Crapy Cornelia, by Henry James

V

What he actually took up from a little old Twelfth–Street table that piously preserved the plain mahogany circle, with never a curl nor a crook nor a hint of a brazen flourish, what he paused there a moment for commerce with, his back presented to crapy Cornelia, who sat taking that view of him, during this opportunity, very protrusively and frankly and fondly, was one of the wasted mementos just mentioned, over which he both uttered and suppressed a small comprehensive cry. He stood there another minute to look at it, and when he turned about still kept it in his hand, only holding it now a litde behind him. “You must have come back to stay — with all your beautiful things. What else does it mean?”

“‘Beautiful’?” his old friend commented with her brow all wrinkled and her lips thrust out in expressive dispraise. They might at that rate have been scarce more beautiful than she herself. “Oh, don’t talk so — after Mrs. Worthingham’s! They’re wonderful, if you will: such things, such things! But one’s own poor relics and odds and ends are one’s own at least; and one has — yes — come back to them. They’re all I have in the world to come back to. They were stored, and what I was paying —!” Miss Rasch wofully added.

He had possession of the small old picture; he hovered there; he put his eyes again to it intently; then again held it a little behind him as if it might have been snatched away or the very feel of it, pressed against him, was good to his palm. “Mrs. Worthingham’s things? You think them beautiful?”

Cornelia did now, if ever, show an odd face. “Why certainly prodigious, or whatever. Isn’t that conceded?”

“No doubt every horror, at the pass we’ve come to, is conceded. That’s just what I complain of.”

“Do you complain?” — she drew it out as for surprise: she couldn’t have imagined such a thing.

“To me her things are awful. They’re the newest of the new.”

“Ah, but the old forms!”

“Those are the most blatant. I mean the swaggering reproductions.”

“Oh but,” she pleaded, “we can’t all be really old.”

“No, we can’t, Cornelia. But you can —!” said White–Mason with the frankest appreciation.

She looked up at him from where she sat as he could imagine her looking up at the curate at Bognor. “Thank you, sir! If that’s all you want ——!”

“It is” he said, “all I want — or almost.”

“Then no wonder such a creature as that,” she lightly moralised, “won’t suit you!”

He bent upon her, for all the weight of his question, his smoothest stare. “You hold she certainly won’t suit me?”

“Why, what can I tell about it? Haven’t you by this time found out?”

“No, but I think I’m finding.” With which he began again to explore.

Miss Rasch immensely wondered. “You mean you don’t expect to come to an understanding with her?” And then as even to this straight challenge he made at first no answer: “Do you mean you give it up?”

He waited some instants more, but not meeting her eyes — only looking again about the room. “What do you think of my chance?”

“Oh,” his companion cried, “what has what I think to do with it? How can I think anything but that she must like you?”

“Yes — of course. But how much?”

“Then don’t you really know?” Cornelia asked.

He kept up his walk, oddly preoccupied and still not looking at her. “Do you, my dear?”

She waited a little. “If you haven’t really put it to her I don’t suppose she knows.”

This at last arrested him again. “My dear Cornelia, she doesn’t know ——!”

He had paused as for the desperate tone, or at least the large emphasis of it, so that she took him up. “The more reason then to help her to find it out.”

“I mean,” he explained, “that she doesn’t know anything.”

“Anything?”

“Anything else, I mean — even if she does know that.”

Cornelia considered of it. “But what else need she — in particular — know? Isn’t that the principal thing?”

“Well” — and he resumed his circuit — “she doesn’t know anything that we know. But nothing,” he re-emphasised — “nothing whatever!”

“Well, can’t she do without that?”

“Evidently she can — and evidently she does, beautifully. But the question is whether I can!”

He had paused once more with his point — but she glared, poor Cornelia, with her wonder. “Surely if you know for yourself ——!”

“Ah, it doesn’t seem enough for me to know for myself! One wants a woman,” he argued — but still, in his prolonged tour, quite without his scowl — “to know for one, to know with one. That’s what you do now,” he candidly put to her.

It made her again gape. “Do you mean you want to marry me?

He was so full of what he did mean, however, that he failed even to notice it. “She doesn’t in the least know, for instance, how old I am.”

“That’s because you’re so young!”

“Ah, there you are!” — and he turned off afresh and as if almost in disgust. It left her visibly perplexed — though even the perplexed Cornelia was still the exceedingly pointed; but he had come to her aid after another turn. “Remember, please, that I’m pretty well as old as you.”

She had all her point at least, while she bridled and blinked, for this. “You’re exactly a year and ten months older.”

It checked him there for delight. “You remember my birthday?”

She twinkled indeed like some far-off light of home. “I remember every one’s. It’s a little way I’ve always had — and that I’ve never lost.”

He looked at her accomplishment, across the room, as at some striking, some charming phenomenon. “Well, that’s the sort of thing I want!” All the ripe candour of his eyes confirmed it.

What could she do therefore, she seemed to ask him, but repeat her question of a moment before? — which indeed presently she made up her mind to. “Do you want to marry me?

It had this time better success — if the term may be felt in any degree to apply. All his candour, or more of it at least, was in his slow, mild, kind, considering head-shake. “No, Cornelia — not to marry you.”

His discrimination was a wonder; but since she was clearly treating him now as if everything about him was, so she could as exquisitely meet it. “Not at least,” she convulsively smiled, “until you’ve honourably tried Mrs. Worthingham. Don’t you really mean to?” she gallantly insisted.

He waited again a little; then he brought out: “I’ll tell you presently.” He came back, and as by still another mere glance over the room, to what seemed to him so much nearer. “That table was old Twelfth–Street?”

“Everything here was.”

“Oh, the pure blessings! With you, ah, with you, I haven’t to wear a green shade.” And he had retained meanwhile his small photograph, which he again showed himself. “Didn’t we talk of Mary Cardew?”

“Why, do you remember it?” She marvelled to extravagance.

“You make me. You connect me with it. You connect it with we.” He liked to display to her this excellent use she thus had, the service she rendered. “There are so many connections — there will be so many. I feel how, with you, they must all come up again for me: in fact you’re bringing them out already, just while I look at you, as fast as ever you can. The fact that you knew every one —!” he went on; yet as if there were more in that too than he could quite trust himself about.

“Yes, I knew every one,” said Cornelia Rasch; but this time with perfect simplicity. “I knew, I imagine, more than you do — or more than you did.”

It kept him there, it made him wonder with his eyes on her. “Things about them — our people?”

“Our people. Ours only now.”

Ah, such an interest as he felt in this — taking from her while, so far from scowling, he almost gaped, all it might mean! “Ours indeed — and it’s awfully good they are; or that we’re still here for them! Nobody else is — nobody but you: not a cat!”

“Well, I am a cat!” Cornelia grinned.

“Do you mean you can tell me things —?” It was too beautiful to believe.

“About what really was?” she artfully considered, holding him immensely now. “Well, unless they’ve come to you with time; unless you’ve learned — or found out.”

“Oh,” he reassuringly cried — reassuringly, it most seemed, for himself — “nothing has come to me with time, everything has gone from me. How can I find out now! What creature has an idea ——?”

She threw up her hands with the shrug of old days — the sharp little shrug his sisters used to imitate and that she hadn’t had to go to Europe for. The only thing was that he blessed her for bringing it back.

“Ah, the ideas of people now ——!”

“Yes, their ideas are certainly not about us” But he ruefully faced it. “We’ve none the less, however, to live with them.”

“With their ideas —?” Cornelia questioned.

“With them — these modern wonders; such as they are!” Then he went on: “It must have been to help me you’ve come back.”

She said nothing for an instant about that, only nodding instead at his photograph. “What has become of yours? I mean of her.”

This time it made him turn pale. “You remember I have one?”

She kept her eyes on him. “In a ‘pork-pie’ hat, with her hair in a long net. That was so ‘smart’ then; especially with one’s skirt looped up, over one’s hooped magenta petticoat, in little festoons, and a row of very big onyx beads over one’s braided velveteen sack — braided quite plain and very broad, don’t you know?”

He smiled for her extraordinary possession of these things — she was as prompt as if she had had them before her. “Oh, rather — ‘don’t I know?’ You wore brown velveteen, and, on those remarkably small hands, funny gauntlets — like mine.”

“Oh, do you remember? But like yours?” she wondered.

“I mean like hers in my photograph.” But he came back to the present picture. “This is better, however, for really showing her lovely head.”

“Mary’s head was a perfection!” Cornelia testified.

“Yes — it was better than her heart.”

“Ah, don’t say that!” she pleaded. “You weren’t fair.”

“Don’t you think I was fair?” It interested him immensely — and the more that he indeed mightn’t have been; which he seemed somehow almost to hope.

“She didn’t think so — to the very end.”

“She didn’t?” — ah the right things Cornelia said to him! But before she could answer he was studying again closely the small faded face. “No, she doesn’t, she doesn’t. Oh, her charming sad eyes and the way they say that, across the years, straight into mine! But I don’t know, I don’t know!” White–Mason quite comfortably sighed.

His companion appeared to appreciate this effect. “That’s just the way you used to flirt with her, poor thing. Wouldn’t you like to have it?” she asked.

“This — for my very own?” He looked up delighted. “I really may?”

“Well, if you’ll give me yours. We’ll exchange.”

“That’s a charming idea. We’ll exchange. But you must come and get it at my rooms — where you’ll see my things.”

For a little she made no answer — as if for some feeling. Then she said: “You asked me just now why I’ve come back.”

He stared as for the connection; after which with a smile: “Not to do that ——?”

She waited briefly again, but with a queer little look. “I can do those things now; and — yes! — that’s in a manner why. I came,” she then said, “because I knew of a sudden one day — knew as never before — that I was old.”

“I see. I see.” He quite understood — she had notes that so struck him. “And how did you like it?”

She hesitated — she decided. “Well, if I liked it, it was on the principle perhaps on which some people like high game!”

“High game — that’s good!” he laughed. “Ah, my dear, we’re ‘high’!”

She shook her head. “No, not you — yet. I at any rate didn’t want any more adventures,” Cornelia said.

He showed their small relic again with assurance. “You wanted us. Then here we are. Oh how we can talk! — with all those things you know! You are an invention. And you’ll see there are things J know. I shall turn up here — well, daily.”

She took it in, but only after a moment answered. “There was something you said just now you’d tell me. Don’t you mean to try ——?”

“Mrs. Worthingham?” He drew from within his coat his pocket-book and carefully found a place in it for Mary Cardew’s carte-de-visite, folding it together with deliberation over which he put it back. Finally he spoke. “No — I’ve decided. I can’t — I don’t want to.”

Cornelia marvelled — or looked as if she did. “Not for all she has?”

“Yes — I know all she has. But I also know all she hasn’t. And, as I told you, she herself doesn’t — hasn’t a glimmer of a suspicion of it; and never will have.”

Cornelia magnanimously thought “No — but she knows other things.”

He shook his head as at the portentous heap of them. “Too many — too many. And other indeed — so other! Do you know,” he went on, “that it’s as if you — by turning up for me — had brought that home to me?”

“‘For you,’” she candidly considered. “But what — since you can’t marry me! — can you do with me?”

Well, he seemed to have it all. “Everything. I can live with you — just this way.” To illustrate which he dropped into the other chair by her fire; where, leaning back, he gazed at the flame. “I can’t give you up. It’s very curious. It has come over me as it did over you when you renounced Bognor. That’s it — I know it at last, and I see one can like it. I’m ‘high.’ You needn’t deny it. That’s my taste. I’m old.” And in spite of the considerable glow there of her little household altar he said it without the scowl.

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http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/james/henry/crapy_cornelia/chapter5.html

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