Madame de Mauves, by Henry James

V

On reaching Paris Longmore straightaway purchased a Murray’s “Belgium” to help himself to believe that he would start on the morrow for Brussels; but when the morrow came it occurred to him that he ought by way of preparation to acquaint himself more intimately with the Flemish painters in the Louvre. This took a whole morning, but it did little to hasten his departure. He had abruptly left Saint–Germain because it seemed to him that respect for Madame de Mauves required he should bequeath her husband no reason to suppose he had, as it were, taken a low hint; but now that he had deferred to that scruple he found himself thinking more and more ardently of his friend. It was a poor expression of ardour to be lingering irresolutely on the forsaken boulevard, but he detested the idea of leaving Saint–Germain five hundred miles behind him. He felt very foolish, nevertheless, and wandered about nervously, promising himself to take the next train. A dozen trains started, however, and he was still in Paris. This inward ache was more than he had bargained for, and as he looked at the shop-windows he wondered if it represented a “passion.” He had never been fond of the word and had grown up with much mistrust of what it stood for. He had hoped that when he should fall “really” in love he should do it with an excellent conscience, with plenty of confidence and joy, doubtless, but no strange soreness, no pangs nor regrets. Here was a sentiment concocted of pity and anger as well as of admiration, and bristling with scruples and doubts and fears. He had come abroad to enjoy the Flemish painters and all others, but what fair-tressed saint of Van Eyck or Memling was so interesting a figure as the lonely lady of Saint–Germain? His restless steps carried him at last out of the long villa-bordered avenue which leads to the Bois de Boulogne.

Summer had fairly begun and the drive beside the lake was empty, but there were various loungers on the benches and chairs, and the great cafe had an air of animation. Longmore’s walk had given him an appetite, and he went into the establishment and demanded a dinner, remarking for the hundredth time, as he admired the smart little tables disposed in the open air, how much better (than anywhere else) they ordered this matter in France. “Will monsieur dine in the garden or in the salon?” the waiter blandly asked. Longmore chose the garden and, observing that a great cluster of June roses was trained over the wall of the house, placed himself at a table near by, where the best of dinners was served him on the whitest of linen and in the most shining of porcelain. It so happened that his table was near a window and that as he sat he could look into a corner of the salon. So it was that his attention rested on a lady seated just within the window, which was open, face to face apparently with a companion who was concealed by the curtain. She was a very pretty woman, and Longmore looked at her as often as was consistent with good manners. After a while he even began to wonder who she was and finally to suspect that she was one of those ladies whom it is no breach of good manners to look at as often as you like. Our young man too, if he had been so disposed, would have been the more free to give her all his attention that her own was fixed upon the person facing her. She was what the French call a belle brune, and though Longmore, who had rather a conservative taste in such matters, was but half-charmed by her bold outlines and even braver complexion, he couldn’t help admiring her expression of basking contentment.

She was evidently very happy, and her happiness gave her an air of innocence. The talk of her friend, whoever he was, abundantly suited her humour, for she sat listening to him with a broad idle smile and interrupting him fitfully, while she crunched her bonbons, with a murmured response, presumably as broad, which appeared to have the effect of launching him again. She drank a great deal of champagne and ate an immense number of strawberries, and was plainly altogether a person with an impartial relish for strawberries, champagne and what she doubtless would have called betises.

They had half-finished dinner when Longmore sat down, and he was still in his place when they rose. She had hung her bonnet on a nail above her chair, and her companion passed round the table to take it down for her. As he did so she bent her head to look at a wine-stain on her dress, and in the movement exposed the greater part of the back of a very handsome neck. The gentleman observed it, and observed also, apparently, that the room beyond them was empty; that he stood within eyeshot of Longmore he failed to observe. He stooped suddenly and imprinted a gallant kiss on the fair expanse. In the author of this tribute Longmore then recognised Richard de Mauves. The lady to whom it had been rendered put on her bonnet, using his flushed smile as a mirror, and in a moment they passed through the garden on their way to their carriage. Then for the first time M. de Mauves became aware of his wife’s young friend. He measured with a rapid glance this spectator’s relation to the open window and checked himself in the impulse to stop and speak to him. He contented himself with bowing all imperturbably as he opened the gate for his companion.

That evening Longmore made a railway journey, but not to Brussels. He had effectually ceased to care for Brussels; all he cared for in the world now was Madame de Mauves. The air of his mind had had a sudden clearing-up; pity and anger were still throbbing there, but they had space to range at their pleasure, for doubts and scruples had abruptly departed. It was little, he felt, that he could interpose between her resignation and the indignity of her position; but that little, if it involved the sacrifice of everything that bound him to the tranquil past, he could offer her with a rapture which at last made stiff resistance a terribly inferior substitute for faith. Nothing in his tranquil past had given such a zest to consciousness as this happy sense of choosing to go straight back to Saint–Germain. How to justify his return, how to explain his ardour, troubled him little. He wasn’t even sure he wished to be understood; he wished only to show how little by any fault of his Madame de Mauves was alone so with the harshness of fate. He was conscious of no distinct desire to “make love” to her; if he could have uttered the essence of his longing he would have said that he wished her to remember that in a world coloured grey to her vision by the sense of her mistake there was one vividly honest man. She might certainly have remembered it, however, without his coming back to remind her; and it is not to be denied that as he waited for the morrow he longed immensely for the sound of her voice.

He waited the next day till his usual hour of calling — the late afternoon; but he learned at the door that the mistress of the house was not at home. The servant offered the information that she was walking a little way in the forest. Longmore went through the garden and out of the small door into the lane, and, after half an hour’s vain exploration, saw her coming toward him at the end of a green by-path. As he appeared she stopped a moment, as if to turn aside; then recognising him she slowly advanced and had presently taken the hand he held out.

“Nothing has happened,” she said with her beautiful eyes on him. “You’re not ill?”

“Nothing except that when I got to Paris I found how fond I had grown of Saint–Germain.”

She neither smiled nor looked flattered; it seemed indeed to Longmore that she took his reappearance with no pleasure. But he was uncertain, for he immediately noted that in his absence the whole character of her face had changed. It showed him something momentous had happened. It was no longer self-contained melancholy that he read in her eyes, but grief and agitation which had lately struggled with the passionate love of peace ruling her before all things else, and forced her to know that deep experience is never peaceful. She was pale and had evidently been shedding tears. He felt his heart beat hard — he seemed now to touch her secret. She continued to look at him with a clouded brow, as if his return had surrounded her with complications too great to be disguised by a colourless welcome. For some moments, as he turned and walked beside her, neither spoke; then abruptly, “Tell me truly, Mr. Longmore,” she said, “why you’ve come back.” He inclined himself to her, almost pulling up again, with an air that startled her into a certainty of what she had feared. “Because I’ve learned the real answer to the question I asked you the other day. You’re not happy — you’re too good to be happy on the terms offered you. Madame de Mauves,” he went on with a gesture which protested against a gesture of her own, “I can’t be happy, you know, when you’re as little so as I make you out. I don’t care for anything so long as I only feel helpless and sore about you. I found during those dreary days in Paris that the thing in life I most care for is this daily privilege of seeing you. I know it’s very brutal to tell you I admire you; it’s an insult to you to treat you as if you had complained to me or appealed to me. But such a friendship as I waked up to there” — and he tossed his head toward the distant city — “is a potent force, I assure you. When forces are stupidly stifled they explode. However,” he went on, “if you had told me every trouble in your heart it would have mattered little; I couldn’t say more than I— that if that in life from which you’ve hoped most has given you least, this devoted respect of mine will refuse no service and betray no trust.”

She had begun to make marks in the earth with the point of her parasol, but she stopped and listened to him in perfect immobility — immobility save for the appearance by the time he had stopped speaking of a flush in her guarded clearness. Such as it was it told Longmore she was moved, and his first perceiving it was the happiest moment of his life. She raised her eyes at last, and they uttered a plea for non-insistence that unspeakably touched him.

“Thank you — thank you!” she said calmly enough; but the next moment her own emotion baffled this pretence, a convulsion shook her for ten seconds and she burst into tears. Her tears vanished as quickly as they came, but they did Longmore a world of good. He had always felt indefinably afraid of her; her being had somehow seemed fed by a deeper faith and a stronger will than his own; but her half-dozen smothered sobs showed him the bottom of her heart and convinced him she was weak enough to be grateful. “Excuse me,” she said; “I’m too nervous to listen to you. I believe I could have dealt with an enemy to-day, but I can’t bear up under a friend.”

“You’re killing yourself with stoicism — that’s what is the matter with you!” he cried. “Listen to a friend for his own sake if not for yours. I’ve never presumed to offer you an atom of compassion, and you can’t accuse yourself of an abuse of charity.”

She looked about her as under the constraint of this appeal, but it promised him a reluctant attention. Noting, however, by the wayside the fallen log on which they had rested a few evenings before, she went and sat down on it with a resigned grace while the young man, silent before her and watching her, took from her the mute assurance that if she was charitable now he must at least be very wise.

“Something came to my knowledge yesterday,” he said as he sat down beside her, “which gave me an intense impression of your loneliness. You’re truth itself, and there’s no truth about you. You believe in purity and duty and dignity, and you live in a world in which they’re daily belied. I ask myself with vain rage how you ever came into such a world, and why the perversity of fate never let me know you before.”

She waited a little; she looked down, straight before her. “I like my ‘world’ no better than you do, and it was not for its own sake I came into it. But what particular group of people is worth pinning one’s faith upon? I confess it sometimes seems to me men and women are very poor creatures. I suppose I’m too romantic and always was. I’ve an unfortunate taste for poetic fitness. Life’s hard prose, and one must learn to read prose contentedly. I believe I once supposed all the prose to be in America, which was very foolish. What I thought, what I believed, what I expected, when I was an ignorant girl fatally addicted to falling in love with my own theories, is more than I can begin to tell you now. Sometimes when I remember certain impulses, certain illusions of those days they take away my breath, and I wonder that my false point of view hasn’t led me into troubles greater than any I’ve now to lament. I had a conviction which you’d probably smile at if I were to attempt to express it to you. It was a singular form for passionate faith to take, but it had all of the sweetness and the ardour of passionate faith. It led me to take a great step, and it lies behind me now, far off, a vague deceptive form melting in the light of experience. It has faded, but it hasn’t vanished. Some feelings, I’m sure, die only with ourselves; some illusions are as much the condition of our life as our heart-beats. They say that life itself is an illusion — that this world is a shadow of which the reality is yet to come. Life is all of a piece then and there’s no shame in being miserably human. As for my loneliness, it doesn’t greatly matter; it is the fault in part of my obstinacy. There have been times when I’ve been frantically distressed and, to tell you the truth, wretchedly homesick, because my maid — a jewel of a maid — lied to me with every second breath. There have been moments when I’ve wished I was the daughter of a poor New England minister — living in a little white house under a couple of elms and doing all the housework.”

She had begun to speak slowly, with reserve and effort; but she went on quickly and as if talk were at last a relief. “My marriage introduced me to people and things which seemed to me at first very strange and then very horrible, and then, to tell the truth, of very little importance. At first I expended a great deal of sorrow and dismay and pity on it all; but there soon came a time when I began to wonder if it were worth one’s tears. If I could tell you the eternal friendships I’ve seen broken, the inconsolable woes consoled, the jealousies and vanities scrambling to outdo each other, you’d agree with me that tempers like yours and mine can understand neither such troubles nor such compensations. A year ago, while I was in the country, a friend of mine was in despair at the infidelity of her husband; she wrote me a most dolorous letter, and on my return to Paris I went immediately to see her. A week had elapsed, and as I had seen stranger things I thought she might have recovered her spirits. Not at all; she was still in despair — but at what? At the conduct, the abandoned, shameless conduct of — well of a lady I’ll call Madame de T. You’ll imagine of course that Madame de T. was the lady whom my friend’s husband preferred to his wife. Far from it; he had never seen her. Who then was Madame de T.? Madame de T. was cruelly devoted to M. de V. And who was M. de V.? M. de V. was — well, in two words again, my friend was cultivating two jealousies at once. I hardly know what I said to her; something at any rate that she found unpardonable, for she quite gave me up. Shortly afterwards my husband proposed we should cease to live in Paris, and I gladly assented, for I believe I had taken a turn of spirits that made me a detestable companion. I should have preferred to go quite into the country, into Auvergne, where my husband has a house. But to him Paris in some degree is necessary, and Saint–Germain has been a conscious compromise.”

“A conscious compromise!” Longmore expressively repeated. “That’s your whole life.”

“It’s the life of many people,” she made prompt answer — “of most people of quiet tastes, and it’s certainly better than acute distress. One’s at a loss theoretically to defend compromises; but if I found a poor creature who had managed to arrive at one I should think myself not urgently called to expose its weak side.” But she had no sooner uttered these words than she laughed all amicably, as if to mitigate their too personal application.

“Heaven forbid one should do that unless one has something better to offer,” Longmore returned. “And yet I’m haunted by the dream of a life in which you should have found no compromises, for they’re a perversion of natures that tend only to goodness and rectitude. As I see it you should have found happiness serene, profound, complete; a femme de chambre not a jewel perhaps, but warranted to tell but one fib a day; a society possibly rather provincial, but — in spite of your poor opinion of mankind — a good deal of solid virtue; jealousies and vanities very tame, and no particular iniquities and adulteries. A husband,” he added after a moment — “a husband of your own faith and race and spiritual substance, who would have loved you well.”

She rose to her feet, shaking her head. “You’re very kind to go to the expense of such dazzling visions for me. Visions are vain things; we must make the best of the reality we happen to be in for.”

“And yet,” said Longmore, provoked by what seemed the very wantonness of her patience, “the reality YOU ‘happen to be in for’ has, if I’m not in error, very recently taken a shape that keenly tests your philosophy.”

She seemed on the point of replying that his sympathy was too zealous; but a couple of impatient tears in his eyes proved it founded on a devotion of which she mightn’t make light. “Ah philosophy?” she echoed. “I HAVE none. Thank heaven,” she cried with vehemence, “I have none! I believe, Mr. Longmore,” she added in a moment, “that I’ve nothing on earth but a conscience — it’s a good time to tell you so — nothing but a dogged obstinate clinging conscience. Does that prove me to be indeed of your faith and race, and have you one yourself for which you can say as much? I don’t speak in vanity, for I believe that if my conscience may prevent me from doing anything very base it will effectually prevent me also from doing anything very fine.”

“I’m delighted to hear it,” her friend returned with high emphasis — “that proves we’re made for each other. It’s very certain I too shall never cut a great romantic figure. And yet I’ve fancied that in my case the unaccommodating organ we speak of might be blinded and gagged a while, in a really good cause, if not turned out of doors. In yours,” he went on with the same appealing irony, “is it absolutely beyond being ‘squared’?”

But she made no concession to his tone. “Don’t laugh at your conscience,” she answered gravely; “that’s the only blasphemy I know.”

She had hardly spoken when she turned suddenly at an unexpected sound, and at the same moment he heard a footstep in an adjacent by-path which crossed their own at a short distance from where they stood.

“It’s M. de Mauves,” she said at once; with which she moved slowly forward. Longmore, wondering how she knew without seeing, had overtaken her by the time her husband came into view. A solitary walk in the forest was a pastime to which M. de Mauves was not addicted, but he seemed on this occasion to have resorted to it with some equanimity. He was smoking a fragrant cigar and had thrust his thumb into the armhole of his waistcoat with the air of a man thinking at his ease. He stopped short with surprise on seeing his wife and her companion, and his surprise had for Longmore even the pitch of impertinence. He glanced rapidly from one to the other, fixed the young man’s own look sharply a single instant and then lifted his hat with formal politeness.

“I was not aware,” he said, turning to Madame de Mauves, “that I might congratulate you on the return of monsieur.”

“You should at once have known it,” she immediately answered, “if I had expected such a pleasure.”

She had turned very pale, and Longmore felt this to be a first meeting after some commotion. “My return was unexpected to myself,” he said to her husband. “I came back last night.”

M. de Mauves seemed to express such satisfaction as could consort with a limited interest. “It’s needless for me to make you welcome. Madame de Mauves knows the duties of hospitality.” And with another bow he continued his walk.

She pursued her homeward course with her friend, neither of them pretending much not to consent to appear silent. The Count’s few moments with them had both chilled Longmore and angered him, casting a shadow across a prospect which had somehow, just before, begun to open and almost to brighten. He watched his companion narrowly as they went, and wondered what she had last had to suffer. Her husband’s presence had checked her disposition to talk, though nothing betrayed she had recognised his making a point at her expense. Yet if matters were none the less plainly at a crisis between them he could but wonder vainly what it was on her part that prevented some practical protest or some rupture. What did she suspect? — how much did she know? To what was she resigned? — how much had she forgiven? How, above all, did she reconcile with knowledge, or with suspicion, that intense consideration she had just now all but assured him she entertained? “She has loved him once,” Longmore said with a sinking of the heart, “and with her to love once is to commit herself for ever. Her clever husband thinks her too prim. What would a stupid poet call it?” He relapsed with aching impotence into the sense of her being somehow beyond him, unattainable, immeasurable by his own fretful logic. Suddenly he gave three passionate switches in the air with his cane which made Madame de Mauves look round. She could hardly have guessed their signifying that where ambition was so vain the next best thing to it was the very ardour of hopelessness.

She found in her drawing-room the little elderly Frenchman, M. de Chalumeau, whom Longmore had observed a few days before on the terrace. On this occasion too Madame Clairin was entertaining him, but as her sister-in-law came in she surrendered her post and addressed herself to our hero. Longmore, at thirty, was still an ingenuous youth, and there was something in this lady’s large assured attack that fairly intimidated him. He was doubtless not as reassured as he ought to have been at finding he had not absolutely forfeited her favour by his want of resource during their last interview, and a suspicion of her being prepared to approach him on another line completed his distress.

“So you’ve returned from Brussels by way of the forest?” she archly asked.

“I’ve not been to Brussels. I returned yesterday from Paris by the only way — by the train.”

Madame Clairin was infinitely struck. “I’ve never known a person at all to be so fond of Saint–Germain. They generally declare it’s horribly dull.”

“That’s not very polite to you,” said Longmore, vexed at his lack of superior form and determined not to be abashed.

“Ah what have I to do with it?” Madame Clairin brightly wailed. “I’m the dullest thing here. They’ve not had, other gentlemen, your success with my sister-in-law.”

“It would have been very easy to have it. Madame de Mauves is kindness itself.”

She swung open her great fan. “To her own countrymen!”

Longmore remained silent; he hated the tone of this conversation.

The speaker looked at him a little and then took in their hostess, to whom M. de Chalumeau was serving up another epigram, which the charming creature received with a droop of the head and eyes that strayed through the window. “Don’t pretend to tell me,” Madame Clairin suddenly exhaled, “that you’re not in love with that pretty woman.”

“Allons donc!” cried Longmore in the most inspired French he had ever uttered. He rose the next minute and took a hasty farewell.

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