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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesMadame De Mauves - Chapter I
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Madame De Mauves - Chapter I Post by :imported_n/a Category :Long Stories Author :Henry James Date :February 2011 Read :2711

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Madame De Mauves - Chapter I

The view from the terrace at Saint-Germain-en-Laye is immense and
famous. Paris lies spread before you in dusky vastness, domed and
fortified, glittering here and there through her light vapours and
girdled with her silver Seine. Behind you is a park of stately symmetry,
and behind that a forest where you may lounge through turfy avenues and
light-chequered glades and quite forget that you are within half an hour
of the boulevards. One afternoon, however, in mid-spring, some five
years ago, a young man seated on the terrace had preferred to keep this
in mind. His eyes were fixed in idle wistfulness on the mighty human
hive before him. He was fond of rural things, and he had come to Saint-
Germain a week before to meet the spring halfway; but though he could
boast of a six months' acquaintance with the great city he never looked
at it from his present vantage without a sense of curiosity still
unappeased. There were moments when it seemed to him that not to be
there just then was to miss some thrilling chapter of experience. And
yet his winter's experience had been rather fruitless and he had closed
the book almost with a yawn. Though not in the least a cynic he was what
one may call a disappointed observer, and he never chose the right-hand
road without beginning to suspect after an hour's wayfaring that the
left would have been the better. He now had a dozen minds to go to Paris
for the evening, to dine at the Cafe Brebant and repair afterwards to
the Gymnase and listen to the latest exposition of the duties of the
injured husband. He would probably have risen to execute this project if
he had not noticed a little girl who, wandering along the terrace, had
suddenly stopped short and begun to gaze at him with round-eyed
frankness. For a moment he was simply amused, the child's face denoting
such helpless wonderment; the next he was agreeably surprised. "Why this
is my friend Maggie," he said; "I see you've not forgotten me."

Maggie, after a short parley, was induced to seal her remembrance with a
kiss. Invited then to explain her appearance at Saint-Germain, she
embarked on a recital in which the general, according to the infantine
method, was so fatally sacrificed to the particular that Longmore looked
about him for a superior source of information. He found it in Maggie's
mamma, who was seated with another lady at the opposite end of the
terrace; so, taking the child by the hand, he led her back to her
companions.

Maggie's mamma was a young American lady, as you would immediately have
perceived, with a pretty and friendly face and a great elegance of fresh
finery. She greeted Longmore with amazement and joy, mentioning his name
to her friend and bidding him bring a chair and sit with them. The other
lady, in whom, though she was equally young and perhaps even prettier,
muslins and laces and feathers were less of a feature, remained silent,
stroking the hair of the little girl, whom she had drawn against her
knee. She had never heard of Longmore, but she now took in that her
companion had crossed the ocean with him, had met him afterwards in
travelling and--having left her husband in Wall Street--was indebted to
him for sundry services. Maggie's mamma turned from time to time and
smiled at this lady with an air of invitation; the latter smiled back
and continued gracefully to say nothing. For ten minutes, meanwhile,
Longmore felt a revival of interest in his old acquaintance; then (as
mild riddles are more amusing than mere commonplaces) it gave way to
curiosity about her friend. His eyes wandered; her volubility shook a
sort of sweetness out of the friend's silence.

The stranger was perhaps not obviously a beauty nor obviously an
American, but essentially both for the really seeing eye. She was slight
and fair and, though naturally pale, was delicately flushed just now, as
by the effect of late agitation. What chiefly struck Longmore in her
face was the union of a pair of beautifully gentle, almost languid grey
eyes with a mouth that was all expression and intention. Her forehead
was a trifle more expansive than belongs to classic types, and her thick
brown hair dressed out of the fashion, just then even more ugly than
usual. Her throat and bust were slender, but all the more in harmony
with certain rapid charming movements of the head, which she had a way
of throwing back every now and then with an air of attention and a
sidelong glance from her dove-like eyes. She seemed at once alert and
indifferent, contemplative and restless, and Longmore very soon
discovered that if she was not a brilliant beauty she was at least a
most attaching one. This very impression made him magnanimous. He was
certain he had interrupted a confidential conversation, and judged it
discreet to withdraw, having first learned from Maggie's mamma--Mrs.
Draper--that she was to take the six o'clock train back to Paris. He
promised to meet her at the station.

He kept his appointment, and Mrs. Draper arrived betimes, accompanied by
her friend. The latter, however, made her farewells at the door and
drove away again, giving Longmore time only to raise his hat. "Who is
she?" he asked with visible ardour as he brought the traveller her
tickets.

"Come and see me to-morrow at the Hotel de l'Empire," she answered, "and
I'll tell you all about her." The force of this offer in making him
punctual at the Hotel de l'Empire Longmore doubtless never exactly
measured; and it was perhaps well he was vague, for he found his friend,
who was on the point of leaving Paris, so distracted by procrastinating
milliners and perjured lingeres that coherence had quite deserted her.
"You must find Saint-Germain dreadfully dull," she nevertheless had the
presence of mind to say as he was going. "Why won't you come with me to
London?"

"Introduce me to Madame de Mauves," he answered, "and Saint-Germain will
quite satisfy me." All he had learned was the lady's name and residence.

"Ah she, poor woman, won't make your affair a carnival. She's very
unhappy," said Mrs. Draper.

Longmore's further enquiries were arrested by the arrival of a young
lady with a bandbox; but he went away with the promise of a note of
introduction, to be immediately dispatched to him at Saint-Germain.

He then waited a week, but the note never came, and he felt how little
it was for Mrs. Draper to complain of engagements unperformed. He
lounged on the terrace and walked in the forest, studied suburban street
life and made a languid attempt to investigate the records of the court
of the exiled Stuarts; but he spent most of his time in wondering where
Madame de Mauves lived and whether she ever walked on the terrace.
Sometimes, he was at last able to recognise; for one afternoon toward
dusk he made her out from a distance, arrested there alone and leaning
against the low wall. In his momentary hesitation to approach her there
was almost a shade of trepidation, but his curiosity was not chilled by
such a measure of the effect of a quarter of an hour's acquaintance. She
at once recovered their connexion, on his drawing near, and showed it
with the frankness of a person unprovided with a great choice of
contacts. Her dress, her expression, were the same as before; her charm
came out like that of fine music on a second hearing. She soon made
conversation easy by asking him for news of Mrs. Draper. Longmore told
her that he was daily expecting news and after a pause mentioned the
promised note of introduction.

"It seems less necessary now," he said--"for me at least. But for you--I
should have liked you to know the good things our friend would probably
have been able to say about me."

"If it arrives at last," she answered, "you must come and see me and
bring it. If it doesn't you must come without it."

Then, as she continued to linger through the thickening twilight, she
explained that she was waiting for her husband, who was to arrive in the
train from Paris and who often passed along the terrace on his way home.
Longmore well remembered that Mrs. Draper had spoken of uneasy things in
her life, and he found it natural to guess that this same husband was
the source of them. Edified by his six months in Paris, "What else is
possible," he put it, "for a sweet American girl who marries an unholy
foreigner?"

But this quiet dependence on her lord's return rather shook his
shrewdness, and it received a further check from the free confidence
with which she turned to greet an approaching figure. Longmore
distinguished in the fading light a stoutish gentleman, on the fair side
of forty, in a high grey hat, whose countenance, obscure as yet against
the quarter from which it came, mainly presented to view the large
outward twist of its moustache. M. de Mauves saluted his wife with
punctilious gallantry and, having bowed to Longmore, asked her several
questions in French. Before taking his offered arm to walk to their
carriage, which was in waiting at the gate of the terrace, she
introduced our hero as a friend of Mrs. Draper and also a fellow
countryman, whom she hoped they might have the pleasure of seeing, as
she said, chez eux. M. de Mauves responded briefly, but civilly, in fair
English, and led his wife away.

Longmore watched him as he went, renewing the curl of his main facial
feature--watched him with an irritation devoid of any mentionable
ground. His one pretext for gnashing his teeth would have been in his
apprehension that this gentleman's worst English might prove a matter to
shame his own best French. For reasons involved apparently in the very
structure of his being Longmore found a colloquial use of that idiom as
insecure as the back of a restive horse, and was obliged to take his
exercise, as he was aware, with more tension than grace. He reflected
meanwhile with comfort that Madame de Mauves and he had a common tongue,
and his anxiety yielded to his relief at finding on his table that
evening a letter from Mrs. Draper. It enclosed a short formal missive to
Madame de Mauves, but the epistle itself was copious and confidential.
She had deferred writing till she reached London, where for a week, of
course, she had found other amusements.

"I think it's the sight of so many women here who don't look at all like
her that has reminded me by the law of contraries of my charming friend
at Saint-Germain and my promise to introduce you to her," she wrote. "I
believe I spoke to you of her rather blighted state, and I wondered
afterwards whether I hadn't been guilty of a breach of confidence. But
you would certainly have arrived at guesses of your own, and, besides,
she has never told me her secrets. The only one she ever pretended to
was that she's the happiest creature in the world, after assuring me of
which, poor thing, she went off into tears; so that I prayed to be
delivered from such happiness. It's the miserable story of an American
girl born neither to submit basely nor to rebel crookedly marrying a
shining sinful Frenchman who believes a woman must do one or the other
of those things. The lightest of US have a ballast that they can't
imagine, and the poorest a moral imagination that they don't require.
She was romantic and perverse--she thought the world she had been
brought up in too vulgar or at least too prosaic. To have a decent home-
life isn't perhaps the greatest of adventures; but I think she wishes
nowadays she hadn't gone in quite so desperately for thrills. M. de
Mauves cared of course for nothing but her money, which he's spending
royally on his menus plaisirs. I hope you appreciate the compliment I
pay you when I recommend you to go and cheer up a lady domestically
dejected. Believe me, I've given no other man a proof of this esteem; so
if you were to take me in an inferior sense I would never speak to you
again. Prove to this fine sore creature that our manners may have all
the grace without wanting to make such selfish terms for it. She avoids
society and lives quite alone, seeing no one but a horrible French
sister-in-law. Do let me hear that you've made her patience a little
less absent-minded. Make her WANT to forget; make her like you."

This ingenious appeal left the young man uneasy. He found himself in
presence of more complications than had been in his reckoning. To call
on Madame de Mauves with his present knowledge struck him as akin to
fishing in troubled waters. He was of modest composition, and yet he
asked himself whether an appearance of attentions from any gallant
gentleman mightn't give another twist to her tangle. A flattering sense
of unwonted opportunity, however--of such a possible value constituted
for him as he had never before been invited to rise to--made him with
the lapse of time more confident, possibly more reckless. It was too
inspiring not to act upon the idea of kindling a truer light in his fair
countrywoman's slow smile, and at least he hoped to persuade her that
even a raw representative of the social order she had not done justice
to was not necessarily a mere fortuitous collocation of atoms. He
immediately called on her.

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