Confidence, by Henry James

Chapter 21

It filled him with a kind of awe, and the feeling was by no means agreeable. It was not a feeling to which even a man of Bernard Longueville’s easy power of extracting the savour from a sensation could rapidly habituate himself, and for the rest of that night it was far from making of our hero the happy man that a lover just coming to self-consciousness is supposed to be. It was wrong — it was dishonorable — it was impossible — and yet it was; it was, as nothing in his own personal experience had ever been. He seemed hitherto to have been living by proxy, in a vision, in reflection — to have been an echo, a shadow, a futile attempt; but this at last was life itself, this was a fact, this was reality. For these things one lived; these were the things that people had died for. Love had been a fable before this — doubtless a very pretty one; and passion had been a literary phrase — employed obviously with considerable effect. But now he stood in a personal relation to these familiar ideas, which gave them a very much keener import; they had laid their hand upon him in the darkness, he felt it upon his shoulder, and he knew by its pressure that it was the hand of destiny. What made this sensation a shock was the element that was mixed with it; the fact that it came not simply and singly, but with an attendant shadow in which it immediately merged and lost itself. It was forbidden fruit — he knew it the instant he had touched it. He felt that he had pledged himself not to do just this thing which was gleaming before him so divinely — not to widen the crevice, not to open the door that would flood him with light. Friendship and honor were at stake; they stood at his left hand, as his new-born passion stood already at his right; they claimed him as well, and their grasp had a pressure which might become acutely painful. The soul is a still more tender organism than the body, and it shrinks from the prospect of being subjected to violence. Violence — spiritual violence — was what our luxurious hero feared; and it is not too much to say that as he lingered there by the sea, late into the night, while the gurgitation of the waves grew deeper to his ear, the prospect came to have an element of positive terror. The two faces of his situation stood confronting each other; it was a rigid, brutal opposition, and Bernard held his breath for a while with the wonder of what would come of it. He sat a long time upon the beach; the night grew very cold, but he had no sense of it. Then he went away and passed before the Casino again, and wandered through the village. The Casino was shrouded in darkness and silence, and there was nothing in the streets of the little town but the salt smell of the sea, a vague aroma of fish and the distant sound of the breakers. Little by little, Bernard lost the feeling of having been startled, and began to perceive that he could reason about his trouble. Trouble it was, though this seems an odd name for the consciousness of a bright enchantment; and the first thing that reason, definitely consulted, told him about the matter was that he had been in love with Angela Vivian any time these three years. This sapient faculty supplied him with further information; only two or three of the items of which, however, it is necessary to reproduce. He had been a great fool — an incredible fool — not to have discovered before this what was the matter with him! Bernard’s sense of his own shrewdness — always tolerably acute — had never received such a bruise as this present perception that a great many things had been taking place in his clever mind without his clever mind suspecting them. But it little mattered, his reason went on to declare, what he had suspected or what he might now feel about it; his present business was to leave Blanquais-les-Galets at sunrise the next morning and never rest his eyes upon Angela Vivian again. This was his duty; it had the merit of being perfectly plain and definite, easily apprehended, and unattended, as far as he could discover, with the smallest material difficulties. Not only this, reason continued to remark; but the moral difficulties were equally inconsiderable. He had never breathed a word of his passion to Miss Vivian — quite the contrary; he had never committed himself nor given her the smallest reason to suspect his hidden flame; and he was therefore perfectly free to turn his back upon her — he could never incur the reproach of trifling with her affections. Bernard was in that state of mind when it is the greatest of blessings to be saved the distress of choice — to see a straight path before you and to feel that you have only to follow it. Upon the straight path I have indicated, he fixed his eyes very hard; of course he would take his departure at the earliest possible hour on the morrow. There was a streak of morning in the eastern sky by the time he knocked for re-admittance at the door of the inn, which was opened to him by a mysterious old woman in a nightcap and meagre accessories, whose identity he failed to ascertain; and he laid himself down to rest — he was very tired — with his attention fastened, as I say, on the idea — on the very image — of departure.

On waking up the next morning, rather late, he found, however, that it had attached itself to a very different object. His vision was filled with the brightness of the delightful fact itself, which seemed to impregnate the sweet morning air and to flutter in the light, fresh breeze that came through his open window from the sea. He saw a great patch of the sea between a couple of red-tiled roofs; it was bluer than any sea had ever been before. He had not slept long — only three or four hours; but he had quite slept off his dread. The shadow had dropped away and nothing was left but the beauty of his love, which seemed to shine in the freshness of the early day. He felt absurdly happy — as if he had discovered El Dorado; quite apart from consequences — he was not thinking of consequences, which of course were another affair — the feeling was intrinsically the finest one he had ever had, and — as a mere feeling — he had not done with it yet. The consideration of consequences could easily be deferred, and there would, meanwhile, be no injury to any one in his extracting, very quietly, a little subjective joy from the state of his heart. He would let the flower bloom for a day before plucking it up by the roots. Upon this latter course he was perfectly resolved, and in view of such an heroic resolution the subjective interlude appeared no more than his just privilege. The project of leaving Blanquais-les-Galets at nine o’clock in the morning dropped lightly from his mind, making no noise as it fell; but another took its place, which had an air of being still more excellent and which consisted of starting off on a long walk and absenting himself for the day. Bernard grasped his stick and wandered away; he climbed the great shoulder of the further cliff and found himself on the level downs. Here there was apparently no obstacle whatever to his walking as far as his fancy should carry him. The summer was still in a splendid mood, and the hot and quiet day — it was a Sunday — seemed to constitute a deep, silent smile on the face of nature. The sea glistened on one side, and the crops ripened on the other; the larks, losing themselves in the dense sunshine, made it ring here and there in undiscoverable spots; this was the only sound save when Bernard, pausing now and then in his walk, found himself hearing far below him, at the base of the cliff, the drawling murmur of a wave. He walked a great many miles and passed through half a dozen of those rude fishing-hamlets, lodged in some sloping hollow of the cliffs, so many of which, of late years, all along the Norman coast, have adorned themselves with a couple of hotels and a row of bathing-machines. He walked so far that the shadows had begun to lengthen before he bethought himself of stopping; the afternoon had come on and had already begun to wane. The grassy downs still stretched before him, shaded here and there with shallow but windless dells. He looked for the softest place and then flung himself down on the grass; he lay there for a long time, thinking of many things. He had determined to give himself up to a day’s happiness; it was happiness of a very harmless kind — the satisfaction of thought, the bliss of mere consciousness; but such as it was it did not elude him nor turn bitter in his heart, and the long summer day closed upon him before his spirit, hovering in perpetual circles round the idea of what might be, had begun to rest its wing. When he rose to his feet again it was too late to return to Blanquais in the same way that he had come; the evening was at hand, the light was already fading, and the walk he had taken was one which even if he had not felt very tired, he would have thought it imprudent to attempt to repeat in the darkness. He made his way to the nearest village, where he was able to hire a rustic carriole, in which primitive conveyance, gaining the high-road, he jogged and jostled through the hours of the evening slowly back to his starting-point. It wanted an hour of midnight by the time he reached his inn, and there was nothing left for him but to go to bed.

He went in the unshaken faith that he should leave Blanquais early on the morrow. But early on the morrow it occurred to him that it would be simply grotesque to go off without taking leave of Mrs. Vivian and her daughter, and offering them some explanation of his intention. He had given them to understand that, so delighted was he to find them there, he would remain at Blanquais at least as long as they. He must have seemed to them wanting in civility, to spend a whole bright Sunday without apparently troubling his head about them, and if the unlucky fact of his being in love with the girl were a reason for doing his duty, it was at least not a reason for being rude. He had not yet come to that — to accepting rudeness as an incident of virtue; it had always been his theory that virtue had the best manners in the world, and he flattered himself at any rate that he could guard his integrity without making himself ridiculous. So, at what he thought a proper hour, in the course of the morning, he retraced his steps along the little lane through which, two days ago, Angela Vivian had shown him the way to her mother’s door. At this humble portal he knocked; the windows of the little chalet were open, and the white curtains, behind the flower-pots, were fluttering as he had seen them before. The door was opened by a neat young woman, who informed him very promptly that Madame and Mademoiselle had left Blanquais a couple of hours earlier. They had gone to Paris — yes, very suddenly, taking with them but little luggage, and they had left her — she had the honor of being the femme de chambre of ces dames — to put up their remaining possessions and follow as soon as possible. On Bernard’s expressing surprise and saying that he had supposed them to be fixed at the sea-side for the rest of the season, the femme de chambre, who seemed a very intelligent person, begged to remind him that the season was drawing to a close, that Madame had taken the chalet but for five weeks, only ten days of which period were yet to expire, that ces dames, as Monsieur perhaps knew, were great travellers, who had been half over the world and thought nothing of breaking camp at an hour’s notice, and that, in fine, Madame might very well have received a telegram summoning her to another part of the country.

“And where have the ladies gone?” asked Bernard.

“For the moment, to Paris.”

“And in Paris where have they gone?”

“Dame, chez elles — to their house,” said the femme de chambre, who appeared to think that Bernard asked too many questions.

But Bernard persisted.

“Where is their house?”

The waiting-maid looked at him from head to foot.

“If Monsieur wishes to write, many of Madame’s letters come to her banker,” she said, inscrutably.

“And who is her banker?”

“He lives in the Rue de Provence.”

“Very good — I will find him out,” said our hero, turning away.

The discriminating reader who has been so good as to interest himself in this little narrative will perhaps at this point exclaim with a pardonable consciousness of shrewdness: “Of course he went the next day to the Rue de Provence!” Of course, yes; only as it happens Bernard did nothing of the kind. He did one of the most singular things he ever did in his life — a thing that puzzled him even at the time, and with regard to which he often afterward wondered whence he had drawn the ability for so remarkable a feat — he simply spent a fortnight at Blanquais-les-Galets. It was a very quiet fortnight; he spoke to no one, he formed no relations, he was company to himself. It may be added that he had never found his own company half so good. He struck himself as a reasonable, delicate fellow, who looked at things in such a way as to make him refrain — refrain successfully, that was the point — from concerning himself practically about Angela Vivian. His saying that he would find out the banker in the Rue de Provence had been for the benefit of the femme de chambre, whom he thought rather impertinent; he had really no intention whatever of entering that classic thoroughfare. He took long walks, rambled on the beach, along the base of the cliffs and among the brown sea-caves, and he thought a good deal of certain incidents which have figured at an earlier stage of this narrative. He had forbidden himself the future, as an object of contemplation, and it was therefore a matter of necessity that his imagination should take refuge among the warm and familiar episodes of the past. He wondered why Mrs. Vivian should have left the place so suddenly, and was of course struck with the analogy between this incident and her abrupt departure from Baden. It annoyed him, it troubled him, but it by no means rekindled the alarm he had felt on first perceiving the injured Angela on the beach. That alarm had been quenched by Angela’s manner during the hour that followed and during their short talk in the evening. This evening was to be forever memorable, for it had brought with it the revelation which still, at moments, suddenly made Bernard tremble; but it had also brought him the assurance that Angela cared as little as possible for anything that a chance acquaintance might have said about her. It is all the more singular, therefore, that one evening, after he had been at Blanquais a fortnight, a train of thought should suddenly have been set in motion in his mind. It was kindled by no outward occurrence, but by some wandering spark of fancy or of memory, and the immediate effect of it was to startle our hero very much as he had been startled on the evening I have described. The circumstances were the same; he had wandered down to the beach alone, very late, and he stood looking at the duskily-tumbling sea. Suddenly the same voice that had spoken before murmured another phrase in the darkness, and it rang upon his ear for the rest of the night. It startled him, as I have said, at first; then, the next morning, it led him to take his departure for Paris. During the journey it lingered in his ear; he sat in the corner of the railway-carriage with his eyes closed, abstracted, on purpose to prolong the reverberation. If it were not true it was at least, as the Italians have it, ben trovato, and it was wonderful how well it bore thinking of. It bears telling less well; but I can at least give a hint of it. The theory that Angela hated him had evaporated in her presence, and another of a very different sort had sprung into being. It fitted a great many of the facts, it explained a great many contradictions, anomalies, mysteries, and it accounted for Miss Vivian’s insisting upon her mother’s leaving Blanquais at a few hours’ notice, even better than the theory of her resentment could have done. At any rate, it obliterated Bernard’s scruples very effectually, and led him on his arrival in Paris to repair instantly to the Rue de Provence. This street contains more than one banker, but there is one with whom Bernard deemed Mrs. Vivian most likely to have dealings. He found he had reckoned rightly, and he had no difficulty in procuring her address. Having done so, however, he by no means went immediately to see her; he waited a couple of days — perhaps to give those obliterated scruples I have spoken of a chance to revive. They kept very quiet, and it must be confessed that Bernard took no great pains to recall them to life. After he had been in Paris three days, he knocked at Mrs. Vivian’s door.

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