Going of an afternoon to call upon his niece, Mr. Wentworth more than onc_ound Robert Acton sitting in her little drawing-room. This was in no degree, to Mr. Wentworth, a perturbing fact, for he had no sense of competing with hi_oung kinsman for Eugenia's good graces. Madame Munster's uncle had th_ighest opinion of Robert Acton, who, indeed, in the family at large, was th_bject of a great deal of undemonstrative appreciation. They were all proud o_im, in so far as the charge of being proud may be brought against people wh_ere, habitually, distinctly guiltless of the misdemeanor known as "takin_redit." They never boasted of Robert Acton, nor indulged in vaingloriou_eference to him; they never quoted the clever things he had said, no_entioned the generous things he had done. But a sort of frigidly-tender fait_n his unlimited goodness was a part of their personal sense of right; an_here can, perhaps, be no better proof of the high esteem in which he was hel_han the fact that no explicit judgment was ever passed upon his actions. H_as no more praised than he was blamed; but he was tacitly felt to be a_rnament to his circle. He was the man of the world of the family. He had bee_o China and brought home a collection of curiosities; he had made _ortune—or rather he had quintupled a fortune already considerable; he wa_istinguished by that combination of celibacy, "property," and good humo_hich appeals to even the most subdued imaginations; and it was taken fo_ranted that he would presently place these advantages at the disposal of som_ell-regulated young woman of his own "set." Mr. Wentworth was not a man t_dmit to himself that—his paternal duties apart—he liked any individual muc_etter than all other individuals; but he thought Robert Acton extremel_udicious; and this was perhaps as near an approach as he was capable of t_he eagerness of preference, which his temperament repudiated as it would hav_isengaged itself from something slightly unchaste. Acton was, in fact, ver_udicious—and something more beside; and indeed it must be claimed for Mr.
Wentworth that in the more illicit parts of his preference there hovered th_ague adumbration of a belief that his cousin's final merit was a certai_nviable capacity for whistling, rather gallantly, at the sanctions of mer_udgment—for showing a larger courage, a finer quality of pluck, than commo_ccasion demanded. Mr. Wentworth would never have risked the intimation tha_cton was made, in the smallest degree, of the stuff of a hero; but this i_mall blame to him, for Robert would certainly never have risked it himself.
Acton certainly exercised great discretion in all things—beginning with hi_stimate of himself. He knew that he was by no means so much of a man of th_orld as he was supposed to be in local circles; but it must be added that h_new also that his natural shrewdness had a reach of which he had never quit_iven local circles the measure. He was addicted to taking the humorous vie_f things, and he had discovered that even in the narrowest circles such _isposition may find frequent opportunities. Such opportunities had formed fo_ome time—that is, since his return from China, a year and a half before—th_ost active element in this gentleman's life, which had just now a rathe_ndolent air. He was perfectly willing to get married. He was very fond o_ooks, and he had a handsome library; that is, his books were much mor_umerous than Mr. Wentworth's. He was also very fond of pictures; but it mus_e confessed, in the fierce light of contemporary criticism, that his wall_ere adorned with several rather abortive masterpieces. He had got hi_earning—and there was more of it than commonly appeared—at Harvard College; and he took a pleasure in old associations, which made it a part of his dail_ontentment to live so near this institution that he often passed it i_riving to Boston. He was extremely interested in the Baroness Munster.
She was very frank with him; or at least she intended to be. "I am sure yo_ind it very strange that I should have settled down in this out-of-the-wa_art of the world!" she said to him three or four weeks after she ha_nstalled herself. "I am certain you are wondering about my motives. They ar_ery pure." The Baroness by this time was an old inhabitant; the best societ_n Boston had called upon her, and Clifford Wentworth had taken her severa_imes to drive in his buggy.
Robert Acton was seated near her, playing with a fan; there were alway_everal fans lying about her drawing-room, with long ribbons of differen_olors attached to them, and Acton was always playing with one. "No, I don'_ind it at all strange," he said slowly, smiling. "That a clever woman shoul_urn up in Boston, or its suburbs—that does not require so much explanation.
Boston is a very nice place."
"If you wish to make me contradict you," said the Baroness, "vous vous _renez mal. In certain moods there is nothing I am not capable of agreeing to.
Boston is a paradise, and we are in the suburbs of Paradise."
"Just now I am not at all in the suburbs; I am in the place itself," rejoine_cton, who was lounging a little in his chair. He was, however, not alway_ounging; and when he was he was not quite so relaxed as he pretended. To _ertain extent, he sought refuge from shyness in this appearance o_elaxation; and like many persons in the same circumstances he somewha_xaggerated the appearance. Beyond this, the air of being much at his ease wa_ cover for vigilant observation. He was more than interested in this cleve_oman, who, whatever he might say, was clever not at all after the Bosto_ashion; she plunged him into a kind of excitement, held him in vagu_uspense. He was obliged to admit to himself that he had never yet seen _oman just like this—not even in China. He was ashamed, for inscrutabl_easons, of the vivacity of his emotion, and he carried it off, superficially, by taking, still superficially, the humorous view of Madame Munster. It wa_ot at all true that he thought it very natural of her to have made this piou_ilgrimage. It might have been said of him in advance that he was too good _ostonian to regard in the light of an eccentricity the desire of even th_emotest alien to visit the New England metropolis. This was an impulse fo_hich, surely, no apology was needed; and Madame Munster was the fortunat_ossessor of several New England cousins. In fact, however, Madame Munste_truck him as out of keeping with her little circle; she was at the best _ery agreeable, a gracefully mystifying anomaly. He knew very well that i_ould not do to address these reflections too crudely to Mr. Wentworth; h_ould never have remarked to the old gentleman that he wondered what th_aroness was up to. And indeed he had no great desire to share his vagu_istrust with any one. There was a personal pleasure in it; the greates_leasure he had known at least since he had come from China. He would keep th_aroness, for better or worse, to himself; he had a feeling that he deserve_o enjoy a monopoly of her, for he was certainly the person who had mos_dequately gauged her capacity for social intercourse. Before long it becam_pparent to him that the Baroness was disposed to lay no tax upon such _onopoly.
One day (he was sitting there again and playing with a fan) she asked him t_pologize, should the occasion present itself, to certain people in Boston fo_er not having returned their calls. "There are half a dozen places," sh_aid; "a formidable list. Charlotte Wentworth has written it out for me, in _errifically distinct hand. There is no ambiguity on the subject; I kno_erfectly where I must go. Mr. Wentworth informs me that the carriage i_lways at my disposal, and Charlotte offers to go with me, in a pair of tigh_loves and a very stiff petticoat. And yet for three days I have been puttin_t off. They must think me horribly vicious."
"You ask me to apologize," said Acton, "but you don't tell me what excuse _an offer."
"That is more," the Baroness declared, "than I am held to. It would be like m_sking you to buy me a bouquet and giving you the money. I have no reaso_xcept that—somehow—it 's too violent an effort. It is not inspiring. Woul_'t that serve as an excuse, in Boston? I am told they are very sincere; the_on't tell fibs. And then Felix ought to go with me, and he is never i_eadiness. I don't see him. He is always roaming about the fields an_ketching old barns, or taking ten-mile walks, or painting some one'_ortrait, or rowing on the pond, or flirting with Gertrude Wentworth."
"I should think it would amuse you to go and see a few people," said Acton.
"You are having a very quiet time of it here. It 's a dull life for you."
"Ah, the quiet,—the quiet!" the Baroness exclaimed. "That 's what I like. It
's rest. That 's what I came here for. Amusement? I have had amusement. And a_or seeing people—I have already seen a great many in my life. If it did n'_ound ungracious I should say that I wish very humbly your people here woul_eave me alone!"
Acton looked at her a moment, and she looked at him. She was a woman who too_eing looked at remarkably well. "So you have come here for rest?" he asked.
"So I may say. I came for many of those reasons that are no reasons—don't yo_now?—and yet that are really the best: to come away, to change, to break wit_verything. When once one comes away one must arrive somewhere, and I aske_yself why I should n't arrive here."
"You certainly had time on the way!" said Acton, laughing.
Madame Munster looked at him again; and then, smiling: "And I have certainl_ad time, since I got here, to ask myself why I came. However, I never as_yself idle questions. Here I am, and it seems to me you ought only to than_e."
"When you go away you will see the difficulties I shall put in your path."
"You mean to put difficulties in my path?" she asked, rearranging the rosebu_n her corsage.
"The greatest of all—that of having been so agreeable"—
"That I shall be unable to depart? Don't be too sure. I have left some ver_greeable people over there."
"Ah," said Acton, "but it was to come here, where I am!"
"I did n't know of your existence. Excuse me for saying anything so rude; but, honestly speaking, I did not. No," the Baroness pursued, "it was precisely no_o see you—such people as you—that I came."
"Such people as me?" cried Acton.
"I had a sort of longing to come into those natural relations which I knew _hould find here. Over there I had only, as I may say, artificial relations.
Don't you see the difference?"
"The difference tells against me," said Acton. "I suppose I am an artificia_elation."
"Conventional," declared the Baroness; "very conventional."
"Well, there is one way in which the relation of a lady and a gentleman ma_lways become natural," said Acton.
"You mean by their becoming lovers? That may be natural or not. And at an_ate," rejoined Eugenia, "nous n'en sommes pas la!"
They were not, as yet; but a little later, when she began to go with him t_rive, it might almost have seemed that they were. He came for her severa_imes, alone, in his high "wagon," drawn by a pair of charming light-limbe_orses. It was different, her having gone with Clifford Wentworth, who was he_ousin, and so much younger. It was not to be imagined that she should have _lirtation with Clifford, who was a mere shame-faced boy, and whom a larg_ection of Boston society supposed to be "engaged" to Lizzie Acton. Not, indeed, that it was to be conceived that the Baroness was a possible party t_ny flirtation whatever; for she was undoubtedly a married lady. It wa_enerally known that her matrimonial condition was of the "morganatic" order; but in its natural aversion to suppose that this meant anything less tha_bsolute wedlock, the conscience of the community took refuge in the belie_hat it implied something even more.
Acton wished her to think highly of American scenery, and he drove her t_reat distances, picking out the prettiest roads and the largest points o_iew. If we are good when we are contented, Eugenia's virtues should no_ertainly have been uppermost; for she found a charm in the rapid movemen_hrough a wild country, and in a companion who from time to time made th_ehicle dip, with a motion like a swallow's flight, over roads of primitiv_onstruction, and who, as she felt, would do a great many things that sh_ight ask him. Sometimes, for a couple of hours together, there were almost n_ouses; there were nothing but woods and rivers and lakes and horizons adorne_ith bright-looking mountains. It seemed to the Baroness very wild, as I hav_aid, and lovely; but the impression added something to that sense of th_nlargement of opportunity which had been born of her arrival in the Ne_orld.
One day—it was late in the afternoon—Acton pulled up his horses on the cres_f a hill which commanded a beautiful prospect. He let them stand a long tim_o rest, while he sat there and talked with Madame M; auunster. The prospec_as beautiful in spite of there being nothing human within sight. There was _ilderness of woods, and the gleam of a distant river, and a glimpse of hal_he hill-tops in Massachusetts. The road had a wide, grassy margin, on th_urther side of which there flowed a deep, clear brook; there were wil_lowers in the grass, and beside the brook lay the trunk of a fallen tree.
Acton waited a while; at last a rustic wayfarer came trudging along the road.
Acton asked him to hold the horses—a service he consented to render, as _riendly turn to a fellow-citizen. Then he invited the Baroness to descend, and the two wandered away, across the grass, and sat down on the log besid_he brook.
"I imagine it does n't remind you of Silberstadt," said Acton. It was th_irst time that he had mentioned Silberstadt to her, for particular reasons.
He knew she had a husband there, and this was disagreeable to him; and, furthermore, it had been repeated to him that this husband wished to put he_way—a state of affairs to which even indirect reference was to be deprecated.
It was true, nevertheless, that the Baroness herself had often alluded t_ilberstadt; and Acton had often wondered why her husband wished to get rid o_er. It was a curious position for a lady—this being known as a repudiate_ife; and it is worthy of observation that the Baroness carried it off wit_xceeding grace and dignity. She had made it felt, from the first, that ther_ere two sides to the question, and that her own side, when she should choos_o present it, would be replete with touching interest.
"It does not remind me of the town, of course," she said, "of the sculpture_ables and the Gothic churches, of the wonderful Schloss, with its moat an_ts clustering towers. But it has a little look of some other parts of th_rincipality. One might fancy one's self among those grand old German forests, those legendary mountains; the sort of country one sees from the windows a_hreckenstein."
"What is Shreckenstein?" asked Acton.
"It is a great castle,—the summer residence of the Reigning Prince."
"Have you ever lived there?"
"I have stayed there," said the Baroness. Acton was silent; he looked a whil_t the uncastled landscape before him. "It is the first time you have eve_sked me about Silberstadt," she said. "I should think you would want to kno_bout my marriage; it must seem to you very strange."
Acton looked at her a moment. "Now you would n't like me to say that!"
"You Americans have such odd ways!" the Baroness declared. "You never as_nything outright; there seem to be so many things you can't talk about."
"We Americans are very polite," said Acton, whose national consciousness ha_een complicated by a residence in foreign lands, and who yet disliked to hea_mericans abused. "We don't like to tread upon people's toes," he said. "But _hould like very much to hear about your marriage. Now tell me how it cam_bout."
"The Prince fell in love with me," replied the Baroness simply. "He presse_is suit very hard. At first he did n't wish me to marry him; on the contrary.
But on that basis I refused to listen to him. So he offered me marriage—in s_ar as he might. I was young, and I confess I was rather flattered. But if i_ere to be done again now, I certainly should not accept him."
"How long ago was this?" asked Acton.
"Oh—several years," said Eugenia. "You should never ask a woman for dates."
"Why, I should think that when a woman was relating history"… . Acto_nswered. "And now he wants to break it off?"
"They want him to make a political marriage. It is his brother's idea. Hi_rother is very clever."
"They must be a precious pair!" cried Robert Acton.
The Baroness gave a little philosophic shrug. "Que voulez-vous? They ar_rinces. They think they are treating me very well. Silberstadt is a perfectl_espotic little state, and the Reigning Prince may annul the marriage by _troke of his pen. But he has promised me, nevertheless, not to do so withou_y formal consent."
"And this you have refused?"
"Hitherto. It is an indignity, and I have wished at least to make it difficul_or them. But I have a little document in my writing-desk which I have only t_ign and send back to the Prince."
"Then it will be all over?"
The Baroness lifted her hand, and dropped it again. "Of course I shall keep m_itle; at least, I shall be at liberty to keep it if I choose. And I suppose _hall keep it. One must have a name. And I shall keep my pension. It is ver_mall—it is wretchedly small; but it is what I live on."
"And you have only to sign that paper?" Acton asked.
The Baroness looked at him a moment. "Do you urge it?"
He got up slowly, and stood with his hands in his pockets. "What do you gai_y not doing it?"
"I am supposed to gain this advantage—that if I delay, or temporize, th_rince may come back to me, may make a stand against his brother. He is ver_ond of me, and his brother has pushed him only little by little."
"If he were to come back to you," said Acton, "would you—would you take hi_ack?"
The Baroness met his eyes; she colored just a little. Then she rose. "I shoul_ave the satisfaction of saying, 'Now it is my turn. I break with your seren_ighness!'"
They began to walk toward the carriage. "Well," said Robert Acton, "it 's _urious story! How did you make his acquaintance?"
"I was staying with an old lady—an old Countess—in Dresden. She had been _riend of my father's. My father was dead; I was very much alone. My brothe_as wandering about the world in a theatrical troupe."
"Your brother ought to have stayed with you," Acton observed, "and kept yo_rom putting your trust in princes."
The Baroness was silent a moment, and then, "He did what he could," she said.
"He sent me money. The old Countess encouraged the Prince; she was eve_ressing. It seems to me," Madame Munster added, gently, "that—under th_ircumstances—I behaved very well."
Acton glanced at her, and made the observation—he had made it before—that _oman looks the prettier for having unfolded her wrongs or her sufferings.
"Well," he reflected, audibly, "I should like to see you send his seren_ighness—somewhere!"
Madame Munster stooped and plucked a daisy from the grass. "And not sign m_enunciation?"
"Well, I don't know—I don't know," said Acton.
"In one case I should have my revenge; in another case I should have m_iberty."
Acton gave a little laugh as he helped her into the carriage. "At any rate,"
he said, "take good care of that paper."
A couple of days afterward he asked her to come and see his house. The visi_ad already been proposed, but it had been put off in consequence of hi_other's illness. She was a constant invalid, and she had passed these recen_ears, very patiently, in a great flowered arm-chair at her bedroom window.
Lately, for some days, she had been unable to see any one; but now she wa_etter, and she sent the Baroness a very civil message. Acton had wished thei_isitor to come to dinner; but Madame M; auunster preferred to begin with _imple call. She had reflected that if she should go to dinner Mr. Wentwort_nd his daughters would also be asked, and it had seemed to her that th_eculiar character of the occasion would be best preserved in a tete-a-tet_ith her host. Why the occasion should have a peculiar character she explaine_o no one. As far as any one could see, it was simply very pleasant. Acto_ame for her and drove her to his door, an operation which was rapidl_erformed. His house the Baroness mentally pronounced a very good one; mor_rticulately, she declared that it was enchanting. It was large and square an_ainted brown; it stood in a well-kept shrubbery, and was approached, from th_ate, by a short drive. It was, moreover, a much more modern dwelling than Mr.
Wentworth's, and was more redundantly upholstered and expensively ornamented.
The Baroness perceived that her entertainer had analyzed material comfort to _ufficiently fine point. And then he possessed the most delightfu_hinoiseries—trophies of his sojourn in the Celestial Empire: pagodas of ebon_nd cabinets of ivory; sculptured monsters, grinning and leering on chimney- pieces, in front of beautifully figured hand-screens; porcelain dinner-sets, gleaming behind the glass doors of mahogany buffets; large screens, i_orners, covered with tense silk and embroidered with mandarins and dragons.
These things were scattered all over the house, and they gave Eugenia _retext for a complete domiciliary visit. She liked it, she enjoyed it; sh_hought it a very nice place. It had a mixture of the homely and the liberal, and though it was almost a museum, the large, little-used rooms were as fres_nd clean as a well-kept dairy. Lizzie Acton told her that she dusted all th_agodas and other curiosities every day with her own hands; and the Barones_nswered that she was evidently a household fairy. Lizzie had not at all th_ook of a young lady who dusted things; she wore such pretty dresses and ha_uch delicate fingers that it was difficult to imagine her immersed in sordi_ares. She came to meet Madame M; auunster on her arrival, but she sai_othing, or almost nothing, and the Baroness again reflected—she had ha_ccasion to do so before—that American girls had no manners. She disliked thi_ittle American girl, and she was quite prepared to learn that she had faile_o commend herself to Miss Acton. Lizzie struck her as positive and explici_lmost to pertness; and the idea of her combining the apparent incongruitie_f a taste for housework and the wearing of fresh, Parisian-looking dresse_uggested the possession of a dangerous energy. It was a source of irritatio_o the Baroness that in this country it should seem to matter whether a littl_irl were a trifle less or a trifle more of a nonentity; for Eugenia ha_itherto been conscious of no moral pressure as regards the appreciation o_iminutive virgins. It was perhaps an indication of Lizzie's pertness that sh_ery soon retired and left the Baroness on her brother's hands. Acton talked _reat deal about his chinoiseries; he knew a good deal about porcelain an_ric-a-brac. The Baroness, in her progress through the house, made, as i_ere, a great many stations. She sat down everywhere, confessed to being _ittle tired, and asked about the various objects with a curious mixture o_lertness and inattention. If there had been any one to say it to she woul_ave declared that she was positively in love with her host; but she coul_ardly make this declaration—even in the strictest confidence—to Acto_imself. It gave her, nevertheless, a pleasure that had some of the charm o_nwontedness to feel, with that admirable keenness with which she was capabl_f feeling things, that he had a disposition without any edges; that even hi_umorous irony always expanded toward the point. One's impression of hi_onesty was almost like carrying a bunch of flowers; the perfume was mos_greeable, but they were occasionally an inconvenience. One could trust him, at any rate, round all the corners of the world; and, withal, he was no_bsolutely simple, which would have been excess; he was only relativel_imple, which was quite enough for the Baroness.
Lizzie reappeared to say that her mother would now be happy to receive Madam_unster; and the Baroness followed her to Mrs. Acton's apartment. Eugeni_eflected, as she went, that it was not the affectation of impertinence tha_ade her dislike this young lady, for on that ground she could easily hav_eaten her. It was not an aspiration on the girl's part to rivalry, but a kin_f laughing, childishly-mocking indifference to the results of comparison.
Mrs. Acton was an emaciated, sweet-faced woman of five and fifty, sitting wit_illows behind her, and looking out on a clump of hemlocks. She was ver_odest, very timid, and very ill; she made Eugenia feel grateful that sh_erself was not like that—neither so ill, nor, possibly, so modest. On _hair, beside her, lay a volume of Emerson's Essays. It was a great occasio_or poor Mrs. Acton, in her helpless condition, to be confronted with a cleve_oreign lady, who had more manner than any lady—any dozen ladies—that she ha_ver seen.
"I have heard a great deal about you," she said, softly, to the Baroness.
"From your son, eh?" Eugenia asked. "He has talked to me immensely of you. Oh, he talks of you as you would like," the Baroness declared; "as such a son mus_alk of such a mother!"
Mrs. Acton sat gazing; this was part of Madame Munster's "manner." But Rober_cton was gazing too, in vivid consciousness that he had barely mentioned hi_other to their brilliant guest. He never talked of this still materna_resence,—a presence refined to such delicacy that it had almost resolve_tself, with him, simply into the subjective emotion of gratitude. And Acto_arely talked of his emotions. The Baroness turned her smile toward him, an_he instantly felt that she had been observed to be fibbing. She had struck _alse note. But who were these people to whom such fibbing was not pleasing?
If they were annoyed, the Baroness was equally so; and after the exchange of _ew civil inquiries and low-voiced responses she took leave of Mrs. Acton. Sh_egged Robert not to come home with her; she would get into the carriag_lone; she preferred that. This was imperious, and she thought he looke_isappointed. While she stood before the door with him—the carriage wa_urning in the gravel-walk—this thought restored her serenity.
When she had given him her hand in farewell she looked at him a moment. "_ave almost decided to dispatch that paper," she said.
He knew that she alluded to the document that she had called her renunciation; and he assisted her into the carriage without saying anything. But just befor_he vehicle began to move he said, "Well, when you have in fact dispatched it, I hope you will let me know!"