Since that visit paid by the Baroness Munster to Mrs. Acton, of which som_ccount was given at an earlier stage of this narrative, the intercours_etween these two ladies had been neither frequent nor intimate. It was no_hat Mrs. Acton had failed to appreciate Madame M; auunster's charms; on th_ontrary, her perception of the graces of manner and conversation of he_rilliant visitor had been only too acute. Mrs. Acton was, as they said i_oston, 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 th_oberest local type, she had been obliged to limit the number of he_nterviews with a lady whose costume and manner recalled to he_magination—Mrs. Acton's imagination was a marvel—all that she had ever rea_f the most stirring historical periods. But she had sent the Baroness a grea_any quaintly-worded messages and a great many nosegays from her garden an_askets of beautiful fruit. Felix had eaten the fruit, and the Baroness ha_rranged the flowers and returned the baskets and the messages. On the da_hat followed that rainy Sunday of which mention has been made, Eugeni_etermined to go and pay the beneficent invalid a "visite d'adieux;" so it wa_hat, to herself, she qualified her enterprise. It may be noted that neithe_n the Sunday evening nor on the Monday morning had she received that expecte_isit from Robert Acton. To his own consciousness, evidently he was "keepin_way;" and as the Baroness, on her side, was keeping away from her uncle's, whither, for several days, Felix had been the unembarrassed bearer o_pologies and regrets for absence, chance had not taken the cards from th_ands of design. Mr. Wentworth and his daughters had respected Eugenia'_eclusion; certain intervals of mysterious retirement appeared to them, vaguely, a natural part of the graceful, rhythmic movement of so remarkable _ife. Gertrude especially held these periods in honor; she wondered wha_adame M; auunster did at such times, but she would not have permitted hersel_o inquire too curiously.
The long rain had freshened the air, and twelve hours' brilliant sunshine ha_ried the roads; so that the Baroness, in the late afternoon, proposing t_alk to Mrs. Acton's, exposed herself to no great discomfort. As with he_harming undulating step she moved along the clean, grassy margin of the road, beneath the thickly-hanging boughs of the orchards, through the quiet of th_our and place and the rich maturity of the summer, she was even conscious o_ sort of luxurious melancholy. The Baroness had the amiable weakness o_ttaching 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 an_ne's ambitions were so pure. Mrs. Acton was able to receive her; but o_ntering this lady's large, freshly-scented room the Baroness saw that she wa_ooking very ill. She was wonderfully white and transparent, and, in he_lowered arm-chair, she made no attempt to move. But she flushed a little—lik_ young girl, the Baroness thought—and she rested her clear, smiling eyes upo_hose of her visitor. Her voice was low and monotonous, like a voice that ha_ever 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. "The_ell me you are so comfortable—that you have got such a beautiful littl_ouse."
Eugenia stared—that is, she smiled; she thought of her poor little chalet an_he 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 m_on will miss you."
"Ah, dear madame," said Eugenia, with a little laugh, "I can't stay in Americ_or your son!"
"Don't you like America?"
The Baroness looked at the front of her dress. "If I liked it—that would no_e staying for your son!"
Mrs. Acton gazed at her with her grave, tender eyes, as if she had not quit_nderstood. The Baroness at last found something irritating in the sweet, sof_tare of her hostess; and if one were not bound to be merciful to grea_nvalids 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 probabl_arry her cousin."
"Two such interesting young people," said the Baroness, vaguely. She was no_hinking of Clifford Wentworth.
"I feel so tranquil about my end," Mrs. Acton went on. "It is coming s_asily, 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 fa_s Mrs. Acton was concerned, she preserved her good manners. "Ah, madame, yo_re too charming an invalid," she rejoined.
But the delicacy of this rejoinder was apparently lost upon her hostess, wh_ent on in her low, reasonable voice. "I want to leave my children bright an_omfortable. You seem to me all so happy here—just as you are. So I wish yo_ould stay. It would be so pleasant for Robert."
Eugenia wondered what she meant by its being pleasant for Robert; but she fel_hat she would never know what such a woman as that meant. She got up; she wa_fraid Mrs. Acton would tell her again that she was dying. "Good-by, dea_adame," she said. "I must remember that your strength is precious."
Mrs. Acton took her hand and held it a moment. "Well, you have been happ_ere, 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 he_own-stairs; but the large landing outside her door was empty, and Eugeni_tood there looking about. She felt irritated; the dying lady had not "la mai_eureuse." She passed slowly down-stairs, still looking about. The broa_taircase made a great bend, and in the angle was a high window, lookin_estward, with a deep bench, covered with a row of flowering plants in curiou_ld pots of blue china-ware. The yellow afternoon light came in through th_lowers and flickered a little on the white wainscots. Eugenia paused _oment; the house was perfectly still, save for the ticking, somewhere, of _reat clock. The lower hall stretched away at the foot of the stairs, hal_overed over with a large Oriental rug. Eugenia lingered a little, noticing _reat 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. Th_eflection accompanied her the rest of the way down-stairs, where she pause_gain, making more observations. The hall was extremely broad, and on eithe_ide of the front door was a wide, deeply-set window, which threw the shadow_f everything back into the house. There were high-backed chairs along th_all and big Eastern vases upon tables, and, on either side, a large cabine_ith a glass front and little curiosities within, dimly gleaming. The door_ere open—into the darkened parlor, the library, the dining-room. All thes_ooms seemed empty. Eugenia passed along, and stopped a moment on th_hreshold of each. "Comme c'est bien!" she murmured again; she had thought o_ust such a house as this when she decided to come to America. She opened th_ront door for herself—her light tread had summoned none of the servants—an_n the threshold she gave a last look. Outside, she was still in the humor fo_urious contemplation; so instead of going directly down the little drive, t_he gate, she wandered away towards the garden, which lay to the right of th_ouse. 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. H_ad not heard her coming, and he lay motionless, flat on his back, with hi_ands clasped under his head, staring up at the sky; so that the Baroness wa_ble to reflect, at her leisure, upon the question of his identity. It wa_hat of a person who had lately been much in her thoughts; but her firs_mpulse, nevertheless, was to turn away; the last thing she desired was t_ave 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 o_o 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'_magine I came to see you."
"Take care," rejoined Acton, "how you put it into my head! I was thinking o_ou."
"The occupation of extreme leisure!" said the Baroness. "To think of a woma_hen 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 a_ithin 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 bee_idding her farewell."
"Farewell?" Acton demanded.
"I am going away," said the Baroness. And she turned away again, as if t_llustrate her meaning.
"When are you going?" asked Acton, standing a moment in his place. But th_aroness 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 til_hey reached the gate. It was open, and they looked down the road which wa_arkened over with long bosky shadows. "Must you go straight home?" Acto_sked.
But she made no answer. She said, after a moment, "Why have you not been t_ee 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 li_own—almost—in my drawing-room."
Acton stopped in the road, with a movement which seemed to beg her to linger _ittle. 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 ver_erious."
"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 wal_omeward again.
"What could I say to keep you?" asked Acton. He wanted to keep her, and it wa_ fact that he had been thinking of her for a week. He was in love with he_ow; he was conscious of that, or he thought he was; and the only questio_ith him was whether he could trust her.
"What you can say to keep me?" she repeated. "As I want very much to go it i_ot 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 tol_im than appeared. Ever since that evening of his return from Newport he_mage had had a terrible power to trouble him. What Clifford Wentworth ha_old him—that had affected him, too, in an adverse sense; but it had no_iberated him from the discomfort of a charm of which his intelligence wa_mpatient. "She is not honest, she is not honest," he kept murmuring t_imself. That is what he had been saying to the summer sky, ten minute_efore. Unfortunately, he was unable to say it finally, definitively; and no_hat he was near her it seemed to matter wonderfully little. "She is a woma_ho will lie," he had said to himself. Now, as he went along, he reminde_imself of this observation; but it failed to frighten him as it had don_efore. He almost wished he could make her lie and then convict her of it, s_hat he might see how he should like that. He kept thinking of this as h_alked 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 walke_ith 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 withou_sking him to follow; but she turned round, as he stood there, to bid hi_ood-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 he_gain that evening, for the Baroness reappeared at her uncle's. He had littl_alk 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 objec_f absorbing interest to both of the visitors. One of them, indeed, sai_othing to her; he only sat and watched with intense gravity, and leane_orward solemnly, presenting his ear (a very large one), as if he were deaf, whenever she dropped an observation. He had evidently been impressed with th_dea of her misfortunes and reverses: he never smiled. His companion adopted _ighter, easier style; sat as near as possible to Madame Munster; attempted t_raw 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, fro_er brilliant reputation, her interlocutor expected, upon the relative merit_f European and American institutions; but she was inaccessible to Rober_cton, who roamed about the piazza with his hands in his pockets, listenin_or the grating sound of the buggy from Boston, as it should be brought roun_o the side-door. But he listened in vain, and at last he lost patience. Hi_ister came to him and begged him to take her home, and he presently went of_ith her. Eugenia observed him leaving the house with Lizzie; in her presen_ood the fact seemed a contribution to her irritated conviction that he ha_everal 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 th_iazza; but very soon after Acton had gone away she got up abruptly, just whe_he 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 hi_he 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 kno_ow 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 th_aroness, 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 th_aroness'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 displease_ou?"
"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 youn_insman.
The Baroness was silent a moment. "Yes, you must come frankly—boldly. Tha_ill be very much better. I see that now."
"I see it!" said Clifford. And then, in an instant, "What 's the matter wit_hat buggy?" His practiced ear had apparently detected an unnatural creak i_he wheels of the light vehicle which had been brought to the portico, and h_urried away to investigate so grave an anomaly.
The Baroness walked homeward, alone, in the starlight, asking herself _uestion. Was she to have gained nothing—was she to have gained nothing?
Gertrude Wentworth had held a silent place in the little circle gathered abou_he two gentlemen from Boston. She was not interested in the visitors; she wa_atching Madame Munster, as she constantly watched her. She knew that Eugeni_lso was not interested—that she was bored; and Gertrude was absorbed in stud_f the problem how, in spite of her indifference and her absent attention, sh_anaged to have such a charming manner. That was the manner Gertrude woul_ave liked to have; she determined to cultivate it, and she wished that—t_ive her the charm—she might in future very often be bored. While she wa_ngaged in these researches, Felix Young was looking for Charlotte, to whom h_ad something to say. For some time, now, he had had something to say t_harlotte, and this evening his sense of the propriety of holding some specia_onversation with her had reached the motive-point—resolved itself into acut_nd delightful desire. He wandered through the empty rooms on the larg_round-floor of the house, and found her at last in a small apartmen_enominated, 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 o_he other, flanked on either side by an old steel engraving of one o_aphael's Madonnas; and on the third several glass cases containing specimen_f butterflies and beetles. Charlotte was sitting by a lamp, embroidering _lipper. Felix did not ask for whom the slipper was destined; he saw it wa_ery large.
He moved a chair toward her and sat down, smiling as usual, but, at first, no_peaking. She watched him, with her needle poised, and with a certain shy, fluttered look which she always wore when he approached her. There wa_omething in Felix's manner that quickened her modesty, her self- consciousness; if absolute choice had been given her she would have preferre_ever to find herself alone with him; and in fact, though she thought him _ost brilliant, distinguished, and well-meaning person, she had exercised _uch larger amount of tremulous tact than he had ever suspected, to circumven_he accident of tete-a-tete. Poor Charlotte could have given no account of th_atter that would not have seemed unjust both to herself and to her foreig_insman; she could only have said—or rather, she would never have said it—tha_he 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 admirin_adiance, "My dear cousin, I am enchanted at finding you alone."
"I am very often alone," Charlotte observed. Then she quickly added, "I don'_ean I am lonely!"
"So clever a woman as you is never lonely," said Felix. "You have company i_our 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 idl_hat I have come in search of you. I want to tell you something ver_articular."
"Well," murmured Charlotte; "of course, if you must"—
"My dear cousin," said Felix, "it 's nothing that a young lady may not liste_o. At least I suppose it is n't. But voyons; you shall judge. I am terribl_n love."
"Well, Felix," began Miss Wentworth, gravely. But her very gravity appeared t_heck the development of her phrase.
"I am in love with your sister; but in love, Charlotte—in love!" the young ma_ursued. Charlotte had laid her work in her lap; her hands were tightly folde_n top of it; she was staring at the carpet. "In short, I 'm in love, dea_ady," 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 i_eneral, including Mr. Brand."
"Poor Mr. Brand!" said Charlotte, slowly, but with a simplicity which made i_vident to Felix that the young minister had not repeated to Miss Wentwort_he talk that had lately occurred between them.
"Ah, now, don't say 'poor' Mr. Brand! I don't pity Mr. Brand at all. But _ity your father a little, and I don't want to displease him. Therefore, yo_ee, I want you to plead for me. You don't think me very shabby, eh?"
"Shabby?" exclaimed Charlotte softly, for whom Felix represented the mos_olished and iridescent qualities of mankind.
"I don't mean in my appearance," rejoined Felix, laughing; for Charlotte wa_ooking at his boots. "I mean in my conduct. You don't think it 's an abuse o_ospitality?"
"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 marr_er—and here is the difficulty. I held off as long as I could; but she is suc_ terribly fascinating person! She 's a strange creature, Charlotte; I don'_elieve you really know her." Charlotte took up her tapestry again, and agai_he 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 marriage_here 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 _horoughly good creature—she can't help looking for a compensation. A charmin_ellow comes along—and voila!" Charlotte sat mutely staring at the floor, an_elix 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 stitche_n a big round rose. "If Gertrude is so—so strange," she said, "why do yo_ant to marry her?"
"Ah, that 's it, dear Charlotte! I like strange women; I always have like_hem. Ask Eugenia! And Gertrude is wonderful; she says the most beautifu_hings!"
Charlotte looked at him, almost for the first time, as if her meaning require_o 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 on_nd half-a-dozen of the other; it is reciprocal. She affects me strongly—fo_he 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 _olded flower. Let me pluck her from the parent tree and you will see he_xpand. 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 t_our father. He regards me, I naturally believe, as a very light fellow, _ohemian, an irregular character. Tell him I am not all this; if I ever was, _ave forgotten it. I am fond of pleasure—yes; but of innocent pleasure. Pai_s all one; but in pleasure, you know, there are tremendous distinctions. Sa_o 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 ar_ery kind to every one, Felix," she said. "But we are extremely sorry for Mr.
"Of course you are—you especially! Because," added Felix hastily, "you are _oman. But I don't pity him. It ought to be enough for any man that you tak_n interest in him."
"It is not enough for Mr. Brand," said Charlotte, simply. And she stood ther_ moment, as if waiting conscientiously for anything more that Felix migh_ave 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 h_aw the tears rising. "Oh, Felix, Felix," she cried, "what have you done t_er?"
"I think she was asleep; I have waked her up!"
But Charlotte, apparently, was really crying, she walked straight out of th_oom. And Felix, standing there and meditating, had the apparent brutality t_ake satisfaction in her tears.
Late that night Gertrude, silent and serious, came to him in the garden; i_as a kind of appointment. Gertrude seemed to like appointments. She plucked _andful of heliotrope and stuck it into the front of her dress, but she sai_othing. They walked together along one of the paths, and Felix looked at th_reat, square, hospitable house, massing itself vaguely in the starlight, wit_ll its windows darkened.
"I have a little of a bad conscience," he said. "I ought n't to meet you thi_ay 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 eac_ther, it is a wonder how well we get on!"
"We have done nothing but meet since you came here—but meet alone. The firs_ime I ever saw you we were alone," Gertrude went on. "What is the differenc_ow? Is it because it is at night?"
"The difference, Gertrude," said Felix, stopping in the path, "the differenc_s 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 bee_alking to Charlotte—been trying to bespeak her interest with your father. Sh_as a kind of sublime perversity; was ever a woman so bent upon cutting of_er 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 anythin_ou 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 d_hey try to make one feel guilty? Why do they make it so difficult? Why can'_hey understand?"
"I will make them understand!" said Felix. He drew her hand into his arm, an_hey wandered about in the garden, talking, for an hour.