Madame de Mauves, by Henry James

VII

He felt, when he found himself unobserved and outside, that he must plunge into violent action, walk fast and far and defer the opportunity for thought. He strode away into the forest, swinging his cane, throwing back his head, casting his eyes into verdurous vistas and following the road without a purpose. He felt immensely excited, but could have given no straight name to his agitation. It was a joy as all increase of freedom is joyous; something seemed to have been cleared out of his path and his destiny to have rounded a cape and brought him into sight of an open sea. But it was a pain in the degree in which his freedom somehow resolved itself into the need of despising all mankind with a single exception; and the fact that Madame de Mauves inhabited a planet contaminated by the presence of the baser multitude kept elation from seeming a pledge of ideal bliss.

There she was, at any rate, and circumstances now forced them to be intimate. She had ceased to have what men call a secret for him, and this fact itself brought with it a sort of rapture. He had no prevision that he should “profit,” in the vulgar sense, by the extraordinary position into which they had been thrown; it might be but a cruel trick of destiny to make hope a harsher mockery and renunciation a keener suffering. But above all this rose the conviction that she could do nothing that wouldn’t quicken his attachment. It was this conviction that gross accident — all odious in itself — would force the beauty of her character into more perfect relief for him that made him stride along as if he were celebrating a spiritual feast. He rambled at hazard for a couple of hours, finding at last that he had left the forest behind him and had wandered into an unfamiliar region. It was a perfectly rural scene, and the still summer day gave it a charm for which its meagre elements but half accounted.

He thought he had never seen anything so characteristically French; all the French novels seemed to have described it, all the French landscapists to have painted it. The fields and trees were of a cool metallic green; the grass looked as if it might stain his trousers and the foliage his hands. The clear light had a mild greyness, the sheen of silver, not of gold, was in the work-a-day sun. A great red-roofed high-stacked farmhouse, with whitewashed walls and a straggling yard, surveyed the highroad, on one side, from behind a transparent curtain of poplars. A narrow stream half-choked with emerald rushes and edged with grey aspens occupied the opposite quarter. The meadows rolled and sloped away gently to the low horizon, which was barely concealed by the continuous line of clipped and marshalled trees. The prospect was not rich, but had a frank homeliness that touched the young man’s fancy. It was full of light atmosphere and diffused clearness, and if it was prosaic it was somehow sociable.

Longmore was disposed to walk further, and he advanced along the road beneath the poplars. In twenty minutes he came to a village which straggled away to the right, among orchards and potagers. On the left, at a stone’s throw from the road, stood a little pink-faced inn which reminded him that he had not breakfasted, having left home with a prevision of hospitality from Madame de Mauves. In the inn he found a brick-tiled parlour and a hostess in sabots and a white cap, whom, over the omelette she speedily served him — borrowing licence from the bottle of sound red wine that accompanied it — he assured she was a true artist. To reward his compliment she invited him to smoke his cigar in her little garden behind the house.

Here he found a tonnelle and a view of tinted crops stretching down to the stream. The tonnelle was rather close, and he preferred to lounge on a bench against the pink wall, in the sun, which was not too hot. Here, as he rested and gazed and mused, he fell into a train of thought which, in an indefinable fashion, was a soft influence from the scene about him. His heart, which had been beating fast for the past three hours, gradually checked its pulses and left him looking at life with rather a more level gaze. The friendly tavern sounds coming out through the open windows, the sunny stillness of the yellowing grain which covered so much vigorous natural life, conveyed no strained nor high-pitched message, had little to say about renunciation — nothing at all about spiritual zeal. They communicated the sense of plain ripe nature, expressed the unperverted reality of things, declared that the common lot isn’t brilliantly amusing and that the part of wisdom is to grasp frankly at experience lest you miss it altogether. What reason there was for his beginning to wonder after this whether a deeply-wounded heart might be soothed and healed by such a scene, it would be difficult to explain; certain it was that as he sat there he dreamt, awake, of an unhappy woman who strolled by the slow-flowing stream before him and who pulled down the fruit-laden boughs in the orchards. He mused and mused, and at last found himself quite angry that he couldn’t somehow think worse of Madame de Mauves — or at any rate think otherwise. He could fairly claim that in the romantic way he asked very little of life — made modest demands on passion: why then should his only passion be born to ill fortune? Why should his first — his last — glimpse of positive happiness be so indissolubly linked with renunciation?

It is perhaps because, like many spirits of the same stock, he had in his composition a lurking principle of sacrifice, sacrifice for sacrifice’s sake, to the authority of which he had ever paid due deference, that he now felt all the vehemence of rebellion. To renounce, to renounce again, to renounce for ever, was this all that youth and longing and ardour were meant for? Was experience to be muffled and mutilated like an indecent picture? Was a man to sit and deliberately condemn his future to be the blank memory of a regret rather than the long possession of a treasure? Sacrifice? The word was a trap for minds muddled by fear, an ignoble refuge of weakness. To insist now seemed not to dare, but simply to BE, to live on possible terms.

His hostess came out to hang a moist cloth on the hedge, and, though her guest was sitting quietly enough, she might have imagined in his kindled eyes a flattering testimony to the quality of her wine. As she turned back into the house she was met by a young man of whom Longmore took note in spite of his high distraction. He was evidently a member of that jovial fraternity of artists whose very shabbiness has an affinity with the unestablished and unexpected in life — the element often gazed at with a certain wistfulness out of the curtained windows even of the highest respectability. Longmore was struck first with his looking like a very clever man and then with his looking like a contented one. The combination, as it was expressed in his face, might have arrested the attention of a less exasperated reasoner. He had a slouched hat and a yellow beard, a light easel under one arm, and an unfinished sketch in oils under the other. He stopped and stood talking for some moments to the landlady, while something pleasant played in his face. They were discussing the possibilities of dinner; the hostess enumerated some very savoury ones, and he nodded briskly, assenting to everything. It couldn’t be, Longmore thought, that he found such ideal ease in the prospect of lamb-chops and spinach and a croute aux fruits. When the dinner had been ordered he turned up his sketch, and the good woman fell to admiring and comparing, to picking up, off by the stream-side, the objects represented.

Was it his work, Longmore wondered, that made him so happy? Was a strong talent the best thing in the world? The landlady went back to her kitchen, and the young painter stood, as if he were waiting for something, beside the gate which opened upon the path across the fields. Longmore sat brooding and asking himself if it weren’t probably better to cultivate the arts than to cultivate the passions. Before he had answered the question the painter had grown tired of waiting. He had picked up a pebble, tossed it lightly into an upper window and called familiarly “Claudine!” Claudine appeared; Longmore heard her at the window, bidding the young man cultivate patience. “But I’m losing my light,” he said; “I must have my shadows in the same place as yesterday.”

“Go without me then,” Claudine answered; “I’ll join you in ten minutes.” Her voice was fresh and young; it represented almost aggressively to Longmore that she was as pleased as her companion.

“Don’t forget the Chenier,” cried the young man, who, turning away, passed out of the gate and followed the path across the fields until he disappeared among the trees by the side of the stream. Who might Claudine be? Longmore vaguely wondered; and was she as pretty as her voice? Before long he had a chance to satisfy himself; she came out of the house with her hat and parasol, prepared to follow her companion. She had on a pink muslin dress and a little white hat, and she was as pretty as suffices almost any Frenchwoman to be pleasing. She had a clear brown skin and a bright dark eye and a step that made walking as light a matter as being blown — and this even though she happened to be at the moment not a little over-weighted. Her hands were encumbered with various articles involved in her pursuit of her friend. In one arm she held her parasol and a large roll of needlework, and in the other a shawl and a heavy white umbrella, such as painters use for sketching. Meanwhile she was trying to thrust into her pocket a paper-covered volume which Longmore saw to be the poems of Andre Chenier, and in the effort dropping the large umbrella and marking this with a half-smiled exclamation of disgust. Longmore stepped forward and picked up the umbrella, and as she, protesting her gratitude, put out her hand to take it, he recognised her as too obliging to the young man who had preceded her.

“You’ve too much to carry,” he said; “you must let me help you.”

“You’re very good, monsieur,” she answered. “My husband always forgets something. He can do nothing without his umbrella. He is d’une etourderie — ”

“You must allow me to carry the umbrella,” Longmore risked; “there’s too much of it for a lady.”

She assented, after many compliments to his politeness; and he walked by her side into the meadow. She went lightly and rapidly, picking her steps and glancing forward to catch a glimpse of her husband. She was graceful, she was charming, she had an air of decision and yet of accommodation, and it seemed to our friend that a young artist would work none the worse for having her seated at his side reading Chenier’s iambics. They were newly married, he supposed, and evidently their path of life had none of the mocking crookedness of some others. They asked little; but what need to ask more than such quiet summer days by a shady stream, with a comrade all amiability, to say nothing of art and books and a wide unmenaced horizon? To spend such a morning, to stroll back to dinner in the red-tiled parlour of the inn, to ramble away again as the sun got low — all this was a vision of delight which floated before him only to torture him with a sense of the impossible. All Frenchwomen were not coquettes, he noted as he kept pace with his companion. She uttered a word now and then for politeness’ sake, but she never looked at him and seemed not in the least to care that he was a well-favoured and well-dressed young man. She cared for nothing but the young artist in the shabby coat and the slouched hat, and for discovering where he had set up his easel.

This was soon done. He was encamped under the trees, close to the stream, and, in the diffused green shade of the little wood, couldn’t have felt immediate need of his umbrella. He received a free rebuke, however, for forgetting it, and was informed of what he owed to Longmore’s complaisance. He was duly grateful; he thanked our hero warmly and offered him a seat on the grass. But Longmore felt himself a marplot and lingered only long enough to glance at the young man’s sketch and to see in it an easy rendering of the silvery stream and the vivid green rushes. The young wife had spread her shawl on the grass at the base of a tree and meant to seat herself when he had left them, meant to murmur Chenier’s verses to the music of the gurgling river. Longmore looked a while from one of these lucky persons to the other, barely stifled a sigh, bade them good-morning and took his departure. He knew neither where to go nor what to do; he seemed afloat on the sea of ineffectual longing. He strolled slowly back to the inn, where, in the doorway, he met the landlady returning from the butcher’s with the lambchops for the dinner of her lodgers.

“Monsieur has made the acquaintance of the dame of our young painter,” she said with a free smile — a smile too free for malicious meanings. “Monsieur has perhaps seen the young man’s picture. It appears that he’s d’une jolie force.”

“His picture’s very charming,” said Longmore, “but his dame is more charming still.”

“She’s a very nice little woman; but I pity her all the more.”

“I don’t see why she’s to be pitied,” Longmore pleaded. “They seem a very happy couple.”

The landlady gave a knowing nod. “Don’t trust to it, monsieur! Those artists — ca na pas de principes! From one day to another he can plant her there! I know them, allez. I’ve had them here very often; one year with one, another year with another.”

Longmore was at first puzzled. Then, “You mean she’s not his wife?” he asked.

She took it responsibly. “What shall I tell you? They’re not des hommes serieux, those gentlemen! They don’t engage for eternity. It’s none of my business, and I’ve no wish to speak ill of madame. She’s gentille — but gentille, and she loves her jeune homme to distraction.”

“Who then is so distinguished a young woman?” asked Longmore. “What do you know about her?”

“Nothing for certain; but it’s my belief that she’s better than he. I’ve even gone so far as to believe that she’s a lady — a vraie dame — and that she has given up a great many things for him. I do the best I can for them, but I don’t believe she has had all her life to put up with a dinner of two courses.” And she turned over her lamb-chops tenderly, as to say that though a good cook could imagine better things, yet if you could have but one course lamb-chops had much in their favour. “I shall do them with breadcrumbs. Voila les femmes, monsieur!”

Longmore turned away with the feeling that women were indeed a measureless mystery, and that it was hard to say in which of their forms of perversity there was most merit. He walked back to Saint–Germain more slowly than he had come, with less philosophic resignation to any event and more of the urgent egotism of the passion pronounced by philosophers the supremely selfish one. Now and then the episode of the happy young painter and the charming woman who had given up a great many things for him rose vividly in his mind and seemed to mock his moral unrest like some obtrusive vision of unattainable bliss.

The landlady’s gossip had cast no shadow on its brightness; her voice seemed that of the vulgar chorus of the uninitiated, which stands always ready with its gross prose rendering of the inspired passages of human action. Was it possible a man could take THAT from a woman — take all that lent lightness to that other woman’s footstep and grace to her surrender and not give her the absolute certainty of a devotion as unalterable as the process of the sun? Was it possible that so clear a harmony had the seeds of trouble, that the charm of so perfect union could be broken by anything but death? Longmore felt an immense desire to cry out a thousand times “No!” for it seemed to him at last that he was somehow only a graver equivalent of the young lover and that rustling Claudine was a lighter sketch of Madame de Mauves. The heat of the sun, as he walked along, became oppressive, and when he re-entered the forest he turned aside into the deepest shade he could find and stretched himself on the mossy ground at the foot of a great beech. He lay for a while staring up into the verdurous dusk overhead and trying mentally to see his friend at Saint–Germain hurry toward some quiet stream-side where HE waited, as he had seen that trusting creature hurry an hour before. It would be hard to say how well he succeeded; but the effort soothed rather than excited him, and as he had had a good deal both of moral and physical fatigue he sank at last into a quiet sleep. While he slept moreover he had a strange and vivid dream. He seemed to be in a wood, very much like the one on which his eyes had lately closed; but the wood was divided by the murmuring stream he had left an hour before. He was walking up and down, he thought, restlessly and in intense expectation of some momentous event. Suddenly, at a distance, through the trees, he saw a gleam of a woman’s dress, on which he hastened to meet her. As he advanced he recognised her, but he saw at the same time that she was on the other bank of the river. She seemed at first not to notice him, but when they had come to opposite places she stopped and looked at him very gravely and pityingly. She made him no sign that he must cross the stream, but he wished unutterably to stand by her side. He knew the water was deep, and it seemed to him he knew how he should have to breast it and how he feared that when he rose to the surface she would have disappeared. Nevertheless he was going to plunge when a boat turned into the current from above and came swiftly toward them, guided by an oarsman who was sitting so that they couldn’t see his face. He brought the boat to the bank where Longmore stood; the latter stepped in, and with a few strokes they touched the opposite shore. Longmore got out and, though he was sure he had crossed the stream, Madame de Mauves was not there. He turned with a kind of agony and saw that now she was on the other bank — the one he had left. She gave him a grave silent glance and walked away up the stream. The boat and the boatman resumed their course, but after going a short distance they stopped and the boatman turned back and looked at the still divided couple. Then Longmore recognised him — just as he had recognised him a few days before at the restaurant in the Bois de Boulogne.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/james/henry/madame_de_mauves/chapter7.html

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