Inez Thayer found herself overwhelmed by a varied mingling of conflicting emotions as she settled herself in the victoria, and listened without remark to the enthusiastic and joyous monologue to which her companion gave free rein. She felt herself absolutely helpless, borne along resistlessly like a rudderless ship by a force which she could neither control nor fully comprehend. She still longed for a valid excuse to leave Florence, yet in her heart she questioned whether she would now be strong enough to embrace the opportunity even if it came. She had dreaded the certain appearance of De Peyster, yet she had been eager to enter into the inevitable final discussion so that the episode might be closed forever. She said to herself that she hated Armstrong for the mastery which he unconsciously possessed over her, yet every thought of him thrilled her with a delight which nothing in her life had before given her. The color came to her cheeks even now, and De Peyster, watching her intently, thought it was in response to his own remark and felt encouraged.
The drive took them, as a matter of course, to the Cascine, where fashionable Florence parades up and down the delightful avenues formed by the pines and the ilexes. On this particular afternoon the heat encouraged them to take refuge on the shadier side toward the mountains, reserving the drive along the Arnountil the brilliant coloring of the setting sun should show them both Bellosguardo and the city itself in their fullest glory. De Peyster was intoxicated by the enjoyment of his environment, and seemed quite content to accept his companion’s passive submission to his mood. At length his exuberance of spirits became mildly contagious, and Inez threw off her apprehensions and forgot the dangers and perplexities which she felt surrounded her.
But her feeling of security was short-lived. De Peyster no sooner became conscious of her change of manner than he seized it as a long-awaited opportunity. Beginning where he had left off at the last attack, he rehearsed the history of his affection from the day he had first met her until the present moment. For the first time Inez experienced a sympathy toward him rather than a sorrow for herself. He was, even with his limitations, so deadly in earnest, his devotion was so unquestionable, his very persistency was so unlike his other characteristics, seeming a part of a stronger personality, that it forced her admiration. And yet how far below the standard she had set!
“You have not believed me, Ferdinand, when I have told you over and over again that what you ask is absolutely impossible.” Inez spoke kindly but very firmly. “I truly wish it might be otherwise, but it is kinder that I make you understand it now instead of having this unhappiness for us both continue indefinitely. I know you mean every word, but I say to you now finally and irrevocably—it can never be.”
De Peyster looked into her face searchingly. “You never said it like that before, Inez.”
“Yes, I have—not once, but many times, and in almost the same words.”
“But it is not the words that count, Inez. I don’t care how many times you say it in the way you always have said it before. I expected to hear it again. But this tone, Inez, this manner is quite different; and for the first time I have a feeling that perhaps you do mean it after all.”
“I do mean it, and I have meant it every time I have said it.”
Inez was relentless, but she felt that this was the one time when matters could be finally settled, and the carriage had already begun the climb to Settignano.
De Peyster still gazed at her with uncertainty. Then a sudden light came to him and showed in his face, mingling with the evident pain which the thought brought him.
“I have it,” he said, bending toward her to watch her expression more intently; “I have it. You are in love with some one else!”
Inez felt her face burn with the suddenness of the accusation. She hesitated, and in that moment’s hesitation De Peyster had his answer. Still he was not satisfied. He must hear the words spoken.
“You told me last time that there was no one else,” he said, reproachfully, “and I know you spoke the truth. Now there must be some one, and if there is I am entitled to know it. So long as my love for you cannot harm you, no power on earth can take it away from me; but if there is another who has a better right than I, that is a different matter. Tell me, Inez—I insist—do you love some one else?”
There was no retreat. Any denial of words would be useless, and it was the only way to end things after all. She lifted her eyes to his and spoke calmly, though the color had fled from her cheeks and her face was deathly pale. “Yes, Ferdinand, you are entitled to know it. I do love some one else, and I love him better than my life!”
“I knew it!” De Peyster exclaimed, dejectedly.
There was a long pause, during which he struggled bravely with himself.
“Tell me who it is,” he said, at length. “Of course, this makes it different.”
Inez could not help admiring the unexpected strength.
“No, Ferdinand, I cannot. This is my secret, and you must not question further.”
“But it must be some one here, for you told me just before you sailed that there was no one.”
“Perhaps here—perhaps elsewhere. You must leave it there, Ferdinand. If you care for me, as you say you do, I ask you to leave it there.”
De Peyster bowed submissively and shared her evident desire for silence during the few moments which remained of their drive.
Helen and Jack met them at the villa, and were greatly disappointed that Ferdinand declined their pressing invitation to stay for supper in the garden.
A promise that he would take tea with them on the following afternoon was all they could secure from him, and when Inez rushed up-stairs promptly upon his departure Jack looked at Helen meaningly.
“She must have turned him down good and hard this time, eh?”
“Poor Ferdy!” Helen replied, sympathetically. “I had no idea he could get so cut up over anything.”
The automobile, even in the two days it had been a member of the Armstrong family, completely demoralized the entire establishment. Jack was beside himself with excitement and joy, his early experiments both with chauffeur and car being eminently satisfactory. He contented himself with short runs down to the city and back the first day after his man had succeeded in putting the car into its normal condition, but his impatience to start out again immediately after each return, even though luncheon was most unceremoniously shortened, produced almost as much dismay in the household as his bad temper while trying to reconstruct the machine.
“I want you all to have a ride in it at the earliest possible moment,” he explained; “but before I risk any one’s neck but my own I must satisfy myself that the car is all right and that the chauffeur knows his business.”
The only event which diverted Armstrong was the return to the villa of Inez and De Peyster, for their evident discomforture caused him real concern. On general principles he was interested in the outcome of the obvious errand which had brought De Peyster to Florence, and beyond this he had already come to look upon Miss Thayer as a most agreeable companion and assistant whose happiness and equilibrium he regretted to see disturbed.
After De Peyster’s unceremonious departure and Inez’ abrupt disappearance, he and Helen strolled out into the garden, where the table was already laid for supper.
“There is no use waiting for Inez,” said Helen. “Poor child! It is a shame to have her unhappy when we are so contented. But where is Uncle Peabody?”
“I met him on the Lung’ Arno and offered to take him home, but he said he was bound for Olschki’s. Trying to find out if Luigi Cornaro wrote anything he had not discovered, he said.”
“Perhaps he will come before we have finished. You sit there, Jack, where you can watch the sunset behind San Miniato, and I will sit next to you so that I can watch it, too.”
Helen drew the light chair nearer, and smilingly looked up at him. “There,” she said. “Is this not cozy—just you and I?”
Armstrong smiled back into her radiant eyes with equal contentment. “This is absolute perfection, but you don’t imagine we can eat like this, do you?”
“I don’t feel a bit hungry,” she replied, cheerfully, making no attempt to move. “Uncle Peabody says we ought not to eat when we don’t feel like it, and I don’t feel like it now.”
“But what does Uncle Peabody say about not eating when you have been knocking about in an automobile all day and have the appetite of a horse?”
“Oh, you men!” cried Helen, straightening up with a pout. “I don’t believe there is a bit of sentiment in a man’s make-up, anyhow. Eat—eat—eat—” and she piled his plate high with generous portions from every dish within reach.
Uncle Peabody’s step upon the path gave warning of his approach.
“So I am in time after all,” he said. “I was afraid I should be obliged to eat my evening repast in solitary loneliness. But is this the way you follow my precepts?” he continued, as his eye fell upon Armstrong’s plate. “Can’t you take it on the instalment plan—or are you anticipating forming a partnership with a stomach-pump?”
“It is my fault, uncle,” replied Helen, contritely. “I can’t make Jack romantic, so I tried to stuff him to keep him good-natured. That is always the next best thing with a man.”
“Oh ho!” Uncle Peabody looked shocked as he drew a chair up to the little table. “So I have come right into a family quarrel, have I? Naughty, naughty, both of you!”
“I wish I could quarrel with him,” said Helen, “but he is too agreeable, even in his aggravating moods.”
“What have you to say to that pretty speech, John Armstrong?” asked Uncle Peabody.
“What can I say?” answered Jack, between mouth-fuls, “except that, speaking for myself, I am always much more romantic when I am not hungry. If Herself will indulge me for five minutes longer I will promise to be as sentimental as the most fastidious could desire.”
“I do not care for manufactured sentiment,” replied Helen; “and it is too late now anyway, for my own appetite has returned and my anger is appeased.”
“Miss Thayer evidently has not returned yet?” ventured Uncle Peabody, interrogatively, as the supper progressed.
“Yes, she is up-stairs in tears, and Ferdy has gone away to throw himself into the Arno,” Helen replied.
“Dear me, dear me!” murmured Uncle Peabody. “What a pity! I am not sure that I would have returned had I known that I should find so much trouble.”
“Now that you have had this much, I think I will let you in for the rest,” suggested Armstrong. “I will take you out to the garage after you have finished.”
“More trouble there?”
“Yes—punctured a tire on the way up the hill.”
“And you never said a word about it!” cried Helen. “No wonder you did not feel romantic!”
“Good! Peace is once more established, which is worth more than a new tire.
Come, my appetite is satisfied—suppose we all go out to the garage.”
Annetta interrupted their progress at the door.
“A gentleman to see the signora,” she announced—“the same gentleman who took the Signorina Thayer to ride this afternoon—and would the signora see him alone?”
“Poor Ferdy,” Helen sighed, aloud. “He wants me to intercede for him. You go on, Jack, and perhaps I may join you later. Show Mr. De Peyster out here,Annetta.”
Ferdinand hardly waited to be ushered through the hallway. He was visibly suffering as he approached Helen with outstretched hand.
“I am so sorry, Ferdy,” was all she could say before he interrupted her.
“Forgive me, Helen, for coming to you before I have regained control of myself; but I have made a sudden decision, and unless I carry it out at once I won’t be able to do it.”
“A sudden decision, Ferdy?”
“Yes, I am leaving Florence on the night train for Paris; but I could not go without seeing you again and leaving with you a message for—Inez.”
“The night train to-night? Surely you are not going away without seeing Inez again?”
Helen’s sympathy was strong in the face of his almost uncontrollable emotion.
“Yes, to-night, Helen; and I shall never see her again unless she sends for me.”
“But what has happened to make things so hopeless now? She has refused you before, Ferdy, and I have always admired your pluck that you refused to give her up.”
“But it is different now—there is a reason why I must give her up. There was none before, except that she did not think she cared for me. I was certain I could make her do that—in time. But now—”
“What is it now?” Her interest was sincere.
“You must know, Helen. Why do you pretend that you don’t?”
“Why, what do you mean? I am not pretending. I know of nothing.”
De Peyster was incredulous. “It’s all right, Helen. We men would do the same thing, I suppose, to protect another chap’s secret; but it is pretty rough on me, just the same.”
Helen’s mystification was complete. “Look here, Ferdy,” she said; “this has gone too far. Inez has evidently confided to you something which she has never told me. I have not had a word with her since she returned, and I know nothing of what has happened except what I have surmised.”
“Do you mean to tell me that Inez has been here all this time as your guest without your knowing that she has fallen in love with some one over here?”
“Inez in love! Ferdy, you are crazy! Who is it, and where did she meet him?”
“I don’t know—she would not tell me, but it is some one she has met over here.”
“I don’t believe a word of it. She must have said it to make you understand that she could not marry you.”
Ferdinand shook his head. “No. A girl could fool me on some things, I suppose; but when she speaks as Inez spoke she means every word she says. ‘I do love some one else,’ she said, ‘and I love him better than my life.’ Do you think Inez would say that if she did not mean it, Helen?”
Helen leaned against the arm of the settle. “I don’t understand it, Ferdy—I don’t understand it.”
“But I do, and I am not strong enough to see her again or to stay here in Florence. I will not trouble her again unless she sends for me—anything sent in care of Coutts will always reach me. Or after she is married, and I am myself again, I would like to see her and congratulate—him. Forgive me, Helen, I am all unstrung to-night. Good-bye.”
De Peyster was gone before Helen realized it. She sank upon the settle and rested her face on her hand. Inez in love, and with some one she had met in Italy! Who was it—when was it? She had come directly to the villa upon her arrival. She had said that she had met no one who interested her on the steamer. In Florence she had met no one otherwise than casually. All her time had been spent either with her or with Jack. Helen lifted her head suddenly.
“With Jack,” she repeated to herself. She rose quickly and looked off into the distance. The last bright rays were disappearing behind San Miniato. “I love him better than my life,” Inez had said to Ferdinand. Helen grasped the railing of the balustrade for support. “With Jack!” she repeated again. “Oh no, no, no—not that!” she cried aloud—“not that!”