The Other House, by Henry James

xiv

HE crossed on his way to the house a tall parlour maid who had just quitted it with a tray which a moment later she deposited on the table near her mistress. Tony Bream was accustomed to say that since Frederick the Great’s grenadiers there had never been anything like the queen-mother’s parlourmaids, who indeed on field-days might, in stature, uniform and precision of exercise, have affronted comparison with that formidable phalanx. They were at once more athletic and more reserved than Tony liked to see their sex, and he was always sure that the extreme length of their frocks was deter mined by that of their feet. The young woman, at any rate, who now presented herself, a young woman with a large nose and a straight back, stiff cap-streamers, stiffer petticoats and stiffest manners, was plainly the corporal of her squad. There was a murmur and a twitter all around her; but she rustled about the tea-table to a tune that quenched the voice of summer. It left undisturbed, however, for awhile, Mrs. Beever’s meditations; that lady was thoughtfully occupied in wrapping up Doctor Ramage’s doll. “ Do you know, Manning, what has become of Miss Armiger?” she at last inquired.

“She went, ma’am, near an hour ago, to the pastrycook’s.”

“To the pastrycook’s? ”

“She had heard you wonder, ma’am, she told me, that the young ladies’ birthday-cake hadn’t yet arrived.”

“And she thought she’d see about it? Uncom monly good of her!” Mrs. Beever exclaimed.

“Yes, ma’am, uncommonly good.”

“Has it arrived, then, now? ”

“Not yet, ma’am.”

“And Miss Armiger hasn’t returned? ”

“I think not, ma’am.”

Mrs. Beever considered again. “ Perhaps she’s waiting to bring it.”

Manning indulged in a proportionate pause. “Perhaps, ma’am in a fly. And when it comes, ma’am, shall I fetch it out? ”

“In a fly too? I’m afraid,” said Mrs. Beever, “that with such an incubation it will really require one.” After a moment she added: “ I’ll go in and look at it first.” And then, as her attendant was about to rustle away, she further detained her. “Mr. Bream hasn’t been over? ”

“Not yet, ma’am.”

Mrs. Beever consulted her watch. u Then he’s still at the Bank.”

“He must be indeed, ma’am.” Tony’s colleague appeared for a little to ponder this prompt concurrence; after which she said: “You haven’t seen Miss Jean? ”

Manning bethought herself. “ I believe, ma’am, Miss Jean is dressing.”

“Oh, in honour ” But Mrs. Beever’s idea dropped before she finished her sentence.

Manning ventured to take it up. “ In honour of her birthday, ma’am.”

“I see of course. And do you happen to have heard if that’s what also detains Miss EfHe — that she’s dressing in honour of hers? ”

Manning hesitated. “ I heard, ma’am, this morning that Miss Effie had a slight cold.”

Her mistress looked surprised. “ But not such as to keep her at home? ”

“They were taking extra care of her, ma’am so that she might be all right for coming.”

Mrs. Beever was not pleased. “ Extra care? Then why didn’t they send for the Doctor? ”

Again Manning hesitated. “They sent for Miss Jean, ma’am.”

“To come and look after her? ”

“They often do, ma’am, you know. This morn ing I took in the message.”

“And Miss Jean obeyed it? ”

“She was there an hour, ma’am.”

Mrs. Beever administered a more than approving pat to the final envelope of her doll. “She said nothing about it.”

Again Manning concurred. “Nothing, ma’am.” The word sounded six feet high, like the figure she presented. She waited a moment and then as if to close with as sharp a snap the last open door to the desirable, “ Mr. Paul, ma’am,” she observed, “ if you were wanting to know, is out in his boat on the river.”

Mrs. Beever pitched her parcel back to the bench. “Mr. Paul is never anywhere else! ”

“Never, ma’am,” said Manning inexorably. She turned the next instant to challenge the stranger who had come down from the house. “ A gentleman, ma’am,” she announced; and, retiring while Mrs. Beever rose to meet the visitor, drew, with the noise of a lawn-mower, a starched tail along the grass.

Dennis Vidal, with his hat off, showed his hostess a head over which not a year seemed to have passed. He had still his young, sharp, meagre look, and it came to her that the other time as well he had been dressed in double-breasted blue of a cut that made him sailorly. It was only on a longer view that she saw his special signs to be each a trifle intensified. He was browner, leaner, harder, finer; he even struck her as more wanting in height. These facts, however, didn’t prevent another fact from striking her still more: what was most distinct in his face was that he was really glad to take her by the hand. That had an instant effect on her: she could glow with pleasure, modest matron as she was, at such an intimation of her having, so many years before, in a few hours, made on a clever young man she liked an impression that could thus abide with him. In the quick light of it she liked him afresh; it was as if their friendship put down on the spot a firm foot that was the result of a single stride across the chasm of time. In this indeed, to her clear sense, there was even something more to pity him for: it was such a dreary little picture of his interval, such an implication of what it had lacked, that there had been so much room in it for an ugly old woman at Wilverley. She motioned him to sit down with her, but she immediately re marked that before she asked him a question she had an important fact to make known. She had delayed too long, while he waited there, to let him understand that Rose Armiger was at Eastmead. She instantly saw at this that he had come in complete ignorance. The range of alarm in his face was narrow, but he coloured, looking grave; and after a brief debate with himself he inquired as to Miss Armiger’s actual where abouts.

“She has gone out, but she may reappear at any moment,” said Mrs. Beever.

“And if she does, will she come out here? ”

“I’ve an impression she’ll change her dress first. That may take her a little time.”

“Then I’m free to sit with you ten minutes? ”

“As long as you like, dear Mr. Vidal. It’s for you to choose whether you’ll avoid her.”

“I dislike dodging I dislike hiding,” Dennis returned; “ but I daresay that if I had known where she was I wouldn’t have come.”

“I feel hatefully rude but you took a leap in the dark. The absurd part of it,” Mrs. Beever went on,

“is that you’ve stumbled on her very first visit to me.”

The young man showed a surprise which gave her the measure of his need of illumination. “ For these four years? ”

“For these four years. It’s the only time she has been at Eastmead.”

Dennis hesitated. “ And how often has she been at the other house? ”

Mrs. Beever smiled. “ Not even once.” Then as her smile broadened to a small, dry laugh, “ I can quite say that for her!” she declared.

Dennis looked at her hard. “To your certain knowledge? ”

“To my certain and absolute knowledge.” This mutual candour continued, and presently she said: “But you where do you come from.? ”

“From far away I’ve been out of England. After my visit here I went back to my post.”

“And now you’ve returned with your fortune?”

He gave her a smile from which the friendliness took something of the bitter quality. “ Call it my misfortune!” There was nothing in this to deprive Mrs. Beever of the pleasant play of a professional sense that he had probably gathered such an inde pendence as would have made him welcome at the Bank. On the other hand she caught the note of a tired grimness in the way he added: “ I’ve come back with that. It sticks to me! ”

For a minute she spared him. “You want her as much as ever? ”

His eyes confessed to a full and indeed to a sore acceptance of that expression of the degree. “I want her as much as ever. It’s my constitu tional obstinacy! ”

“Which her treatment of you has done nothing to break down? ”

“To break down? It has done everything in life to build it up.”

“In spite of the particular circumstance? ”

At this point even Mrs. Beever’s directness failed.

That of her visitor, however, was equal to the occasion. “ The particular circumstance of her chucking me because of the sudden glimpse given her, by Mrs. Bream’s danger, of the possibility of a far better match?” He gave a laugh drier than her own had just been, the ring of an irony from which long, hard thought had pressed all the savour. “That ‘ particular circumstance,’ dear madam, is every bit that’s the matter with me! ”

“You regard it with extraordinary coolness, but I presumed to allude to it ”

“Because,” Dennis broke in with lucidity, “ I myself made no bones of doing so on the only other occasion on which we’ve met? ”

“The fact that we both equally saw, that we both equally judged,” said Mrs. Beever, “was on that occasion really the only thing that had time to pass between us. It’s a tie, but it’s a slender one, and I’m all the more flattered that it should have had any force to make you care to see me again.”

“It never ceased to be my purpose to see you, if you would permit it, on the first opportunity. My opportunity,” the young man continued, “ has been precipitated by an accident. I returned to England only last week, and was obliged two days ago to come on business to Southampton. There I found I should have to go, on the same matter, to Mar-rington. It then appeared that to get to Harrington I must change at Plumbury

“And Plumbury,” said Mrs. Beever, “ reminded you that you changed there, that it was from there you drove, on that horrible Sunday.”

“It brought my opportunity home to me. With out wiring you or writing you, without sounding the ground or doing anything I ought to have done, I simply embraced it. I reached this place an hour ago and went to the inn.”

She looked at him wofully. “ Poor dear young man! ”

He turned it off. “ I do very well. Remember the places I’ve come from.”

“I don’t care in the least where you’ve come from! If Rose weren’t here I could put you up so beautifully.”

“Well, now that I know it,” said Dennis after a moment, “ I think I’m glad she’s here. It’s a fact the more to reckon with.”

“You mean to see her then? ”

He sat with his eyes fixed, weighing it well. “ You must tell me two or three things first. Then I’ll choose I’ll decide.”

She waited for him to mention his requirements, turning to her teapot, which had been drawing, so that she could meanwhile hand him a cup. But for some minutes, taking it and stirring it, he only gazed and mused, as if his curiosities were so numerous that he scarcely knew which to pick out. Mrs. Beever at last, with a woman’s sense for this, met him exactly at the right point. “ I must tell you frankly that if four years ago she was a girl most people admired:

He caught straight on. “ She’s still more won derful now? ”

Mrs. Beever distinguished. “ I don’t know about ‘ wonderful,’ but she wears really well. She carries the years almost as you do, and her head better than any young woman I’ve ever seen. Life is somehow becoming to her. Every one’s immensely struck with her. She only needs to get what she wants. She has in short a charm, that I recognise.” Her visitor stared at her words as if they had been a framed picture; the reflected colour of it made a light in his face. “ And you speak as one who, I remember, doesn’t like her.”

The lady of Eastmead faltered, but there was help in her characteristic courage. “ No I don’t like her.”

“I see,” Dennis considered. “ May I ask then why you invited her? ”

“For the most definite reason in the world. Mr. Bream asked me to.”

Dennis gave his hard smile. “ Do you do every thing Mr. Bream asks? ”

“He asks so little! ”

“Yes,” Dennis allowed “ if that’s a specimen! Does he like her still?” he inquired.

“Just as much as ever.”

The young man was silent a few seconds. “ Do you mean he’s in love with her? ”

“He never was in any degree.”

Dennis looked doubtful. “ Are you very sure? ”

“Well,” said his hostess, “ I’m sure of the pre sent. That’s quite enough. He’s not in love with her now I have the proof.”

“The proof?”

Mrs. Beever waited a moment. “ His request in itself. If he were in love with her he never would have made it.”

There was a momentary appearance on her com panion’s part of thinking this rather too fine; but he presently said: “ You mean because he’s completely held by his death-bed vow to his wife? ”

“Completely held.”

“There’s no likelihood of his breaking it? ”

“Not the slightest.”

Dennis Vidal exhaled a low, long breath which evidently represented a certain sort of relief. “You’re very positive; but I’ve a great respect for your judgment.” He thought an instant, then he pursued abruptly: “ Why did he wish her nvited? ”

“For reasons that, as he expressed them to me, struck me as natural enough. For the sake of old acquaintance for the sake of his wife’s memory.”

“He doesn’t consider, then, that Mrs. Bream’s obsession, as you term it, had been in any degree an apprehension of Rose? ”

“Why should he?” Mrs. Beever asked. “ Rose, for poor Julia, was on the point of becoming your wife.”

“Ah! for all that was to prevent!” Dennis rue fully exclaimed.

“It was to prevent little enough, but Julia never knew how little. Tony asked me a month ago if I thought he might without awkwardness propose to Miss Armiger a visit to the other house. I said ‘ No, silly boy! ’ and he dropped the question; but a week later he came back to it. He confided to me that he was ashamed for so long to have done so little for her; and she had behaved in a difficult situation with such discretion and delicacy that to have ‘ shunted ’ her, as he said, so completely was a kind of outrage to Julia’s affection for her and a slur upon hers for his wife. I said to him that if it would help him a bit I would address her a suggestion that she should honour me with her company. He jumped at that, and I wrote. She jumped, and here she is.”

Poor Dennis, at this, guve a spring, as if the young lady had come into sight. Mrs. Beever reassured him, but he was on his feet and he stood before her. “ This then is their first meeting? ”

“Dear, no! they’ve met in London. He often goes up.”

“How often? ”

“Oh, irregularly. Sometimes twice a month.”

“And he sees her every time? ”

Mrs. Beever considered. “ Every time? I should think hardly.”

“Then every other? ”

“I haven’t the least idea.”

Dennis looked round the garden. “ You say you’re convinced that, in the face of his promise, he has no particular interest in her. You mean, however, of course, but to the extent of marriage.”

“I mean,” said Mrs. Beever, “ to the extent of anything at all.” She also rose; she brought out her whole story. “ He’s in love with another person.”

“Ah,” Dennis murmured, “ that’s none of my business!” He nevertheless closed his eyes an instant with the cool balm of it. “ But it makes a lot of difference.”

She laid a kind hand on his arm. “ Such a lot, I hope, then, that you’ll join our little party?” He looked about him again, irresolute, and his eyes fell on the packages gathered hard by, of which the nature was betrayed by a glimpse of flaxen curls and waxen legs. She immediately enlightened him. “Preparations for a birthday visit from the little girl at the other house. She’s coming over to receive them.”

Again he dropped upon a seat; she stood there and he looked up at her. “At last we’ve got to business! It’s she I’ve come to ask about.”

“And what do you wish to ask? ”

“How she goes on I mean in health,”

“Not very well, I believe, just today!” Mrs. Beever laughed.

“Just today? ”

“She’s reported to have a slight cold. But don’t be alarmed. In general she’s splendid.”

He hesitated. “Then you call it a good little life? ”

“I call it a beautiful one! ”

“I mean she won’t pop off? ”

“I can’t guarantee that,” said Mrs. Beever. “But till she does ”

“Till she does?” he asked, as she paused.

She paused a moment longer. “ Well, it’s a comfort to see her. You’ll do that for yourself.”

“I shall do that for myself,” Dennis repeated. After a moment he went on: “ To be utterly frank, it was to do it I came.”

“And not to see me? Thank you! But I quite understand,” said Mrs. Beever; “ you looked to me to introduce you. Sit still where you are, and I will.”

“There’s one thing more I must ask you. You see; you know; you can tell me.” He complied but a minute with her injunction; again, nervously, he was on his feet. “ Is Miss Armiger in love with Mr. Bream? ”

His hostess turned away. “ That’s the one question I can’t answer.” Then she faced him again. “You must find out for yourself.”

He stood looking at her. “ How shall I find out?”

“By watching her.”

“Oh, I didn’t come to do that!” Dennis, on his side, turned away; he was visibly dissatisfied. But he checked himself; before him rose a young man in boating flannels, who appeared to have come up from the river, who. had advanced noiselessly across the lawn and whom Mrs. Beever introduced with out ceremony as her “ boy.” Her boy blinked at Dennis, to whose identity he received no clue; and her visitor decided on a course. “ May I think over what you’ve said to me and come back? ”

“I shall be very happy to see you again. But, in this poor place, what will you do? ”

Dennis glanced at the river; then he appealed to the young man. “Will you lend me your boat?”

“It’s mine,” said Mrs. Beever, with decision. “You’re welcome to it.”

“I’ll take a little turn.” Raising his hat, Dennis went rapidly down to the stream.

Paul Beever looked after him. “Hadn’t I better show him?” he asked of his mother.

“You had better sit right down there.” She pointed with sharpness to the chair Dennis had quitted, and her son submissively took possession of it.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/james/henry/other_house/chapter14.html

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