Confidence, by Henry James

Chapter 17

Yes, he was conscious — he was very conscious; so Bernard reflected during the two or three first days of his visit to his friend. Gordon knew it must seem strange to so irreverent a critic that a man who had once aspired to the hand of so intelligent a girl — putting other things aside — as Angela Vivian should, as the Ghost in “Hamlet” says, have “declined upon” a young lady who, in force of understanding, was so very much Miss Vivian’s inferior; and this knowledge kept him ill at his ease and gave him a certain pitiable awkwardness. Bernard’s sense of the anomaly grew rapidly less acute; he made various observations which helped it to seem natural. Blanche was wonderfully pretty; she was very graceful, innocent, amusing. Since Gordon had determined to marry a little goose, he had chosen the animal with extreme discernment. It had quite the plumage of a swan, and it sailed along the stream of life with an extraordinary lightness of motion. He asked himself indeed at times whether Blanche were really so silly as she seemed; he doubted whether any woman could be so silly as Blanche seemed. He had a suspicion at times that, for ends of her own, she was playing a part — the suspicion arising from the fact that, as usually happens in such cases, she over-played it. Her empty chatter, her futility, her childish coquetry and frivolity — such light wares could hardly be the whole substance of any woman’s being; there was something beneath them which Blanche was keeping out of sight. She had a scrap of a mind somewhere, and even a little particle of a heart. If one looked long enough one might catch a glimpse of these possessions. But why should she keep them out of sight, and what were the ends that she proposed to serve by this uncomfortable perversity? Bernard wondered whether she were fond of her husband, and he heard it intimated by several good people in New York who had had some observation of the courtship, that she had married him for his money. He was very sorry to find that this was taken for granted, and he determined, on the whole, not to believe it. He was disgusted with the idea of such a want of gratitude; for, if Gordon Wright had loved Miss Evers for herself, the young lady might certainly have discovered the intrinsic value of so disinterested a suitor. Her mother had the credit of having made the match. Gordon was known to be looking for a wife; Mrs. Evers had put her little feather-head of a daughter very much forward, and Gordon was as easily captivated as a child by the sound of a rattle. Blanche had an affection for him now, however; Bernard saw no reason to doubt that, and certainly she would have been a very flimsy creature indeed if she had not been touched by his inexhaustible kindness. She had every conceivable indulgence, and if she married him for his money, at least she had got what she wanted. She led the most agreeable life conceivable, and she ought to be in high good-humor. It was impossible to have a prettier house, a prettier carriage, more jewels and laces for the adornment of a plump little person. It was impossible to go to more parties, to give better dinners, to have fewer privations or annoyances. Bernard was so much struck with all this that, advancing rapidly in the intimacy of his gracious hostess, he ventured to call her attention to her blessings. She answered that she was perfectly aware of them, and there was no pretty speech she was not prepared to make about Gordon.

“I know what you want to say,” she went on; “you want to say that he spoils me, and I don’t see why you should hesitate. You generally say everything you want, and you need n’t be afraid of me. He does n’t spoil me, simply because I am so bad I can’t be spoiled; but that ‘s of no consequence. I was spoiled ages ago; every one spoiled me — every one except Mrs. Vivian. I was always fond of having everything I want, and I generally managed to get it. I always had lovely clothes; mamma thought that was a kind of a duty. If it was a duty, I don’t suppose it counts as a part of the spoiling. But I was very much indulged, and I know I have everything now. Gordon is a perfect husband; I believe if I were to ask him for a present of his nose, he would cut it off and give it to me. I think I will ask him for a small piece of it some day; it will rather improve him to have an inch or two less. I don’t say he ‘s handsome; but he ‘s just as good as he can be. Some people say that if you are very fond of a person you always think them handsome; but I don’t agree with that at all. I am very fond of Gordon, and yet I am not blinded by affection, as regards his personal appearance. He ‘s too light for my taste, and too red. And because you think people handsome, it does n’t follow that you are fond of them. I used to have a friend who was awfully handsome — the handsomest man I ever saw — and I was perfectly conscious of his defects. But I ‘m not conscious of Gordon’s, and I don’t believe he has got any. He ‘s so intensely kind; it ‘s quite pathetic. One would think he had done me an injury in marrying me, and that he wanted to make up for it. If he has done me an injury I have n’t discovered it yet, and I don’t believe I ever shall. I certainly shall not as long as he lets me order all the clothes I want. I have ordered five dresses this week, and I mean to order two more. When I told Gordon, what do you think he did? He simply kissed me. Well, if that ‘s not expressive, I don’t know what he could have done. He kisses me about seventeen times a day. I suppose it ‘s very improper for a woman to tell any one how often her husband kisses her; but, as you happen to have seen him do it, I don’t suppose you will be scandalized. I know you are not easily scandalized; I am not afraid of you. You are scandalized at my getting so many dresses? Well, I told you I was spoiled — I freely acknowledge it. That ‘s why I was afraid to tell Gordon — because when I was married I had such a lot of things; I was supposed to have dresses enough to last for a year. But Gordon had n’t to pay for them, so there was no harm in my letting him feel that he has a wife. If he thinks I am extravagant, he can easily stop kissing me. You don’t think it would be easy to stop? It ‘s very well, then, for those that have never begun!”

Bernard had a good deal of conversation with Blanche, of which, so far as she was concerned, the foregoing remarks may serve as a specimen. Gordon was away from home during much of the day; he had a chemical laboratory in which he was greatly interested, and which he took Bernard to see; it was fitted up with the latest contrivances for the pursuit of experimental science, and was the resort of needy young students, who enjoyed, at Gordon’s expense, the opportunity for pushing their researches. The place did great honor to Gordon’s liberality and to his ingenuity; but Blanche, who had also paid it a visit, could never speak of it without a pretty little shudder.

“Nothing would induce me to go there again,” she declared, “and I consider myself very fortunate to have escaped from it with my life. It ‘s filled with all sorts of horrible things, that fizzle up and go off, or that make you turn some dreadful color if you look at them. I expect to hear a great clap some day, and half an hour afterward to see Gordon brought home in several hundred small pieces, put up in a dozen little bottles. I got a horrid little stain in the middle of my dress that one of the young men — the young savants — was so good as to drop there. Did you see the young savants who work under Gordon’s orders? I thought they were too forlorn; there is n’t one of them you would look at. If you can believe it, there was n’t one of them that looked at me; they took no more notice of me than if I had been the charwoman. They might have shown me some attention, at least, as the wife of the proprietor. What is it that Gordon ‘s called — is n’t there some other name? If you say ‘proprietor,’ it sounds as if he kept an hotel. I certainly don’t want to pass for the wife of an hotel-keeper. What does he call himself? He must have some name. I hate telling people he ‘s a chemist; it sounds just as if he kept a shop. That ‘s what they call the druggists in England, and I formed the habit while I was there. It makes me feel as if he were some dreadful little man, with big green bottles in the window and ‘night-bell’ painted outside. He does n’t call himself anything? Well, that ‘s exactly like Gordon! I wonder he consents to have a name at all. When I was telling some one about the young men who work under his orders — the young savants — he said I must not say that — I must not speak of their working ‘under his orders.’ I don’t know what he would like me to say! Under his inspiration!”

During the hours of Gordon’s absence, Bernard had frequent colloquies with his friend’s wife, whose irresponsible prattle amused him, and in whom he tried to discover some faculty, some quality, which might be a positive guarantee of Gordon’s future felicity. But often, of course, Gordon was an auditor as well; I say an auditor, because it seemed to Bernard that he had grown to be less of a talker than of yore. Doubtless, when a man finds himself united to a garrulous wife, he naturally learns to hold his tongue; but sometimes, at the close of one of Blanche’s discursive monologues, on glancing at her husband just to see how he took it, and seeing him sit perfectly silent, with a fixed, inexpressive smile, Bernard said to himself that Gordon found the lesson of listening attended with some embarrassments. Gordon, as the years went by, was growing a little inscrutable; but this, too, in certain circumstances, was a usual tendency. The operations of the mind, with deepening experience, became more complex, and people were less apt to emit immature reflections at forty than they had been in their earlier days. Bernard felt a great kindness in these days for his old friend; he never yet had seemed to him such a good fellow, nor appealed so strongly to the benevolence of his disposition. Sometimes, of old, Gordon used to irritate him; but this danger appeared completely to have passed away. Bernard prolonged his visit; it gave him pleasure to be able to testify in this manner to his good will. Gordon was the kindest of hosts, and if in conversation, when his wife was present, he gave precedence to her superior powers, he had at other times a good deal of pleasant bachelor-talk with his guest. He seemed very happy; he had plenty of occupation and plenty of practical intentions. The season went on, and Bernard enjoyed his life. He enjoyed the keen and brilliant American winter, and he found it very pleasant to be treated as a distinguished stranger in his own land — a situation to which his long and repeated absences had relegated him. The hospitality of New York was profuse; the charm of its daughters extreme; the radiance of its skies superb. Bernard was the restless and professionless mortal that we know, wandering in life from one vague experiment to another, constantly gratified and never satisfied, to whom no imperious finality had as yet presented itself; and, nevertheless, for a time he contrived to limit his horizon to the passing hour, and to make a good many hours pass in the drawing-room of a demonstrative flirt.

For Mrs. Gordon was a flirt; that had become tolerably obvious. Bernard had known of old that Blanche Evers was one, and two or three months’ observation of his friend’s wife assured him that she did not judge a certain ethereal coquetry to be inconsistent with the conjugal character. Blanche flirted, in fact, more or less with all men, but her opportunity for playing her harmless batteries upon Bernard were of course exceptionally large. The poor fellow was perpetually under fire, and it was inevitable that he should reply with some precision of aim. It seemed to him all child’s play, and it is certain that when his back was turned to his pretty hostess he never found himself thinking of her. He had not the least reason to suppose that she thought of him — excessive concentration of mind was the last vice of which he accused her. But before the winter was over, he discovered that Mrs. Gordon Wright was being talked about, and that his own name was, as the newspapers say, mentioned in connection with that of his friend’s wife. The discovery greatly disgusted him; Bernard Longueville’s chronicler must do him the justice to say that it failed to yield him an even transient thrill of pleasure. He thought it very improbable that this vulgar rumor had reached Gordon’s ears; but he nevertheless — very naturally — instantly made up his mind to leave the house. He lost no time in saying to Gordon that he had suddenly determined to go to California, and that he was sure he must be glad to get rid of him. Gordon expressed no surprise and no regret. He simply laid his hand on his shoulder and said, very quietly, looking at him in the eyes —

“Very well; the pleasantest things must come to an end.”

It was not till an hour afterwards that Bernard said to himself that his friend’s manner of receiving the announcement of his departure had been rather odd. He had neither said a word about his staying longer nor urged him to come back again, and there had been (it now seemed to Bernard) an audible undertone of relief in the single sentence with which he assented to his visitor’s withdrawal. Could it be possible that poor Gordon was jealous of him, that he had heard this loathsome gossip, or that his own observation had given him an alarm? He had certainly never betrayed the smallest sense of injury; but it was to be remembered that even if he were uneasy, Gordon was quite capable, with his characteristic habit of weighing everything, his own honor included, in scrupulously adjusted scales, of denying himself the luxury of active suspicion. He would never have let a half suspicion make a difference in his conduct, and he would not have dissimulated; he would simply have resisted belief. His hospitality had been without a flaw, and if he had really been wishing Bernard out of his house, he had behaved with admirable self-control. Bernard, however, followed this train of thought a very short distance. It was odious to him to believe that he could have appeared to Gordon, however guiltlessly, to have invaded even in imagination the mystic line of the marital monopoly; not to say that, moreover, if one came to that, he really cared about as much for poor little Blanche as for the weather-cock on the nearest steeple. He simply hurried his preparations for departure, and he told Blanche that he should have to bid her farewell on the following day. He had found her in the drawing-room, waiting for dinner. She was expecting company to dine, and Gordon had not yet come down.

She was sitting in the vague glow of the fire-light, in a wonderful blue dress, with two little blue feet crossed on the rug and pointed at the hearth. She received Bernard’s announcement with small satisfaction, and expended a great deal of familiar ridicule on his project of a journey to California. Then, suddenly getting up and looking at him a moment —

“I know why you are going,” she said.

“I am glad to hear my explanations have not been lost.”

“Your explanations are all nonsense. You are going for another reason.”

“Well,” said Bernard, “if you insist upon it, it ‘s because you are too sharp with me.”

“It ‘s because of me. So much as that is true.” Bernard wondered what she was going to say — if she were going to be silly enough to allude to the most impudent of fictions; then, as she stood opening and closing her blue fan and smiling at him in the fire-light, he felt that she was silly enough for anything. “It ‘s because of all the talk — it ‘s because of Gordon. You need n’t be afraid of Gordon.”

“Afraid of him? I don’t know what you mean,” said Bernard, gravely.

Blanche gave a little laugh.

“You have discovered that people are talking about us — about you and me. I must say I wonder you care. I don’t care, and if it ‘s because of Gordon, you might as well know that he does n’t care. If he does n’t care, I don’t see why I should; and if I don’t, I don’t see why you should!”

“You pay too much attention to such insipid drivel in even mentioning it.”

“Well, if I have the credit of saying what I should n’t — to you or to any one else — I don’t see why I should n’t have the advantage too. Gordon does n’t care — he does n’t care what I do or say. He does n’t care a pin for me!”

She spoke in her usual rattling, rambling voice, and brought out this declaration with a curious absence of resentment.

“You talk about advantage,” said Bernard. “I don’t see what advantage it is to you to say that.”

“I want to — I must — I will! That ‘s the advantage!” This came out with a sudden sharpness of tone; she spoke more excitedly. “He does n’t care a button for me, and he never did! I don’t know what he married me for. He cares for something else — he thinks of something else. I don’t know what it is — I suppose it ‘s chemistry!”

These words gave Bernard a certain shock, but he had his intelligence sufficiently in hand to contradict them with energy.

“You labor under a monstrous delusion,” he exclaimed. “Your husband thinks you fascinating.”

This epithet, pronounced with a fine distinctness, was ringing in the air when the door opened and Gordon came in. He looked for a moment from Bernard to his wife, and then, approaching the latter, he said, softly —

“Do you know that he leaves us tomorrow?”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/james/henry/j2c/chapter17.html

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