A London Life, by Henry James

XII

The next day, at five o’clock, she drove to Queen’s Gate, turning to Lady Davenant in her distress in order to turn somewhere. Her old friend was at home and by extreme good fortune alone; looking up from her book, in her place by the window, she gave the girl as she came in a sharp glance over her glasses. This glance was acquisitive; she said nothing, but laying down her book stretched out her two gloved hands. Laura took them and she drew her down toward her, so that the girl sunk on her knees and in a moment hid her face, sobbing, in the old woman’s lap. There was nothing said for some time: Lady Davenant only pressed her tenderly — stroked her with her hands. ‘Is it very bad?’ she asked at last. Then Laura got up, saying as she took a seat, ‘Have you heard of it and do people know it?’

‘I haven’t heard anything. Is it very bad?’ Lady Davenant repeated.

‘We don’t know where Selina is — and her maid’s gone.’

Lady Davenant looked at her visitor a moment. ‘Lord, what an ass!’ she then ejaculated, putting the paper-knife into her book to keep her place. ‘And whom has she persuaded to take her — Charles Crispin?’ she added.

‘We suppose — we suppose —— ’ said Laura.

‘And he’s another,’ interrupted the old woman. ‘And who supposes — Geordie and Ferdy?’

‘I don’t know; it’s all black darkness!’

‘My dear, it’s a blessing, and now you can live in peace.’

‘In peace!’ cried Laura; ‘with my wretched sister leading such a life?’

‘Oh, my dear, I daresay it will be very comfortable; I am sorry to say anything in favour of such doings, but it very often is. Don’t worry; you take her too hard. Has she gone abroad?’ the old lady continued. ‘I daresay she has gone to some pretty, amusing place.’

‘I don’t know anything about it. I only know she is gone. I was with her last evening and she left me without a word.’

‘Well, that was better. I hate ’em when they make parting scenes: it’s too mawkish!’

‘Lionel has people watching them,’ said the girl; ‘agents, detectives, I don’t know what. He has had them for a long time; I didn’t know it.’

‘Do you mean you would have told her if you had? What is the use of detectives now? Isn’t he rid of her?’

‘Oh, I don’t know, he’s as bad as she; he talks too horribly — he wants every one to know it,’ Laura groaned.

‘And has he told his mother?’

‘I suppose so: he rushed off to see her at noon. She’ll be overwhelmed.’

‘Overwhelmed? Not a bit of it!’ cried Lady Davenant, almost gaily. ‘When did anything in the world overwhelm her and what do you take her for? She’ll only make some delightful odd speech. As for people knowing it,’ she added, ‘they’ll know it whether he wants them or not. My poor child, how long do you expect to make believe?’

‘Lionel expects some news to-night,’ Laura said. ‘As soon as I know where she is I shall start.’

‘Start for where?’

‘To go to her — to do something.’

‘Something preposterous, my dear. Do you expect to bring her back?’

‘He won’t take her in,’ said Laura, with her dried, dismal eyes. ‘He wants his divorce — it’s too hideous!’

‘Well, as she wants hers what is simpler?’

‘Yes, she wants hers. Lionel swears by all the gods she can’t get it.’

‘Bless me, won’t one do?’ Lady Davenant asked. ‘We shall have some pretty reading.’

‘It’s awful, awful, awful!’ murmured Laura.

‘Yes, they oughtn’t to be allowed to publish them. I wonder if we couldn’t stop that. At any rate he had better be quiet: tell him to come and see me.’

‘You won’t influence him; he’s dreadful against her. Such a house as it is to-day!’

‘Well, my dear, naturally.’

‘Yes, but it’s terrible for me: it’s all more sickening than I can bear.’

‘My dear child, come and stay with me,’ said the old woman, gently.

‘Oh, I can’t desert her; I can’t abandon her!’

‘Desert — abandon? What a way to put it! Hasn’t she abandoned you?’

‘She has no heart — she’s too base!’ said the girl. Her face was white and the tears now began to rise to her eyes again.

Lady Davenant got up and came and sat on the sofa beside her: she put her arms round her and the two women embraced. ‘Your room is all ready,’ the old lady remarked. And then she said, ‘When did she leave you? When did you see her last?’

‘Oh, in the strangest, maddest, crudest way, the way most insulting to me. We went to the opera together and she left me there with a gentleman. We know nothing about her since.’

‘With a gentleman?’

‘With Mr. Wendover — that American, and something too dreadful happened.’

‘Dear me, did he kiss you?’ asked Lady Davenant.

Laura got up quickly, turning away. ‘Good-bye, I’m going, I’m going!’ And in reply to an irritated, protesting exclamation from her companion she went on, ‘Anywhere — anywhere to get away!’

‘To get away from your American?’

‘I asked him to marry me!’ The girl turned round with her tragic face.

‘He oughtn’t to have left that to you.’

‘I knew this horror was coming and it took possession of me, there in the box, from one moment to the other — the idea of making sure of some other life, some protection, some respectability. First I thought he liked me, he had behaved as if he did. And I like him, he is a very good man. So I asked him, I couldn’t help it, it was too hideous — I offered myself!’ Laura spoke as if she were telling that she had stabbed him, standing there with dilated eyes.

Lady Davenant got up again and went to her; drawing off her glove she felt her cheek with the back of her hand. ‘You are ill, you are in a fever. I’m sure that whatever you said it was very charming.’

‘Yes, I am ill,’ said Laura.

‘Upon my honour you shan’t go home, you shall go straight to bed. And what did he say to you?’

‘Oh, it was too miserable!’ cried the girl, pressing her face again into her companion’s kerchief. ‘I was all, all mistaken; he had never thought!’

‘Why the deuce then did he run about that way after you? He was a brute to say it!’

‘He didn’t say it and he never ran about. He behaved like a perfect gentleman.’

‘I’ve no patience — I wish I had seen him that time!’ Lady Davenant declared.

‘Yes, that would have been nice! You’ll never see him; if he is a gentleman he’ll rush away.’

‘Bless me, what a rushing away!’ murmured the old woman. Then passing her arm round Laura she added, ‘You’ll please to come upstairs with me.’

Half an hour later she had some conversation with her butler which led to his consulting a little register into which it was his law to transcribe with great neatness, from their cards, the addresses of new visitors. This volume, kept in the drawer of the hall table, revealed the fact that Mr. Wendover was staying in George Street, Hanover Square. ‘Get into a cab immediately and tell him to come and see me this evening,’ Lady Davenant said. ‘Make him understand that it interests him very nearly, so that no matter what his engagements may be he must give them up. Go quickly and you’ll just find him: he’ll be sure to be at home to dress for dinner.’ She had calculated justly, for a few minutes before ten o’clock the door of her drawing-room was thrown open and Mr. Wendover was announced.

‘Sit there,’ said the old lady; ‘no, not that one, nearer to me. We must talk low. My dear sir, I won’t bite you!’

‘Oh, this is very comfortable,’ Mr. Wendover replied vaguely, smiling through his visible anxiety. It was no more than natural that he should wonder what Laura Wing’s peremptory friend wanted of him at that hour of the night; but nothing could exceed the gallantry of his attempt to conceal the symptoms of alarm.

‘You ought to have come before, you know,’ Lady Davenant went on. ‘I have wanted to see you more than once.’

‘I have been dining out — I hurried away. This was the first possible moment, I assure you.’

‘I too was dining out and I stopped at home on purpose to see you. But I didn’t mean to-night, for you have done very well. I was quite intending to send for you — the other day. But something put it out of my head. Besides, I knew she wouldn’t like it.’

‘Why, Lady Davenant, I made a point of calling, ever so long ago — after that day!’ the young man exclaimed, not reassured, or at any rate not enlightened.

‘I daresay you did — but you mustn’t justify yourself; that’s just what I don’t want; it isn’t what I sent for you for. I have something very particular to say to you, but it’s very difficult. Voyons un peu!’

The old woman reflected a little, with her eyes on his face, which had grown more grave as she went on; its expression intimated that he failed as yet to understand her and that he at least was not exactly trifling. Lady Davenant’s musings apparently helped her little, if she was looking for an artful approach; for they ended in her saying abruptly, ‘I wonder if you know what a capital girl she is.’

‘Do you mean — do you mean ——?’ stammered Mr. Wendover, pausing as if he had given her no right not to allow him to conceive alternatives.

‘Yes, I do mean. She’s upstairs, in bed.’

‘Upstairs in bed!’ The young man stared.

‘Don’t be afraid — I’m not going to send for her!’ laughed his hostess; ‘her being here, after all, has nothing to do with it, except that she did come — yes, certainly, she did come. But my keeping her — that was my doing. My maid has gone to Grosvenor Place to get her things and let them know that she will stay here for the present. Now am I clear?’

‘Not in the least,’ said Mr. Wendover, almost sternly.

Lady Davenant, however, was not of a composition to suspect him of sternness or to care very much if she did, and she went on, with her quick discursiveness: ‘Well, we must be patient; we shall work it out together. I was afraid you would go away, that’s why I lost no time. Above all I want you to understand that she has not the least idea that I have sent for you, and you must promise me never, never, never to let her know. She would be monstrous angry. It is quite my own idea — I have taken the responsibility. I know very little about you of course, but she has spoken to me well of you. Besides, I am very clever about people, and I liked you that day, though you seemed to think I was a hundred and eighty.’

‘You do me great honour,’ Mr. Wendover rejoined.

‘I’m glad you’re pleased! You must be if I tell you that I like you now even better. I see what you are, except for the question of fortune. It doesn’t perhaps matter much, but have you any money? I mean have you a fine income?’

‘No, indeed I haven’t!’ And the young man laughed in his bewilderment. ‘I have very little money indeed.’

‘Well, I daresay you have as much as I. Besides, that would be a proof she is not mercenary.’

‘You haven’t in the least made it plain whom you are talking about,’ said Mr. Wendover. ‘I have no right to assume anything.’

‘Are you afraid of betraying her? I am more devoted to her even than I want you to be. She has told me what happened between you last night — what she said to you at the opera. That’s what I want to talk to you about.’

‘She was very strange,’ the young man remarked.

‘I am not so sure that she was strange. However, you are welcome to think it, for goodness knows she says so herself. She is overwhelmed with horror at her own words; she is absolutely distracted and prostrate.’

Mr. Wendover was silent a moment. ‘I assured her that I admire her — beyond every one. I was most kind to her.’

‘Did you say it in that tone? You should have thrown yourself at her feet! From the moment you didn’t — surely you understand women well enough to know.’

‘You must remember where we were — in a public place, with very little room for throwing!’ Mr. Wendover exclaimed.

‘Ah, so far from blaming you she says your behaviour was perfect. It’s only I who want to have it out with you,’ Lady Davenant pursued. ‘She’s so clever, so charming, so good and so unhappy.’

‘When I said just now she was strange, I meant only in the way she turned against me.’

‘She turned against you?’

‘She told me she hoped she should never see me again.’

‘And you, should you like to see her?’

‘Not now — not now!’ Mr. Wendover exclaimed, eagerly.

‘I don’t mean now, I’m not such a fool as that. I mean some day or other, when she has stopped accusing herself, if she ever does.’

‘Ah, Lady Davenant, you must leave that to me,’ the young man returned, after a moment’s hesitation.

‘Don’t be afraid to tell me I’m meddling with what doesn’t concern me,’ said his hostess. ‘Of course I know I’m meddling; I sent for you here to meddle. Who wouldn’t, for that creature? She makes one melt.’

‘I’m exceedingly sorry for her. I don’t know what she thinks she said.’

‘Well, that she asked you why you came so often to Grosvenor Place. I don’t see anything so awful in that, if you did go.’

‘Yes, I went very often. I liked to go.’

‘Now, that’s exactly where I wish to prevent a misconception,’ said Lady Davenant. ‘If you liked to go you had a reason for liking, and Laura Wing was the reason, wasn’t she?’

‘I thought her charming, and I think her so now more than ever.’

‘Then you are a dear good man. Vous faisiez votre cour, in short.’

Mr. Wendover made no immediate response: the two sat looking at each other. ‘It isn’t easy for me to talk of these things,’ he said at last; ‘but if you mean that I wished to ask her to be my wife I am bound to tell you that I had no such intention.’

‘Ah, then I’m at sea. You thought her charming and you went to see her every day. What then did you wish?’

‘I didn’t go every day. Moreover I think you have a very different idea in this country of what constitutes — well, what constitutes making love. A man commits himself much sooner.’

‘Oh, I don’t know what your odd ways may be!’ Lady Davenant exclaimed, with a shade of irritation.

‘Yes, but I was justified in supposing that those ladies did: they at least are American.’

‘“They,” my dear sir! For heaven’s sake don’t mix up that nasty Selina with it!’

‘Why not, if I admired her too? I do extremely, and I thought the house most interesting.’

‘Mercy on us, if that’s your idea of a nice house! But I don’t know — I have always kept out of it,’ Lady Davenant added, checking herself. Then she went on, ‘If you are so fond of Mrs. Berrington I am sorry to inform you that she is absolutely good-for-nothing.’

‘Good-for-nothing?’

‘Nothing to speak of! I have been thinking whether I would tell you, and I have decided to do so because I take it that your learning it for yourself would be a matter of but a very short time. Selina has bolted, as they say.’

‘Bolted?’ Mr. Wendover repeated.

‘I don’t know what you call it in America.’

‘In America we don’t do it.’

‘Ah, well, if they stay, as they do usually abroad, that’s better. I suppose you didn’t think her capable of behaving herself, did you?’

‘Do you mean she has left her husband — with some one else?’

‘Neither more nor less; with a fellow named Crispin. It appears it all came off last evening, and she had her own reasons for doing it in the most offensive way — publicly, clumsily, with the vulgarest bravado. Laura has told me what took place, and you must permit me to express my surprise at your not having divined the miserable business.’

‘I saw something was wrong, but I didn’t understand. I’m afraid I’m not very quick at these things.’

‘Your state is the more gracious; but certainly you are not quick if you could call there so often and not see through Selina.’

‘Mr. Crispin, whoever he is, was never there,’ said the young man.

‘Oh, she was a clever hussy!’ his companion rejoined.

‘I knew she was fond of amusement, but that’s what I liked to see. I wanted to see a house of that sort.’

‘Fond of amusement is a very pretty phrase!’ said Lady Davenant, laughing at the simplicity with which her visitor accounted for his assiduity. ‘And did Laura Wing seem to you in her place in a house of that sort?’

‘Why, it was natural she should be with her sister, and she always struck me as very gay.’

‘That was your enlivening effect! And did she strike you as very gay last night, with this scandal hanging over her?’

‘She didn’t talk much,’ said Mr. Wendover.

‘She knew it was coming — she felt it, she saw it, and that’s what makes her sick now, that at such a time she should have challenged you, when she felt herself about to be associated (in people’s minds, of course) with such a vile business. In people’s minds and in yours — when you should know what had happened.’

‘Ah, Miss Wing isn’t associated —— ’ said Mr. Wendover. He spoke slowly, but he rose to his feet with a nervous movement that was not lost upon his companion: she noted it indeed with a certain inward sense of triumph. She was very deep, but she had never been so deep as when she made up her mind to mention the scandal of the house of Berrington to her visitor and intimated to him that Laura Wing regarded herself as near enough to it to receive from it a personal stain. ‘I’m extremely sorry to hear of Mrs. Berrington’s misconduct,’ he continued gravely, standing before her. ‘And I am no less obliged to you for your interest.’

‘Don’t mention it,’ she said, getting up too and smiling. ‘I mean my interest. As for the other matter, it will all come out. Lionel will haul her up.’

‘Dear me, how dreadful!’

‘Yes, dreadful enough. But don’t betray me.’

‘Betray you?’ he repeated, as if his thoughts had gone astray a moment.

‘I mean to the girl. Think of her shame!’

‘Her shame?’ Mr. Wendover said, in the same way.

‘It seemed to her, with what was becoming so clear to her, that an honest man might save her from it, might give her his name and his faith and help her to traverse the bad place. She exaggerates the badness of it, the stigma of her relationship. Good heavens, at that rate where would some of us be? But those are her ideas, they are absolutely sincere, and they had possession of her at the opera. She had a sense of being lost and was in a real agony to be rescued. She saw before her a kind gentleman who had seemed — who had certainly seemed —— ’ And Lady Davenant, with her fine old face lighted by her bright sagacity and her eyes on Mr. Wendover’s, paused, lingering on this word. ‘Of course she must have been in a state of nerves.’

‘I am very sorry for her,’ said Mr. Wendover, with his gravity that committed him to nothing.

‘So am I! And of course if you were not in love with her you weren’t, were you?’

‘I must bid you good-bye, I am leaving London.’ That was the only answer Lady Davenant got to her inquiry.

‘Good-bye then. She is the nicest girl I know. But once more, mind you don’t let her suspect!’

‘How can I let her suspect anything when I shall never see her again?’

‘Oh, don’t say that,’ said Lady Davenant, very gently.

‘She drove me away from her with a kind of ferocity.’

‘Oh, gammon!’ cried the old woman.

‘I’m going home,’ he said, looking at her with his hand on the door.

‘Well, it’s the best place for you. And for her too!’ she added as he went out. She was not sure that the last words reached him.

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