Confidence (London: Macmillan & Co., 1921)/Chapter 10
It had seemed to him a good idea to interrogate Mrs. Vivian; but there are a great many good ideas that are never put into execution. As he approached her with a smile and a salutation, and, with the air of asking leave to take a liberty, seated himself in the empty chair beside her, he felt a humorous relish of her own probable dismay which relaxed the investigating impulse. His impulse was now simply to prove to her that he was the most unobjectionable fellow in the world—a proposition which resolved itself into several ingenious observations upon the weather, the music, the charms, and the drawbacks of Baden, the merits of the volume that she held in her lap. If Mrs. Vivian should be annoyed, should be fluttered, Bernard would feel very sorry for her; there was nothing in the world that he respected more than the moral consciousness of a little Boston woman whose view of life was serious and whose imagination was subject to alarms. He held it to be a temple of delicacy, where one should walk on tiptoe, and he wished to exhibit to Mrs. Vivian the possible lightness of his own step. She herself was incapable of being rude or ungracious, and now that she was fairly confronted with the plausible object of her mistrust, she composed herself to her usual attitude of refined liberality. Her book was a volume of Victor Cousin.
"You must have an extraordinary power of abstracting your mind," Bernard said to her, observing it. "Studying philosophy at the Baden Kursaal strikes me as a real intellectual feat."
"Don't you think we need a little philosophy here?"
"By all means—what we bring with us. But I shouldn't attempt the use of the text-book on the spot."
"You shouldn't speak of yourself as if you were not clever," said Mrs. Vivian. "Every one says you are so very clever."
Longueville stared; there was an unexpectedness in this speech and an incongruity in Mrs. Vivian's beginning to flatter him. He needed to remind himself that if she was a Bostonian she was a Bostonian perverted.
"Ah, my dear madam, every one is no one," he said, laughing.
"It was Mr. Wright in particular," she rejoined. "He has always told us that."
"He is blinded by friendship."
"Ah yes, we know about your friendship," said Mrs. Vivian. "He has told us about that."
"You are making him out a terrible talker!"
"We think he talks so well—we are so very fond of his conversation."
"It is usually excellent," said Bernard. "But it depends a good deal on the subject."
"Oh," rejoined Mrs. Vivian, "we always let him choose his subjects." And dropping her eyes, as if in sudden reflexion, she began to smooth down the crumpled corner of her volume.
It occurred to Bernard that—by some mysterious impulse—she was suddenly presenting him with a chance to ask her the question that Blanche Evers had just suggested. Two or three other things as well occurred to him. Captain Lovelock had been struck with the fact that she favoured Gordon Wright's addresses to her daughter, and Captain Lovelock had a grotesque theory that she had set her heart upon seeing this young lady come into six thousand a year. Miss Evers's devoted swain had never struck Bernard as a brilliant reasoner, but our friend suddenly found himself regarding him as one of the inspired. The form of depravity into which the New England conscience had lapsed on Mrs. Vivian's part was an undue appreciation of a possible son-in-law's income! In this illuminating discovery everything else became clear. Mrs. Vivian disliked her humble servant because he had not thirty thousand dollars a year, and because at a moment when it was Angela's prime duty to concentrate her thoughts upon Gordon Wright's great advantages, a clever young man of paltry fortune was a superfluous diversion.
"When you say clever, everything is relative," he presently observed. "Now, there is Captain Lovelock; he has a certain kind of cleverness; he is very observant."
Mrs. Vivian glanced up with a preoccupied air.
"We don't like Captain Lovelock," she said.
"I have heard him say capital things," Bernard answered.
"We think him brutal," said Mrs. Vivian. "Please don't praise Captain Lovelock."
"Oh, I only want to be just."
Mrs. Vivian for a moment said nothing.
"Do you want very much to be just?" she presently asked.
"It's my most ardent desire."
"I am glad to hear that—and I can easily believe it," said Mrs. Vivian.
Bernard gave her a grateful smile; but while he smiled, he asked himself a serious question;—"Why the deuce does she go on flattering me?—You have always been very kind to me," he said aloud.
"It's on Mr. Wright's account," she answered demurely.
In speaking the words I have just quoted, Bernard Longueville had felt himself, with a certain compunction, to be skirting the edge of clever impudence; but Mrs. Vivian's quiet little reply suggested to him that her cleverness, if not her impudence, was almost equal to his own. He remarked to himself that he had not yet done her justice.
"You bring everything back to Gordon Wright," he said, continuing to smile.
Mrs. Vivian blushed a little.
"It is because he is really at the foundation of everything that is pleasant for us here. When we first came we had some very disagreeable rooms, and as soon as he arrived he found us some excellent ones—that were less expensive. And then, Mr. Longueville," she added, with a soft, sweet emphasis which should properly have contradicted the idea of audacity, but which, to Bernard's awakened sense, seemed really to impart a vivid colour to it, "he was also the cause of your joining our little party."
"Oh, among his services that should never be forgotten. You should set up a tablet to commemorate it, in the wall of the Kursaal!—The wicked little woman!" Bernard mentally subjoined.
Mrs. Vivian appeared quite unruffled by his sportive sarcasm, and she continued to enumerate her obligations to Gordon Wright.
"There are so many ways in which a gentleman can be of assistance to three poor lonely women, especially when he is at the same time so friendly and so delicate as Mr. Wright. I don't know what we should have done without him, and I feel as if every one ought to know it. He seems like a very old friend. My daughter and I quite worship him. I won't conceal from you that when I saw you coming through the grounds a short time ago, without him, I was very much disappointed. I hope he is not ill."
Bernard sat listening, with his eyes on the ground.
"Oh no, he is simply at home writing letters."
Mrs. Vivian was silent a moment.
"I suppose he has a very large correspondence."
"I really don't know. Just now that I am with him he has a smaller one than usual."
"Ah yes. When you are separated I suppose you write volumes to each other. But he must have a great many business letters."
"It is very likely," said Bernard. "And if he has, you may be sure he writes them."
"Order and method!" Mrs. Vivian exclaimed. "With his immense property those virtues are necessary."
Bernard glanced at her a moment.
"My dear Lovelock," he said to himself, "you are not such a fool as you seem.—Gordon's virtues are always necessary, doubtless," he went on. "But should you say his property was immense?"
Mrs. Vivian made a delicate little movement of deprecation. "Oh, don't ask me to say! I know nothing about it; I only supposed he was rich."
"He is rich; but he is not a Crœsus."
"Oh, you fashionable young men have a standard of luxury!" said Mrs. Vivian, with a little laugh. "To a poverty-stricken widow, such a fortune as Mr. Wright's seems magnificent."
"Don't call me such horrible names!" exclaimed Bernard. "Our friend has certainly money enough and to spare."
"That was all I meant. He once had occasion to allude to his property, but he was so modest, so reserved, in the tone he took about it, that one hardly knew what to think."
"He is ashamed of being rich," said Bernard. "He would be sure to represent everything unfavourably."
"That's just what I thought!" This ejaculation was more eager than Mrs. Vivian might have intended, but even had it been less so, Bernard was in a mood to appreciate it. "I felt that we should make allowances for his modesty. But it was in very good taste," Mrs. Vivian added.
"He's a fortunate man," said Bernard. "He gets credit for his good taste—and he gets credit for the full figure of his income as well!"
"Ah," murmured Mrs. Vivian, rising lightly, as if to make her words appear more casual, "I don't know the full figure of his income!"
She was turning away, and Bernard, as he raised his hat and separated from her, felt that it was rather cruel that he should let her go without enlightening her ignorance. But he said to himself that she knew quite enough. Indeed, he took a walk along the Lichtenthal Alley and carried out this line of reflexion. Whether or no Miss Vivian were in love with Gordon Wright, her mother was enamoured of Gordon's fortune, and it had suddenly occurred to her that instead of treating the friend of her daughter with civil mistrust, she would help her case better by giving him a hint of her state of mind, and appealing to his sense of propriety. Nothing could be more natural than that Mrs. Vivian should suppose that Bernard desired his friend's success; for, as our thoughtful hero said to himself, what she had hitherto taken into her head to fear was, not that Bernard should fall in love with her daughter, but that her daughter should fall in love with him. Watering-place life is notoriously conducive to idleness of mind, and Bernard strolled for half an hour along the overarched avenue, glancing alternately at these two insupposable cases.