The Other House, by Henry James

xii

HE moved a minute about the hall; then he dropped upon a sofa with a sense of exhaustion and a sudden need of rest; he stretched himself, closing his eyes, glad to be alone, glad above all to make sure that he could lie still. He wished to show himself he was not nervous; he took up a position with the purpose not to budge till Mrs. Beever should come back. His house was in an odd con dition, with luncheon pompously served and no one able to go to it. Poor Julia was in a predicament, poor Rose in another, and poor Mr. Vidal, fasting in the garden, in a greater one than either. Tony sighed as he thought of this dispersal, but he stiffened himself resolutely on his couch. He wouldn’t go in alone, and he couldn’t even enjoy Mrs. Beever. It next occurred to him that he could still less enjoy her little friend, the child he had promised to turn away; on which he gave a sigh that represented partly privation and partly resig nation partly also a depressed perception of the fact that he had never in all his own healthy life been less eager for a meal. Meanwhile, however, the attempt to stop pacing the floor was a success: he felt as if in closing his eyes he destroyed the vision that had scared him. He was cooler, he was easier, and he liked the smell of flowers in the dusk. What was droll, when he gave himself up to it, was the sharp sense of lassitude; it had dropped on him out of the blue and it showed him how a sudden alarm such as, after all, he had had could drain a fellow in an hour of half his vitality. He wondered whether, if he might be undisturbed a little, the result of this surrender wouldn’t be to make him delightfully lose consciousness.

He never knew afterwards whether it was in the midst of his hope or on the inner edge of a doze just achieved that he became aware of a footfall betraying an uncertain advance. He raised his lids to it and saw before him the pretty girl from the other house, whom, for a moment before he moved, he lay there looking at. He immediately recognised that what had roused him was the fact that, noise lessly and for a few seconds, her eyes had rested on his face. She uttered a blushing “Oh!” which deplored this effect of her propinquity and which brought Tony straight to his feet. “Ah, good morning! How d’ye do?” Everything came back to him but her name. “ Excuse my attitude I didn’t hear you come in.”

“When I saw you asleep I’m afraid I kept the footman from speaking.” Jean Martle was much embarrassed, but it contributed in the happiest way to her animation. “ I came in because he told me that Cousin Kate’s here.”

“Oh yes, she’s here she thought you might arrive. Do sit down,” Tony added with his prompt instinct of what, in his own house, was due from a man of some confidence to a girl of none at all. It operated before he could check it, and Jean was as passive to it as if he had tossed her a command; but as soon as she was seated, to obey him, in a high-backed, wide-armed Venetian chair which made a gilded cage for her flutter, and he had again placed himself not in the same position on the sofa opposite, he recalled the request just preferred by Mrs. Beever. He was to send her straight home; yes, it was to be invited instantly to retrace her steps that she sat there panting and pink.

Meanwhile she was very upright and very serious; she seemed very anxious to explain. “ I thought it better to come, since she wasn’t there. I had gone off to walk home with the Marshes I was gone rather long; and when I came back she had left the house the servants told me she must be here.”

Tony could only meet with the note of hospitality so logical a plea. “ Oh, it’s all right Mrs. Beever’s with Mrs. Bream.” It was apparently all wrong he must tell her she couldn’t stay; but there was a prior complication in his memory of having invited her to luncheon. “ I wrote to your cousin I hoped you’d come. Unfortunately she’s not staying her self.”

“Ah, then, I mustn’t!” Jean spoke with lucidity, but without quitting her chair.

Tony hesitated. “ She’ll be a little while yet my wife has something to say to her.”

The girl had fixed her eyes on the floor; she might have been reading there the fact that for the first time in her life she was regularly calling on a gentleman. Since this was the singular case she must at least call properly. Her manner revealed an earnest effort to that end, an effort visible even in the fear of a liberty if she should refer too familiarly to Mrs. Bream. She cast about her with intensity for something that would show sympathy without freedom, and, as a result, presently produced: “I came an hour ago, and I saw Miss Armiger. She told me she would bring down the baby.”

“But she didn’t? ”

“No, Cousin Kate thought it wouldn’t do.”

Tony was happily struck. “ It will do it shall do. Should you like to see her? ”

“I thought I should like it very much. It’s very kind of you.”

Tony jumped up. “ I’ll show her to you myself.” He went over to ring a bell; then, as he came back, he added: “ I delight in showing her. I think she’s the wonder of the world.”

“That’s what babies always seem to me,” said Jean. “ It’s so absorbing to watch them.”

These remarks were exchanged with great gravity, with stifftsh pauses, while Tony hung about till his ring should be answered.

“Absorbing?” he repeated. “ Isn’t it, preposter ously? Wait till you’ve watched Effie! ”

His visitor preserved for a while a silence which might have indicated that, with this injunction, her waiting had begun; but at last she said with the same simplicity: “ I’ve a sort of original reason for my interest in her.”

“Do you mean the illness of her poor mother? ” He saw that she meant nothing so patronising, though her countenance fell with the reminder of this misfortune: she heard with awe that the unconscious child was menaced. “ That’s a very good reason,” he declared, to relieve her. “ But so much the better if you’ve got another too. I hope you’ll never want for one to be kind to her.”

She looked more assured. “ I’m just the person always to be.”

“Just the person?” Tony felt that he must draw her out. She was now arrested, however, by the arrival of the footman, to whom he immediately turned. “ Please ask Gorham to be as good as to bring down the child.”

“Perhaps Gorham will think it won’t do,” Jean suggested as the servant went off.

“Oh, she’s as proud of her as I am! But if she doesn’t approve I’ll take you upstairs. That’ll be because, as you say you’re just the person. I haven’t the least doubt of it but you were going to tell me why.”

Jean treated it as if it were almost a secret. “Because she was born on my day.”

“Your birthday? ”

“My birthday the twenty — fourth.”

“Oh I see; that’s charming that’s delightful! ” The circumstance had not quite all the subtlety she had beguiled him into looking for, but her amusing belief in it, which halved the date like a succulent pear, mingled oddly, to make him quickly feel that it had enough, with his growing sense that Mrs. Beever’s judgment of her hair was a libel. “ It’s a most extraordinary coincidence it makes a most interesting tie. Do, therefore, I beg you, whenever you keep you anniversary, keep also a little hers.”

“That’s just what I was thinking,” said Jean. Then she added, still shy, yet suddenly almost radiant: “ I shall always send her something! ”

“She shall do the same to you!” This idea had a charm even for Tony, who determined on the spot, quite sincerely, that he would, for the first years at least, make it his own charge. “ You’re her very first friend,” he smiled.

“Am I?” Jean thought it wonderful news. “Before she has even seen me! ”

“Oh, those are the first. You’re ‘ handed down,’” said Tony, humouring her.

She evidently deprecated, however, any abate ment of her rarity. “Why, I haven’t seen her mother, either.”

“No, you haven’t seen her mother. But you shall. And you have seen her father.”

“Yes, I have seen her father.” Looking at him as if to make sure of it, Jean gave this assertion the assent of a gaze so unrestricted that, feeling herself after an instant caught, as it were, in it, she turned abruptly away.

It came back to Tony at the same moment with a sort of coarseness that he was to have sent her home; yet now, somehow, as if half through the familiarity it had taken but these minutes to establish, and half through a perception of her extreme juvenility, his reluctance to tell her so had dropped. “ Do you know I’m under a sort of dreadful vow to Mrs. Beever?” Then as she faced him again, wondering: “ She told me that if you should turn up I was to pack you off.”

Jean stared with a fresh alarm. “ Ah, I shouldn’t have stayed! ”

“You didn’t know it, and I couldn’t show you the door.”

“Then I must go now.”

“Not a bit. I wouldn’t have mentioned it to consent to that. I mention it for just the other reason to keep you here as long as possible. I’ll make it right with Cousin Kate,” Tony continued. “I’m not afraid of her!” he laughed. “ You pro duce an effect on me for which I’m particularly grateful.” She was acutely sensitive; for a few seconds she looked as if she thought he might be amusing himself at her expense. “ I mean you soothe me at a moment when I really want it,” he said with a gentleness from which it gave him pleasure to see in her face an immediate impression. “I’m worried, I’m depressed, I’ve been threshing about in my anxiety. You keep me cool you’re just the right thing.” He nodded at her in clear kindness. “ Stay with me stay with me! ”

Jean had not taken the flight of expressing a concern for his domestic situation, but in the pity that flooded her eyes at this appeal there was an instant surrender to nature. It was the sweetness of her youth that had calmed him, but in the res ponse his words had evoked she already, on the spot, looked older. “ Ah, if I could help you!” she timidly murmured.

“Sit down again; sit down!” He turned away. “Here’s the wonder of the world!” he exclaimed the next instant, seeing Gorham appear with her charge. His interest in the apparition almost simultaneously dropped, for Mrs. Beever was at the opposite door. She had come back, and Ramage was with her: they stopped short together, and he did the same on catching the direction, as he supposed, of his sharp neighbour’s eyes. She had an air of singular intensity; it was peculiarly embodied in a look which, as she drew herself up, she shot straight past him and under the reprobation of which he glanced round to see Jean Martle turn pale. What he saw, however, was not Jean Martle at all, but that very different person Rose Armiger, who, by an odd chance and with Dennis Vidal at her side, presented herself at this very juncture at the door of the vestibule. It was at Rose Mrs. Beever stared stared with a significance doubtless produced by this young lady’s falsification of her denial that Mr. Vidal had been actively pursued. She took no notice of Jean, who, while the rest of them stood about, testified to her prompt compliance with any word of Tony’s by being the only member of the company in a chair. The sight of Mrs. Beever’s face appeared to have deprived her of the force to rise. Tony observed these things in a flash, and also how far the gaze of the Gorgon was from petrifying Rose Armiger, who, with a bright recovery of zeal by which he himself was wonderstruck, launched without delay. a conscientious reminder of luncheon. It was on the table it was spoiling it was spoilt! Tony felt that he must gallantly support her. “ Let us at last go in then,” he said to Mrs. Beever. “ Let us go in then,” he repeated to Jean and to Dennis Vidal. “ Doctor, you’ll come too? ”

He broke Jean’s spell at a touch; she was on her feet; but the Doctor raised, as if for general applica tion, a deterrent, authoritative hand. “ If you please, Bream no banquet.” He looked at Jean, at Rose, at Vidal, at Gorham. “ I take the house in hand. We immediately subside.”

Tony sprang to him. “ Julia’s worse? ”

“No she’s the same.”

“Then I may go to her? ”

“Absolutely not.” Doctor Ramage grasped his arm, linked his own in it and held him. “ If you’re not a good boy I lock you up in your room. We immediately subside,” he said again, addressing the others; “ we go our respective ways and we keep very still. The fact is I require a hushed house. But before the hush descends Mrs. Beever has something to say to you.”

She fc was on the other side of Tony, who felt, between them there, like their prisoner. She looked at her little audience, which consisted of Jean and Rose, of Mr. Vidal and the matronly Gorham. Gorham carried in her ample arms a large white sacrifice, a muslin-muffled offering which seemed to lead up to a ceremony. “ I have something to say to you because Doctor Ramage allows it, and because we are both under pledges to Mrs. Bream. It’s a very peculiar announcement for me to have on my hands, but I’ve just passed her my promise, in the very strictest manner, to make it, before leaving the house, to every one it may concern, and to repeat it in certain other quarters.” She paused again, and Tony, from his closeness to her, could feel the tremor of her solid presence. She disliked the awkwardness and the coercion, and he was sorry for her, because by this time he well knew what was coming. He had guessed his wife’s extraordinary precaution, which would have been almost grotesque if it hadn’t been so infinitely touching. It seemed to him that he gave the measure of his indulgence for it in overlooking the wound to his delicacy conveyed in the publicity she imposed. He could condone this in a tender sigh, because it meant that in consequence of it she’d now pull round. “ She wishes it as generally known as possible,” Mrs. Beever brought out, “that Mr. Bream, to gratify her at a crisis which I trust she exaggerates, has assured her on his sacred honour that in the event of her death he will not again marry.”

“In the lifetime of her daughter, that is,” Doctor Ramage hastened to add.

“In the lifetime of her daughter,” Mrs. Beever as clearly echoed.

“In the lifetime of her daughter!” Tony himself took up with an extravagance intended to offer the relief of a humorous treatment, if need be, to the bewildered young people whose embarrassed stare was a prompt criticism of Julia’s discretion. It might have been in the spirit of a protest still more vehement that, at this instant, a small shrill pipe rose from the animated parcel with which Gorham, participating in the general awkwardness, had possibly taken a liberty. The comical little sound created a happy diversion; Tony sprang straight to the child. “ So it t’s, my own,” he cried, “ a scandal to be talking of ‘lifetimes!’” He caught her from the affrighted nurse he put his face down to hers with passion. Her wail ceased and he held her close to him; for a minute, in silence, as if something deep went out from him, he laid his cheek to her little cheek, burying his head under her veil. When he gave her up again, turning round, the hall was empty of every one save the Doctor, who signalled peremptorily to Gorham to withdraw. Tony remained there meeting his eyes, in which, after an instant, the young man saw some thing that led him to exclaim: “ How dreadfully ill she must be, Ramage, to have conceived a stroke in such taste! ”

His companion drew him down to the sofa, patting, soothing, supporting him. “You must bear it my dear boy you must bear everything.” Doctor Ramage faltered. “Your wife’s exceed ingly ill.”

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Last updated Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 21:02