A London Life, by Henry James

III

Laura, as soon as her brother-in-law had been in the room a moment, had a particular fear; she had seen him twice noticeably under the influence of liquor; she had not liked it at all and now there were some of the same signs. She was afraid the children would discover them, or at any rate Miss Steet, and she felt the importance of not letting him stay in the room. She thought it almost a sign that he should have come there at all — he was so rare an apparition. He looked at her very hard, smiling as if to say, ‘No, no, I’m not — not if you think it!’ She perceived with relief in a moment that he was not very bad, and liquor disposed him apparently to tenderness, for he indulged in an interminable kissing of Geordie and Ferdy, during which Miss Steet turned away delicately, looking out of the window. The little boys asked him no questions to celebrate his return — they only announced that they were going to learn botany, to which he replied: ‘Are you, really? Why, I never did,’ and looked askance at the governess, blushing as if to express the hope that she would let him off from carrying that subject further. To Laura and to Miss Steet he was amiably explanatory, though his explanations were not quite coherent. He had come back an hour before — he was going to spend the night — he had driven over from Churton — he was thinking of taking the last train up to town. Was Laura dining at home? Was any one coming? He should enjoy a quiet dinner awfully.

‘Certainly I’m alone,’ said the girl. ‘I suppose you know Selina is away.’

‘Oh yes — I know where Selina is!’ And Lionel Berrington looked round, smiling at every one present, including Scratch and Parson. He stopped while he continued to smile and Laura wondered what he was so much pleased at. She preferred not to ask — she was sure it was something that wouldn’t give her pleasure; but after waiting a moment her brother-in-law went on: ‘Selina’s in Paris, my dear; that’s where Selina is!’

‘In Paris?’ Laura repeated.

‘Yes, in Paris, my dear — God bless her! Where else do you suppose? Geordie my boy, where should you think your mummy would naturally be?’

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ said Geordie, who had no reply ready that would express affectingly the desolation of the nursery. ‘If I were mummy I’d travel.’

‘Well now that’s your mummy’s idea — she has gone to travel,’ returned the father. ‘Were you ever in Paris, Miss Steet?’

Miss Steet gave a nervous laugh and said No, but she had been to Boulogne; while to her added confusion Ferdy announced that he knew where Paris was — it was in America. ‘No, it ain’t — it’s in Scotland!’ cried Geordie; and Laura asked Lionel how he knew — whether his wife had written to him.

‘Written to me? when did she ever write to me? No, I saw a fellow in town this morning who saw her there — at breakfast yesterday. He came over last night. That’s how I know my wife’s in Paris. You can’t have better proof than that!’

‘I suppose it’s a very pleasant season there,’ the governess murmured, as if from a sense of duty, in a distant, discomfortable tone.

‘I daresay it’s very pleasant indeed — I daresay it’s awfully amusing!’ laughed Mr. Berrington. ‘Shouldn’t you like to run over with me for a few days, Laura — just to have a go at the theatres? I don’t see why we should always be moping at home. We’ll take Miss Steet and the children and give mummy a pleasant surprise. Now who do you suppose she was with, in Paris — who do you suppose she was seen with?’

Laura had turned pale, she looked at him hard, imploringly, in the eyes: there was a name she was terribly afraid he would mention. ‘Oh sir, in that case we had better go and get ready!’ Miss Steet quavered, betwixt a laugh and a groan, in a spasm of discretion; and before Laura knew it she had gathered Geordie and Ferdy together and swept them out of the room. The door closed behind her with a very quick softness and Lionel remained a moment staring at it.

‘I say, what does she mean? — ain’t that damned impertinent?’ he stammered. ‘What did she think I was going to say? Does she suppose I would say any harm before — before her? Dash it, does she suppose I would give away my wife to the servants?’ Then he added, ‘And I wouldn’t say any harm before you, Laura. You are too good and too nice and I like you too much!’

‘Won’t you come downstairs? won’t you have some tea?’ the girl asked, uneasily.

‘No, no, I want to stay here — I like this place,’ he replied, very gently and reasoningly. ‘It’s a deuced nice place — it’s an awfully jolly room. It used to be this way — always — when I was a little chap. I was a rough one, my dear; I wasn’t a pretty little lamb like that pair. I think it’s because you look after them — that’s what makes ’em so sweet. The one in my time — what was her name? I think it was Bald or Bold — I rather think she found me a handful. I used to kick her shins — I was decidedly vicious. And do you see it’s kept so well, Laura?’ he went on, looking round him. ”Pon my soul, it’s the prettiest room in the house. What does she want to go to Paris for when she has got such a charming house? Now can you answer me that, Laura?’

‘I suppose she has gone to get some clothes: her dressmaker lives in Paris, you know.’

‘Dressmaker? Clothes? Why, she has got whole rooms full of them. Hasn’t she got whole rooms full of them?’

‘Speaking of clothes I must go and change mine,’ said Laura. ‘I have been out in the rain — I have been to Plash — I’m decidedly damp.’

‘Oh, you have been to Plash? You have seen my mother? I hope she’s in very good health.’ But before the girl could reply to this he went on: ‘Now, I want you to guess who she’s in Paris with. Motcomb saw them together — at that place, what’s his name? close to the Madeleine.’ And as Laura was silent, not wishing at all to guess, he continued — ‘It’s the ruin of any woman, you know; I can’t think what she has got in her head.’ Still Laura said nothing, and as he had hold of her arm, she having turned away, she led him this time out of the room. She had a horror of the name, the name that was in her mind and that was apparently on his lips, though his tone was so singular, so contemplative. ‘My dear girl, she’s with Lady Ringrose — what do you say to that?’ he exclaimed, as they passed along the corridor to the staircase.

‘With Lady Ringrose?’

‘They went over on Tuesday — they are knocking about there alone.’

‘I don’t know Lady Ringrose,’ Laura said, infinitely relieved that the name was not the one she had feared. Lionel leaned on her arm as they went downstairs.

‘I rather hope not — I promise you she has never put her foot in this house! If Selina expects to bring her here I should like half an hour’s notice; yes, half an hour would do. She might as well be seen with —— ’ And Lionel Berrington checked himself. ‘She has had at least fifty —— ’ And again he stopped short. ‘You must pull me up, you know, if I say anything you don’t like!’

‘I don’t understand you — let me alone, please!’ the girl broke out, disengaging herself with an effort from his arm. She hurried down the rest of the steps and left him there looking after her, and as she went she heard him give an irrelevant laugh.

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