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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 with them afterward."
"And where 's Lily?"
"She, too, is off having a good time. Fräulein 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!"
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." Then 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 did n'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 One has noticed, however, has n'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 are n'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 does n'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 could n'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 did I 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
AURORA THE MAGNIFICENT
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." "I did."
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.
"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 up-stairs 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."
UPON a day not much later in the month a certain young man in Florence asked himself what one is to do with a day when nothing that has been invented seems enough fun to pay for the bother? He stood in the middle of the floor, with his hands over his face, the ends of his fingers pressing back his eye-balls, 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. He halted before a shop 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 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 musicroll. 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.
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."
"I have n't seen you for ages."
"You have n'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. Did n't she tell you I was there? We had a long talk. 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." "And you?"
“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 does n't matter about me. About you it does. 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
an old 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 whitewashed 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 kneelingbenches, 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 welldressed people ever came for outside of hours.
The reddish light trembled over the figure of a majestic virgin, in the veil 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? Does n't this remind you of them?"
Brenda answered abstractedly: "Yes," and continued to look. 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
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.
Gerald, who had the power to detach himself and at will see persons as if he looked at them for the first time, saw Brenda for a moment 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 of her face at that moment, 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.
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 conferenza, or lecture, on the primitives.
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.