It seemed to Robert Acton, after Eugenia had come to his house, that something had passed between them which made them a good deal more intimate. It was hard to say exactly what, except her telling him that she had taken her resolution with regard to the Prince Adolf; for Madame Munster's visit had made no difference in their relations. He came to see her very often; but he had come to see her very often before. It was agreeable to him to find himself in her little drawing-room; but this was not a new discovery. There was a change, however, in this sense: that if the Baroness had been a great deal in Acton's thoughts before, she was now never out of them. From the first she had been personally fascinating; but the fascination now had become intellectual as well. He was constantly pondering her words and motions; they were as interesting as the factors in an algebraic problem. This is saying a good deal; for Acton was extremely fond of mathematics. He asked himself whether it could be that he was in love with her, and then hoped he was not; hoped it not so much for his own sake as for that of the amatory passion itself. If this was love, love had been overrated. Love was a poetic impulse, and his own state of feeling with regard to the Baroness was largely characterized by that eminently prosaic sentiment—curiosity. It was true, as Acton with his quietly cogitative habit observed to himself, that curiosity, pushed to a given point, might become a romantic passion; and he certainly thought enough about this charming woman to make him restless and even a little melancholy. It puzzled and vexed him at times to feel that he was not more ardent. He was not in the least bent upon remaining a bachelor. In his younger years he had been—or he had tried to be—of the opinion that it would be a good deal "jollier" not to marry, and he had flattered himself that his single condition was something of a citadel. It was a citadel, at all events, of which he had long since leveled the outworks. He had removed the guns from the ramparts; he had lowered the draw-bridge across the moat. The draw-bridge had swayed lightly under Madame Munster's step; why should he not cause it to be raised again, so that she might be kept prisoner? He had an idea that she would become—in time at least, and on learning the conveniences of the place for making a lady comfortable—a tolerably patient captive. But the draw-bridge was never raised, and Acton's brilliant visitor was as free to depart as she had been to come. It was part of his curiosity to know why the deuce so susceptible a man was not in love with so charming a woman. If her various graces were, as I have said, the factors in an algebraic problem, the answer to this question was the indispensable unknown quantity. The pursuit of the unknown quantity was extremely absorbing; for the present it taxed all Acton's faculties.
Toward the middle of August he was obliged to leave home for some days; an old friend, with whom he had been associated in China, had begged him to come to Newport, where he lay extremely ill. His friend got better, and at the end of a week Acton was released. I use the word "released" advisedly; for in spite of his attachment to his Chinese comrade he had been but a half-hearted visitor. He felt as if he had been called away from the theatre during the progress of a remarkably interesting drama. The curtain was up all this time, and he was losing the fourth act; that fourth act which would have been so essential to a just appreciation of the fifth. In other words, he was thinking about the Baroness, who, seen at this distance, seemed a truly brilliant figure. He saw at Newport a great many pretty women, who certainly were figures as brilliant as beautiful light dresses could make them; but though they talked a great deal—and the Baroness's strong point was perhaps also her conversation—Madame Munster appeared to lose nothing by the comparison. He wished she had come to Newport too. Would it not be possible to make up, as they said, a party for visiting the famous watering-place and invite Eugenia to join it? It was true that the complete satisfaction would be to spend a fortnight at Newport with Eugenia alone. It would be a great pleasure to see her, in society, carry everything before her, as he was sure she would do. When Acton caught himself thinking these thoughts he began to walk up and down, with his hands in his pockets, frowning a little and looking at the floor. What did it prove—for it certainly proved something—this lively disposition to be "off" somewhere with Madame Munster, away from all the rest of them? Such a vision, certainly, seemed a refined implication of matrimony, after the Baroness should have formally got rid of her informal husband. At any rate, Acton, with his characteristic discretion, forbore to give expression to whatever else it might imply, and the narrator of these incidents is not obliged to be more definite.
He returned home rapidly, and, arriving in the afternoon, lost as little time as possible in joining the familiar circle at Mr. Wentworth's. On reaching the house, however, he found the piazzas empty. The doors and windows were open, and their emptiness was made clear by the shafts of lamp-light from the parlors. Entering the house, he found Mr. Wentworth sitting alone in one of these apartments, engaged in the perusal of the "North American Review." After they had exchanged greetings and his cousin had made discreet inquiry about his journey, Acton asked what had become of Mr. Wentworth's companions.
"They are scattered about, amusing themselves as usual," said the old man. "I saw Charlotte, a short time since, seated, with Mr. Brand, upon the piazza. They were conversing with their customary animation. I suppose they have joined her sister, who, for the hundredth time, was doing the honors of the garden to her foreign cousin."
"I suppose you mean Felix," said Acton. And on Mr. Wentworth's assenting, he said, "And the others?"
"Your sister has not come this evening. You must have seen her at home," said Mr. Wentworth.
"Yes. I proposed to her to come. She declined."
"Lizzie, I suppose, was expecting a visitor," said the old man, with a kind of solemn slyness.
"If she was expecting Clifford, he had not turned up."
Mr. Wentworth, at this intelligence, closed the "North American Review" and remarked that he had understood Clifford to say that he was going to see his cousin. Privately, he reflected that if Lizzie Acton had had no news of his son, Clifford must have gone to Boston for the evening: an unnatural course of a summer night, especially when accompanied with disingenuous representations.
"You must remember that he has two cousins," said Acton, laughing. And then, coming to the point, "If Lizzie is not here," he added, "neither apparently is the Baroness."
Mr. Wentworth stared a moment, and remembered that queer proposition of Felix's. For a moment he did not know whether it was not to be wished that Clifford, after all, might have gone to Boston. "The Baroness has not honored us tonight," he said. "She has not come over for three days."
"Is she ill?" Acton asked.
"No; I have been to see her."
"What is the matter with her?"
"Well," said Mr. Wentworth, "I infer she has tired of us."
Acton pretended to sit down, but he was restless; he found it impossible to talk with Mr. Wentworth. At the end of ten minutes he took up his hat and said that he thought he would "go off." It was very late; it was ten o'clock.
His quiet-faced kinsman looked at him a moment. "Are you going home?" he asked.
Acton hesitated, and then answered that he had proposed to go over and take a look at the Baroness.
"Well, you are honest, at least," said Mr. Wentworth, sadly.
"So are you, if you come to that!" cried Acton, laughing. "Why should n't I be honest?"
The old man opened the "North American" again, and read a few lines. "If we have ever had any virtue among us, we had better keep hold of it now," he said. He was not quoting.
"We have a Baroness among us," said Acton. "That 's what we must keep hold of!" He was too impatient to see Madame Munster again to wonder what Mr. Wentworth was talking about. Nevertheless, after he had passed out of the house and traversed the garden and the little piece of road that separated him from Eugenia's provisional residence, he stopped a moment outside. He stood in her little garden; the long window of her parlor was open, and he could see the white curtains, with the lamp-light shining through them, swaying softly to and fro in the warm night wind. There was a sort of excitement in the idea of seeing Madame Munster again; he became aware that his heart was beating rather faster than usual. It was this that made him stop, with a half-amused surprise. But in a moment he went along the piazza, and, approaching the open window, tapped upon its lintel with his stick. He could see the Baroness within; she was standing in the middle of the room. She came to the window and pulled aside the curtain; then she stood looking at him a moment. She was not smiling; she seemed serious.
"Mais entrez donc!" she said at last. Acton passed in across the window-sill; he wondered, for an instant, what was the matter with her. But the next moment she had begun to smile and had put out her hand. "Better late than never," she said. "It is very kind of you to come at this hour."
"I have just returned from my journey," said Acton.
"Ah, very kind, very kind," she repeated, looking about her where to sit.
"I went first to the other house," Acton continued. "I expected to find you there."
She had sunk into her usual chair; but she got up again, and began to move about the room. Acton had laid down his hat and stick; he was looking at her, conscious that there was in fact a great charm in seeing her again. "I don't know whether I ought to tell you to sit down," she said. "It is too late to begin a visit."
"It 's too early to end one," Acton declared; "and we need n't mind the beginning."
She looked at him again, and, after a moment, dropped once more into her low chair, while he took a place near her. "We are in the middle, then?" she asked. "Was that where we were when you went away? No, I have n't been to the other house."
"Not yesterday, nor the day before, eh?"
"I don't know how many days it is."
"You are tired of it," said Acton.
She leaned back in her chair; her arms were folded. "That is a terrible accusation, but I have not the courage to defend myself."
"I am not attacking you," said Acton. "I expected something of this kind."
"It 's a proof of extreme intelligence. I hope you enjoyed your journey."
"Not at all," Acton declared. "I would much rather have been here with you."
"Now you are attacking me," said the Baroness. "You are contrasting my inconstancy with your own fidelity."
"I confess I never get tired of people I like."
"Ah, you are not a poor wicked foreign woman, with irritable nerves and a sophisticated mind!"
"Something has happened to you since I went away," said Acton, changing his place.
"Your going away—that is what has happened to me."
"Do you mean to say that you have missed me?" he asked.
"If I had meant to say it, it would not be worth your making a note of. I am very dishonest and my compliments are worthless."
Acton was silent for some moments. "You have broken down," he said at last.
Madame Munster left her chair, and began to move about.
"Only for a moment. I shall pull myself together again."
"You had better not take it too hard. If you are bored, you need n't be afraid to say so—to me at least."
"You should n't say such things as that," the Baroness answered. "You should encourage me."
"I admire your patience; that is encouraging."
"You should n't even say that. When you talk of my patience you are disloyal to your own people. Patience implies suffering; and what have I had to suffer?"
"Oh, not hunger, not unkindness, certainly," said Acton, laughing. "Nevertheless, we all admire your patience."
"You all detest me!" cried the Baroness, with a sudden vehemence, turning her back toward him.
"You make it hard," said Acton, getting up, "for a man to say something tender to you." This evening there was something particularly striking and touching about her; an unwonted softness and a look of suppressed emotion. He felt himself suddenly appreciating the fact that she had behaved very well. She had come to this quiet corner of the world under the weight of a cruel indignity, and she had been so gracefully, modestly thankful for the rest she found there. She had joined that simple circle over the way; she had mingled in its plain, provincial talk; she had shared its meagre and savorless pleasures. She had set herself a task, and she had rigidly performed it. She had conformed to the angular conditions of New England life, and she had had the tact and pluck to carry it off as if she liked them. Acton felt a more downright need than he had ever felt before to tell her that he admired her and that she struck him as a very superior woman. All along, hitherto, he had been on his guard with her; he had been cautious, observant, suspicious. But now a certain light tumult in his blood seemed to tell him that a finer degree of confidence in this charming woman would be its own reward. "We don't detest you," he went on. "I don't know what you mean. At any rate, I speak for myself; I don't know anything about the others. Very likely, you detest them for the dull life they make you lead. Really, it would give me a sort of pleasure to hear you say so."
Eugenia had been looking at the door on the other side of the room; now she slowly turned her eyes toward Robert Acton. "What can be the motive," she asked, "of a man like you—an honest man, a galant homme—in saying so base a thing as that?"
"Does it sound very base?" asked Acton, candidly. "I suppose it does, and I thank you for telling me so. Of course, I don't mean it literally."
The Baroness stood looking at him. "How do you mean it?" she asked.
This question was difficult to answer, and Acton, feeling the least bit foolish, walked to the open window and looked out. He stood there, thinking a moment, and then he turned back. "You know that document that you were to send to Germany," he said. "You called it your 'renunciation.' Did you ever send it?"
Madame Munster's eyes expanded; she looked very grave. "What a singular answer to my question!"
"Oh, it is n't an answer," said Acton. "I have wished to ask you, many times. I thought it probable you would tell me yourself. The question, on my part, seems abrupt now; but it would be abrupt at any time."
The Baroness was silent a moment; and then, "I think I have told you too much!" she said.
This declaration appeared to Acton to have a certain force; he had indeed a sense of asking more of her than he offered her. He returned to the window, and watched, for a moment, a little star that twinkled through the lattice of the piazza. There were at any rate offers enough he could make; perhaps he had hitherto not been sufficiently explicit in doing so. "I wish you would ask something of me," he presently said. "Is there nothing I can do for you? If you can't stand this dull life any more, let me amuse you!"
The Baroness had sunk once more into a chair, and she had taken up a fan which she held, with both hands, to her mouth. Over the top of the fan her eyes were fixed on him. "You are very strange to-night," she said, with a little laugh.
"I will do anything in the world," he rejoined, standing in front of her. "Should n't you like to travel about and see something of the country? Won't you go to Niagara? You ought to see Niagara, you know."
"With you, do you mean?"
"I should be delighted to take you."
Acton looked at her, smiling, and yet with a serious air. "Well, yes; we might go alone," he said.
"If you were not what you are," she answered, "I should feel insulted."
"How do you mean—what I am?"
"If you were one of the gentlemen I have been used to all my life. If you were not a queer Bostonian."
"If the gentlemen you have been used to have taught you to expect insults," said Acton, "I am glad I am what I am. You had much better come to Niagara."
"If you wish to 'amuse' me," the Baroness declared, "you need go to no further expense. You amuse me very effectually."
He sat down opposite to her; she still held her fan up to her face, with her eyes only showing above it. There was a moment's silence, and then he said, returning to his former question, "Have you sent that document to Germany?"
Again there was a moment's silence. The expressive eyes of Madame M; auunster seemed, however, half to break it.
"I will tell you—at Niagara!" she said.
She had hardly spoken when the door at the further end of the room opened—the door upon which, some minutes previous, Eugenia had fixed her gaze. Clifford Wentworth stood there, blushing and looking rather awkward. The Baroness rose, quickly, and Acton, more slowly, did the same. Clifford gave him no greeting; he was looking at Eugenia.
"Ah, you were here?" exclaimed Acton.
"He was in Felix's studio," said Madame Munster. "He wanted to see his sketches."
Clifford looked at Robert Acton, but said nothing; he only fanned himself with his hat. "You chose a bad moment," said Acton; "you had n't much light."
"I had n't any!" said Clifford, laughing.
"Your candle went out?" Eugenia asked. "You should have come back here and lighted it again."
Clifford looked at her a moment. "So I have—come back. But I have left the candle!"
Eugenia turned away. "You are very stupid, my poor boy. You had better go home."
"Well," said Clifford, "good night!"
"Have n't you a word to throw to a man when he has safely returned from a dangerous journey?" Acton asked.
"How do you do?" said Clifford. "I thought—I thought you were"—and he paused, looking at the Baroness again.
"You thought I was at Newport, eh? So I was—this morning."
"Good night, clever child!" said Madame Munster, over her shoulder.
Clifford stared at her—not at all like a clever child; and then, with one of his little facetious growls, took his departure.
"What is the matter with him?" asked Acton, when he was gone. "He seemed rather in a muddle."
Eugenia, who was near the window, glanced out, listening a moment. "The matter—the matter"—she answered. "But you don't say such things here."
"If you mean that he had been drinking a little, you can say that."
"He does n't drink any more. I have cured him. And in return—he 's in love with me."
It was Acton's turn to stare. He instantly thought of his sister; but he said nothing about her. He began to laugh. "I don't wonder at his passion! But I wonder at his forsaking your society for that of your brother's paint-brushes."
Eugenia was silent a little. "He had not been in the studio. I invented that at the moment."
"Invented it? For what purpose?"
"He has an idea of being romantic. He has adopted the habit of coming to see me at midnight—passing only through the orchard and through Felix's painting-room, which has a door opening that way. It seems to amuse him," added Eugenia, with a little laugh.
Acton felt more surprise than he confessed to, for this was a new view of Clifford, whose irregularities had hitherto been quite without the romantic element. He tried to laugh again, but he felt rather too serious, and after a moment's hesitation his seriousness explained itself. "I hope you don't encourage him," he said. "He must not be inconstant to poor Lizzie."
"To your sister?"
"You know they are decidedly intimate," said Acton.
"Ah," cried Eugenia, smiling, "has she—has she"—
"I don't know," Acton interrupted, "what she has. But I always supposed that Clifford had a desire to make himself agreeable to her."
"Ah, par exemple!" the Baroness went on. "The little monster! The next time he becomes sentimental I will him tell that he ought to be ashamed of himself."
Acton was silent a moment. "You had better say nothing about it."
"I had told him as much already, on general grounds," said the Baroness. "But in this country, you know, the relations of young people are so extraordinary that one is quite at sea. They are not engaged when you would quite say they ought to be. Take Charlotte Wentworth, for instance, and that young ecclesiastic. If I were her father I should insist upon his marrying her; but it appears to be thought there is no urgency. On the other hand, you suddenly learn that a boy of twenty and a little girl who is still with her governess—your sister has no governess? Well, then, who is never away from her mamma—a young couple, in short, between whom you have noticed nothing beyond an exchange of the childish pleasantries characteristic of their age, are on the point of setting up as man and wife." The Baroness spoke with a certain exaggerated volubility which was in contrast with the languid grace that had characterized her manner before Clifford made his appearance. It seemed to Acton that there was a spark of irritation in her eye—a note of irony (as when she spoke of Lizzie being never away from her mother) in her voice. If Madame Munster was irritated, Robert Acton was vaguely mystified; she began to move about the room again, and he looked at her without saying anything. Presently she took out her watch, and, glancing at it, declared that it was three o'clock in the morning and that he must go.
"I have not been here an hour," he said, "and they are still sitting up at the other house. You can see the lights. Your brother has not come in."
"Oh, at the other house," cried Eugenia, "they are terrible people! I don't know what they may do over there. I am a quiet little humdrum woman; I have rigid rules and I keep them. One of them is not to have visitors in the small hours—especially clever men like you. So good night!"
Decidedly, the Baroness was incisive; and though Acton bade her good night and departed, he was still a good deal mystified.
The next day Clifford Wentworth came to see Lizzie, and Acton, who was at home and saw him pass through the garden, took note of the circumstance. He had a natural desire to make it tally with Madame M; auunster's account of Clifford's disaffection; but his ingenuity, finding itself unequal to the task, resolved at last to ask help of the young man's candor. He waited till he saw him going away, and then he went out and overtook him in the grounds.
"I wish very much you would answer me a question," Acton said. "What were you doing, last night, at Madame Munster's?"
Clifford began to laugh and to blush, by no means like a young man with a romantic secret. "What did she tell you?" he asked.
"That is exactly what I don't want to say."
"Well, I want to tell you the same," said Clifford; "and unless I know it perhaps I can't."
They had stopped in a garden path; Acton looked hard at his rosy young kinsman. "She said she could n't fancy what had got into you; you appeared to have taken a violent dislike to her."
Clifford stared, looking a little alarmed. "Oh, come," he growled, "you don't mean that!"
"And that when—for common civility's sake—you came occasionally to the house you left her alone and spent your time in Felix's studio, under pretext of looking at his sketches."
"Oh, come!" growled Clifford, again.
"Did you ever know me to tell an untruth?"
"Yes, lots of them!" said Clifford, seeing an opening, out of the discussion, for his sarcastic powers. "Well," he presently added, "I thought you were my father."
"You knew some one was there?"
"We heard you coming in."
Acton meditated. "You had been with the Baroness, then?"
"I was in the parlor. We heard your step outside. I thought it was my father."
"And on that," asked Acton, "you ran away?"
"She told me to go—to go out by the studio."
Acton meditated more intensely; if there had been a chair at hand he would have sat down. "Why should she wish you not to meet your father?"
"Well," said Clifford, "father does n't like to see me there."
Acton looked askance at his companion and forbore to make any comment upon this assertion. "Has he said so," he asked, "to the Baroness?"
"Well, I hope not," said Clifford. "He has n't said so—in so many words—to me. But I know it worries him; and I want to stop worrying him. The Baroness knows it, and she wants me to stop, too."
"To stop coming to see her?"
"I don't know about that; but to stop worrying father. Eugenia knows everything," Clifford added, with an air of knowingness of his own.
"Ah," said Acton, interrogatively, "Eugenia knows everything?"
"She knew it was not father coming in."
"Then why did you go?"
Clifford blushed and laughed afresh. "Well, I was afraid it was. And besides, she told me to go, at any rate."
"Did she think it was I?" Acton asked.
"She did n't say so."
Again Robert Acton reflected. "But you did n't go," he presently said; "you came back."
"I could n't get out of the studio," Clifford rejoined. "The door was locked, and Felix has nailed some planks across the lower half of the confounded windows to make the light come in from above. So they were no use. I waited there a good while, and then, suddenly, I felt ashamed. I did n't want to be hiding away from my own father. I could n't stand it any longer. I bolted out, and when I found it was you I was a little flurried. But Eugenia carried it off, did n't she?" Clifford added, in the tone of a young humorist whose perception had not been permanently clouded by the sense of his own discomfort.
"Beautifully!" said Acton. "Especially," he continued, "when one remembers that you were very imprudent and that she must have been a good deal annoyed."
"Oh," cried Clifford, with the indifference of a young man who feels that however he may have failed of felicity in behavior he is extremely just in his impressions, "Eugenia does n't care for anything!"
Acton hesitated a moment. "Thank you for telling me this," he said at last. And then, laying his hand on Clifford's shoulder, he added, "Tell me one thing more: are you by chance a little in love with the Baroness?"
"No, sir!" said Clifford, almost shaking off his hand.