Table of Contents

+ Add to Library

Previous Next

Chapter 6

  • 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!"