"Have you ever entertained the idea of settling in the United States?" he asked one morning, while Felix brilliantly plied his brush.
"My dear uncle," said Felix, "excuse me if your question makes me smile a little. To begin with, I have never entertained an idea. Ideas often entertain me; but I am afraid I have never seriously made a plan. I know what you are going to say; or rather, I know what you think, for I don't think you will say it-- that this is very frivolous and loose-minded on my part. So it is; but I am made like that; I take things as they come, and somehow there is always some new thing to follow the last. In the second place, I should never propose to settle. I can't settle, my dear uncle; I 'm not a settler. I know that is what strangers are supposed to do here; they always settle. But I have n't--to answer your question-- entertained that idea."
"You intend to return to Europe and resume your irregular manner of life?" Mr. Wentworth inquired.
"I can't say I intend. But it 's very likely I shall go back to Europe. After all, I am a European. I feel that, you know. It will depend a good deal upon my sister. She 's even more of a European than I; here, you know, she 's a picture out of her setting. And as for 'resuming,' dear uncle, I really have never given up my irregular manner of life. What, for me, could be more irregular than this?"
"Than what?" asked Mr. Wentworth, with his pale gravity.
"Well, than everything! Living in the midst of you, this way; this charming, quiet, serious family life; fraternizing with Charlotte and Gertrude; calling upon twenty young ladies and going out to walk with them; sitting with you in the evening on the piazza and listening to the crickets, and going to bed at ten o'clock."
"Your description is very animated," said Mr. Wentworth; "but I see nothing improper in what you describe."
"Neither do I, dear uncle. It is extremely delightful; I should n't like it if it were improper. I assure you I don't like improper things; though I dare say you think I do," Felix went on, painting away.
"I have never accused you of that."
"Pray don't," said Felix, "because, you see, at bottom I am a terrible Philistine."
"A Philistine?" repeated Mr. Wentworth.
"I mean, as one may say, a plain, God-fearing man." Mr. Wentworth looked at him reservedly, like a mystified sage, and Felix continued, "I trust I shall enjoy a venerable and venerated old age. I mean to live long. I can hardly call that a plan, perhaps; but it 's a keen desire--a rosy vision. I shall be a lively, perhaps even a frivolous old man!"
"It is natural," said his uncle, sententiously, "that one should desire to prolong an agreeable life. We have perhaps a selfish indisposition to bring our pleasure to a close. But I presume," he added, "that you expect to marry."
"That too, dear uncle, is a hope, a desire, a vision," said Felix. It occurred to him for an instant that this was possibly a preface to the offer of the hand of one of Mr. Wentworth's admirable daughters. But in the name of decent modesty and a proper sense of the hard realities of this world, Felix banished the thought. His uncle was the incarnation of benevolence, certainly; but from that to accepting--much more postulating--the idea of a union between a young lady with a dowry presumptively brilliant and a penniless artist with no prospect of fame, there was a very long way. Felix had lately become conscious of a luxurious preference for the society--if possible unshared with others--of Gertrude Wentworth; but he had relegated this young lady, for the moment, to the coldly brilliant category of unattainable possessions. She was not the first woman for whom he had entertained an unpractical admiration. He had been in love with duchesses and countesses, and he had made, once or twice, a perilously near approach to cynicism in declaring that the disinterestedness of women had been overrated. On the whole, he had tempered audacity with modesty; and it is but fair to him now to say explicitly that he would have been incapable of taking advantage of his present large allowance of familiarity to make love to the younger of his handsome cousins. Felix had grown up among traditions in the light of which such a proceeding looked like a grievous breach of hospitality. I have said that he was always happy, and it may be counted among the present sources of his happiness that he had as regards this matter of his relations with Gertrude a deliciously good conscience. His own deportment seemed to him suffused with the beauty of virtue-- a form of beauty that he admired with the same vivacity with which he admired all other forms.
"I think that if you marry," said Mr. Wentworth presently, "it will conduce to your happiness."
"Sicurissimo!" Felix exclaimed; and then, arresting his brush, he looked at his uncle with a smile. "There is something I feel tempted to say to you. May I risk it?"
Mr. Wentworth drew himself up a little. "I am very safe; I don't repeat things." But he hoped Felix would not risk too much.
Felix was laughing at his answer.
"It 's odd to hear you telling me how to be happy. I don't think you know yourself, dear uncle. Now, does that sound brutal?"
The old man was silent a moment, and then, with a dry dignity that suddenly touched his nephew: "We may sometimes point out a road we are unable to follow."
"Ah, don't tell me you have had any sorrows," Felix rejoined. "I did n't suppose it, and I did n't mean to allude to them. I simply meant that you all don't amuse yourselves."
"Amuse ourselves? We are not children."
"Precisely not! You have reached the proper age. I was saying that the other day to Gertrude," Felix added. "I hope it was not indiscreet."
"If it was," said Mr. Wentworth, with a keener irony than Felix would have thought him capable of, "it was but your way of amusing yourself. I am afraid you have never had a trouble."
"Oh, yes, I have!" Felix declared, with some spirit; "before I knew better. But you don't catch me at it again."
Mr. Wentworth maintained for a while a silence more expressive than a deep-drawn sigh. "You have no children," he said at last.
"Don't tell me," Felix exclaimed, "that your charming young people are a source of grief to you!"
"I don't speak of Charlotte." And then, after a pause, Mr. Wentworth continued, "I don't speak of Gertrude. But I feel considerable anxiety about Clifford. I will tell you another time."
The next time he gave Felix a sitting his nephew reminded him that he had taken him into his confidence. "How is Clifford to-day?" Felix asked. "He has always seemed to me a young man of remarkable discretion. Indeed, he is only too discreet; he seems on his guard against me-- as if he thought me rather light company. The other day he told his sister-- Gertrude repeated it to me--that I was always laughing at him. If I laugh it is simply from the impulse to try and inspire him with confidence. That is the only way I have."
"Clifford's situation is no laughing matter," said Mr. Wentworth. "It is very peculiar, as I suppose you have guessed."
"Ah, you mean his love affair with his cousin?"
Mr. Wentworth stared, blushing a little. "I mean his absence from college. He has been suspended. We have decided not to speak of it unless we are asked."
"Suspended?" Felix repeated.
"He has been requested by the Harvard authorities to absent himself for six months. Meanwhile he is studying with Mr. Brand. We think Mr. Brand will help him; at least we hope so."
"What befell him at college?" Felix asked. "He was too fond of pleasure? Mr. Brand certainly will not teach him any of those secrets!"
"He was too fond of something of which he should not have been fond. I suppose it is considered a pleasure."
Felix gave his light laugh. "My dear uncle, is there any doubt about its being a pleasure? C'est de son age, as they say in France."
"I should have said rather it was a vice of later life-- of disappointed old age."
Felix glanced at his uncle, with his lifted eyebrows, and then, "Of what are you speaking?" he demanded, smiling.
"Of the situation in which Clifford was found."
"Ah, he was found--he was caught?"
"Necessarily, he was caught. He could n't walk; he staggered."
"Oh," said Felix, "he drinks! I rather suspected that, from something I observed the first day I came here. I quite agree with you that it is a low taste. It 's not a vice for a gentleman. He ought to give it up."
"We hope for a good deal from Mr. Brand's influence," Mr. Wentworth went on. "He has talked to him from the first. And he never touches anything himself."
"I will talk to him--I will talk to him!" Felix declared, gayly.
"What will you say to him?" asked his uncle, with some apprehension.
Felix for some moments answered nothing. "Do you mean to marry him to his cousin?" he asked at last.
"Marry him?" echoed Mr. Wentworth. "I should n't think his cousin would want to marry him."
"You have no understanding, then, with Mrs. Acton?"
Mr. Wentworth stared, almost blankly. "I have never discussed such subjects with her."
"I should think it might be time," said Felix. "Lizzie Acton is admirably pretty, and if Clifford is dangerous...."
"They are not engaged," said Mr. Wentworth. "I have no reason to suppose they are engaged."
"Par exemple!" cried Felix. "A clandestine engagement? Trust me, Clifford, as I say, is a charming boy. He is incapable of that. Lizzie Acton, then, would not be jealous of another woman."
"I certainly hope not," said the old man, with a vague sense of jealousy being an even lower vice than a love of liquor.
"The best thing for Clifford, then," Felix propounded, "is to become interested in some clever, charming woman." And he paused in his painting, and, with his elbows on his knees, looked with bright communicativeness at his uncle. "You see, I believe greatly in the influence of women. Living with women helps to make a man a gentleman. It is very true Clifford has his sisters, who are so charming. But there should be a different sentiment in play from the fraternal, you know. He has Lizzie Acton; but she, perhaps, is rather immature."
"I suspect Lizzie has talked to him, reasoned with him," said Mr. Wentworth.
"On the impropriety of getting tipsy--on the beauty of temperance? That is dreary work for a pretty young girl. No," Felix continued; "Clifford ought to frequent some agreeable woman, who, without ever mentioning such unsavory subjects, would give him a sense of its being very ridiculous to be fuddled. If he could fall in love with her a little, so much the better. The thing would operate as a cure."
"Well, now, what lady should you suggest?" asked Mr. Wentworth.
"There is a clever woman under your hand. My sister."
"Your sister--under my hand?" Mr. Wentworth repeated.
"Say a word to Clifford. Tell him to be bold. He is well disposed already; he has invited her two or three times to drive. But I don't think he comes to see her. Give him a hint to come-- to come often. He will sit there of an afternoon, and they will talk. It will do him good. "
Mr. Wentworth meditated. "You think she will exercise a helpful influence?"
"She will exercise a civilizing--I may call it a sobering--influence. A charming, clever, witty woman always does--especially if she is a little of a coquette. My dear uncle, the society of such women has been half my education. If Clifford is suspended, as you say, from college, let Eugenia be his preceptress."
Mr. Wentworth continued thoughtful. "You think Eugenia is a coquette?" he asked.
"What pretty woman is not?" Felix demanded in turn. But this, for Mr. Wentworth, could at the best have been no answer, for he did not think his niece pretty. "With Clifford," the young man pursued, "Eugenia will simply be enough of a coquette to be a little ironical. That 's what he needs. So you recommend him to be nice with her, you know. The suggestion will come best from you."
"Do I understand," asked the old man, "that I am to suggest to my son to make a--a profession of--of affection to Madame Munster?"
"Yes, yes--a profession!" cried Felix sympathetically.
"But, as I understand it, Madame Munster is a married woman."
"Ah," said Felix, smiling, "of course she can't marry him. But she will do what she can."
Mr. Wentworth sat for some time with his eyes on the floor; at last he got up. "I don't think," he said, "that I can undertake to recommend my son any such course." And without meeting Felix's surprised glance he broke off his sitting, which was not resumed for a fortnight.
Felix was very fond of the little lake which occupied so many of Mr. Wentworth's numerous acres, and of a remarkable pine grove which lay upon the further side of it, planted upon a steep embankment and haunted by the summer breeze. The murmur of the air in the far off tree-tops had a strange distinctness; it was almost articulate. One afternoon the young man came out of his painting-room and passed the open door of Eugenia's little salon. Within, in the cool dimness, he saw his sister, dressed in white, buried in her arm-chair, and holding to her face an immense bouquet. Opposite to her sat Clifford Wentworth, twirling his hat. He had evidently just presented the bouquet to the Baroness, whose fine eyes, as she glanced at him over the big roses and geraniums, wore a conversational smile. Felix, standing on the threshold of the cottage, hesitated for a moment as to whether he should retrace his steps and enter the parlor. Then he went his way and passed into Mr. Wentworth's garden. That civilizing process to which he had suggested that Clifford should be subjected appeared to have come on of itself. Felix was very sure, at least, that Mr. Wentworth had not adopted his ingenious device for stimulating the young man's aesthetic consciousness. "Doubtless he supposes," he said to himself, after the conversation that has been narrated, "that I desire, out of fraternal benevolence, to procure for Eugenia the amusement of a flirtation--or, as he probably calls it, an intrigue--with the too susceptible Clifford. It must be admitted--and I have noticed it before--that nothing exceeds the license occasionally taken by the imagination of very rigid people." Felix, on his own side, had of course said nothing to Clifford; but he had observed to Eugenia that Mr. Wentworth was much mortified at his son's low tastes. "We ought to do something to help them, after all their kindness to us," he had added. "Encourage Clifford to come and see you, and inspire him with a taste for conversation. That will supplant the other, which only comes from his puerility, from his not taking his position in the world-- that of a rich young man of ancient stock--seriously enough. Make him a little more serious. Even if he makes love to you it is no great matter."
"I am to offer myself as a superior form of intoxication-- a substitute for a brandy bottle, eh?" asked the Baroness. "Truly, in this country one comes to strange uses."
But she had not positively declined to undertake Clifford's higher education, and Felix, who had not thought of the matter again, being haunted with visions of more personal profit, now reflected that the work of redemption had fairly begun. The idea in prospect had seemed of the happiest, but in operation it made him a trifle uneasy. "What if Eugenia--what if Eugenia"-- he asked himself softly; the question dying away in his sense of Eugenia's undetermined capacity. But before Felix had time either to accept or to reject its admonition, even in this vague form, he saw Robert Acton turn out of Mr. Wentworth's inclosure, by a distant gate, and come toward the cottage in the orchard. Acton had evidently walked from his own house along a shady by-way and was intending to pay a visit to Madame Munster. Felix watched him a moment; then he turned away. Acton could be left to play the part of Providence and interrupt-- if interruption were needed--Clifford's entanglement with Eugenia.
Felix passed through the garden toward the house and toward a postern gate which opened upon a path leading across the fields, beside a little wood, to the lake. He stopped and looked up at the house; his eyes rested more particularly upon a certain open window, on the shady side. Presently Gertrude appeared there, looking out into the summer light. He took off his hat to her and bade her good-day; he remarked that he was going to row across the pond, and begged that she would do him the honor to accompany him. She looked at him a moment; then, without saying anything, she turned away. But she soon reappeared below in one of those quaint and charming Leghorn hats, tied with white satin bows, that were worn at that period; she also carried a green parasol. She went with him to the edge of the lake, where a couple of boats were always moored; they got into one of them, and Felix, with gentle strokes, propelled it to the opposite shore. The day was the perfection of summer weather; the little lake was the color of sunshine; the plash of the oars was the only sound, and they found themselves listening to it. They disembarked, and, by a winding path, ascended the pine-crested mound which overlooked the water, whose white expanse glittered between the trees. The place was delightfully cool, and had the added charm that-- in the softly sounding pine boughs--you seemed to hear the coolness as well as feel it. Felix and Gertrude sat down on the rust-colored carpet of pine-needles and talked of many things. Felix spoke at last, in the course of talk, of his going away; it was the first time he had alluded to it.
"You are going away?" said Gertrude, looking at him.
"Some day--when the leaves begin to fall. You know I can't stay forever."
Gertrude transferred her eyes to the outer prospect, and then, after a pause, she said, "I shall never see you again."
"Why not?" asked Felix. "We shall probably both survive my departure."
But Gertrude only repeated, "I shall never see you again. I shall never hear of you," she went on. "I shall know nothing about you. I knew nothing about you before, and it will be the same again."
"I knew nothing about you then, unfortunately," said Felix. "But now I shall write to you."
"Don't write to me. I shall not answer you," Gertrude declared.
"I should of course burn your letters," said Felix.
Gertrude looked at him again. "Burn my letters? You sometimes say strange things."
"They are not strange in themselves," the young man answered. "They are only strange as said to you. You will come to Europe."
"With whom shall I come?" She asked this question simply; she was very much in earnest. Felix was interested in her earnestness; for some moments he hesitated. "You can't tell me that," she pursued. "You can't say that I shall go with my father and my sister; you don't believe that."
"I shall keep your letters," said Felix, presently, for all answer.
"I never write. I don't know how to write." Gertrude, for some time, said nothing more; and her companion, as he looked at her, wished it had not been "disloyal" to make love to the daughter of an old gentleman who had offered one hospitality. The afternoon waned; the shadows stretched themselves; and the light grew deeper in the western sky. Two persons appeared on the opposite side of the lake, coming from the house and crossing the meadow. "It is Charlotte and Mr. Brand," said Gertrude. "They are coming over here." But Charlotte and Mr. Brand only came down to the edge of the water, and stood there, looking across; they made no motion to enter the boat that Felix had left at the mooring-place. Felix waved his hat to them; it was too far to call. They made no visible response, and they presently turned away and walked along the shore.
"Mr. Brand is not demonstrative," said Felix. "He is never demonstrative to me. He sits silent, with his chin in his hand, looking at me. Sometimes he looks away. Your father tells me he is so eloquent; and I should like to hear him talk. He looks like such a noble young man. But with me he will never talk. And yet I am so fond of listening to brilliant imagery!"
"He is very eloquent," said Gertrude; "but he has no brilliant imagery. I have heard him talk a great deal. I knew that when they saw us they would not come over here."
"Ah, he is making la cour, as they say, to your sister? They desire to be alone?"
"No," said Gertrude, gravely, "they have no such reason as that for being alone."
"But why does n't he make la cour to Charlotte?" Felix inquired. "She is so pretty, so gentle, so good."
Gertrude glanced at him, and then she looked at the distantly-seen couple they were discussing. Mr. Brand and Charlotte were walking side by side. They might have been a pair of lovers, and yet they might not. "They think I should not be here," said Gertrude.
"With me? I thought you did n't have those ideas."
"You don't understand. There are a great many things you don't understand."
"I understand my stupidity. But why, then, do not Charlotte and Mr. Brand, who, as an elder sister and a clergyman, are free to walk about together, come over and make me wiser by breaking up the unlawful interview into which I have lured you?"
"That is the last thing they would do," said Gertrude.
Felix stared at her a moment, with his lifted eyebrows. "Je n'y comprends rien!" he exclaimed; then his eyes followed for a while the retreating figures of this critical pair. "You may say what you please," he declared; "it is evident to me that your sister is not indifferent to her clever companion. It is agreeable to her to be walking there with him. I can see that from here." And in the excitement of observation Felix rose to his feet.
Gertrude rose also, but she made no attempt to emulate her companion's discovery; she looked rather in another direction. Felix's words had struck her; but a certain delicacy checked her. "She is certainly not indifferent to Mr. Brand; she has the highest opinion of him."
"One can see it--one can see it," said Felix, in a tone of amused contemplation, with his head on one side. Gertrude turned her back to the opposite shore; it was disagreeable to her to look, but she hoped Felix would say something more. "Ah, they have wandered away into the wood," he added.
Gertrude turned round again. "She is not in love with him," she said; it seemed her duty to say that.
"Then he is in love with her; or if he is not, he ought to be. She is such a perfect little woman of her kind. She reminds me of a pair of old-fashioned silver sugar-tongs; you know I am very fond of sugar. And she is very nice with Mr. Brand; I have noticed that; very gentle and gracious."
Gertrude reflected a moment. Then she took a great resolution. "She wants him to marry me," she said. "So of course she is nice."
Felix's eyebrows rose higher than ever. "To marry you! Ah, ah, this is interesting. And you think one must be very nice with a man to induce him to do that?"
Gertrude had turned a little pale, but she went on, "Mr. Brand wants it himself."
Felix folded his arms and stood looking at her. "I see--I see," he said quickly. "Why did you never tell me this before?"
"It is disagreeable to me to speak of it even now. I wished simply to explain to you about Charlotte."
"You don't wish to marry Mr. Brand, then?"
"No," said Gertrude, gravely.
"And does your father wish it?"
"And you don't like him--you have refused him?"
"I don't wish to marry him."
"Your father and sister think you ought to, eh?"
"It is a long story," said Gertrude. "They think there are good reasons. I can't explain it. They think I have obligations, and that I have encouraged him."
Felix smiled at her, as if she had been telling him an amusing story about some one else. "I can't tell you how this interests me," he said. "Now you don't recognize these reasons--these obligations?"
"I am not sure; it is not easy." And she picked up her parasol and turned away, as if to descend the slope.
"Tell me this," Felix went on, going with her: "are you likely to give in-- to let them persuade you?"
Gertrude looked at him with the serious face that she had constantly worn, in opposition to his almost eager smile. "I shall never marry Mr. Brand," she said.
"I see!" Felix rejoined. And they slowly descended the hill together, saying nothing till they reached the margin of the pond. "It is your own affair," he then resumed; "but do you know, I am not altogether glad? If it were settled that you were to marry Mr. Brand I should take a certain comfort in the arrangement. I should feel more free. I have no right to make love to you myself, eh?" And he paused, lightly pressing his argument upon her.
"None whatever," replied Gertrude quickly--too quickly.
"Your father would never hear of it; I have n't a penny. Mr. Brand, of course, has property of his own, eh?"
"I believe he has some property; but that has nothing to do with it."
"With you, of course not; but with your father and sister it must have. So, as I say, if this were settled, I should feel more at liberty. "
"More at liberty?" Gertrude repeated. "Please unfasten the boat."
Felix untwisted the rope and stood holding it. "I should be able to say things to you that I can't give myself the pleasure of saying now," he went on. "I could tell you how much I admire you, without seeming to pretend to that which I have no right to pretend to. I should make violent love to you," he added, laughing, "if I thought you were so placed as not to be offended by it."
"You mean if I were engaged to another man? That is strange reasoning!" Gertrude exclaimed.
"In that case you would not take me seriously."
"I take every one seriously," said Gertrude. And without his help she stepped lightly into the boat.
Felix took up the oars and sent it forward. "Ah, this is what you have been thinking about? It seemed to me you had something on your mind. I wish very much," he added, "that you would tell me some of these so-called reasons--these obligations."
"They are not real reasons--good reasons," said Gertrude, looking at the pink and yellow gleams in the water.
"I can understand that! Because a handsome girl has had a spark of coquetry, that is no reason."
"If you mean me, it 's not that. I have not done that."
"It is something that troubles you, at any rate," said Felix.
"Not so much as it used to," Gertrude rejoined.
He looked at her, smiling always. "That is not saying much, eh?" But she only rested her eyes, very gravely, on the lighted water. She seemed to him to be trying to hide the signs of the trouble of which she had just told him. Felix felt, at all times, much the same impulse to dissipate visible melancholy that a good housewife feels to brush away dust. There was something he wished to brush away now; suddenly he stopped rowing and poised his oars. "Why should Mr. Brand have addressed himself to you, and not to your sister?" he asked. "I am sure she would listen to him."
Gertrude, in her family, was thought capable of a good deal of levity; but her levity had never gone so far as this. It moved her greatly, however, to hear Felix say that he was sure of something; so that, raising her eyes toward him, she tried intently, for some moments, to conjure up this wonderful image of a love-affair between her own sister and her own suitor. We know that Gertrude had an imaginative mind; so that it is not impossible that this effort should have been partially successful. But she only murmured, "Ah, Felix! ah, Felix!"
"Why should n't they marry? Try and make them marry!" cried Felix.
"Try and make them?"
"Turn the tables on them. Then they will leave you alone. I will help you as far as I can."
Gertrude's heart began to beat; she was greatly excited; she had never had anything so interesting proposed to her before. Felix had begun to row again, and he now sent the boat home with long strokes. "I believe she does care for him!" said Gertrude, after they had disembarked.
"Of course she does, and we will marry them off. It will make them happy; it will make every one happy. We shall have a wedding and I will write an epithalamium."
"It seems as if it would make me happy," said Gertrude.
"To get rid of Mr. Brand, eh? To recover your liberty?"
Gertrude walked on. "To see my sister married to so good a man."
Felix gave his light laugh. "You always put things on those grounds; you will never say anything for yourself. You are all so afraid, here, of being selfish. I don't think you know how," he went on. "Let me show you! It will make me happy for myself, and for just the reverse of what I told you a while ago. After that, when I make love to you, you will have to think I mean it."
"I shall never think you mean anything," said Gertrude. "You are too fantastic."
"Ah," cried Felix, "that 's a license to say everything! Gertrude, I adore you!"