A London Life, by Henry James

I

It was raining, apparently, but she didn’t mind — she would put on stout shoes and walk over to Plash. She was restless and so fidgety that it was a pain; there were strange voices that frightened her — they threw out the ugliest intimations — in the empty rooms at home. She would see old Mrs. Berrington, whom she liked because she was so simple, and old Lady Davenant, who was staying with her and who was interesting for reasons with which simplicity had nothing to do. Then she would come back to the children’s tea — she liked even better the last half-hour in the schoolroom, with the bread and butter, the candles and the red fire, the little spasms of confidence of Miss Steet the nursery-governess, and the society of Scratch and Parson (their nicknames would have made you think they were dogs) her small, magnificent nephews, whose flesh was so firm yet so soft and their eyes so charming when they listened to stories. Plash was the dower-house and about a mile and a half, through the park, from Mellows. It was not raining after all, though it had been; there was only a grayness in the air, covering all the strong, rich green, and a pleasant damp, earthy smell, and the walks were smooth and hard, so that the expedition was not arduous.

The girl had been in England more than a year, but there were some satisfactions she had not got used to yet nor ceased to enjoy, and one of these was the accessibility, the convenience of the country. Within the lodge-gates or without them it seemed all alike a park — it was all so intensely ‘property.’ The very name of Plash, which was quaint and old, had not lost its effect upon her, nor had it become indifferent to her that the place was a dower-house — the little red-walled, ivied asylum to which old Mrs. Berrington had retired when, on his father’s death, her son came into the estates. Laura Wing thought very ill of the custom of the expropriation of the widow in the evening of her days, when honour and abundance should attend her more than ever; but her condemnation of this wrong forgot itself when so many of the consequences looked right — barring a little dampness: which was the fate sooner or later of most of her unfavourable judgments of English institutions. Iniquities in such a country somehow always made pictures; and there had been dower-houses in the novels, mainly of fashionable life, on which her later childhood was fed. The iniquity did not as a general thing prevent these retreats from being occupied by old ladies with wonderful reminiscences and rare voices, whose reverses had not deprived them of a great deal of becoming hereditary lace. In the park, half-way, suddenly, Laura stopped, with a pain — a moral pang — that almost took away her breath; she looked at the misty glades and the dear old beeches (so familiar they were now and loved as much as if she owned them); they seemed in their unlighted December bareness conscious of all the trouble, and they made her conscious of all the change. A year ago she knew nothing, and now she knew almost everything; and the worst of her knowledge (or at least the worst of the fears she had raised upon it) had come to her in that beautiful place, where everything was so full of peace and purity, of the air of happy submission to immemorial law. The place was the same but her eyes were different: they had seen such sad, bad things in so short a time. Yes, the time was short and everything was strange. Laura Wing was too uneasy even to sigh, and as she walked on she lightened her tread almost as if she were going on tiptoe.

At Plash the house seemed to shine in the wet air — the tone of the mottled red walls and the limited but perfect lawn to be the work of an artist’s brush. Lady Davenant was in the drawing-room, in a low chair by one of the windows, reading the second volume of a novel. There was the same look of crisp chintz, of fresh flowers wherever flowers could be put, of a wall-paper that was in the bad taste of years before, but had been kept so that no more money should be spent, and was almost covered over with amateurish drawings and superior engravings, framed in narrow gilt with large margins. The room had its bright, durable, sociable air, the air that Laura Wing liked in so many English things — that of being meant for daily life, for long periods, for uses of high decency. But more than ever to-day was it incongruous that such an habitation, with its chintzes and its British poets, its well-worn carpets and domestic art — the whole aspect so unmeretricious and sincere — should have to do with lives that were not right. Of course however it had to do only indirectly, and the wrong life was not old Mrs. Berrington’s nor yet Lady Davenant’s. If Selina and Selina’s doings were not an implication of such an interior any more than it was for them an explication, this was because she had come from so far off, was a foreign element altogether. Yet it was there she had found her occasion, all the influences that had altered her so (her sister had a theory that she was metamorphosed, that when she was young she seemed born for innocence) if not at Plash at least at Mellows, for the two places after all had ever so much in common, and there were rooms at the great house that looked remarkably like Mrs. Berrington’s parlour.

Lady Davenant always had a head-dress of a peculiar style, original and appropriate — a sort of white veil or cape which came in a point to the place on her forehead where her smooth hair began to show and then covered her shoulders. It was always exquisitely fresh and was partly the reason why she struck the girl rather as a fine portrait than as a living person. And yet she was full of life, old as she was, and had been made finer, sharper and more delicate, by nearly eighty years of it. It was the hand of a master that Laura seemed to see in her face, the witty expression of which shone like a lamp through the ground-glass of her good breeding; nature was always an artist, but not so much of an artist as that. Infinite knowledge the girl attributed to her, and that was why she liked her a little fearfully. Lady Davenant was not as a general thing fond of the young or of invalids; but she made an exception as regards youth for the little girl from America, the sister of the daughter-in-law of her dearest friend. She took an interest in Laura partly perhaps to make up for the tepidity with which she regarded Selina. At all events she had assumed the general responsibility of providing her with a husband. She pretended to care equally little for persons suffering from other forms of misfortune, but she was capable of finding excuses for them when they had been sufficiently to blame. She expected a great deal of attention, always wore gloves in the house and never had anything in her hand but a book. She neither embroidered nor wrote — only read and talked. She had no special conversation for girls but generally addressed them in the same manner that she found effective with her contemporaries. Laura Wing regarded this as an honour, but very often she didn’t know what the old lady meant and was ashamed to ask her. Once in a while Lady Davenant was ashamed to tell. Mrs. Berrington had gone to a cottage to see an old woman who was ill — an old woman who had been in her service for years, in the old days. Unlike her friend she was fond of young people and invalids, but she was less interesting to Laura, except that it was a sort of fascination to wonder how she could have such abysses of placidity. She had long cheeks and kind eyes and was devoted to birds; somehow she always made Laura think secretly of a tablet of fine white soap — nothing else was so smooth and clean.

‘And what’s going on chez vous — who is there and what are they doing?’ Lady Davenant asked, after the first greetings.

‘There isn’t any one but me — and the children — and the governess.’

‘What, no party — no private theatricals? How do you live?’

‘Oh, it doesn’t take so much to keep me going,’ said Laura. ‘I believe there were some people coming on Saturday, but they have been put off, or they can’t come. Selina has gone to London.’

‘And what has she gone to London for?’

‘Oh, I don’t know — she has so many things to do.’

‘And where is Mr. Berrington?’

‘He has been away somewhere; but I believe he is coming back to-morrow — or next day.’

‘Or the day after?’ said Lady Davenant. ‘And do they never go away together?’ she continued after a pause.

‘Yes, sometimes — but they don’t come back together.’

‘Do you mean they quarrel on the way?’

‘I don’t know what they do, Lady Davenant — I don’t understand,’ Laura Wing replied, with an unguarded tremor in her voice. ‘I don’t think they are very happy.’

‘Then they ought to be ashamed of themselves. They have got everything so comfortable — what more do they want?’

‘Yes, and the children are such dears!’

‘Certainly — charming. And is she a good person, the present governess? Does she look after them properly?’

‘Yes — she seems very good — it’s a blessing. But I think she’s unhappy too.’

‘Bless us, what a house! Does she want some one to make love to her?’

‘No, but she wants Selina to see — to appreciate,’ said the young girl.

‘And doesn’t she appreciate — when she leaves them that way quite to the young woman?’

‘Miss Steet thinks she doesn’t notice how they come on — she is never there.’

‘And has she wept and told you so? You know they are always crying, governesses — whatever line you take. You shouldn’t draw them out too much — they are always looking for a chance. She ought to be thankful to be let alone. You mustn’t be too sympathetic — it’s mostly wasted,’ the old lady went on.

‘Oh, I’m not — I assure you I’m not,’ said Laura Wing. ‘On the contrary, I see so much about me that I don’t sympathise with.’

‘Well, you mustn’t be an impertinent little American either!’ her interlocutress exclaimed. Laura sat with her for half an hour and the conversation took a turn through the affairs of Plash and through Lady Davenant’s own, which were visits in prospect and ideas suggested more or less directly by them as well as by the books she had been reading, a heterogeneous pile on a table near her, all of them new and clean, from a circulating library in London. The old woman had ideas and Laura liked them, though they often struck her as very sharp and hard, because at Mellows she had no diet of that sort. There had never been an idea in the house, since she came at least, and there was wonderfully little reading. Lady Davenant still went from country-house to country-house all winter, as she had done all her life, and when Laura asked her she told her the places and the people she probably should find at each of them. Such an enumeration was much less interesting to the girl than it would have been a year before: she herself had now seen a great many places and people and the freshness of her curiosity was gone. But she still cared for Lady Davenant’s descriptions and judgments, because they were the thing in her life which (when she met the old woman from time to time) most represented talk — the rare sort of talk that was not mere chaff. That was what she had dreamed of before she came to England, but in Selina’s set the dream had not come true. In Selina’s set people only harried each other from morning till night with extravagant accusations — it was all a kind of horse-play of false charges. When Lady Davenant was accusatory it was within the limits of perfect verisimilitude.

Laura waited for Mrs. Berrington to come in but she failed to appear, so that the girl gathered her waterproof together with an intention of departure. But she was secretly reluctant, because she had walked over to Plash with a vague hope that some soothing hand would be laid upon her pain. If there was no comfort at the dower-house she knew not where to look for it, for there was certainly none at home — not even with Miss Steet and the children. It was not Lady Davenant’s leading characteristic that she was comforting, and Laura had not aspired to be coaxed or coddled into forgetfulness: she wanted rather to be taught a certain fortitude — how to live and hold up one’s head even while knowing that things were very bad. A brazen indifference — it was not exactly that that she wished to acquire; but were there not some sorts of indifference that were philosophic and noble? Could Lady Davenant not teach them, if she should take the trouble? The girl remembered to have heard that there had been years before some disagreeable occurrences in her family; it was not a race in which the ladies inveterately turned out well. Yet who to-day had the stamp of honour and credit — of a past which was either no one’s business or was part and parcel of a fair public record — and carried it so much as a matter of course? She herself had been a good woman and that was the only thing that told in the long run. It was Laura’s own idea to be a good woman and that this would make it an advantage for Lady Davenant to show her how not to feel too much. As regards feeling enough, that was a branch in which she had no need to take lessons.

The old woman liked cutting new books, a task she never remitted to her maid, and while her young visitor sat there she went through the greater part of a volume with the paper-knife. She didn’t proceed very fast — there was a kind of patient, awkward fumbling of her aged hands; but as she passed her knife into the last leaf she said abruptly — ‘And how is your sister going on? She’s very light!’ Lady Davenant added before Laura had time to reply.

‘Oh, Lady Davenant!’ the girl exclaimed, vaguely, slowly, vexed with herself as soon as she had spoken for having uttered the words as a protest, whereas she wished to draw her companion out. To correct this impression she threw back her waterproof.

‘Have you ever spoken to her?’ the old woman asked.

‘Spoken to her?’

‘About her behaviour. I daresay you haven’t — you Americans have such a lot of false delicacy. I daresay Selina wouldn’t speak to you if you were in her place (excuse the supposition!) and yet she is capable —— ’ But Lady Davenant paused, preferring not to say of what young Mrs. Berrington was capable. ‘It’s a bad house for a girl.’

‘It only gives me a horror,’ said Laura, pausing in turn.

‘A horror of your sister? That’s not what one should aim at. You ought to get married — and the sooner the better. My dear child, I have neglected you dreadfully.’

‘I am much obliged to you, but if you think marriage looks to me happy!’ the girl exclaimed, laughing without hilarity.

‘Make it happy for some one else and you will be happy enough yourself. You ought to get out of your situation.’

Laura Wing was silent a moment, though this was not a new reflection to her. ‘Do you mean that I should leave Selina altogether? I feel as if I should abandon her — as if I should be a coward.’

‘Oh, my dear, it isn’t the business of little girls to serve as parachutes to fly-away wives! That’s why if you haven’t spoken to her you needn’t take the trouble at this time of day. Let her go — let her go!’

‘Let her go?’ Laura repeated, staring.

Her companion gave her a sharper glance. ‘Let her stay, then! Only get out of the house. You can come to me, you know, whenever you like. I don’t know another girl I would say that to.’

‘Oh, Lady Davenant,’ Laura began again, but she only got as far as this; in a moment she had covered her face with her hands — she had burst into tears.

‘Ah my dear, don’t cry or I shall take back my invitation! It would never do if you were to larmoyer. If I have offended you by the way I have spoken of Selina I think you are too sensitive. We shouldn’t feel more for people than they feel for themselves. She has no tears, I’m sure.’

‘Oh, she has, she has!’ cried the girl, sobbing with an odd effect as she put forth this pretension for her sister.

‘Then she’s worse than I thought. I don’t mind them so much when they are merry but I hate them when they are sentimental.’

‘She’s so changed — so changed!’ Laura Wing went on.

‘Never, never, my dear: c’est de naissance.’

‘You never knew my mother,’ returned the girl; ‘when I think of mother —— ’ The words failed her while she sobbed.

‘I daresay she was very nice,’ said Lady Davenant gently. ‘It would take that to account for you: such women as Selina are always easily enough accounted for. I didn’t mean it was inherited — for that sort of thing skips about. I daresay there was some improper ancestress — except that you Americans don’t seem to have ancestresses.’

Laura gave no sign of having heard these observations; she was occupied in brushing away her tears. ‘Everything is so changed — you don’t know,’ she remarked in a moment. ‘Nothing could have been happier — nothing could have been sweeter. And now to be so dependent — so helpless — so poor!’

‘Have you nothing at all?’ asked Lady Davenant, with simplicity.

‘Only enough to pay for my clothes.’

‘That’s a good deal, for a girl. You are uncommonly dressy, you know.’

‘I’m sorry I seem so. That’s just the way I don’t want to look.’

‘You Americans can’t help it; you “wear” your very features and your eyes look as if they had just been sent home. But I confess you are not so smart as Selina.’

‘Yes, isn’t she splendid?’ Laura exclaimed, with proud inconsequence. ‘And the worse she is the better she looks.’

‘Oh my child, if the bad women looked as bad as they are ——! It’s only the good ones who can afford that,’ the old lady murmured.

‘It was the last thing I ever thought of — that I should be ashamed,’ said Laura.

‘Oh, keep your shame till you have more to do with it. It’s like lending your umbrella — when you have only one.’

‘If anything were to happen — publicly — I should die, I should die!’ the girl exclaimed passionately and with a motion that carried her to her feet. This time she settled herself for departure. Lady Davenant’s admonition rather frightened than sustained her.

The old woman leaned back in her chair, looking up at her. ‘It would be very bad, I daresay. But it wouldn’t prevent me from taking you in.’

Laura Wing returned her look, with eyes slightly distended, musing. ‘Think of having to come to that!’

Lady Davenant burst out laughing. ‘Yes, yes, you must come; you are so original!’

‘I don’t mean that I don’t feel your kindness,’ the girl broke out, blushing. ‘But to be only protected — always protected: is that a life?’

‘Most women are only too thankful and I am bound to say I think you are difficile.’ Lady Davenant used a good many French words, in the old-fashioned manner and with a pronunciation not perfectly pure: when she did so she reminded Laura Wing of Mrs. Gore’s novels. ‘But you shall be better protected than even by me. Nous verrons cela. Only you must stop crying — this isn’t a crying country.’

‘No, one must have courage here. It takes courage to marry for such a reason.’

‘Any reason is good enough that keeps a woman from being an old maid. Besides, you will like him.’

‘He must like me first,’ said the girl, with a sad smile.

‘There’s the American again! It isn’t necessary. You are too proud — you expect too much.’

‘I’m proud for what I am — that’s very certain. But I don’t expect anything,’ Laura Wing declared. ‘That’s the only form my pride takes. Please give my love to Mrs. Berrington. I am so sorry — so sorry,’ she went on, to change the talk from the subject of her marrying. She wanted to marry but she wanted also not to want it and, above all, not to appear to. She lingered in the room, moving about a little; the place was always so pleasant to her that to go away — to return to her own barren home — had the effect of forfeiting a sort of privilege of sanctuary. The afternoon had faded but the lamps had been brought in, the smell of flowers was in the air and the old house of Plash seemed to recognise the hour that suited it best. The quiet old lady in the firelight, encompassed with the symbolic security of chintz and water-colour, gave her a sudden vision of how blessed it would be to jump all the middle dangers of life and have arrived at the end, safely, sensibly, with a cap and gloves and consideration and memories. ‘And, Lady Davenant, what does she think?’ she asked abruptly, stopping short and referring to Mrs. Berrington.

‘Think? Bless your soul, she doesn’t do that! If she did, the things she says would be unpardonable.’

‘The things she says?’

‘That’s what makes them so beautiful — that they are not spoiled by preparation. You could never think of them for her.’ The girl smiled at this description of the dearest friend of her interlocutress, but she wondered a little what Lady Davenant would say to visitors about her if she should accept a refuge under her roof. Her speech was after all a flattering proof of confidence. ‘She wishes it had been you — I happen to know that,’ said the old woman.

‘It had been me?’

‘That Lionel had taken a fancy to.’

‘I wouldn’t have married him,’ Laura rejoined, after a moment.

‘Don’t say that or you will make me think it won’t be easy to help you. I shall depend upon you not to refuse anything so good.’

‘I don’t call him good. If he were good his wife would be better.’

‘Very likely; and if you had married him he would be better, and that’s more to the purpose. Lionel is as idiotic as a comic song, but you have cleverness for two.’

‘And you have it for fifty, dear Lady Davenant. Never, never — I shall never marry a man I can’t respect!’ Laura Wing exclaimed.

She had come a little nearer her old friend and taken her hand; her companion held her a moment and with the other hand pushed aside one of the flaps of the waterproof. ‘And what is it your clothing costs you?’ asked Lady Davenant, looking at the dress underneath and not giving any heed to this declaration.

‘I don’t exactly know: it takes almost everything that is sent me from America. But that is dreadfully little — only a few pounds. I am a wonderful manager. Besides,’ the girl added, ‘Selina wants one to be dressed.’

‘And doesn’t she pay any of your bills?’

‘Why, she gives me everything — food, shelter, carriages.’

‘Does she never give you money?’

‘I wouldn’t take it,’ said the girl. ‘They need everything they have — their life is tremendously expensive.’

‘That I’ll warrant!’ cried the old woman. ‘It was a most beautiful property, but I don’t know what has become of it now. Ce n’est pas pour vous blesser, but the hole you Americans can make —— ’

Laura interrupted immediately, holding up her head; Lady Davenant had dropped her hand and she had receded a step. ‘Selina brought Lionel a very considerable fortune and every penny of it was paid.’

‘Yes, I know it was; Mrs. Berrington told me it was most satisfactory. That’s not always the case with the fortunes you young ladies are supposed to bring!’ the old lady added, smiling.

The girl looked over her head a moment. ‘Why do your men marry for money?’

‘Why indeed, my dear? And before your troubles what used your father to give you for your personal expenses?’

‘He gave us everything we asked — we had no particular allowance.’

‘And I daresay you asked for everything?’ said Lady Davenant.

‘No doubt we were very dressy, as you say.’

‘No wonder he went bankrupt — for he did, didn’t he?’

‘He had dreadful reverses but he only sacrificed himself — he protected others.’

‘Well, I know nothing about these things and I only ask pour me renseigner,’ Mrs. Berrington’s guest went on. ‘And after their reverses your father and mother lived I think only a short time?’

Laura Wing had covered herself again with her mantle; her eyes were now bent upon the ground and, standing there before her companion with her umbrella and her air of momentary submission and self-control, she might very well have been a young person in reduced circumstances applying for a place. ‘It was short enough but it seemed — some parts of it — terribly long and painful. My poor father — my dear father,’ the girl went on. But her voice trembled and she checked herself.

‘I feel as if I were cross-questioning you, which God forbid!’ said Lady Davenant. ‘But there is one thing I should really like to know. Did Lionel and his wife, when you were poor, come freely to your assistance?’

‘They sent us money repeatedly — it was her money of course. It was almost all we had.’

‘And if you have been poor and know what poverty is tell me this: has it made you afraid to marry a poor man?’

It seemed to Lady Davenant that in answer to this her young friend looked at her strangely; and then the old woman heard her say something that had not quite the heroic ring she expected. ‘I am afraid of so many things to-day that I don’t know where my fears end.’

‘I have no patience with the highstrung way you take things. But I have to know, you know.’

‘Oh, don’t try to know any more shames — any more horrors!’ the girl wailed with sudden passion, turning away.

Her companion got up, drew her round again and kissed her. ‘I think you would fidget me,’ she remarked as she released her. Then, as if this were too cheerless a leave-taking, she added in a gayer tone, as Laura had her hand on the door: ‘Mind what I tell you, my dear; let her go!’ It was to this that the girl’s lesson in philosophy reduced itself, she reflected, as she walked back to Mellows in the rain, which had now come on, through the darkening park.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/james/henry/london_life/chapter1.html

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