An International Episode, by Henry James

2

The young Englishmen emerged from their cabin and amused themselves with wandering about the immense labyrinthine ship, which struck them as a monstrous floating hotel or even as a semi-submerged kindergarten. It was densely crowded with passengers, the larger number of whom appeared to be ladies and very young children; and in the big saloons, ornamented in white and gold, which followed each other in surprising succession, beneath the swinging gas-lights and among the small side-passages where the negro domestics of both sexes assembled with an air of amused criticism, every one was moving to and fro and exchanging loud and familiar observations. Eventually, at the instance of a blackamoor more closely related to the scene than his companions, our friends went and had “supper” in a wonderful place arranged like a theatre, where, from a gilded gallery upon which little boxes appeared to open, a large orchestra played operatic selections and, below, people handed about bills of fare in the manner of programmes. All this was sufficiently curious; but the agreeable thing, later, was to sit out on one of the great white decks in the warm breezy darkness and, the vague starlight aiding, make out the line of low mysterious coast. Our travellers tried American cigars — those of Mr. Westgate — and conversed, as they usually conversed, with many odd silences, lapses of logic and incongruities of transition; like a pair who have grown old together and learned to guess each other’s sense; or, more especially, like persons so conscious of a common point of view that missing links and broken lights and loose ends, the unexpressed and the understood, could do the office of talk.

“We really seem to be going out to sea,” Percy Beaumont observed. “Upon my honour we’re going back to England. He has shipped us off again. I call that ‘real mean.’”

“I daresay it’s all right,” said Lord Lambeth. “I want to see those pretty girls at Newport. You know he told us the place was an island, and aren’t all islands in the sea?”

“Well,” resumed the elder traveller after a while, “if his house is as good as his cigars I guess we shall muddle through.”

“I fancy he’s awfully ‘prominent,’ you know, and I rather liked him,” Lord Lambeth pursued as if this appreciation of Mr. Westgate had but just glimmered on him.

His comrade, however, engaged in another thought, didn’t so much as appear to catch it. “I say, I guess we had better remain at the inn. I don’t think I like the way he spoke of his house. I rather object to turning in with such a tremendous lot of women.”

“Oh I don’t mind,” said Lord Lambeth. And then they smoked a while in silence. “Fancy his thinking we do no work in England!” the young man resumed.

But it didn’t rouse his friend, who only replied: “I daresay he didn’t really a bit think so.”

“Well, I guess they don’t know much about England over here!” his lordship humorously sighed. After which there was another long pause. “He has got us out of a hole,” observed the young nobleman.

Percy Beaumont genially assented. “Nobody certainly could have been more civil.”

“Littledale said his wife was great fun,” Lord Lambeth then contributed.

“Whose wife — Littledale’s?”

“Our benefactor’s. Mrs. Westgate. What’s his name? J. L. It ‘kind of’ sounds like a number. But I guess it’s a high number,” he continued with freshened gaiety.

The same influences appeared, however, with Mr. Beaumont to make rather for anxiety. “What was fun to Littledale,” he said at last a little sententiously, “may be death to us.”

“What do you mean by that?” his companion asked. “I’m as good a man as Littledale.”

“My dear boy, I hope you won’t begin to flirt,” said the elder man.

His friend smoked acutely. “Well, I daresay I shan’t begin.”

“With a married woman, if she’s bent upon it, it’s all very well,” Mr. Beaumont allowed. “But our friend mentioned a young lady — a sister, a sister-inlaw. For God’s sake keep free of her.”

“How do you mean, ‘free’?”

“Depend upon it she’ll try to land you.”

“Oh rot!” said Lord Lambeth.

“American girls are very ‘cute,’” the other urged.

“So much the better,” said the young man.

“I fancy they’re always up to some wily game,” Mr. Beaumont developed.

“They can’t be worse than they are in England,” said Lord Lambeth judicially.

“Ah, but in England you’ve got your natural protectors. You’ve got your mother and sisters.”

“My mother and sisters —!” the youth began with a certain energy. But he stopped in time, puffing at his cigar.

“Your mother spoke to me about it with tears in her eyes,” said his monitor. “She said she felt very nervous. I promised to keep you out of mischief.”

“You had better take care of yourself!” cried Mr. Beaumont’s charge.

“Ah,” the responsible party returned, “I haven’t the expectation of — whatever it is you expect. Not to mention other attractions.”

“Well,” said Lord Lambeth, “don’t cry out before you’re hurt!”

It was certainly very much cooler at Newport, where the travellers found themselves assigned to a couple of diminutive bedrooms in a far-away angle of an immense hotel. They had gone ashore in the early summer twilight and had very promptly put themselves to bed; thanks to which circumstance and to their having, during the previous hours, in their commodious cabin, slept the sleep of youth and health, they began to feel, towards eleven o’clock, very alert and inquisitive. They looked out of their windows across a row of small green fields, bordered with low stone dykes of rude construction, and saw a deep blue ocean lying beneath a deep blue sky and flecked now and then with scintillating patches of foam. A strong fresh breeze came in through the curtainless apertures and prompted our young men to observe generously that it didn’t seem half a bad climate. They made other observations after they had emerged from their rooms in pursuit of breakfast — a meal of which they partook in a huge bare hall where a hundred negroes in white jackets shuffled about on an uncarpeted floor; where the flies were superabundant and the tables and dishes covered over with a strange voluminous integument of coarse blue gauze; and where several little boys and girls, who had risen late, were seated in fastidious solitude at the morning repast. These young persons had not the morning paper before them, but were engaged in languid perusal of the bill of fare.

This latter document was a great puzzle to our friends, who, on reflecting that its bewildering categories took account of breakfast alone, had the uneasy prevision of an encyclopedic dinner-list. They found copious diversion at their inn, an enormous wooden structure for the erection of which it struck them the virgin forests of the West must have been quite laid waste. It was perforated from end to end with immense bare corridors, through which a strong draught freely blew, bearing along wonderful figures of ladies in white morning-dresses and clouds of Valenciennes lace, who floated down the endless vistas on expanded furbelows very much as angels spread their wings. In front was a gigantic verandah on which an army might have encamped — a vast wooden terrace with a roof as high as the nave of a cathedral. Here our young men enjoyed, as they supposed, a glimpse of American society, which was distributed over the measureless expanse in a variety of sedentary attitudes and appeared to consist largely of pretty young girls, dressed as for a fête champêtre, swaying to and fro in rocking-chairs, fanning themselves with large straw fans and enjoying an enviable exemption from social cares. Lord Lambeth had a theory, which it might be interesting to trace to its origin, that it would be not only agreeable, but easily possible, to enter into relations with one of these young ladies; and his companion found occasion to check his social yearning.

“You had better take care — else you’ll have an offended father or brother pulling out a bowie-knife.”

“I assure you it’s all right,” Lord Lambeth replied. “You know the Americans come to these big hotels to make acquaintances.”

“I know nothing about it, and neither do you,” said his comrade, who, like a clever man, had begun to see that the observation of American society demanded a readjustment of their standard.

“Hang it, then, let’s find out!” he cried with some impatience. “You know I don’t want to miss anything.”

“We will find out,” said Percy Beaumont very reasonably. “We’ll go and see Mrs. Westgate and make all the proper inquiries.”

And so the inquiring pair, who had this lady’s address inscribed in her husband’s hand on a card, descended from the verandah of the big hotel and took their way, according to direction, along a large straight road, past a series of fresh-looking villas, embosomed in shrubs and flowers and enclosed in an ingenious variety of wooden palings. The morning shone and fluttered, the villas stood up bravely in their smartness, and the walk of the young travellers turned all to confidence. Everything looked as if it had received a coat of fresh paint the day before — the red roofs, the green shutters, the clean bright browns and buffs of the house-fronts. The flower-beds on the little lawns sparkled in the radiant air and the gravel in the short carriage-sweeps flashed and twinkled. Along the road came a hundred little basket-phaetons in which, almost always, a couple of ladies were sitting — ladies in white dresses and long white gloves, holding the reins and looking at the two Englishmen, whose nationality was not elusive, through fine blue veils, tied tightly about their faces as if to guard their complexions. At last the visitors came within sight of the sea again, and then, having interrogated a gardener over the paling of a villa, turned into an open gate. Here they found themselves face to face with the ocean and with a many-pointed much-balconied structure, resembling a magnified chalet, perched on a green embankment just above it. The house had a verandah of extraordinary width all round, and a great many doors and windows standing open to the verandah. These various apertures had, together, such an accessible hospitable air, such a breezy flutter, within, of light curtains, such expansive thresholds and reassuring interiors, that our friends hardly knew which was the regular entrance and, after hesitating a moment, presented themselves at one of the windows. The room within was indistinct, but in a moment a graceful figure vaguely shaped itself in the rich-looking gloom — a lady came to meet them. Then they saw she had been seated at a table writing, and that, hearing them, she had got up. She stepped out into the light; she wore a frank charming smile, with which she held out her hand to Percy Beaumont.

“Oh you must be Lord Lambeth and Mr. Beaumont. I’ve heard from my husband that you were coming. I make you warmly welcome.” And she shook hands with each of her guests. Her guests were a little shy, but they made a gallant effort; they responded with smiles and exclamations, they apologised for not knowing the front door. The lady returned with vivacity that when she wanted to see people very much she didn’t insist on those distinctions, and that Mr. Westgate had written to her of his English friends in terms that made her really anxious. “He says you’re so terribly prostrated,” she reported.

“Oh you mean by the heat?”— Percy Beaumont rose to it. “We were rather knocked up, but we feel wonderfully better. We had such a jolly — a — voyage down here. It’s so very good of you to mind.”

“Yes, it’s so very kind of you,” murmured Lord Lambeth.

Mrs. Westgate stood smiling; Mrs. Westgate was pretty. “Well, I did mind, and I thought of sending for you this morning to the Ocean House. I’m very glad you’re better, and I’m charmed you’re really with us. You must come round to the other side of the piazza.” And she led the way, with a light smooth step, looking back at the young men and smiling.

The other side of the piazza was, as Lord Lambeth presently remarked, a very jolly place. It was of the most liberal proportions and, with its awnings, its fanciful chairs, its cushions and rugs, its view of the ocean close at hand and tumbling along the base of the low cliffs whose level tops intervened in lawnlike smoothness, formed a charming complement to the drawing-room. As such it was in course of employment at the present hour; it was occupied by a social circle. There were several ladies and two or three gentlemen, to whom Mrs. Westgate proceeded to introduce the distinguished strangers. She mentioned a great many names, very freely and distinctly; the young Englishmen, shuffling about and bowing, were rather bewildered. But at last they were provided with chairs — low wicker chairs, gilded and tied with a great many ribbons — and one of the ladies (a very young person with a little snub nose and several dimples) offered Percy Beaumont a fan. The fan was also adorned with pink love-knots, but the more guarded of our couple declined it, though he was very hot. Presently, however, everything turned to ease; the breeze from the sea was delicious and the view charming; the people sitting about looked fresh and fair. Several of the younger ladies were clearly girls, and the gentlemen slim bright youths such as our friends had seen the day before in New York. The ladies were working on bands of tapestry, and one of the young men had an open book in his lap. Percy afterwards learned from a lady that this young man had been reading aloud — that he was from Boston and was very fond of reading aloud. Percy pronounced it a great pity they had interrupted him; he should like so much (from all he had heard) to listen to a Bostonian read. Couldn’t the young man be induced to go on?

“Oh no,” said this informant very freely; “he wouldn’t be able to get the young ladies to attend to him now.”

There was something very friendly, Beaumont saw, in the attitude of the company; they looked at their new recruits with an air of animated sympathy and interest; they smiled, brightly and unanimously, at everything that dropped from either. Lord Lambeth and his companion felt they were indeed made cordially welcome. Mrs. Westgate seated herself between them, and while she talked continuously to each they had occasion to observe that she came up to their friend Littledale’s promise. She was thirty years old, with the eyes and the smile of a girl of seventeen, and was light and graceful — elegant, exquisite. Mrs. Westgate was, further, what she had occasion to describe some person, among her many winged words, as being, all spontaneity. Frank and demonstrative, she appeared always — while she looked at you delightedly with her beautiful young eyes — to be making sudden confessions and concessions, breaking out after momentary wonders.

“We shall expect to see a great deal of you,” she said to Lord Lambeth with her bland intensity. “We’re very fond of Englishmen here; that is, there are a great many we’ve been fond of. After a day or two you must come and stay with us; we hope you’ll stay a nice long while. Newport’s quite attractive when you come really to know it, when you know plenty of people. Of course you and Mr. Beaumont will have no difficulty about that. Englishmen are very well received here; there are almost always two or three of them about. I think they always like it, and I must say I should think they would. They receive particular attention — I must say I think they sometimes get spoiled; but I’m sure you and Mr. Beaumont are proof against that. My husband tells me you’re friends of Captain Littledale’s; he was such a charming man. He made himself so agreeable here that I wonder he didn’t stay. That would have carried out his system. It couldn’t have been pleasanter for him in his own country. Though I suppose it’s very pleasant in England too — for English people. I don’t know myself; I’ve been there very little. I’ve been a great deal abroad, but I always cling to the Continent. I must say I’m extremely fond of Paris; you know we Americans always are; we go there when we die. Did you ever hear that before? — it was said by a great wit. I mean the good Americans; but we’re all good — you’ll see that for yourself. All I know of England is London, and all I know of London is that place — on that little corner, you know — where you buy jackets, jackets with that coarse braid and those big buttons. They make very good jackets in London, I’ll do you the justice to say that. And some people like the hats. But about the hats I was always a heretic; I always got my hats in Paris. You can’t wear an English hat — at least, I never could — unless you dress your hair à l’anglaise; and I must say that’s a talent I never possessed. In Paris they’ll make things to suit your peculiarities; but in England I think you like much more to have — how shall I say it? — one thing for everybody. I mean as regards dress. I don’t know about other things; but I’ve always supposed that in other things everything was different. I mean according to the people — according to the classes and all that. I’m afraid you’ll think I don’t take a very favourable view; but you know you can’t take a very favourable view in Dover Street and the month of November. That has always been my fate. Do you know Jones’s Hotel in Dover Street? That’s all I know of England. Of course every one admits that the English hotels are your weak point. There was always the most frightful fog — I couldn’t see to try my things on. When I got over to America — into the light — I usually found they were twice too big. The next time I mean to go at the right season; I guess I’ll go next year. I want very much to take my sister; she has never been to England. I don’t know whether you know what I mean by saying that the Englishmen who come here sometimes get spoiled. I mean they take things as a matter of course — things that are done for them. Now naturally anything’s a matter of course only when the Englishmen are very nice. But you’ll say — oh yes you will, or you would if some of you ever did say much! — they’re almost always very nice. You can’t expect this to be nearly such an interesting country as England; there are not nearly so many things to see, and we haven’t your country life. I’ve never seen anything of your country life; when I’m in Europe I’m always on the Continent. But I’ve heard a great deal about it; I know that when you’re among yourselves in the country you have the most beautiful time. Of course we’ve nothing of that sort, we’ve nothing on that scale. I don’t apologise, Lord Lambeth; some Americans are always apologising; you must have noticed that. We’ve the reputation of always boasting and ‘blowing’ and waving the American flag; but I must say that what strikes me is that we’re perpetually making excuses and trying to smooth things over. The American flag has quite gone out of fashion; it’s very carefully folded up, like a tablecloth the worse for wear. Why should we apologise? The English never apologise — do they? No, I must say I never apologise. You must take us as we come — with all our imperfections on our heads. Of course we haven’t your country life and your old ruins and your great estates and your leisure-class and all that — though I don’t really know anything about them, because when I go over I always cling to the Continent. But if we haven’t I should think you might find it a pleasant change — I think any country’s pleasant where they have pleasant manners. Captain Littledale told me he had never seen such pleasant manners as at Newport, and he had been a great deal in European society. Hadn’t he been in the diplomatic service? He told me the dream of his life was to get appointed to a diplomatic post in Washington. But he doesn’t seem to have succeeded. Perhaps that was only a part of his pleasant manners. I suppose at any rate that in England promotion — and all that sort of thing — is fearfully slow. With us, you know, it’s a great deal too quick. You see I admit our drawbacks. But I must confess I think Newport an ideal place. I don’t know anything like it anywhere. Captain Littledale told me he didn’t know anything like it anywhere. It’s entirely different from most watering-places; it’s a much more refined life. I must say I think that when one goes to a foreign country one ought to enjoy the differences. Of course there are differences; otherwise what did one come abroad for? Look for your pleasure in the differences, Lord Lambeth; that’s the way to do it; and then I am sure you’ll find American society — at least the Newport phase quite unique. I wish very much Mr. Westgate were here; but he’s dreadfully confined to New York. I suppose you think that’s very strange — for a gentleman. Only you see we haven’t any leisure-class.”

Mrs. Westgate’s discourse was delivered with a mild merciless monotony, a paucity of intonation, an impartial flatness that suggested a flowery mead scrupulously “done over” by a steam roller that had reduced its texture to that of a drawing-room carpet. Lord Lambeth listened to her with, it must be confessed, a rather ineffectual attention, though he summoned to his aid such a show as he might of discriminating motions and murmurs. He had no great faculty for apprehending generalisations. There were some three or four indeed which, in the play of his own intelligence, he had originated and which had sometimes appeared to meet the case — any case; yet he felt he had never known such a case as Mrs. Westgate or as her presentation of her cases. But at the present time he could hardly have been said to follow this exponent as she darted fish-like through the sea of speculation. Fortunately she asked for no special rejoinder, since she looked about at the rest of the company as well and smiled at Mr. Beaumont on the other side of her as if he too must understand her and agree with her. He was measurably more successful than his companion; for besides being, as we know, cleverer, his attention was not vaguely distracted by close vicinity to a remarkably interesting young person with dark hair and blue eyes. This was the situation of Lord Lambeth, to whom it occurred after a while that the young person with blue eyes and dark hair might be the pretty sister of whom Mrs. Westgate had spoken. She presently turned to him with a remark establishing her identity.

“It’s a great pity you couldn’t have brought my brother-inlaw with you. It’s a great shame he should be in New York on such days as these.”

“Oh yes — it’s very stuffy,” said Lord Lambeth.

“It must be dreadful there,” said the pretty sister.

“I daresay he’s immensely taken up,” the young man returned with a sense of conscientiously yearning toward American realities.

“The gentlemen in America work too much,” his friend went on.

“Oh do they? Well, I daresay they like it,” he hopefully threw out.

“I don’t like it. One never sees them.”

“Don’t you really?” asked Lord Lambeth. “I shouldn’t have fancied that.”

“Have you come to study American manners?” the blue eyes and dark hair went on.

“Oh I don’t know. I just came over for the joke of it. I haven’t got long.” Then occurred a pause, after which he began again. “But he will turn up here, won’t he?”

“I certainly hope he will. He must help to entertain you and Mr. Beaumont.”

Lord Lambeth looked at her from handsome eyes that were brown. “Do you suppose he’d have come down with us if we had pressed it?”

The pretty girl treated this as rather an easy conundrum. “I daresay he would,” she smiled.

“Really!” said the young Englishman. “Well, he was no end civil.”

His young woman seemed much amused; this at least was in her eyes, which freely met Lord Lambeth’s. “He would be. He’s a perfect husband. But all Americans are that,” she confidently continued.

“Really!” Lord Lambeth exclaimed again; and wondered whether all American ladies had such a passion for generalising as these two.

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