Mrs. Medwin, by Henry James

Chapter 2

Miss Cutter waited till she heard the house-door close; after which, in a sightless mechanical way, she moved about the room readjusting various objects he had not touched. It was as if his mere voice and accent had spoiled her form. But she was not left too long to reckon with these things, for Mrs. Medwin was promptly announced. This lady was not, more than her hostess, in the first flush of her youth; her appearance — the scattered remains of beauty manipulated by taste — resembled one of the light repasts in which the fragments of yesterday’s dinner figure with a conscious ease that makes up for the want of presence. She was perhaps of an effect still too immediate to be called interesting, but she was candid, gentle and surprised — not fatiguingly surprised, only just in the right degree; and her white face — it was too white — with the fixed eyes, the somewhat touzled hair and the Louis Seize hat, might at the end of the very long neck have suggested the head of a princess carried on a pike in a revolution. She immediately took up the business that had brought her, with the air however of drawing from the omens then discernible less confidence than she had hoped. The complication lay in the fact that if it was Mamie’s part to present the omens, that lady yet had so to colour them as to make her own service large. She perhaps over-coloured; for her friend gave way to momentary despair.

“What you mean is then that it’s simply impossible?”

“Oh no,” said Mamie with a qualified emphasis. “It’s POSSIBLE.”

“But disgustingly difficult?”

“As difficult as you like.”

“Then what can I do that I haven’t done?”

“You can only wait a little longer.”

“But that’s just what I HAVE done. I’ve done nothing else. I’m always waiting a little longer!”

Miss Cutter retained, in spite of this pathos, her grasp of the subject. “THE thing, as I’ve told you, is for you first to be seen.”

“But if people won’t look at me?”

“They will.”

“They WILL?” Mrs. Medwin was eager.

“They shall,” her hostess went on. “It’s their only having heard — without having seen.”’

“But if they stare straight the other way?” Mrs. Medwin continued to object. “You can’t simply go up to them and twist their heads about.”

“It’s just what I can,” said Mamie Cutter.

But her charming visitor, heedless for the moment of this attenuation, had found the way to put it. “It’s the old story. You can’t go into the water till you swim, and you can’t swim till you go into the water. I can’t be spoken to till I’m seen, but I can’t be seen till I’m spoken to.”

She met this lucidity, Miss Cutter, with but an instant’s lapse. “You say I can’t twist their heads about. But I HAVE twisted them.”

It had been quietly produced, but it gave her companion a jerk. “They say ‘Yes’?”

She summed it up. “All but one. SHE says ‘No.’”

Mrs. Medwin thought; then jumped. “Lady Wantridge?”

Miss Cutter, as more delicate, only bowed admission. “I shall see her either this afternoon or late to-morrow. But she has written.”

Her visitor wondered again. “May I see her letter?”

“No.” She spoke with decision. “But I shall square her.”

“Then how?”

“Well” — and Miss Cutter, as if looking upward for inspiration, fixed her eyes a while on the ceiling — “well, it will come to me.”

Mrs. Medwin watched her — it was impressive. “And will they come to you — the others?” This question drew out the fact that they would — so far at least as they consisted of Lady Edward, Lady Bellhouse and Mrs. Pouncer, who had engaged to muster, at the signal of tea, on the 14th — prepared, as it were, for the worst. There was of course always the chance that Lady Wantridge might take the field, in such force as to paralyse them, though that danger, at the same time, seemed inconsistent with her being squared. It didn’t perhaps all quite ideally hang together; but what it sufficiently came to was that if she was the one who could do most FOR a person in Mrs. Medwin’s position she was also the one who could do most against. It would therefore be distinctly what our friend familiarly spoke of as “collar-work.” The effect of these mixed considerations was at any rate that Mamie eventually acquiesced in the idea, handsomely thrown out by her client, that she should have an “advance” to go on with. Miss Cutter confessed that it seemed at times as if one scarce COULD go on; but the advance was, in spite of this delicacy, still more delicately made — made in the form of a banknote, several sovereigns, some loose silver, and two coppers, the whole contents of her purse, neatly disposed by Mrs. Medwin on one of the tiny tables. It seemed to clear the air for deeper intimacies, the fruit of which was that Mamie, lonely after all in her crowd and always more helpful than helped, eventually brought out that the way Scott had been going on was what seemed momentarily to overshadow her own power to do so.

“I’ve had a descent from him.” But she had to explain. “My half-brother — Scott Homer. A wretch.”

“What kind of a wretch?”

“Every kind. I lose sight of him at times — he disappears abroad. But he always turns up again, worse than ever.”

“Violent?”

“No.”

“Maudlin?”

“No.”

“Only unpleasant?”

“No. Rather pleasant. Awfully clever — awfully travelled and easy.”

“Then what’s the matter with him?”

Mamie mused, hesitated — seemed to see a wide past. “I don’t know.”

“Something in the background?” Then as her friend was silent, “Something queer about cards?” Mrs. Medwin threw off.

“I don’t know — and I don’t want to!”

“Ah well, I’m sure I don’t,” Mrs. Medwin returned with spirit. The note of sharpness was perhaps also a little in the observation she made as she gathered herself to go. “Do you mind my saying something?”

Mamie took her eyes quickly from the money on the little stand. “You may say what you like.”

“I only mean that anything awkward you may have to keep out of the way does seem to make more wonderful, doesn’t it, that you should have got just where you are? I allude, you know, to your position.”

“I see.” Miss Cutter somewhat coldly smiled. “To my power.”

“So awfully remarkable in an American.”

“Ah you like us so.”

Mrs. Medwin candidly considered. “But we don’t, dearest.”

Her companion’s smile brightened. “Then why do you come to me?”

“Oh I like YOU!” Mrs. Medwin made out.

“Then that’s it. There are no ‘Americans.’ It’s always ‘you.’”

“Me?” Mrs. Medwin looked lovely, but a little muddled.

“ME!” Mamie Cutter laughed. “But if you like me, you dear thing, you can judge if I like YOU.” She gave her a kiss to dismiss her. “I’ll see you again when I’ve seen her.”

“Lady Wantridge? I hope so, indeed. I’ll turn up late to-morrow, if you don’t catch me first. Has it come to you yet?” the visitor, now at the door, went on.

“No; but it will. There’s time.”

“Oh a little less every day!”

Miss Cutter had approached the table and glanced again at the gold and silver and the note, not indeed absolutely overlooking the two coppers. “The balance,” she put it, “the day after?”

“That very night if you like.”

“Then count on me.”

“Oh if I didn’t —!” But the door closed on the dark idea. Yearningly then, and only when it had done so, Miss Cutter took up the money.

She went out with it ten minutes later, and, the calls on her time being many, remained out so long that at half-past six she hadn’t come back. At that hour, on the other hand, Scott Homer knocked at her door, where her maid, who opened it with a weak pretence of holding it firm, ventured to announce to him, as a lesson well learnt, that he hadn’t been expected till seven. No lesson, none the less, could prevail against his native art. He pleaded fatigue, her, the maid’s, dreadful depressing London, and the need to curl up somewhere. If she’d just leave him quiet half an hour that old sofa upstairs would do for it; of which he took quickly such effectual possession that when five minutes later she peeped, nervous for her broken vow, into the drawing-room, the faithless young woman found him extended at his length and peacefully asleep.

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