The American, by Henry James

Chapter 15

Valentin de Bellegarde’s announcement of the secession of Mademoiselle Nioche from her father’s domicile and his irreverent reflections upon the attitude of this anxious parent in so grave a catastrophe, received a practical commentary in the fact that M. Nioche was slow to seek another interview with his late pupil. It had cost Newman some disgust to be forced to assent to Valentin’s somewhat cynical interpretation of the old man’s philosophy, and, though circumstances seemed to indicate that he had not given himself up to a noble despair, Newman thought it very possible he might be suffering more keenly than was apparent. M. Nioche had been in the habit of paying him a respectful little visit every two or three weeks and his absence might be a proof quite as much of extreme depression as of a desire to conceal the success with which he had patched up his sorrow. Newman presently learned from Valentin several details touching this new phase of Mademoiselle Noemie’s career.

“I told you she was remarkable,” this unshrinking observer declared, “and the way she has managed this performance proves it. She has had other chances, but she was resolved to take none but the best. She did you the honor to think for a while that you might be such a chance. You were not; so she gathered up her patience and waited a while longer. At last her occasion came along, and she made her move with her eyes wide open. I am very sure she had no innocence to lose, but she had all her respectability. Dubious little damsel as you thought her, she had kept a firm hold of that; nothing could be proved against her, and she was determined not to let her reputation go till she had got her equivalent. About her equivalent she had high ideas. Apparently her ideal has been satisfied. It is fifty years old, bald-headed, and deaf, but it is very easy about money.”

“And where in the world,” asked Newman, “did you pick up this valuable information?”

“In conversation. Remember my frivolous habits. In conversation with a young woman engaged in the humble trade of glove-cleaner, who keeps a small shop in the Rue St. Roch. M. Nioche lives in the same house, up six pair of stairs, across the court, in and out of whose ill-swept doorway Miss Noemie has been flitting for the last five years. The little glove-cleaner was an old acquaintance; she used to be the friend of a friend of mine, who has married and dropped such friends. I often saw her in his society. As soon as I espied her behind her clear little window-pane, I recollected her. I had on a spotlessly fresh pair of gloves, but I went in and held up my hands, and said to her, ‘Dear mademoiselle, what will you ask me for cleaning these?’ ‘Dear count,’ she answered immediately, ‘I will clean them for you for nothing.’ She had instantly recognized me, and I had to hear her history for the last six years. But after that, I put her upon that of her neighbors. She knows and admires Noemie, and she told me what I have just repeated.”

A month elapsed without M. Nioche reappearing, and Newman, who every morning read two or three suicides in the “Figaro,” began to suspect that, mortification proving stubborn, he had sought a balm for his wounded pride in the waters of the Seine. He had a note of M. Nioche’s address in his pocket-book, and finding himself one day in the quartier, he determined in so far as he might to clear up his doubts. He repaired to the house in the Rue St. Roch which bore the recorded number, and observed in a neighboring basement, behind a dangling row of neatly inflated gloves, the attentive physiognomy of Bellegarde’s informant — a sallow person in a dressing-gown — peering into the street as if she were expecting that amiable nobleman to pass again. But it was not to her that Newman applied; he simply asked of the portress if M. Nioche were at home. The portress replied, as the portress invariably replies, that her lodger had gone out barely three minutes before; but then, through the little square hole of her lodge-window taking the measure of Newman’s fortunes, and seeing them, by an unspecified process, refresh the dry places of servitude to occupants of fifth floors on courts, she added that M. Nioche would have had just time to reach the Cafe de la Patrie, round the second corner to the left, at which establishment he regularly spent his afternoons. Newman thanked her for the information, took the second turning to the left, and arrived at the Cafe de la Patrie. He felt a momentary hesitation to go in; was it not rather mean to “follow up” poor old Nioche at that rate? But there passed across his vision an image of a haggard little septuagenarian taking measured sips of a glass of sugar and water and finding them quite impotent to sweeten his desolation. He opened the door and entered, perceiving nothing at first but a dense cloud of tobacco smoke. Across this, however, in a corner, he presently descried the figure of M. Nioche, stirring the contents of a deep glass, with a lady seated in front of him. The lady’s back was turned to Newman, but M. Nioche very soon perceived and recognized his visitor. Newman had gone toward him, and the old man rose slowly, gazing at him with a more blighted expression even than usual.

“If you are drinking hot punch,” said Newman, “I suppose you are not dead. That’s all right. Don’t move.”

M. Nioche stood staring, with a fallen jaw, not daring to put out his hand. The lady, who sat facing him, turned round in her place and glanced upward with a spirited toss of her head, displaying the agreeable features of his daughter. She looked at Newman sharply, to see how he was looking at her, then — I don’t know what she discovered — she said graciously, “How d’ ye do, monsieur? won’t you come into our little corner?”

“Did you come — did you come after ME?” asked M. Nioche very softly.

“I went to your house to see what had become of you. I thought you might be sick,” said Newman.

“It is very good of you, as always,” said the old man. “No, I am not well. Yes, I am SEEK.”

“Ask monsieur to sit down,” said Mademoiselle Nioche. “Garcon, bring a chair.”

“Will you do us the honor to SEAT?” said M. Nioche, timorously, and with a double foreignness of accent.

Newman said to himself that he had better see the thing out and he took a chair at the end of the table, with Mademoiselle Nioche on his left and her father on the other side. “You will take something, of course,” said Miss Noemie, who was sipping a glass of madeira. Newman said that he believed not, and then she turned to her papa with a smile. “What an honor, eh? he has come only for us.” M. Nioche drained his pungent glass at a long draught, and looked out from eyes more lachrymose in consequence. “But you didn’t come for me, eh?” Mademoiselle Noemie went on. “You didn’t expect to find me here?”

Newman observed the change in her appearance. She was very elegant and prettier than before; she looked a year or two older, and it was noticeable that, to the eye, she had only gained in respectability. She looked “lady-like.” She was dressed in quiet colors, and wore her expensively unobtrusive toilet with a grace that might have come from years of practice. Her present self-possession and aplomb struck Newman as really infernal, and he inclined to agree with Valentin de Bellegarde that the young lady was very remarkable. “No, to tell the truth, I didn’t come for you,” he said, “and I didn’t expect to find you. I was told,” he added in a moment “that you had left your father.”

“Quelle horreur!” cried Mademoiselle Nioche with a smile. “Does one leave one’s father? You have the proof of the contrary.”

“Yes, convincing proof,” said Newman glancing at M. Nioche. The old man caught his glance obliquely, with his faded, deprecating eye, and then, lifting his empty glass, pretended to drink again.

“Who told you that?” Noemie demanded. “I know very well. It was M. de Bellegarde. Why don’t you say yes? You are not polite.”

“I am embarrassed,” said Newman.

“I set you a better example. I know M. de Bellegarde told you. He knows a great deal about me — or he thinks he does. He has taken a great deal of trouble to find out, but half of it isn’t true. In the first place, I haven’t left my father; I am much too fond of him. Isn’t it so, little father? M. de Bellegarde is a charming young man; it is impossible to be cleverer. I know a good deal about him too; you can tell him that when you next see him.”

“No,” said Newman, with a sturdy grin; “I won’t carry any messages for you.”

“Just as you please,” said Mademoiselle Nioche, “I don’t depend upon you, nor does M. de Bellegarde either. He is very much interested in me; he can be left to his own devices. He is a contrast to you.”

“Oh, he is a great contrast to me, I have no doubt” said Newman. “But I don’t exactly know how you mean it.”

“I mean it in this way. First of all, he never offered to help me to a dot and a husband.” And Mademoiselle Nioche paused, smiling. “I won’t say that is in his favor, for I do you justice. What led you, by the way, to make me such a queer offer? You didn’t care for me.”

“Oh yes, I did,” said Newman.

“How so?”

“It would have given me real pleasure to see you married to a respectable young fellow.”

“With six thousand francs of income!” cried Mademoiselle Nioche. “Do you call that caring for me? I’m afraid you know little about women. You were not galant; you were not what you might have been.”

Newman flushed a trifle fiercely. “Come!” he exclaimed “that’s rather strong. I had no idea I had been so shabby.”

Mademoiselle Nioche smiled as she took up her muff. “It is something, at any rate, to have made you angry.”

Her father had leaned both his elbows on the table, and his head, bent forward, was supported in his hands, the thin white fingers of which were pressed over his ears. In his position he was staring fixedly at the bottom of his empty glass, and Newman supposed he was not hearing. Mademoiselle Noemie buttoned her furred jacket and pushed back her chair, casting a glance charged with the consciousness of an expensive appearance first down over her flounces and then up at Newman.

“You had better have remained an honest girl,” Newman said, quietly.

M. Nioche continued to stare at the bottom of his glass, and his daughter got up, still bravely smiling. “You mean that I look so much like one? That’s more than most women do nowadays. Don’t judge me yet a while,” she added. “I mean to succeed; that’s what I mean to do. I leave you; I don’t mean to be seen in cafes, for one thing. I can’t think what you want of my poor father; he’s very comfortable now. It isn’t his fault, either. Au revoir, little father.” And she tapped the old man on the head with her muff. Then she stopped a minute, looking at Newman. “Tell M. de Bellegarde, when he wants news of me, to come and get it from ME!” And she turned and departed, the white-aproned waiter, with a bow, holding the door wide open for her.

M. Nioche sat motionless, and Newman hardly knew what to say to him. The old man looked dismally foolish. “So you determined not to shoot her, after all,” Newman said, presently.

M. Nioche, without moving, raised his eyes and gave him a long, peculiar look. It seemed to confess everything, and yet not to ask for pity, nor to pretend, on the other hand, to a rugged ability to do without it. It might have expressed the state of mind of an innocuous insect, flat in shape and conscious of the impending pressure of a boot-sole, and reflecting that he was perhaps too flat to be crushed. M. Nioche’s gaze was a profession of moral flatness. “You despise me terribly,” he said, in the weakest possible voice.

“Oh no,” said Newman, “it is none of my business. It’s a good plan to take things easily.”

“I made you too many fine speeches,” M. Nioche added. “I meant them at the time.”

“I am sure I am very glad you didn’t shoot her,” said Newman. “I was afraid you might have shot yourself. That is why I came to look you up.” And he began to button his coat.

“Neither,” said M. Nioche. “You despise me, and I can’t explain to you. I hoped I shouldn’t see you again.”

“Why, that’s rather shabby,” said Newman. “You shouldn’t drop your friends that way. Besides, the last time you came to see me I thought you particularly jolly.”

“Yes, I remember,” said M. Nioche, musingly; “I was in a fever. I didn’t know what I said, what I did. It was delirium.”

“Ah, well, you are quieter now.”

M. Nioche was silent a moment. “As quiet as the grave,” he whispered softly.

“Are you very unhappy?”

M. Nioche rubbed his forehead slowly, and even pushed back his wig a little, looking askance at his empty glass. “Yes — yes. But that’s an old story. I have always been unhappy. My daughter does what she will with me. I take what she gives me, good or bad. I have no spirit, and when you have no spirit you must keep quiet. I shan’t trouble you any more.”

“Well,” said Newman, rather disgusted at the smooth operation of the old man’s philosophy, “that’s as you please.”

M. Nioche seemed to have been prepared to be despised but nevertheless he made a feeble movement of appeal from Newman’s faint praise. “After all,” he said, “she is my daughter, and I can still look after her. If she will do wrong, why she will. But there are many different paths, there are degrees. I can give her the benefit — give her the benefit”— and M. Nioche paused, staring vaguely at Newman, who began to suspect that his brain had softened —“the benefit of my experience,” M. Nioche added.

“Your experience?” inquired Newman, both amused and amazed.

“My experience of business,” said M. Nioche, gravely.

“Ah, yes,” said Newman, laughing, “that will be a great advantage to her!” And then he said good-by, and offered the poor, foolish old man his hand.

M. Nioche took it and leaned back against the wall, holding it a moment and looking up at him. “I suppose you think my wits are going,” he said. “Very likely; I have always a pain in my head. That’s why I can’t explain, I can’t tell you. And she’s so strong, she makes me walk as she will, anywhere! But there’s this — there’s this.” And he stopped, still staring up at Newman. His little white eyes expanded and glittered for a moment like those of a cat in the dark. “It’s not as it seems. I haven’t forgiven her. Oh, no!”

“That’s right; don’t,” said Newman. “She’s a bad case.”

“It’s horrible, it’s horrible,” said M. Nioche; “but do you want to know the truth? I hate her! I take what she gives me, and I hate her more. To-day she brought me three hundred francs; they are here in my waistcoat pocket. Now I hate her almost cruelly. No, I haven’t forgiven her.”

“Why did you accept the money?” Newman asked.

“If I hadn’t,” said M. Nioche, “I should have hated her still more. That’s what misery is. No, I haven’t forgiven her.”

“Take care you don’t hurt her!” said Newman, laughing again. And with this he took his leave. As he passed along the glazed side of the cafe, on reaching the street, he saw the old man motioning the waiter, with a melancholy gesture, to replenish his glass.

One day, a week after his visit to the Cafe de la Patrie, he called upon Valentin de Bellegarde, and by good fortune found him at home. Newman spoke of his interview with M. Nioche and his daughter, and said he was afraid Valentin had judged the old man correctly. He had found the couple hobnobbing together in all amity; the old gentleman’s rigor was purely theoretic. Newman confessed that he was disappointed; he should have expected to see M. Nioche take high ground.

“High ground, my dear fellow,” said Valentin, laughing; “there is no high ground for him to take. The only perceptible eminence in M. Nioche’s horizon is Montmartre, which is not an edifying quarter. You can’t go mountaineering in a flat country.”

“He remarked, indeed,” said Newman, “that he has not forgiven her. But she’ll never find it out.”

“We must do him the justice to suppose he doesn’t like the thing,” Valentin rejoined. “Mademoiselle Nioche is like the great artists whose biographies we read, who at the beginning of their career have suffered opposition in the domestic circle. Their vocation has not been recognized by their families, but the world has done it justice. Mademoiselle Nioche has a vocation.”

“Oh, come,” said Newman, impatiently, “you take the little baggage too seriously.”

“I know I do; but when one has nothing to think about, one must think of little baggages. I suppose it is better to be serious about light things than not to be serious at all. This little baggage entertains me.”

“Oh, she has discovered that. She knows you have been hunting her up and asking questions about her. She is very much tickled by it. That’s rather annoying.”

“Annoying, my dear fellow,” laughed Valentin; “not the least!”

“Hanged if I should want to have a greedy little adventuress like that know I was giving myself such pains about her!” said Newman.

“A pretty woman is always worth one’s pains,” objected Valentin. “Mademoiselle Nioche is welcome to be tickled by my curiosity, and to know that I am tickled that she is tickled. She is not so much tickled, by the way.”

“You had better go and tell her,” Newman rejoined. “She gave me a message for you of some such drift.”

“Bless your quiet imagination,” said Valentin, “I have been to see her — three times in five days. She is a charming hostess; we talk of Shakespeare and the musical glasses. She is extremely clever and a very curious type; not at all coarse or wanting to be coarse; determined not to be. She means to take very good care of herself. She is extremely perfect; she is as hard and clear-cut as some little figure of a sea-nymph in an antique intaglio, and I will warrant that she has not a grain more of sentiment or heart than if she was scooped out of a big amethyst. You can’t scratch her even with a diamond. Extremely pretty — really, when you know her, she is wonderfully pretty — intelligent, determined, ambitious, unscrupulous, capable of looking at a man strangled without changing color, she is upon my honor, extremely entertaining.”

“It’s a fine list of attractions,” said Newman; “they would serve as a police-detective’s description of a favorite criminal. I should sum them up by another word than ‘entertaining.’ ”

“Why, that is just the word to use. I don’t say she is laudable or lovable. I don’t want her as my wife or my sister. But she is a very curious and ingenious piece of machinery; I like to see it in operation.”

“Well, I have seen some very curious machines too,” said Newman; “and once, in a needle factory, I saw a gentleman from the city, who had stopped too near one of them, picked up as neatly as if he had been prodded by a fork, swallowed down straight, and ground into small pieces.”

Reentering his domicile, late in the evening, three days after Madame de Bellegarde had made her bargain with him — the expression is sufficiently correct — touching the entertainment at which she was to present him to the world, he found on his table a card of goodly dimensions bearing an announcement that this lady would be at home on the 27th of the month, at ten o’clock in the evening. He stuck it into the frame of his mirror and eyed it with some complacency; it seemed an agreeable emblem of triumph, documentary evidence that his prize was gained. Stretched out in a chair, he was looking at it lovingly, when Valentin de Bellegarde was shown into the room. Valentin’s glance presently followed the direction of Newman’s, and he perceived his mother’s invitation.

“And what have they put into the corner?” he asked. “Not the customary ‘music,’ ‘dancing,’ or ‘tableaux vivants’? They ought at least to put ‘An American.’”

“Oh, there are to be several of us,” said Newman. “Mrs. Tristram told me to-day that she had received a card and sent an acceptance.”

“Ah, then, with Mrs. Tristram and her husband you will have support. My mother might have put on her card ‘Three Americans.’ But I suspect you will not lack amusement. You will see a great many of the best people in France. I mean the long pedigrees and the high noses, and all that. Some of them are awful idiots; I advise you to take them up cautiously.”

“Oh, I guess I shall like them,” said Newman. “I am prepared to like every one and everything in these days; I am in high good-humor.”

Valentin looked at him a moment in silence and then dropped himself into a chair with an unwonted air of weariness.

“Happy man!” he said with a sigh. “Take care you don’t become offensive.”

“If any one chooses to take offense, he may. I have a good conscience,” said Newman.

“So you are really in love with my sister.”

“Yes, sir!” said Newman, after a pause.

“And she also?”

“I guess she likes me,” said Newman.

“What is the witchcraft you have used?” Valentin asked. “How do YOU make love?”

“Oh, I haven’t any general rules,” said Newman. “In any way that seems acceptable.”

“I suspect that, if one knew it,” said Valentin, laughing, “you are a terrible customer. You walk in seven-league boots.”

“There is something the matter with you to-night,” Newman said in response to this. “You are vicious. Spare me all discordant sounds until after my marriage. Then, when I have settled down for life, I shall be better able to take things as they come.”

“And when does your marriage take place?”

“About six weeks hence.”

Valentin was silent a while, and then he said, “And you feel very confident about the future?”

“Confident. I knew what I wanted, exactly, and I know what I have got.”

“You are sure you are going to be happy?”

“Sure?” said Newman. “So foolish a question deserves a foolish answer. Yes!”

“You are not afraid of anything?”

“What should I be afraid of? You can’t hurt me unless you kill me by some violent means. That I should indeed consider a tremendous sell. I want to live and I mean to live. I can’t die of illness, I am too ridiculously tough; and the time for dying of old age won’t come round yet a while. I can’t lose my wife, I shall take too good care of her. I may lose my money, or a large part of it; but that won’t matter, for I shall make twice as much again. So what have I to be afraid of?”

“You are not afraid it may be rather a mistake for an American man of business to marry a French countess?”

“For the countess, possibly; but not for the man of business, if you mean me! But my countess shall not be disappointed; I answer for her happiness!” And as if he felt the impulse to celebrate his happy certitude by a bonfire, he got up to throw a couple of logs upon the already blazing hearth. Valentin watched for a few moments the quickened flame, and then, with his head leaning on his hand, gave a melancholy sigh. “Got a headache?” Newman asked.

“Je suis triste,” said Valentin, with Gallic simplicity.

“You are sad, eh? It is about the lady you said the other night that you adored and that you couldn’t marry?”

“Did I really say that? It seemed to me afterwards that the words had escaped me. Before Claire it was bad taste. But I felt gloomy as I spoke, and I feel gloomy still. Why did you ever introduce me to that girl?”

“Oh, it’s Noemie, is it? Lord deliver us! You don’t mean to say you are lovesick about her?”

“Lovesick, no; it’s not a grand passion. But the cold-blooded little demon sticks in my thoughts; she has bitten me with those even little teeth of hers; I feel as if I might turn rabid and do something crazy in consequence. It’s very low, it’s disgustingly low. She’s the most mercenary little jade in Europe. Yet she really affects my peace of mind; she is always running in my head. It’s a striking contrast to your noble and virtuous attachment — a vile contrast! It is rather pitiful that it should be the best I am able to do for myself at my present respectable age. I am a nice young man, eh, en somme? You can’t warrant my future, as you do your own.”

“Drop that girl, short,” said Newman; “don’t go near her again, and your future will do. Come over to America and I will get you a place in a bank.”

“It is easy to say drop her,” said Valentin, with a light laugh. “You can’t drop a pretty woman like that. One must be polite, even with Noemie. Besides, I’ll not have her suppose I am afraid of her.”

“So, between politeness and vanity, you will get deeper into the mud? Keep them both for something better. Remember, too, that I didn’t want to introduce you to her: you insisted. I had a sort of uneasy feeling about it.”

“Oh, I don’t reproach you,” said Valentin. “Heaven forbid! I wouldn’t for the world have missed knowing her. She is really extraordinary. The way she has already spread her wings is amazing. I don’t know when a woman has amused me more. But excuse me,” he added in an instant; “she doesn’t amuse you, at second hand, and the subject is an impure one. Let us talk of something else.” Valentin introduced another topic, but within five minutes Newman observed that, by a bold transition, he had reverted to Mademoiselle Nioche, and was giving pictures of her manners and quoting specimens of her mots. These were very witty, and, for a young woman who six months before had been painting the most artless madonnas, startlingly cynical. But at last, abruptly, he stopped, became thoughtful, and for some time afterwards said nothing. When he rose to go it was evident that his thoughts were still running upon Mademoiselle Nioche. “Yes, she’s a frightful little monster!” he said.

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