The Bench of Desolation, by Henry James

V

Nothing in the world, on the Sunday afternoon, could have prevented him from going; he was not after all destitute of three or four such articles of clothing as, if they wouldn’t particularly grace the occasion, wouldn’t positively dishonour it. That deficiency might have kept him away, but no voice of the spirit, no consideration of pride. It sweetened his impatience in fact — for he fairly felt it a long time to wait — that his pride would really most find its account in his acceptance of these conciliatory steps. From the moment he could put it in that way — that he couldn’t refuse to hear what she might have, so very elaborately, to say for herself — he ought certainly to be at his ease; in illustration of which he whistled odd snatches to himself as he hung about on that cloud-dappled autumn Sunday, a mild private minstrelsy that his lips hadn’t known since when? The interval of the twenty-four hours, made longer by a night of many more revivals than oblivions, had in fact dragged not a little; in spite of which, however, our extremely brushed-up and trimmed and polished friend knew an unprecedented flutter as he was ushered, at the Royal Hotel, into Miss Cookham’s sitting-room. Yes, it was an adventure, and he had never had an adventure in his life; the term, for him, was essentially a term of high appreciation — such as disqualified for that figure, under due criticism, every single passage of his past career.

What struck him at the moment as qualifying in the highest degree this actual passage was the fact that at no great distance from his hostess in the luxurious room, as he apprehended it, in which the close of day had begun to hang a few shadows, sat a gentleman who rose as she rose, and whose name she at once mentioned to him. He had for Herbert Dodd all the air of a swell, the gentleman — rather red-faced and bald-headed, but moustachioed, waistcoated, necktied to the highest pitch, with an effect of chains and rings, of shining teeth in a glassily monocular smile; a wondrous apparition to have been asked to “meet” him, as in contemporary fiction, or for him to have been asked to meet. “Captain Roper, Mr. Herbert Dodd” — their entertainer introduced them, yes; but with a sequel immediately afterward more disconcerting apparently to Captain Roper himself even than to her second and more breathless visitor; a “Well then, good-bye till the next time,” with a hand thrust straight out, which allowed the personage so addressed no alternative but to lay aside his teacup, even though Herbert saw there was a good deal left in it, and glare about him for his hat. Miss Cookham had had her tea-tray on a small table before her, she had served Captain Roper while waiting for Mr. Dodd; but she simply dismissed him now, with a high sweet unmistakable decision, a knowledge of what she was about, as our hero would have called it, which enlarged at a stroke the latter’s view of the number of different things and sorts of things, in the sphere of the manners and ways of those living at their ease, that a social relation would put before one. Captain Roper would have liked to remain, would have liked more tea, but Kate signified in this direct fashion that she had had enough of him. Herbert had seen things, in his walk of life — rough things, plenty; but never things smoothed with that especial smoothness, carried out as it were by the fine form of Captain Roper’s own retreat, which included even a bright convulsed leave-taking cognisance of the plain, vague individual, of no lustre at all and with the very low-class guard of an old silver watch buttoned away under an ill-made coat, to whom he was sacrificed.

It came to Herbert as he left the place a shade less remarkable — though there was still wonder enough and to spare — that he had been even publicly and designedly sacrificed; exactly so that, as the door closed behind him, Kate Cookham, standing there to wait for it, could seem to say, across the room, to the friend of her youth, only by the expression of her fine eyes: “There — see what I do for you!” “For” him — that was the extraordinary thing, and not less so that he was already, within three minutes, after this fashion, taking it in as by the intensity of a new light; a light that was one somehow with this rich inner air of the plush-draped and much-mirrored hotel, where the fire-glow and the approach of evening confirmed together the privacy, and the loose curtains at the wide window were parted for a command of his old lifelong Parade — the field of life so familiar to him from below and in the wind and the wet, but which he had never in all the long years hung over at this vantage.

“He’s an acquaintance, but a bore,” his hostess explained in respect to Captain Roper. “He turned up yesterday, but I didn’t invite him, and I had said to him before you came in that I was expecting a gentleman with whom I should wish to be alone. I go quite straight at my idea that way, as a rule; but you know,” she now strikingly went on, “how straight I go. And he had had,” she added, “his tea.”

Dodd had been looking all round — had taken in, with the rest, the brightness, the distinguished elegance, as he supposed it, of the tea-service with which she was dealing and the variously tinted appeal of certain savoury edibles on plates. “Oh but he hadn’t had his tea!” he heard himself the next moment earnestly reply; which speech had at once betrayed, he was then quickly aware, the candour of his interest, the unsophisticated state that had survived so many troubles. If he was so interested how could he be proud, and if he was proud how could he be so interested?

He had made her at any rate laugh outright, and was further conscious, for this, both that it was the first time of that since their new meeting, and that it didn’t affect him as harsh. It affected him, however, as free, for she replied at once, still smiling and as a part of it: “Oh, I think we shall get on!”

This told him he had made some difference for her, shown her the way, or something like it, that she hadn’t been sure of yesterday; which moreover wasn’t what he had intended — he had come armed for showing her nothing; so that after she had gone on with the same gain of gaiety, “You must at any rate comfortably have yours,” there was but one answer for him to make.

His eyes played again over the tea-things — they seemed strangely to help him; but he didn’t sit down.

“I’ve come, as you see — but I’ve come, please, to understand; and if you require to be alone with me, and if I break bread with you, it seems to me I should first know exactly where I am and to what you suppose I so commit myself.” He had thought it out and over and over, particularly the turn about breaking bread; though perhaps he didn’t give it, in her presence — this was impossible, her presence altered so many things — quite the full sound or the weight he had planned.

But it had none the less come to his aid — it had made her perfectly grave. “You commit yourself to nothing. You’re perfectly free. It’s only I who commit myself.”

On which, while she stood there as if all handsomely and deferentially waiting for him to consider and decide, he would have been naturally moved to ask her what she committed herself then to — so moved, that is, if he hadn’t, before saying it, thought more sharply still of something better. “Oh, that’s another thing.”

“Yes, that’s another thing,” Kate Cookham returned. To which she added, “So now won’t you sit down?” He sank with deliberation into the seat from which Captain Roper had risen; she went back to her own and while she did so spoke again. “I’m not free. At least,” she said over her tea-tray, “I’m free only for this.”

Everything was there before them and around them, everything massive and shining, so that he had instinctively fallen back in his chair as for the wondering, the resigned acceptance of it; where her last words stirred in him a sense of odd deprecation. Only for “that”? “That” was everything, at this moment, to his long inanition, and the effect, as if she had suddenly and perversely mocked him, was to press the spring of a protest. “Isn’t ‘this’ then riches?”

“Riches?” she smiled over, handing him his cup — for she had triumphed in having struck from him a question.

“I mean haven’t you a lot of money?” He didn’t care now that it was out; his cup was in his hand, and what was that but proved interest? He had succumbed to the social relation.

“Yes, I’ve money. Of course you wonder — but I’ve wanted you to wonder. It was to make you take that in that I came. So now you know,” she said, leaning back where she faced him, but in a straighter chair and with her arms closely folded, after a fashion characteristic of her, as for some control of her nerves.

“You came to show you’ve money?”

“That’s one of the things. Not a lot — not even very much. But enough,” said Kate Cookham.

“Enough? I should think so!” he again couldn’t help a bit crudely exhaling.

“Enough for what I wanted. I don’t always live like this — not at all. But I came to the best hotel on purpose. I wanted to show you I could. Now,” she asked, “do you understand?”

“Understand?” He only gaped.

She threw up her loosed arms, which dropped again beside her. “I did it for you — I did it for you!”

“‘For’ me ——?”

“What I did — what I did here of old.”

He stared, trying to see it. “When you made me pay you?”

“The Two Hundred and Seventy — all I could get from you, as you reminded me yesterday, so that I had to give up the rest It was my idea,” she went on — “it was my idea.”

“To bleed me quite to death?” Oh, his ice was broken now!

“To make you raise money — since you could, you could. You did, you did — so what better proof?”

His hands fell from what he had touched; he could only stare — her own manner for it was different now too. “I did. I did indeed —!” And the woful weak simplicity of it, which seemed somehow all that was left him, fell even on his own ear.

“Well then, here it is — it isn’t lost!” she returned with a graver face.

“‘Here’ it is,” he gasped, “my poor agonised old money — my blood?”

“Oh, it’s my blood too, you must know now!” She held up her head as not before — as for her right to speak of the thing to-day most precious to her. “I took it, but this — my being here this way — is what I’ve made of it! That was the idea I had!”

Her “ideas,” as things to boast of, staggered him. “To have everything in the world, like this, at my wretched expense?”

She had folded her arms back again — grasping each elbow she sat firm; she knew he could see, and had known well from the first, what she had wanted to say, difficult, monstrous though it might be. “No more than at my own — but to do something with your money that you’d never do yourself.”

“Myself, myself?” he wonderingly wailed. “Do you know — or don’t you? — what my life has been?”

She waited, and for an instant, though the light in the room had failed a little more and would soon be mainly that of the flaring lamps on the windy Parade, he caught from her dark eye a silver gleam of impatience. “You’ve suffered and you’ve worked — which, God knows, is what I’ve done! Of course you’ve suffered,” she said — “you inevitably had to! We have to,” she went on, “to do or to be or to get anything.”

“And pray what have I done or been or got?” Herbert Dodd found it almost desolately natural to demand.

It made her cover him again as with all she was thinking of. “Can you imagine nothing, or can’t you conceive —?” And then as her challenge struck deeper in, deeper down than it had yet reached, and with the effect of a rush of the blood to his face, “It was for you, it was for you!” she again broke out — “and for what or whom else could it have been?”

He saw things to a tune now that made him answer straight: “I thought at one time it might be for Bill Frankle.”

“Yes — that was the way you treated me,” Miss Cookham as plainly replied.

But he let this pass; his thought had already got away from it. “What good then — its having been for me — has that ever done me?”

“Doesn’t it do you any good now?” his friend returned. To which she added, with another dim play of her tormented brightness, before he could speak: “But if you won’t even have your tea ——!”

He had in fact touched nothing and, if he could have explained, would have pleaded very veraciously that his appetite, keen when he came in, had somehow suddenly failed. It was beyond eating or drinking, what she seemed to want him to take from her. So if he looked, before him, over the array, it was to say, very grave and graceless: “Am I to understand that you offer to repay me?”

“I offer to repay you with interest, Herbert Dodd” — and her emphasis of the great word was wonderful.

It held him in his place a minute, and held his eyes upon her; after which, agitated too sharply to sit still, he pushed back his chair and stood up. It was as if mere distress or dismay at first worked in him, and was in fact a wave of deep and irresistible emotion which made him, on his feet, sway as in a great trouble and then, to correct it, throw himself stiffly toward the window, where he stood and looked out unseeing. The road, the wide terrace beyond, the seats, the eternal sea beyond that, the lighted lamps now flaring in the October night-wind, with the few dispersed people abroad at the tea-hour; these things, meeting and melting into the firelit hospitality at his elbow — or was it that portentous amenity that melted into them? — seemed to form round him and to put before him, all together, the strangest of circles and the newest of experiences, in which the unforgettable and the unimaginable were confoundingly mixed. “Oh, oh, oh!” — he could only almost howl for it.

And then, while a thick blur for some moments mantled everything, he knew she had got up, that she stood watching him, allowing for everything, again all “cleverly” patient with him, and he heard her speak again as with studied quietness and clearness. “I wanted to take care of you — it was what I first wanted — and what you first consented to. I’d have done it, oh I’d have done it, I’d have loved you and helped you and guarded you, and you’d have had no trouble, no bad blighting ruin, in all your easy, yes, just your quite jolly and comfortable life. I showed you and proved to you this — I brought it home to you, as I fondly fancied, and it made me briefly happy. You swore you cared for me, you wrote it and made me believe it — you pledged me your honour and your faith. Then you turned and changed suddenly from one day to another; everything altered, you broke your vows, you as good as told me you only wanted it off. You faced me with dislike, and in fact tried not to face me at all; you behaved as if you hated me — you had seen a girl, of great beauty, I admit, who made me a fright and a bore.”

This brought him straight round. “No, Kate Cookham.”

“Yes, Herbert Dodd.” She but shook her head, calmly and nobly, in the now gathered dusk, and her memories and her cause and her character — or was it only her arch-subtlety, her line and her “idea”? — gave her an extraordinary large assurance.

She had touched, however, the treasure of his own case — his terrible own case that began to live again at once by the force of her talking of hers, and which could always all cluster about his great asseveration. “No, no, never, never; I had never seen her then and didn’t dream of her; so that when you yourself began to be harsh and sharp with me, and to seem to want to quarrel, I could have but one idea — which was an appearance you didn’t in the least, as I saw it then, account for or disprove.”

“An appearance —?” Kate desired, as with high astonishment, to know which one.

“How shouldn’t I have supposed you really to care for Bill Frankle? — as thoroughly believing the motive of your claim for my money to be its help to your marrying him, since you couldn’t marry me. I was only surprised when, time passing, I made out that that hadn’t happened; and perhaps,” he added the next instant with something of a conscious lapse from the finer style, “hadn’t been in question.”

She had listened to this only staring, and she was silent after he had said it, so silent for some instants that while he considered her something seemed to fail him, much as if he had thrown out his foot for a step and not found the place to rest it. He jerked round to the window again, and then she answered, but without passion unless it was that of her weariness for something stupid and forgiven in him, “Oh, the blind, the pitiful folly!” — to which, as it might perfectly have applied to her own behaviour, he returned nothing. She had moreover at once gone on. “Have it then that there wasn’t much to do — between your finding that you loathed me for another woman or discovering only, when it came to the point, that you loathed me quite enough for myself.”

Which, as she put it in that immensely effective fashion, he recognised that he must just unprotestingly and not so very awkwardly — not so very! — take from her; since, whatever he had thus come to her for, it wasn’t to perjure himself with any pretence that, “another woman” or no other woman, he hadn’t, for years and years, abhorred her. Now he was taking tea with her — or rather, literally, seemed not to be; but this made no difference, and he let her express it as she would while he distinguished a man he knew, Charley Coote, outside on the Parade, under favour of the empty hour and one of the flaring lamps, making up to a young woman with whom (it stuck out grotesquely in his manner) he had never before conversed. Dodd’s own position was that of acquiescing in this recall of what had so bitterly been — but he hadn’t come back to her, of himself, to stir up, to recall or to recriminate, and for her it could but be the very lesson of her whole present act that if she touched anything she touched everything. Soon enough she was indeed, and all overwhelmingly, touching everything — with a hand of which the boldness grew.

“But I didn’t let that, even, make a difference in what I wanted — which was all,” she said, “and had only and passionately been, to take care of you. I had no money whatever — nothing then of my own, not a penny to come by anyhow; so it wasn’t with mine I could do it. But I could do it with yours,” she amazingly wound up — “if I could once get yours out of you.”

He faced straight about again — his eyebrows higher than they had ever been in his life. “Mine? What penny of it was mine? What scrap beyond a bare, mean little living had I ever pretended to have?”

She held herself still a minute, visibly with force; only her eyes consciously attached to the seat of a chair the back of which her hands, making it tilt toward her a little, grasped as for support. “You pretended to have enough to marry me — and that was all I afterward claimed of you when you wouldn’t.”

He was on the point of retorting that he had absolutely pretended to nothing — least of all to the primary desire that such a way of stating it fastened on him; he was on the point for ten seconds of giving her full in the face: “I never had any such dream till you yourself — infatuated with me as, frankly, you on the whole appeared to be — got round me and muddled me up and made me behave as if in a way that went against the evidence of my senses.” But he was to feel as quickly that, whatever the ugly, the spent, the irrecoverable truth, he might better have bitten his tongue off: there beat on him there this strange and other, this so prodigiously different beautiful and dreadful truth that no far remembrance and no abiding ache of his own could wholly falsify, and that was indeed all out with her next words. “That — using it for you and using you yourself for your own future — was my motive. I’ve led my life, which has been an affair, I assure you; and, as I’ve told you without your quite seeming to understand, I’ve brought everything fivefold back to you.”

The perspiration broke out on his forehead. “Everything’s mine?” he quavered as for the deep piercing pain of it.

“Everything!” said Kate Cookham.

So it told him how she had loved him — but with the tremendous effect at once of its only glaring out at him from the whole thing that it was verily she, a thousand times over, who, in the exposure of his youth and his vanity, had, on the bench of desolation, the scene of yesterday’s own renewal, left for him no forward steps to take. It hung there for him tragically vivid again, the hour she had first found him sequestered and accessible after making his acquaintance at his shop. And from this, by a succession of links that fairly clicked to his ear as with their perfect fitting, the fate and the pain and the payment of others stood together in a great grim order. Everything there then was his — to make him ask what had been Nan’s, poor Nan’s of the constant question of whether he need have collapsed. She was before him, she was between them, his little dead dissatisfied wife; across all whose final woe and whose lowly grave he was to reach out, it appeared, to take gifts. He saw them too, the gifts; saw them — she bristled with them — in his actual companion’s brave and sincere and authoritative figure, her strangest of demonstrations. But the other appearance was intenser, as if their ghost had waved wild arms; so that half a minute hadn’t passed before the one poor thing that remained of Nan, and that yet thus became a quite mighty and momentous poor thing, was sitting on his lips as for its sole opportunity.

“Can you give me your word of honour that I mightn’t, under decent advice, have defied you?”

It made her turn very white; but now that she had said what she had said she could still hold up her head. “Certainly you might have defied me, Herbert Dodd.”

“They would have told me you had no legal case?”

Well, if she was pale she was bold. “You talk of decent advice —!” She broke off, there was too much to say, and all needless. What she said instead was: “They would have told you I had nothing.”

“I didn’t so much as ask,” her sad visitor remarked.

“Of course you didn’t so much as ask.”

“I couldn’t be so outrageously vulgar,” he went on.

I could, by God’s help!” said Kate Cookham.

“Thank you.” He had found at his command a tone that made him feel more gentlemanlike than he had ever felt in his life or should doubtless ever feel again. It might have been enough — but somehow as they stood there with this immense clearance between them it wasn’t. The clearance was like a sudden gap or great bleak opening through which there blew upon them a deadly chill. Too many things had fallen away, too many new rolled up and over him, and they made something within shake him to his base. It upset the full vessel, and though she kept her eyes on him he let that consequence come, bursting into tears, weakly crying there before her even as he had cried to himself in the hour of his youth when she had made him groundlessly fear. She turned away then — that she couldn’t watch, and had presently flung herself on the sofa and, all responsively wailing, buried her own face on the cushioned arm. So for a minute their smothered sobs only filled the room. But he made out, through this disorder, where he had put down his hat; his stick and his new tan-coloured gloves — they had cost two-and-thruppence and would have represented sacrifices — were on the chair beside it He picked these articles up and all silently and softly — gasping, that is, but quite on tiptoe — reached the door and let himself out.

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