A London Life, by Henry James

IX

The rain did stop while they stood there, and a brace of hansoms was not slow to appear. Laura told her companion that he must put her into one — she could go home alone: she had taken up enough of his time. He deprecated this course very respectfully; urged that he had it on his conscience to deliver her at her own door; but she sprang into the cab and closed the apron with a movement that was a sharp prohibition. She wanted to get away from him — it would be too awkward, the long, pottering drive back. Her hansom started off while Mr. Wendover, smiling sadly, lifted his hat. It was not very comfortable, even without him; especially as before she had gone a quarter of a mile she felt that her action had been too marked — she wished she had let him come. His puzzled, innocent air of wondering what was the matter annoyed her; and she was in the absurd situation of being angry at a desistence which she would have been still angrier if he had been guiltless of. It would have comforted her (because it would seem to share her burden) and yet it would have covered her with shame if he had guessed that what she saw was wrong. It would not occur to him that there was a scandal so near her, because he thought with no great promptitude of such things; and yet, since there was — but since there was after all Laura scarcely knew what attitude would sit upon him most gracefully. As to what he might be prepared to suspect by having heard what Selina’s reputation was in London, of that Laura was unable to judge, not knowing what was said, because of course it was not said to her. Lionel would undertake to give her the benefit of this any moment she would allow him, but how in the world could he know either, for how could things be said to him? Then, in the rattle of the hansom, passing through streets for which the girl had no eyes, ‘She has lied, she has lied, she has lied!’ kept repeating itself. Why had she written and signed that wanton falsehood about her going down to Lady Watermouth? How could she have gone to Lady Watermouth’s when she was making so very different and so extraordinary a use of the hours she had announced her intention of spending there? What had been the need of that misrepresentation and why did she lie before she was driven to it?

It was because she was false altogether and deception came out of her with her breath; she was so depraved that it was easier to her to fabricate than to let it alone. Laura would not have asked her to give an account of her day, but she would ask her now. She shuddered at one moment, as she found herself saying — even in silence — such things of her sister, and the next she sat staring out of the front of the cab at the stiff problem presented by Selina’s turning up with the partner of her guilt at the Soane Museum, of all places in the world. The girl shifted this fact about in various ways, to account for it — not unconscious as she did so that it was a pretty exercise of ingenuity for a nice girl. Plainly, it was a rare accident: if it had been their plan to spend the day together the Soane Museum had not been in the original programme. They had been near it, they had been on foot and they had rushed in to take refuge from the rain. But how did they come to be near it and above all to be on foot? How could Selina do anything so reckless from her own point of view as to walk about the town — even an out-of-the-way part of it — with her suspected lover? Laura Wing felt the want of proper knowledge to explain such anomalies. It was too little clear to her where ladies went and how they proceeded when they consorted with gentlemen in regard to their meetings with whom they had to lie. She knew nothing of where Captain Crispin lived; very possibly — for she vaguely remembered having heard Selina say of him that he was very poor — he had chambers in that part of the town, and they were either going to them or coming from them. If Selina had neglected to take her way in a four-wheeler with the glasses up it was through some chance that would not seem natural till it was explained, like that of their having darted into a public institution. Then no doubt it would hang together with the rest only too well. The explanation most exact would probably be that the pair had snatched a walk together (in the course of a day of many edifying episodes) for the ‘lark’ of it, and for the sake of the walk had taken the risk, which in that part of London, so detached from all gentility, had appeared to them small. The last thing Selina could have expected was to meet her sister in such a strange corner — her sister with a young man of her own!

She was dining out that night with both Selina and Lionel — a conjunction that was rather rare. She was by no means always invited with them, and Selina constantly went without her husband. Appearances, however, sometimes got a sop thrown them; three or four times a month Lionel and she entered the brougham together like people who still had forms, who still said ‘my dear.’ This was to be one of those occasions, and Mrs. Berrington’s young unmarried sister was included in the invitation. When Laura reached home she learned, on inquiry, that Selina had not yet come in, and she went straight to her own room. If her sister had been there she would have gone to hers instead — she would have cried out to her as soon as she had closed the door: ‘Oh, stop, stop — in God’s name, stop before you go any further, before exposure and ruin and shame come down and bury us!’ That was what was in the air — the vulgarest disgrace, and the girl, harder now than ever about her sister, was conscious of a more passionate desire to save herself. But Selina’s absence made the difference that during the next hour a certain chill fell upon this impulse from other feelings: she found suddenly that she was late and she began to dress. They were to go together after dinner to a couple of balls; a diversion which struck her as ghastly for people who carried such horrors in their breasts. Ghastly was the idea of the drive of husband, wife and sister in pursuit of pleasure, with falsity and detection and hate between them. Selina’s maid came to her door to tell her that she was in the carriage — an extraordinary piece of punctuality, which made her wonder, as Selina was always dreadfully late for everything. Laura went down as quickly as she could, passed through the open door, where the servants were grouped in the foolish majesty of their superfluous attendance, and through the file of dingy gazers who had paused at the sight of the carpet across the pavement and the waiting carriage, in which Selina sat in pure white splendour. Mrs. Berrington had a tiara on her head and a proud patience in her face, as if her sister were really a sore trial. As soon as the girl had taken her place she said to the footman: ‘Is Mr. Berrington there?’ — to which the man replied: ‘No ma’am, not yet.’ It was not new to Laura that if there was any one later as a general thing than Selina it was Selina’s husband. ‘Then he must take a hansom. Go on.’ The footman mounted and they rolled away.

There were several different things that had been present to Laura’s mind during the last couple of hours as destined to mark — one or the other — this present encounter with her sister; but the words Selina spoke the moment the brougham began to move were of course exactly those she had not foreseen. She had considered that she might take this tone or that tone or even no tone at all; she was quite prepared for her presenting a face of blankness to any form of interrogation and saying, ‘What on earth are you talking about?’ It was in short conceivable to her that Selina would deny absolutely that she had been in the museum, that they had stood face to face and that she had fled in confusion. She was capable of explaining the incident by an idiotic error on Laura’s part, by her having seized on another person, by her seeing Captain Crispin in every bush; though doubtless she would be taxed (of course she would say that was the woman’s own affair) to supply a reason for the embarrassment of the other lady. But she was not prepared for Selina’s breaking out with: ‘Will you be so good as to inform me if you are engaged to be married to Mr. Wendover?’

‘Engaged to him? I have seen him but three times.’

‘And is that what you usually do with gentlemen you have seen three times?’

‘Are you talking about my having gone with him to see some sights? I see nothing wrong in that. To begin with you see what he is. One might go with him anywhere. Then he brought us an introduction — we have to do something for him. Moreover you threw him upon me the moment he came — you asked me to take charge of him.’

‘I didn’t ask you to be indecent! If Lionel were to know it he wouldn’t tolerate it, so long as you live with us.’

Laura was silent a moment. ‘I shall not live with you long.’ The sisters, side by side, with their heads turned, looked at each other, a deep crimson leaping into Laura’s face. ‘I wouldn’t have believed it — that you are so bad,’ she said. ‘You are horrible!’ She saw that Selina had not taken up the idea of denying — she judged that would be hopeless: the recognition on either side had been too sharp. She looked radiantly handsome, especially with the strange new expression that Laura’s last word brought into her eyes. This expression seemed to the girl to show her more of Selina morally than she had ever yet seen — something of the full extent and the miserable limit.

‘It’s different for a married woman, especially when she’s married to a cad. It’s in a girl that such things are odious — scouring London with strange men. I am not bound to explain to you — there would be too many things to say. I have my reasons — I have my conscience. It was the oddest of all things, our meeting in that place — I know that as well as you,’ Selina went on, with her wonderful affected clearness; ‘but it was not your finding me that was out of the way; it was my finding you — with your remarkable escort! That was incredible. I pretended not to recognise you, so that the gentleman who was with me shouldn’t see you, shouldn’t know you. He questioned me and I repudiated you. You may thank me for saving you! You had better wear a veil next time — one never knows what may happen. I met an acquaintance at Lady Watermouth’s and he came up to town with me. He happened to talk about old prints; I told him how I have collected them and we spoke of the bother one has about the frames. He insisted on my going with him to that place — from Waterloo — to see such an excellent model.’

Laura had turned her face to the window of the carriage again; they were spinning along Park Lane, passing in the quick flash of other vehicles an endless succession of ladies with ‘dressed’ heads, of gentlemen in white neckties. ‘Why, I thought your frames were all so pretty!’ Laura murmured. Then she added: ‘I suppose it was your eagerness to save your companion the shock of seeing me — in my dishonour — that led you to steal our cab.’

‘Your cab?’

‘Your delicacy was expensive for you!’

‘You don’t mean you were knocking about in cabs with him!’ Selina cried.

‘Of course I know that you don’t really think a word of what you say about me,’ Laura went on; ‘though I don’t know that that makes your saying it a bit less unspeakably base.’

The brougham pulled up in Park Lane and Mrs. Berrington bent herself to have a view through the front glass. ‘We are there, but there are two other carriages,’ she remarked, for all answer. ‘Ah, there are the Collingwoods.’

‘Where are you going — where are you going — where are you going?’ Laura broke out.

The carriage moved on, to set them down, and while the footman was getting off the box Selina said: ‘I don’t pretend to be better than other women, but you do!’ And being on the side of the house she quickly stepped out and carried her crowned brilliancy through the long-lingering daylight and into the open portals.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/james/henry/london_life/chapter9.html

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