Confidence, by Henry James

Chapter 1

It was in the early days of April; Bernard Longueville had been spending the winter in Rome. He had travelled northward with the consciousness of several social duties that appealed to him from the further side of the Alps, but he was under the charm of the Italian spring, and he made a pretext for lingering. He had spent five days at Siena, where he had intended to spend but two, and still it was impossible to continue his journey. He was a young man of a contemplative and speculative turn, and this was his first visit to Italy, so that if he dallied by the way he should not be harshly judged. He had a fancy for sketching, and it was on his conscience to take a few pictorial notes. There were two old inns at Siena, both of them very shabby and very dirty. The one at which Longueville had taken up his abode was entered by a dark, pestiferous arch-way, surmounted by a sign which at a distance might have been read by the travellers as the Dantean injunction to renounce all hope. The other was not far off, and the day after his arrival, as he passed it, he saw two ladies going in who evidently belonged to the large fraternity of Anglo–Saxon tourists, and one of whom was young and carried herself very well. Longueville had his share — or more than his share — of gallantry, and this incident awakened a regret. If he had gone to the other inn he might have had charming company: at his own establishment there was no one but an aesthetic German who smoked bad tobacco in the dining-room. He remarked to himself that this was always his luck, and the remark was characteristic of the man; it was charged with the feeling of the moment, but it was not absolutely just; it was the result of an acute impression made by the particular occasion; but it failed in appreciation of a providence which had sprinkled Longueville’s career with happy accidents — accidents, especially, in which his characteristic gallantry was not allowed to rust for want of exercise. He lounged, however, contentedly enough through these bright, still days of a Tuscan April, drawing much entertainment from the high picturesqueness of the things about him. Siena, a few years since, was a flawless gift of the Middle Ages to the modern imagination. No other Italian city could have been more interesting to an observer fond of reconstructing obsolete manners. This was a taste of Bernard Longueville’s, who had a relish for serious literature, and at one time had made several lively excursions into mediaeval history. His friends thought him very clever, and at the same time had an easy feeling about him which was a tribute to his freedom from pedantry. He was clever indeed, and an excellent companion; but the real measure of his brilliancy was in the success with which he entertained himself. He was much addicted to conversing with his own wit, and he greatly enjoyed his own society. Clever as he often was in talking with his friends, I am not sure that his best things, as the phrase is, were not for his own ears. And this was not on account of any cynical contempt for the understanding of his fellow-creatures: it was simply because what I have called his own society was more of a stimulus than that of most other people. And yet he was not for this reason fond of solitude; he was, on the contrary, a very sociable animal. It must be admitted at the outset that he had a nature which seemed at several points to contradict itself, as will probably be perceived in the course of this narration.

He entertained himself greatly with his reflections and meditations upon Sienese architecture and early Tuscan art, upon Italian street-life and the geological idiosyncrasies of the Apennines. If he had only gone to the other inn, that nice-looking girl whom he had seen passing under the dusky portal with her face turned away from him might have broken bread with him at this intellectual banquet. Then came a day, however, when it seemed for a moment that if she were disposed she might gather up the crumbs of the feast. Longueville, every morning after breakfast, took a turn in the great square of Siena — the vast piazza, shaped like a horse-shoe, where the market is held beneath the windows of that crenellated palace from whose overhanging cornice a tall, straight tower springs up with a movement as light as that of a single plume in the bonnet of a captain. Here he strolled about, watching a brown contadino disembarrass his donkey, noting the progress of half an hour’s chaffer over a bundle of carrots, wishing a young girl with eyes like animated agates would let him sketch her, and gazing up at intervals at the beautiful, slim tower, as it played at contrasts with the large blue air. After he had spent the greater part of a week in these grave considerations, he made up his mind to leave Siena. But he was not content with what he had done for his portfolio. Siena was eminently sketchable, but he had not been industrious. On the last morning of his visit, as he stood staring about him in the crowded piazza, and feeling that, in spite of its picturesqueness, this was an awkward place for setting up an easel, he bethought himself, by contrast, of a quiet corner in another part of the town, which he had chanced upon in one of his first walks — an angle of a lonely terrace that abutted upon the city-wall, where three or four superannuated objects seemed to slumber in the sunshine — the open door of an empty church, with a faded fresco exposed to the air in the arch above it, and an ancient beggar-woman sitting beside it on a three-legged stool. The little terrace had an old polished parapet, about as high as a man’s breast, above which was a view of strange, sad-colored hills. Outside, to the left, the wall of the town made an outward bend, and exposed its rugged and rusty complexion. There was a smooth stone bench set into the wall of the church, on which Longueville had rested for an hour, observing the composition of the little picture of which I have indicated the elements, and of which the parapet of the terrace would form the foreground. The thing was what painters call a subject, and he had promised himself to come back with his utensils. This morning he returned to the inn and took possession of them, and then he made his way through a labyrinth of empty streets, lying on the edge of the town, within the wall, like the superfluous folds of a garment whose wearer has shrunken with old age. He reached his little grass-grown terrace, and found it as sunny and as private as before. The old mendicant was mumbling petitions, sacred and profane, at the church door; but save for this the stillness was unbroken. The yellow sunshine warmed the brown surface of the city-wall, and lighted the hollows of the Etruscan hills. Longueville settled himself on the empty bench, and, arranging his little portable apparatus, began to ply his brushes. He worked for some time smoothly and rapidly, with an agreeable sense of the absence of obstacles. It seemed almost an interruption when, in the silent air, he heard a distant bell in the town strike noon. Shortly after this, there was another interruption. The sound of a soft footstep caused him to look up; whereupon he saw a young woman standing there and bending her eyes upon the graceful artist. A second glance assured him that she was that nice girl whom he had seen going into the other inn with her mother, and suggested that she had just emerged from the little church. He suspected, however — I hardly know why — that she had been looking at him for some moments before he perceived her. It would perhaps be impertinent to inquire what she thought of him; but Longueville, in the space of an instant, made two or three reflections upon the young lady. One of them was to the effect that she was a handsome creature, but that she looked rather bold; the burden of the other was that — yes, decidedly — she was a compatriot. She turned away almost as soon as she met his eyes; he had hardly time to raise his hat, as, after a moment’s hesitation, he proceeded to do. She herself appeared to feel a certain hesitation; she glanced back at the church door, as if under the impulse to retrace her steps. She stood there a moment longer — long enough to let him see that she was a person of easy attitudes — and then she walked away slowly to the parapet of the terrace. Here she stationed herself, leaning her arms upon the high stone ledge, presenting her back to Longueville, and gazing at rural Italy. Longueville went on with his sketch, but less attentively than before. He wondered what this young lady was doing there alone, and then it occurred to him that her companion — her mother, presumably — was in the church. The two ladies had been in the church when he arrived; women liked to sit in churches; they had been there more than half an hour, and the mother had not enough of it even yet. The young lady, however, at present preferred the view that Longueville was painting; he became aware that she had placed herself in the very centre of his foreground. His first feeling was that she would spoil it; his second was that she would improve it. Little by little she turned more into profile, leaning only one arm upon the parapet, while the other hand, holding her folded parasol, hung down at her side. She was motionless; it was almost as if she were standing there on purpose to be drawn. Yes, certainly she improved the picture. Her profile, delicate and thin, defined itself against the sky, in the clear shadow of a coquettish hat; her figure was light; she bent and leaned easily; she wore a gray dress, fastened up as was then the fashion, and displaying the broad edge of a crimson petticoat. She kept her position; she seemed absorbed in the view. “Is she posing — is she attitudinizing for my benefit?” Longueville asked of himself. And then it seemed to him that this was a needless assumption, for the prospect was quite beautiful enough to be looked at for itself, and there was nothing impossible in a pretty girl having a love of fine landscape. “But posing or not,” he went on, “I will put her into my sketch. She has simply put herself in. It will give it a human interest. There is nothing like having a human interest.” So, with the ready skill that he possessed, he introduced the young girl’s figure into his foreground, and at the end of ten minutes he had almost made something that had the form of a likeness. “If she will only be quiet for another ten minutes,” he said, “the thing will really be a picture.” Unfortunately, the young lady was not quiet; she had apparently had enough of her attitude and her view. She turned away, facing Longueville again, and slowly came back, as if to re-enter the church. To do so she had to pass near him, and as she approached he instinctively got up, holding his drawing in one hand. She looked at him again, with that expression that he had mentally characterized as “bold,” a few minutes before — with dark, intelligent eyes. Her hair was dark and dense; she was a strikingly handsome girl.

“I am so sorry you moved,” he said, confidently, in English. “You were so — so beautiful.”

She stopped, looking at him more directly than ever; and she looked at his sketch, which he held out toward her. At the sketch, however, she only glanced, whereas there was observation in the eye that she bent upon Longueville. He never knew whether she had blushed; he afterward thought she might have been frightened. Nevertheless, it was not exactly terror that appeared to dictate her answer to Longueville’s speech.

“I am much obliged to you. Don’t you think you have looked at me enough?”

“By no means. I should like so much to finish my drawing.”

“I am not a professional model,” said the young lady.

“No. That ‘s my difficulty,” Longueville answered, laughing. “I can’t propose to remunerate you.”

The young lady seemed to think this joke in indifferent taste. She turned away in silence; but something in her expression, in his feeling at the time, in the situation, incited Longueville to higher play. He felt a lively need of carrying his point.

“You see it will be pure kindness,” he went on — “a simple act of charity. Five minutes will be enough. Treat me as an Italian beggar.”

She had laid down his sketch and had stepped forward. He stood there, obsequious, clasping his hands and smiling.

His interruptress stopped and looked at him again, as if she thought him a very odd person; but she seemed amused. Now, at any rate, she was not frightened. She seemed even disposed to provoke him a little.

“I wish to go to my mother,” she said.

“Where is your mother?” the young man asked.

“In the church, of course. I did n’t come here alone!”

“Of course not; but you may be sure that your mother is very contented. I have been in that little church. It is charming. She is just resting there; she is probably tired. If you will kindly give me five minutes more, she will come out to you.”

“Five minutes?” the young girl asked.

“Five minutes will do. I shall be eternally grateful.” Longueville was amused at himself as he said this. He cared infinitely less for his sketch than the words appeared to imply; but, somehow, he cared greatly that this graceful stranger should do what he had proposed.

The graceful stranger dropped an eye on the sketch again.

“Is your picture so good as that?” she asked.

“I have a great deal of talent,” he answered, laughing. “You shall see for yourself, when it is finished.”

She turned slowly toward the terrace again.

“You certainly have a great deal of talent, to induce me to do what you ask.” And she walked to where she had stood before. Longueville made a movement to go with her, as if to show her the attitude he meant; but, pointing with decision to his easel, she said —

“You have only five minutes.” He immediately went back to his work, and she made a vague attempt to take up her position. “You must tell me if this will do,” she added, in a moment.

“It will do beautifully,” Longueville answered, in a happy tone, looking at her and plying his brush. “It is immensely good of you to take so much trouble.”

For a moment she made no rejoinder, but presently she said —

“Of course if I pose at all I wish to pose well.”

“You pose admirably,” said Longueville.

After this she said nothing, and for several minutes he painted rapidly and in silence. He felt a certain excitement, and the movement of his thoughts kept pace with that of his brush. It was very true that she posed admirably; she was a fine creature to paint. Her prettiness inspired him, and also her audacity, as he was content to regard it for the moment. He wondered about her — who she was, and what she was — perceiving that the so-called audacity was not vulgar boldness, but the play of an original and probably interesting character. It was obvious that she was a perfect lady, but it was equally obvious that she was irregularly clever. Longueville’s little figure was a success — a charming success, he thought, as he put on the last touches. While he was doing this, his model’s companion came into view. She came out of the church, pausing a moment as she looked from her daughter to the young man in the corner of the terrace; then she walked straight over to the young girl. She was a delicate little gentlewoman, with a light, quick step.

Longueville’s five minutes were up; so, leaving his place, he approached the two ladies, sketch in hand. The elder one, who had passed her hand into her daughter’s arm, looked up at him with clear, surprised eyes; she was a charming old woman. Her eyes were very pretty, and on either side of them, above a pair of fine dark brows, was a band of silvery hair, rather coquettishly arranged.

“It is my portrait,” said her daughter, as Longueville drew near. “This gentleman has been sketching me.”

“Sketching you, dearest?” murmured her mother. “Was n’t it rather sudden?”

“Very sudden — very abrupt!” exclaimed the young girl with a laugh.

“Considering all that, it ‘s very good,” said Longueville, offering his picture to the elder lady, who took it and began to examine it. “I can’t tell you how much I thank you,” he said to his model.

“It ‘s very well for you to thank me now,” she replied. “You really had no right to begin.”

“The temptation was so great.”

“We should resist temptation. And you should have asked my leave.”

“I was afraid you would refuse it; and you stood there, just in my line of vision.”

“You should have asked me to get out of it.”

“I should have been very sorry. Besides, it would have been extremely rude.”

The young girl looked at him a moment.

“Yes, I think it would. But what you have done is ruder.”

“It is a hard case!” said Longueville. “What could I have done, then, decently?”

“It ‘s a beautiful drawing,” murmured the elder lady, handing the thing back to Longueville. Her daughter, meanwhile, had not even glanced at it.

“You might have waited till I should go away,” this argumentative young person continued.

Longueville shook his head.

“I never lose opportunities!”

“You might have sketched me afterwards, from memory.”

Longueville looked at her, smiling.

“Judge how much better my memory will be now!”

She also smiled a little, but instantly became serious.

“For myself, it ‘s an episode I shall try to forget. I don’t like the part I have played in it.”

“May you never play a less becoming one!” cried Longueville. “I hope that your mother, at least, will accept a memento of the occasion.” And he turned again with his sketch to her companion, who had been listening to the girl’s conversation with this enterprising stranger, and looking from one to the other with an air of earnest confusion. “Won’t you do me the honor of keeping my sketch?” he said. “I think it really looks like your daughter.”

“Oh, thank you, thank you; I hardly dare,” murmured the lady, with a deprecating gesture.

“It will serve as a kind of amends for the liberty I have taken,” Longueville added; and he began to remove the drawing from its paper block.

“It makes it worse for you to give it to us,” said the young girl.

“Oh, my dear, I am sure it ‘s lovely!” exclaimed her mother. “It ‘s wonderfully like you.”

“I think that also makes it worse!”

Longueville was at last nettled. The young lady’s perversity was perhaps not exactly malignant; but it was certainly ungracious. She seemed to desire to present herself as a beautiful tormentress.

“How does it make it worse?” he asked, with a frown.

He believed she was clever, and she was certainly ready. Now, however, she reflected a moment before answering.

“That you should give us your sketch,” she said at last.

“It was to your mother I offered it,” Longueville observed.

But this observation, the fruit of his irritation, appeared to have no effect upon the young girl.

“Is n’t it what painters call a study?” she went on. “A study is of use to the painter himself. Your justification would be that you should keep your sketch, and that it might be of use to you.”

“My daughter is a study, sir, you will say,” said the elder lady in a little, light, conciliating voice, and graciously accepting the drawing again.

“I will admit,” said Longueville, “that I am very inconsistent. Set it down to my esteem, madam,” he added, looking at the mother.

“That ‘s for you, mamma,” said his model, disengaging her arm from her mother’s hand and turning away.

The mamma stood looking at the sketch with a smile which seemed to express a tender desire to reconcile all accidents.

“It ‘s extremely beautiful,” she murmured, “and if you insist on my taking it —”

“I shall regard it as a great honor.”

“Very well, then; with many thanks, I will keep it.” She looked at the young man a moment, while her daughter walked away. Longueville thought her a delightful little person; she struck him as a sort of transfigured Quakeress — a mystic with a practical side. “I am sure you think she ‘s a strange girl,” she said.

“She is extremely pretty.”

“She is very clever,” said the mother.

“She is wonderfully graceful.”

“Ah, but she ‘s good!” cried the old lady.

“I am sure she comes honestly by that,” said Longueville, expressively, while his companion, returning his salutation with a certain scrupulous grace of her own, hurried after her daughter.

Longueville remained there staring at the view but not especially seeing it. He felt as if he had at once enjoyed and lost an opportunity. After a while he tried to make a sketch of the old beggar-woman who sat there in a sort of palsied immobility, like a rickety statue at a church-door. But his attempt to reproduce her features was not gratifying, and he suddenly laid down his brush. She was not pretty enough — she had a bad profile.

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