moment he seemed too embarrassed to speak.
”Ah–you’re here as an advance guard? I remember now–I sawMiss Hicks in Venice the day before yesterday,” Lansingcontinued, dazed at the thought that hardly forty-eight hourshad passed since his encounter with Coral in the Scalzi.
Mr. Buttles, instead of speaking, had tentatively approached histable. “May I take this seat for a moment, Mr. Lansing? Thankyou. No, I am not here as an advance guard–though I believethe Ibis is due some time to-morrow.” He cleared his throat,wiped his eyeglasses on a silk handkerchief, replaced them onhis nose, and went on solemnly: “Perhaps, to clear up anypossible misunderstanding, I ought to say that I am no longer inthe employ of Mr. Hicks.”Lansing glanced at him sympathetically. It was clear that hesuffered horribly in imparting this information, though hiscompact face did not lend itself to any dramatic display ofemotion.
”Really,” Nick smiled, and then ventured: “I hope it’s notowing to conscientious objections to Tiepolo?”Mr. Buttles’s blush became a smouldering agony. “Ah, Miss Hicksmentioned to you … told you …? No, Mr. Lansing. I amprincipled against the effete art of Tiepolo, and of all hiscontemporaries, I confess; but if Miss Hicks chooses tosurrender herself momentarily to the unwholesome spell of theItalian decadence it is not for me to protest or to criticize.
Her intellectual and aesthetic range so far exceeds my humblecapacity that it would be ridiculous, unbecoming ….”He broke off, and once more wiped a faint moisture from hiseyeglasses. It was evident that he was suffering from adistress which he longed and yet dreaded to communicate. ButNick made no farther effort to bridge the gulf of his ownpreoccupations; and Mr. Buttles, after an expectant pause, wenton: “If you see me here to-day it is only because, after asomewhat abrupt departure, I find myself unable to take leave ofour friends without a last look at the Ibis–the scene of somany stimulating hours. But I must beg you,” he addedearnestly, “should you see Miss Hicks–or any other member ofthe party–to make no allusion to my presence in Genoa. Iwish,” said Mr. Buttles with simplicity, “to preserve thestrictest incognito.”Lansing glanced at him kindly. “Oh, but–isn’t that a littleunfriendly?””No other course is possible, Mr. Lansing,” said the ex-secretary, “and I commit myself to your discretion. The truthis, if I am here it is not to look once more at the Ibis, but atMiss Hicks: once only. You will understand me, and appreciatewhat I am suffering.”He bowed again, and trotted away on his small, tightly-bootedfeet; pausing on the threshold to say: “From the first it washopeless,” before he disappeared through the glass doors.
A gleam of commiseration flashed through Nick’s mind: there wassomething quaintly poignant in the sight of the brisk andefficient Mr. Buttles reduced to a limp image of unrequitedpassion. And what a painful surprise to the Hickses to be thussuddenly deprived of the secretary who possessed “the foreignlanguages”! Mr. Beck kept the accounts and settled with thehotel-keepers; but it was Mr. Buttles’s loftier task toentertain in their own tongues the unknown geniuses who flockedabout the Hickses, and Nick could imagine how disconcerting hisdeparture must be on the eve of their Grecian cruise which Mrs.
Hicks would certainly call an Odyssey.
The next moment the vision of Coral’s hopeless suitor had faded,and Nick was once more spinning around on the wheel of his ownwoes. The night before, when he had sent his note to Susy, froma little restaurant close to Palazzo Vanderlyn that they oftenpatronized, he had done so with the firm intention of going awayfor a day or two in order to collect his wits and think over thesituation. But after his letter had been entrusted to thelandlord’s little son, who was a particular friend of Susy’s,Nick had decided to await the lad’s return. The messenger hadnot been bidden to ask for an answer; but Nick, knowing thefriendly and inquisitive Italian mind, was almost sure that theboy, in the hope of catching a glimpse of Susy, would lingerabout while the letter was carried up. And he pictured the maidknocking at his wife’s darkened room, and Susy dashing somepowder on her tear-stained face before she turned on the light–poor foolish child!
The boy had returned rather sooner than Nick expected, and hehad brought no answer, but merely the statement that thesignora was out: that everybody was out.
”Everybody?””The signora and the four gentlemen who were dining at thepalace. They all went out together on foot soon after dinner.
There was no one to whom I could give the note but the gondolieron the landing, for the signora had said she would be very late,and had sent the maid to bed; and the maid had, of course, goneout immediately with her innamorato.””Ah–” said Nick, slipping his reward into the boy’s hand, andwalking out of the restaurant.
Susy had gone out–gone out with their usual band, as she didevery night in these sultry summer weeks, gone out after hertalk with Nick, as if nothing had happened, as if his wholeworld and hers had not crashed in ruins at their feet. Ah, poorSusy! After all, she had merely obeyed the instinct of selfpreservation, the old hard habit of keeping up, going ahead andhiding her troubles; unless indeed the habit had alreadyengendered indifference, and it had become as easy for her asfor most of her friends to pass from drama to dancing, froms
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moment he seemed too embarrassed to speak.