The American, by Henry James

Chapter 9

He went to see Madame de Cintre the next day, and was informed by the servant that she was at home. He passed as usual up the large, cold staircase and through a spacious vestibule above, where the walls seemed all composed of small door panels, touched with long-faded gilding; whence he was ushered into the sitting-room in which he had already been received. It was empty, and the servant told him that Madame la Comtesse would presently appear. He had time, while he waited, to wonder whether Bellegarde had seen his sister since the evening before, and whether in this case he had spoken to her of their talk. In this case Madame de Cintre’s receiving him was an encouragement. He felt a certain trepidation as he reflected that she might come in with the knowledge of his supreme admiration and of the project he had built upon it in her eyes; but the feeling was not disagreeable. Her face could wear no look that would make it less beautiful, and he was sure beforehand that however she might take the proposal he had in reserve, she would not take it in scorn or in irony. He had a feeling that if she could only read the bottom of his heart and measure the extent of his good will toward her, she would be entirely kind.

She came in at last, after so long an interval that he wondered whether she had been hesitating. She smiled with her usual frankness, and held out her hand; she looked at him straight with her soft and luminous eyes, and said, without a tremor in her voice, that she was glad to see him and that she hoped he was well. He found in her what he had found before — that faint perfume of a personal shyness worn away by contact with the world, but the more perceptible the more closely you approached her. This lingering diffidence seemed to give a peculiar value to what was definite and assured in her manner; it made it seem like an accomplishment, a beautiful talent, something that one might compare to an exquisite touch in a pianist. It was, in fact, Madame de Cintre’s “authority,” as they say of artists, that especially impressed and fascinated Newman; he always came back to the feeling that when he should complete himself by taking a wife, that was the way he should like his wife to interpret him to the world. The only trouble, indeed, was that when the instrument was so perfect it seemed to interpose too much between you and the genius that used it. Madame de Cintre gave Newman the sense of an elaborate education, of her having passed through mysterious ceremonies and processes of culture in her youth, of her having been fashioned and made flexible to certain exalted social needs. All this, as I have affirmed, made her seem rare and precious — a very expensive article, as he would have said, and one which a man with an ambition to have everything about him of the best would find it highly agreeable to possess. But looking at the matter with an eye to private felicity, Newman wondered where, in so exquisite a compound, nature and art showed their dividing line. Where did the special intention separate from the habit of good manners? Where did urbanity end and sincerity begin? Newman asked himself these questions even while he stood ready to accept the admired object in all its complexity; he felt that he could do so in profound security, and examine its mechanism afterwards, at leisure.

“I am very glad to find you alone,” he said. “You know I have never had such good luck before.”

“But you have seemed before very well contented with your luck,” said Madame de Cintre. “You have sat and watched my visitors with an air of quiet amusement. What have you thought of them?”

“Oh, I have thought the ladies were very elegant and very graceful, and wonderfully quick at repartee. But what I have chiefly thought has been that they only helped me to admire you.” This was not gallantry on Newman’s part — an art in which he was quite unversed. It was simply the instinct of the practical man, who had made up his mind what he wanted, and was now beginning to take active steps to obtain it.

Madame de Cintre started slightly, and raised her eyebrows; she had evidently not expected so fervid a compliment. “Oh, in that case,” she said with a laugh, “your finding me alone is not good luck for me. I hope some one will come in quickly.”

“I hope not,” said Newman. “I have something particular to say to you. Have you seen your brother?”

“Yes, I saw him an hour ago.”

“Did he tell you that he had seen me last night?”

“He said so.”

“And did he tell you what we had talked about?”

Madame de Cintre hesitated a moment. As Newman asked these questions she had grown a little pale, as if she regarded what was coming as necessary, but not as agreeable. “Did you give him a message to me?” she asked.

“It was not exactly a message — I asked him to render me a service.”

“The service was to sing your praises, was it not?” And she accompanied this question with a little smile, as if to make it easier to herself.

“Yes, that is what it really amounts to,” said Newman. “Did he sing my praises?”

“He spoke very well of you. But when I know that it was by your special request, of course I must take his eulogy with a grain of salt.”

“Oh, that makes no difference,” said Newman. “Your brother would not have spoken well of me unless he believed what he was saying. He is too honest for that.”

“Are you very deep?” said Madame de Cintre. “Are you trying to please me by praising my brother? I confess it is a good way.”

“For me, any way that succeeds will be good. I will praise your brother all day, if that will help me. He is a noble little fellow. He has made me feel, in promising to do what he can to help me, that I can depend upon him.”

“Don’t make too much of that,” said Madame de Cintre. “He can help you very little.”

“Of course I must work my way myself. I know that very well; I only want a chance to. In consenting to see me, after what he told you, you almost seem to be giving me a chance.”

“I am seeing you,” said Madame de Cintre, slowly and gravely, “because I promised my brother I would.”

“Blessings on your brother’s head!” cried Newman. “What I told him last evening was this: that I admired you more than any woman I had ever seen, and that I should like immensely to make you my wife.” He uttered these words with great directness and firmness, and without any sense of confusion. He was full of his idea, he had completely mastered it, and he seemed to look down on Madame de Cintre, with all her gathered elegance, from the height of his bracing good conscience. It is probable that this particular tone and manner were the very best he could have hit upon. Yet the light, just visibly forced smile with which his companion had listened to him died away, and she sat looking at him with her lips parted and her face as solemn as a tragic mask. There was evidently something very painful to her in the scene to which he was subjecting her, and yet her impatience of it found no angry voice. Newman wondered whether he was hurting her; he could not imagine why the liberal devotion he meant to express should be disagreeable. He got up and stood before her, leaning one hand on the chimney-piece. “I know I have seen you very little to say this,” he said, “so little that it may make what I say seem disrespectful. That is my misfortune! I could have said it the first time I saw you. Really, I had seen you before; I had seen you in imagination; you seemed almost an old friend. So what I say is not mere gallantry and compliments and nonsense — I can’t talk that way, I don’t know how, and I wouldn’t, to you, if I could. It’s as serious as such words can be. I feel as if I knew you and knew what a beautiful, admirable woman you are. I shall know better, perhaps, some day, but I have a general notion now. You are just the woman I have been looking for, except that you are far more perfect. I won’t make any protestations and vows, but you can trust me. It is very soon, I know, to say all this; it is almost offensive. But why not gain time if one can? And if you want time to reflect — of course you do — the sooner you begin, the better for me. I don’t know what you think of me; but there is no great mystery about me; you see what I am. Your brother told me that my antecedents and occupations were against me; that your family stands, somehow, on a higher level than I do. That is an idea which of course I don’t understand and don’t accept. But you don’t care anything about that. I can assure you that I am a very solid fellow, and that if I give my mind to it I can arrange things so that in a very few years I shall not need to waste time in explaining who I am and what I am. You will decide for yourself whether you like me or not. What there is you see before you. I honestly believe I have no hidden vices or nasty tricks. I am kind, kind, kind! Everything that a man can give a woman I will give you. I have a large fortune, a very large fortune; some day, if you will allow me, I will go into details. If you want brilliancy, everything in the way of brilliancy that money can give you, you shall have. And as regards anything you may give up, don’t take for granted too much that its place cannot be filled. Leave that to me; I’ll take care of you; I shall know what you need. Energy and ingenuity can arrange everything. I’m a strong man! There, I have said what I had on my heart! It was better to get it off. I am very sorry if it’s disagreeable to you; but think how much better it is that things should be clear. Don’t answer me now, if you don’t wish it. Think about it, think about it as slowly as you please. Of course I haven’t said, I can’t say, half I mean, especially about my admiration for you. But take a favorable view of me; it will only be just.”

During this speech, the longest that Newman had ever made, Madame de Cintre kept her gaze fixed upon him, and it expanded at the last into a sort of fascinated stare. When he ceased speaking she lowered her eyes and sat for some moments looking down and straight before her. Then she slowly rose to her feet, and a pair of exceptionally keen eyes would have perceived that she was trembling a little in the movement. She still looked extremely serious. “I am very much obliged to you for your offer,” she said. “It seems very strange, but I am glad you spoke without waiting any longer. It is better the subject should be dismissed. I appreciate all you say; you do me great honor. But I have decided not to marry.”

“Oh, don’t say that!” cried Newman, in a tone absolutely naif from its pleading and caressing cadence. She had turned away, and it made her stop a moment with her back to him. “Think better of that. You are too young, too beautiful, too much made to be happy and to make others happy. If you are afraid of losing your freedom, I can assure you that this freedom here, this life you now lead, is a dreary bondage to what I will offer you. You shall do things that I don’t think you have ever thought of. I will take you anywhere in the wide world that you propose. Are you unhappy? You give me a feeling that you are unhappy. You have no right to be, or to be made so. Let me come in and put an end to it.”

Madame de Cintre stood there a moment longer, looking away from him. If she was touched by the way he spoke, the thing was conceivable. His voice, always very mild and interrogative, gradually became as soft and as tenderly argumentative as if he had been talking to a much-loved child. He stood watching her, and she presently turned round again, but this time she did not look at him, and she spoke in a quietness in which there was a visible trace of effort.

“There are a great many reasons why I should not marry,” she said, “more than I can explain to you. As for my happiness, I am very happy. Your offer seems strange to me, for more reasons also than I can say. Of course you have a perfect right to make it. But I cannot accept it — it is impossible. Please never speak of this matter again. If you cannot promise me this, I must ask you not to come back.”

“Why is it impossible?” Newman demanded. “You may think it is, at first, without its really being so. I didn’t expect you to be pleased at first, but I do believe that if you will think of it a good while, you may be satisfied.”

“I don’t know you,” said Madame de Cintre. “Think how little I know you.”

“Very little, of course, and therefore I don’t ask for your ultimatum on the spot. I only ask you not to say no, and to let me hope. I will wait as long as you desire. Meanwhile you can see more of me and know me better, look at me as a possible husband — as a candidate — and make up your mind.”

Something was going on, rapidly, in Madame de Cintre’s thoughts; she was weighing a question there, beneath Newman’s eyes, weighing it and deciding it. “From the moment I don’t very respectfully beg you to leave the house and never return,” she said, “I listen to you, I seem to give you hope. I HAVE listened to you — against my judgment. It is because you are eloquent. If I had been told this morning that I should consent to consider you as a possible husband, I should have thought my informant a little crazy. I AM listening to you, you see!” And she threw her hands out for a moment and let them drop with a gesture in which there was just the slightest expression of appealing weakness.

“Well, as far as saying goes, I have said everything,” said Newman. “I believe in you, without restriction, and I think all the good of you that it is possible to think of a human creature. I firmly believe that in marrying me you will be SAFE. As I said just now,” he went on with a smile, “I have no bad ways. I can DO so much for you. And if you are afraid that I am not what you have been accustomed to, not refined and delicate and punctilious, you may easily carry that too far. I AM delicate! You shall see!”

Madame de Cintre walked some distance away, and paused before a great plant, an azalea, which was flourishing in a porcelain tub before her window. She plucked off one of the flowers and, twisting it in her fingers, retraced her steps. Then she sat down in silence, and her attitude seemed to be a consent that Newman should say more.

“Why should you say it is impossible you should marry?” he continued. “The only thing that could make it really impossible would be your being already married. Is it because you have been unhappy in marriage? That is all the more reason! Is it because your family exert a pressure upon you, interfere with you, annoy you? That is still another reason; you ought to be perfectly free, and marriage will make you so. I don’t say anything against your family — understand that!” added Newman, with an eagerness which might have made a perspicacious observer smile. “Whatever way you feel toward them is the right way, and anything that you should wish me to do to make myself agreeable to them I will do as well as I know how. Depend upon that!”

Madame de Cintre rose again and came toward the fireplace, near which Newman was standing. The expression of pain and embarrassment had passed out of her face, and it was illuminated with something which, this time at least, Newman need not have been perplexed whether to attribute to habit or to intention, to art or to nature. She had the air of a woman who has stepped across the frontier of friendship and, looking around her, finds the region vast. A certain checked and controlled exaltation seemed mingled with the usual level radiance of her glance. “I will not refuse to see you again,” she said, “because much of what you have said has given me pleasure. But I will see you only on this condition: that you say nothing more in the same way for a long time.”

“For how long?”

“For six months. It must be a solemn promise.”

“Very well, I promise.”

“Good-by, then,” she said, and extended her hand.

He held it a moment, as if he were going to say something more. But he only looked at her; then he took his departure.

That evening, on the Boulevard, he met Valentin de Bellegarde. After they had exchanged greetings, Newman told him that he had seen Madame de Cintre a few hours before.

“I know it,” said Bellegarde. “I dined in the Rue de l’Universite.” And then, for some moments, both men were silent. Newman wished to ask Bellegarde what visible impression his visit had made and the Count Valentin had a question of his own. Bellegarde spoke first.

“It’s none of my business, but what the deuce did you say to my sister?”

“I am willing to tell you,” said Newman, “that I made her an offer of marriage.”

“Already!” And the young man gave a whistle. “‘Time is money!’ Is that what you say in America? And Madame de Cintre?” he added, with an interrogative inflection.

“She did not accept my offer.”

“She couldn’t, you know, in that way.”

“But I’m to see her again,” said Newman.

“Oh, the strangeness of woman!” exclaimed Bellegarde. Then he stopped, and held Newman off at arms’-length. “I look at you with respect!” he exclaimed. “You have achieved what we call a personal success! Immediately, now, I must present you to my brother.”

“Whenever you please!” said Newman.

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