She was not pretty; but even when it expressed perplexed irritation her face was most interesting and agreeable. Neither was she in her first youth; yet, though slender, with a great deal of extremely well-fashioned roundness of contour-- a suggestion both of maturity and flexibility--she carried her three and thirty years as a light-wristed Hebe might have carried a brimming wine-cup. Her complexion was fatigued, as the French say; her mouth was large, her lips too full, her teeth uneven, her chin rather commonly modeled; she had a thick nose, and when she smiled--she was constantly smiling-- the lines beside it rose too high, toward her eyes. But these eyes were charming: gray in color, brilliant, quickly glancing, gently resting, full of intelligence. Her forehead was very low--it was her only handsome feature; and she had a great abundance of crisp dark hair, finely frizzled, which was always braided in a manner that suggested some Southern or Eastern, some remotely foreign, woman. She had a large collection of ear-rings, and wore them in alternation; and they seemed to give a point to her Oriental or exotic aspect. A compliment had once been paid her, which, being repeated to her, gave her greater pleasure than anything she had ever heard. "A pretty woman?" some one had said. "Why, her features are very bad." "I don't know about her features," a very discerning observer had answered; "but she carries her head like a pretty woman." You may imagine whether, after this, she carried her head less becomingly.
She turned away from the window at last, pressing her hands to her eyes. "It 's too horrible!" she exclaimed. "I shall go back--I shall go back!" And she flung herself into a chair before the fire.
"Wait a little, dear child," said the young man softly, sketching away at his little scraps of paper.
The lady put out her foot; it was very small, and there was an immense rosette on her slipper. She fixed her eyes for a while on this ornament, and then she looked at the glowing bed of anthracite coal in the grate. "Did you ever see anything so hideous as that fire?" she demanded. "Did you ever see anything so--so affreux as--as everything?" She spoke English with perfect purity; but she brought out this French epithet in a manner that indicated that she was accustomed to using French epithets.
"I think the fire is very pretty," said the young man, glancing at it a moment. "Those little blue tongues, dancing on top of the crimson embers, are extremely picturesque. They are like a fire in an alchemist's laboratory."
"You are too good-natured, my dear," his companion declared.
The young man held out one of his drawings, with his head on one side. His tongue was gently moving along his under-lip. "Good-natured--yes. Too good-natured--no."
"You are irritating," said the lady, looking at her slipper.
He began to retouch his sketch. "I think you mean simply that you are irritated."
"Ah, for that, yes!" said his companion, with a little bitter laugh. "It 's the darkest day of my life--and you know what that means."
"Wait till to-morrow," rejoined the young man.
"Yes, we have made a great mistake. If there is any doubt about it to-day, there certainly will be none to-morrow. Ce sera clair, au moins!"
The young man was silent a few moments, driving his pencil. Then at last, "There are no such things as mistakes," he affirmed.
"Very true--for those who are not clever enough to perceive them. Not to recognize one's mistakes--that would be happiness in life," the lady went on, still looking at her pretty foot.
"My dearest sister," said the young man, always intent upon his drawing, "it 's the first time you have told me I am not clever."
"Well, by your own theory I can't call it a mistake," answered his sister, pertinently enough.
The young man gave a clear, fresh laugh. "You, at least, are clever enough, dearest sister," he said.
"I was not so when I proposed this."
"Was it you who proposed it?" asked her brother.
She turned her head and gave him a little stare. "Do you desire the credit of it?"
"If you like, I will take the blame," he said, looking up with a smile.
"Yes," she rejoined in a moment, "you make no difference in these things. You have no sense of property."
The young man gave his joyous laugh again. "If that means I have no property, you are right!"
"Don't joke about your poverty," said his sister. "That is quite as vulgar as to boast about it."
"My poverty! I have just finished a drawing that will bring me fifty francs!"
"Voyons," said the lady, putting out her hand.
He added a touch or two, and then gave her his sketch. She looked at it, but she went on with her idea of a moment before. "If a woman were to ask you to marry her you would say, 'Certainly, my dear, with pleasure!' And you would marry her and be ridiculously happy. Then at the end of three months you would say to her, 'You know that blissful day when I begged you to be mine!' "
The young man had risen from the table, stretching his arms a little; he walked to the window. "That is a description of a charming nature," he said.
"Oh, yes, you have a charming nature; I regard that as our capital. If I had not been convinced of that I should never have taken the risk of bringing you to this dreadful country."
"This comical country, this delightful country!" exclaimed the young man, and he broke into the most animated laughter.
"Is it those women scrambling into the omnibus?" asked his companion. "What do you suppose is the attraction?"
"I suppose there is a very good-looking man inside," said the young man.
"In each of them? They come along in hundreds, and the men in this country don't seem at all handsome. As for the women-- I have never seen so many at once since I left the convent."
"The women are very pretty," her brother declared, "and the whole affair is very amusing. I must make a sketch of it." And he came back to the table quickly, and picked up his utensils-- a small sketching-board, a sheet of paper, and three or four crayons. He took his place at the window with these things, and stood there glancing out, plying his pencil with an air of easy skill. While he worked he wore a brilliant smile. Brilliant is indeed the word at this moment for his strongly-lighted face. He was eight and twenty years old; he had a short, slight, well-made figure. Though he bore a noticeable resemblance to his sister, he was a better favored person: fair-haired, clear-faced, witty-looking, with a delicate finish of feature and an expression at once urbane and not at all serious, a warm blue eye, an eyebrow finely drawn and excessively arched--an eyebrow which, if ladies wrote sonnets to those of their lovers, might have been made the subject of such a piece of verse--and a light moustache that flourished upwards as if blown that way by the breath of a constant smile. There was something in his physiognomy at once benevolent and picturesque. But, as I have hinted, it was not at all serious. The young man's face was, in this respect, singular; it was not at all serious, and yet it inspired the liveliest confidence.
"Be sure you put in plenty of snow," said his sister. "Bonte divine, what a climate!"
"I shall leave the sketch all white, and I shall put in the little figures in black," the young man answered, laughing. "And I shall call it-- what is that line in Keats?--Mid-May's Eldest Child!"
"I don't remember," said the lady, "that mamma ever told me it was like this."
"Mamma never told you anything disagreeable. And it 's not like this-- every day. You will see that to-morrow we shall have a splendid day."
"Qu'en savez-vous? To-morrow I shall go away."
"Where shall you go?"
"Anywhere away from here. Back to Silberstadt. I shall write to the Reigning Prince."
The young man turned a little and looked at her, with his crayon poised. "My dear Eugenia," he murmured, "were you so happy at sea?"
Eugenia got up; she still held in her hand the drawing her brother had given her. It was a bold, expressive sketch of a group of miserable people on the deck of a steamer, clinging together and clutching at each other, while the vessel lurched downward, at a terrific angle, into the hollow of a wave. It was extremely clever, and full of a sort of tragi-comical power. Eugenia dropped her eyes upon it and made a sad grimace. "How can you draw such odious scenes?" she asked. "I should like to throw it into the fire!" And she tossed the paper away. Her brother watched, quietly, to see where it went. It fluttered down to the floor, where he let it lie. She came toward the window, pinching in her waist. "Why don't you reproach me--abuse me?" she asked. "I think I should feel better then. Why don't you tell me that you hate me for bringing you here?"
"Because you would not believe it. I adore you, dear sister! I am delighted to be here, and I am charmed with the prospect."
"I don't know what had taken possession of me. I had lost my head," Eugenia went on.
The young man, on his side, went on plying his pencil. "It is evidently a most curious and interesting country. Here we are, and I mean to enjoy it."
His companion turned away with an impatient step, but presently came back. "High spirits are doubtless an excellent thing," she said; "but you give one too much of them, and I can't see that they have done you any good."
The young man stared, with lifted eyebrows, smiling; he tapped his handsome nose with his pencil. "They have made me happy!"
"That was the least they could do; they have made you nothing else. You have gone through life thanking fortune for such very small favors that she has never put herself to any trouble for you."
"She must have put herself to a little, I think, to present me with so admirable a sister."
"Be serious, Felix. You forget that I am your elder."
"With a sister, then, so elderly!" rejoined Felix, laughing. "I hoped we had left seriousness in Europe."
"I fancy you will find it here. Remember that you are nearly thirty years old, and that you are nothing but an obscure Bohemian-- a penniless correspondent of an illustrated newspaper."
"Obscure as much as you please, but not so much of a Bohemian as you think. And not at all penniless! I have a hundred pounds in my pocket. I have an engagement to make fifty sketches, and I mean to paint the portraits of all our cousins, and of all their cousins, at a hundred dollars a head."
"You are not ambitious," said Eugenia.
"You are, dear Baroness," the young man replied.
The Baroness was silent a moment, looking out at the sleet-darkened grave-yard and the bumping horse-cars. "Yes, I am ambitious," she said at last. "And my ambition has brought me to this dreadful place!" She glanced about her-- the room had a certain vulgur nudity; the bed and the window were curtainless-- and she gave a little passionate sigh. "Poor old ambition!" she exclaimed. Then she flung herself down upon a sofa which stood near against the wall, and covered her face with her hands.
Her brother went on with his drawing, rapidly and skillfully; after some moments he sat down beside her and showed her his sketch. "Now, don't you think that 's pretty good for an obscure Bohemian?" he asked. "I have knocked off another fifty francs."
Eugenia glanced at the little picture as he laid it on her lap. "Yes, it is very clever," she said. And in a moment she added, "Do you suppose our cousins do that?"
"Get into those things, and look like that."
Felix meditated awhile. "I really can't say. It will be interesting to discover."
"Oh, the rich people can't!" said the Baroness.
"Are you very sure they are rich?" asked Felix, lightly.
His sister slowly turned in her place, looking at him. "Heavenly powers!" she murmured. "You have a way of bringing out things!"
"It will certainly be much pleasanter if they are rich," Felix declared.
"Do you suppose if I had not known they were rich I would ever have come?"
The young man met his sister's somewhat peremptory eye with his bright, contented glance. "Yes, it certainly will be pleasanter," he repeated.
"That is all I expect of them," said the Baroness. "I don't count upon their being clever or friendly--at first--or elegant or interesting. But I assure you I insist upon their being rich."
Felix leaned his head upon the back of the sofa and looked awhile at the oblong patch of sky to which the window served as frame. The snow was ceasing; it seemed to him that the sky had begun to brighten. "I count upon their being rich," he said at last, "and powerful, and clever, and friendly, and elegant, and interesting, and generally delightful! Tu vas voir." And he bent forward and kissed his sister. "Look there!" he went on. "As a portent, even while I speak, the sky is turning the color of gold; the day is going to be splendid."
And indeed, within five minutes the weather had changed. The sun broke out through the snow-clouds and jumped into the Baroness's room. "Bonte divine," exclaimed this lady, "what a climate!"
"We will go out and see the world," said Felix.
And after a while they went out. The air had grown warm as well as brilliant; the sunshine had dried the pavements. They walked about the streets at hazard, looking at the people and the houses, the shops and the vehicles, the blazing blue sky and the muddy crossings, the hurrying men and the slow-strolling maidens, the fresh red bricks and the bright green trees, the extraordinary mixture of smartness and shabbiness. From one hour to another the day had grown vernal; even in the bustling streets there was an odor of earth and blossom. Felix was immensely entertained. He had called it a comical country, and he went about laughing at everything he saw. You would have said that American civilization expressed itself to his sense in a tissue of capital jokes. The jokes were certainly excellent, and the young man's merriment was joyous and genial. He possessed what is called the pictorial sense; and this first glimpse of democratic manners stirred the same sort of attention that he would have given to the movements of a lively young person with a bright complexion. Such attention would have been demonstrative and complimentary; and in the present case Felix might have passed for an undispirited young exile revisiting the haunts of his childhood. He kept looking at the violent blue of the sky, at the scintillating air, at the scattered and multiplied patches of color.
"Comme c'est bariole, eh?" he said to his sister in that foreign tongue which they both appeared to feel a mysterious prompting occasionally to use.
"Yes, it is bariole indeed," the Baroness answered. "I don't like the coloring; it hurts my eyes."
"It shows how extremes meet," the young man rejoined. "Instead of coming to the West we seem to have gone to the East. The way the sky touches the house-tops is just like Cairo; and the red and blue sign-boards patched over the face of everything remind one of Mahometan decorations."
"The young women are not Mahometan," said his companion. "They can't be said to hide their faces. I never saw anything so bold."
"Thank Heaven they don't hide their faces!" cried Felix. "Their faces are uncommonly pretty."
"Yes, their faces are often very pretty," said the Baroness, who was a very clever woman. She was too clever a woman not to be capable of a great deal of just and fine observation. She clung more closely than usual to her brother's arm; she was not exhilarated, as he was; she said very little, but she noted a great many things and made her reflections. She was a little excited; she felt that she had indeed come to a strange country, to make her fortune. Superficially, she was conscious of a good deal of irritation and displeasure; the Baroness was a very delicate and fastidious person. Of old, more than once, she had gone, for entertainment's sake and in brilliant company, to a fair in a provincial town. It seemed to her now that she was at an enormous fair-- that the entertainment and the desagrements were very much the same. She found herself alternately smiling and shrinking; the show was very curious, but it was probable, from moment to moment, that one would be jostled. The Baroness had never seen so many people walking about before; she had never been so mixed up with people she did not know. But little by little she felt that this fair was a more serious undertaking. She went with her brother into a large public garden, which seemed very pretty, but where she was surprised at seeing no carriages. The afternoon was drawing to a close; the coarse, vivid grass and the slender tree-boles were gilded by the level sunbeams-- gilded as with gold that was fresh from the mine. It was the hour at which ladies should come out for an airing and roll past a hedge of pedestrians, holding their parasols askance. Here, however, Eugenia observed no indications of this custom, the absence of which was more anomalous as there was a charming avenue of remarkably graceful, arching elms in the most convenient contiguity to a large, cheerful street, in which, evidently, among the more prosperous members of the bourgeoisie, a great deal of pedestrianism went forward. Our friends passed out into this well lighted promenade, and Felix noticed a great many more pretty girls and called his sister's attention to them. This latter measure, however, was superfluous; for the Baroness had inspected, narrowly, these charming young ladies.
"I feel an intimate conviction that our cousins are like that," said Felix.
The Baroness hoped so, but this is not what she said. "They are very pretty," she said, "but they are mere little girls. Where are the women--the women of thirty?"
"Of thirty-three, do you mean?" her brother was going to ask; for he understood often both what she said and what she did not say. But he only exclaimed upon the beauty of the sunset, while the Baroness, who had come to seek her fortune, reflected that it would certainly be well for her if the persons against whom she might need to measure herself should all be mere little girls. The sunset was superb; they stopped to look at it; Felix declared that he had never seen such a gorgeous mixture of colors. The Baroness also thought it splendid; and she was perhaps the more easily pleased from the fact that while she stood there she was conscious of much admiring observation on the part of various nice-looking people who passed that way, and to whom a distinguished, strikingly-dressed woman with a foreign air, exclaiming upon the beauties of nature on a Boston street corner in the French tongue, could not be an object of indifference. Eugenia's spirits rose. She surrendered herself to a certain tranquil gayety. If she had come to seek her fortune, it seemed to her that her fortune would be easy to find. There was a promise of it in the gorgeous purity of the western sky; there was an intimation in the mild, unimpertinent gaze of the passers of a certain natural facility in things.
"You will not go back to Silberstadt, eh?" asked Felix.
"Not to-morrow," said the Baroness.
"Nor write to the Reigning Prince?"
"I shall write to him that they evidently know nothing about him over here."
"He will not believe you," said the young man. "I advise you to let him alone."
Felix himself continued to be in high good humor. Brought up among ancient customs and in picturesque cities, he yet found plenty of local color in the little Puritan metropolis. That evening, after dinner, he told his sister that he should go forth early on the morrow to look up their cousins.
"You are very impatient," said Eugenia.
"What can be more natural," he asked, "after seeing all those pretty girls to-day? If one's cousins are of that pattern, the sooner one knows them the better."
"Perhaps they are not," said Eugenia. "We ought to have brought some letters-- to some other people."
"The other people would not be our kinsfolk."
"Possibly they would be none the worse for that," the Baroness replied.
Her brother looked at her with his eyebrows lifted. "That was not what you said when you first proposed to me that we should come out here and fraternize with our relatives. You said that it was the prompting of natural affection; and when I suggested some reasons against it you declared that the voix du sang should go before everything."
"You remember all that?" asked the Baroness.
"Vividly! I was greatly moved by it."
She was walking up and down the room, as she had done in the morning; she stopped in her walk and looked at her brother. She apparently was going to say something, but she checked herself and resumed her walk. Then, in a few moments, she said something different, which had the effect of an explanation of the suppression of her earlier thought. "You will never be anything but a child, dear brother."
"One would suppose that you, madam," answered Felix, laughing, "were a thousand years old."
"I am--sometimes," said the Baroness.
"I will go, then, and announce to our cousins the arrival of a personage so extraordinary. They will immediately come and pay you their respects."
Eugenia paced the length of the room again, and then she stopped before her brother, laying her hand upon his arm. "They are not to come and see me," she said. "You are not to allow that. That is not the way I shall meet them first." And in answer to his interrogative glance she went on. "You will go and examine, and report. You will come back and tell me who they are and what they are; their number, gender, their respective ages--all about them. Be sure you observe everything; be ready to describe to me the locality, the accessories--how shall I say it?-- the mise en scene. Then, at my own time, at my own hour, under circumstances of my own choosing, I will go to them. I will present myself--I will appear before them!" said the Baroness, this time phrasing her idea with a certain frankness.
"And what message am I to take to them?" asked Felix, who had a lively faith in the justness of his sister's arrangements.
She looked at him a moment--at his expression of agreeable veracity; and, with that justness that he admired, she replied, "Say what you please. Tell my story in the way that seems to you most--natural." And she bent her forehead for him to kiss.