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The first sunday that followed Robert Acton's return from Newport
witnessed a change in the brilliant weather that had long prevailed.
The rain began to fall and the day was cold and dreary.
Mr. Wentworth and his daughters put on overshoes and went to church,
and Felix Young, without overshoes, went also, holding an umbrella
over Gertrude. It is to be feared that, in the whole observance,
this was the privilege he most highly valued. The Baroness remained
at home; she was in neither a cheerful nor a devotional mood.
She had, however, never been, during her residence in the United
States, what is called a regular attendant at divine service;
and on this particular Sunday morning of which I began with speaking
she stood at the window of her little drawing-room, watching
the long arm of a rose-tree that was attached to her piazza,
but a portion of which had disengaged itself, sway to and fro,
shake and gesticulate, against the dusky drizzle of the sky.
Every now and then, in a gust of wind, the rose-tree scattered
a shower of water-drops against the window-pane; it appeared
to have a kind of human movement--a menacing, warning intention.
The room was very cold; Madame Munster put on a shawl and walked about.
Then she determined to have some fire; and summoning her ancient negress,
the contrast of whose polished ebony and whose crimson turban had been
at first a source of satisfaction to her, she made arrangements for
the production of a crackling flame. This old woman's name was Azarina.
The Baroness had begun by thinking that there would be a savory wildness
in her talk, and, for amusement, she had encouraged her to chatter.
But Azarina was dry and prim; her conversation was anything but African;
she reminded Eugenia of the tiresome old ladies she met in society.
She knew, however, how to make a fire; so that after she had laid
the logs, Eugenia, who was terribly bored, found a quarter of an hour's
entertainment in sitting and watching them blaze and sputter.
She had thought it very likely Robert Acton would come and see her;
she had not met him since that infelicitous evening.
But the morning waned without his coming; several times she thought
she heard his step on the piazza; but it was only a window-shutter
shaking in a rain-gust. The Baroness, since the beginning
of that episode in her career of which a slight sketch has been
attempted in these pages, had had many moments of irritation.
But to-day her irritation had a peculiar keenness;
it appeared to feed upon itself. It urged her to do something;
but it suggested no particularly profitable line of action.
If she could have done something at the moment, on the spot,
she would have stepped upon a European steamer and turned her back,
with a kind of rapture, upon that profoundly mortifying failure,
her visit to her American relations. It is not exactly
apparent why she should have termed this enterprise a failure,
inasmuch as she had been treated with the highest distinction
for which allowance had been made in American institutions.
Her irritation came, at bottom, from the sense, which, always present,
had suddenly grown acute, that the social soil on this big,
vague continent was somehow not adapted for growing those plants whose
fragrance she especially inclined to inhale and by which she liked
to see herself surrounded--a species of vegetation for which she
carried a collection of seedlings, as we may say, in her pocket.
She found her chief happiness in the sense of exerting a certain
power and making a certain impression; and now she felt the annoyance
of a rather wearied swimmer who, on nearing shore, to land,
finds a smooth straight wall of rock when he had counted upon a clean
firm beach. Her power, in the American air, seemed to have lost its
prehensile attributes; the smooth wall of rock was insurmountable.
"Surely je n'en suis pas la," she said to herself, "that I let
it make me uncomfortable that a Mr. Robert Acton should n't
honor me with a visit!" Yet she was vexed that he had not come;
and she was vexed at her vexation.