« PreviousContinue »
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, and 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
"Thank you for the interest. 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 to M. Demonget's school, whence, without having been friends, they had emerged intimates. 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.
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.
Gerald singled out and started on his way toward 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. Charlie followed him.
The approach of a stormily whirling couple, waltzing all' italiana, and then another and still another, 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, indeed, at the door opening from the reception-room an unknown, 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. But Charlie, always alive to the possibilities of a new acquaintance, always eager to be first in the field, dropped his own quest. 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.
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 a dewy blue eye, 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 does n't look very wicked to me."
She watched the dancers with earnestly following eyes, 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 must n'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! Mrs. Foss," her attention had veered,-"do look at that little fellow playing the piano! Is n't he great! But is n't he comical, too! I've been noticing him all the evening. He fascinates me. I never heard such splendid playing.”
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.
"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.
"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 are n't. Sit here by me a moment and take it easy. This party does n'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. Now, as they chatted, she said to herself again that if Mrs. Hawthorne's homeliness of phrase was not a simple thing of playfulness, a disclaimer of the affecta
tion 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. 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
"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 tonight!"
"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.
"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
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. 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
in the direction of Gerald. Her eyes were naturally turned toward the object of her search; some intention with regard to 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. 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 diningroom. Leslie did not think the matter of sufficient importance to pursue the chase farther.
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.
Mrs. Hawthorne and Miss Madison, with Charlie Hunt and the American doctor, lingered on in the corner where, with the migration of so many to the ball-room, all four had been able to secure chairs.
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 Dr. 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.
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 receptionroom, whence she could reënter the ballroom at the other end without danger of collision, and reach that comfortable blue satin sofa, now standing empty.
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. 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. 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 swan's-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.
Mrs. Hawthorne's front hair was clipped and twisted into little curls, her back locks, drawn to the top of the head, were disposed in silken loops and rolls, at the top of which, like a flag planted on a hill, stood an aigret, a sparkle and two whiffs.
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.