Uncle Peabody was entirely right when he stated that Armstrong had become a changed man since he first came to Florence; Miss Thayer was right when she attributed this change to the associations into which he had thrown himself—yet both were wrong in thinking him unconscious of his own altered condition. As he told Helen, he had ever felt some irresistible influence drawing him back to Florence, even while engrossed in the duties of his profession. Just what the craving was he could not have explained even to himself. What he should find in Florence had taken no definite form in his mind, yet the longing possessed him in spite of all he could do to reason with himself against it.
After his arrival in Florence, even, it was not until Cerini suggested the Michelangelo letters that he formulated any plan to gratify his long- anticipated expectations. His arguments with himself had prepared him for a disappointment. It had been a boyish fancy, he said, inwardly; he had felt the influences of his environment simply because he had been young and impressionable, and it was quite impossible that he should now, man-grown, prove susceptible to anything so inexplicable as what he had felt in his earlier days.
Then came the experience with Cerini and Miss Thayer. She was a woman, truly, and subject to a woman’s physical frailties, yet she was intellectually strong, and could not so have yielded to anything but a controlling power.
Here, then, was a second personality affected in a like manner as himself by the same influences. He did not try to explain it; he accepted it as an evidence that this influence, whatever it was, existed and made itself manifest. From that moment he merged his own individuality into those to whom Cerini with gentle suasion introduced him. The librarian incited him by his own enthusiasm, and then directed him along the paths which he himself so loved to tread.
But Cerini did not foresee the extremes to which his pupil’s devotion would carry him. Day by day Armstrong felt himself becoming more and more separated from all about him, and more and more amalgamated with those forces which had preceded him. The society of any save those who acted and thought as he did failed to appeal to him. His affection for Helen suffered no change, except that she became less necessary to him. As the work progressed the intervals away from the library seemed longer, and he found it more difficult to enter into the life about him. Then came an irritability, entirely foreign to his nature, which he could not curb.
Yet through it all he was entirely conscious of what was happening. He compared himself more than once to a man in a trance, painfully alive to all the preparations going on about him for his own entombment, yet unable to cry out and put a stop to it all. He wished that Helen would object to his absences and force him to become a part of her life again. He wished that Miss Thayer would tire of the work and leave him alone in it. In contemplating either event he suffered at the mere thought of what such an interruption would mean to him, he knew that he would interpose strenuous objections—yet in a way he longed for the break to come.
Armstrong had been in one of these inexplicably irritable moods when Uncle Peabody crossed him in his plan for the moonlight ride to San Miniato. As a matter of fact, it was only because Miss Thayer had complained of a headache as they left the library that the idea of a ride had occurred to him at all; and to have Mr. Cartwright calmly propose that she drop out of the planned excursion struck him as a distinct intrusion upon his own prerogatives. The automobile fever was out of his blood now; the motor-car had become to him merely a convenience, and no longer an exhilaration. It was quite inevitable that Miss Thayer should acquiesce in Uncle Peabody’s suggestion—in fact, she could do nothing else; yet at the library she accepted even his slightest suggestion without question, and Armstrong preferred this latter responsive attitude. All in all, he would have been glad to find some excuse for giving up the ride altogether; but none offered itself, so, with every movement an obvious protest, he had helped Helen into the tonneau and stepped in after her.
Helen was hardly in a happier frame of mind, yet she found herself so eager for this time alone with her husband that she raised none of the obstacles which she would have done a month earlier. It was a perfect June evening, with the air cooled enough by the light wind to make the breeze raised by the speed of the car agreeable to the face. The moon was just high enough to cause deep shadows to fall across the roadway and merge into fantastic shapes as the machine approached and passed over them. The peasants were out-of-doors, and expressed their contentment by snatches of song, rendered in the rich, melodious voices which are the natural heritage of this light-hearted people.
The toil of the day was over, and they were entering into a well-earned _riposo _before the duties of the next sunrise claimed their strength.
“How peaceful this is!” Helen exclaimed, turning to her husband. The breeze had blown back the lace scarf from her head, and the moon fell full upon her luxuriant hair, lighting her upturned face. “All nature is at rest and peace, and the people reflect the contentment of the land.”
“Your uncle is becoming very dictatorial,” replied Armstrong, quite at variance with her mood.
Helen was mildly reproachful, yet she instinctively felt the necessity of being cautious. Perhaps she could make him forget his resentment.
“Uncle Peabody only meant to give us an opportunity to be by ourselves. We have had so few.”
“He should have understood that I had some good reason for planning matters just as I did or I should not have done it.”
“Do you regret being alone with me?”
Helen struggled to keep the tears out of her voice.
“Don’t be absurd, Helen,” replied Armstrong, impatiently. “That is not the point at all. Miss Thayer is tired and needed this relaxation. Mr. Cartwright had no right to interfere.”
There was a long silence, during which Armstrong relapsed into a profound taciturnity, while Helen found it hard to know what tack to take. She glanced occasionally at her husband, but could gain no inspiration from his grim, set features.
“Tell me, Jack,” she said, at length, “is it not possible for you to pursue your work at the library without having it make you so indifferent to everything else?”
He shifted his position uneasily. “I am not indifferent to everything else.
The fact that I proposed this ride is an evidence of that.”
“Has something happened to make my companionship distasteful to you?”
Armstrong became more and more irritated. “I don’t see why you are so possessed to make me uncomfortable, Helen. But I understand what you are driving at.”
“What am I driving at?” she asked, quietly.
“You are taking this method to force me to put an end to my work.”
Helen winced. “Is that fair, Jack? What have I said to you every time the subject has been mentioned?”
“You have told me to go ahead, and then you have shown quite plainly by every action that you did not mean it.”
“Jack Armstrong!” She was indignant at his gross injustice.
“What have I said each time the subject has come up?” continued Armstrong.
“You have had every opportunity to have your own way in this as in all other matters. I repeat it now—is it your wish that I stop my work? Say but the word and I will never enter that library again.”
Helen was hurt through and through. To what avail was her sacrifice if it be so little understood, so little appreciated?
“I don’t wish to be misunderstood in this,” added Armstrong, as if in answer to her thoughts. “I quite realize that I have asked much of you who can understand so little of what my book means to me. I have been entirely frank, and have accepted from you the time which rightfully belongs to you in the spirit, as I supposed, in which you gave it to me. If you did not mean what you said, you have but to tell me so and it shall be exactly as you wish.”
“I have meant every word I have said, Jack,” replied Helen, in a low, strained voice. “I have been glad to contribute in the only way I could to anything which means so much to you. I simply ask you now whether it is necessary for this absorption to include all of yourself even when you are away from it. I did not suppose that this was essential.”
“You are exaggerating the situation out of all proportion.”
“I wish I were, Jack.”
Helen’s voice had a tired note in it which Armstrong could not fail to perceive. He was amazed by his own apathy. Why did it mean so little to him?
Why did he sit there beside her as if he had not noticed it when in reality he felt the pain as keenly as she did? He turned and looked at her for the first time since they had started. Helen gave no sign that she was conscious of his scrutiny, lying back with her cheek resting upon her hand, her eyes closed, her lips quivering now and then in spite of her supreme effort to control herself. Always, before, Armstrong would have folded her in his arms and brushed away the heart-pains, real or imaginary as they might have been. Now he sat watching her suffer without making any effort to relieve her.
He despised himself for his attitude. What wretched thing had come between him and this girl whom he had idolized, and prevented him from extending even the common sympathy which belonged to any one who needed it? What malevolent power forced him to be the cause of this sorrow and yet forbade him the privilege of assuaging it? This was not the lesson learned from the humanists. Why should not he be able to give out to those around him the reflection of that true happiness which their work first taught the world?
Helen opened her eyes suddenly and looked full into his. Startled at the expression on his face, she sat upright, keenly anxious and forgetful of her own troubles.
“Jack dear,” she cried, “you are not well! You are unhappy, too! Tell me what it all means, and let us understand it together!”
Her voice brought back the old condition. His eyes lowered and he withdrew his hand from Helen’s impulsive grasp. With a heart heavy for the explanation which lay close at hand, his voice refused to obey.
“I am perfectly well, Helen,” he replied. “Why should you think me otherwise?”
The reaction was great, yet Helen succeeded in retaining her control. While conscious, during the weeks past, of the change in her husband’s bearing toward her, she was unprepared for his present attitude. Yet the look in his face when she had surprised him by opening her eyes was the old expression by which in the past she had known that something had touched him deeply—but it was intensified beyond anything she had ever seen. It had always been her privilege to comfort him under these conditions, and instinctively her heart sprang forward to meet his. Then she saw the expression change and she grew cold with apprehension.
“Ask Alfonse to turn back, please,” she begged. “The air is getting chilly and I think I would rather be home.”
In response to her desire the chauffeur turned the car, and the ride back to the villa was accomplished in silence. Helen’s thoughts ran rampant, but further conversation was impossible. Her pain was now tempered by her anxiety.
Jack was not well, in spite of his disclaimers. His close application to his work in the poorly ventilated library had undoubtedly affected him, and this was the explanation of his otherwise inexplicable attitude toward her. It was with positive relief that she discovered any explanation, and as she thought things over this relief lightened the burden she had been carrying all these weeks more than anything which had happened since the cloud began to gather.
In some way she must plan to relieve the pressure and bring her husband back to her and to himself again.
Inez and Uncle Peabody met them at the doorway.
“The ride has done you good,” said the latter, giving his hand to Helen and noting the light in the girl’s eyes as they walked toward the hall.
“I have left my scarf in the car,” said Helen, turning back so quickly that Mr. Cartwright had no opportunity to offer his services.
Armstrong and Inez were standing together on the step, and as Helen approached she could not help overhearing her husband’s reply to Miss Thayer’s inquiring looks.
“You are the only one who understands me,” Armstrong was saying—“you are the only one!”