The American, by Henry James

Chapter 18

Newman went the next morning to see Madame de Cintre, timing his visit so as to arrive after the noonday breakfast. In the court of the hotel, before the portico, stood Madame de Bellegarde’s old square carriage. The servant who opened the door answered Newman’s inquiry with a slightly embarrassed and hesitating murmur, and at the same moment Mrs. Bread appeared in the background, dim-visaged as usual, and wearing a large black bonnet and shawl.

“What is the matter?” asked Newman. “Is Madame la Comtesse at home, or not?”

Mrs. Bread advanced, fixing her eyes upon him: he observed that she held a sealed letter, very delicately, in her fingers. “The countess has left a message for you, sir; she has left this,” said Mrs. Bread, holding out the letter, which Newman took.

“Left it? Is she out? Is she gone away?”

“She is going away, sir; she is leaving town,” said Mrs. Bread.

“Leaving town!” exclaimed Newman. “What has happened?”

“It is not for me to say, sir,” said Mrs. Bread, with her eyes on the ground. “But I thought it would come.”

“What would come, pray?” Newman demanded. He had broken the seal of the letter, but he still questioned. “She is in the house? She is visible?”

“I don’t think she expected you this morning,” the old waiting-woman replied. “She was to leave immediately.”

“Where is she going?”

“To Fleurieres.”

“To Fleurieres? But surely I can see her?”

Mrs. Bread hesitated a moment, and then clasping together her two hands, “I will take you!” she said. And she led the way upstairs. At the top of the staircase she paused and fixed her dry, sad eyes upon Newman. “Be very easy with her,” she said; “she is most unhappy!” Then she went on to Madame de Cintre’s apartment; Newman, perplexed and alarmed, followed her rapidly. Mrs. Bread threw open the door, and Newman pushed back the curtain at the farther side of its deep embrasure. In the middle of the room stood Madame de Cintre; her face was pale and she was dressed for traveling. Behind her, before the fire-place, stood Urbain de Bellegarde, looking at his finger-nails; near the marquis sat his mother, buried in an arm-chair, and with her eyes immediately fixing themselves upon Newman. He felt, as soon as he entered the room, that he was in the presence of something evil; he was startled and pained, as he would have been by a threatening cry in the stillness of the night. He walked straight to Madame de Cintre and seized her by the hand.

“What is the matter?” he asked, commandingly; “what is happening?”

Urbain de Bellegarde stared, then left his place and came and leaned upon his mother’s chair, behind. Newman’s sudden irruption had evidently discomposed both mother and son. Madame de Cintre stood silent, with her eyes resting upon Newman’s. She had often looked at him with all her soul, as it seemed to him; but in this present gaze there was a sort of bottomless depth. She was in distress; it was the most touching thing he had ever seen. His heart rose into his throat, and he was on the point of turning to her companions, with an angry challenge; but she checked him, pressing the hand that held her own.

“Something very grave has happened,” she said. “I cannot marry you.”

Newman dropped her hand and stood staring, first at her and then at the others. “Why not?” he asked, as quietly as possible.

Madame de Cintre almost smiled, but the attempt was strange. “You must ask my mother, you must ask my brother.”

“Why can’t she marry me?” said Newman, looking at them.

Madame de Bellegarde did not move in her place, but she was as pale as her daughter. The marquis looked down at her. She said nothing for some moments, but she kept her keen, clear eyes upon Newman, bravely. The marquis drew himself up and looked at the ceiling. “It’s impossible!” he said softly.

“It’s improper,” said Madame de Bellegarde.

Newman began to laugh. “Oh, you are fooling!” he exclaimed.

“My sister, you have no time; you are losing your train,” said the marquis.

“Come, is he mad?” asked Newman.

“No; don’t think that,” said Madame de Cintre. “But I am going away.”

“Where are you going?”

“To the country, to Fleurieres; to be alone.”

“To leave me?” said Newman, slowly.

“I can’t see you, now,” said Madame de Cintre.

“NOW— why not?”

“I am ashamed,” said Madame de Cintre, simply.

Newman turned toward the marquis. “What have you done to her — what does it mean?” he asked with the same effort at calmness, the fruit of his constant practice in taking things easily. He was excited, but excitement with him was only an intenser deliberateness; it was the swimmer stripped.

“It means that I have given you up,” said Madame de Cintre. “It means that.”

Her face was too charged with tragic expression not fully to confirm her words. Newman was profoundly shocked, but he felt as yet no resentment against her. He was amazed, bewildered, and the presence of the old marquise and her son seemed to smite his eyes like the glare of a watchman’s lantern. “Can’t I see you alone?” he asked.

“It would be only more painful. I hoped I should not see you — I should escape. I wrote to you. Good-by.” And she put out her hand again.

Newman put both his own into his pockets. “I will go with you,” he said.

She laid her two hands on his arm. “Will you grant me a last request?” and as she looked at him, urging this, her eyes filled with tears. “Let me go alone — let me go in peace. I can’t call it peace — it’s death. But let me bury myself. So — good-by.”

Newman passed his hand into his hair and stood slowly rubbing his head and looking through his keenly-narrowed eyes from one to the other of the three persons before him. His lips were compressed, and the two lines which had formed themselves beside his mouth might have made it appear at a first glance that he was smiling. I have said that his excitement was an intenser deliberateness, and now he looked grimly deliberate. “It seems very much as if you had interfered, marquis,” he said slowly. “I thought you said you wouldn’t interfere. I know you don’t like me; but that doesn’t make any difference. I thought you promised me you wouldn’t interfere. I thought you swore on your honor that you wouldn’t interfere. Don’t you remember, marquis?”

The marquis lifted his eyebrows; but he was apparently determined to be even more urbane than usual. He rested his two hands upon the back of his mother’s chair and bent forward, as if he were leaning over the edge of a pulpit or a lecture-desk. He did not smile, but he looked softly grave. “Excuse me, sir,” he said, “I assured you that I would not influence my sister’s decision. I adhered, to the letter, to my engagement. Did I not, sister?”

“Don’t appeal, my son,” said the marquise, “your word is sufficient.”

“Yes — she accepted me,” said Newman. “That is very true, I can’t deny that. At least,” he added, in a different tone, turning to Madame de Cintre, “you DID accept me?”

Something in the tone seemed to move her strongly. She turned away, burying her face in her hands.

“But you have interfered now, haven’t you?” inquired Newman of the marquis.

“Neither then nor now have I attempted to influence my sister. I used no persuasion then, I have used no persuasion to-day.”

“And what have you used?”

“We have used authority,” said Madame de Bellegarde in a rich, bell-like voice.

“Ah, you have used authority,” Newman exclaimed. “They have used authority,” he went on, turning to Madame de Cintre. “What is it? how did they use it?”

“My mother commanded,” said Madame de Cintre.

“Commanded you to give me up — I see. And you obey — I see. But why do you obey?” asked Newman.

Madame de Cintre looked across at the old marquise; her eyes slowly measured her from head to foot. “I am afraid of my mother,” she said.

Madame de Bellegarde rose with a certain quickness, crying, “This is a most indecent scene!”

“I have no wish to prolong it,” said Madame de Cintre; and turning to the door she put out her hand again. “If you can pity me a little, let me go alone.”

Newman shook her hand quietly and firmly. “I’ll come down there,” he said. The portiere dropped behind her, and Newman sank with a long breath into the nearest chair. He leaned back in it, resting his hands on the knobs of the arms and looking at Madame de Bellegarde and Urbain. There was a long silence. They stood side by side, with their heads high and their handsome eyebrows arched.

“So you make a distinction?” Newman said at last. “You make a distinction between persuading and commanding? It’s very neat. But the distinction is in favor of commanding. That rather spoils it.”

“We have not the least objection to defining our position,” said M. de Bellegarde. “We understand that it should not at first appear to you quite clear. We rather expected, indeed, that you should not do us justice.”

“Oh, I’ll do you justice,” said Newman. “Don’t be afraid. Please proceed.”

The marquise laid her hand on her son’s arm, as if to deprecate the attempt to define their position. “It is quite useless,” she said, “to try and arrange this matter so as to make it agreeable to you. It can never be agreeable to you. It is a disappointment, and disappointments are unpleasant. I thought it over carefully and tried to arrange it better; but I only gave myself a headache and lost my sleep. Say what we will, you will think yourself ill-treated, and you will publish your wrongs among your friends. But we are not afraid of that. Besides, your friends are not our friends, and it will not matter. Think of us as you please. I only beg you not to be violent. I have never in my life been present at a violent scene of any kind, and at my age I can’t be expected to begin.”

“Is THAT all you have got to say?” asked Newman, slowly rising out of his chair. “That’s a poor show for a clever lady like you, marquise. Come, try again.”

“My mother goes to the point, with her usual honesty and intrepidity,” said the marquis, toying with his watch-guard. “But it is perhaps well to say a little more. We of course quite repudiate the charge of having broken faith with you. We left you entirely at liberty to make yourself agreeable to my sister. We left her quite at liberty to entertain your proposal. When she accepted you we said nothing. We therefore quite observed our promise. It was only at a later stage of the affair, and on quite a different basis, as it were, that we determined to speak. It would have been better, perhaps, if we had spoken before. But really, you see, nothing has yet been done.”

“Nothing has yet been done?” Newman repeated the words, unconscious of their comical effect. He had lost the sense of what the marquis was saying; M. de Bellegarde’s superior style was a mere humming in his ears. All that he understood, in his deep and simple indignation, was that the matter was not a violent joke, and that the people before him were perfectly serious. “Do you suppose I can take this?” he asked. “Do you suppose it can matter to me what you say? Do you suppose I can seriously listen to you? You are simply crazy!”

Madame de Bellegarde gave a rap with her fan in the palm of her hand. “If you don’t take it you can leave it, sir. It matters very little what you do. My daughter has given you up.”

“She doesn’t mean it,” Newman declared after a moment.

“I think I can assure you that she does,” said the marquis.

“Poor woman, what damnable thing have you done to her?” cried Newman.

“Gently, gently!” murmured M. de Bellegarde.

“She told you,” said the old lady. “I commanded her.”

Newman shook his head, heavily. “This sort of thing can’t be, you know,” he said. “A man can’t be used in this fashion. You have got no right; you have got no power.”

“My power,” said Madame de Bellegarde, “is in my children’s obedience.”

“In their fear, your daughter said. There is something very strange in it. Why should your daughter be afraid of you?” added Newman, after looking a moment at the old lady. “There is some foul play.”

The marquise met his gaze without flinching, and as if she did not hear or heed what he said. “I did my best,” she said, quietly. “I could endure it no longer.”

“It was a bold experiment!” said the marquis.

Newman felt disposed to walk to him, clutch his neck with his fingers and press his windpipe with his thumb. “I needn’t tell you how you strike me,” he said; “of course you know that. But I should think you would be afraid of your friends — all those people you introduced me to the other night. There were some very nice people among them; you may depend upon it there were some honest men and women.”

“Our friends approve us,” said M. de Bellegarde, “there is not a family among them that would have acted otherwise. And however that may be, we take the cue from no one. The Bellegardes have been used to set the example not to wait for it.”

“You would have waited long before any one would have set you such an example as this,” exclaimed Newman. “Have I done anything wrong?” he demanded. “Have I given you reason to change your opinion? Have you found out anything against me? I can’t imagine.”

“Our opinion,” said Madame de Bellegarde, “is quite the same as at first — exactly. We have no ill-will towards yourself; we are very far from accusing you of misconduct. Since your relations with us began you have been, I frankly confess, less — less peculiar than I expected. It is not your disposition that we object to, it is your antecedents. We really cannot reconcile ourselves to a commercial person. We fancied in an evil hour that we could; it was a great misfortune. We determined to persevere to the end, and to give you every advantage. I was resolved that you should have no reason to accuse me of want of loyalty. We let the thing certainly go very far; we introduced you to our friends. To tell the truth, it was that, I think, that broke me down. I succumbed to the scene that took place on Thursday night in these rooms. You must excuse me if what I say is disagreeable to you, but we cannot release ourselves without an explanation.”

“There can be no better proof of our good faith,” said the marquis, “than our committing ourselves to you in the eyes of the world the other evening. We endeavored to bind ourselves — to tie our hands, as it were.”

“But it was that,” added his mother, “that opened our eyes and broke our bonds. We should have been most uncomfortable! You know,” she added in a moment, “that you were forewarned. I told you we were very proud.”

Newman took up his hat and began mechanically to smooth it; the very fierceness of his scorn kept him from speaking. “You are not proud enough,” he observed at last.

“In all this matter,” said the marquis, smiling, “I really see nothing but our humility.”

“Let us have no more discussion than is necessary,” resumed Madame de Bellegarde. “My daughter told you everything when she said she gave you up.”

“I am not satisfied about your daughter,” said Newman; “I want to know what you did to her. It is all very easy talking about authority and saying you commanded her. She didn’t accept me blindly, and she wouldn’t have given me up blindly. Not that I believe yet she has really given me up; she will talk it over with me. But you have frightened her, you have bullied her, you have HURT her. What was it you did to her?”

“I did very little! said Madame de Bellegarde, in a tone which gave Newman a chill when he afterwards remembered it.

“Let me remind you that we offered you these explanations,” the marquis observed, “with the express understanding that you should abstain from violence of language.”

“I am not violent,” Newman answered, “it is you who are violent! But I don’t know that I have much more to say to you. What you expect of me, apparently, is to go my way, thanking you for favors received, and promising never to trouble you again.”

“We expect of you to act like a clever man,” said Madame de Bellegarde. “You have shown yourself that already, and what we have done is altogether based upon your being so. When one must submit, one must. Since my daughter absolutely withdraws, what will be the use of your making a noise?”

“It remains to be seen whether your daughter absolutely withdraws. Your daughter and I are still very good friends; nothing is changed in that. As I say, I will talk it over with her.”

“That will be of no use,” said the old lady. “I know my daughter well enough to know that words spoken as she just now spoke to you are final. Besides, she has promised me.”

“I have no doubt her promise is worth a great deal more than your own,” said Newman; “nevertheless I don’t give her up.”

“Just as you please! But if she won’t even see you — and she won’t — your constancy must remain purely Platonic.”

Poor Newman was feigning a greater confidence than he felt. Madame de Cintre’s strange intensity had in fact struck a chill to his heart; her face, still impressed upon his vision, had been a terribly vivid image of renunciation. He felt sick, and suddenly helpless. He turned away and stood for a moment with his hand on the door; then he faced about and after the briefest hesitation broke out with a different accent. “Come, think of what this must be to me, and let her alone! Why should you object to me so — what’s the matter with me? I can’t hurt you. I wouldn’t if I could. I’m the most unobjectionable fellow in the world. What if I am a commercial person? What under the sun do you mean? A commercial person? I will be any sort of a person you want. I never talked to you about business. Let her go, and I will ask no questions. I will take her away, and you shall never see me or hear of me again. I will stay in America if you like. I’ll sign a paper promising never to come back to Europe! All I want is not to lose her!”

Madame de Bellegarde and her son exchanged a glance of lucid irony, and Urbain said, “My dear sir, what you propose is hardly an improvement. We have not the slightest objection to seeing you, as an amiable foreigner, and we have every reason for not wishing to be eternally separated from my sister. We object to the marriage; and in that way,” and M. de Bellegarde gave a small, thin laugh, “she would be more married than ever.”

“Well, then,” said Newman, “where is this place of yours — Fleurieres? I know it is near some old city on a hill.”

“Precisely. Poitiers is on a hill,” said Madame de Bellegarde. “I don’t know how old it is. We are not afraid to tell you.”

“It is Poitiers, is it? Very good,” said Newman. “I shall immediately follow Madame de Cintre.”

“The trains after this hour won’t serve you,” said Urbain.

“I shall hire a special train!”

“That will be a very silly waste of money,” said Madame de Bellegarde.

“It will be time enough to talk about waste three days hence,” Newman answered; and clapping his hat on his head, he departed.

He did not immediately start for Fleurieres; he was too stunned and wounded for consecutive action. He simply walked; he walked straight before him, following the river, till he got out of the enceinte of Paris. He had a burning, tingling sense of personal outrage. He had never in his life received so absolute a check; he had never been pulled up, or, as he would have said, “let down,” so short; and he found the sensation intolerable; he strode along, tapping the trees and lamp-posts fiercely with his stick and inwardly raging. To lose Madame de Cintre after he had taken such jubilant and triumphant possession of her was as great an affront to his pride as it was an injury to his happiness. And to lose her by the interference and the dictation of others, by an impudent old woman and a pretentious fop stepping in with their “authority”! It was too preposterous, it was too pitiful. Upon what he deemed the unblushing treachery of the Bellegardes Newman wasted little thought; he consigned it, once for all, to eternal perdition. But the treachery of Madame de Cintre herself amazed and confounded him; there was a key to the mystery, of course, but he groped for it in vain. Only three days had elapsed since she stood beside him in the starlight, beautiful and tranquil as the trust with which he had inspired her, and told him that she was happy in the prospect of their marriage. What was the meaning of the change? of what infernal potion had she tasted? Poor Newman had a terrible apprehension that she had really changed. His very admiration for her attached the idea of force and weight to her rupture. But he did not rail at her as false, for he was sure she was unhappy. In his walk he had crossed one of the bridges of the Seine, and he still followed, unheedingly, the long, unbroken quay. He had left Paris behind him, and he was almost in the country; he was in the pleasant suburb of Auteuil. He stopped at last, looked around him without seeing or caring for its pleasantness, and then slowly turned and at a slower pace retraced his steps. When he came abreast of the fantastic embankment known as the Trocadero, he reflected, through his throbbing pain, that he was near Mrs. Tristram’s dwelling, and that Mrs. Tristram, on particular occasions, had much of a woman’s kindness in her utterance. He felt that he needed to pour out his ire and he took the road to her house. Mrs. Tristram was at home and alone, and as soon as she had looked at him, on his entering the room, she told him that she knew what he had come for. Newman sat down heavily, in silence, looking at her.

“They have backed out!” she said. “Well, you may think it strange, but I felt something the other night in the air.” Presently he told her his story; she listened, with her eyes fixed on him. When he had finished she said quietly, “They want her to marry Lord Deepmere.” Newman stared. He did not know that she knew anything about Lord Deepmere. “But I don’t think she will,” Mrs. Tristram added.

“SHE marry that poor little cub!” cried Newman. “Oh, Lord! And yet, why did she refuse me?”

“But that isn’t the only thing,” said Mrs. Tristram. “They really couldn’t endure you any longer. They had overrated their courage. I must say, to give the devil his due, that there is something rather fine in that. It was your commercial quality in the abstract they couldn’t swallow. That is really aristocratic. They wanted your money, but they have given you up for an idea.”

Newman frowned most ruefully, and took up his hat again. “I thought you would encourage me!” he said, with almost childlike sadness.

“Excuse me,” she answered very gently. “I feel none the less sorry for you, especially as I am at the bottom of your troubles. I have not forgotten that I suggested the marriage to you. I don’t believe that Madame de Cintre has any intention of marrying Lord Deepmere. It is true he is not younger than she, as he looks. He is thirty-three years old; I looked in the Peerage. But no — I can’t believe her so horribly, cruelly false.”

“Please say nothing against her,” said Newman.

“Poor woman, she IS cruel. But of course you will go after her and you will plead powerfully. Do you know that as you are now,” Mrs. Tristram pursued, with characteristic audacity of comment, “you are extremely eloquent, even without speaking? To resist you a woman must have a very fixed idea in her head. I wish I had done you a wrong, that you might come to me in that fine fashion! But go to Madame de Cintre at any rate, and tell her that she is a puzzle even to me. I am very curious to see how far family discipline will go.”

Newman sat a while longer, leaning his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands, and Mrs. Tristram continued to temper charity with philosophy and compassion with criticism. At last she inquired, “And what does the Count Valentin say to it?” Newman started; he had not thought of Valentin and his errand on the Swiss frontier since the morning. The reflection made him restless again, and he took his leave. He went straight to his apartment, where, upon the table of the vestibule, he found a telegram. It ran (with the date and place) as follows: “I am seriously ill; please to come to me as soon as possible. V. B.” Newman groaned at this miserable news, and at the necessity of deferring his journey to the Chateau de Fleurieres. But he wrote to Madame de Cintre these few lines; they were all he had time for:—

“I don’t give you up, and I don’t really believe you give me up. I don’t understand it, but we shall clear it up together. I can’t follow you to-day, as I am called to see a friend at a distance who is very ill, perhaps dying. But I shall come to you as soon as I can leave my friend. Why shouldn’t I say that he is your brother? C. N.”

After this he had only time to catch the night express to Geneva.

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