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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesA Fearful Responsibility - Chapter 4
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A Fearful Responsibility - Chapter 4 Post by :LloydM Category :Long Stories Author :William Dean Howells Date :May 2012 Read :3081

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A Fearful Responsibility - Chapter 4

CHAPTER IV

They briefly dispatched the facts relating to Miss Mayhew's voyage, and her journey to Genoa, and came as quickly as they could to all those things which Mrs. Elmore was thirsting to learn about the town and its people. "Is it much changed? I suppose it is," she sighed. "The war changes everything."

"Oh, you don't notice the war much," said Miss Mayhew. "But Patmos _is gay,--perfectly delightful. We've got one of the camps there now; and _such times as the girls have with the officers! We have lots of fun getting up things for the Sanitary. Hops on the parade-ground at the camp, and going out to see the prisoners,--you never saw such a place."

"The prisoners?" murmured Mrs. Elmore.

"Why, _yes_!" cried Lily, with a gay laugh. "Didn't you know that we had a prison-camp too? Some of the Southerners look real nice. I pitied them," she added, with unabated gayety.

"Your sister wrote to me," said Mrs. Elmore; "but I couldn't realize it, I suppose, and so I forgot it."

"Yes," pursued Lily, "and Frank Halsey's in command. You would never know by the way he walks that he had a cork leg. Of course he can't dance, though, poor fellow. He's pale, and he's perfectly fascinating. So's Dick Burton, with his empty sleeve; he's one of the recruiting officers, and there's nobody so popular with the girls. You can't think how funny it is, Professor Elmore, to see the old college buildings used for barracks. Dick says it's much livelier than it was when he was a student there."

"I suppose it must be," dreamily assented the professor. "Does he find plenty of volunteers?"

"Well, you know," the young girl explained, "that the old style of volunteering is all over."

"No, I didn't know it."

"Yes. It's the bounties now that they rely upon, and they do say that it will come to the draft very soon, now. Some of the young men have gone to Canada. But everybody despises _them_. Oh, Mrs. Elmore, I should think you'd be _so glad to have the professor off here, and honorably out of the way!"

"I'm _dis_honorably out of the way; I can never forgive myself for not going to the war," said Elmore.

"Why, how ridiculous!" cried Lily. "Nobody feels that way about it _now_! As Dick Burton says, we've come down to business. I tell you, when you see arms and legs off in every direction, and women going about in black, you don't feel that it's such a romantic thing any more. There are mighty few engagements now, Mrs. Elmore, when a regiment sets off; no presentation of revolvers in the town hall; and some of the widows have got married again; and that I don't think _is right. But what can they do, poor things? You remember Tom Friar's widow, Mrs. Elmore?"

"Tom Friar's _widow_! Is Tom Friar _dead_?"

"Why, of course! One of the first. I think it was Ball's Bluff. Well, _she's married. But she married his cousin, and as Dick Burton says, that isn't so bad. Isn't it awful, Mrs. Clapp's losing _all her boys,--all five of them? It does seem to bear too hard on _some families. And then, when you see every one of those six Armstrongs going through without a scratch!"

"I suppose," said Elmore, "that business is at a standstill. The streets must look rather dreary."

"_Business at a standstill!" exclaimed Lily. "What _has Sue been writing you all this time? Why, there never was such prosperity in Patmos before! Everybody is making money, and people that you wouldn't hardly speak to a year ago are giving parties and inviting the old college families. You ought to see the residences and business blocks going up all over the place. I don't suppose you would know Patmos now. You remember George Fenton, Mrs. Elmore?"

"Mr. Haskell's clerk?"

"Yes. Well, he's made a fortune out of an army contract; and he's going to marry--the engagement came out just before I left--Bella Stearns."

At these words Mrs. Elmore sat upright,--the only posture in which the fact could be imagined. "Lily!"

"Oh, I can tell you these are gay times in America," triumphed the young girl. She now put her hand to her mouth and hid a yawn.

"You're sleepy," said Mrs. Elmore. "Well, you know the way to your room. You'll find everything ready there, and I shall let you go alone. You shall commence being at home at once."

"Yes, I _am sleepy," assented Lily; and she promptly said her good-nights and vanished; though a keener eye than Elmore's might have seen that her promptness had a color--or say light--of hesitation in it.

But he only walked up and down the room, after she was gone, in unheedful distress. "Gay times in America! Good heavens! Is the child utterly heartless, Celia, or is she merely obtuse?"

"She certainly isn't at all like Sue," sighed Mrs. Elmore, who had not had time to formulate Lily's defence. "But she's excited now, and a little off her balance. She'll be different to-morrow. Besides, all America seems changed, and the people with it. We shouldn't have noticed it if we had stayed there, but we feel it after this absence."

"I never realized it before, as I did from her babble! The letters have told us the same thing, but they were like the histories of other times. Camps, prisoners, barracks, mutilation, widowhood, death, sudden gains, social upheavals,--it is the old, hideous story of war come true of our day and country. It's terrible!"

"She will miss the excitement," said Mrs. Elmore. "I don't know exactly what we shall do with her. Of course, she can't expect the attentions she's been used to in Patmos, with those young men."

Elmore stopped, and stared at his wife. "What do you mean, Celia?"

"We don't go into society at all, and she doesn't speak Italian. How shall we amuse her?"

"Well, upon my word, I don't know that we're obliged to provide her amusement! Let her amuse herself. Let her take up some branch of study, or of--of--research, and get something besides 'fun' into her head, if possible." He spoke boldly, but his wife's question had unnerved him, for he had a soft heart, and liked people about him to be happy. "We can show her the objects of interest. And there are the theatres," he added.

"Yes, that is true," said Mrs. Elmore. "We can both go about with her. I will just peep in at her now, and see if she has everything she wants." She rose from her sofa and went to Lily's room, whence she did not return for nearly three quarters of an hour. By this time Elmore had got out his notes, and, in their transcription and classification, had fallen into forgetfulness of his troubles. His wife closed the door behind her, and said in a low voice, little above a whisper, as she sank very quietly into a chair, "Well, it has all come out, Owen."

"What has all come out?" he asked, looking up stupidly.

"I knew that she had something on her mind, by the way she acted. And you saw her give me that look as she went out?"

"No--no, I didn't. What look was it? She looked sleepy."

"She looked terribly, terribly excited, and as if she would like to say something to me. That was the reason I said I would let her go to her room alone."

"Oh!"

"Of course she would have felt awfully if I had gone straight off with her. So I waited. It _may never come to anything in the world, and I don't suppose it will; but it's quite enough to account for everything you saw in her."

"I didn't see anything in her,--that was the difficulty. But what is it--what is it, Celia? You know how I hate these delays."

"Why, I'm not sure that I need tell you, Owen; and yet I suppose I had better. It will be safer," said Mrs. Elmore, nursing her mystery to the last, enjoying it for its own sake, and dreading it for its effect upon her husband. "I suppose you will think your troubles are beginning pretty early," she suggested.

"Is it a trouble?"

"Well, I don't know that it is. If it comes to the very worst, I dare say that every one wouldn't call it a trouble."

Elmore threw himself back in his chair in an attitude of endurance. "What would the worst be?"

"Why, it's no use even to discuss that, for it's perfectly absurd to suppose that it could ever come to that. But the case," added Mrs. Elmore, perceiving that further delay was only further suffering for her husband, and that any fact would now probably fall far short of his apprehensions, "is simply this, and I don't know that it amounts to anything; but at Peschiera, just before the train started, she looked out of the window, and saw a splendid officer walking up and down and smoking; and before she could draw back he must have seen her, for he threw away his cigar instantly, and got into the same compartment. He talked awhile in German with an old gentleman who was there, and then he spoke in Italian with Cazzi; and afterwards, when he heard her speaking English with Cazzi, he joined in. I don't know how he came to join in at first, and she doesn't, either; but it seems that he knew some English, and he began speaking. He was very tall and handsome and distinguished-looking, and a _perfect gentleman in his manners; and she says that she saw Cazzi looking rather queer, but he didn't say anything, and so she kept on talking. She told him at once that she was an American, and that she was coming here to stay with friends; and, as he was very curious about America, she told him all she could think of. It did her good to talk about home, for she had been feeling a little blue at being so far away from everybody. Now, _I don't see any harm in it; do you, Owen?"

"It isn't according to the custom here; but we needn't care for that. Of course it was imprudent."

"Of course," Mrs. Elmore admitted. "The officer was very polite; and when he found that she was from America, it turned out that he was a _great sympathizer with the North, and that he had a brother in our army. Don't you think that was nice?"

"Probably some mere soldier of fortune, with no heart in the cause," said Elmore.

"And very likely he has no brother there, as I told Lily. He told her he was coming to Padua; but when they reached Padua, he came right on to Venice. That _shows you couldn't place any dependence upon what he said. He said he expected to be put under arrest for it; but he didn't care,--he was coming. Do you believe they'll put him under arrest?"

"I don't know--I don't know," said Elmore, in a voice of grief and apprehension, which might well have seemed anxiety for the officer's liberty.

"I told her it was one of his jokes. He was very funny, and kept her laughing the whole way, with his broken English and his witty little remarks. She says he's just dying to go to America. Who do you suppose it can be, Owen?"

"How should I know? We've no acquaintance among the Austrians," groaned Elmore.

"That's what I told Lily. She's no idea of the state of things here, and she was quite horrified. But she says he was a perfect gentleman in everything. He belongs to the engineer corps,--that's one of the highest branches of the service, he told her,--and he gave her his card."

"Gave her his card!"

Mrs. Elmore had it in the hand which she had been keeping in her pocket, and she now suddenly produced it; and Elmore read the name and address of Ernst von Ehrhardt, Captain of the Royal-Imperial Engineers, Peschiera. "She says she knows he wanted hers, but she didn't offer to give it to him; and he didn't ask her where she was going, or anything."

"He knew that he could get her address from Cazzi for ten soldi as soon as her back was turned," said Elmore cynically. "What then?"

"Why, he said--and this is the only really bold thing he _did do--that he must see her again, and that he should stay over a day in Venice in hopes of meeting her at the theatre or somewhere."

"It's a piece of high-handed impudence!" cried Elmore. "Now, Celia, you see what these people are! Do you wonder that the Italians hate them?"

"You've often said they only hate their system."

"The Austrians are part of their system. He thinks he can take any liberty with us because he is an Austrian officer! Lily must not stir out of the house to-morrow."

"She will be too tired to do so," said Mrs. Elmore.

"And if he molests us further, I will appeal to the consul." Elmore began to walk up and down the room again.

"Well, I don't know whether you could call it _molesting_, exactly," suggested Mrs. Elmore.

"What do you mean, Celia? Do you suppose that she--she--encouraged this officer?"

"Owen! It was all in the simplicity and innocence of her heart!"

"Well, then, that she wishes to see him again?"

"Certainly not! But that's no reason why we should be rude about it."

"Rude about it? How? Is simply avoiding him rudeness? Is proposing to protect ourselves from his impertinence rudeness?"

"No. And if you can't see the matter for yourself, Owen, I don't know how any one is to make you."

"Why, Celia, one would think that you approved of this man's behavior,--that _you wished her to meet him again! You understand what the consequences would be if we received this officer. You know how all the Venetians would drop us, and we should have no acquaintances here outside of the army."

"Who has asked you to receive him, Owen? And as for the Italians dropping us, that doesn't frighten me. But what could he do if he did meet her again? She needn't look at him. She says he is very intelligent, and that he has read a great many English books, though he doesn't speak it very well, and that he knows more about the war than she does. But of course she won't go out to-morrow. All that I hate is that we should seem to be frightened into staying at home."

"She needn't stay in on his account. You said she would be too tired to go out."

"I see by the scattering way you talk, Owen, that your mind isn't on the subject, and that you're anxious to get back to your work. I won't keep you."

"Celia, Celia! Be fair, now!" cried Elmore. "You know very well that I'm only too deeply interested in this matter, and that I'm not likely to get back to my work to-night, at least. What is it you wish me to do?"

Mrs. Elmore considered a while. "I don't wish you to do anything," she returned placably. "Of course, you're perfectly right in not choosing to let an acquaintance begun in that way go any further. We shouldn't at home, and we sha'n't here. But I don't wish you to think that Lily has been imprudent, under the circumstances. She doesn't know that it was anything out of the way, but she happened to do the best that any one could. Of course, it was very exciting and very romantic; girls like such things, and there's no reason they shouldn't. We must manage," added Mrs. Elmore, "so that she shall see that we appreciate her conduct, and trust in her entirely. I wouldn't do anything to wound her pride or self-confidence. I would rather send her out alone to-morrow."

"Of course," said Elmore.

"And if I were with her when she met him, I believe I should leave it entirely to her how to behave."

"Well," said Elmore, "you're not likely to be put to the test. He'll hardly force his way into the house, and she isn't going out."

"No," said Mrs. Elmore. She added, after a silence, "I'm trying to think whether I've ever seen him in Venice; he's here often. But there are so many tall officers with fair complexions and English beards. I _should like to know how he looks! She said he was very aristocratic-looking."

"Yes, it's a fine type," said Elmore. "They're all nobles, I believe."

"But after all, they're no better looking than our boys, who come up out of nothing."

"Ours are Americans," said Elmore.

"And they are the best husbands, as I told Lily."

Elmore looked at his wife, as she turned dreamily to leave the room; but since the conversation had taken this impersonal turn he would not say anything to change its complexion. A conjecture vaguely taking shape in his mind resolved itself to nothing again, and left him with only the ache of something unascertained.

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