The Private Life, Lord Beaupré, The Visits/Lord Beaupré/Chapter 5
He was able promptly to assure his accomplice that their little plot was working to a charm; it already made such a difference for the better. Only a week had elapsed, but he felt quite another man; his life was no longer spent in springing to arms, and he had ceased to sleep in his boots. The ghost of his great fear was laid; he could follow out his inclinations and attend to his neglected affairs. The news had been a bomb in the enemy's camp, and there were plenty of blank faces to testify to the confusion it had wrought. Every one was "sold," and every one made haste to clap him on the back. Lottie Firminger only had written in terms of which no notice could be taken, though, of course, he expected every time he came in to find her waiting in his hall. Her mother was coming up to town, and he should have the family on his back; but taking them as a single body he could manage them, and that was a detail. The Ashburys had remained at Bosco till that establishment was favored with the tidings that so nearly concerned it (they were communicated to Maud's mother by the house-keeper), and then the beautiful sufferer had found in her defeat strength to seek another asylum. The two ladies had departed for a destination unknown; he didn't think they had turned up in London. Guy Firminger averred that there were precious portable objects which he was sure he should miss on returning to his country home.
He came every day to Chester Street, and was evidently much less bored than Mary had prefigured by this regular tribute to verisimilitude. It was amusement enough to see the progress of their comedy and to invent new touches for some of its scenes. The girl herself was amused; it was an opportunity like another for cleverness such as hers, and had much in common with private theatricals, especially with the rehearsals, the most amusing part. Moreover, she was good-natured enough to be really pleased at the service it was impossible for her not to acknowledge that she had rendered. Each of the parties to this queer contract had anecdotes and suggestions for the other, and each reminded the other duly that they must at every step keep their story straight. Except for the exercise of this care Mary Gosselin found her duties less onorous than she had feared, and her part in general much more passive than active. It consisted, indeed, largely of murmuring thanks and smiling and looking happy and handsome; as well as, perhaps, also in saying, in answer to many questions, that nothing as yet was fixed, and of trying to remain humble when people expressed without ceremony that such a match was a wonder for such a girl. Her mother, on the other hand, was devotedly active. She treated the situation with private humor but with public zeal, and, making it both real and ideal, told so many fibs about it that there were none left for Mary. The girl had failed to understand Mrs. Gosselin's interest in this elaborate pleasantry; the good lady had seen in it from the first more than she herself had been able to see. Mary performed her task mechanically, sceptically; but Mrs. Gosselin attacked hers with conviction, and had really the air at moments of thinking that their fable had crystallized into fact. Mary allowed her as little of this attitude as possible, and was ironical about her duplicity—warnings which the elder lady received with gayety, until one day when repetition had made them act on her nerves. Then she begged her daughter, with sudden asperity, not to talk to her as if she were a fool. She had already had words with Hugh about some aspects of the affair—so much as this was evident in Chester Street—a smothered discussion which at the moment had determined the poor boy to go to Paris with Bolton-Brown. The young men came back together after Mary had been "engaged" three weeks, but she remained in ignorance of what passed between Hugh and his mother the night of his return. She had gone to the opera with Lady Whiteroy, after one of her invariable comments on Mrs. Gosselin's invariable remark that of course Guy Firminger would spend his evening in their box. The remedy for his trouble, Lord Beaupré's prospective bride had said, was surely worse than the disease; she was in perfect good faith when she wondered that his lordship's sacrifices, his laborious cultivation of appearances should "pay."
Hugh Gosselin dined with his mother, and at dinner talked of Paris and of what he had seen and done there; he kept the conversation superficial, and after he had heard how his sister, at the moment, was occupied, asked no question that might have seemed to denote an interest in the success of the experiment for which in going abroad he had declined responsibility. His mother could not help observing that he never mentioned Guy Firminger by either of his names, and it struck her as a part of the same detachment that later, up-stairs (she sat with him while he smoked), he should suddenly say, as he finished a cigar:
"I return to New York next week."
"Before your time? What for?" Mrs. Gosselin was horrified.
"Oh, mamma, you know what for!"
"Because you still resent poor Mary's good-nature?"
"I don't understand it, and I don't like things I don't understand; therefore I'd rather not be here to see it. Besides, I really can't tell a pack of lies."
Mrs. Gosselin exclaimed and protested; she had arguments to prove that there was no call at present for the least deflection from the truth; all that any one had to reply to any question (and there could be none that was embarrassing save the ostensible determination of the date of the marriage) was that nothing was settled as yet— a form of words in which for the life of her she couldn't see any perjury. "Why, then, go in for anything in such bad taste, to culminate only in something so absurd?" Hugh demanded. "If the essential part of the matter can't be spoken of as fixed nothing is fixed, the deception becomes transparent, and they give the whole idea away. It's child's play."
"That's why it's so innocent. All I can tell you is that practically their attitude answers; he's delighted with its success. Those dreadful women have given him up; they've already found some other victim."
"And how is it all to end, please?"
Mrs. Gosselin was silent a moment. "Perhaps it won't end."
"Do you mean that the engagement will become real?"
Again the good lady said nothing until she broke out: "My dear boy, can't you trust your poor old mummy?"
"Is that your speculation? Is that Mary's? I never heard of anything so odious!" Hugh Gosselin cried. But she defended his sister with eagerness, with a gloss of coaxing, maternal indignation, declaring that Mary's disinterestedness was complete—she had the perfect proof of it. Hugh was conscious, as he lighted another cigar, that the conversation was more fundamental than any that he had ever had with his mother, who, however, hung fire but for an instant when he asked her what this "perfect proof" might be. He didn't doubt of his sister, he admitted that; but the perfect proof would make the whole thing more luminous. It took finally the form of a confession from Mrs. Gosselin that the girl evidently liked—well, greatly liked—Mr. Bolton-Brown. Yes, the good lady had seen for herself at Bosco that the smooth young American was making up to her, and that, time and opportunity aiding, something might very well happen which could not be regarded as satisfactory. She had been very frank with Mary, had besought her not to commit herself to a suitor who in the very nature of the case couldn't meet the most legitimate of their views. Mary, who pretended not to know what their "views" were, had denied that she was in danger; but Mrs. Gosselin had assured her that she had all the air of it, and had said, triumphantly, "Agree to what Lord Beaupré asks of you, and I'll believe you." Mary had wished to be believed—so she had agreed. That was all the witchcraft any one had used.
Mrs. Gosselin out-talked her son, but there were two or three plain questions that he came back to; and the first of these bore upon the ground of her aversion to poor Bolton-Brown. He told her again, as he had told her before, that his friend was that rare bird, a maker of money who was also a man of culture. He was a gentleman to his finger-tips, accomplished, capable, kind, with a charming mother and two lovely sisters (she should see them!), the sort of fellow, in short, whom it was stupid not to appreciate.
"I believe it all; and if I had three daughters he should be very welcome to one of them."
"You might easily have had three daughters who wouldn't attract him at all! You've had the good-fortune to have one who does, and I think you do wrong to interfere with it."
"My eggs are in one basket then, and that's a reason the more for preferring Lord Beaupré," said Mrs. Gosselin.
"Then it is your calculation—" stammered Hugh, in dismay; on which she colored and requested that he would be a little less rough with his mother. She would rather part with him immediately, sad as that would be, than that he should attempt to undo what she had done. When Hugh replied that it was not to Mary but to Beaupré himself that he judged it important he should speak, she informed him that a rash remonstrance might do his sister a cruel wrong. Dear Guy was most attentive.
"If you mean that he really cares for her there's the less excuse for his taking such a liberty with her. He's either in love with her or he isn't. If he is, let him make her a serious offer; if he isn't, let him leave her alone."
Mrs. Gosselin looked at her son with a kind of patient joy. "He's in love with her, but he doesn't know it."
"He ought to know it; and if he's so idiotic, I don't see that we ought to consider him."
"Don't worry—he shall know it!" Mrs. Gosselin cried; and, continuing to struggle with Hugh, she insisted on the delicacy of the situation. She made a certain impression on him, though on confused grounds; she spoke at one moment as if he was to forbear because the matter was a make-believe that happened to contain a convenience for a distressed friend, and at another as if one ought to strain a point because there were great possibilities at stake. She was most lucid when she pictured the social position and other advantages of a peer of the realm. What had those of an American stock-broker, however amiable and with whatever shrill belongings in the background, to compare with them? She was inconsistent, but she was diplomatic, and the result of the discussion was that Hugh Gosselin became conscious of a dread of "injuring" his sister. He became conscious at the same time of a still greater apprehension, that of seeing her arrive at the agreeable in a tortuous, a second-rate manner. He might keep the peace to please his mother, but he couldn't enjoy it, and he actually took his departure, travelling in company with Bolton-Brown, who, of course, before going waited on the ladies in Chester Street to thank them for the kindness they had shown him. It couldn't be kept from Guy Firminger that Hugh was not happy, though when they met, which was only once or twice before he quitted London, Mary Gosselin's brother flattered himself that he was too proud to show it. He had always liked old loafing Guy, and it was disagreeable to him not to like him now; but he was aware that he must either quarrel with him definitely or not at all, and that he had passed his word to his mother. Therefore his attitude was strictly negative; he took with the parties to it no notice whatever of the "engagement," and he couldn't help it if to other people he had the air of not being initiated. They doubtless thought him strangely fastidious. Perhaps he was; the tone of London struck him in some respects as very horrid; he had grown in a manner away from it. Mary was impenetrable; tender, gay, charming, but with no patience, as she said, for his premature flight. Except when Lord Beaupré was present, you would not have dreamed that he existed for her. In his company—he had to be present more or less of course—she was simply like any other English girl who disliked effusiveness. They had each the same manner, that of persons of rather a shy tradition who were on their guard against public "spooning." They practised their fraud with good taste, a good taste mystifying to Bolton-Brown, who thought their precautions excessive. When he took leave of Mary Gosselin her eyes consented for a moment to look deep down into his. He had been from the first of the opinion that they were beautiful, and he was more mystified than ever.
If Guy Firminger had failed to ask Hugh Gosselin whether he had a fault to find with what they were doing, this was, in spite of old friendship, simply because he was too happy now to care much whom he didn't please, to care, at any rate, for criticism. He had ceased to be critical himself, and his high prosperity could take his blamelessness for granted. His happiness would have been offensive if people generally hadn't liked him, for it consisted of a kind of monstrous candid comfort. To take all sorts of things for granted was still his great, his delightful characteristic; but it didn't prevent his showing imagination and tact and taste in particular circumstances. He made, in their little comedy, all the right jokes and none of the wrong ones; the girl had an acute sense that there were some jokes that would have been detestable. She gathered that it was universally supposed she was having an unprecedented season, and something of the glory of an enviable future seemed indeed to hang about her. People no doubt thought it odd that she didn't go about more with her future husband; but those who knew anything about her knew that she had never done exactly as other girls did. She had her own ways, her own freedoms, and her own scruples. Certainly he made the London weeks much richer than they had ever been for a subordinate young person; he put more things into them, so that they grew dense and complicated. This frightened her at moments, especially when she thought with compunction that she was deceiving her very friends. She didn't mind taking the vulgar world in, but there were people she hated not to enlighten, to reassure. She could undeceive no one now, and, indeed, she would have been ashamed. There were hours when she wanted to stop—she had such a dread of doing too much; hours when she thought with dismay that the fiction of the rupture was still to come, with its horrid train of new untrue things. She spoke of it repeatedly to her confederate, who only postponed and postponed, told her she would never dream of forsaking him if she measured the good she was doing him. She did measure it, however, when she met him in the great world; she was of course always meeting him; that was the only way appearances were kept up. There was a certain attitude she could allow him to take on these occasions; it covered and carried off their subterfuge. He could talk to her unmolested; for herself she never spoke of anything but the charming girls, everywhere present, among whom he could freely choose. He didn't protest, because to choose freely was what he wanted, and they discussed these young ladies one by one. Some she recommended, some she disparaged, but it was almost the only subject she tolerated. It was her system, in short, and she wondered he didn't get tired of it; she was so tired of it herself.
She tried other things that she thought he might find wearisome, but his good-humor was magnificent. He was now really for the first time enjoying his promotion, his wealth, his insight into the terms on which the world offered itself to the happy few, and these terms made a mixture healing to irritation. Once, at some glittering ball, he asked her if she should be jealous if he were to dance again with Lady Whiteroy, with whom he had danced already, and this was the only occasion on which he had come near making a joke of the wrong sort. She showed him what she thought of it and made him feel that the way to be forgiven was to spend the rest of the evening with that lovely creature. Now that the phalanx of the pressingly nubile was held in check there was accordingly nothing to prevent his passing his time pleasantly. Before he had taken this effective way the diplomatic mother, when she spied him flirting with a married woman, felt that in urging a virgin daughter's superior claims she worked for righteousness as well as for the poor girl. But Mary Gosselin protected these scandals practically by the still greater scandal of her indifference; so that he was in the odd position of having waited to be confined to know what it was to be at large. He had, in other words, the maximum of security with the minimum of privation. The lovely creatures of Lady Whiteroy's order thought Mary Gosselin charming, but they were the first to see through her falsity.
All this carried our precious pair to the middle of July; but nearly a month before that, one night under the summer stars, on the deck of the steamer that was to reach New York on the morrow, something had passed between Hugh Gosselin and his brooding American friend. The night was warm and splendid; these were their last hours at sea, and Hugh, who had been playing whist in the cabin, came up very late to take an observation before turning in. It was in this way that he chanced on his companion, who was leaning over the stern of the ship and gazing off, beyond its phosphorescent track, at the muffled, moaning ocean, the backward darkness, everything he had relinquished. Hugh stood by him for a moment and then asked him what he was thinking about. Bolton-Brown gave, at first no answer; after which he turned round and, with his back against the guard of the deck, looked up at the multiplied stars. "He has it badly," Hugh Gosselin mentally commented. At last his friend replied: "About something you said yesterday."
"I forget what I said yesterday."
"You spoke of your sister's intended marriage; it was the only time you had spoken of it. You seemed to intimate that it might not after all take place."
Hugh hesitated a little. "Well, it won't take place. They're not engaged, not really. This is a secret, a preposterous secret. I wouldn't tell any one else, but I'm willing to tell you. It may make a difference to you."
Bolton-Brown turned his head; he looked at Hugh a minute through the fresh darkness. "It does make a difference to me. But I don't understand," he added.
"Neither do I. I don't like it. It's a pretence, a temporary make-believe, to help Beaupré through."
"He's so run after."
The young American stared, ejaculated, mused. "Oh, yes—your mother told me."
"It's a sort of invention of my mother's and a notion of his own (very absurd, I think), till he can see his way. Mary serves as a kind of escort for these first exposed months. It's ridiculous, but I don't know that it hurts her."
"Oh!" said Bolton-Brown.
"I don't know either that it does her any good."
"No!" said Bolton-Brown. Then he added: "It's certainly very kind of her."
"It's a case of old friends," Hugh explained, inadequately as he felt. "He has always been in and out of our house."
"But how will it end?"
"I haven't the least idea."
Bolton-Brown was silent; he faced about to the stern again and stared at the rush of the ship. Then shifting his position once more: "Won't the engagement, before they've done, develop into the regular thing?"
Hugh felt as if his mother were listening. "I dare say not. If there were even a remote chance of that, Mary wouldn't have consented."
"But mayn't he easily find that—charming as she is—he's in love with her?"
"He's too much taken up with himself."
"That's just a reason," said Bolton-Brown. "Love is selfish." He considered a moment longer, then he went on: "And mayn't she find—"
"Find what?" said Hugh, as he hesitated.
"Why, that she likes him."
"She likes him, of course, else she wouldn't have come to his assistance. But her certainty about herself must have been just what made her not object to lending herself to the arrangement. She could do it decently because she doesn't seriously care for him. If she did—: Hugh suddenly stopped.
"If she did?" his friend repeated.
"It would have been odious."
"I see," said Bolton-Brown, gently. "But how will they break off?"
"It will be Mary who'll break off."
"Perhaps she'll find it difficult."
"She'll require a pretext."
"I see," mused Bolton-Brown, shifting his position again.
"She'll find one," Hugh declared.
"I hope so," his companion responded. For some minutes neither of them spoke; then Hugh asked: "Are you in love with her?"
"Oh, my dear fellow!" Bolton-Brown wailed. He instantly added, "Will it be any use for me to go back?"
Again Hugh felt as if his mother were listening, but he answered, "Do go back."
"It's awfully strange," said Bolton-Brown. "I'll go back."
"You had better wait a couple of months, you know."
"Mayn't I lose her then?"
"No; they'll drop it all."
"I'll go back," the American repeated, as if he hadn't heard. He was restless, agitated; he had evidently been much affected. He fidgeted away dimly, moved up the level length of the deck. Hugh Gosselin lingered longer at the stern; he fell into the attitude in which he had found the other, leaning over it and looking back at the great vague distance they had come. He thought of his mother.