That evening at dinner Felix Young gave his sister, the Baroness Munster, an account of his impressions. She saw that he had come back in the highest possible spirits; but this fact, to her own mind, was not a reason for rejoicing. She had but a limited confidence in her brother's judgment; his capacity for taking rose-colored views was such as to vulgarize one of the prettiest of tints. Still, she supposed he could be trusted to give her the mere facts; and she invited him with some eagerness to communicate them. "I suppose, at least, they did n't turn you out from the door;" she said. "You have been away some ten hours."
"Turn me from the door!" Felix exclaimed. "They took me to their hearts; they killed the fatted calf."
"I know what you want to say: they are a collection of angels."
"Exactly," said Felix. "They are a collection of angels—simply."
"C'est bien vague," remarked the Baroness. "What are they like?"
"Like nothing you ever saw."
"I am sure I am much obliged; but that is hardly more definite. Seriously, they were glad to see you?"
"Enchanted. It has been the proudest day of my life. Never, never have I been so lionized! I assure you, I was cock of the walk. My dear sister," said the young man, "nous n'avons qu'a nous tenir; we shall be great swells!"
Madame Munster looked at him, and her eye exhibited a slight responsive spark. She touched her lips to a glass of wine, and then she said, "Describe them. Give me a picture."
Felix drained his own glass. "Well, it 's in the country, among the meadows and woods; a wild sort of place, and yet not far from here. Only, such a road, my dear! Imagine one of the Alpine glaciers reproduced in mud. But you will not spend much time on it, for they want you to come and stay, once for all."
"Ah," said the Baroness, "they want me to come and stay, once for all? Bon."
"It 's intensely rural, tremendously natural; and all overhung with this strange white light, this far-away blue sky. There 's a big wooden house—a kind of three-story bungalow; it looks like a magnified Nuremberg toy. There was a gentleman there that made a speech to me about it and called it a 'venerable mansion;' but it looks as if it had been built last night."
"Is it handsome—is it elegant?" asked the Baroness.
Felix looked at her a moment, smiling. "It 's very clean! No splendors, no gilding, no troops of servants; rather straight-backed chairs. But you might eat off the floors, and you can sit down on the stairs."
"That must be a privilege. And the inhabitants are straight-backed too, of course."
"My dear sister," said Felix, "the inhabitants are charming."
"In what style?"
"In a style of their own. How shall I describe it? It 's primitive; it 's patriarchal; it 's the ton of the golden age."
"And have they nothing golden but their ton? Are there no symptoms of wealth?"
"I should say there was wealth without symptoms. A plain, homely way of life: nothing for show, and very little for—what shall I call it?—for the senses: but a great faisance, and a lot of money, out of sight, that comes forward very quietly for subscriptions to institutions, for repairing tenements, for paying doctor's bills; perhaps even for portioning daughters."
"And the daughters?" Madame Munster demanded. "How many are there?"
"There are two, Charlotte and Gertrude."
"Are they pretty?"
"One of them," said Felix.
"Which is that?"
The young man was silent, looking at his sister. "Charlotte," he said at last.
She looked at him in return. "I see. You are in love with Gertrude. They must be Puritans to their finger-tips; anything but gay!"
"No, they are not gay," Felix admitted. "They are sober; they are even severe. They are of a pensive cast; they take things hard. I think there is something the matter with them; they have some melancholy memory or some depressing expectation. It 's not the epicurean temperament. My uncle, Mr. Wentworth, is a tremendously high-toned old fellow; he looks as if he were undergoing martyrdom, not by fire, but by freezing. But we shall cheer them up; we shall do them good. They will take a good deal of stirring up; but they are wonderfully kind and gentle. And they are appreciative. They think one clever; they think one remarkable!"
"That is very fine, so far as it goes," said the Baroness. "But are we to be shut up to these three people, Mr. Wentworth and the two young women—what did you say their names were—Deborah and Hephzibah?"
"Oh, no; there is another little girl, a cousin of theirs, a very pretty creature; a thorough little American. And then there is the son of the house."
"Good!" said the Baroness. "We are coming to the gentlemen. What of the son of the house?"
"I am afraid he gets tipsy."
"He, then, has the epicurean temperament! How old is he?"
"He is a boy of twenty; a pretty young fellow, but I am afraid he has vulgar tastes. And then there is Mr. Brand—a very tall young man, a sort of lay-priest. They seem to think a good deal of him, but I don't exactly make him out."
"And is there nothing," asked the Baroness, "between these extremes—this mysterious ecclesiastic and that intemperate youth?"
"Oh, yes, there is Mr. Acton. I think," said the young man, with a nod at his sister, "that you will like Mr. Acton."
"Remember that I am very fastidious," said the Baroness. "Has he very good manners?"
"He will have them with you. He is a man of the world; he has been to China."
Madame Munster gave a little laugh. "A man of the Chinese world! He must be very interesting."
"I have an idea that he brought home a fortune," said Felix.
"That is always interesting. Is he young, good-looking, clever?"
"He is less than forty; he has a baldish head; he says witty things. I rather think," added the young man, "that he will admire the Baroness Munster."
"It is very possible," said this lady. Her brother never knew how she would take things; but shortly afterwards she declared that he had made a very pretty description and that on the morrow she would go and see for herself.
They mounted, accordingly, into a great barouche—a vehicle as to which the Baroness found nothing to criticise but the price that was asked for it and the fact that the coachman wore a straw hat. (At Silberstadt Madame Munster had had liveries of yellow and crimson.) They drove into the country, and the Baroness, leaning far back and swaying her lace-fringed parasol, looked to right and to left and surveyed the way-side objects. After a while she pronounced them "affreux." Her brother remarked that it was apparently a country in which the foreground was inferior to the plans recules: and the Baroness rejoined that the landscape seemed to be all foreground. Felix had fixed with his new friends the hour at which he should bring his sister; it was four o'clock in the afternoon. The large, clean-faced house wore, to his eyes, as the barouche drove up to it, a very friendly aspect; the high, slender elms made lengthening shadows in front of it. The Baroness descended; her American kinsfolk were stationed in the portico. Felix waved his hat to them, and a tall, lean gentleman, with a high forehead and a clean shaven face, came forward toward the garden gate. Charlotte Wentworth walked at his side. Gertrude came behind, more slowly. Both of these young ladies wore rustling silk dresses. Felix ushered his sister into the gate. "Be very gracious," he said to her. But he saw the admonition was superfluous. Eugenia was prepared to be gracious as only Eugenia could be. Felix knew no keener pleasure than to be able to admire his sister unrestrictedly; for if the opportunity was frequent, it was not inveterate. When she desired to please she was to him, as to every one else, the most charming woman in the world. Then he forgot that she was ever anything else; that she was sometimes hard and perverse; that he was occasionally afraid of her. Now, as she took his arm to pass into the garden, he felt that she desired, that she proposed, to please, and this situation made him very happy. Eugenia would please.
The tall gentleman came to meet her, looking very rigid and grave. But it was a rigidity that had no illiberal meaning. Mr. Wentworth's manner was pregnant, on the contrary, with a sense of grand responsibility, of the solemnity of the occasion, of its being difficult to show sufficient deference to a lady at once so distinguished and so unhappy. Felix had observed on the day before his characteristic pallor; and now he perceived that there was something almost cadaverous in his uncle's high-featured white face. But so clever were this young man's quick sympathies and perceptions that he already learned that in these semi-mortuary manifestations there was no cause for alarm. His light imagination had gained a glimpse of Mr. Wentworth's spiritual mechanism, and taught him that, the old man being infinitely conscientious, the special operation of conscience within him announced itself by several of the indications of physical faintness.
The Baroness took her uncle's hand, and stood looking at him with her ugly face and her beautiful smile. "Have I done right to come?" she asked.
"Very right, very right," said Mr. Wentworth, solemnly. He had arranged in his mind a little speech; but now it quite faded away. He felt almost frightened. He had never been looked at in just that way—with just that fixed, intense smile—by any woman; and it perplexed and weighed upon him, now, that the woman who was smiling so and who had instantly given him a vivid sense of her possessing other unprecedented attributes, was his own niece, the child of his own father's daughter. The idea that his niece should be a German Baroness, married "morganatically" to a Prince, had already given him much to think about. Was it right, was it just, was it acceptable? He always slept badly, and the night before he had lain awake much more even than usual, asking himself these questions. The strange word "morganatic" was constantly in his ears; it reminded him of a certain Mrs. Morgan whom he had once known and who had been a bold, unpleasant woman. He had a feeling that it was his duty, so long as the Baroness looked at him, smiling in that way, to meet her glance with his own scrupulously adjusted, consciously frigid organs of vision; but on this occasion he failed to perform his duty to the last. He looked away toward his daughters. "We are very glad to see you," he had said. "Allow me to introduce my daughters—Miss Charlotte Wentworth, Miss Gertrude Wentworth."
The Baroness thought she had never seen people less demonstrative. But Charlotte kissed her and took her hand, looking at her sweetly and solemnly. Gertrude seemed to her almost funereal, though Gertrude might have found a source of gayety in the fact that Felix, with his magnificent smile, had been talking to her; he had greeted her as a very old friend. When she kissed the Baroness she had tears in her eyes. Madame Munster took each of these young women by the hand, and looked at them all over. Charlotte thought her very strange-looking and singularly dressed; she could not have said whether it was well or ill. She was glad, at any rate, that they had put on their silk gowns—especially Gertrude. "My cousins are very pretty," said the Baroness, turning her eyes from one to the other. "Your daughters are very handsome, sir."
Charlotte blushed quickly; she had never yet heard her personal appearance alluded to in a loud, expressive voice. Gertrude looked away—not at Felix; she was extremely pleased. It was not the compliment that pleased her; she did not believe it; she thought herself very plain. She could hardly have told you the source of her satisfaction; it came from something in the way the Baroness spoke, and it was not diminished—it was rather deepened, oddly enough—by the young girl's disbelief. Mr. Wentworth was silent; and then he asked, formally, "Won't you come into the house?"
"These are not all; you have some other children," said the Baroness.
"I have a son," Mr. Wentworth answered.
"And why does n't he come to meet me?" Eugenia cried. "I am afraid he is not so charming as his sisters."
"I don't know; I will see about it," the old man declared.
"He is rather afraid of ladies," Charlotte said, softly.
"He is very handsome," said Gertrude, as loud as she could.
"We will go in and find him. We will draw him out of his cachette." And the Baroness took Mr. Wentworth's arm, who was not aware that he had offered it to her, and who, as they walked toward the house, wondered whether he ought to have offered it and whether it was proper for her to take it if it had not been offered. "I want to know you well," said the Baroness, interrupting these meditations, "and I want you to know me."
"It seems natural that we should know each other," Mr. Wentworth rejoined. "We are near relatives."
"Ah, there comes a moment in life when one reverts, irresistibly, to one's natural ties—to one's natural affections. You must have found that!" said Eugenia.
Mr. Wentworth had been told the day before by Felix that Eugenia was very clever, very brilliant, and the information had held him in some suspense. This was the cleverness, he supposed; the brilliancy was beginning. "Yes, the natural affections are very strong," he murmured.
"In some people," the Baroness declared. "Not in all." Charlotte was walking beside her; she took hold of her hand again, smiling always. "And you, cousine, where did you get that enchanting complexion?" she went on; "such lilies and roses?" The roses in poor Charlotte's countenance began speedily to predominate over the lilies, and she quickened her step and reached the portico. "This is the country of complexions," the Baroness continued, addressing herself to Mr. Wentworth. "I am convinced they are more delicate. There are very good ones in England—in Holland; but they are very apt to be coarse. There is too much red."
"I think you will find," said Mr. Wentworth, "that this country is superior in many respects to those you mention. I have been to England and Holland."
"Ah, you have been to Europe?" cried the Baroness. "Why did n't you come and see me? But it 's better, after all, this way," she said. They were entering the house; she paused and looked round her. "I see you have arranged your house—your beautiful house—in the—in the Dutch taste!"
"The house is very old," remarked Mr. Wentworth. "General Washington once spent a week here."
"Oh, I have heard of Washington," cried the Baroness. "My father used to tell me of him."
Mr. Wentworth was silent a moment, and then, "I found he was very well known in Europe," he said.
Felix had lingered in the garden with Gertrude; he was standing before her and smiling, as he had done the day before. What had happened the day before seemed to her a kind of dream. He had been there and he had changed everything; the others had seen him, they had talked with him; but that he should come again, that he should be part of the future, part of her small, familiar, much-meditating life—this needed, afresh, the evidence of her senses. The evidence had come to her senses now; and her senses seemed to rejoice in it. "What do you think of Eugenia?" Felix asked. "Is n't she charming?"
"She is very brilliant," said Gertrude. "But I can't tell yet. She seems to me like a singer singing an air. You can't tell till the song is done."
"Ah, the song will never be done!" exclaimed the young man, laughing. "Don't you think her handsome?"
Gertrude had been disappointed in the beauty of the Baroness Munster; she had expected her, for mysterious reasons, to resemble a very pretty portrait of the Empress Josephine, of which there hung an engraving in one of the parlors, and which the younger Miss Wentworth had always greatly admired. But the Baroness was not at all like that—not at all. Though different, however, she was very wonderful, and Gertrude felt herself most suggestively corrected. It was strange, nevertheless, that Felix should speak in that positive way about his sister's beauty. "I think I shall think her handsome," Gertrude said. "It must be very interesting to know her. I don't feel as if I ever could."
"Ah, you will know her well; you will become great friends," Felix declared, as if this were the easiest thing in the world.
"She is very graceful," said Gertrude, looking after the Baroness, suspended to her father's arm. It was a pleasure to her to say that any one was graceful.
Felix had been looking about him. "And your little cousin, of yesterday," he said, "who was so wonderfully pretty—what has become of her?"
"She is in the parlor," Gertrude answered. "Yes, she is very pretty." She felt as if it were her duty to take him straight into the house, to where he might be near her cousin. But after hesitating a moment she lingered still. "I did n't believe you would come back," she said.
"Not come back!" cried Felix, laughing. "You did n't know, then, the impression made upon this susceptible heart of mine."
She wondered whether he meant the impression her cousin Lizzie had made. "Well," she said, "I did n't think we should ever see you again."
"And pray what did you think would become of me?"
"I don't know. I thought you would melt away."
"That 's a compliment to my solidity! I melt very often," said Felix, "but there is always something left of me."
"I came and waited for you by the door, because the others did," Gertrude went on. "But if you had never appeared I should not have been surprised."
"I hope," declared Felix, looking at her, "that you would have been disappointed."
She looked at him a little, and shook her head. "No—no!"
"Ah, par exemple!" cried the young man. "You deserve that I should never leave you."
Going into the parlor they found Mr. Wentworth performing introductions. A young man was standing before the Baroness, blushing a good deal, laughing a little, and shifting his weight from one foot to the other—a slim, mild-faced young man, with neatly-arranged features, like those of Mr. Wentworth. Two other gentlemen, behind him, had risen from their seats, and a little apart, near one of the windows, stood a remarkably pretty young girl. The young girl was knitting a stocking; but, while her fingers quickly moved, she looked with wide, brilliant eyes at the Baroness.
"And what is your son's name?" said Eugenia, smiling at the young man.
"My name is Clifford Wentworth, ma'am," he said in a tremulous voice.
"Why did n't you come out to meet me, Mr. Clifford Wentworth?" the Baroness demanded, with her beautiful smile.
"I did n't think you would want me," said the young man, slowly sidling about.
"One always wants a beau cousin,—if one has one! But if you are very nice to me in future I won't remember it against you." And Madame M; auunster transferred her smile to the other persons present. It rested first upon the candid countenance and long-skirted figure of Mr. Brand, whose eyes were intently fixed upon Mr. Wentworth, as if to beg him not to prolong an anomalous situation. Mr. Wentworth pronounced his name. Eugenia gave him a very charming glance, and then looked at the other gentleman.
This latter personage was a man of rather less than the usual stature and the usual weight, with a quick, observant, agreeable dark eye, a small quantity of thin dark hair, and a small mustache. He had been standing with his hands in his pockets; and when Eugenia looked at him he took them out. But he did not, like Mr. Brand, look evasively and urgently at their host. He met Eugenia's eyes; he appeared to appreciate the privilege of meeting them. Madame Munster instantly felt that he was, intrinsically, the most important person present. She was not unconscious that this impression was in some degree manifested in the little sympathetic nod with which she acknowledged Mr. Wentworth's announcement, "My cousin, Mr. Acton!"
"Your cousin—not mine?" said the Baroness.
"It only depends upon you," Mr. Acton declared, laughing.
The Baroness looked at him a moment, and noticed that he had very white teeth. "Let it depend upon your behavior," she said. "I think I had better wait. I have cousins enough. Unless I can also claim relationship," she added, "with that charming young lady," and she pointed to the young girl at the window.
"That 's my sister," said Mr. Acton. And Gertrude Wentworth put her arm round the young girl and led her forward. It was not, apparently, that she needed much leading. She came toward the Baroness with a light, quick step, and with perfect self-possession, rolling her stocking round its needles. She had dark blue eyes and dark brown hair; she was wonderfully pretty.
Eugenia kissed her, as she had kissed the other young women, and then held her off a little, looking at her. "Now this is quite another type," she said; she pronounced the word in the French manner. "This is a different outline, my uncle, a different character, from that of your own daughters. This, Felix," she went on, "is very much more what we have always thought of as the American type."
The young girl, during this exposition, was smiling askance at every one in turn, and at Felix out of turn. "I find only one type here!" cried Felix, laughing. "The type adorable!"
This sally was received in perfect silence, but Felix, who learned all things quickly, had already learned that the silences frequently observed among his new acquaintances were not necessarily restrictive or resentful. It was, as one might say, the silence of expectation, of modesty. They were all standing round his sister, as if they were expecting her to acquit herself of the exhibition of some peculiar faculty, some brilliant talent. Their attitude seemed to imply that she was a kind of conversational mountebank, attired, intellectually, in gauze and spangles. This attitude gave a certain ironical force to Madame Munster's next words. "Now this is your circle," she said to her uncle. "This is your salon. These are your regular habitu; aaes, eh? I am so glad to see you all together."
"Oh," said Mr. Wentworth, "they are always dropping in and out. You must do the same."
"Father," interposed Charlotte Wentworth, "they must do something more." And she turned her sweet, serious face, that seemed at once timid and placid, upon their interesting visitor. "What is your name?" she asked.
"Eugenia-Camilla-Dolores," said the Baroness, smiling. "But you need n't say all that."
"I will say Eugenia, if you will let me. You must come and stay with us."
The Baroness laid her hand upon Charlotte's arm very tenderly; but she reserved herself. She was wondering whether it would be possible to "stay" with these people. "It would be very charming—very charming," she said; and her eyes wandered over the company, over the room. She wished to gain time before committing herself. Her glance fell upon young Mr. Brand, who stood there, with his arms folded and his hand on his chin, looking at her. "The gentleman, I suppose, is a sort of ecclesiastic," she said to Mr. Wentworth, lowering her voice a little.
"He is a minister," answered Mr. Wentworth.
"A Protestant?" asked Eugenia.
"I am a Unitarian, madam," replied Mr. Brand, impressively.
"Ah, I see," said Eugenia. "Something new." She had never heard of this form of worship.
Mr. Acton began to laugh, and Gertrude looked anxiously at Mr. Brand.
"You have come very far," said Mr. Wentworth.
"Very far—very far," the Baroness replied, with a graceful shake of her head—a shake that might have meant many different things.
"That 's a reason why you ought to settle down with us," said Mr. Wentworth, with that dryness of utterance which, as Eugenia was too intelligent not to feel, took nothing from the delicacy of his meaning.
She looked at him, and for an instant, in his cold, still face, she seemed to see a far-away likeness to the vaguely remembered image of her mother. Eugenia was a woman of sudden emotions, and now, unexpectedly, she felt one rising in her heart. She kept looking round the circle; she knew that there was admiration in all the eyes that were fixed upon her. She smiled at them all.
"I came to look—to try—to ask," she said. "It seems to me I have done well. I am very tired; I want to rest." There were tears in her eyes. The luminous interior, the gentle, tranquil people, the simple, serious life—the sense of these things pressed upon her with an overmastering force, and she felt herself yielding to one of the most genuine emotions she had ever known. "I should like to stay here," she said. "Pray take me in."
Though she was smiling, there were tears in her voice as well as in her eyes. "My dear niece," said Mr. Wentworth, softly. And Charlotte put out her arms and drew the Baroness toward her; while Robert Acton turned away, with his hands stealing into his pockets.