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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesA Fearful Responsibility - Chapter 5
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A Fearful Responsibility - Chapter 5 Post by :LloydM Category :Long Stories Author :William Dean Howells Date :May 2012 Read :1868

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A Fearful Responsibility - Chapter 5

CHAPTER V

In the morning Lily came to breakfast as blooming as a rose. The sense of her simple, fresh, wholesome loveliness might have pierced even the indifference of a man to whom there was but one pretty woman in the world, and who had lived since their marriage as if his wife had absorbed her whole sex into herself: this deep, unconscious constancy was a noble trait in him, but it is not so rare in men as women would have us believe. For Elmore, Miss Mayhew merely pervaded the place in her finer way, as the flowers on the table did, as the sweet butter, the new eggs, and the morning's French bread did; he looked at her with a perfectly serene ignorance of her piquant face, her beautiful eyes and abundant hair, and her trim, straight figure. But his wife exulted in every particular of her charm, and was as generously glad of it as if it were her own; as women are when they are sure that the charm of others has no designs. The ladies twittered and laughed together, and as he was a man without small talk, he soon dropped out of the conversation into a reverie, from which he found himself presently extracted by a question from his wife.

"We had better go in a gondola, hadn't we, Owen?" She seemed to be, as she put this, trying to look something into him. He, on his part, tried his best to make out her meaning, but failed.

He simply asked, "Where? Are you going out?"

"Yes. Lily has some shopping she _must do. I think we can get it at Pazienti's in San Polo."

Again she tried to pierce him with her meaning. It seemed to him a sudden advance from the position she had taken the night before in regard to Miss Mayhew's not going out; but he could not understand his wife's look, and he feared to misinterpret if he opposed her going. He decided that she wished him for some reason to oppose the gondola, so he said, "I think you'd better walk, if Lily isn't too tired."

"Oh, _I'm not tired at all!" she cried.

"I can go with you, in that direction, on my way to the library," he added.

"Well, that will be very nice," said Mrs. Elmore, discontinuing her look, and leaving her husband with an uneasy sense of wantonly assumed responsibility.

"She can step into the Frari a moment, and see those tombs," he said. "I think it will amuse her."

Lily broke into a laugh. "Is that the way you amuse yourselves in Venice?" she asked; and Mrs. Elmore hastened to reassure her.

"That's the way Mr. Elmore amuses himself. You know his history makes every bit of the past fascinating to him."

"Oh, yes, that history! Everybody is looking out for that," said Lily.

"Is it possible," said Elmore, with a pensive sarcasm in which an agreeable sense of flattery lurked, "that people still remember me and my history?"

"Yes, indeed!" cried Miss Mayhew. "Frank Halsey was talking about it the night before I left. He couldn't seem to understand why I should be coming to you at Venice, because he said it was a history of Florence you were writing. It isn't, is it? You must be getting pretty near the end of it, Professor Elmore."

"I'm getting pretty near the beginning," said Elmore sadly.

"It must be hard writing histories; they're so awfully hard to read," said Lily innocently. "Does it interest you?" she asked, with unaffected compassion.

"Yes," he said, "far more than it will ever interest anybody else."

"Oh, I don't believe that!" she cried sweetly, seizing the occasion to get in a little compliment.

Mrs. Elmore sat silent, while things were thus going against Miss Mayhew, and perhaps she was then meditating the stroke by which she restored the balance to her own favor as soon as she saw her husband alone after breakfast. "Well, Owen," she said, "you've done it now."

"Done what?" he demanded.

"Oh, nothing, perhaps!" she answered, while she got on her things for the walk with unusual gayety; and, with the consciousness of unknown guilt depressing him, he followed the ladies upon their errand, subdued, distraught, but gradually forgetting his sin, as he forgot everything but his history. His wife hated to see him so miserable, and whispered at the shop-door where they parted, "Don't be troubled, Owen! I didn't mean anything."

"By what?"

"Oh, if you've forgotten, never mind!" she cried; and she and Miss Mayhew disappeared within.

It was two hours later when he next saw them, after he had turned over the book he wished to see, and had found the passage which would enable him to go on with his work for the rest of the day at home. He was fitting his key into the house-door when he happened to look up the little street toward the bridge that led into it, and there, defined against the sky on the level of the bridge, he saw Mrs. Elmore and Miss Mayhew receiving the adieux of a distinguished-looking man in the Austrian uniform. The officer had brought his heels together in the conventional manner, and with his cap in his right hand, while his left rested on the hilt of his sword, and pressed it down, he was bowing from the hips. Once, twice, and he was gone.

The ladies came down the _calle with rapid steps and flushed faces, and Elmore let them in. His wife whispered as she brushed by his elbow, "I want to speak with you instantly, Owen. Well, now!" she added, when they were alone in their own room and she had shut the door, "what do you say _now_?"

"What do _I say now, Celia?" retorted Elmore, with just indignation. "It seems to me that it is for _you to say something--or nothing."

"Why, you brought it on us."

Elmore merely glanced at his wife, and did not speak, for this passed all force of language.

"Didn't you see me looking at you when I spoke of going out in a gondola, at breakfast?"

"Yes."

"What did you suppose I meant?"

"I didn't know."

"When I was trying to make you understand that if we took a gondola we could go and come without being seen! Lily _had to do her shopping. But if you chose to run off on some interpretation of your own, was _I to blame, I should like to know? No, indeed! You won't get me to admit it, Owen."

Elmore continued inarticulate, but he made a low, miserable sibillation between his set teeth.

"Such presumption, such perfect audacity I never saw in my life!" cried Mrs. Elmore, fleetly changing the subject in her own mind, and leaving her husband to follow her as he could. "It was outrageous!" Her words were strong, but she did not really look affronted; and it is hard to tell what sort of liberty it is that affronts a woman. It seems to depend a great deal upon the person who takes the liberty.

"That was the man, I suppose," said Elmore quietly.

"Yes, Owen," answered his wife, with beautiful candor, "it was." Seeing that he remained unaffected by her display of this virtue, she added, "Don't you think he was very handsome?"

"I couldn't judge, at such a distance."

"Well, he is perfectly splendid. And I don't want you to think he was disrespectful at all. He wasn't. He was everything that was delicate and deferential."

"Did you ask him to walk home with you?"

Mrs. Elmore remained speechless for some moments. Then she drew a long breath, and said firmly: "If you won't interrupt me with gratuitous insults, Owen, I will tell you all about it, and then perhaps you will be ready to do me _justice_. I ask nothing more." She waited for his contrition, but proceeded without it, in a somewhat meeker strain: "Lily couldn't get her things at Pazienti's, and we had to go to the Merceria for them. Then of course the nearest way home was through St. Mark's Square. I made Lily go on the Florian side, so as to avoid the officers who were sitting at the Quadri, and we had got through the square and past San Moise, as far as the Stadt Gratz. I had never thought of how the officers frequented the Stadt Gratz, but there we met a most magnificent creature, and I had just said, 'What a splendid officer!' when she gave a sort of stop and he gave a sort of stop, and bowed very low, and she whispered, 'It's my officer.' I didn't dream of his joining us, and I don't think he did, at first; but after he took a second look at Lily, it really seemed as if he couldn't help it. He asked if he might join us, and I didn't say anything."

"Didn't say anything!"

"_No! How could I refuse, in so many words? And I was frightened and confused, any way. He asked if we were going to the music in the Giardini Pubblici; and I said No, that Miss Mayhew was not going into society in Venice, but was merely here for her health. That's all there is of it. Now do you blame me, Owen?"

"No."

"Do you blame her?"

"No."

"Well, I don't see how _he was to blame."

"The transaction was a little irregular, but it was highly creditable to all parties concerned."

Mrs. Elmore grew still meeker under this irony. Indignation and censure she would have known how to meet; but his quiet perplexed her: she did not know what might not be coming. "Lily scarcely spoke to him," she pursued, "and I was very cold. I spoke to him in German."

"Is German a particularly repellent tongue?"

"No. But I was determined he should get no hold upon us. He was very polite and very respectful, as I said, but I didn't give him an atom of encouragement; I saw that he was dying to be asked to call, but I parted from him very stiffly."

"Is it possible?"

"Owen, what _is there so wrong about it all? He's clearly fascinated with her; and as the matter stood, he had no hope of seeing her or speaking with her except on the street. Perhaps he didn't know it was wrong,--or didn't realize it."

"I dare say."

"What else could the poor fellow have done? There he was! He had stayed over a day, and laid himself open to arrest, on the bare chance--one in a hundred--of seeing Lily; and when he did see her, what was he to do?"

"Obviously, to join her and walk home with her."

"You are too bad, Owen! Suppose it had been one of our own poor boys? He _looked like an American."

"He didn't behave like one. One of 'our own poor boys,' as you call them, would have been as far as possible from thrusting himself upon you. He would have had too much reverence for you, too much self-respect, too much pride."

"What has pride to do with such things, my dear? I think he acted very naturally. He acted upon impulse. I'm sure you're always crying out against the restraints and conventionalities between young people, over here; and now, when a European _does do a simple, unaffected thing--"

Elmore made a gesture of impatience. "This fellow has presumed upon your being Americans--on your ignorance of the customs here--to take a liberty that he would not have dreamed of taking with Italian or German ladies. He has shown himself no gentleman."

"Now there you are very much mistaken, Owen. That's what I thought when Lily first told me about his speaking to her in the cars, and I was very much prejudiced against him; but when I saw him to-day, I must say that I felt that I had been wrong. He is a gentleman; but--he is desperate."

"Oh, indeed!"

"Yes," said Mrs. Elmore, shrinking a little under her husband's sarcastic tone. "Why, Owen," she pleaded, "can't you see anything romantic in it?"

"I see nothing but a vulgar impertinence in it. I see it from his standpoint as an adventure, to be bragged of and laughed over at the mess-table and the caffe. I'm going to put a stop to it."

Mrs. Elmore looked daunted and a little bewildered. "Well, Owen," she said, "I put the affair entirely in your hands."

Elmore never could decide upon just what theory his wife had acted; he had to rest upon the fact, already known to him, of her perfect truth and conscientiousness, and his perception that even in a good woman the passion for manoeuvring and intrigue may approach the point at which men commit forgery. He now saw her quelled and submissive; but he was by no means sure that she looked at the affair as he did, or that she voluntarily acquiesced.

"All that I ask is that you won't do anything that you'll regret afterward. And as for putting a stop to it, I fancy it's put a stop to already. He's going back to Peschiera this afternoon, and that'll probably be the last of him."

"Very well," said Elmore, "if that is the last of him, I ask nothing better. I certainly have no wish to take any steps in the matter."

But he went out of the house very unhappy and greatly perplexed. He thought at first of going to the Stadt Gratz, where Captain Ehrhardt was probably staying for the tap of Vienna beer peculiar to that hostelry, and of inquiring him out, and requesting him to discontinue his attentions; but this course, upon reflection, was less high-handed than comported with his present mood, and he turned aside to seek advice of his consul. He found Mr. Hoskins in the best humor for backing his quarrel. He had just received a second dispatch from Turin, stating that the rumor of the approaching visit of the Alabama was unfounded; and he was thus left with a force of unexpended belligerence on his hands which he was glad to contribute to the defence of Mr. Elmore's family from the pursuit of this Austrian officer.

"This is a very simple affair, Mr. Elmore,"--he usually said "Elmore," but in his haughty frame of mind, he naturally threw something more of state into their intercourse,--"a very simple affair, fortunately. All that I have to do is to call on the military governor, and state the facts of the case, and this fellow will get his orders quietly and _definitively_. This war has sapped our influence in Europe,--there's no doubt of it; but I think it's a pity if an American family living in this city can't be safe from molestation; and if it can't, I want to know the reason why."

This language was very acceptable to Elmore, and he thanked the consul. At the same time he felt his own resentment moderated, and he said, "I'm willing to let the matter rest if he goes away this afternoon."

"Oh, of course," Hoskins assented, "if he clears out, that's the end of it. I'll look in to-morrow, and see how you're getting along."

"Don't--don't give them the impression that I've--profited by your kindness," suggested Elmore at parting.

"You haven't yet. I only hope you may have the chance."

"Thank you; I don't think _I do."

Elmore took a long walk, and returned home tranquillized and clarified as to the situation. Since it could be terminated without difficulty and without scandal in the way Hoskins had explained, he was not unwilling to see a certain poetry in it. He could not repress a degree of sympathy with the bold young fellow who had overstepped the conventional proprieties in the ardor of a romantic impulse, and he could see how this very boldness, while it had a terror, would have a charm for a young girl. There was no necessity, except for the purpose of holding Mrs. Elmore in check, to look at it in an ugly light. Perhaps the officer had inferred from Lily's innocent frankness of manner that this sort of approach was permissible with Americans, and was not amusing himself with the adventure, but was in love in earnest. Elmore could allow himself this view of a case which he had so completely in his own hands; and he was sensible of a sort of pleasure in the novel responsibility thrown upon him. Few men at his age were called upon to stand in the place of a parent to a young girl, to intervene in her affairs, and to decide who was and who was not a proper person to pretend to her acquaintance.

Feeling so secure in his right, he rebelled against the restraint he had proposed to himself, and at dinner he invited the ladies to go to the opera with him. He chose to show himself in public with them, and to check any impression that they were without due protection. As usual, the pit was full of officers, and between the acts they all rose, as usual, and faced the boxes, which they perused through their _lorgnettes till the bell rang for the curtain to rise. But Mrs. Elmore, having touched his arm to attract his notice, instructed him, by a slow turning of her head, that Captain Ehrhardt was not there. After that he undoubtedly breathed freer, and, in the relaxation from his sense of bravado, he enjoyed the last acts of the opera more than the first. Miss Mayhew showed no disappointment; and she bore herself with so much grace and dignity, and yet so evidently impressed every one with her beauty, that he was proud of having her in charge. He began himself to see that she was pretty.

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