Madame de Mauves, by Henry James


Longmore’s first visit seemed to open to him so large a range of quiet pleasure that he very soon paid a second, and at the end of a fortnight had spent uncounted hours in the little drawing-room which Madame de Mauves rarely quitted except to drive or walk in the forest. She lived in an old-fashioned pavilion, between a high-walled court and an excessively artificial garden, beyond whose enclosure you saw a long line of tree-tops. Longmore liked the garden and in the mild afternoons used to move his chair through the open window to the smooth terrace which overlooked it while his hostess sat just within. Presently she would come out and wander through the narrow alleys and beside the thin-spouting fountain, and at last introduce him to a private gate in the high wall, the opening to a lane which led to the forest. Hitherwards she more than once strolled with him, bareheaded and meaning to go but twenty rods, but always going good-naturedly further and often stretching it to the freedom of a promenade. They found many things to talk about, and to the pleasure of feeling the hours slip along like some silver stream Longmore was able to add the satisfaction of suspecting that he was a “resource” for Madame de Mauves. He had made her acquaintance with the sense, not wholly inspiring, that she was a woman with a painful twist in her life and that seeking her acquaintance would be like visiting at a house where there was an invalid who could bear no noise. But he very soon recognised that her grievance, if grievance it was, was not aggressive; that it was not fond of attitudes and ceremonies, and that her most earnest wish was to remember it as little as possible. He felt that even if Mrs. Draper hadn’t told him she was unhappy he would have guessed it, and yet that he couldn’t have pointed to his proof. The evidence was chiefly negative — she never alluded to her husband. Beyond this it seemed to him simply that her whole being was pitched in a lower key than harmonious Nature had designed; she was like a powerful singer who had lost her high notes. She never drooped nor sighed nor looked unutterable things; she dealt no sarcastic digs at her fate; she had in short none of the conscious graces of the woman wronged. Only Longmore was sure that her gentle gaiety was but the milder or sharper flush of a settled ache, and that she but tried to interest herself in his thoughts in order to escape from her own. If she had wished to irritate his curiosity and lead him to take her confidence by storm nothing could have served her purpose better than this studied discretion. He measured the rare magnanimity of self-effacement so deliberate, he felt how few women were capable of exchanging a luxurious woe for a thankless effort. Madame de Mauves, he himself felt, wasn’t sweeping the horizon for a compensation or a consoler; she had suffered a personal deception that had disgusted her with persons. She wasn’t planning to get the worth of her trouble back in some other way; for the present she was proposing to live with it peaceably, reputably and without scandal — turning the key on it occasionally as you would on a companion liable to attacks of insanity. Longmore was a man of fine senses and of a speculative spirit, leading-strings that had never been slipped. He began to regard his hostess as a figure haunted by a shadow which was somehow her intenser and more authentic self. This lurking duality in her put on for him an extraordinary charm. Her delicate beauty acquired to his eye the serious cast of certain blank-browed Greek statues; and sometimes when his imagination, more than his ear, detected a vague tremor in the tone in which she attempted to make a friendly question seem to have behind it none of the hollow resonance of absent-mindedness, his marvelling eyes gave her an answer more eloquent, though much less to the point, than the one she demanded.

She supplied him indeed with much to wonder about, so that he fitted, in his ignorance, a dozen high-flown theories to her apparent history. She had married for love and staked her whole soul on it; of that he was convinced. She hadn’t changed her allegiance to be near Paris and her base of supplies of millinery; he was sure she had seen her perpetrated mistake in a light of which her present life, with its conveniences for shopping and its moral aridity, was the absolute negation. But by what extraordinary process of the heart — through what mysterious intermission of that moral instinct which may keep pace with the heart even when this organ is making unprecedented time — had she fixed her affections on an insolently frivolous Frenchman? Longmore needed no telling; he knew that M. de Mauves was both cynical and shallow; these things were stamped on his eyes, his nose, his mouth, his voice, his gesture, his step. Of Frenchwomen themselves, when all was said, our young man, full of nursed discriminations, went in no small fear; they all seemed to belong to the type of a certain fine lady to whom he had ventured to present a letter of introduction and whom, directly after his first visit to her, he had set down in his note-book as “metallic.” Why should Madame de Mauves have chosen a Frenchwoman’s lot — she whose nature had an atmospheric envelope absent even from the brightest metals? He asked her one day frankly if it had cost her nothing to transplant herself — if she weren’t oppressed with a sense of irreconcileable difference from “all these people.” She replied nothing at first, till he feared she might think it her duty to resent a question that made light of all her husband’s importances. He almost wished she would; it would seem a proof that her policy of silence had a limit. “I almost grew up here,” she said at last, “and it was here for me those visions of the future took shape that we all have when we begin to think or to dream beyond mere playtime. As matters stand one may be very American and yet arrange it with one’s conscience to live in Europe. My imagination perhaps — I had a little when I was younger — helped me to think I should find happiness here. And after all, for a woman, what does it signify? This isn’t America, no — this element, but it’s quite as little France. France is out there beyond the garden, France is in the town and the forest; but here, close about me, in my room and” — she paused a moment — “in my mind, it’s a nameless, and doubtless not at all remarkable, little country of my own. It’s not her country,” she added, “that makes a woman happy or unhappy.”

Madame Clairin, Euphemia’s sister-in-law, might meanwhile have been supposed to have undertaken the graceful task of making Longmore ashamed of his uncivil jottings about her sex and nation. Mademoiselle de Mauves, bringing example to the confirmation of precept, had made a remunerative match and sacrificed her name to the millions of a prosperous and aspiring wholesale druggist — a gentleman liberal enough to regard his fortune as a moderate price for being towed into circles unpervaded by pharmaceutic odours. His system possibly was sound, but his own application of it to be deplored. M. Clairin’s head was turned by his good luck. Having secured an aristocratic wife he adopted an aristocratic vice and began to gamble at the Bourse. In an evil hour he lost heavily, and then staked heavily to recover himself. But he was to learn that the law of compensation works with no such pleasing simplicity, and he rolled to the dark bottom of his folly. There he felt everything go — his wits, his courage, his probity, everything that had made him what his fatuous marriage had so promptly unmade. He walked up the Rue Vivienne with his hands in his empty pockets and stood half an hour staring confusedly up and down the brave boulevard. People brushed against him and half a dozen carriages almost ran over him, until at last a policeman, who had been watching him for some time, took him by the arm and led him gently away. He looked at the man’s cocked hat and sword with tears in his eyes; he hoped for some practical application of the wrath of heaven, something that would express violently his dead-weight of self-abhorrence. The sergent de ville, however, only stationed him in the embrasure of a door, out of harm’s way, and walked off to supervise a financial contest between an old lady and a cabman. Poor M. Clairin had only been married a year, but he had had time to measure the great spirit of true children of the anciens preux. When night had fallen he repaired to the house of a friend and asked for a night’s lodging; and as his friend, who was simply his old head book-keeper and lived in a small way, was put to some trouble to accommodate him, “You must pardon me,” the poor man said, “but I can’t go home. I’m afraid of my wife!” Toward morning he blew his brains out. His widow turned the remnants of his property to better account than could have been expected and wore the very handsomest mourning. It was for this latter reason perhaps that she was obliged to retrench at other points and accept a temporary home under her brother’s roof.

Fortune had played Madame Clairin a terrible trick, but had found an adversary and not a victim. Though quite without beauty she had always had what is called the grand air, and her air from this time forth was grander than ever. As she trailed about in her sable furbelows, tossing back her well-dressed head and holding up her vigilant long-handled eyeglass, she seemed to be sweeping the whole field of society and asking herself where she should pluck her revenge. Suddenly she espied it, ready made to her hand, in poor Longmore’s wealth and amiability. American dollars and American complaisance had made her brother’s fortune; why shouldn’t they make hers? She overestimated the wealth and misinterpreted the amiability; for she was sure a man could neither be so contented without being rich nor so “backward” without being weak. Longmore met her advances with a formal politeness that covered a good deal of unflattering discomposure. She made him feel deeply uncomfortable; and though he was at a loss to conceive how he could be an object of interest to a sharp Parisienne he had an indefinable sense of being enclosed in a magnetic circle, of having become the victim of an incantation. If Madame Clairin could have fathomed his Puritanic soul she would have laid by her wand and her book and dismissed him for an impossible subject. She gave him a moral chill, and he never named her to himself save as that dreadful woman — that awful woman. He did justice to her grand air, but for his pleasure he preferred the small air of Madame de Mauves; and he never made her his bow, after standing frigidly passive for five minutes to one of her gracious overtures to intimacy, without feeling a peculiar desire to ramble away into the forest, fling himself down on the warm grass and, staring up at the blue sky, forget that there were any women in nature who didn’t please like the swaying tree-tops. One day, on his arrival at the house, she met him in the court with the news that her sister-in-law was shut up with a headache and that his visit must be for HER. He followed her into the drawing-room with the best grace at his command, and sat twirling his hat for half an hour. Suddenly he understood her; her caressing cadences were so almost explicit an invitation to solicit the charming honour of her hand. He blushed to the roots of his hair and jumped up with uncontrollable alacrity; then, dropping a glance at Madame Clairin, who sat watching him with hard eyes over the thin edge of her smile, perceived on her brow a flash of unforgiving wrath. It was not pleasing in itself, but his eyes lingered a moment, for it seemed to show off her character. What he saw in the picture frightened him and he felt himself murmur “Poor Madame de Mauves!” His departure was abrupt, and this time he really went into the forest and lay down on the grass.

After which he admired his young countrywoman more than ever; her intrinsic clearness shone out to him even through the darker shade cast over it. At the end of a month he received a letter from a friend with whom he had arranged a tour through the Low Countries, reminding him of his promise to keep their tryst at Brussels. It was only after his answer was posted that he fully measured the zeal with which he had declared that the journey must either be deferred or abandoned — since he couldn’t possibly leave Saint–Germain. He took a walk in the forest and asked himself if this were indeed portentously true. Such a truth somehow made it surely his duty to march straight home and put together his effects. Poor Webster, who, he knew, had counted ardently on this excursion, was the best of men; six weeks ago he would have gone through anything to join poor Webster. It had never been in his books to throw overboard a friend whom he had loved ten years for a married woman whom he had six weeks — well, admired. It was certainly beyond question that he hung on at Saint–Germain because this admirable married woman was there; but in the midst of so much admiration what had become of his fine old power to conclude? This was the conduct of a man not judging but drifting, and he had pretended never to drift. If she were as unhappy as he believed the active sympathy of such a man would help her very little more than his indifference; if she were less so she needed no help and could dispense with his professions. He was sure moreover that if she knew he was staying on her account she would be extremely annoyed. This very feeling indeed had much to do with making it hard to go; her displeasure would be the flush on the snow of the high cold stoicism that touched him to the heart. At moments withal he assured himself that staying to watch her — and what else did it come to? — was simply impertinent; it was gross to keep tugging at the cover of a book so intentionally closed. Then inclination answered that some day her self-support would fail, and he had a vision of this exquisite creature calling vainly for help. He would just be her friend to any length, and it was unworthy of either to think about consequences. He was a friend, however, who nursed a brooding regret for his not having known her five years earlier, as well as a particular objection to those who had smartly anticipated him. It seemed one of fortune’s most mocking strokes that she should be surrounded by persons whose only merit was that they threw every side of her, as she turned in her pain, into radiant relief.

Our young man’s growing irritation made it more and more difficult for him to see any other merit than this in Richard de Mauves. And yet, disinterestedly, it would have been hard to give a name to the pitiless perversity lighted by such a conclusion, and there were times when Longmore was almost persuaded against his finer judgement that he was really the most considerate of husbands and that it was not a man’s fault if his wife’s love of life had pitched itself once for all in the minor key. The Count’s manners were perfect, his discretion irreproachable, and he seemed never to address his companion but, sentimentally speaking, hat in hand. His tone to Longmore — as the latter was perfectly aware — was that of a man of the world to a man not quite of the world; but what it lacked in true frankness it made up in easy form. “I can’t thank you enough for having overcome my wife’s shyness,” he more than once declared. “If we left her to do as she pleased she would — in her youth and her beauty — bury herself all absurdly alive. Come often, and bring your good friends and compatriots — some of them are so amusing. She’ll have nothing to do with mine, but perhaps you’ll be able to offer her better son affaire.”

M. de Mauves made these speeches with a bright assurance very amazing to our hero, who had an innocent belief that a man’s head may point out to him the shortcomings of his heart and make him ashamed of them. He couldn’t fancy him formed both to neglect his wife and to take the derisive view of her minding it. Longmore had at any rate an exasperated sense that this nobleman thought rather the less of their interesting friend on account of that very same fine difference of nature which so deeply stirred his own sympathies. He was rarely present during the sessions of the American visitor, and he made a daily journey to Paris, where he had de gros soucis d’affaires as he once mentioned — with an all-embracing flourish and not in the least in the tone of apology. When he appeared it was late in the evening and with an imperturbable air of being on the best of terms with every one and every thing which was peculiarly annoying if you happened to have a tacit quarrel with him. If he was an honest man he was an honest man somehow spoiled for confidence. Something he had, however, that his critic vaguely envied, something in his address, splendidly positive, a manner rounded and polished by the habit of conversation and the friction of full experience, an urbanity exercised for his own sake, not for his neighbour’s, which seemed the fruit of one of those strong temperaments that rule the inward scene better than the best conscience. The Count had plainly no sense for morals, and poor Longmore, who had the finest, would have been glad to borrow his recipe for appearing then so to range the whole scale of the senses. What was it that enabled him, short of being a monster with visibly cloven feet and exhaling brimstone, to misprize so cruelly a nature like his wife’s and to walk about the world with such a handsome invincible grin? It was the essential grossness of his imagination, which had nevertheless helped him to such a store of neat speeches. He could be highly polite and could doubtless be damnably impertinent, but the life of the spirit was a world as closed to him as the world of great music to a man without an ear. It was ten to one he didn’t in the least understand how his wife felt; he and his smooth sister had doubtless agreed to regard their relative as a Puritanical little person, of meagre aspirations and few talents, content with looking at Paris from the terrace and, as a special treat, having a countryman very much like herself to regale her with innocent echoes of their native wit. M. de Mauves was tired of his companion; he liked women who could, frankly, amuse him better. She was too dim, too delicate, too modest; she had too few arts, too little coquetry, too much charity. Lighting a cigar some day while he summed up his situation, her husband had probably decided she was incurably stupid. It was the same taste, in essence, our young man moralised, as the taste for M. Gerome and M. Baudry in painting and for M. Gustave Flaubert and M. Charles Baudelaire in literature. The Count was a pagan and his wife a Christian, and between them an impassable gulf. He was by race and instinct a grand seigneur. Longmore had often heard of that historic type, and was properly grateful for an opportunity to examine it closely. It had its elegance of outline, but depended on spiritual sources so remote from those of which he felt the living gush in his own soul that he found himself gazing at it, in irreconcileable antipathy, through a dim historic mist. “I’m a modern bourgeois,” he said, “and not perhaps so good a judge of how far a pretty woman’s tongue may go at supper before the mirrors properly crack to hear. But I’ve not met one of the rarest of women without recognising her, without making my reflexion that, charm for charm, such a maniere d’etre is more ‘fetching’ even than the worst of Theresa’s songs sung by a dissipated duchess. Wit for wit, I think mine carries me further.” It was easy indeed to perceive that, as became a grand seigneur, M. de Mauves had a stock of social principles. He wouldn’t especially have desired perhaps that his wife should compete in amateur operettas with the duchesses in question, for the most part of comparatively recent origin; but he held that a gentleman may take his amusement where he finds it, that he is quite at liberty not to find it at home, and that even an adoptive daughter of his house who should hang her head and have red eyes and allow herself to make any other response to officious condolence than that her husband’s amusements were his own affair, would have forfeited every claim to having her finger-tips bowed over and kissed. And yet in spite of this definite faith Longmore figured him much inconvenienced by the Countess’s avoidance of betrayals. Did it dimly occur to him that the principle of this reserve was self-control and not self-effacement? She was a model to all the inferior matrons of his line, past and to come, and an occasional “scene” from her at a manageable hour would have had something reassuring — would have attested her stupidity rather better than this mere polish of her patience.

Longmore would have given much to be able to guess how this latter secret worked, and he tried more than once, though timidly and awkwardly enough, to make out the game she was playing. She struck him as having long resisted the force of cruel evidence, and, as though succumbing to it at last, having denied herself on simple grounds of generosity the right to complain. Her faith might have perished, but the sense of her own old deep perversity remained. He believed her thus quite capable of reproaching herself with having expected too much and of trying to persuade herself out of her bitterness by saying that her hopes had been vanities and follies and that what was before her was simply Life. “I hate tragedy,” she once said to him; “I’m a dreadful coward about having to suffer or to bleed. I’ve always tried to believe that — without base concessions — such extremities may always somehow be dodged or indefinitely postponed. I should be willing to buy myself off, from having ever to be OVERWHELMED, by giving up — well, any amusement you like.” She lived evidently in nervous apprehension of being fatally convinced — of seeing to the end of her deception. Longmore, when he thought of this, felt the force of his desire to offer her something of which she could be as sure as of the sun in heaven.

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