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 |
"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 freedom-obtained 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 wedding-day. 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."
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 help ed 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.
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