"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."