The Coxon Fund, by Henry James

Chapter 10

Poor Adelaide’s silence was fully explained later — practically explained when in June, returning to London, I was honoured by this admirable woman with an early visit. As soon as she arrived I guessed everything, and as soon as she told me that darling Ruth had been in her house nearly a month I had my question ready. “What in the name of maidenly modesty is she staying in England for?”

“Because she loves me so!” cried Adelaide gaily. But she hadn’t come to see me only to tell me Miss Anvoy loved her: that was quite sufficiently established, and what was much more to the point was that Mr. Gravener had now raised an objection to it. He had protested at least against her being at Wimbledon, where in the innocence of his heart he had originally brought her himself; he called on her to put an end to their engagement in the only proper, the only happy manner.

“And why in the world doesn’t she do do?” I asked.

Adelaide had a pause. “She says you know.”

Then on my also hesitating she added: “A condition he makes.”

“The Coxon Fund?” I panted.

“He has mentioned to her his having told you about it.”

“Ah but so little! Do you mean she has accepted the trust?”

“In the most splendid spirit — as a duty about which there can be no two opinions.” To which my friend added: “Of course she’s thinking of Mr. Saltram.”

I gave a quick cry at this, which, in its violence, made my visitor turn pale. “How very awful!”

“Awful?”

“Why, to have anything to do with such an idea one’s self.”

“I’m sure YOU needn’t!” and Mrs. Mulville tossed her head.

“He isn’t good enough!” I went on; to which she opposed a sound almost as contentious as my own had been. This made me, with genuine immediate horror, exclaim: “You haven’t influenced her, I hope!” and my emphasis brought back the blood with a rush to poor Adelaide’s face. She declared while she blushed — for I had frightened her again — that she had never influenced anybody and that the girl had only seen and heard and judged for herself. HE had influenced her, if I would, as he did every one who had a soul: that word, as we knew, even expressed feebly the power of the things he said to haunt the mind. How could she, Adelaide, help it if Miss Anvoy’s mind was haunted? I demanded with a groan what right a pretty girl engaged to a rising M.P. had to HAVE a mind; but the only explanation my bewildered friend could give me was that she was so clever. She regarded Mr. Saltram naturally as a tremendous force for good. She was intelligent enough to understand him and generous enough to admire.

“She’s many things enough, but is she, among them, rich enough?” I demanded. “Rich enough, I mean, to sacrifice such a lot of good money?”

“That’s for herself to judge. Besides, it’s not her own money; she doesn’t in the least consider it so.”

“And Gravener does, if not HIS own; and that’s the whole difficulty?”

“The difficulty that brought her back, yes: she had absolutely to see her poor aunt’s solicitor. It’s clear that by Lady Coxon’s will she may have the money, but it’s still clearer to her conscience that the original condition, definite, intensely implied on her uncle’s part, is attached to the use of it. She can only take one view of it. It’s for the Endowment or it’s for nothing.”

“The Endowment,” I permitted myself to observe, “is a conception superficially sublime, but fundamentally ridiculous.”

“Are you repeating Mr. Gravener’s words?” Adelaide asked.

“Possibly, though I’ve not seen him for months. It’s simply the way it strikes me too. It’s an old wife’s tale. Gravener made some reference to the legal aspect, but such an absurdly loose arrangement has NO legal aspect.”

“Ruth doesn’t insist on that,” said Mrs. Mulville; “and it’s, for her, exactly this technical weakness that constitutes the force of the moral obligation.”

“Are you repeating her words?” I enquired. I forget what else Adelaide said, but she said she was magnificent. I thought of George Gravener confronted with such magnificence as that, and I asked what could have made two such persons ever suppose they understood each other. Mrs. Mulville assured me the girl loved him as such a woman could love and that she suffered as such a woman could suffer. Nevertheless she wanted to see ME. At this I sprang up with a groan. “Oh I’m so sorry! — when?” Small though her sense of humour, I think Adelaide laughed at my sequence. We discussed the day, the nearest it would be convenient I should come out; but before she went I asked my visitor how long she had been acquainted with these prodigies.

“For several weeks, but I was pledged to secrecy.”

“And that’s why you didn’t write?”

“I couldn’t very well tell you she was with me without telling you that no time had even yet been fixed for her marriage. And I couldn’t very well tell you as much as that without telling you what I knew of the reason of it. It was not till a day or two ago,” Mrs. Mulville went on, “that she asked me to ask you if you wouldn’t come and see her. Then at last she spoke of your knowing about the idea of the Endowment.”

I turned this over. “Why on earth does she want to see me?”

“To talk with you, naturally, about Mr. Saltram.”

“As a subject for the prize?” This was hugely obvious, and I presently returned: “I think I’ll sail to-morrow for Australia.”

“Well then — sail!” said Mrs. Mulville, getting up.

But I frivolously, continued. “On Thursday at five, we said?” The appointment was made definite and I enquired how, all this time, the unconscious candidate had carried himself.

“In perfection, really, by the happiest of chances: he has positively been a dear. And then, as to what we revere him for, in the most wonderful form. His very highest — pure celestial light. You won’t do him an ill turn?” Adelaide pleaded at the door.

“What danger can equal for him the danger to which he’s exposed from himself?” I asked. “Look out sharp, if he has lately been too prim. He’ll presently take a day off, treat us to some exhibition that will make an Endowment a scandal.”

“A scandal?” Mrs. Mulville dolorously echoed.

“Is Miss Anvoy prepared for that?”

My visitor, for a moment, screwed her parasol into my carpet. “He grows bigger every day.”

“So do you!” I laughed as she went off.

That girl at Wimbledon, on the Thursday afternoon, more than justified my apprehensions. I recognised fully now the cause of the agitation she had produced in me from the first — the faint foreknowledge that there was something very stiff I should have to do for her. I felt more than ever committed to my fate as, standing before her in the big drawing-room where they had tactfully left us to ourselves, I tried with a smile to string together the pearls of lucidity which, from her chair, she successively tossed me. Pale and bright, in her monotonous mourning, she was an image of intelligent purpose, of the passion of duty; but I asked myself whether any girl had ever had so charming an instinct as that which permitted her to laugh out, as for the joy of her difficulty, into the priggish old room. This remarkable young woman could be earnest without being solemn, and at moments when I ought doubtless to have cursed her obstinacy I found myself watching the unstudied play of her eyebrows or the recurrence of a singularly intense whiteness produced by the parting of her lips. These aberrations, I hasten to add, didn’t prevent my learning soon enough why she had wished to see me. Her reason for this was as distinct as her beauty: it was to make me explain what I had meant, on the occasion of our first meeting, by Mr. Saltram’s want of dignity. It wasn’t that she couldn’t imagine, but she desired it there from my lips. What she really desired of course was to know whether there was worse about him than what she had found out for herself. She hadn’t been a month so much in the house with him without discovering that he wasn’t a man of monumental bronze. He was like a jelly minus its mould, he had to be embanked; and that was precisely the source of her interest in him and the ground of her project. She put her project boldly before me: there it stood in its preposterous beauty. She was as willing to take the humorous view of it as I could be: the only difference was that for her the humorous view of a thing wasn’t necessarily prohibitive, wasn’t paralysing.

Moreover she professed that she couldn’t discuss with me the primary question — the moral obligation: that was in her own breast. There were things she couldn’t go into — injunctions, impressions she had received. They were a part of the closest intimacy of her intercourse with her aunt, they were absolutely clear to her; and on questions of delicacy, the interpretation of a fidelity, of a promise, one had always in the last resort to make up one’s mind for one’s self. It was the idea of the application to the particular case, such a splendid one at last, that troubled her, and she admitted that it stirred very deep things. She didn’t pretend that such a responsibility was a simple matter; if it HAD been she wouldn’t have attempted to saddle me with any portion of it. The Mulvilles were sympathy itself, but were they absolutely candid? Could they indeed be, in their position — would it even have been to be desired? Yes, she had sent for me to ask no less than that of me — whether there was anything dreadful kept back. She made no allusion whatever to George Gravener — I thought her silence the only good taste and her gaiety perhaps a part of the very anxiety of that discretion, the effect of a determination that people shouldn’t know from herself that her relations with the man she was to marry were strained. All the weight, however, that she left me to throw was a sufficient implication of the weight HE had thrown in vain. Oh she knew the question of character was immense, and that one couldn’t entertain any plan for making merit comfortable without running the gauntlet of that terrible procession of interrogation-points which, like a young ladies’ school out for a walk, hooked their uniform noses at the tail of governess Conduct. But were we absolutely to hold that there was never, never, never an exception, never, never, never an occasion for liberal acceptance, for clever charity, for suspended pedantry — for letting one side, in short, outbalance another? When Miss Anvoy threw off this appeal I could have embraced her for so delightfully emphasising her unlikeness to Mrs. Saltram. “Why not have the courage of one’s forgiveness,” she asked, “as well as the enthusiasm of one’s adhesion?”

“Seeing how wonderfully you’ve threshed the whole thing out,” I evasively replied, “gives me an extraordinary notion of the point your enthusiasm has reached.”

She considered this remark an instant with her eyes on mine, and I divined that it struck her I might possibly intend it as a reference to some personal subjection to our fat philosopher, to some aberration of sensibility, some perversion of taste. At least I couldn’t interpret otherwise the sudden flash that came into her face. Such a manifestation, as the result of any word of mine, embarrassed me; but while I was thinking how to reassure her the flush passed away in a smile of exquisite good nature. “Oh you see one forgets so wonderfully how one dislikes him!” she said; and if her tone simply extinguished his strange figure with the brush of its compassion, it also rings in my ear to-day as the purest of all our praises. But with what quick response of fine pity such a relegation of the man himself made me privately sigh “Ah poor Saltram!” She instantly, with this, took the measure of all I didn’t believe, and it enabled her to go on: “What can one do when a person has given such a lift to one’s interest in life?”

“Yes, what can one do?” If I struck her as a little vague it was because I was thinking of another person. I indulged in another inarticulate murmur — “Poor George Gravener!” What had become of the lift HE had given that interest? Later on I made up my mind that she was sore and stricken at the appearance he presented of wanting the miserable money. This was the hidden reason of her alienation. The probable sincerity, in spite of the illiberality, of his scruples about the particular use of it under discussion didn’t efface the ugliness of his demand that they should buy a good house with it. Then, as for his alienation, he didn’t, pardonably enough, grasp the lift Frank Saltram had given her interest in life. If a mere spectator could ask that last question, with what rage in his heart the man himself might! He wasn’t, like her, I was to see, too proud to show me why he was disappointed.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/james/henry/coxon_fund/chapter10.html

Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:47