by Henry James
Chapters: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 |
Valentin de Bellegarde died, tranquilly, just as the cold, faint March dawn began to illumine the faces of the little knot of friends gathered about his bedside. An hour afterwards Newman left the inn and drove to Geneva; he was naturally unwilling to be present at the arrival of Madame de Bellegarde and her first-born. At Geneva, for the moment, he remained. He was like a man who has had a fall and wants to sit still and count his bruises. He instantly wrote to Madame de Cintre, relating to her the circumstances of her brother's death--with certain exceptions--and asking her what was the earliest moment at which he might hope that she would consent to see him.
M. Ledoux had told him that he had reason to know that Valentin's will-- Bellegarde had a great deal of elegant personal property to dispose of-- contained a request that he should be buried near his father in the church-yard of Fleurieres, and Newman intended that the state of his own relations with the family should not deprive him of the satisfaction of help ing to pay the last earthly honors to the best fellow in the world. He reflected that Valentin's friendship was older than Urbain's enmity, and that at a funeral it was easy to escape notice. Madame de Cintre's answer to his letter enabled him to time his arrival at Fleurieres. This answer was very brief; it ran as follows:--
"I thank you for your letter, and for your being with Valentin. It is a most inexpressible sorrow to me that I was not. To see you will be nothing but a distress to me; there is no need, therefore, to wait for what you call brighter days. It is all one now, and I shall have no brighter days. Come when you please; only notify me first. My brother is to be buried here on Friday, and my family is to remain here.
C. de C."
As soon as he received this letter Newman went straight to Paris and to Poitiers. The journey took him far southward, through green Touraine and across the far-shining Loire, into a country where the early spring deepened about him as he went. But he had never made a journey during which he heeded less what he would have called the lay of the land. He obtained lodging at the inn at Poitiers, and the next morning drove in a couple of hours to the village of Fleurieres. But here, preoccupied though he was, he could not fail to notice the picturesqueness of the place. It was what the French call a petit bourg; it lay at the base of a sort of huge mound on the summit of which stood the crumbling ruins of a feudal castle, much of whose sturdy material, as well as that of the wall which dropped along the hill to inclose the clustered houses defensively, had been absorbed into the very substance of the village. The church was simply the former chapel of the castle, fronting upon its grass-grown court, which, however, was of generous enough width to have given up its quaintest corner to a little graveyard. Here the very headstones themselves seemed to sleep, as they slanted into the grass; the patient elbow of the rampart held them together on one side, and in front, far beneath their mossy lids, the green plains and blue distances stretched away. The way to church, up the hill, was impracticable to vehicles. It was lined with peasants, two or three rows deep, who stood watching old Madame de Bellegarde slowly ascend it, on the arm of her elder son, behind the pall-bearers of the other. Newman chose to lurk among the common mourners who murmured "Madame la Comtesse" as a tall figure veiled in black passed before them. He stood in the dusky little church while the service was going forward, but at the dismal tomb-side he turned away and walked down the hill. He went back to Poitiers, and spent two days in which patience and impatience were singularly commingled. On the third day he sent Madame de Cintre a note, saying that he would call upon her in the afternoon, and in accordance with this he again took his way to Fleurieres. He left his vehicle at the tavern in the village street, and obeyed the simple instructions which were given him for finding the chateau.
"It is just beyond there," said the landlord, and pointed to the tree-tops of the park, above the opposite houses. Newman followed the first cross-road to the right-- it was bordered with mouldy cottages--and in a few moments saw before him the peaked roofs of the towers. Advancing farther, he found himself before a vast iron gate, rusty and closed; here he paused a moment, looking through the bars. The chateau was near the road; this was at once its merit and its defect; but its aspect was extremely impressive. Newman learned afterwards, from a guide-book of the province, that it dated from the time of Henry IV. It presented to the wide, paved area which preceded it and which was edged with shabby farm-buildings an immense facade of dark time-stained brick, flanked by two low wings, each of which terminated in a little Dutch-looking pavilion capped with a fantastic roof. Two towers rose behind, and behind the towers was a mass of elms and beeches, now just faintly green. But the great feature was a wide, green river which washed the foundations of the chateau. The building rose from an island in the circling stream, so that this formed a perfect moat spanned by a two-arched bridge without a parapet. The dull brick walls, which here and there made a grand, straight sweep; the ugly little cupolas of the wings, the deep-set windows, the long, steep pinnacles of mossy slate, all mirrored themselves in the tranquil river. Newman rang at the gate, and was almost frightened at the tone with which a big rusty bell above his head replied to him. An old woman came out from the gate-house and opened the creaking portal just wide enough for him to pass, and he went in, across the dry, bare court and the little cracked white slabs of the causeway on the moat. At the door of the chateau he waited for some moments, and this gave him a chance to observe that Fleurieres was not "kept up," and to reflect that it was a melancholy place of residence. "It looks," said Newman to himself--and I give the comparison for what it is worth--"like a Chinese penitentiary." At last the door was opened by a servant whom he remembered to have seen in the Rue de l'Universite. The man's dull face brightened as he perceived our hero, for Newman, for indefinable reasons, enjoyed the confidence of the liveried gentry. The footman led the way across a great central vestibule, with a pyramid of plants in tubs in the middle of glass doors all around, to what appeared to be the principal drawing-room of the chateau. Newman crossed the threshold of a room of superb proportions, which made him feel at first like a tourist with a guide-book and a cicerone awaiting a fee. But when his guide had left him alone, with the observation that he would call Madame la Comtesse, Newman perceived that the salon contained little that was remarkable save a dark ceiling with curiously carved rafters, some curtains of elaborate, antiquated tapestry, and a dark oaken floor, polished like a mirror. He waited some minutes, walking up and down; but at length, as he turned at the end of the room, he saw that Madame de Cintre had come in by a distant door. She wore a black dress, and she stood looking at him. As the length of the immense room lay between them he had time to look at her before they met in the middle of it.
He was dismayed at the change in her appearance. Pale, heavy-browed, almost haggard with a sort of monastic rigidity in her dress, she had little but her pure features in common with the woman whose radiant good grace he had hitherto admired. She let her eyes rest on his own, and she let him take her hand; but her eyes looked like two rainy autumn moons, and her touch was portentously lifeless.
"I was at your brother's funeral," Newman said. "Then I waited three days. But I could wait no longer."
"Nothing can be lost or gained by waiting," said Madame de Cintre. "But it was very considerate of you to wait, wronged as you have been."
"I'm glad you think I have been wronged," said Newman, with that oddly humorous accent with which he often uttered words of the gravest meaning.
"Do I need to say so?" she asked. "I don't think I have wronged, seriously, many persons; certainly not consciously. To you, to whom I have done this hard and cruel thing, the only reparation I can make is to say, 'I know it, I feel it!' The reparation is pitifully small!"
"Oh, it's a great step forward!" said Newman, with a gracious smile of encouragement. He pushed a chair towards her and held it, looking at her urgently. She sat down, mechanically, and he seated himself near her; but in a moment he got up, restlessly, and stood before her. She remained seated, like a troubled creature who had passed through the stage of restlessness.
"I say nothing is to be gained by my seeing you," she went on, "and yet I am very glad you came. Now I can tell you what I feel. It is a selfish pleasure, but it is one of the last I shall have." And she paused, with her great misty eyes fixed upon him. "I know how I have deceived and injured you; I know how cruel and cowardly I have been. I see it as vividly as you do--I feel it to the ends of my fingers." And she unclasped her hands, which were locked together in her lap, lifted them, and dropped them at her side. "Anything that you may have said of me in your angriest passion is nothing to what I have said to myself."
"In my angriest passion," said Newman, "I have said nothing hard of you. The very worst thing I have said of you yet is that you are the loveliest of women." And he seated himself before her again, abruptly.
She flushed a little, but even her flush was pale. "That is because you think I will come back. But I will not come back. It is in that hope you have come here, I know; I am very sorry for you. I would do almost anything for you. To say that, after what I have done, seems simply impudent; but what can I say that will not seem impudent? To wrong you and apologize--that is easy enough. I should not have wronged you." She stopped a moment, looking at him, and motioned him to let her go on. "I ought never to have listened to you at first; that was the wrong. No good could come of it. I felt it, and yet I listened; that was your fault. I liked you too much; I believed in you."
"And don't you believe in me now?"
"More than ever. But now it doesn't matter. I have given you up."
Newman gave a powerful thump with his clenched fist upon his knee. "Why, why, why?" he cried. "Give me a reason--a decent reason. You are not a child--you are not a minor, nor an idiot. You are not obliged to drop me because your mother told you to. Such a reason isn't worthy of you."
"I know that; it's not worthy of me. But it's the only one I have to give. After all," said Madame de Cintre, throwing out her hands, "think me an idiot and forget me! That will be the simplest way."
Newman got up and walked away with a crushing sense that his cause was lost, and yet with an equal inability to give up fighting. He went to one of the great windows, and looked out at the stiffly embanked river and the formal gardens which lay beyond it. When he turned round, Madame de Cintre had risen; she stood there silent and passive. "You are not frank," said Newman; "you are not honest. Instead of saying that you are imbecile, you should say that other people are wicked. Your mother and your brother have been false and cruel; they have been so to me, and I am sure they have been so to you. Why do you try to shield them? Why do you sacrifice me to them? I'm not false; I'm not cruel. You don't know what you give up; I can tell you that--you don't. They bully you and plot about you; and I--I"--And he paused, holding out his hands. She turned away and began to leave him. "You told me the other day that you were afraid of your mother," he said, following her. "What did you mean?"
Madame de Cintre shook her head. "I remember; I was sorry afterwards."
"You were sorry when she came down and put on the thumb-screws. In God's name what IS it she does to you?"
"Nothing. Nothing that you can understand. And now that I have given you up, I must not complain of her to you."
"That's no reasoning!" cried Newman. "Complain of her, on the contrary. Tell me all about it, frankly and trustfully, as you ought, and we will talk it over so satisfactorily that you won't give me up."
Madame de Cintre looked down some moments, fixedly; and then, raising her eyes, she said, "One good at least has come of this: I have made you judge me more fairly. You thought of me in a way that did me great honor; I don't know why you had taken it into your head. But it left me no loophole for escape--no chance to be the common, weak creature I am. It was not my fault; I warned you from the first. But I ought to have warned you more. I ought to have convinced you that I was doomed to disappoint you. But I WAS, in a way, too proud. You see what my superiority amounts to, I hope!" she went on, raising her voice with a tremor which even then and there Newman thought beautiful. "I am too proud to be honest, I am not too proud to be faithless. I am timid and cold and selfish. I am afraid of being uncomfortable."
"And you call marrying me uncomfortable!" said Newman staring.
Madame de Cintre blushed a little and seemed to say that if begging his pardon in words was impudent, she might at least thus mutely express her perfect comprehension of his finding her conduct odious. "It is not marrying you; it is doing all that would go with it. It's the rupture, the defiance, the insisting upon being happy in my own way. What right have I to be happy when--when"--And she paused.
"When what?" said Newman.
"When others have been most unhappy!"
"What others?" Newman asked. "What have you to do with any others but me? Besides you said just now that you wanted happiness, and that you should find it by obeying your mother. You contradict yourself."
"Yes, I contradict myself; that shows you that I am not even intelligent."
"You are laughing at me!" cried Newman. "You are mocking me!"
She looked at him intently, and an observer might have said that she was asking herself whether she might not most quickly end their common pain by confessing that she was mocking him. "No; I am not," she presently said.
"Granting that you are not intelligent," he went on, "that you are weak, that you are common, that you are nothing that I have believed you were-- what I ask of you is not heroic effort, it is a very common effort. There is a great deal on my side to make it easy. The simple truth is that you don't care enough about me to make it."
"I am cold," said Madame de Cintre, "I am as cold as that flowing river."
Newman gave a great rap on the floor with his stick, and a long, grim laugh. "Good, good!" he cried. "You go altogether too far-- you overshoot the mark. There isn't a woman in the world as bad as you would make yourself out. I see your game; it's what I said. You are blackening yourself to whiten others. You don't want to give me up, at all; you like me--you like me. I know you do; you have shown it, and I have felt it. After that, you may be as cold as you please! They have bullied you, I say; they have tortured you. It's an outrage, and I insist upon saving you from the extravagance of your own generosity. Would you chop off your hand if your mother requested it?"
Madame de Cintre looked a little frightened. "I spoke of my mother too blindly, the other day. I am my own mistress, by law and by her approval. She can do nothing to me; she has done nothing. She has never alluded to those hard words I used about her."
"She has made you feel them, I'll promise you!" said Newman.
"It's my conscience that makes me feel them."
"Your conscience seems to me to be rather mixed!" exclaimed Newman, passionately.
"It has been in great trouble, but now it is very clear," said Madame de Cintre. "I don't give you up for any worldly advantage or for any worldly happiness."
"Oh, you don't give me up for Lord Deepmere, I know," said Newman. "I won't pretend, even to provoke you, that I think that. But that's what your mother and your brother wanted, and your mother, at that villainous ball of hers--I liked it at the time, but the very thought of it now makes me rabid-- tried to push him on to make up to you."
"Who told you this?" said Madame de Cintre softly.
"Not Valentin. I observed it. I guessed it. I didn't know at the time that I was observing it, but it stuck in my memory. And afterwards, you recollect, I saw Lord Deepmere with you in the conservatory. You said then that you would tell me at another time what he had said to you."
"That was before--before THIS," said Madame de Cintre.
"It doesn't matter," said Newman; "and, besides, I think I know. He's an honest little Englishman. He came and told you what your mother was up to--that she wanted him to supplant me; not being a commercial person. If he would make you an offer she would undertake to bring you over and give me the slip. Lord Deepmere isn't very intellectual, so she had to spell it out to him. He said he admired you 'no end,' and that he wanted you to know it; but he didn't like being mixed up with that sort of underhand work, and he came to you and told tales. That was about the amount of it, wasn't it? And then you said you were perfectly happy."
"I don't see why we should talk of Lord Deepmere," said Madame de Cintre. "It was not for that you came here. And about my mother, it doesn't matter what you suspect and what you know. When once my mind has been made up, as it is now, I should not discuss these things. Discussing anything, now, is very idle. We must try and live each as we can. I believe you will be happy again; even, sometimes, when you think of me. When you do so, think this--that it was not easy, and that I did the best I could. I have things to reckon with that you don't know. I mean I have feelings. I must do as they force me--I must, I must. They would haunt me otherwise," she cried, with vehemence; "they would kill me!"
"I know what your feelings are: they are superstitions! They are the feeling that, after all, though I AM a good fellow, I have been in business; the feeling that your mother's looks are law and your brother's words are gospel; that you all hang together, and that it's a part of the everlasting proprieties that they should have a hand in everything you do. It makes my blood boil. That is cold; you are right. And what I feel here," and Newman struck his heart and became more poetical than he knew, "is a glowing fire!"
A spectator less preoccupied than Madame de Cintre's distracted wooer would have felt sure from the first that her appealing calm of manner was the result of violent effort, in spite of which the tide of agitation was rapidly rising. On these last words of Newman's it overflowed, though at first she spoke low, for fear of her voice betraying her. "No. I was not right--I am not cold! I believe that if I am doing what seems so bad, it is not mere weakness and falseness. Mr. Newman, it's like a religion. I can't tell you--I can't! It's cruel of you to insist. I don't see why I shouldn't ask you to believe me--and pity me. It's like a religion. There's a curse upon the house; I don't know what-- I don't know why--don't ask me. We must all bear it. I have been too selfish; I wanted to escape from it. You offered me a great chance--besides my liking you. It seemed good to change completely, to break, to go away. And then I admired you. But I can't--it has overtaken and come back to me." Her self-control had now completely abandoned her, and her words were broken with long sobs. "Why do such dreadful things happen to us--why is my brother Valentin killed, like a beast in the midst of his youth and his gayety and his brightness and all that we loved him for? Why are there things I can't ask about--that I am afraid to know? Why are there places I can't look at, sounds I can't hear? Why is it given to me to choose, to decide, in a case so hard and so terrible as this? I am not meant for that-- I am not made for boldness and defiance. I was made to be happy in a quiet, natural way." At this Newman gave a most expressive groan, but Madame de Cintre went on. "I was made to do gladly and gratefully what is expected of me. My mother has always been very good to me; that's all I can say. I must not judge her; I must not criticize her. If I did, it would come back to me. I can't change!"
"No," said Newman, bitterly; "I must change--if I break in two in the effort!"
"You are different. You are a man; you will get over it. You have all kinds of consolation. You were born--you were trained, to changes. Besides--besides, I shall always think of you."
"I don't care for that!" cried Newman. "You are cruel--you are terribly cruel. God forgive you! You may have the best reasons and the finest feelings in the world; that makes no difference. You are a mystery to me; I don't see how such hardness can go with such loveliness."
Madame de Cintre fixed him a moment with her swimming eyes. "You believe I am hard, then?"
Newman answered her look, and then broke out, "You are a perfect, faultless creature! Stay by me!"
"Of course I am hard," she went on. "Whenever we give pain we are hard. And we MUST give pain; that's the world,-- the hateful, miserable world! Ah!" and she gave a long, deep sigh, "I can't even say I am glad to have known you--though I am. That too is to wrong you. I can say nothing that is not cruel. Therefore let us part, without more of this. Good-by!" And she put out her hand.
Newman stood and looked at it without taking it, and raised his eyes to her face. He felt, himself, like shedding tears of rage. "What are you going to do?" he asked. "Where are you going?"
"Where I shall give no more pain and suspect no more evil. I am going out of the world."
"Out of the world?"
"I am going into a convent."
"Into a convent!" Newman repeated the words with the deepest dismay; it was as if she had said she was going into an hospital. "Into a convent--YOU!"
"I told you that it was not for my worldly advantage or pleasure I was leaving you."
But still Newman hardly understood. "You are going to be a nun," he went on, "in a cell--for life--with a gown and white veil?"
"A nun--a Carmelite nun," said Madame de Cintre. "For life, with God's leave."
The idea struck Newman as too dark and horrible for belief, and made him feel as he would have done if she had told him that she was going to mutilate her beautiful face, or drink some potion that would make her mad. He clasped his hands and began to tremble, visibly.
"Madame de Cintre, don't, don't!" he said. "I beseech you! On my knees, if you like, I'll beseech you."
She laid her hand upon his arm, with a tender, pitying, almost reassuring gesture. "You don't understand," she said. "You have wrong ideas. It's nothing horrible. It is only peace and safety. It is to be out of the world, where such troubles as this come to the innocent, to the best. And for life--that's the blessing of it! They can't begin again."
Newman dropped into a chair and sat looking at her with a long, inarticulate murmur. That this superb woman, in whom he had seen all human grace and household force, should turn from him and all the brightness that he offered her--him and his future and his fortune and his fidelity--to muffle herself in ascetic rags and entomb herself in a cell was a confounding combination of the inexorable and the grotesque. As the image deepened before him the grotesque seemed to expand and overspread it; it was a reduction to the absurd of the trial to which he was subjected. "You--you a nun!" he exclaimed; "you with your beauty defaced-- you behind locks and bars! Never, never, if I can prevent it!" And he sprang to his feet with a violent laugh.
"You can't prevent it," said Madame de Cintre, "and it ought-- a little--to satisfy you. Do you suppose I will go on living in the world, still beside you, and yet not with you? It is all arranged. Good-by, good-by."
This time he took her hand, took it in both his own. "Forever?" he said. Her lips made an inaudible movement and his own uttered a deep imprecation. She closed her eyes, as if with the pain of hearing it; then he drew her towards him and clasped her to his breast. He kissed her white face; for an instant she resisted and for a moment she submitted; then, with force, she disengaged herself and hurried away over the long shining floor. The next moment the door closed behind her.
Newman made his way out as he could.
Chapters: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 |
More: Writer Directory | Book Reviews | Homework Help | E-texts | Timeline | Submit a Review |