A London Life, by Henry James

IV

She determined not to go to dinner — she wished for that day not to meet him again. He would drink more — he would be worse — she didn’t know what he might say. Besides she was too angry — not with him but with Selina — and in addition to being angry she was sick. She knew who Lady Ringrose was; she knew so many things to-day that when she was younger — and only a little — she had not expected ever to know. Her eyes had been opened very wide in England and certainly they had been opened to Lady Ringrose. She had heard what she had done and perhaps a good deal more, and it was not very different from what she had heard of other women. She knew Selina had been to her house; she had an impression that her ladyship had been to Selina’s, in London, though she herself had not seen her there. But she had not known they were so intimate as that — that Selina would rush over to Paris with her. What they had gone to Paris for was not necessarily criminal; there were a hundred reasons, familiar to ladies who were fond of change, of movement, of the theatres and of new bonnets; but nevertheless it was the fact of this little excursion quite as much as the companion that excited Laura’s disgust.

She was not ready to say that the companion was any worse, though Lionel appeared to think so, than twenty other women who were her sister’s intimates and whom she herself had seen in London, in Grosvenor Place, and even under the motherly old beeches at Mellows. But she thought it unpleasant and base in Selina to go abroad that way, like a commercial traveller, capriciously, clandestinely, without giving notice, when she had left her to understand that she was simply spending three or four days in town. It was bad taste and bad form, it was cabotin and had the mark of Selina’s complete, irremediable frivolity — the worst accusation (Laura tried to cling to that opinion) that she laid herself open to. Of course frivolity that was never ashamed of itself was like a neglected cold — you could die of it morally as well as of anything else. Laura knew this and it was why she was inexpressibly vexed with her sister. She hoped she should get a letter from Selina the next morning (Mrs. Berrington would show at least that remnant of propriety) which would give her a chance to despatch her an answer that was already writing itself in her brain. It scarcely diminished Laura’s eagerness for such an opportunity that she had a vision of Selina’s showing her letter, laughing, across the table, at the place near the Madeleine, to Lady Ringrose (who would be painted — Selina herself, to do her justice, was not yet) while the French waiters, in white aprons, contemplated ces dames. It was new work for our young lady to judge of these shades — the gradations, the probabilities of license, and of the side of the line on which, or rather how far on the wrong side, Lady Ringrose was situated.

A quarter of an hour before dinner Lionel sent word to her room that she was to sit down without him — he had a headache and wouldn’t appear. This was an unexpected grace and it simplified the position for Laura; so that, smoothing her ruffles, she betook herself to the table. Before doing this however she went back to the schoolroom and told Miss Steet she must contribute her company. She took the governess (the little boys were in bed) downstairs with her and made her sit opposite, thinking she would be a safeguard if Lionel were to change his mind. Miss Steet was more frightened than herself — she was a very shrinking bulwark. The dinner was dull and the conversation rare; the governess ate three olives and looked at the figures on the spoons. Laura had more than ever her sense of impending calamity; a draught of misfortune seemed to blow through the house; it chilled her feet under her chair. The letter she had in her head went out like a flame in the wind and her only thought now was to telegraph to Selina the first thing in the morning, in quite different words. She scarcely spoke to Miss Steet and there was very little the governess could say to her: she had already related her history so often. After dinner she carried her companion into the drawing-room, by the arm, and they sat down to the piano together. They played duets for an hour, mechanically, violently; Laura had no idea what the music was — she only knew that their playing was execrable. In spite of this — ‘That’s a very nice thing, that last,’ she heard a vague voice say, behind her, at the end; and she became aware that her brother-in-law had joined them again.

Miss Steet was pusillanimous — she retreated on the spot, though Lionel had already forgotten that he was angry at the scandalous way she had carried off the children from the schoolroom. Laura would have gone too if Lionel had not told her that he had something very particular to say to her. That made her want to go more, but she had to listen to him when he expressed the hope that she hadn’t taken offence at anything he had said before. He didn’t strike her as tipsy now; he had slept it off or got rid of it and she saw no traces of his headache. He was still conspicuously cheerful, as if he had got some good news and were very much encouraged. She knew the news he had got and she might have thought, in view of his manner, that it could not really have seemed to him so bad as he had pretended to think it. It was not the first time however that she had seen him pleased that he had a case against his wife, and she was to learn on this occasion how extreme a satisfaction he could take in his wrongs. She would not sit down again; she only lingered by the fire, pretending to warm her feet, and he walked to and fro in the long room, where the lamp-light to-night was limited, stepping on certain figures of the carpet as if his triumph were alloyed with hesitation.

‘I never know how to talk to you — you are so beastly clever,’ he said. ‘I can’t treat you like a little girl in a pinafore — and yet of course you are only a young lady. You’re so deuced good — that makes it worse,’ he went on, stopping in front of her with his hands in his pockets and the air he himself had of being a good-natured but dissipated boy; with his small stature, his smooth, fat, suffused face, his round, watery, light-coloured eyes and his hair growing in curious infantile rings. He had lost one of his front teeth and always wore a stiff white scarf, with a pin representing some symbol of the turf or the chase. ‘I don’t see why she couldn’t have been a little more like you. If I could have had a shot at you first!’

‘I don’t care for any compliments at my sister’s expense,’ Laura said, with some majesty.

‘Oh I say, Laura, don’t put on so many frills, as Selina says. You know what your sister is as well as I do!’ They stood looking at each other a moment and he appeared to see something in her face which led him to add — ‘You know, at any rate, how little we hit it off.’

‘I know you don’t love each other — it’s too dreadful.’

‘Love each other? she hates me as she’d hate a hump on her back. She’d do me any devilish turn she could. There isn’t a feeling of loathing that she doesn’t have for me! She’d like to stamp on me and hear me crack, like a black beetle, and she never opens her mouth but she insults me.’ Lionel Berrington delivered himself of these assertions without violence, without passion or the sting of a new discovery; there was a familiar gaiety in his trivial little tone and he had the air of being so sure of what he said that he did not need to exaggerate in order to prove enough.

‘Oh, Lionel!’ the girl murmured, turning pale. ‘Is that the particular thing you wished to say to me?’

‘And you can’t say it’s my fault — you won’t pretend to do that, will you?’ he went on. ‘Ain’t I quiet, ain’t I kind, don’t I go steady? Haven’t I given her every blessed thing she has ever asked for?’

‘You haven’t given her an example!’ Laura replied, with spirit. ‘You don’t care for anything in the wide world but to amuse yourself, from the beginning of the year to the end. No more does she — and perhaps it’s even worse in a woman. You are both as selfish as you can live, with nothing in your head or your heart but your vulgar pleasure, incapable of a concession, incapable of a sacrifice!’ She at least spoke with passion; something that had been pent up in her soul broke out and it gave her relief, almost a momentary joy.

It made Lionel Berrington stare; he coloured, but after a moment he threw back his head with laughter. ‘Don’t you call me kind when I stand here and take all that? If I’m so keen for my pleasure what pleasure do you give me? Look at the way I take it, Laura. You ought to do me justice. Haven’t I sacrificed my home? and what more can a man do?’

‘I don’t think you care any more for your home than Selina does. And it’s so sacred and so beautiful, God forgive you! You are all blind and senseless and heartless and I don’t know what poison is in your veins. There is a curse on you and there will be a judgment!’ the girl went on, glowing like a young prophetess.

‘What do you want me to do? Do you want me to stay at home and read the Bible?’ her companion demanded with an effect of profanity, confronted with her deep seriousness.

‘It wouldn’t do you any harm, once in a while.’

‘There will be a judgment on her — that’s very sure, and I know where it will be delivered,’ said Lionel Berrington, indulging in a visible approach to a wink. ‘Have I done the half to her she has done to me? I won’t say the half but the hundredth part? Answer me truly, my dear!’

‘I don’t know what she has done to you,’ said Laura, impatiently.

‘That’s exactly what I want to tell you. But it’s difficult. I’ll bet you five pounds she’s doing it now!’

‘You are too unable to make yourself respected,’ the girl remarked, not shrinking now from the enjoyment of an advantage — that of feeling herself superior and taking her opportunity.

Her brother-in-law seemed to feel for the moment the prick of this observation. ‘What has such a piece of nasty boldness as that to do with respect? She’s the first that ever defied me!’ exclaimed the young man, whose aspect somehow scarcely confirmed this pretension. ‘You know all about her — don’t make believe you don’t,’ he continued in another tone. ‘You see everything — you’re one of the sharp ones. There’s no use beating about the bush, Laura — you’ve lived in this precious house and you’re not so green as that comes to. Besides, you’re so good yourself that you needn’t give a shriek if one is obliged to say what one means. Why didn’t you grow up a little sooner? Then, over there in New York, it would certainly have been you I would have made up to. You would have respected me — eh? now don’t say you wouldn’t.’ He rambled on, turning about the room again, partly like a person whose sequences were naturally slow but also a little as if, though he knew what he had in mind, there were still a scruple attached to it that he was trying to rub off.

‘I take it that isn’t what I must sit up to listen to, Lionel, is it?’ Laura said, wearily.

‘Why, you don’t want to go to bed at nine o’clock, do you? That’s all rot, of course. But I want you to help me.’

‘To help you — how?’

‘I’ll tell you — but you must give me my head. I don’t know what I said to you before dinner — I had had too many brandy and sodas. Perhaps I was too free; if I was I beg your pardon. I made the governess bolt — very proper in the superintendent of one’s children. Do you suppose they saw anything? I shouldn’t care for that. I did take half a dozen or so; I was thirsty and I was awfully gratified.’

‘You have little enough to gratify you.’

‘Now that’s just where you are wrong. I don’t know when I’ve fancied anything so much as what I told you.’

‘What you told me?’

‘About her being in Paris. I hope she’ll stay a month!’

‘I don’t understand you,’ Laura said.

‘Are you very sure, Laura? My dear, it suits my book! Now you know yourself he’s not the first.’

Laura was silent; his round eyes were fixed on her face and she saw something she had not seen before — a little shining point which on Lionel’s part might represent an idea, but which made his expression conscious as well as eager. ‘He?’ she presently asked. ‘Whom are you speaking of?’

‘Why, of Charley Crispin, G—— ’ And Lionel Berrington accompanied this name with a startling imprecation.

‘What has he to do ——?’

‘He has everything to do. Isn’t he with her there?’

‘How should I know? You said Lady Ringrose.’

‘Lady Ringrose is a mere blind — and a devilish poor one at that. I’m sorry to have to say it to you, but he’s her lover. I mean Selina’s. And he ain’t the first.’

There was another short silence while they stood opposed, and then Laura asked — and the question was unexpected — ‘Why do you call him Charley?’

‘Doesn’t he call me Lion, like all the rest?’ said her brother-in-law, staring.

‘You’re the most extraordinary people. I suppose you have a certain amount of proof before you say such things to me?’

‘Proof, I’ve oceans of proof! And not only about Crispin, but about Deepmere.’

‘And pray who is Deepmere?’

‘Did you never hear of Lord Deepmere? He has gone to India. That was before you came. I don’t say all this for my pleasure, Laura,’ Mr. Berrington added.

‘Don’t you, indeed?’ asked the girl with a singular laugh. ‘I thought you were so glad.’

‘I’m glad to know it but I’m not glad to tell it. When I say I’m glad to know it I mean I’m glad to be fixed at last. Oh, I’ve got the tip! It’s all open country now and I know just how to go. I’ve gone into it most extensively; there’s nothing you can’t find out to-day — if you go to the right place. I’ve — I’ve —— ’ He hesitated a moment, then went on: ‘Well, it’s no matter what I’ve done. I know where I am and it’s a great comfort. She’s up a tree, if ever a woman was. Now we’ll see who’s a beetle and who’s a toad!’ Lionel Berrington concluded, gaily, with some incongruity of metaphor.

‘It’s not true — it’s not true — it’s not true,’ Laura said, slowly.

‘That’s just what she’ll say — though that’s not the way she’ll say it. Oh, if she could get off by your saying it for her! — for you, my dear, would be believed.’

‘Get off — what do you mean?’ the girl demanded, with a coldness she failed to feel, for she was tingling all over with shame and rage.

‘Why, what do you suppose I’m talking about? I’m going to haul her up and to have it out.’

‘You’re going to make a scandal?’

Make it? Bless my soul, it isn’t me! And I should think it was made enough. I’m going to appeal to the laws of my country — that’s what I’m going to do. She pretends I’m stopped, whatever she does. But that’s all gammon — I ain’t!’

‘I understand — but you won’t do anything so horrible,’ said Laura, very gently.

‘Horrible as you please, but less so than going on in this way; I haven’t told you the fiftieth part — you will easily understand that I can’t. They are not nice things to say to a girl like you — especially about Deepmere, if you didn’t know it. But when they happen you’ve got to look at them, haven’t you? That’s the way I look at it.’

‘It’s not true — it’s not true — it’s not true,’ Laura Wing repeated, in the same way, slowly shaking her head.

‘Of course you stand up for your sister — but that’s just what I wanted to say to you, that you ought to have some pity for me and some sense of justice. Haven’t I always been nice to you? Have you ever had so much as a nasty word from me?’

This appeal touched the girl; she had eaten her brother-in-law’s bread for months, she had had the use of all the luxuries with which he was surrounded, and to herself personally she had never known him anything but good-natured. She made no direct response however; she only said — ‘Be quiet, be quiet and leave her to me. I will answer for her.’

‘Answer for her — what do you mean?’

‘She shall be better — she shall be reasonable — there shall be no more talk of these horrors. Leave her to me — let me go away with her somewhere.’

‘Go away with her? I wouldn’t let you come within a mile of her, if you were my sister!’

‘Oh, shame, shame!’ cried Laura Wing, turning away from him.

She hurried to the door of the room, but he stopped her before she reached it. He got his back to it, he barred her way and she had to stand there and hear him. ‘I haven’t said what I wanted — for I told you that I wanted you to help me. I ain’t cruel — I ain’t insulting — you can’t make out that against me; I’m sure you know in your heart that I’ve swallowed what would sicken most men. Therefore I will say that you ought to be fair. You’re too clever not to be; you can’t pretend to swallow —— ’ He paused a moment and went on, and she saw it was his idea — an idea very simple and bold. He wanted her to side with him — to watch for him — to help him to get his divorce. He forbore to say that she owed him as much for the hospitality and protection she had in her poverty enjoyed, but she was sure that was in his heart. ‘Of course she’s your sister, but when one’s sister’s a perfect bad ’un there’s no law to force one to jump into the mud to save her. It is mud, my dear, and mud up to your neck. You had much better think of her children — you had much better stop in my boat.’

‘Do you ask me to help you with evidence against her?’ the girl murmured. She had stood there passive, waiting while he talked, covering her face with her hands, which she parted a little, looking at him.

He hesitated a moment. ‘I ask you not to deny what you have seen — what you feel to be true.’

‘Then of the abominations of which you say you have proof, you haven’t proof.’

‘Why haven’t I proof?’

‘If you want me to come forward!’

‘I shall go into court with a strong case. You may do what you like. But I give you notice and I expect you not to forget that I have given it. Don’t forget — because you’ll be asked — that I have told you to-night where she is and with whom she is and what measures I intend to take.’

‘Be asked — be asked?’ the girl repeated.

‘Why, of course you’ll be cross-examined.’

‘Oh, mother, mother!’ cried Laura Wing. Her hands were over her face again and as Lionel Berrington, opening the door, let her pass, she burst into tears. He looked after her, distressed, compunctious, half-ashamed, and he exclaimed to himself — ‘The bloody brute, the bloody brute!’ But the words had reference to his wife.

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