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CHAPTER XXXI. COUSINS.
They stood all four looking at one another mutely for a few minutes longer, and then Colin broke the ominous silence by saying as politely as he was able, 'Signora Cecca, this lady has come to see me from England, and we are relations. We have not met for many years. Will you excuse my dismissing you for this morning?'

Cecca made a queenly obeisance to Colin, dropped a sort of saucy Italian curtsey to Minna, nodded familiarly to Hiram, and swept out of the studio into the dressing-room without uttering another word.

'She'll go off to Bazzoni's, I'm afraid,' Hiram said, with a sigh of relief, as she shut the door noiselessly and cautiously behind her. 'He's downright anxious to get her, and she's a touchy young woman, that's certain.'

'I'm not at all afraid of that,' Colin answered, smiling; 'she's a great deal too true to me for any such tricks as those, I'm sure, Winthrop. She really likes me, I know, and she won't desert me even for a pique, though I can easily see she's awfully offended.'

'Well, I hope so,' Hiram replied gravely. 'She's far too good a model to be lost. Goodbye, Churchill.—Good morning, Miss Wroe. I hope you'll do me the same honour as you've done your cousin, by coming to take a look some day around my studio.'

'Well, Minna,' Colin said as soon as they were alone, coming up to her and offering once more to kiss her—'why, little woman, what's the matter? Aren't you going to let me kiss you any longer? We always used to kiss one another in the old days, you know, in England.'

'But now we're both of us quite grown up, Colin,' Minna answered, somewhat pettishly, 'so of course that makes all the difference.'

Cohn couldn't understand the meaning of this chilliness; for Minna's late letters, written in the tremor of delight at the surprise she was preparing for him, had been more than usually affectionate; and it would never have entered into his head for a moment to suppose that she could have misinterpreted his remarks about Cecca, even if he had known that she had overheard them. To a sculptor, such criticism of a model, such enthusiasm for the mere form of the shapely human figure, seem so natural and disinterested, so much a necessary corollary of his art, that he never even dreams of guarding against any possible misapprehension. So Colin only bowed his head in silent wonder, and answered slowly, 'But then you know, Minna, we're cousins. Surely there can be no reason why cousins when they meet shouldn't kiss one another.' He couldn't have chosen a worse plea at that particular moment; for as he said it, the blood rushed from Minna's cheeks, and she trembled with excitement at that seeming knell to all her dearest expectations. 'Oh, well, if you put it upon that ground, Colin,' she faltered out half tearfully, 'of course we may kiss one another—as cousins.'

Colin seized her in his arms at the word, and covered her pretty little gipsy face with a string of warm, eager kisses. Even little Minna, in her fright and anxiety, could not help imagining to herself that those were hardly what one could call in fairness mere everyday cousinly embraces. But her evil genius made her struggle to release herself, according to the code of etiquette which she had learnt as becoming from her friends and early companions; and she pushed Colin away after a moment's doubtful acquiescence, with a little petulant gesture of half-affected anger. The philosophic observer may indeed note that among the English people only women of the very highest breeding know how to let themselves be kissed by their lovers with becoming and unresisting dignity. Tennyson's Maud, when her cynic admirer kissed her for the first time, 'took the kiss sedately.' I fear it must be admitted that under the same circumstances Minna Wroe, dear little native-born lady though she was, would have felt it incumbent upon her as a woman and a maiden to resist and struggle to the utmost of her power.

As for Colin, having got rid of that first resistance easily enough, he soon settled in his own mind to his own entire satisfaction that Minna had been only a little shy of him after so long an absence, and had perhaps been playing off a sort of mock-modest coyness upon him, in order to rouse him to an effective aggression. So he said no more to her about the matter, but asked her full particulars as to her new position and her journey; and even Minna herself, disappointed as she was, could not help opening out her full heart to dear old Colin, and telling him all about everything that had happened to her in the last six weeks, except her inner hopes and fears and lamentations. Yes, she had come to Rome to live—she didn't say 'on purpose to be near you, Colin'—and they would have abundant opportunities of seeing one another frequently; and Madame was very kind, for an employer, you know—as employers go—you can't expect much, of course, from an employer. And Colin showed her all his busts and statues; and Minna admired them profoundly with a genuine admiration. And then, what prices he got for them! Why, Colin, really nowadays you're become quite a gentleman! And Colin, to whom that social metamorphosis had long grown perfectly familiar, laughed heartily at the na?ve remark and then looked round with a touch of professional suspicion, for fear some accidental patron might have happened to come in and overhear the simple little confession. Altogether, their conversation got very close and affectionate and cousinly.

At last, after they had talked about everything that most concerned them both, save only the one thing that concerned them both more than anything, Minna asked in as unconcerned a tone as she could muster up, 'And this model, Colin—Cecca, I think you called her—what of her?'

Colin's eye lighted up with artistic enthusiasm as he answered warmly, 'Oh, she's the most beautiful girl in all Rome, little woman. I found her out by accident last year, at a village in Calabria where Winthrop and I had gone for a Christmas holiday; and I induced her to come to Rome and go in for a model's life as a profession. Isn't she just magnificent, Minna?'

'Very magnificent indeed, I dare say,' Minna answered coldly; 'but not to my mind by any means pleasing.'

'I wonder you think that,' Colin said in frank astonishment: for he was too much a sculptor even to suspect that Minna could take any other view of his model except the purely artistic one. 'She was the original of that Nymph Bathing of mine that you see over yonder.'

Minna looked critically at the Nymph Bathing—a shameless hussy, truly, if ever there was one—and answered in a chilly voice, 'I like it the least of all your statues, if you care to have my opinion, Colin.'

'Well, now, I'm awfully sorry for that, Minna,' Colin went on seriously, regarding the work with that despondent eye with which one always views one's own performances after hearing by any chance an adverse criticism; 'for I rather liked the nymph myself, you know, and I can generally rely upon your judgment as being about the very best to be had anywhere in the open market. There's no denying, little woman, that you've got a born taste somehow or other for the art of sculpture.'

If only women would say what they mean to us! but they won't, so what's the use of bothering one's head about it? They'll make themselves and us unhappy for a twelvemonth together—lucky indeed if not for ever—by petting and fretting over some jealous fancy or other, some vague foolish suspicion, which, if they would but speak out frankly for a moment, might be dispelled and settled with a good hearty kiss in half a second. Our very unsuspiciousness, our masculine downrightness and definiteness, make us slow to perceive their endless small tiffs and crooked questions; slow to detect the real meaning that underlies their unaccountable praise and blame of other people, given entirely from the point of' view of their own marvellous subjective universe. The question whether Cecca was handsome or otherwise was to Colin Churchill a simple question of external aesthetics; he was as unprejudiced about it as he would have been in judging a Greek torso or a modern Italian statue. But to Minna it was mainly a question between her own heart and Colin's. If she had only told him then and there her whole doubt and trouble—confessed it, as a man would have confessed it, openly and simply, and asked at once for a straightforward explanation, she would have saved herself long weeks of misery and self-torture and internal questionings. But she did not; and Colin, never doubting her misapprehension, dropped the matter lightly as one of no practical importance whatsoever.

So it came to pass that Minna let that first day at Rome slip by without having come to any understanding at all with Colin; and went home to Madame's still in doubt in her own troubled little mind whether or not she was really and truly quite engaged to him. Did he love her, or did he merely like her? Was she his sweetheart, or merely an old friend whom he had known and confided in ever since those dim old days at Wootton Mandeville? Minna could have cried her eyes out over that abstruse and difficult personal question. And Colin never even knew that the question had for one moment so much as once occurred to her.

'I may have one more kiss before you go, little woman,' Colin said to her tenderly, as she was on the point of leaving. Minna's eyes glistened brightly. 'One more kiss, you know, dear, for old times' sake, Minna.' Minna's eyes filled with tears, and she could hardly brush them away without his perceiving it. It was only for old times' sake, then, for old times' sake, not for love and the future. Oh, Colin, Colin, how bitter! how bitter!

'As a cousin, Colin?' she murmured interrogatively.

Cohn laughed a gay little laugh. 'Strictly as a cousin,' he answered merrily, lingering far longer on her lips, however, than the most orthodox cousinly affection could ever possibly have sufficed to justify.

Minna sighed and jumped away hastily. That night, in her own room, looking at Colin's photograph, and thinking of the dreadful Italian woman, and all the dangers that beset her round about, she muttered to herself ever so often, 'Strictly as a cousin, he said strictly as a cousin—for old times' sake—strictly as a cousin.'

There was only one real comfort left for her in all the dreary, gloomy, disappointing outlook. At least that horrid high-born Miss Gwen Howard-Russell (ugh, what a name!) had disappeared bodily altogether from off the circle of Cohn's horizon.


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