In the Cage, by Henry James

Chapter 13

He never brought Cissy back, but Cissy came one day without him, as fresh as before from the hands of Marguerite, or only, at the season’s end, a trifle less fresh. She was, however, distinctly less serene. She had brought nothing with her and looked about with impatience for the forms and the place to write. The latter convenience, at Cocker’s, was obscure and barely adequate, and her clear voice had the light note of disgust which her lover’s never showed as she responded with a “There?” of surprise to the gesture made by the counter-clerk in answer to her sharp question. Our young friend was busy with half a dozen people, but she had dispatched them in her most businesslike manner by the time her ladyship flung through the bars this light of re-appearance. Then the directness with which the girl managed to receive the accompanying missive was the result of the concentration that had caused her to make the stamps fly during the few minutes occupied by the production of it. This concentration, in turn, may be described as the effect of the apprehension of imminent relief. It was nineteen days, counted and checked off, since she had seen the object of her homage; and as, had he been in London, she should, with his habits, have been sure to see him often, she was now about to learn what other spot his presence might just then happen to sanctify. For she thought of them, the other spots, as ecstatically conscious of it, expressively happy in it.

But, gracious, how handsome was her ladyship, and what an added price it gave him that the air of intimacy he threw out should have flowed originally from such a source! The girl looked straight through the cage at the eyes and lips that must so often have been so near as own — looked at them with a strange passion that for an instant had the result of filling out some of the gaps, supplying the missing answers, in his correspondence. Then as she made out that the features she thus scanned and associated were totally unaware of it, that they glowed only with the colour of quite other and not at all guessable thoughts, this directly added to their splendour, gave the girl the sharpest impression she had yet received of the uplifted, the unattainable plains of heaven, and yet at the same time caused her to thrill with a sense of the high company she did somehow keep. She was with the absent through her ladyship and with her ladyship through the absent. The only pang — but it didn’t matter — was the proof in the admirable face, in the sightless preoccupation of its possessor, that the latter hadn’t a notion of her. Her folly had gone to the point of half believing that the other party to the affair must sometimes mention in Eaton Square the extraordinary little person at the place from which he so often wired. Yet the perception of her visitor’s blankness actually helped this extraordinary little person, the next instant, to take refuge in a reflexion that could be as proud as it liked. “How little she knows, how little she knows!” the girl cried to herself; for what did that show after all but that Captain Everard’s telegraphic confidant was Captain Everard’s charming secret? Our young friend’s perusal of her ladyship’s telegram was literally prolonged by a momentary daze: what swam between her and the words, making her see them as through rippled shallow sunshot water, was the great, the perpetual flood of “How much I know — how much I know!” This produced a delay in her catching that, on the face, these words didn’t give her what she wanted, though she was prompt enough with her remembrance that her grasp was, half the time, just of what was not on the face. “Miss Dolman, Parade Lodge, Parade Terrace, Dover. Let him instantly know right one, Hotel de France, Ostend. Make it seven nine four nine six one. Wire me alternative Burfield’s.”

The girl slowly counted. Then he was at Ostend. This hooked on with so sharp a click that, not to feel she was as quickly letting it all slip from her, she had absolutely to hold it a minute longer and to do something to that end. Thus it was that she did on this occasion what she never did — threw off a “Reply paid?” that sounded officious, but that she partly made up for by deliberately affixing the stamps and by waiting till she had done so to give change. She had, for so much coolness, the strength that she considered she knew all about Miss Dolman.

“Yes — paid.” She saw all sorts of things in this reply, even to a small suppressed start of surprise at so correct an assumption; even to an attempt the next minute at a fresh air of detachment. “How much, with the answer?” The calculation was not abstruse, but our intense observer required a moment more to make it, and this gave her ladyship time for a second thought. “Oh just wait!” The white begemmed hand bared to write rose in sudden nervousness to the side of the wonderful face which, with eyes of anxiety for the paper on the counter, she brought closer to the bars of the cage. “I think I must alter a word!” On this she recovered her telegram and looked over it again; but she had a new, an obvious trouble, and studied it without deciding and with much of the effect of making our young woman watch her.

This personage, meanwhile, at the sight of her expression, had decided on the spot. If she had always been sure they were in danger her ladyship’s expression was the best possible sign of it. There was a word wrong, but she had lost the right one, and much clearly depended on her finding it again. The girl, therefore, sufficiently estimating the affluence of customers and the distraction of Mr. Buckton and the counter-clerk, took the jump and gave it. “Isn’t it Cooper’s?”

It was as if she had bodily leaped — cleared the top of the cage and alighted on her interlocutress. “Cooper’s?” — the stare was heightened by a blush. Yes, she had made Juno blush.

This was all the greater reason for going on. “I mean instead of Burfield’s.”

Our young friend fairly pitied her; she had made her in an instant so helpless, and yet not a bit haughty nor outraged. She was only mystified and scared. “Oh, you know —?”

“Yes, I know!” Our young friend smiled, meeting the other’s eyes, and, having made Juno blush, proceeded to patronise her. “I’ll do it” — she put out a competent hand. Her ladyship only submitted, confused and bewildered, all presence of mind quite gone; and the next moment the telegram was in the cage again and its author out of the shop. Then quickly, boldly, under all the eyes that might have witnessed her tampering, the extraordinary little person at Cocker’s made the proper change. People were really too giddy, and if they were, in a certain case, to be caught, it shouldn’t be the fault of her own grand memory. Hadn’t it been settled weeks before? — for Miss Dolman it was always to be “Cooper’s.”

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