Rowland went often to the Coliseum; he never wearied of it. One morning, about a month after his return from Frascati, as he was strolling across the vast arena, he observed a young woman seated on one of the fragments of stone which are ranged along the line of the ancient parapet. It seemed to him that he had seen her before, but he was unable to localize her face. Passing her again, he perceived that one of the little red-legged French soldiers at that time on guard there had approached her and was gallantly making himself agreeable. She smiled brilliantly, and Rowland recognized the smile (it had always pleased him) of a certain comely Assunta, who sometimes opened the door for Mrs. Light’s visitors. He wondered what she was doing alone in the Coliseum, and conjectured that Assunta had admirers as well as her young mistress, but that, being without the same domiciliary conveniencies, she was using this massive heritage of her Latin ancestors as a boudoir. In other words, she had an appointment with her lover, who had better, from present appearances, be punctual. It was a long time since Rowland had ascended to the ruinous upper tiers of the great circus, and, as the day was radiant and the distant views promised to be particularly clear, he determined to give himself the pleasure. The custodian unlocked the great wooden wicket, and he climbed through the winding shafts, where the eager Roman crowds had billowed and trampled, not pausing till he reached the highest accessible point of the ruin. The views were as fine as he had supposed; the lights on the Sabine Mountains had never been more lovely. He gazed to his satisfaction and retraced his steps. In a moment he paused again on an abutment somewhat lower, from which the glance dropped dizzily into the interior. There are chance anfractuosities of ruin in the upper portions of the Coliseum which offer a very fair imitation of the rugged face of an Alpine cliff. In those days a multitude of delicate flowers and sprays of wild herbage had found a friendly soil in the hoary crevices, and they bloomed and nodded amid the antique masonry as freely as they would have done in the virgin rock. Rowland was turning away, when he heard a sound of voices rising up from below. He had but to step slightly forward to find himself overlooking two persons who had seated themselves on a narrow ledge, in a sunny corner. They had apparently had an eye to extreme privacy, but they had not observed that their position was commanded by Rowland’s stand-point. One of these airy adventurers was a lady, thickly veiled, so that, even if he had not been standing directly above her, Rowland could not have seen her face. The other was a young man, whose face was also invisible, but who, as Rowland stood there, gave a toss of his clustering locks which was equivalent to the signature — Roderick Hudson. A moment’s reflection, hereupon, satisfied him of the identity of the lady. He had been unjust to poor Assunta, sitting patient in the gloomy arena; she had not come on her own errand. Rowland’s discoveries made him hesitate. Should he retire as noiselessly as possible, or should he call out a friendly good morning? While he was debating the question, he found himself distinctly hearing his friends’ words. They were of such a nature as to make him unwilling to retreat, and yet to make it awkward to be discovered in a position where it would be apparent that he had heard them.
“If what you say is true,” said Christina, with her usual soft deliberateness — it made her words rise with peculiar distinctness to Rowland’s ear —“you are simply weak. I am sorry! I hoped — I really believed — you were not.”
“No, I am not weak,” answered Roderick, with vehemence; “I maintain that I am not weak! I am incomplete, perhaps; but I can’t help that. Weakness is a man’s own fault!”
“Incomplete, then!” said Christina, with a laugh. “It’s the same thing, so long as it keeps you from splendid achievement. Is it written, then, that I shall really never know what I have so often dreamed of?”
“What have you dreamed of?”
“A man whom I can perfectly respect!” cried the young girl, with a sudden flame. “A man, at least, whom I can unrestrictedly admire. I meet one, as I have met more than one before, whom I fondly believe to be cast in a larger mould than most of the vile human breed, to be large in character, great in talent, strong in will! In such a man as that, I say, one’s weary imagination at last may rest; or it may wander if it will, yet never need to wander far from the deeps where one’s heart is anchored. When I first knew you, I gave no sign, but you had struck me. I observed you, as women observe, and I fancied you had the sacred fire.”
“Before heaven, I believe I have!” cried Roderick.
“Ah, but so little! It flickers and trembles and sputters; it goes out, you tell me, for whole weeks together. From your own account, it’s ten to one that in the long run you’re a failure.”
“I say those things sometimes myself, but when I hear you say them they make me feel as if I could work twenty years at a sitting, on purpose to refute you!”
“Ah, the man who is strong with what I call strength,” Christina replied, “would neither rise nor fall by anything I could say! I am a poor, weak woman; I have no strength myself, and I can give no strength. I am a miserable medley of vanity and folly. I am silly, I am ignorant, I am affected, I am false. I am the fruit of a horrible education, sown on a worthless soil. I am all that, and yet I believe I have one merit! I should know a great character when I saw it, and I should delight in it with a generosity which would do something toward the remission of my sins. For a man who should really give me a certain feeling — which I have never had, but which I should know when it came — I would send Prince Casamassima and his millions to perdition. I don’t know what you think of me for saying all this; I suppose we have not climbed up here under the skies to play propriety. Why have you been at such pains to assure me, after all, that you are a little man and not a great one, a weak one and not a strong? I innocently imagined that your eyes declared you were strong. But your voice condemns you; I always wondered at it; it’s not the voice of a conqueror!”
“Give me something to conquer,” cried Roderick, “and when I say that I thank you from my soul, my voice, whatever you think of it, shall speak the truth!”
Christina for a moment said nothing. Rowland was too interested to think of moving. “You pretend to such devotion,” she went on, “and yet I am sure you have never really chosen between me and that person in America.”
“Do me the favor not to speak of her,” said Roderick, imploringly.
“Why not? I say no ill of her, and I think all kinds of good. I am certain she is a far better girl than I, and far more likely to make you happy.”
“This is happiness, this present, palpable moment,” said Roderick; “though you have such a genius for saying the things that torture me!”
“It’s greater happiness than you deserve, then! You have never chosen, I say; you have been afraid to choose. You have never really faced the fact that you are false, that you have broken your faith. You have never looked at it and seen that it was hideous, and yet said, ‘No matter, I’ll brave the penalty, I’ll bear the shame!’ You have closed your eyes; you have tried to stifle remembrance, to persuade yourself that you were not behaving as badly as you seemed to be, and there would be some way, after all, of compassing bliss and yet escaping trouble. You have faltered and drifted, you have gone on from accident to accident, and I am sure that at this present moment you can’t tell what it is you really desire!”
Roderick was sitting with his knees drawn up and bent, and his hands clapsed around his legs. He bent his head and rested his forehead on his knees.
Christina went on with a sort of infernal calmness: “I believe that, really, you don’t greatly care for your friend in America any more than you do for me. You are one of the men who care only for themselves and for what they can make of themselves. That’s very well when they can make something great, and I could interest myself in a man of extraordinary power who should wish to turn all his passions to account. But if the power should turn out to be, after all, rather ordinary? Fancy feeling one’s self ground in the mill of a third-rate talent! If you have doubts about yourself, I can’t reassure you; I have too many doubts myself, about everything in this weary world. You have gone up like a rocket, in your profession, they tell me; are you going to come down like the stick? I don’t pretend to know; I repeat frankly what I have said before — that all modern sculpture seems to me weak, and that the only things I care for are some of the most battered of the antiques of the Vatican. No, no, I can’t reassure you; and when you tell me — with a confidence in my discretion of which, certainly, I am duly sensible — that at times you feel terribly small, why, I can only answer, ‘Ah, then, my poor friend, I am afraid you are small.’ The language I should like to hear, from a certain person, would be the language of absolute decision.”
Roderick raised his head, but he said nothing; he seemed to be exchanging a long glance with his companion. The result of it was to make him fling himself back with an inarticulate murmur. Rowland, admonished by the silence, was on the point of turning away, but he was arrested by a gesture of the young girl. She pointed for a moment into the blue air. Roderick followed the direction of her gesture.
“Is that little flower we see outlined against that dark niche,” she asked, “as intensely blue as it looks through my veil?” She spoke apparently with the amiable design of directing the conversation into a less painful channel.
Rowland, from where he stood, could see the flower she meant — a delicate plant of radiant hue, which sprouted from the top of an immense fragment of wall some twenty feet from Christina’s place.
Roderick turned his head and looked at it without answering. At last, glancing round, “Put up your veil!” he said. Christina complied. “Does it look as blue now?” he asked.
“Ah, what a lovely color!” she murmured, leaning her head on one side.
“Would you like to have it?”
She stared a moment and then broke into a light laugh.
“Would you like to have it?” he repeated in a ringing voice.
“Don’t look as if you would eat me up,” she answered. “It’s harmless if I say yes!”
Roderick rose to his feet and stood looking at the little flower. It was separated from the ledge on which he stood by a rugged surface of vertical wall, which dropped straight into the dusky vaults behind the arena. Suddenly he took off his hat and flung it behind him. Christina then sprang to her feet.
“I will bring it you,” he said.
She seized his arm. “Are you crazy? Do you mean to kill yourself?”
“I shall not kill myself. Sit down!”
“Excuse me. Not till you do!” And she grasped his arm with both hands.
Roderick shook her off and pointed with a violent gesture to her former place. “Go there!” he cried fiercely.
“You can never, never!” she murmured beseechingly, clasping her hands. “I implore you!”
Roderick turned and looked at her, and then in a voice which Rowland had never heard him use, a voice almost thunderous, a voice which awakened the echoes of the mighty ruin, he repeated, “Sit down!” She hesitated a moment and then she dropped on the ground and buried her face in her hands.
Rowland had seen all this, and he saw more. He saw Roderick clasp in his left arm the jagged corner of the vertical partition along which he proposed to pursue his crazy journey, stretch out his leg, and feel for a resting-place for his foot. Rowland had measured with a glance the possibility of his sustaining himself, and pronounced it absolutely nil. The wall was garnished with a series of narrow projections, the remains apparently of a brick cornice supporting the arch of a vault which had long since collapsed. It was by lodging his toes on these loose brackets and grasping with his hands at certain mouldering protuberances on a level with his head, that Roderick intended to proceed. The relics of the cornice were utterly worthless as a support. Rowland had observed this, and yet, for a moment, he had hesitated. If the thing were possible, he felt a sudden admiring glee at the thought of Roderick’s doing it. It would be finely done, it would be gallant, it would have a sort of masculine eloquence as an answer to Christina’s sinister persiflage. But it was not possible! Rowland left his place with a bound, and scrambled down some neighboring steps, and the next moment a stronger pair of hands than Christina’s were laid upon Roderick’s shoulder.
He turned, staring, pale and angry. Christina rose, pale and staring, too, but beautiful in her wonder and alarm. “My dear Roderick,” said Rowland, “I am only preventing you from doing a very foolish thing. That’s an exploit for spiders, not for young sculptors of promise.”
Roderick wiped his forehead, looked back at the wall, and then closed his eyes, as if with a spasm, of retarded dizziness. “I won’t resist you,” he said. “But I have made you obey,” he added, turning to Christina. “Am I weak now?”
She had recovered her composure; she looked straight past him and addressed Rowland: “Be so good as to show me the way out of this horrible place!”
He helped her back into the corridor; Roderick followed after a short interval. Of course, as they were descending the steps, came questions for Rowland to answer, and more or less surprise. Where had he come from? how happened he to have appeared at just that moment? Rowland answered that he had been rambling overhead, and that, looking out of an aperture, he had seen a gentleman preparing to undertake a preposterous gymnastic feat, and a lady swooning away in consequence. Interference seemed justifiable, and he had made it as prompt as possible. Roderick was far from hanging his head, like a man who has been caught in the perpetration of an extravagant folly; but if he held it more erect than usual Rowland believed that this was much less because he had made a show of personal daring than because he had triumphantly proved to Christina that, like a certain person she had dreamed of, he too could speak the language of decision. Christina descended to the arena in silence, apparently occupied with her own thoughts. She betrayed no sense of the privacy of her interview with Roderick needing an explanation. Rowland had seen stranger things in New York! The only evidence of her recent agitation was that, on being joined by her maid, she declared that she was unable to walk home; she must have a carriage. A fiacre was found resting in the shadow of the Arch of Constantine, and Rowland suspected that after she had got into it she disburdened herself, under her veil, of a few natural tears.
Rowland had played eavesdropper to so good a purpose that he might justly have omitted the ceremony of denouncing himself to Roderick. He preferred, however, to let him know that he had overheard a portion of his talk with Christina.
“Of course it seems to you,” Roderick said, “a proof that I am utterly infatuated.”
“Miss Light seemed to me to know very well how far she could go,” Rowland answered. “She was twisting you round her finger. I don’t think she exactly meant to defy you; but your crazy pursuit of that flower was a proof that she could go all lengths in the way of making a fool of you.”
“Yes,” said Roderick, meditatively; “she is making a fool of me.”
“And what do you expect to come of it?”
“Nothing good!” And Roderick put his hands into his pockets and looked as if he had announced the most colorless fact in the world.
“And in the light of your late interview, what do you make of your young lady?”
“If I could tell you that, it would be plain sailing. But she’ll not tell me again I am weak!”
“Are you very sure you are not weak?”
“I may be, but she shall never know it.”
Rowland said no more until they reached the Corso, when he asked his companion whether he was going to his studio.
Roderick started out of a reverie and passed his hands over his eyes. “Oh no, I can’t settle down to work after such a scene as that. I was not afraid of breaking my neck then, but I feel all in a tremor now. I will go — I will go and sit in the sun on the Pincio!”
“Promise me this, first,” said Rowland, very solemnly: “that the next time you meet Miss Light, it shall be on the earth and not in the air.”
Since his return from Frascati, Roderick had been working doggedly at the statue ordered by Mr. Leavenworth. To Rowland’s eye he had made a very fair beginning, but he had himself insisted, from the first, that he liked neither his subject nor his patron, and that it was impossible to feel any warmth of interest in a work which was to be incorporated into the ponderous personality of Mr. Leavenworth. It was all against the grain; he wrought without love. Nevertheless after a fashion he wrought, and the figure grew beneath his hands. Miss Blanchard’s friend was ordering works of art on every side, and his purveyors were in many cases persons whom Roderick declared it was infamy to be paired with. There had been grand tailors, he said, who declined to make you a coat unless you got the hat you were to wear with it from an artist of their own choosing. It seemed to him that he had an equal right to exact that his statue should not form part of the same system of ornament as the “Pearl of Perugia,” a picture by an American confrere who had, in Mr. Leavenworth’s opinion, a prodigious eye for color. As a customer, Mr. Leavenworth used to drop into Roderick’s studio, to see how things were getting on, and give a friendly hint or so. He would seat himself squarely, plant his gold-topped cane between his legs, which he held very much apart, rest his large white hands on the head, and enunciate the principles of spiritual art, as he hoisted them one by one, as you might say, out of the depths of his moral consciousness. His benignant and imperturbable pomposity gave Roderick the sense of suffocating beneath a large fluffy bolster, and the worst of the matter was that the good gentleman’s placid vanity had an integument whose toughness no sarcastic shaft could pierce. Roderick admitted that in thinking over the tribulations of struggling genius, the danger of dying of over-patronage had never occurred to him.
The deterring effect of the episode of the Coliseum was apparently of long continuance; if Roderick’s nerves had been shaken his hand needed time to recover its steadiness. He cultivated composure upon principles of his own; by frequenting entertainments from which he returned at four o’clock in the morning, and lapsing into habits which might fairly be called irregular. He had hitherto made few friends among the artistic fraternity; chiefly because he had taken no trouble about it, and there was in his demeanor an elastic independence of the favor of his fellow-mortals which made social advances on his own part peculiarly necessary. Rowland had told him more than once that he ought to fraternize a trifle more with the other artists, and he had always answered that he had not the smallest objection to fraternizing: let them come! But they came on rare occasions, and Roderick was not punctilious about returning their visits. He declared there was not one of them whose works gave him the smallest desire to make acquaintance with the insides of their heads. For Gloriani he professed a superb contempt, and, having been once to look at his wares, never crossed his threshold again. The only one of the fraternity for whom by his own admission he cared a straw was little Singleton; but he expressed his regard only in a kind of sublime hilarity whenever he encountered this humble genius, and quite forgot his existence in the intervals. He had never been to see him, but Singleton edged his way, from time to time, timidly, into Roderick’s studio, and agreed with characteristic modesty that brilliant fellows like the sculptor might consent to receive homage, but could hardly be expected to render it. Roderick never exactly accepted homage, and apparently did not quite observe whether poor Singleton spoke in admiration or in blame. Roderick’s taste as to companions was singularly capricious. There were very good fellows, who were disposed to cultivate him, who bored him to death; and there were others, in whom even Rowland’s good-nature was unable to discover a pretext for tolerance, in whom he appeared to find the highest social qualities. He used to give the most fantastic reasons for his likes and dislikes. He would declare he could n’t speak a civil word to a man who brushed his hair in a certain fashion, and he would explain his unaccountable fancy for an individual of imperceptible merit by telling you that he had an ancestor who in the thirteenth century had walled up his wife alive. “I like to talk to a man whose ancestor has walled up his wife alive,” he would say. “You may not see the fun of it, and think poor P—— is a very dull fellow. It’s very possible; I don’t ask you to admire him. But, for reasons of my own, I like to have him about. The old fellow left her for three days with her face uncovered, and placed a long mirror opposite to her, so that she could see, as he said, if her gown was a fit!”
His relish for an odd flavor in his friends had led him to make the acquaintance of a number of people outside of Rowland’s well-ordered circle, and he made no secret of their being very queer fish. He formed an intimacy, among others, with a crazy fellow who had come to Rome as an emissary of one of the Central American republics, to drive some ecclesiastical bargain with the papal government. The Pope had given him the cold shoulder, but since he had not prospered as a diplomatist, he had sought compensation as a man of the world, and his great flamboyant curricle and negro lackeys were for several weeks one of the striking ornaments of the Pincian. He spoke a queer jargon of Italian, Spanish, French, and English, humorously relieved with scraps of ecclesiastical Latin, and to those who inquired of Roderick what he found to interest him in such a fantastic jackanapes, the latter would reply, looking at his interlocutor with his lucid blue eyes, that it was worth any sacrifice to hear him talk nonsense! The two had gone together one night to a ball given by a lady of some renown in the Spanish colony, and very late, on his way home, Roderick came up to Rowland’s rooms, in whose windows he had seen a light. Rowland was going to bed, but Roderick flung himself into an armchair and chattered for an hour. The friends of the Costa Rican envoy were as amusing as himself, and in very much the same line. The mistress of the house had worn a yellow satin dress, and gold heels to her slippers, and at the close of the entertainment had sent for a pair of castanets, tucked up her petticoats, and danced a fandango, while the gentlemen sat cross-legged on the floor. “It was awfully low,” Roderick said; “all of a sudden I perceived it, and bolted. Nothing of that kind ever amuses me to the end: before it’s half over it bores me to death; it makes me sick. Hang it, why can’t a poor fellow enjoy things in peace? My illusions are all broken-winded; they won’t carry me twenty paces! I can’t laugh and forget; my laugh dies away before it begins. Your friend Stendhal writes on his book-covers (I never got farther) that he has seen too early in life la beaute parfaite. I don’t know how early he saw it; I saw it before I was born — in another state of being! I can’t describe it positively; I can only say I don’t find it anywhere now. Not at the bottom of champagne glasses; not, strange as it may seem, in that extra half-yard or so of shoulder that some women have their ball-dresses cut to expose. I don’t find it at merry supper-tables, where half a dozen ugly men with pomatumed heads are rapidly growing uglier still with heat and wine; not when I come away and walk through these squalid black streets, and go out into the Forum and see a few old battered stone posts standing there like gnawed bones stuck into the earth. Everything is mean and dusky and shabby, and the men and women who make up this so-called brilliant society are the meanest and shabbiest of all. They have no real spontaneity; they are all cowards and popinjays. They have no more dignity than so many grasshoppers. Nothing is good but one!” And he jumped up and stood looking at one of his statues, which shone vaguely across the room in the dim lamplight.
“Yes, do tell us,” said Rowland, “what to hold on by!”
“Those things of mine were tolerably good,” he answered. “But my idea was better — and that’s what I mean!”
Rowland said nothing. He was willing to wait for Roderick to complete the circle of his metamorphoses, but he had no desire to officiate as chorus to the play. If Roderick chose to fish in troubled waters, he must land his prizes himself.
“You think I ’m an impudent humbug,” the latter said at last, “coming up to moralize at this hour of the night. You think I want to throw dust into your eyes, to put you off the scent. That’s your eminently rational view of the case.”
“Excuse me from taking any view at all,” said Rowland.
“You have given me up, then?”
“No, I have merely suspended judgment. I am waiting.”
“You have ceased then positively to believe in me?”
Rowland made an angry gesture. “Oh, cruel boy! When you have hit your mark and made people care for you, you should n’t twist your weapon about at that rate in their vitals. Allow me to say I am sleepy. Good night!”
Some days afterward it happened that Rowland, on a long afternoon ramble, took his way through one of the quiet corners of the Trastevere. He was particularly fond of this part of Rome, though he could hardly have expressed the charm he found in it. As you pass away from the dusky, swarming purlieus of the Ghetto, you emerge into a region of empty, soundless, grass-grown lanes and alleys, where the shabby houses seem mouldering away in disuse, and yet your footstep brings figures of startling Roman type to the doorways. There are few monuments here, but no part of Rome seemed more historic, in the sense of being weighted with a crushing past, blighted with the melancholy of things that had had their day. When the yellow afternoon sunshine slept on the sallow, battered walls, and lengthened the shadows in the grassy courtyards of small closed churches, the place acquired a strange fascination. The church of Saint Cecilia has one of these sunny, waste-looking courts; the edifice seems abandoned to silence and the charity of chance devotion. Rowland never passed it without going in, and he was generally the only visitor. He entered it now, but found that two persons had preceded him. Both were women. One was at her prayers at one of the side altars; the other was seated against a column at the upper end of the nave. Rowland walked to the altar, and paid, in a momentary glance at the clever statue of the saint in death, in the niche beneath it, the usual tribute to the charm of polished ingenuity. As he turned away he looked at the person seated and recognized Christina Light. Seeing that she perceived him, he advanced to speak to her.
She was sitting in a listless attitude, with her hands in her lap; she seemed to be tired. She was dressed simply, as if for walking and escaping observation. When he had greeted her he glanced back at her companion, and recognized the faithful Assunta.
Christina smiled. “Are you looking for Mr. Hudson? He is not here, I am happy to say.”
“But you?” he asked. “This is a strange place to find you.”
“Not at all! People call me a strange girl, and I might as well have the comfort of it. I came to take a walk; that, by the way, is part of my strangeness. I can’t loll all the morning on a sofa, and all the afternoon in a carriage. I get horribly restless. I must move; I must do something and see something. Mamma suggests a cup of tea. Meanwhile I put on an old dress and half a dozen veils, I take Assunta under my arm, and we start on a pedestrian tour. It’s a bore that I can’t take the poodle, but he attracts attention. We trudge about everywhere; there is nothing I like so much. I hope you will congratulate me on the simplicity of my tastes.”
“I congratulate you on your wisdom. To live in Rome and not to walk would, I think, be poor pleasure. But you are terribly far from home, and I am afraid you are tired.”
“A little — enough to sit here a while.”
“Might I offer you my company while you rest?”
“If you will promise to amuse me. I am in dismal spirits.”
Rowland said he would do what he could, and brought a chair and placed it near her. He was not in love with her; he disapproved of her; he mistrusted her; and yet he felt it a kind of privilege to watch her, and he found a peculiar excitement in talking to her. The background of her nature, as he would have called it, was large and mysterious, and it emitted strange, fantastic gleams and flashes. Watching for these rather quickened one’s pulses. Moreover, it was not a disadvantage to talk to a girl who made one keep guard on one’s composure; it diminished one’s chronic liability to utter something less than revised wisdom.
Assunta had risen from her prayers, and, as he took his place, was coming back to her mistress. But Christina motioned her away. “No, no; while you are about it, say a few dozen more!” she said. “Pray for me,” she added in English. “Pray, I say nothing silly. She has been at it half an hour; I envy her capacity!”
“Have you never felt in any degree,” Rowland asked, “the fascination of Catholicism?”
“Yes, I have been through that, too! There was a time when I wanted immensely to be a nun; it was not a laughing matter. It was when I was about sixteen years old. I read the Imitation and the Life of Saint Catherine. I fully believed in the miracles of the saints, and I was dying to have one of my own. The least little accident that could have been twisted into a miracle would have carried me straight into the bosom of the church. I had the real religious passion. It has passed away, and, as I sat here just now, I was wondering what had become of it!”
Rowland had already been sensible of something in this young lady’s tone which he would have called a want of veracity, and this epitome of her religious experience failed to strike him as an absolute statement of fact. But the trait was not disagreeable, for she herself was evidently the foremost dupe of her inventions. She had a fictitious history in which she believed much more fondly than in her real one, and an infinite capacity for extemporized reminiscence adapted to the mood of the hour. She liked to idealize herself, to take interesting and picturesque attitudes to her own imagination; and the vivacity and spontaneity of her character gave her, really, a starting-point in experience; so that the many-colored flowers of fiction which blossomed in her talk were not so much perversions, as sympathetic exaggerations, of fact. And Rowland felt that whatever she said of herself might have been, under the imagined circumstances; impulse was there, audacity, the restless, questioning temperament. “I am afraid I am sadly prosaic,” he said, “for in these many months now that I have been in Rome, I have never ceased for a moment to look at Catholicism simply from the outside. I don’t see an opening as big as your finger-nail where I could creep into it!”
“What do you believe?” asked Christina, looking at him. “Are you religious?”
“I believe in God.”
Christina let her beautiful eyes wander a while, and then gave a little sigh. “You are much to be envied!”
“You, I imagine, in that line have nothing to envy me.”
“Yes, I have. Rest!”
“You are too young to say that.”
“I am not young; I have never been young! My mother took care of that. I was a little wrinkled old woman at ten.”
“I am afraid,” said Rowland, in a moment, “that you are fond of painting yourself in dark colors.”
She looked at him a while in silence. “Do you wish,” she demanded at last, “to win my eternal gratitude? Prove to me that I am better than I suppose.”
“I should have first to know what you really suppose.”
She shook her head. “It would n’t do. You would be horrified to learn even the things I imagine about myself, and shocked at the knowledge of evil displayed in my very mistakes.”
“Well, then,” said Rowland, “I will ask no questions. But, at a venture, I promise you to catch you some day in the act of doing something very good.”
“Can it be, can it be,” she asked, “that you too are trying to flatter me? I thought you and I had fallen, from the first, into rather a truth-speaking vein.”
“Oh, I have not abandoned it!” said Rowland; and he determined, since he had the credit of homely directness, to push his advantage farther. The opportunity seemed excellent. But while he was hesitating as to just how to begin, the young girl said, bending forward and clasping her hands in her lap, “Please tell me about your religion.”
“Tell you about it? I can’t!” said Rowland, with a good deal of emphasis.
She flushed a little. “Is it such a mighty mystery it cannot be put into words, nor communicated to my base ears?”
“It is simply a sentiment that makes part of my life, and I can’t detach myself from it sufficiently to talk about it.”
“Religion, it seems to me, should be eloquent and aggressive. It should wish to make converts, to persuade and illumine, to sway all hearts!”
“One’s religion takes the color of one’s general disposition. I am not aggressive, and certainly I am not eloquent.”
“Beware, then, of finding yourself confronted with doubt and despair! I am sure that doubt, at times, and the bitterness that comes of it, can be terribly eloquent. To tell the truth, my lonely musings, before you came in, were eloquent enough, in their way. What do you know of anything but this strange, terrible world that surrounds you? How do you know that your faith is not a mere crazy castle in the air; one of those castles that we are called fools for building when we lodge them in this life?”
“I don’t know it, any more than any one knows the contrary. But one’s religion is extremely ingenious in doing without knowledge.”
“In such a world as this it certainly needs to be!”
Rowland smiled. “What is your particular quarrel with this world?”
“It’s a general quarrel. Nothing is true, or fixed, or permanent. We all seem to be playing with shadows more or less grotesque. It all comes over me here so dismally! The very atmosphere of this cold, deserted church seems to mock at one’s longing to believe in something. Who cares for it now? who comes to it? who takes it seriously? Poor stupid Assunta there gives in her adhesion in a jargon she does n’t understand, and you and I, proper, passionless tourists, come lounging in to rest from a walk. And yet the Catholic church was once the proudest institution in the world, and had quite its own way with men’s souls. When such a mighty structure as that turns out to have a flaw, what faith is one to put in one’s poor little views and philosophies? What is right and what is wrong? What is one really to care for? What is the proper rule of life? I am tired of trying to discover, and I suspect it’s not worth the trouble. Live as most amuses you!”
“Your perplexities are so terribly comprehensive,” said Rowland, smiling, “that one hardly knows where to meet them first.”
“I don’t care much for anything you can say, because it’s sure to be half-hearted. You are not in the least contented, yourself.”
“How do you know that?”
“Oh, I am an observer!”
“No one is absolutely contented, I suppose, but I assure you I complain of nothing.”
“So much the worse for your honesty. To begin with, you are in love.”
“You would not have me complain of that!”
“And it does n’t go well. There are grievous obstacles. So much I know! You need n’t protest; I ask no questions. You will tell no one — me least of all. Why does one never see you?”
“Why, if I came to see you,” said Rowland, deliberating, “it would n’t be, it could n’t be, for a trivial reason — because I had not been in a month, because I was passing, because I admire you. It would be because I should have something very particular to say. I have not come, because I have been slow in making up my mind to say it.”
“You are simply cruel. Something particular, in this ocean of inanities? In common charity, speak!”
“I doubt whether you will like it.”
“Oh, I hope to heaven it’s not a compliment!”
“It may be called a compliment to your reasonableness. You perhaps remember that I gave you a hint of it the other day at Frascati.”
“Has it been hanging fire all this time? Explode! I promise not to stop my ears.”
“It relates to my friend Hudson.” And Rowland paused. She was looking at him expectantly; her face gave no sign. “I am rather disturbed in mind about him. He seems to me at times to be in an unpromising way.” He paused again, but Christina said nothing. “The case is simply this,” he went on. “It was by my advice he renounced his career at home and embraced his present one. I made him burn his ships. I brought him to Rome, I launched him in the world, and I stand surety, in a measure, to — to his mother, for his prosperity. It is not such smooth sailing as it might be, and I am inclined to put up prayers for fair winds. If he is to succeed, he must work — quietly, devotedly. It is not news to you, I imagine, that Hudson is a great admirer of yours.”
Christina remained silent; she turned away her eyes with an air, not of confusion, but of deep deliberation. Surprising frankness had, as a general thing, struck Rowland as the key-note of her character, but she had more than once given him a suggestion of an unfathomable power of calculation, and her silence now had something which it is hardly extravagant to call portentous. He had of course asked himself how far it was questionable taste to inform an unprotected girl, for the needs of a cause, that another man admired her; the thing, superficially, had an uncomfortable analogy with the shrewdness that uses a cat’s paw and lets it risk being singed. But he decided that even rigid discretion is not bound to take a young lady at more than her own valuation, and Christina presently reassured him as to the limits of her susceptibility. “Mr. Hudson is in love with me!” she said.
Rowland flinched a trifle. Then —“Am I,” he asked, “from this point of view of mine, to be glad or sorry?”
“I don’t understand you.”
“Why, is Hudson to be happy, or unhappy?”
She hesitated a moment. “You wish him to be great in his profession? And for that you consider that he must be happy in his life?”
“Decidedly. I don’t say it’s a general rule, but I think it is a rule for him.”
“So that if he were very happy, he would become very great?”
“He would at least do himself justice.”
“And by that you mean a great deal?”
“A great deal.”
Christina sank back in her chair and rested her eyes on the cracked and polished slabs of the pavement. At last, looking up, “You have not forgotten, I suppose, that you told me he was engaged?”
“By no means.”
“He is still engaged, then?”
“To the best of my belief.”
“And yet you desire that, as you say, he should be made happy by something I can do for him?”
“What I desire is this. That your great influence with him should be exerted for his good, that it should help him and not retard him. Understand me. You probably know that your lovers have rather a restless time of it. I can answer for two of them. You don’t know your own mind very well, I imagine, and you like being admired, rather at the expense of the admirer. Since we are really being frank, I wonder whether I might not say the great word.”
“You need n’t; I know it. I am a horrible coquette.”
“No, not a horrible one, since I am making an appeal to your generosity. I am pretty sure you cannot imagine yourself marrying my friend.”
“There’s nothing I cannot imagine! That is my trouble.”
Rowland’s brow contracted impatiently. “I cannot imagine it, then!” he affirmed.
Christina flushed faintly; then, very gently, “I am not so bad as you think,” she said.
“It is not a question of badness; it is a question of whether circumstances don’t make the thing an extreme improbability.”
“Worse and worse. I can be bullied, then, or bribed!”
“You are not so candid,” said Rowland, “as you pretend to be. My feeling is this. Hudson, as I understand him, does not need, as an artist, the stimulus of strong emotion, of passion. He’s better without it; he’s emotional and passionate enough when he’s left to himself. The sooner passion is at rest, therefore, the sooner he will settle down to work, and the fewer emotions he has that are mere emotions and nothing more, the better for him. If you cared for him enough to marry him, I should have nothing to say; I would never venture to interfere. But I strongly suspect you don’t, and therefore I would suggest, most respectfully, that you should let him alone.”
“And if I let him alone, as you say, all will be well with him for ever more?”
“Not immediately and not absolutely, but things will be easier. He will be better able to concentrate himself.”
“What is he doing now? Wherein does he dissatisfy you?”
“I can hardly say. He’s like a watch that’s running down. He is moody, desultory, idle, irregular, fantastic.”
“Heavens, what a list! And it’s all poor me?”
“No, not all. But you are a part of it, and I turn to you because you are a more tangible, sensible, responsible cause than the others.”
Christina raised her hand to her eyes, and bent her head thoughtfully. Rowland was puzzled to measure the effect of his venture; she rather surprised him by her gentleness. At last, without moving, “If I were to marry him,” she asked, “what would have become of his fiancee?”
“I am bound to suppose that she would be extremely unhappy.”
Christina said nothing more, and Rowland, to let her make her reflections, left his place and strolled away. Poor Assunta, sitting patiently on a stone bench, and unprovided, on this occasion, with military consolation, gave him a bright, frank smile, which might have been construed as an expression of regret for herself, and of sympathy for her mistress. Rowland presently seated himself again near Christina.
“What do you think,” she asked, looking at him, “of your friend’s infidelity?”
“I don’t like it.”
“Was he very much in love with her?”
“He asked her to marry him. You may judge.”
“Is she rich?”
“No, she is poor.”
“Is she very much in love with him?”
“I know her too little to say.”
She paused again, and then resumed: “You have settled in your mind, then, that I will never seriously listen to him?”
“I think it unlikely, until the contrary is proved.”
“How shall it be proved? How do you know what passes between us?”
“I can judge, of course, but from appearance; but, like you, I am an observer. Hudson has not at all the air of a prosperous suitor.”
“If he is depressed, there is a reason. He has a bad conscience. One must hope so, at least. On the other hand, simply as a friend,” she continued gently, “you think I can do him no good?”
The humility of her tone, combined with her beauty, as she made this remark, was inexpressibly touching, and Rowland had an uncomfortable sense of being put at a disadvantage. “There are doubtless many good things you might do, if you had proper opportunity,” he said. “But you seem to be sailing with a current which leaves you little leisure for quiet benevolence. You live in the whirl and hurry of a world into which a poor artist can hardly find it to his advantage to follow you.”
“In plain English, I am hopelessly frivolous. You put it very generously.”
“I won’t hesitate to say all my thought,” said Rowland. “For better or worse, you seem to me to belong, both by character and by circumstance, to what is called the world, the great world. You are made to ornament it magnificently. You are not made to be an artist’s wife.”
“I see. But even from your point of view, that would depend upon the artist. Extraordinary talent might make him a member of the great world!”
Rowland smiled. “That is very true.”
“If, as it is,” Christina continued in a moment, “you take a low view of me — no, you need n’t protest — I wonder what you would think if you knew certain things.”
“What things do you mean?”
“Well, for example, how I was brought up. I have had a horrible education. There must be some good in me, since I have perceived it, since I have turned and judged my circumstances.”
“My dear Miss Light!” Rowland murmured.
She gave a little, quick laugh. “You don’t want to hear? you don’t want to have to think about that?”
“Have I a right to? You need n’t justify yourself.”
She turned upon him a moment the quickened light of her beautiful eyes, then fell to musing again. “Is there not some novel or some play,” she asked at last, “in which some beautiful, wicked woman who has ensnared a young man sees his father come to her and beg her to let him go?”
“Very likely,” said Rowland. “I hope she consents.”
“I forget. But tell me,” she continued, “shall you consider — admitting your proposition — that in ceasing to flirt with Mr. Hudson, so that he may go about his business, I do something magnanimous, heroic, sublime — something with a fine name like that?”
Rowland, elated with the prospect of gaining his point, was about to reply that she would deserve the finest name in the world; but he instantly suspected that this tone would not please her, and, besides, it would not express his meaning.
“You do something I shall greatly respect,” he contented himself with saying.
She made no answer, and in a moment she beckoned to her maid. “What have I to do today?” she asked.
Assunta meditated. “Eh, it’s a very busy day! Fortunately I have a better memory than the signorina,” she said, turning to Rowland. She began to count on her fingers. “We have to go to the Pie di Marmo to see about those laces that were sent to be washed. You said also that you wished to say three sharp words to the Buonvicini about your pink dress. You want some moss-rosebuds for to-night, and you won’t get them for nothing! You dine at the Austrian Embassy, and that Frenchman is to powder your hair. You’re to come home in time to receive, for the signora gives a dance. And so away, away till morning!”
“Ah, yes, the moss-roses!” Christina murmured, caressingly. “I must have a quantity — at least a hundred. Nothing but buds, eh? You must sew them in a kind of immense apron, down the front of my dress. Packed tight together, eh? It will be delightfully barbarous. And then twenty more or so for my hair. They go very well with powder; don’t you think so?” And she turned to Rowland. “I am going en Pompadour.”
“To the Spanish Embassy, or whatever it is.”
“All down the front, signorina? Dio buono! You must give me time!” Assunta cried.
“Yes, we’ll go!” And she left her place. She walked slowly to the door of the church, looking at the pavement, and Rowland could not guess whether she was thinking of her apron of moss-rosebuds or of her opportunity for moral sublimity. Before reaching the door she turned away and stood gazing at an old picture, indistinguishable with blackness, over an altar. At last they passed out into the court. Glancing at her in the open air, Rowland was startled; he imagined he saw the traces of hastily suppressed tears. They had lost time, she said, and they must hurry; she sent Assunta to look for a fiacre. She remained silent a while, scratching the ground with the point of her parasol, and then at last, looking up, she thanked Rowland for his confidence in her “reasonableness.” “It’s really very comfortable to be asked, to be expected, to do something good, after all the horrid things one has been used to doing — instructed, commanded, forced to do! I’ll think over what you have said to me.” In that deserted quarter fiacres are rare, and there was some delay in Assunta’s procuring one. Christina talked of the church, of the picturesque old court, of that strange, decaying corner of Rome. Rowland was perplexed; he was ill at ease. At last the fiacre arrived, but she waited a moment longer. “So, decidedly,” she suddenly asked, “I can only harm him?”
“You make me feel very brutal,” said Rowland.
“And he is such a fine fellow that it would be really a great pity, eh?”
“I shall praise him no more,” Rowland said.
She turned away quickly, but she lingered still. “Do you remember promising me, soon after we first met, that at the end of six months you would tell me definitely what you thought of me?”
“It was a foolish promise.”
“You gave it. Bear it in mind. I will think of what you have said to me. Farewell.” She stepped into the carriage, and it rolled away. Rowland stood for some minutes, looking after it, and then went his way with a sigh. If this expressed general mistrust, he ought, three days afterward, to have been reassured. He received by the post a note containing these words:—
“I have done it. Begin and respect me!
“— C. L.”
To be perfectly satisfactory, indeed, the note required a commentary. He called that evening upon Roderick, and found one in the information offered him at the door, by the old serving-woman — the startling information that the signorino had gone to Naples.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10