Henry James.

The Europeans. A sketch online

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house was pitifully bare. " II faudra," said Au-
gustine, " lui faire un peu de toilette." And she
began to hang up portieres t in the doorways; to
place wax candles, procured after some research,
in unexpected situations ; to dispose anomalous
draperies over the arms of sofas and the backs of
chairs. The Baroness had brought with her to
the New World a copious provision of the element
of costume ; and the two Miss Wentworths, when
they came over to see her, were somewhat bewild-
ered by the obtrusive distribution of her ward-
robe. There were India shawls suspended, cur-
tain-wise, in the parlor door, and curious fabrics,
corresponding to Gertrude's metaphysical vision
of an opera-cloak, tumbled about in the sitting-
places. There were pink silk blinds in the win-
dows, by which the room was strangely bedimmed ;
and along the chimney-piece was disposed a re-
markable band of velvet, covered with coarse,
dirty-looking lace. " I have been making myself
a little comfortable," said the Baroness, much to
the confusion of Charlotte, who had been on the
point of proposing to come and help her put her
superfluous draperies away. But what Charlotte


mistook for an almost culpably delayed subsidence
Gertrude very presently perceived to be the most
ingenious, the most interesting, the most romantic
intention. "What is life, indeed, without cur-
tains ? " she secretly asked herself ; and she ap-
peared to herself to have been leading hitherto an
existence singularly garish and totally devoid of

Felix was not a young man who troubled him-
self greatly about anything least of all about the
conditions of enjoyment. His faculty of enjoy-
ment was so large, so unconsciously eager, that it
may be said of it that it had a permanent ad-
vance upon embarrassment and sorrow. His sen-
tient faculty was intrinsically joyous, and novelty
and change were in themselves a delight to him.
As they had come to him with a great deal of fre-
quency, his life had been more agreeable than
appeared. Never was a nature more perfectly
fortunate. It was not a restless, apprehensive,
ambitious spirit, running a race with the tyranny
of fate, but a temper so unsuspicious as to put
Adversity off her guard, dodging and evading her
with the easy, natural motion of a wind-shifted
flower. Felix extracted entertainment from all
things, and all his faculties his imagination, his
intelligence, his affections, his senses had a hand
in the game. It seemed to him that Eugenia and


he had been very well treated ; there was some-
thing absolutely touching in that combination of
paternal liberality and social considerateness which
marked Mr. Wentworth's deportment. It was
most uncommonly kind of him, for instance, to
have given them a house. Felix was positively
amused at having a house of his own ; for the lit-
tle white cottage among the apple-trees the cha-
let, as Madame Miinster always called it was
much more sensibly his own than any domiciliary
quatrieme, looking upon a court, with the rent
overdue. Felix had spent a good deal of his life
in looking into courts, with a perhaps slightly tat-
tered pair of elbows resting upon the ledge of
a high-perched window, and the thin smoke of
a cigarette rising into an atmosphere in which
street-cries died away and the vibration of chimes
from ancient belfries became sensible. He had
never known anything so infinitely rural as these
New England fields ; and he took a great fancy to
all their pastoral roughnesses. He had never had
a greater sense of luxurious security ; and at the
risk of making him seem a rather sordid advent-
urer I must declare that he found an irresistible
charm in the fact that he might dine every day
at his uncle's. The charm was irresistible, how-
ever, because his fancy flung a rosy light over this
homely privilege. He appreciated highly the fare


that was set before him. There was a kind of
fresh-looking abundance about it which made him
think that people must have lived so in the myth-
ological era, when they spread their tables upon
the grass, replenished them from cornucopias, and
had no particular need of kitchen stoves. But the
great thing that Felix enjoyed was having found
a family sitting in the midst of gentle, generous
people whom he might call by their first names.
He had never known anything more charming
than the attention they paid to what he said. It
was like a large sheet of clean, fine-grained draw-
ing-paper, all ready to be washed over with effect-
ive splashes of water-color. He had never had
any cousins, and he had never before found him-
self in contact so unrestricted with young unmar-
ried ladies. He was extremely fond of the society
of ladies, and it was new to him that it might be
enjoyed in just this manner. At first he hardly
knew what to make of his state of mind. It
seemed to him that he was in love, indiscrimi-
nately, with three girls at once. He saw that
Lizzie Acton was more brilliantly pretty than
Charlotte and Gertrude ; but this was scarcely a
superiority. His pleasure came from something
they had in common a part of which was, in-
deed, that physical delicacy which seemed to make
it proper that they should always dress in thin


materials and clear colors. But they were deli-
cate in other ways, and it was most agreeable to
him to feel that these latter delicacies were appre-
ciable by contact, as it were. He had known,
fortunately, many virtuous gentlewomen, but it
now appeared to him that in his relations with
them (especially when they were unmarried) he
had been looking at pictures under glass. He per-
ceived at present what a nuisance the glass had
been how it perverted and interfered, how it
caught the reflection of other objects and kept you
walking from side to side. He had no need to ask
himself whether Charlotte and Gertrude, and Liz-
zie Acton, were in the right light ; they were al-
ways in the right light. He liked everything
about them : he was, for instance, not at all above
liking the fact that they had very slender feet and
high insteps. He liked their pretty noses; he
liked their surprised eyes and their hesitating, not
at all positive way of speaking ; he liked so much
knowing that he was perfectly at liberty to be
alone for hours, anywhere, with either of them;
that preference for one to the other, as a compan-
ion of solitude, remained a minor affair. Char-
lotte Wentworth's sweetly severe features were as
agreeable as Lizzie Acton's wonderfully express-
ive blue eyes ; and Gertrude's air of being always
ready to walk about and listen was as charming as


anything else, especially as she walked very grace-
fully. After a while Felix began to distinguish ;
but even then he would often wish, suddenly, that
they were not all so sad. Even Lizzie Acton, in
spite of her fine little chatter and laughter, ap-
peared sad. Even Clifford Wentworth, who had
extreme youth in his favor, and kept a buggy with
enormous wheels and a little sorrel mare with the
prettiest legs in the world even this fortunate
lad was apt to have an averted, uncomfortable
glance, and to edge away from you at times, in
the manner of a person with a bad conscience.
The only person in the circle with no sense of op-
pression of any kind was, to Felix's perception,
Robert Acton.

It might perhaps have been feared that after the
completion of those graceful domiciliary embellish-
ments which have been mentioned Madame Mun-
ster would have found herself confronted with
alarming possibilities of ennui. But as yet she
had not taken the alarm. The Baroness was a
restless soul, and she projected her restlessness, as
it may be said, into any situation that lay before
her. Up to a certain point her restlessness might
be counted upon to entertain her. She was al-
ways expecting something to happen, and, until it
was disappointed, expectancy itself was a delicate
pleasure. What the Baroness expected just now


it would take some ingenuity to set forth ; it is
enough that while she looked about her she found
something to occupy her imagination. She as-
sured herself that she was enchanted with her new
relatives ; she professed to herself that, like her
brother, she felt it a sacred satisfaction to have
found a family. It is certain that she enjoyed to
the utmost the gentleness of her kinsfolk's defer-
ence. She had, first and last, received a great
deal of admiration, and her experience of well-
turned compliments was very considerable ; but
she knew that she had never been so real a power,
never counted for so much, as now when, for the
first time, the standard of comparison of her little
circle was a prey to vagueness. The sense, indeed,
that the good people about her had, as regards her
remarkable self, no standard of comparison at all
gave her a feeling of almost illimitable power. It
was true, as she said to herself, that if for this rea-
son they would .be able to discover nothing against
her, so they would perhaps neglect to perceive
some of her superior points ; but she always wound
up her reflections by declaring that she would take
care of that.

Charlotte and Gertrude were in some perplexity
between their desire to show all proper attention
to Madame Miinster and their fear of being im-
portunate. The little house in the orchard had


hitherto been occupied during the summer months
by intimate friends of the family, or by poor rela-
tions who found in Mr. Wentworth a landlord at-
tentive to repairs and oblivious of quarter-day.
Under these circumstances the open door of the
small house and that of the large one, facing each
other across their homely gardens, levied no tax
upon hourly visits. But the Misses Wentworth
received an impression that Eugenia was no friend
to the primitive custom of " dropping in ; " she
evidently had no idea of living without a door-
keeper. " One goes into your house as into an
inn except that there are no servants rushing
forward," she said to Charlotte. And she added
that that was very charming. Gertrude explained
to her sister that she meant just the reverse ; she
did n't like it at all. Charlotte inquired why she
should tell an untruth, and Gertrude answered
that there was probably some very good reason for
it which they should discover when they knew her
better. " There can surely be no good reason for
telling an untruth," said Charlotte. " I hope she
does not think so."

They had of course desired, from the first, to do
everything in the way of helping her to arrange
herself. It had seemed to Charlotte that there
would be a great many things to talk about ; but
the Baroness was apparently inclined to talk about


" Write her a note, asking her leave to come
and see her. I think that is what she will like,"
said Gertrude.

" Why should I give her the trouble of answer-
ing me?" Charlotte asked. "She will have to
write a note and send it over."

"I don't think she will take any trouble," said
Gertrude, profoundly.

" What then will she do ? "

" That is what I am curious to see," said Ger-
trude, leaving her sister with an impression that
her curiosity was morbid.

They went to see the Baroness without pre-
liminary correspondence ; and in the little salon
which she had already created, with its becoming
light and its festoons, they found Robert Acton.

Eugenia was intensely gracious, but she accused
them of neglecting her cruelly. " You see Mr.
Acton has had to take pity upon me," she said.
" My brother goes off sketching, for hours ; I can
never depend upon him. So I was to send Mr.
Acton to beg you to come and give me the benefit
of your wisdom."

Gertrude looked at her sister. She wanted to
say, " That is what she would have done." Char-
lotte said that they hoped the Baroness would
always come and dine with them ; it would give
them so much pleasure ; and, in that case, she
would spare herself the trouble of having a cook.


" Ah, but I must have a cook ! " cried the Bar-
oness. " An old negress in a yellow turban. I
have set my heart upon that. I want to look out
of my window and see her sitting there on the
grass, against the background of those crooked,
dusky little apple-trees, pulling the husks off a
lapful of Indian corn. That will be local color,
you know. There is n't much of it here you
don't mind my saying that, do you ? so one
must make the most of what one can get. I shall
be most happy to dine with you whenever you will
let me ; but I want to be able to ask you some-
times. And I want to be able to ask Mr. Acton,"
added the Baroness.

"You must come and ask me at home," said
Acton. " You must come and see me ; you must
dine with me first. I want to show you my place ;
I want to introduce you to my mother." He
called again upon Madame Miinster, two days
later. He was constantly at the other house; he
used to walk across the fields from his own place,
and he appeared to have fewer scruples than his
cousins with regard to dropping in. On this oc-
casion he found that Mr. Brand had come to pay
his respects to the charming stranger ; but after
Acton's arrival the young theologian said nothing.
He sat in his chair with his two hands clasped,
fixing upon his hostess a grave, fascinated stare.


The Baroness talked to Robert Acton, but, as she
talked, she turned and smiled at Mr. Brand, who
never took his eyes off her. The two men walked
away together ; they were going to Mr. Went-
worth's. Mr. Brand still said nothing ; but after
they had passed into Mr. Wentworth's garden he
stopped and looked back for some time at the lit-
tle white house. Then, looking at his companion,
with his head bent a little to one side and his eyes
somewhat contracted, " Now I suppose that 's what
is called conversation," he said; "real conversa-

" It 's what I call a very clever woman," said
Acton, laughing.

" It is most interesting," Mr. Brand continued.
" I only wish she would speak French ; it would
seem more in keeping. It must be quite the style
that we have heard about, that we have read about
the style of conversation of Madame de Stael,
of Madame R^camier."

Acton also looked at Madame Miinster's resi-
dence among its hollyhocks and apple-trees.
" What I should like to know," he said, smiling,
" is just what has brought Madame Re"camier to
live in that place ! "


MB. WENTWORTH, with his cane and his gloves
in his hand, went every afternoon to call upon
his niece. A couple of hours later she came over
to the great house to tea. She had let the pro-
posal that she should regularly dine there fall to
the ground ; she was in the enjoyment of what-
ever satisfaction was to be derived from the spec-
tacle of an old negress in a crimson turban shell-
ing peas under the apple-trees. Charlotte, who
had provided the ancient negress, thought it must
be a strange household, Eugenia having told her
that Augustine managed everything, the ancient
negress included Augustine who was naturally
devoid of all acquaintance with the expurgatory
English tongue. By far the most immoral senti-
ment which I shall have occasion to attribute to
Charlotte Wentworth was a certain emotion of
disappointment at finding that, in spite of these
irregular conditions, the domestic arrangements at
the small house were apparently not from Eu-
genia's peculiar point of view strikingly offen-
sive. The Baroness found it amusing to go to


tea ; she dressed as if for dinner. The tea-table
offered an anomalous and picturesque repast ; and
on leaving it they all sat and talked in the large
piazza, or wandered about the garden in the star-
light, with their ears full of those sounds of strange
insects which, though they are supposed to be, all
over the world, a part of the magic of summer
nights, seemed to the Baroness to have beneath
these western skies an incomparable resonance.

Mr. Wentworth, though, as I say, he went
punctiliously to call upon her, was not able to feel
that he was getting used to his niece. It taxed
his imagination to believe that she was really his
half-sister's child. His sister was a figure of his
early 'years ; she had been only twenty when she
went abroad, never to return, making in foreign
parts a willful and undesirable marriage. His
aunt, Mrs. Whiteside, who had taken her to Eu-
rope for the benefit of the tour, gave, on her re-
turn, so lamentable an account of Mr. Adolphus
Young, to whom the headstrong girl had united
her destiny, that it operated as a chill upon family
feeling especially in the case of the half-brothers.
Catherine had done nothing subsequently to pro-
pitiate her family ; she had not even written to
them in a way that indicated a lucid appreciation
of their suspended sympathy; so that it had be-
come a tradition in Boston circles that the highest


charity, as regards this young lady, was to think
it well to forget her, and to abstain from con-
jecture as to the extent to which her aberrations
were reproduced in her descendants. Over these
young people a vague report of their existence
had come to his ears Mr. Wentworth had not,
in the course of years, allowed his imagination to
hover. It had plenty of occupation nearer home,
and though he had many cares upon his conscience
the idea that he had been an unnatural uncle was,
very properly, never among the number. Now
that his nephew and niece had come before him,
he perceived that they were the fruit of influences
and circumstances very different from those under
which his own familiar progeny had reached a
vaguely-qualified maturity. He felt no provoca-
tion to say that these influences had been exerted
for evil; but he was sometimes afraid that he
should not be able to like his distinguished, deli-
cate, lady-like niece. He was paralyzed and be-
wildered by her foreignness. She spoke, somehow,
a different language. There was something strange
in her words. He had a feeling that another man,
in his place, would accommodate himself to her
tone ; would ask her questions and joke with her,
reply to those pleasantries of her own which some-
times seemed startling as addressed to an uncle.
But Mr. Wentworth could not do these things.


He could not even bring himself to attempt to
measure her position in the world. She was
the wife of a foreign nobleman who desired to re-
pudiate her. This had a singular sound, but the
old man felt himself destitute of the materials for
a judgment. It seemed to him that he ought to
find them in his own experience, as a man of the
world and an almost public character ; but they
were not there, and he was ashamed to confess
to himself much more to reveal to Eugenia by
interrogations possibly too innocent the unfur-
nished condition of this repository.

It appeared to him that he could get much
nearer, as he would have said, to his nephew ;
though he was not sure that Felix was altogether
safe. He was so bright and handsome and talka-
tive that it was impossible not to think well of
him ; and yet it seemed as if there were some-
thing almost impudent, almost vicious or as if
there ought to be in a young man being at once
so joyous and so positive. It was to be observed
that while Felix was not at all a serious young
man there was somehow more of him he had
more weight and volume and resonance than
a number of young men who were distinctly seri-
ous. While Mr. Wentworth meditated upon this
anomaly his nephew was admiring him unrestrict-
edly. He thought him a most delicate, generous,


high-toned old gentleman, with a very handsome
head, of the ascetic type, which he promised him-
self the profit of sketching. Felix was far from
having made a secret of the fact that he wielded
the paint-brush, and it was not his own fault if it
failed to be generally understood that he was pre-
pared to execute the most striking likenesses on
the most reasonable terms. " He is an artist my
cousin is an artist," said Gertrude ; and she offered
this information to every one who would receive
it. She offered it to herself, as it were, by way
of admonition and reminder ; she repeated to her-
self at odd moments, in lonely places, that Felix
was invested with this sacred character. Gertrude
had never seen an artist before ; she had only reajd
about such people. They seemed to her a roman-
tic and mysterious class, whose life was made up
of those agreeable accidents that never happened
to other persons. And it merely quickened her
meditations on this point that Felix should declare,
as he repeatedly did, that he was really not an
artist. " I have never gone into the thing se-
riously," he said. " I have never studied ; I have
had no training. I do a little of everything, and
nothing well. I am only an amateur."

It pleased Gertrude even more to think that he
was an amateur than to think that he was an
artist; the former word, to her fancy, had an even


subtler connotation. She knew, however, that it
was a word to use more soberly. Mr. Wentworth
used it freely; for though he had not been exactly
familiar with it, he found it convenient as a help
toward classifying Felix, who, as a young man
extremely clever and active and apparently re-
spectable and yet not engaged in any recognized
business, was an importunate anomaly. Of course
the Baroness and her brother she was always
spoken of first were a welcome topic of conver-
sation between Mr. Wentworth and his daughters
and their occasional visitors.

" And the young man, your nephew, what is
his profession ? " asked an old gentleman Mr.
Broderip, of Salem who had been Mr. Went-
worth's classmate at Harvard College in the year
1809, and who came into his office in Devonshire
Street. (Mr. Wentworth, in his later years, used
to go but three times a week to his office, where
he had a large amount of highly confidential trust-
business to transact.)

" Well, he 's an amateur," said Felix's uncle,
with folded hands, and with a certain satisfaction
in being able to say it. And Mr. Broderip had
gone back to Salem with a feeling that this was
probably a " European " expression for a broker
or a grain exporter.

" I should like to do your head, sir," said Felix


to his uncle one evening, before them all Mr.
Brand and Robert Acton being also present. " I
think I should make a very fine thing of it. It 's
an interesting head ; it 's very mediaeval."

Mr. Wentworth looked grave ; he felt awk-
wardly, as if all the company had come in and
found him standing before the looking-glass.
" The Lord made it," he said. " I don't think it
is for man to make it over again."

" Certainly the Lord made it," replied Felix,
laughing, " and he made it very well. But life
has been touching up the work. It is a very in-
teresting type of head. It 's delightfully wasted
and emaciated. The complexion is wonderfully
bleached." And Felix looked round at the cir-
cle, as if to call their attention to these interesting
points. Mr. Wentworth grew visibly paler. " I
should like to do you as an old prelate, an old car-
dinal, or the prior of an order."

" A prelate, a cardinal ? " murmured Mr. Went-
worth. " Do you refer to the Roman Catholic
priesthood ? "

" I mean an old ecclesiastic who should have
led a very pure, abstinent life. Now I take it that
has been the case with you, sir; one sees it in
your face," Felix proceeded. " You have been
very a very moderate. Don't you think one
always sees that in a man's face ? "


" You see more in a man's face than I should
think of looking for," said Mr. Wentworth coldly.

The Baroness rattled her fan, and gave her
brilliant laugh. " It is a risk to look so close ! "
she exclaimed. " My uncle has some peccadilloes
on his conscience." Mr. Wentworth looked at
her, painfully at a loss ; and in so far as the signs
of a pure and abstinent life were visible in his
face they were then probably peculiarly manifest.
" You are a beau vieillard, dear uncle," said Mad-
ame Minister, smiling with her foreign eyes.

" I think you are paying me a compliment,"
said the old man.

" Surely, I am not the first woman that ever
did so ! " cried the Baroness.

u I think you are," said Mr. Wentworth grave-
ly. And turning to Felix he added, in the same
tone, " Please don't take my likeness. My chil-
dren have my daguerreotype. That is quite satis-

" I won't promise," said Felix, " not to work

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Online LibraryHenry JamesThe Europeans. A sketch → online text (page 5 of 15)