noisy quays and then turned into a wide pleasant street which lay half in sun and half in shade--a French provincial street that resembled an old water-colour drawing: tall grey steep-roofed red-gabled many-storied houses; green shutters on windows and old scroll-work above them; flower-pots (277) in balconies and white-capped women in doorways. We walked in the shade; all this stretched away on the sunny side of the vista and made a picture. We looked at it as we passed along; then suddenly my companion stopped--pressing my arm and staring. I followed his gaze and saw that we had paused just before reaching a cafe where, under an awning, several tables and chairs were disposed upon the pavement. The windows were open behind; half a dozen plants in tubs were ranged beside the door; the pavement was besprinkled with clean bran. It was a dear little quiet old-world cafe; inside, in the comparative dusk, I saw a stout handsome woman, who had pink ribbons in her cap, perched up with a mirror behind her back and smiling at some one placed out of sight. This, to be exact, I noted afterwards; what I first observed was a lady seated alone, outside, at one of the little marble-topped tables. My brother-in-law had stopped to look at her. Something had been put before her, but she only leaned back, motionless and with her hands folded, looking down the street and away from us. I saw her but in diminished profile; nevertheless I was sure I knew on the spot that we must already have met.
"The little lady of the steamer!" my companion cried.
"Was she on your steamer?" I asked with interest.
"From morning till night. She was never sick. She used to sit perpetually at the side of the vessel with her hands crossed that way, looking at the eastward horizon."
"And are you going to speak to her?"
(278) "I don't know her. I never made acquaintance with her. I wasn't in form to make up to ladies. But I used to watch her and--I don't know why--to be interested in her. She's a dear little Yankee woman. I've an idea she's a school-mistress taking a holiday--for which her scholars have made up a purse."
She had now turned her face a little more into profile, looking at the steep grey house-fronts opposite. On this I decided. "I shall speak to her myself."
"I wouldn't--she's very shy," said my brother-in-law.
"My dear fellow, I know her. I once showed her photographs at a tea-party." With which I went up to her, making her, as she turned to look at me, leave me in no doubt of her identity. Miss Caroline Spencer had achieved her dream. But she was less quick to recognise me and showed a slight bewilderment. I pushed a chair to the table and sat down. "Well," I said, "I hope you're not disappointed!"
She stared, blushing a little--then gave a small jump and placed me. "It was you who showed me the photographs--at North Verona."
"Yes, it was I. This happens very charmingly, for isn't it quite for me to give you a formal reception here--the official welcome? I talked to you so much about Europe."
"You didn't say too much. I'm so intensely happy!" she declared.
Very happy indeed she looked. There was no sign of her being older; she was as gravely, decently, demurely pretty as before. If she had struck me then as a thin-stemmed mild-hued flower of Puritanism it (279) may be imagined whether in her present situation this clear bloom was less appealing. Beside her an old gentleman was drinking absinthe; behind her the _dame de comptoir_ in the pink ribbons called "Alcibiade, Alcibiade!" to the long-aproned waiter. I explained to Miss Spencer that the gentleman with me had lately been her shipmate, and my brother-in-law came up and was introduced to her. But she looked at him as if she had never so much as seen him, and I remembered he had told me her eyes were always fixed on the eastward horizon. She had evidently not noticed him, and, still timidly smiling, made no attempt whatever to pretend the contrary. I staid with her on the little terrace of the cafe while he went back to the hotel and to his wife. I remarked to my friend that this meeting of ours at the first hour of her landing partook, among all chances, of the miraculous, but that I was delighted to be there and receive her first impressions.
"Oh I can't tell you," she said--"I feel so much in a dream. I've been sitting here an hour and I don't want to move. Everything's so delicious and romantic. I don't know whether the coffee has gone to my head--it's SO unlike the coffee of my dead past."
"Really," I made answer, "if you're so pleased with this poor prosaic Havre you'll have no admiration left for better things. Don't spend your appreciation all the first day--remember it's your intellectual letter of credit. Remember all the beautiful places and things that are waiting for you. Remember that lovely Italy we talked about."
(280) "I'm not afraid of running short," she said gaily, still looking at the opposite houses. "I could sit here all day--just saying to myself that here I am at last. It's so dark and strange--so old and different."
"By the way then," I asked, "how come you to be encamped in this odd place? Haven't you gone to one of the inns?" For I was half-amused, half-alarmed at the good conscience with which this delicately pretty woman had stationed herself in conspicuous isolation on the edge of the sidewalk.
"My cousin brought me here and--a little while ago--left me," she returned. "You know I told you I had a relation over here. He's still here--a real cousin. Well," she pursued with unclouded candour, "he met me at the steamer this morning."
It was absurd--and the case moreover none of my business; but I felt somehow disconcerted. "It was hardly worth his while to meet you if he was to desert you so soon."
"Oh he has only left me for half an hour," said Caroline Spencer. "He has gone to get my money."
I continued to wonder. "Where IS your money?"
She appeared seldom to laugh, but she laughed for the joy of this. "It makes me feel very fine to tell you! It's in circular notes."
"And where are your circular notes?"
"In my cousin's pocket."
This statement was uttered with such clearness of candour that--I can hardly say why--it gave me a sensible chill. I couldn't at all at the moment have justified my lapse from ease, for I knew nothing of Miss Spencer's cousin. Since he stood in that relation (281) to her--dear respectable little person--the presumption was in his favour. But I found myself wincing at the thought that half an hour after her landing her scanty funds should have passed into his hands. "Is he to travel with you?" I asked.
"Only as far as Paris. He's an art-student in Paris--I've always thought that so splendid. I wrote to him that I was coming, but I never expected him to come off to the ship. I supposed he'd only just meet me at the train in Paris. It's very kind of him. But he IS," said Caroline Spencer, "very kind--and very bright."
I felt at once a strange eagerness to see this bright kind cousin who was an art-student. "He's gone to the banker's?" I enquired.
"Yes, to the banker's. He took me to an hotel--such a queer quaint cunning little place, with a court in the middle and a gallery all round, and a lovely landlady in such a beautifully fluted cap and such a perfectly fitting dress! After a while we came out to walk to the banker's, for I hadn't any French money. But I was very dizzy from the motion of the vessel and I thought I had better sit down. He found this place for me here--then he went off to the banker's himself. I'm to wait here till he comes back."
Her story was wholly lucid and my impression perfectly wanton, but it passed through my mind that the gentleman would never come back. I settled myself in a chair beside my friend and determined to await the event. She was lost in the vision and the imagination of everything near us and about us--she observed, she recognised and admired, with a (282) touching intensity. She noticed everything that was brought before us by the movement of the street--the peculiarities of costume, the shapes of vehicles, the big Norman horses, the fat priests, the shaven poodles. We talked of these things, and there was something charming in her freshness of perception and the way her book-nourished fancy sallied forth for the revel.
"And when your cousin comes back what are you going to do?" I went on.
For this she had, a little oddly, to think. "We don't quite know."
"When do you go to Paris? If you go by the four o'clock train I may have the pleasure of making the journey with you."
"I don't think we shall do that." So far she was prepared. "My cousin thinks I had better stay here a few days."
"Oh!" said I--and for five minutes had nothing to add. I was wondering what our absentee was, in vulgar parlance, "up to." I looked up and down the street, but saw nothing that looked like a bright and kind American art-student. At last I took the liberty of observing that the Havre was hardly a place to choose as one of the aesthetic stations of a European tour. It was a place of convenience, nothing more; a place of transit, through which transit should be rapid. I recommended her to go to Paris by the afternoon train and meanwhile to amuse herself by driving to the ancient fortress at the mouth of the harbour--that remarkable circular structure which bore the name of Francis the First and figured a sort of small (283) Castle of Saint Angelo. (I might really have foreknown that it was to be demolished.)
She listened with much interest--then for a moment looked grave. "My cousin told me that when he returned he should have something particular to say to me, and that we could do nothing or decide nothing till I should have heard it. But I'll make him tell me right off, and then we'll go to the ancient fortress. Francis the First, did you say? Why, that's lovely. There's no hurry to get to Paris; there's plenty of time."
She smiled with her softly severe little lips as she spoke those last words, yet, looking at her with a purpose, I made out in her eyes, I thought, a tiny gleam of apprehension. "Don't tell me," I said, "that this wretched man's going to give you bad news!"
She coloured as if convicted of a hidden perversity, but she was soaring too high to drop. "Well, I guess it's a LITTLE bad, but I don't believe it's VERY bad. At any rate I must listen to it."
I usurped an unscrupulous authority. "Look here; you didn't come to Europe to listen--you came to SEE!" But now I was sure her cousin would come back; since he had something disagreeable to say to her he'd infallibly turn up. We sat a while longer and I asked her about her plans of travel. She had them on her fingers' ends and told over the names as solemnly as a daughter of another faith might have told over the beads of a rosary: from Paris to Dijon and to Avignon, from Avignon to Marseilles and the Cornice road; thence to Genoa, to Spezia, to Pisa, to Florence, to Rome. It apparently had never occurred to her that (284) there could be the least incommodity in her travelling alone; and since she was unprovided with a companion I of course civilly abstained from disturbing her sense of security.
At last her cousin came back. I saw him turn toward us out of a side-street, and from the moment my eyes rested on him I knew he could but be the bright, if not the kind, American art-student. He wore a slouch hat and a rusty black velvet jacket, such as I had often encountered in the Rue Bonaparte. His shirt-collar displayed a stretch of throat that at a distance wasn't strikingly statuesque. He was tall and lean, he had red hair and freckles. These items I had time to take in while he approached the cafe, staring at me with natural surprise from under his romantic brim. When he came up to us I immediately introduced myself as an old acquaintance of Miss Spencer's, a character she serenely permitted me to claim. He looked at me hard with a pair of small sharp eyes, then he gave me a solemn wave, in the "European" fashion, of his rather rusty sombrero.
"You weren't on the ship?" he asked.
"No, I wasn't on the ship. I've been in Europe these several years."
He bowed once more, portentously, and motioned me to be seated again. I sat down, but only for the purpose of observing him an instant--I saw it was time I should return to my sister. Miss Spencer's European protector was, by my measure, a very queer quantity. Nature hadn't shaped him for a Raphaelesque or Byronic attire, and his velvet doublet and exhibited though not columnar throat weren't in harmony (285) with his facial attributes. His hair was cropped close to his head; his ears were large and ill-adjusted to the same. He had a lackadaisical carriage and a sentimental droop which were peculiarly at variance with his keen conscious strange-coloured eyes--of a brown that was almost red. Perhaps I was prejudiced, but I thought his eyes too shifty. He said nothing for some time; he leaned his hands on his stick and looked up and down the street. Then at last, slowly lifting the stick and pointing with it, "That's a very nice bit," he dropped with a certain flatness. He had his head to one side--he narrowed his ugly lids. I followed the direction of his stick; the object it indicated was a red cloth hung out of an old window. "Nice bit of colour," he continued; and without moving his head transferred his half-closed gaze to me. "Composes well. Fine old tone. Make a nice thing." He spoke in a charmless vulgar voice.
"I see you've a great deal of eye," I replied. "Your cousin tells me you're studying art." He looked at me in the same way, without answering, and I went on with deliberate urbanity: "I suppose you're at the studio of one of those great men." Still on this he continued to fix me, and then he named one of the greatest of that day; which led me to ask him if he liked his master.
"Do you understand French?" he returned.
He kept his little eyes on me; with which he remarked: "Je suis fou de la peinture!"
"Oh I understand that kind! " I replied. Our companion laid her hand on his arm with a small pleased (286) and fluttered movement; it was delightful to be among people who were on such easy terms with foreign tongues. I got up to take leave and asked her where, in Paris, I might have the honour of waiting on her. To what hotel would she go?
She turned to her cousin enquiringly and he favoured me again with his little languid leer. "Do you know the Hotel des Princes?"
"I know where it is."
"Well, that's the shop."
"I congratulate you," I said to Miss Spencer. "I believe it's the best inn in the world; but, in case I should still have a moment to call on you here, where are you lodged?"
"Oh it's such a pretty name," she returned gleefully. "A la Belle Normande."
"I guess I know my way round!" her kinsman threw in; and as I left them he gave me with his swaggering head-cover a great flourish that was like the wave of a banner over a conquered field.
My relative, as it proved, was not sufficiently restored to leave the place by the afternoon train; so that as the autumn dusk began to fall I found myself at liberty to call at the establishment named to me by my friends. I must confess that I had spent much of the interval in wondering what the disagreeable thing was that the less attractive of these had been telling the other. The _auberge_ of the Belle Normande proved an hostelry in a shady by-street, where it gave me satisfaction to think Miss Spencer must have encountered local colour in abundance. There was a crooked little court, where much of the hospitality of the house was carried on; there was a staircase climbing to bedrooms on the outer side of the wall; there was a small trickling fountain with a stucco statuette set in the midst of it; there was a little boy in a white cap and apron cleaning copper vessels at a conspicuous kitchen door; there was a chattering landlady, neatly laced, arranging apricots and grapes into an artistic pyramid upon a pink plate. I looked about, and on a green bench outside of an open door labelled Salle-a-Manger, I distinguished Caroline Spencer. No sooner had I looked at her than I was sure something had happened since the morning. Supported by the back of her bench, with her hands clasped in her lap, she kept her eyes on the other side of the court where the landlady manipulated the apricots.
(288) But I saw that, poor dear, she wasn't thinking of apricots or even of landladies. She was staring absently, thoughtfully; on a nearer view I could have certified she had been crying. I had seated myself beside her before she was aware; then, when she had done so, she simply turned round without surprise and showed me her sad face. Something very bad indeed had happened; she was completely changed, and I immediately charged her with it. "Your cousin has been giving you bad news. You've had a horrid time."
For a moment she said nothing, and I supposed her afraid to speak lest her tears should again rise. Then it came to me that even in the few hours since my leaving her she had shed them all--which made her now intensely, stoically composed. "My poor cousin has been having one," she replied at last. "He has had great worries. His news was bad." Then after a dismally conscious wait: "He was in dreadful want of money."
"In want of yours, you mean?"
"Of any he could get--honourably of course. Mine IS all--well, that's available."
Ah it was as if I had been sure from the first! "And he has taken it from you?"
Again she hung fire, but her face meanwhile was pleading. "I gave him what I had."
I recall the accent of those words as the most angelic human sound I had ever listened to--which is exactly why I jumped up almost with a sense of personal outrage. "Gracious goodness, madam, do you call that his getting it 'honourably'?"
(289) I had gone too far--she coloured to her eyes. "We won't speak of it."
"We MUST speak of it," I declared as I dropped beside her again. "I'm your friend--upon my word I'm your protector; it seems to me you need one. What's the matter with this extraordinary person?"
She was perfectly able to say. "He's just badly in debt."
"No doubt he is! But what's the special propriety of your--in such tearing haste!--paying for that?"
"Well, he has told me all his story. I FEEL for him so much."
"So do I, if you come to that! But I hope," I roundly added, "he'll give you straight back your money."
As to this she was prompt. "Certainly he will--as soon as ever he can."
"And when the deuce will that be?"
Her lucidity maintained itself. "When he has finished his great picture."
It took me full in the face. "My dear young lady, damn his great picture! Where is this voracious man?"
It was as if she must let me feel a moment that I did push her!--though indeed, as appeared, he was just where he'd naturally be. "He's having his dinner."
I turned about and looked through the open door into the salle-a-manger. There, sure enough, alone at the end of a long table, was the object of my friend's compassion--the bright, the kind young art-student. He was dining too attentively to notice me at first, but in the act of setting down a well-emptied wine-glass (290) he caught sight of my air of observation. He paused in his repast and, with his head on one side and his meagre jaws slowly moving, fixedly returned my gaze. Then the landlady came brushing lightly by with her pyramid of apricots.
"And that nice little plate of fruit is for him?" I wailed.
Miss Spencer glanced at it tenderly. "They seem to arrange everything so nicely!" she simply sighed.
I felt helpless and irritated. "Come now, really," I said; "do you think it right, do you think it decent, that that long strong fellow should collar your funds?" She looked away from me--I was evidently giving her pain. The case was hopeless; the long strong fellow had "interested" her.
"Pardon me if I speak of him so unceremoniously," I said. "But you're really too generous, and he hasn't, clearly, the rudiments of delicacy. He made his debts himself--he ought to pay them himself."
"He has been foolish," she obstinately said--"of course I know that. He has told me everything. We had a long talk this morning--the poor fellow threw himself on my charity. He has signed notes to a large amount."
"The more fool he!"
"He's in real distress--and it's not only himself. It's his poor young wife."
"Ah he has a poor young wife?"
"I didn't know--but he made a clean breast of it. He married two years since--secretly."
My informant took precautions as if she feared (291) listeners. Then with low impressiveness: "She was a Countess!"
"Are you very sure of that?"
"She has written me the most beautiful letter."
"Asking you--whom she has never seen--for money?"
"Asking me for confidence and sympathy"--Miss Spencer spoke now with spirit. "She has been cruelly treated by her family--in consequence of what she has done for him. My cousin has told me every particular, and she appeals to me in her own lovely way in the letter, which I've here in my pocket. It's such a wonderful old-world romance," said my prodigious friend. "She was a beautiful young widow--her first husband was a Count, tremendously high-born, but really most wicked, with whom she hadn't been happy and whose death had left her ruined after he had deceived her in all sorts of ways. My poor cousin, meeting her in that situation and perhaps a little too recklessly pitying her and charmed with her, found her, don't you see?"--Caroline's appeal on this head was amazing!--"but too ready to trust a better man after all she had been through. Only when her 'people,' as he says--and I do like the word!--understood she WOULD have him, poor gifted young American art-student though he simply was, because she just adored him, her great-aunt, the old Marquise, from whom she had expectations of wealth which she could yet sacrifice for her love, utterly cast her off and wouldn't so much as speak to her, much less to HIM, in their dreadful haughtiness and pride. They CAN be haughty over here, it seems," she ineffably (292) developed--"there's no mistake about that! It's like something in some famous old book. The family, my cousin's wife's," she by this time almost complacently wound up, "are of the oldest Provencal noblesse."
I listened half-bewildered. The poor woman positively found it so interesting to be swindled by a flower of that stock--if stock or flower or solitary grain of truth was really concerned in the matter--as practically to have lost the sense of what the forfeiture of her hoard meant for her. "My dear young lady," I groaned, "you don't want to be stripped of every dollar for such a rigmarole!"
She asserted, at this, her dignity--much as a small pink shorn lamb might have done. "It isn't a rigmarole, and I shan't be stripped. I shan't live any worse than I HAVE lived, don't you see? And I'll come back before long to stay with them. The Countess--he still gives her, he says, her title, as they do to noble widows, that is to 'dowagers,' don't you know? in England--insists on a visit from me SOME time. So I guess for THAT I can start afresh--and meanwhile I'll have recovered my money."
It was all too heart-breaking. "You're going home then at once?"
I felt the faint tremor of voice she heroically tried to stifle. "I've nothing left for a tour."
"You gave it ALL up?"
"I've kept enough to take me back."
I uttered, I think, a positive howl, and at this juncture the hero of the situation, the happy proprietor of my little friend's sacred savings and of the infatuated (293) _grande dame_ just sketched for me, reappeared with the clear consciousness of a repast bravely earned and consistently enjoyed. He stood on the threshold an instant, extracting the stone from a plump apricot he had fondly retained; then he put the apricot into his mouth and, while he let it gratefully dissolve there, stood looking at us with his long legs apart and his hands thrust into the pockets of his velvet coat. My companion got up, giving him a thin glance that I caught in its passage and which expressed at once resignation and fascination--the last dregs of her sacrifice and with it an anguish of upliftedness. Ugly vulgar pretentious dishonest as I thought him, and destitute of every grace of plausibility, he had yet appealed successfully to her eager and tender imagination. I was deeply disgusted, but I had no warrant to interfere, and at any rate felt that it would be vain. He waved his hand meanwhile with a breadth of appreciation. "Nice old court. Nice mellow old place. Nice crooked old staircase. Several pretty things."
Decidedly I couldn't stand it, and without responding I gave my hand to my friend. She looked at me an instant with her little white face and rounded eyes, and as she showed her pretty teeth I suppose she meant to smile. "Don't be sorry for me," she sublimely pleaded; "I'm very sure I shall see something of this dear old Europe yet."
I refused however to take literal leave of her--I should find a moment to come back next morning. Her awful kinsman, who had put on his sombrero again, flourished it off at me by way of a bow--on which I hurried away.
(294) On the morrow early I did return, and in the court of the inn met the landlady, more loosely laced than in the evening. On my asking for Miss Spencer, "_Partie_, monsieur," the good woman said. "She went away last night at ten o'clock, with her--her--not her husband, eh?--in fine her Monsieur. They went down to the American ship." I turned off--I felt the tears in my eyes. The poor girl had been some thirteen hours in Europe.
I myself, more fortunate, continued to sacrifice to opportunity as I myself met it. During this period--of some five years--I lost my friend Latouche, who died of a malarious fever during a tour in the Levant. One of the first things I did on my return to America was to go up to North Verona on a consolatory visit to his poor mother. I found her in deep affliction and sat with her the whole of the morning that followed my arrival--I had come in late at night--listening to her tearful descant and singing the praises of my friend. We talked of nothing else, and our conversation ended only with the arrival of a quick little woman who drove herself up to the door in a "carry-all" and whom I saw toss the reins to the horse's back with the briskness of a startled sleeper throwing off the bedclothes. She jumped out of the carry-all and she jumped into the room. She proved to be the minister's wife and the great town-gossip, and she had evidently, in the latter capacity, a choice morsel to communicate. I was as sure of this as I was that poor Mrs. Latouche was not absolutely too bereaved to listen to her. It seemed to me discreet to retire, and I described myself as anxious for a walk before dinner.
"And by the way," I added, "if you'll tell me where my old friend Miss Spencer lives I think I'll call on her."
The minister's wife immediately responded. Miss (296) Spencer lived in the fourth house beyond the Baptist church; the Baptist church was the one on the right, with that queer green thing over the door; they called it a portico, but it looked more like an old-fashioned bedstead swung in the air. "Yes, do look up poor Caroline," Mrs. Latouche further enjoined. "It will refresh her to see a strange face."
"I should think she had had enough of strange faces!" cried the minister's wife.
"To see, I mean, a charming visitor"--Mrs. Latouche amended her phrase.
"I should think she had had enough of charming visitors!" her companion returned. "But YOU don't mean to stay ten years," she added with significant eyes on me.
"Has she a visitor of that sort?" I asked in my ignorance.
"You'll make out the sort!" said the minister's wife. "She's easily seen; she generally sits in the front yard. Only take care what you say to her, and be very sure you're polite."
"Ah she's so sensitive?"
The minister's wife jumped up and dropped me a curtsey--a most sarcastic curtsey. "That's what she is, if you please. 'Madame la Comtesse!' "
And pronouncing these titular words with the most scathing accent, the little woman seemed fairly to laugh in the face of the lady they designated. I stood staring, wondering, remembering.
"Oh I shall be very polite!" I cried; and, grasping my hat and stick, I went on my way.
I found Miss Spencer's residence without difficulty. (297) The Baptist church was easily identified, and the small dwelling near it, of a rusty white, with a large central chimney-stack and a Virginia creeper, seemed naturally and properly the abode of a withdrawn old maid with a taste for striking effects inexpensively obtained. As I approached I slackened my pace, for I had heard that some one was always sitting in the front yard, and I wished to reconnoitre. I looked cautiously over the low white fence that separated the small garden-space from the unpaved street, but I descried nothing in the shape of a Comtesse. A small straight path led up to the crooked door-step, on either side of which was a little grass-plot fringed with currant-bushes. In the middle of the grass, right and left, was a large quince-tree, full of antiquity and contortions, and beneath one of the quince-trees were placed a small table and a couple of light chairs. On the table lay a piece of unfinished embroidery and two or three books in bright-coloured paper covers. I went in at the gate and paused halfway along the path, scanning the place for some further token of its occupant, before whom--I could hardly have said why--I hesitated abruptly to present myself. Then I saw the poor little house to be of the shabbiest and felt a sudden doubt of my right to penetrate, since curiosity had been my motive and curiosity here failed of confidence. While I demurred a figure appeared in the open doorway and stood there looking at me. I immediately recognised Miss Spencer, but she faced me as if we had never met. Gently, but gravely and timidly, I advanced to the door-step, where I spoke with an attempt at friendly banter.
(298) "I waited for you over there to come back, but you never came."
"Waited where, sir?" she quavered, her innocent eyes rounding themselves as of old. She was much older; she looked tired and wasted.
"Well," I said, "I waited at the old French port."
She stared harder, then recognised me, smiling, flushing, clasping her two hands together. "I remember you now--I remember that day." But she stood there, neither coming out nor asking me to come in. She was embarrassed.
I too felt a little awkward while I poked at the path with my stick. "I kept looking out for you year after year."
"You mean in Europe?" she ruefully breathed.
"In Europe of course! Here apparently you're easy enough to find."
She leaned her hand against the unpainted door-post and her head fell a little to one side. She looked at me thus without speaking, and I caught the expression visible in women's eyes when tears are rising. Suddenly she stepped out on the cracked slab of stone before her threshold and closed the door. Then her strained smile prevailed and I saw her teeth were as pretty as ever. But there had been tears too. "Have you been there ever since?" she lowered her voice to ask.
"Until three weeks ago. And you--you never came back?"
Still shining at me as she could, she put her hand behind her and reopened the door. "I'm not very polite," she said. "Won't you come in?"
(299) "I'm afraid I incommode you."
"Oh no!"--she wouldn't hear of it now. And she pushed back the door with a sign that I should enter.
I followed her in. She led the way to a small room on the left of the narrow hall, which I supposed to be her parlour, though it was at the back of the house, and we passed the closed door of another apartment which apparently enjoyed a view of the quince-trees. This one looked out upon a small wood-shed and two clucking hens. But I thought it pretty until I saw its elegance to be of the most frugal kind; after which, presently, I thought it prettier still, for I had never seen faded chintz and old mezzotint engravings, framed in varnished autumn leaves, disposed with so touching a grace. Miss Spencer sat down on a very small section of the sofa, her hands tightly clasped in her lap. She looked ten years older, and I needn't now have felt called to insist on the facts of her person. But I still thought them interesting, and at any rate I was moved by them. She was peculiarly agitated. I tried to appear not to notice it; but suddenly, in the most inconsequent fashion--it was an irresistible echo of our concentrated passage in the old French port--I said to her: " I do incommode you. Again you're in distress."
She raised her two hands to her face and for a moment kept it buried in them. Then taking them away, "It's because you remind me," she said.
"I remind you, you mean, of that miserable day at the Havre?"
She wonderfully shook her head. "It wasn't miserable. It was delightful."
(300) Ah was it? my manner of receiving this must have commented. "I never was so shocked as when, on going back to your inn the next morning, I found you had wretchedly retreated."
She waited an instant, after which she said: "Please let us not speak of that."
"Did you come straight back here?" I nevertheless went on.
"I was back here just thirty days after my first start."
"And here you've remained ever since?"
"Every minute of the time."
I took it in; I didn't know what to say, and what I presently said had almost the sound of mockery. "When then are you going to make that tour?" It might be practically aggressive; but there was something that irritated me in her depths of resignation, and I wished to extort from her some expression of impatience.
She attached her eyes a moment to a small sunspot on the carpet; then she got up and lowered the window-blind a little to obliterate it. I waited, watching her with interest--as if she had still something more to give me. Well, presently, in answer to my last question, she gave it. "Never!"
"I hope at least your cousin repaid you that money," I said.
At this again she looked away from me. "I don't care for it now."
"You don't care for your money?"
"For ever going to Europe."
"Do you mean you wouldn't go if you could?"
(301) "I can't--I can't," said Caroline Spencer. "It's all over. Everything's different. I never think of it."
"The scoundrel never repaid you then!" I cried.
"Please, please--!" she began.
But she had stopped--she was looking toward the door. There had been a rustle and a sound of steps in the hall.
I also looked toward the door, which was open and now admitted another person--a lady who paused just within the threshold. Behind her came a young man. The lady looked at me with a good deal of fixedness--long enough for me to rise to a vivid impression of herself. Then she turned to Caroline Spencer and, with a smile and a strong foreign accent, "_Pardon, ma chere_! I didn't know you had company," she said. "The gentleman came in so quietly." With which she again gave me the benefit of her attention. She was very strange, yet I was at once sure I had seen her before. Afterwards I rather put it that I had only seen ladies remarkably like her. But I had seen them very far away from North Verona, and it was the oddest of all things to meet one of them in that frame. To what quite other scene did the sight of her transport me? To some dusky landing before a shabby Parisian _quatrieme_--to an open door revealing a greasy ante-chamber and to Madame leaning over the banisters while she holds a faded wrapper together and bawls down to the portress to bring up her coffee. My friend's guest was a very large lady, of middle age, with a plump dead-white face and hair drawn back _a la chinoise_. She had a small penetrating (302) eye and what is called in French _le sourire agreable_. She wore an old pink cashmere dressing-gown covered with white embroideries, and, like the figure in my momentary vision, she confined it in front with a bare and rounded arm and a plump and deeply-dimpled hand.
"It's only to spick about my cafe," she said to her hostess with her _sourire agreable_. "I should like it served in the garden under the leetle tree."
The young man behind her had now stepped into the room, where he also stood revealed, though with rather less of a challenge. He was a gentleman of few inches but a vague importance, perhaps the leading man of the world of North Verona. He had a small pointed nose and a small pointed chin; also, as I observed, the most diminutive feet and a manner of no point at all. He looked at me foolishly and with his mouth open.
"You shall have your coffee," said Miss Spencer as if an army of cooks had been engaged in the preparation of it.
"C'est bien!" said her massive inmate. "Find your bouk"--and this personage turned to the gaping youth.
He gaped now at each quarter of the room. "My grammar, d' ye mean?"
The large lady however could but face her friend's visitor while persistently engaged with a certain laxity in the flow of her wrapper. "Find your bouk," she more absently repeated.
"My poetry, d' ye mean?" said the young man who also couldn't take his eyes off me.
(303) "Never mind your bouk"--his companion reconsidered. "To-day we'll just talk. We'll make some conversation. But we mustn't interrupt Mademoiselle's. Come, come"--and she moved off a step. "Under the leetle tree," she added for the benefit of Mademoiselle. After which she gave me a thin salutation, jerked a measured "Monsieur!" and swept away again with her swain following.
I looked at Miss Spencer, whose eyes never moved from the carpet, and I spoke, I fear, without grace. "Who in the world's that?"
"The Comtesse--that WAS: my _cousine_ as they call it in French."
"And who's the young man?"
"The Countess's pupil, Mr. Mixter." This description of the tie uniting the two persons who had just quitted us must certainly have upset my gravity; for I recall the marked increase of my friend's own as she continued to explain. "She gives lessons in French and music, the simpler sorts--"
"The simpler sorts of French?" I fear I broke in.
But she was still impenetrable, and in fact had now an intonation that put me vulgarly in the wrong. "She has had the worst reverses--with no one to look to. She's prepared for any exertion--and she takes her misfortunes with gaiety."
"Ah well," I returned--no doubt a little ruefully, "that's all I myself am pretending to do. If she's determined to be a burden to nobody, nothing could be more right and proper."
My hostess looked vaguely, though I thought quite wearily enough, about: she met this proposition in no (304) other way. "I must go and get the coffee," she simply said.
"Has the lady many pupils?" I none the less persisted.
"She has only Mr. Mixter. She gives him all her time." It might have set me off again, but something in my whole impression of my friend's sensibility urged me to keep strictly decent. "He pays very well," she at all events inscrutably went on. "He's not very bright--as a pupil; but he's very rich and he's very kind. He has a buggy--with a back, and he takes the Countess to drive."
"For good long spells I hope," I couldn't help interjecting--even at the cost of her so taking it that she had still to avoid my eyes. "Well, the country's beautiful for miles," I went on. And then as she was turning away: "You're going for the Countess's coffee?"
"If you'll excuse me a few moments."
"Is there no one else to do it?"
She seemed to wonder who there should be. "I keep no servants."
"Then can't I help?" After which, as she but looked at me, I bettered it. "Can't she wait on herself?"
Miss Spencer had a slow headshake--as if that too had been a strange idea. "She isn't used to MANUAL labour."
The discrimination was a treat, but I cultivated decorum. "I see--and you ARE." But at the same time I couldn't abjure curiosity. "Before you go, at any rate, please tell me this: who IS this wonderful lady?"
(305) "I told you just who in France--that extraordinary day. She's the wife of my cousin, whom you saw there."
"The lady disowned by her family in consequence of her marriage?"
"Yes; they've never seen her again. They've completely broken with her."
"And where's her husband?"
"My poor cousin's dead."
I pulled up, but only a moment. "And where's your money?"
The poor thing flinched--I kept her on the rack. "I don't know," she woefully said.
I scarce know what it didn't prompt me to--but I went step by step. "On her husband's death this lady at once came to you?"
It was as if she had had too often to describe it. "Yes, she arrived one day."
"How long ago?"
"Two years and four months."
"And has been here ever since?"
I took it all in. "And how does she like it?"
"Well, not VERY much," said Miss Spencer divinely.
That too I took in. "And how do YOU--?"
She laid her face in her two hands an instant as she had done ten minutes before. Then, quickly, she went to get the Countess's coffee.
Left alone in the little parlour I found myself divided between the perfection of my disgust and a contrary wish to see, to learn more. At the end of a (306) few minutes the young man in attendance on the lady in question reappeared as for a fresh gape at me. He was inordinately grave--to be dressed in such parti-coloured flannels; and he produced with no great confidence on his own side the message with which he had been charged. "She wants to know if you won't come right out."
"Who wants to know?"
"The Countess. That French lady."
"She has asked you to bring me?"
"Yes sir," said the young man feebly--for I may claim to have surpassed him in stature and weight.
I went out with him, and we found his instructress seated under one of the small quince-trees in front of the house; where she was engaged in drawing a fine needle with a very fat hand through a piece of embroidery not remarkable for freshness. She pointed graciously to the chair beside her and I sat down. Mr. Mixter glanced about him and then accommodated himself on the grass at her feet; whence he gazed upward more gapingly than ever and as if convinced that between us something wonderful would now occur.
"I'm sure you spick French," said the Countess, whose eyes were singularly protuberant as she played over me her agreeable smile.
"I do, madam--_tant bien que mal_," I replied, I fear, more dryly.
"Ah voila!" she cried as with delight. "I knew it as soon as I looked at you. You've been in my poor dear country."
(307) "A considerable time."
"You love it then, mon pays de France?"
"Oh it's an old affection." But I wasn't exuberant.
"And you know Paris well?"
"Yes, _sans me vanter_, madam, I think I really do." And with a certain conscious purpose I let my eyes meet her own.
She presently, hereupon, moved her own and glanced down at Mr. Mixter. "What are we talking about?" she demanded of her attentive pupil.
He pulled his knees up, plucked at the grass, stared, blushed a little. "You're talking French," said Mr. Mixter.
"_La belle decouverte_!" mocked the Countess. "It's going on ten months," she explained to me, "since I took him in hand. Don't put yourself out not to say he's _la betise meme_," she added in fine style. "He won't in the least understand you."
A moment's consideration of Mr. Mixter, awkwardly sporting at our feet, quite assured me that he wouldn't. "I hope your other pupils do you more honour," I then remarked to my entertainer.
"I have no others. They don't know what French--or what anything else--is in this place; they don't want to know. You may therefore imagine the pleasure it is to me to meet a person who speaks it like yourself." I could but reply that my own pleasure wasn't less, and she continued to draw the stitches through her embroidery with an elegant curl of her little finger. Every few moments she put her eyes, near-sightedly, closer to her work--this as if for (308) elegance too. She inspired me with no more confidence than her late husband, if husband he was, had done, years before, on the occasion with which this one so detestably matched: she was coarse, common, affected, dishonest--no more a Countess than I was a Caliph. She had an assurance--based clearly on experience; but this couldn't have been the experience of "race." Whatever it was indeed it did now, in a yearning fashion, flare out of her. "Talk to me of Paris, _mon beau Paris_ that I'd give my eyes to see. The very name of it _me fait languir_. How long since you were there?"
"A couple of months ago."
"_Vous avez de la chance_! Tell me something about it. What were they doing? Oh for an hour of the Boulevard!"
"They were doing about what they're always doing--amusing themselves a good deal."
"At the theatres, _hein_?" sighed the Countess. "At the cafes-concerts? _sous ce beau ciel_--at the little tables before the doors? _Quelle existence_! You know I'm a Parisienne, monsieur," she added, "to my finger-tips."
"Miss Spencer was mistaken then," I ventured to return, "in telling me you're a Provencale."
She stared a moment, then put her nose to her embroidery, which struck me as having acquired even while we sat a dingier and more desultory air. "Ah I'm a Provencale by birth, but a Parisienne by--inclination." After which she pursued: "And by the saddest events of my life--as well as by some of the happiest, helas!"
(309) "In other words by a varied experience!" I now at last smiled.
She questioned me over it with her hard little salient eyes. "Oh experience!--I could talk of that, no doubt, if I wished. _On en a de toutes les sortes_--and I never dreamed that mine, for example, would ever have THIS in store for me." And she indicated with her large bare elbow and with a jerk of her head all surrounding objects; the little white house, the pair of quince-trees, the rickety paling, even the rapt Mr. Mixter.
I took them all bravely in. "Ah if you mean you're decidedly in exile--!"
"You may imagine what it is. These two years of my _epreuve_--_elles m'en ont donnees, des heures, des heures_! One gets used to things"--and she raised her shoulders to the highest shrug ever accomplished at North Verona; "so that I sometimes think I've got used to this. But there are some things that are always beginning again. For example my coffee."
I so far again lent myself. "Do you always have coffee at this hour?"
Her eyebrows went up as high as her shoulders had done. "At what hour would you propose to me to have it? I must have my little cup after breakfast."
"Ah you breakfast at this hour?"
"At mid-day--_comme cela se fait_. Here they breakfast at a quarter past seven. That 'quarter past' is charming!"
"But you were telling me about your coffee," I observed sympathetically.
"My _cousine_ can't believe in it; she can't understand (310) it. "[sic]C'est une fille charmante, but that little cup of black coffee with a drop of '_fine_,' served at this hour--they exceed her comprehension. So I have to break the ice each day, and it takes the coffee the time you see to arrive. And when it does arrive, monsieur--! If I don't press it on YOU--though monsieur here sometimes joins me!--it's because you've drunk it on the Boulevard."
I resented extremely so critical a view of my poor friend's exertions, but I said nothing at all--the only way to be sure of my civility. I dropped my eyes on Mr. Mixter, who, sitting cross-legged and nursing his knees, watched my companion's foreign graces with an interest that familiarity had apparently done little to restrict. She became aware, naturally, of my mystified view of him and faced the question with all her boldness. "He adores me, you know," she murmured with her nose again in her tapestry--"he dreams of becoming _mon amoureux_. Yes, _il me fait une cour acharnee_--such as you see him. That's what we've come to. He has read some French novel--it took him six months. But ever since that he has thought himself a hero and me--such as I am, monsieur--_je ne sais quelle devergondee_!"
Mr. Mixter may have inferred that he was to that extent the object of our reference; but of the manner in which he was handled he must have had small suspicion--preoccupied as he was, as to my companion, with the ecstasy of contemplation. Our hostess moreover at this moment came out of the house, bearing a coffee-pot and three cups on a neat little tray. I took from her eyes, as she approached (311) us, a brief but intense appeal--the mute expression, as I felt, conveyed in the hardest little look she had yet addressed me, of her longing to know what, as a man of the world in general and of the French world in particular, I thought of these allied forces now so encamped on the stricken field of her life. I could only "act" however, as they said at North Verona, quite impenetrably--only make no answering sign. I couldn't intimate, much less could I frankly utter, my inward sense of the Countess's probable past, with its measure of her virtue, value and accomplishments, and of the limits of the consideration to which she could properly pretend. I couldn't give my friend a hint of how I myself personally "saw" her interesting pensioner--whether as the runaway wife of a too-jealous hair-dresser or of a too-morose pastry-cook, say; whether as a very small bourgeoise, in fine, who had vitiated her case beyond patching up, or even as some character, of the nomadic sort, less edifying still. I couldn't let in, by the jog of a shutter, as it were, a hard informing ray and then, washing my hands of the business, turn my back for ever. I could on the contrary but save the situation, my own at least, for the moment, by pulling myself together with a master hand and appearing to ignore everything but that the dreadful person between us WAS a "grande dame." This effort was possible indeed but as a retreat in good order and with all the forms of courtesy. If I couldn't speak, still less could I stay, and I think I must, in spite of everything, have turned black with disgust to see Caroline Spencer stand there like a waiting-maid. I therefore won't (312) answer for the shade of success that may have attended my saying to the Countess, on my feet and as to leave her: "You expect to remain some time in these _parages_?"
What passed between us, as from face to face, while she looked up at me, THAT at least our companion may have caught, that at least may have sown, for the after-time, some seed of revelation. The Countess repeated her terrible shrug. "Who knows? I don't see my way--! It isn't an existence, but when one's in misery--! _Chere belle_," she added as an appeal to Miss Spencer, "you've gone and forgotten the '_fine_'!"
I detained that lady as, after considering a moment in silence the small array, she was about to turn off in quest of this article. I held out my hand in silence--I had to go. Her wan set little face, severely mild and with the question of a moment before now quite cold in it, spoke of extreme fatigue, but also of something else strange and conceived--whether a desperate patience still, or at last some other desperation, being more than I can say. What was clearest on the whole was that she was glad I was going. Mr. Mixter had risen to his feet and was pouring out the Countess's coffee. As I went back past the Baptist church I could feel how right my poor friend had been in her conviction at the other, the still intenser, the now historic crisis, that she should still see something of that dear old Europe.