A London Life, by Henry James

X

What do you intend to do? You will grant that I have a right to ask you that.’

‘To do? I shall do as I have always done — not so badly, as it seems to me.’

This colloquy took place in Mrs. Berrington’s room, in the early morning hours, after Selina’s return from the entertainment to which reference was last made. Her sister came home before her — she found herself incapable of ‘going on’ when Selina quitted the house in Park Lane at which they had dined. Mrs. Berrington had the night still before her, and she stepped into her carriage with her usual air of graceful resignation to a brilliant lot. She had taken the precaution, however, to provide herself with a defence, against a little sister bristling with righteousness, in the person of Mrs. Collingwood, to whom she offered a lift, as they were bent upon the same business and Mr. Collingwood had a use of his own for his brougham. The Collingwoods were a happy pair who could discuss such a divergence before their friends candidly, amicably, with a great many ‘My loves’ and ‘Not for the worlds.’ Lionel Berrington disappeared after dinner, without holding any communication with his wife, and Laura expected to find that he had taken the carriage, to repay her in kind for her having driven off from Grosvenor Place without him. But it was not new to the girl that he really spared his wife more than she spared him; not so much perhaps because he wouldn’t do the ‘nastiest’ thing as because he couldn’t. Selina could always be nastier. There was ever a whimsicality in her actions: if two or three hours before it had been her fancy to keep a third person out of the carriage she had now her reasons for bringing such a person in. Laura knew that she would not only pretend, but would really believe, that her vindication of her conduct on their way to dinner had been powerful and that she had won a brilliant victory. What need, therefore, to thresh out further a subject that she had chopped into atoms? Laura Wing, however, had needs of her own, and her remaining in the carriage when the footman next opened the door was intimately connected with them.

‘I don’t care to go in,’ she said to her sister. ‘If you will allow me to be driven home and send back the carriage for you, that’s what I shall like best.’

Selina stared and Laura knew what she would have said if she could have spoken her thought. ‘Oh, you are furious that I haven’t given you a chance to fly at me again, and you must take it out in sulks!’ These were the ideas — ideas of ‘fury’ and sulks — into which Selina could translate feelings that sprang from the pure depths of one’s conscience. Mrs. Collingwood protested — she said it was a shame that Laura shouldn’t go in and enjoy herself when she looked so lovely. ‘Doesn’t she look lovely?’ She appealed to Mrs. Berrington. ‘Bless us, what’s the use of being pretty? Now, if she had my face!’

‘I think she looks rather cross,’ said Selina, getting out with her friend and leaving her sister to her own inventions. Laura had a vision, as the carriage drove away again, of what her situation would have been, or her peace of mind, if Selina and Lionel had been good, attached people like the Collingwoods, and at the same time of the singularity of a good woman’s being ready to accept favours from a person as to whose behaviour she had the lights that must have come to the lady in question in regard to Selina. She accepted favours herself and she only wanted to be good: that was oppressively true; but if she had not been Selina’s sister she would never drive in her carriage. That conviction was strong in the girl as this vehicle conveyed her to Grosvenor Place; but it was not in its nature consoling. The prevision of disgrace was now so vivid to her that it seemed to her that if it had not already overtaken them she had only to thank the loose, mysterious, rather ignoble tolerance of people like Mrs. Collingwood. There were plenty of that species, even among the good; perhaps indeed exposure and dishonour would begin only when the bad had got hold of the facts. Would the bad be most horrified and do most to spread the scandal? There were, in any event, plenty of them too.

Laura sat up for her sister that night, with that nice question to help her to torment herself — whether if she was hard and merciless in judging Selina it would be with the bad too that she would associate herself. Was she all wrong after all — was she cruel by being too rigid? Was Mrs. Collingwood’s attitude the right one and ought she only to propose to herself to ‘allow’ more and more, and to allow ever, and to smooth things down by gentleness, by sympathy, by not looking at them too hard? It was not the first time that the just measure of things seemed to slip from her hands as she became conscious of possible, or rather of very actual, differences of standard and usage. On this occasion Geordie and Ferdy asserted themselves, by the mere force of lying asleep upstairs in their little cribs, as on the whole the proper measure. Laura went into the nursery to look at them when she came home — it was her habit almost any night — and yearned over them as mothers and maids do alike over the pillow of rosy childhood. They were an antidote to all casuistry; for Selina to forget them — that was the beginning and the end of shame. She came back to the library, where she should best hear the sound of her sister’s return; the hours passed as she sat there, without bringing round this event. Carriages came and went all night; the soft shock of swift hoofs was on the wooden roadway long after the summer dawn grew fair — till it was merged in the rumble of the awakening day. Lionel had not come in when she returned, and he continued absent, to Laura’s satisfaction; for if she wanted not to miss Selina she had no desire at present to have to tell her brother-in-law why she was sitting up. She prayed Selina might arrive first: then she would have more time to think of something that harassed her particularly — the question of whether she ought to tell Lionel that she had seen her in a far-away corner of the town with Captain Crispin. Almost impossible as she found it now to feel any tenderness for her, she yet detested the idea of bearing witness against her: notwithstanding which it appeared to her that she could make up her mind to do this if there were a chance of its preventing the last scandal — a catastrophe to which she saw her sister rushing straight. That Selina was capable at a given moment of going off with her lover, and capable of it precisely because it was the greatest ineptitude as well as the greatest wickedness — there was a voice of prophecy, of warning, to this effect in the silent, empty house. If repeating to Lionel what she had seen would contribute to prevent anything, or to stave off the danger, was it not her duty to denounce his wife, flesh and blood of her own as she was, to his further reprobation? This point was not intolerably difficult to determine, as she sat there waiting, only because even what was righteous in that reprobation could not present itself to her as fruitful or efficient. What could Lionel frustrate, after all, and what intelligent or authoritative step was he capable of taking? Mixed with all that now haunted her was her consciousness of what his own absence at such an hour represented in the way of the unedifying. He might be at some sporting club or he might be anywhere else; at any rate he was not where he ought to be at three o’clock in the morning. Such the husband such the wife, she said to herself; and she felt that Selina would have a kind of advantage, which she grudged her, if she should come in and say: ‘And where is he, please — where is he, the exalted being on whose behalf you have undertaken to preach so much better than he himself practises?’

But still Selina failed to come in — even to take that advantage; yet in proportion as her waiting was useless did the girl find it impossible to go to bed. A new fear had seized her, the fear that she would never come back at all — that they were already in the presence of the dreaded catastrophe. This made her so nervous that she paced about the lower rooms, listening to every sound, roaming till she was tired. She knew it was absurd, the image of Selina taking flight in a ball-dress; but she said to herself that she might very well have sent other clothes away, in advance, somewhere (Laura had her own ripe views about the maid); and at any rate, for herself, that was the fate she had to expect, if not that night then some other one soon, and it was all the same: to sit counting the hours till a hope was given up and a hideous certainty remained. She had fallen into such a state of apprehension that when at last she heard a carriage stop at the door she was almost happy, in spite of her prevision of how disgusted her sister would be to find her. They met in the hall — Laura went out as she heard the opening of the door, Selina stopped short, seeing her, but said nothing — on account apparently of the presence of the sleepy footman. Then she moved straight to the stairs, where she paused again, asking the footman if Mr. Berrington had come in.

‘Not yet, ma’am,’ the footman answered.

‘Ah!’ said Mrs. Berrington, dramatically, and ascended the stairs.

‘I have sat up on purpose — I want particularly to speak to you,’ Laura remarked, following her.

‘Ah!’ Selina repeated, more superior still. She went fast, almost as if she wished to get to her room before her sister could overtake her. But the girl was close behind her, she passed into the room with her. Laura closed the door; then she told her that she had found it impossible to go to bed without asking her what she intended to do.

‘Your behaviour is too monstrous!’ Selina flashed out. ‘What on earth do you wish to make the servants suppose?’

‘Oh, the servants — in this house; as if one could put any idea into their heads that is not there already!’ Laura thought. But she said nothing of this — she only repeated her question: aware that she was exasperating to her sister but also aware that she could not be anything else. Mrs. Berrington, whose maid, having outlived surprises, had gone to rest, began to divest herself of some of her ornaments, and it was not till after a moment, during which she stood before the glass, that she made that answer about doing as she had always done. To this Laura rejoined that she ought to put herself in her place enough to feel how important it was to her to know what was likely to happen, so that she might take time by the forelock and think of her own situation. If anything should happen she would infinitely rather be out of it — be as far away as possible. Therefore she must take her measures.

It was in the mirror that they looked at each other — in the strange, candle-lighted duplication of the scene that their eyes met. Selina drew the diamonds out of her hair, and in this occupation, for a minute, she was silent. Presently she asked: ‘What are you talking about — what do you allude to as happening?’

‘Why, it seems to me that there is nothing left for you but to go away with him. If there is a prospect of that insanity —— ’ But here Laura stopped; something so unexpected was taking place in Selina’s countenance — the movement that precedes a sudden gush of tears. Mrs. Berrington dashed down the glittering pins she had detached from her tresses, and the next moment she had flung herself into an armchair and was weeping profusely, extravagantly. Laura forbore to go to her; she made no motion to soothe or reassure her, she only stood and watched her tears and wondered what they signified. Somehow even the slight refreshment she felt at having affected her in that particular and, as it had lately come to seem, improbable way did not suggest to her that they were precious symptoms. Since she had come to disbelieve her word so completely there was nothing precious about Selina any more. But she continued for some moments to cry passionately, and while this lasted Laura remained silent. At last from the midst of her sobs Selina broke out, ‘Go away, go away — leave me alone!’

‘Of course I infuriate you,’ said the girl; ‘but how can I see you rush to your ruin — to that of all of us — without holding on to you and dragging you back?’

‘Oh, you don’t understand anything about anything!’ Selina wailed, with her beautiful hair tumbling all over her.

‘I certainly don’t understand how you can give such a tremendous handle to Lionel.’

At the mention of her husband’s name Selina always gave a bound, and she sprang up now, shaking back her dense braids. ‘I give him no handle and you don’t know what you are talking about! I know what I am doing and what becomes me, and I don’t care if I do. He is welcome to all the handles in the world, for all that he can do with them!’

‘In the name of common pity think of your children!’ said Laura.

‘Have I ever thought of anything else? Have you sat up all night to have the pleasure of accusing me of cruelty? Are there sweeter or more delightful children in the world, and isn’t that a little my merit, pray?’ Selina went on, sweeping away her tears. ‘Who has made them what they are, pray? — is it their lovely father? Perhaps you’ll say it’s you! Certainly you have been nice to them, but you must remember that you only came here the other day. Isn’t it only for them that I am trying to keep myself alive?’

This formula struck Laura Wing as grotesque, so that she replied with a laugh which betrayed too much her impression, ‘Die for them — that would be better!’

Her sister, at this, looked at her with an extraordinary cold gravity. ‘Don’t interfere between me and my children. And for God’s sake cease to harry me!’

Laura turned away: she said to herself that, given that intensity of silliness, of course the worst would come. She felt sick and helpless, and, practically, she had got the certitude she both wanted and dreaded. ‘I don’t know what has become of your mind,’ she murmured; and she went to the door. But before she reached it Selina had flung herself upon her in one of her strange but, as she felt, really not encouraging revulsions. Her arms were about her, she clung to her, she covered Laura with the tears that had again begun to flow. She besought her to save her, to stay with her, to help her against herself, against him, against Lionel, against everything — to forgive her also all the horrid things she had said to her. Mrs. Berrington melted, liquefied, and the room was deluged with her repentance, her desolation, her confession, her promises and the articles of apparel which were detached from her by the high tide of her agitation. Laura remained with her for an hour, and before they separated the culpable woman had taken a tremendous vow — kneeling before her sister with her head in her lap — never again, as long as she lived, to consent to see Captain Crispin or to address a word to him, spoken or written. The girl went terribly tired to bed.

A month afterwards she lunched with Lady Davenant, whom she had not seen since the day she took Mr. Wendover to call upon her. The old woman had found herself obliged to entertain a small company, and as she disliked set parties she sent Laura a request for sympathy and assistance. She had disencumbered herself, at the end of so many years, of the burden of hospitality; but every now and then she invited people, in order to prove that she was not too old. Laura suspected her of choosing stupid ones on purpose to prove it better — to show that she could submit not only to the extraordinary but, what was much more difficult, to the usual. But when they had been properly fed she encouraged them to disperse; on this occasion as the party broke up Laura was the only person she asked to stay. She wished to know in the first place why she had not been to see her for so long, and in the second how that young man had behaved — the one she had brought that Sunday. Lady Davenant didn’t remember his name, though he had been so good-natured, as she said, since then, as to leave a card. If he had behaved well that was a very good reason for the girl’s neglect and Laura need give no other. Laura herself would not have behaved well if at such a time she had been running after old women. There was nothing, in general, that the girl liked less than being spoken of, off-hand, as a marriageable article — being planned and arranged for in this particular. It made too light of her independence, and though in general such inventions passed for benevolence they had always seemed to her to contain at bottom an impertinence — as if people could be moved about like a game of chequers. There was a liberty in the way Lady Davenant’s imagination disposed of her (with such an insouciance of her own preferences), but she forgave that, because after all this old friend was not obliged to think of her at all.

‘I knew that you were almost always out of town now, on Sundays — and so have we been,’ Laura said. ‘And then I have been a great deal with my sister — more than before.’

‘More than before what?’

‘Well, a kind of estrangement we had, about a certain matter.’

‘And now you have made it all up?’

‘Well, we have been able to talk of it (we couldn’t before — without painful scenes), and that has cleared the air. We have gone about together a good deal,’ Laura went on. ‘She has wanted me constantly with her.’

‘That’s very nice. And where has she taken you?’ asked the old lady.

‘Oh, it’s I who have taken her, rather.’ And Laura hesitated.

‘Where do you mean? — to say her prayers?’

‘Well, to some concerts — and to the National Gallery.’

Lady Davenant laughed, disrespectfully, at this, and the girl watched her with a mournful face. ‘My dear child, you are too delightful! You are trying to reform her? by Beethoven and Bach, by Rubens and Titian?’

‘She is very intelligent, about music and pictures — she has excellent ideas,’ said Laura.

‘And you have been trying to draw them out? that is very commendable.’

‘I think you are laughing at me, but I don’t care,’ the girl declared, smiling faintly.

‘Because you have a consciousness of success? — in what do they call it? — the attempt to raise her tone? You have been trying to wind her up, and you have raised her tone?’

‘Oh, Lady Davenant, I don’t know and I don’t understand!’ Laura broke out. ‘I don’t understand anything any more — I have given up trying.’

‘That’s what I recommended you to do last winter. Don’t you remember that day at Plash?’

‘You told me to let her go,’ said Laura.

‘And evidently you haven’t taken my advice.’

‘How can I— how can I?’

‘Of course, how can you? And meanwhile if she doesn’t go it’s so much gained. But even if she should, won’t that nice young man remain?’ Lady Davenant inquired. ‘I hope very much Selina hasn’t taken you altogether away from him.’

Laura was silent a moment; then she returned: ‘What nice young man would ever look at me, if anything bad should happen?’

‘I would never look at him if he should let that prevent him!’ the old woman cried. ‘It isn’t for your sister he loves you, I suppose; is it?’

‘He doesn’t love me at all.’

‘Ah, then he does?’ Lady Davenant demanded, with some eagerness, laying her hand on the girl’s arm. Laura sat near her on her sofa and looked at her, for all answer to this, with an expression of which the sadness appeared to strike the old woman freshly. ‘Doesn’t he come to the house — doesn’t he say anything?’ she continued, with a voice of kindness.

‘He comes to the house — very often.’

‘And don’t you like him?’

‘Yes, very much — more than I did at first.’

‘Well, as you liked him at first well enough to bring him straight to see me, I suppose that means that now you are immensely pleased with him.’

‘He’s a gentleman,’ said Laura.

‘So he seems to me. But why then doesn’t he speak out?’

‘Perhaps that’s the very reason! Seriously,’ the girl added, ‘I don’t know what he comes to the house for.’

‘Is he in love with your sister?’

‘I sometimes think so.’

‘And does she encourage him?’

‘She detests him.’

‘Oh, then, I like him! I shall immediately write to him to come and see me: I shall appoint an hour and give him a piece of my mind.’

‘If I believed that, I should kill myself,’ said Laura.

‘You may believe what you like; but I wish you didn’t show your feelings so in your eyes. They might be those of a poor widow with fifteen children. When I was young I managed to be happy, whatever occurred; and I am sure I looked so.’

‘Oh yes, Lady Davenant — for you it was different. You were safe, in so many ways,’ Laura said. ‘And you were surrounded with consideration.’

‘I don’t know; some of us were very wild, and exceedingly ill thought of, and I didn’t cry about it. However, there are natures and natures. If you will come and stay with me to-morrow I will take you in.’

‘You know how kind I think you, but I have promised Selina not to leave her.’

‘Well, then, if she keeps you she must at least go straight!’ cried the old woman, with some asperity. Laura made no answer to this and Lady Davenant asked, after a moment: ‘And what is Lionel doing?’

‘I don’t know — he is very quiet.’

‘Doesn’t it please him — his wife’s improvement?’ The girl got up; apparently she was made uncomfortable by the ironical effect, if not by the ironical intention, of this question. Her old friend was kind but she was penetrating; her very next words pierced further. ‘Of course if you are really protecting her I can’t count upon you’: a remark not adapted to enliven Laura, who would have liked immensely to transfer herself to Queen’s Gate and had her very private ideas as to the efficacy of her protection. Lady Davenant kissed her and then suddenly said — ‘Oh, by the way, his address; you must tell me that.’

‘His address?’

‘The young man’s whom you brought here. But it’s no matter,’ the old woman added; ‘the butler will have entered it — from his card.’

‘Lady Davenant, you won’t do anything so loathsome!’ the girl cried, seizing her hand.

‘Why is it loathsome, if he comes so often? It’s rubbish, his caring for Selina — a married woman — when you are there.’

‘Why is it rubbish — when so many other people do?’

‘Oh, well, he is different — I could see that; or if he isn’t he ought to be!’

‘He likes to observe — he came here to take notes,’ said the girl. ‘And he thinks Selina a very interesting London specimen.’

‘In spite of her dislike of him?’

‘Oh, he doesn’t know that!’ Laura exclaimed.

‘Why not? he isn’t a fool.’

‘Oh, I have made it seem —— ’ But here Laura stopped; her colour had risen.

Lady Davenant stared an instant. ‘Made it seem that she inclines to him? Mercy, to do that how fond of him you must be!’ An observation which had the effect of driving the girl straight out of the house.

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