Part 3 out of 4
Gertrude had turned a little pale, but she went on, "Mr. Brand
wants it himself."
Felix folded his arms and stood looking at her. "I see--I see,"
he said quickly. "Why did you never tell me this before?"
"It is disagreeable to me to speak of it even now.
I wished simply to explain to you about Charlotte."
"You don't wish to marry Mr. Brand, then?"
"No," said Gertrude, gravely.
"And does your father wish it?"
"And you don't like him--you have refused him?"
"I don't wish to marry him."
"Your father and sister think you ought to, eh?"
"It is a long story," said Gertrude. "They think there are good reasons.
I can't explain it. They think I have obligations, and that I
have encouraged him."
Felix smiled at her, as if she had been telling him an amusing story
about some one else. "I can't tell you how this interests me," he said.
"Now you don't recognize these reasons--these obligations?"
"I am not sure; it is not easy." And she picked up her parasol
and turned away, as if to descend the slope.
"Tell me this," Felix went on, going with her: "are you likely to give in--
to let them persuade you?"
Gertrude looked at him with the serious face that she had
constantly worn, in opposition to his almost eager smile.
"I shall never marry Mr. Brand," she said.
"I see!" Felix rejoined. And they slowly descended the hill together,
saying nothing till they reached the margin of the pond. "It is your
own affair," he then resumed; "but do you know, I am not altogether glad?
If it were settled that you were to marry Mr. Brand I should take
a certain comfort in the arrangement. I should feel more free.
I have no right to make love to you myself, eh?" And he paused,
lightly pressing his argument upon her.
"None whatever," replied Gertrude quickly--too quickly.
"Your father would never hear of it; I have n't a penny.
Mr. Brand, of course, has property of his own, eh?"
"I believe he has some property; but that has nothing to do with it."
"With you, of course not; but with your father and sister it must have.
So, as I say, if this were settled, I should feel more at liberty. "
"More at liberty?" Gertrude repeated. "Please unfasten the boat."
Felix untwisted the rope and stood holding it.
"I should be able to say things to you that I can't
give myself the pleasure of saying now," he went on.
"I could tell you how much I admire you, without seeming
to pretend to that which I have no right to pretend to.
I should make violent love to you," he added, laughing, "if I
thought you were so placed as not to be offended by it."
"You mean if I were engaged to another man? That is strange reasoning!"
"In that case you would not take me seriously."
"I take every one seriously," said Gertrude. And without his help she
stepped lightly into the boat.
Felix took up the oars and sent it forward. "Ah, this is what you have
been thinking about? It seemed to me you had something on your mind.
I wish very much," he added, "that you would tell me some of these
so-called reasons--these obligations."
"They are not real reasons--good reasons," said Gertrude,
looking at the pink and yellow gleams in the water.
"I can understand that! Because a handsome girl has had a spark of coquetry,
that is no reason."
"If you mean me, it 's not that. I have not done that."
"It is something that troubles you, at any rate," said Felix.
"Not so much as it used to," Gertrude rejoined.
He looked at her, smiling always. "That is not saying much, eh?"
But she only rested her eyes, very gravely, on the lighted water.
She seemed to him to be trying to hide the signs of the trouble of
which she had just told him. Felix felt, at all times, much the same
impulse to dissipate visible melancholy that a good housewife feels
to brush away dust. There was something he wished to brush away now;
suddenly he stopped rowing and poised his oars. "Why should Mr. Brand
have addressed himself to you, and not to your sister?" he asked.
"I am sure she would listen to him."
Gertrude, in her family, was thought capable of a good deal
of levity; but her levity had never gone so far as this.
It moved her greatly, however, to hear Felix say that he was
sure of something; so that, raising her eyes toward him,
she tried intently, for some moments, to conjure up this wonderful
image of a love-affair between her own sister and her own suitor.
We know that Gertrude had an imaginative mind; so that it is not
impossible that this effort should have been partially successful.
But she only murmured, "Ah, Felix! ah, Felix!"
"Why should n't they marry? Try and make them marry!" cried Felix.
"Try and make them?"
"Turn the tables on them. Then they will leave you alone.
I will help you as far as I can."
Gertrude's heart began to beat; she was greatly excited;
she had never had anything so interesting proposed to her before.
Felix had begun to row again, and he now sent the boat home
with long strokes. "I believe she does care for him!"
said Gertrude, after they had disembarked.
"Of course she does, and we will marry them off.
It will make them happy; it will make every one happy.
We shall have a wedding and I will write an epithalamium."
"It seems as if it would make me happy," said Gertrude.
"To get rid of Mr. Brand, eh? To recover your liberty?"
Gertrude walked on. "To see my sister married to so good a man."
Felix gave his light laugh. "You always put things on
those grounds; you will never say anything for yourself.
You are all so afraid, here, of being selfish.
I don't think you know how," he went on. "Let me show you!
It will make me happy for myself, and for just the reverse
of what I told you a while ago. After that, when I make love
to you, you will have to think I mean it."
"I shall never think you mean anything," said Gertrude.
"You are too fantastic."
"Ah," cried Felix, "that 's a license to say everything!
Gertrude, I adore you!"
Charlotte and Mr. Brand had not returned when they reached
the house; but the Baroness had come to tea, and Robert
Acton also, who now regularly asked for a place at this
generous repast or made his appearance later in the evening.
Clifford Wentworth, with his juvenile growl, remarked upon it.
"You are always coming to tea nowadays, Robert," he said.
"I should think you had drunk enough tea in China."
"Since when is Mr. Acton more frequent?" asked the Baroness.
"Since you came," said Clifford. "It seems as if you were
a kind of attraction."
"I suppose I am a curiosity," said the Baroness.
"Give me time and I will make you a salon."
"It would fall to pieces after you go!" exclaimed Acton.
"Don't talk about her going, in that familiar way," Clifford said.
"It makes me feel gloomy."
Mr. Wentworth glanced at his son, and taking note of these words,
wondered if Felix had been teaching him, according to the programme
he had sketched out, to make love to the wife of a German prince.
Charlotte came in late with Mr. Brand; but Gertrude, to whom,
at least, Felix had taught something, looked in vain, in her face,
for the traces of a guilty passion. Mr. Brand sat down by Gertrude,
and she presently asked him why they had not crossed the pond
to join Felix and herself.
"It is cruel of you to ask me that," he answered, very softly.
He had a large morsel of cake before him; but he fingered it without
eating it. "I sometimes think you are growing cruel," he added.
Gertrude said nothing; she was afraid to speak. There was a kind
of rage in her heart; she felt as if she could easily persuade herself
that she was persecuted. She said to herself that it was quite right
that she should not allow him to make her believe she was wrong.
She thought of what Felix had said to her; she wished indeed Mr. Brand
would marry Charlotte. She looked away from him and spoke no more.
Mr. Brand ended by eating his cake, while Felix sat opposite,
describing to Mr. Wentworth the students' duels at Heidelberg.
After tea they all dispersed themselves, as usual, upon the piazza
and in the garden; and Mr. Brand drew near to Gertrude again.
"I did n't come to you this afternoon because you were not alone,"
he began; "because you were with a newer friend."
"Felix? He is an old friend by this time."
Mr. Brand looked at the ground for some moments. "I thought
I was prepared to hear you speak in that way," he resumed.
"But I find it very painful."
"I don't see what else I can say," said Gertrude.
Mr. Brand walked beside her for a while in silence; Gertrude wished
he would go away. "He is certainly very accomplished.
But I think I ought to advise you."
"To advise me?"
"I think I know your nature."
"I think you don't," said Gertrude, with a soft laugh.
"You make yourself out worse than you are--to please him,"
Mr. Brand said, gently.
"Worse--to please him? What do you mean?" asked Gertrude, stopping.
Mr. Brand stopped also, and with the same soft straight-forwardness, "He does
n't care for the things you care for--the great questions of life."
Gertrude, with her eyes on his, shook her head. "I don't care
for the great questions of life. They are much beyond me."
"There was a time when you did n't say that," said Mr. Brand.
"Oh," rejoined Gertrude, "I think you made me talk a great deal of nonsense.
And it depends," she added, "upon what you call the great questions of life.
There are some things I care for."
"Are they the things you talk about with your cousin?"
"You should not say things to me against my cousin, Mr. Brand,"
said Gertrude. "That is dishonorable."
He listened to this respectfully; then he answered, with a little vibration
of the voice, "I should be very sorry to do anything dishonorable.
But I don't see why it is dishonorable to say that your cousin is frivolous."
"Go and say it to himself!"
"I think he would admit it," said Mr. Brand. "That is the tone
he would take. He would not be ashamed of it."
"Then I am not ashamed of it!" Gertrude declared.
"That is probably what I like him for. I am frivolous myself."
"You are trying, as I said just now, to lower yourself."
"I am trying for once to be natural!" cried Gertrude passionately.
"I have been pretending, all my life; I have been dishonest;
it is you that have made me so!" Mr. Brand stood gazing at her,
and she went on, "Why should n't I be frivolous, if I want?
One has a right to be frivolous, if it 's one's nature. No, I don't
care for the great questions. I care for pleasure--for amusement.
Perhaps I am fond of wicked things; it is very possible!"
Mr. Brand remained staring; he was even a little pale,
as if he had been frightened. "I don't think you know what you
are saying!" he exclaimed.
"Perhaps not. Perhaps I am talking nonsense. But it is only with you
that I talk nonsense. I never do so with my cousin."
"I will speak to you again, when you are less excited,"
said Mr. Brand.
"I am always excited when you speak to me. I must tell you that--
even if it prevents you altogether, in future. Your speaking
to me irritates me. With my cousin it is very different.
That seems quiet and natural."
He looked at her, and then he looked away, with a kind of
helpless distress, at the dusky garden and the faint summer stars.
After which, suddenly turning back, "Gertrude, Gertrude!"
he softly groaned. "Am I really losing you?"
She was touched--she was pained; but it had already occurred
to her that she might do something better than say so.
It would not have alleviated her companion's distress to perceive,
just then, whence she had sympathetically borrowed this ingenuity.
"I am not sorry for you," Gertrude said; "for in paying so much attention
to me you are following a shadow--you are wasting something precious.
There is something else you might have that you don't look at--
something better than I am. That is a reality!" And then,
with intention, she looked at him and tried to smile a little.
He thought this smile of hers very strange; but she turned away
and left him.
She wandered about alone in the garden wondering what Mr. Brand
would make of her words, which it had been a singular pleasure
for her to utter. Shortly after, passing in front of the house,
she saw at a distance two persons standing near the garden gate.
It was Mr. Brand going away and bidding good-night to Charlotte,
who had walked down with him from the house. Gertrude saw that
the parting was prolonged. Then she turned her back upon it.
She had not gone very far, however, when she heard her
sister slowly following her. She neither turned round nor
waited for her; she knew what Charlotte was going to say.
Charlotte, who at last overtook her, in fact presently began;
she had passed her arm into Gertrude's.
"Will you listen to me, dear, if I say something very particular?"
"I know what you are going to say," said Gertrude.
"Mr. Brand feels very badly."
"Oh, Gertrude, how can you treat him so?" Charlotte demanded.
And as her sister made no answer she added, "After all he has
done for you!"
"What has he done for me?"
"I wonder you can ask, Gertrude. He has helped you so.
You told me so yourself, a great many times. You told me
that he helped you to struggle with your--your peculiarities.
You told me that he had taught you how to govern your temper."
For a moment Gertrude said nothing. Then, "Was my temper
very bad?" she asked.
"I am not accusing you, Gertrude," said Charlotte.
"What are you doing, then?" her sister demanded, with a short laugh.
"I am pleading for Mr. Brand--reminding you of all you owe him."
"I have given it all back," said Gertrude, still with her little laugh.
"He can take back the virtue he imparted! I want to be wicked again."
Her sister made her stop in the path, and fixed upon her,
in the darkness, a sweet, reproachful gaze. "If you talk this
way I shall almost believe it. Think of all we owe Mr. Brand.
Think of how he has always expected something of you.
Think how much he has been to us. Think of his beautiful
influence upon Clifford."
"He is very good," said Gertrude, looking at her sister.
"I know he is very good. But he should n't speak against Felix."
"Felix is good," Charlotte answered, softly but promptly. "Felix is
very wonderful. Only he is so different. Mr. Brand is much nearer to us.
I should never think of going to Felix with a trouble--with a question.
Mr. Brand is much more to us, Gertrude."
"He is very--very good," Gertrude repeated. "He is more
to you; yes, much more. Charlotte," she added suddenly,
"you are in love with him!"
"Oh, Gertrude!" cried poor Charlotte; and her sister saw her blushing
in the darkness.
Gertrude put her arm round her. "I wish he would marry you!"
she went on.
Charlotte shook herself free. "You must not say such things!"
she exclaimed, beneath her breath.
"You like him more than you say, and he likes you more than he knows."
"This is very cruel of you!" Charlotte Wentworth murmured.
But if it was cruel Gertrude continued pitiless. "Not if it 's true,"
she answered. "I wish he would marry you."
"Please don't say that."
"I mean to tell him so!" said Gertrude.
"Oh, Gertrude, Gertrude!" her sister almost moaned.
"Yes, if he speaks to me again about myself. I will say,
'Why don't you marry Charlotte? She 's a thousand times better
than I.' "
"You are wicked; you are changed!" cried her sister.
"If you don't like it you can prevent it," said Gertrude.
"You can prevent it by keeping him from speaking to me!"
And with this she walked away, very conscious of what she had done;
measuring it and finding a certain joy and a quickened sense
of freedom in it.
Mr. Wentworth was rather wide of the mark in suspecting
that Clifford had begun to pay unscrupulous compliments
to his brilliant cousin; for the young man had really
more scruples than he received credit for in his family.
He had a certain transparent shamefacedness which was in
itself a proof that he was not at his ease in dissipation.
His collegiate peccadilloes had aroused a domestic murmur
as disagreeable to the young man as the creaking of his boots
would have been to a house-breaker. Only, as the house-breaker
would have simplified matters by removing his chaussures,
it had seemed to Clifford that the shortest cut to comfortable
relations with people--relations which should make him cease to
think that when they spoke to him they meant something improving--
was to renounce all ambition toward a nefarious development.
And, in fact, Clifford's ambition took the most commendable form.
He thought of himself in the future as the well-known and much-liked
Mr. Wentworth, of Boston, who should, in the natural course
of prosperity, have married his pretty cousin, Lizzie Acton;
should live in a wide-fronted house, in view of the Common;
and should drive, behind a light wagon, over the damp
autumn roads, a pair of beautifully matched sorrel horses.
Clifford's vision of the coming years was very simple;
its most definite features were this element of familiar
matrimony and the duplication of his resources for trotting.
He had not yet asked his cousin to marry him;
but he meant to do so as soon as he had taken his degree.
Lizzie was serenely conscious of his intention,
and she had made up her mind that he would improve.
Her brother, who was very fond of this light, quick, competent
little Lizzie, saw on his side no reason to interpose.
It seemed to him a graceful social law that Clifford and his
sister should become engaged; he himself was not engaged,
but every one else, fortunately, was not such a fool as he.
He was fond of Clifford, as well, and had his own way--
of which it must be confessed he was a little ashamed--
of looking at those aberrations which had led to the young man's
compulsory retirement from the neighboring seat of learning.
Acton had seen the world, as he said to himself; he had been
to China and had knocked about among men. He had learned
the essential difference between a nice young fellow and a mean
young fellow, and was satisfied that there was no harm in Clifford.
He believed--although it must be added that he had not quite
the courage to declare it--in the doctrine of wild oats,
and thought it a useful preventive of superfluous fears.
If Mr. Wentworth and Charlotte and Mr. Brand would
only apply it in Clifford's case, they would be happier;
and Acton thought it a pity they should not be happier.
They took the boy's misdemeanors too much to heart; they talked
to him too solemnly; they frightened and bewildered him.
Of course there was the great standard of morality, which forbade
that a man should get tipsy, play at billiards for money,
or cultivate his sensual consciousness; but what fear was there
that poor Clifford was going to run a tilt at any great standard?
It had, however, never occurred to Acton to dedicate the Baroness
Munster to the redemption of a refractory collegian.
The instrument, here, would have seemed to him quite too complex
for the operation. Felix, on the other hand, had spoken
in obedience to the belief that the more charming a woman is
the more numerous, literally, are her definite social uses.
Eugenia herself, as we know, had plenty of leisure to enumerate her uses.
As I have had the honor of intimating, she had come four thousand
miles to seek her fortune; and it is not to be supposed that after
this great effort she could neglect any apparent aid to advancement.
It is my misfortune that in attempting to describe in a short compass
the deportment of this remarkable woman I am obliged to express
things rather brutally. I feel this to be the case, for instance,
when I say that she had primarily detected such an aid to advancement
in the person of Robert Acton, but that she had afterwards
remembered that a prudent archer has always a second bowstring.
Eugenia was a woman of finely-mingled motive, and her intentions
were never sensibly gross. She had a sort of aesthetic ideal
for Clifford which seemed to her a disinterested reason for
taking him in hand. It was very well for a fresh-colored young
gentleman to be ingenuous; but Clifford, really, was crude.
With such a pretty face he ought to have prettier manners.
She would teach him that, with a beautiful name, the expectation
of a large property, and, as they said in Europe, a social position,
an only son should know how to carry himself.
Once Clifford had begun to come and see her by himself and
for himself, he came very often. He hardly knew why he should come;
he saw her almost every evening at his father's house;
he had nothing particular to say to her. She was not a young girl,
and fellows of his age called only upon young girls.
He exaggerated her age; she seemed to him an old woman;
it was happy that the Baroness, with all her intelligence,
was incapable of guessing this. But gradually it struck Clifford
that visiting old women might be, if not a natural, at least,
as they say of some articles of diet, an acquired taste.
The Baroness was certainly a very amusing old woman;
she talked to him as no lady--and indeed no gentleman--
had ever talked to him before.
"You should go to Europe and make the tour," she said to him one afternoon.
"Of course, on leaving college you will go."
"I don't want to go," Clifford declared. "I know some fellows who have been
to Europe. They say you can have better fun here."
"That depends. It depends upon your idea of fun.
Your friends probably were not introduced."
"Introduced?" Clifford demanded.
"They had no opportunity of going into society; they formed no relations."
This was one of a certain number of words that the Baroness often pronounced
in the French manner.
"They went to a ball, in Paris; I know that," said Clifford.
"Ah, there are balls and balls; especially in Paris. No, you must go,
you know; it is not a thing from which you can dispense yourself.
You need it."
"Oh, I 'm very well," said Clifford. "I 'm not sick."
"I don't mean for your health, my poor child. I mean for your manners. "
"I have n't got any manners!" growled Clifford.
"Precisely. You don't mind my assenting to that, eh?" asked the Baroness
with a smile. "You must go to Europe and get a few. You can get them
better there. It is a pity you might not have come while I was living in--
in Germany. I would have introduced you; I had a charming little circle.
You would perhaps have been rather young; but the younger one begins,
I think, the better. Now, at any rate, you have no time to lose,
and when I return you must immediately come to me."
All this, to Clifford's apprehension, was a great mixture--
his beginning young, Eugenia's return to Europe,
his being introduced to her charming little circle.
What was he to begin, and what was her little circle?
His ideas about her marriage had a good deal of vagueness;
but they were in so far definite as that he felt it to be a matter
not to be freely mentioned. He sat and looked all round the room;
he supposed she was alluding in some way to her marriage.
"Oh, I don't want to go to Germany," he said; it seemed to him
the most convenient thing to say.
She looked at him a while, smiling with her lips, but not with her eyes.
"You have scruples?" she asked.
"Scruples?" said Clifford.
"You young people, here, are very singular; one does n't know
where to expect you. When you are not extremely improper
you are so terribly proper. I dare say you think that,
owing to my irregular marriage, I live with loose people.
You were never more mistaken. I have been all the more particular."
"Oh, no," said Clifford, honestly distressed. "I never thought
such a thing as that."
"Are you very sure? I am convinced that your father does,
and your sisters. They say to each other that here I am on my
good behavior, but that over there--married by the left hand--
I associate with light women. "
"Oh, no," cried Clifford, energetically, "they don't say such things
as that to each other!"
"If they think them they had better say them," the Baroness rejoined.
"Then they can be contradicted. Please contradict that whenever you hear it,
and don't be afraid of coming to see me on account of the company I keep.
I have the honor of knowing more distinguished men, my poor child,
than you are likely to see in a life-time. I see very few women; but those
are women of rank. So, my dear young Puritan, you need n't be afraid.
I am not in the least one of those who think that the society of women who
have lost their place in the vrai monde is necessary to form a young man.
I have never taken that tone. I have kept my place myself, and I think we are
a much better school than the others. Trust me, Clifford, and I will prove
that to you," the Baroness continued, while she made the agreeable reflection
that she could not, at least, be accused of perverting her young kinsman.
"So if you ever fall among thieves don't go about saying I sent you to them."
Clifford thought it so comical that he should know--in spite of her
figurative language--what she meant, and that she should mean what he knew,
that he could hardly help laughing a little, although he tried hard.
"Oh, no! oh, no!" he murmured.
"Laugh out, laugh out, if I amuse you!" cried the Baroness.
"I am here for that!" And Clifford thought her a very amusing person indeed.
"But remember," she said on this occasion, "that you are coming--next year--
to pay me a visit over there."
About a week afterwards she said to him, point-blank, "Are you seriously
making love to your little cousin?"
"Seriously making love"--these words, on Madame Munster's lips,
had to Clifford's sense a portentous and embarrassing sound; he hesitated
about assenting, lest he should commit himself to more than he understood.
"Well, I should n't say it if I was!" he exclaimed.
"Why would n't you say it?" the Baroness demanded.
"Those things ought to be known."
"I don't care whether it is known or not," Clifford rejoined.
"But I don't want people looking at me."
"A young man of your importance ought to learn to bear observation--
to carry himself as if he were quite indifferent to it.
I won't say, exactly, unconscious," the Baroness explained.
"No, he must seem to know he is observed, and to think it
natural he should be; but he must appear perfectly used to it.
Now you have n't that, Clifford; you have n't that at all.
You must have that, you know. Don't tell me you are not a
young man of importance," Eugenia added. "Don't say anything
so flat as that."
"Oh, no, you don't catch me saying that!" cried Clifford.
"Yes, you must come to Germany," Madame Munster continued.
"I will show you how people can be talked about, and yet not
seem to know it. You will be talked about, of course, with me;
it will be said you are my lover. I will show you how little
one may mind that--how little I shall mind it."
Clifford sat staring, blushing and laughing. "I shall mind
it a good deal!" he declared.
"Ah, not too much, you know; that would be uncivil.
But I give you leave to mind it a little; especially if you
have a passion for Miss Acton. Voyons; as regards that,
you either have or you have not. It is very simple to say it."
"I don't see why you want to know," said Clifford.
"You ought to want me to know. If one is arranging a marriage,
one tells one's friends."
"Oh, I 'm not arranging anything," said Clifford.
"You don't intend to marry your cousin?"
"Well, I expect I shall do as I choose!"
The Baroness leaned her head upon the back of her chair and closed
her eyes, as if she were tired. Then opening them again,
"Your cousin is very charming!" she said.
"She is the prettiest girl in this place," Clifford rejoined.
" 'In this place' is saying little; she would be charming anywhere.
I am afraid you are entangled."
"Oh, no, I 'm not entangled."
"Are you engaged? At your age that is the same thing."
Clifford looked at the Baroness with some audacity.
"Will you tell no one?"
"If it 's as sacred as that--no."
"Well, then--we are not!" said Clifford.
"That 's the great secret--that you are not, eh?" asked the Baroness,
with a quick laugh. "I am very glad to hear it. You are altogether
too young. A young man in your position must choose and compare;
he must see the world first. Depend upon it," she added, "you should not
settle that matter before you have come abroad and paid me that visit.
There are several things I should like to call your attention to first."
"Well, I am rather afraid of that visit," said Clifford.
"It seems to me it will be rather like going to school again."
The Baroness looked at him a moment.
"My dear child," she said, "there is no agreeable man who has not,
at some moment, been to school to a clever woman--probably a little
older than himself. And you must be thankful when you get your
instructions gratis. With me you would get it gratis."
The next day Clifford told Lizzie Acton that the Baroness thought
her the most charming girl she had ever seen.
Lizzie shook her head. "No, she does n't!" she said.
"Do you think everything she says," asked Clifford, "is to be taken
the opposite way?"
"I think that is!" said Lizzie.
Clifford was going to remark that in this case the Baroness must
desire greatly to bring about a marriage between Mr. Clifford
Wentworth and Miss Elizabeth Acton; but he resolved, on the whole,
to suppress this observation.
It seemed to Robert Acton, after Eugenia had come to his house,
that something had passed between them which made them
a good deal more intimate. It was hard to say exactly what,
except her telling him that she had taken her resolution
with regard to the Prince Adolf; for Madame Munster's visit
had made no difference in their relations. He came to see
her very often; but he had come to see her very often before.
It was agreeable to him to find himself in her little drawing-room;
but this was not a new discovery. There was a change, however,
in this sense: that if the Baroness had been a great deal
in Acton's thoughts before, she was now never out of them.
From the first she had been personally fascinating;
but the fascination now had become intellectual as well.
He was constantly pondering her words and motions; they were
as interesting as the factors in an algebraic problem.
This is saying a good deal; for Acton was extremely fond
of mathematics. He asked himself whether it could be
that he was in love with her, and then hoped he was not;
hoped it not so much for his own sake as for that of the amatory
passion itself. If this was love, love had been overrated.
Love was a poetic impulse, and his own state of feeling with regard
to the Baroness was largely characterized by that eminently
prosaic sentiment--curiosity. It was true, as Acton with his
quietly cogitative habit observed to himself, that curiosity,
pushed to a given point, might become a romantic passion;
and he certainly thought enough about this charming woman
to make him restless and even a little melancholy. It puzzled
and vexed him at times to feel that he was not more ardent.
He was not in the least bent upon remaining a bachelor.
In his younger years he had been--or he had tried to be--
of the opinion that it would be a good deal "jollier" not to marry,
and he had flattered himself that his single condition was something
of a citadel. It was a citadel, at all events, of which he had
long since leveled the outworks. He had removed the guns from
the ramparts; he had lowered the draw-bridge across the moat.
The draw-bridge had swayed lightly under Madame Munster's step;
why should he not cause it to be raised again, so that she
might be kept prisoner? He had an idea that she would become--
in time at least, and on learning the conveniences of the place
for making a lady comfortable--a tolerably patient captive.
But the draw-bridge was never raised, and Acton's brilliant
visitor was as free to depart as she had been to come.
It was part of his curiosity to know why the deuce so susceptible
a man was not in love with so charming a woman. If her various
graces were, as I have said, the factors in an algebraic problem,
the answer to this question was the indispensable unknown quantity.
The pursuit of the unknown quantity was extremely absorbing;
for the present it taxed all Acton's faculties.
Toward the middle of August he was obliged to leave home for some days;
an old friend, with whom he had been associated in China,
had begged him to come to Newport, where he lay extremely ill.
His friend got better, and at the end of a week Acton was released.
I use the word "released" advisedly; for in spite of his attachment
to his Chinese comrade he had been but a half-hearted visitor.
He felt as if he had been called away from the theatre during
the progress of a remarkably interesting drama. The curtain was
up all this time, and he was losing the fourth act; that fourth
act which would have been so essential to a just appreciation
of the fifth. In other words, he was thinking about the Baroness,
who, seen at this distance, seemed a truly brilliant figure.
He saw at Newport a great many pretty women, who certainly were
figures as brilliant as beautiful light dresses could make them;
but though they talked a great deal--and the Baroness's strong point
was perhaps also her conversation--Madame Munster appeared to lose
nothing by the comparison. He wished she had come to Newport too.
Would it not be possible to make up, as they said, a party for
visiting the famous watering-place and invite Eugenia to join it?
It was true that the complete satisfaction would be to spend
a fortnight at Newport with Eugenia alone. It would be a great
pleasure to see her, in society, carry everything before her,
as he was sure she would do. When Acton caught himself thinking these
thoughts he began to walk up and down, with his hands in his pockets,
frowning a little and looking at the floor. What did it prove--
for it certainly proved something--this lively disposition to be "off"
somewhere with Madame Munster, away from all the rest of them?
Such a vision, certainly, seemed a refined implication of matrimony,
after the Baroness should have formally got rid of her informal husband.
At any rate, Acton, with his characteristic discretion, forbore to
give expression to whatever else it might imply, and the narrator
of these incidents is not obliged to be more definite.
He returned home rapidly, and, arriving in the afternoon, lost as little
time as possible in joining the familiar circle at Mr. Wentworth's.
On reaching the house, however, he found the piazzas empty.
The doors and windows were open, and their emptiness was made clear
by the shafts of lamp-light from the parlors. Entering the house,
he found Mr. Wentworth sitting alone in one of these apartments,
engaged in the perusal of the "North American Review."
After they had exchanged greetings and his cousin had made
discreet inquiry about his journey, Acton asked what had become
of Mr. Wentworth's companions.
"They are scattered about, amusing themselves as usual," said the old man.
"I saw Charlotte, a short time since, seated, with Mr. Brand,
upon the piazza. They were conversing with their customary animation.
I suppose they have joined her sister, who, for the hundredth time,
was doing the honors of the garden to her foreign cousin."
"I suppose you mean Felix," said Acton. And on Mr. Wentworth's assenting,
he said, "And the others?"
"Your sister has not come this evening. You must have seen her at home,"
said Mr. Wentworth.
"Yes. I proposed to her to come. She declined."
"Lizzie, I suppose, was expecting a visitor," said the old man,
with a kind of solemn slyness.
"If she was expecting Clifford, he had not turned up."
Mr. Wentworth, at this intelligence, closed the "North American Review"
and remarked that he had understood Clifford to say that he was going
to see his cousin. Privately, he reflected that if Lizzie Acton had had
no news of his son, Clifford must have gone to Boston for the evening:
an unnatural course of a summer night, especially when accompanied
with disingenuous representations.
"You must remember that he has two cousins," said Acton, laughing.
And then, coming to the point, "If Lizzie is not here," he added,
"neither apparently is the Baroness."
Mr. Wentworth stared a moment, and remembered that queer proposition
of Felix's. For a moment he did not know whether it was not to be
wished that Clifford, after all, might have gone to Boston.
"The Baroness has not honored us tonight," he said.
"She has not come over for three days."
"Is she ill?" Acton asked.
"No; I have been to see her."
"What is the matter with her?"
"Well," said Mr. Wentworth, "I infer she has tired of us."
Acton pretended to sit down, but he was restless; he found it
impossible to talk with Mr. Wentworth. At the end of ten minutes
he took up his hat and said that he thought he would "go off."
It was very late; it was ten o'clock.
His quiet-faced kinsman looked at him a moment.
"Are you going home?" he asked.
Acton hesitated, and then answered that he had proposed to go over and take
a look at the Baroness.
"Well, you are honest, at least," said Mr. Wentworth, sadly.
"So are you, if you come to that!" cried Acton, laughing.
"Why should n't I be honest?"
The old man opened the "North American" again, and read a few lines.
"If we have ever had any virtue among us, we had better keep hold of it now,"
he said. He was not quoting.
"We have a Baroness among us," said Acton. "That 's what we must keep
hold of!" He was too impatient to see Madame Munster again to wonder what
Mr. Wentworth was talking about. Nevertheless, after he had passed out of
the house and traversed the garden and the little piece of road that separated
him from Eugenia's provisional residence, he stopped a moment outside.
He stood in her little garden; the long window of her parlor was open,
and he could see the white curtains, with the lamp-light shining
through them, swaying softly to and fro in the warm night wind.
There was a sort of excitement in the idea of seeing Madame Munster again;
he became aware that his heart was beating rather faster than usual.
It was this that made him stop, with a half-amused surprise.
But in a moment he went along the piazza, and, approaching the open window,
tapped upon its lintel with his stick. He could see the Baroness within;
she was standing in the middle of the room. She came to the window
and pulled aside the curtain; then she stood looking at him a moment.
She was not smiling; she seemed serious.
"Mais entrez donc!" she said at last. Acton passed in across the window-sill;
he wondered, for an instant, what was the matter with her.
But the next moment she had begun to smile and had put out her hand.
"Better late than never," she said. "It is very kind of you to come
at this hour."
"I have just returned from my journey," said Acton.
"Ah, very kind, very kind," she repeated, looking about her where to sit.
"I went first to the other house," Acton continued.
"I expected to find you there."
She had sunk into her usual chair; but she got up again, and began to move
about the room. Acton had laid down his hat and stick; he was looking at her,
conscious that there was in fact a great charm in seeing her again.
"I don't know whether I ought to tell you to sit down," she said.
"It is too late to begin a visit."
"It 's too early to end one," Acton declared; "and we need
n't mind the beginning."
She looked at him again, and, after a moment, dropped once
more into her low chair, while he took a place near her.
"We are in the middle, then?" she asked. "Was that where we were
when you went away? No, I have n't been to the other house."
"Not yesterday, nor the day before, eh?"
"I don't know how many days it is."
"You are tired of it," said Acton.
She leaned back in her chair; her arms were folded.
"That is a terrible accusation, but I have not the courage
to defend myself."
"I am not attacking you," said Acton. "I expected something
of this kind."
"It 's a proof of extreme intelligence. I hope you enjoyed your journey."
"Not at all," Acton declared. "I would much rather have been
here with you."
"Now you are attacking me," said the Baroness. "You are contrasting
my inconstancy with your own fidelity."
"I confess I never get tired of people I like."
"Ah, you are not a poor wicked foreign woman, with irritable
nerves and a sophisticated mind!"
"Something has happened to you since I went away," said Acton,
changing his place.
"Your going away--that is what has happened to me."
"Do you mean to say that you have missed me?" he asked.
"If I had meant to say it, it would not be worth your making a note of.
I am very dishonest and my compliments are worthless."
Acton was silent for some moments. "You have broken down,"
he said at last.
Madame Munster left her chair, and began to move about.
"Only for a moment. I shall pull myself together again."
"You had better not take it too hard. If you are bored,
you need n't be afraid to say so--to me at least."
"You should n't say such things as that," the Baroness answered.
"You should encourage me."
"I admire your patience; that is encouraging."
"You should n't even say that. When you talk of my patience you
are disloyal to your own people. Patience implies suffering;
and what have I had to suffer?"
"Oh, not hunger, not unkindness, certainly," said Acton, laughing.
"Nevertheless, we all admire your patience."
"You all detest me!" cried the Baroness, with a sudden vehemence,
turning her back toward him.
"You make it hard," said Acton, getting up, "for a man to say something
tender to you." This evening there was something particularly striking and
touching about her; an unwonted softness and a look of suppressed emotion.
He felt himself suddenly appreciating the fact that she had behaved
very well. She had come to this quiet corner of the world under
the weight of a cruel indignity, and she had been so gracefully,
modestly thankful for the rest she found there. She had joined
that simple circle over the way; she had mingled in its plain,
provincial talk; she had shared its meagre and savorless pleasures.
She had set herself a task, and she had rigidly performed it.
She had conformed to the angular conditions of New England life,
and she had had the tact and pluck to carry it off as if she liked them.
Acton felt a more downright need than he had ever felt before to tell
her that he admired her and that she struck him as a very superior woman.
All along, hitherto, he had been on his guard with her;
he had been cautious, observant, suspicious. But now a certain
light tumult in his blood seemed to tell him that a finer degree
of confidence in this charming woman would be its own reward.
"We don't detest you," he went on. "I don't know what you mean.
At any rate, I speak for myself; I don't know anything about the others.
Very likely, you detest them for the dull life they make you lead.
Really, it would give me a sort of pleasure to hear you say so."
Eugenia had been looking at the door on the other side of the room;
now she slowly turned her eyes toward Robert Acton.
"What can be the motive," she asked, "of a man like you--
an honest man, a galant homme--in saying so base a thing as that?"
"Does it sound very base?" asked Acton, candidly.
"I suppose it does, and I thank you for telling me so.
Of course, I don't mean it literally."
The Baroness stood looking at him. "How do you mean it?" she asked.
This question was difficult to answer, and Acton, feeling the
least bit foolish, walked to the open window and looked out.
He stood there, thinking a moment, and then he turned back.
"You know that document that you were to send to Germany," he said.
"You called it your 'renunciation.' Did you ever send it?"
Madame Munster's eyes expanded; she looked very grave.
"What a singular answer to my question!"
"Oh, it is n't an answer," said Acton. "I have wished to ask you,
many times. I thought it probable you would tell me yourself.
The question, on my part, seems abrupt now; but it would be abrupt
at any time."
The Baroness was silent a moment; and then, "I think I have told
you too much!" she said.
This declaration appeared to Acton to have a certain force;
he had indeed a sense of asking more of her than he offered her.
He returned to the window, and watched, for a moment,
a little star that twinkled through the lattice of the piazza.
There were at any rate offers enough he could make;
perhaps he had hitherto not been sufficiently explicit in doing so.
"I wish you would ask something of me," he presently said.
"Is there nothing I can do for you? If you can't stand this
dull life any more, let me amuse you!"
The Baroness had sunk once more into a chair, and she had taken
up a fan which she held, with both hands, to her mouth.
Over the top of the fan her eyes were fixed on him.
"You are very strange to-night," she said, with a little laugh.
"I will do anything in the world," he rejoined, standing in front of her.
"Should n't you like to travel about and see something of the country?
Won't you go to Niagara? You ought to see Niagara, you know."
"With you, do you mean?"
"I should be delighted to take you."
Acton looked at her, smiling, and yet with a serious air.
"Well, yes; we might go alone," he said.
"If you were not what you are," she answered, "I should feel insulted."
"How do you mean--what I am?"
"If you were one of the gentlemen I have been used to all my life.
If you were not a queer Bostonian."
"If the gentlemen you have been used to have taught you
to expect insults," said Acton, "I am glad I am what I am.
You had much better come to Niagara."
"If you wish to 'amuse' me," the Baroness declared, "you need go
to no further expense. You amuse me very effectually."
He sat down opposite to her; she still held her fan up to her face,
with her eyes only showing above it. There was a moment's silence,
and then he said, returning to his former question, "Have you sent
that document to Germany?"
Again there was a moment's silence. The expressive eyes of Madame M;
auunster seemed, however, half to break it.
"I will tell you--at Niagara!" she said.
She had hardly spoken when the door at the further end of the room opened--
the door upon which, some minutes previous, Eugenia had fixed her gaze.
Clifford Wentworth stood there, blushing and looking rather awkward.
The Baroness rose, quickly, and Acton, more slowly, did the same.
Clifford gave him no greeting; he was looking at Eugenia.
"Ah, you were here?" exclaimed Acton.
"He was in Felix's studio," said Madame Munster.
"He wanted to see his sketches."
Clifford looked at Robert Acton, but said nothing; he only fanned
himself with his hat. "You chose a bad moment," said Acton;
"you had n't much light."
"I had n't any!" said Clifford, laughing.
"Your candle went out?" Eugenia asked. "You should have come back
here and lighted it again."
Clifford looked at her a moment. "So I have--come back.
But I have left the candle!"
Eugenia turned away. "You are very stupid, my poor boy.
You had better go home."
"Well," said Clifford, "good night!"
"Have n't you a word to throw to a man when he has safely returned
from a dangerous journey?" Acton asked.
"How do you do?" said Clifford. "I thought--I thought you were"--
and he paused, looking at the Baroness again.
"You thought I was at Newport, eh? So I was--this morning."
"Good night, clever child!" said Madame Munster, over her shoulder.
Clifford stared at her--not at all like a clever child; and then,
with one of his little facetious growls, took his departure.
"What is the matter with him?" asked Acton, when he was gone.
"He seemed rather in a muddle."
Eugenia, who was near the window, glanced out, listening a moment.
"The matter--the matter"--she answered. "But you don't say
such things here."
"If you mean that he had been drinking a little, you can say that."
"He does n't drink any more. I have cured him. And in return--
he 's in love with me."
It was Acton's turn to stare. He instantly thought of his sister;
but he said nothing about her. He began to laugh.
"I don't wonder at his passion! But I wonder at his forsaking
your society for that of your brother's paint-brushes."
Eugenia was silent a little. "He had not been in the studio.
I invented that at the moment."
"Invented it? For what purpose?"
"He has an idea of being romantic. He has adopted the habit
of coming to see me at midnight--passing only through the orchard
and through Felix's painting-room, which has a door opening that way.
It seems to amuse him," added Eugenia, with a little laugh.
Acton felt more surprise than he confessed to, for this was a new
view of Clifford, whose irregularities had hitherto been quite
without the romantic element. He tried to laugh again, but he felt
rather too serious, and after a moment's hesitation his seriousness
explained itself. "I hope you don't encourage him," he said.
"He must not be inconstant to poor Lizzie."
"To your sister?"
"You know they are decidedly intimate," said Acton.
"Ah," cried Eugenia, smiling, "has she--has she"--
"I don't know," Acton interrupted, "what she has.
But I always supposed that Clifford had a desire to make
himself agreeable to her."
"Ah, par exemple!" the Baroness went on. "The little monster!
The next time he becomes sentimental I will him tell that he ought
to be ashamed of himself."
Acton was silent a moment. "You had better say nothing about it."
"I had told him as much already, on general grounds,"
said the Baroness. "But in this country, you know, the relations
of young people are so extraordinary that one is quite at sea.
They are not engaged when you would quite say they ought to be.
Take Charlotte Wentworth, for instance, and that young ecclesiastic.
If I were her father I should insist upon his marrying her;
but it appears to be thought there is no urgency.
On the other hand, you suddenly learn that a boy of twenty
and a little girl who is still with her governess--your sister
has no governess? Well, then, who is never away from her mamma--
a young couple, in short, between whom you have noticed nothing
beyond an exchange of the childish pleasantries characteristic
of their age, are on the point of setting up as man and wife."
The Baroness spoke with a certain exaggerated volubility
which was in contrast with the languid grace that had
characterized her manner before Clifford made his appearance.
It seemed to Acton that there was a spark of irritation in her eye--
a note of irony (as when she spoke of Lizzie being never away
from her mother) in her voice. If Madame Munster was irritated,
Robert Acton was vaguely mystified; she began to move about
the room again, and he looked at her without saying anything.
Presently she took out her watch, and, glancing at it,
declared that it was three o'clock in the morning and that
he must go.
"I have not been here an hour," he said, "and they are still
sitting up at the other house. You can see the lights.
Your brother has not come in."
"Oh, at the other house," cried Eugenia, "they are terrible people!
I don't know what they may do over there. I am a quiet
little humdrum woman; I have rigid rules and I keep them.
One of them is not to have visitors in the small hours--
especially clever men like you. So good night!"
Decidedly, the Baroness was incisive; and though Acton bade her good night
and departed, he was still a good deal mystified.
The next day Clifford Wentworth came to see Lizzie, and Acton, who was at
home and saw him pass through the garden, took note of the circumstance.
He had a natural desire to make it tally with Madame M; auunster's account
of Clifford's disaffection; but his ingenuity, finding itself unequal
to the task, resolved at last to ask help of the young man's candor.
He waited till he saw him going away, and then he went out and overtook
him in the grounds.
"I wish very much you would answer me a question," Acton said.
"What were you doing, last night, at Madame Munster's?"
Clifford began to laugh and to blush, by no means like a young man
with a romantic secret. "What did she tell you?" he asked.
"That is exactly what I don't want to say."
"Well, I want to tell you the same," said Clifford; "and unless I
know it perhaps I can't."
They had stopped in a garden path; Acton looked hard at his rosy
young kinsman. "She said she could n't fancy what had got into you;
you appeared to have taken a violent dislike to her."
Clifford stared, looking a little alarmed. "Oh, come,"
he growled, "you don't mean that!"
"And that when--for common civility's sake--you came occasionally
to the house you left her alone and spent your time in Felix's studio,
under pretext of looking at his sketches."
"Oh, come!" growled Clifford, again.
"Did you ever know me to tell an untruth?"
"Yes, lots of them!" said Clifford, seeing an opening,
out of the discussion, for his sarcastic powers.
"Well," he presently added, "I thought you were my father."
"You knew some one was there?"
"We heard you coming in."
Acton meditated. "You had been with the Baroness, then?"
"I was in the parlor. We heard your step outside.
I thought it was my father."
"And on that," asked Acton, "you ran away?"
"She told me to go--to go out by the studio."
Acton meditated more intensely; if there had been a chair at hand he would
have sat down. "Why should she wish you not to meet your father?"
"Well," said Clifford, "father does n't like to see me there."
Acton looked askance at his companion and forbore to make
any comment upon this assertion. "Has he said so," he asked,
"to the Baroness?"
"Well, I hope not," said Clifford. "He has n't said so--in so many words--
to me. But I know it worries him; and I want to stop worrying him.
The Baroness knows it, and she wants me to stop, too."
"To stop coming to see her?"
"I don't know about that; but to stop worrying father.
Eugenia knows everything," Clifford added, with an air
of knowingness of his own.
"Ah," said Acton, interrogatively, "Eugenia knows everything?"
"She knew it was not father coming in."
"Then why did you go?"
Clifford blushed and laughed afresh. "Well, I was afraid it was.
And besides, she told me to go, at any rate."
"Did she think it was I?" Acton asked.
"She did n't say so."
Again Robert Acton reflected. "But you did n't go," he presently said;
"you came back."
"I could n't get out of the studio," Clifford rejoined.
"The door was locked, and Felix has nailed some planks across
the lower half of the confounded windows to make the light come
in from above. So they were no use. I waited there a good while,
and then, suddenly, I felt ashamed. I did n't want to be hiding
away from my own father. I could n't stand it any longer.
I bolted out, and when I found it was you I was a little flurried.
But Eugenia carried it off, did n't she?" Clifford added,
in the tone of a young humorist whose perception had not been
permanently clouded by the sense of his own discomfort.
"Beautifully!" said Acton. "Especially," he continued,
"when one remembers that you were very imprudent and that she
must have been a good deal annoyed."
"Oh," cried Clifford, with the indifference of a young man who feels
that however he may have failed of felicity in behavior he is extremely
just in his impressions, "Eugenia does n't care for anything!"
Acton hesitated a moment. "Thank you for telling me this," he said at last.
And then, laying his hand on Clifford's shoulder, he added, "Tell me one
thing more: are you by chance a little in love with the Baroness?"
"No, sir!" said Clifford, almost shaking off his hand.
The first sunday that followed Robert Acton's return from Newport
witnessed a change in the brilliant weather that had long prevailed.
The rain began to fall and the day was cold and dreary.
Mr. Wentworth and his daughters put on overshoes and went to church,
and Felix Young, without overshoes, went also, holding an umbrella
over Gertrude. It is to be feared that, in the whole observance,
this was the privilege he most highly valued. The Baroness remained
at home; she was in neither a cheerful nor a devotional mood.
She had, however, never been, during her residence in the United
States, what is called a regular attendant at divine service;
and on this particular Sunday morning of which I began with speaking
she stood at the window of her little drawing-room, watching
the long arm of a rose-tree that was attached to her piazza,
but a portion of which had disengaged itself, sway to and fro,
shake and gesticulate, against the dusky drizzle of the sky.
Every now and then, in a gust of wind, the rose-tree scattered
a shower of water-drops against the window-pane; it appeared
to have a kind of human movement--a menacing, warning intention.
The room was very cold; Madame Munster put on a shawl and walked about.
Then she determined to have some fire; and summoning her ancient negress,
the contrast of whose polished ebony and whose crimson turban had been
at first a source of satisfaction to her, she made arrangements for
the production of a crackling flame. This old woman's name was Azarina.
The Baroness had begun by thinking that there would be a savory wildness
in her talk, and, for amusement, she had encouraged her to chatter.
But Azarina was dry and prim; her conversation was anything but African;
she reminded Eugenia of the tiresome old ladies she met in society.
She knew, however, how to make a fire; so that after she had laid
the logs, Eugenia, who was terribly bored, found a quarter of an hour's
entertainment in sitting and watching them blaze and sputter.
She had thought it very likely Robert Acton would come and see her;
she had not met him since that infelicitous evening.
But the morning waned without his coming; several times she thought
she heard his step on the piazza; but it was only a window-shutter
shaking in a rain-gust. The Baroness, since the beginning
of that episode in her career of which a slight sketch has been
attempted in these pages, had had many moments of irritation.
But to-day her irritation had a peculiar keenness;
it appeared to feed upon itself. It urged her to do something;
but it suggested no particularly profitable line of action.
If she could have done something at the moment, on the spot,
she would have stepped upon a European steamer and turned her back,
with a kind of rapture, upon that profoundly mortifying failure,
her visit to her American relations. It is not exactly
apparent why she should have termed this enterprise a failure,
inasmuch as she had been treated with the highest distinction
for which allowance had been made in American institutions.
Her irritation came, at bottom, from the sense, which, always present,
had suddenly grown acute, that the social soil on this big,
vague continent was somehow not adapted for growing those plants whose
fragrance she especially inclined to inhale and by which she liked
to see herself surrounded--a species of vegetation for which she
carried a collection of seedlings, as we may say, in her pocket.
She found her chief happiness in the sense of exerting a certain
power and making a certain impression; and now she felt the annoyance
of a rather wearied swimmer who, on nearing shore, to land,
finds a smooth straight wall of rock when he had counted upon a clean
firm beach. Her power, in the American air, seemed to have lost its
prehensile attributes; the smooth wall of rock was insurmountable.
"Surely je n'en suis pas la," she said to herself, "that I let
it make me uncomfortable that a Mr. Robert Acton should n't
honor me with a visit!" Yet she was vexed that he had not come;
and she was vexed at her vexation.
Her brother, at least, came in, stamping in the hall and shaking
the wet from his coat. In a moment he entered the room, with a glow
in his cheek and half-a-dozen rain-drops glistening on his mustache.
"Ah, you have a fire," he said.
"Les beaux jours sont passes," replied the Baroness.
"Never, never! They have only begun," Felix declared, planting himself before
the hearth. He turned his back to the fire, placed his hands behind him,
extended his legs and looked away through the window with an expression
of face which seemed to denote the perception of rose-color even in the tints
of a wet Sunday.
His sister, from her chair, looked up at him, watching him;
and what she saw in his face was not grateful to her present mood.
She was puzzled by many things, but her brother's disposition was a frequent
source of wonder to her. I say frequent and not constant, for there
were long periods during which she gave her attention to other problems.
Sometimes she had said to herself that his happy temper, his eternal gayety,
was an affectation, a pose; but she was vaguely conscious that during
the present summer he had been a highly successful comedian.
They had never yet had an explanation; she had not known the need of one.
Felix was presumably following the bent of his disinterested genius,
and she felt that she had no advice to give him that he would understand.
With this, there was always a certain element of comfort about Felix--
the assurance that he would not interfere. He was very delicate,
this pure-minded Felix; in effect, he was her brother, and Madame Munster felt
that there was a great propriety, every way, in that. It is true that Felix
was delicate; he was not fond of explanations with his sister; this was
one of the very few things in the world about which he was uncomfortable.
But now he was not thinking of anything uncomfortable.
"Dear brother," said Eugenia at last, "do stop making les yeux doux
at the rain."
"With pleasure. I will make them at you!" answered Felix.
"How much longer," asked Eugenia, in a moment, "do you propose to remain
in this lovely spot?"
Felix stared. "Do you want to go away--already?"
" 'Already' is delicious. I am not so happy as you."
Felix dropped into a chair, looking at the fire. "The fact is I am happy,"
he said in his light, clear tone.
"And do you propose to spend your life in making love to Gertrude Wentworth?"
"Yes!" said Felix, smiling sidewise at his sister.
The Baroness returned his glance, much more gravely; and then,
"Do you like her?" she asked.
"Don't you?" Felix demanded.
The Baroness was silent a moment. "I will answer you in
the words of the gentleman who was asked if he liked music:
'Je ne la crains pas!'"
"She admires you immensely," said Felix.
"I don't care for that. Other women should not admire one."
"They should dislike you?"
Again Madame Munster hesitated. "They should hate me!
It 's a measure of the time I have been losing here that they don't."
"No time is lost in which one has been happy!" said Felix,
with a bright sententiousness which may well have been
a little irritating.
"And in which," rejoined his sister, with a harsher laugh,
"one has secured the affections of a young lady with a fortune!"
Felix explained, very candidly and seriously. "I have secured Gertrude's
affection, but I am by no means sure that I have secured her fortune.
That may come--or it may not."
"Ah, well, it may! That 's the great point."
"It depends upon her father. He does n't smile upon our union.
You know he wants her to marry Mr. Brand."
"I know nothing about it!" cried the Baroness. "Please to put on a log."
Felix complied with her request and sat watching the quickening of the flame.
Presently his sister added, "And you propose to elope with mademoiselle?"
"By no means. I don't wish to do anything that 's disagreeable
to Mr. Wentworth. He has been far too kind to us."
"But you must choose between pleasing yourself and pleasing him."
"I want to please every one!" exclaimed Felix, joyously.
"I have a good conscience. I made up my mind at the outset
that it was not my place to make love to Gertrude."
"So, to simplify matters, she made love to you!"
Felix looked at his sister with sudden gravity. "You say you are not
afraid of her," he said. "But perhaps you ought to be--a little.
She 's a very clever person."
"I begin to see it!" cried the Baroness. Her brother, making no
rejoinder, leaned back in his chair, and there was a long silence.
At last, with an altered accent, Madame Munster put another question.
"You expect, at any rate, to marry?"
"I shall be greatly disappointed if we don't."
"A disappointment or two will do you good!" the Baroness declared.
"And, afterwards, do you mean to turn American?"
"It seems to me I am a very good American already.
But we shall go to Europe. Gertrude wants extremely to
see the world."
"Ah, like me, when I came here!" said the Baroness, with a little laugh.
"No, not like you," Felix rejoined, looking at his sister with a
certain gentle seriousness. While he looked at her she rose from
her chair, and he also got up. "Gertrude is not at all like you,"
he went on; "but in her own way she is almost as clever."
He paused a moment; his soul was full of an agreeable
feeling and of a lively disposition to express it.
His sister, to his spiritual vision, was always like the lunar
disk when only a part of it is lighted. The shadow on this
bright surface seemed to him to expand and to contract;
but whatever its proportions, he always appreciated the moonlight.
He looked at the Baroness, and then he kissed her.
"I am very much in love with Gertrude," he said.
Eugenia turned away and walked about the room, and Felix continued.
"She is very interesting, and very different from what she seems.
She has never had a chance. She is very brilliant.
We will go to Europe and amuse ourselves."
The Baroness had gone to the window, where she stood looking out.
The day was drearier than ever; the rain was doggedly falling.
"Yes, to amuse yourselves," she said at last, "you had decidedly
better go to Europe!" Then she turned round, looking at her brother.
A chair stood near her; she leaned her hands upon the back of it.
"Don't you think it is very good of me," she asked, "to come
all this way with you simply to see you properly married--
if properly it is?"
"Oh, it will be properly!" cried Felix, with light eagerness.
The Baroness gave a little laugh. "You are thinking only of yourself,
and you don't answer my question. While you are amusing yourself--
with the brilliant Gertrude--what shall I be doing?"
"Vous serez de la partie!" cried Felix.
"Thank you: I should spoil it." The Baroness dropped her
eyes for some moments. "Do you propose, however, to leave
me here?" she inquired.
Felix smiled at her. "My dearest sister, where you are concerned
I never propose. I execute your commands."
"I believe," said Eugenia, slowly, "that you are the most heartless
person living. Don't you see that I am in trouble?"
"I saw that you were not cheerful, and I gave you some good news."
"Well, let me give you some news," said the Baroness.
"You probably will not have discovered it for yourself.
Robert Acton wants to marry me."
"No, I had not discovered that. But I quite understand it.
Why does it make you unhappy?"
"Because I can't decide."
"Accept him, accept him!" cried Felix, joyously. "He is the best
fellow in the world."
"He is immensely in love with me," said the Baroness.
"And he has a large fortune. Permit me in turn to remind you of that."
"Oh, I am perfectly aware of it," said Eugenia.
"That 's a great item in his favor. I am terribly candid."
And she left her place and came nearer her brother,
looking at him hard. He was turning over several things;
she was wondering in what manner he really understood her.
There were several ways of understanding her:
there was what she said, and there was what she meant,
and there was something, between the two, that was neither.
It is probable that, in the last analysis, what she meant was
that Felix should spare her the necessity of stating the case
more exactly and should hold himself commissioned to assist her
by all honorable means to marry the best fellow in the world.
But in all this it was never discovered what Felix understood.
"Once you have your liberty, what are your objections?" he asked.
"Well, I don't particularly like him."
"Oh, try a little."
"I am trying now," said Eugenia. "I should succeed better if he did
n't live here. I could never live here."
"Make him go to Europe," Felix suggested.
"Ah, there you speak of happiness based upon violent effort,"
the Baroness rejoined. "That is not what I am looking for.
He would never live in Europe."
"He would live anywhere, with you!" said Felix, gallantly.
His sister looked at him still, with a ray of penetration
in her charming eyes; then she turned away again. "You see,
at all events," she presently went on, "that if it had been
said of me that I had come over here to seek my fortune it
would have to be added that I have found it!"
"Don't leave it lying!" urged Felix, with smiling solemnity.
"I am much obliged to you for your interest," his sister declared,
after a moment. "But promise me one thing: pas de zele!
If Mr. Acton should ask you to plead his cause, excuse yourself."
"I shall certainly have the excuse," said Felix, "that I have a cause
of my own to plead."
"If he should talk of me--favorably," Eugenia continued,
"warn him against dangerous illusions. I detest importunities;
I want to decide at my leisure, with my eyes open."
"I shall be discreet," said Felix, "except to you.
To you I will say, Accept him outright."
She had advanced to the open door-way, and she stood looking at him.
"I will go and dress and think of it," she said; and he heard her moving
slowly to her apartments.
Late in the afternoon the rain stopped, and just afterwards
there was a great flaming, flickering, trickling sunset.
Felix sat in his painting-room and did some work; but at last,
as the light, which had not been brilliant, began to fade, he laid
down his brushes and came out to the little piazza of the cottage.
Here he walked up and down for some time, looking at the splendid
blaze of the western sky and saying, as he had often said before,
that this was certainly the country of sunsets. There was something
in these glorious deeps of fire that quickened his imagination;
he always found images and promises in the western sky.
He thought of a good many things--of roaming about the world with
Gertrude Wentworth; he seemed to see their possible adventures,
in a glowing frieze, between the cloud-bars; then of what Eugenia
had just been telling him. He wished very much that Madame M;
auunster would make a comfortable and honorable marriage.
Presently, as the sunset expanded and deepened, the fancy took
him of making a note of so magnificent a piece of coloring.
He returned to his studio and fetched out a small panel,
with his palette and brushes, and, placing the panel
against a window-sill, he began to daub with great gusto.
While he was so occupied he saw Mr. Brand, in the distance,
slowly come down from Mr. Wentworth's house, nursing a large
folded umbrella. He walked with a joyless, meditative tread,
and his eyes were bent upon the ground. Felix poised his
brush for a moment, watching him; then, by a sudden impulse,
as he drew nearer, advanced to the garden-gate and signaled to him--
the palette and bunch of brushes contributing to this effect.
Mr. Brand stopped and started; then he appeared to decide to accept
Felix's invitation. He came out of Mr. Wentworth's gate and passed along
the road; after which he entered the little garden of the cottage.
Felix had gone back to his sunset; but he made his visitor welcome
while he rapidly brushed it in.
"I wanted so much to speak to you that I thought I would call you,"
he said, in the friendliest tone. "All the more that you have been
to see me so little. You have come to see my sister; I know that.
But you have n't come to see me--the celebrated artist.
Artists are very sensitive, you know; they notice those things."
And Felix turned round, smiling, with a brush in his mouth.
Mr. Brand stood there with a certain blank, candid majesty, pulling together
the large flaps of his umbrella. "Why should I come to see you?" he asked.
"I know nothing of Art."
"It would sound very conceited, I suppose," said Felix, "if I were to say
that it would be a good little chance for you to learn something.
You would ask me why you should learn; and I should have no answer to that.
I suppose a minister has no need for Art, eh?"
"He has need for good temper, sir," said Mr. Brand, with decision.
Felix jumped up, with his palette on his thumb and a movement
of the liveliest deprecation. "That 's because I keep you standing
there while I splash my red paint! I beg a thousand pardons!
You see what bad manners Art gives a man; and how right you
are to let it alone. I did n't mean you should stand, either.
The piazza, as you see, is ornamented with rustic chairs;
though indeed I ought to warn you that they have nails in
the wrong places. I was just making a note of that sunset.
I never saw such a blaze of different reds. It looks
as if the Celestial City were in flames, eh? If that were
really the case I suppose it would be the business of you
theologians to put out the fire. Fancy me--an ungodly artist--
quietly sitting down to paint it!"
Mr. Brand had always credited Felix Young with a certain impudence,
but it appeared to him that on this occasion his impudence was so great
as to make a special explanation--or even an apology--necessary.
And the impression, it must be added, was sufficiently natural.
Felix had at all times a brilliant assurance of manner which was simply
the vehicle of his good spirits and his good will; but at present
he had a special design, and as he would have admitted that the design
was audacious, so he was conscious of having summoned all the arts
of conversation to his aid. But he was so far from desiring to offend
his visitor that he was rapidly asking himself what personal compliment
he could pay the young clergyman that would gratify him most.
If he could think of it, he was prepared to pay it down.
"Have you been preaching one of your beautiful sermons to-day?"
he suddenly asked, laying down his palette. This was not what Felix
had been trying to think of, but it was a tolerable stop-gap.
Mr. Brand frowned--as much as a man can frown who has very fair,
soft eyebrows, and, beneath them, very gentle, tranquil eyes.
"No, I have not preached any sermon to-day. Did you bring me
over here for the purpose of making that inquiry?"
Felix saw that he was irritated, and he regretted it immensely;
but he had no fear of not being, in the end, agreeable to Mr. Brand.
He looked at him, smiling and laying his hand on his arm.
"No, no, not for that--not for that. I wanted to ask you something;
I wanted to tell you something. I am sure it will interest
you very much. Only--as it is something rather private--
we had better come into my little studio. I have a western window;
we can still see the sunset. Andiamo!" And he gave a little pat
to his companion's arm.
He led the way in; Mr. Brand stiffly and softly followed.
The twilight had thickened in the little studio; but the wall
opposite the western window was covered with a deep pink flush.
There were a great many sketches and half-finished canvasses
suspended in this rosy glow, and the corners of the room
were vague and dusky. Felix begged Mr. Brand to sit down;
then glancing round him, "By Jove, how pretty it looks!"
he cried. But Mr. Brand would not sit down; he went and leaned
against the window; he wondered what Felix wanted of him.
In the shadow, on the darker parts of the wall, he saw
the gleam of three or four pictures that looked fantastic
and surprising. They seemed to represent naked figures.
Felix stood there, with his head a little bent and his eyes fixed
upon his visitor, smiling intensely, pulling his mustache.
Mr. Brand felt vaguely uneasy. "It is very delicate--
what I want to say," Felix began. "But I have been thinking
of it for some time."
"Please to say it as quickly as possible," said Mr. Brand.
"It 's because you are a clergyman, you know," Felix went on.
"I don't think I should venture to say it to a common man."
Mr. Brand was silent a moment. "If it is a question of yielding
to a weakness, of resenting an injury, I am afraid I am
a very common man."
"My dearest friend," cried Felix, "this is not an injury;
it 's a benefit--a great service! You will like it extremely.
Only it 's so delicate!" And, in the dim light, he continued to
smile intensely. "You know I take a great interest in my cousins--
in Charlotte and Gertrude Wentworth. That 's very evident
from my having traveled some five thousand miles to see them."
Mr. Brand said nothing and Felix proceeded. "Coming into their society
as a perfect stranger I received of course a great many new impressions,
and my impressions had a great freshness, a great keenness.
Do you know what I mean?"
"I am not sure that I do; but I should like you to continue."
"I think my impressions have always a good deal of freshness,"
said Mr. Brand's entertainer; "but on this occasion it was perhaps
particularly natural that--coming in, as I say, from outside--
I should be struck with things that passed unnoticed among yourselves.
And then I had my sister to help me; and she is simply the most
observant woman in the world."
"I am not surprised," said Mr. Brand, "that in our little circle
two intelligent persons should have found food for observation.
I am sure that, of late, I have found it myself!"
"Ah, but I shall surprise you yet!" cried Felix, laughing.
"Both my sister and I took a great fancy to my cousin Charlotte."
"Your cousin Charlotte?" repeated Mr. Brand.
"We fell in love with her from the first!"
"You fell in love with Charlotte?" Mr. Brand murmured.
"Dame!" exclaimed Felix, "she 's a very charming person; and Eugenia
was especially smitten." Mr. Brand stood staring, and he pursued,
"Affection, you know, opens one's eyes, and we noticed something.
Charlotte is not happy! Charlotte is in love." And Felix,
drawing nearer, laid his hand again upon his companion's arm.
There was something akin to an acknowledgment of fascination in the way
Mr. Brand looked at him; but the young clergyman retained as yet quite
enough self-possession to be able to say, with a good deal of solemnity,
"She is not in love with you."
Felix gave a light laugh, and rejoined with the alacrity
of a maritime adventurer who feels a puff of wind in his sail.
"Ah, no; if she were in love with me I should know it!
I am not so blind as you."
"My dear sir, you are stone blind. Poor Charlotte is dead
in love with you!"
Mr. Brand said nothing for a moment; he breathed a little heavily.
"Is that what you wanted to say to me?" he asked.
"I have wanted to say it these three weeks. Because of late she has
been worse. I told you," added Felix, "it was very delicate."
"Well, sir"--Mr. Brand began; "well, sir"--
"I was sure you did n't know it," Felix continued. "But don't
you see--as soon as I mention it--how everything is explained?"
Mr. Brand answered nothing; he looked for a chair and softly sat down.
Felix could see that he was blushing; he had looked straight at
his host hitherto, but now he looked away. The foremost effect
of what he had heard had been a sort of irritation of his modesty.
"Of course," said Felix, "I suggest nothing; it would be very
presumptuous in me to advise you. But I think there is no doubt
about the fact."
Mr. Brand looked hard at the floor for some moments; he was oppressed
with a mixture of sensations. Felix, standing there, was very sure
that one of them was profound surprise. The innocent young man
had been completely unsuspicious of poor Charlotte's hidden flame.
This gave Felix great hope; he was sure that Mr. Brand would be flattered.
Felix thought him very transparent, and indeed he was so; he could neither
simulate nor dissimulate. "I scarcely know what to make of this,"
he said at last, without looking up; and Felix was struck with the fact
that he offered no protest or contradiction. Evidently Felix
had kindled a train of memories--a retrospective illumination.
It was making, to Mr. Brand's astonished eyes, a very pretty blaze;
his second emotion had been a gratification of vanity.
"Thank me for telling you," Felix rejoined. "It 's a good thing to know."
"I am not sure of that," said Mr. Brand.
"Ah, don't let her languish!" Felix murmured, lightly and softly.
"You do advise me, then?" And Mr. Brand looked up.
"I congratulate you!" said Felix, smiling. He had thought at first his
visitor was simply appealing; but he saw he was a little ironical.
"It is in your interest; you have interfered with me,"
the young clergyman went on.
Felix still stood and smiled. The little room had grown darker,
and the crimson glow had faded; but Mr. Brand could see the brilliant
expression of his face. "I won't pretend not to know what you mean,"
said Felix at last. "But I have not really interfered with you.
Of what you had to lose--with another person--you have lost nothing.
And think what you have gained!"
"It seems to me I am the proper judge, on each side," Mr. Brand declared.
He got up, holding the brim of his hat against his mouth and staring at Felix
through the dusk.
"You have lost an illusion!" said Felix.
"What do you call an illusion?"
"The belief that you really know--that you have ever really known--
Gertrude Wentworth. Depend upon that," pursued Felix.
"I don't know her yet; but I have no illusions; I don't pretend to."
Mr. Brand kept gazing, over his hat. "She has always been a lucid,
limpid nature," he said, solemnly.
"She has always been a dormant nature. She was waiting for a touchstone.
But now she is beginning to awaken."
"Don't praise her to me!" said Mr. Brand, with a little quaver in his voice.
"If you have the advantage of me that is not generous."
"My dear sir, I am melting with generosity!" exclaimed Felix.
"And I am not praising my cousin. I am simply attempting a
scientific definition of her. She doesn't care for abstractions.
Now I think the contrary is what you have always fancied--
is the basis on which you have been building. She is extremely
preoccupied with the concrete. I care for the concrete, too.
But Gertrude is stronger than I; she whirls me along!"
Mr. Brand looked for a moment into the crown of his hat.
"It 's a most interesting nature."
"So it is," said Felix. "But it pulls--it pulls--like a
runaway horse. Now I like the feeling of a runaway horse;
and if I am thrown out of the vehicle it is no great matter.
But if you should be thrown, Mr. Brand"--and Felix paused
a moment--"another person also would suffer from the accident."
"What other person?"
Mr. Brand looked at Felix for a moment sidewise, mistrustfully;
then his eyes slowly wandered over the ceiling. Felix was sure
he was secretly struck with the romance of the situation.
"I think this is none of our business," the young minister murmured.
"None of mine, perhaps; but surely yours!"
Mr. Brand lingered still, looking at the ceiling; there was evidently
something he wanted to say. "What do you mean by Miss Gertrude being strong?"
he asked abruptly.
"Well," said Felix meditatively, "I mean that she has had
a great deal of self-possession. She was waiting--for years;
even when she seemed, perhaps, to be living in the present.
She knew how to wait; she had a purpose. That 's what I mean
by her being strong."
"But what do you mean by her purpose?"
"Well--the purpose to see the world!"
Mr. Brand eyed his strange informant askance again;
but he said nothing. At last he turned away, as if to take leave.
He seemed bewildered, however; for instead of going to
the door he moved toward the opposite corner of the room.
Felix stood and watched him for a moment--almost groping
about in the dusk; then he led him to the door, with a tender,
almost fraternal movement. "Is that all you have to say?"
asked Mr. Brand.
"Yes, it 's all--but it will bear a good deal of thinking of."
Felix went with him to the garden-gate, and watched him slowly walk away into
the thickening twilight with a relaxed rigidity that tried to rectify itself.
"He is offended, excited, bewildered, perplexed--and enchanted!"
Felix said to himself. "That 's a capital mixture."
Since that visit paid by the Baroness Munster to Mrs. Acton,
of which some account was given at an earlier stage of
this narrative, the intercourse between these two ladies had
been neither frequent nor intimate. It was not that Mrs. Acton
had failed to appreciate Madame M; auunster's charms;
on the contrary, her perception of the graces of manner and
conversation of her brilliant visitor had been only too acute.
Mrs. Acton was, as they said in Boston, very "intense,"
and her impressions were apt to be too many for her.
The state of her health required the restriction of emotion;
and this is why, receiving, as she sat in her eternal
arm-chair, very few visitors, even of the soberest local type,
she had been obliged to limit the number of her interviews
with a lady whose costume and manner recalled to her imagination--
Mrs. Acton's imagination was a marvel--all that she had ever
read of the most stirring historical periods. But she had sent
the Baroness a great many quaintly-worded messages and a great
many nosegays from her garden and baskets of beautiful fruit.
Felix had eaten the fruit, and the Baroness had arranged
the flowers and returned the baskets and the messages.
On the day that followed that rainy Sunday of which
mention has been made, Eugenia determined to go and pay
the beneficent invalid a "visite d'adieux;" so it was that,
to herself, she qualified her enterprise. It may be noted
that neither on the Sunday evening nor on the Monday morning
had she received that expected visit from Robert Acton.
To his own consciousness, evidently he was "keeping away;"
and as the Baroness, on her side, was keeping away from
her uncle's, whither, for several days, Felix had been
the unembarrassed bearer of apologies and regrets for absence,
chance had not taken the cards from the hands of design.
Mr. Wentworth and his daughters had respected Eugenia's seclusion;
certain intervals of mysterious retirement appeared to them,
vaguely, a natural part of the graceful, rhythmic movement of so
remarkable a life. Gertrude especially held these periods in honor;
she wondered what Madame M; auunster did at such times, but she
would not have permitted herself to inquire too curiously.
The long rain had freshened the air, and twelve hours' brilliant sunshine
had dried the roads; so that the Baroness, in the late afternoon,
proposing to walk to Mrs. Acton's, exposed herself to no great discomfort.
As with her charming undulating step she moved along the clean,
grassy margin of the road, beneath the thickly-hanging boughs of the orchards,
through the quiet of the hour and place and the rich maturity of the summer,
she was even conscious of a sort of luxurious melancholy. The Baroness
had the amiable weakness of attaching herself to places--even when she
had begun with a little aversion; and now, with the prospect of departure,
she felt tenderly toward this well-wooded corner of the Western world,
where the sunsets were so beautiful and one's ambitions were so pure.
Mrs. Acton was able to receive her; but on entering this lady's large,
freshly-scented room the Baroness saw that she was looking very ill.
She was wonderfully white and transparent, and, in her flowered
arm-chair, she made no attempt to move. But she flushed a little--
like a young girl, the Baroness thought--and she rested her clear,
smiling eyes upon those of her visitor. Her voice was low and monotonous,
like a voice that had never expressed any human passions.
"I have come to bid you good-by," said Eugenia.
"I shall soon be going away."
"When are you going away?"
"Very soon--any day."
"I am very sorry," said Mrs. Acton. "I hoped you would stay--always."
"Always?" Eugenia demanded.
"Well, I mean a long time," said Mrs. Acton, in her sweet, feeble tone.
"They tell me you are so comfortable--that you have got such a
beautiful little house."
Eugenia stared--that is, she smiled; she thought of her poor
little chalet and she wondered whether her hostess were jesting.