Confidence (London: Macmillan & Co., 1921)/Chapter 26
Gordon took his arm and they gained the street; they strolled in the direction of the Champs Elysées.
"For a little exercise and a good deal of talk it's the pleasantest place," said Gordon. "I have a good deal to say; I have a good deal to ask you."
Bernard felt the familiar pressure of his friend's hand, as it rested on his arm, and it seemed to him never to have lain there with so heavy a weight. It held him fast—it held him to account; it seemed a physical symbol of responsibility. Bernard was not reassured by hearing that Gordon had a great deal to say, and he expected a sudden explosion of bitterness on the subject of Blanche's irremediable triviality. The afternoon was a lovely one—the day was a perfect example of the mellowest mood of autumn. The air was warm, and filled with a golden haze, which seemed to hang about the bare Parisian trees, as if with a tender impulse to drape their nakedness. A fine day in Paris brings out a wonderfully bright and appreciative multitude of strollers and loungers, and the liberal spaces of the Champs Elysées were on this occasion filled with those placid votaries of inexpensive entertainment who abound in the French capital. The benches and chairs on the edge of the great avenue exhibited a dense fraternity of gazers, and up and down the broad walk passed the slow-moving and easily-pleased pedestrians. Gordon, in spite of his announcement that he had a good deal to say, confined himself at first to superficial allusions, and Bernard after a while had the satisfaction of perceiving that he was not likely, for the moment, to strike the note of conjugal discord. He appeared, indeed, to feel no desire to speak of Blanche in any manner whatever. He fell into the humour of the hour and the scene, looked at the crowd, talked about trifles. He remarked that Paris was a wonderful place after all, and that a little glimpse of the Parisian picture was a capital thing as a change; said he was very glad they had come, and that for his part he was willing to stay three months.
"And what have you been doing with yourself?" he asked. "How have you been occupied, and what are you meaning to do?"
Bernard said nothing for a moment, and Gordon presently glanced at his face to see why he was silent. Bernard looking askance, met his companion's eyes, and then, resting his own upon them, he stopped short. His heart was beating; it was a question of saying to Gordon outright, "I have been occupied in becoming engaged to Angela Vivian." But he couldn't say it, and yet he must say something. He tried to invent something; but he could think of nothing, and still Gordon was looking at him.
"I am so glad to see you!" he exclaimed, for want of something better; and he blushed—he felt foolish, he felt false—as he said it.
"My dear Bernard!" Gordon murmured gratefully, as they walked on. "It's very good of you to say that; I am very glad we are together again. I want to say something," he added, in a moment; "I hope you won't mind it—" Bernard gave a little laugh at his companion's scruples, and Gordon continued. "To tell the truth, it has sometimes seemed to me that we were not so good friends as we used to be; that something had come between us—I don't know what, I don't know why. I don't know what to call it but a sort of lowering of the temperature. I don't know whether you have felt it, or whether it has been simply a fancy of mine. Whatever it may have been, it's all over, isn't it? We are too old friends—too good friends—not to stick together. Of course, the rubs of life may occasionally loosen the cohesion; but it is very good to feel that, with a little direct contact, it may easily be re-established. Isn't that so? But one shouldn't reason about these things; one feels them, and that's enough."
Gordon spoke in his clear, cheerful voice, and Bernard listened intently. It seemed to him there was an undertone of pain and effort in his companion's speech; it was that of an unhappy man trying to be wise and make the best of things.
"Ah! the rubs of life—the rubs of life!" Bernard repeated vaguely.
"We mustn't mind them," said Gordon, with a conscientious laugh. "We must toughen our hides; or, at the worst, we must plaster up our bruises. But why should we choose this particular place and hour for talking of the pains of life?" he went on. "Are we not in the midst of its pleasures? I mean, henceforth, to cultivate its pleasures. What are yours, just now, Bernard? Isn't it supposed that in Paris one must amuse oneself? How have you been amusing yourself?"
"I have been leading a very quiet life," said Bernard.
"I notice that's what people always say when they have been particularly dissipated. What have you done? Whom have you seen that one knows?"
Bernard was silent a moment.
"I have seen some old friends of yours," he said at last. "I have seen Mrs. Vivian and her daughter."
"Ah!" Gordon made this exclamation, and then stopped short. Bernard looked at him, but Gordon was looking away; his eyes had caught some one in the crowd. Bernard followed the direction they had taken, and then Gordon went on—"Talk of the devil; excuse the adage. Are not those the ladies in question?"
Mrs. Vivian and her daughter were, in fact, seated among a great many other quiet people, in a couple of hired chairs, at the edge of the great avenue. They were turned towards our two friends, and when Bernard distinguished them, in the well-dressed multitude, they were looking straight at Gordon Wright.
"They see you!" said Bernard.
"You say that as if I wished to run away," Gordon answered. "I don't want to run away; on the contrary, I want to speak to them."
"That's easily done," said Bernard; and they advanced to the two ladies.
Mrs. Vivian and her daughter rose from their chairs as they came; they had evidently rapidly exchanged observations, and had decided that it would facilitate their interview with Gordon Wright to receive him standing. He made his way to them through the crowd, blushing deeply, as he always did when excited; then he stood there bareheaded, shaking hands with each of them, with a fixed smile, and with nothing, apparently, to say. Bernard watched Angela's face; she was giving his companion a beautiful smile. Mrs. Vivian was delicately cordial.
"I was sure it was you," said Gordon at last. "We were just talking of you."
"Did Mr. Longueville deny it was we?" asked Mrs. Vivian, smiling; "after we had supposed that we had made an impression on him!"
"I knew you were in Paris—we were in the act of talking of you," Gordon went on. "I am very glad to see you."
Bernard had shaken hands with Angela, looking at her intently; and in her eyes, as his own met them, it seemed to him that there was a gleam of mockery. At whom was she mocking—at Gordon, or at himself? Bernard was uncomfortable enough not to care to be mocked; but he felt even more sorry that Gordon should be.
"We also knew you were coming—Mr. Longueville had told us," said Mrs. Vivian; "and we have been expecting the pleasure of seeing Blanche. Dear little Blanche!"
"Dear little Blanche will immediately come and see you," Gordon replied.
"Immediately, we hope," said Mrs. Vivian. "We shall be so very glad." Bernard perceived that she wished to say something soothing and sympathetic to poor Gordon; having it, as he supposed, on her conscience, that after having once encouraged him to regard himself as indispensable (in the capacity of son-in-law) to her happiness, she should now present to him the spectacle of a felicity which had established itself without his aid. "We were so very much interested in your marriage," she went on. "We thought it so—so delightful."
Gordon fixed his eyes on the ground for a moment.
"I owe it partly to you," he answered. "You have done so much for Blanche. You had so cultivated her mind and polished her manners that her attractions were doubled, and I fell an easy victim to them."
He uttered these words with an exaggerated solemnity, the result of which was to produce, for a moment, an almost embarrassing silence. Bernard was rapidly becoming more and more impatient of his own embarrassment, and now he exclaimed, in a loud and jovial voice—
"Blanche makes victims by the dozen! I was a victim last winter; we are all victims!"
"Dear little Blanche!" Mrs. Vivian murmured again.
Angela had said nothing; she had simply stood there, making no attempt to address herself to Gordon, and yet with no affectation of reserve or of indifference. Now she seemed to feel the impulse to speak to him.
"When Blanche comes to see us, you must be sure to come with her," she said, with a friendly smile.
Gordon looked at her, but he said nothing.
"We were so sorry to hear she is out of health," Angela went on.
Still Gordon was silent, with his eyes fixed on her expressive and charming face.
"It is not serious," he murmured at last.
"She used to be so well—so bright," said Angela, who also appeared to have the desire to say something kind and comfortable.
Gordon made no response to this; he only looked at her.
"I hope you are well, Miss Vivian," he broke out at last.
"Very well, thank you."
"Do you live in Paris?"
"We have pitched our tent here for the present."
"Do you like it?"
"I find it no worse than other places."
Gordon appeared to desire to talk with her; but he could think of nothing to say. Talking with her was a pretext for looking at her; and Bernard, who thought she had never been so handsome as at that particular moment, smiling at her troubled ex-lover, could easily conceive that his friend should desire to prolong this privilege.
"Have you been sitting here long?" Gordon asked, thinking of something at last.
"Half an hour. We came out to walk, and my mother felt tired. It is time we should turn homeward," Angela added.
"Yes, I am tired, my daughter. We must take a voiture, if Mr. Longueville will be so good as to find us one," said Mrs. Vivian.
Bernard, professing great alacrity, looked about him; but he still lingered near his companions. Gordon had thought of something else. "Have you been to Baden again?" Bernard heard him ask. But at this moment Bernard espied at a distance an empty hackney-carriage crawling up the avenue, and he was obliged to go and signal to it. When he came back, followed by the vehicle, the two ladies, accompanied by Gordon, had come to the edge of the pavement. They shook hands with Gordon before getting into the cab, and Mrs. Vivian exclaimed, "Be sure you give our love to your dear wife!"
Then the two ladies settled themselves and smiled their adieux, and the little victoria rumbled away at an easy pace, while Bernard stood with Gordon, looking after it. They watched it a moment, and then Gordon turned to his companion. He looked at Bernard for some moments, intently, with a singular expression.
"It is strange for me to see her!" he said presently.
"I hope it is not altogether disagreeable," Bernard answered, smiling.
"She is delightfully handsome," Gordon went on.
"She is a beautiful woman."
"And the strange thing is that she strikes me now so differently," Gordon continued. "I used to think her so mysterious—so ambiguous. She seems to me now so simple."
"Ah," said Bernard, laughing, "that's an improvement!"
"So simple and so good!" Gordon exclaimed.
Bernard laid his hand on his companion's shoulder, shaking his head slowly.
"You must not think too much about that," he said.
"So simple—so good—so charming!" Gordon repeated.
"Ah, my dear Gordon!" Bernard murmured.
But still Gordon continued.
"So intelligent, so reasonable, so sensible."
"Have you discovered all that in two minutes' talk?"
"Yes, in two minutes' talk. I shouldn't hesitate about her now!"
"It's better you shouldn't say that," said Bernard.
"Why shouldn't I say it? It seems to me it's my duty to say it."
"No—your duty lies elsewhere," said Bernard. "There are two reasons. One is that you have married another woman."
"What difference does that make?" cried Gordon.
Bernard made no attempt to answer this inquiry; he simply went on—
"The other is—the other is—"
But here he paused.
"What is the other?" Gordon asked.
"That I am engaged to marry Miss Vivian."
And with this Bernard took his hand off Gordon's shoulder.
Gordon stood staring.
"To marry Miss Vivian?"
Now that Bernard had heard himself say it, audibly, distinctly, loudly, the spell of his apprehension seemed broken, and he went on bravely. "We are to be married very shortly. It has all come about within a few weeks. It will seem to you very strange—perhaps you won't like it. That's why I have hesitated to tell you."
Gordon turned pale; it was the first time Bernard had ever seen him do so; evidently he did not like it. He stood staring and frowning.
"Why, I thought—I thought," he began at last—"I thought that you disliked her!"
"I supposed so too," said Bernard. "But I have got over that."
Gordon turned away, looking up the great avenue, into the crowd. Then turning back—
"I am very much surprised," he said.
"And you are not pleased!"
Gordon fixed his eyes on the ground a moment.
"I congratulate you on your engagement," he said at last, looking up with a face that seemed to Bernard hard and unnatural.
"It is very good of you to say that, but of course you can't like it! I was sure you wouldn't like it. But what could I do? I fell in love with her, and I couldn't run away simply to spare you a surprise. My dear Gordon," Bernard added, "you will get used to it."
"Very likely," said Gordon drily. "But you must give me time."
"As long as you like!"
Gordon stood for a moment again staring down at the ground.
"Very well, then, I will take time," he said.
And he turned away, as if to walk off alone.
"Where are you going?" asked Bernard, stopping him.
"I don't know—to the hotel, anywhere, to try to get used to what you have told me."
"Don't try too hard; it will come of itself," said Bernard.
"We shall see!"
And Gordon turned away again.
"Do you prefer to go alone?"
"Very much—if you will excuse me!"
"I have asked you to excuse a greater want of ceremony!" said Bernard, smiling.
"I have not done so yet!" Gordon rejoined; and marching off, he mingled with the crowd.
Bernard watched him till he lost sight of him, and then, dropping into the first empty chair that he saw, he sat and reflected that his friend liked it quite as little as he had feared.