"I think that if you marry," said Mr. Wentworth presently, "it will conduce to your happiness."
"Sicurissimo!" Felix exclaimed; and then, arresting his brush, he looked at his uncle with a smile. "There is something I feel tempted to say to you. May I risk it?"
Mr. Wentworth drew himself up a little. "I am very safe; I don't repeat things." But he hoped Felix would not risk too much.
Felix was laughing at his answer.
"It 's odd to hear you telling me how to be happy. I don't think you know yourself, dear uncle. Now, does that sound brutal?"
The old man was silent a moment, and then, with a dry dignity that suddenly touched his nephew: "We may sometimes point out a road we are unable to follow."
"Ah, don't tell me you have had any sorrows," Felix rejoined. "I did n't suppose it, and I did n't mean to allude to them. I simply meant that you all don't amuse yourselves."
"Amuse ourselves? We are not children."
"Precisely not! You have reached the proper age. I was saying that the other day to Gertrude," Felix added. "I hope it was not indiscreet."
"If it was," said Mr. Wentworth, with a keener irony than Felix would have thought him capable of, "it was but your way of amusing yourself. I am afraid you have never had a trouble."
"Oh, yes, I have!" Felix declared, with some spirit; "before I knew better. But you don't catch me at it again."
Mr. Wentworth maintained for a while a silence more expressive than a deep-drawn sigh. "You have no children," he said at last.
"Don't tell me," Felix exclaimed, "that your charming young people are a source of grief to you!"
"I don't speak of Charlotte." And then, after a pause, Mr. Wentworth continued, "I don't speak of Gertrude. But I feel considerable anxiety about Clifford. I will tell you another time."
The next time he gave Felix a sitting his nephew reminded him that he had taken him into his confidence. "How is Clifford to-day?" Felix asked. "He has always seemed to me a young man of remarkable discretion. Indeed, he is only too discreet; he seems on his guard against me—as if he thought me rather light company. The other day he told his sister—Gertrude repeated it to me—that I was always laughing at him. If I laugh it is simply from the impulse to try and inspire him with confidence. That is the only way I have."
"Clifford's situation is no laughing matter," said Mr. Wentworth. "It is very peculiar, as I suppose you have guessed."
"Ah, you mean his love affair with his cousin?"
Mr. Wentworth stared, blushing a little. "I mean his absence from college. He has been suspended. We have decided not to speak of it unless we are asked."
"Suspended?" Felix repeated.
"He has been requested by the Harvard authorities to absent himself for six months. Meanwhile he is studying with Mr. Brand. We think Mr. Brand will help him; at least we hope so."
"What befell him at college?" Felix asked. "He was too fond of pleasure? Mr. Brand certainly will not teach him any of those secrets!"
"He was too fond of something of which he should not have been fond. I suppose it is considered a pleasure."
Felix gave his light laugh. "My dear uncle, is there any doubt about its being a pleasure? C'est de son age, as they say in France."
"I should have said rather it was a vice of later life—of disappointed old age."
Felix glanced at his uncle, with his lifted eyebrows, and then, "Of what are you speaking?" he demanded, smiling.
"Of the situation in which Clifford was found."
"Ah, he was found—he was caught?"
"Necessarily, he was caught. He could n't walk; he staggered."
"Oh," said Felix, "he drinks! I rather suspected that, from something I observed the first day I came here. I quite agree with you that it is a low taste. It 's not a vice for a gentleman. He ought to give it up."
"We hope for a good deal from Mr. Brand's influence," Mr. Wentworth went on. "He has talked to him from the first. And he never touches anything himself."
"I will talk to him—I will talk to him!" Felix declared, gayly.
"What will you say to him?" asked his uncle, with some apprehension.
Felix for some moments answered nothing. "Do you mean to marry him to his cousin?" he asked at last.
"Marry him?" echoed Mr. Wentworth. "I should n't think his cousin would want to marry him."
"You have no understanding, then, with Mrs. Acton?"
Mr. Wentworth stared, almost blankly. "I have never discussed such subjects with her."
"I should think it might be time," said Felix. "Lizzie Acton is admirably pretty, and if Clifford is dangerous...."
"They are not engaged," said Mr. Wentworth. "I have no reason to suppose they are engaged."
"Par exemple!" cried Felix. "A clandestine engagement? Trust me, Clifford, as I say, is a charming boy. He is incapable of that. Lizzie Acton, then, would not be jealous of another woman."
"I certainly hope not," said the old man, with a vague sense of jealousy being an even lower vice than a love of liquor.
"The best thing for Clifford, then," Felix propounded, "is to become interested in some clever, charming woman." And he paused in his painting, and, with his elbows on his knees, looked with bright communicativeness at his uncle. "You see, I believe greatly in the influence of women. Living with women helps to make a man a gentleman. It is very true Clifford has his sisters, who are so charming. But there should be a different sentiment in play from the fraternal, you know. He has Lizzie Acton; but she, perhaps, is rather immature."
"I suspect Lizzie has talked to him, reasoned with him," said Mr. Wentworth.
"On the impropriety of getting tipsy—on the beauty of temperance? That is dreary work for a pretty young girl. No," Felix continued; "Clifford ought to frequent some agreeable woman, who, without ever mentioning such unsavory subjects, would give him a sense of its being very ridiculous to be fuddled. If he could fall in love with her a little, so much the better. The thing would operate as a cure."
"Well, now, what lady should you suggest?" asked Mr. Wentworth.
"There is a clever woman under your hand. My sister."
"Your sister—under my hand?" Mr. Wentworth repeated.
"Say a word to Clifford. Tell him to be bold. He is well disposed already; he has invited her two or three times to drive. But I don't think he comes to see her. Give him a hint to come—to come often. He will sit there of an afternoon, and they will talk. It will do him good."
Mr. Wentworth meditated. "You think she will exercise a helpful influence?"
"She will exercise a civilizing—I may call it a sobering—influence. A charming, clever, witty woman always does—especially if she is a little of a coquette. My dear uncle, the society of such women has been half my education. If Clifford is suspended, as you say, from college, let Eugenia be his preceptress."
Mr. Wentworth continued thoughtful. "You think Eugenia is a coquette?" he asked.
"What pretty woman is not?" Felix demanded in turn. But this, for Mr. Wentworth, could at the best have been no answer, for he did not think his niece pretty. "With Clifford," the young man pursued, "Eugenia will simply be enough of a coquette to be a little ironical. That 's what he needs. So you recommend him to be nice with her, you know. The suggestion will come best from you."
"Do I understand," asked the old man, "that I am to suggest to my son to make a—a profession of—of affection to Madame Munster?"
"Yes, yes—a profession!" cried Felix sympathetically.
"But, as I understand it, Madame Munster is a married woman."
"Ah," said Felix, smiling, "of course she can't marry him. But she will do what she can."
Mr. Wentworth sat for some time with his eyes on the floor; at last he got up. "I don't think," he said, "that I can undertake to recommend my son any such course." And without meeting Felix's surprised glance he broke off his sitting, which was not resumed for a fortnight.
Felix was very fond of the little lake which occupied so many of Mr. Wentworth's numerous acres, and of a remarkable pine grove which lay upon the further side of it, planted upon a steep embankment and haunted by the summer breeze. The murmur of the air in the far off tree-tops had a strange distinctness; it was almost articulate. One afternoon the young man came out of his painting-room and passed the open door of Eugenia's little salon. Within, in the cool dimness, he saw his sister, dressed in white, buried in her arm-chair, and holding to her face an immense bouquet. Opposite to her sat Clifford Wentworth, twirling his hat. He had evidently just presented the bouquet to the Baroness, whose fine eyes, as she glanced at him over the big roses and geraniums, wore a conversational smile. Felix, standing on the threshold of the cottage, hesitated for a moment as to whether he should retrace his steps and enter the parlor. Then he went his way and passed into Mr. Wentworth's garden. That civilizing process to which he had suggested that Clifford should be subjected appeared to have come on of itself. Felix was very sure, at least, that Mr. Wentworth had not adopted his ingenious device for stimulating the young man's aesthetic consciousness. "Doubtless he supposes," he said to himself, after the conversation that has been narrated, "that I desire, out of fraternal benevolence, to procure for Eugenia the amusement of a flirtation—or, as he probably calls it, an intrigue—with the too susceptible Clifford. It must be admitted—and I have noticed it before—that nothing exceeds the license occasionally taken by the imagination of very rigid people." Felix, on his own side, had of course said nothing to Clifford; but he had observed to Eugenia that Mr. Wentworth was much mortified at his son's low tastes. "We ought to do something to help them, after all their kindness to us," he had added. "Encourage Clifford to come and see you, and inspire him with a taste for conversation. That will supplant the other, which only comes from his puerility, from his not taking his position in the world—that of a rich young man of ancient stock—seriously enough. Make him a little more serious. Even if he makes love to you it is no great matter."
"I am to offer myself as a superior form of intoxication—a substitute for a brandy bottle, eh?" asked the Baroness. "Truly, in this country one comes to strange uses."
But she had not positively declined to undertake Clifford's higher education, and Felix, who had not thought of the matter again, being haunted with visions of more personal profit, now reflected that the work of redemption had fairly begun. The idea in prospect had seemed of the happiest, but in operation it made him a trifle uneasy. "What if Eugenia—what if Eugenia"—he asked himself softly; the question dying away in his sense of Eugenia's undetermined capacity. But before Felix had time either to accept or to reject its admonition, even in this vague form, he saw Robert Acton turn out of Mr. Wentworth's inclosure, by a distant gate, and come toward the cottage in the orchard. Acton had evidently walked from his own house along a shady by-way and was intending to pay a visit to Madame Munster. Felix watched him a moment; then he turned away. Acton could be left to play the part of Providence and interrupt—if interruption were needed—Clifford's entanglement with Eugenia.
Felix passed through the garden toward the house and toward a postern gate which opened upon a path leading across the fields, beside a little wood, to the lake. He stopped and looked up at the house; his eyes rested more particularly upon a certain open window, on the shady side. Presently Gertrude appeared there, looking out into the summer light. He took off his hat to her and bade her good-day; he remarked that he was going to row across the pond, and begged that she would do him the honor to accompany him. She looked at him a moment; then, without saying anything, she turned away. But she soon reappeared below in one of those quaint and charming Leghorn hats, tied with white satin bows, that were worn at that period; she also carried a green parasol. She went with him to the edge of the lake, where a couple of boats were always moored; they got into one of them, and Felix, with gentle strokes, propelled it to the opposite shore. The day was the perfection of summer weather; the little lake was the color of sunshine; the plash of the oars was the only sound, and they found themselves listening to it. They disembarked, and, by a winding path, ascended the pine-crested mound which overlooked the water, whose white expanse glittered between the trees. The place was delightfully cool, and had the added charm that—in the softly sounding pine boughs—you seemed to hear the coolness as well as feel it. Felix and Gertrude sat down on the rust-colored carpet of pine-needles and talked of many things. Felix spoke at last, in the course of talk, of his going away; it was the first time he had alluded to it.
"You are going away?" said Gertrude, looking at him.
"Some day—when the leaves begin to fall. You know I can't stay forever."
Gertrude transferred her eyes to the outer prospect, and then, after a pause, she said, "I shall never see you again."
"Why not?" asked Felix. "We shall probably both survive my departure."
But Gertrude only repeated, "I shall never see you again. I shall never hear of you," she went on. "I shall know nothing about you. I knew nothing about you before, and it will be the same again."
"I knew nothing about you then, unfortunately," said Felix. "But now I shall write to you."
"Don't write to me. I shall not answer you," Gertrude declared.
"I should of course burn your letters," said Felix.
Gertrude looked at him again. "Burn my letters? You sometimes say strange things."
"They are not strange in themselves," the young man answered. "They are only strange as said to you. You will come to Europe."
"With whom shall I come?" She asked this question simply; she was very much in earnest. Felix was interested in her earnestness; for some moments he hesitated. "You can't tell me that," she pursued. "You can't say that I shall go with my father and my sister; you don't believe that."
"I shall keep your letters," said Felix, presently, for all answer.
"I never write. I don't know how to write." Gertrude, for some time, said nothing more; and her companion, as he looked at her, wished it had not been "disloyal" to make love to the daughter of an old gentleman who had offered one hospitality. The afternoon waned; the shadows stretched themselves; and the light grew deeper in the western sky. Two persons appeared on the opposite side of the lake, coming from the house and crossing the meadow. "It is Charlotte and Mr. Brand," said Gertrude. "They are coming over here." But Charlotte and Mr. Brand only came down to the edge of the water, and stood there, looking across; they made no motion to enter the boat that Felix had left at the mooring-place. Felix waved his hat to them; it was too far to call. They made no visible response, and they presently turned away and walked along the shore.
"Mr. Brand is not demonstrative," said Felix. "He is never demonstrative to me. He sits silent, with his chin in his hand, looking at me. Sometimes he looks away. Your father tells me he is so eloquent; and I should like to hear him talk. He looks like such a noble young man. But with me he will never talk. And yet I am so fond of listening to brilliant imagery!"
"He is very eloquent," said Gertrude; "but he has no brilliant imagery. I have heard him talk a great deal. I knew that when they saw us they would not come over here."
"Ah, he is making la cour, as they say, to your sister? They desire to be alone?"
"No," said Gertrude, gravely, "they have no such reason as that for being alone."
"But why does n't he make la cour to Charlotte?" Felix inquired. "She is so pretty, so gentle, so good."
Gertrude glanced at him, and then she looked at the distantly-seen couple they were discussing. Mr. Brand and Charlotte were walking side by side. They might have been a pair of lovers, and yet they might not. "They think I should not be here," said Gertrude.
"With me? I thought you did n't have those ideas."
"You don't understand. There are a great many things you don't understand."
"I understand my stupidity. But why, then, do not Charlotte and Mr. Brand, who, as an elder sister and a clergyman, are free to walk about together, come over and make me wiser by breaking up the unlawful interview into which I have lured you?"
"That is the last thing they would do," said Gertrude.
Felix stared at her a moment, with his lifted eyebrows. "Je n'y comprends rien!" he exclaimed; then his eyes followed for a while the retreating figures of this critical pair. "You may say what you please," he declared; "it is evident to me that your sister is not indifferent to her clever companion. It is agreeable to her to be walking there with him. I can see that from here." And in the excitement of observation Felix rose to his feet.
Gertrude rose also, but she made no attempt to emulate her companion's discovery; she looked rather in another direction. Felix's words had struck her; but a certain delicacy checked her. "She is certainly not indifferent to Mr. Brand; she has the highest opinion of him."
"One can see it—one can see it," said Felix, in a tone of amused contemplation, with his head on one side. Gertrude turned her back to the opposite shore; it was disagreeable to her to look, but she hoped Felix would say something more. "Ah, they have wandered away into the wood," he added.
Gertrude turned round again. "She is not in love with him," she said; it seemed her duty to say that.
"Then he is in love with her; or if he is not, he ought to be. She is such a perfect little woman of her kind. She reminds me of a pair of old-fashioned silver sugar-tongs; you know I am very fond of sugar. And she is very nice with Mr. Brand; I have noticed that; very gentle and gracious."
Gertrude reflected a moment. Then she took a great resolution. "She wants him to marry me," she said. "So of course she is nice."
Felix's eyebrows rose higher than ever. "To marry you! Ah, ah, this is interesting. And you think one must be very nice with a man to induce him to do that?"
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!" Gertrude exclaimed.
"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."