Confidence (London: Macmillan & Co., 1921)/Chapter 20
I have called it a stale expedient on Bernard Longueville's part to "go to Europe" again, like the most commonplace American; and it is certain that, as our young man stood and looked out of the window of his inn at Havre, an hour after his arrival at that seaport, his adventure did not strike him as having any great freshness. He had no plans nor intentions—not even any very definite desires. He had felt the impulse to come back to Europe, and he had obeyed it; but now that he had arrived, his impulse seemed to have little more to say to him. He perceived it, indeed—mentally—in the attitude of a small street-boy playing upon his nose with that vulgar gesture which is supposed to represent the elation of successful fraud. There was a large blank wall before his window, painted a dirty yellow, and much discoloured by the weather. A broad patch of summer sunlight rested upon it and brought out the full vulgarity of its complexion. Bernard stared a while at this blank wall, which struck him in some degree as a symbol of his own present moral prospect. Then suddenly he turned away, with the declaration that, whatever truth there might be in symbolism, he, at any rate, had not come to Europe to spend the precious remnant of his youth in a malodorous Norman seaport. The weather was very hot, and neither the hotel nor the town at large appeared to form an attractive place of sojourn for persons of an irritable nostril. To go to Paris, however, was hardly more attractive than to remain at Havre, for Bernard had a lively vision of the heated bitumen and the glaring frontages of the French capital. But if a Norman town was close and dull, the Norman country was notoriously fresh and entertaining, and the next morning Bernard got into a calèche with his luggage, and bade its proprietor drive him along the coast. Once he had begun to rumble through this charming landscape, he was in much better humour with his situation. The air was freshened by a breeze from the sea; the blooming country, without walls or fences, lay open to the traveller's eye; the grainfields and copses were shimmering in the summer wind; the pink-faced cottages peeped through the ripening orchard boughs, and the gray towers of the old churches were silvered by the morning light of France. At the end of some three hours, Bernard arrived at a little watering-place which lay close upon the shore, in the embrace of a pair of white-armed cliffs. It had a quaint and primitive aspect and a natural picturesqueness which commended it to Bernard's best attention. There was evidently a great deal of nature about it, and at this moment nature, embodied in the clear, gay sunshine, in the blue and quiet sea, in the daisied grass of the high-shouldered downs, had an air of inviting the intelligent observer to postpone his difficulties. Blanquais-les-Galets, as Bernard learned the name of this unfashionable resort to be, was twenty miles from a railway, and the place wore an expression of unaffected rusticity. Bernard stopped at an inn for his noonday breakfast, and then, with his appreciation quickened by the homely felicity of this repast, determined to go no farther. He engaged a room at the inn, dismissed his vehicle, and gave himself up to the contemplation of French seaside manners. These were chiefly to be observed upon a pebbly strand which lay along the front of the village, and served as the gathering-point of its idler inhabitants. Bathing in the sea was the chief occupation of these good people, including, as it did, prolonged spectatorship of the process and infinite conversation upon its mysteries. The little world of Blanquais appeared to form a large family party, of highly-developed amphibious habits, which sat gossiping all day upon the warm pebbles, occasionally dipping into the sea and drying itself in the sun, without any relaxation of personal intimacy. All this was very amusing to Bernard, who in the course of the day took a bath with the rest. The ocean was, after all, very large, and when one took one's plunge one seemed to have it quite to oneself. When he had dressed himself again, Bernard stretched himself on the beach, feeling happier than he had done in a long time, and pulled his hat over his eyes. The feeling of happiness was an odd one; it had come over him suddenly, without visible cause; but, such as it was, our hero made the most of it. As he lay there it seemed to deepen; his immersion and his exercise in the salt water had given him an agreeable languor. This presently became a drowsiness which was not less agreeable, and Bernard felt himself going to sleep. Th?re were sounds in the air above his head—sounds of the crunching and rattling of the loose smooth stones, as his neighbours moved about on them; of high-pitched French voices exchanging colloquial cries; of the plash of the bathers in the distant water, and the short, soft breaking of the waves. But these things came to his ears more vaguely and remotely, and at last they faded away. Bernard enjoyed half an hour of that light and easy slumber which is apt to overtake idle people in recumbent attitudes in the open air on August afternoons. It brought with it an exquisite sense of rest, and the rest was not spoiled by the fact that it was animated by a charming dream. Dreams are vague things, and this one had the defects of its species; but it was somehow concerned with the image of a young lady whom Bernard had formerly known, and who had beautiful eyes, into which—in the dream—he found himself looking.
He waked up to find himself looking into the crown of his hat, which had been resting on the bridge of his nose. He removed it, and half raised himself, resting on his elbow, and preparing to taste, in another position, of a little more of that exquisite rest of which mention has just been made. The world about him was still amusing and charming; the chatter of his companions, losing itself in the large sea-presence, the plash of the divers and swimmers, the deep blue of the ocean and the silvery white of the cliff, had that striking air of indifference to the fact that his mind had been absent from them which we are apt to find in mundane things on emerging from a nap. The same people were sitting near him on the beach—the same, and yet not quite the same. He found himself noticing a person whom he had not noticed before—a young lady, who was seated in a low portable chair, some dozen yards off, with her eyes bent upon a book. Her head was in shade; her large parasol made, indeed, an awning for her whole person, which in this way, in the quiet attitude of perusal, seemed to abstract itself from the glare and murmur of the beach. The clear shadow of her umbrella—it was lined with blue—was deep upon her face; but it was not deep enough to prevent Bernard from recognising a profile that he knew. He suddenly sat upright, with an intensely quickened vision. Was he dreaming still, or had he waked? In a moment he felt that he was acutely awake; he heard her, across the interval, turn the page of her book. For a single instant, as she did so, she looked with level brows at the glittering ocean, then, lowering her eyes, she went on with her reading. In this barely perceptible movement he saw Angela Vivian; it was wonderful how well he remembered her. She was evidently reading very seriously; she was much interested in her book. She was alone; Bernard looked about for her mother, but Mrs. Vivian was not in sight. By this time Bernard had become aware that he was agitated; the exquisite rest of a few moments before had passed away. His agitation struck him as unreasonable; in a few minutes he made up his mind that it was absurd. He had done her an injury—yes; but as she sat there losing herself in a French novel—Bernard could see it was a French novel—he could not make out that she was the worse for it. It had not affected her appearance; Miss Vivian looked admirably pretty. Bernard hoped she would not look towards him or recognise him; he wished to look at her at his ease; to think it over; to make up his mind. The idea of meeting Angela Vivian again had often come into his thoughts; I may, indeed, say that it was a tolerably familiar presence there; but the fact, nevertheless, now presented itself with all the violence of an accident for which he was totally unprepared. He had often asked himself what he should say to her, how he should carry himself, and how he should probably find the young lady; but, with whatever ingenuity he might at the moment have answered these questions, his intelligence at present felt decidedly overtaxed. She was a very pretty girl, to whom he had done a wrong; this was the final attitude into which, with a good deal of preliminary shifting and wavering, she had settled, in his recollection. The wrong was a right, doubtless, from certain points of view; but from the girl's own it could only seem an injury, to which its having been inflicted by a clever young man with whom she had been on agreeable terms, necessarily added a touch of baseness.
In every disadvantage that a woman suffers at the hands of a man, there is inevitably, in what concerns the man, an element of cowardice. When I say "inevitably," I mean that this is what the woman sees in it. This is what Bernard believed that Angela Vivian saw in the fact that, by giving his friend a bad account of her, he had prevented her making an opulent marriage. At first he had said to himself that, whether he had held his tongue or spoken, she had already lost her chance; but with time, somehow, this reflexion had lost its weight in the scale. It conveyed little reassurance to his irritated conscience—it had become imponderable and impertinent. At the moment of which I speak it entirely failed to present itself, even for form's sake; and as he sat looking at this handsome girl who came back to him out of an episode of his past, he thought of her simply as an unprotected woman towards whom he had been indelicate. It is not an agreeable thing for a delicate man like Bernard Longueville to have to accommodate himself to such an admonition, but this is nevertheless what it seemed needful that he should do. If she bore him a grudge he must think it natural; if she vowed him a hatred he must allow her the comfort of it. He had done the only thing possible, but that made it no better for her. He had wronged her. The circumstances mattered nothing, and as he could not make it up to her, the only reasonable thing was to keep out of her way. He had stepped into her path now, and the proper thing was to step out of it. If it could give her no pleasure to see him again, it could certainly do him no good to see her. He had seen her by this time pretty well—as far as mere seeing went—and as yet, apparently, he was none the worse for that; but his hope that he should himself escape unperceived had now become acute. It is singular that this hope should not have led him instantly to turn his back and move away; but the explanation of his imprudent delay is simply that he wished to see a little more of Miss Vivian. He was unable to bring himself to the point. Those clever things that he might have said to her quite faded away. The only good taste was to take himself off, and spare her the trouble of inventing civilities that she could not feel. And yet he continued to sit there from moment to moment, arrested, detained, fascinated I may almost say, by the accident of her not looking round—of her letting him watch her so long. She turned another page, and another, and her reading absorbed her still. He was so near her that he could have touched her dress with the point of his umbrella. At last she raised her eyes and rested them a while on the blue horizon, straight in front of her, but as yet without turning them aside. This, however, augmented the danger of her doing so, and Bernard, with a good deal of an effort, rose to his feet. The effort, doubtless, kept the movement from being either as light or as swift as it might have been, and it vaguely attracted his neighbour's attention. She turned her head and glanced at him, with a glance that evidently expected but to touch him and pass. It touched him, and it was on the point of passing; then it suddenly checked itself. She had recognised him. She looked at him, straight and open-eyed, out of the shadow of her parasol, and Bernard stood there—motionless now—receiving her gaze. How long it lasted need not be narrated. It was probably a matter of a few seconds, but to Bernard it seemed a little eternity. He met her eyes, he looked straight into her face; now that she had seen him he could do nothing else. Bernard's little eternity, however, came to an end; Miss Vivian dropped her eyes upon her book again. She let them rest upon it only a moment; then she closed it and slowly rose from her chair, turning away from Bernard. He still stood looking at her—stupidly, foolishly, helplessly enough, as it seemed to him; no sign of recognition had been exchanged. Angela Vivian hesitated a minute; she now had her back turned to him, and he fancied her light flexible figure was agitated by her indecision. She looked along the sunny beach, which stretched its shallow curve to where the little bay ended and the white wall of the cliffs began. She looked down towards the sea, and up towards the little Casino which was perched on a low embankment, communicating with the beach at two or three points by a short flight of steps. Bernard saw—or supposed he saw—that she was asking herself whither she had best turn to avoid him. He had not blushed when she looked at him—he had rather turned a little pale; but he blushed now, for it really seemed odious to have literally driven a poor girl to bay. Miss Vivian decided to take refuge in the Casino, and she passed along one of the little pathways of planks that were laid here and there across the beach, and directed herself to the nearest flight of steps. Before she had gone two paces a complete change came over Bernard's feeling; his only wish now was to speak to her—to explain—to tell her he would go away. There was another row of steps at a short distance behind him; he rapidly ascended them, and reached the little terrace of the Casino. Miss Vivian stood there; she was apparently hesitating again which way to turn. Bernard came straight up to her, with a gallant smile and a greeting. The comparison is a coarse one, but he felt that he was taking the bull by the horns. Angela Vivian stood watching him arrive.
"You didn't recognise me," he said, "and your not recognising me made me—made me hesitate."
For a moment she said nothing, and then—
"You are more timid than you used to be!" she answered.
He could hardly have said what expression he had expected to find in her face; his apprehension had, perhaps, not painted her obtrusively pale and haughty, aggressively cold and stern; but it had figured something different from the look he encountered. Miss Vivian was simply blushing—that was what Bernard mainly perceived; he saw that her surprise had been extreme—complete. Her blush was reassuring; it contradicted the idea of impatient resentment, and Bernard took some satisfaction in noting that it was prolonged.
"Yes, I am more timid than I used to be," he said. In spite of her blush, she continued to look at him very directly; but she had always done that—she always met one's eye; and Bernard now instantly found all the beauty that he had ever found before in her clear unevasive glance.
"I don't know whether I am more brave," she said; "but I must tell the truth—I instantly recognised you."
"You gave no sign!"
"I supposed I gave a striking one—in getting up and going away."
"Ah," said Bernard, "as I say, I am more timid than I was, and I didn't venture to interpret that as a sign of recognition."
"It was a sign of surprise."
"Not of pleasure!" said Bernard. He felt this to be a venturesome, and from the point of view of taste, perhaps a reprehensible, remark; but he made it because he was now feeling his ground, and it seemed better to make it gravely than with assumed jocosity.
"Great surprises are, to me, never pleasures," Angela answered; "I am not fond of shocks of any kind. The pleasure is another matter. I have not yet got over my surprise."
"If I had known you were here, I would have written to you beforehand," said Bernard, laughing.
Miss Vivian, beneath her expanded parasol, gave a little shrug of her shoulders.
"Even that would have been a surprise."
"You mean a shock, eh? Did you suppose I was dead?"
Now, at last, she lowered her eyes, and her blush slowly died away.
"I knew nothing about it."
"Of course you couldn't know, and we are all mortal. It was natural that you should not expect—simply on turning your head—to find me lying on the pebbles at Blanquais-les-Galets. You were a great surprise to me, as well; but I differ from you—I like surprises."
"It is rather refreshing to hear that one is a surprise," said the girl.
"Especially when in that capacity one is liked!" Bernard exclaimed.
"I don't say that—because such sensations pass away. I am now beginning to get over mine."
The light mockery of her tone struck him as the echo of an unforgotten air. He looked at her a moment, and then he said—
"You are not changed; I find you quite the same."
"I am sorry for that!" And she turned away.
"What are you doing?" he asked. "Where are you going?"
She looked about her, without answering, up and down the little terrace. The Casino at Blanquais was a much more modest place of reunion than the Conversation-house at Baden-Baden. It was a small, low structure of brightly-painted wood, containing but three or four rooms, and furnished all along its front with a narrow covered gallery, which offered a delusive shelter from the rougher moods of the fine, fresh weather. It was somewhat rude and shabby—the subscription for the season was low—but it had a positive picturesqueness. Its little terrace was a very convenient place for a stroll, and the great view of the ocean and of the marble-white crags that formed the broad gateway of the shallow bay, was a sufficient compensation for the absence of luxuries. There were a few people sitting in the gallery, and a few others scattered upon the terrace; but the pleasure-seekers of Blanquais were, for the most part, immersed in the salt water or disseminated upon the grassy downs.
"I am looking for my mother," said Angela Vivian.
"I hope your mother is well."
"Very well, thank you."
"May I help you to look for her?" Bernard asked. Her eyes paused in their quest, and rested a moment upon her companion.
"She is not here," she said presently. "She has gone home."
"What do you call home?" Bernard demanded.
"The sort of place that we always call home; a bad little house that we have taken for a month."
"Will you let me come and see it?"
"It's nothing to see."
Bernard hesitated a moment.
"Is that a refusal?"
"I should never think of giving it so fine a name."
"There would be nothing fine in forbidding me your door. Don't think that!" said Bernard, with rather a forced laugh.
It was difficult to know what Miss Vivian thought; but she said, in a moment—
"We shall be very happy to see you. I am going home."
"May I walk with you so far?" asked Bernard.
"It's not far; it's only three minutes." And Angela moved slowly to the gate of the Casino.