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.