There had been many visitors at the villa during Armstrong’s illness and convalescence. Cerini had called several times, being most solicitous for the speedy recovery of his _protégé;_ and the Contessa Morelli, temporarily thwarted in the solution of her problem, took advantage of the proximity of her villa to be frequently on the spot, where she could observe the progress of affairs under the suddenly changed conditions.
Armstrong had long desired to question the contessa further in regard to the disquieting conversation he had held with her upon the occasion of their first meeting; but the rapidity with which his latent impressions had become definite realities made him unwilling to allow any new developments to add to the complexity of the situation as he had now come to know it. After his interview with Helen, however, he was convinced that matters had reached their climax, and he grasped any additional information as possible material to be used in the solving of his double dilemma. His opportunity came on the following day, when he found himself alone with the contessa upon the veranda, Helen having been called to another part of the villa by some household demand.
After Helen had made her excuses, Armstrong felt himself to be the subject of a careful scrutiny on the part of the contessa. He looked up quickly and mether glance squarely. Amélie had a way of making those she chose feel well acquainted with her, and Armstrong, during his convalescence, had proved interesting.
“Well,” he asked, smiling, “what do you think of him?”
It was the contessa’s turn to smile, and the question caught her so unexpectedly that the smile developed into a hearty laugh.
“I have been trying to make up my mind,” she replied, frankly. “At first I thought him a human thinking-machine, all head and no heart, but I am beginning to believe that my early impressions were at fault.”
“It gratifies me to hear you say that,” Armstrong answered, calmly. “I presume those early impressions of yours were formed at the library, when Miss Thayer and I came under your observation.”
“Yes,” replied the contessa, unruffled by the quiet sarcasm which she could but feel. “You see, I have lived here in Italy for several years and have become accustomed to the sight of saint worship; but it is a novel experience to see the saint come down off his pedestal and prove himself to have perfectly good warm blood coursing through his veins.”
“Don’t you find it a bit difficult to picture me with all my worldly attributes even as a temporary saint?”
“Not at all,” the contessa answered. “Most of the saints possessed worldly attributes before they attained the dignity of statues. But think of the confusion among their worshippers should they follow your example and again assume the flesh! I imagine their embarrassment would almost equal yours.”
Amélie spoke indifferently, but Armstrong felt the thrust. It was evident that she had no idea of dropping the subject, and Jack saw nothing else but to accept it as cheerfully as possible.
“Why not say ‘quite’?” he asked.
“Because the saints were wifeless. Perhaps that is what made it possible for them to be saints.”
Armstrong laughed in spite of himself. “If modern women were to be canonized, you undoubtedly think they should be selected from the married class?”
“Canonizing hardly covers it,” the contessa replied; “they belong among the martyrs.”
“But you have not told me why you now feel that your early impressions were in error,” Armstrong resumed, sensing danger along the path which they had almost taken, and really eager to learn how far his attitude had impressed others.
The contessa regarded him critically.
“There are many kinds of men,” she began, “and to a woman of the world it is a necessity to classify those whom she meets.”
“Indeed?” queried Armstrong. “You are throwing some most interesting side- lights upon a subject which my education has entirely overlooked.”
“Am I?” Amélie asked, innocently. “But your education has been so far developed in other directions that you can easily recognize the importance of what I say. A woman who meets the world face to face must be able to estimate the elements against which she has to contend.”
“Into how many classes do you divide us?” Armstrong was interested in her naïve presentment.
“The three principal divisions are, of course, single men, married men, and widowers, but the subdivisions are really more important. For my own use I find it more convenient to separate those I meet into four classes—the interesting, the uninteresting, the safe, and the dangerous.”
“You have developed an absolute system,” Armstrong asserted.
“Yes, indeed,” Amélie responded, cheerfully; “without one you men would have too distinct an advantage over us.”
“I wish you would enlarge on your classification a little more. It is gratifying to me to know that members of my sex receive such careful consideration.”
“Well, suppose we eliminate the uninteresting—they really don’t count except in considering matrimony; then we have to weigh the material advantages they offer against their lack of interest. This brings us down to the interesting and safe, and the interesting and dangerous.”
“Have I the honor to be included in one of these two classes?”
“Yes,” the contessa replied, frankly.
“May I ask which? You see, my curiosity is getting the upper hand.”
Amélie threw back her head with a hearty laugh. “I was certainly wrong in my first diagnosis,” she said. “A man who was merely a thinking-machine would possess no curiosity. Usually a learned man is entirely safe.”
“Then you really consider me dangerous?” There was a tone in Armstrong’s voice which caused the contessa to look up at him quickly.
“Most men would consider that a compliment, Mr. Armstrong.”
Receiving no reply, Amélie continued:
“Your wife has such original ideas! I have found my acquaintance with her positively refreshing.”
“How does this bear upon our present conversation?” Armstrong inquired, still weighed down by the contessa’s estimate of him. Amélie’s frankness showed that no doubt existed in her mind as to his attitude toward Miss Thayer, and he felt that denials would be worse than useless. If impressions such as these lay in the mind of a casual observer like the contessa it was but natural that they should assume greater proportions to Helen; and it was with a foreboding that he heard her name mentioned in the present conversation. Amélie, however, could not sense the effect of her words upon her companion.
“Because we once discussed the same subject,” she replied to his question, “and her attitude was most unusual. She even said that were she convinced that her husband really loved some other woman she would step aside and give him a clear field.”
“Did she say that?” Armstrong demanded.
“She did,” asserted the contessa. “You are a very lucky man, Mr. Armstrong,” she continued, looking into his face meaningly; “my husband is not so fortunate.”
While Armstrong hesitated in order to make no mistake in his reply, Helen returned accompanied by Cerini, and the moment when he could have formulated an answer had passed. The old man held up a finger reproachfully as he saw the contessa.
“You have never made another appointment to study those manuscripts with me,” he said, as he took her hand. “Tell me that your interest has not flagged.”
The librarian spoke feelingly, although he tried to conceal his disappointment. It was such a triumph that his work should appeal to one so devoted to a life of social gayety. Amélie remembered her interview with him at the library and felt that she deserved the reproach.
“Surely not,” she replied, with so much apparent sincerity in her voice that the old man believed her and was mollified. “I have even received a new impetus from listening to Mr. Armstrong’s enthusiastic account of his work with you and his impatience to return to it.”
Armstrong glanced quickly at Helen as the contessa attributed to him a desire so opposed to the definite statement he had made the day before, while Cerinismiled contentedly. Helen gave no sign of having particularly noticed the remark, but Jack felt keenly his inability at that moment to set himself right.
“I was just about to take my departure,” Amélie continued, “and I am glad not to be obliged to leave the invalid alone. I know how delighted you will be to take my place,” she said to Cerini.
The old man dropped into the chair the contessa left vacant, while Armstrong watched the two figures until they disappeared in the hallway. Then he turned to his friend—but it was to Cerini the priest, the father-confessor, rather than to Cerini the librarian. He felt the seriousness of the situation more acutely than at any time since a realization of its complexity came to him.
Cerini watched him curiously.
“You are not so well to-day,” he said, at length. “You must go slowly, my son, and give Nature ample time to make her repairs.”
“I fear even Nature has no remedy sufficiently powerful to cure my malady,” Armstrong replied, bitterly. “I would to God she had!”
Cerini was at a loss to understand his manner or his words.
“What has happened?” he asked, sympathetically. “Is there some complication of which I know not?”
Armstrong bowed his head, overcome for the moment by an overwhelming sense of his own impotency.
“What is it?” urged the old man, himself affected by his companion’s attitude.
“I have missed you sadly at the library these weeks, and I am impatient for your return.”
“I shall never return!” cried Armstrong, fiercely. “I have proved myself utterly unworthy of the work I undertook with you.”
“My son! my son!” Cerini was aghast at what he heard. Then his voice softened as he thought he divined the explanation.
“Slowly, slowly,” he said, soothingly. “It is too soon to put so heavy a burden upon your brain after the shock it has sustained. There is no haste.
Your friends at the library will be patient, as you must be.”
Armstrong easily read what was passing through the librarian’s mind, and it increased his bitterness against himself. Cerini’s calmness, however, quieted him, and he was more contained as he replied.
“I wish that the facts were as you think,” he said, decisively. “It would be a positive relief to me if I could believe that my mind was still unbalanced as a result of the accident, but it is so nearly recovered that I must consider myself practically well. But I am glad of this chance to tell you how we have both been deceived. It will be a comfort to have you act as my confessor, and if your affection still holds after my recital I know that you will advise me as to what future course I must pursue.”
In tense, clear-cut sentences Armstrong poured out to Cerini the story of the past months as he looked back upon them. He was frank in speaking of what he believed to be his accomplishments, as he was pitiless in his arraignment of himself in his failures. He showed how he had assimilated the lessons of the past only in his capacity of scribe; he explained how self-centred, selfish, and neglectful of his duty toward others he had been in his personal life. He spoke freely of his companionship with Miss Thayer, of her unquestioned affection for him, and of the impressions which had been made upon Helen and theContessa Morelli. He insisted simply yet forcefully upon his own loyalty to Helen, not from a sense of duty, as she firmly believed, but because his devotion had never wavered.
In speaking of his wife Armstrong went into minute detail, even going back to his early attempts to interest her in what had later become his grand passion.
He described her personal attributes, her love of the present rather than the past, her protective attitude toward her friend even in the face of such distressing circumstances; her generosity toward him; and finally her unalterable conviction that their separation was imperative.
Cerini listened in breathless silence as Armstrong’s story progressed. He himself had played a part in the drama of which his companion was ignorant, and a sense of his own responsibility came to the old man with subtle force.
He recalled his first meeting with Helen at the library, he remembered their later conversations, and in his contemplations he almost forgot, for the moment, the man sitting in front of him in his consideration of the splendid development, which he had witnessed without fully realizing it, in this woman whom he had pronounced unfitted by nature to enter into this side of her husband’s work, as she had longed to do. Now, as a result of his lack of foresight, she proposed to eliminate herself from what she considered to be her husband’s problem. “It has been more far-reaching than even you realize,” she had said to him at the reception at Villa Godilombra, and this was what she had meant.
It was several moments after Armstrong ceased speaking before Cerini raised his eyes, and to Jack’s surprise he saw that they were filled with tears. He naturally attributed it to the librarian’s affection for him and his sympathy for his sorrow.
“I should not have told you this, padre,” he said, sadly, pressing the hand which the old man laid tenderly upon his. “The fault is mine, and I should not try to shirk the full responsibility by sharing it with you.”
“It is mine to share with you, my son,” Cerini replied, firmly. “You have erred, as you state. You have been to blame for not giving out again, as the example of the master-spirits of the past should have taught you, those glorious lessons which impart the joy of living to those who give as well as to those who receive. But my error is even heavier. I have lived all my life in this atmosphere, drinking in the knowledge and the spirit which have come to you only within the past few months; yet I failed to recognize in your wife the natural embodiment of all that the best in humanism teaches. What you and I have endeavored to assimilate she has felt and expressed as naturally as she has breathed. She has shown us humanism in its highest development, purified and strengthened by her own fine nature, even though we have given her no opportunity for expression. Thank God we have recognized it at last!”
“You really believe that?” cried Armstrong, recalling his own earlier and less-defined conviction.
“Beyond a doubt,” Cerini answered. “Let us find her, that we may tell her what a victory she has won.”
Armstrong placed a restraining hand upon the old man’s arm. “Not yet,” he said, gently but firmly. “There is much still to be done to prepare her for this knowledge. At present she would not accept it.”
“We must convince her.”
“First of all I must make my peace with Miss Thayer,” Armstrong replied.
“Until that complication is relieved there is no hope.”
“Do you feel strong enough for that?” asked Cerini, anxiously.
“It requires more than strength, padre,” Armstrong replied, seriously; “it requires faith in myself, which at present is sadly lacking.”
The old man rose and stood for a moment beside Armstrong’s half-reclining figure. Bending down, he took his face in his hands and looked full into his eyes.
“Let me give you that faith,” he said, affectionately. “You have already learned by sad experience that you are not the master of Fate. Let me tell you that by the same token you are not the victim of Fate. Nature, unerring in her wisdom, is now giving you the privilege of being co-partner with her in the final solving of your great personal problem. Accept the offered opportunity, my son, and show yourself finally worthy of it.”