The Bench of Desolation, by Henry James


Which was the way, of course, he talked to Nan Drury — as he had felt the immediate wild need to do; for he should perhaps be able to bear it all somehow or other with her — while they sat together, when time and freedom served, on one of the very last, the far westward, benches of the interminable sea-front. It wasn’t every one who walked so far, especially at that flat season — the only ghost of a bustle now, save for the gregarious, the obstreperous haunters of the fluttering, far-shining Pier, being reserved for the sunny Parade of midwinter. It wasn’t every one who cared for the sunsets (which you got awfully well from there and which were a particular strong point of the lower, the more “sympathetic,” as Herbert Dodd liked to call it, Properley horizon) as he had always intensely cared, and as he had found Nan Drury care; to say nothing of his having also observed how little they directly spoke to Miss Cookham. He had taught this oppressive companion to notice them a bit, as he had taught her plenty of other things, but that was a different matter; for the reason that the “land’s end” (stretching a point it carried off that name) had been, and had had to be, by their lack of more sequestered resorts and conveniences, the scene of so much of what she styled their wooing-time — or, to put it more properly, of the time during which she had made the straightest and most unabashed love to him: just as it could henceforth but render possible, under an equal rigour, that he should enjoy there periods of consolation from beautiful, gentle, tender-souled Nan, to whom he was now at last, after the wonderful way they had helped each other to behave, going to make love, absolutely unreserved and abandoned, absolutely reckless and romantic love, a refuge from poisonous reality, as hard as ever he might.

The league-long, paved, lighted, garden-plotted, seated and refuged Marina renounced its more or less celebrated attractions to break off short here; and an inward curve of the kindly westward shore almost made a wide-armed bay, with all the ugliness between town and country, and the further casual fringe of the coast, turning, as the day waned, to rich afternoon blooms of grey and brown and distant — it might fairly have been beautiful Hampshire — blue. Here it was that, all that blighted summer, with Nan — from the dreadful May-day on — he gave himself up to the reaction of intimacy with the kind of woman, at least, that he liked; even if of everything else that might make life possible he was to be, by what he could make out, forever starved. Here it was that — as well as on whatever other scraps of occasions they could manage — Nan began to take off and fold up and put away in her pocket her pretty, dotty, becoming veil; as under the logic of his having so tremendously ceased, in the shake of his dark storm-gust, to be engaged to another woman. Her removal of that obstacle to a trusted friend’s assuring himself whether the peachlike bloom’ of her finer facial curves bore the test of such further inquiry into their cool sweetness as might reinforce a mere baffled gaze — her momentous, complete surrender of so much of her charm, let us say, both marked the change in the situation of the pair and established the record of their perfect observance of every propriety for so long before. They afterward in fact could have dated it, their full clutch of their freedom and the bliss of their having so little henceforth to consider save their impotence, their poverty, their ruin; dated it from the hour of his recital to her of the — at the first blush — quite appalling upshot of his second and conclusive “scene of violence” with the mistress of his fortune, when the dire terms of his release had had to be formally, and oh! so abjectly, acceded to. She “compromised,” the cruel brute, for Four Hundred Pounds down — for not a farthing less would she stay her strength from “proceedings.” No jury in the land but would give her six, on the nail (“Oh she knew quite where she was, thank you!”) and he might feel lucky to get off with so whole a skin. This was the sum, then, for which he had grovellingly compounded — under an agreement sealed by a supreme exchange of remarks.

“‘Where in the name of lifelong ruin are you to find Four Hundred?’” Miss Cookham had mockingly repeated after him while he gasped as from the twist of her grip on his collar. “That’s your look-out, and I should have thought you’d have made sure you knew before you decided on your base perfidy.” And then she had mouthed and minced, with ever so false a gentility, her consistent, her sickening conclusion. “Of course — I may mention again — if you too distinctly object to the trouble of looking, you know where to find me.”

“I had rather starve to death than ever go within a mile of you!” Herbert described himself as having sweetly answered; and that was accordingly where they devotedly but desperately were — he and she, penniless Nan Drury. Her father, of Drury & Dean, was, like so far too many other of the anxious characters who peered through the dull window-glass of dusty offices at Properley, an Estate and House Agent, Surveyor, Valuer and Auctioneer; she was the prettiest of six, with two brothers, neither of the least use, but, thanks to the manner in which their main natural protector appeared to languish under the accumulation of his attributes, they couldn’t be said very particularly or positively to live. Their continued collective existence was a good deal of a miracle even to themselves, though they had fallen into the way of not unnecessarily, or too nervously, exchanging remarks upon it, and had even in a sort, from year to year, got used to it. Nan’s brooding pinkness when he talked to her, her so very parted lips, considering her pretty teeth, her so very parted eyelids, considering her pretty eyes, all of which might have been those of some waxen image of uncritical faith, cooled the heat of his helplessness very much as if he were laying his head on a tense silk pillow. She had, it was true, forms of speech, familiar watchwords, that affected him as small scratchy perforations of the smooth surface from within; but his pleasure in her and need of her were independent of such things and really almost altogether determined by the fact of the happy, even if all so lonely, forms and instincts in her which claimed kinship with his own. With her natural elegance stamped on her as by a die, with her dim and disinherited individual refinement of grace, which would have made any one wonder who she was anywhere — hat and veil and feather-boa and smart umbrella-knob and all — with her regular God-given distinction of type, in fine, she couldn’t abide vulgarity much more than he could.

Therefore it didn’t seem to him, under his stress, to matter particularly, for instance, if she would keep on referring so many things to the time, as she called it, when she came into his life — his own great insistence and contention being that she hadn’t in the least entered there till his mind was wholly made up to eliminate his other friend. What that methodical fury was so fierce to bring home to him was the falsity to herself involved in the later acquaintance; whereas just his precious right to hold up his head to everything — before himself at least — sprang from the fact that she couldn’t make dates fit anyhow. He hadn’t so much as heard of his true beauty’s existence (she had come back but a few weeks before from her two years with her terribly trying deceased aunt at Swindon, previous to which absence she had been an unnoticeable chit) till days and days, ever so many, upon his honour, after he had struck for freedom by his great first backing-out letter — the precious document, the treat for a British jury, in which, by itself, Miss Cookham’s firm instructed her to recognise the prospect of a fortune. The way the ruffians had been “her” ruffians — it appeared as if she had posted them behind her from the first of her beginning her game! — and the way “instructions” bounced out, with it, at a touch, larger than life, as if she had arrived with her pocket full of them! The date of the letter, taken with its other connections, and the date of her first give-away for himself, his seeing her get out of the Brighton train with Bill Frankle that day he had gone to make the row at the Station parcels’ office about the miscarriage of the box from Wales — those were the facts it sufficed him to point to, as he had pointed to them for Nan Drury’s benefit, goodness knew, often and often enough. If he didn’t seek occasion to do so for any one else’s — in open court as they said — that was his own affair, or at least his and Nan’s.

It little mattered, meanwhile, if on their bench of desolation, all that summer — and it may be added for summers and summers, to say nothing of winters, there and elsewhere, to come — she did give way to her artless habit of not contradicting him enough, which led to her often trailing up and down before him, too complacently, the untimely shreds and patches of his own glooms and desperations. “Well, I’m glad I am in your life, terrible as it is, however or whenever I did come in!” and “Of course you’d rather have starved — and it seems pretty well as if we shall, doesn’t it? — than have bought her off by a false, abhorrent love, wouldn’t you?” and “It isn’t as if she hadn’t made up to you the way she did before you had so much as looked at her, is it? or as if you hadn’t shown her what you felt her really to be before you had so much as looked at me, is it either?” and “Yes, how on earth, pawning the shoes on your feet, you’re going to raise another shilling — that’s what you want to know, poor darling, don’t you?”

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