Louisa Pallant, by Henry James

III

I remember the first time — it was at the end of about ten days of this — that Mrs. Pallant remarked to me: “My dear friend, you’re quite AMAZING! You behave for all the world as if you were perfectly ready to accept certain consequences.” She nodded in the direction of our young companions, but I nevertheless put her at the pains of saying what consequences she meant. “What consequences? Why the very same consequences that ensued when you and I first became acquainted.”

I hesitated, but then, looking her in the eyes, said: “Do you mean she’d throw him over?”

“You’re not kind, you’re not generous,” she replied with a quick colour. “I’m giving you a warning.”

“You mean that my boy may fall in love with your girl?”

“Certainly. It looks even as if the harm might be already done.”

“Then your warning comes too late,” I significantly smiled. “But why do you call it a harm?”

“Haven’t you any sense of the rigour of your office?” she asked. “Is that what his mother has sent him out to you for: that you shall find him the first wife you can pick up, that you shall let him put his head into the noose the day after his arrival?”

“Heaven forbid I should do anything of the kind! I know moreover that his mother doesn’t want him to marry young. She holds it the worst of mistakes, she feels that at that age a man never really chooses. He doesn’t choose till he has lived a while, till he has looked about and compared.”

“And what do you think then yourself?”

“I should like to say I regard the fact of falling in love, at whatever age, as in itself an act of selection. But my being as I am at this time of day would contradict me too much.”

“Well then, you’re too primitive. You ought to leave this place tomorrow.”

“So as not to see Archie fall —?”

“You ought to fish him out now — from where he HAS fallen — and take him straight away.”

I wondered a little. “Do you think he’s in very far?”

“If I were his mother I know what I should think. I can put myself in her place — I’m not narrow-minded. I know perfectly well how she must regard such a question.”

“And don’t you know,” I returned, “that in America that’s not thought important — the way the mother regards it?”

Mrs. Pallant had a pause — as if I mystified or vexed her. “Well, we’re not in America. We happen to be here.”

“No; my poor sister’s up to her neck in New York.”

“I’m almost capable of writing to her to come out,” said Mrs. Pallant.

“You ARE warning me,” I cried, “but I hardly know of what! It seems to me my responsibility would begin only at the moment your daughter herself should seem in danger.”

“Oh you needn’t mind that — I’ll take care of Linda.”

But I went on. “If you think she’s in danger already I’ll carry him off to-morrow.”

“It would be the best thing you could do.”

“I don’t know — I should be very sorry to act on a false alarm. I’m very well here; I like the place and the life and your society. Besides, it doesn’t strike me that — on her side — there’s any real symptom.”

She looked at me with an air I had never seen in her face, and if I had puzzled her she repaid me in kind. “You’re very annoying. You don’t deserve what I’d fain do for you.”

What she’d fain do for me she didn’t tell me that day, but we took up the subject again. I remarked that I failed to see why we should assume that a girl like Linda — brilliant enough to make one of the greatest — would fall so very easily into my nephew’s arms. Might I enquire if her mother had won a confession from her, if she had stammered out her secret? Mrs. Pallant made me, on this, the point that they had no need to tell each other such things — they hadn’t lived together twenty years in such intimacy for nothing. To which I returned that I had guessed as much, but that there might be an exception for a great occasion like the present. If Linda had shown nothing it was a sign that for HER the occasion wasn’t great; and I mentioned that Archie had spoken to me of the young lady only to remark casually and rather patronisingly, after his first encounter with her, that she was a regular little flower. (The little flower was nearly three years older than himself.) Apart from this he hadn’t alluded to her and had taken up no allusion of mine. Mrs. Pallant informed me again — for which I was prepared — that I was quite too primitive; after which she said: “We needn’t discuss the case if you don’t wish to, but I happen to know — how I obtained my knowledge isn’t important — that the moment Mr. Parker should propose to my daughter she’d gobble him down. Surely it’s a detail worth mentioning to you.”

I sought to defer then to her judgement. “Very good. I’ll sound him. I’ll look into the matter tonight.”

“Don’t, don’t; you’ll spoil everything!” She spoke as with some finer view. “Remove him quickly — that’s the only thing.”

I didn’t at all like the idea of removing him quickly; it seemed too summary, too extravagant, even if presented to him on specious grounds; and moreover, as I had told Mrs. Pallant, I really had no wish to change my scene. It was no part of my promise to my sister that, with my middle-aged habits, I should duck and dodge about Europe. So I temporised. “Should you really object to the boy so much as a son-in-law? After all he’s a good fellow and a gentleman.”

“My poor friend, you’re incredibly superficial!” she made answer with an assurance that struck me.

The contempt in it so nettled me in fact that I exclaimed: “Possibly! But it seems odd that a lesson in consistency should come from YOU.”

I had no retort from her on this, rather to my surprise, and when she spoke again it was all quietly. “I think Linda and I had best withdraw. We’ve been here a month — it will have served our purpose.”

“Mercy on us, that will be a bore!” I protested; and for the rest of the evening, till we separated — our conversation had taken place after dinner at the Kursaal — she said little, preserving a subdued and almost injured air. This somehow didn’t appeal to me, since it was absurd that Louisa Pallant, of all women, should propose to put me in the wrong. If ever a woman had been in the wrong herself —! I had even no need to go into that. Archie and I, at all events, usually attended the ladies back to their own door — they lived in a street of minor accommodation at a certain distance from the Rooms — where we parted for the night late, on the big cobblestones, in the little sleeping German town, under the closed windows of which, suggesting stuffy interiors, our cheerful English partings resounded. On this occasion indeed they rather languished; the question that had come up for me with Mrs. Pallant appeared — and by no intention of mine — to have brushed the young couple with its chill. Archie and Linda too struck me as conscious and dumb.

As I walked back to our hotel with my nephew I passed my hand into his arm and put to him, by no roundabout approach, the question of whether he were in serious peril of love.

“I don’t know, I don’t know — really, uncle, I don’t know!” was, however, all the satisfaction I could extract from the youth, who hadn’t the smallest vein of introspection. He mightn’t know, but before we reached the inn — we had a few more words on the subject — it seemed to me that I did. His mind wasn’t formed to accommodate at one time many subjects of thought, but Linda Pallant certainly constituted for the moment its principal furniture. She pervaded his consciousness, she solicited his curiosity, she associated herself, in a manner as yet informal and undefined, with his future. I could see that she held, that she beguiled him as no one had ever done. I didn’t betray to him, however, that perception, and I spent my night a prey to the consciousness that, after all, it had been none of my business to provide him with the sense of being captivated. To put him in relation with a young enchantress was the last thing his mother had expected of me or that I had expected of myself. Moreover it was quite my opinion that he himself was too young to be a judge of enchantresses. Mrs. Pallant was right and I had given high proof of levity in regarding her, with her beautiful daughter, as a “resource.” There were other resources — one of which WOULD be most decidedly to clear out. What did I know after all about the girl except that I rejoiced to have escaped from marrying her mother? That mother, it was true, was a singular person, and it was strange her conscience should have begun to fidget in advance of my own. It was strange she should so soon have felt Archie’s peril, and even stranger that she should have then wished to “save” him. The ways of women were infinitely subtle, and it was no novelty to me that one never knew where they would turn up. As I haven’t hesitated in this report to expose the irritable side of my own nature I shall confess that I even wondered if my old friend’s solicitude hadn’t been a deeper artifice. Wasn’t it possibly a plan of her own for making sure of my young man — though I didn’t quite see the logic of it? If she regarded him, which she might in view of his large fortune, as a great catch, mightn’t she have arranged this little comedy, in their personal interest, with the girl?

That possibility at any rate only made it a happier thought that I should win my companion to some curiosity about other places. There were many of course much more worth his attention than Homburg. In the course of the morning — it was after our early luncheon — I walked round to Mrs. Pallant’s to let her know I was ready to take action; but even while I went I again felt the unlikelihood of the part attributed by my fears and by the mother’s own, so far as they had been roused, to Linda. Certainly if she was such a girl as these fears represented her she would fly at higher game. It was with an eye to high game, Mrs. Pallant had frankly admitted to me, that she had been trained, and such an education, to say nothing of such a performer, justified a hope of greater returns. A young American, the fruit of scant “modelling,” who could give her nothing but pocket-money, was a very moderate prize, and if she had been prepared to marry for ambition — there was no such hardness in her face or tone, but then there never is — her mark would be inevitably a “personage” quelconque. I was received at my friend’s lodging with the announcement that she had left Homburg with her daughter half an hour before. The good woman who had entertained the pair professed to know nothing of their movements beyond the fact that they had gone to Frankfort, where, however, it was her belief that they didn’t intend to remain. They were evidently travelling beyond. Sudden, their decision to move? Oh yes, the matter of a moment. They must have spent the night in packing, they had so many things and such pretty ones; and their poor maid, all the morning, had scarce had time to swallow her coffee. But they clearly were ladies accustomed to come and go. It didn’t matter — with such rooms as hers she never wanted: there was a new family coming in at three.

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