Flickerbridge, by Henry James

Chapter V

They were as usual in the garden, and it hadn’t yet been so present to him that if he were only a happy cad there would be a good way to protect her. As she wouldn’t hear of his being yet beyond precautions she had gone into the house for a particular shawl that was just the thing for his knees, and, blinking in the watery sunshine, had come back with it across the fine little lawn. He was neither fatuous nor asinine, but he had almost to put it to himself as a small task to resist the sense of his absurd advantage with her. It filled him with horror and awkwardness, made him think of he didn’t know what, recalled something of Maupassant’s — the smitten “Miss Harriet” and her tragic fate. There was a preposterous possibility — yes, he held the strings quite in his hands — of keeping the treasure for himself. That was the art of life — what the real artist would consistently do. He would close the door on his impression, treat it as a private museum. He would see that he could lounge and linger there, live with wonderful things there, lie up there to rest and refit. For himself he was sure that after a little he should be able to paint there — do things in a key he had never thought of before. When she brought him the rug he took it from her and made her sit down on the bench and resume her knitting; then, passing behind her with a laugh, he placed it over her own shoulders; after which he moved to and fro before her, his hands in his pockets and his cigarette in his teeth. He was ashamed of the cigarette — a villainous false note; but she allowed, liked, begged him to smoke, and what he said to her on it, in one of the pleasantries she benevolently missed, was that he did so for fear of doing worse. That only showed how the end was really in sight. “I dare say it will strike you as quite awful, what I’m going to say to you, but I can’t help it. I speak out of the depths of my respect for you. It will seem to you horrid disloyalty to poor Addie. Yes — there we are; there I am at least in my naked monstrosity.” He stopped and looked at her till she might have been almost frightened. “Don’t let her come. Tell her not to. I’ve tried to prevent it, but she suspects.”

The poor woman wondered. “Suspects?”

“Well, I drew it, in writing to her, on reflexion, as mild as I could — having been visited in the watches of the night by the instinct of what might happen. Something told me to keep back my first letter — in which, under the first impression, I myself rashly ‘raved’; and I concocted instead of it an insincere and guarded report. But guarded as I was I clearly didn’t keep you ‘down,’ as we say, enough. The wonder of your colour — daub you over with grey as I might — must have come through and told the tale. She scents battle from afar — by which I mean she scents ‘quaintness.’ But keep her off. It’s hideous, what I’m saying — but I owe it to you. I owe it to the world. She’ll kill you.”

“You mean I shan’t get on with her?”

“Oh fatally! See how I have. And see how you have with ME. She’s intelligent, moreover, remarkably pretty, remarkably good. And she’ll adore you.”

“Well then?”

“Why that will be just how she’ll do for you.”

“Oh I can hold my own!” said Miss Wenham with the headshake of a horse making his sleigh-bells rattle in frosty air.

“Ah but you can’t hold hers! She’ll rave about you. She’ll write about you. You’re Niagara before the first white traveller — and you know, or rather you can’t know, what Niagara became AFTER that gentleman. Addie will have discovered Niagara. She’ll understand you in perfection; she’ll feel you down to the ground; not a delicate shade of you will she lose or let any one else lose. You’ll be too weird for words, but the words will nevertheless come. You’ll be too exactly the real thing and be left too utterly just as you are, and all Addie’s friends and all Addie’s editors and contributors and readers will cross the Atlantic and flock to Flickerbridge just in order so — unanimously, universally, vociferously — to leave you. You’ll be in the magazines with illustrations; you’ll be in the papers with headings; you’ll be everywhere with everything. You don’t understand — you think you do, but you don’t. Heaven forbid you SHOULD understand! That’s just your beauty — your ‘sleeping’ beauty. But you needn’t. You can take me on trust. Don’t have her. Give as a pretext, as a reason, anything in the world you like. Lie to her — scare her away. I’ll go away and give you up — I’ll sacrifice everything myself.” Granger pursued his exhortation, convincing himself more and more. “If I saw my way out, my way completely through, I’D pile up some fabric of fiction for her — I should only want to be sure of its not tumbling down. One would have, you see, to keep the thing up. But I’d throw dust in her eyes. I’d tell her you don’t do at all — that you’re not in fact a desirable acquaintance. I’d tell her you’re vulgar, improper, scandalous; I’d tell her you’re mercenary, designing, dangerous; I’d tell her the only safe course is immediately to let you drop. I’d thus surround you with an impenetrable legend of conscientious misrepresentation, a circle of pious fraud, and all the while privately keep you for myself.”

She had listened to him as if he were a band of music and she herself a small shy garden-party. “I shouldn’t like you to go away. I shouldn’t in the least like you not to come again.”

“Ah there it is!” he replied. “How can I come again if Addie ruins you?”

“But how will she ruin me — even if she does what you say? I know I’m too old to change and really much too queer to please in any of the extraordinary ways you speak of. If it’s a question of quizzing me I don’t think my cousin, or any one else, will have quite the hand for it that YOU seem to have. So that if YOU haven’t ruined me —!”

“But I HAVE— that’s just the point!” Granger insisted. “I’ve undermined you at least. I’ve left after all terribly little for Addie to do.”

She laughed in clear tones. “Well then, we’ll admit that you’ve done everything but frighten me.”

He looked at her with surpassing gloom. “No — that again is one of the most dreadful features. You’ll positively like it — what’s to come. You’ll be caught up in a chariot of fire like the prophet — wasn’t there, was there one? — of old. That’s exactly why — if one could but have done it — you’d have been to be kept ignorant and helpless. There’s something or other in Latin that says it’s the finest things that change the most easily for the worse. You already enjoy your dishonour and revel in your shame. It’s too late — you’re lost!”

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