The Bench of Desolation, by Henry James

I

SHE had practically, he believed, conveyed the intimation, the horrid, brutal, vulgar menace, in the course of their last dreadful conversation, when, for whatever was left him of pluck or confidence — confidence in what he would fain have called a little more aggressively the strength of his position — he had judged best not to take it up. But this time there was no question of not understanding, or of pretending he didn’t; the ugly, the awful words, ruthlessly formed by her lips, were like the fingers of a hand that she might have thrust into her pocket for extraction of the monstrous object that would serve best for — what should he call it? — a gage of battle.

“If I haven’t a very different answer from you within the next three days I shall put the matter into the hands of my solicitor, whom it may interest you to know I’ve already seen. I shall bring an action for ‘breach’ against you, Herbert Dodd, as sure as my name’s Kate Cookham.”

There it was, straight and strong — yet he felt he could say for himself, when once it had come, or even, already, just as it was coming, that it turned on, as if she had moved an electric switch, the very brightest light of his own very reasons. There she was, in all the grossness of her native indelicacy, in all her essential excess of will and destitution of scruple; and it was the woman capable of that ignoble threat who, his sharper sense of her quality having become so quite deterrent, was now making for him a crime of it that he shouldn’t wish to tie himself to her for life. The vivid, lurid thing was the reality, all unmistakable, of her purpose; she had thought her case well out; had measured its odious, specious presentability; had taken, he might be sure, the very best advice obtainable at Properley, where there was always a first-rate promptitude of everything fourth-rate; it was disgustingly certain, in short, that she’d proceed. She was sharp and adroit, moreover — distinctly in certain ways a master-hand; how otherwise, with her so limited mere attractiveness, should she have entangled him? He couldn’t shut his eyes to the very probable truth that if she should try it she’d pull it off. She knew she would — precisely; and her assurance was thus the very proof of her cruelty. That she had pretended she loved him was comparatively nothing; other women had pretended it, and other women too had really done it; but that she had pretended he could possibly have been right and safe and blest in loving her, a creature of the kind who could sniff that squalor of the law-court, of claimed damages and brazen lies and published kisses, of love-letters read amid obscene guffaws, as a positive tonic to resentment, as a high incentive to her course — this was what put him so beautifully in the right It was what might signify in a woman all through, he said to himself, the mere imagination of such machinery. Truly what a devilish conception and what an appalling nature!

But there was no doubt, luckily, either, that he could plant his feet the firmer for his now intensified sense of these things. He was to live, it appeared, abominably worried, he was to live consciously rueful, he was to live perhaps even what a scoffing world would call abjectly exposed; but at least he was to live saved. In spite of his clutch of which steadying truth, however, and in spite of his declaring to her, with many other angry protests and pleas, that the line of conduct she announced was worthy of a vindictive barmaid, a lurking fear in him, too deep to counsel mere defiance, made him appear to keep open a little, till he could somehow turn round again, the door of possible composition. He had scoffed at her claim, at her threat, at her thinking she could hustle and bully him — “Such a way, my eye, to call back to life a dead love!” — yet his instinct was ever, prudentially but helplessly, for gaining time, even if time only more wofully to quake, and he gained it now by not absolutely giving for his ultimatum that he wouldn’t think of coming round. He didn’t in the smallest degree mean to come round, but it was characteristic of him that he could for three or four days breathe a little easier by having left her under the impression that he perhaps might. At the same time he couldn’t not have said — what had conduced to bring out, in retort, her own last word, the word on which they had parted — “Do you mean to say you yourself would now be willing to marry and live with a man of whom you could feel, the thing done, that he’d be all the while thinking of you in the light of a hideous coercion?” “Never you mind about my willingness,” Kate had answered; “you’ve known what that has been for the last six months. Leave that to me, my willingness — I’ll take care of it all right; and just see what conclusion you can come to about your own.”

He was to remember afterward how he had wondered whether, turned upon her in silence while her odious lucidity reigned unchecked, his face had shown her anything like the quantity of hate he felt. Probably not at all; no man’s face could express that immense amount; especially the fair, refined, intellectual, gentlemanlike face which had had — and by her own more than once repeated avowal — so much to do with the enormous fancy she had originally taken to him. “Which — frankly now — would you personally rather I should do,” he had at any rate asked her with an intention of supreme irony: “just sordidly marry you on top of this, or leave you the pleasure of your lovely appearance in court and of your so assured (since that’s how you feel it) big haul of damages? Sha’n’t you be awfully disappointed, in fact, if I don’t let you get something better out of me than a poor plain ten-shilling gold ring and the rest of the blasphemous rubbish, as we should make it between us, pronounced at the altar? I take it of course,” he had swaggered on, “that your pretension wouldn’t be for a moment that I should — after the act of profanity — take up my life with you.”

“It’s just as much my dream as it ever was, Herbert Dodd, to take up mine with you! Remember for me that I can do with it, my dear, that my idea is for even as much as that of you!” she had cried; “remember that for me, Herbert Dodd; remember, remember!”

It was on this she had left him — left him frankly under a mortal chill. There might have been the last ring of an appeal or a show of persistent and perverse tenderness in it, however preposterous any such matter; but in point of fact her large, clean, plain, brown face — so much too big for her head, he now more than ever felt it to be, just as her head was so much too big for her body, and just as her hats had an irritating way of appearing to decline choice and conformity in respect to any of her dimensions — presented itself with about as much expression as his own shop-window when the broad, blank, sallow blind was down. He was fond of his shop-window with some good show on; he had a fancy for a good show and was master of twenty different schemes of taking arrangement for the old books and prints, “high-class rarities” his modest catalogue called them, in which he dealt and which his maternal uncle, David Geddes, had, as he liked to say, “handed down” to him. His widowed mother had screwed the whole thing, the stock and the connection and the rather bad little house in the rather bad little street, out of the ancient worthy, shortly before his death, in the name of the youngest and most interesting, the “delicate” one and the literary, of her five scattered and struggling children. He could enjoy his happiest collocations and contrasts and effects, his harmonies and varieties of toned and faded leather and cloth, his sought color-notes and the high clearnesses, here and there, of his white and beautifully figured price-labels, which pleased him enough in themselves almost to console him for not oftener having to break, on a customer’s insistence, into the balanced composition. But the dropped expanse of time-soiled canvas, the thing of Sundays and holidays, with just his name, “Herbert Dodd, Successor,” painted on below his uncle’s antique style, the feeble penlike flourishes already quite archaic — this ugly vacant mask, which might so easily be taken for the mask of failure, somehow always gave him a chill.

That had been just the sort of chill — the analogy was complete — of Kate Cookham’s last look. He supposed people doing an awfully good and sure and steady business, in whatever line, could see a whole front turned to vacancy that way and merely think of the hours off represented by it. Only for this — nervously to bear it, in other words, and Herbert Dodd, quite with the literary temperament himself, was capable of that amount of play of fancy, or even of morbid analysis — you had to be on some footing, you had to feel some confidence, pretty different from his own up to now. He had never not enjoyed passing his show on the other side of the street and taking it in thence with a casual obliquity; but he had never held optical commerce with the drawn blind for a moment longer than he could help. It always looked horribly final and as if it never would come up again. Big and bare, with his name staring at him from the middle, it thus offered in its grimness a turn of comparison for Miss Cookham’s ominous visage. She never wore pretty, dotty, transparent veils, as Nan Drury did, and the words “Herbert Dodd” — save that she had sounded them at him there two or three times more like a Meg Merrilies or the bold bad woman in one of the melodramas of high life given during the fine season in the pavilion at the end of Properley Pier — were dreadfully, were permanently, seated on her lips. She was grim, no mistake.

That evening, alone in the back room above the shop, he saw so little what he could do that, consciously demoralised for the hour, he gave way to tears about it. Her taking a stand so incredibly “low,” that was what he couldn’t get over. The particular bitterness of his cup was his having let himself in for a struggle on such terms — the use, on her side, of the vulgarest process known to the law: the vulgarest, the vulgarest, he kept repeating that, clinging to the help rendered him by this imputation to his terrorist of the vice he sincerely believed he had ever, among difficulties (for oh he recognised the difficulties!) sought to keep most alien to him. He knew what he was, in a dismal, down-trodden sphere enough — the lean young proprietor of an old business that had itself rather shrivelled with age than ever grown fat, the purchase and sale of second-hand books and prints, with the back street of a long-fronted south-coast watering-place (Old Town by good luck) for the dusky field of his life. But he had gone in for all the education he could get — his educated customers would often hang about for more talk by the half-hour at a time, he actually feeling himself, and almost with a scruple, hold them there; which meant that he had had (he couldn’t be blind to that) natural taste and had lovingly cultivated and formed it. Thus, from as far back as he could remember, there had been things all round him that he suffered from when other people didn’t; and he had kept most of his suffering to himself — which had taught him, in a manner, how to suffer, and how almost to like to.

So, at any rate, he had never let go his sense of certain differences, he had done everything he could to keep it up — whereby everything that was vulgar was on the wrong side of his line. He had believed, for a series of strange, oppressed months, that Kate Cookham’s manners and tone were on the right side; she had been governess — for young children — in two very good private families, and now had classes in literature and history for bigger girls who were sometimes brought by their mammas; in fact, coming in one day to look over his collection of students’ manuals, and drawing it out, as so many did, for the evident sake of his conversation, she had appealed to him that very first time by her apparently pronounced intellectual side — goodness knew she didn’t even then by the physical! — which she had artfully kept in view till she had entangled him past undoing. And it had all been but the cheapest of traps — when he came to take the pieces apart a bit — laid over a brazen avidity. What he now collapsed for, none the less — what he sank down on a chair at a table and nursed his weak, scared sobs in his resting arms for — was the fact that, whatever the trap, it held him as with the grip of sharp murderous steel. There he was, there he was; alone in the brown summer dusk — brown through his windows — he cried and he cried. He shouldn’t get out without losing a limb. The only question was which of his limbs it should be.

Before he went out, later on — for he at last felt the need to — he could, however, but seek to remove from his face and his betraying eyes, over his washing-stand, the traces of his want of fortitude. He brushed himself up; with which, catching his stricken image a bit spectrally in an old dim toilet-glass, he knew again, in a flash, the glow of righteous resentment. Who should be assured against coarse usage if a man of his really elegant, perhaps in fact a trifle over-refined or “effete” appearance, his absolutely gentlemanlike type, couldn’t be? He never went so far as to rate himself, with exaggeration, a gentleman; but he would have maintained against all comers, with perfect candour and as claiming a high advantage, that he was, in spite of that liability to blubber, “like” one; which he was no doubt, for that matter, at several points. Like what lady then, who could ever possibly have been taken for one, was Kate Cookham, and therefore how could one have anything — anything of the intimate and private order — out with her fairly and on the plane, the only possible one, of common equality? He might find himself crippled for life; he believed verily, the more he thought, that that was what was before him. But be ended by seeing this doom in the almost redeeming light of the fact that it would all have been because he was, comparatively, too aristocratic. Yes, a man in his station couldn’t afford to carry that so far — it must sooner or later, in one way or another, spell ruin. Never mind — it was the only thing he could be. Of course he should exquisitely suffer — but when hadn’t he exquisitely suffered? How was he going to get through life by any arrangement without that? No wonder such a woman as Kate Cookham had been keen to annex so rare a value. The right thing would have been that the highest price should be paid for it — by such a different sort of logic from this nightmare of his having to pay.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38