Madame de Mauves, by Henry James


He allowed several days to pass without going back; it was of a sublime suitability to appear to regard his friend’s frankness during their last interview as a general invitation. The sacrifice cost him a great effort, for hopeless passions are exactly not the most patient; and he had moreover a constant fear that if, as he believed, deep within the circle round which he could only hover, the hour of supreme explanations had come, the magic of her magnanimity might convert M. de Mauves. Vicious men, it was abundantly recorded, had been so converted as to be acceptable to God, and the something divine in this lady’s composition would sanctify any means she should choose to employ. Her means, he kept repeating, were no business of his, and the essence of his admiration ought to be to allow her to do as she liked; but he felt as if he should turn away into a world out of which most of the joy had departed if she should like, after all, to see nothing more in his interest in her than might be repaid by mere current social coin.

When at last he went back he found to his vexation that he was to run the gauntlet of Madame Clairin’s officious hospitality. It was one of the first mornings of perfect summer, and the drawing-room, through the open windows, was flooded with such a confusion of odours and bird-notes as might warrant the hope that Madame de Mauves would renew with him for an hour or two the exploration of the forest. Her sister-in-law, however, whose hair was not yet dressed, emerged like a brassy discord in a maze of melody. At the same moment the servant returned with his mistress’s regrets; she begged to be excused, she was indisposed and unable to see Mr. Longmore. The young man knew just how disappointed he looked and just what Madame Clairin thought of it, and this consciousness determined in him an attitude of almost aggressive frigidity. This was apparently what she desired. She wished to throw him off his balance and, if she was not mistaken, knew exactly how.

“Put down your hat, Mr. Longmore,” she said, “and be polite for once. You were not at all polite the other day when I asked you that friendly question about the state of your heart.”

“I HAVE no heart — to talk about,” he returned with as little grace.

“As well say you’ve none at all. I advise you to cultivate a little eloquence; you may have use for it. That was not an idle question of mine; I don’t ask idle questions. For a couple of months now that you’ve been coming and going among us it seems to me you’ve had very few to answer of any sort.”

“I’ve certainly been very well treated,” he still dryly allowed.

His companion waited ever so little to bring out: “Have you never felt disposed to ask any?”

Her look, her tone, were so charged with insidious meanings as to make him feel that even to understand her would savour of dishonest complicity. “What is it you have to tell me?” he cried with a flushed frown.

Her own colour rose at the question. It’s rather hard, when you come bearing yourself very much as the sibyl when she came to the Roman king, to be treated as something worse than a vulgar gossip. “I might tell you, monsieur,” she returned, “that you’ve as bad a ton as any young man I ever met. Where have you lived — what are your ideas? A stupid one of my own — possibly! — has been to call your attention to a fact that it takes some delicacy to touch upon. You’ve noticed, I suppose, that my sister-in-law isn’t the happiest woman in the world.”

“Oh!” — Longmore made short work of it.

She seemed to measure his intelligence a little uncertainly. “You’ve formed, I suppose,” she nevertheless continued, “your conception of the grounds of her discontent?”

“It hasn’t required much forming. The grounds — or at least a specimen or two of them — have simply stared me in the face.”

Madame Clairin considered a moment with her eyes on him. “Yes — ces choses-la se voient. My brother, in a single word, has the deplorable habit of falling in love with other women. I don’t judge him; I don’t judge my sister-in-law. I only permit myself to say that in her position I would have managed otherwise. I’d either have kept my husband’s affection or I’d have frankly done without it. But my sister’s an odd compound; I don’t profess to understand her. Therefore it is, in a measure, that I appeal to you, her fellow countryman. Of course you’ll be surprised at my way of looking at the matter, and I admit that it’s a way in use only among people whose history — that of a race — has cultivated in them the sense for high political solutions.” She paused and Longmore wondered where the history of her race was going to lead her. But she clearly saw her course. “There has never been a galant homme among us, I fear, who has not given his wife, even when she was very charming, the right to be jealous. We know our history for ages back, and the fact’s established. It’s not a very edifying one if you like, but it’s something to have scandals with pedigrees — if you can’t have them with attenuations. Our men have been Frenchmen of France, and their wives — I may say it — have been of no meaner blood. You may see all their portraits at our poor charming old house — every one of them an ‘injured’ beauty, but not one of them hanging her head. Not one of them ever had the bad taste to be jealous, and yet not one in a dozen ever consented to an indiscretion — allowed herself, I mean, to be talked about. Voila comme elles ont su s’arranger. How they did it — go and look at the dusky faded canvases and pastels and ask. They were dear brave women of wit. When they had a headache they put on a little rouge and came to supper as usual, and when they had a heart-ache they touched up that quarter with just such another brush. These are great traditions and charming precedents, I hold, and it doesn’t seem to me fair that a little American bourgeoise should come in and pretend to alter them — all to hang her modern photograph and her obstinate little air penche in the gallery of our shrewd great-grandmothers. She should fall into line, she should keep up the tone. When she married my brother I don’t suppose she took him for a member of a societe de bonnes oeuvres. I don’t say we’re right; who IS right? But we are as history has made us, and if any one’s to change it had better be our charming, but not accommodating, friend.” Again Madame Clairin paused, again she opened and closed her great modern fan, which clattered like the screen of a shop-window. “Let her keep up the tone!” she prodigiously repeated.

Longmore felt himself gape, but he gasped an “Ah!” to cover it. Madame Clairin’s dip into the family annals had apparently imparted an honest zeal to her indignation. “For a long time,” she continued, “my belle-soeur has been taking the attitude of an injured woman, affecting a disgust with the world and shutting herself up to read free-thinking books. I’ve never permitted myself, you may believe, the least observation on her conduct, but I can’t accept it as the last word either of taste or of tact. When a woman with her prettiness lets her husband stray away she deserves no small part of her fate. I don’t wish you to agree with me — on the contrary; but I call such a woman a pure noodle. She must have bored him to death. What has passed between them for many months needn’t concern us; what provocation my sister has had — monstrous, if you wish — what ennui my brother has suffered. It’s enough that a week ago, just after you had ostensibly gone to Brussels, something happened to produce an explosion. She found a letter in his pocket, a photograph, a trinket, que sais-je? At any rate there was a grand scene. I didn’t listen at the keyhole, and I don’t know what was said; but I’ve reason to believe that my poor brother was hauled over the coals as I fancy none of his ancestors have ever been — even by angry ladies who weren’t their wives.”

Longmore had leaned forward in silent attention with his elbows on his knees, and now, impulsively, he dropped his face into his hands. “Ah poor poor woman!”

“Voila!” said Madame Clairin. “You pity her.”

“Pity her?” cried Longmore, looking up with ardent eyes and forgetting the spirit of the story to which he had been treated in the miserable facts. “Don’t you?”

“A little. But I’m not acting sentimentally — I’m acting scientifically. We’ve always been capable of ideas. I want to arrange things; to see my brother free to do as he chooses; to see his wife contented. Do you understand me?”

“Very well, I think,” the young man said. “You’re the most immoral person I’ve lately had the privilege of conversing with.”

Madame Clairin took it calmly. “Possibly. When was ever a great peacemaker not immoral?”

“Ah no,” Longmore protested. “You’re too superficial to be a great peacemaker. You don’t begin to know anything about Madame de Mauves.”

She inclined her head to one side while her fine eyes kept her visitor in view; she mused a moment and then smiled as with a certain compassionate patience. “It’s not in my interest to contradict you.”

“It would be in your interest to learn, madam” he resolutely returned, “what honest men most admire in a woman — and to recognise it when you see it.”

She was wonderful — she waited a moment. “So you ARE in love!” she then effectively brought out.

For a moment he thought of getting up, but he decided to stay. “I wonder if you’d understand me,” he said at last, “if I were to tell you that I have for Madame de Mauves the most devoted and most respectful friendship?”

“You underrate my intelligence. But in that case you ought to exert your influence to put an end to these painful domestic scenes.”

“Do you imagine she talks to me about her domestic scenes?” Longmore cried.

His companion stared. “Then your friendship isn’t returned?” And as he but ambiguously threw up his hands, “Now, at least,” she added, “she’ll have something to tell you. I happen to know the upshot of my brother’s last interview with his wife.” Longmore rose to his feet as a protest against the indelicacy of the position into which he had been drawn; but all that made him tender made him curious, and she caught in his averted eyes an expression that prompted her to strike her blow. “My brother’s absurdly entangled with a certain person in Paris; of course he ought not to be, but he wouldn’t be my brother if he weren’t. It was this irregular passion that dictated his words. ‘Listen to me, madam,’ he cried at last; ‘let us live like people who understand life! It’s unpleasant to be forced to say such things outright, but you’ve a way of bringing one down to the rudiments. I’m faithless, I’m heartless, I’m brutal, I’m everything horrible — it’s understood. Take your revenge, console yourself: you’re too charming a woman to have anything to complain of. Here’s a handsome young man sighing himself into a consumption for you. Listen to your poor compatriot and you’ll find that virtue’s none the less becoming for being good-natured. You’ll see that it’s not after all such a doleful world and that there’s even an advantage in having the most impudent of husbands.”’ Madame Clairin paused; Longmore had turned very pale. “You may believe it,” she amazingly pursued; “the speech took place in my presence; things were done in order. And now, monsieur” — this with a wondrous strained grimace which he was too troubled at the moment to appreciate, but which he remembered later with a kind of awe — “we count on you!”

“Her husband said this to her face to face, as you say it to me now?” he asked after a silence.

“Word for word and with the most perfect politeness.”

“And Madame de Mauves — what did she say?”

Madame Clairin smiled again. “To such a speech as that a woman says — nothing. She had been sitting with a piece of needlework, and I think she hadn’t seen Richard since their quarrel the day before. He came in with the gravity of an ambassador, and I’m sure that when he made his demande en mariage his manner wasn’t more respectful. He only wanted white gloves!” said Longmore’s friend. “My belle-soeur sat silent a few moments, drawing her stitches, and then without a word, without a glance, walked out of the room. It was just what she SHOULD have done!”

“Yes,” the young man repeated, “it was just what she should have done.”

“And I, left alone with my brother, do you know what I said?”

Longmore shook his head.

“Mauvals sujet!” he suggested.

“‘You’ve done me the honour,’ I said, ‘to take this step in my presence. I don’t pretend to qualify it. You know what you’re about, and it’s your own affair. But you may confide in my discretion.’ Do you think he has had reason to complain of it?” She received no answer; her visitor had slowly averted himself; he passed his gloves mechanically round the band of his hat. “I hope,” she cried, “you’re not going to start for Brussels!”

Plainly he was much disturbed, and Madame Clairin might congratulate herself on the success of her plea for old-fashioned manners. And yet there was something that left her more puzzled than satisfied in the colourless tone with which he answered, “No, I shall remain here for the present.” The processes of his mind were unsociably private, and she could have fancied for a moment that he was linked with their difficult friend in some monstrous conspiracy of asceticism.

“Come this evening,” she nevertheless bravely resumed. “The rest will take care of itself. Meanwhile I shall take the liberty of telling my sister-in-law that I’ve repeated — in short, that I’ve put you au fait”

He had a start but he controlled himself, speaking quietly enough. “Tell her what you please. Nothing you can tell her will affect her conduct.”

“Voyons! Do you mean to tell me that a woman young, pretty, sentimental, neglected, wronged if you will —? I see you don’t believe it. Believe simply in your own opportunity!” she went on. “But for heaven’s sake, if it is to lead anywhere, don’t come back with that visage de croquemort. You look as if you were going to bury your heart — not to offer it to a pretty woman. You’re much better when you smile — you’re very nice then. Come, do yourself justice.”

He remained a moment face to face with her, but his expression didn’t change. “I shall do myself justice,” he however after an instant made answer; and abruptly, with a bow, he took his departure.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56