"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. "Yes, my house is exquisite," she said; "though not to be compared to yours."
"And my son is so fond of going to see you," Mrs. Acton added. "I am afraid my son will miss you."
"Ah, dear madame," said Eugenia, with a little laugh, "I can't stay in America for your son!"
"Don't you like America?"
The Baroness looked at the front of her dress. "If I liked it—that would not be staying for your son!"
Mrs. Acton gazed at her with her grave, tender eyes, as if she had not quite understood. The Baroness at last found something irritating in the sweet, soft stare of her hostess; and if one were not bound to be merciful to great invalids she would almost have taken the liberty of pronouncing her, mentally, a fool. "I am afraid, then, I shall never see you again," said Mrs. Acton. "You know I am dying."
"Ah, dear madame," murmured Eugenia.
"I want to leave my children cheerful and happy. My daughter will probably marry her cousin."
"Two such interesting young people," said the Baroness, vaguely. She was not thinking of Clifford Wentworth.
"I feel so tranquil about my end," Mrs. Acton went on. "It is coming so easily, so surely." And she paused, with her mild gaze always on Eugenia's.
The Baroness hated to be reminded of death; but even in its imminence, so far as Mrs. Acton was concerned, she preserved her good manners. "Ah, madame, you are too charming an invalid," she rejoined.
But the delicacy of this rejoinder was apparently lost upon her hostess, who went on in her low, reasonable voice. "I want to leave my children bright and comfortable. You seem to me all so happy here—just as you are. So I wish you could stay. It would be so pleasant for Robert."
Eugenia wondered what she meant by its being pleasant for Robert; but she felt that she would never know what such a woman as that meant. She got up; she was afraid Mrs. Acton would tell her again that she was dying. "Good-by, dear madame," she said. "I must remember that your strength is precious."
Mrs. Acton took her hand and held it a moment. "Well, you have been happy here, have n't you? And you like us all, don't you? I wish you would stay," she added, "in your beautiful little house."
She had told Eugenia that her waiting-woman would be in the hall, to show her down-stairs; but the large landing outside her door was empty, and Eugenia stood there looking about. She felt irritated; the dying lady had not "la main heureuse." She passed slowly down-stairs, still looking about. The broad staircase made a great bend, and in the angle was a high window, looking westward, with a deep bench, covered with a row of flowering plants in curious old pots of blue china-ware. The yellow afternoon light came in through the flowers and flickered a little on the white wainscots. Eugenia paused a moment; the house was perfectly still, save for the ticking, somewhere, of a great clock. The lower hall stretched away at the foot of the stairs, half covered over with a large Oriental rug. Eugenia lingered a little, noticing a great many things. "Comme c'est bien!" she said to herself; such a large, solid, irreproachable basis of existence the place seemed to her to indicate. And then she reflected that Mrs. Acton was soon to withdraw from it. The reflection accompanied her the rest of the way down-stairs, where she paused again, making more observations. The hall was extremely broad, and on either side of the front door was a wide, deeply-set window, which threw the shadows of everything back into the house. There were high-backed chairs along the wall and big Eastern vases upon tables, and, on either side, a large cabinet with a glass front and little curiosities within, dimly gleaming. The doors were open—into the darkened parlor, the library, the dining-room. All these rooms seemed empty. Eugenia passed along, and stopped a moment on the threshold of each. "Comme c'est bien!" she murmured again; she had thought of just such a house as this when she decided to come to America. She opened the front door for herself—her light tread had summoned none of the servants—and on the threshold she gave a last look. Outside, she was still in the humor for curious contemplation; so instead of going directly down the little drive, to the gate, she wandered away towards the garden, which lay to the right of the house. She had not gone many yards over the grass before she paused quickly; she perceived a gentleman stretched upon the level verdure, beneath a tree. He had not heard her coming, and he lay motionless, flat on his back, with his hands clasped under his head, staring up at the sky; so that the Baroness was able to reflect, at her leisure, upon the question of his identity. It was that of a person who had lately been much in her thoughts; but her first impulse, nevertheless, was to turn away; the last thing she desired was to have the air of coming in quest of Robert Acton. The gentleman on the grass, however, gave her no time to decide; he could not long remain unconscious of so agreeable a presence. He rolled back his eyes, stared, gave an exclamation, and then jumped up. He stood an instant, looking at her.
"Excuse my ridiculous position," he said.
"I have just now no sense of the ridiculous. But, in case you have, don't imagine I came to see you."
"Take care," rejoined Acton, "how you put it into my head! I was thinking of you."
"The occupation of extreme leisure!" said the Baroness. "To think of a woman when you are in that position is no compliment."
"I did n't say I was thinking well!" Acton affirmed, smiling.
She looked at him, and then she turned away.
"Though I did n't come to see you," she said, "remember at least that I am within your gates."
"I am delighted—I am honored! Won't you come into the house?"
"I have just come out of it. I have been calling upon your mother. I have been bidding her farewell."
"Farewell?" Acton demanded.
"I am going away," said the Baroness. And she turned away again, as if to illustrate her meaning.
"When are you going?" asked Acton, standing a moment in his place. But the Baroness made no answer, and he followed her.
"I came this way to look at your garden," she said, walking back to the gate, over the grass. "But I must go."
"Let me at least go with you." He went with her, and they said nothing till they reached the gate. It was open, and they looked down the road which was darkened over with long bosky shadows. "Must you go straight home?" Acton asked.
But she made no answer. She said, after a moment, "Why have you not been to see me?" He said nothing, and then she went on, "Why don't you answer me?"
"I am trying to invent an answer," Acton confessed.
"Have you none ready?"
"None that I can tell you," he said. "But let me walk with you now."
"You may do as you like."
She moved slowly along the road, and Acton went with her. Presently he said, "If I had done as I liked I would have come to see you several times."
"Is that invented?" asked Eugenia.
"No, that is natural. I stayed away because"—
"Ah, here comes the reason, then!"
"Because I wanted to think about you."
"Because you wanted to lie down!" said the Baroness. "I have seen you lie down—almost—in my drawing-room."
Acton stopped in the road, with a movement which seemed to beg her to linger a little. She paused, and he looked at her awhile; he thought her very charming. "You are jesting," he said; "but if you are really going away it is very serious."
"If I stay," and she gave a little laugh, "it is more serious still!"
"When shall you go?"
"As soon as possible."
"Why should I stay?"
"Because we all admire you so."
"That is not a reason. I am admired also in Europe." And she began to walk homeward again.
"What could I say to keep you?" asked Acton. He wanted to keep her, and it was a fact that he had been thinking of her for a week. He was in love with her now; he was conscious of that, or he thought he was; and the only question with him was whether he could trust her.
"What you can say to keep me?" she repeated. "As I want very much to go it is not in my interest to tell you. Besides, I can't imagine."
He went on with her in silence; he was much more affected by what she had told him than appeared. Ever since that evening of his return from Newport her image had had a terrible power to trouble him. What Clifford Wentworth had told him—that had affected him, too, in an adverse sense; but it had not liberated him from the discomfort of a charm of which his intelligence was impatient. "She is not honest, she is not honest," he kept murmuring to himself. That is what he had been saying to the summer sky, ten minutes before. Unfortunately, he was unable to say it finally, definitively; and now that he was near her it seemed to matter wonderfully little. "She is a woman who will lie," he had said to himself. Now, as he went along, he reminded himself of this observation; but it failed to frighten him as it had done before. He almost wished he could make her lie and then convict her of it, so that he might see how he should like that. He kept thinking of this as he walked by her side, while she moved forward with her light, graceful dignity. He had sat with her before; he had driven with her; but he had never walked with her.
"By Jove, how comme il faut she is!" he said, as he observed her sidewise. When they reached the cottage in the orchard she passed into the gate without asking him to follow; but she turned round, as he stood there, to bid him good-night.
"I asked you a question the other night which you never answered," he said. "Have you sent off that document—liberating yourself?"
She hesitated for a single moment—very naturally. Then, "Yes," she said, simply.
He turned away; he wondered whether that would do for his lie. But he saw her again that evening, for the Baroness reappeared at her uncle's. He had little talk with her, however; two gentlemen had driven out from Boston, in a buggy, to call upon Mr. Wentworth and his daughters, and Madame Munster was an object of absorbing interest to both of the visitors. One of them, indeed, said nothing to her; he only sat and watched with intense gravity, and leaned forward solemnly, presenting his ear (a very large one), as if he were deaf, whenever she dropped an observation. He had evidently been impressed with the idea of her misfortunes and reverses: he never smiled. His companion adopted a lighter, easier style; sat as near as possible to Madame Munster; attempted to draw her out, and proposed every few moments a new topic of conversation. Eugenia was less vividly responsive than usual and had less to say than, from her brilliant reputation, her interlocutor expected, upon the relative merits of European and American institutions; but she was inaccessible to Robert Acton, who roamed about the piazza with his hands in his pockets, listening for the grating sound of the buggy from Boston, as it should be brought round to the side-door. But he listened in vain, and at last he lost patience. His sister came to him and begged him to take her home, and he presently went off with her. Eugenia observed him leaving the house with Lizzie; in her present mood the fact seemed a contribution to her irritated conviction that he had several precious qualities. "Even that mal-elevee little girl," she reflected, "makes him do what she wishes."
She had been sitting just within one of the long windows that opened upon the piazza; but very soon after Acton had gone away she got up abruptly, just when the talkative gentleman from Boston was asking her what she thought of the "moral tone" of that city. On the piazza she encountered Clifford Wentworth, coming round from the other side of the house. She stopped him; she told him she wished to speak to him.
"Why did n't you go home with your cousin?" she asked.
Clifford stared. "Why, Robert has taken her," he said.
"Exactly so. But you don't usually leave that to him."
"Oh," said Clifford, "I want to see those fellows start off. They don't know how to drive."
"It is not, then, that you have quarreled with your cousin?"
Clifford reflected a moment, and then with a simplicity which had, for the Baroness, a singularly baffling quality, "Oh, no; we have made up!" he said.
She looked at him for some moments; but Clifford had begun to be afraid of the Baroness's looks, and he endeavored, now, to shift himself out of their range. "Why do you never come to see me any more?" she asked. "Have I displeased you?"
"Displeased me? Well, I guess not!" said Clifford, with a laugh.
"Why have n't you come, then?"
"Well, because I am afraid of getting shut up in that back room."
Eugenia kept looking at him. "I should think you would like that."
"Like it!" cried Clifford.
"I should, if I were a young man calling upon a charming woman."
"A charming woman is n't much use to me when I am shut up in that back room!"
"I am afraid I am not of much use to you anywhere!" said Madame M; auunster. "And yet you know how I have offered to be."
"Well," observed Clifford, by way of response, "there comes the buggy."
"Never mind the buggy. Do you know I am going away?"
"Do you mean now?"
"I mean in a few days. I leave this place."
"You are going back to Europe?"
"To Europe, where you are to come and see me."
"Oh, yes, I 'll come out there," said Clifford.
"But before that," Eugenia declared, "you must come and see me here."
"Well, I shall keep clear of that back room!" rejoined her simple young kinsman.
The Baroness was silent a moment. "Yes, you must come frankly—boldly. That will be very much better. I see that now."
"I see it!" said Clifford. And then, in an instant, "What 's the matter with that buggy?" His practiced ear had apparently detected an unnatural creak in the wheels of the light vehicle which had been brought to the portico, and he hurried away to investigate so grave an anomaly.
The Baroness walked homeward, alone, in the starlight, asking herself a question. Was she to have gained nothing—was she to have gained nothing?
Gertrude Wentworth had held a silent place in the little circle gathered about the two gentlemen from Boston. She was not interested in the visitors; she was watching Madame Munster, as she constantly watched her. She knew that Eugenia also was not interested—that she was bored; and Gertrude was absorbed in study of the problem how, in spite of her indifference and her absent attention, she managed to have such a charming manner. That was the manner Gertrude would have liked to have; she determined to cultivate it, and she wished that—to give her the charm—she might in future very often be bored. While she was engaged in these researches, Felix Young was looking for Charlotte, to whom he had something to say. For some time, now, he had had something to say to Charlotte, and this evening his sense of the propriety of holding some special conversation with her had reached the motive-point—resolved itself into acute and delightful desire. He wandered through the empty rooms on the large ground-floor of the house, and found her at last in a small apartment denominated, for reasons not immediately apparent, Mr. Wentworth's "office:" an extremely neat and well-dusted room, with an array of law-books, in time-darkened sheep-skin, on one of the walls; a large map of the United States on the other, flanked on either side by an old steel engraving of one of Raphael's Madonnas; and on the third several glass cases containing specimens of butterflies and beetles. Charlotte was sitting by a lamp, embroidering a slipper. Felix did not ask for whom the slipper was destined; he saw it was very large.
He moved a chair toward her and sat down, smiling as usual, but, at first, not speaking. She watched him, with her needle poised, and with a certain shy, fluttered look which she always wore when he approached her. There was something in Felix's manner that quickened her modesty, her self-consciousness; if absolute choice had been given her she would have preferred never to find herself alone with him; and in fact, though she thought him a most brilliant, distinguished, and well-meaning person, she had exercised a much larger amount of tremulous tact than he had ever suspected, to circumvent the accident of tete-a-tete. Poor Charlotte could have given no account of the matter that would not have seemed unjust both to herself and to her foreign kinsman; she could only have said—or rather, she would never have said it—that she did not like so much gentleman's society at once. She was not reassured, accordingly, when he began, emphasizing his words with a kind of admiring radiance, "My dear cousin, I am enchanted at finding you alone."
"I am very often alone," Charlotte observed. Then she quickly added, "I don't mean I am lonely!"
"So clever a woman as you is never lonely," said Felix. "You have company in your beautiful work." And he glanced at the big slipper.
"I like to work," declared Charlotte, simply.
"So do I!" said her companion. "And I like to idle too. But it is not to idle that I have come in search of you. I want to tell you something very particular."
"Well," murmured Charlotte; "of course, if you must"—
"My dear cousin," said Felix, "it 's nothing that a young lady may not listen to. At least I suppose it is n't. But voyons; you shall judge. I am terribly in love."
"Well, Felix," began Miss Wentworth, gravely. But her very gravity appeared to check the development of her phrase.
"I am in love with your sister; but in love, Charlotte—in love!" the young man pursued. Charlotte had laid her work in her lap; her hands were tightly folded on top of it; she was staring at the carpet. "In short, I 'm in love, dear lady," said Felix. "Now I want you to help me."
"To help you?" asked Charlotte, with a tremor.
"I don't mean with Gertrude; she and I have a perfect understanding; and oh, how well she understands one! I mean with your father and with the world in general, including Mr. Brand."
"Poor Mr. Brand!" said Charlotte, slowly, but with a simplicity which made it evident to Felix that the young minister had not repeated to Miss Wentworth the talk that had lately occurred between them.
"Ah, now, don't say 'poor' Mr. Brand! I don't pity Mr. Brand at all. But I pity your father a little, and I don't want to displease him. Therefore, you see, I want you to plead for me. You don't think me very shabby, eh?"
"Shabby?" exclaimed Charlotte softly, for whom Felix represented the most polished and iridescent qualities of mankind.
"I don't mean in my appearance," rejoined Felix, laughing; for Charlotte was looking at his boots. "I mean in my conduct. You don't think it 's an abuse of hospitality?"
"To—to care for Gertrude?" asked Charlotte.
"To have really expressed one's self. Because I have expressed myself, Charlotte; I must tell you the whole truth—I have! Of course I want to marry her—and here is the difficulty. I held off as long as I could; but she is such a terribly fascinating person! She 's a strange creature, Charlotte; I don't believe you really know her." Charlotte took up her tapestry again, and again she laid it down. "I know your father has had higher views," Felix continued; "and I think you have shared them. You have wanted to marry her to Mr. Brand."
"Oh, no," said Charlotte, very earnestly. "Mr. Brand has always admired her. But we did not want anything of that kind."
Felix stared. "Surely, marriage was what you proposed."
"Yes; but we did n't wish to force her."
"A la bonne heure! That 's very unsafe you know. With these arranged marriages there is often the deuce to pay."
"Oh, Felix," said Charlotte, "we did n't want to 'arrange.'"
"I am delighted to hear that. Because in such cases—even when the woman is a thoroughly good creature—she can't help looking for a compensation. A charming fellow comes along—and voila!" Charlotte sat mutely staring at the floor, and Felix presently added, "Do go on with your slipper, I like to see you work."
Charlotte took up her variegated canvas, and began to draw vague blue stitches in a big round rose. "If Gertrude is so—so strange," she said, "why do you want to marry her?"
"Ah, that 's it, dear Charlotte! I like strange women; I always have liked them. Ask Eugenia! And Gertrude is wonderful; she says the most beautiful things!"
Charlotte looked at him, almost for the first time, as if her meaning required to be severely pointed. "You have a great influence over her."
"Yes—and no!" said Felix. "I had at first, I think; but now it is six of one and half-a-dozen of the other; it is reciprocal. She affects me strongly—for she is so strong. I don't believe you know her; it 's a beautiful nature."
"Oh, yes, Felix; I have always thought Gertrude's nature beautiful."
"Well, if you think so now," cried the young man, "wait and see! She 's a folded flower. Let me pluck her from the parent tree and you will see her expand. I 'm sure you will enjoy it."
"I don't understand you," murmured Charlotte. "I can't, Felix."
"Well, you can understand this—that I beg you to say a good word for me to your father. He regards me, I naturally believe, as a very light fellow, a Bohemian, an irregular character. Tell him I am not all this; if I ever was, I have forgotten it. I am fond of pleasure—yes; but of innocent pleasure. Pain is all one; but in pleasure, you know, there are tremendous distinctions. Say to him that Gertrude is a folded flower and that I am a serious man!"
Charlotte got up from her chair slowly rolling up her work. "We know you are very kind to every one, Felix," she said. "But we are extremely sorry for Mr. Brand."
"Of course you are—you especially! Because," added Felix hastily, "you are a woman. But I don't pity him. It ought to be enough for any man that you take an interest in him."
"It is not enough for Mr. Brand," said Charlotte, simply. And she stood there a moment, as if waiting conscientiously for anything more that Felix might have to say.
"Mr. Brand is not so keen about his marriage as he was," he presently said. "He is afraid of your sister. He begins to think she is wicked."
Charlotte looked at him now with beautiful, appealing eyes—eyes into which he saw the tears rising. "Oh, Felix, Felix," she cried, "what have you done to her?"
"I think she was asleep; I have waked her up!"
But Charlotte, apparently, was really crying, she walked straight out of the room. And Felix, standing there and meditating, had the apparent brutality to take satisfaction in her tears.
Late that night Gertrude, silent and serious, came to him in the garden; it was a kind of appointment. Gertrude seemed to like appointments. She plucked a handful of heliotrope and stuck it into the front of her dress, but she said nothing. They walked together along one of the paths, and Felix looked at the great, square, hospitable house, massing itself vaguely in the starlight, with all its windows darkened.
"I have a little of a bad conscience," he said. "I ought n't to meet you this way till I have got your father's consent."
Gertrude looked at him for some time. "I don't understand you."
"You very often say that," he said. "Considering how little we understand each other, it is a wonder how well we get on!"
"We have done nothing but meet since you came here—but meet alone. The first time I ever saw you we were alone," Gertrude went on. "What is the difference now? Is it because it is at night?"
"The difference, Gertrude," said Felix, stopping in the path, "the difference is that I love you more—more than before!" And then they stood there, talking, in the warm stillness and in front of the closed dark house. "I have been talking to Charlotte—been trying to bespeak her interest with your father. She has a kind of sublime perversity; was ever a woman so bent upon cutting off her own head?"
"You are too careful," said Gertrude; "you are too diplomatic."
"Well," cried the young man, "I did n't come here to make any one unhappy!"
Gertrude looked round her awhile in the odorous darkness. "I will do anything you please," she said.
"For instance?" asked Felix, smiling.
"I will go away. I will do anything you please."
Felix looked at her in solemn admiration. "Yes, we will go away," he said. "But we will make peace first."
Gertrude looked about her again, and then she broke out, passionately, "Why do they try to make one feel guilty? Why do they make it so difficult? Why can't they understand?"
"I will make them understand!" said Felix. He drew her hand into his arm, and they wandered about in the garden, talking, for an hour.
Felix allowed Charlotte time to plead his cause; and then, on the third day, he sought an interview with his uncle. It was in the morning; Mr. Wentworth was in his office; and, on going in, Felix found that Charlotte was at that moment in conference with her father. She had, in fact, been constantly near him since her interview with Felix; she had made up her mind that it was her duty to repeat very literally her cousin's passionate plea. She had accordingly followed Mr. Wentworth about like a shadow, in order to find him at hand when she should have mustered sufficient composure to speak. For poor Charlotte, in this matter, naturally lacked composure; especially when she meditated upon some of Felix's intimations. It was not cheerful work, at the best, to keep giving small hammer-taps to the coffin in which one had laid away, for burial, the poor little unacknowledged offspring of one's own misbehaving heart; and the occupation was not rendered more agreeable by the fact that the ghost of one's stifled dream had been summoned from the shades by the strange, bold words of a talkative young foreigner. What had Felix meant by saying that Mr. Brand was not so keen? To herself her sister's justly depressed suitor had shown no sign of faltering. Charlotte trembled all over when she allowed herself to believe for an instant now and then that, privately, Mr. Brand might have faltered; and as it seemed to give more force to Felix's words to repeat them to her father, she was waiting until she should have taught herself to be very calm. But she had now begun to tell Mr. Wentworth that she was extremely anxious. She was proceeding to develop this idea, to enumerate the objects of her anxiety, when Felix came in.
Mr. Wentworth sat there, with his legs crossed, lifting his dry, pure countenance from the Boston "Advertiser." Felix entered smiling, as if he had something particular to say, and his uncle looked at him as if he both expected and deprecated this event. Felix vividly expressing himself had come to be a formidable figure to his uncle, who had not yet arrived at definite views as to a proper tone. For the first time in his life, as I have said, Mr. Wentworth shirked a responsibility; he earnestly desired that it might not be laid upon him to determine how his nephew's lighter propositions should be treated. He lived under an apprehension that Felix might yet beguile him into assent to doubtful inductions, and his conscience instructed him that the best form of vigilance was the avoidance of discussion. He hoped that the pleasant episode of his nephew's visit would pass away without a further lapse of consistency.
Felix looked at Charlotte with an air of understanding, and then at Mr. Wentworth, and then at Charlotte again. Mr. Wentworth bent his refined eyebrows upon his nephew and stroked down the first page of the "Advertiser." "I ought to have brought a bouquet," said Felix, laughing. "In France they always do."
"We are not in France," observed Mr. Wentworth, gravely, while Charlotte earnestly gazed at him.
"No, luckily, we are not in France, where I am afraid I should have a harder time of it. My dear Charlotte, have you rendered me that delightful service?" And Felix bent toward her as if some one had been presenting him.
Charlotte looked at him with almost frightened eyes; and Mr. Wentworth thought this might be the beginning of a discussion. "What is the bouquet for?" he inquired, by way of turning it off.
Felix gazed at him, smiling. "Pour la demande!" And then, drawing up a chair, he seated himself, hat in hand, with a kind of conscious solemnity.
Presently he turned to Charlotte again. "My good Charlotte, my admirable Charlotte," he murmured, "you have not played me false—you have not sided against me?"
Charlotte got up, trembling extremely, though imperceptibly. "You must speak to my father yourself," she said. "I think you are clever enough."
But Felix, rising too, begged her to remain. "I can speak better to an audience!" he declared.
"I hope it is nothing disagreeable," said Mr. Wentworth.
"It 's something delightful, for me!" And Felix, laying down his hat, clasped his hands a little between his knees. "My dear uncle," he said, "I desire, very earnestly, to marry your daughter Gertrude." Charlotte sank slowly into her chair again, and Mr. Wentworth sat staring, with a light in his face that might have been flashed back from an iceberg. He stared and stared; he said nothing. Felix fell back, with his hands still clasped. "Ah—you don't like it. I was afraid!" He blushed deeply, and Charlotte noticed it—remarking to herself that it was the first time she had ever seen him blush. She began to blush herself and to reflect that he might be much in love.
"This is very abrupt," said Mr. Wentworth, at last.
"Have you never suspected it, dear uncle?" Felix inquired. "Well, that proves how discreet I have been. Yes, I thought you would n't like it."
"It is very serious, Felix," said Mr. Wentworth.
"You think it 's an abuse of hospitality!" exclaimed Felix, smiling again.
"Of hospitality?—an abuse?" his uncle repeated very slowly.
"That is what Felix said to me," said Charlotte, conscientiously.
"Of course you think so; don't defend yourself!" Felix pursued. "It is an abuse, obviously; the most I can claim is that it is perhaps a pardonable one. I simply fell head over heels in love; one can hardly help that. Though you are Gertrude's progenitor I don't believe you know how attractive she is. Dear uncle, she contains the elements of a singularly—I may say a strangely—charming woman!"
"She has always been to me an object of extreme concern," said Mr. Wentworth. "We have always desired her happiness."
"Well, here it is!" Felix declared. "I will make her happy. She believes it, too. Now had n't you noticed that?"
"I had noticed that she was much changed," Mr. Wentworth declared, in a tone whose unexpressive, unimpassioned quality appeared to Felix to reveal a profundity of opposition. "It may be that she is only becoming what you call a charming woman."
"Gertrude, at heart, is so earnest, so true," said Charlotte, very softly, fastening her eyes upon her father.
"I delight to hear you praise her!" cried Felix.
"She has a very peculiar temperament," said Mr. Wentworth.
"Eh, even that is praise!" Felix rejoined. "I know I am not the man you might have looked for. I have no position and no fortune; I can give Gertrude no place in the world. A place in the world—that 's what she ought to have; that would bring her out."
"A place to do her duty!" remarked Mr. Wentworth.
"Ah, how charmingly she does it—her duty!" Felix exclaimed, with a radiant face. "What an exquisite conception she has of it! But she comes honestly by that, dear uncle." Mr. Wentworth and Charlotte both looked at him as if they were watching a greyhound doubling. "Of course with me she will hide her light under a bushel," he continued; "I being the bushel! Now I know you like me—you have certainly proved it. But you think I am frivolous and penniless and shabby! Granted—granted—a thousand times granted. I have been a loose fish—a fiddler, a painter, an actor. But there is this to be said: In the first place, I fancy you exaggerate; you lend me qualities I have n't had. I have been a Bohemian—yes; but in Bohemia I always passed for a gentleman. I wish you could see some of my old camarades—they would tell you! It was the liberty I liked, but not the opportunities! My sins were all peccadilloes; I always respected my neighbor's property—my neighbor's wife. Do you see, dear uncle?" Mr. Wentworth ought to have seen; his cold blue eyes were intently fixed. "And then, c'est fini! It 's all over. Je me range. I have settled down to a jog-trot. I find I can earn my living—a very fair one—by going about the world and painting bad portraits. It 's not a glorious profession, but it is a perfectly respectable one. You won't deny that, eh? Going about the world, I say? I must not deny that, for that I am afraid I shall always do—in quest of agreeable sitters. When I say agreeable, I mean susceptible of delicate flattery and prompt of payment. Gertrude declares she is willing to share my wanderings and help to pose my models. She even thinks it will be charming; and that brings me to my third point. Gertrude likes me. Encourage her a little and she will tell you so."
Felix's tongue obviously moved much faster than the imagination of his auditors; his eloquence, like the rocking of a boat in a deep, smooth lake, made long eddies of silence. And he seemed to be pleading and chattering still, with his brightly eager smile, his uplifted eyebrows, his expressive mouth, after he had ceased speaking, and while, with his glance quickly turning from the father to the daughter, he sat waiting for the effect of his appeal. "It is not your want of means," said Mr. Wentworth, after a period of severe reticence.
"Now it 's delightful of you to say that! Only don't say it 's my want of character. Because I have a character—I assure you I have; a small one, a little slip of a thing, but still something tangible."
"Ought you not to tell Felix that it is Mr. Brand, father?" Charlotte asked, with infinite mildness.
"It is not only Mr. Brand," Mr. Wentworth solemnly declared. And he looked at his knee for a long time. "It is difficult to explain," he said. He wished, evidently, to be very just. "It rests on moral grounds, as Mr. Brand says. It is the question whether it is the best thing for Gertrude."
"What is better—what is better, dear uncle?" Felix rejoined urgently, rising in his urgency and standing before Mr. Wentworth. His uncle had been looking at his knee; but when Felix moved he transferred his gaze to the handle of the door which faced him. "It is usually a fairly good thing for a girl to marry the man she loves!" cried Felix.
While he spoke, Mr. Wentworth saw the handle of the door begin to turn; the door opened and remained slightly ajar, until Felix had delivered himself of the cheerful axiom just quoted. Then it opened altogether and Gertrude stood there. She looked excited; there was a spark in her sweet, dull eyes. She came in slowly, but with an air of resolution, and, closing the door softly, looked round at the three persons present. Felix went to her with tender gallantry, holding out his hand, and Charlotte made a place for her on the sofa. But Gertrude put her hands behind her and made no motion to sit down.
"We are talking of you!" said Felix.
"I know it," she answered. "That 's why I came." And she fastened her eyes on her father, who returned her gaze very fixedly. In his own cold blue eyes there was a kind of pleading, reasoning light.
"It is better you should be present," said Mr. Wentworth. "We are discussing your future."
"Why discuss it?" asked Gertrude. "Leave it to me."
"That is, to me!" cried Felix.
"I leave it, in the last resort, to a greater wisdom than ours," said the old man.
Felix rubbed his forehead gently. "But en attendant the last resort, your father lacks confidence," he said to Gertrude.
"Have n't you confidence in Felix?" Gertrude was frowning; there was something about her that her father and Charlotte had never seen. Charlotte got up and came to her, as if to put her arm round her; but suddenly, she seemed afraid to touch her.
Mr. Wentworth, however, was not afraid. "I have had more confidence in Felix than in you," he said.
"Yes, you have never had confidence in me—never, never! I don't know why."
"Oh sister, sister!" murmured Charlotte.
"You have always needed advice," Mr. Wentworth declared. "You have had a difficult temperament."
"Why do you call it difficult? It might have been easy, if you had allowed it. You would n't let me be natural. I don't know what you wanted to make of me. Mr. Brand was the worst."
Charlotte at last took hold of her sister. She laid her two hands upon Gertrude's arm. "He cares so much for you," she almost whispered.
Gertrude looked at her intently an instant; then kissed her. "No, he does not," she said.
"I have never seen you so passionate," observed Mr. Wentworth, with an air of indignation mitigated by high principles.
"I am sorry if I offend you," said Gertrude.
"You offend me, but I don't think you are sorry."
"Yes, father, she is sorry," said Charlotte.
"I would even go further, dear uncle," Felix interposed. "I would question whether she really offends you. How can she offend you?"
To this Mr. Wentworth made no immediate answer. Then, in a moment, "She has not profited as we hoped."
"Profited? Ah voila!" Felix exclaimed.
Gertrude was very pale; she stood looking down. "I have told Felix I would go away with him," she presently said.
"Ah, you have said some admirable things!" cried the young man.
"Go away, sister?" asked Charlotte.
"Away—away; to some strange country."
"That is to frighten you," said Felix, smiling at Charlotte.
"To—what do you call it?" asked Gertrude, turning an instant to Felix. "To Bohemia."
"Do you propose to dispense with preliminaries?" asked Mr. Wentworth, getting up.
"Dear uncle, vous plaisantez!" cried Felix. "It seems to me that these are preliminaries."
Gertrude turned to her father. "I have profited," she said. "You wanted to form my character. Well, my character is formed—for my age. I know what I want; I have chosen. I am determined to marry this gentleman."
"You had better consent, sir," said Felix very gently.
"Yes, sir, you had better consent," added a very different voice.
Charlotte gave a little jump, and the others turned to the direction from which it had come. It was the voice of Mr. Brand, who had stepped through the long window which stood open to the piazza. He stood patting his forehead with his pocket-handkerchief; he was very much flushed; his face wore a singular expression.
"Yes, sir, you had better consent," Mr. Brand repeated, coming forward. "I know what Miss Gertrude means."
"My dear friend!" murmured Felix, laying his hand caressingly on the young minister's arm.
Mr. Brand looked at him; then at Mr. Wentworth; lastly at Gertrude. He did not look at Charlotte. But Charlotte's earnest eyes were fastened to his own countenance; they were asking an immense question of it. The answer to this question could not come all at once; but some of the elements of it were there. It was one of the elements of it that Mr. Brand was very red, that he held his head very high, that he had a bright, excited eye and an air of embarrassed boldness—the air of a man who has taken a resolve, in the execution of which he apprehends the failure, not of his moral, but of his personal, resources. Charlotte thought he looked very grand; and it is incontestable that Mr. Brand felt very grand. This, in fact, was the grandest moment of his life; and it was natural that such a moment should contain opportunities of awkwardness for a large, stout, modest young man.
"Come in, sir," said Mr. Wentworth, with an angular wave of his hand. "It is very proper that you should be present."
"I know what you are talking about," Mr. Brand rejoined. "I heard what your nephew said."
"And he heard what you said!" exclaimed Felix, patting him again on the arm.
"I am not sure that I understood," said Mr. Wentworth, who had angularity in his voice as well as in his gestures.
Gertrude had been looking hard at her former suitor. She had been puzzled, like her sister; but her imagination moved more quickly than Charlotte's. "Mr. Brand asked you to let Felix take me away," she said to her father.
The young minister gave her a strange look. "It is not because I don't want to see you any more," he declared, in a tone intended as it were for publicity.
"I should n't think you would want to see me any more," Gertrude answered, gently.
Mr. Wentworth stood staring. "Is n't this rather a change, sir?" he inquired.
"Yes, sir." And Mr. Brand looked anywhere; only still not at Charlotte. "Yes, sir," he repeated. And he held his handkerchief a few moments to his lips.
"Where are our moral grounds?" demanded Mr. Wentworth, who had always thought Mr. Brand would be just the thing for a younger daughter with a peculiar temperament.
"It is sometimes very moral to change, you know," suggested Felix.
Charlotte had softly left her sister's side. She had edged gently toward her father, and now her hand found its way into his arm. Mr. Wentworth had folded up the "Advertiser" into a surprisingly small compass, and, holding the roll with one hand, he earnestly clasped it with the other. Mr. Brand was looking at him; and yet, though Charlotte was so near, his eyes failed to meet her own. Gertrude watched her sister.
"It is better not to speak of change," said Mr. Brand. "In one sense there is no change. There was something I desired—something I asked of you; I desire something still—I ask it of you." And he paused a moment; Mr. Wentworth looked bewildered. "I should like, in my ministerial capacity, to unite this young couple."
Gertrude, watching her sister, saw Charlotte flushing intensely, and Mr. Wentworth felt her pressing upon his arm. "Heavenly Powers!" murmured Mr. Wentworth. And it was the nearest approach to profanity he had ever made.
"That is very nice; that is very handsome!" Felix exclaimed.
"I don't understand," said Mr. Wentworth; though it was plain that every one else did.
"That is very beautiful, Mr. Brand," said Gertrude, emulating Felix.
"I should like to marry you. It will give me great pleasure."
"As Gertrude says, it 's a beautiful idea," said Felix.
Felix was smiling, but Mr. Brand was not even trying to. He himself treated his proposition very seriously. "I have thought of it, and I should like to do it," he affirmed.
Charlotte, meanwhile, was staring with expanded eyes. Her imagination, as I have said, was not so rapid as her sister's, but now it had taken several little jumps. "Father," she murmured, "consent!"
Mr. Brand heard her; he looked away. Mr. Wentworth, evidently, had no imagination at all. "I have always thought," he began, slowly, "that Gertrude's character required a special line of development."
"Father," repeated Charlotte, "consent."
Then, at last, Mr. Brand looked at her. Her father felt her leaning more heavily upon his folded arm than she had ever done before; and this, with a certain sweet faintness in her voice, made him wonder what was the matter. He looked down at her and saw the encounter of her gaze with the young theologian's; but even this told him nothing, and he continued to be bewildered. Nevertheless, "I consent," he said at last, "since Mr. Brand recommends it."
"I should like to perform the ceremony very soon," observed Mr. Brand, with a sort of solemn simplicity.
"Come, come, that 's charming!" cried Felix, profanely.
Mr. Wentworth sank into his chair. "Doubtless, when you understand it," he said, with a certain judicial asperity.
Gertrude went to her sister and led her away, and Felix having passed his arm into Mr. Brand's and stepped out of the long window with him, the old man was left sitting there in unillumined perplexity.
Felix did no work that day. In the afternoon, with Gertrude, he got into one of the boats and floated about with idly-dipping oars. They talked a good deal of Mr. Brand—though not exclusively.
"That was a fine stroke," said Felix. "It was really heroic."
Gertrude sat musing, with her eyes upon the ripples. "That was what he wanted to be; he wanted to do something fine."
"He won't be comfortable till he has married us," said Felix. "So much the better."
"He wanted to be magnanimous; he wanted to have a fine moral pleasure. I know him so well," Gertrude went on. Felix looked at her; she spoke slowly, gazing at the clear water. "He thought of it a great deal, night and day. He thought it would be beautiful. At last he made up his mind that it was his duty, his duty to do just that—nothing less than that. He felt exalted; he felt sublime. That 's how he likes to feel. It is better for him than if I had listened to him."
"It 's better for me," smiled Felix. "But do you know, as regards the sacrifice, that I don't believe he admired you when this decision was taken quite so much as he had done a fortnight before?"
"He never admired me. He admires Charlotte; he pitied me. I know him so well."
"Well, then, he did n't pity you so much."
Gertrude looked at Felix a little, smiling. "You should n't permit yourself," she said, "to diminish the splendor of his action. He admires Charlotte," she repeated.
"That's capital!" said Felix laughingly, and dipping his oars. I cannot say exactly to which member of Gertrude's phrase he alluded; but he dipped his oars again, and they kept floating about.
Neither Felix nor his sister, on that day, was present at Mr. Wentworth's at the evening repast. The two occupants of the chalet dined together, and the young man informed his companion that his marriage was now an assured fact. Eugenia congratulated him, and replied that if he were as reasonable a husband as he had been, on the whole, a brother, his wife would have nothing to complain of.
Felix looked at her a moment, smiling. "I hope," he said, "not to be thrown back on my reason."
"It is very true," Eugenia rejoined, "that one's reason is dismally flat. It 's a bed with the mattress removed."
But the brother and sister, later in the evening, crossed over to the larger house, the Baroness desiring to compliment her prospective sister-in-law. They found the usual circle upon the piazza, with the exception of Clifford Wentworth and Lizzie Acton; and as every one stood up as usual to welcome the Baroness, Eugenia had an admiring audience for her compliment to Gertrude.
Robert Acton stood on the edge of the piazza, leaning against one of the white columns, so that he found himself next to Eugenia while she acquitted herself of a neat little discourse of congratulation.
"I shall be so glad to know you better," she said; "I have seen so much less of you than I should have liked. Naturally; now I see the reason why! You will love me a little, won't you? I think I may say I gain on being known." And terminating these observations with the softest cadence of her voice, the Baroness imprinted a sort of grand official kiss upon Gertrude's forehead.
Increased familiarity had not, to Gertrude's imagination, diminished the mysterious impressiveness of Eugenia's personality, and she felt flattered and transported by this little ceremony. Robert Acton also seemed to admire it, as he admired so many of the gracious manifestations of Madame Munster's wit.
They had the privilege of making him restless, and on this occasion he walked away, suddenly, with his hands in his pockets, and then came back and leaned against his column. Eugenia was now complimenting her uncle upon his daughter's engagement, and Mr. Wentworth was listening with his usual plain yet refined politeness. It is to be supposed that by this time his perception of the mutual relations of the young people who surrounded him had become more acute; but he still took the matter very seriously, and he was not at all exhilarated.
"Felix will make her a good husband," said Eugenia. "He will be a charming companion; he has a great quality—indestructible gayety."
"You think that 's a great quality?" asked the old man.
Eugenia meditated, with her eyes upon his. "You think one gets tired of it, eh?"
"I don't know that I am prepared to say that," said Mr. Wentworth.
"Well, we will say, then, that it is tiresome for others but delightful for one's self. A woman's husband, you know, is supposed to be her second self; so that, for Felix and Gertrude, gayety will be a common property."
"Gertrude was always very gay," said Mr. Wentworth. He was trying to follow this argument.
Robert Acton took his hands out of his pockets and came a little nearer to the Baroness. "You say you gain by being known," he said. "One certainly gains by knowing you."
"What have you gained?" asked Eugenia.
"An immense amount of wisdom."
"That 's a questionable advantage for a man who was already so wise!"
Acton shook his head. "No, I was a great fool before I knew you!"
"And being a fool you made my acquaintance? You are very complimentary."
"Let me keep it up," said Acton, laughing. "I hope, for our pleasure, that your brother's marriage will detain you."
"Why should I stop for my brother's marriage when I would not stop for my own?" asked the Baroness.
"Why should n't you stop in either case, now that, as you say, you have dissolved that mechanical tie that bound you to Europe?"
The Baroness looked at him a moment. "As I say? You look as if you doubted it."
"Ah," said Acton, returning her glance, "that is a remnant of my old folly! We have other attractions," he added. "We are to have another marriage."
But she seemed not to hear him; she was looking at him still. "My word was never doubted before," she said.
"We are to have another marriage," Acton repeated, smiling.
Then she appeared to understand. "Another marriage?" And she looked at the others. Felix was chattering to Gertrude; Charlotte, at a distance, was watching them; and Mr. Brand, in quite another quarter, was turning his back to them, and, with his hands under his coat-tails and his large head on one side, was looking at the small, tender crescent of a young moon. "It ought to be Mr. Brand and Charlotte," said Eugenia, "but it does n't look like it."
"There," Acton answered, "you must judge just now by contraries. There is more than there looks to be. I expect that combination one of these days; but that is not what I meant."
"Well," said the Baroness, "I never guess my own lovers; so I can't guess other people's."
Acton gave a loud laugh, and he was about to add a rejoinder when Mr. Wentworth approached his niece. "You will be interested to hear," the old man said, with a momentary aspiration toward jocosity, "of another matrimonial venture in our little circle."
"I was just telling the Baroness," Acton observed.
"Mr. Acton was apparently about to announce his own engagement," said Eugenia.
Mr. Wentworth's jocosity increased. "It is not exactly that; but it is in the family. Clifford, hearing this morning that Mr. Brand had expressed a desire to tie the nuptial knot for his sister, took it into his head to arrange that, while his hand was in, our good friend should perform a like ceremony for himself and Lizzie Acton."
The Baroness threw back her head and smiled at her uncle; then turning, with an intenser radiance, to Robert Acton, "I am certainly very stupid not to have thought of that," she said. Acton looked down at his boots, as if he thought he had perhaps reached the limits of legitimate experimentation, and for a moment Eugenia said nothing more. It had been, in fact, a sharp knock, and she needed to recover herself. This was done, however, promptly enough. "Where are the young people?" she asked.
"They are spending the evening with my mother."
"Is not the thing very sudden?"
Acton looked up. "Extremely sudden. There had been a tacit understanding; but within a day or two Clifford appears to have received some mysterious impulse to precipitate the affair."
"The impulse," said the Baroness, "was the charms of your very pretty sister."
"But my sister's charms were an old story; he had always known her." Acton had begun to experiment again.
Here, however, it was evident the Baroness would not help him. "Ah, one can't say! Clifford is very young; but he is a nice boy."
"He 's a likeable sort of boy, and he will be a rich man." This was Acton's last experiment. Madame Munster turned away.
She made but a short visit and Felix took her home. In her little drawing-room she went almost straight to the mirror over the chimney-piece, and, with a candle uplifted, stood looking into it. "I shall not wait for your marriage," she said to her brother. "To-morrow my maid shall pack up."
"My dear sister," Felix exclaimed, "we are to be married immediately! Mr. Brand is too uncomfortable."
But Eugenia, turning and still holding her candle aloft, only looked about the little sitting-room at her gimcracks and curtains and cushions. "My maid shall pack up," she repeated. "Bonte divine, what rubbish! I feel like a strolling actress; these are my 'properties.'"
"Is the play over, Eugenia?" asked Felix.
She gave him a sharp glance. "I have spoken my part."
"With great applause!" said her brother.
"Oh, applause—applause!" she murmured. And she gathered up two or three of her dispersed draperies. She glanced at the beautiful brocade, and then, "I don't see how I can have endured it!" she said.
"Endure it a little longer. Come to my wedding."
"Thank you; that 's your affair. My affairs are elsewhere."
"Where are you going?"
"To Germany—by the first ship."
"You have decided not to marry Mr. Acton?"
"I have refused him," said Eugenia.
Her brother looked at her in silence. "I am sorry," he rejoined at last. "But I was very discreet, as you asked me to be. I said nothing."
"Please continue, then, not to allude to the matter," said Eugenia.
Felix inclined himself gravely. "You shall be obeyed. But your position in Germany?" he pursued.
"Please to make no observations upon it."
"I was only going to say that I supposed it was altered."
"You are mistaken."
"But I thought you had signed"—
"I have not signed!" said the Baroness.
Felix urged her no further, and it was arranged that he should immediately assist her to embark.
Mr. Brand was indeed, it appeared, very impatient to consummate his sacrifice and deliver the nuptial benediction which would set it off so handsomely; but Eugenia's impatience to withdraw from a country in which she had not found the fortune she had come to seek was even less to be mistaken. It is true she had not made any very various exertion; but she appeared to feel justified in generalizing—in deciding that the conditions of action on this provincial continent were not favorable to really superior women. The elder world was, after all, their natural field. The unembarrassed directness with which she proceeded to apply these intelligent conclusions appeared to the little circle of spectators who have figured in our narrative but the supreme exhibition of a character to which the experience of life had imparted an inimitable pliancy. It had a distinct effect upon Robert Acton, who, for the two days preceding her departure, was a very restless and irritated mortal. She passed her last evening at her uncle's, where she had never been more charming; and in parting with Clifford Wentworth's affianced bride she drew from her own finger a curious old ring and presented it to her with the prettiest speech and kiss. Gertrude, who as an affianced bride was also indebted to her gracious bounty, admired this little incident extremely, and Robert Acton almost wondered whether it did not give him the right, as Lizzie's brother and guardian, to offer in return a handsome present to the Baroness. It would have made him extremely happy to be able to offer a handsome present to the Baroness; but he abstained from this expression of his sentiments, and they were in consequence, at the very last, by so much the less comfortable. It was almost at the very last that he saw her—late the night before she went to Boston to embark.
"For myself, I wish you might have stayed," he said. "But not for your own sake."
"I don't make so many differences," said the Baroness. "I am simply sorry to be going."
"That 's a much deeper difference than mine," Acton declared; "for you mean you are simply glad!"
Felix parted with her on the deck of the ship. "We shall often meet over there," he said.
"I don't know," she answered. "Europe seems to me much larger than America."
Mr. Brand, of course, in the days that immediately followed, was not the only impatient spirit; but it may be said that of all the young spirits interested in the event none rose more eagerly to the level of the occasion. Gertrude left her father's house with Felix Young; they were imperturbably happy and they went far away. Clifford and his young wife sought their felicity in a narrower circle, and the latter's influence upon her husband was such as to justify, strikingly, that theory of the elevating effect of easy intercourse with clever women which Felix had propounded to Mr. Wentworth. Gertrude was for a good while a distant figure, but she came back when Charlotte married Mr. Brand. She was present at the wedding feast, where Felix's gayety confessed to no change. Then she disappeared, and the echo of a gayety of her own, mingled with that of her husband, often came back to the home of her earlier years. Mr. Wentworth at last found himself listening for it; and Robert Acton, after his mother's death, married a particularly nice young girl.