The American, by Henry James

Chapter 23

Newman returned to Paris the second day after his interview with Mrs. Bread. The morrow he had spent at Poitiers, reading over and over again the little document which he had lodged in his pocket-book, and thinking what he would do in the circumstances and how he would do it. He would not have said that Poitiers was an amusing place; yet the day seemed very short. Domiciled once more in the Boulevard Haussmann, he walked over to the Rue de l’Universite and inquired of Madame de Bellegarde’s portress whether the marquise had come back. The portress told him that she had arrived, with M. le Marquis, on the preceding day, and further informed him that if he desired to enter, Madame de Bellegarde and her son were both at home. As she said these words the little white-faced old woman who peered out of the dusky gate-house of the Hotel de Bellegarde gave a small wicked smile — a smile which seemed to Newman to mean, “Go in if you dare!” She was evidently versed in the current domestic history; she was placed where she could feel the pulse of the house. Newman stood a moment, twisting his mustache and looking at her; then he abruptly turned away. But this was not because he was afraid to go in — though he doubted whether, if he did so, he should be able to make his way, unchallenged, into the presence of Madame de Cintre’s relatives. Confidence — excessive confidence, perhaps — quite as much as timidity prompted his retreat. He was nursing his thunder-bolt; he loved it; he was unwilling to part with it. He seemed to be holding it aloft in the rumbling, vaguely-flashing air, directly over the heads of his victims, and he fancied he could see their pale, upturned faces. Few specimens of the human countenance had ever given him such pleasure as these, lighted in the lurid fashion I have hinted at, and he was disposed to sip the cup of contemplative revenge in a leisurely fashion. It must be added, too, that he was at a loss to see exactly how he could arrange to witness the operation of his thunder. To send in his card to Madame de Bellegarde would be a waste of ceremony; she would certainly decline to receive him. On the other hand he could not force his way into her presence. It annoyed him keenly to think that he might be reduced to the blind satisfaction of writing her a letter; but he consoled himself in a measure with the reflection that a letter might lead to an interview. He went home, and feeling rather tired — nursing a vengeance was, it must be confessed, a rather fatiguing process; it took a good deal out of one — flung himself into one of his brocaded fauteuils, stretched his legs, thrust his hands into his pockets, and, while he watched the reflected sunset fading from the ornate house-tops on the opposite side of the Boulevard, began mentally to compose a cool epistle to Madame de Bellegarde. While he was so occupied his servant threw open the door and announced ceremoniously, “Madame Brett!”

Newman roused himself, expectantly, and in a few moments perceived upon his threshold the worthy woman with whom he had conversed to such good purpose on the starlit hill-top of Fleurieres. Mrs. Bread had made for this visit the same toilet as for her former expedition. Newman was struck with her distinguished appearance. His lamp was not lit, and as her large, grave face gazed at him through the light dusk from under the shadow of her ample bonnet, he felt the incongruity of such a person presenting herself as a servant. He greeted her with high geniality and bade her come in and sit down and make herself comfortable. There was something which might have touched the springs both of mirth and of melancholy in the ancient maidenliness with which Mrs. Bread endeavored to comply with these directions. She was not playing at being fluttered, which would have been simply ridiculous; she was doing her best to carry herself as a person so humble that, for her, even embarrassment would have been pretentious; but evidently she had never dreamed of its being in her horoscope to pay a visit, at night-fall, to a friendly single gentleman who lived in theatrical-looking rooms on one of the new Boulevards.

“I truly hope I am not forgetting my place, sir,” she murmured.

“Forgetting your place?” cried Newman. “Why, you are remembering it. This is your place, you know. You are already in my service; your wages, as housekeeper, began a fortnight ago. I can tell you my house wants keeping! Why don’t you take off your bonnet and stay?”

“Take off my bonnet?” said Mrs. Bread, with timid literalness. “Oh, sir, I haven’t my cap. And with your leave, sir, I couldn’t keep house in my best gown.”

“Never mind your gown,” said Newman, cheerfully. “You shall have a better gown than that.”

Mrs. Bread stared solemnly and then stretched her hands over her lustreless satin skirt, as if the perilous side of her situation were defining itself. “Oh, sir, I am fond of my own clothes,” she murmured.

“I hope you have left those wicked people, at any rate,” said Newman.

“Well, sir, here I am!” said Mrs. Bread. “That’s all I can tell you. Here I sit, poor Catherine Bread. It’s a strange place for me to be. I don’t know myself; I never supposed I was so bold. But indeed, sir, I have gone as far as my own strength will bear me.”

“Oh, come, Mrs. Bread,” said Newman, almost caressingly, “don’t make yourself uncomfortable. Now’s the time to feel lively, you know.”

She began to speak again with a trembling voice. “I think it would be more respectable if I could — if I could”— and her voice trembled to a pause.

“If you could give up this sort of thing altogether?” said Newman kindly, trying to anticipate her meaning, which he supposed might be a wish to retire from service.

“If I could give up everything, sir! All I should ask is a decent Protestant burial.”

“Burial!” cried Newman, with a burst of laughter. “Why, to bury you now would be a sad piece of extravagance. It’s only rascals who have to be buried to get respectable. Honest folks like you and me can live our time out — and live together. Come! Did you bring your baggage?”

“My box is locked and corded; but I haven’t yet spoken to my lady.”

“Speak to her, then, and have done with it. I should like to have your chance!” cried Newman.

“I would gladly give it you, sir. I have passed some weary hours in my lady’s dressing-room; but this will be one of the longest. She will tax me with ingratitude.”

“Well,” said Newman, “so long as you can tax her with murder —”

“Oh, sir, I can’t; not I,” sighed Mrs. Bread.

“You don’t mean to say anything about it? So much the better. Leave that to me.”

“If she calls me a thankless old woman,” said Mrs. Bread, “I shall have nothing to say. But it is better so,” she softly added. “She shall be my lady to the last. That will be more respectable.”

“And then you will come to me and I shall be your gentleman,” said Newman; “that will be more respectable still!”

Mrs. Bread rose, with lowered eyes, and stood a moment; then, looking up, she rested her eyes upon Newman’s face. The disordered proprieties were somehow settling to rest. She looked at Newman so long and so fixedly, with such a dull, intense devotedness, that he himself might have had a pretext for embarrassment. At last she said gently, “You are not looking well, sir.”

“That’s natural enough,” said Newman. “I have nothing to feel well about. To be very indifferent and very fierce, very dull and very jovial, very sick and very lively, all at once — why, it rather mixes one up.”

Mrs. Bread gave a noiseless sigh. “I can tell you something that will make you feel duller still, if you want to feel all one way. About Madame de Cintre.”

“What can you tell me?” Newman demanded. “Not that you have seen her?”

She shook her head. “No, indeed, sir, nor ever shall. That’s the dullness of it. Nor my lady. Nor M. de Bellegarde.”

“You mean that she is kept so close.”

“Close, close,” said Mrs. Bread, very softly.

These words, for an instant, seemed to check the beating of Newman’s heart. He leaned back in his chair, staring up at the old woman. “They have tried to see her, and she wouldn’t — she couldn’t?”

“She refused — forever! I had it from my lady’s own maid,” said Mrs. Bread, “who had it from my lady. To speak of it to such a person my lady must have felt the shock. Madame de Cintre won’t see them now, and now is her only chance. A while hence she will have no chance.”

“You mean the other women — the mothers, the daughters, the sisters; what is it they call them? — won’t let her?”

“It is what they call the rule of the house — or of the order, I believe,” said Mrs. Bread. “There is no rule so strict as that of the Carmelites. The bad women in the reformatories are fine ladies to them. They wear old brown cloaks — so the femme de chambre told me — that you wouldn’t use for a horse blanket. And the poor countess was so fond of soft-feeling dresses; she would never have anything stiff! They sleep on the ground,” Mrs. Bread went on; “they are no better, no better,”— and she hesitated for a comparison — “they are no better than tinkers’ wives. They give up everything, down to the very name their poor old nurses called them by. They give up father and mother, brother and sister — to say nothing of other persons,” Mrs. Bread delicately added. “They wear a shroud under their brown cloaks and a rope round their waists, and they get up on winter nights and go off into cold places to pray to the Virgin Mary. The Virgin Mary is a hard mistress!”

Mrs. Bread, dwelling on these terrible facts, sat dry-eyed and pale, with her hands clasped in her satin lap. Newman gave a melancholy groan and fell forward, leaning his head on his hands. There was a long silence, broken only by the ticking of the great gilded clock on the chimney-piece.

“Where is this place — where is the convent?” Newman asked at last, looking up.

“There are two houses,” said Mrs. Bread. “I found out; I thought you would like to know — though it’s poor comfort, I think. One is in the Avenue de Messine; they have learned that Madame de Cintre is there. The other is in the Rue d’Enfer. That’s a terrible name; I suppose you know what it means.”

Newman got up and walked away to the end of his long room. When he came back Mrs. Bread had got up, and stood by the fire with folded hands. “Tell me this,” he said. “Can I get near her — even if I don’t see her? Can I look through a grating, or some such thing, at the place where she is?”

It is said that all women love a lover, and Mrs. Bread’s sense of the pre-established harmony which kept servants in their “place,” even as planets in their orbits (not that Mrs. Bread had ever consciously likened herself to a planet), barely availed to temper the maternal melancholy with which she leaned her head on one side and gazed at her new employer. She probably felt for the moment as if, forty years before, she had held him also in her arms. “That wouldn’t help you, sir. It would only make her seem farther away.”

“I want to go there, at all events,” said Newman. “Avenue de Messine, you say? And what is it they call themselves?”

“Carmelites,” said Mrs. Bread.

“I shall remember that.”

Mrs. Bread hesitated a moment, and then, “It’s my duty to tell you this, sir,” she went on. “The convent has a chapel, and some people are admitted on Sunday to the Mass. You don’t see the poor creatures that are shut up there, but I am told you can hear them sing. It’s a wonder they have any heart for singing! Some Sunday I shall make bold to go. It seems to me I should know her voice in fifty.”

Newman looked at his visitor very gratefully; then he held out his hand and shook hers. “Thank you,” he said. “If any one can get in, I will.” A moment later Mrs. Bread proposed, deferentially, to retire, but he checked her and put a lighted candle into her hand. “There are half a dozen rooms there I don’t use,” he said, pointing through an open door. “Go and look at them and take your choice. You can live in the one you like best.” From this bewildering opportunity Mrs. Bread at first recoiled; but finally, yielding to Newman’s gentle, reassuring push, she wandered off into the dusk with her tremulous taper. She remained absent a quarter of an hour, during which Newman paced up and down, stopped occasionally to look out of the window at the lights on the Boulevard, and then resumed his walk. Mrs. Bread’s relish for her investigation apparently increased as she proceeded; but at last she reappeared and deposited her candlestick on the chimney-piece.

“Well, have you picked one out?” asked Newman.

“A room, sir? They are all too fine for a dingy old body like me. There isn’t one that hasn’t a bit of gilding.”

“It’s only tinsel, Mrs. Bread,” said Newman. “If you stay there a while it will all peel off of itself.” And he gave a dismal smile.

“Oh, sir, there are things enough peeling off already!” rejoined Mrs. Bread, with a head-shake. “Since I was there I thought I would look about me. I don’t believe you know, sir. The corners are most dreadful. You do want a housekeeper, that you do; you want a tidy Englishwoman that isn’t above taking hold of a broom.”

Newman assured her that he suspected, if he had not measured, his domestic abuses, and that to reform them was a mission worthy of her powers. She held her candlestick aloft again and looked around the salon with compassionate glances; then she intimated that she accepted the mission, and that its sacred character would sustain her in her rupture with Madame de Bellegarde. With this she curtsied herself away.

She came back the next day with her worldly goods, and Newman, going into his drawing-room, found her upon her aged knees before a divan, sewing up some detached fringe. He questioned her as to her leave-taking with her late mistress, and she said it had proved easier than she feared. “I was perfectly civil, sir, but the Lord helped me to remember that a good woman has no call to tremble before a bad one.”

“I should think so!” cried Newman. “And does she know you have come to me?”

“She asked me where I was going, and I mentioned your name,” said Mrs. Bread.

“What did she say to that?”

“She looked at me very hard, and she turned very red. Then she bade me leave her. I was all ready to go, and I had got the coachman, who is an Englishman, to bring down my poor box and to fetch me a cab. But when I went down myself to the gate I found it closed. My lady had sent orders to the porter not to let me pass, and by the same orders the porter’s wife — she is a dreadful sly old body — had gone out in a cab to fetch home M. de Bellegarde from his club.”

Newman slapped his knee. “She IS scared! she IS scared!” he cried, exultantly.

“I was frightened too, sir,” said Mrs. Bread, “but I was also mightily vexed. I took it very high with the porter and asked him by what right he used violence to an honorable Englishwoman who had lived in the house for thirty years before he was heard of. Oh, sir, I was very grand, and I brought the man down. He drew his bolts and let me out, and I promised the cabman something handsome if he would drive fast. But he was terribly slow; it seemed as if we should never reach your blessed door. I am all of a tremble still; it took me five minutes, just now, to thread my needle.”

Newman told her, with a gleeful laugh, that if she chose she might have a little maid on purpose to thread her needles; and he went away murmuring to himself again that the old woman WAS scared — she WAS scared!

He had not shown Mrs. Tristram the little paper that he carried in his pocket-book, but since his return to Paris he had seen her several times, and she had told him that he seemed to her to be in a strange way — an even stranger way than his sad situation made natural. Had his disappointment gone to his head? He looked like a man who was going to be ill, and yet she had never seen him more restless and active. One day he would sit hanging his head and looking as if he were firmly resolved never to smile again; another he would indulge in laughter that was almost unseemly and make jokes that were bad even for him. If he was trying to carry off his sorrow, he at such times really went too far. She begged him of all things not to be “strange.” Feeling in a measure responsible as she did for the affair which had turned out so ill for him, she could endure anything but his strangeness. He might be melancholy if he would, or he might be stoical; he might be cross and cantankerous with her and ask her why she had ever dared to meddle with his destiny: to this she would submit; for this she would make allowances. Only, for Heaven’s sake, let him not be incoherent. That would be extremely unpleasant. It was like people talking in their sleep; they always frightened her. And Mrs. Tristram intimated that, taking very high ground as regards the moral obligation which events had laid upon her, she proposed not to rest quiet until she should have confronted him with the least inadequate substitute for Madame de Cintre that the two hemispheres contained.

“Oh,” said Newman, “we are even now, and we had better not open a new account! You may bury me some day, but you shall never marry me. It’s too rough. I hope, at any rate,” he added, “that there is nothing incoherent in this — that I want to go next Sunday to the Carmelite chapel in the Avenue de Messine. You know one of the Catholic ministers — an abbe, is that it? — I have seen him here, you know; that motherly old gentleman with the big waist-band. Please ask him if I need a special leave to go in, and if I do, beg him to obtain it for me.”

Mrs. Tristram gave expression to the liveliest joy. “I am so glad you have asked me to do something!” she cried. “You shall get into the chapel if the abbe is disfrocked for his share in it.” And two days afterwards she told him that it was all arranged; the abbe was enchanted to serve him, and if he would present himself civilly at the convent gate there would be no difficulty.

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