Confidence (London: Macmillan & Co., 1921)/Chapter 13
It was affirmed at an early stage of this narrative that Bernard was a young man of a contemplative and speculative turn, and he had perhaps never been more true to his character than during an hour or two that evening, as he sat by himself on the terrace of the Conversation-house, surrounded by the crowd of its frequenters, but lost in his meditations. The place was full of movement and sound, but he had tilted back his chair against the great green box of an orange-tree, and in this easy attitude, vaguely and agreeably conscious of the music, he directed his gaze to the star-sprinkled vault of the night. There were people coming and going whom he knew, but he said nothing to any one—he preferred to be alone; he found his own company quite absorbing; he felt very happy, very much amused, very curiously preoccupied. The feeling was a singular one—it partook of the nature of intellectual excitement. He had a sense of having received carte blanche for the expenditure of his wits. Bernard liked to feel his intelligence at play; this is, perhaps, the highest luxury of a clever man. It played at present over the whole field of Angela Vivian's oddities of conduct—for, since his visit in the afternoon, Bernard had felt that the spectacle was considerably enlarged. He had come to feel, also, that poor Gordon's predicament was by no means an unnatural one. Longueville had begun to take his friend's dilemma very seriously indeed. The girl was certainly a curious study.
The evening drew to a close, and the crowd of Bernard's fellow-loungers dispersed. The lighted windows of the Kursaal still glittered in the fragrant dusk, and the lamps along the terrace had not been extinguished; but the great promenade was almost deserted; here and there only a lingering couple—the red tip of a cigar and the vague radiance of a light dress—gave animation to the place. Yet Bernard sat there still in his tilted chair, beneath his orange-tree; his imagination had wandered very far, and he was awaiting its return to the fold. He was on the point of rising, however, when he saw three figures come down the empty vista of the terrace—figures which even at a distance had a familiar air. He immediately left his seat and, taking a dozen steps, recognised Angela Vivian, Blanche Evers, and Captain Lovelock. In a moment he met them in the middle of the terrace.
Blanche immediately announced that they had come for a midnight walk.
"And if you think it's improper," she exclaimed, "it's not my invention—it's Miss Vivian's."
"I beg pardon—it's mine," said Captain Lovelock. "I desire the credit of it. I started the idea; you never would have come without me."
"I think it would have been more proper to come without you than with you," Blanche declared. "You know you're a dreadful character."
"I'm much worse when I'm away from you than when I'm with you," said Lovelock. "You keep me in order."
The young girl gave a little cry.
"I don't know what you call order! You can't be worse than you have been to-night."
Angela was not listening to this; she turned away a little, looking about at the empty garden.
"This is the third time to-day that you have contradicted yourself," he said. Though he spoke softly he went nearer to her; but she appeared not to hear him—she looked away.
"You ought to have been there, Mr. Longueville," Blanche went on. "We have had a most lovely night; we sat all the evening on Mrs. Vivian's balcony, eating ices. To sit on a balcony, eating ices—that's my idea of heaven."
"With an angel by your side," said Captain Lovelock.
"You are not my idea of an angel," retorted Blanche.
"I'm afraid you'll never learn what the angels are really like," said the Captain. "That's why Miss Evers got Mrs. Vivian to take rooms over the baker's—so that she could have ices sent up several times a day. Well, I'm bound to say the baker's ices are not bad."
"Considering that they have been baked! But they affect the mind," Blanche went on. "They would have affected Captain Lovelock's—only he hasn't any. They certainly affected Angela's—putting it into her head, at eleven o'clock, to come out to walk."
Angela did nothing whatever to defend herself against this ingenious sally; she simply stood there in graceful abstraction. Bernard was vaguely vexed at her neither looking at him nor speaking to him; her indifference seemed a contravention of that right of criticism which Gordon had bequeathed to him.
"I supposed people went to bed at eleven o'clock," he said.
Angela glanced about her, without meeting his eye.
"They seem to have gone."
Miss Evers strolled on, and her Captain, of course, kept pace with her, so that Bernard and Miss Vivian were left standing together. He looked at her a moment in silence, but her eye still avoided his own.
"You are remarkably inconsistent," Bernard presently said. "You take a solemn vow of seclusion this afternoon, and no sooner have you taken it than you proceed to break it in this exorbitant manner."
She looked at him now—a long time—longer than she had ever done before.
"This is^part of the examination, I suppose," she said.
Bernard hesitated an instant.
"The one you have undertaken—on Mr. Wright's behalf."
"What do you know about that?"
"Ah, you admit it, then?" the girl exclaimed, with an eager laugh.
"I don't in the least admit it," said Bernard, conscious only for the moment of the duty of loyalty to his friend, and feeling that negation here was simply a point of honour.
"I trust more to my own conviction than to your denial. You have engaged to bring your superior wisdom and your immense experience to bear upon me! That's the understanding."
"You must think us a pretty pair of wiseacres," said Bernard.
"There it is—you already begin to answer for what I think. When Mr. Wright comes back you will be able to tell him that I am 'exorbitant'!" And she turned away and walked on, slowly following her companions.
"What do you care what I tell him?" Bernard asked. "You don't care a straw."
She said nothing for a moment, then, suddenly, she stopped again, dropping her eyes.
"I beg your pardon," she said very gently; "I care a great deal. It's as well that you should know that."
Bernard stood looking at her; her eyes were still lowered.
"Do you know what I shall tell him? I shall tell him that about eleven o'clock at night you become peculiarly attractive."
She went on again a few steps; Miss Evers and Captain Lovelock had turned round and were coming towards her.
"It is very true that I am exorbitant," she said; "it was extremely silly and in very bad taste to come out at this hour. Mamma was not at all pleased, and I was very unkind to her. I only wanted to take a turn, and now we will go back." On the others coming up she announced this resolution, and though Captain Lovelock and his companion made a great outcry, she carried her point. Bernard offered no opposition. He contented himself with walking back to her mother's lodging with her almost in silence. The little winding streets were still empty; there was no sound but the chatter and laughter of Blanche and her attendant swain. Angela said nothing.
This incident presented itself at first to Bernard's mind as a sort of declaration of war; the girl had guessed that she was to be made an object of speculative scrutiny. The idea was not agreeable to her independent spirit, and she placed herself boldly on the defensive. She took her stand upon her right to defeat his purpose by every possible means—to perplex, elude, deceive him—in plain English, to make a fool of him. This was the construction which for several days Bernard put upon her deportment, at the same time that he thought it immensely clever of her to have guessed what had been going on in his mind. She made him feel very much ashamed of his critical attitude, and he did everything he could think of to put her off her guard and persuade her that for the moment he had ceased to be an observer. His position at moments seemed to him an odious one, for he was firmly resolved that between him and the woman to whom his friend had proposed there should be nothing in the style of a vulgar flirtation. Under the circumstances, it savoured both of flirtation and of vulgarity that they should even fall out with each other—a consummation which appeared to be more or less definitely impending. Bernard remarked to himself that his own only reasonable line of conduct would be instantly to leave Baden, but I am almost ashamed to mention the fact which led him to modify this decision. It was simply that he was induced to make the reflexion that he had already succeeded in putting Miss Vivian off her guard. How he had done so he would have found it difficult to explain, inasmuch as in one way or another, for a week, he had spent several hours in talk with her. The most effective way of putting her off her guard would have been to leave her alone, to forswear the privilege of conversation with her, to pass the days in other society. This course would have had the drawback of not enabling him to measure the operation of so ingenious a policy, and Bernard liked, of all the things in the world, to know when he was successful. He believed, at all events, that he was successful now, and that the virtue of his conversation itself had persuaded this keen and brilliant girl that he was thinking of anything in the world but herself. He flattered himself that the civil indifference of his manner, the abstract character of the topics he selected, the irrelevancy of his allusions, and the laxity of his attention, all contributed to this result.
Such a result was certainly a remarkable one, for it is almost superfluous to intimate that Miss Vivian was, in fact, perpetually in his thoughts. He made it a point of conscience not to think of her, but he was thinking of her most when his conscience was most lively. Bernard had a conscience—a conscience which, though a little irregular in its motions, gave itself in the long run a great deal of exercise; but nothing could have been more natural than that, curious, imaginative, audacious as he was, and delighting, as I have said, in the play of his singularly nimble intelligence, he should have given himself up to a sort of involuntary experimentation. "I will leave her alone—I will be hanged if I attempt to draw her out!" he said to himself; and meanwhile he was roaming afield and plucking personal impressions in great fragrant handfuls. All this, as I say, was natural, given the man and the situation; the only oddity is that he should have fancied himself able to persuade the person most interested that he had renounced his advantage.
He remembered her telling him that she cared very much what he should say of her on Gordon Wright's return, and he felt that this declaration had a particular significance. After this, of her own movement, she never spoke of Gordon, and Bernard made up his mind that she had promised her mother to accept him if he should repeat his proposal, and that as her heart was not in the matter she preferred to drop a veil over the prospect. "She is going to marry him for his money," he said; "because her mother has brought out the advantages of the thing. Mrs. Vivian's persuasive powers have carried the day, and the girl has made herself believe that it doesn't matter that she doesn't love him. Perhaps it doesn't—to her; it's hard, in such a case, to put oneself in the woman's point of view. But I should think it would matter, some day or other, to poor Gordon. She herself can't help suspecting it may make a difference in his happiness, and she therefore doesn't wish to seem any worse to him than is necessary. She wants me to speak well of her; if she intends to deceive him she expects me to back her up. The wish is doubtless natural, but for a proud girl it is rather an odd favour to ask. Oh yes, she's a proud girl, even though she has been able to arrange it with her conscience to make a mercenary marriage. To expect me to help her is perhaps to treat me as a friend; but she ought to remember—or at least I ought to remember—that Gordon is an older friend than she. Inviting me to help her as against my oldest friend—isn't there a grain of impudence in that?"
It will be gathered that Bernard's meditations were not, on the whole, favourable to this young lady, and it must be affirmed that he was forcibly struck with an element of cynicism in her conduct. On the evening of her so-called midnight visit to the Kursaal she had suddenly sounded a note of sweet submissiveness which reappeared again at frequent intervals. She was gentle, accessible, tenderly gracious, expressive, demonstrative, almost flattering. From his own personal point of view Bernard had no complaint to make of this maidenly urbanity, but he kept reminding himself that he was not in question, and that everything must be looked at in the light of Gordon's requirements. There was all this time an absurd logical twist in his view of things. In the first place he was not to judge at all; and in the second he was to judge strictly on Gordon's behalf. This latter clause always served as a justification when the former had failed to serve as a deterrent. When Bernard reproached himself for thinking too much of the girl, he drew comfort from the reflexion that he was not thinking well. To let it gradually filter into one's mind, through a superficial complexity of more reverent preconceptions, that she was an extremely clever coquette—this, surely, was not to think well! Bernard had luminous glimpses of another situation, in which Angela Vivian's coquetry might meet with a different appreciation; but just now it was not an item to be entered on the credit side of Gordon's account. Bernard wiped his pen, mentally speaking, as he made this reflexion, and felt like a grizzled old book-keeper, of incorruptible probity. He saw her, as I have said, very often; she continued to break her vow of shutting herself up, and at the end of a fortnight she had reduced it to imperceptible particles. On four different occasions, presenting himself at Mrs. Vivian's lodgings, Bernard found Angela there alone. She made him welcome, receiving him as an American girl, in such circumstances, is free to receive the most gallant of visitors. She smiled and talked and gave herself up to charming gaiety, so that there was nothing for Bernard to say but that now at least she was off her guard with a vengeance. Happily he was on his own! He flattered himself that he remained so on occasions that were even more insidiously relaxing—when, in the evening, she strolled away with him to parts of the grounds of the Conversation-house, where the music sank to sweeter softness, and the murmur of the tree-tops of the Black Forest, stirred by the warm night air, became almost audible; or when, in the long afternoons, they wandered in the woods apart from the others—from Mrs. Vivian and the amiable object of her more avowed solicitude, the object of the sportive adoration of the irrepressible, the ever-present Lovelock. They were constantly having parties in the woods at this time—driving over the hills to points of interest which Bernard had looked out in the guide-book. Bernard, in such matters, was extremely alert and considerate; he developed an unexpected talent for arranging excursions, and he had taken regularly into his service the red-waistcoated proprietor of a big Teutonic landau, which had a courier's seat behind, and was always at the service of the ladies. The functionary in the red waistcoat was a capital charioteer; he was constantly proposing new drives, and he introduced our little party to treasures of romantic scenery.