Confidence, by Henry James

Chapter 10

It had seemed to him a good idea to interrogate Mrs. Vivian; but there are a great many good ideas that are never put into execution. As he approached her with a smile and a salutation, and, with the air of asking leave to take a liberty, seated himself in the empty chair beside her, he felt a humorous relish of her own probable dismay which relaxed the investigating impulse. His impulse was now simply to prove to her that he was the most unobjectionable fellow in the world — a proposition which resolved itself into several ingenious observations upon the weather, the music, the charms and the drawbacks of Baden, the merits of the volume that she held in her lap. If Mrs. Vivian should be annoyed, should be fluttered, Bernard would feel very sorry for her; there was nothing in the world that he respected more than the moral consciousness of a little Boston woman whose view of life was serious and whose imagination was subject to alarms. He held it to be a temple of delicacy, where one should walk on tiptoe, and he wished to exhibit to Mrs. Vivian the possible lightness of his own step. She herself was incapable of being rude or ungracious, and now that she was fairly confronted with the plausible object of her mistrust, she composed herself to her usual attitude of refined liberality. Her book was a volume of Victor Cousin.

“You must have an extraordinary power of abstracting your mind,” Bernard said to her, observing it. “Studying philosophy at the Baden Kursaal strikes me as a real intellectual feat.”

“Don’t you think we need a little philosophy here?”

“By all means — what we bring with us. But I should n’t attempt the use of the text-book on the spot.”

“You should n’t speak of yourself as if you were not clever,” said Mrs. Vivian. “Every one says you are so very clever.”

Longueville stared; there was an unexpectedness in the speech and an incongruity in Mrs. Vivian’s beginning to flatter him. He needed to remind himself that if she was a Bostonian, she was a Bostonian perverted.

“Ah, my dear madam, every one is no one,” he said, laughing.

“It was Mr. Wright, in particular,” she rejoined. “He has always told us that.”

“He is blinded by friendship.”

“Ah yes, we know about your friendship,” said Mrs. Vivian. “He has told us about that.”

“You are making him out a terrible talker!”

“We think he talks so well — we are so very fond of his conversation.”

“It ‘s usually excellent,” said Bernard. “But it depends a good deal on the subject.”

“Oh,” rejoined Mrs. Vivian, “we always let him choose his subjects.” And dropping her eyes as if in sudden reflection, she began to smooth down the crumpled corner of her volume.

It occurred to Bernard that — by some mysterious impulse — she was suddenly presenting him with a chance to ask her the question that Blanche Evers had just suggested. Two or three other things as well occurred to him. Captain Lovelock had been struck with the fact that she favored Gordon Wright’s addresses to her daughter, and Captain Lovelock had a grotesque theory that she had set her heart upon seeing this young lady come into six thousand a year. Miss Evers’s devoted swain had never struck Bernard as a brilliant reasoner, but our friend suddenly found himself regarding him as one of the inspired. The form of depravity into which the New England conscience had lapsed on Mrs. Vivian’s part was an undue appreciation of a possible son-inlaw’s income! In this illuminating discovery everything else became clear. Mrs. Vivian disliked her humble servant because he had not thirty thousand dollars a year, and because at a moment when it was Angela’s prime duty to concentrate her thoughts upon Gordon Wright’s great advantages, a clever young man of paltry fortune was a superfluous diversion.

“When you say clever, everything is relative,” he presently observed. “Now, there is Captain Lovelock; he has a certain kind of cleverness; he is very observant.”

Mrs. Vivian glanced up with a preoccupied air.

“We don’t like Captain Lovelock,” she said.

“I have heard him say capital things,” Bernard answered.

“We think him brutal,” said Mrs. Vivian. “Please don’t praise Captain Lovelock.”

“Oh, I only want to be just.”

Mrs. Vivian for a moment said nothing.

“Do you want very much to be just?” she presently asked.

“It ‘s my most ardent desire.”

“I ‘m glad to hear that — and I can easily believe it,” said Mrs. Vivian.

Bernard gave her a grateful smile, but while he smiled, he asked himself a serious question. “Why the deuce does she go on flattering me? — You have always been very kind to me,” he said aloud.

“It ‘s on Mr. Wright’s account,” she answered demurely.

In speaking the words I have just quoted, Bernard Longueville had felt himself, with a certain compunction, to be skirting the edge of clever impudence; but Mrs. Vivian’s quiet little reply suggested to him that her cleverness, if not her impudence, was almost equal to his own. He remarked to himself that he had not yet done her justice.

“You bring everything back to Gordon Wright,” he said, continuing to smile.

Mrs. Vivian blushed a little.

“It is because he is really at the foundation of everything that is pleasant for us here. When we first came we had some very disagreeable rooms, and as soon as he arrived he found us some excellent ones — that were less expensive. And then, Mr. Longueville,” she added, with a soft, sweet emphasis which should properly have contradicted the idea of audacity, but which, to Bernard’s awakened sense, seemed really to impart a vivid color to it, “he was also the cause of your joining our little party.”

“Oh, among his services that should never be forgotten. You should set up a tablet to commemorate it, in the wall of the Kursaal! — The wicked little woman!” Bernard mentally subjoined.

Mrs. Vivian appeared quite unruffled by his sportive sarcasm, and she continued to enumerate her obligations to Gordon Wright.

“There are so many ways in which a gentleman can be of assistance to three poor lonely women, especially when he is at the same time so friendly and so delicate as Mr. Wright. I don’t know what we should have done without him, and I feel as if every one ought to know it. He seems like a very old friend. My daughter and I quite worship him. I will not conceal from you that when I saw you coming through the grounds a short time ago without him I was very much disappointed. I hope he is not ill.”

Bernard sat listening, with his eyes on the ground.

“Oh no, he is simply at home writing letters.”

Mrs. Vivian was silent a moment.

“I suppose he has a very large correspondence.”

“I really don’t know. Just now that I am with him he has a smaller one than usual.”

“Ah yes. When you are separated I suppose you write volumes to each other. But he must have a great many business letters.”

“It is very likely,” said Bernard. “And if he has, you may be sure he writes them.”

“Order and method!” Mrs. Vivian exclaimed. “With his immense property those virtues are necessary.”

Bernard glanced at her a moment.

“My dear Lovelock,” he said to himself, “you are not such a fool as you seem. — Gordon’s virtues are always necessary, doubtless,” he went on. “But should you say his property was immense?”

Mrs. Vivian made a delicate little movement of deprecation. “Oh, don’t ask me to say! I know nothing about it; I only supposed he was rich.”

“He is rich; but he is not a Croesus.”

“Oh, you fashionable young men have a standard of luxury!” said Mrs. Vivian, with a little laugh. “To a poverty-stricken widow such a fortune as Mr. Wright’s seems magnificent.”

“Don’t call me such horrible names!” exclaimed Bernard. “Our friend has certainly money enough and to spare.”

“That was all I meant. He once had occasion to allude to his property, but he was so modest, so reserved in the tone he took about it, that one hardly knew what to think.”

“He is ashamed of being rich,” said Bernard. “He would be sure to represent everything unfavorably.”

“That ‘s just what I thought!” This ejaculation was more eager than Mrs. Vivian might have intended, but even had it been less so, Bernard was in a mood to appreciate it. “I felt that we should make allowances for his modesty. But it was in very good taste,” Mrs. Vivian added.

“He ‘s a fortunate man,” said Bernard. “He gets credit for his good taste — and he gets credit for the full figure of his income as well!”

“Ah,” murmured Mrs. Vivian, rising lightly, as if to make her words appear more casual, “I don’t know the full figure of his income.”

She was turning away, and Bernard, as he raised his hat and separated from her, felt that it was rather cruel that he should let her go without enlightening her ignorance. But he said to himself that she knew quite enough. Indeed, he took a walk along the Lichtenthal Alley and carried out this line of reflection. Whether or no Miss Vivian were in love with Gordon Wright, her mother was enamored of Gordon’s fortune, and it had suddenly occurred to her that instead of treating the friend of her daughter’s suitor with civil mistrust, she would help her case better by giving him a hint of her state of mind and appealing to his sense of propriety. Nothing could be more natural than that Mrs. Vivian should suppose that Bernard desired his friend’s success; for, as our thoughtful hero said to himself, what she had hitherto taken it into her head to fear was not that Bernard should fall in love with her daughter, but that her daughter should fall in love with him. Watering-place life is notoriously conducive to idleness of mind, and Bernard strolled for half an hour along the overarched avenue, glancing alternately at these two insupposable cases.

A few days afterward, late in the evening, Gordon Wright came to his room at the hotel.

“I have just received a letter from my sister,” he said. “I am afraid I shall have to go away.”

“Ah, I ‘m sorry for that,” said Bernard, who was so well pleased with the actual that he desired no mutation.

“I mean only for a short time,” Gordon explained. “My poor sister writes from England, telling me that my brother-inlaw is suddenly obliged to go home. She has decided not to remain behind, and they are to sail a fortnight hence. She wants very much to see me before she goes, and as I don’t know when I shall see her again, I feel as if I ought to join her immediately and spend the interval with her. That will take about a fortnight.”

“I appreciate the sanctity of family ties and I project myself into your situation,” said Bernard. “On the other hand, I don’t envy you a breathless journey from Baden to Folkestone.”

“It ‘s the coming back that will be breathless,” exclaimed Gordon, smiling.

“You will certainly come back, then?”

“Most certainly. Mrs. Vivian is to be here another month.”

“I understand. Well, we shall miss you very much.”

Gordon Wright looked for a moment at his companion.

“You will stay here, then? I am so glad of that.”

“I was taking it for granted; but on reflection — what do you recommend?”

“I recommend you to stay.”

“My dear fellow, your word is law,” said Bernard.

“I want you to take care of those ladies,” his friend went on. “I don’t like to leave them alone.”

“You are joking!” cried Bernard. “When did you ever hear of my ‘taking care’ of any one? It ‘s as much as I can do to take care of myself.”

“This is very easy,” said Gordon. “I simply want to feel that they have a man about them.”

“They will have a man at any rate — they have the devoted Lovelock.”

“That ‘s just why I want them to have another. He has only an eye to Miss Evers, who, by the way, is extremely bored with him. You look after the others. You have made yourself very agreeable to them, and they like you extremely.”

“Ah,” said Bernard, laughing, “if you are going to be coarse and flattering, I collapse. If you are going to titillate my vanity, I succumb.”

“It won’t be so disagreeable,” Gordon observed, with an intention vaguely humorous.

“Oh no, it won’t be disagreeable. I will go to Mrs. Vivian every morning, hat in hand, for my orders.”

Gordon Wright, with his hands in his pockets and a meditative expression, took several turns about the room.

“It will be a capital chance,” he said, at last, stopping in front of his companion.

“A chance for what?”

“A chance to arrive at a conclusion about my young friend.”

Bernard gave a gentle groan.

“Are you coming back to that? Did n’t I arrive at a conclusion long ago? Did n’t I tell you she was a delightful girl?”

“Do you call that a conclusion? The first comer could tell me that at the end of an hour.”

“Do you want me to invent something different?” Bernard asked. “I can’t invent anything better.”

“I don’t want you to invent anything. I only want you to observe her — to study her in complete independence. You will have her to yourself — my absence will leave you at liberty. Hang it, sir,” Gordon declared, “I should think you would like it!”

“Damn it, sir, you ‘re delicious!” Bernard answered; and he broke into an irrepressible laugh. “I don’t suppose it ‘s for my pleasure that you suggest the arrangement.”

Gordon took a turn about the room again.

“No, it ‘s for mine. At least, it ‘s for my benefit.”

“For your benefit?”

“I have got all sorts of ideas — I told you the other day. They are all mixed up together and I want a fresh impression.”

“My impressions are never fresh,” Bernard replied.

“They would be if you had a little good-will — if you entered a little into my dilemma.” The note of reproach was so distinct in these words that Bernard stood staring. “You never take anything seriously,” his companion went on.

Bernard tried to answer as seriously as possible.

“Your dilemma seems to me of all dilemmas the strangest.”

“That may be; but different people take things differently. Don’t you see,” Gordon went on with a sudden outbreak of passion —“don’t you see that I am horribly divided in mind? I care immensely for Angela Vivian — and yet — and yet — I am afraid of her.”

“Afraid of her?”

“I am afraid she ‘s cleverer than I— that she would be a difficult wife; that she might do strange things.”

“What sort of things?”

“Well, that she might flirt, for instance.”

“That ‘s not a thing for a man to fear.”

“Not when he supposes his wife to be fond of him — no. But I don’t suppose that — I have given that up. If I should induce Angela Vivian to accept me she would do it on grounds purely reasonable. She would think it best, simply. That would give her a chance to repent.”

Bernard sat for some time looking at his friend.

“You say she is cleverer than you. It ‘s impossible to be cleverer than you.”

“Oh, come, Longueville!” said Gordon, angrily.

“I am speaking very seriously. You have done a remarkably clever thing. You have impressed me with the reality, and with — what shall I term it? — the estimable character of what you call your dilemma. Now this fresh impression of mine — what do you propose to do with it when you get it?”

“Such things are always useful. It will be a good thing to have.”

“I am much obliged to you; but do you propose to let anything depend upon it? Do you propose to take or to leave Miss Vivian — that is, to return to the charge or to give up trying — in consequence of my fresh impression?”

Gordon seemed perfectly unembarrassed by this question, in spite of the ironical light which it projected upon his sentimental perplexity.

“I propose to do what I choose!” he said.

“That ‘s a relief to me,” Bernard rejoined. “This idea of yours is, after all, only the play of the scientific mind.”

“I shall contradict you flat if I choose,” Gordon went on.

“Ah, it ‘s well to warn me of that,” said Bernard, laughing. “Even the most sincere judgment in the world likes to be notified a little of the danger of being contradicted.”

“Is yours the most sincere judgment in the world?” Gordon demanded.

“That ‘s a very pertinent question. Does n’t it occur to you that you may have reason to be jealous — leaving me alone, with an open field, with the woman of your choice?”

“I wish to heaven I could be jealous!” Gordon exclaimed. “That would simplify the thing — that would give me a lift.”

And the next day, after some more talk, it seemed really with a hope of this contingency — though, indeed, he laughed about it — that he started for England.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38