Flickerbridge, by Henry James

Chapter IV

“Oh yes, she said you were engaged to her. That was why — since I HAD broken out — she thought I might like to see you; as I assure you I’ve been so delighted to. But AREN’T you?” the good lady asked as if she saw in his face some ground for doubt.

“Assuredly — if she says so. It may seem very odd to you, but I haven’t known, and yet I’ve felt that, being nothing whatever to you directly, I need some warrant for consenting thus to be thrust on you. We WERE,” the young man explained, “engaged a year ago; but since then (if you don’t mind my telling you such things; I feel now as if I could tell you anything!) I haven’t quite known how I stand. It hasn’t seemed we were in a position to marry. Things are better now, but I haven’t quite known how she’d see them. They were so bad six months ago that I understood her, I thought, as breaking off. I haven’t broken; I’ve only accepted, for the time — because men must be easy with women — being treated as ‘the best of friends.’ Well, I try to be. I wouldn’t have come here if I hadn’t been. I thought it would be charming for her to know you — when I heard from her the extraordinary way you had dawned upon her; and charming therefore if I could help her to it. And if I’m helping you to know HER,” he went on, “isn’t that charming too?”

“Oh I so want to!” Miss Wenham murmured in her unpractical impersonal way. “You’re so different!” she wistfully declared.

“It’s YOU, if I may respectfully, ecstatically say so, who are different. That’s the point of it all. I’m not sure that anything so terrible really ought to happen to you as to know us.”

“Well,” said Miss Wenham, “I do know you a little by this time, don’t I? And I don’t find it terrible. It’s a delightful change for me.”

“Oh I’m not sure you ought to have a delightful change!”

“Why not — if you do?”

“Ah I can bear it. I’m not sure you can. I’m too bad to spoil — I AM spoiled. I’m nobody, in short; I’m nothing. I’ve no type. You’re ALL type. It has taken delicious long years of security and monotony to produce you. You fit your frame with a perfection only equalled by the perfection with which your frame fits you. So this admirable old house, all time-softened white within and time-faded red without, so everything that surrounds you here and that has, by some extraordinary mercy, escaped the inevitable fate of exploitation: so it all, I say, is the sort of thing that, were it the least bit to fall to pieces, could never, ah never more be put together again. I have, dear Miss Wenham,” Granger went on, happy himself in his extravagance, which was yet all sincere, and happier still in her deep but altogether pleased mystification — “I’ve found, do you know, just the thing one has ever heard of that you most resemble. You’re the Sleeping Beauty in the Wood.”

He still had no compunction when he heard her bewilderedly sigh: “Oh you’re too delightfully droll!”

“No, I only put thing’s just as they are, and as I’ve also learned a little, thank heaven, to see them — which isn’t, I quite agree with you, at all what any one does. You’re in the deep doze of the spell that has held you for long years, and it would be a shame, a crime, to wake you up. Indeed I already feel with a thousand scruples that I’m giving you the fatal shake. I say it even though it makes me sound a little as if I thought myself the fairy prince.”

She gazed at him with her queerest kindest look, which he was getting used to in spite of a faint fear, at the back of his head, of the strange things that sometimes occurred when lonely ladies, however mature, began to look at interesting young men from over the seas as if the young men desired to flirt. “It’s so wonderful,” she said, “that you should be so very odd and yet so very good-natured.” Well, it all came to the same thing — it was so wonderful that SHE should be so simple and yet so little of a bore. He accepted with gratitude the theory of his languor — which moreover was real enough and partly perhaps why he was so sensitive; he let himself go as a convalescent, let her insist on the weakness always left by fever. It helped him to gain time, to preserve the spell even while he talked of breaking it; saw him through slow strolls and soft sessions, long gossips, fitful hopeless questions — there was so much more to tell than, by any contortion, she COULD— and explanations addressed gallantly and patiently to her understanding, but not, by good fortune, really reaching it. They were perfectly at cross-purposes, and it was the better, and they wandered together in the silver haze with all communication blurred.

When they sat in the sun in her formal garden he quite knew how little even the tenderest consideration failed to disguise his treating her as the most exquisite of curiosities. The term of comparison most present to him was that of some obsolete musical instrument. The old-time order of her mind and her air had the stillness of a painted spinnet that was duly dusted, gently rubbed, but never tuned nor played on. Her opinions were like dried rose~leaves; her attitudes like British sculpture; her voice what he imagined of the possible tone of the old gilded silver-stringed harp in one of the corners of the drawing-room. The lonely little decencies and modest dignities of her life, the fine grain of its conservatism, the innocence of its ignorance, all its monotony of stupidity and salubrity, its cold dulness and dim brightness, were there before him. Meanwhile within him strange things took place. It was literally true that his impression began again, after a lull, to make him nervous and anxious, and for reasons peculiarly confused, almost grotesquely mingled, or at least comically sharp. He was distinctly an agitation and a new taste — that he could see; and he saw quite as much therefore the excitement she already drew from the vision of Addie, an image intensified by the sense of closer kinship and presented to her, clearly, with various erratic enhancements, by her friend the doctor’s daughter. At the end of a few days he said to her: “Do you know she wants to come without waiting any longer? She wants to come while I’m here. I received this morning her letter proposing it, but I’ve been thinking it over and have waited to speak to you. The thing is, you see, that if she writes to YOU proposing it — ”

“Oh I shall be so particularly glad!”


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