Charlotte and Mr. Brand had not returned when they reached the house; but the Baroness had come to tea, and Robert Acton also, who now regularly asked for a place at this generous repast or made his appearance later in the evening. Clifford Wentworth, with his juvenile growl, remarked upon it.
"You are always coming to tea nowadays, Robert," he said. "I should think you had drunk enough tea in China."
"Since when is Mr. Acton more frequent?" asked the Baroness.
"Since you came," said Clifford. "It seems as if you were a kind of attraction."
"I suppose I am a curiosity," said the Baroness. "Give me time and I will make you a salon."
"It would fall to pieces after you go!" exclaimed Acton.
"Don't talk about her going, in that familiar way," Clifford said. "It makes me feel gloomy."
Mr. Wentworth glanced at his son, and taking note of these words, wondered if Felix had been teaching him, according to the programme he had sketched out, to make love to the wife of a German prince.
Charlotte came in late with Mr. Brand; but Gertrude, to whom, at least, Felix had taught something, looked in vain, in her face, for the traces of a guilty passion. Mr. Brand sat down by Gertrude, and she presently asked him why they had not crossed the pond to join Felix and herself.
"It is cruel of you to ask me that," he answered, very softly. He had a large morsel of cake before him; but he fingered it without eating it. "I sometimes think you are growing cruel," he added.
Gertrude said nothing; she was afraid to speak. There was a kind of rage in her heart; she felt as if she could easily persuade herself that she was persecuted. She said to herself that it was quite right that she should not allow him to make her believe she was wrong. She thought of what Felix had said to her; she wished indeed Mr. Brand would marry Charlotte. She looked away from him and spoke no more. Mr. Brand ended by eating his cake, while Felix sat opposite, describing to Mr. Wentworth the students' duels at Heidelberg. After tea they all dispersed themselves, as usual, upon the piazza and in the garden; and Mr. Brand drew near to Gertrude again.
"I did n't come to you this afternoon because you were not alone," he began; "because you were with a newer friend."
"Felix? He is an old friend by this time."
Mr. Brand looked at the ground for some moments. "I thought I was prepared to hear you speak in that way," he resumed. "But I find it very painful."
"I don't see what else I can say," said Gertrude.
Mr. Brand walked beside her for a while in silence; Gertrude wished he would go away. "He is certainly very accomplished. But I think I ought to advise you."
"To advise me?"
"I think I know your nature."
"I think you don't," said Gertrude, with a soft laugh.
"You make yourself out worse than you are—to please him," Mr. Brand said, gently.
"Worse—to please him? What do you mean?" asked Gertrude, stopping.
Mr. Brand stopped also, and with the same soft straight-forwardness, "He does n't care for the things you care for—the great questions of life."
Gertrude, with her eyes on his, shook her head. "I don't care for the great questions of life. They are much beyond me."
"There was a time when you did n't say that," said Mr. Brand.
"Oh," rejoined Gertrude, "I think you made me talk a great deal of nonsense. And it depends," she added, "upon what you call the great questions of life. There are some things I care for."
"Are they the things you talk about with your cousin?"
"You should not say things to me against my cousin, Mr. Brand," said Gertrude. "That is dishonorable."
He listened to this respectfully; then he answered, with a little vibration of the voice, "I should be very sorry to do anything dishonorable. But I don't see why it is dishonorable to say that your cousin is frivolous."
"Go and say it to himself!"
"I think he would admit it," said Mr. Brand. "That is the tone he would take. He would not be ashamed of it."
"Then I am not ashamed of it!" Gertrude declared. "That is probably what I like him for. I am frivolous myself."
"You are trying, as I said just now, to lower yourself."
"I am trying for once to be natural!" cried Gertrude passionately. "I have been pretending, all my life; I have been dishonest; it is you that have made me so!" Mr. Brand stood gazing at her, and she went on, "Why should n't I be frivolous, if I want? One has a right to be frivolous, if it 's one's nature. No, I don't care for the great questions. I care for pleasure—for amusement. Perhaps I am fond of wicked things; it is very possible!"
Mr. Brand remained staring; he was even a little pale, as if he had been frightened. "I don't think you know what you are saying!" he exclaimed.
"Perhaps not. Perhaps I am talking nonsense. But it is only with you that I talk nonsense. I never do so with my cousin."
"I will speak to you again, when you are less excited," said Mr. Brand.
"I am always excited when you speak to me. I must tell you that—even if it prevents you altogether, in future. Your speaking to me irritates me. With my cousin it is very different. That seems quiet and natural."
He looked at her, and then he looked away, with a kind of helpless distress, at the dusky garden and the faint summer stars. After which, suddenly turning back, "Gertrude, Gertrude!" he softly groaned. "Am I really losing you?"
She was touched—she was pained; but it had already occurred to her that she might do something better than say so. It would not have alleviated her companion's distress to perceive, just then, whence she had sympathetically borrowed this ingenuity. "I am not sorry for you," Gertrude said; "for in paying so much attention to me you are following a shadow—you are wasting something precious. There is something else you might have that you don't look at—something better than I am. That is a reality!" And then, with intention, she looked at him and tried to smile a little. He thought this smile of hers very strange; but she turned away and left him.
She wandered about alone in the garden wondering what Mr. Brand would make of her words, which it had been a singular pleasure for her to utter. Shortly after, passing in front of the house, she saw at a distance two persons standing near the garden gate. It was Mr. Brand going away and bidding good-night to Charlotte, who had walked down with him from the house. Gertrude saw that the parting was prolonged. Then she turned her back upon it. She had not gone very far, however, when she heard her sister slowly following her. She neither turned round nor waited for her; she knew what Charlotte was going to say. Charlotte, who at last overtook her, in fact presently began; she had passed her arm into Gertrude's.
"Will you listen to me, dear, if I say something very particular?"
"I know what you are going to say," said Gertrude. "Mr. Brand feels very badly."
"Oh, Gertrude, how can you treat him so?" Charlotte demanded. And as her sister made no answer she added, "After all he has done for you!"
"What has he done for me?"
"I wonder you can ask, Gertrude. He has helped you so. You told me so yourself, a great many times. You told me that he helped you to struggle with your—your peculiarities. You told me that he had taught you how to govern your temper."
For a moment Gertrude said nothing. Then, "Was my temper very bad?" she asked.
"I am not accusing you, Gertrude," said Charlotte.
"What are you doing, then?" her sister demanded, with a short laugh.
"I am pleading for Mr. Brand—reminding you of all you owe him."
"I have given it all back," said Gertrude, still with her little laugh. "He can take back the virtue he imparted! I want to be wicked again."
Her sister made her stop in the path, and fixed upon her, in the darkness, a sweet, reproachful gaze. "If you talk this way I shall almost believe it. Think of all we owe Mr. Brand. Think of how he has always expected something of you. Think how much he has been to us. Think of his beautiful influence upon Clifford."
"He is very good," said Gertrude, looking at her sister. "I know he is very good. But he should n't speak against Felix."
"Felix is good," Charlotte answered, softly but promptly. "Felix is very wonderful. Only he is so different. Mr. Brand is much nearer to us. I should never think of going to Felix with a trouble—with a question. Mr. Brand is much more to us, Gertrude."
"He is very—very good," Gertrude repeated. "He is more to you; yes, much more. Charlotte," she added suddenly, "you are in love with him!"
"Oh, Gertrude!" cried poor Charlotte; and her sister saw her blushing in the darkness.
Gertrude put her arm round her. "I wish he would marry you!" she went on.
Charlotte shook herself free. "You must not say such things!" she exclaimed, beneath her breath.
"You like him more than you say, and he likes you more than he knows."
"This is very cruel of you!" Charlotte Wentworth murmured.
But if it was cruel Gertrude continued pitiless. "Not if it 's true," she answered. "I wish he would marry you."
"Please don't say that."
"I mean to tell him so!" said Gertrude.
"Oh, Gertrude, Gertrude!" her sister almost moaned.
"Yes, if he speaks to me again about myself. I will say, 'Why don't you marry Charlotte? She 's a thousand times better than I.'"
"You are wicked; you are changed!" cried her sister.
"If you don't like it you can prevent it," said Gertrude. "You can prevent it by keeping him from speaking to me!" And with this she walked away, very conscious of what she had done; measuring it and finding a certain joy and a quickened sense of freedom in it.
Mr. Wentworth was rather wide of the mark in suspecting that Clifford had begun to pay unscrupulous compliments to his brilliant cousin; for the young man had really more scruples than he received credit for in his family. He had a certain transparent shamefacedness which was in itself a proof that he was not at his ease in dissipation. His collegiate peccadilloes had aroused a domestic murmur as disagreeable to the young man as the creaking of his boots would have been to a house-breaker. Only, as the house-breaker would have simplified matters by removing his chaussures, it had seemed to Clifford that the shortest cut to comfortable relations with people—relations which should make him cease to think that when they spoke to him they meant something improving—was to renounce all ambition toward a nefarious development. And, in fact, Clifford's ambition took the most commendable form. He thought of himself in the future as the well-known and much-liked Mr. Wentworth, of Boston, who should, in the natural course of prosperity, have married his pretty cousin, Lizzie Acton; should live in a wide-fronted house, in view of the Common; and should drive, behind a light wagon, over the damp autumn roads, a pair of beautifully matched sorrel horses. Clifford's vision of the coming years was very simple; its most definite features were this element of familiar matrimony and the duplication of his resources for trotting. He had not yet asked his cousin to marry him; but he meant to do so as soon as he had taken his degree. Lizzie was serenely conscious of his intention, and she had made up her mind that he would improve. Her brother, who was very fond of this light, quick, competent little Lizzie, saw on his side no reason to interpose. It seemed to him a graceful social law that Clifford and his sister should become engaged; he himself was not engaged, but every one else, fortunately, was not such a fool as he. He was fond of Clifford, as well, and had his own way—of which it must be confessed he was a little ashamed—of looking at those aberrations which had led to the young man's compulsory retirement from the neighboring seat of learning. Acton had seen the world, as he said to himself; he had been to China and had knocked about among men. He had learned the essential difference between a nice young fellow and a mean young fellow, and was satisfied that there was no harm in Clifford. He believed—although it must be added that he had not quite the courage to declare it—in the doctrine of wild oats, and thought it a useful preventive of superfluous fears. If Mr. Wentworth and Charlotte and Mr. Brand would only apply it in Clifford's case, they would be happier; and Acton thought it a pity they should not be happier. They took the boy's misdemeanors too much to heart; they talked to him too solemnly; they frightened and bewildered him. Of course there was the great standard of morality, which forbade that a man should get tipsy, play at billiards for money, or cultivate his sensual consciousness; but what fear was there that poor Clifford was going to run a tilt at any great standard? It had, however, never occurred to Acton to dedicate the Baroness Munster to the redemption of a refractory collegian. The instrument, here, would have seemed to him quite too complex for the operation. Felix, on the other hand, had spoken in obedience to the belief that the more charming a woman is the more numerous, literally, are her definite social uses.
Eugenia herself, as we know, had plenty of leisure to enumerate her uses. As I have had the honor of intimating, she had come four thousand miles to seek her fortune; and it is not to be supposed that after this great effort she could neglect any apparent aid to advancement. It is my misfortune that in attempting to describe in a short compass the deportment of this remarkable woman I am obliged to express things rather brutally. I feel this to be the case, for instance, when I say that she had primarily detected such an aid to advancement in the person of Robert Acton, but that she had afterwards remembered that a prudent archer has always a second bowstring. Eugenia was a woman of finely-mingled motive, and her intentions were never sensibly gross. She had a sort of aesthetic ideal for Clifford which seemed to her a disinterested reason for taking him in hand. It was very well for a fresh-colored young gentleman to be ingenuous; but Clifford, really, was crude. With such a pretty face he ought to have prettier manners. She would teach him that, with a beautiful name, the expectation of a large property, and, as they said in Europe, a social position, an only son should know how to carry himself.
Once Clifford had begun to come and see her by himself and for himself, he came very often. He hardly knew why he should come; he saw her almost every evening at his father's house; he had nothing particular to say to her. She was not a young girl, and fellows of his age called only upon young girls. He exaggerated her age; she seemed to him an old woman; it was happy that the Baroness, with all her intelligence, was incapable of guessing this. But gradually it struck Clifford that visiting old women might be, if not a natural, at least, as they say of some articles of diet, an acquired taste. The Baroness was certainly a very amusing old woman; she talked to him as no lady—and indeed no gentleman—had ever talked to him before.
"You should go to Europe and make the tour," she said to him one afternoon. "Of course, on leaving college you will go."
"I don't want to go," Clifford declared. "I know some fellows who have been to Europe. They say you can have better fun here."
"That depends. It depends upon your idea of fun. Your friends probably were not introduced."
"Introduced?" Clifford demanded.
"They had no opportunity of going into society; they formed no relations." This was one of a certain number of words that the Baroness often pronounced in the French manner.
"They went to a ball, in Paris; I know that," said Clifford.
"Ah, there are balls and balls; especially in Paris. No, you must go, you know; it is not a thing from which you can dispense yourself. You need it."
"Oh, I 'm very well," said Clifford. "I 'm not sick."
"I don't mean for your health, my poor child. I mean for your manners."
"I have n't got any manners!" growled Clifford.
"Precisely. You don't mind my assenting to that, eh?" asked the Baroness with a smile. "You must go to Europe and get a few. You can get them better there. It is a pity you might not have come while I was living in—in Germany. I would have introduced you; I had a charming little circle. You would perhaps have been rather young; but the younger one begins, I think, the better. Now, at any rate, you have no time to lose, and when I return you must immediately come to me."
All this, to Clifford's apprehension, was a great mixture—his beginning young, Eugenia's return to Europe, his being introduced to her charming little circle. What was he to begin, and what was her little circle? His ideas about her marriage had a good deal of vagueness; but they were in so far definite as that he felt it to be a matter not to be freely mentioned. He sat and looked all round the room; he supposed she was alluding in some way to her marriage.
"Oh, I don't want to go to Germany," he said; it seemed to him the most convenient thing to say.
She looked at him a while, smiling with her lips, but not with her eyes.
"You have scruples?" she asked.
"Scruples?" said Clifford.
"You young people, here, are very singular; one does n't know where to expect you. When you are not extremely improper you are so terribly proper. I dare say you think that, owing to my irregular marriage, I live with loose people. You were never more mistaken. I have been all the more particular."
"Oh, no," said Clifford, honestly distressed. "I never thought such a thing as that."
"Are you very sure? I am convinced that your father does, and your sisters. They say to each other that here I am on my good behavior, but that over there—married by the left hand—I associate with light women."
"Oh, no," cried Clifford, energetically, "they don't say such things as that to each other!"
"If they think them they had better say them," the Baroness rejoined. "Then they can be contradicted. Please contradict that whenever you hear it, and don't be afraid of coming to see me on account of the company I keep. I have the honor of knowing more distinguished men, my poor child, than you are likely to see in a life-time. I see very few women; but those are women of rank. So, my dear young Puritan, you need n't be afraid. I am not in the least one of those who think that the society of women who have lost their place in the vrai monde is necessary to form a young man. I have never taken that tone. I have kept my place myself, and I think we are a much better school than the others. Trust me, Clifford, and I will prove that to you," the Baroness continued, while she made the agreeable reflection that she could not, at least, be accused of perverting her young kinsman. "So if you ever fall among thieves don't go about saying I sent you to them."
Clifford thought it so comical that he should know—in spite of her figurative language—what she meant, and that she should mean what he knew, that he could hardly help laughing a little, although he tried hard. "Oh, no! oh, no!" he murmured.
"Laugh out, laugh out, if I amuse you!" cried the Baroness. "I am here for that!" And Clifford thought her a very amusing person indeed. "But remember," she said on this occasion, "that you are coming—next year—to pay me a visit over there."
About a week afterwards she said to him, point-blank, "Are you seriously making love to your little cousin?"
"Seriously making love"—these words, on Madame Munster's lips, had to Clifford's sense a portentous and embarrassing sound; he hesitated about assenting, lest he should commit himself to more than he understood. "Well, I should n't say it if I was!" he exclaimed.
"Why would n't you say it?" the Baroness demanded. "Those things ought to be known."
"I don't care whether it is known or not," Clifford rejoined. "But I don't want people looking at me."
"A young man of your importance ought to learn to bear observation—to carry himself as if he were quite indifferent to it. I won't say, exactly, unconscious," the Baroness explained. "No, he must seem to know he is observed, and to think it natural he should be; but he must appear perfectly used to it. Now you have n't that, Clifford; you have n't that at all. You must have that, you know. Don't tell me you are not a young man of importance," Eugenia added. "Don't say anything so flat as that."
"Oh, no, you don't catch me saying that!" cried Clifford.
"Yes, you must come to Germany," Madame Munster continued. "I will show you how people can be talked about, and yet not seem to know it. You will be talked about, of course, with me; it will be said you are my lover. I will show you how little one may mind that—how little I shall mind it."
Clifford sat staring, blushing and laughing. "I shall mind it a good deal!" he declared.
"Ah, not too much, you know; that would be uncivil. But I give you leave to mind it a little; especially if you have a passion for Miss Acton. Voyons; as regards that, you either have or you have not. It is very simple to say it."
"I don't see why you want to know," said Clifford.
"You ought to want me to know. If one is arranging a marriage, one tells one's friends."
"Oh, I 'm not arranging anything," said Clifford.
"You don't intend to marry your cousin?"
"Well, I expect I shall do as I choose!"
The Baroness leaned her head upon the back of her chair and closed her eyes, as if she were tired. Then opening them again, "Your cousin is very charming!" she said.
"She is the prettiest girl in this place," Clifford rejoined.
"'In this place' is saying little; she would be charming anywhere. I am afraid you are entangled."
"Oh, no, I 'm not entangled."
"Are you engaged? At your age that is the same thing."
Clifford looked at the Baroness with some audacity. "Will you tell no one?"
"If it 's as sacred as that—no."
"Well, then—we are not!" said Clifford.
"That 's the great secret—that you are not, eh?" asked the Baroness, with a quick laugh. "I am very glad to hear it. You are altogether too young. A young man in your position must choose and compare; he must see the world first. Depend upon it," she added, "you should not settle that matter before you have come abroad and paid me that visit. There are several things I should like to call your attention to first."
"Well, I am rather afraid of that visit," said Clifford. "It seems to me it will be rather like going to school again."
The Baroness looked at him a moment.
"My dear child," she said, "there is no agreeable man who has not, at some moment, been to school to a clever woman—probably a little older than himself. And you must be thankful when you get your instructions gratis. With me you would get it gratis."
The next day Clifford told Lizzie Acton that the Baroness thought her the most charming girl she had ever seen.
Lizzie shook her head. "No, she does n't!" she said.
"Do you think everything she says," asked Clifford, "is to be taken the opposite way?"
"I think that is!" said Lizzie.
Clifford was going to remark that in this case the Baroness must desire greatly to bring about a marriage between Mr. Clifford Wentworth and Miss Elizabeth Acton; but he resolved, on the whole, to suppress this observation.