Madame de Mauves, by Henry James

IV

His friend Webster meanwhile lost no time in accusing him of the basest infidelity and in asking him what he found at suburban Saint–Germain to prefer to Van Eyck and Memling, Rubens and Rembrandt. A day or two after the receipt of this friend’s letter he took a walk with Madame de Mauves in the forest. They sat down on a fallen log and she began to arrange into a bouquet the anemones and violets she had gathered. “I’ve a word here,” he said at last, “from a friend whom I some time ago promised to join in Brussels. The time has come — it has passed. It finds me terribly unwilling to leave Saint–Germain.”

She looked up with the immediate interest she always showed in his affairs, but with no hint of a disposition to make a personal application of his words. “Saint–Germain is pleasant enough, but are you doing yourself justice? Shan’t you regret in future days that instead of travelling and seeing cities and monuments and museums and improving your mind you simply sat here — for instance — on a log and pulled my flowers to pieces?”

“What I shall regret in future days,” he answered after some hesitation, “is that I should have sat here — sat here so much — and never have shown what’s the matter with me. I’m fond of museums and monuments and of improving my mind, and I’m particularly fond of my friend Webster. But I can’t bring myself to leave Saint–Germain without asking you a question. You must forgive me if it’s indiscreet and be assured that curiosity was never more respectful. Are you really as unhappy as I imagine you to be?”

She had evidently not expected his appeal, and, making her change colour, it took her unprepared. “If I strike you as unhappy,” she none the less simply said, “I’ve been a poorer friend to you than I wished to be.”

“I, perhaps, have been a better friend of yours than you’ve supposed,” he returned. “I’ve admired your reserve, your courage, your studied gaiety. But I’ve felt the existence of something beneath them that was more YOU— more you as I wished to know you — than they were; some trouble in you that I’ve permitted myself to hate and resent.”

She listened all gravely, but without an air of offence, and he felt that while he had been timorously calculating the last consequences of friendship she had quietly enough accepted them. “You surprise me,” she said slowly, and her flush still lingered. “But to refuse to answer you would confirm some impression in you even now much too strong. Any ‘trouble’ — if you mean any unhappiness — that one can sit comfortably talking about is an unhappiness with distinct limitations. If I were examined before a board of commissioners for testing the felicity of mankind I’m sure I should be pronounced a very fortunate woman.” There was something that deeply touched him in her tone, and this quality pierced further as she continued. “But let me add, with all gratitude for your sympathy, that it’s my own affair altogether. It needn’t disturb you, my dear sir,” she wound up with a certain quaintness of gaiety, “for I’ve often found myself in your company contented enough and diverted enough.”

“Well, you’re a wonderful woman,” the young man declared, “and I admire you as I’ve never admired any one. You’re wiser than anything I, for one, can say to you; and what I ask of you is not to let me advise or console you, but simply thank you for letting me know you.” He had intended no such outburst as this, but his voice rang loud and he felt an unfamiliar joy as he uttered it.

She shook her head with some impatience. “Let us be friends — as I supposed we were going to be — without protestations and fine words. To have you paying compliments to my wisdom — that would be real wretchedness. I can dispense with your admiration better than the Flemish painters can — better than Van Eyck and Rubens, in spite of all their worshippers. Go join your friend — see everything, enjoy everything, learn everything, and write me an excellent letter, brimming over with your impressions. I’m extremely fond of the Dutch painters,” she added with the faintest quaver in the world, an impressible break of voice that Longmore had noticed once or twice before and had interpreted as the sudden weariness, the controlled convulsion, of a spirit self-condemned to play a part.

“I don’t believe you care a button for the Dutch painters,” he said with a laugh. “But I shall certainly write you a letter.”

She rose and turned homeward, thoughtfully rearranging her flowers as she walked. Little was said; Longmore was asking himself with an agitation of his own in the unspoken words whether all this meant simply that he was in love. He looked at the rooks wheeling against the golden-hued sky, between the tree-tops, but not at his companion, whose personal presence seemed lost in the felicity she had created. Madame de Mauves was silent and grave — she felt she had almost grossly failed and she was proportionately disappointed. An emotional friendship she had not desired; her scheme had been to pass with her visitor as a placid creature with a good deal of leisure which she was disposed to devote to profitable conversation of an impersonal sort. She liked him extremely, she felt in him the living force of something to which, when she made up her girlish mind that a needy nobleman was the ripest fruit of time, she had done too scant justice. They went through the little gate in the garden-wall and approached the house. On the terrace Madame Clairin was entertaining a friend — a little elderly gentleman with a white moustache and an order in his buttonhole. Madame de Mauves chose to pass round the house into the court; whereupon her sister-in-law, greeting Longmore with an authoritative nod, lifted her eye-glass and stared at them as they went by. Longmore heard the little old gentleman uttering some old-fashioned epigram about “la vieille galanterie francaise” — then by a sudden impulse he looked at Madame de Mauves and wondered what she was doing in such a world. She stopped before the house, not asking him to come in. “I hope you will act on my advice and waste no more time at Saint–Germain.”

For an instant there rose to his lips some faded compliment about his time not being wasted, but it expired before the simple sincerity of her look. She stood there as gently serious as the angel of disinterestedness, and it seemed to him he should insult her by treating her words as a bait for flattery. “I shall start in a day or two,” he answered, “but I won’t promise you not to come back.”

“I hope not,” she said simply. “I expect to be here a long time.”

“I shall come and say good-bye,” he returned — which she appeared to accept with a smile as she went in.

He stood a moment, then walked slowly homeward by the terrace. It seemed to him that to leave her thus, for a gain on which she herself insisted, was to know her better and admire her more. But he was aware of a vague ferment of feeling which her evasion of his question half an hour before had done more to deepen than to allay. In the midst of it suddenly, on the great terrace of the Chateau, he encountered M. de Mauves, planted there against the parapet and finishing a cigar. The Count, who, he thought he made out, had an air of peculiar affability, offered him his white plump hand. Longmore stopped; he felt a sharp, a sore desire to cry out to him that he had the most precious wife in the world, that he ought to be ashamed of himself not to know it, and that for all his grand assurance he had never looked down into the depths of her eyes. Richard de Mauves, we have seen, considered he had; but there was doubtless now something in this young woman’s eyes that had not been there five years before. The two men conversed formally enough, and M. de Mauves threw off a light bright remark or two about his visit to America. His tone was not soothing to Longmore’s excited sensibilities. He seemed to have found the country a gigantic joke, and his blandness went but so far as to allow that jokes on that scale are indeed inexhaustible. Longmore was not by habit an aggressive apologist for the seat of his origin, but the Count’s easy diagnosis confirmed his worst estimate of French superficiality. He had understood nothing, felt nothing, learned nothing, and his critic, glancing askance at his aristocratic profile, declared that if the chief merit of a long pedigree was to leave one so fatuously stupid he thanked goodness the Longmores had emerged from obscurity in the present century and in the person of an enterprising timber-merchant. M. de Mauves dwelt of course on that prime oddity of the American order — the liberty allowed the fairer half of the unmarried young, and confessed to some personal study of the “occasions” it offered to the speculative visitor; a line of research in which, during a fortnight’s stay, he had clearly spent his most agreeable hours. “I’m bound to admit,” he said, “that in every case I was disarmed by the extreme candour of the young lady, and that they took care of themselves to better purpose than I have seen some mammas in France take care of them.” Longmore greeted this handsome concession with the grimmest of smiles and damned his impertinent patronage.

Mentioning, however, at last that he was about to leave Saint–Germain, he was surprised, without exactly being flattered, by his interlocutor’s quickened attention. “I’m so very sorry; I hoped we had you for the whole summer.” Longmore murmured something civil and wondered why M. de Mauves should care whether he stayed or went. “You’ve been a real resource to Madame de Mauves,” the Count added; “I assure you I’ve mentally blessed your visits.”

“They were a great pleasure to me,” Longmore said gravely. “Some day I expect to come back.”

“Pray do” — and the Count made a great and friendly point of it. “You see the confidence I have in you.” Longmore said nothing and M. de Mauves puffed his cigar reflectively and watched the smoke. “Madame de Mauves,” he said at last, “is a rather singular person.” And then while our young man shifted his position and wondered whether he was going to “explain” Madame de Mauves, “Being, as you are, her fellow countryman,” this lady’s husband pursued, “I don’t mind speaking frankly. She’s a little overstrained; the most charming woman in the world, as you see, but a little volontaire and morbid. Now you see she has taken this extraordinary fancy for solitude. I can’t get her to go anywhere, to see any one. When my friends present themselves she’s perfectly polite, but it cures them of coming again. She doesn’t do herself justice, and I expect every day to hear two or three of them say to me, ‘Your wife’s jolie a croquer: what a pity she hasn’t a little esprit.’ You must have found out that she has really a great deal. But, to tell the whole truth, what she needs is to forget herself. She sits alone for hours poring over her English books and looking at life through that terrible brown fog they seem to me — don’t they? — to fling over the world. I doubt if your English authors,” the Count went on with a serenity which Longmore afterwards characterised as sublime, “are very sound reading for young married women. I don’t pretend to know much about them; but I remember that not long after our marriage Madame de Mauves undertook to read me one day some passages from a certain Wordsworth — a poet highly esteemed, it appears, chez vous. It was as if she had taken me by the nape of the neck and held my head for half an hour over a basin of soupe aux choux: I felt as if we ought to ventilate the drawing-room before any one called. But I suppose you know him — ce genie-la. Every nation has its own ideals of every kind, but when I remember some of OUR charming writers! I think at all events my wife never forgave me and that it was a real shock to her to find she had married a man who had very much the same taste in literature as in cookery. But you’re a man of general culture, a man of the world,” said M. de Mauves, turning to Longmore but looking hard at the seal of his watchguard. “You can talk about everything, and I’m sure you like Alfred de Musset as well as Monsieur Wordsworth. Talk to her about everything you can, Alfred de Musset included. Bah! I forgot you’re going. Come back then as soon as possible and report on your travels. If my wife too would make a little voyage it would do her great good. It would enlarge her horizon” — and M. de Mauves made a series of short nervous jerks with his stick in the air — “it would wake up her imagination. She’s too much of one piece, you know — it would show her how much one may bend without breaking.” He paused a moment and gave two or three vigorous puffs. Then turning to his companion again with eyebrows expressively raised: “I hope you admire my candour. I beg you to believe I wouldn’t say such things to one of US!”

Evening was at hand and the lingering light seemed to charge the air with faintly golden motes. Longmore stood gazing at these luminous particles; he could almost have fancied them a swarm of humming insects, the chorus of a refrain: “She has a great deal of esprit — she has a great deal of esprit.” “Yes, — she has a great deal,” he said mechanically, turning to the Count. M. de Mauves glanced at him sharply, as if to ask what the deuce he was talking about. “She has a great deal of intelligence,” said Longmore quietly, “a great deal of beauty, a great many virtues.”

M. de Mauves busied himself for a moment in lighting another cigar, and when he had finished, with a return of his confidential smile, “I suspect you of thinking that I don’t do my wife justice.” he made answer. “Take care — take care, young man; that’s a dangerous assumption. In general a man always does his wife justice. More than justice,” the Count laughed — “that we keep for the wives of other men!”

Longmore afterwards remembered in favour of his friend’s fine manner that he had not measured at this moment the dusky abyss over which it hovered. Hut a deepening subterranean echo, loudest at the last, lingered on his spiritual ear. For the present his keenest sensation was a desire to get away and cry aloud that M. de Mauves was no better than a pompous dunce. He bade him an abrupt good-night, which was to serve also, he said, as good-bye.

“Decidedly then you go?” It was spoken almost with the note of irritation.

“Decidedly.”

“But of course you’ll come and take leave —?” His manner implied that the omission would be uncivil, but there seemed to Longmore himself something so ludicrous in his taking a lesson in consideration from M. de Mauves that he put the appeal by with a laugh. The Count frowned as if it were a new and unpleasant sensation for him to be left at a loss. “Ah you people have your facons!” he murmured as Longmore turned away, not foreseeing that he should learn still more about his facons before he had done with him.

Longmore sat down to dinner at his hotel with his usual good intentions, but in the act of lifting his first glass of wine to his lips he suddenly fell to musing and set down the liquor untasted. This mood lasted long, and when he emerged from it his fish was cold; but that mattered little, for his appetite was gone. That evening he packed his trunk with an indignant energy. This was so effective that the operation was accomplished before bedtime, and as he was not in the least sleepy he devoted the interval to writing two letters, one of them a short note to Madame de Mauves, which he entrusted to a servant for delivery the next morning. He had found it best, he said, to leave Saint–Germain immediately, but he expected to return to Paris early in the autumn. The other letter was the result of his having remembered a day or two before that he had not yet complied with Mrs. Draper’s injunction to give her an account of his impression of her friend. The present occasion seemed propitious, and he wrote half a dozen pages. His tone, however, was grave, and Mrs. Draper, on reading him over, was slightly disappointed — she would have preferred he should have “raved” a little more. But what chiefly concerns us is the concluding passage.

“The only time she ever spoke to me of her marriage,” he wrote, “she intimated that it had been a perfect love-match. With all abatements, I suppose, this is what most marriages take themselves to be; but it would mean in her case, I think, more than in that of most women, for her love was an absolute idealisation. She believed her husband to be a hero of rose-coloured romance, and he turns out to be not even a hero of very sad-coloured reality. For some time now she has been sounding her mistake, but I don’t believe she has yet touched the bottom. She strikes me as a person who’s begging off from full knowledge — who has patched up a peace with some painful truth and is trying a while the experiment of living with closed eyes. In the dark she tries to see again the gilding on her idol. Illusion of course is illusion, and one must always pay for it; but there’s something truly tragical in seeing an earthly penalty levied on such divine folly as this. As for M. de Mauves he’s a shallow Frenchman to his fingers’ ends, and I confess I should dislike him for this if he were a much better man. He can’t forgive his wife for having married him too extravagantly and loved him too well; since he feels, I suppose, in some uncorrupted corner of his being that as she originally saw him so he ought to have been. It disagrees with him somewhere that a little American bourgeoise should have fancied him a finer fellow than he is or than he at all wants to be. He hasn’t a glimmering of real acquaintance with his wife; he can’t understand the stream of passion flowing so clear and still. To tell the truth I hardly understand it myself, but when I see the sight I find I greatly admire it. The Count at any rate would have enjoyed the comfort of believing his wife as bad a case as himself, and you’ll hardly believe me when I assure you he goes about intimating to gentlemen whom he thinks it may concern that it would be a convenience to him they should make love to Madame de Mauves.”

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