The Private Life, Lord Beaupré, The Visits/Lord Beaupré/Chapter 2
Nearly two years after Guy Firminger had spent that friendly hour in Mrs. Gosselin's little garden in Hampshire this farseeing woman was enabled (by the return of her son, who in New York, in an English bank, occupied a position in which they all rejoiced, to such great things might it possibly lead) to resume possession, for the season, of the little house in London which her husband had left her to live in, but which her native thrift, in determining her to let it for a term, had converted into a source of income. Hugh Gosselin, who was thirty years old, and at twenty-three, before his father's death, had been despatched to America to exert himself, was understood to be doing very well—so well that his devotion to the interests of his employers had been rewarded, for the first time, with a real holiday. He was to remain in England from May to August, undertaking, as he said, to make it all right if during this time his mother should occupy (to contribute to his entertainment) the habitation in Chester Street. He was a small, preoccupied young man, with a sharpness as acquired as a new hat; he struck his mother and sister as intensely American. For the first few days after his arrival they were startled by his intonations, though they admitted that they had an escape when he reminded them that he might have brought with him an accent embodied in a wife.
"When you do take one," said Mrs. Gosselin, who regarded such an accident over there as inevitable, "you must charge her high for it."
It was not with this question, however, that the little family in Chester Street was mainly engaged, but with the last incident in the extraordinary succession of events which, like a chapter of romance, had in the course of a few months converted their vague and impecunious friend into a personage envied and honored. It was as if a blight had been cast on all Guy Firminger's hinderances. On the day Hugh Gosselin sailed from New York the delicate little boy at Bosco had succumbed to an attack of diphtheria. His father had died of typhoid the previous winter at Naples; his uncle, a few weeks later, had had a fatal accident in the hunting-field. So strangely, so rapidly had the situation cleared up, had his fate and theirs worked for him. Guy had opened his eyes one morning to an earldom which carried with it a fortune not alone nominally but really great. Mrs. Gosselin and Mary had not written to him, but they knew he was at Bosco; he had remained there after the funeral of the late little lord. Mrs. Gosselin, who heard everything, had heard somehow that he was behaving with the greatest consideration, giving the guardians, the trustees, whatever they were called, plenty of time to do everything. Everything was comparatively simple; in the absence of collaterals there were so few other people concerned. The principal relatives were poor Frank Firminger's widow and her girls, who had seen themselves so near to new honors and comforts. Probably the girls would expect their cousin Guy to marry one of them, and think it the least he could decently do; a view the young man himself (if he were very magnanimous) might possibly embrace. The question would be whether he would be very magnanimous. These young ladies exhausted in their three persons the numerous varieties of plainness. On the other hand, Guy Firminger—or Lord Beaupré, as one would have to begin to call him now—was unmistakably kind. Mrs. Gosselin appealed to her son as to whether their noble friend were not unmistakably kind.
"Of course I've known him always, and that time he came out to America—when was it? four years ago—I saw him every day. I like him awfully, and all that; but since you push me, you know," said Hugh Gosselin, "I'm bound to say that the first thing to mention in any description of him would be—if you wanted to be quite correct—that he's unmistakably selfish."
"I see—I see," Mrs. Gosselin unblushingly replied. "Of course I know what you mean," she added, in a moment. "But is he any more so than any one else? Every one's unmistakably selfish."
"Every one but you and Mary," said the young man.
"And you, dear!" his mother smiled. "But a person may be kind, you know—mayn't he?—at the same time that he is selfish. There are different sorts."
"Different sorts of kindness?" Hugh Gosselin asked, with a laugh; and the inquiry undertaken by his mother occupied them for the moment, demanding a subtlety of treatment from which they were not conscious of shrinking, of which rather they had an idea that they were perhaps exceptionally capable. They came back to the temperate view that Guy would never put himself out, would probably never do anything great, but might show himself all the same a delightful member of society. Yes, he was probably selfish, like other people; but unlike most of them he was, somehow, amiably, attachingly, sociably, almost lovably selfish. Without doing anything great he would yet be a great success—a big, pleasant, gossiping, lounging, and, in its way, doubtless very splendid, presence. He would have no ambition, and it was ambition that made selfishness ugly. Hugh and his mother were sure of this last point until Mary, before whom the discussion, when it reached this stage, happened to be carried on, checked them by asking whether that, on the contrary, were not just what was supposed to make it fine.
"Oh, he only wants to be comfortable," said her brother, "but he does want it!"
"There'll be a tremendous rush for him," Mrs. Gosselin prophesied to her son.
"Oh, he'll never marry. It will be too much trouble."
"It's done here without any trouble—for the men. One sees how long you've been out of the country."
"There was a girl in New York whom he might have married—he really liked her. But he wouldn't turn round for her."
"Perhaps she wouldn't turn round for him," said Mary.
"I dare say she'll turn round now," Mrs. Gosselin rejoined; on which Hugh mentioned that there was nothing to be feared from her, all her revolutions had been accomplished. He added that nothing would make any difference—so intimate was his conviction that Beaupré would preserve his independence.
"Then I think he's not so selfish as you say," Mary declared; "or, at any rate, one will never know whether he is. Isn't married life the great chance to show it?"
"Your father never showed it," said Mrs. Gosselin; and as her children were silent in presence of this tribute to the departed, she added, smiling, "Perhaps you think that I did!" They embraced her, to indicate what they thought, and the conversation ended when she had remarked that Lord Beaupré was a man who would be perfectly easy to manage after marriage, with Hugh's exclaiming that this was doubtless exactly why he wished to keep out of it.
Such was evidently his wish, as they were able to judge in Chester Street when he came up to town. He appeared there oftener than was to have been expected, not taking himself, in his new character, at all too seriously to find stray half-hours for old friends. It was plain that he was going to do just as he liked, that he was not a bit excited or uplifted by his change of fortune. Mary Gosselin observed that he had no imagination—she even reproached him with the deficiency to his face; an incident which showed indeed how little seriously she took him. He had no idea of playing a part, and yet he would have been clever enough. He wasn't even systematic about being simple; his simplicity was a series of accidents and indifferences. Never was a man more conscientiously superficial. There were matters on which he valued Mrs. Gosselin's judgment and asked her advice—without, as usually appeared later, ever taking it; such questions, mainly, as the claims of a predecessor's servants, and those, in respect to social intercourse, of the clergyman's family. He didn't like his parson—what was a fellow to do when he didn't like his parson? What he did like was to talk with Hugh about American investments, and it was amusing to Hugh, though he tried not to show his amusement, to find himself looking at Guy Firminger in the light of capital. To Mary he addressed from the first the oddest snatches of confidential discourse, rendered in fact, however, by the levity of his tone, considerably less confidental than in intention. He had something to tell her that he joked about, yet without admitting that it was any less important for being laughable. It was neither more nor less than that Charlotte Firminger, the eldest of his late uncle's four girls, had designated to him in the clearest manner the person she considered he ought to marry. She appealed to his sense of justice, she spoke and wrote, or at any rate she looked and moved, she sighed and sang, in the name of common honesty. He had had four letters from her that week, and to his knowledge there were a series of people in London, people she could bully, whom she had got to promise to take her in for the season. She was going to be on the spot, she was going to follow him up. He took his stand on common honesty, but he had a mortal horror of Charlotte. At the same time, when a girl had a jaw like that and had marked you—really marked you, mind, you felt your safety oozing away. He had given them during the past three months, all those terrible girls, every sort of present that Bond Street could supply; but these demonstrations had only been held to constitute another pledge. Therefore what was a fellow to do? Besides, there were other portents; the air was thick with them, as the sky over battle-fields was darkened by the flight of vultures. They were flocking, the birds of prey, from every quarter, and every girl in England, by Jove! was going to be thrown at his head. What had he done to deserve such a fate? He wanted to stop in England and see all sorts of things through; but how could he stand there and face such a charge? Yet what good would it do to bolt? Wherever he should go there would be fifty of them there first. On his honor he could say that he didn't deserve it; he had never, to his own sense, been a flirt, such a flirt at least as to have given any one a handle. He appealed candidly to Mary Gosselin to know whether his past conduct justified such penalties. "Have I been a flirt—have I given any one a handle?" he inquired, with pathetic intensity.
She met his appeal by declaring that he had been awful, committing himself right and left; and this manner of treating his affliction contributed to the sarcastic publicity (as regarded the little house in Chester Street) which presently became its natural element. Lord Beaupré's comical and yet thoroughly grounded view of his danger was soon a frequent theme among the Gosselins, who however had their own reasons for not communicating the alarm. They had no motive for concealing their interest in their old friend, but their allusions to him among their other friends may be said on the whole to have been studied. His state of mind recalled of course to Mary and her mother the queer talk about his prospects that they had had in the country that afternoon on which Mrs. Gosselin had been so strangely prophetic (she confessed that she had had a flash of divination: the future had been mysteriously revealed to her), and poor Guy, too, had seen himself quite as he was to be. He had seen his nervousness, under inevitable pressure, deepen to a panic, and he now, in intimate hours, made no attempt to disguise that a panic had become his portion. It was a fixed idea with him that he should fall a victim to woven toils, be caught in a trap constructed with superior science. The science evolved in an enterprising age by this branch of industry, the manufacture of the trap matrimonial, he had terrible anecdotes to illustrate; and what had he on his lips but a scientific term when he declared, as he perpetually did, that it was his fate to be hypnotized?
Mary Gosselin reminded him, they each in turn reminded him, that his safeguard was to fall in love; were he once to put himself under that protection, all of the mothers and maids in Mayfair would not prevail against him. He replied that this was just the impossibility; it took leisure and calmness and opportunity and a free mind to fall in love, and never was a man less open to such experiences. He was literally fighting his way. He reminded the girl of his old fancy for pretending already to have disposed of his hand if he could put that hand on a young person who would like him well enough to be willing to participate in the fraud. She would have to place herself in rather a false position, of course—have to take a certain amount of trouble; but there would, after all, be a good deal of fun in it (there was always fun in duping the world) between the pair themselves, the two happy comedians.
"Why should they both be happy?" Mary Gosselin asked. "I understand why you should; but, frankly, I don't quite grasp the reason of her pleasure."
Lord Beaupré, with his sunny human eyes, thought a moment. "Why, for the lark, as they say, and that sort of thing. I should be awfully nice to her."
"She would require indeed to be in want of recreation!"
"Ah, but I should want a good sort—a quiet, reasonable one, you know!" he somewhat eagerly interposed.
"You're too delightful!" Mary Gosselin exclaimed, continuing to laugh. He thanked her for this appreciation, and she returned to her point—that she didn't really see the advantage his accomplice could hope to enjoy as her compensation for extreme disturbance.
Guy Finninger stared. "But what extreme disturbance?"
"Why, it would take a lot of time; it might become intolerable."
"You mean I ought to pay her—to hire her for the season?"
Mary Gosselin considered him a moment. "Wouldn't marriage come cheaper at once?" she asked, with a quieter smile.
"You are chaffing me!" he sighed, forgivingly. "Of course she would have to be good-natured enough to pity me."
"Pity's akin to love. If she were good-natured enough to want to help you, she'd be good-natured enough to want to marry you. That would be her idea of help."
"Would it be yours?" Lord Beaupré asked, rather eagerly.
"You're too absurd! You must sail your own boat!" the girl answered, turning away.
That evening at dinner she stated to her companions that she had never seen a fatuity so dense, so serene, so preposterous as his lordship's.
"Fatuity, my dear! what do you mean?" her mother inquired.
"Oh, mamma, you know perfectly." Mary Gosselin spoke with a certain impatience.
"If you mean he's conceited, I'm bound to say I don't agree with you," her brother observed. "He's too indifferent to every one's opinion for that."
"He's not vain, he's not proud, he's not pompous," said Mrs. Gosselin.
Mary was silent a moment. "He takes more things for granted than any one I ever saw."
"What sort of things?"
"Well, one's interest in his affairs."
"With old friends surely a gentleman may."
"Of course," said Hugh Gosselin; "old friends have in turn the right to take for granted a corresponding interest on his part."
"Well, who could be nicer to us than he is, or come to see us oftener?" his mother asked.
"He comes exactly for the purpose I speak of—to talk about himself," said Mary.
"There are thousands of girls who would be delighted with his talk," Mrs. Gosselin returned.
"We agreed long ago that he's intensely selfish," the girl went on; "and if I speak of it to-day, it's not because that in itself is anything of a novelty. What I'm freshly struck with is simply that he more shamelessly shows it."
"He shows it, exactly," said Hugh; "he shows all there is. There it is, on the surface; there are not depths of it underneath."
"He's not hard," Mrs. Gosselin contended; "he's not impervious."
"Do you mean he's soft?" Mary asked.
"I mean he's yielding." And Mrs. Gosselin, with considerable expression, looked across at her daughter. She added, before they rose from dinner, that poor Beaupré had plenty of difficulties, and that she thought, for her part, they ought in common loyalty to do what they could to assist him.
For a week nothing more passed between the two ladies on the subject of their noble friend, and in the course of this week they had the amusement of receiving in Chester Street a member of Hugh's American circle, Mr. Bolton-Brown, a young man from New York. He was a person engaged in large affairs, for whom Hugh Gosselin professed the highest regard, from whom in New York he had received much hospitality, and for whose advent he had from the first prepared his companions. Mrs. Gosselin begged the amiable stranger to stay with them, and if she failed to overcome his hesitation, it was because his hotel was near at hand and he should be able to see them often. It became evident that he would do so, and, to the two ladies, as the days went by, equally evident that no objection to such a relation was likely to arise. Mr. Bolton-Brown was delightfully fresh; the most usual expressions acquired on his lips a wellnigh comical novelty, the most superficial sentiments, in the look with which he accompanied them, a really touching sincerity. He was unmarried and good-looking, clever and natural, and if he was not very rich, was at least very freehanded. He literally strewed the path of the ladies in Chester Street with flowers, he choked them with French confectionery. Hugh, however, who was often rather mysterious on monetary questions, placed in a light sufficiently clear the fact that his friend had in Wall Street (they knew all about Wall Street) improved each shining hour. They introduced him to Lord Beaupré, who thought him "tremendous fun," as Hugh said, and who immediately declared that the four must spend a Sunday at Bosco a week or two later. The date of this visit was fixed—Mrs. Gosselin had uttered a comprehensive acceptance; but after Guy Firminger had taken leave of them (this had been his first appearance since the odd conversation with Mary), our young lady confided to her mother that she should not be able to join the little party. She expressed the conviction that it would be all that was essential if Mrs. Gosselin should go with the two others. On being pressed to communicate the reason of this aloofness, Mary was able to give no better one than that she never had cared for Bosco.
"What makes you hate him so?" her mother presently broke out, in a tone which brought the red to the girl's cheek. Mary denied that she entertained for Lord Beaupré any sentiment so intense; to which Mrs. Gosselin rejoined, with some sternness and, no doubt, considerable wisdom: "Look out what you do, then, or you'll be thought by every one to be in love with him!"