Confidence, by Henry James

Chapter 16

It was not till our hero reached Paris, on his return from the distant East, that the rumor I have just mentioned acquired an appreciable consistency. Here, indeed, it took the shape of authentic information. Among a number of delayed letters which had been awaiting him at his banker’s he found a communication from Gordon Wright. During the previous year or two his correspondence with this trusted — and trusting — friend had not been frequent, and Bernard had received little direct news of him. Three or four short letters had overtaken him in his wanderings — letters as cordial, to all appearance, if not as voluminous, as the punctual missives of an earlier time. Bernard made a point of satisfying himself that they were as cordial; he weighed them in the scales of impartial suspicion. It seemed to him on the whole that there was no relaxation of Gordon’s epistolary tone. If he wrote less often than he used to do, that was a thing that very commonly happened as men grew older. The closest intimacies, moreover, had phases and seasons, intermissions and revivals, and even if his friend had, in fact, averted his countenance from him, this was simply the accomplishment of a periodical revolution which would bring them in due order face to face again. Bernard made a point, himself, of writing tolerably often and writing always in the friendliest tone. He made it a matter of conscience — he liked to feel that he was treating Gordon generously, and not demanding an eye for an eye. The letter he found in Paris was so short that I may give it entire.

“My dear Bernard (it ran), I must write to you before I write to any one else, though unfortunately you are so far away that you can’t be the first to congratulate me. Try and not be the last, however. I am going to be married — as soon as possible. You know the young lady, so you can appreciate the situation. Do you remember little Blanche Evers, whom we used to see three years ago at Baden–Baden? Of course you remember her, for I know you used often to talk with her. You will be rather surprised, perhaps, at my having selected her as the partner of a life-time; but we manage these matters according to our lights. I am very much in love with her, and I hold that an excellent reason. I have been ready any time this year or two to fall in love with some simple, trusting, child-like nature. I find this in perfection in this charming young girl. I find her so natural and fresh. I remember telling you once that I did n’t wish to be fascinated — that I wanted to estimate scientifically the woman I should marry. I have altogether got over that, and I don’t know how I ever came to talk such nonsense. I am fascinated now, and I assure you I like it! The best of it is that I find it does n’t in the least prevent my estimating Blanche. I judge her very fairly — I see just what she is. She ‘s simple — that ‘s what I want; she ‘s tender — that ‘s what I long for. You will remember how pretty she is; I need n’t remind you of that. She was much younger then, and she has greatly developed and improved in these two or three years. But she will always be young and innocent — I don’t want her to improve too much. She came back to America with her mother the winter after we met her at Baden, but I never saw her again till three months ago. Then I saw her with new eyes, and I wondered I could have been so blind. But I was n’t ready for her till then, and what makes me so happy now is to know that I have come to my present way of feeling by experience. That gives me confidence — you see I am a reasoner still. But I am under the charm, for all my reason. We are to be married in a month — try and come back to the wedding. Blanche sends you a message, which I will give you verbatim. ‘Tell him I am not such a silly little chatterbox as I used to be at Baden. I am a great deal wiser; I am almost as clever as Angela Vivian.’ She has an idea you thought Miss Vivian very clever — but it is not true that she is equally so. I am very happy; come home and see.”

Bernard went home, but he was not able to reach the United States in time for Gordon’s wedding, which took place at midsummer. Bernard, arriving late in the autumn, found his friend a married man of some months’ standing, and was able to judge, according to his invitation, whether he appeared happy. The first effect of the letter I have just quoted had been an immense surprise; the second had been a series of reflections which were quite the negative of surprise; and these operations of Bernard’s mind had finally merged themselves in a simple sentiment of jollity. He was delighted that Gordon should be married; he felt jovial about it; he was almost indifferent to the question of whom he had chosen. Certainly, at first, the choice of Blanche Evers seemed highly incongruous; it was difficult to imagine a young woman less shaped to minister to Gordon’s strenuous needs than the light-hearted and empty-headed little flirt whose inconsequent prattle had remained for Bernard one of the least importunate memories of a charming time. Blanche Evers was a pretty little goose — the prettiest of little geese, perhaps, and doubtless the most amiable; but she was not a companion for a peculiarly serious man, who would like his wife to share his view of human responsibilities. What a singular selection — what a queer infatuation! Bernard had no sooner committed himself to this line of criticism than he stopped short, with the sudden consciousness of error carried almost to the point of naivetae. He exclaimed that Blanche Evers was exactly the sort of girl that men of Gordon Wright’s stamp always ended by falling in love with, and that poor Gordon knew very much better what he was about in this case than he had done in trying to solve the deep problem of a comfortable life with Angela Vivian. This was what your strong, solid, sensible fellows always came to; they paid, in this particular, a larger tribute to pure fancy than the people who were supposed habitually to cultivate that muse. Blanche Evers was what the French call an article of fantasy, and Gordon had taken a pleasure in finding her deliciously useless. He cultivated utility in other ways, and it pleased and flattered him to feel that he could afford, morally speaking, to have a kittenish wife. He had within himself a fund of common sense to draw upon, so that to espouse a paragon of wisdom would be but to carry water to the fountain. He could easily make up for the deficiencies of a wife who was a little silly, and if she charmed and amused him, he could treat himself to the luxury of these sensations for themselves. He was not in the least afraid of being ruined by it, and if Blanche’s birdlike chatter and turns of the head had made a fool of him, he knew it perfectly well, and simply took his stand upon his rights. Every man has a right to a little flower-bed, and life is not all mere kitchen-gardening. Bernard rapidly extemporized this rough explanation of the surprise his friend had offered him, and he found it all-sufficient for his immediate needs. He wrote Blanche a charming note, to which she replied with a great deal of spirit and grace. Her little letter was very prettily turned, and Bernard, reading it over two or three times, said to himself that, to do her justice, she might very well have polished her intellect a trifle during these two or three years. As she was older, she could hardly help being wiser. It even occurred to Bernard that she might have profited by the sort of experience that is known as the discipline of suffering. What had become of Captain Lovelock and that tender passion which was apparently none the less genuine for having been expressed in the slang of a humorous period? Had they been permanently separated by judicious guardians, and had she been obliged to obliterate his image from her lightly-beating little heart? Bernard had felt sure at Baden that, beneath her contemptuous airs and that impertinent consciousness of the difficulties of conquest by which a pretty American girl attests her allegiance to a civilization in which young women occupy the highest place — he had felt sure that Blanche had a high appreciation of her handsome Englishman, and that if Lovelock should continue to relish her charms, he might count upon the advantages of reciprocity. But it occurred to Bernard that Captain Lovelock had perhaps been faithless; that, at least, the discourtesy of chance and the inhumanity of an elder brother might have kept him an eternal prisoner at the Hotel de Hollande (where, for all Bernard knew to the contrary, he had been obliged to work out his destiny in the arduous character of a polyglot waiter); so that the poor young girl, casting backward glances along the path of Mrs. Vivian’s retreat, and failing to detect the onward rush of a rescuing cavalier, had perforce believed herself forsaken, and had been obliged to summon philosophy to her aid. It was very possible that her philosophic studies had taught her the art of reflection; and that, as she would have said herself, she was tremendously toned down. Once, at Baden, when Gordon Wright happened to take upon himself to remark that little Miss Evers was bored by her English gallant, Bernard had ventured to observe, in petto, that Gordon knew nothing about it. But all this was of no consequence now, and Bernard steered further and further away from the liability to detect fallacies in his friend. Gordon had engaged himself to marry, and our critical hero had not a grain of fault to find with this resolution. It was a capital thing; it was just what he wanted; it would do him a world of good. Bernard rejoiced with him sincerely, and regretted extremely that a series of solemn engagements to pay visits in England should prevent his being present at the nuptials.

They were well over, as I have said, when he reached New York. The honeymoon had waned, and the business of married life had begun. Bernard, at the end, had sailed from England rather abruptly. A friend who had a remarkably good cabin on one of the steamers was obliged by a sudden detention to give it up, and on his offering it to Longueville, the latter availed himself gratefully of this opportunity of being a little less discomposed than usual by the Atlantic billows. He therefore embarked at two days’ notice, a fortnight earlier than he had intended and than he had written to Gordon to expect him. Gordon, of course, had written that he was to seek no hospitality but that which Blanche was now prepared — they had a charming house — so graciously to dispense; but Bernard, nevertheless, leaving the ship early in the morning, had betaken himself to an hotel. He wished not to anticipate his welcome, and he determined to report himself to Gordon first and to come back with his luggage later in the day. After purifying himself of his sea-stains, he left his hotel and walked up the Fifth Avenue with all a newly-landed voyager’s enjoyment of terrestrial locomotion. It was a charming autumn day; there was a golden haze in the air; he supposed it was the Indian summer. The broad sidewalk of the Fifth Avenue was scattered over with dry leaves — crimson and orange and amber. He tossed them with his stick as he passed; they rustled and murmured with the motion, and it reminded him of the way he used to kick them in front of him over these same pavements in his riotous infancy. It was a pleasure, after many wanderings, to find himself in his native land again, and Bernard Longueville, as he went, paid his compliments to his mother-city. The brightness and gayety of the place seemed a greeting to a returning son, and he felt a throb of affection for the freshest, the youngest, the easiest and most good-natured of great capitals. On presenting himself at Gordon’s door, Bernard was told that the master of the house was not at home; he went in, however, to see the mistress. She was in her drawing-room, alone; she had on her bonnet, as if she had been going out. She gave him a joyous, demonstrative little welcome; she was evidently very glad to see him. Bernard had thought it possible she had “improved,” and she was certainly prettier than ever. He instantly perceived that she was still a chatterbox; it remained to be seen whether the quality of her discourse were finer.

“Well, Mr. Longueville,” she exclaimed, “where in the world did you drop from, and how long did it take you to cross the Atlantic? Three days, eh? It could n’t have taken you many more, for it was only the other day that Gordon told me you were not to sail till the 20th. You changed your mind, eh? I did n’t know you ever changed your mind. Gordon never changes his. That ‘s not a reason, eh, because you are not a bit like Gordon. Well, I never thought you were, except that you are a man. Now what are you laughing at? What should you like me call you? You are a man, I suppose; you are not a god. That ‘s what you would like me to call you, I have no doubt. I must keep that for Gordon? I shall certainly keep it a good while. I know a good deal more about gentlemen than I did when I last saw you, and I assure you I don’t think they are a bit god-like. I suppose that ‘s why you always drop down from the sky — you think it ‘s more divine. I remember that ‘s the way you arrived at Baden when we were there together; the first thing we knew, you were standing in the midst of us. Do you remember that evening when you presented yourself? You came up and touched Gordon on the shoulder, and he gave a little jump. He will give another little jump when he sees you today. He gives a great many little jumps; I keep him skipping about! I remember perfectly the way we were sitting that evening at Baden, and the way you looked at me when you came up. I saw you before Gordon — I see a good many things before Gordon. What did you look at me that way for? I always meant to ask you. I was dying to know.”

“For the simplest reason in the world,” said Bernard. “Because you were so pretty.”

“Ah no, it was n’t that! I know all about that look. It was something else — as if you knew something about me. I don’t know what you can have known. There was very little to know about me, except that I was intensely silly. Really, I was awfully silly that summer at Baden — you would n’t believe how silly I was. But I don’t see how you could have known that — before you had spoken to me. It came out in my conversation — it came out awfully. My mother was a good deal disappointed in Mrs. Vivian’s influence; she had expected so much from it. But it was not poor Mrs. Vivian’s fault, it was some one’s else. Have you ever seen the Vivians again? They are always in Europe; they have gone to live in Paris. That evening when you came up and spoke to Gordon, I never thought that three years afterward I should be married to him, and I don’t suppose you did either. Is that what you meant by looking at me? Perhaps you can tell the future. I wish you would tell my future!”

“Oh, I can tell that easily,” said Bernard.

“What will happen to me?”

“Nothing particular; it will be a little dull — the perfect happiness of a charming woman married to the best fellow in the world.”

“Ah, what a horrid future!” cried Blanche, with a little petulant cry. “I want to be happy, but I certainly don’t want to be dull. If you say that again you will make me repent of having married the best fellow in the world. I mean to be happy, but I certainly shall not be dull if I can help it.”

“I was wrong to say that,” said Bernard, “because, after all, my dear young lady, there must be an excitement in having so kind a husband as you have got. Gordon’s devotion is quite capable of taking a new form — of inventing a new kindness — every day in the year.”

Blanche looked at him an instant, with less than her usual consciousness of her momentary pose.

“My husband is very kind,” she said gently.

She had hardly spoken the words when Gordon came in. He stopped a moment on seeing Bernard, glanced at his wife, blushed, flushed, and with a loud, frank exclamation of pleasure, grasped his friend by both hands. It was so long since he had seen Bernard that he seemed a good deal moved; he stood there smiling, clasping his hands, looking him in the eyes, unable for some moments to speak. Bernard, on his side, was greatly pleased; it was delightful to him to look into Gordon’s honest face again and to return his manly grasp. And he looked well — he looked happy; to see that was more delightful yet. During these few instants, while they exchanged a silent pledge of renewed friendship, Bernard’s elastic perception embraced several things besides the consciousness of his own pleasure. He saw that Gordon looked well and happy, but that he looked older, too, and more serious, more marked by life. He looked as if something had happened to him — as, in fact, something had. Bernard saw a latent spark in his friend’s eye that seemed to question his own for an impression of Blanche — to question it eagerly, and yet to deprecate judgment. He saw, too — with the fact made more vivid by Gordon’s standing there beside her in his manly sincerity and throwing it into contrast — that Blanche was the same little posturing coquette of a Blanche whom, at Baden, he would have treated it as a broad joke that Gordon Wright should dream of marrying. He saw, in a word, that it was what it had first struck him as being — an incongruous union. All this was a good deal for Bernard to see in the course of half a minute, especially through the rather opaque medium of a feeling of irreflective joy; and his impressions at this moment have a value only in so far as they were destined to be confirmed by larger opportunity.

“You have come a little sooner than we expected,” said Gordon; “but you are all the more welcome.”

“It was rather a risk,” Blanche observed. “One should be notified, when one wishes to make a good impression.”

“Ah, my dear lady,” said Bernard, “you made your impression — as far as I am concerned — a long time ago, and I doubt whether it would have gained anything today by your having prepared an effect.”

They were standing before the fire-place, on the great hearth-rug, and Blanche, while she listened to this speech, was feeling, with uplifted arm, for a curl that had strayed from her chignon.

“She prepares her effects very quickly,” said Gordon, laughing gently. “They follow each other very fast!”

Blanche kept her hand behind her head, which was bent slightly forward; her bare arm emerged from her hanging sleeve, and, with her eyes glancing upward from under her lowered brows, she smiled at her two spectators. Her husband laid his hand on Bernard’s arm.

“Is n’t she pretty?” he cried; and he spoke with a sort of tender delight in being sure at least of this point.

“Tremendously pretty!” said Bernard. “I told her so half an hour before you came in.”

“Ah, it was time I should arrive!” Gordon exclaimed.

Blanche was manifestly not in the least discomposed by this frank discussion of her charms, for the air of distinguished esteem adopted by both of her companions diminished the crudity of their remarks. But she gave a little pout of irritated modesty — it was more becoming than anything she had done yet — and declared that if they wished to talk her over, they were very welcome; but she should prefer their waiting till she got out of the room. So she left them, reminding Bernard that he was to send for his luggage and remain, and promising to give immediate orders for the preparation of his apartment. Bernard opened the door for her to pass out; she gave him a charming nod as he stood there, and he turned back to Gordon with the reflection of her smile in his face. Gordon was watching him; Gordon was dying to know what he thought of her. It was a curious mania of Gordon’s, this wanting to know what one thought of the women he loved; but Bernard just now felt abundantly able to humor it. He was so pleased at seeing him tightly married.

“She ‘s a delightful creature,” Bernard said, with cordial vagueness, shaking hands with his friend again.

Gordon glanced at him a moment, and then, coloring a little, looked straight out of the window; whereupon Bernard remembered that these were just the terms in which, at Baden, after his companion’s absence, he had attempted to qualify Angela Vivian. Gordon was conscious — he was conscious of the oddity of his situation.

“Of course it surprised you,” he said, in a moment, still looking out of the window.

“What, my dear fellow?”

“My marriage.”

“Well, you know,” said Bernard, “everything surprises me. I am of a very conjectural habit of mind. All sorts of ideas come into my head, and yet when the simplest things happen I am always rather startled. I live in a reverie, and I am perpetually waked up by people doing things.”

Gordon transferred his eyes from the window to Bernard’s face — to his whole person.

“You are waked up? But you fall asleep again!”

“I fall asleep very easily,” said Bernard.

Gordon looked at him from head to foot, smiling and shaking his head.

“You are not changed,” he said. “You have travelled in unknown lands; you have had, I suppose, all sorts of adventures; but you are the same man I used to know.”

“I am sorry for that!”

“You have the same way of representing — of misrepresenting, yourself.”

“Well, if I am not changed,” said Bernard, “I can ill afford to lose so valuable an art.”

“Taking you altogether, I am glad you are the same,” Gordon answered, simply; “but you must come into my part of the house.”

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