Madame de Mauves/8
He must have slept some time after he ceased dreaming for he had no immediate memory of this vision. It came back to him later, after he had roused himself and had walked nearly home. No great arrangement was needed to make it seem a striking allegory, and it haunted and oppressed him for the rest of the day. He took refuge, however, in his quickened conviction that the only sound policy in life is to grasp unsparingly at happiness; and it seemed no more than one of the vigorous measures dictated by such a policy to return that evening to Madame de Mauves. And yet when he had decided to do so and had carefully dressed himself he felt an irresistible nervous tremor which made it easier to linger at his open window, wondering with a strange mixture of dread and desire whether Madame Clairin had repeated to her sister-in-law what she had said to him. His presence now might be simply a gratuitous annoyance, and yet his absence might seem to imply that it was in the power of circumstances to make them ashamed to meet each other's eyes. He sat a long time with his head in his hands, lost in a painful confusion of hopes and ambiguities. He felt at moments as if he could throttle Madame Clairin, and yet couldn't help asking himself if it weren't possible she had done him a service. It was late when he left the hotel, and as he entered the gate of the other house his heart beat so fast that he was sure his voice would show it.
The servant ushered him into the drawing-room, which was empty and with the lamp burning low. But the long windows were open and their light curtains swaying in a soft warm wind, so that Longmore immediately stepped out upon the terrace. There he found Madame de Mauves alone, slowly pacing its length. She was dressed in white, very simply, and her hair was arranged not as she usually wore it, but in a single loose coil and as if she were unprepared for company. She stopped when she saw her friend, showed some surprise, uttered an exclamation and stood waiting for him to speak. He tried, with his eyes on her, to say something, but found no words. He knew it was awkward, it was offensive, to stand gazing at her; but he couldn't say what was suitable and mightn't say what he wished. Her face was indistinct in the dim light, but he felt her eyes fixed on him and wondered what they expressed. Did they warn him, did they plead, or did they confess to a sense of provocation? For an instant his head swam; he was sure it would make all things clear to stride forward and fold her in his arms. But a moment later he was still dumb there before her; he hadn't moved; he knew she had spoken, but he hadn't understood.
"You were here this morning," she continued; and now, slowly, the meaning of her words came to him. "I had a bad headache and had to shut myself up." She spoke with her usual voice.
Longmore mastered his agitation and answered her without betraying himself. "I hope you're better now."
"Yes, thank you, I'm better--much better."
He waited again and she moved away to a chair and seated herself. After a pause he followed her and leaned closer to her, against the balustrade of the terrace. "I hoped you might have been able to come out for the morning into the forest. I went alone; it was a lovely day, and I took a long walk."
"It was a lovely day," she said absently, and sat with her eyes lowered, slowly opening and closing her fan. Longmore, as he watched her, felt more and more assured her sister-in-law had seen her since her interview with him; that her attitude toward him was changed. It was this same something that hampered the desire with which he had come, or at least converted all his imagined freedom of speech about it to a final hush of wonder. No, certainly, he couldn't clasp her to his arms now, any more than some antique worshipper could have clasped the marble statue in his temple. But Longmore's statue spoke at last with a full human voice and even with a shade of human hesitation. She looked up, and it seemed to him her eyes shone through the dusk.
"I'm very glad you came this evening--and I've a particular reason for being glad. I half-expected you, and yet I thought it possible you mightn't come."
"As the case has been present to me," Longmore answered, "it was impossible I shouldn't come. I've spent every minute of the day in thinking of you."
She made no immediate reply, but continued to open and close her fan thoughtfully. At last, "I've something important to say to you," she resumed with decision. "I want you to know to a certainty that I've a very high opinion of you." Longmore gave an uneasy shift to his position. To what was she coming? But he said nothing, and she went on: "I take a great interest in you. There's no reason why I shouldn't say it. I feel a great friendship for you." He began to laugh, all awkwardly--he hardly knew why, unless because this seemed the very irony of detachment. But she went on in her way: "You know, I suppose, that a great disappointment always implies a great confidence--a great hope."
"I've certainly hoped," he said, "hoped strongly; but doubtless never rationally enough to have a right to bemoan my disappointment."
There was something troubled in her face that seemed all the while to burn clearer. "You do yourself injustice. I've such confidence in your fairness of mind that I should be greatly disappointed if I were to find it wanting."
"I really almost believe you're amusing yourself at my expense," the young man cried. "My fairness of mind? Of all the question-begging terms!" he laughed. "The only thing for one's mind to be fair to is the thing one FEELS!"
She rose to her feet and looked at him hard. His eyes by this time were accustomed to the imperfect light, and he could see that if she was urgent she was yet beseechingly kind. She shook her head impatiently and came near enough to lay her fan on his arm with a strong pressure. "If that were so it would be a weary world. I know enough, however, of your probable attitude. You needn't try to express it. It's enough that your sincerity gives me the right to ask a favour of you--to make an intense, a solemn request."
"Make it; I listen."
"DON'T DISAPPOINT ME. If you don't understand me now you will to-morrow or very soon. When I said just now that I had a high opinion of you, you see I meant it very seriously," she explained. "It wasn't a vain compliment. I believe there's no appeal one may make to your generosity that can remain long unanswered. If this were to happen--if I were to find you selfish where I thought you generous, narrow where I thought you large"--and she spoke slowly, her voice lingering with all emphasis on each of these words--"vulgar where I thought you rare, I should think worse of human nature. I should take it, I assure you, very hard indeed. I should say to myself in the dull days of the future: 'There was ONE man who might have done so and so, and he too failed.' But this shan't be. You've made too good an impression on me not to make the very best. If you wish to please me for ever there's a way."
She was standing close to him, with her dress touching him, her eyes fixed on his. As she went on her tone became, to his sense, extraordinary, and she offered the odd spectacle of a beautiful woman preaching reason with the most communicative and irresistible passion. Longmore was dazzled, but mystified and bewildered. The intention of her words was all remonstrance, refusal, dismissal, but her presence and effect there, so close, so urgent, so personal, a distracting contradiction of it. She had never been so lovely. In her white dress, with her pale face and deeply-lighted brow, she seemed the very spirit of the summer night. When she had ceased speaking she drew a long breath; he felt it on his cheek, and it stirred in his whole being a sudden perverse imagination. Were not her words, in their high impossible rigour, a mere challenge to his sincerity, a mere precaution of her pride, meant to throw into relief her almost ghostly beauty, and wasn't this the only truth, the only law, the only thing to take account of?
He closed his eyes and felt her watch him not without pain and perplexity herself. He looked at her again, met her own eyes and saw them fill with strange tears. Then this last sophistry of his great desire for her knew itself touched as a bubble is pricked; it died away with a stifled murmur, and her beauty, more and more radiant in the darkness, rose before him as a symbol of something vague which was yet more beautiful than itself. "I may understand you to-morrow," he said, "but I don't understand you now."
"And yet I took counsel with myself to-day and asked myself how I had best speak to you. On one side I might have refused to see you at all." Longmore made a violent movement, and she added: "In that case I should have written to you. I might see you, I thought, and simply say to you that there were excellent reasons why we should part, and that I begged this visit should be your last. This I inclined to do; what made me decide otherwise was--well, simply that I like you so. I said to myself that I should be glad to remember in future days, not that I had, in the horrible phrase, got rid of you, but that you had gone away out of the fulness of your own wisdom and the excellence of your own taste."
"Ah wisdom and taste!" the poor young man wailed.
"I'm prepared, if necessary," Madame de Mauves continued after a pause, "to fall back on my strict right. But, as I said before, I shall be greatly disappointed if I'm obliged to do that."
"When I listen to your horrible and unnatural lucidity," Longmore answered, "I feel so angry, so merely sore and sick, that I wonder I don't leave you without more words."
"If you should go away in anger this idea of mine about our parting would be but half-realised," she returned with no drop in her ardour. "No, I don't want to think of you as feeling a great pain, I don't want even to think of you as making a great sacrifice. I want to think of you--"
"As a stupid brute who has never existed, who never CAN exist!" he broke in. "A creature who could know you without loving you, who could leave you without for ever missing you!"
She turned impatiently away and walked to the other end of the terrace. When she came back he saw that her impatience had grown sharp and almost hard. She stood before him again, looking at him from head to foot and without consideration now; so that as the effect of it he felt his assurance finally quite sink. This then she took from him, withholding in consequence something she had meant to say. She moved off afresh, walked to the other end of the terrace and stood there with her face to the garden. She assumed that he understood her, and slowly, slowly, half as the fruit of this mute pressure, he let everything go but the rage of a purpose somehow still to please her. She was giving him a chance to do gallantly what it seemed unworthy of both of them he should do meanly. She must have "liked" him indeed, as she said, to wish so to spare him, to go to the trouble of conceiving an ideal of conduct for him. With this sense of her tenderness still in her dreadful consistency, his spirit rose with a new flight and suddenly felt itself breathe clearer air. Her profession ceased to seem a mere bribe to his eagerness; it was charged with eagerness itself; it was a present reward and would somehow last. He moved rapidly toward her as with the sense of a gage that he might sublimely yet immediately enjoy.
They were separated by two thirds of the length of the terrace, and he had to pass the drawing-room window. As he did so he started with an exclamation. Madame Clairin stood framed in the opening as if, though just arriving on the scene, she too were already aware of its interest. Conscious, apparently, that she might be suspected of having watched them she stepped forward with a smile and looked from one to the other. "Such a tete-a-tete as that one owes no apology for interrupting. One ought to come in for good manners."
Madame de Mauves turned to her, but answered nothing. She looked straight at Longmore, and her eyes shone with a lustre that struck him as divine. He was not exactly sure indeed what she meant them to say, but it translated itself to something that would do. "Call it what you will, what you've wanted to urge upon me is the thing this woman can best conceive. What I ask of you is something she can't begin to!" They seemed somehow to beg him to suffer her to be triumphantly herself, and to intimate--yet this too all decently--how little that self was of Madame Clairin's particular swelling measure. He felt an immense answering desire not to do anything then that might seem probable or prevu to this lady. He had laid his hat and stick on the parapet of the terrace. He took them up, offered his hand to Madame de Mauves with a simple good-night, bowed silently to Madame Clairin and found his way, with tingling ears, out of the place.