A London Life, by Henry James

V

‘And are you telling me the perfect truth when you say that Captain Crispin was not there?’

‘The perfect truth?’ Mrs. Berrington straightened herself to her height, threw back her head and measured her interlocutress up and down; it is to be surmised that this was one of the many ways in which she knew she looked very handsome indeed. Her interlocutress was her sister, and even in a discussion with a person long since initiated she was not incapable of feeling that her beauty was a new advantage. On this occasion she had at first the air of depending upon it mainly to produce an effect upon Laura; then, after an instant’s reflection, she determined to arrive at her result in another way. She exchanged her expression of scorn (of resentment at her veracity’s being impugned) for a look of gentle amusement; she smiled patiently, as if she remembered that of course Laura couldn’t understand of what an impertinence she had been guilty. There was a quickness of perception and lightness of hand which, to her sense, her American sister had never acquired: the girl’s earnest, almost barbarous probity blinded her to the importance of certain pleasant little forms. ‘My poor child, the things you do say! One doesn’t put a question about the perfect truth in a manner that implies that a person is telling a perfect lie. However, as it’s only you, I don’t mind satisfying your clumsy curiosity. I haven’t the least idea whether Captain Crispin was there or not. I know nothing of his movements and he doesn’t keep me informed — why should he, poor man? — of his whereabouts. He was not there for me — isn’t that all that need interest you? As far as I was concerned he might have been at the North Pole. I neither saw him nor heard of him. I didn’t see the end of his nose!’ Selina continued, still with her wiser, tolerant brightness, looking straight into her sister’s eyes. Her own were clear and lovely and she was but little less handsome than if she had been proud and freezing. Laura wondered at her more and more; stupefied suspense was now almost the girl’s constant state of mind.

Mrs. Berrington had come back from Paris the day before but had not proceeded to Mellows the same night, though there was more than one train she might have taken. Neither had she gone to the house in Grosvenor Place but had spent the night at an hotel. Her husband was absent again; he was supposed to be in Grosvenor Place, so that they had not yet met. Little as she was a woman to admit that she had been in the wrong she was known to have granted later that at this moment she had made a mistake in not going straight to her own house. It had given Lionel a degree of advantage, made it appear perhaps a little that she had a bad conscience and was afraid to face him. But she had had her reasons for putting up at an hotel, and she thought it unnecessary to express them very definitely. She came home by a morning train, the second day, and arrived before luncheon, of which meal she partook in the company of her sister and in that of Miss Steet and the children, sent for in honour of the occasion. After luncheon she let the governess go but kept Scratch and Parson — kept them on ever so long in the morning-room where she remained; longer than she had ever kept them before. Laura was conscious that she ought to have been pleased at this, but there was a perversity even in Selina’s manner of doing right; for she wished immensely now to see her alone — she had something so serious to say to her. Selina hugged her children repeatedly, encouraging their sallies; she laughed extravagantly at the artlessness of their remarks, so that at table Miss Steet was quite abashed by her unusual high spirits. Laura was unable to question her about Captain Crispin and Lady Ringrose while Geordie and Ferdy were there: they would not understand, of course, but names were always reflected in their limpid little minds and they gave forth the image later — often in the most extraordinary connections. It was as if Selina knew what she was waiting for and were determined to make her wait. The girl wished her to go to her room, that she might follow her there. But Selina showed no disposition to retire, and one could never entertain the idea for her, on any occasion, that it would be suitable that she should change her dress. The dress she wore — whatever it was — was too becoming to her, and to the moment, for that. Laura noticed how the very folds of her garment told that she had been to Paris; she had spent only a week there but the mark of her couturière was all over her: it was simply to confer with this great artist that, from her own account, she had crossed the Channel. The signs of the conference were so conspicuous that it was as if she had said, ‘Don’t you see the proof that it was for nothing but chiffons?’ She walked up and down the room with Geordie in her arms, in an access of maternal tenderness; he was much too big to nestle gracefully in her bosom, but that only made her seem younger, more flexible, fairer in her tall, strong slimness. Her distinguished figure bent itself hither and thither, but always in perfect freedom, as she romped with her children; and there was another moment, when she came slowly down the room, holding one of them in each hand and singing to them while they looked up at her beauty, charmed and listening and a little surprised at such new ways — a moment when she might have passed for some grave, antique statue of a young matron, or even for a picture of Saint Cecilia. This morning, more than ever, Laura was struck with her air of youth, the inextinguishable freshness that would have made any one exclaim at her being the mother of such bouncing little boys. Laura had always admired her, thought her the prettiest woman in London, the beauty with the finest points; and now these points were so vivid (especially her finished slenderness and the grace, the natural elegance of every turn — the fall of her shoulders had never looked so perfect) that the girl almost detested them: they appeared to her a kind of advertisement of danger and even of shame.

Miss Steet at last came back for the children, and as soon as she had taken them away Selina observed that she would go over to Plash — just as she was: she rang for her hat and jacket and for the carriage. Laura could see that she would not give her just yet the advantage of a retreat to her room. The hat and jacket were quickly brought, but after they were put on Selina kept her maid in the drawing-room, talking to her a long time, telling her elaborately what she wished done with the things she had brought from Paris. Before the maid departed the carriage was announced, and the servant, leaving the door of the room open, hovered within earshot. Laura then, losing patience, turned out the maid and closed the door; she stood before her sister, who was prepared for her drive. Then she asked her abruptly, fiercely, but colouring with her question, whether Captain Crispin had been in Paris. We have heard Mrs. Berrington’s answer, with which her strenuous sister was imperfectly satisfied; a fact the perception of which it doubtless was that led Selina to break out, with a greater show of indignation: ‘I never heard of such extraordinary ideas for a girl to have, and such extraordinary things for a girl to talk about! My dear, you have acquired a freedom — you have emancipated yourself from conventionality — and I suppose I must congratulate you.’ Laura only stood there, with her eyes fixed, without answering the sally, and Selina went on, with another change of tone: ‘And pray if he was there, what is there so monstrous? Hasn’t it happened that he is in London when I am there? Why is it then so awful that he should be in Paris?’

‘Awful, awful, too awful,’ murmured Laura, with intense gravity, still looking at her — looking all the more fixedly that she knew how little Selina liked it.

‘My dear, you do indulge in a style of innuendo, for a respectable young woman!’ Mrs. Berrington exclaimed, with an angry laugh. ‘You have ideas that when I was a girl —— ’ She paused, and her sister saw that she had not the assurance to finish her sentence on that particular note.

‘Don’t talk about my innuendoes and my ideas — you might remember those in which I have heard you indulge! Ideas? what ideas did I ever have before I came here?’ Laura Wing asked, with a trembling voice. ‘Don’t pretend to be shocked, Selina; that’s too cheap a defence. You have said things to me — if you choose to talk of freedom! What is the talk of your house and what does one hear if one lives with you? I don’t care what I hear now (it’s all odious and there’s little choice and my sweet sensibility has gone God knows where!) and I’m very glad if you understand that I don’t care what I say. If one talks about your affairs, my dear, one mustn’t be too particular!’ the girl continued, with a flash of passion.

Mrs. Berrington buried her face in her hands. ‘Merciful powers, to be insulted, to be covered with outrage, by one’s wretched little sister!’ she moaned.

‘I think you should be thankful there is one human being — however wretched — who cares enough for you to care about the truth in what concerns you,’ Laura said. ‘Selina, Selina — are you hideously deceiving us?’

‘Us?’ Selina repeated, with a singular laugh. ‘Whom do you mean by us?’

Laura Wing hesitated; she had asked herself whether it would be best she should let her sister know the dreadful scene she had had with Lionel; but she had not, in her mind, settled that point. However, it was settled now in an instant. ‘I don’t mean your friends — those of them that I have seen. I don’t think they care a straw — I have never seen such people. But last week Lionel spoke to me — he told me he knew it, as a certainty.’

‘Lionel spoke to you?’ said Mrs. Berrington, holding up her head with a stare. ‘And what is it that he knows?’

‘That Captain Crispin was in Paris and that you were with him. He believes you went there to meet him.’

‘He said this to you?’

‘Yes, and much more — I don’t know why I should make a secret of it.’

‘The disgusting beast!’ Selina exclaimed slowly, solemnly. ‘He enjoys the right — the legal right — to pour forth his vileness upon me; but when he is so lost to every feeling as to begin to talk to you in such a way ——!’ And Mrs. Berrington paused, in the extremity of her reprobation.

‘Oh, it was not his talk that shocked me — it was his believing it,’ the girl replied. ‘That, I confess, made an impression on me.’

‘Did it indeed? I’m infinitely obliged to you! You are a tender, loving little sister.’

‘Yes, I am, if it’s tender to have cried about you — all these days — till I’m blind and sick!’ Laura replied. ‘I hope you are prepared to meet him. His mind is quite made up to apply for a divorce.’

Laura’s voice almost failed her as she said this — it was the first time that in talking with Selina she had uttered that horrible word. She had heard it however, often enough on the lips of others; it had been bandied lightly enough in her presence under those somewhat austere ceilings of Mellows, of which the admired decorations and mouldings, in the taste of the middle of the last century, all in delicate plaster and reminding her of Wedgewood pottery, consisted of slim festoons, urns and trophies and knotted ribbons, so many symbols of domestic affection and irrevocable union. Selina herself had flashed it at her with light superiority, as if it were some precious jewel kept in reserve, which she could convert at any moment into specie, so that it would constitute a happy provision for her future. The idea — associated with her own point of view — was apparently too familiar to Mrs. Berrington to be the cause of her changing colour; it struck her indeed, as presented by Laura, in a ludicrous light, for her pretty eyes expanded a moment and she smiled pityingly. ‘Well, you are a poor dear innocent, after all. Lionel would be about as able to divorce me — even if I were the most abandoned of my sex — as he would be to write a leader in the Times.’

‘I know nothing about that,’ said Laura.

‘So I perceive — as I also perceive that you must have shut your eyes very tight. Should you like to know a few of the reasons — heaven forbid I should attempt to go over them all; there are millions! — why his hands are tied?’

‘Not in the least.’

‘Should you like to know that his own life is too base for words and that his impudence in talking about me would be sickening if it weren’t grotesque?’ Selina went on, with increasing emotion. ‘Should you like me to tell you to what he has stooped — to the very gutter — and the charming history of his relations with —— ’

‘No, I don’t want you to tell me anything of the sort,’ Laura interrupted. ‘Especially as you were just now so pained by the license of my own allusions.’

‘You listen to him then — but it suits your purpose not to listen to me!’

‘Oh, Selina, Selina!’ the girl almost shrieked, turning away.

‘Where have your eyes been, or your senses, or your powers of observation? You can be clever enough when it suits you!’ Mrs. Berrington continued, throwing off another ripple of derision. ‘And now perhaps, as the carriage is waiting, you will let me go about my duties.’

Laura turned again and stopped her, holding her arm as she passed toward the door. ‘Will you swear — will you swear by everything that is most sacred?’

‘Will I swear what?’ And now she thought Selina visibly blanched.

‘That you didn’t lay eyes on Captain Crispin in Paris.’

Mrs. Berrington hesitated, but only for an instant. ‘You are really too odious, but as you are pinching me to death I will swear, to get away from you. I never laid eyes on him.’

The organs of vision which Mrs. Berrington was ready solemnly to declare that she had not misapplied were, as her sister looked into them, an abyss of indefinite prettiness. The girl had sounded them before without discovering a conscience at the bottom of them, and they had never helped any one to find out anything about their possessor except that she was one of the beauties of London. Even while Selina spoke Laura had a cold, horrible sense of not believing her, and at the same time a desire, colder still, to extract a reiteration of the pledge. Was it the asseveration of her innocence that she wished her to repeat, or only the attestation of her falsity? One way or the other it seemed to her that this would settle something, and she went on inexorably — ‘By our dear mother’s memory — by our poor father’s?’

‘By my mother’s, by my father’s,’ said Mrs. Berrington, ‘and by that of any other member of the family you like!’ Laura let her go; she had not been pinching her, as Selina described the pressure, but had clung to her with insistent hands. As she opened the door Selina said, in a changed voice: ‘I suppose it’s no use to ask you if you care to drive to Plash.’

‘No, thank you, I don’t care — I shall take a walk.’

‘I suppose, from that, that your friend Lady Davenant has gone.’

‘No, I think she is still there.’

‘That’s a bore!’ Selina exclaimed, as she went off.

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