Henry James.

The Europeans. A sketch online

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not even in China. He was ashamed, for in-
scrutable reasons, of the vivacity of his emotion,
and he carried it off, superficially, by taking, still
superficially, the humorous view of Madame Miin-
ster. It was not at all true that he thought it
very natural of her to have made this pious pilgrim-
age. It might have been said of him in advance
that he was too good a Bostonian to regard in the
light of an eccentricity the desire of even the re-


motest alien to visit the New England metropolis.
This was an impulse for which, surely, no apology
was needed ; and Madame Miinster was the for-
tunate possessor of several New England cousins.
In fact, however, Madame Miinster struck him as
out of keeping with her little circle ; she was at
the best a very agreeable, a gracefully mystifying
anomaly. He knew very well that it would not
do to address these reflections too crudely to Mr.
Wentworth ; he would never have remarked to
the old gentleman that he wondered what the
Baroness was up to. And indeed he had no great
desire to share his vague mistrust with any one.
There was a personal pleasure in it ; the greatest
pleasure he had known at least since he had come
from China. He would keep the Baroness, for
better or worse, to himself ; he had a feeling that
he deserved to enjoy a monoply of her, for he was
certainly the person who had most adequately
gauged her capacity for social intercourse. Before
long it became apparent to him that the Baroness
was disposed to lay no tax upon such a monopoly.
One day (he was sitting there again and play-
ing with a fan) she asked him to apologize, should
the occasion present itself, to certain people in
Boston for her not having returned their calls.
" There are half a dozen places," she said ; " a
formidable list. Charlotte Wentworth has writ-


ten it out for me, in a terrifically distinct hand.
There is no ambiguity on the subject; I know
perfectly where I must go. Mr. Wentworth in-
forms me that the carriage is always at my dis-
posal, and Charlotte offers to go with me, in a
pair of tight gloves and a very stiff petticoat.
And yet for three days I have been putting it off.
They must think me horribly vicious."

" You ask me to apologize," said Acton, " but
you don't tell me what excuse I can offer."

" That is more," the Baroness declared, " than
I am held to. It would be like my asking you to
buy me a bouquet and giving you the money. I
have no reason except that somehow it 's too
violent an effort. It is not inspiring. Would n't
that serve as an excuse, in Boston ? I am told
they are very sincere ; they don't tell fibs. And
then Felix ought to go with me, and he is never
in readiness. I don't see him. He is always
roaming about the fields and sketching old barns,
or taking ten-mile walks, or painting some one's
portrait, 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

"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 as for seeing people
I have already seen a great many in my life.
If it did n't sound ungracious I should say that
I wish very humbly your people here would leave
me alone ! "

Acton looked at her a moment, and she looked
at him. She was a woman who took being 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 you know ?
and yet that are really the best : to come away,
to change, to break with everything. When once
one comes away one must arrive somewhere, and
I asked myself why I should n't arrive here."

" You certainly had time on the way ! " said
Acton, laughing.

Madame Miinster looked at him again ; and
then, smiling : " And I have certainly had time,
since I got here, to ask myself why I came. How-
ever, I never ask myself idle questions. Here I
ain, and it seems to me you ought only to thank

" When you go away you will see the difficul-
ties I shall put in your path."

" You mean to put difficulties in my path ? "
she asked, rearranging the rosebud in her corsage.


" The greatest of all that of having been so

" That I shall be unable to depart? Don't be
too sure. I have left some very agreeable people
over there."

" Ah," said Acton, " but it was to come here,
where I am I "

" I did n't know of your existence. Excuse me
for saying anything so rude ; but, honestly speak-
ing, I did not. No," the Baroness pursued, " it
was precisely not to 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 nat-
ural relations which I knew I should find here.
Over there I had only, as I may say, artificial re-
lations. Don't you see the difference ? "

" The difference tells against me," said Acton.
" I suppose I am an artificial relation."

" Conventional," declared the Baroness ; " very

" Well, there is one way in which the relation
of a lady and a gentleman may always become
natural," said Acton.

" You mean by their becoming lovers ? That
may be natural or not. And at any rate," re-
joined Eugenia, " nous n'en sommes pas Id ! "

They were not, as yet ; but a little later, when


she began to go with him to drive, it might almost
have seemed that they were. He came for her
several times, alone, in his high " wagon," drawn
by a pair of charming light-limbed horses. It
was different, her having gone with Clifford Went-
worth, who was her cousin, and so much younger.
It was not to be imagined that she should have
a flirtation with Clifford, who was a mere shame-
faced boy, and whom a large section 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 to any flirtation
whatever ; for she was undoubtedly a married
lady. It was generally known that her matri-
monial condition was of the " morganatic " order ;
but in its natural aversion to suppose that this
meant anything less than absolute wedlock, the
conscience of the community took refuge in the
belief that it implied something even more.

Acton wished her to think highly of American
scenery, and he drove her to great distances, pick-
ing out the prettiest roads and the largest points
of view. If we are good when we are contented,
Eugenia's virtues should now certainly have been
uppermost ; for she found a charm in the rapid
movement through a wild country, and in a com-
panion who from time to time made the vehicle
dip, with a motion like a swallow's flight, over


roads of primitive construction, and who, as she
felt, would do a great many things that she might
ask him. Sometimes, for a couple of hours to-
gether, there were almost no houses ; there were
nothing but woods and rivers and lakes and hori-
zons adorned with bright-looking mountains. It
seemed to the Baroness very wild, as I have said,
and lovely ; but the impression added something
to that sense of the enlargement of opportunity
which had been born of her arrival in the New

One day it was late in the afternoon : Acton
pulled up his horses on the crest of a hill which
commanded a beautiful prospect. He let them
stand a long time to rest, while he sat there and
talked with Madame Miinster. The prospect was
beautiful in spite of there being nothing human
within sight. There was a wilderness of woods,
and the gleam of a distant river, and a glimpse of
half the hill-tops in Massachusetts. The road had
a wide, grassy margin, on the further side of which
there flowed a deep, clear brook ; there were wild
flowers 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 a friendly 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 beside the

" I imagine it does n't remind you of Silber-
stadt," said Acton. It was the first 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 her away a state of affairs to
which even indirect reference was to be depre-
cated. It was true, nevertheless, that the Baron-
ess herself had often alluded to Silberstadt ; and
Acton had often wondered why her husband
wished to get rid of her. It was a curious posi-
tion for a lady this being known as a repudiated
wife ; and it is worthy of observation that the
Baroness carried it off with exceeding grace and
dignity. She had made it felt, from the first, that
there were two sides to the question, and that her
own side, when she should choose to present it,
would be replete with touching interest.

" It does not remind me of the town, of course,"
she said, " of the sculptured gables and the Gothic
churches, of the wonderful Schloss, with its moat
and its clustering towers. But it has a little look
of some other parts of the principality. One
might fancy one's self among those grand old Ger-


man forests, those legendary mountains ; the sort
of country one sees from the windows at Shrecken-

" 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. Ac-
ton was silent ; he looked a While at the un castled
landscape before him. " It is the first time you
have ever asked me about Silberstadt," she said.
" I should think you would want to know about
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 ask anything
outright ; there seem to be so many things you
can't talk about."

u We Americans are very polite," said Acton,
whose national consciousness had been complicated
by a residence in foreign lands, and who yet dis-
liked to hear Americans abused. "We don't like
to tread upon people's toes," he said. "But I
should like very much to hear about your mar-
riage. Now tell me how it came about."

" The Prince fell in love with me," replied the
Baroness simply. " He pressed his 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 so far as
be might. I was young, and I confess I was
rather flattered. But if it were 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 " .... Acton answered. "And
now he wants to break it off ? "

" They want him to make a political marriage.
It is his brother's idea. His brother is very

" They must be a precious pair ! " cried Robert

The Baroness gave a little philosophic shrug.
" Que voulez-vous? They are princes. They
think they are treating me very well. Silberstadt
is a perfectly despotic little state, and the Reign-
ing Prince may annul the marriage by a stroke of
his pen. But he has promised me, nevertheless,
not to do so without my formal consent."

" And this you have refused ? "

" Hitherto. It is an indignity, and I have
wished at least to make it difficult for them.
But I have a little document in my writing-desk


which I have only to sign and send back to the

" Then it will be all over ? "

The Baroness lifted her hand, and dropped it
again. " Of course I shall keep my title; at least,
I shall be at liberty to keep it if I choose. And I
suppose I shall keep it. One must have a name.
And I shall keep my pension. It is very small
it is wretchedly small ; but it is what I live on."

44 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 gain by not doing

44 I am supposed to gain this advantage that
if I delay, or temporize, the Prince may come
back to me, may make a stand against his brother.
He is very fond of me, and his brother has pushed
him only little by little."

44 If he were to come back to you," said Acton,
44 would you would you take him back ? "

The Baroness met his eyes ; she colored just a
little. Then she rose. 44 1 should have the sat-
isfaction of saying, 4 Now it is my turn. I break
with your serene highness ! ' :

They began to walk toward the carriage.


" Well," said Robert Acton, " it 's a curious
story ! How did you make his acquaintance ? "

" I was staying with an old lady an old
Countess in Dresden. She had been a friend
of my father's. My father was dead ; I was very
much alone. My brother was wandering about
the world in a theatrical troupe."

" Your brother ought to have stayed with you,"
Acton observed, " and kept you from 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 even pressing. It seems to me," Mad-
ame Minister added, gently, " that under the
circumstances I behaved very well."

Acton glanced at her, and made the observa-
tion he had made it before that a woman
looks the prettier for having unfolded her wrongs
or her sufferings. " Well," he reflected, audibly,
" I should like to see you send his serene highness
somewhere ! "

Madame Miinster stooped and plucked a daisy
from the grass. "And not sign my renuncia-
tion ? "

"Well, I don't know I don't know," said



" In one case I should have my revenge ; in
another case I should have my liberty."

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 visit had already
been proposed, but it had been put off in conse-
quence of his mother's illness. She was a constant
invalid, and she had passed these recent years,
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
was better, and she sent the Baroness a very civil
message. Acton had wished their visitor to come
to dinner ; but Madame Miinster preferred to be-
gin with a simple call. She had reflected that if
she should go to dinner Mr. Wentworth and his
daughters would also be asked, and it had seemed
to her that the peculiar character of the occasion
would be best preserved in a tete-d-tete with her
host. Why the occasion should have a peculiar
character she explained to no one. As far as any
one could see, it was simply very pleasant. Acton
came for her and drove her to his door, an oper-
ation which was rapidly performed. His house
the Baroness mentally pronounced a very good
one ; more articulately, she declared that it was


enchanting. It was large and square and painted
brown; it stood in a well-kept shrubbery, and
was approached, from the gate, 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 ana-
lyzed material comfort to a sufficiently fine point.
And then he possessed the most delightful chi-
noiseries trophies of his sojourn in the Celestial
Empire : pagodas of ebony and cabinets of ivo-
ry ; sculptured monsters, grinning and leering on
chimney-pieces, in front of beautifully figured
hand-screens ; porcelain dinner-sets, gleaming be-
hind the glass doors of mahogany buffets ; large
screens, in corners, covered with tense silk and
embroidered with mandarins and dragons. These
things were scattered all over the house, and they
gave Eugenia a pretext for a complete domiciliary
visit. She liked it, she enjoyed it ; she thought
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
fresh and clean as a well-kept dairy. Lizzie Ac-
ton told her that she dusted all the pagodas and
other curiosities every day with her own hands ;
and the Baroness answered that she was evidently
a household fairy. Lizzie had not at all the look


of a young lady who dusted things ; she wore such
pretty dresses and had such delicate fingers that
it was difficult to imagine her immersed in sordid
cares. She came to meet Madame Minister on
her arrival, but she said nothing, or almost noth-
ing, and the Baroness again reflected she had
had occasion to do so before that American
girls had no manners. She disliked this little
American girl, and she was quite prepared to
learn that she had failed to commend herself to
Miss Acton. Lizzie struck her as positive and
explicit almost to pertness; and the idea of her
combining the apparent incongruities of a taste
for housework and the wearing of fresh, Parisian-
looking dresses suggested the possession of a dan-
gerous energy. It was a source of irritation to
the Baroness that in this country it should seem
to matter whether a little girl were a trifle less
or a trifle more of a nonentity ; for Eugenia had
hitherto been conscious of no moral pressure as
regards the appreciation of diminutive virgins.
It was perhaps an indication of Lizzie's pertness
that she very soon retired and left the Baroness
on her brother's hands. Acton talked a great
deal about his chinoiseries ; he knew a good deal
about porcelain and bric-a-brac. The Baroness,
in her progress through the house, made, as it
were, a great many stations. She sat down every-


where, confessed to being a little tired, and asked
about the various objects with a curious mixture
of alertness and inattention. If there had been
any one to say it to she would have declared that
she was positively in love with her host ; but she
could hardly make this declaration even in the
strictest confidence to Acton himself. It gave
her, nevertheless, a pleasure that had some of the
charm of unwontedness to feel, with that admira-
ble keenness with which she was capable of feeling
things, that he had a disposition without any
edges ; that even his humorous irony always ex-
panded toward the point. One's impression of
his honesty was almost like carrying a bunch of
flowers ; the perfume was most agreeable, but
they were occasionally an inconvenience. One
could trust him, at any rate, round all the corners
of the world ; and, withal, he was not absolutely
simple, which would have been excess ; he was
only relatively simple, which was quite enough
for the Baroness.

Lizzie reappeared to say that her mother would
now be happy to receive Madame Minister ; and
the Baroness followed her to Mrs. Acton's apart-
ment. Eugenia reflected, as she went, that it was
not the affectation of impertinence that made her
dislike this young lady, for on that ground she
could easily have beaten her. It was not an as-


piration on the girl's part to rivalry, but a kind
of laughing, childishly-mocking indifference to the
results of comparison. Mrs. Acton was an emaci-
ated, sweet-faced woman of five and fifty, sitting
with pillows behind her, and looking out on a
clump of hemlocks. She was very modest, very
timid, and very ill ; she made Eugenia feel grate-
ful that she herself was not like that neither
so ill, nor, possibly, so modest. On a chair, be-
side her, lay a volume of Emerson's Essays. It
was a great occasion for poor Mrs. Acton, in her
helpless condition, to be confronted with a clever
foreign lady, who had more manner than any
lady any dozen ladies that she had ever 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 de-
clared ; "as such a son must talk of such a
mother ! "

Mrs. Acton sat gazing ; this was part of Mad-
ame Minister's " manner." But Robert Acton
was gazing too, in vivid consciousness that he had
barely mentioned his mother to their brilliant
guest. He never talked of this still maternal
presence, a presence refined to such delicacy
that it had almost resolved itself, with him,


simply into the subjective emotion of gratitude.
And Acton rarely talked of his emotions. The
Baroness turned her smile toward him, and she
instantly felt that she had been observed to be
fibbing. She had struck a false 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 a few
civil inquiries and low-voiced responses she took
leave of Mrs. Acton. She begged Robert not to
come home with her ; she would get into the car-
riage alone ; she preferred that. This was impe-
rious, and she thought he looked disappointed.
While she stood before the door with him the
carriage was turning in the gravel-walk this
thought restored her serenity.

When she had given him her hand in farewell
she looked at him a moment. " I have almost de-
cided 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 before the vehicle began to move he said,
" Well, when you have in fact dispatched it, I
hope you will let me know ! "


FELIX YOUNG finished Gertrude's portrait,
and he afterwards transferred to canvas the feat-
ures of many members of that circle of which it
may be said that he had become for the time the
pivot and the centre. I am afraid it must be con-
fessed that he was a decidedly flattering painter,
and that he imparted to his models a romantic
grace which seemed easily and cheaply acquired
by the payment of a hundred dollars to a young
man who made " sitting " so entertaining. For
Felix was paid for his pictures, making, as he did,
no secret of the fact that in guiding his steps to
the Western world affectionate curiosity had gone
hand in hand with a desire to better his condition.
He took his uncle's portrait quite as if Mr. Went-
worth had never averted himself from the experi-
ment ; and as he compassed his end only by the
exercise of gentle violence, it is but fair to add
that he allowed the old man to give him nothing
but his time. He passed his arm into Mr. Went-
worth's one summer morning very few arms in-
deed had ever passed into Mr. Wentworth's


and led him across the garden and along the road
into the studio which he had extemporized in the
little house among the apple-trees. The grave
gentleman felt himself more and more fascinated
by his clever nephew, whose fresh, demonstrative
youth seemed a compendium of experiences so
strangely numerous. It appeared to him that
Felix must know a great deal ; he would like to
learn what he thought about some of those things
as regards which his own conversation had always
been formal, but his knowledge vague. Felix had
a confident, gayly trenchant way of judging hu-
man actions which Mr. Wentworth grew little by
little to envy ; it seemed like criticism made easy.
Forming an opinion say on a person's conduct
was, with Mr. Wentworth, a good deal like
fumbling in a lock with a key chosen at hazard.
He seemed to himself to go about the world with
a big bunch of these ineffectual instruments at
his girdle. His nephew, on the other hand, with
a single turn of the wrist, opened any door as
adroitly as a horse-thief. He felt obliged to keep
up the convention that an uncle is always wiser
than a nephew, even if he could keep it up no
otherwise than by listening in serious silence to
Felix's quick, light, constant discourse. But there
came a day when he lapsed from consistency and

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Online LibraryHenry JamesThe Europeans. A sketch → online text (page 7 of 15)