Mrs. Medwin, by Henry James

Chapter 3

The situation before Miss Cutter’s return developed in other directions still, and when that event took place, at a few minutes past seven, these circumstances were, by the foot of the stair, between mistress and maid, the subject of some interrogative gasps and scared admissions. Lady Wantridge had arrived shortly after the interloper, and wishing, as she said, to wait, had gone straight up in spite of being told he was lying down.

“She distinctly understood he was there?”

“Oh yes ma’am; I thought it right to mention.”

“And what did you call him?”

“Well, ma’am, I thought it unfair to YOU to call him anything but a gentleman.”

Mamie took it all in, though there might well be more of it than one could quickly embrace. “But if she has had time,” she flashed, “to find out he isn’t one?”

“Oh ma’am, she had a quarter of an hour.”

“Then she isn’t with him still?”

“No ma’am; she came down again at last. She rang, and I saw her here, and she said she wouldn’t wait longer.”

Miss Cutter darkly mused. “Yet had already waited —?”

“Quite a quarter.”

“Mercy on us!” She began to mount. Before reaching the top however she had reflected that quite a quarter was long if Lady Wantridge had only been shocked. On the other hand it was short if she had only been pleased. But how COULD she have been pleased? The very essence of their actual crisis was just that there was no pleasing her. Mamie had but to open the drawing-room door indeed to perceive that this was not true at least of Scott Homer, who was horribly cheerful.

Miss Cutter expressed to her brother without reserve her sense of the constitutional, the brutal selfishness that had determined his mistimed return. It had taken place, in violation of their agreement, exactly at the moment when it was most cruel to her that he should be there, and if she must now completely wash her hands of him he had only himself to thank. She had come in flushed with resentment and for a moment had been voluble, but it would have been striking that, though the way he received her might have seemed but to aggravate, it presently justified him by causing their relation really to take a stride. He had the art of confounding those who would quarrel with him by reducing them to the humiliation of a stirred curiosity.

“What COULD she have made of you?” Mamie demanded.

“My dear girl, she’s not a woman who’s eager to make too much of anything — anything, I mean, that will prevent her from doing as she likes, what she takes into her head. Of course,” he continued to explain, “if it’s something she doesn’t want to do, she’ll make as much as Moses.”

Mamie wondered if that was the way he talked to her visitor, but felt obliged to own to his acuteness. It was an exact description of Lady Wantridge, and she was conscious of tucking it away for future use in a corner of her miscellaneous little mind. She withheld however all present acknowledgment, only addressing him another question. “Did you really get on with her?”

“Have you still to learn, darling — I can’t help again putting it to you — that I get on with everybody? That’s just what I don’t seem able to drive into you. Only see how I get on with YOU.”

She almost stood corrected. “What I mean is of course whether — ”

“Whether she made love to me? Shyly, yet — or because — shamefully? She would certainly have liked awfully to stay.”

“Then why didn’t she?”

“Because, on account of some other matter — and I could see it was true — she hadn’t time. Twenty minutes — she was here less — were all she came to give you. So don’t be afraid I’ve frightened her away. She’ll come back.”

Mamie thought it over. “Yet you didn’t go with her to the door?”

“She wouldn’t let me, and I know when to do what I’m told — quite as much as what I’m not told. She wanted to find out about me. I mean from your little creature; a pearl of fidelity, by the way.”

“But what on earth did she come up for?” Mamie again found herself appealing, and just by that fact showing her need of help.

“Because she always goes up.” Then as, in the presence of this rapid generalisation, to say nothing of that of such a relative altogether, Miss Cutter could only show as comparatively blank: “I mean she knows when to go up and when to come down. She has instincts; she didn’t know whom you might have up here. It’s a kind of compliment to you anyway. Why Mamie,” Scott pursued, “you don’t know the curiosity we any of us inspire. You wouldn’t believe what I’ve seen. The bigger bugs they are the more they’re on the lookout.”

Mamie still followed, but at a distance. “The lookout for what?”

“Why for anything that will help them to live. You’ve been here all this time without making out then, about them, what I’ve had to pick out as I can? They’re dead, don’t you see? And WE’RE alive.”

“You? Oh!” — Mamie almost laughed about it.

“Well, they’re a worn-out old lot anyhow; they’ve used up their resources. They do look out and I’ll do them the justice to say they’re not afraid — not even of me!” he continued as his sister again showed something of the same irony. “Lady Wantridge at any rate wasn’t; that’s what I mean by her having made love to me. She does what she likes. Mind it, you know.” He was by this time fairly teaching her to read one of her best friends, and when, after it, he had come back to the great point of his lesson — that of her failure, through feminine inferiority, practically to grasp the truth that their being just as they were, he and she, was the real card for them to play — when he had renewed that reminder he left her absolutely in a state of dependence. Her impulse to press him on the subject of Lady Wantridge dropped; it was as if she had felt that, whatever had taken place, something would somehow come of it. She was to be in a manner disappointed, but the impression helped to keep her over to the next morning, when, as Scott had foretold, his new acquaintance did reappear, explaining to Miss Cutter that she had acted the day before to gain time and that she even now sought to gain it by not waiting longer. What, she promptly intimated she had asked herself, could that friend be thinking of? She must show where she stood before things had gone too far. If she had brought her answer without more delay she wished make it sharp. Mrs. Medwin? Never! “No, my dear — not I. THERE I stop.”

Mamie had known it would be “collar-work,” but somehow now, at the beginning she felt her heart sink. It was not that she had expected to carry the position with a rush, but that, as always after an interval, her visitor’s defences really loomed — and quite, as it were, to the material vision — too large. She was always planted with them, voluminous, in the very centre of the passage; was like a person accommodated with a chair in some unlawful place at the theatre. She wouldn’t move and you couldn’t get round. Mamie’s calculation indeed had not been on getting round; she was obliged to recognise that, too foolishly and fondly, she had dreamed of inducing a surrender. Her dream had been the fruit of her need; but, conscious that she was even yet unequipped for pressure, she felt, almost for the first time in her life, superficial and crude. She was to be paid — but with what was she, to that end, to pay? She had engaged to find an answer to this question, but the answer had not, according to her promise, “come.” And Lady Wantridge meanwhile massed herself, and there was no view of her that didn’t show her as verily, by some process too obscure to be traced, the hard depository of the social law. She was no younger, no fresher, no stronger, really, than any of them; she was only, with a kind of haggard fineness, a sharpened taste for life, and, with all sorts of things behind and beneath her, more abysmal and more immoral, more secure and more impertinent. The points she made were two in number. One was that she absolutely declined; the other was that she quite doubted if Mamie herself had measured the job. The thing couldn’t be done. But say it COULD be; was Mamie quite the person to do it? To this Miss Cutter, with a sweet smile, replied that she quite understood how little she might seem so. “I’m only one of the persons to whom it has appeared that YOU are.”

“Then who are the others?”

“Well, to begin with, Lady Edward, Lady Bellhouse and Mrs. Pouncer.”

“Do you mean that they’ll come to meet her?”

“I’ve seen them, and they’ve promised.”

“To come, of course,” Lady Wantridge said, “if I come.”

Her hostess cast about. “Oh of course you could prevent them. But I should take it as awfully kind of you not to. WON’T you do this for me?” Mamie pleaded.

Her friend looked over the room very much as Scott had done. “Do they really understand what it’s FOR?”

“Perfectly. So that she may call.”

“And what good will that do her?”

Miss Cutter faltered, but she presently brought it out. “Naturally what one hopes is that, you’ll ask her.”

“Ask her to call?”

“Ask her to dine. Ask her, if you’d be so truly sweet, for a Sunday; or something of that sort, and even if only in one of your MOST mixed parties, to Catchmore.”

Miss Cutter felt the less hopeful after this effort in that her companion only showed a strange good nature. And it wasn’t a satiric amiability, though it WAS amusement. “Take Mrs. Medwin into my family?”

“Some day when you’re taking forty others.”

“Ah but what I don’t see is what it does for YOU. You’re already so welcome among us that you can scarcely improve your position even by forming for us the most delightful relation.”

“Well, I know how dear you are,” Mamie Cutter replied; “but one has after all more than one side and more than one sympathy. I like her, you know.” And even at this Lady Wantridge wasn’t shocked; she showed that ease and blandness which were her way, unfortunately, of being most impossible. She remarked that SHE might listen to such things, because she was clever enough for them not to matter; only Mamie should take care how she went about saying them at large. When she became definite however, in a minute, on the subject of the public facts, Miss Cutter soon found herself ready to make her own concession. Of course she didn’t dispute THEM: there they were; they were unfortunately on record, and, nothing was to be done about them but to — Mamie found it in truth at this point a little difficult.

“Well, what? Pretend already to have forgotten them?”

“Why not, when you’ve done it in so many other cases?”

“There ARE no other cases so bad. One meets them at any rate as they come. Some you can manage, others you can’t. It’s no use, you must give them up. They’re past patching; there’s nothing to be done with them. There’s nothing accordingly to be done with Mrs. Medwin but to put her off.” And Lady Wantridge rose to her height.

“Well, you know, I DO do things,” Mamie quavered with a smile so strained that it partook of exaltation.

“You help people? Oh yes, I’ve known you to do wonders. But stick,” said Lady Wantridge with strong and cheerful emphasis, “to your Americans!”

Miss Cutter, gazing, got up. “You don’t do justice, Lady Wantridge, to your own compatriots. Some of them are really charming. Besides,” said Mamie, “working for mine often strikes me, so far as the interest — the inspiration and excitement, don’t you know? — go, as rather too easy. You all, as I constantly have occasion to say, like us so!”

Her companion frankly weighed it. “Yes; it takes that to account for your position. I’ve always thought of you nevertheless as keeping for their benefit a regular working agency. They come to you, and you place them. There remains, I confess,” her ladyship went on in the same free spirit, “the great wonder — ”

“Of how I first placed my poor little self? Yes,” Mamie bravely conceded, “when I began there was no agency. I just worked my passage. I didn’t even come to YOU, did I? You never noticed me till, as Mrs. Short Stokes says, ‘I was ‘way, ‘way up!’ Mrs. Medwin,” she threw in, “can’t get over it.” Then, as her friend looked vague: “Over my social situation.”

“Well, it’s no great flattery to you to say,” Lady Wantridge good-humouredly returned, “that she certainly can’t hope for one resembling it.” Yet it really seemed to spread there before them. “You simply MADE Mrs. Short Stokes.”

“In spite of her name!” Mamie smiled.

“Oh your ‘names’ —! In spite of everything.”

“Ah I’m something of an artist.” With which, and a relapse marked by her wistful eyes into the gravity of the matter, she supremely fixed her friend. She felt how little she minded betraying at last the extremity of her need, and it was out of this extremity that her appeal proceeded. “Have I really had your last word? It means so much to me.”

Lady Wantridge came straight to the point. “You mean you depend on it?”

“Awfully!”

“Is it all you have?”

“All. Now.”

“But Mrs. Short Stokes and the others — ‘rolling,’ aren’t they? Don’t they pay up?”

“Ah,” sighed Mamie, “if it wasn’t for THEM—!”

Lady Wantridge perceived. “You’ve had so much?”

“I couldn’t have gone on.”

“Then what do you do with it all?”

“Oh most of it goes back to them. There are all sorts, and it’s all help. Some of them have nothing.”

“Oh if you feed the hungry,” Lady Wantridge laughed, “you’re indeed in a great way of business. Is Mrs. Medwin” — her transition was immediate — “really rich?”

“Really. He left her everything.”

“So that if I do say ‘yes’ — ”

“It will quite set me up.”

“I see — and how much more responsible it makes one! But I’d rather myself give you the money.”

“Oh!” Mamie coldly murmured.

“You mean I mayn’t suspect your prices? Well, I daresay I don’t! But I’d rather give you ten pounds.”

“Oh!” Mamie repeated in a tone that sufficiently covered her prices. The question was in every way larger. “Do you never forgive?” she reproachfully inquired. The door opened however at the moment she spoke and Scott Homer presented himself.

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