In the Cage, by Henry James

Chapter 26

Mrs. Jordan looked away from her now — looked, she thought, rather injured and, as if trifled with, even a little angry. The mention of Lady Bradeen had frustrated for a while the convergence of our heroine’s thoughts; but with this impression of her old friend’s combined impatience and diffidence they began again to whirl round her, and continued it till one of them appeared to dart at her, out of the dance, as if with a sharp peck. It came to her with a lively shock, with a positive sting, that Mr. Drake was — could it be possible? With the idea she found herself afresh on the edge of laughter, of a sudden and strange perversity of mirth. Mr. Drake loomed, in a swift image, before her; such a figure as she had seen in open doorways of houses in Cocker’s quarter — majestic, middle-aged, erect, flanked on either side by a footman and taking the name of a visitor. Mr. Drake then verily was a person who opened the door! Before she had time, however, to recover from the effect of her evocation, she was offered a vision which quite engulfed it. It was communicated to her somehow that the face with which she had seen it rise prompted Mrs. Jordan to dash, a bit wildly, at something, at anything, that might attenuate criticism. “Lady Bradeen’s re-arranging — she’s going to be married.”

“Married?” The girl echoed it ever so softly, but there it was at last.

“Didn’t you know it?”

She summoned all her sturdiness. “No, she hasn’t told me.”

“And her friends — haven’t they?”

“I haven’t seen any of them lately. I’m not so fortunate as you.”

Mrs. Jordan gathered herself. “Then you haven’t even heard of Lord Bradeen’s death?”

Her comrade, unable for a moment to speak, gave a slow headshake. “You know it from Mr. Drake?” It was better surely not to learn things at all than to learn them by the butler.

“She tells him everything.”

“And he tells you — I see.” Our young lady got up; recovering her muff and her gloves she smiled. “Well, I haven’t unfortunately any Mr. Drake. I congratulate you with all my heart. Even without your sort of assistance, however, there’s a trifle here and there that I do pick up. I gather that if she’s to marry any one it must quite necessarily be my friend.”

Mrs. Jordan was now also on her feet. “Is Captain Everard your friend?”

The girl considered, drawing on a glove. “I saw, at one time, an immense deal of him.”

Mrs. Jordan looked hard at the glove, but she hadn’t after all waited for that to be sorry it wasn’t cleaner. “What time was that?”

“It must have been the time you were seeing so much of Mr. Drake.” She had now fairly taken it in: the distinguished person Mrs. Jordan was to marry would answer bells and put on coals and superintend, at least, the cleaning of boots for the other distinguished person whom she might — well, whom she might have had, if she had wished, so much more to say to. “Good~bye,” she added; “good-bye.”

Mrs. Jordan, however, again taking her muff from her, turned it over, brushed it off and thoughtfully peeped into it. “Tell me this before you go. You spoke just now of your own changes. Do you mean that Mr. Mudge —?”

“Mr. Mudge has had great patience with me — he has brought me at last to the point. We’re to be married next month and have a nice little home. But he’s only a grocer, you know” — the girl met her friend’s intent eyes — “so that I’m afraid that, with the set you’ve got into, you won’t see your way to keep up our friendship.”

Mrs. Jordan for a moment made no answer to this; she only held the muff up to her face, after which she gave it back. “You don’t like it. I see, I see.”

To her guest’s astonishment there were tears now in her eyes. “I don’t like what?” the girl asked.

“Why my engagement. Only, with your great cleverness,” the poor lady quavered out, “you put it in your own way. I mean that you’ll cool off. You already have —!” And on this, the next instant, her tears began to flow. She succumbed to them and collapsed; she sank down again, burying her face and trying to smother her sobs.

Her young friend stood there, still in some rigour, but taken much by surprise even if not yet fully moved to pity. “I don’t put anything in any ‘way,’ and I’m very glad you’re suited. Only, you know, you did put to me so splendidly what, even for me, if I had listened to you, it might lead to.”

Mrs. Jordan kept up a mild thin weak wail; then, drying her eyes, as feebly considered this reminder. “It has led to my not starving!” she faintly gasped.

Our young lady, at this, dropped into the place beside her, and now, in a rush, the small silly misery was clear. She took her hand as a sign of pitying it, then, after another instant, confirmed this expression with a consoling kiss. They sat there together; they looked out, hand in hand, into the damp dusky shabby little room and into the future, of no such very different suggestion, at last accepted by each. There was no definite utterance, on either side, of Mr. Drake’s position in the great world, but the temporary collapse of his prospective bride threw all further necessary light; and what our heroine saw and felt for in the whole business was the vivid reflexion of her own dreams and delusions and her own return to reality. Reality, for the poor things they both were, could only be ugliness and obscurity, could never be the escape, the rise. She pressed her friend — she had tact enough for that — with no other personal question, brought on no need of further revelations, only just continued to hold and comfort her and to acknowledge by stiff little forbearances the common element in their fate. She felt indeed magnanimous in such matters; since if it was very well, for condolence or reassurance, to suppress just then invidious shrinkings, she yet by no means saw herself sitting down, as she might say, to the same table with Mr. Drake. There would luckily, to all appearance, be little question of tables; and the circumstance that, on their peculiar lines, her friend’s interests would still attach themselves to Mayfair flung over Chalk Farm the first radiance it had shown. Where was one’s pride and one’s passion when the real way to judge of one’s luck was by making not the wrong but the right comparison? Before she had again gathered herself to go she felt very small and cautious and thankful. “We shall have our own house,” she said, “and you must come very soon and let me show it you.”

We shall have our own too,” Mrs. Jordan replied; “for, don’t you know? he makes it a condition that he sleeps out?”

“A condition?” — the girl felt out of it.

“For any new position. It was on that he parted with Lord Rye. His lordship can’t meet it. So Mr. Drake has given him up.”

“And all for you?” — our young woman put it as cheerfully as possible.

“For me and Lady Bradeen. Her ladyship’s too glad to get him at any price. Lord Rye, out of interest in us, has in fact quite made her take him. So, as I tell you, he will have his own establishment.”

Mrs. Jordan, in the elation of it, had begun to revive; but there was nevertheless between them rather a conscious pause — a pause in which neither visitor nor hostess brought out a hope or an invitation. It expressed in the last resort that, in spite of submission and sympathy, they could now after all only look at each other across the social gulf. They remained together as if it would be indeed their last chance, still sitting, though awkwardly, quite close, and feeling also — and this most unmistakeably — that there was one thing more to go into. By the time it came to the surface, moreover, our young friend had recognised the whole of the main truth, from which she even drew again a slight irritation. It was not the main truth perhaps that most signified; but after her momentary effort, her embarrassment and her tears Mrs. Jordan had begun to sound afresh — and even without speaking — the note of a social connexion. She hadn’t really let go of it that she was marrying into society. Well, it was a harmless compensation, and it was all the prospective bride of Mr. Mudge had to leave with her.

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