The American By Henry James Chapter XX


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 helping 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.

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At the ball, who tries to point out some things to Newman, when he fails to realize them on his own?