The next day was splendid, as Felix had prophesied; if the winter had suddenly leaped into spring, the spring had for the moment as quickly leaped into summer. This was an observation made by a young girl who came out of a large square house in the country, and strolled about in the spacious garden which separated it from a muddy road. The flowering shrubs and the neatly-disposed plants were basking in the abundant light and warmth; the transparent shade of the great elms—they were magnificent trees—seemed to thicken by the hour; and the intensely habitual stillness offered a submissive medium to the sound of a distant church-bell. The young girl listened to the church-bell; but she was not dressed for church. She was bare-headed; she wore a white muslin waist, with an embroidered border, and the skirt of her dress was of colored muslin. She was a young lady of some two or three and twenty years of age, and though a young person of her sex walking bare-headed in a garden, of a Sunday morning in spring-time, can, in the nature of things, never be a displeasing object, you would not have pronounced this innocent Sabbath-breaker especially pretty. She was tall and pale, thin and a little awkward; her hair was fair and perfectly straight; her eyes were dark, and they had the singularity of seeming at once dull and restless—differing herein, as you see, fatally from the ideal "fine eyes," which we always imagine to be both brilliant and tranquil. The doors and windows of the large square house were all wide open, to admit the purifying sunshine, which lay in generous patches upon the floor of a wide, high, covered piazza adjusted to two sides of the mansion—a piazza on which several straw-bottomed rocking-chairs and half a dozen of those small cylindrical stools in green and blue porcelain, which suggest an affiliation between the residents and the Eastern trade, were symmetrically disposed. It was an ancient house—ancient in the sense of being eighty years old; it was built of wood, painted a clean, clear, faded gray, and adorned along the front, at intervals, with flat wooden pilasters, painted white. These pilasters appeared to support a kind of classic pediment, which was decorated in the middle by a large triple window in a boldly carved frame, and in each of its smaller angles by a glazed circular aperture. A large white door, furnished with a highly-polished brass knocker, presented itself to the rural-looking road, with which it was connected by a spacious pathway, paved with worn and cracked, but very clean, bricks. Behind it there were meadows and orchards, a barn and a pond; and facing it, a short distance along the road, on the opposite side, stood a smaller house, painted white, with external shutters painted green, a little garden on one hand and an orchard on the other. All this was shining in the morning air, through which the simple details of the picture addressed themselves to the eye as distinctly as the items of a "sum" in addition.
A second young lady presently came out of the house, across the piazza, descended into the garden and approached the young girl of whom I have spoken. This second young lady was also thin and pale; but she was older than the other; she was shorter; she had dark, smooth hair. Her eyes, unlike the other's, were quick and bright; but they were not at all restless. She wore a straw bonnet with white ribbons, and a long, red, India scarf, which, on the front of her dress, reached to her feet. In her hand she carried a little key.
"Gertrude," she said, "are you very sure you had better not go to church?"
Gertrude looked at her a moment, plucked a small sprig from a lilac-bush, smelled it and threw it away. "I am not very sure of anything!" she answered.
The other young lady looked straight past her, at the distant pond, which lay shining between the long banks of fir-trees. Then she said in a very soft voice, "This is the key of the dining-room closet. I think you had better have it, if any one should want anything."
"Who is there to want anything?" Gertrude demanded. "I shall be all alone in the house."
"Some one may come," said her companion.
"Do you mean Mr. Brand?"
"Yes, Gertrude. He may like a piece of cake."
"I don't like men that are always eating cake!" Gertrude declared, giving a pull at the lilac-bush.
Her companion glanced at her, and then looked down on the ground. "I think father expected you would come to church," she said. "What shall I say to him?"
"Say I have a bad headache."
"Would that be true?" asked the elder lady, looking straight at the pond again.
"No, Charlotte," said the younger one simply.
Charlotte transferred her quiet eyes to her companion's face. "I am afraid you are feeling restless."
"I am feeling as I always feel," Gertrude replied, in the same tone.
Charlotte turned away; but she stood there a moment. Presently she looked down at the front of her dress. "Does n't it seem to you, somehow, as if my scarf were too long?" she asked.
Gertrude walked half round her, looking at the scarf. "I don't think you wear it right," she said.
"How should I wear it, dear?"
"I don't know; differently from that. You should draw it differently over your shoulders, round your elbows; you should look differently behind."
"How should I look?" Charlotte inquired.
"I don't think I can tell you," said Gertrude, plucking out the scarf a little behind. "I could do it myself, but I don't think I can explain it."
Charlotte, by a movement of her elbows, corrected the laxity that had come from her companion's touch. "Well, some day you must do it for me. It does n't matter now. Indeed, I don't think it matters," she added, "how one looks behind."
"I should say it mattered more," said Gertrude. "Then you don't know who may be observing you. You are not on your guard. You can't try to look pretty."
Charlotte received this declaration with extreme gravity. "I don't think one should ever try to look pretty," she rejoined, earnestly.
Her companion was silent. Then she said, "Well, perhaps it 's not of much use."
Charlotte looked at her a little, and then kissed her. "I hope you will be better when we come back."
"My dear sister, I am very well!" said Gertrude.
Charlotte went down the large brick walk to the garden gate; her companion strolled slowly toward the house. At the gate Charlotte met a young man, who was coming in—a tall, fair young man, wearing a high hat and a pair of thread gloves. He was handsome, but rather too stout. He had a pleasant smile. "Oh, Mr. Brand!" exclaimed the young lady.
"I came to see whether your sister was not going to church," said the young man.
"She says she is not going; but I am very glad you have come. I think if you were to talk to her a little".... And Charlotte lowered her voice. "It seems as if she were restless."
Mr. Brand smiled down on the young lady from his great height. "I shall be very glad to talk to her. For that I should be willing to absent myself from almost any occasion of worship, however attractive."
"Well, I suppose you know," said Charlotte, softly, as if positive acceptance of this proposition might be dangerous. "But I am afraid I shall be late."
"I hope you will have a pleasant sermon," said the young man.
"Oh, Mr. Gilman is always pleasant," Charlotte answered. And she went on her way.
Mr. Brand went into the garden, where Gertrude, hearing the gate close behind him, turned and looked at him. For a moment she watched him coming; then she turned away. But almost immediately she corrected this movement, and stood still, facing him. He took off his hat and wiped his forehead as he approached. Then he put on his hat again and held out his hand. His hat being removed, you would have perceived that his forehead was very large and smooth, and his hair abundant but rather colorless. His nose was too large, and his mouth and eyes were too small; but for all this he was, as I have said, a young man of striking appearance. The expression of his little clean-colored blue eyes was irresistibly gentle and serious; he looked, as the phrase is, as good as gold. The young girl, standing in the garden path, glanced, as he came up, at his thread gloves.
"I hoped you were going to church," he said. "I wanted to walk with you."
"I am very much obliged to you," Gertrude answered. "I am not going to church."
She had shaken hands with him; he held her hand a moment. "Have you any special reason for not going?"
"Yes, Mr. Brand," said the young girl.
"May I ask what it is?"
She looked at him smiling; and in her smile, as I have intimated, there was a certain dullness. But mingled with this dullness was something sweet and suggestive. "Because the sky is so blue!" she said.
He looked at the sky, which was magnificent, and then said, smiling too, "I have heard of young ladies staying at home for bad weather, but never for good. Your sister, whom I met at the gate, tells me you are depressed," he added.
"Depressed? I am never depressed."
"Oh, surely, sometimes," replied Mr. Brand, as if he thought this a regrettable account of one's self.
"I am never depressed," Gertrude repeated. "But I am sometimes wicked. When I am wicked I am in high spirits. I was wicked just now to my sister."
"What did you do to her?"
"I said things that puzzled her—on purpose."
"Why did you do that, Miss Gertrude?" asked the young man.
She began to smile again. "Because the sky is so blue!"
"You say things that puzzle me," Mr. Brand declared.
"I always know when I do it," proceeded Gertrude. "But people puzzle me more, I think. And they don't seem to know!"
"This is very interesting," Mr. Brand observed, smiling.
"You told me to tell you about my—my struggles," the young girl went on.
"Let us talk about them. I have so many things to say."
Gertrude turned away a moment; and then, turning back, "You had better go to church," she said.
"You know," the young man urged, "that I have always one thing to say."
Gertrude looked at him a moment. "Please don't say it now!"
"We are all alone," he continued, taking off his hat; "all alone in this beautiful Sunday stillness."
Gertrude looked around her, at the breaking buds, the shining distance, the blue sky to which she had referred as a pretext for her irregularities. "That 's the reason," she said, "why I don't want you to speak. Do me a favor; go to church."
"May I speak when I come back?" asked Mr. Brand.
"If you are still disposed," she answered.
"I don't know whether you are wicked," he said, "but you are certainly puzzling."
She had turned away; she raised her hands to her ears. He looked at her a moment, and then he slowly walked to church.
She wandered for a while about the garden, vaguely and without purpose. The church-bell had stopped ringing; the stillness was complete. This young lady relished highly, on occasions, the sense of being alone—the absence of the whole family and the emptiness of the house. To-day, apparently, the servants had also gone to church; there was never a figure at the open windows; behind the house there was no stout negress in a red turban, lowering the bucket into the great shingle-hooded well. And the front door of the big, unguarded home stood open, with the trustfulness of the golden age; or what is more to the purpose, with that of New England's silvery prime. Gertrude slowly passed through it, and went from one of the empty rooms to the other—large, clear-colored rooms, with white wainscots, ornamented with thin-legged mahogany furniture, and, on the walls, with old-fashioned engravings, chiefly of scriptural subjects, hung very high. This agreeable sense of solitude, of having the house to herself, of which I have spoken, always excited Gertrude's imagination; she could not have told you why, and neither can her humble historian. It always seemed to her that she must do something particular—that she must honor the occasion; and while she roamed about, wondering what she could do, the occasion usually came to an end. To-day she wondered more than ever. At last she took down a book; there was no library in the house, but there were books in all the rooms. None of them were forbidden books, and Gertrude had not stopped at home for the sake of a chance to climb to the inaccessible shelves. She possessed herself of a very obvious volume—one of the series of the Arabian Nights—and she brought it out into the portico and sat down with it in her lap. There, for a quarter of an hour, she read the history of the loves of the Prince Camaralzaman and the Princess Badoura. At last, looking up, she beheld, as it seemed to her, the Prince Camaralzaman standing before her. A beautiful young man was making her a very low bow—a magnificent bow, such as she had never seen before. He appeared to have dropped from the clouds; he was wonderfully handsome; he smiled—smiled as if he were smiling on purpose. Extreme surprise, for a moment, kept Gertrude sitting still; then she rose, without even keeping her finger in her book. The young man, with his hat in his hand, still looked at her, smiling and smiling. It was very strange.
"Will you kindly tell me," said the mysterious visitor, at last, "whether I have the honor of speaking to Miss Went-worth?"
"My name is Gertrude Wentworth," murmured the young woman.
"Then—then—I have the honor—the pleasure—of being your cousin."
The young man had so much the character of an apparition that this announcement seemed to complete his unreality. "What cousin? Who are you?" said Gertrude.
He stepped back a few paces and looked up at the house; then glanced round him at the garden and the distant view. After this he burst out laughing. "I see it must seem to you very strange," he said. There was, after all, something substantial in his laughter. Gertrude looked at him from head to foot. Yes, he was remarkably handsome; but his smile was almost a grimace. "It is very still," he went on, coming nearer again. And as she only looked at him, for reply, he added, "Are you all alone?"
"Every one has gone to church," said Gertrude.
"I was afraid of that!" the young man exclaimed. "But I hope you are not afraid of me."
"You ought to tell me who you are," Gertrude answered.
"I am afraid of you!" said the young man. "I had a different plan. I expected the servant would take in my card, and that you would put your heads together, before admitting me, and make out my identity."
Gertrude had been wondering with a quick intensity which brought its result; and the result seemed an answer—a wondrous, delightful answer—to her vague wish that something would befall her. "I know—I know," she said. "You come from Europe."
"We came two days ago. You have heard of us, then—you believe in us?"
"We have known, vaguely," said Gertrude, "that we had relations in France."
"And have you ever wanted to see us?" asked the young man.
Gertrude was silent a moment. "I have wanted to see you."
"I am glad, then, it is you I have found. We wanted to see you, so we came."
"On purpose?" asked Gertrude.
The young man looked round him, smiling still. "Well, yes; on purpose. Does that sound as if we should bore you?" he added. "I don't think we shall—I really don't think we shall. We are rather fond of wandering, too; and we were glad of a pretext."
"And you have just arrived?"
"In Boston, two days ago. At the inn I asked for Mr. Wentworth. He must be your father. They found out for me where he lived; they seemed often to have heard of him. I determined to come, without ceremony. So, this lovely morning, they set my face in the right direction, and told me to walk straight before me, out of town. I came on foot because I wanted to see the country. I walked and walked, and here I am! It 's a good many miles."
"It is seven miles and a half," said Gertrude, softly. Now that this handsome young man was proving himself a reality she found herself vaguely trembling; she was deeply excited. She had never in her life spoken to a foreigner, and she had often thought it would be delightful to do so. Here was one who had suddenly been engendered by the Sabbath stillness for her private use; and such a brilliant, polite, smiling one! She found time and means to compose herself, however: to remind herself that she must exercise a sort of official hospitality. "We are very—very glad to see you," she said. "Won't you come into the house?" And she moved toward the open door.
"You are not afraid of me, then?" asked the young man again, with his light laugh.
She wondered a moment, and then, "We are not afraid—here," she said.
"Ah, comme vous devez avoir raison!" cried the young man, looking all round him, appreciatively. It was the first time that Gertrude had heard so many words of French spoken. They gave her something of a sensation. Her companion followed her, watching, with a certain excitement of his own, this tall, interesting-looking girl, dressed in her clear, crisp muslin. He paused in the hall, where there was a broad white staircase with a white balustrade. "What a pleasant house!" he said. "It 's lighter inside than it is out."
"It 's pleasanter here," said Gertrude, and she led the way into the parlor,—a high, clean, rather empty-looking room. Here they stood looking at each other,—the young man smiling more than ever; Gertrude, very serious, trying to smile.
"I don't believe you know my name," he said. "I am called Felix Young. Your father is my uncle. My mother was his half sister, and older than he."
"Yes," said Gertrude, "and she turned Roman Catholic and married in Europe."
"I see you know," said the young man. "She married and she died. Your father's family did n't like her husband. They called him a foreigner; but he was not. My poor father was born in Sicily, but his parents were American."
"In Sicily?" Gertrude murmured.
"It is true," said Felix Young, "that they had spent their lives in Europe. But they were very patriotic. And so are we."
"And you are Sicilian," said Gertrude.
"Sicilian, no! Let 's see. I was born at a little place—a dear little place—in France. My sister was born at Vienna."
"So you are French," said Gertrude.
"Heaven forbid!" cried the young man. Gertrude's eyes were fixed upon him almost insistently. He began to laugh again. "I can easily be French, if that will please you."
"You are a foreigner of some sort," said Gertrude.
"Of some sort—yes; I suppose so. But who can say of what sort? I don't think we have ever had occasion to settle the question. You know there are people like that. About their country, their religion, their profession, they can't tell."
Gertrude stood there gazing; she had not asked him to sit down. She had never heard of people like that; she wanted to hear. "Where do you live?" she asked.
"They can't tell that, either!" said Felix. "I am afraid you will think they are little better than vagabonds. I have lived anywhere—everywhere. I really think I have lived in every city in Europe." Gertrude gave a little long soft exhalation. It made the young man smile at her again; and his smile made her blush a little. To take refuge from blushing she asked him if, after his long walk, he was not hungry or thirsty. Her hand was in her pocket; she was fumbling with the little key that her sister had given her. "Ah, my dear young lady," he said, clasping his hands a little, "if you could give me, in charity, a glass of wine!"
Gertrude gave a smile and a little nod, and went quickly out of the room. Presently she came back with a very large decanter in one hand and a plate in the other, on which was placed a big, round cake with a frosted top. Gertrude, in taking the cake from the closet, had had a moment of acute consciousness that it composed the refection of which her sister had thought that Mr. Brand would like to partake. Her kinsman from across the seas was looking at the pale, high-hung engravings. When she came in he turned and smiled at her, as if they had been old friends meeting after a separation. "You wait upon me yourself?" he asked. "I am served like the gods!" She had waited upon a great many people, but none of them had ever told her that. The observation added a certain lightness to the step with which she went to a little table where there were some curious red glasses—glasses covered with little gold sprigs, which Charlotte used to dust every morning with her own hands. Gertrude thought the glasses very handsome, and it was a pleasure to her to know that the wine was good; it was her father's famous madeira. Felix Young thought it excellent; he wondered why he had been told that there was no wine in America. She cut him an immense triangle out of the cake, and again she thought of Mr. Brand. Felix sat there, with his glass in one hand and his huge morsel of cake in the other—eating, drinking, smiling, talking. "I am very hungry," he said. "I am not at all tired; I am never tired. But I am very hungry."
"You must stay to dinner," said Gertrude. "At two o'clock. They will all have come back from church; you will see the others."
"Who are the others?" asked the young man. "Describe them all."
"You will see for yourself. It is you that must tell me; now, about your sister."
"My sister is the Baroness Munster," said Felix.
On hearing that his sister was a Baroness, Gertrude got up and walked about slowly, in front of him. She was silent a moment. She was thinking of it. "Why did n't she come, too?" she asked.
"She did come; she is in Boston, at the hotel."
"We will go and see her," said Gertrude, looking at him.
"She begs you will not!" the young man replied. "She sends you her love; she sent me to announce her. She will come and pay her respects to your father."
Gertrude felt herself trembling again. A Baroness Munster, who sent a brilliant young man to "announce" her; who was coming, as the Queen of Sheba came to Solomon, to pay her "respects" to quiet Mr. Wentworth—such a personage presented herself to Gertrude's vision with a most effective unexpectedness. For a moment she hardly knew what to say. "When will she come?" she asked at last.
"As soon as you will allow her—to-morrow. She is very impatient," answered Felix, who wished to be agreeable.
"To-morrow, yes," said Gertrude. She wished to ask more about her; but she hardly knew what could be predicated of a Baroness Munster. "Is she—is she—married?"
Felix had finished his cake and wine; he got up, fixing upon the young girl his bright, expressive eyes. "She is married to a German prince—Prince Adolf, of Silberstadt-Schreckenstein. He is not the reigning prince; he is a younger brother."
Gertrude gazed at her informant; her lips were slightly parted. "Is she a—a Princess?" she asked at last.
"Oh, no," said the young man; "her position is rather a singular one. It 's a morganatic marriage."
"Morganatic?" These were new names and new words to poor Gertrude.
"That 's what they call a marriage, you know, contracted between a scion of a ruling house and—and a common mortal. They made Eugenia a Baroness, poor woman; but that was all they could do. Now they want to dissolve the marriage. Prince Adolf, between ourselves, is a ninny; but his brother, who is a clever man, has plans for him. Eugenia, naturally enough, makes difficulties; not, however, that I think she cares much—she 's a very clever woman; I 'm sure you 'll like her—but she wants to bother them. Just now everything is en l'air."
The cheerful, off-hand tone in which her visitor related this darkly romantic tale seemed to Gertrude very strange; but it seemed also to convey a certain flattery to herself, a recognition of her wisdom and dignity. She felt a dozen impressions stirring within her, and presently the one that was uppermost found words. "They want to dissolve her marriage?" she asked.
"So it appears."
"And against her will?"
"Against her right."
"She must be very unhappy!" said Gertrude.
Her visitor looked at her, smiling; he raised his hand to the back of his head and held it there a moment. "So she says," he answered. "That 's her story. She told me to tell it you."
"Tell me more," said Gertrude.
"No, I will leave that to her; she does it better."
Gertrude gave her little excited sigh again. "Well, if she is unhappy," she said, "I am glad she has come to us."
She had been so interested that she failed to notice the sound of a footstep in the portico; and yet it was a footstep that she always recognized. She heard it in the hall, and then she looked out of the window. They were all coming back from church—her father, her sister and brother, and their cousins, who always came to dinner on Sunday. Mr. Brand had come in first; he was in advance of the others, because, apparently, he was still disposed to say what she had not wished him to say an hour before. He came into the parlor, looking for Gertrude. He had two little books in his hand. On seeing Gertrude's companion he slowly stopped, looking at him.
"Is this a cousin?" asked Felix.
Then Gertrude saw that she must introduce him; but her ears, and, by sympathy, her lips, were full of all that he had been telling her. "This is the Prince," she said, "the Prince of Silberstadt-Schreckenstein!"
Felix burst out laughing, and Mr. Brand stood staring, while the others, who had passed into the house, appeared behind him in the open door-way.