The American by Henry James - HTML preview
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Newman gave up Damascus and Bagdad and returned to Paris before the autumn was over. He established himself in some rooms selected for him by Tom Tristram, in accordance with the latter's estimate of what he called his social position. When Newman learned that his social position was to be taken into account, he professed himself utterly incompetent, and begged Tristram to relieve him of the care. "I didn't know I had a social position," he said, "and if I have, I haven't the smallest idea what it is. Isn't a social position knowing some two or three thousand people and inviting them to dinner? I know you and your wife and little old Mr. Nioche, who gave me French lessons last spring. Can I invite you to dinner to meet each other? If I can, you must come to-morrow." "That is not very grateful to me," said Mrs. Tristram, "who introduced you last year to every creature I know."
"So you did; I had quite forgotten. But I thought you wanted me to forget," said Newman, with that tone of simple deliberateness which frequently marked his utterance, and which an observer would not have known whether to pronounce a somewhat mysteriously humorous affection of ignorance or a modest aspiration to knowledge; "you told me you disliked them all."
"Ah, the way you remember what I say is at least very flattering. But in future," added Mrs. Tristram, "pray forget all the wicked things and remember only the good ones. It will be easily done, and it will not fatigue your memory. But I forewarn you that if you trust my husband to pick out your rooms, you are in for something hideous."
"Hideous, darling?" cried Tristram.
"To-day I must say nothing wicked; otherwise I should use stronger language." "What do you think she would say, Newman?" asked Tristram. "If she really tried, now? She can express displeasure, volubly, in two or three languages; that's what it is to be intellectual. It gives her the start of me completely, for I can't swear, for the life of me, except in English. When I get mad I have to fall back on our dear old mother tongue. There's nothing like it, after all."
Newman declared that he knew nothing about tables and chairs, and that he would accept, in the way of a lodging, with his eyes shut, anything that Tristram should offer him. This was partly veracity on our hero's part, but it was also partly charity. He knew that to pry about and look at rooms, and make people open windows, and poke into sofas with his cane, and gossip with landladies, and ask who lived above and who below--he knew that this was of all pastimes the dearest to Tristram's heart, and he felt the more disposed to put it in his way as he was conscious that, as regards his obliging friend, he had suffered the warmth of ancient good-fellowship somewhat to abate. Besides, he had no taste for upholstery; he had even no very exquisite sense of comfort or convenience. He had a relish for luxury and splendor, but it was satisfied by rather gross contrivances. He scarcely knew a hard chair from a soft one, and he possessed a talent for stretching his legs which quite dispensed with adventitious facilities. His idea of comfort was to inhabit very large rooms, have a great many of them, and be conscious of their possessing a number of patented mechanical devices-half of which he should never have occasion to use. The apartments should be light and brilliant and lofty; he had once said that he liked rooms in which you wanted to keep your hat on. For the rest, he was satisfied with the assurance of any respectable person that everything was "handsome." Tristram accordingly secured for him an apartment to which this epithet might be lavishly applied. It was situated on the Boulevard Haussmann, on the first floor, and consisted of a series of rooms, gilded from floor to ceiling a foot thick, draped in various light shades of satin, and chiefly furnished with mirrors and clocks. Newman thought them magnificent, thanked Tristram heartily, immediately took possession, and had one of his trunks standing for three months in his drawing-room. One day Mrs. Tristram told him that her beautiful friend, Madame de Cintre, had returned from the country; that she had met her three days before, coming out of the Church of St. Sulpice; she herself having journeyed to that distant quarter in quest of an obscure lace-mender, of whose skill she had heard high praise. "And how were those eyes?" Newman asked.
"Those eyes were red with weeping, if you please!" said Mrs. Tristram. "She had been to confession."
"It doesn't tally with your account of her," said Newman, "that she should have sins to confess."
"They were not sins; they were sufferings."
"How do you know that?"
"She asked me to come and see her; I went this morning."
"And what does she suffer from?"
"I didn't ask her. With her, somehow, one is very discreet. But I guessed, easily enough. She suffers from her wicked old mother and her Grand Turk of a brother. They persecute her. But I can almost forgive them, because, as I told you, she is a saint, and a persecution is all that she needs to bring out her saintliness and make her perfect."
"That's a comfortable theory for her. I hope you will never impart it to the old folks. Why does she let them bully her? Is she not her own mistress?" "Legally, yes, I suppose; but morally, no. In France you must never say nay to your mother, whatever she requires of you. She may be the most abominable old woman in the world, and make your life a purgatory; but, after all, she is ma mere, and you have no right to judge her. You have simply to obey. The thing has a fine side to it. Madame de Cintre bows her head and folds her wings." "Can't she at least make her brother leave off?"
"Her brother is the chef de la famille, as they say; he is the head of the clan. With those people the family is everything; you must act, not for your own pleasure, but for the advantage of the family."
"I wonder what my family would like me to do!" exclaimed Tristram. "I wish you had one!" said his wife.
"But what do they want to get out of that poor lady?" Newman asked. "Another marriage. They are not rich, and they want to bring more money into the family."
"There's your chance, my boy!" said Tristram.
"And Madame de Cintre objects," Newman continued.
"She has been sold once; she naturally objects to being sold again. It appears that the first time they made rather a poor bargain; M. de Cintre left a scanty property."
"And to whom do they want to marry her now?"
"I thought it best not to ask; but you may be sure it is to some horrid old nabob, or to some dissipated little duke."
"There's Mrs. Tristram, as large as life!" cried her husband. "Observe the richness of her imagination. She has not a single question-- it's vulgar to ask questions--and yet she knows everything. She has the history of Madame de Cintre's marriage at her fingers' ends. She has seen the lovely Claire on her knees, with loosened tresses and streaming eyes, and the rest of them standing over her with spikes and goads and red-hot irons, ready to come down on her if she refuses the tipsy duke. The simple truth is that they made a fuss about her milliner's bill or refused her an opera-box."
Newman looked from Tristram to his wife with a certain mistrust in each direction. "Do you really mean," he asked of Mrs. Tristram, "that your friend is being forced into an unhappy marriage?"
"I think it extremely probable. Those people are very capable of that sort of thing."
"It is like something in a play," said Newman; "that dark old house over there looks as if wicked things had been done in it, and might be done again." "They have a still darker old house in the country Madame de Cintre tells me, and there, during the summer this scheme must have been hatched." "MUST have been; mind that! said Tristram.
"After all," suggested Newman, after a silence, "she may be in trouble about something else."
"If it is something else, then it is something worse," said Mrs. Tristram, with rich decision.
Newman was silent a while, and seemed lost in meditation. "Is it possible," he asked at last, "that they do that sort of thing over here? that helpless women are bullied into marrying men they hate?"
"Helpless women, all over the world, have a hard time of it," said Mrs. Tristram. "There is plenty of bullying everywhere."
"A great deal of that kind of thing goes on in New York," said Tristram. "Girls are bullied or coaxed or bribed, or all three together, into marrying nasty fellows. There is no end of that always going on in the Fifth Avenue, and other bad things besides. The Mysteries of the Fifth Avenue! Some one ought to show them up." "I don't believe it!" said Newman, very gravely. "I don't believe that, in America, girls are ever subjected to compulsion. I don't believe there have been a dozen cases of it since the country began."
"Listen to the voice of the spread eagle!" cried Tristram.
"The spread eagle ought to use his wings," said Mrs. Tristram. "Fly to the rescue of Madame de Cintre!"
"To her rescue?"
"Pounce down, seize her in your talons, and carry her off. Marry her yourself." Newman, for some moments, answered nothing; but presently, "I should suppose she had heard enough of marrying," he said. "The kindest way to treat her would be to admire her, and yet never to speak of it. But that sort of thing is infamous," he added; "it makes me feel savage to hear of it."
He heard of it, however, more than once afterward. Mrs. Tristram again saw Madame de Cintre, and again found her looking very sad. But on these occasions there had been no tears; her beautiful eyes were clear and still. "She is cold, calm, and hopeless," Mrs. Tristram declared, and she added that on her mentioning that her friend Mr. Newman was again in Paris and was faithful in his desire to make Madame de Cintre's acquaintance, this lovely woman had found a smile in her despair, and declared that she was sorry to have missed his visit in the spring and that she hoped he had not lost courage. "I told her something about you," said Mrs. Tristram.
"That's a comfort," said Newman, placidly. "I like people to know about me." A few days after this, one dusky autumn afternoon, he went again to the Rue de l'Universite. The early evening had closed in as he applied for admittance at the stoutly guarded Hotel de Bellegarde. He was told that Madame de Cintre was at home; he crossed the court, entered the farther door, and was conducted through a vestibule, vast, dim, and cold, up a broad stone staircase with an ancient iron balustrade, to an apartment on the second floor. Announced and ushered in, he found himself in a sort of paneled boudoir, at one end of which a lady and gentleman were seated before the fire. The gentleman was smoking a cigarette; there was no light in the room save that of a couple of candles and the glow from the hearth. Both persons rose to welcome Newman, who, in the firelight, recognized Madame de Cintre. She gave him her hand with a smile which seemed in itself an illumination, and, pointing to her companion, said softly, "My brother." The gentleman offered Newman a frank, friendly greeting, and our hero then perceived him to be the young man who had spoken to him in the court of the hotel on his former visit and who had struck him as a good fellow. "Mrs. Tristram has spoken to me a great deal of you," said Madame de Cintre gently, as she resumed her former place.
Newman, after he had seated himself, began to consider what, in truth, was his errand. He had an unusual, unexpected sense of having wandered into a strange corner of the world. He was not given, as a general thing, to anticipating danger, or forecasting disaster, and he had had no social tremors on this particular occasion. He was not timid and he was not impudent. He felt too kindly toward himself to be the one, and too good-naturedly toward the rest of the world to be the other. But his native shrewdness sometimes placed his ease of temper at its mercy; with every disposition to take things simply, it was obliged to perceive that some things were not so simple as others. He felt as one does in missing a step, in an ascent, where one expected to find it. This strange, pretty woman, sitting in fire-side talk with her brother, in the gray depths of her inhospitable-looking house--what had he to say to her? She seemed enveloped in a sort of fantastic privacy; on what grounds had he pulled away the curtain? For a moment he felt as if he had plunged into some medium as deep as the ocean, and as if he must exert himself to keep from sinking. Meanwhile he was looking at Madame de Cintre, and she was settling herself in her chair and drawing in her long dress and turning her face towards him. Their eyes met; a moment afterwards she looked away and motioned to her brother to put a log on the fire. But the moment, and the glance which traversed it, had been sufficient to relieve Newman of the first and the last fit of personal embarrassment he was ever to know. He performed the movement which was so frequent with him, and which was always a sort of symbol of his taking mental possession of a scene--he extended his legs. The impression Madame de Cintre had made upon him on their first meeting came back in an instant; it had been deeper than he knew. She was pleasing, she was interesting; he had opened a book and the first lines held his attention.
She asked him several questions: how lately he had seen Mrs. Tristram, how long he had been in Paris, how long he expected to remain there, how he liked it. She spoke English without an accent, or rather with that distinctively British accent which, on his arrival in Europe, had struck Newman as an altogether foreign tongue, but which, in women, he had come to like extremely. Here and there Madame de Cintre's utterance had a faint shade of strangeness but at the end of ten minutes Newman found himself waiting for these soft roughnesses. He enjoyed them, and he marveled to see that gross thing, error, brought down to so fine a point.
"You have a beautiful country," said Madame de Cintre, presently. "Oh, magnificent!" said Newman. "You ought to see it."
"I shall never see it," said Madame de Cintre with a smile.
"Why not?" asked Newman.
"I don't travel; especially so far."
"But you go away sometimes; you are not always here?"
"I go away in summer, a little way, to the country."
Newman wanted to ask her something more, something personal, he hardly knew what. "Don't you find it rather--rather quiet here?" he said; "so far from the street?" Rather "gloomy," he was going to say, but he reflected that that would be impolite.
"Yes, it is very quiet," said Madame de Cintre; "but we like that."
"Ah, you like that," repeated Newman, slowly.
"Besides, I have lived here all my life."
"Lived here all your life," said Newman, in the same way.
"I was born here, and my father was born here before me, and my grandfather, and my great-grandfathers. Were they not, Valentin?" and she appealed to her brother.
"Yes, it's a family habit to be born here!" the young man said with a laugh, and rose and threw the remnant of his cigarette into the fire, and then remained leaning against the chimney-piece. An observer would have perceived that he wished to take a better look at Newman, whom he covertly examined, while he stood stroking his mustache.
"Your house is tremendously old, then," said Newman.
"How old is it, brother?" asked Madame de Cintre.
The young man took the two candles from the mantel-shelf, lifted one high in each hand, and looked up toward the cornice of the room, above the chimneypiece. This latter feature of the apartment was of white marble, and in the familiar rococo style of the last century; but above it was a paneling of an earlier date, quaintly carved, painted white, and gilded here and there. The white had turned to yellow, and the gilding was tarnished. On the top, the figures ranged themselves into a sort of shield, on which an armorial device was cut. Above it, in relief, was a date--1627. "There you have it,' said the young man. "That is old or new, according to your point of view."
"Well, over here," said Newman, "one's point of view gets shifted round considerably." And he threw back his head and looked about the room. "Your house is of a very curious style of architecture," he said.
"Are you interested in architecture?" asked the young man at the chimney-piece. "Well, I took the trouble, this summer," said Newman, "to examine-- as well as I can calculate--some four hundred and seventy churches. Do you call that interested?"
"Perhaps you are interested in theology," said the young man.
"Not particularly. Are you a Roman Catholic, madam?" And he turned to Madame de Cintre.
"Yes, sir," she answered, gravely.
Newman was struck with the gravity of her tone; he threw back his head and began to look round the room again. "Had you never noticed that number up there?" he presently asked.
She hesitated a moment, and then, "In former years," she said.
Her brother had been watching Newman's movement. "Perhaps you would like to examine the house," he said.
Newman slowly brought down his eyes and looked at him; he had a vague impression that the young man at the chimney-piece was inclined to irony. He was a handsome fellow, his face wore a smile, his mustaches were curled up at the ends, and there was a little dancing gleam in his eye. "Damn his French impudence!" Newman was on the point of saying to himself. "What the deuce is he grinning at?" He glanced at Madame de Cintre; she was sitting with her eyes fixed on the floor. She raised them, they met his, and she looked at her brother. Newman turned again to this young man and observed that he strikingly resembled his sister. This was in his favor, and our hero's first impression of the Count Valentin, moreover, had been agreeable. His mistrust expired, and he said he would be very glad to see the house.
The young man gave a frank laugh, and laid his hand on one of the candlesticks. "Good, good!" he exclaimed. "Come, then."
But Madame de Cintre rose quickly and grasped his arm, "Ah, Valentin!" she said. "What do you mean to do?"
"To show Mr. Newman the house. It will be very amusing."
She kept her hand on his arm, and turned to Newman with a smile. "Don't let him take you," she said; "you will not find it amusing. It is a musty old house, like any other."
"It is full of curious things," said the count, resisting. "Besides, I want to do it; it is a rare chance."
"You are very wicked, brother," Madame de Cintre answered.
"Nothing venture, nothing have!" cried the young man. "Will you come?" Madame de Cintre stepped toward Newman, gently clasping her hands and smiling softly. "Would you not prefer my society, here, by my fire, to stumbling about dark passages after my brother?"
"A hundred times!" said Newman. "We will see the house some other day." The young man put down his candlestick with mock solemnity, and, shaking his head, "Ah, you have defeated a great scheme, sir!" he said.
"A scheme? I don't understand," said Newman.
"You would have played your part in it all the better. Perhaps some day I shall have a chance to explain it."
"Be quiet, and ring for the tea," said Madame de Cintre.
The young man obeyed, and presently a servant brought in the tea, placed the tray on a small table, and departed. Madame de Cintre, from her place, busied herself with making it. She had but just begun when the door was thrown open and a lady rushed in, making a loud rustling sound. She stared at Newman, gave a little nod and a "Monsieur!" and then quickly approached Madame de Cintre and presented her forehead to be kissed. Madame de Cintre saluted her, and continued to make tea. The new-comer was young and pretty, it seemed to Newman; she wore her bonnet and cloak, and a train of royal proportions. She began to talk rapidly in French. "Oh, give me some tea, my beautiful one, for the love of God! I'm exhausted, mangled, massacred." Newman found himself quite unable to follow her; she spoke much less distinctly than M. Nioche. "That is my sister-in-law," said the Count Valentin, leaning towards him. "She is very pretty," said Newman.
"Exquisite," answered the young man, and this time, again, Newman suspected him of irony.
His sister-in-law came round to the other side of the fire with her cup of tea in her hand, holding it out at arm's-length, so that she might not spill it on her dress, and uttering little cries of alarm. She placed the cup on the mantel-shelf and begun to unpin her veil and pull off her gloves, looking meanwhile at Newman. "Is there any thing I can do for you, my dear lady?" the Count Valentin asked, in a sort of mock-caressing tone.
"Present monsieur," said his sister-in-law.
The young man answered, "Mr. Newman!"
"I can't courtesy to you, monsieur, or I shall spill my tea," said the lady. "So Claire receives strangers, like that?" she added, in a low voice, in French, to her brother-in-law.
"Apparently!" he answered with a smile. Newman stood a moment, and then he approached Madame de Cintre. She looked up at him as if she were thinking of something to say. But she seemed to think of nothing; so she simply smiled. He sat down near her and she handed him a cup of tea. For a few moments they talked about that, and meanwhile he looked at her. He remembered what Mrs. Tristram had told him of her "perfection" and of her having, in combination, all the brilliant things that he dreamed of finding. This made him observe her not only without mistrust, but without uneasy conjectures; the presumption, from the first moment he looked at her, had been in her favor. And yet, if she was beautiful, it was not a dazzling beauty. She was tall and moulded in long lines; she had thick fair hair, a wide forehead, and features with a sort of harmonious irregularity. Her clear gray eyes were strikingly expressive; they were both gentle and intelligent, and Newman liked them immensely; but they had not those depths of splendor-those many-colored rays-- which illumine the brows of famous beauties. Madame de Cintre was rather thin, and she looked younger than probably she was. In her whole person there was something both youthful and subdued, slender and yet ample, tranquil yet shy; a mixture of immaturity and repose, of innocence and dignity. What had Tristram meant, Newman wondered, by calling her proud? She was certainly not proud now, to him; or if she was, it was of no use, it was lost upon him; she must pile it up higher if she expected him to mind it. She was a beautiful woman, and it was very easy to get on with her. Was she a countess, a marquise, a kind of historical formation? Newman, who had rarely heard these words used, had never been at pains to attach any particular image to them; but they occurred to him now and seemed charged with a sort of melodious meaning. They signified something fair and softly bright, that had easy motions and spoke very agreeably.
"Have you many friends in Paris; do you go out?" asked Madame de Cintre, who had at last thought of something to say.
"Do you mean do I dance, and all that?"
"Do you go dans le monde, as we say?"
"I have seen a good many people. Mrs. Tristram has taken me about. I do whatever she tells me."
"By yourself, you are not fond of amusements?"
"Oh yes, of some sorts. I am not fond of dancing, and that sort of thing; I am too old and sober. But I want to be amused; I came to Europe for that." "But you can be amused in America, too."
"I couldn't; I was always at work. But after all, that was my amusement." At this moment Madame de Bellegarde came back for another cup of tea, accompanied by the Count Valentin. Madame de Cintre, when she had served her, began to talk again with Newman, and recalling what he had last said, "In your own country you were very much occupied?" she asked.
"l was in business. I have been in business since I was fifteen years old." "And what was your business?" asked Madame de Bellegarde, who was decidedly not so pretty as Madame de Cintre.
"I have been in everything," said Newman. "At one time I sold leather; at one time I manufactured wash-tubs."
Madame de Bellegarde made a little grimace. "Leather? I don't like that. Washtubs are better. I prefer the smell of soap. I hope at least they made your fortune." She rattled this off with the air of a woman who had the reputation of saying everything that came into her head, and with a strong French accent. Newman had spoken with cheerful seriousness, but Madame de Bellegarde's tone made him go on, after a meditative pause, with a certain light grimness of jocularity. "No, I lost money on wash-tubs, but I came out pretty square on leather."
"I have made up my mind, after all," said Madame de Bellegarde, "that the great point is--how do you call it?--to come out square. I am on my knees to money; I don't deny it. If you have it, I ask no questions. For that I am a real democrat--like you, monsieur. Madame de Cintre is very proud; but I find that one gets much more pleasure in this sad life if one doesn't look too close."
"Just Heaven, dear madam, how you go at it," said the Count Valentin, lowering his voice.
"He's a man one can speak to, I suppose, since my sister receives him," the lady answered. "Besides, it's very true; those are my ideas."
"Ah, you call them ideas," murmured the young man.
"But Mrs. Tristram told me you had been in the army--in your war," said Madame de Cintre.
"Yes, but that is not business!" said Newman.
"Very true!" said M. de Bellegarde. "Otherwise perhaps I should not be penniless."
"Is it true," asked Newman in a moment, "that you are so proud? I had already heard it."
Madame de Cintre smiled. "Do you find me so?"
"Oh," said Newman, "I am no judge. If you are proud with me, you will have to tell me. Otherwise I shall not know it."
Madame de Cintre began to laugh. "That would be pride in a sad position!" she said.
"It would be partly," Newman went on, "because I shouldn't want to know it. I want you to treat me well."
Madame de Cintre, whose laugh had ceased, looked at him with her head half averted, as if she feared what he was going to say.
"Mrs. Tristram told you the literal truth," he went on; "I want very much to know you. I didn't come here simply to call to-day; I came in the hope that you might ask me to come again."
"Oh, pray come often," said Madame de Cintre.
"But will you be at home?" Newman insisted. Even to himself he seemed a trifle "pushing," but he was, in truth, a trifle excited.
"I hope so!" said Madame de Cintre.
Newman got up. "Well, we shall see," he said smoothing his hat with his coatcuff.
"Brother," said Madame de Cintre, "invite Mr. Newman to come again." The Count Valentin looked at our hero from head to foot with his peculiar smile, in which impudence and urbanity seemed perplexingly commingled. "Are you a brave man?" he asked, eying him askance.
"Well, I hope so," said Newman.
"I rather suspect so. In that case, come again."
"Ah, what an invitation!" murmured Madame de Cintre, with something painful in her smile.
"Oh, I want Mr. Newman to come--particularly," said the young man. "It will give me great pleasure. I shall be desolate if I miss one of his visits. But I maintain he must be brave. A stout heart, sir!" And he offered Newman his hand. "I shall not come to see you; I shall come to see Madame de Cintre," said Newman.
"You will need all the more courage."
"Ah, Valentin!" said Madame de Cintre, appealingly.
"Decidedly," cried Madame de Bellegarde, "I am the only person here capable of saying something polite! Come to see me; you will need no courage," she said. Newman gave a laugh which was not altogether an assent, and took his leave. Madame de Cintre did not take up her sister's challenge to be gracious, but she looked with a certain troubled air at the retreating guest.
One evening very late, about a week after his visit to Madame de Cintre, Newman's servant brought him a card. It was that of young M. de Bellegarde. When, a few moments later, he went to receive his visitor, he found him standing in the middle of his great gilded parlor and eying it from cornice to carpet. M. de Bellegarde's face, it seemed to Newman, expressed a sense of lively entertainment. "What the devil is he laughing at now?" our hero asked himself. But he put the question without acrimony, for he felt that Madame de Cintre's brother was a good fellow, and he had a presentiment that on this basis of good fellowship they were destined to understand each other. Only, if there was anything to laugh at, he wished to have a glimpse of it too.
"To begin with," said the young man, as he extended his hand, "have I come too late?"
"Too late for what?" asked Newman.
"To smoke a cigar with you."
"You would have to come early to do that," said Newman. "I don't smoke." "Ah, you are a strong man!"
"But I keep cigars," Newman added. "Sit down."
"Surely, I may not smoke here," said M. de Bellegarde.
"What is the matter? Is the room too small?"
"It is too large. It is like smoking in a ball-room, or a church."
"That is what you were laughing at just now?" Newman asked; "the size of my room?"
"It is not size only," replied M. de Bellegarde, "but splendor, and harmony, and beauty of detail. It was the smile of admiration."
Newman looked at him a moment, and then, "So it IS very ugly?" he inquired. "Ugly, my dear sir? It is magnificent."
"That is the same thing, I suppose," said Newman. "Make yourself comfortable. Your coming to see me, I take it, is an act of friendship. You were not obliged to. Therefore, if anything around here amuses you, it will be all in a pleasant way. Laugh as loud as you please; I like to see my visitors cheerful. Only, I must make this request: that you explain the joke to me as soon as you can speak. I don't want to lose anything, myself."
M. de Bellegarde stared, with a look of unresentful perplexity. He laid his hand on Newman's sleeve and seemed on the point of saying something, but he suddenly checked himself, leaned back in his chair, and puffed at his cigar. At last, however, breaking silence,--"Certainly," he said, "my coming to see you is an act of friendship. Nevertheless I was in a measure obliged to do so. My sister asked me to come, and a request from my sister is, for me, a law. I was near you, and I observed lights in what I supposed were your rooms. It was not a ceremonious hour for making a call, but I was not sorry to do something that would show I was not performing a mere ceremony."
"Well, here I am as large as life," said Newman, extending his legs. "I don't know what you mean," the young man went on "by giving me unlimited leave to laugh. Certainly I am a great laugher, and it is better to laugh too much than too little. But it is not in order that we may laugh together--or separately-- that I have, I may say, sought your acquaintance. To speak with almost impudent frankness, you interest me!" All this was uttered by M. de Bellegarde with the modulated smoothness of the man of the world, and in spite of his excellent English, of the Frenchman; but Newman, at the same time that he sat noting its harmonious flow, perceived that it was not mere mechanical urbanity. Decidedly, there was something in his visitor that he liked. M. de Bellegarde was a foreigner to his finger-tips, and if Newman had met him on a Western prairie he would have felt it proper to address him with a "How-d'ye-do, Mosseer?" But there was something in his physiognomy which seemed to cast a sort of aerial bridge over the impassable gulf produced by difference of race. He was below the middle height, and robust and agile in figure. Valentin de Bellegarde, Newman afterwards learned, had a mortal dread of the robustness overtaking the agility; he was afraid of growing stout; he was too short, as he said, to afford a belly. He rode and fenced and practiced gymnastics with unremitting zeal, and if you greeted him with a "How well you are looking" he started and turned pale. In your WELL he read a grosser monosyllable. He had a round head, high above the ears, a crop of hair at once dense and silky, a broad, low forehead, a short nose, of the ironical and inquiring rather than of the dogmatic or sensitive cast, and a mustache as delicate as that of a page in a romance. He resembled his sister not in feature, but in the expression of his clear, bright eye, completely void of introspection, and in the way he smiled. The great point in his face was that it was intensely alive-- frankly, ardently, gallantly alive. The look of it was like a bell, of which the handle might have been in the young man's soul: at a touch of the handle it rang with a loud, silver sound. There was something in his quick, light brown eye which assured you that he was not economizing his consciousness. He was not living in a corner of it to spare the furniture of the rest. He was squarely encamped in the centre and he was keeping open house. When he smiled, it was like the movement of a person who in emptying a cup turns it upside down: he gave you the last drop of his jollity. He inspired Newman with something of the same kindness that our hero used to feel in his earlier years for those of his companions who could perform strange and clever tricks--make their joints crack in queer places or whistle at the back of their mouths. "My sister told me," M. de Bellegarde continued, "that I ought to come and remove the impression that I had taken such great pains to produce upon you; the impression that I am a lunatic. Did it strike you that I behaved very oddly the other day?"
"Rather so," said Newman.
"So my sister tells me." And M. de Bellegarde watched his host for a moment through his smoke-wreaths. "If that is the case, I think we had better let it stand. I didn't try to make you think I was a lunatic, at all; on the contrary, I wanted to produce a favorable impression. But if, after all, I made a fool of myself, it was the intention of Providence. I should injure myself by protesting too much, for I should seem to set up a claim for wisdom which, in the sequel of our acquaintance, I could by no means justify. Set me down as a lunatic with intervals of sanity."
"Oh, I guess you know what you are about," said Newman.
"When I am sane, I am very sane; that I admit," M. de Bellegarde answered. "But I didn't come here to talk about myself. I should like to ask you a few questions. You allow me?"
"Give me a specimen," said Newman.
"You live here all alone?"
"Absolutely. With whom should I live?"
"For the moment," said M. de Bellegarde with a smile "I am asking questions, not answering them. You have come to Paris for your pleasure?"
Newman was silent a while. Then, at last, "Every one asks me that!" he said with his mild slowness. "It sounds so awfully foolish."
"But at any rate you had a reason."
"Oh, I came for my pleasure!" said Newman. "Though it is foolish, it is true." "And you are enjoying it?"
Like any other good American, Newman thought it as well not to truckle to the foreigner. "Oh, so-so," he answered.
M. de Bellegarde puffed his cigar again in silence. "For myself," he said at last, "I am entirely at your service. Anything I can do for you I shall be very happy to do. Call upon me at your convenience. Is there any one you desire to know--anything you wish to see? It is a pity you should not enjoy Paris."
"Oh, I do enjoy it!" said Newman, good-naturedly. "I'm much obligated to you." "Honestly speaking," M. de Bellegarde went on, "there is something absurd to me in hearing myself make you these offers. They represent a great deal of goodwill, but they represent little else. You are a successful man and I am a failure, and it's a turning of the tables to talk as if I could lend you a hand."
"In what way are you a failure?" asked Newman.
"Oh, I'm not a tragical failure!" cried the young man with a laugh. "I have fallen from a height, and my fiasco has made no noise. You, evidently, are a success. You have made a fortune, you have built up an edifice, you are a financial, commercial power, you can travel about the world until you have found a soft spot, and lie down in it with the consciousness of having earned your rest. Is not that true? Well, imagine the exact reverse of all that, and you have me. I have done nothing--I can do nothing!"
"It's a long story. Some day I will tell you. Meanwhile, I'm right, eh? You are a success? You have made a fortune? It's none of my business, but, in short, you are rich?"
"That's another thing that it sounds foolish to say," said Newman. "Hang it, no man is rich!"
"I have heard philosophers affirm," laughed M. de Bellegarde, "that no man was poor; but your formula strikes me as an improvement. As a general thing, I confess, I don't like successful people, and I find clever men who have made great fortunes very offensive. They tread on my toes; they make me uncomfortable. But as soon as I saw you, I said to myself. 'Ah, there is a man with whom I shall get on. He has the good-nature of success and none of the morgue; he has not our confoundedly irritable French vanity.' In short, I took a fancy to you. We are very different, I'm sure; I don't believe there is a subject on which we think or feel alike. But I rather think we shall get on, for there is such a thing, you know, as being too different to quarrel."
"Oh, I never quarrel," said Newman.
"Never! Sometimes it's a duty--or at least it's a pleasure. Oh, I have had two or three delicious quarrels in my day!" and M. de Bellegarde's handsome smile assumed, at the memory of these incidents, an almost voluptuous intensity. With the preamble embodied in his share of the foregoing fragment of dialogue, he paid our hero a long visit; as the two men sat with their heels on Newman's glowing hearth, they heard the small hours of the morning striking larger from a far-off belfry. Valentin de Bellegarde was, by his own confession, at all times a great chatterer, and on this occasion he was evidently in a particularly loquacious mood. It was a tradition of his race that people of its blood always conferred a favor by their smiles, and as his enthusiasms were as rare as his civility was constant, he had a double reason for not suspecting that his friendship could ever be importunate. Moreover, the flower of an ancient stem as he was, tradition (since I have used the word) had in his temperament nothing of disagreeable rigidity. It was muffled in sociability and urbanity, as an old dowager in her laces and strings of pearls. Valentin was what is called in France a gentilhomme, of the purest source, and his rule of life, so far as it was definite, was to play the part of a gentilhomme. This, it seemed to him, was enough to occupy comfortably a young man of ordinary good parts. But all that he was he was by instinct and not by theory, and the amiability of his character was so great that certain of the aristocratic virtues, which in some aspects seem rather brittle and trenchant, acquired in his application of them an extreme geniality. In his younger years he had been suspected of low tastes, and his mother had greatly feared he would make a slip in the mud of the highway and bespatter the family shield. He had been treated, therefore, to more than his share of schooling and drilling, but his instructors had not succeeded in mounting him upon stilts. They could not spoil his safe spontaneity, and he remained the least cautious and the most lucky of young nobles. He had been tied with so short a rope in his youth that he had now a mortal grudge against family discipline. He had been known to say, within the limits of the family, that, light-headed as he was, the honor of the name was safer in his hands than in those of some of it's other members, and that if a day ever came to try it, they should see. His talk was an odd mixture of almost boyish garrulity and of the reserve and discretion of the man of the world, and he seemed to Newman, as afterwards young members of the Latin races often seemed to him, now amusingly juvenile and now appallingly mature. In America, Newman reflected, lads of twenty-five and thirty have old heads and young hearts, or at least young morals; here they have young heads and very aged hearts, morals the most grizzled and wrinkled.
"What I envy you is your liberty," observed M. de Bellegarde, "your wide range, your freedom to come and go, your not having a lot of people, who take themselves awfully seriously, expecting something of you. I live," he added with a sigh, "beneath the eyes of my admirable mother."
"It is your own fault; what is to hinder your ranging?" said Newman. "There is a delightful simplicity in that remark! Everything is to hinder me. To begin with, I have not a penny."
"I had not a penny when I began to range."
"Ah, but your poverty was your capital. Being an American, it was impossible you should remain what you were born, and being born poor-- do I understand it?--it was therefore inevitable that you should become rich. You were in a position that makes one's mouth water; you looked round you and saw a world full of things you had only to step up to and take hold of. When I was twenty, I looked around me and saw a world with everything ticketed 'Hands off!' and the deuce of it was that the ticket seemed meant only for me. I couldn't go into business, I couldn't make money, because I was a Bellegarde. I couldn't go into politics, because I was a Bellegarde--the Bellegardes don't recognize the Bonapartes. I couldn't go into literature, because I was a dunce. I couldn't marry a rich girl, because no Bellegarde had ever married a roturiere, and it was not proper that I should begin. We shall have to come to it, yet. Marriageable heiresses, de notre bord, are not to be had for nothing; it must be name for name, and fortune for fortune. The only thing I could do was to go and fight for the Pope. That I did, punctiliously, and received an apostolic flesh-wound at Castlefidardo. It did neither the Holy Father nor me any good, that I could see. Rome was doubtless a very amusing place in the days of Caligula, but it has sadly fallen off since. I passed three years in the Castle of St. Angelo, and then came back to secular life."
"So you have no profession--you do nothing," said Newman.
"I do nothing! I am supposed to amuse myself, and, to tell the truth, I have amused myself. One can, if one knows how. But you can't keep it up forever. I am good for another five years, perhaps, but I foresee that after that I shall lose my appetite. Then what shall I do? I think I shall turn monk. Seriously, I think I shall tie a rope round my waist and go into a monastery. It was an old custom, and the old customs were very good. People understood life quite as well as we do. They kept the pot boiling till it cracked, and then they put it on the shelf altogether."
"Are you very religious?" asked Newman, in a tone which gave the inquiry a grotesque effect.
M. de Bellegarde evidently appreciated the comical element in the question, but he looked at Newman a moment with extreme soberness. "I am a very good Catholic. I respect the Church. I adore the blessed Virgin. I fear the Devil." "Well, then," said Newman, "you are very well fixed. You have got pleasure in the present and religion in the future; what do you complain of?"
"It's a part of one's pleasure to complain. There is something in your own circumstances that irritates me. You are the first man I have ever envied. It's singular, but so it is. I have known many men who, besides any factitious advantages that I may possess, had money and brains into the bargain; but somehow they have never disturbed my good-humor. But you have got something that I should have liked to have. It is not money, it is not even brains-though no doubt yours are excellent. It is not your six feet of height, though I should have rather liked to be a couple of inches taller. It's a sort of air you have of being thoroughly at home in the world. When I was a boy, my father told me that it was by such an air as that that people recognized a Bellegarde. He called my attention to it. He didn't advise me to cultivate it; he said that as we grew up it always came of itself. I supposed it had come to me, because I think I have always had the feeling. My place in life was made for me, and it seemed easy to occupy it. But you who, as I understand it, have made your own place, you who, as you told us the other day, have manufactured wash-tubs--you strike me, somehow, as a man who stands at his ease, who looks at things from a height. I fancy you going about the world like a man traveling on a railroad in which he owns a large amount of stock. You make me feel as if I had missed something. What is it?"
"It is the proud consciousness of honest toil--of having manufactured a few washtubs," said Newman, at once jocose and serious.
"Oh no; I have seen men who had done even more, men who had made not only wash-tubs, but soap--strong-smelling yellow soap, in great bars; and they never made me the least uncomfortable."
"Then it's the privilege of being an American citizen," said Newman. "That sets a man up."
"Possibly," rejoined M. de Bellegarde. "But I am forced to say that I have seen a great many American citizens who didn't seem at all set up or in the least like large stock-holders. I never envied them. I rather think the thing is an accomplishment of your own."
"Oh, come," said Newman, "you will make me proud!"
"No, I shall not. You have nothing to do with pride, or with humility--that is a part of this easy manner of yours. People are proud only when they have something to lose, and humble when they have something to gain."
"I don't know what I have to lose," said Newman, "but I certainly have something to gain."
"What is it?" asked his visitor.
Newman hesitated a while. "I will tell you when I know you better." "I hope that will be soon! Then, if I can help you to gain it, I shall be happy." "Perhaps you may," said Newman.
"Don't forget, then, that I am your servant," M. de Bellegarde answered; and shortly afterwards he took his departure.
During the next three weeks Newman saw Bellegarde several times, and without formally swearing an eternal friendship the two men established a sort of comradeship. To Newman, Bellegarde was the ideal Frenchman, the Frenchman of tradition and romance, so far as our hero was concerned with these mystical influences. Gallant, expansive, amusing, more pleased himself with the effect he produced than those (even when they were well pleased) for whom he produced it; a master of all the distinctively social virtues and a votary of all agreeable sensations; a devotee of something mysterious and sacred to which he occasionally alluded in terms more ecstatic even than those in which he spoke of the last pretty woman, and which was simply the beautiful though somewhat superannuated image of HONOR; he was irresistibly entertaining and enlivening, and he formed a character to which Newman was as capable of doing justice when he had once been placed in contact with it, as he was unlikely, in musing upon the possible mixtures of our human ingredients, mentally to have foreshadowed it. Bellegarde did not in the least cause him to modify his needful premise that all Frenchmen are of a frothy and imponderable substance; he simply reminded him that light materials may be beaten up into a most agreeable compound. No two companions could be more different, but their differences made a capital basis for a friendship of which the distinctive characteristic was that it was extremely amusing to each.
Valentin de Bellegarde lived in the basement of an old house in the Rue d'Anjou St. Honore, and his small apartments lay between the court of the house and an old garden which spread itself behind it--one of those large, sunless humid gardens into which you look unexpectingly in Paris from back windows, wondering how among the grudging habitations they find their space. When Newman returned Bellegarde's visit, he hinted that HIS lodging was at least as much a laughing matter as his own. But its oddities were of a different cast from those of our hero's gilded saloons on the Boulevard Haussmann: the place was low, dusky, contracted, and crowded with curious bric-a-brac. Bellegarde, penniless patrician as he was, was an insatiable collector, and his walls were covered with rusty arms and ancient panels and platters, his doorways draped in faded tapestries, his floors muffled in the skins of beasts. Here and there was one of those uncomfortable tributes to elegance in which the upholsterer's art, in France, is so prolific; a curtain recess with a sheet of looking-glass in which, among the shadows, you could see nothing; a divan on which, for its festoons and furbelows, you could not sit; a fireplace draped, flounced, and frilled to the complete exclusion of fire. The young man's possessions were in picturesque disorder, and his apartment was pervaded by the odor of cigars, mingled with perfumes more inscrutable. Newman thought it a damp, gloomy place to live in, and was puzzled by the obstructive and fragmentary character of the furniture. Bellegarde, according to the custom of his country talked very generously about himself, and unveiled the mysteries of his private history with an unsparing hand. Inevitably, he had a vast deal to say about women, and he used frequently to indulge in sentimental and ironical apostrophes to these authors of his joys and woes. "Oh, the women, the women, and the things they have made me do!" he would exclaim with a lustrous eye. "C'est egal, of all the follies and stupidities I have committed for them I would not have missed one!" On this subject Newman maintained an habitual reserve; to expatiate largely upon it had always seemed to him a proceeding vaguely analogous to the cooing of pigeons and the chattering of monkeys, and even inconsistent with a fully developed human character. But Bellegarde's confidences greatly amused him, and rarely displeased him, for the generous young Frenchman was not a cynic. "I really think," he had once said, "that I am not more depraved than most of my contemporaries. They are tolerably depraved, my contemporaries!" He said wonderfully pretty things about his female friends, and, numerous and various as they had been, declared that on the whole there was more good in them than harm. "But you are not to take that as advice," he added. "As an authority I am very untrustworthy. I'm prejudiced in their favor; I'm an IDEALIST!" Newman listened to him with his impartial smile, and was glad, for his own sake, that he had fine feelings; but he mentally repudiated the idea of a Frenchman having discovered any merit in the amiable sex which he himself did not suspect. M. de Bellegarde, however, did not confine his conversation to the autobiographical channel; he questioned our hero largely as to the events of his own life, and Newman told him some better stories than any that Bellegarde carried in his budget. He narrated his career, in fact, from the beginning, through all its variations, and whenever his companion's credulity, or his habits of gentility, appeared to protest, it amused him to heighten the color of the episode. Newman had sat with Western humorists in knots, round cast-iron stoves, and seen "tall" stories grow taller without toppling over, and his own imagination had learned the trick of piling up consistent wonders. Bellegarde's regular attitude at last became that of laughing self-defense; to maintain his reputation as an all-knowing Frenchman, he doubted of everything, wholesale. The result of this was that Newman found it impossible to convince him of certain time-honored verities. "But the details don't matter," said M. de Bellegarde. "You have evidently had some surprising adventures; you have seen some strange sides of life, you have revolved to and fro over a whole continent as I walked up and down the Boulevard. You are a man of the world with a vengeance! You have spent some deadly dull hours, and you have done some extremely disagreeable things: you have shoveled sand, as a boy, for supper, and you have eaten roast dog in a gold-diggers' camp. You have stood casting up figures for ten hours at a time, and you have sat through Methodist sermons for the sake of looking at a pretty girl in another pew. All that is rather stiff, as we say. But at any rate you have done something and you are something; you have used your will and you have made your fortune. You have not stupified yourself with debauchery and you have not mortgaged your fortune to social conveniences. You take things easily, and you have fewer prejudices even than I, who pretend to have none, but who in reality have three or four. Happy man, you are strong and you are free. But what the deuce," demanded the young man in conclusion, "do you propose to do with such advantages? Really to use them you need a better world than this. There is nothing worth your while here."
"Oh, I think there is something," said Newman.
"What is it?"
"Well," murmured Newman, "I will tell you some other time!"
In this way our hero delayed from day to day broaching a subject which he had very much at heart. Meanwhile, however, he was growing practically familiar with it; in other words, he had called again, three times, on Madame de Cintre. On only two of these occasions had he found her at home, and on each of them she had other visitors. Her visitors were numerous and extremely loquacious, and they exacted much of their hostess's attention. She found time, however, to bestow a little of it on Newman, in an occasional vague smile, the very vagueness of which pleased him, allowing him as it did to fill it out mentally, both at the time and afterwards, with such meanings as most pleased him. He sat by without speaking, looking at the entrances and exits, the greetings and chatterings, of Madame de Cintre's visitors. He felt as if he were at the play, and as if his own speaking would be an interruption; sometimes he wished he had a book, to follow the dialogue; he half expected to see a woman in a white cap and pink ribbons come and offer him one for two francs. Some of the ladies looked at him very hard--or very soft, as you please; others seemed profoundly unconscious of his presence. The men looked only at Madame de Cintre. This was inevitable; for whether one called her beautiful or not she entirely occupied and filled one's vision, just as an agreeable sound fills one's ear. Newman had but twenty distinct words with her, but he carried away an impression to which solemn promises could not have given a higher value. She was part of the play that he was seeing acted, quite as much as her companions; but how she filled the stage and how much better she did it! Whether she rose or seated herself; whether she went with her departing friends to the door and lifted up the heavy curtain as they passed out, and stood an instant looking after them and giving them the last nod; or whether she leaned back in her chair with her arms crossed and her eyes resting, listening and smiling; she gave Newman the feeling that he should like to have her always before him, moving slowly to and fro along the whole scale of expressive hospitality. If it might be TO him, it would be well; if it might be FOR him, it would be still better! She was so tall and yet so light, so active and yet so still, so elegant and yet so simple, so frank and yet so mysterious! It was the mystery--it was what she was off the stage, as it were-- that interested Newman most of all. He could not have told you what warrant he had for talking about mysteries; if it had been his habit to express himself in poetic figures he might have said that in observing Madame de Cintre he seemed to see the vague circle which sometimes accompanies the partly-filled disk of the moon. It was not that she was reserved; on the contrary, she was as frank as flowing water. But he was sure she had qualities which she herself did not suspect.
He had abstained for several reasons from saying some of these things to Bellegarde. One reason was that before proceeding to any act he was always circumspect, conjectural, contemplative; he had little eagerness, as became a man who felt that whenever he really began to move he walked with long steps. And then, it simply pleased him not to speak-- it occupied him, it excited him. But one day Bellegarde had been dining with him, at a restaurant, and they had sat long over their dinner. On rising from it, Bellegarde proposed that, to help them through the rest of the evening, they should go and see Madame Dandelard. Madame Dandelard was a little Italian lady who had married a Frenchman who proved to be a rake and a brute and the torment of her life. Her husband had spent all her money, and then, lacking the means of obtaining more expensive pleasures, had taken, in his duller hours, to beating her. She had a blue spot somewhere, which she showed to several persons, including Bellegarde. She had obtained a separation from her husband, collected the scraps of her fortune (they were very meagre) and come to live in Paris, where she was staying at a hotel garni. She was always looking for an apartment, and visiting, inquiringly, those of other people. She was very pretty, very childlike, and she made very extraordinary remarks. Bellegarde had made her acquaintance, and the source of his interest in her was, according to his own declaration, a curiosity as to what would become of her. "She is poor, she is pretty, and she is silly," he said, "it seems to me she can go only one way. It's a pity, but it can't be helped. I will give her six months. She has nothing to fear from me, but I am watching the process. I am curious to see just how things will go. Yes, I know what you are going to say: this horrible Paris hardens one's heart. But it quickens one's wits, and it ends by teaching one a refinement of observation! To see this little woman's little drama play itself out, now, is, for me, an intellectual pleasure."
"If she is going to throw herself away," Newman had said, "you ought to stop her."
"Stop her? How stop her?"
"Talk to her; give her some good advice."
Bellegarde laughed. "Heaven deliver us both! Imagine the situation! Go and advise her yourself."
It was after this that Newman had gone with Bellegarde to see Madame Dandelard. When they came away, Bellegarde reproached his companion. "Where was your famous advice?" he asked. "I didn't hear a word of it." "Oh, I give it up," said Newman, simply.
"Then you are as bad as I!" said Bellegarde.
"No, because I don't take an 'intellectual pleasure' in her prospective adventures. I don't in the least want to see her going down hill. I had rather look the other way. But why," he asked, in a moment, "don't you get your sister to go and see her?"
Bellegarde stared. "Go and see Madame Dandelard--my sister?"
"She might talk to her to very good purpose."
Bellegarde shook his head with sudden gravity. "My sister can't see that sort of person. Madame Dandelard is nothing at all; they would never meet." "I should think," said Newman, "that your sister might see whom she pleased." And he privately resolved that after he knew her a little better he would ask Madame de Cintre to go and talk to the foolish little Italian lady.
After his dinner with Bellegarde, on the occasion I have mentioned, he demurred to his companion's proposal that they should go again and listen to Madame Dandelard describe her sorrows and her bruises.
"I have something better in mind," he said; "come home with me and finish the evening before my fire."
Bellegarde always welcomed the prospect of a long stretch of conversation, and before long the two men sat watching the great blaze which scattered its scintillations over the high adornments of Newman's ball-room
"Tell me something about your sister," Newman began abruptly.
Bellegarde turned and gave him a quick look. "Now that I think of it, you have never yet asked me a question about her."
"I know that very well."
"If it is because you don't trust me, you are very right," said Bellegarde. "I can't talk of her rationally. I admire her too much."
"Talk of her as you can," rejoined Newman. "Let yourself go."
"Well, we are very good friends; we are such a brother and sister as have not been seen since Orestes and Electra. You have seen her; you know what she is: tall, thin, light, imposing, and gentle, half a grande dame and half an angel; a mixture of pride and humility, of the eagle and the dove. She looks like a statue which had failed as stone, resigned itself to its grave defects, and come to life as flesh and blood, to wear white capes and long trains. All I can say is that she really possesses every merit that her face, her glance, her smile, the tone of her voice, lead you to expect; it is saying a great deal. As a general thing, when a woman seems very charming, I should say 'Beware!' But in proportion as Claire seems charming you may fold your arms and let yourself float with the current; you are safe. She is so good! I have never seen a woman half so perfect or so complete. She has everything; that is all I can say about her. There!" Bellegarde concluded; "I told you I should rhapsodize."
Newman was silent a while, as if he were turning over his companion's words. "She is very good, eh?" he repeated at last.
"Kind, charitable, gentle, generous?"
"Generosity itself; kindness double-distilled!"
"Is she clever?"
"She is the most intelligent woman I know. Try her, some day, with something difficult, and you will see."
"Is she fond of admiration?"
"Parbleu!" cried Bellegarde; "what woman is not?"
"Ah, when they are too fond of admiration they commit all kinds of follies to get it."
"I did not say she was too fond!" Bellegarde exclaimed. "Heaven forbid I should say anything so idiotic. She is not too anything! If I were to say she was ugly, I should not mean she was too ugly. She is fond of pleasing, and if you are pleased she is grateful. If you are not pleased, she lets it pass and thinks the worst neither of you nor of herself. I imagine, though, she hopes the saints in heaven are, for I am sure she is incapable of trying to please by any means of which they would disapprove."
"Is she grave or gay?" asked Newman.
"She is both; not alternately, for she is always the same. There is gravity in her gayety, and gayety in her gravity. But there is no reason why she should be particularly gay."
"Is she unhappy?"
"I won't say that, for unhappiness is according as one takes things, and Claire takes them according to some receipt communicated to her by the Blessed Virgin in a vision. To be unhappy is to be disagreeable, which, for her, is out of the question. So she has arranged her circumstances so as to be happy in them." "She is a philosopher," said Newman.
"No, she is simply a very nice woman."
"Her circumstances, at any rate, have been disagreeable?"
Bellegarde hesitated a moment--a thing he very rarely did. "Oh, my dear fellow, if I go into the history of my family I shall give you more than you bargain for." "No, on the contrary, I bargain for that," said Newman.
"We shall have to appoint a special seance, then, beginning early. Suffice it for the present that Claire has not slept on roses. She made at eighteen a marriage that was expected to be brilliant, but that turned out like a lamp that goes out; all smoke and bad smell. M. de Cintre was sixty years old, and an odious old gentleman. He lived, however, but a short time, and after his death his family pounced upon his money, brought a lawsuit against his widow, and pushed things very hard. Their case was a good one, for M. de Cintre, who had been trustee for some of his relatives, appeared to have been guilty of some very irregular practices. In the course of the suit some revelations were made as to his private history which my sister found so displeasing that she ceased to defend herself and washed her hands of the property. This required some pluck, for she was between two fires, her husband's family opposing her and her own family forcing her. My mother and my brother wished her to cleave to what they regarded as her rights. But she resisted firmly, and at last bought her freedomobtained my mother's assent to dropping the suit at the price of a promise." "What was the promise?"
"To do anything else, for the next ten years, that was asked of her--anything, that is, but marry."
"She had disliked her husband very much?"
"No one knows how much!"
"The marriage had been made in your horrible French way," Newman continued, "made by the two families, without her having any voice?"
"It was a chapter for a novel. She saw M. de Cintre for the first time a month before the wedding, after everything, to the minutest detail, had been arranged. She turned white when she looked at him, and white remained till her weddingday. The evening before the ceremony she swooned away, and she spent the whole night in sobs. My mother sat holding her two hands, and my brother walked up and down the room. I declared it was revolting and told my sister publicly that if she would refuse, downright, I would stand by her. I was told to go about my business, and she became Comtesse de Cintre."
"Your brother," said Newman, reflectively, "must be a very nice young man." "He is very nice, though he is not young. He is upward of fifty, fifteen years my senior. He has been a father to my sister and me. He is a very remarkable man; he has the best manners in France. He is extremely clever; indeed he is very learned. He is writing a history of The Princesses of France Who Never Married." This was said by Bellegarde with extreme gravity, looking straight at Newman, and with an eye that betokened no mental reservation; or that, at least, almost betokened none.
Newman perhaps discovered there what little there was, for he presently said, "You don't love your brother."
"I beg your pardon," said Bellegarde, ceremoniously; "well-bred people always love their brothers."
"Well, I don't love him, then!" Newman answered.
"Wait till you know him!" rejoined Bellegarde, and this time he smiled. "Is your mother also very remarkable?" Newman asked, after a pause. "For my mother," said Bellegarde, now with intense gravity, "I have the highest admiration. She is a very extraordinary woman. You cannot approach her without perceiving it."
"She is the daughter, I believe, of an English nobleman."
"Of the Earl of St. Dunstan's."
"Is the Earl of St. Dunstan's a very old family?"
"So-so; the sixteenth century. It is on my father's side that we go back--back, back, back. The family antiquaries themselves lose breath. At last they stop, panting and fanning themselves, somewhere in the ninth century, under Charlemagne. That is where we begin."
"There is no mistake about it?" said Newman.
"I'm sure I hope not. We have been mistaken at least for several centuries." "And you have always married into old families?"
"As a rule; though in so long a stretch of time there have been some exceptions. Three or four Bellegardes, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, took wives out of the bourgoisie-- married lawyers' daughters."
"A lawyer's daughter; that's very bad, is it?" asked Newman.
"Horrible! one of us, in the middle ages, did better: he married a beggar-maid, like King Cophetua. That was really better; it was like marrying a bird or a monkey; one didn't have to think about her family at all. Our women have always done well; they have never even gone into the petite noblesse. There is, I believe, not a case on record of a misalliance among the women." Newman turned this over for a while, and, then at last he said, "You offered, the first time you came to see me to render me any service you could. I told you that some time I would mention something you might do. Do you remember?" "Remember? I have been counting the hours."
"Very well; here's your chance. Do what you can to make your sister think well of me."
Bellegarde stared, with a smile. "Why, I'm sure she thinks as well of you as possible, already."
"An opinion founded on seeing me three or four times? That is putting me off with very little. l want something more. I have been thinking of it a good deal, and at last I have decided to tell you. I should like very much to marry Madame de Cintre."
Bellegarde had been looking at him with quickened expectancy, and with the smile with which he had greeted Newman's allusion to his promised request. At this last announcement he continued to gaze; but his smile went through two or three curious phases. It felt, apparently, a momentary impulse to broaden; but this it immediately checked. Then it remained for some instants taking counsel with itself, at the end of which it decreed a retreat. It slowly effaced itself and left a look of seriousness modified by the desire not to be rude. Extreme surprise had come into the Count Valentin's face; but he had reflected that it would be uncivil to leave it there. And yet, what the deuce was he to do with it? He got up, in his agitation, and stood before the chimney-piece, still looking at Newman. He was a longer time thinking what to say than one would have expected.
"If you can't render me the service I ask," said Newman, "say it out!" "Let me hear it again, distinctly," said Bellegarde. "It's very important, you know. I shall plead your cause with my sister, because you want--you want to marry her? That's it, eh?"
"Oh, I don't say plead my cause, exactly; I shall try and do that myself. But say a good word for me, now and then--let her know that you think well of me." At this, Bellegarde gave a little light laugh.
"What I want chiefly, after all," Newman went on, "is just to let you know what I have in mind. I suppose that is what you expect, isn't it? I want to do what is customary over here. If there is any thing particular to be done, let me know and l will do it. I wouldn't for the world approach Madame de Cintre without all the proper forms. If I ought to go and tell your mother, why I will go and tell her. I will go and tell your brother, even. I will go and tell any one you please. As I don't know any one else, I begin by telling you. But that, if it is a social obligation, is a pleasure as well."
"Yes, I see--I see," said Bellegarde, lightly stroking his chin. "You have a very right feeling about it, but I'm glad you have begun with me." He paused, hesitated, and then turned away and walked slowly the length of the room. Newman got up and stood leaning against the mantel-shelf, with his hands in his pockets, watching Bellegarde's promenade. The young Frenchman came back and stopped in front of him. "I give it up," he said; "I will not pretend I am not surprised. I am--hugely! Ouf! It's a relief."
"That sort of news is always a surprise," said Newman. "No matter what you have done, people are never prepared. But if you are so surprised, I hope at least you are pleased."
"Come!" said Bellegarde. "I am going to be tremendously frank. I don't know whether I am pleased or horrified."
"If you are pleased, I shall be glad," said Newman, "and I shall be--encouraged. If you are horrified, I shall be sorry, but I shall not be discouraged. You must make the best of it."
"That is quite right--that is your only possible attitude. You are perfectly serious?" "Am I a Frenchman, that I should not be?" asked Newman. "But why is it, by the bye, that you should be horrified?"
Bellegarde raised his hand to the back of his head and rubbed his hair quickly up and down, thrusting out the tip of his tongue as he did so. "Why, you are not noble, for instance," he said.
"The devil I am not!" exclaimed Newman.
"Oh," said Bellegarde a little more seriously, "I did not know you had a title." "A title? What do you mean by a title?" asked Newman. "A count, a duke, a marquis? I don't know anything about that, I don't know who is and who is not. But I say I am noble. I don't exactly know what you mean by it, but it's a fine word and a fine idea; I put in a claim to it."
"But what have you to show, my dear fellow, what proofs?"
"Anything you please! But you don't suppose I am going to undertake to prove that I am noble. It is for you to prove the contrary."
"That's easily done. You have manufactured wash-tubs."
Newman stared a moment. "Therefore I am not noble? I don't see it. Tell me something I have NOT done--something I cannot do."
"You cannot marry a woman like Madame de Cintre for the asking." "I believe you mean," said Newman slowly, "that I am not good enough." "Brutally speaking--yes!"
Bellegarde had hesitated a moment, and while he hesitated Newman's attentive glance had grown somewhat eager. In answer to these last words he for a moment said nothing. He simply blushed a little. Then he raised his eyes to the ceiling and stood looking at one of the rosy cherubs that was painted upon it. "Of course I don't expect to marry any woman for the asking," he said at last; "I expect first to make myself acceptable to her. She must like me, to begin with. But that I am not good enough to make a trial is rather a surprise." Bellegarde wore a look of mingled perplexity, sympathy, and amusement. "You should not hesitate, then, to go up to-morrow and ask a duchess to marry you?" "Not if I thought she would suit me. But I am very fastidious; she might not at all." Bellegarde's amusement began to prevail. "And you should be surprised if she refused you?"
Newman hesitated a moment. "It sounds conceited to say yes, but nevertheless I think I should. For I should make a very handsome offer."
"What would it be?"
"Everything she wishes. If I get hold of a woman that comes up to my standard, I shall think nothing too good for her. I have been a long time looking, and I find such women are rare. To combine the qualities I require seems to be difficult, but when the difficulty is vanquished it deserves a reward. My wife shall have a good position, and I'm not afraid to say that I shall be a good husband."
"And these qualities that you require--what are they?"
"Goodness, beauty, intelligence, a fine education, personal elegance-- everything, in a word, that makes a splendid woman."
"And noble birth, evidently," said Bellegarde.
"Oh, throw that in, by all means, if it's there. The more the better!"
"And my sister seems to you to have all these things?"
"She is exactly what I have been looking for. She is my dream realized." "And you would make her a very good husband?"
"That is what I wanted you to tell her."
Bellegarde laid his hand on his companion's arm a moment, looked at him with his head on one side, from head to foot, and then, with a loud laugh, and shaking the other hand in the air, turned away. He walked again the length of the room, and again he came back and stationed himself in front of Newman. "All this is very interesting--it is very curious. In what I said just now I was speaking, not for myself, but for my tradition, my superstitions. For myself, really, your proposal tickles me. It startled me at first, but the more I think of it the more I see in it. It's no use attempting to explain anything; you won't understand me. After all, I don't see why you need; it's no great loss."
"Oh, if there is anything more to explain, try it! I want to proceed with my eyes open. I will do my best to understand."
"No," said Bellegarde, "it's disagreeable to me; I give it up. I liked you the first time I saw you, and I will abide by that. It would be quite odious for me to come talking to you as if I could patronize you. I have told you before that I envy you; vous m'imposez, as we say. I didn't know you much until within five minutes. So we will let things go, and I will say nothing to you that, if our positions were reversed, you would not say to me."
I do not know whether in renouncing the mysterious opportunity to which he alluded, Bellegarde felt that he was doing something very generous. If so, he was not rewarded; his generosity was not appreciated. Newman quite failed to recognize the young Frenchman's power to wound his feelings, and he had now no sense of escaping or coming off easily. He did not thank his companion even with a glance. "My eyes are open, though," he said, "so far as that you have practically told me that your family and your friends will turn up their noses at me. I have never thought much about the reasons that make it proper for people to turn up their noses, and so I can only decide the question off-hand. Looking at it in that way I can't see anything in it. I simply think, if you want to know, that I'm as good as the best. Who the best are, I don't pretend to say. I have never thought much about that either. To tell the truth, I have always had rather a good opinion of myself; a man who is successful can't help it. But I will admit that I was conceited. What I don't say yes to is that I don't stand high--as high as any one else. This is a line of speculation I should not have chosen, but you must remember you began it yourself. I should never have dreamed that I was on the defensive, or that I had to justify myself; but if your people will have it so, I will do my best."
"But you offered, a while ago, to make your court as we say, to my mother and my brother."
"Damn it!" cried Newman, "I want to be polite."
"Good!" rejoined Bellegarde; "this will go far, it will be very entertaining. Excuse my speaking of it in that cold-blooded fashion, but the matter must, of necessity, be for me something of a spectacle. It's positively exciting. But apart from that I sympathize with you, and I shall be actor, so far as I can, as well as spectator. You are a capital fellow; I believe in you and I back you. The simple fact that you appreciate my sister will serve as the proof I was asking for. All men are equal-- especially men of taste!"
"Do you think," asked Newman presently, "that Madame de Cintre is determined not to marry?"
"That is my impression. But that is not against you; it's for you to make her change her mind."
"I am afraid it will be hard," said Newman, gravely.
"I don't think it will be easy. In a general way I don't see why a widow should ever marry again. She has gained the benefits of matrimony-- freedom and consideration--and she has got rid of the drawbacks. Why should she put her head into the noose again? Her usual motive is ambition: if a man can offer her a great position, make her a princess or an ambassadress she may think the compensation sufficient."
"And--in that way--is Madame de Cintre ambitious?"
"Who knows?" said Bellegarde, with a profound shrug. "I don't pretend to say all that she is or all that she is not. I think she might be touched by the prospect of becoming the wife of a great man. But in a certain way, I believe, whatever she does will be the IMPROBABLE. Don't be too confident, but don't absolutely doubt. Your best chance for success will be precisely in being, to her mind, unusual, unexpected, original. Don't try to be any one else; be simply yourself, out and out. Something or other can't fail to come of it; I am very curious to see what."
"I am much obliged to you for your advice," said Newman. "And," he added with a smile, "I am glad, for your sake, I am going to be so amusing."
"It will be more than amusing," said Bellegarde; "it will be inspiring. I look at it from my point of view, and you from yours. After all, anything for a change! And only yesterday I was yawning so as to dislocate my jaw, and declaring that there was nothing new under the sun! If it isn't new to see you come into the family as a suitor, I am very much mistaken. Let me say that, my dear fellow; I won't call it anything else, bad or good; I will simply call it NEW" And overcome with a sense of the novelty thus foreshadowed, Valentin de Bellegarde threw himself into a deep arm-chair before the fire, and, with a fixed, intense smile, seemed to read a vision of it in the flame of the logs. After a while he looked up. "Go ahead, my boy; you have my good wishes," he said. "But it is really a pity you don't understand me, that you don't know just what I am doing."
"Oh," said Newman, laughing, "don't do anything wrong. Leave me to myself, rather, or defy me, out and out. I wouldn't lay any load on your conscience." Bellegarde sprang up again; he was evidently excited; there was a warmer spark even than usual in his eye. "You never will understand--you never will know," he said; "and if you succeed, and I turn out to have helped you, you will never be grateful, not as I shall deserve you should be. You will be an excellent fellow always, but you will not be grateful. But it doesn't matter, for I shall get my own fun out of it." And he broke into an extravagant laugh. "You look puzzled," he added; "you look almost frightened."
"It IS a pity," said Newman, "that I don't understand you. I shall lose some very good jokes."
"I told you, you remember, that we were very strange people," Bellegarde went on. "I give you warning again. We are! My mother is strange, my brother is strange, and I verily believe that I am stranger than either. You will even find my sister a little strange. Old trees have crooked branches, old houses have queer cracks, old races have odd secrets. Remember that we are eight hundred years old!"
"Very good," said Newman; "that's the sort of thing I came to Europe for. You come into my programme."
"Touchez-la, then," said Bellegarde, putting out his hand. "It's a bargain: I accept you; I espouse your cause. It's because I like you, in a great measure; but that is not the only reason!" And he stood holding Newman's hand and looking at him askance.
"What is the other one?"
"I am in the Opposition. I dislike some one else."
"Your brother?" asked Newman, in his unmodulated voice.
Bellegarde laid his fingers upon his lips with a whispered HUSH! "Old races have strange secrets!" he said. "Put yourself into motion, come and see my sister, and be assured of my sympathy!" And on this he took his leave.
Newman dropped into a chair before his fire, and sat a long time staring into the blaze.
He went to see Madame de Cintre the next day, and was informed by the servant that she was at home. He passed as usual up the large, cold staircase and through a spacious vestibule above, where the walls seemed all composed of small door panels, touched with long-faded gilding; whence he was ushered into the sitting-room in which he had already been received. It was empty, and the servant told him that Madame la Comtesse would presently appear. He had time, while he waited, to wonder whether Bellegarde had seen his sister since the evening before, and whether in this case he had spoken to her of their talk. In this case Madame de Cintre's receiving him was an encouragement. He felt a certain trepidation as he reflected that she might come in with the knowledge of his supreme admiration and of the project he had built upon it in her eyes; but the feeling was not disagreeable. Her face could wear no look that would make it less beautiful, and he was sure beforehand that however she might take the proposal he had in reserve, she would not take it in scorn or in irony. He had a feeling that if she could only read the bottom of his heart and measure the extent of his good will toward her, she would be entirely kind.
She came in at last, after so long an interval that he wondered whether she had been hesitating. She smiled with her usual frankness, and held out her hand; she looked at him straight with her soft and luminous eyes, and said, without a tremor in her voice, that she was glad to see him and that she hoped he was well. He found in her what he had found before-- that faint perfume of a personal shyness worn away by contact with the world, but the more perceptible the more closely you approached her. This lingering diffidence seemed to give a peculiar value to what was definite and assured in her manner; it made it seem like an accomplishment, a beautiful talent, something that one might compare to an exquisite touch in a pianist. It was, in fact, Madame de Cintre's "authority," as they say of artists, that especially impressed and fascinated Newman; he always came back to the feeling that when he should complete himself by taking a wife, that was the way he should like his wife to interpret him to the world. The only trouble, indeed, was that when the instrument was so perfect it seemed to interpose too much between you and the genius that used it. Madame de Cintre gave Newman the sense of an elaborate education, of her having passed through mysterious ceremonies and processes of culture in her youth, of her having been fashioned and made flexible to certain exalted social needs. All this, as I have affirmed, made her seem rare and precious--a very expensive article, as he would have said, and one which a man with an ambition to have everything about him of the best would find it highly agreeable to possess. But looking at the matter with an eye to private felicity, Newman wondered where, in so exquisite a compound, nature and art showed their dividing line. Where did the special intention separate from the habit of good manners? Where did urbanity end and sincerity begin? Newman asked himself these questions even while he stood ready to accept the admired object in all its complexity; he felt that he could do so in profound security, and examine its mechanism afterwards, at leisure. "I am very glad to find you alone," he said. "You know I have never had such good luck before."
"But you have seemed before very well contented with your luck," said Madame de Cintre. "You have sat and watched my visitors with an air of quiet amusement. What have you thought of them?"
"Oh, I have thought the ladies were very elegant and very graceful, and wonderfully quick at repartee. But what I have chiefly thought has been that they only helped me to admire you." This was not gallantry on Newman's part--an art in which he was quite unversed. It was simply the instinct of the practical man, who had made up his mind what he wanted, and was now beginning to take active steps to obtain it.
Madame de Cintre started slightly, and raised her eyebrows; she had evidently not expected so fervid a compliment. "Oh, in that case," she said with a laugh, "your finding me alone is not good luck for me. I hope some one will come in quickly."
"I hope not," said Newman. "I have something particular to say to you. Have you seen your brother?"
"Yes, I saw him an hour ago."
"Did he tell you that he had seen me last night?"
"He said so."
"And did he tell you what we had talked about?"
Madame de Cintre hesitated a moment. As Newman asked these questions she had grown a little pale, as if she regarded what was coming as necessary, but not as agreeable. "Did you give him a message to me?" she asked. "It was not exactly a message--I asked him to render me a service." "The service was to sing your praises, was it not?" And she accompanied this question with a little smile, as if to make it easier to herself.
"Yes, that is what it really amounts to," said Newman. "Did he sing my praises?" "He spoke very well of you. But when I know that it was by your special request, of course I must take his eulogy with a grain of salt."
"Oh, that makes no difference," said Newman. "Your brother would not have spoken well of me unless he believed what he was saying. He is too honest for that."
"Are you very deep?" said Madame de Cintre. "Are you trying to please me by praising my brother? I confess it is a good way."
"For me, any way that succeeds will be good. I will praise your brother all day, if that will help me. He is a noble little fellow. He has made me feel, in promising to do what he can to help me, that I can depend upon him."
"Don't make too much of that," said Madame de Cintre. "He can help you very little."
"Of course I must work my way myself. I know that very well; I only want a chance to. In consenting to see me, after what he told you, you almost seem to be giving me a chance."
"I am seeing you," said Madame de Cintre, slowly and gravely, "because I promised my brother I would."
"Blessings on your brother's head!" cried Newman. "What I told him last evening was this: that I admired you more than any woman I had ever seen, and that I should like immensely to make you my wife." He uttered these words with great directness and firmness, and without any sense of confusion. He was full of his idea, he had completely mastered it, and he seemed to look down on Madame de Cintre, with all her gathered elegance, from the height of his bracing good conscience. It is probable that this particular tone and manner were the very best he could have hit upon. Yet the light, just visibly forced smile with which his companion had listened to him died away, and she sat looking at him with her lips parted and her face as solemn as a tragic mask. There was evidently something very painful to her in the scene to which he was subjecting her, and yet her impatience of it found no angry voice. Newman wondered whether he was hurting her; he could not imagine why the liberal devotion he meant to express should be disagreeable. He got up and stood before her, leaning one hand on the chimney-piece. "I know I have seen you very little to say this," he said, "so little that it may make what I say seem disrespectful. That is my misfortune! I could have said it the first time I saw you. Really, I had seen you before; I had seen you in imagination; you seemed almost an old friend. So what I say is not mere gallantry and compliments and nonsense-- I can't talk that way, I don't know how, and I wouldn't, to you, if I could. It's as serious as such words can be. I feel as if I knew you and knew what a beautiful, admirable woman you are. I shall know better, perhaps, some day, but I have a general notion now. You are just the woman I have been looking for, except that you are far more perfect. I won't make any protestations and vows, but you can trust me. It is very soon, I know, to say all this; it is almost offensive. But why not gain time if one can? And if you want time to reflect--of course you do--the sooner you begin, the better for me. I don't know what you think of me; but there is no great mystery about me; you see what I am. Your brother told me that my antecedents and occupations were against me; that your family stands, somehow, on a higher level than I do. That is an idea which of course I don't understand and don't accept. But you don't care anything about that. I can assure you that I am a very solid fellow, and that if I give my mind to it I can arrange things so that in a very few years I shall not need to waste time in explaining who I am and what I am. You will decide for yourself whether you like me or not. What there is you see before you. I honestly believe I have no hidden vices or nasty tricks. I am kind, kind, kind! Everything that a man can give a woman I will give you. I have a large fortune, a very large fortune; some day, if you will allow me, I will go into details. If you want brilliancy, everything in the way of brilliancy that money can give you, you shall have. And as regards anything you may give up, don't take for granted too much that its place cannot be filled. Leave that to me; I'll take care of you; I shall know what you need. Energy and ingenuity can arrange everything. I'm a strong man! There, I have said what I had on my heart! It was better to get it off. I am very sorry if it's disagreeable to you; but think how much better it is that things should be clear. Don't answer me now, if you don't wish it. Think about it, think about it as slowly as you please. Of course I haven't said, I can't say, half I mean, especially about my admiration for you. But take a favorable view of me; it will only be just." During this speech, the longest that Newman had ever made, Madame de Cintre kept her gaze fixed upon him, and it expanded at the last into a sort of fascinated stare. When he ceased speaking she lowered her eyes and sat for some moments looking down and straight before her. Then she slowly rose to her feet, and a pair of exceptionally keen eyes would have perceived that she was trembling a little in the movement. She still looked extremely serious. "I am very much obliged to you for your offer," she said. "It seems very strange, but I am glad you spoke without waiting any longer. It is better the subject should be dismissed. I appreciate all you say; you do me great honor. But I have decided not to marry."
"Oh, don't say that!" cried Newman, in a tone absolutely naif from its pleading and caressing cadence. She had turned away, and it made her stop a moment with her back to him. "Think better of that. You are too young, too beautiful, too much made to be happy and to make others happy. If you are afraid of losing your freedom, I can assure you that this freedom here, this life you now lead, is a dreary bondage to what I will offer you. You shall do things that I don't think you have ever thought of. I will take you anywhere in the wide world that you propose. Are you unhappy? You give me a feeling that you are unhappy. You have no right to be, or to be made so. Let me come in and put an end to it." Madame de Cintre stood there a moment longer, looking away from him. If she was touched by the way he spoke, the thing was conceivable. His voice, always very mild and interrogative, gradually became as soft and as tenderly argumentative as if he had been talking to a much-loved child. He stood watching her, and she presently turned round again, but this time she did not look at him, and she spoke in a quietness in which there was a visible trace of effort. "There are a great many reasons why I should not marry," she said, "more than I can explain to you. As for my happiness, I am very happy. Your offer seems strange to me, for more reasons also than I can say. Of course you have a perfect right to make it. But I cannot accept it-- it is impossible. Please never speak of this matter again. If you cannot promise me this, I must ask you not to come back."
"Why is it impossible?" Newman demanded. "You may think it is, at first, without its really being so. I didn't expect you to be pleased at first, but I do believe that if you will think of it a good while, you may be satisfied."
"I don't know you," said Madame de Cintre. "Think how little I know you." "Very little, of course, and therefore I don't ask for your ultimatum on the spot. I only ask you not to say no, and to let me hope. I will wait as long as you desire. Meanwhile you can see more of me and know me better, look at me as a possible husband--as a candidate-- and make up your mind."
Something was going on, rapidly, in Madame de Cintre's thoughts; she was weighing a question there, beneath Newman's eyes, weighing it and deciding it. "From the moment I don't very respectfully beg you to leave the house and never return," she said, "I listen to you, I seem to give you hope. I HAVE listened to you--against my judgment. It is because you are eloquent. If I had been told this morning that I should consent to consider you as a possible husband, I should have thought my informant a little crazy. I AM listening to you, you see!" And she threw her hands out for a moment and let them drop with a gesture in which there was just the slightest expression of appealing weakness.
"Well, as far as saying goes, I have said everything," said Newman. "I believe in you, without restriction, and I think all the good of you that it is possible to think of a human creature. I firmly believe that in marrying me you will be SAFE. As I said just now," he went on with a smile, "I have no bad ways. I can DO so much for you. And if you are afraid that I am not what you have been accustomed to, not refined and delicate and punctilious, you may easily carry that too far. I AM delicate! You shall see!"
Madame de Cintre walked some distance away, and paused before a great plant, an azalea, which was flourishing in a porcelain tub before her window. She plucked off one of the flowers and, twisting it in her fingers, retraced her steps. Then she sat down in silence, and her attitude seemed to be a consent that Newman should say more.
"Why should you say it is impossible you should marry?" he continued. "The only thing that could make it really impossible would be your being already married. Is it because you have been unhappy in marriage? That is all the more reason! Is it because your family exert a pressure upon you, interfere with you, annoy you? That is still another reason; you ought to be perfectly free, and marriage will make you so. I don't say anything against your family--understand that!" added Newman, with an eagerness which might have made a perspicacious observer smile. "Whatever way you feel toward them is the right way, and anything that you should wish me to do to make myself agreeable to them I will do as well as I know how. Depend upon that!"
Madame de Cintre rose again and came toward the fireplace, near which Newman was standing. The expression of pain and embarrassment had passed out of her face, and it was illuminated with something which, this time at least, Newman need not have been perplexed whether to attribute to habit or to intention, to art or to nature. She had the air of a woman who has stepped across the frontier of friendship and, looking around her, finds the region vast. A certain checked and controlled exaltation seemed mingled with the usual level radiance of her glance. "I will not refuse to see you again," she said, "because much of what you have said has given me pleasure. But I will see you only on this condition: that you say nothing more in the same way for a long time." "For how long?"
"For six months. It must be a solemn promise."
"Very well, I promise."
"Good-by, then," she said, and extended her hand.
He held it a moment, as if he were going to say something more. But he only looked at her; then he took his departure.
That evening, on the Boulevard, he met Valentin de Bellegarde. After they had exchanged greetings, Newman told him that he had seen Madame de Cintre a few hours before.
"I know it," said Bellegarde. "I dined in the Rue de l'Universite." And then, for some moments, both men were silent. Newman wished to ask Bellegarde what visible impression his visit had made and the Count Valentin had a question of his own. Bellegarde spoke first.
"It's none of my business, but what the deuce did you say to my sister?" "I am willing to tell you," said Newman, "that I made her an offer of marriage." "Already!" And the young man gave a whistle. "'Time is money!' Is that what you say in America? And Madame de Cintre?" he added, with an interrogative inflection.
"She did not accept my offer."
"She couldn't, you know, in that way."
"But I'm to see her again," said Newman.
"Oh, the strangeness of woman!" exclaimed Bellegarde. Then he stopped, and held Newman off at arms'-length. "I look at you with respect!" he exclaimed. "You have achieved what we call a personal success! Immediately, now, I must present you to my brother."
"Whenever you please!" said Newman.
Newman continued to see his friends the Tristrams with a good deal of frequency, though if you had listened to Mrs. Tristram's account of the matter you would have supposed that they had been cynically repudiated for the sake of grander acquaintance. "We were all very well so long as we had no rivals--we were better than nothing. But now that you have become the fashion, and have your pick every day of three invitations to dinner, we are tossed into the corner. I am sure it is very good of you to come and see us once a month; I wonder you don't send us your cards in an envelope. When you do, pray have them with black edges; it will be for the death of my last illusion." It was in this incisive strain that Mrs. Tristram moralized over Newman's so-called neglect, which was in reality a most exemplary constancy. Of course she was joking, but there was always something ironical in her jokes, as there was always something jocular in her gravity.
"I know no better proof that I have treated you very well," Newman had said, "than the fact that you make so free with my character. Familiarity breeds contempt; I have made myself too cheap. If I had a little proper pride I would stay away a while, and when you asked me to dinner say I was going to the Princess Borealska's. But I have not any pride where my pleasure is concerned, and to keep you in the humor to see me--if you must see me only to call me bad names
-I will agree to anything you choose; I will admit that I am the biggest snob in Paris." Newman, in fact, had declined an invitation personally given by the Princess Borealska, an inquiring Polish lady to whom he had been presented, on the ground that on that particular day he always dined at Mrs. Tristram's; and it was only a tenderly perverse theory of his hostess of the Avenue d'Iena that he was faithless to his early friendships. She needed the theory to explain a certain moral irritation by which she was often visited; though, if this explanation was unsound, a deeper analyst than I must give the right one. Having launched our hero upon the current which was bearing him so rapidly along, she appeared but half-pleased at its swiftness. She had succeeded too well; she had played her game too cleverly and she wished to mix up the cards. Newman had told her, in due season, that her friend was "satisfactory." The epithet was not romantic, but Mrs. Tristram had no difficulty in perceiving that, in essentials, the feeling which lay beneath it was. Indeed, the mild, expansive brevity with which it was uttered, and a certain look, at once appealing and inscrutable, that issued from Newman's half-closed eyes as he leaned his head against the back of his chair, seemed to her the most eloquent attestation of a mature sentiment that she had ever encountered. Newman was, according to the French phrase, only abounding in her own sense, but his temperate raptures exerted a singular effect upon the ardor which she herself had so freely manifested a few months before. She now seemed inclined to take a purely critical view of Madame de Cintre, and wished to have it understood that she did not in the least answer for her being a compendium of all the virtues. "No woman was ever so good as that woman seems," she said. "Remember what Shakespeare calls Desdemona; 'a supersubtle Venetian.' Madame de Cintre is a supersubtle Parisian. She is a charming woman, and she has five hundred merits; but you had better keep that in mind." Was Mrs. Tristram simply finding out that she was jealous of her dear friend on the other side of the Seine, and that in undertaking to provide Newman with an ideal wife she had counted too much on her own disinterestedness? We may be permitted to doubt it. The inconsistent little lady of the Avenue d'Iena had an insuperable need of changing her place, intellectually. She had a lively imagination, and she was capable, at certain times, of imagining the direct reverse of her most cherished beliefs, with a vividness more intense than that of conviction. She got tired of thinking aright; but there was no serious harm in it, as she got equally tired of thinking wrong. In the midst of her mysterious perversities she had admirable flashes of justice. One of these occurred when Newman related to her that he had made a formal proposal to Madame de Cintre. He repeated in a few words what he had said, and in a great many what she had answered. Mrs. Tristram listened with extreme interest.
"But after all," said Newman, "there is nothing to congratulate me upon. It is not a triumph."
"I beg your pardon," said Mrs. Tristram; "it is a great triumph. It is a great triumph that she did not silence you at the first word, and request you never to speak to her again."
"I don't see that," observed Newman.
"Of course you don't; Heaven forbid you should! When I told you to go on your own way and do what came into your head, I had no idea you would go over the ground so fast. I never dreamed you would offer yourself after five or six morning-calls. As yet, what had you done to make her like you? You had simply sat--not very straight--and stared at her. But she does like you."
"That remains to be seen."
"No, that is proved. What will come of it remains to be seen. That you should propose to marry her, without more ado, could never have come into her head. You can form very little idea of what passed through her mind as you spoke; if she ever really marries you, the affair will be characterized by the usual justice of all human beings towards women. You will think you take generous views of her; but you will never begin to know through what a strange sea of feeling she passed before she accepted you. As she stood there in front of you the other day, she plunged into it. She said 'Why not?' to something which, a few hours earlier, had been inconceivable. She turned about on a thousand gathered prejudices and traditions as on a pivot, and looked where she had never looked hitherto. When I think of it--when I think of Claire de Cintre and all that she represents, there seems to me something very fine in it. When I recommended you to try your fortune with her I of course thought well of you, and in spite of your sins I think so still. But I confess I don't see quite what you are and what you have done, to make such a woman do this sort of thing for you."
"Oh, there is something very fine in it!" said Newman with a laugh, repeating her words. He took an extreme satisfaction in hearing that there was something fine in it. He had not the least doubt of it himself, but he had already begun to value the world's admiration of Madame de Cintre, as adding to the prospective glory of possession.
It was immediately after this conversation that Valentin de Bellegarde came to conduct his friend to the Rue de l'Universite to present him to the other members of his family. "You are already introduced," he said, "and you have begun to be talked about. My sister has mentioned your successive visits to my mother, and it was an accident that my mother was present at none of them. I have spoken of you as an American of immense wealth, and the best fellow in the world, who is looking for something very superior in the way of a wife."
"Do you suppose," asked Newman, "that Madame de Cintre has related to your mother the last conversation I had with her?"
"I am very certain that she has not; she will keep her own counsel. Meanwhile you must make your way with the rest of the family. Thus much is known about you: you have made a great fortune in trade, you are a little eccentric, and you frankly admire our dear Claire. My sister-in-law, whom you remember seeing in Madame de Cintre's sitting-room, took, it appears, a fancy to you; she has described you as having beaucoup de cachet. My mother, therefore, is curious to see you."
"She expects to laugh at me, eh?" said Newman.
"She never laughs. If she does not like you, don't hope to purchase favor by being amusing. Take warning by me!"
This conversation took place in the evening, and half an hour later Valentin ushered his companion into an apartment of the house of the Rue de l'Universite into which he had not yet penetrated, the salon of the dowager Marquise de Bellegarde. It was a vast, high room, with elaborate and ponderous mouldings, painted a whitish gray, along the upper portion of the walls and the ceiling; with a great deal of faded and carefully repaired tapestry in the doorways and chairbacks; a Turkey carpet in light colors, still soft and deep, in spite of great antiquity, on the floor, and portraits of each of Madame de Bellegarde's children, at the age of ten, suspended against an old screen of red silk. The room was illumined, exactly enough for conversation, by half a dozen candles, placed in odd corners, at a great distance apart. In a deep armchair, near the fire, sat an old lady in black; at the other end of the room another person was seated at the piano, playing a very expressive waltz. In this latter person Newman recognized the young Marquise de Bellegarde.
Valentin presented his friend, and Newman walked up to the old lady by the fire and shook hands with her. He received a rapid impression of a white, delicate, aged face, with a high forehead, a small mouth, and a pair of cold blue eyes which had kept much of the freshness of youth. Madame de Bellegarde looked hard at him, and returned his hand-shake with a sort of British positiveness which reminded him that she was the daughter of the Earl of St. Dunstan's. Her daughter-in-law stopped playing and gave him an agreeable smile. Newman sat down and looked about him, while Valentin went and kissed the hand of the young marquise.
"I ought to have seen you before," said Madame de Bellegarde. "You have paid several visits to my daughter."
"Oh, yes," said Newman, smiling; "Madame de Cintre and I are old friends by this time."
"You have gone fast," said Madame de Bellegarde.
"Not so fast as I should like," said Newman, bravely.
"Oh, you are very ambitious," answered the old lady.
"Yes, I confess I am," said Newman, smiling.
Madame de Bellegarde looked at him with her cold fine eyes, and he returned her gaze, reflecting that she was a possible adversary and trying to take her measure. Their eyes remained in contact for some moments. Then Madame de Bellegarde looked away, and without smiling, "I am very ambitious, too," she said.
Newman felt that taking her measure was not easy; she was a formidable, inscrutable little woman. She resembled her daughter, and yet she was utterly unlike her. The coloring in Madame de Cintre was the same, and the high delicacy of her brow and nose was hereditary. But her face was a larger and freer copy, and her mouth in especial a happy divergence from that conservative orifice, a little pair of lips at once plump and pinched, that looked, when closed, as if they could not open wider than to swallow a gooseberry or to emit an "Oh, dear, no!" which probably had been thought to give the finishing touch to the aristocratic prettiness of the Lady Emmeline Atheling as represented, forty years before, in several Books of Beauty. Madame de Cintre's face had, to Newman's eye, a range of expression as delightfully vast as the wind-streaked, cloudflecked distance on a Western prairie. But her mother's white, intense, respectable countenance, with its formal gaze, and its circumscribed smile, suggested a document signed and sealed; a thing of parchment, ink, and ruled lines. "She is a woman of conventions and proprieties," he said to himself as he looked at her; "her world is the world of things immutably decreed. But how she is at home in it, and what a paradise she finds it. She walks about in it as if it were a blooming park, a Garden of Eden; and when she sees 'This is genteel,' or 'This is improper,' written on a mile-stone she stops ecstatically, as if she were listening to a nightingale or smelling a rose." Madame de Bellegarde wore a little black velvet hood tied under her chin, and she was wrapped in an old black cashmere shawl.
"You are an American?" she said presently. "I have seen several Americans." "There are several in Paris," said Newman jocosely.
"Oh, really?" said Madame de Bellegarde. "It was in England I saw these, or somewhere else; not in Paris. I think it must have been in the Pyrenees, many years ago. I am told your ladies are very pretty. One of these ladies was very pretty! such a wonderful complexion! She presented me a note of introduction from some one--I forgot whom-- and she sent with it a note of her own. I kept her letter a long time afterwards, it was so strangely expressed. I used to know some of the phrases by heart. But I have forgotten them now, it is so many years ago. Since then I have seen no more Americans. I think my daughter-in-law has; she is a great gad-about, she sees every one."
At this the younger lady came rustling forward, pinching in a very slender waist, and casting idly preoccupied glances over the front of her dress, which was apparently designed for a ball. She was, in a singular way, at once ugly and pretty; she had protuberant eyes, and lips strangely red. She reminded Newman of his friend, Mademoiselle Nioche; this was what that much-obstructed young lady would have liked to be. Valentin de Bellegarde walked behind her at a distance, hopping about to keep off the far-spreading train of her dress. "You ought to show more of your shoulders behind," he said very gravely. "You might as well wear a standing ruff as such a dress as that."
The young woman turned her back to the mirror over the chimney-piece, and glanced behind her, to verify Valentin's assertion. The mirror descended low, and yet it reflected nothing but a large unclad flesh surface. The young marquise put her hands behind her and gave a downward pull to the waist of her dress. "Like that, you mean?" she asked.
"That is a little better," said Bellegarde in the same tone, "but it leaves a good deal to be desired."
"Oh, I never go to extremes, said his sister-in-law. And then, turning to Madame de Bellegarde, "What were you calling me just now, madame?"
"I called you a gad-about," said the old lady. "But I might call you something else, too."
"A gad-about? What an ugly word! What does it mean?"
"A very beautiful person," Newman ventured to say, seeing that it was in French. "That is a pretty compliment but a bad translation," said the young marquise. And then, looking at him a moment, "Do you dance?"
"Not a step."
"You are very wrong," she said, simply. And with another look at her back in the mirror she turned away.
"Do you like Paris?" asked the old lady, who was apparently wondering what was the proper way to talk to an American.
"Yes, rather," said Newman. And then he added with a friendly intonation, "Don't you?"
"I can't say I know it. I know my house--I know my friends-- I don't know Paris." "Oh, you lose a great deal," said Newman, sympathetically.
Madame de Bellegarde stared; it was presumably the first time she had been condoled with on her losses.
"I am content with what I have," she said with dignity.
Newman's eyes, at this moment, were wandering round the room, which struck him as rather sad and shabby; passing from the high casements, with their small, thickly-framed panes, to the sallow tints of two or three portraits in pastel, of the last century, which hung between them. He ought, obviously, to have answered that the contentment of his hostess was quite natural--she had a great deal; but the idea did not occur to him during the pause of some moments which followed. "Well, my dear mother," said Valentin, coming and leaning against the chimneypiece, "what do you think of my dear friend Newman? Is he not the excellent fellow I told you?"
"My acquaintance with Mr. Newman has not gone very far," said Madame de Bellegarde. "I can as yet only appreciate his great politeness."
"My mother is a great judge of these matters," said Valentin to Newman. "If you have satisfied her, it is a triumph."
"I hope I shall satisfy you, some day," said Newman, looking at the old lady. "I have done nothing yet."
"You must not listen to my son; he will bring you into trouble. He is a sad scatterbrain."
"Oh, I like him--I like him," said Newman, genially.
"He amuses you, eh?"
"Do you hear that, Valentin?" said Madame de Bellegarde. "You amuse Mr. Newman."
"Perhaps we shall all come to that!" Valentin exclaimed.
"You must see my other son," said Madame de Bellegarde. "He is much better than this one. But he will not amuse you."
"I don't know--I don't know!" murmured Valentin, reflectively. "But we shall very soon see. Here comes Monsieur mon frere."
The door had just opened to give ingress to a gentleman who stepped forward and whose face Newman remembered. He had been the author of our hero's discomfiture the first time he tried to present himself to Madame de Cintre. Valentin de Bellegarde went to meet his brother, looked at him a moment, and then, taking him by the arm, led him up to Newman.
"This is my excellent friend Mr. Newman," he said very blandly. "You must know him."
"I am delighted to know Mr. Newman," said the marquis with a low bow, but without offering his hand.
"He is the old woman at second-hand," Newman said to himself, as he returned M. de Bellegarde's greeting. And this was the starting-point of a speculative theory, in his mind, that the late marquis had been a very amiable foreigner, with an inclination to take life easily and a sense that it was difficult for the husband of the stilted little lady by the fire to do so. But if he had taken little comfort in his wife he had taken much in his two younger children, who were after his own heart, while Madame de Bellegarde had paired with her eldest-born. "My brother has spoken to me of you," said M. de Bellegarde; "and as you are also acquainted with my sister, it was time we should meet." He turned to his mother and gallantly bent over her hand, touching it with his lips, and then he assumed an attitude before the chimney-piece. With his long, lean face, his highbridged nose and his small, opaque eye he looked much like an Englishman. His whiskers were fair and glossy, and he had a large dimple, of unmistakably British origin, in the middle of his handsome chin. He was "distinguished" to the tips of his polished nails, and there was not a movement of his fine, perpendicular person that was not noble and majestic. Newman had never yet been confronted with such an incarnation of the art of taking one's self seriously; he felt a sort of impulse to step backward, as you do to get a view of a great facade. "Urbain," said young Madame de Bellegarde, who had apparently been waiting for her husband to take her to her ball, "I call your attention to the fact that I am dressed."
"That is a good idea," murmured Valentin.
"I am at your orders, my dear friend," said M. de Bellegarde. "Only, you must allow me first the pleasure of a little conversation with Mr. Newman." "Oh, if you are going to a party, don't let me keep you," objected Newman. "I am very sure we shall meet again. Indeed, if you would like to converse with me I will gladly name an hour." He was eager to make it known that he would readily answer all questions and satisfy all exactions.
M. de Bellegarde stood in a well-balanced position before the fire, caressing one of his fair whiskers with one of his white hands, and looking at Newman, half askance, with eyes from which a particular ray of observation made its way through a general meaningless smile. "It is very kind of you to make such an offer," he said. "If I am not mistaken, your occupations are such as to make your time precious. You are in--a-- as we say, dans les affaires."
"In business, you mean? Oh no, I have thrown business overboard for the present. I am 'loafing,' as WE say. My time is quite my own."
"Ah, you are taking a holiday," rejoined M. de Bellegarde. "'Loafing.' Yes, I have heard that expression."
"Mr. Newman is American," said Madame de Bellegarde.
"My brother is a great ethnologist," said Valentin.
"An ethnologist?" said Newman. "Ah, you collect negroes' skulls, and that sort of thing."
The marquis looked hard at his brother, and began to caress his other whisker. Then, turning to Newman, with sustained urbanity, "You are traveling for your pleasure?" he asked.'
"Oh, I am knocking about to pick up one thing and another. Of course I get a good deal of pleasure out of it."
"What especially interests you?" inquired the marquis.
"Well, everything interests me," said Newman. "I am not particular. Manufactures are what I care most about."
"That has been your specialty?"
"I can't say I have any specialty. My specialty has been to make the largest possible fortune in the shortest possible time." Newman made this last remark very deliberately; he wished to open the way, if it were necessary, to an authoritative statement of his means.
M. de Bellegarde laughed agreeably. "I hope you have succeeded," he said. "Yes, I have made a fortune in a reasonable time. I am not so old, you see." "Paris is a very good place to spend a fortune. I wish you great enjoyment of yours." And M. de Bellegarde drew forth his gloves and began to put them on. Newman for a few moments watched him sliding his white hands into the white kid, and as he did so his feelings took a singular turn. M. de Bellegarde's good wishes seemed to descend out of the white expanse of his sublime serenity with the soft, scattered movement of a shower of snow-flakes. Yet Newman was not irritated; he did not feel that he was being patronized; he was conscious of no especial impulse to introduce a discord into so noble a harmony. Only he felt himself suddenly in personal contact with the forces with which his friend Valentin had told him that he would have to contend, and he became sensible of their intensity. He wished to make some answering manifestation, to stretch himself out at his own length, to sound a note at the uttermost end of HIS scale. It must be added that if this impulse was not vicious or malicious, it was by no means void of humorous expectancy. Newman was quite as ready to give play to that loosely-adjusted smile of his, if his hosts should happen to be shocked, as he was far from deliberately planning to shock them.
"Paris is a very good place for idle people," he said, "or it is a very good place if your family has been settled here for a long time, and you have made acquaintances and got your relations round you; or if you have got a good big house like this, and a wife and children and mother and sister, and everything comfortable. I don't like that way of living all in rooms next door to each other. But I am not an idler. I try to be, but I can't manage it; it goes against the grain. My business habits are too deep-seated. Then, I haven't any house to call my own, or anything in the way of a family. My sisters are five thousand miles away, my mother died when I was a youngster, and I haven't any wife; I wish I had! So, you see, I don't exactly know what to do with myself. I am not fond of books, as you are, sir, and I get tired of dining out and going to the opera. I miss my business activity. You see, I began to earn my living when I was almost a baby, and until a few months ago I have never had my hand off the plow. Elegant leisure comes hard."
This speech was followed by a profound silence of some moments, on the part of Newman's entertainers. Valentin stood looking at him fixedly, with his hands in his pockets, and then he slowly, with a half-sidling motion, went out of the door. The marquis continued to draw on his gloves and to smile benignantly. "You began to earn your living when you were a mere baby?" said the marquise. "Hardly more--a small boy."
"You say you are not fond of books," said M. de Bellegarde; "but you must do yourself the justice to remember that your studies were interrupted early." "That is very true; on my tenth birthday I stopped going to school. I thought it was a grand way to keep it. But I picked up some information afterwards," said Newman, reassuringly.
"You have some sisters?" asked old Madame de Bellegarde.
"Yes, two sisters. Splendid women!"
"I hope that for them the hardships of life commenced less early." "They married very early, if you call that a hardship, as girls do in our Western country. One of them is married to the owner of the largest india-rubber house in the West."
"Ah, you make houses also of india-rubber?" inquired the marquise. "You can stretch them as your family increases," said young Madame de Bellegarde, who was muffling herself in a long white shawl.
Newman indulged in a burst of hilarity, and explained that the house in which his brother-in-law lived was a large wooden structure, but that he manufactured and sold india-rubber on a colossal scale.
"My children have some little india-rubber shoes which they put on when they go to play in the Tuileries in damp weather," said the young marquise. "I wonder whether your brother-in-law made them."
"Very likely," said Newman; "if he did, you may be very sure they are well made." "Well, you must not be discouraged," said M. de Bellegarde, with vague urbanity. "Oh, I don't mean to be. I have a project which gives me plenty to think about, and that is an occupation." And then Newman was silent a moment, hesitating, yet thinking rapidly; he wished to make his point, and yet to do so forced him to speak out in a way that was disagreeable to him. Nevertheless he continued, addressing himself to old Madame de Bellegarde, "I will tell you my project; perhaps you can help me. I want to take a wife."
"It is a very good project, but I am no matchmaker," said the old lady. Newman looked at her an instant, and then, with perfect sincerity, "I should have thought you were," he declared.
Madame de Bellegarde appeared to think him too sincere. She murmured something sharply in French, and fixed her eyes on her son. At this moment the door of the room was thrown open, and with a rapid step Valentin reappeared. "I have a message for you," he said to his sister-in-law. "Claire bids me to request you not to start for your ball. She will go with you."
"Claire will go with us!" cried the young marquise. "En voila, du nouveau!" "She has changed her mind; she decided half an hour ago, and she is sticking the last diamond into her hair," said Valentin.
"What has taken possession of my daughter?" demanded Madame de Bellegarde, sternly. "She has not been into the world these three years. Does she take such a step at half an hour's notice, and without consulting me?" "She consulted me, dear mother, five minutes since," said Valentin, "and I told her that such a beautiful woman--she is beautiful, you will see-- had no right to bury herself alive."
"You should have referred Claire to her mother, my brother," said M. de Bellegarde, in French. "This is very strange."
"I refer her to the whole company!" said Valentin. "Here she comes!" And he went to the open door, met Madame de Cintre on the threshold, took her by the hand, and led her into the room. She was dressed in white; but a long blue cloak, which hung almost to her feet, was fastened across her shoulders by a silver clasp. She had tossed it back, however, and her long white arms were uncovered. In her dense, fair hair there glittered a dozen diamonds. She looked serious and, Newman thought, rather pale; but she glanced round her, and, when she saw him, smiled and put out her hand. He thought her tremendously handsome. He had a chance to look at her full in the face, for she stood a moment in the centre of the room, hesitating, apparently, what she should do, without meeting his eyes. Then she went up to her mother, who sat in her deep chair by the fire, looking at Madame de Cintre almost fiercely. With her back turned to the others, Madame de Cintre held her cloak apart to show her dress.
"What do you think of me?" she asked.
"I think you are audacious," said the marquise. "It was but three days ago, when I asked you, as a particular favor to myself, to go to the Duchess de Lusignan's, that you told me you were going nowhere and that one must be consistent. Is this your consistency? Why should you distinguish Madame Robineau? Who is it you wish to please to-night?"
"I wish to please myself, dear mother," said Madame de Cintre And she bent over and kissed the old lady.
"I don't like surprises, my sister," said Urbain de Bellegarde; "especially when one is on the point of entering a drawing-room."
Newman at this juncture felt inspired to speak. "Oh, if you are going into a room with Madame de Cintre, you needn't be afraid of being noticed yourself!" M. de Bellegarde turned to his sister with a smile too intense to be easy. "I hope you appreciate a compliment that is paid you at your brother's expense," he said. "Come, come, madame." And offering Madame de Cintre his arm he led her rapidly out of the room. Valentin rendered the same service to young Madame de Bellegarde, who had apparently been reflecting on the fact that the ball dress of her sister-in-law was much less brilliant than her own, and yet had failed to derive absolute comfort from the reflection. With a farewell smile she sought the complement of her consolation in the eyes of the American visitor, and perceiving in them a certain mysterious brilliancy, it is not improbable that she may have flattered herself she had found it.
Newman, left alone with old Madame de Bellegarde, stood before her a few moments in silence. "Your daughter is very beautiful," he said at last. "She is very strange," said Madame de Bellegarde.
"I am glad to hear it," Newman rejoined, smiling. "It makes me hope." "Hope what?"
"That she will consent, some day, to marry me."
The old lady slowly rose to her feet. "That really is your project, then?" "Yes; will you favor it?"
"Favor it?" Madame de Bellegarde looked at him a moment and then shook her head. "No!" she said, softly.
"Will you suffer it, then? Will you let it pass?"
"You don't know what you ask. I am a very proud and meddlesome old woman." "Well, I am very rich," said Newman.
Madame de Bellegarde fixed her eyes on the floor, and Newman thought it probable she was weighing the reasons in favor of resenting the brutality of this remark. But at last, looking up, she said simply, "How rich?"
Newman expressed his income in a round number which had the magnificent sound that large aggregations of dollars put on when they are translated into francs. He added a few remarks of a financial character, which completed a sufficiently striking presentment of his resources.
Madame de Bellegarde listened in silence. "You are very frank," she said finally. "I will be the same. I would rather favor you, on the whole, than suffer you. It will be easier."
"I am thankful for any terms," said Newman. "But, for the present, you have suffered me long enough. Good night!" And he took his leave.
Newman, on his return to Paris, had not resumed the study of French conversation with M. Nioche; he found that he had too many other uses for his time. M. Nioche, however, came to see him very promptly, having learned his whereabouts by a mysterious process to which his patron never obtained the key. The shrunken little capitalist repeated his visit more than once. He seemed oppressed by a humiliating sense of having been overpaid, and wished apparently to redeem his debt by the offer of grammatical and statistical information in small installments. He wore the same decently melancholy aspect as a few months before; a few months more or less of brushing could make little difference in the antique lustre of his coat and hat. But the poor old man's spirit was a trifle more threadbare; it seemed to have received some hard rubs during the summer Newman inquired with interest about Mademoiselle Noemie; and M. Nioche, at first, for answer, simply looked at him in lachrymose silence. "Don't ask me, sir," he said at last. "I sit and watch her, but I can do nothing." "Do you mean that she misconducts herself?"
"I don't know, I am sure. I can't follow her. I don't understand her. She has something in her head; I don't know what she is trying to do. She is too deep for me."
"Does she continue to go to the Louvre? Has she made any of those copies for me?"
"She goes to the Louvre, but I see nothing of the copies. She has something on her easel; I suppose it is one of the pictures you ordered. Such a magnificent order ought to give her fairy-fingers. But she is not in earnest. I can't say anything to her; I am afraid of her. One evening, last summer, when I took her to walk in the Champs Elysees, she said some things to me that frightened me." "What were they?"
"Excuse an unhappy father from telling you," said M. Nioche, unfolding his calico pocket-handkerchief.
Newman promised himself to pay Mademoiselle Noemie another visit at the Louvre. He was curious about the progress of his copies, but it must be added that he was still more curious about the progress of the young lady herself. He went one afternoon to the great museum, and wandered through several of the rooms in fruitless quest of her. He was bending his steps to the long hall of the Italian masters, when suddenly he found himself face to face with Valentin de Bellegarde. The young Frenchman greeted him with ardor, and assured him that he was a godsend. He himself was in the worst of humors and he wanted some one to contradict.
"In a bad humor among all these beautiful things?" said Newman. "I thought you were so fond of pictures, especially the old black ones. There are two or three here that ought to keep you in spirits."
"Oh, to-day," answered Valentin, "I am not in a mood for pictures, and the more beautiful they are the less I like them. Their great staring eyes and fixed positions irritate me. I feel as if I were at some big, dull party, in a room full of people I shouldn't wish to speak to. What should I care for their beauty? It's a bore, and, worse still, it's a reproach. I have a great many ennuis; I feel vicious." "If the Louvre has so little comfort for you, why in the world did you come here?" Newman asked.
"That is one of my ennuis. I came to meet my cousin-- a dreadful English cousin, a member of my mother's family-- who is in Paris for a week for her husband, and who wishes me to point out the 'principal beauties.' Imagine a woman who wears a green crape bonnet in December and has straps sticking out of the ankles of her interminable boots! My mother begged I would do something to oblige them. I have undertaken to play valet de place this afternoon. They were to have met me here at two o'clock, and I have been waiting for them twenty minutes. Why doesn't she arrive? She has at least a pair of feet to carry her. I don't know whether to be furious at their playing me false, or delighted to have escaped them."
"I think in your place I would be furious," said Newman, "because they may arrive yet, and then your fury will still be of use to you. Whereas if you were delighted and they were afterwards to turn up, you might not know what to do with your delight."
"You give me excellent advice, and I already feel better. I will be furious; I will let them go to the deuce and I myself will go with you--unless by chance you too have a rendezvous."
"It is not exactly a rendezvous," said Newman. "But I have in fact come to see a person, not a picture."
"A woman, presumably?"
"A young lady."
"Well," said Valentin, "I hope for you with all my heart that she is not clothed in green tulle and that her feet are not too much out of focus."
"I don't know much about her feet, but she has very pretty hands." Valentin gave a sigh. "And on that assurance I must part with you?" "I am not certain of finding my young lady," said Newman, "and I am not quite prepared to lose your company on the chance. It does not strike me as particularly desirable to introduce you to her, and yet I should rather like to have your opinion of her."
"Is she pretty?"
"I guess you will think so."
Bellegarde passed his arm into that of his companion. "Conduct me to her on the instant! I should be ashamed to make a pretty woman wait for my verdict." Newman suffered himself to be gently propelled in the direction in which he had been walking, but his step was not rapid. He was turning something over in his mind. The two men passed into the long gallery of the Italian masters, and Newman, after having scanned for a moment its brilliant vista, turned aside into the smaller apartment devoted to the same school, on the left. It contained very few persons, but at the farther end of it sat Mademoiselle Nioche, before her easel. She was not at work; her palette and brushes had been laid down beside her, her hands were folded in her lap, and she was leaning back in her chair and looking intently at two ladies on the other side of the hall, who, with their backs turned to her, had stopped before one of the pictures. These ladies were apparently persons of high fashion; they were dressed with great splendor, and their long silken trains and furbelows were spread over the polished floor. It was at their dresses Mademoiselle Noemie was looking, though what she was thinking of I am unable to say. I hazard the supposition that she was saying to herself that to be able to drag such a train over a polished floor was a felicity worth any price. Her reflections, at any rate, were disturbed by the advent of Newman and his companion. She glanced at them quickly, and then, coloring a little, rose and stood before her easel.
"I came here on purpose to see you," said Newman in his bad French, offering to shake hands. And then, like a good American, he introduced Valentin formally: "Allow me to make you acquainted with the Comte Valentin de Bellegarde." Valentin made a bow which must have seemed to Mademoiselle Noemie quite in harmony with the impressiveness of his title, but the graceful brevity of her own response made no concession to underbred surprise. She turned to Newman, putting up her hands to her hair and smoothing its delicately-felt roughness. Then, rapidly, she turned the canvas that was on her easel over upon its face. "You have not forgotten me?" she asked.
"I shall never forget you," said Newman. "You may be sure of that." "Oh," said the young girl, "there are a great many different ways of remembering a person." And she looked straight at Valentin de Bellegarde, who was looking at her as a gentleman may when a "verdict" is expected of him.
"Have you painted anything for me?" said Newman. "Have you been industrious?"
"No, I have done nothing." And taking up her palette, she began to mix her colors at hazard.
"But your father tells me you have come here constantly."
"I have nowhere else to go! Here, all summer, it was cool, at least." "Being here, then," said Newman, "you might have tried something." "I told you before," she answered, softly, "that I don't know how to paint." "But you have something charming on your easel, now," said Valentin, "if you would only let me see it."
She spread out her two hands, with the fingers expanded, over the back of the canvas--those hands which Newman had called pretty, and which, in spite of several paint-stains, Valentin could now admire. "My painting is not charming," she said.
"It is the only thing about you that is not, then, mademoiselle," quoth Valentin, gallantly.
She took up her little canvas and silently passed it to him. He looked at it, and in a moment she said, "I am sure you are a judge."
"Yes," he answered, "I am."
"You know, then, that that is very bad."
"Mon Dieu," said Valentin, shrugging his shoulders "let us distinguish." "You know that I ought not to attempt to paint," the young girl continued. "Frankly, then, mademoiselle, I think you ought not."
She began to look at the dresses of the two splendid ladies again-- a point on which, having risked one conjecture, I think I may risk another. While she was looking at the ladies she was seeing Valentin de Bellegarde. He, at all events, was seeing her. He put down the roughly-besmeared canvas and addressed a little click with his tongue, accompanied by an elevation of the eyebrows, to Newman.
"Where have you been all these months?" asked Mademoiselle Noemie of our hero. "You took those great journeys, you amused yourself well?" "Oh, yes," said Newman. "I amused myself well enough."
"I am very glad," said Mademoiselle Noemie with extreme gentleness, and she began to dabble in her colors again. She was singularly pretty, with the look of serious sympathy that she threw into her face.
Valentin took advantage of her downcast eyes to telegraph again to his companion. He renewed his mysterious physiognomical play, making at the same time a rapid tremulous movement in the air with his fingers. He was evidently finding Mademoiselle Noemie extremely interesting; the blue devils had departed, leaving the field clear.
"Tell me something about your travels," murmured the young girl. "Oh, I went to Switzerland,--to Geneva and Zermatt and Zurich and all those places you know; and down to Venice, and all through Germany, and down the Rhine, and into Holland and Belgium--the regular round. How do you say that, in French--the regular round?" Newman asked of Valentin.
Mademoiselle Nioche fixed her eyes an instant on Bellegarde, and then with a little smile, "I don't understand monsieur," she said, "when he says so much at once. Would you be so good as to translate?"
"I would rather talk to you out of my own head," Valentin declared.
"No," said Newman, gravely, still in his bad French, "you must not talk to Mademoiselle Nioche, because you say discouraging things. You ought to tell her to work, to persevere."
"And we French, mademoiselle," said Valentin, "are accused of being false flatterers!"
"I don't want any flattery, I want only the truth. But I know the truth." "All I say is that I suspect there are some things that you can do better than paint," said Valentin.
"I know the truth--I know the truth," Mademoiselle Noemie repeated. And, dipping a brush into a clot of red paint, she drew a great horizontal daub across her unfinished picture.
"What is that?" asked Newman.
Without answering, she drew another long crimson daub, in a vertical direction, down the middle of her canvas, and so, in a moment, completed the rough indication of a cross. "It is the sign of the truth," she said at last.
The two men looked at each other, and Valentin indulged in another flash of physiognomical eloquence. "You have spoiled your picture," said Newman. "I know that very well. It was the only thing to do with it. I had sat looking at it all day without touching it. I had begun to hate it. It seemed to me something was going to happen."
"I like it better that way than as it was before," said Valentin. "Now it is more interesting. It tells a story. Is it for sale?"
"Everything I have is for sale," said Mademoiselle Noemie.
"How much is this thing?"
"Ten thousand francs," said the young girl, without a smile.
"Everything that Mademoiselle Nioche may do at present is mine in advance," said Newman. "It makes part of an order I gave her some months ago. So you can't have this."
"Monsieur will lose nothing by it," said the young girl, looking at Valentin. And she began to put up her utensils.
"I shall have gained a charming memory," said Valentin. "You are going away? your day is over?"
"My father is coming to fetch me," said Mademoiselle Noemie.
She had hardly spoken when, through the door behind her, which opens on one of the great white stone staircases of the Louvre, M. Nioche made his appearance. He came in with his usual even, patient shuffle, and he made a low salute to the two gentlemen who were standing before his daughter's easel. Newman shook his hands with muscular friendliness, and Valentin returned his greeting with extreme deference. While the old man stood waiting for Noemie to make a parcel of her implements, he let his mild, oblique gaze hover toward Bellegarde, who was watching Mademoiselle Noemie put on her bonnet and mantle. Valentin was at no pains to disguise his scrutiny. He looked at a pretty girl as he would have listened to a piece of music. Attention, in each case, was simple good manners. M. Nioche at last took his daughter's paint-box in one hand and the bedaubed canvas, after giving it a solemn, puzzled stare, in the other, and led the way to the door. Mademoiselle Noemie made the young men the salute of a duchess, and followed her father.
"Well," said Newman, "what do you think of her?"
"She is very remarkable. Diable, diable, diable!" repeated M. de Bellegarde, reflectively; "she is very remarkable."
"I am afraid she is a sad little adventuress," said Newman.
"Not a little one--a great one. She has the material." And Valentin began to walk away slowly, looking vaguely at the pictures on the walls, with a thoughtful illumination in his eye. Nothing could have appealed to his imagination more than the possible adventures of a young lady endowed with the "material" of Mademoiselle Nioche. "She is very interesting," he went on. "She is a beautiful type."
"A beautiful type? What the deuce do you mean?" asked Newman. "I mean from the artistic point of view. She is an artist,-- outside of her painting, which obviously is execrable."
"But she is not beautiful. I don't even think her very pretty."
"She is quite pretty enough for her purposes, and it is a face and figure on which everything tells. If she were prettier she would be less intelligent, and her intelligence is half of her charm."
"In what way," asked Newman, who was much amused at his companion's immediate philosophization of Mademoiselle Nioche, "does her intelligence strike you as so remarkable?"
"She has taken the measure of life, and she has determined to BE something--to succeed at any cost. Her painting, of course, is a mere trick to gain time. She is waiting for her chance; she wishes to launch herself, and to do it well. She knows her Paris. She is one of fifty thousand, so far as the mere ambition goes; but I am very sure that in the way of resolution and capacity she is a rarity. And in one gift
- perfect heartlessness--I will warrant she is unsurpassed. She has not as much heart as will go on the point of a needle. That is an immense virtue. Yes, she is one of the celebrities of the future."
"Heaven help us!" said Newman, "how far the artistic point of view may take a man! But in this case I must request that you don't let it take you too far. You have learned a wonderful deal about Mademoiselle Noemie in a quarter of an hour. Let that suffice; don't follow up your researches."
"My dear fellow," cried Bellegarde with warmth, "I hope I have too good manners to intrude."
"You are not intruding. The girl is nothing to me. In fact, I rather dislike her. But I like her poor old father, and for his sake I beg you to abstain from any attempt to verify your theories."
"For the sake of that seedy old gentleman who came to fetch her?" demanded Valentin, stopping short. And on Newman's assenting, "Ah no, ah no," he went on with a smile. "You are quite wrong, my dear fellow; you needn't mind him." "I verily believe that you are accusing the poor gentleman of being capable of rejoicing in his daughter's dishonor."
"Voyons," said Valentin; "who is he? what is he?"
"He is what he looks like: as poor as a rat, but very high-toned."
"Exactly. I noticed him perfectly; be sure I do him justice. He has had losses, des malheurs, as we say. He is very low-spirited, and his daughter is too much for him. He is the pink of respectability, and he has sixty years of honesty on his back. All this I perfectly appreciate. But I know my fellow-men and my fellowParisians, and I will make a bargain with you." Newman gave ear to his bargain and he went on. "He would rather his daughter were a good girl than a bad one, but if the worst comes to the worst, the old man will not do what Virginius did. Success justifies everything. If Mademoiselle Noemie makes a figure, her papa will feel-- well, we will call it relieved. And she will make a figure. The old gentleman's future is assured."
"I don't know what Virginius did, but M. Nioche will shoot Miss Noemie," said Newman. "After that, I suppose his future will be assured in some snug prison." "I am not a cynic; I am simply an observer," Valentin rejoined. "Mademoiselle Noemie interests me; she is extremely remarkable. If there is a good reason, in honor or decency, for dismissing her from my thoughts forever, I am perfectly willing to do it. Your estimate of the papa's sensibilities is a good reason until it is invalidated. I promise you not to look at the young girl again until you tell me that you have changed your mind about the papa. When he has given distinct proof of being a philosopher, you will raise your interdict. Do you agree to that?" "Do you mean to bribe him?"
"Oh, you admit, then, that he is bribable? No, he would ask too much, and it would not be exactly fair. I mean simply to wait. You will continue, I suppose, to see this interesting couple, and you will give me the news yourself." "Well," said Newman, "if the old man turns out a humbug, you may do what you please. I wash my hands of the matter. For the girl herself, you may be at rest. I don't know what harm she may do to me, but I certainly can't hurt her. It seems to me," said Newman, "that you are very well matched. You are both hard cases, and M. Nioche and I, I believe, are the only virtuous men to be found in Paris." Soon after this M. de Bellegarde, in punishment for his levity, received a stern poke in the back from a pointed instrument. Turning quickly round he found the weapon to be a parasol wielded by a lady in green gauze bonnet. Valentin's English cousins had been drifting about unpiloted, and evidently deemed that they had a grievance. Newman left him to their mercies, but with a boundless faith in his power to plead his cause.
Three days after his introduction to the family of Madame de Cintre, Newman, coming in toward evening, found upon his table the card of the Marquis de Bellegarde. On the following day he received a note informing him that the Marquise de Bellegarde would be grateful for the honor of his company at dinner. He went, of course, though he had to break another engagement to do it. He was ushered into the room in which Madame de Bellegarde had received him before, and here he found his venerable hostess, surrounded by her entire family. The room was lighted only by the crackling fire, which illuminated the very small pink slippers of a lady who, seated in a low chair, was stretching out her toes before it. This lady was the younger Madame de Bellegarde. Madame de Cintre was seated at the other end of the room, holding a little girl against her knee, the child of her brother Urbain, to whom she was apparently relating a wonderful story. Valentin was sitting on a puff, close to his sister-in-law, into whose ear he was certainly distilling the finest nonsense. The marquis was stationed before the fire, with his head erect and his hands behind him, in an attitude of formal expectancy.
Old Madame de Bellegarde stood up to give Newman her greeting, and there was that in the way she did so which seemed to measure narrowly the extent of her condescension. "We are all alone, you see, we have asked no one else," she said, austerely.
"I am very glad you didn't; this is much more sociable," said Newman. "Good evening, sir," and he offered his hand to the marquis.
M. de Bellegarde was affable, but in spite of his dignity he was restless. He began to pace up and down the room, he looked out of the long windows, he took up books and laid them down again. Young Madame de Bellegarde gave Newman her hand without moving and without looking at him.
"You may think that is coldness," exclaimed Valentin; "but it is not, it is warmth. It shows she is treating you as an intimate. Now she detests me, and yet she is always looking at me."
"No wonder I detest you if I am always looking at you!" cried the lady. "If Mr. Newman does not like my way of shaking hands, I will do it again." But this charming privilege was lost upon our hero, who was already making his way across the room to Madame de Cintre. She looked at him as she shook hands, but she went on with the story she was telling her little niece. She had only two or three phrases to add, but they were apparently of great moment. She deepened her voice, smiling as she did so, and the little girl gazed at her with round eyes.
"But in the end the young prince married the beautiful Florabella," said Madame de Cintre, "and carried her off to live with him in the Land of the Pink Sky. There she was so happy that she forgot all her troubles, and went out to drive every day of her life in an ivory coach drawn by five hundred white mice. Poor Florabella," she exclaimed to Newman, "had suffered terribly."
"She had had nothing to eat for six months," said little Blanche.
"Yes, but when the six months were over, she had a plum-cake as big as that ottoman," said Madame de Cintre. "That quite set her up again."
"What a checkered career!" said Newman. "Are you very fond of children?" He was certain that she was, but he wished to make her say it.
"I like to talk with them," she answered; "we can talk with them so much more seriously than with grown persons. That is great nonsense that I have been telling Blanche, but it is a great deal more serious than most of what we say in society."
"I wish you would talk to me, then, as if I were Blanche's age," said Newman, laughing. "Were you happy at your ball, the other night?"
"Now you are talking the nonsense that we talk in society," said Newman. "I don't believe that."
"It was my own fault if I was not happy. The ball was very pretty, and every one very amiable."
"It was on your conscience," said Newman, "that you had annoyed your mother and your brother."
Madame de Cintre looked at him a moment without answering. "That is true," she replied at last. "I had undertaken more than I could carry out. I have very little courage; I am not a heroine." She said this with a certain soft emphasis; but then, changing her tone, "I could never have gone through the sufferings of the beautiful Florabella," she added, not even for her prospective rewards. Dinner was announced, and Newman betook himself to the side of the old Madame de Bellegarde. The dining-room, at the end of a cold corridor, was vast and sombre; the dinner was simple and delicately excellent. Newman wondered whether Madame de Cintre had had something to do with ordering the repast and greatly hoped she had. Once seated at table, with the various members of the ancient house of Bellegarde around him, he asked himself the meaning of his position. Was the old lady responding to his advances? Did the fact that he was a solitary guest augment his credit or diminish it? Were they ashamed to show him to other people, or did they wish to give him a sign of sudden adoption into their last reserve of favor? Newman was on his guard; he was watchful and conjectural; and yet at the same time he was vaguely indifferent. Whether they gave him a long rope or a short one he was there now, and Madame de Cintre was opposite to him. She had a tall candlestick on each side of her; she would sit there for the next hour, and that was enough. The dinner was extremely solemn and measured; he wondered whether this was always the state of things in "old families." Madame de Bellegarde held her head very high, and fixed her eyes, which looked peculiarly sharp in her little, finely-wrinkled white face, very intently upon the table-service. The marquis appeared to have decided that the fine arts offered a safe subject of conversation, as not leading to startling personal revelations. Every now and then, having learned from Newman that he had been through the museums of Europe, he uttered some polished aphorism upon the flesh-tints of Rubens and the good taste of Sansovino. His manners seemed to indicate a fine, nervous dread that something disagreeable might happen if the atmosphere were not purified by allusions of a thoroughly superior cast. "What under the sun is the man afraid of?" Newman asked himself. "Does he think I am going to offer to swap jack-knives with him?" It was useless to shut his eyes to the fact that the marquis was profoundly disagreeable to him. He had never been a man of strong personal aversions; his nerves had not been at the mercy of the mystical qualities of his neighbors. But here was a man towards whom he was irresistibly in opposition; a man of forms and phrases and postures; a man full of possible impertinences and treacheries. M. de Bellegarde made him feel as if he were standing bare-footed on a marble floor; and yet, to gain his desire, Newman felt perfectly able to stand. He wondered what Madame de Cintre thought of his being accepted, if accepted it was. There was no judging from her face, which expressed simply the desire to be gracious in a manner which should require as little explicit recognition as possible. Young Madame de Bellegarde had always the same manners; she was always preoccupied, distracted, listening to everything and hearing nothing, looking at her dress, her rings, her finger-nails, seeming rather bored, and yet puzzling you to decide what was her ideal of social diversion. Newman was enlightened on this point later. Even Valentin did not quite seem master of his wits; his vivacity was fitful and forced, yet Newman observed that in the lapses of his talk he appeared excited. His eyes had an intenser spark than usual. The effect of all this was that Newman, for the first time in his life, was not himself; that he measured his movements, and counted his words, and resolved that if the occasion demanded that he should appear to have swallowed a ramrod, he would meet the emergency.
After dinner M. de Bellegarde proposed to his guest that they should go into the smoking-room, and he led the way toward a small, somewhat musty apartment, the walls of which were ornamented with old hangings of stamped leather and trophies of rusty arms. Newman refused a cigar, but he established himself upon one of the divans, while the marquis puffed his own weed before the fire-place, and Valentin sat looking through the light fumes of a cigarette from one to the other.
"I can't keep quiet any longer," said Valentin, at last. "I must tell you the news and congratulate you. My brother seems unable to come to the point; he revolves around his announcement like the priest around the altar. You are accepted as a candidate for the hand of our sister."
"Valentin, be a little proper!" murmured the marquis, with a look of the most delicate irritation contracting the bridge of his high nose.
"There has been a family council," the young man continued; "my mother and Urbain have put their heads together, and even my testimony has not been altogether excluded. My mother and the marquis sat at a table covered with green cloth; my sister-in-law and I were on a bench against the wall. It was like a committee at the Corps Legislatif. We were called up, one after the other, to testify. We spoke of you very handsomely. Madame de Bellegarde said that if she had not been told who you were, she would have taken you for a duke--an American duke, the Duke of California. I said that I could warrant you grateful for the smallest favors-- modest, humble, unassuming. I was sure that you would know your own place, always, and never give us occasion to remind you of certain differences. After all, you couldn't help it if you were not a duke. There were none in your country; but if there had been, it was certain that, smart and active as you are, you would have got the pick of the titles. At this point I was ordered to sit down, but I think I made an impression in your favor." M. de Bellegarde looked at his brother with dangerous coldness, and gave a smile as thin as the edge of a knife. Then he removed a spark of cigar-ash from the sleeve of his coat; he fixed his eyes for a while on the cornice of the room, and at last he inserted one of his white hands into the breast of his waistcoat. "I must apologize to you for the deplorable levity of my brother," he said, "and I must notify you that this is probably not the last time that his want of tact will cause you serious embarrassment."
"No, I confess I have no tact," said Valentin. "Is your embarrassment really painful, Newman? The marquis will put you right again; his own touch is deliciously delicate."
"Valentin, I am sorry to say," the marquis continued, "has never possessed the tone, the manner, that belongs to a young man in his position. It has been a great affliction to his mother, who is very fond of the old traditions. But you must remember that he speaks for no one but himself."
"Oh, I don't mind him, sir," said Newman, good-humoredly. "I know what he amounts to."
"In the good old times," said Valentin, "marquises and counts used to have their appointed fools and jesters, to crack jokes for them. Nowadays we see a great strapping democrat keeping a count about him to play the fool. It's a good situation, but I certainly am very degenerate."
M. de Bellegarde fixed his eyes for some time on the floor. "My mother informed me," he said presently, "of the announcement that you made to her the other evening."
"That I desired to marry your sister?" said Newman.
"That you wished to arrange a marriage," said the marquis, slowly, "with my sister, the Comtesse de Cintre. The proposal was serious, and required, on my mother's part, a great deal of reflection. She naturally took me into her counsels, and I gave my most zealous attention to the subject. There was a great deal to be considered; more than you appear to imagine. We have viewed the question on all its faces, we have weighed one thing against another. Our conclusion has been that we favor your suit. My mother has desired me to inform you of our decision. She will have the honor of saying a few words to you on the subject, herself. Meanwhile, by us, the heads of the family, you are accepted." Newman got up and came nearer to the marquis. "You will do nothing to hinder me, and all you can to help me, eh?"
"I will recommend my sister to accept you."
Newman passed his hand over his face, and pressed it for a moment upon his eyes. This promise had a great sound, and yet the pleasure he took in it was embittered by his having to stand there so and receive his passport from M. de Bellegarde. The idea of having this gentleman mixed up with his wooing and wedding was more and more disagreeable to him. But Newman had resolved to go through the mill, as he imagined it, and he would not cry out at the first turn of the wheel. He was silent a while, and then he said, with a certain dryness which Valentin told him afterwards had a very grand air, "I am much obliged to you." "I take note of the promise," said Valentin, "I register the vow."
M. de Bellegarde began to gaze at the cornice again; he apparently had something more to say. "I must do my mother the justice," he resumed, "I must do myself the justice, to say that our decision was not easy. Such an arrangement was not what we had expected. The idea that my sister should marry a gentleman--ah--in business was something of a novelty."
"So I told you, you know," said Valentin raising his finger at Newman. "The novelty has not quite worn away, I confess," the marquis went on; "perhaps it never will, entirely. But possibly that is not altogether to be regretted," and he gave his thin smile again. "It may be that the time has come when we should make some concession to novelty. There had been no novelties in our house for a great many years. I made the observation to my mother, and she did me the honor to admit that it was worthy of attention."
"My dear brother," interrupted Valentin, "is not your memory just here leading you the least bit astray? Our mother is, I may say, distinguished for her small respect of abstract reasoning. Are you very sure that she replied to your striking proposition in the gracious manner you describe? You know how terribly incisive she is sometimes. Didn't she, rather, do you the honor to say, 'A fiddlestick for your phrases! There are better reasons than that'?"
"Other reasons were discussed," said the marquis, without looking at Valentin, but with an audible tremor in his voice; "some of them possibly were better. We are conservative, Mr. Newman, but we are not also bigots. We judged the matter liberally. We have no doubt that everything will be comfortable."
Newman had stood listening to these remarks with his arms folded and his eyes fastened upon M. de Bellegarde, "Comfortable?" he said, with a sort of grim flatness of intonation. "Why shouldn't we be comfortable? If you are not, it will be your own fault; I have everything to make ME so."
"My brother means that with the lapse of time you may get used to the change"-- and Valentin paused, to light another cigarette.
"What change?" asked Newman in the same tone.
"Urbain," said Valentin, very gravely, "I am afraid that Mr. Newman does not quite realize the change. We ought to insist upon that."
"My brother goes too far," said M. de Bellegarde. "It is his fatal want of tact again. It is my mother's wish, and mine, that no such allusions should be made. Pray never make them yourself. We prefer to assume that the person accepted as the possible husband of my sister is one of ourselves, and that he should have no explanations to make. With a little discretion on both sides, everything, I think, will be easy. That is exactly what I wished to say-- that we quite understand what we have undertaken, and that you may depend upon our adhering to our resolution."
Valentin shook his hands in the air and then buried his face in them. "I have less tact than I might have, no doubt; but oh, my brother, if you knew what you yourself were saying!" And he went off into a long laugh.
M. de Bellegarde's face flushed a little, but he held his head higher, as if to repudiate this concession to vulgar perturbability. "I am sure you understand me," he said to Newman.
"Oh no, I don't understand you at all," said Newman. "But you needn't mind that. I don't care. In fact, I think I had better not understand you. I might not like it. That wouldn't suit me at all, you know. I want to marry your sister, that's all; to do it as quickly as possible, and to find fault with nothing. I don't care how I do it. I am not marrying you, you know, sir. I have got my leave, and that is all I want." "You had better receive the last word from my mother," said the marquis. "Very good; I will go and get it," said Newman; and he prepared to return to the drawing-room.
M. de Bellegarde made a motion for him to pass first, and when Newman had gone out he shut himself into the room with Valentin. Newman had been a trifle bewildered by the audacious irony of the younger brother, and he had not needed its aid to point the moral of M. de Bellegarde's transcendent patronage. He had wit enough to appreciate the force of that civility which consists in calling your attention to the impertinences it spares you. But he had felt warmly the delicate sympathy with himself that underlay Valentin's fraternal irreverence, and he was most unwilling that his friend should pay a tax upon it. He paused a moment in the corridor, after he had gone a few steps, expecting to hear the resonance of M. de Bellegarde's displeasure; but he detected only a perfect stillness. The stillness itself seemed a trifle portentous; he reflected however that he had no right to stand listening, and he made his way back to the salon. In his absence several persons had come in. They were scattered about the room in groups, two or three of them having passed into a small boudoir, next to the drawing-room, which had now been lighted and opened. Old Madame de Bellegarde was in her place by the fire, talking to a very old gentleman in a wig and a profuse white neck cloth of the fashion of 1820. Madame de Cintre was bending a listening head to the historic confidences of an old lady who was presumably the wife of the old gentleman in the neckcloth, an old lady in a red satin dress and an ermine cape, who wore across her forehead a band with a topaz set in it. Young Madame de Bellegarde, when Newman came in, left some people among whom she was sitting, and took the place that she had occupied before dinner. Then she gave a little push to the puff that stood near her, and by a glance at Newman seemed to indicate that she had placed it in position for him. He went and took possession of it; the marquis's wife amused and puzzled him. "I know your secret," she said, in her bad but charming English; "you need make no mystery of it. You wish to marry my sister-in-law. C'est un beau choix. A man like you ought to marry a tall, thin woman. You must know that I have spoken in your favor; you owe me a famous taper!"
"You have spoken to Madame de Cintre?" said Newman.
"Oh no, not that. You may think it strange, but my sister-in-law and I are not so intimate as that. No; I spoke to my husband and my mother-in-law; I said I was sure we could do what we chose with you."
"I am much, obliged to you," said Newman, laughing; "but you can't." "I know that very well; I didn't believe a word of it. But I wanted you to come into the house; I thought we should be friends."
"I am very sure of it," said Newman.
"Don't be too sure. If you like Madame de Cintre so much, perhaps you will not like me. We are as different as blue and pink. But you and I have something in common. I have come into this family by marriage; you want to come into it in the same way."
"Oh no, I don't!" interrupted Newman. "I only want to take Madame de Cintre out of it."
"Well, to cast your nets you have to go into the water. Our positions are alike; we shall be able to compare notes. What do you think of my husband? It's a strange question, isn't it? But I shall ask you some stranger ones yet."
"Perhaps a stranger one will be easier to answer," said Newman. "You might try me."
"Oh, you get off very well; the old Comte de la Rochefidele, yonder, couldn't do it better. I told them that if we only gave you a chance you would be a perfect talon rouge. I know something about men. Besides, you and I belong to the same camp. I am a ferocious democrat. By birth I am vieille roche; a good little bit of the history of France is the history of my family. Oh, you never heard of us, of course! Ce que c'est que la gloire! We are much better than the Bellegardes, at any rate. But I don't care a pin for my pedigree; I want to belong to my time. I'm a revolutionist, a radical, a child of the age! I am sure I go beyond you. I like clever people, wherever they come from, and I take my amusement wherever I find it. I don't pout at the Empire; here all the world pouts at the Empire. Of course I have to mind what I say; but I expect to take my revenge with you." Madame de Bellegarde discoursed for some time longer in this sympathetic strain, with an eager abundance which seemed to indicate that her opportunities for revealing her esoteric philosophy were indeed rare. She hoped that Newman would never be afraid of her, however he might be with the others, for, really, she went very far indeed. "Strong people"-- le gens forts--were in her opinion equal, all the world over. Newman listened to her with an attention at once beguiled and irritated. He wondered what the deuce she, too, was driving at, with her hope that he would not be afraid of her and her protestations of equality. In so far as he could understand her, she was wrong; a silly, rattling woman was certainly not the equal of a sensible man, preoccupied with an ambitious passion. Madame de Bellegarde stopped suddenly, and looked at him sharply, shaking her fan. "I see you don't believe me," she said, "you are too much on your guard. You will not form an alliance, offensive or defensive? You are very wrong; I could help you." Newman answered that he was very grateful and that he would certainly ask for help; she should see. "But first of all," he said, "I must help myself." And he went to join Madame de Cintre.
"I have been telling Madame de la Rochefidele that you are an American," she said, as he came up. "It interests her greatly. Her father went over with the French troops to help you in your battles in the last century, and she has always, in consequence, wanted greatly to see an American. But she has never succeeded till to-night. You are the first-- to her knowledge--that she has ever looked at."
Madame de la Rochefidele had an aged, cadaverous face, with a falling of the lower jaw which prevented her from bringing her lips together, and reduced her conversations to a series of impressive but inarticulate gutturals. She raised an antique eyeglass, elaborately mounted in chased silver, and looked at Newman from head to foot. Then she said something to which he listened deferentially, but which he completely failed to understand.
"Madame de la Rochefidele says that she is convinced that she must have seen Americans without knowing it," Madame de Cintre explained. Newman thought it probable she had seen a great many things without knowing it; and the old lady, again addressing herself to utterance, declared--as interpreted by Madame de Cintre-- that she wished she had known it.
At this moment the old gentleman who had been talking to the elder Madame de Bellegarde drew near, leading the marquise on his arm. His wife pointed out Newman to him, apparently explaining his remarkable origin. M. de la Rochefidele, whose old age was rosy and rotund, spoke very neatly and clearly, almost as prettily, Newman thought, as M. Nioche. When he had been enlightened, he turned to Newman with an inimitable elderly grace. "Monsieur is by no means the first American that I have seen," he said. "Almost the first person I ever saw--to notice him--was an American."
"Ah?" said Newman, sympathetically.
"The great Dr. Franklin," said M. de la Rochefidele. "Of course I was very young. He was received very well in our monde."
"Not better than Mr. Newman," said Madame de Bellegarde. "I beg he will offer his arm into the other room. I could have offered no higher privilege to Dr. Franklin."
Newman, complying with Madame de Bellegarde's request, perceived that her two sons had returned to the drawing-room. He scanned their faces an instant for traces of the scene that had followed his separation from them, but the marquise seemed neither more nor less frigidly grand than usual, and Valentin was kissing ladies' hands with at least his habitual air of self-abandonment to the act. Madame de Bellegarde gave a glance at her eldest son, and by the time she had crossed the threshold of her boudoir he was at her side. The room was now empty and offered a sufficient degree of privacy. The old lady disengaged herself from Newman's arm and rested her hand on the arm of the marquis; and in this position she stood a moment, holding her head high and biting her small underlip. I am afraid the picture was lost upon Newman, but Madame de Bellegarde was, in fact, at this moment a striking image of the dignity which-- even in the case of a little time-shrunken old lady--may reside in the habit of unquestioned authority and the absoluteness of a social theory favorable to yourself. "My son has spoken to you as I desired," she said, "and you understand that we shall not interfere. The rest will lie with yourself."
"M. de Bellegarde told me several things I didn't understand," said Newman, "but I made out that. You will leave me open field. I am much obliged." "I wish to add a word that my son probably did not feel at liberty to say," the marquise rejoined. "I must say it for my own peace of mind. We are stretching a point; we are doing you a great favor."
"Oh, your son said it very well; didn't you?" said Newman.
"Not so well as my mother," declared the marquis.
"I can only repeat--I am much obliged."
"It is proper I should tell you," Madame de Bellegarde went on, "that I am very proud, and that I hold my head very high. I may be wrong, but I am too old to change. At least I know it, and I don't pretend to anything else. Don't flatter yourself that my daughter is not proud. She is proud in her own way--a somewhat different way from mine. You will have to make your terms with that. Even Valentin is proud, if you touch the right spot--or the wrong one. Urbain is proud; that you see for yourself. Sometimes I think he is a little too proud; but I wouldn't change him. He is the best of my children; he cleaves to his old mother. But I have said enough to show you that we are all proud together. It is well that you should know the sort of people you have come among."
"Well," said Newman, "I can only say, in return, that I am NOT proud; I shan't mind you! But you speak as if you intended to be very disagreeable." "I shall not enjoy having my daughter marry you, and I shall not pretend to enjoy it. If you don't mind that, so much the better."
"If you stick to your own side of the contract we shall not quarrel; that is all I ask of you," said Newman. "Keep your hands off, and give me an open field. I am very much in earnest, and there is not the slightest danger of my getting discouraged or backing out. You will have me constantly before your eyes; if you don't like it, I am sorry for you. I will do for your daughter, if she will accept me everything that a man can do for a woman. I am happy to tell you that, as a promise--a pledge. I consider that on your side you make me an equal pledge. You will not back out, eh?"
"I don't know what you mean by 'backing out,' " said the marquise. "It suggests a movement of which I think no Bellegarde has ever been guilty."
"Our word is our word," said Urbain. "We have given it."
"Well, now," said Newman, "I am very glad you are so proud. It makes me believe that you will keep it."
The marquise was silent a moment, and then, suddenly, "I shall always be polite to you, Mr. Newman," she declared, "but, decidedly, I shall never like you." "Don't be too sure," said Newman, laughing.
"I am so sure that I will ask you to take me back to my arm-chair without the least fear of having my sentiments modified by the service you render me." And Madame de Bellegarde took his arm, and returned to the salon and to her customary place.
M. de la Rochefidele and his wife were preparing to take their leave, and Madame de Cintre's interview with the mumbling old lady was at an end. She stood looking about her, asking herself, apparently to whom she should next speak, when Newman came up to her.
"Your mother has given me leave--very solemnly--to come here often," he said. "I mean to come often."
"I shall be glad to see you," she answered, simply. And then, in a moment. "You probably think it very strange that there should be such a solemnity-- as you say
-about your coming."
"Well, yes; I do, rather."
"Do you remember what my brother Valentin said, the first time you came to see me--that we were a strange, strange family?"
"It was not the first time I came, but the second, said Newman.
"Very true. Valentin annoyed me at the time, but now I know you better, I may tell you he was right. If you come often, you will see!" and Madame de Cintre turned away.
Newman watched her a while, talking with other people, and then he took his leave. He shook hands last with Valentin de Bellegarde, who came out with him to the top of the staircase. "Well, you have got your permit," said Valentin. "I hope you liked the process."
"I like your sister, more than ever. But don't worry your brother any more for my sake," Newman added. "I don't mind him. I am afraid he came down on you in the smoking-room, after I went out."
"When my brother comes down on me," said Valentin, "he falls hard. I have a peculiar way of receiving him. I must say," he continued, "that they came up to the mark much sooner than I expected. I don't understand it, they must have had to turn the screw pretty tight. It's a tribute to your millions."
"Well, it's the most precious one they have ever received," said Newman. He was turning away when Valentin stopped him, looking at him with a brilliant, softly-cynical glance. "I should like to know whether, within a few days, you have seen your venerable friend M. Nioche."
"He was yesterday at my rooms," Newman answered.
"What did he tell you?"
"You didn't see the muzzle of a pistol sticking out of his pocket?"
"What are you driving at?" Newman demanded. "I thought he seemed rather cheerful for him."
Valentin broke into a laugh. "I am delighted to hear it! I win my bet. Mademoiselle Noemie has thrown her cap over the mill, as we say. She has left the paternal domicile. She is launched! And M. Nioche is rather cheerful-FOR HIM! Don't brandish your tomahawk at that rate; I have not seen her nor communicated with her since that day at the Louvre. Andromeda has found another Perseus than I. My information is exact; on such matters it always is. I suppose that now you will raise your protest."
"My protest be hanged!" murmured Newman, disgustedly.
But his tone found no echo in that in which Valentin, with his hand on the door, to return to his mother's apartment, exclaimed, "But I shall see her now! She is very remarkable-- she is very remarkable!"