Indian Summer (by William D. Howells) – Chapter XVII.

William D. Howells
(1837-1920)

 

In the ensuing fortnight a great many gaieties besides the Egyptian ball took place, and Colville went wherever he and Imogene were both invited. He declined the quiet dinners which he liked, and which his hearty appetite and his habit of talk fitted him to enjoy, and accepted invitations to all sorts of evenings and At Homes, where dancing occupied a modest corner of the card, and usurped the chief place in the pleasures. At these places it was mainly his business to see Imogene danced with by others, but sometimes he waltzed with her himself, and then he was complimented by people of his own age, who had left off dancing, upon his vigour. They said they could not stand that sort of thing, though they supposed, if you kept yourself in practice, it did not come so hard. One of his hostesses, who had made a party for her daughters, told him that he was an example to everybody, and that if middle-aged people at home mingled more in the amusements of the young, American society would not be the silly, insipid, boy-and-girl affair that it was now. He went to these places in the character of a young man, but he was not readily accepted or recognised in that character. They gave him frumps to take out to supper, mothers and maiden aunts, and if the mothers were youngish, they threw off on him, and did not care for his talk.

At one of the parties Imogene seemed to become aware for the first time that the lapels of his dress-coat were not faced with silk.

“Why don’t you have them so?” she asked. “All the other young men have. And you ought to wear a boutonniere.”

“Oh, I think a man looks rather silly in silk lapels at my–” He arrested himself, and then continued: “I’ll see what the tailor can do for me. In the meantime, give me a bud out of your bouquet.”

“How sweet you are!” she sighed. “You do the least thing so that it is ten times as good as if any one else did it.”

The same evening, as he stood leaning against a doorway, behind Imogene and a young fellow with whom she was beginning a quadrille, he heard her taking him to task.

“Why do you say ‘Sir‘ to Mr. Colville?”

“Well, I know the English laugh at us for doing it, and say it’s like servants; but I never feel quite right answering just ‘Yes‘ and ‘No’ to a man of his age.”

This was one of the Inglehart boys, whom he met at nearly all of these parties, and not all of whom were so respectful. Some of them treated him upon an old-boy theory, joking him as freely as if he were one of themselves, laughing his antiquated notions of art to scorn, but condoning them because he was good-natured, and because a man could not help being of his own epoch anyway. They put a caricature of him among the rest on the walls of their trattoria, where he once dined with them.

Mrs. Bowen did not often see him when he went to call upon Imogene, and she was not at more than two or three of the parties. Mrs. Amsden came to chaperon the girl, and apparently suffered an increase of unrequited curiosity in regard to his relations to the Bowen household, and the extraordinary development of his social activity. Colville not only went to all those evening parties, but he was in continual movement during the afternoon at receptions and at “days,” of which he began to think each lady had two or three. Here he drank tea, cup after cup, in reckless excitement, and at night when he came home from the dancing parties, dropping with fatigue, he could not sleep till toward morning. He woke at the usual breakfast-hour, and then went about drowsing throughout the day till the tea began again in the afternoon. He fell asleep whenever he sat down, not only in the reading-room at Viesseux’s, where he disturbed the people over their newspapers by his demonstrations of somnolence, but even at church, whither he went one Sunday to please Imogene, and started awake during the service with the impression that the clergyman had been making a joke. Everybody but Imogene was smiling. At the cafe he slept without scruple, selecting a corner seat for the purpose, and proportioning his buonamano to the indulgence of the giovane. He could not tell how long he slept at these places, but sometimes it seemed to him hours.

One day he went to see Imogene, and while Effie Bowen stood prattling to him as he sat waiting for Imogene to come in, he faded light-headedly away from himself on the sofa, as if he had been in his corner at the cafe. Then he was aware of some one saying “Sh!” and he saw Effie Bowen, with her finger on her lip, turned toward Imogene, a figure of beautiful despair in the doorway. He was all tucked up with sofa pillows, and made very comfortable, by the child, no doubt. She slipped out, seeing him awake, so as to leave him and Imogene alone, as she had apparently been generally instructed to do, and Imogene came forward.

“What is the matter, Theodore?” she asked patiently. She had taken to calling him Theodore when they were alone. She owned that she did not like the name, but she said it was right she should call him by it, since it was his. She came and sat down beside him, where he had raised himself to a sitting posture, but she did not offer him any caress.

“Nothing,” he answered. “But this climate is making me insupportably drowsy; or else the spring weather.”

“Oh no; it isn’t that,” she said, with a slight sigh. He had left her in the middle of a german at three o’clock in the morning, but she now looked as fresh and lambent as a star. “It’s the late hours. They’re killing you.”

Colville tried to deny it; his incoherencies dissolved themselves in a yawn, which he did not succeed in passing for a careless laugh.

“It won’t do,” she said, as if speaking to herself; “no, it won’t do.”

“Oh yes, it will,” Colville protested. “I don’t mind being up. I’ve been used to it all my life on the paper. It’s just some temporary thing. It’ll come all right.”

“Well, no matter,” said Imogene. “It makes you ridiculous, going to all those silly places, and I’d rather give it up.”

The tears began to steal down her cheeks, and Colville sighed. It seemed to him that somebody or other was always crying. A man never quite gets used to the tearfulness of women.

“Oh, don’t mind it,” he said. “If you wish me to go, I will go! Or die in the attempt,” he added, with a smile.

Imogene did not smile with him. “I don’t wish you to go any more. It was a mistake in the first place, and from this out I will adapt myself to you.”

“And give up all your pleasures? Do you think I would let you do that? No, indeed! Neither in this nor in anything else. I will not cut off your young life in any way, Imogene–not shorten it or diminish it. If I thought I should do that, or you would try to do it for me, I should wish I had never seen you.”

“It isn’t that. I know how good you are, and that you would do anything for me.”

“Well, then, why don’t you go to these fandangoes alone? I can see that you have me on your mind all the time, when I’m with you.”

“Oughtn’t I?”

“Yes, up to a certain point, but not up to the point of spoiling your fun. I will drop in now and then, but I won’t try to come to all of them, after this; you’ll get along perfectly well with Mrs. Amsden, and I shall be safe from her for a while. That old lady has marked me for her prey: I can see it in her glittering eyeglass. I shall fall asleep some evening between dances, and then she will get it all out of me.”

Imogene still refused to smile. “No; I shall give it up. I don’t think it’s well, going so much without Mrs. Bowen. People will begin to talk.”

“Talk?”

“Yes; they will begin to say that I had better stay with her a little more, if she isn’t well.”

“Why, isn’t Mrs. Bowen well?” asked Colville, with trepidation.

“No; she’s miserable. Haven’t you noticed?”

“She sees me so seldom now. I thought it was only her headaches—-“

“It’s much more than that. She seems to be failing every way. The doctor has told her she ought to get away from Florence.” Colville could not speak; Imogene went on. “She’s always delicate, you know. And I feel that all that’s keeping her here now is the news from home that I–we’re waiting for.”

Colville got up. “This is ghastly! She mustn’t do it!”

“How can you help her doing it? If she thinks anything is right, she can’t help doing it. Who could?”

Colville thought to himself that he could have said; but he was silent. At the moment he was not equal to so much joke or so much truth; and Imogene went on–

“She’d be all the more strenuous about it if it were disagreeable, and rather than accept any relief from me she would die.”

“Is she–unkind to you?” faltered Colville.

“She is only too kind. You can feel that she’s determined to be so–that she’s said she will have nothing to reproach herself with, and she won’t. You don’t suppose Mrs. Bowen would be unkind to any one she disliked?”

“Ah, I didn’t know,” sighed Colville.

“The more she disliked them, the better she would use them. It’s because our engagement is so distasteful to her that she’s determined to feel that she did nothing to oppose it.”

“But how can you tell that it’s distasteful, then?”

“She lets you feel it by–not saying anything about it.”

“I can’t see how–“

“She never speaks of you. I don’t believe she ever mentions your name. She asks me about the places where I’ve been, and about the people–every one but you. It’s very uncomfortable.”

“Yes,” said Colville, “it’s uncomfortable.”

“And if I allude to letters from home, she merely presses her lips together. It’s perfectly wretched.”

“I see. It’s I whom she dislikes, and I would do anything to please her. She must know that,” mused Colville aloud. “Imogene!” he exclaimed, with a sudden inspiration. “Why shouldn’t I go away?”

“Go away?” she palpitated. “What should I do?”

The colours faded from his brilliant proposal. “Oh, I only meant till something was settled–determined–concluded; till this terrible suspense was over.” He added hopelessly, “But nothing can be done!”

“I proposed,” said Imogene, “that we should all go away. I suggested Via Reggio–the doctor said she ought to have sea air–or Venice; but she wouldn’t hear of it. No; we must wait.”

“Yes, we must wait,” repeated Colville hollowly. “Then nothing can be done?”

“Why, haven’t you said it?”

“Oh yes–yes. I can’t go away, and you can’t. But couldn’t we do something–get up something?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“I mean, couldn’t we–amuse her somehow? help her to take her mind off herself?”

Imogene stared at him rather a long time. Then, as if she had satisfied herself in her own mind, she shook her head. “She wouldn’t submit to it.”

“No; she seems to take everything amiss that I do,” said Colville.

“She has no right to do that,” cried Imogene. “I’m sure that you’re always considering her, and proposing to do things for her. I won’t let you humble yourself, as if you had wronged her.”

“Oh, I don’t call it humbling. I–I should only be too happy if I could do anything that was agreeable to her.”

“Very well, I will tell her,” said the girl haughtily. “Shall you object to my joining you in your amusements, whatever they are? I assure you I will be very unobtrusive.”

“I don’t understand all this,” replied Colville. “Who has proposed to exclude you? Why did you tell me anything about Mrs. Bowen if you didn’t want me to say or do something? I supposed you did; but I’ll withdraw the offensive proposition, whatever it was.”

“There was nothing offensive. But if you pity her so much, why can’t you pity me a little?”

“I didn’t know anything was the matter with you. I thought you were enjoying yourself—-“

“Enjoying? Keeping you up at dances till you drop asleep whenever you sit down? And then coming home and talking to a person who won’t mention your name! Do you call that enjoying? I can’t speak of you to any one; and no one speaks to me—-“

“If you like, I will talk to you on the subject,” Colville essayed, in dreary jest.

“Oh, don’t joke about it! This perpetual joking, I believe it’s that that’s wearing me out. When I come to you for a little comfort in circumstances that drive me almost distracted, you want to amuse Mrs. Bowen, and when I ask to be allowed to share in the amusement, you laugh at me! If you don’t understand it all, I’m sure I don’t.”

“Imogene!”

“No! It’s very strange. There’s only one explanation. You don’t care for me.”

“Not care for you!” cried Colville, thinking of his sufferings in the past fortnight.

“And I would have made any–any sacrifice for you. At least I wouldn’t have made you show yourself a mean and grudging person if you had come to me for a little sympathy.”

“O poor child!” he cried, and his heart ached with the sense that she really was nothing but an unhappy child. “I do sympathise with you, and I see how hard it is for you to manage with Mrs. Bowen’s dislike for me. But you mustn’t think of if. I dare say it will be different; I’ve no doubt we can get her to look at me in some brighter light. I–” He did not know what he should urge next; but he goaded his invention, and was able to declare that if they loved each other they needed not regard any one else. This flight, when accomplished, did not strike him as very original effect, and it was with a dull surprise that he saw it sufficed for her.

“No; no one!” she exclaimed, accepting the platitude as if it were now uttered for the first time. She dried her eyes and smiled. “I will tell Mrs. Bowen how you feel and what you’ve said, and I know she will appreciate your generosity.”

“Yes,” said Colville pensively; “there’s nothing I won’t propose doing for people.”

She suddenly clung to him, and would not let him go. “Oh, what is the matter?” she moaned afresh. “I show out the worst that is in me, and only the worst. Do you think I shall always be so narrow-minded with you? I thought I loved you enough to be magnanimous. You are. It seemed to me that our lives together would be grand and large; and here I am, grovelling in the lowest selfishness! I am worrying and scolding you because you wish to please some one that has been as good as my own mother to me. Do you call that noble?”

Colville did not venture any reply to a demand evidently addressed to her own conscience.

But when she asked if he really thought he had better go away, he said, “Oh no; that was a mistake.”

“Because, if you do, you shall–to punish me.”

“My dearest girl, why should I wish to punish you?”

“Because I’ve been low and mean. Now I want you to do something for Mrs. Bowen–something to amuse her; to show that we appreciate her. And I don’t want you to sympathise with me at all. When I ask for your sympathy, it’s a sign that I don’t deserve it.”

“Is that so?”

“Oh, be serious with me. I mean it. And I want to beg your pardon for something.”

“Yes; what’s that?”

“Can’t you guess?”

“No.”

“You needn’t have” your lapels silk-lined. You needn’t wear boutonnieres.”

“Oh, but I’ve had the coat changed.”

“No matter! Change it back! It isn’t for me to make you over. I must make myself over. It’s my right, it’s my sacred privilege to conform to you in every way, and I humble myself in the dust for having forgotten it at the very start. Oh, do you think I can ever be worthy of you? I will try; indeed I will! I shall not wear my light dresses another time! From this out, I shall dress more in keeping with you. I boasted that I should live to comfort and console you, to recompense you for the past, and what have I been doing? Wearying and degrading you!”

“Oh no,” pleaded Colville. “I am very comfortable. I don’t need any compensation for the past. I need–sleep. I’m going to bed tonight at eight o’clock, and I am going to sleep twenty-four hours. Then I shall be fresh for Mrs. Fleming’s ball.”

“I’m not going,” said Imogene briefly.

“Oh yes, you are. I’ll come round to-morrow evening and see.”

“No. There are to be no more parties.”

“Why?”

“I can’t endure them.”

She was looking at him and talking at him, but she seemed far aloof in the abstraction of a sublime regret; she seemed puzzled, bewildered at herself.

Colville got away. He felt the pathos of the confusion and question to which he left her, but he felt himself powerless against it. There was but one solution to it all, and that was impossible. He could only grieve over her trouble, and wait; grieve for the irrevocable loss which made her trouble remote and impersonal to him, and submit.

 

 

*** (want to read the previous chapters: look for the writer’s name in the Category, righ panel!)***

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