Madame de Mauves, by Henry James

IX

He went home and, without lighting his candle, flung himself on his bed. But he got no sleep till morning; he lay hour after hour tossing, thinking, wondering; his mind had never been so active. It seemed to him his friend had laid on him in those last moments a heavy charge and had expressed herself almost as handsomely as if she had listened complacently to an assurance of his love. It was neither easy nor delightful thoroughly to understand her; but little by little her perfect meaning sank into his mind and soothed it with a sense of opportunity which somehow stifled his sense of loss. For, to begin with, she meant that she could love him in no degree or contingency, in no imaginable future. This was absolute — he knew he could no more alter it than he could pull down one of the constellations he lay gazing at through his open window. He wondered to what it was, in the background of her life, she had so dedicated herself. A conception of duty unquenchable to the end? A love that no outrage could stifle? “Great heaven!” he groaned; “is the world so rich in the purest pearls of passion that such tenderness as that can be wasted for ever — poured away without a sigh into bottomless darkness?” Had she, in spite of the detestable present, some precious memory that still kept the door of possibility open? Was she prepared to submit to everything and yet to believe? Was it strength, was it weakness, was it a vulgar fear, was it conviction, conscience, constancy?

Longmore sank back with a sigh and an oppressive feeling that it was vain to guess at such a woman’s motives. He only felt that those of this one were buried deep in her soul and that they must be of the noblest, must contain nothing base. He had his hard impression that endless constancy was all her law — a constancy that still found a foothold among crumbling ruins. “She has loved once,” he said to himself as he rose and wandered to his window; “and that’s for ever. Yes, yes — if she loved again she’d be COMMON!” He stood for a long time looking out into the starlit silence of the town and forest and thinking of what life would have been if his constancy had met her own in earlier days. But life was this now, and he must live. It was living, really, to stand there with such a faith even in one’s self still flung over one by such hands. He was not to disappoint her, he was to justify a conception it had beguiled her weariness to form. His imagination embraced it; he threw back his head and seemed to be looking for his friend’s conception among the blinking mocking stars. But it came to him rather on the mild night-wind wandering in over the house-tops which covered the rest of so many heavy human hearts. What she asked he seemed to feel her ask not for her own sake — she feared nothing, she needed nothing — but for that of his own happiness and his own character. He must assent to destiny. Why else was he young and strong, intelligent and resolute? He mustn’t give it to her to reproach him with thinking she had had a moment’s attention for his love, give it to her to plead, to argue, to break off in bitterness. He must see everything from above, her indifference and his own ardour; he must prove his strength, must do the handsome thing, must decide that the handsome thing was to submit to the inevitable, to be supremely delicate, to spare her all pain, to stifle his passion, to ask no compensation, to depart without waiting and to try to believe that wisdom is its own reward. All this, neither more nor less, it was a matter of beautiful friendship with him for her to expect of him. And what should he himself gain by it? He should have pleased her! Well, he flung himself on his bed again, fell asleep at last and slept till morning.

Before noon next day he had made up his mind to leave Saint–Germain at once. It seemed easiest to go without seeing her, and yet if he might ask for a grain of “compensation” this would be five minutes face to face with her. He passed a restless day. Wherever he went he saw her stand before him in the dusky halo of evening, saw her look at him with an air of still negation more intoxicating than the most passionate self-surrender. He must certainly go, and yet it was hideously hard. He compromised and went to Paris to spend the rest of the day. He strolled along the boulevard and paused sightlessly before the shops, sat a while in the Tuileries gardens and looked at the shabby unfortunates for whom this only was nature and summer; but simply felt afresh, as a result of it all, the dusty dreary lonely world to which Madame de Mauves had consigned him.

In a sombre mood he made his way back to the centre of motion and sat down at a table before a cafe door, on the great plain of hot asphalt. Night arrived, the lamps were lighted, the tables near him found occupants, and Paris began to wear that evening grimace of hers that seems to tell, in the flare of plate glass and of theatre-doors, the muffled rumble of swift-rolling carriages, how this is no world for you unless you have your pockets lined and your delicacies perverted. Longmore, however, had neither scruples nor desires; he looked at the great preoccupied place for the first time with an easy sense of repaying its indifference. Before long a carriage drove up to the pavement directly in front of him and remained standing for several minutes without sign from its occupant. It was one of those neat plain coupes, drawn by a single powerful horse, in which the flaneur figures a pale handsome woman buried among silk cushions and yawning as she sees the gas-lamps glittering in the gutters. At last the door opened and out stepped Richard de Mauves. He stopped and leaned on the window for some time, talking in an excited manner to a person within. At last he gave a nod and the carriage rolled away. He stood swinging his cane and looking up and down the boulevard, with the air of a man fumbling, as one might say, the loose change of time. He turned toward the cafe and was apparently, for want of anything better worth his attention, about to seat himself at one of the tables when he noticed Longmore. He wavered an instant and then, without a shade of difference in his careless gait, advanced to the accompaniment of a thin recognition. It was the first time they had met since their encounter in the forest after Longmore’s false start for Brussels. Madame Clairin’s revelations, as he might have regarded them, had not made the Count especially present to his mind; he had had another call to meet than the call of disgust. But now, as M. de Mauves came toward him he felt abhorrence well up. He made out, however, for the first time, a cloud on this nobleman’s superior clearness, and a delight at finding the shoe somewhere at last pinching HIM, mingled with the resolve to be blank and unaccommodating, enabled him to meet the occasion with due promptness.

M. de Mauves sat down, and the two men looked at each other across the table, exchanging formal remarks that did little to lend grace to their encounter. Longmore had no reason to suppose the Count knew of his sister’s various interventions. He was sure M. de Mauves cared very little about his opinions, and yet he had a sense of something grim in his own New York face which would have made him change colour if keener suspicion had helped it to be read there. M. de Mauves didn’t change colour, but he looked at his wife’s so oddly, so more than naturally (wouldn’t it be?) detached friend with an intentness that betrayed at once an irritating memory of the episode in the Bois de Boulogne and such vigilant curiosity as was natural to a gentleman who had entrusted his “honour” to another gentleman’s magnanimity — or to his artlessness.

It might appear that these virtues shone out of our young man less engagingly or reassuringly than a few days before; the shadow at any rate fell darker across the brow of his critic, who turned away and frowned while lighting a cigar. The person in the coupe, he accordingly judged, whether or no the same person as the heroine of the episode of the Bois de Boulogne, was not a source of unalloyed delight. Longmore had dark blue eyes of admirable clarity, settled truth-telling eyes which had in his childhood always made his harshest taskmasters smile at his notion of a subterfuge. An observer watching the two men and knowing something of their relations would certainly have said that what he had at last both to recognise and to miss in those eyes must not a little have puzzled and tormented M. de Mauves. They took possession of him, they laid him out, they measured him in that state of flatness, they triumphed over him, they treated him as no pair of eyes had perhaps ever treated any member of his family before. The Count’s scheme had been to provide for a positive state of ease on the part of no one save himself, but here was Longmore already, if appearances perhaps not appreciable to the vulgar meant anything, primed as for some prospect of pleasure more than Parisian. Was this candid young barbarian but a faux bonhomme after all? He had never really quite satisfied his occasional host, but was he now, for a climax, to leave him almost gaping?

M. de Mauves, as if hating to seem preoccupied, took up the evening paper to help himself to seem indifferent. As he glanced over it he threw off some perfunctory allusion to the crisis — the political — which enabled Longmore to reply with perfect veracity that, with other things to think about, he had had no attention to spare for it. And yet our hero was in truth far from secure against rueful reflexion. The Count’s ruffled state was a comfort so far as it pointed to the possibility that the lady in the coupe might be proving too many for him; but it ministered to no vindictive sweetness for Longmore so far as it should perhaps represent rising jealousy. It passed through his mind that jealousy is a passion with a double face and that on one of its sides it may sometimes almost look generous. It glimmered upon him odiously M. de Mauves might grow ashamed of his political compact with his wife, and he felt how far more tolerable it would be in future to think of him as always impertinent than to think of him as occasionally contrite. The two men pretended meanwhile for half an hour to outsit each other conveniently; and the end — at that rate — might have been distant had not the tension in some degree yielded to the arrival of a friend of M. de Mauves — a tall pale consumptive-looking dandy who filled the air with the odour of heliotrope. He looked up and down the boulevard wearily, examined the Count’s garments in some detail, then appeared to refer restlessly to his own, and at last announced resignedly that the Duchess was in town. M. de Mauves must come with him to call; she had abused him dreadfully a couple of evenings before — a sure sign she wanted to see him. “I depend on you,” said with an infantine drawl this specimen of an order Longmore felt he had never had occasion so intimately to appreciate, “to put her en train.”

M. de Mauves resisted, he protested that he was d’une humeur massacrante; but at last he allowed himself to be drawn to his feet and stood looking awkwardly — awkwardly for M. de Mauves — at Longmore. “You’ll excuse me,” he appeared to find some difficulty in saying; “you too probably have occupation for the evening?”

“None but to catch my train.” And our friend looked at his watch.

“Ah you go back to Saint–Germain?”

“In half an hour.”

M. de Mauves seemed on the point of disengaging himself from his companion’s arm, which was locked in his own; but on the latter’s uttering some persuasive murmur he lifted his hat stiffly and turned away.

Longmore the next day wandered off to the terrace to try and beguile the restlessness with which he waited for the evening; he wished to see Madame de Mauves for the last time at the hour of long shadows and pale reflected amber lights, as he had almost always seen her. Destiny, however, took no account of this humble plea for poetic justice; it was appointed him to meet her seated by the great walk under a tree and alone. The hour made the place almost empty; the day was warm, but as he took his place beside her a light breeze stirred the leafy edges of their broad circle of shadow. She looked at him almost with no pretence of not having believed herself already rid of him, and he at once told her that he should leave Saint–Germain that evening, but must first bid her farewell. Her face lighted a moment, he fancied, as he spoke; but she said nothing, only turning it off to far Paris which lay twinkling and flashing through hot exhalations. “I’ve a request to make of you,” he added. “That you think of me as a man who has felt much and claimed little.”

She drew a long breath which almost suggested pain. “I can’t think of you as unhappy. That’s impossible. You’ve a life to lead, you’ve duties, talents, inspirations, interests. I shall hear of your career. And then,” she pursued after a pause, though as if it had before this quite been settled between them, “one can’t be unhappy through having a better opinion of a friend instead of a worse.”

For a moment he failed to understand her. “Do you mean that there can be varying degrees in my opinion of you?”

She rose and pushed away her chair. “I mean,” she said quickly, “that it’s better to have done nothing in bitterness — nothing in passion.” And she began to walk.

Longmore followed her without answering at first. But he took off his hat and with his pocket-handkerchief wiped his forehead. “Where shall you go? what shall you do?” he simply asked at last.

“Do? I shall do as I’ve always done — except perhaps that I shall go for a while to my husband’s old home.”

“I shall go to MY old one. I’ve done with Europe for the present,” the young man added.

She glanced at him as he walked beside her, after he had spoken these words, and then bent her eyes for a long time on the ground. But suddenly, as if aware of her going too far she stopped and put out her hand. “Good-bye. May you have all the happiness you deserve!”

He took her hand with his eyes on her, but something was at work in him that made it impossible to deal in the easy way with her touch. Something of infinite value was floating past him, and he had taken an oath, with which any such case interfered, not to raise a finger to stop it. It was borne by the strong current of the world’s great life and not of his own small one. Madame de Mauves disengaged herself, gathered in her long scarf and smiled at him almost as you would do at a child you should wish to encourage. Several moments later he was still there watching her leave him and leave him. When she was out of sight he shook himself, walked at once back to his hotel and, without waiting for the evening train, paid his bill and departed.

Later in the day M. de Mauves came into his wife’s drawing-room, where she sat waiting to be summoned to dinner. He had dressed as he usually didn’t dress for dining at home. He walked up and down for some moments in silence, then rang the bell for a servant and went out into the hall to meet him. He ordered the carriage to take him to the station, paused a moment with his hand on the knob of the door, dismissed the servant angrily as the latter lingered observing him, re-entered the drawing-room, resumed his restless walk and at last stopped abruptly before his wife, who had taken up a book. “May I ask the favour,” he said with evident effort, in spite of a forced smile as of allusion to a large past exercise of the very best taste, “of having a question answered?”

“It’s a favour I never refused,” she replied.

“Very true. Do you expect this evening a visit from Mr. Longmore?”

“Mr. Longmore,” said his wife, “has left Saint–Germain.” M. de Mauves waited, but his smile expired. “Mr. Longmore,” his wife continued, “has gone to America.”

M. de Mauves took it — a rare thing for him — with confessed, if momentary, intellectual indigence. But he raised, as it were, the wind. “Has anything happened?” he asked, “Had he a sudden call?” But his question received no answer. At the same moment the servant threw open the door and announced dinner; Madame Clairin rustled in, rubbing her white hands, Madame de Mauves passed silently into the dining-room, but he remained outside — outside of more things, clearly, than his mere salle-a-manger. Before long he went forth to the terrace and continued his uneasy walk. At the end of a quarter of an hour the servant came to let him know that his carriage was at the door. “Send it away,” he said without hesitation. “I shan’t use it.” When the ladies had half-finished dinner he returned and joined them, with a formal apology to his wife for his inconsequence.

The dishes were brought back, but he hardly tasted them; he drank on the other hand more wine than usual. There was little talk, scarcely a convivial sound save the occasional expressive appreciative “M-m-m!” of Madame Clairin over the succulence of some dish. Twice this lady saw her brother’s eyes, fixed on her own over his wineglass, put to her a question she knew she should have to irritate him later on by not being able to answer. She replied, for the present at least, by an elevation of the eyebrows that resembled even to her own humour the vain raising of an umbrella in anticipation of a storm. M. de Mauves was left alone to finish his wine; he sat over it for more than an hour and let the darkness gather about him. At last the servant came in with a letter and lighted a candle. The letter was a telegram, which M. de Mauves, when he had read it, burnt at the candle. After five minutes’ meditation he wrote a message on the back of a visiting-card and gave it to the servant to carry to the office. The man knew quite as much as his master suspected about the lady to whom the telegram was addressed; but its contents puzzled him; they consisted of the single word “Impossible.” As the evening passed without her brother’s reappearing in the drawing-room Madame Clairin came to him where he sat by his solitary candle. He took no notice of her presence for some time, but this affected her as unexpected indulgence. At last, however, he spoke with a particular harshness. “Ce jeune mufle has gone home at an hour’s notice. What the devil does it mean?”

Madame Clairin now felt thankful for her umbrella. “It means that I’ve a sister-in-law whom I’ve not the honour to understand.”

He said nothing more and silently allowed her, after a little, to depart. It had been her duty to provide him with an explanation, and he was disgusted with her blankness; but she was — if there was no more to come — getting off easily. When she had gone he went into the garden and walked up and down with his cigar. He saw his wife seated alone on the terrace, but remained below, wandering, turning, pausing, lingering. He remained a long time. It grew late and Madame de Mauves disappeared. Toward midnight he dropped upon a bench, tired, with a long vague exhalation of unrest. It was sinking into his spirit that he too didn’t understand Madame Clairin’s sister-in-law.

Longmore was obliged to wait a week in London for a ship. It was very hot, and he went out one day to Richmond. In the garden of the hotel at which he dined he met his friend Mrs. Draper, who was staying there. She made eager enquiry about Madame de Mauves; but Longmore at first, as they sat looking out at the famous view of the Thames, parried her questions and confined himself to other topics. At last she said she was afraid he had something to conceal; whereupon, after a pause, he asked her if she remembered recommending him, in the letter she had addressed him at Saint–Germain, to draw the sadness from her friend’s smile. “The last I saw of her was her smile,” he said — “when I bade her good-bye.”

“I remember urging you to ‘console’ her,” Mrs. Draper returned, “and I wondered afterwards whether — model of discretion as you are — I hadn’t cut you out work for which you wouldn’t thank me.”

“She has her consolation in herself,” the young man said; “she needs none that any one else can offer her. That’s for troubles for which — be it more, be it less — our own folly has to answer. Madame de Mauves hasn’t a grain of folly left.”

“Ah don’t say that!” — Mrs. Draper knowingly protested. “Just a little folly’s often very graceful.”

Longmore rose to go — she somehow annoyed him. “Don’t talk of grace,” he said, “till you’ve measured her reason!”

For two years after his return to America he heard nothing of Madame de Mauves. That he thought of her intently, constantly, I need hardly say; most people wondered why such a clever young man shouldn’t “devote” himself to something; but to himself he seemed absorbingly occupied. He never wrote to her; he believed she wouldn’t have “liked” it. At last he heard that Mrs. Draper had come home and he immediately called on her. “Of course,” she said after the first greetings, “you’re dying for news of Madame de Mauves. Prepare yourself for something strange. I heard from her two or three times during the year after your seeing her. She left Saint–Germain and went to live in the country on some old property of her husband’s. She wrote me very kind little notes, but I felt somehow that — in spite of what you said about ‘consolation’ — they were the notes of a wretched woman. The only advice I could have given her was to leave her scamp of a husband and come back to her own land and her own people. But this I didn’t feel free to do, and yet it made me so miserable not to be able to help her that I preferred to let our correspondence die a natural death. I had no news of her for a year. Last summer, however, I met at Vichy a clever young Frenchman whom I accidentally learned to be a friend of that charming sister of the Count’s, Madame Clairin. I lost no time in asking him what he knew about Madame de Mauves — a countrywoman of mine and an old friend. ‘I congratulate you on the friendship of such a person,’ he answered. ‘That’s the terrible little woman who killed her husband.’ You may imagine I promptly asked for an explanation, and he told me — from his point of view — what he called the whole story. M. de Mauves had fait quelques folies which his wife had taken absurdly to heart. He had repented and asked her forgiveness, which she had inexorably refused. She was very pretty, and severity must have suited her style; for, whether or no her husband had been in love with her before, he fell madly in love with her now. He was the proudest man in France, but he had begged her on his knees to be re-admitted to favour. All in vain! She was stone, she was ice, she was outraged virtue. People noticed a great change in him; he gave up society, ceased to care for anything, looked shockingly. One fine day they discovered he had blown out his brains. My friend had the story of course from Madame Clairin.”

Longmore was strongly moved, and his first impulse after he had recovered his composure was to return immediately to Europe. But several years have passed, and he still lingers at home. The truth is that, in the midst of all the ardent tenderness of his memory of Madame de Mauves, he has become conscious of a singular feeling — a feeling of wonder, of uncertainty, of awe.

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