Florence, April 5th, 1874.—They told me I should find Italy greatly changed; and in seven-and-twenty years there is room for changes. But to me everything is so perfectly the same that I seem to be living my youth over again; all the forgotten impressions of that enchanting time come back to me. At the moment they were powerful enough; but they afterwards faded away. What in the world became of them? Whatever becomes of such things, in the long intervals of consciousness? Where do they hide themselves away? in what unvisited cupboards and crannies of our being do they preserve themselves? They are like the lines of a letter written in sympathetic ink; hold the letter to the fire for a while and the grateful warmth brings out the invisible words. It is the warmth of this yellow sun of Florence that has been restoring the text of my own young romance; the thing has been lying before me today as a clear, fresh page. There have been moments during the last ten years when I have fell so portentously old, so fagged and finished, that I should have taken as a very bad joke any intimation that this present sense of juvenility was still in store for me. It won’t last, at any rate; so I had better make the best of it. But I confess it surprises me. I have led too serious a life; but that perhaps, after all, preserves one’s youth. At all events, I have travelled too far, I have worked too hard, I have lived in brutal climates and associated with tiresome people. When a man has reached his fifty-second year without being, materially, the worse for wear—when he has fair health, a fair fortune, a tidy conscience and a complete exemption from embarrassing relatives—I suppose he is bound, in delicacy, to write himself happy. But I confess I shirk this obligation. I have not been miserable; I won’t go so far as to say that—or at least as to write it. But happiness—positive happiness—would have been something different. I don’t know that it would have been better, by all measurements—that it would have left me better off at the present time. But it certainly would have made this difference—that I should not have been reduced, in pursuit of pleasant images, to disinter a buried episode of more than a quarter of a century ago. I should have found entertainment more—what shall I call it?—more contemporaneous. I should have had a wife and children, and I should not be in the way of making, as the French say, infidelities to the present. Of course it’s a great gain to have had an escape, not to have committed an act of thumping folly; and I suppose that, whatever serious step one might have taken at twenty-five, after a struggle, and with a violent effort, and however one’s conduct might appear to be justified by events, there would always remain a certain element of regret; a certain sense of loss lurking in the sense of gain; a tendency to wonder, rather wishfully, what might have been. What might have been, in this case, would, without doubt, have been very sad, and what has been has been very cheerful and comfortable; but there are nevertheless two or three questions I might ask myself. Why, for instance, have I never married—why have I never been able to care for any woman as I cared for that one? Ah, why are the mountains blue and why is the sunshine warm? Happiness mitigated by impertinent conjectures—that’s about my ticket.
6th.—I knew it wouldn’t last; it’s already passing away. But I have spent a delightful day; I have been strolling all over the place. Everything reminds me of something else, and yet of itself at the same time; my imagination makes a great circuit and comes back to the starting-point. There is that well-remembered odour of spring in the air, and the flowers, as they used to be, are gathered into great sheaves and stacks, all along the rugged base of the Strozzi Palace. I wandered for an hour in the Boboli Gardens; we went there several times together. I remember all those days individually; they seem to me as yesterday. I found the corner where she always chose to sit—the bench of sun-warmed marble, in front of the screen of ilex, with that exuberant statue of Pomona just beside it. The place is exactly the same, except that poor Pomona has lost one of her tapering fingers. I sat there for half an hour, and it was strange how near to me she seemed. The place was perfectly empty—that is, it was filled with her. I closed my eyes and listened; I could almost hear the rustle of her dress on the gravel. Why do we make such an ado about death? What is it, after all, but a sort of refinement of life? She died ten years ago, and yet, as I sat there in the sunny stillness, she was a palpable, audible presence. I went afterwards into the gallery of the palace, and wandered for an hour from room to room. The same great pictures hung in the same places, and the same dark frescoes arched above them. Twice, of old, I went there with her; she had a great understanding of art. She understood all sorts of things. Before the Madonna of the Chair I stood a long time. The face is not a particle like hers, and yet it reminded me of her. But everything does that. We stood and looked at it together once for half an hour; I remember perfectly what she said.
8th.—Yesterday I felt blue—blue and bored; and when I got up this morning I had half a mind to leave Florence. But I went out into the street, beside the Arno, and looked up and down—looked at the yellow river and the violet hills, and then decided to remain—or rather, I decided nothing. I simply stood gazing at the beauty of Florence, and before I had gazed my fill I was in good-humour again, and it was too late to start for Rome. I strolled along the quay, where something presently happened that rewarded me for staying. I stopped in front of a little jeweller’s shop, where a great many objects in mosaic were exposed in the window; I stood there for some minutes—I don’t know why, for I have no taste for mosaic. In a moment a little girl came and stood beside me—a little girl with a frowsy Italian head, carrying a basket. I turned away, but, as I turned, my eyes happened to fall on her basket. It was covered with a napkin, and on the napkin was pinned a piece of paper, inscribed with an address. This address caught my glance—there was a name on it I knew. It was very legibly written—evidently by a scribe who had made up in zeal what was lacking in skill. Contessa Salvi-Scarabelli, Via Ghibellina—so ran the superscription; I looked at it for some moments; it caused me a sudden emotion. Presently the little girl, becoming aware of my attention, glanced up at me, wondering, with a pair of timid brown eyes.
“Are you carrying your basket to the Countess Salvi?” I asked.
The child stared at me. “To the Countess Scarabelli.”
“Do you know the Countess?”
“Know her?” murmured the child, with an air of small dismay.
“I mean, have you seen her?”
“Yes, I have seen her.” And then, in a moment, with a sudden soft smile—“E bella!” said the little girl. She was beautiful herself as she said it.
“Precisely; and is she fair or dark?”
The child kept gazing at me. “Bionda—bionda,” she answered, looking about into the golden sunshine for a comparison.
“And is she young?”
“She is not young—like me. But she is not old like—like—”
“Like me, eh? And is she married?”
The little girl began to look wise. “I have never seen the Signor Conte.”
“And she lives in Via Ghibellina?”
“Sicuro. In a beautiful palace.”
I had one more question to ask, and I pointed it with certain copper coins. “Tell me a little—is she good?”
The child inspected a moment the contents of her little brown fist. “It’s you who are good,” she answered.
“Ah, but the Countess?” I repeated.
My informant lowered her big brown eyes, with an air of conscientious meditation that was inexpressibly quaint. “To me she appears so,” she said at last, looking up.
“Ah, then, she must be so,” I said, “because, for your age, you are very intelligent.” And having delivered myself of this compliment I walked away and left the little girl counting her soldi.
I walked back to the hotel, wondering how I could learn something about the Contessa Salvi-Scarabelli. In the doorway I found the innkeeper, and near him stood a young man whom I immediately perceived to be a compatriot, and with whom, apparently, he had been in conversation.
“I wonder whether you can give me a piece of information,” I said to the landlord. “Do you know anything about the Count Salvi-Scarabelli?”
The landlord looked down at his boots, then slowly raised his shoulders, with a melancholy smile. “I have many regrets, dear sir—”
“You don’t know the name?”
“I know the name, assuredly. But I don’t know the gentleman.”
I saw that my question had attracted the attention of the young Englishman, who looked at me with a good deal of earnestness. He was apparently satisfied with what he saw, for he presently decided to speak.
“The Count Scarabelli is dead,” he said, very gravely.
I looked at him a moment; he was a pleasing young fellow. “And his widow lives,” I observed, “in Via Ghibellina?”
“I daresay that is the name of the street.” He was a handsome young Englishman, but he was also an awkward one; he wondered who I was and what I wanted, and he did me the honour to perceive that, as regards these points, my appearance was reassuring. But he hesitated, very properly, to talk with a perfect stranger about a lady whom he knew, and he had not the art to conceal his hesitation. I instantly felt it to be singular that though he regarded me as a perfect stranger, I had not the same feeling about him. Whether it was that I had seen him before, or simply that I was struck with his agreeable young face—at any rate, I felt myself, as they say here, in sympathy with him. If I have seen him before I don’t remember the occasion, and neither, apparently, does he; I suppose it’s only a part of the feeling I have had the last three days about everything. It was this feeling that made me suddenly act as if I had known him a long time.
“Do you know the Countess Salvi?” I asked.
He looked at me a little, and then, without resenting the freedom of my question—“The Countess Scarabelli, you mean,” he said.
“Yes,” I answered; “she’s the daughter.”
“The daughter is a little girl.”
“She must be grown up now. She must be—let me see—close upon thirty.”
My young Englishman began to smile. “Of whom are you speaking?”
“I was speaking of the daughter,” I said, understanding his smile. “But I was thinking of the mother.”
“Of the mother?”
“Of a person I knew twenty-seven years ago—the most charming woman I have ever known. She was the Countess Salvi—she lived in a wonderful old house in Via Ghibellina.”
“A wonderful old house!” my young Englishman repeated.
“She had a little girl,” I went on; “and the little girl was very fair, like her mother; and the mother and daughter had the same name—Bianca.” I stopped and looked at my companion, and he blushed a little. “And Bianca Salvi,” I continued, “was the most charming woman in the world.” He blushed a little more, and I laid my hand on his shoulder. “Do you know why I tell you this? Because you remind me of what I was when I knew her—when I loved her.” My poor young Englishman gazed at me with a sort of embarrassed and fascinated stare, and still I went on. “I say that’s the reason I told you this—but you’ll think it a strange reason. You remind me of my younger self. You needn’t resent that—I was a charming young fellow. The Countess Salvi thought so. Her daughter thinks the same of you.”
Instantly, instinctively, he raised his hand to my arm. “Truly?”
“Ah, you are wonderfully like me!” I said, laughing. “That was just my state of mind. I wanted tremendously to please her.” He dropped his hand and looked away, smiling, but with an air of ingenuous confusion which quickened my interest in him. “You don’t know what to make of me,” I pursued. “You don’t know why a stranger should suddenly address you in this way and pretend to read your thoughts. Doubtless you think me a little cracked. Perhaps I am eccentric; but it’s not so bad as that. I have lived about the world a great deal, following my profession, which is that of a soldier. I have been in India, in Africa, in Canada, and I have lived a good deal alone. That inclines people, I think, to sudden bursts of confidence. A week ago I came into Italy, where I spent six months when I was your age. I came straight to Florence—I was eager to see it again, on account of associations. They have been crowding upon me ever so thickly. I have taken the liberty of giving you a hint of them.” The young man inclined himself a little, in silence, as if he had been struck with a sudden respect. He stood and looked away for a moment at the river and the mountains. “It’s very beautiful,” I said.
“Oh, it’s enchanting,” he murmured.
“That’s the way I used to talk. But that’s nothing to you.”
He glanced at me again. “On the contrary, I like to hear.”
“Well, then, let us take a walk. If you too are staying at this inn, we are fellow-travellers. We will walk down the Arno to the Cascine. There are several things I should like to ask of you.”
My young Englishman assented with an air of almost filial confidence, and we strolled for an hour beside the river and through the shady alleys of that lovely wilderness. We had a great deal of talk: it’s not only myself, it’s my whole situation over again.
“Are you very fond of Italy?” I asked.
He hesitated a moment. “One can’t express that.”
“Just so; I couldn’t express it. I used to try—I used to write verses. On the subject of Italy I was very ridiculous.”
“So am I ridiculous,” said my companion.
“No, my dear boy,” I answered, “we are not ridiculous; we are two very reasonable, superior people.”
“The first time one comes—as I have done—it’s a revelation.”
“Oh, I remember well; one never forgets it. It’s an introduction to beauty.”
“And it must be a great pleasure,” said my young friend, “to come back.”
“Yes, fortunately the beauty is always here. What form of it,” I asked, “do you prefer?”
My companion looked a little mystified; and at last he said, “I am very fond of the pictures.”
“So was I. And among the pictures, which do you like best?”
“Oh, a great many.”
“So did I; but I had certain favourites.”
Again the young man hesitated a little, and then he confessed that the group of painters he preferred, on the whole, to all others, was that of the early Florentines.
I was so struck with this that I stopped short. “That was exactly my taste!” And then I passed my hand into his arm and we went our way again.
We sat down on an old stone bench in the Cascine, and a solemn blank-eyed Hermes, with wrinkles accentuated by the dust of ages, stood above us and listened to our talk.
“The Countess Salvi died ten years ago,” I said.
My companion admitted that he had heard her daughter say so.
“After I knew her she married again,” I added. “The Count Salvi died before I knew her—a couple of years after their marriage.”
“Yes, I have heard that.”
“And what else have you heard?”
My companion stared at me; he had evidently heard nothing.
“She was a very interesting woman—there are a great many things to be said about her. Later, perhaps, I will tell you. Has the daughter the same charm?”
“You forget,” said my young man, smiling, “that I have never seen the mother.”
“Very true. I keep confounding. But the daughter—how long have you known her?”
“Only since I have been here. A very short time.”
For a moment he said nothing. “A month.”
“That’s just the answer I should have made. A week, a month—it was all the same to me.”
“I think it is more than a month,” said the young man.
“It’s probably six. How did you make her acquaintance?”
“By a letter—an introduction given me by a friend in England.”
“The analogy is complete,” I said. “But the friend who gave me my letter to Madame de Salvi died many years ago. He, too, admired her greatly. I don’t know why it never came into my mind that her daughter might be living in Florence. Somehow I took for granted it was all over. I never thought of the little girl; I never heard what had become of her. I walked past the palace yesterday and saw that it was occupied; but I took for granted it had changed hands.”
“The Countess Scarabelli,” said my friend, “brought it to her husband as her marriage-portion.”
“I hope he appreciated it! There is a fountain in the court, and there is a charming old garden beyond it. The Countess’s sitting-room looks into that garden. The staircase is of white marble, and there is a medallion by Luca della Robbia set into the wall at the place where it makes a bend. Before you come into the drawing-room you stand a moment in a great vaulted place hung round with faded tapestry, paved with bare tiles, and furnished only with three chairs. In the drawing-room, above the fireplace, is a superb Andrea del Sarto. The furniture is covered with pale sea-green.”
My companion listened to all this.
“The Andrea del Sarto is there; it’s magnificent. But the furniture is in pale red.”
“Ah, they have changed it, then—in twenty-seven years.”
“And there’s a portrait of Madame de Salvi,” continued my friend.
I was silent a moment. “I should like to see that.”
He too was silent. Then he asked, “Why don’t you go and see it? If you knew the mother so well, why don’t you call upon the daughter?”
“From what you tell me I am afraid.”
“What have I told you to make you afraid?”
I looked a little at his ingenuous countenance. “The mother was a very dangerous woman.”
The young Englishman began to blush again. “The daughter is not,” he said.
“Are you very sure?”
He didn’t say he was sure, but he presently inquired in what way the Countess Salvi had been dangerous.
“You must not ask me that,” I answered “for after all, I desire to remember only what was good in her.” And as we walked back I begged him to render me the service of mentioning my name to his friend, and of saying that I had known her mother well, and that I asked permission to come and see her.
9th.—I have seen that poor boy half a dozen times again, and a most amiable young fellow he is. He continues to represent to me, in the most extraordinary manner, my own young identity; the correspondence is perfect at all points, save that he is a better boy than I. He is evidently acutely interested in his Countess, and leads quite the same life with her that I led with Madame de Salvi. He goes to see her every evening and stays half the night; these Florentines keep the most extraordinary hours. I remember, towards 3 A.M., Madame de Salvi used to turn me out.—“Come, come,” she would say, “it’s time to go. If you were to stay later people might talk.” I don’t know at what time he comes home, but I suppose his evening seems as short as mine did. Today he brought me a message from his Contessa—a very gracious little speech. She remembered often to have heard her mother speak of me—she called me her English friend. All her mother’s friends were dear to her, and she begged I would do her the honour to come and see her. She is always at home of an evening. Poor young Stanmer (he is of the Devonshire Stanmers—a great property) reported this speech verbatim, and of course it can’t in the least signify to him that a poor grizzled, battered soldier, old enough to be his father, should come to call upon his inammorata. But I remember how it used to matter to me when other men came; that’s a point of difference. However, it’s only because I’m so old. At twenty-five I shouldn’t have been afraid of myself at fifty-two. Camerino was thirty-four—and then the others! She was always at home in the evening, and they all used to come. They were old Florentine names. But she used to let me stay after them all; she thought an old English name as good. What a transcendent coquette! . . . But basta così as she used to say. I meant to go tonight to Casa Salvi, but I couldn’t bring myself to the point. I don’t know what I’m afraid of; I used to be in a hurry enough to go there once. I suppose I am afraid of the very look of the place—of the old rooms, the old walls. I shall go tomorrow night. I am afraid of the very echoes.
10th.—She has the most extraordinary resemblance to her mother. When I went in I was tremendously startled; I stood starting at her. I have just come home; it is past midnight; I have been all the evening at Casa Salvi. It is very warm—my window is open—I can look out on the river gliding past in the starlight. So, of old, when I came home, I used to stand and look out. There are the same cypresses on the opposite hills.
Poor young Stanmer was there, and three or four other admirers; they all got up when I came in. I think I had been talked about, and there was some curiosity. But why should I have been talked about? They were all youngish men—none of them of my time. She is a wonderful likeness of her mother; I couldn’t get over it. Beautiful like her mother, and yet with the same faults in her face; but with her mother’s perfect head and brow and sympathetic, almost pitying, eyes. Her face has just that peculiarity of her mother’s, which, of all human countenances that I have ever known, was the one that passed most quickly and completely from the expression of gaiety to that of repose. Repose in her face always suggested sadness; and while you were watching it with a kind of awe, and wondering of what tragic secret it was the token, it kindled, on the instant, into a radiant Italian smile. The Countess Scarabelli’s smiles tonight, however, were almost uninterrupted. She greeted me—divinely, as her mother used to do; and young Stanmer sat in the corner of the sofa—as I used to do—and watched her while she talked. She is thin and very fair, and was dressed in light, vaporous black that completes the resemblance. The house, the rooms, are almost absolutely the same; there may be changes of detail, but they don’t modify the general effect. There are the same precious pictures on the walls of the salon—the same great dusky fresco in the concave ceiling. The daughter is not rich, I suppose, any more than the mother. The furniture is worn and faded, and I was admitted by a solitary servant, who carried a twinkling taper before me up the great dark marble staircase.
“I have often heard of you,” said the Countess, as I sat down near her; “my mother often spoke of you.”
“Often?” I answered. “I am surprised at that.”
“Why are you surprised? Were you not good friends?”
“Yes, for a certain time—very good friends. But I was sure she had forgotten me.”
“She never forgot,” said the Countess, looking at me intently and smiling. “She was not like that.”
“She was not like most other women in any way,” I declared.
“Ah, she was charming,” cried the Countess, rattling open her fan. “I have always been very curious to see you. I have received an impression of you.”
“A good one, I hope.”
She looked at me, laughing, and not answering this: it was just her mother’s trick.
“‘My Englishman,’ she used to call you—‘il mio Inglese.’”
“I hope she spoke of me kindly,” I insisted.
The Countess, still laughing, gave a little shrug balancing her hand to and fro. “So-so; I always supposed you had had a quarrel. You don’t mind my being frank like this—eh?”
“I delight in it; it reminds me of your mother.”
“Every one tells me that. But I am not clever like her. You will see for yourself.”
“That speech,” I said, “completes the resemblance. She was always pretending she was not clever, and in reality—”
“In reality she was an angel, eh? To escape from dangerous comparisons I will admit, then, that I am clever. That will make a difference. But let us talk of you. You are very—how shall I say it?—very eccentric.”
“Is that what your mother told you?”
“To tell the truth, she spoke of you as a great original. But aren’t all Englishmen eccentric? All except that one!” and the Countess pointed to poor Stanmer, in his corner of the sofa.
“Oh, I know just what he is,” I said.
“He’s as quiet as a lamb—he’s like all the world,” cried the Countess.
“Like all the world—yes. He is in love with you.”
She looked at me with sudden gravity. “I don’t object to your saying that for all the world—but I do for him.”
“Well,” I went on, “he is peculiar in this: he is rather afraid of you.”
Instantly she began to smile; she turned her face toward Stanmer. He had seen that we were talking about him; he coloured and got up—then came toward us.
“I like men who are afraid of nothing,” said our hostess.
“I know what you want,” I said to Stanmer. “You want to know what the Signora Contessa says about you.”
Stanmer looked straight into her face, very gravely. “I don’t care a straw what she says.”
“You are almost a match for the Signora Contessa,” I answered. “She declares she doesn’t care a pin’s head what you think.”
“I recognise the Countess’s style!” Stanmer exclaimed, turning away.
“One would think,” said the Countess, “that you were trying to make a quarrel between us.”
I watched him move away to another part of the great saloon; he stood in front of the Andrea del Sarto, looking up at it. But he was not seeing it; he was listening to what we might say. I often stood there in just that way. “He can’t quarrel with you, any more than I could have quarrelled with your mother.”
“Ah, but you did. Something painful passed between you.”
“Yes, it was painful, but it was not a quarrel. I went away one day and never saw her again. That was all.”
The Countess looked at me gravely. “What do you call it when a man does that?”
“It depends upon the case.”
“Sometimes,” said the Countess in French, “it’s a lâcheté.”
“Yes, and sometimes it’s an act of wisdom.”
“And sometimes,” rejoined the Countess, “it’s a mistake.”
I shook my head. “For me it was no mistake.”
She began to laugh again. “Caro Signore, you’re a great original. What had my poor mother done to you?”
I looked at our young Englishman, who still had his back turned to us and was staring up at the picture. “I will tell you some other time,” I said.
“I shall certainly remind you; I am very curious to know.” Then she opened and shut her fan two or three times, still looking at me. What eyes they have! “Tell me a little,” she went on, “if I may ask without indiscretion. Are you married?”
“No, Signora Contessa.”
“Isn’t that at least a mistake?”
“Do I look very unhappy?”
She dropped her head a little to one side. “For an Englishman—no!”
“Ah,” said I, laughing, “you are quite as clever as your mother.”
“And they tell me that you are a great soldier,” she continued; “you have lived in India. It was very kind of you, so far away, to have remembered our poor dear Italy.”
“One always remembers Italy; the distance makes no difference. I remembered it well the day I heard of your mother’s death!”
“Ah, that was a sorrow!” said the Countess. “There’s not a day that I don’t weep for her. But che vuole? She’s a saint its paradise.”
“Sicuro,” I answered; and I looked some time at the ground. “But tell me about yourself, dear lady,” I asked at last, raising my eyes. “You have also had the sorrow of losing your husband.”
“I am a poor widow, as you see. Che vuole? My husband died after three years of marriage.”
I waited for her to remark that the late Count Scarabelli was also a saint in paradise, but I waited in vain.
“That was like your distinguished father,” I said.
“Yes, he too died young. I can’t be said to have known him; I was but of the age of my own little girl. But I weep for him all the more.”
Again I was silent for a moment.
“It was in India too,” I said presently, “that I heard of your mother’s second marriage.”
The Countess raised her eyebrows.
“In India, then, one hears of everything! Did that news please you?”
“Well, since you ask me—no.”
“I understand that,” said the Countess, looking at her open fan. “I shall not marry again like that.”
“That’s what your mother said to me,” I ventured to observe.
She was not offended, but she rose from her seat and stood looking at me a moment. Then—“You should not have gone away!” she exclaimed. I stayed for another hour; it is a very pleasant house.
Two or three of the men who were sitting there seemed very civil and intelligent; one of them was a major of engineers, who offered me a profusion of information upon the new organisation of the Italian army. While he talked, however, I was observing our hostess, who was talking with the others; very little, I noticed, with her young Inglese. She is altogether charming—full of frankness and freedom, of that inimitable disinvoltura which in an Englishwoman would be vulgar, and which in her is simply the perfection of apparent spontaneity. But for all her spontaneity she’s as subtle as a needle-point, and knows tremendously well what she is about. If she is not a consummate coquette . . . What had she in her head when she said that I should not have gone away?—Poor little Stanmer didn’t go away. I left him there at midnight.
12th.—I found him today sitting in the church of Santa Croce, into which I wandered to escape from the heat of the sun.
In the nave it was cool and dim; he was staring at the blaze of candles on the great altar, and thinking, I am sure, of his incomparable Countess. I sat down beside him, and after a while, as if to avoid the appearance of eagerness, he asked me how I had enjoyed my visit to Casa Salvi, and what I thought of the padrona.
“I think half a dozen things,” I said, “but I can only tell you one now. She’s an enchantress. You shall hear the rest when we have left the church.”
“An enchantress?” repeated Stanmer, looking at me askance.
He is a very simple youth, but who am I to blame him?
“A charmer,” I said “a fascinatress!”
He turned away, staring at the altar candles.
“An artist—an actress,” I went on, rather brutally.
He gave me another glance.
“I think you are telling me all,” he said.
“No, no, there is more.” And we sat a long time in silence.
At last he proposed that we should go out; and we passed in the street, where the shadows had begun to stretch themselves.
“I don’t know what you mean by her being an actress,” he said, as we turned homeward.
“I suppose not. Neither should I have known, if any one had said that to me.”
“You are thinking about the mother,” said Stanmer. “Why are you always bringing her in?”
“My dear boy, the analogy is so great it forces itself upon me.”
He stopped and stood looking at me with his modest, perplexed young face. I thought he was going to exclaim—“The analogy be hanged!”—but he said after a moment—
“Well, what does it prove?”
“I can’t say it proves anything; but it suggests a great many things.”
“Be so good as to mention a few,” he said, as we walked on.
“You are not sure of her yourself,” I began.
“Never mind that—go on with your analogy.”
“That’s a part of it. You are very much in love with her.”
“That’s a part of it too, I suppose?”
“Yes, as I have told you before. You are in love with her, and yet you can’t make her out; that’s just where I was with regard to Madame de Salvi.”
“And she too was an enchantress, an actress, an artist, and all the rest of it?”
“She was the most perfect coquette I ever knew, and the most dangerous, because the most finished.”
“What you mean, then, is that her daughter is a finished coquette?”
“I rather think so.”
Stanmer walked along for some moments in silence.
“Seeing that you suppose me to be a—a great admirer of the Countess,” he said at last, “I am rather surprised at the freedom with which you speak of her.”
I confessed that I was surprised at it myself. “But it’s on account of the interest I take in you.”
“I am immensely obliged to you!” said the poor boy.
“Ah, of course you don’t like it. That is, you like my interest—I don’t see how you can help liking that; but you don’t like my freedom. That’s natural enough; but, my dear young friend, I want only to help you. If a man had said to me—so many years ago—what I am saying to you, I should certainly also, at first, have thought him a great brute. But after a little, I should have been grateful—I should have felt that he was helping me.”
“You seem to have been very well able to help yourself,” said Stanmer. “You tell me you made your escape.”
“Yes, but it was at the cost of infinite perplexity—of what I may call keen suffering. I should like to save you all that.”
“I can only repeat—it is really very kind of you.”
“Don’t repeat it too often, or I shall begin to think you don’t mean it.”
“Well,” said Stanmer, “I think this, at any rate—that you take an extraordinary responsibility in trying to put a man out of conceit of a woman who, as he believes, may make him very happy.”
I grasped his arm, and we stopped, going on with our talk like a couple of Florentines.
“Do you wish to marry her?”
He looked away, without meeting my eyes. “It’s a great responsibility,” he repeated.
“Before Heaven,” I said, “I would have married the mother! You are exactly in my situation.”
“Don’t you think you rather overdo the analogy?” asked poor Stanmer.
“A little more, a little less—it doesn’t matter. I believe you are in my shoes. But of course if you prefer it, I will beg a thousand pardons and leave them to carry you where they will.”
He had been looking away, but now he slowly turned his face and met my eyes. “You have gone too far to retreat; what is it you know about her?”
“About this one—nothing. But about the other—”
“I care nothing about the other!”
“My dear fellow,” I said, “they are mother and daughter—they are as like as two of Andrea’s Madonnas.”
“If they resemble each other, then, you were simply mistaken in the mother.”
I took his arm and we walked on again; there seemed no adequate reply to such a charge. “Your state of mind brings back my own so completely,” I said presently. “You admire her—you adore her, and yet, secretly, you mistrust her. You are enchanted with her personal charm, her grace, her wit, her everything; and yet in your private heart you are afraid of her.”
“Afraid of her?”
“Your mistrust keeps rising to the surface; you can’t rid yourself of the suspicion that at the bottom of all things she is hard and cruel, and you would be immensely relieved if some one should persuade you that your suspicion is right.”
Stanmer made no direct reply to this; but before we reached the hotel he said—“What did you ever know about the mother?”
“It’s a terrible story,” I answered.
He looked at me askance. “What did she do?”
“Come to my rooms this evening and I will tell you.”
He declared he would, but he never came. Exactly the way I should have acted!
14th.—I went again, last evening, to Casa Salvi, where I found the same little circle, with the addition of a couple of ladies. Stanmer was there, trying hard to talk to one of them, but making, I am sure, a very poor business of it. The Countess—well, the Countess was admirable. She greeted me like a friend of ten years, toward whom familiarity should not have engendered a want of ceremony; she made me sit near her, and she asked me a dozen questions about my health and my occupations.
“I live in the past,” I said. “I go into the galleries, into the old palaces and the churches. Today I spent an hour in Michael Angelo’s chapel at San Loreozo.”
“Ah yes, that’s the past,” said the Countess. “Those things are very old.”
“Twenty-seven years old,” I answered.
“I mean my own past,” I said. “I went to a great many of those places with your mother.”
“Ah, the pictures are beautiful,” murmured the Countess, glancing at Stanmer.
“Have you lately looked at any of them?” I asked. “Have you gone to the galleries with him?”
She hesitated a moment, smiling. “It seems to me that your question is a little impertinent. But I think you are like that.”
“A little impertinent? Never. As I say, your mother did me the honour, more than once, to accompany me to the Uffizzi.”
“My mother must have been very kind to you.”
“So it seemed to me at the time.”
“At the time only?”
“Well, if you prefer, so it seems to me now.”
“Eh,” said the Countess, “she made sacrifices.”
“To what, cara Signora? She was perfectly free. Your lamented father was dead—and she had not yet contracted her second marriage.”
“If she was intending to marry again, it was all the more reason she should have been careful.”
I looked at her a moment; she met my eyes gravely, over the top of her fan. “Are you very careful?” I said.
She dropped her fan with a certain violence. “Ah, yes, you are impertinent!”
“Ah no,” I said. “Remember that I am old enough to be your father; that I knew you when you were three years old. I may surely ask such questions. But you are right; one must do your mother justice. She was certainly thinking of her second marriage.”
“You have not forgiven her that!” said the Countess, very gravely.
“Have you?” I asked, more lightly.
“I don’t judge my mother. That is a mortal sin. My stepfather was very kind to me.”
“I remember him,” I said; “I saw him a great many times—your mother already received him.”
My hostess sat with lowered eyes, saying nothing; but she presently looked up.
“She was very unhappy with my father.”
“That I can easily believe. And your stepfather—is he still living?”
“He died—before my mother.”
“Did he fight any more duels?”
“He was killed in a duel,” said the Countess, discreetly.
It seems almost monstrous, especially as I can give no reason for it—but this announcement, instead of shocking me, caused me to feel a strange exhilaration. Most assuredly, after all these years, I bear the poor man no resentment. Of course I controlled my manner, and simply remarked to the Countess that as his fault had been so was his punishment. I think, however, that the feeling of which I speak was at the bottom of my saying to her that I hoped that, unlike her mother’s, her own brief married life had been happy.
“If it was not,” she said, “I have forgotten it now.”—I wonder if the late Count Scarabelli was also killed in a duel, and if his adversary . . . Is it on the books that his adversary, as well, shall perish by the pistol? Which of those gentlemen is he, I wonder? Is it reserved for poor little Stanmer to put a bullet into him? No; poor little Stanmer, I trust, will do as I did. And yet, unfortunately for him, that woman is consummately plausible. She was wonderfully nice last evening; she was really irresistible. Such frankness and freedom, and yet something so soft and womanly; such graceful gaiety, so much of the brightness, without any of the stiffness, of good breeding, and over it all something so picturesquely simple and southern. She is a perfect Italian. But she comes honestly by it. After the talk I have just jotted down she changed her place, and the conversation for half an hour was general. Stanmer indeed said very little; partly, I suppose, because he is shy of talking a foreign tongue. Was I like that—was I so constantly silent? I suspect I was when I was perplexed, and Heaven knows that very often my perplexity was extreme. Before I went away I had a few more words tête-à-tête with the Countess.
“I hope you are not leaving Florence yet,” she said; “you will stay a while longer?”
I answered that I came only for a week, and that my week was over.
“I stay on from day to day, I am so much interested.”
“Eh, it’s the beautiful moment. I’m glad our city pleases you!”
“Florence pleases me—and I take a paternal interest to our young friend,” I added, glancing at Stanmer. “I have become very fond of him.”
“Bel tipo inglese,” said my hostess. “And he is very intelligent; he has a beautiful mind.”
She stood there resting her smile and her clear, expressive eyes upon me.
“I don’t like to praise him too much,” I rejoined, “lest I should appear to praise myself; he reminds me so much of what I was at his age. If your beautiful mother were to come to life for an hour she would see the resemblance.”
She gave me a little amused stare.
“And yet you don’t look at all like him!”
“Ah, you didn’t know me when I was twenty-five. I was very handsome! And, moreover, it isn’t that, it’s the mental resemblance. I was ingenuous, candid, trusting, like him.”
“Trusting? I remember my mother once telling me that you were the most suspicious and jealous of men!”
“I fell into a suspicious mood, but I was, fundamentally, not in the least addicted to thinking evil. I couldn’t easily imagine any harm of any one.”
“And so you mean that Mr. Stanmer is in a suspicions mood?”
“Well, I mean that his situation is the same as mine.”
The Countess gave me one of her serious looks. “Come,” she said, “what was it—this famous situation of yours? I have heard you mention it before.”
“Your mother might have told you, since she occasionally did me the honour to speak of me.”
“All my mother ever told me was that you were—a sad puzzle to her.”
At this, of course, I laughed out—I laugh still as I write it.
“Well, then, that was my situation—I was a sad puzzle to a very clever woman.”
“And you mean, therefore, that I am a puzzle to poor Mr. Stanmer?”
“He is racking his brains to make you out. Remember it was you who said he was intelligent.”
She looked round at him, and as fortune would have it, his appearance at that moment quite confirmed my assertion. He was lounging back in his chair with an air of indolence rather too marked for a drawing-room, and staring at the ceiling with the expression of a man who has just been asked a conundrum. Madame Scarabelli seemed struck with his attitude.
“Don’t you see,” I said, “he can’t read the riddle?”
“You yourself,” she answered, “said he was incapable of thinking evil. I should be sorry to have him think any evil of me.”
And she looked straight at me—seriously, appealingly—with her beautiful candid brow.
I inclined myself, smiling, in a manner which might have meant—“How could that be possible?”
“I have a great esteem for him,” she went on; “I want him to think well of me. If I am a puzzle to him, do me a little service. Explain me to him.”
“Explain you, dear lady?”
“You are older and wiser than he. Make him understand me.”
She looked deep into my eyes for a moment, and then she turned away.
26th.—I have written nothing for a good many days, but meanwhile I have been half a dozen times to Casa Salvi. I have seen a good deal also of my young friend—had a good many walks and talks with him. I have proposed to him to come with me to Venice for a fortnight, but he won’t listen to the idea of leaving Florence. He is very happy in spite of his doubts, and I confess that in the perception of his happiness I have lived over again my own. This is so much the case that when, the other day, he at last made up his mind to ask me to tell him the wrong that Madame de Salvi had done me, I rather checked his curiosity. I told him that if he was bent upon knowing I would satisfy him, but that it seemed a pity, just now, to indulge in painful imagery.
“But I thought you wanted so much to put me out of conceit of our friend.”
“I admit I am inconsistent, but there are various reasons for it. In the first place—it’s obvious—I am open to the charge of playing a double game. I profess an admiration for the Countess Scarabelli, for I accept her hospitality, and at the same time I attempt to poison your mind; isn’t that the proper expression? I can’t exactly make up my mind to that, though my admiration for the Countess and my desire to prevent you from taking a foolish step are equally sincere. And then, in the second place, you seem to me, on the whole, so happy! One hesitates to destroy an illusion, no matter how pernicious, that is so delightful while it lasts. These are the rare moments of life. To be young and ardent, in the midst of an Italian spring, and to believe in the moral perfection of a beautiful woman—what an admirable situation! Float with the current; I’ll stand on the brink and watch you.”
“Your real reason is that you feel you have no case against the poor lady,” said Stanmer. “You admire her as much as I do.”
“I just admitted that I admired her. I never said she was a vulgar flirt; her mother was an absolutely scientific one. Heaven knows I admired that! It’s a nice point, however, how much one is hound in honour not to warn a young friend against a dangerous woman because one also has relations of civility with the lady.”
“In such a case,” said Stanmer, “I would break off my relations.”
I looked at him, and I think I laughed.
“Are you jealous of me, by chance?”
He shook his head emphatically.
“Not in the least; I like to see you there, because your conduct contradicts your words.”
“I have always said that the Countess is fascinating.”
“Otherwise,” said Stanmer, “in the case you speak of I would give the lady notice.”
“Give her notice?”
“Mention to her that you regard her with suspicion, and that you propose to do your best to rescue a simple-minded youth from her wiles. That would be more loyal.” And he began to laugh again.
It is not the first time he has laughed at me; but I have never minded it, because I have always understood it.
“Is that what you recommend me to say to the Countess?” I asked.
“Recommend you!” he exclaimed, laughing again; “I recommend nothing. I may be the victim to be rescued, but I am at least not a partner to the conspiracy. Besides,” he added in a moment, “the Countess knows your state of mind.”
“Has she told you so?”
“She has begged me to listen to everything you may say against her. She declares that she has a good conscience.”
“Ah,” said I, “she’s an accomplished woman!”
And it is indeed very clever of her to take that tone. Stanmer afterwards assured me explicitly that he has never given her a hint of the liberties I have taken in conversation with—what shall I call it?—with her moral nature; she has guessed them for herself. She must hate me intensely, and yet her manner has always been so charming to me! She is truly an accomplished woman!
May 4th.—I have stayed away from Casa Salvi for a week, but I have lingered on in Florence, under a mixture of impulses. I have had it on my conscience not to go near the Countess again—and yet from the moment she is aware of the way I feel about her, it is open war. There need be no scruples on either side. She is as free to use every possible art to entangle poor Stanmer more closely as I am to clip her fine-spun meshes. Under the circumstances, however, we naturally shouldn’t meet very cordially. But as regards her meshes, why, after all, should I clip them? It would really be very interesting to see Stanmer swallowed up. I should like to see how he would agree with her after she had devoured him—(to what vulgar imagery, by the way, does curiosity reduce a man!) Let him finish the story in his own way, as I finished it in mine. It is the same story; but why, a quarter of a century later, should it have the same dénoúment? Let him make his own dénoûment.
5th.—Hang it, however, I don’t want the poor boy to be miserable.
6th.—Ah, but did my dénoûment then prove such a happy one?
7th.—He came to my room late last night; he was much excited.
“What was it she did to you?” he asked.
I answered him first with another question. “Have you quarrelled with the Countess?”
But he only repeated his own. “What was it she did to you?”
“Sit down and I’ll tell you.” And he sat there beside the candle, staring at me. “There was a man always there—Count Camerino.”
“The man she married?”
“The man she married. I was very much in love with her, and yet I didn’t trust her. I was sure that she lied; I believed that she could be cruel. Nevertheless, at moments, she had a charm which made it pure pedantry to be conscious of her faults; and while these moments lasted I would have done anything for her. Unfortunately they didn’t last long. But you know what I mean; am I not describing the Scarabelli?”
“The Countess Scarabelli never lied!” cried Stanmer.
“That’s just what I would have said to any one who should have made the insinutation! But I suppose you are not asking me the question you put to me just now from dispassionate curiosity.”
“A man may want to know!” said the innocent fellow.
I couldn’t help laughing out. “This, at any rate, is my story. Camerino was always there; he was a sort of fixture in the house. If I had moments of dislike for the divine Bianca, I had no moments of liking for him. And yet he was a very agreeable fellow, very civil, very intelligent, not in the least disposed to make a quarrel with me. The trouble, of course, was simply that I was jealous of him. I don’t know, however, on what ground I could have quarrelled with him, for I had no definite rights. I can’t say what I expected—I can’t say what, as the matter stood, I was prepared to do. With my name and my prospects, I might perfectly have offered her my hand. I am not sure that she would have accepted it—I am by no means clear that she wanted that. But she wanted, wanted keenly, to attach me to her; she wanted to have me about. I should have been capable of giving up everything—England, my career, my family—simply to devote myself to her, to live near her and see her every day.”
“Why didn’t you do it, then?” asked Stanmer.
“Why don’t you?”
“To be a proper rejoinder to my question,” he said, rather neatly, “yours should be asked twenty-five years hence.”
“It remains perfectly true that at a given moment I was capable of doing as I say. That was what she wanted—a rich, susceptible, credulous, convenient young Englishman established near her en permanence. And yet,” I added, “I must do her complete justice. I honestly believe she was fond of me.” At this Stanmer got up and walked to the window; he stood looking out a moment, and then he turned round. “You know she was older than I,” I went on. “Madame Scarabelli is older than you. One day in the garden, her mother asked me in an angry tone why I disliked Camerino; for I had been at no pains to conceal my feeling about him, and something had just happened to bring it out. ‘I dislike him,’ I said, ‘because you like him so much.’ ‘I assure you I don’t like him,’ she answered. ‘He has all the appearance of being your lover,’ I retorted. It was a brutal speech, certainly, but any other man in my place would have made it. She took it very strangely; she turned pale, but she was not indignant. ‘How can he be my lover after what he has done?’ she asked. ‘What has he done?’ She hesitated a good while, then she said: ‘He killed my husband.’ ‘Good heavens!’ I cried, ‘and you receive him!’ Do you know what she said? She said, ‘Che voule?’”
“Is that all?” asked Stanmer.
“No; she went on to say that Camerino had killed Count Salvi in a duel, and she admitted that her husband’s jealousy had been the occasion of it. The Count, it appeared, was a monster of jealousy—he had led her a dreadful life. He himself, meanwhile, had been anything but irreproachable; he had done a mortal injury to a man of whom he pretended to be a friend, and this affair had become notorious. The gentleman in question had demanded satisfaction for his outraged honour; but for some reason or other (the Countess, to do her justice, did not tell me that her husband was a coward), he had not as yet obtained it. The duel with Camerino had come on first; in an access of jealous fury the Count had struck Camerino in the face; and this outrage, I know not how justly, was deemed expiable before the other. By an extraordinary arrangement (the Italians have certainly no sense of fair play) the other man was allowed to be Camerino’s second. The duel was fought with swords, and the Count received a wound of which, though at first it was not expected to be fatal, he died on the following day. The matter was hushed up as much as possible for the sake of the Countess’s good name, and so successfully that it was presently observed that, among the public, the other gentleman had the credit of having put his blade through M. de Salvi. This gentleman took a fancy not to contradict the impression, and it was allowed to subsist. So long as he consented, it was of course in Camerino’s interest not to contradict it, as it left him much more free to keep up his intimacy with the Countess.”
Stanmer had listened to all this with extreme attention. “Why didn’t she contradict it?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “I am bound to believe it was for the same reason. I was horrified, at any rate, by the whole story. I was extremely shocked at the Countess’s want of dignity in continuing to see the man by whose hand her husband had fallen.”
“The husband had been a great brute, and it was not known,” said Stanmer.
“Its not being known made no difference. And as for Salvi having been a brute, that is but a way of saying that his wife, and the man whom his wife subsequently married, didn’t like him.”
Stanmer hooked extremely meditative; his eyes were fixed on mine. “Yes, that marriage is hard to get over. It was not becoming.”
“Ah,” said I, “what a long breath I drew when I heard of it! I remember the place and the hour. It was at a hill-station in India, seven years after I had left Florence. The post brought me some English papers, and in one of them was a letter from Italy, with a lot of so-called ‘fashionable intelligence.’ There, among various scandals in high life, and other delectable items, I read that the Countess Bianca Salvi, famous for some years as the presiding genius of the most agreeable seen in Florence, was about to bestow her hand upon Count Camerino, a distinguished Bolognese. Ah, my dear boy, it was a tremendous escape! I had been ready to marry the woman who was capable of that! But my instinct had warned me, and I had trusted my instinct.”
“‘Instinct’s everything,’ as Falstaff says!” And Stanmer began to laugh. “Did you tell Madame de Salvi that your instinct was against her?”
“No; I told her that she frightened me, shocked me, horrified me.”
“That’s about the same thing. And what did she say?”
“She asked me what I would have? I called her friendship with Camerino a scandal, and she answered that her husband had been a brute. Besides, no one knew it; therefore it was no scandal. Just your argument! I retorted that this was odious reasoning, and that she had no moral sense. We had a passionate argument, and I declared I would never see her again. In the heat of my displeasure I left Florence, and I kept my vow. I never saw her again.”
“You couldn’t have been much in love with her,” said Stanmer.
“I was not—three months after.”
“If you had been you would have come back—three days after.”
“So doubtless it seems to you. All I can say is that it was the great effort of my life. Being a military man, I have had on various occasions to face time enemy. But it was not then I needed my resolution; it was when I left Florence in a post-chaise.”
Stanmer turned about the room two or three times, and then he said: “I don’t understand! I don’t understand why she should have told you that Camerino had killed her husband. It could only damage her.”
“She was afraid it would damage her more that I should think he was her lover. She wished to say the thing that would most effectually persuade me that he was not her lover—that he could never be. And then she wished to get the credit of being very frank.”
“Good heavens, how you must have analysed her!” cried my companion, staring.
“There is nothing so analytic as disillusionment. But there it is. She married Camerino.”
“Yes, I don’t lime that,” said Stanmer. He was silent a while, and then he added—“Perhaps she wouldn’t have done so if you had remained.”
He has a little innocent way! “Very likely she would have dispensed with the ceremony,” I answered, drily.
“Upon my word,” he said, “you have analysed her!”
“You ought to be grateful to me. I have done for you what you seem unable to do for yourself.”
“I don’t see any Camerino in my case,” he said.
“Perhaps among those gentlemen I can find one for you.”
“Thank you,” he cried; “I’ll take care of that myself!” And he went away—satisfied, I hope.
10th.—He’s an obstinate little wretch; it irritates me to see him sticking to it. Perhaps he is looking for his Camerino. I shall leave him, at any rate, to his fate; it is growing insupportably hot.
11th.—I went this evening to bid farewell to the Scarabelli. There was no one there; she was alone in her great dusky drawing-room, which was lighted only by a couple of candles, with the immense windows open over the garden. She was dressed in white; she was deucedly pretty. She asked me, of course, why I had been so long without coming.
“I think you say that only for form,” I answered. “I imagine you know.”
“Chè! what have I done?”
“Nothing at all. You are too wise for that.”
She looked at me a while. “I think you are a little crazy.”
“Ah no, I am only too sane. I have too much reason rather than too little.”
“You have, at any rate, what we call a fixed idea.”
“There is no harm in that so long as it’s a good one.”
“But yours is abominable!” she exclaimed, with a laugh.
“Of course you can’t like me or my ideas. All things considered, you have treated me with wonderful kindness, and I thank you and kiss your hands. I leave Florence tomorrow.”
“I won’t say I’m sorry!” she said, laughing again. “But I am very glad to have seen you. I always wondered about you. You are a curiosity.”
“Yes, you must find me so. A man who can resist your charms! The fact is, I can’t. This evening you are enchanting; and it is the first time I have been alone with you.”
She gave no heed to this; she turned away. But in a moment she came back, and stood looking at me, and her beautiful solemn eyes seemed to shine in the dimness of the room.
“How could you treat my mother so?” she asked.
“Treat her so?”
“How could you desert the most charming woman in the world?”
“It was not a case of desertion; and if it had been it seems to me she was consoled.”
At this moment there was the sound of a step in the ante-chamber, and I saw that the Countess perceived it to be Stanmer’s.
“That wouldn’t have happened,” she murmured. “My poor mother needed a protector.”
Stanmer came in, interrupting our talk, and looking at me, I thought, with a little air of bravado. He must think me indeed a tiresome, meddlesome bore; and upon my word, turning it all over, I wonder at his docility. After all, he’s five-and-twenty—and yet I must add, it does irritate me—the way he sticks! He was followed in a moment by two or three of the regular Italians, and I made my visit short.
“Good-bye, Countess,” I said; and she gave me her hand in silence. “Do you need a protector?” I added, softly.
She looked at me from head to foot, and then, almost angrily—“Yes, Signore.”
But, to deprecate her anger, I kept her hand an instant, and then bent my venerable head and kissed it. I think I appeased her.
BOLOGNA, 14th.—I left Florence on the 11th, and have been here these three days. Delightful old Italian town—but it lacks the charm of my Florentine secret.
I wrote that last entry five days ago, late at night, after coming back from Casa Salsi. I afterwards fell asleep in my chair; the night was half over when I woke up. Instead of going to bed, I stood a long time at the window, looking out at the river. It was a warm, still night, and the first faint streaks of sunrise were in the sky. Presently I heard a slow footstep beneath my window, and looking down, made out by the aid of a street lamp that Stanmer was but just coming home. I called to him to come to my rooms, and, after an interval, he made his appearance.
“I want to bid you good-bye,” I said; “I shall depart in the morning. Don’t go to the trouble of saying you are sorry. Of course you are not; I must have bullied you immensely.”
He made no attempt to say he was sorry, but he said he was very glad to have made my acquaintance.
“Your conversation,” he said, with his little innocent air, “has been very suggestive.”
“Have you found Camerino?” I asked, smiling.
“I have given up the search.”
“Well,” I said, “some day when you find that you have made a great mistake, remember I told you so.”
He looked for a minute as if he were trying to anticipate that day by the exercise of his reason.
“Has it ever occurred to you that you may have made a great mistake?”
“Oh yes; everything occurs to one sooner or later.”
That’s what I said to him; but I didn’t say that the question, pointed by his candid young countenance, had, for the moment, a greater force than it had ever had before.
And then he asked me whether, as things had turned out, I myself had been so especially happy.
PARIS, December 17th.—A note from young Stanmer, whom I saw in Florence—a remarkable little note, dated Rome, and worth transcribing.
“My dear General—I have it at heart to tell you that I was married a week ago to the Countess Salvi-Scarabelli. You talked me into a great muddle; but a month after that it was all very clear. Things that involve a risk are like the Christian faith; they must be seen from the inside.—Yours ever, E. S.
“P. S.—A fig for analogies unless you can find an analogy for my happiness!”
His happiness makes him very clever. I hope it will last—I mean his cleverness, not his happiness.
LONDON, April 19th, 1877.—Last night, at Lady H---’s, I met Edmund Stanmer, who married Bianca Salvi’s daughter. I heard the other day that they had come to England. A handsome young fellow, with a fresh contented face. He reminded me of Florence, which I didn’t pretend to forget; but it was rather awkward, for I remember I used to disparage that woman to him. I had a complete theory about her. But he didn’t seem at all stiff; on the contrary, he appeared to enjoy our encounter. I asked him if his wife were there. I had to do that.
“Oh yes, she’s in one of the other rooms. Come and make her acquaintance; I want you to know her.”
“You forget that I do know her.”
“Oh no, you don’t; you never did.” And he gave a little significant laugh.
I didn’t feel like facing the ci-devant Scarabelli at that moment; so I said that I was leaving the house, but that I would do myself the honour of calling upon his wife. We talked for a minute of something else, and then, suddenly breaking off and looking at me, he laid his hand on my arm. I must do him the justice to say that he looks felicitous.
“Depend upon it you were wrong!” he said.
“My dear young friend,” I answered, “imagine the alacrity with which I concede it.”
Something else again was spoken of, but in an instant he repeated his movement.
“Depend upon it you were wrong.”
“I am sure the Countess has forgiven me,” I said, “and in that case you ought to bear no grudge. As I have had the honour to say, I will call upon her immediately.”
“I was not alluding to my wife,” he answered. “I was thinking of your own story.”
“My own story?”
“So many years ago. Was it not rather a mistake?”
I looked at him a moment; he’s positively rosy.
“That’s not a question to solve in a London crush.”
And I turned away.
22d.—I haven’t yet called on the ci-devant; I am afraid of finding her at home. And that boy’s words have been thrumming in my ears—“Depend upon it you were wrong. Wasn’t it rather a mistake?” Was I wrong—was it a mistake? Was I too cautions—too suspicious—too logical? Was it really a protector she needed—a man who might have helped her? Would it have been for his benefit to believe in her, and was her fault only that I had forsaken her? Was the poor woman very unhappy? God forgive me, how the questions come crowding in! If I marred her happiness, I certainly didn’t make my own. And I might have made it—eh? That’s a charming discovery for a man of my age!