The evening had arrived for the reception at Villa Godilombra by which Helen was to acknowledge the many social obligations laid upon her by her friends in Florence. In the details of preparation she had found temporary relief from her ever-present burden, with Uncle Peabody assuming the rôle of general adviser, comforter, and prop. Together they had worked out the list of guests; together they had planned the many little surprises which should make the event unique. Much to old Giuseppe’s disgust, his own flowers were found to be inadequate, and to his camellias, lilies, oleanders, and roses was added a profusion of those rare orchids which bear witness that the City of Flowers is well named. Emory was also pressed into service as the day drew near, and his energy was untiring in carrying out the ideas of his superior officers and in suggesting original ones of his own.
Armstrong had expressed his willingness to co-operate, but was obviously relieved to find his services unnecessary. He had reached a crisis in his work, he explained, and if he really was not needed it would hasten the conclusion of his labors if they might be uninterrupted at this particular point. Inez had also offered her aid, but Armstrong insisted that she could not be spared unless her presence at the villa was absolutely demanded. So the work upon the masterpiece had proceeded without a break, while little by little the plans for the reception matured.
The novelty of the preparations consisted principally in the electrical and the floral displays. Uncle Peabody succeeded in having a number of wires run from the trolley-line into the villa and the garden, leaving Emory to plan an arrangement of lights which did credit to the limited number of electrical courses which his college curriculum had contained. The grotto was lighted by fascinating little incandescent lamps, which shed their rays dimly through the guarding cypresses but full upon the varicolored shells and stones. Along the top of the retaining wall, and scattered here and there at uneven distances and heights among the trees and the statues, the lights looked like a swarm of magnificent fire-flies resting, for the time, wherever they happened to alight. But Emory’s _pièce de résistance_ was the fountain, beneath the spray of which he had helped the electrician to fashion a brilliant fleur-de- lis in compliment to the city of their adoption.
This final triumph was brought to a successful conclusion almost simultaneously with the cessation of Helen’s labors in transforming the dining-room, the hallway, and the verandas into veritable flower arbors. Old Giuseppe and the florist’s men had accomplished wonders under Helen’s guidance, and they approved the final result as enthusiastically as they had opposed the scheme at first, when Helen had insisted upon a departure from the conventional “set pieces” which they tried to urge upon her. Realizing that the time was approaching for the light repast, and glad of a respite, Helen wandered out to the garden where Emory and Uncle Peabody, hand in hand, were executing an hilarious dance around the fountain.
“What in the world—” began Helen, in amazement.
“It is great, is it not, Mr. Cartwright?” cried Emory, ceasing his evolutions and turning to Uncle Peabody. “This settles it; I am going home on the next steamer and set myself up as an electrical engineer—specialty, decoration of Italian gardens. Watch, Helen—I will turn on the lights.”
In an instant the flitting insects were flickering throughout the garden, and the water of the fountain became a living flame. Helen’s first exclamation of delight was interrupted by Giuseppe’s groan of terror as the old gardener hastily retreated to the house, crossing himself and praying for divine protection against the magic of the evil one which had entered and taken possession of his very domain. The suspicion with which he had viewed the labors of the electricians during the past few days was now fully justified, and he saw his work of thirty years in danger of destruction by the conflagration which he believed must inevitably follow.
“Splendid, Phil!” cried Helen, when Giuseppe was at last quieted. “I had no idea you were carrying out so grand a scheme. What should I have done without you?”
“It was Mr. Cartwright’s idea, you know, Helen,” insisted Emory.
“To get the light up here—not the arrangement, which is all to your credit,” Uncle Peabody hastened to add.
“I owe everything to both of you,” said Helen, holding out a hand to each.
“Now I want to see every light.” Slowly they walked about the garden inspecting the illumination. “It is perfect,” exclaimed Helen. “I can’t tell you how pleased I am with it. I ought to be jealous that you have so outdone me in your part of the decoration, but I am really proud of you!”
As they were taking an admiring view of the floral arrangements Jack and Inez rode up. Emory started to suggest to them a view of the garden, but a glance from Helen prevented.
“Save it for a surprise, Phil,” she whispered. “They have no idea of what you have done.”
It was nearly ten o’clock when the first guests arrived, and for an hour Helen, Jack, and Uncle Peabody greeted the brilliant gathering as it assembled. To most of them Armstrong was a complete stranger, and it was quite evident that many of those who had known and admired Helen and Mr. Cartwright possessed no little curiosity concerning this man of whom so little had been seen.
“Then there really is a Mr. Armstrong, after all,” exclaimed the Marchesa Castellani, smiling blandly as Helen presented him. “We had almost come to look upon you as one of those American—what shall we say?—conceits.”
The color came to Helen’s face, but before she could reply Cerini pressed forward from behind.
“Signor Armstrong has been my guest these weeks, marchesa, inhaling the wisdom of the past instead of the sweeter but more transitory grandeur of Florentine society. This has perhaps been his loss, and yours; but, with his great work nearly ready for the press, dare we say that the world will not be the richer for the sacrifice?”
“I shall not be the one to dare,” replied the marchesa, again smiling and passing on to make room for others behind her.
Cerini watched his opportunity for another word with Helen. “I came to-night,” he said, “expressly to tell you that your reward is near at hand. Another week and your husband’s labors will be completed. I have thought often of our conversation, and of your patience; but the result of my advice has been more far-reaching even than I thought. The character-building has extended beyond him and his ‘sister-worker’—it has reached you as well.”
The arrival of new guests fortunately delayed the necessity of immediate reply, but it also gave Cerini an opportunity to watch the effect of his words. The old man’s voice softened as he continued:
“You have suffered, my daughter; I did not know till now how much. Yet suffering is essential. George Eliot was a woman, and she knew a woman’s heart when she wrote, ‘Deep, unspeakable suffering is a baptism, a regeneration—the initiation into a new state.’ Your initiation is passed, my daughter, and your enjoyment of the new state is near at hand. Do you not see now how far- reaching has been the influence?”
“Yes,” Helen replied, with a tremor in her voice; “and this time I think I may say that it has been more far-reaching than even you realize.”
Cerini’s eyes sought hers searchingly. He had already seen more than she had intended.
“Then the book is really coming to its completion?” she continued, calmly.
“And you feel well satisfied with my husband’s work?”
“It is superb; it is magnificent,” cried Cerini, enthusiastically. “He has produced a work which is without an equal in the veracity of its portrayal of the period and in the insight which he has shown in dealing with the characters themselves. It will make your husband famous.”
“We shall be very proud of him, shall we not?” replied Helen, forcing a smile.
“And he will owe so much to you for the help and the inspiration you have given him.”
“And also to you, my daughter,” added the librarian, meaningly.
Emory approached as Cerini left her side. “Every one is in the garden now, Helen. May I take you there?”
Helen glanced around for her husband, and saw him somewhat apart from the other guests engaged in a conversation with the Contessa Morelli.
Unconsciously her mind went back to what the contessa had said to her about marriage in general and about her husband in particular, and she wondered what her new friend thought of him, now that they had actually met.
“Jack has his hands full for the present,” Emory remarked, noting her glance.
“You need not worry about him. By Jove, Helen, you are simply stunning to- night!” he continued, in a low voice, as they strolled across the veranda. “I have been anxious about you, but now you are yourself again. You should always wear white.”
Helen made no answer. She was recalling to herself the fact that to-night, for the first time, Jack had made no comment upon her appearance, as he had always done before; yet she had tried to wear the very things which he preferred.
After all, she thought, it was better so. But what a mockery to stand beside a man, as she stood with Jack this evening, jointly receiving their friends and their friends’ congratulations! What deception! What ignominy!
In the mean time, as Emory had surmised, Armstrong had his hands sufficiently full with the contessa. Her mind had been too constantly applied to her interesting problem, during the days which had elapsed since her call upon Cerini, to allow this opportunity to escape her. She had exercised every art she possessed to learn something further from Helen; she even had Emory take tea with her with the same definite object in view; but either consciously or unconsciously both had parried her diplomatic questioning with an air so natural and simple as to convince her that they were not unskilled themselves in the game in which she considered herself an adept. The one thing which remained was the picture she had seen at the library; but this had been so positive in the impression which it had made that she found herself even more keen than ever to follow up the small advantage she had gained.
Watching her opportunity, Amélie found herself beside Armstrong, with the other guests far enough removed to enable her to converse with him without being overheard.
“All Florence owes you a debt of gratitude for bringing your beautiful wife here,” she began. “And how generous you have been to let us have so much of her while you have been otherwise engaged!”
“It has been my misfortune not to be able to share her social pleasures,” Armstrong replied. “Perhaps she has told you of the serious work upon which I am engaged.”
“Yes, indeed,” answered the contessa, cheerfully. “I am sure every man in Florence who has had an opportunity to meet your wife has blessed you for your devotion to this ‘serious work,’ as you call it. Italian husbands are not so generous, especially upon their honeymoon.”
Armstrong bowed stiffly. The contessa’s manner was far too affable to warrant him in taking offence, yet he felt distinctly annoyed by what she said.
Amélie, however, gave him no opportunity to reply.
“Oh, you don’t know these Italian husbands,” she continued, shrugging her beautiful shoulders. “I have one, so I know all about it. They go into paroxysms of fury even at the thought of having their wives go about without them, receiving the admiration of other men. I have no doubt that at this very moment my dear Morelli is either abusing one of the servants or breaking some of the furniture, just because I happen to be here while he is nursing his gouty foot at home. I am always proud of my countrymen when I see them, as you are, willing to let their wives enjoy themselves without them.”
“I do not think I have observed this trait among American husbands developed to the extent you mention,” Armstrong observed, with little enthusiasm.
“You haven’t?” queried the contessa, innocently. “Perhaps that is because you are such a learned man, with your eyes upon your books instead of upon the world. You must take my word that it is so. But you know enough of the world to recognize admiration when you yourself become the object of it?”
Amélie fastened upon her companion an arch smile so full of meaning that Armstrong was caught entirely off his guard.
“I the object of admiration?” he asked, incredulously. “I wish I might think that you were speaking of your own.”
The contessa laughed merrily. “I certainly laid myself open for that, did I not?” she replied. “Now suppose I had said adoration instead of admiration, then you would not have replied as you did.”
“I should hardly have so presumed,” he said, mystified by the contessa’s conversation.
“Yet I have seen you the object of adoration—nothing less. I have seen eyes resting upon your face filled with a devotion which a woman never gives but once. You ought to feel very proud to be able to inspire all that, Mr.
Armstrong. I should if I were a man.”
“You have evidently mistaken me for some one else, contessa. Otherwise I cannot understand what you are saying.”
Amélie looked at him curiously. “I wonder if you are really ignorant of all this?” she asked.
“You say that you have witnessed it, so it cannot be my wife of whom you speak, as you have never seen us together. I certainly know of no other woman who cares two straws about me. It must be that you have taken some one else for me.”
“No; I am not mistaken.”
Armstrong’s curiosity proved stronger than his resentment. “And you have actually seen this?” he asked.
“Where and when?”
The contessa’s mood had become serious. She realized that she was playing with dangerous weapons. “If you are sincere in what you say, Mr. Armstrong, you would not thank me for telling you.”
“But you have gone so far that now I must insist.” Helen’s words suddenly came back to him as he spoke. The contessa saw a change of expression come over his face, and she held back her answer.
“Was it at the Laurentian Library?” Armstrong asked, impulsively.
Amélie smiled triumphantly. “It is really better for me not to answer that question, my dear Mr. Armstrong. I only meant to pay you a compliment, and I fear that I have touched on something I should have avoided. You will forgive me, will you not?”
Armstrong was for the moment too occupied with his own thoughts to comprehend fully what she said to him. Mechanically he pressed the hand which was held out to him, and a moment later the contessa entered into a merry conversation with some of her friends in the garden. Too late he realized that he had tacitly accepted the compromising position into which she had led him.
Emory left Helen in the midst of an animated group discussing in enthusiastic tones their appreciation of the many innovations. The musicians were concealed in the “snuggery,” playing airs from favorite operas, while waiters from Doney’s served _gelati_ and _paste_ and champagne at little tables scattered throughout the garden. The cool air was grateful to Helen, and she threw herself into the enjoyment of the moment. No one among her guests realized how little the brilliant, happy scene fitted in with the sorrow in her heart. Yet the musicians played on, the guests chatted merrily, and the lights reflected only that side of life which Helen felt was hers no more. The hour-glass filled and emptied, with no change save the departure of the guests.
As the last good-night was spoken Helen sought mechanically the low retaining wall against which she had so often rested. Jack and Uncle Peabody were for the moment inside the house, and she was alone. Yes, alone! How strongly she felt it, now that the stillness replaced the hum of voices which had filled the garden! Her features did not change, but a tear, unchecked as it was unbidden, coursed its way down her cheeks. Emory saw it as he approached, unnoticed, to say good-night.
“Helen!” he whispered, softly.
She turned quickly and brushed the tear away with her hand. “How you startled me!” she said. “I thought every one had gone.”
“Helen,” Emory repeated, “you are unhappy.”
“I am tired,” she replied, lightly; “that is all.”
“No, that is not all,” he insisted. “You are miserably unhappy.”
“Don’t, Phil,” she entreated.
“I must, Helen,” Emory kept on. “I should have no respect for myself if I kept silent another moment. All this time I have stood by and seen you suffer without saying a word, when I have longed to take you in my arms in spite of all and comfort you as you needed to be comforted.”
“Phil, I beg of you!” Helen cried, beseechingly. “You must not say such things. I am not strong enough to stop you, and every word adds to the pain.”
“Then there is pain!” cried Emory, fiercely. “At last I know it from your own lips. And if there is pain it gives me the right to protect you from it.”
“Oh, Phil!” Helen sank helplessly into a chair.
“I have the right,” Emory repeated. “My love, which you cast aside when you accepted him, now gives it to me; my loyalty in surrendering you to him for what I thought was your happiness now gives it to me; his selfishness and his neglect now give it to me. And I claim my right.”
She made no reply. Convulsed with weeping, she sat huddled in the chair, helpless in her sorrow.
“I am going to Jack Armstrong now,” continued Emory, savagely. “I am going to tell him what a brute he is and demand you of him. I did not give you up to be tortured by neglect while he devotes himself to his ‘affinity.’” Emory’s voice grew bitter. “And he calls it his ‘masterpiece’! Better men than he have called it by another name.”
Helen rose, white and ghostlike in the pale, dim light. She was calm again, and her voice was compelling in its quiet force.
“You have been my friend, Phil—a friend on whom I have felt I could rely always; yet you take this one moment, when I need real, honest friendship more than ever before in all my life, to add another burden. Is it kind, Phil—is it noble? I have suffered—I admit it. Jack is the cause of it—I admit that, too.
You have discovered all this by pulling aside the veil which by my friend should have been held sacred; but with my heart laid bare before you, can you not see that it contains no thought except of him?”
“I do not believe it,” Emory replied, stubbornly.
“You must believe it,” she continued, with finality. “You know that my words are true. Jack Armstrong is my husband and I am his wife. We must forget what you have said and never refer to it again. Come, let us join them in the house.”
“I can’t, Helen.”
“Then we must say good-night here.”
Emory took the outstretched hand in his. For a moment their eyes met firmly.
Then he raised her fingers to his lips.
“It is not good-night, Helen,” he said, his voice breaking as he spoke; “do you understand, it is not good-night—it is good-bye.”
Her glance did not falter, though a new sensation of pain passed through her heart. “Good-bye,” she replied, faintly, as she gently withdrew her hand.
Armstrong watched Emory’s hasty departure and Helen’s slow return to the house from his unintentional place of concealment behind the oleanders, where his footsteps had been arrested by the sound of voices. The contessa’s remarks had recalled with vivid intensity his conversation with Helen about Inez. She regarded his relations with Miss Thayer to be at least questionable, and he impatiently awaited the departure of the guests to tell Helen what had happened and to set himself right in her eyes. Now he had just heard Emory express himself even more pointedly upon the same subject.
The consciousness that he had been an eavesdropper, even though unwittingly, prevented him from carrying out his purpose. As he saw Helen drag herself rather than walk along the paths, he longed to fold her to his heart and brush away her doubts for all time; but to do this he must disclose his uncomfortable position, and this he could not do. His resentment against Emory faded away in the face of Helen’s splendid loyalty. “My heart contains no thought except of him,” he had heard her say; and he thanked God that his awakening had not come too late.
After a few moments he returned to the house from the opposite side of the garden.
“Where is Helen?” he asked Uncle Peabody, whom he met at the door.
“She has gone to her room, Jack,” Mr. Cartwright replied, without meeting his eyes. “She said she was very tired, and asked particularly not to be disturbed.”
Armstrong hesitated. She was hardly strong enough to talk the matter over to- night, anyway. It would be a kindness to leave it until to-morrow.
“Thank God it is not too late!” Uncle Peabody heard him repeat to himself, and the old man wondered if, after all, the sun was going to shine through the cypress-trees.