Mrs. Medwin, by Henry James

Chapter 1

“Well, we ARE a pair!” the poor lady’s visitor broke out to her at the end of her explanation in a manner disconcerting enough. The poor lady was Miss Cutter, who lived in South Audley Street, where she had an “upper half” so concise that it had to pass boldly for convenient; and her visitor was her half-brother, whom she hadn’t seen for three years. She was remarkable for a maturity of which every symptom might have been observed to be admirably controlled, had not a tendency to stoutness just affirmed its independence. Her present, no doubt, insisted too much on her past, but with the excuse, sufficiently valid, that she must certainly once have been prettier. She was clearly not contented with once — she wished to be prettier again. She neglected nothing that could produce that illusion, and, being both fair and fat, dressed almost wholly in black. When she added a little colour it was not, at any rate, to her drapery. Her small rooms had the peculiarity that everything they contained appeared to testify with vividness to her position in society, quite as if they had been furnished by the bounty of admiring friends. They were adorned indeed almost exclusively with objects that nobody buys, as had more than once been remarked by spectators of her own sex, for herself, and would have been luxurious if luxury consisted mainly in photographic portraits slashed across with signatures, in baskets of flowers beribboned with the cards of passing compatriots, and in a neat collection of red volumes, blue volumes, alphabetical volumes, aids to London lucidity, of every sort, devoted to addresses and engagements. To be in Miss Cutter’s tiny drawing-room, in short, even with Miss Cutter alone — should you by any chance have found her so — was somehow to be in the world and in a crowd. It was like an agency — it bristled with particulars.

This was what the tall lean loose gentleman lounging there before her might have appeared to read in the suggestive scene over which, while she talked to him, his eyes moved without haste and without rest. “Oh come, Mamie!” he occasionally threw off; and the words were evidently connected with the impression thus absorbed. His comparative youth spoke of waste even as her positive — her too positive — spoke of economy. There was only one thing, that is, to make up in him for everything he had lost, though it was distinct enough indeed that this thing might sometimes serve. It consisted in the perfection of an indifference, an indifference at the present moment directed to the plea — a plea of inability, of pure destitution — with which his sister had met him. Yet it had even now a wider embrace, took in quite sufficiently all consequences of queerness, confessed in advance to the false note that, in such a setting, he almost excruciatingly constituted. He cared as little that he looked at moments all his impudence as that he looked all his shabbiness, all his cleverness, all his history. These different things were written in him — in his premature baldness, his seamed strained face, the lapse from bravery of his long tawny moustache; above all in his easy friendly universally acquainted eye, so much too sociable for mere conversation. What possible relation with him could be natural enough to meet it? He wore a scant rough Inverness cape and a pair of black trousers, wanting in substance and marked with the sheen of time, that had presumably once served for evening use. He spoke with the slowness helplessly permitted to Americans — as something too slow to be stopped — and he repeated that he found himself associated with Miss Cutter in a harmony calling for wonder. She had been telling him not only that she couldn’t possibly give him ten pounds, but that his unexpected arrival, should he insist on being much in view, might seriously interfere with arrangements necessary to her own maintenance; on which he had begun by replying that he of course knew she had long ago spent her money, but that he looked to her now exactly because she had, without the aid of that convenience, mastered the art of life.

“I’d really go away with a fiver, my dear, if you’d only tell me how you do it. It’s no use saying only, as you’ve always said, that ‘people are very kind to you.’ What the devil are they kind to you FOR?”

“Well, one reason is precisely that no particular inconvenience has hitherto been supposed to attach to me. I’m just what I am,” said Mamie Cutter; “nothing less and nothing more. It’s awkward to have to explain to you, which moreover I really needn’t in the least. I’m clever and amusing and charming.” She was uneasy and even frightened, but she kept her temper and met him with a grace of her own. “I don’t think you ought to ask me more questions than I ask you.”

“Ah my dear,” said the odd young man, “I’VE no mysteries. Why in the world, since it was what you came out for and have devoted so much of your time to, haven’t you pulled it off? Why haven’t you married?”

“Why haven’t YOU?” she retorted. “Do you think that if I had it would have been better for you? — that my husband would for a moment have put up with you? Do you mind my asking you if you’ll kindly go NOW?” she went on after a glance at the clock. “I’m expecting a friend, whom I must see alone, on a matter of great importance — ”

“And my being seen with you may compromise your respectability or undermine your nerve?” He sprawled imperturbably in his place, crossing again, in another sense, his long black legs and showing, above his low shoes, an absurd reach of parti-coloured sock. “I take your point well enough, but mayn’t you be after all quite wrong? If you can’t do anything for me couldn’t you at least do something with me? If it comes to that, I’m clever and amusing and charming too! I’ve been such an ass that you don’t appreciate me. But people like me — I assure you they do. They usually don’t know what an ass I’ve been; they only see the surface, which” — and he stretched himself afresh as she looked him up and down — “you CAN imagine them, can’t you, rather taken with? I’M ‘what I am’ too; nothing less and nothing more. That’s true of us as a family, you see. We ARE a crew!” He delivered himself serenely. His voice was soft and flat, his pleasant eyes, his simple tones tending to the solemn, achieved at moments that effect of quaintness which is, in certain connexions, socially so known and enjoyed. “English people have quite a weakness for me — more than any others. I get on with them beautifully. I’ve always been with them abroad. They think me,” the young man explained, “diabolically American.”

“You!” Such stupidity drew from her a sigh of compassion.

Her companion apparently quite understood it. “Are you homesick, Mamie?” he asked, with wondering irrelevance.

The manner of the question made her, for some reason, in spite of her preoccupations, break into a laugh. A shade of indulgence, a sense of other things, came back to her. “You are funny, Scott!”

“Well,” remarked Scott, “that’s just what I claim. But ARE you so homesick?” he spaciously inquired, not as to a practical end, but from an easy play of intelligence.

“I’m just dying of it!” said Mamie Cutter.

“Why so am I!” Her visitor had a sweetness of concurrence.

“We’re the only decent people,” Miss Cutter declared. “And I know. You don’t — you can’t; and I can’t explain. Come in,” she continued with a return of her impatience and an increase of her decision, “at seven sharp.”

She had quitted her seat some time before, and now, to get him into motion, hovered before him while, still motionless, he looked up at her. Something intimate, in the silence, appeared to pass between them — a community of fatigue and failure and, after all, of intelligence. There was a final cynical humour in it. It determined him, in any case, at last, and he slowly rose, taking in again as he stood there the testimony of the room. He might have been counting the photographs, but he looked at the flowers with detachment. “Who’s coming?”

“Mrs. Medwin.”

“American?”

“Dear no!”

“Then what are you doing for her?”

“I work for every one,” she promptly returned.

“For every one who pays? So I suppose. Yet isn’t it only we who do pay?”

There was a drollery, not lost on her, in the way his queer presence lent itself to his emphasised plural.

“Do you consider that YOU do?”

“At this, with his deliberation, he came back to his charming idea. “Only try me, and see if I can’t be MADE to. Work me in.” On her sharply presenting her back he stared a little at the clock. “If I come at seven may I stay to dinner?”

It brought her round again. “Impossible. I’m dining out.”

“With whom?”

She had to think. “With Lord Considine.”

“Oh my eye!” Scott exclaimed.

She looked at him gloomily. “Is THAT sort of tone what makes you pay? I think you might understand,” she went on, “that if you’re to sponge on me successfully you mustn’t ruin me. I must have SOME remote resemblance to a lady.”

“Yes? But why must I?” Her exasperated silence was full of answers, of which however his inimitable manner took no account. “You don’t understand my real strength; I doubt if you even understand your own. You’re clever, Mamie, but you’re not so clever as I supposed. However,” he pursued, “it’s out of Mrs. Medwin that you’ll get it.”

“Get what?”

“Why the cheque that will enable you to assist me.”

On this, for a moment, she met his eyes. “If you’ll come back at seven sharp — not a minute before, and not a minute after, I’ll give you two five-pound notes.”

He thought it over. “Whom are you expecting a minute after?”

It sent her to the window with a groan almost of anguish, and she answered nothing till she had looked at the street. “If you injure me, you know, Scott, you’ll be sorry.”

“I wouldn’t injure you for the world. What I want to do in fact is really to help you, and I promise you that I won’t leave you — by which I mean won’t leave London — till I’ve effected something really pleasant for you. I like you, Mamie, because I like pluck; I like you much more than you like me. I like you very, VERY much.” He had at last with this reached the door and opened it, but he remained with his hand on the latch. “What does Mrs. Medwin want of you?” he thus brought out.

She had come round to see him disappear, and in the relief of this prospect she again just indulged him.

“The impossible.”

He waited another minute. “And you’re going to do it?”

“I’m going to do it,” said Mamie Cutter.

“Well then that ought to be a haul. Call it THREE fivers!” he laughed. “At seven sharp.” And at last he left her alone.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/james/henry/mrs_medwin/chapter1.html

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