The Other House, by Henry James

ii

WHEN Jean Martle, arriving with her message, was ushered into the hall, it struck her at first as empty, and during the moment that she supposed herself in sole possession she perceived it to be showy and indeed rather splendid. Bright, large and high, richly decorated and freely used, full of “ corners ” and communications, it evidently played equally the part of a place of reunion and of a place of transit. It contained so many large pictures that if they hadn’t looked somehow so recent it might have passed for a museum. The shaded summer was in it now, and the odour of many flowers, as well as the tick from the chimney-piece of a huge French clock which Jean recognised as modern. The colour of the air, the frank floridity, amused and charmed her. It was not till the servant had left her that she became aware she was not alone a discovery that soon gave her an embarrassed minute. At the other end of the place appeared a young woman in a posture that, with interposing objects, had made her escape notice, a young woman bent low over a table at which she seemed to have been writing. Her chair was pushed back, her face buried in her extended and supported arms, her whole person relaxed and abandoned. She had heard neither the swing of the muffled door nor any footfall on the deep carpet, and her attitude denoted a state of mind that made the messenger from Eastmead hesitate between quickly retreating on tiptoe or still more quickly letting her know that she was observed. Before Jean could decide her com panion looked up, then rapidly and confusedly rose. She could only be Miss Armiger, and she had been such a figure of woe that it was a surprise not to see her in tears. She was by no means in tears; but she was for an instant extremely blank, an instant during which Jean remembered, rather to wonder at it, Mrs. Beever’s having said of her that one really didn’t know whether she was awfully plain or strikingly handsome. Jean felt that one quite did know: she was awfully plain. It may immediately be mentioned that about the charm of the apparition offered meanwhile to her own eyes Rose Armiger had not a particle of doubt: a slim, fair girl who struck her as a light sketch for some thing larger, a cluster of happy hints with nothing yet quite “ put in ” but the splendour of the hair and the grace of the clothes clothes that were not as the clothes of Wilverley. The reflection of these things came back to Jean from a pair of eyes as to which she judged that the extreme lightness of their grey was what made them so strange as to be ugly a reflection that spread into a sudden smile from a wide, full-lipped mouth, whose regular office, obviously, was to produce the second impression.

In a flash of small square white teeth this second impression was produced and the ambiguity that Mrs. Beever had spoken of lighted up an ambiguity worth all the dull prettiness in the world. Yes, one quite did know: Miss Armiger was strikingly handsome. It thus took her but a few seconds to repudiate every connection with the sombre image Jean had just encountered.

“Excuse my jumping out at you,” she said. “ I heard a sound I was expecting a friend.” Jean thought her attitude an odd one for the purpose, but hinted a fear of being in that case in the way; on which the young lady protested that she was de lighted to see her, that she had already heard of her, that she guessed who she was. “ And I dare say you’ve already heard of me.”

Jean shyly confessed to this, and getting away from the subject as quickly as possible, produced on the spot her formal credentials.

“Mrs. Beever sent me over to ask if it’s really quite right we should come to luncheon. We came out of church before the sermon, because of some people who were to go home with us. They’re with Mrs. Beever now, but she told me to come straight across the garden the short way.”

Miss Armiger continued to smile. “ No way ever seems short enough for Mrs. Beever! ”

There was an intention in this, as Jean faintly felt, that was lost upon her; but while she was wondering her companion went on:

“Did Mrs. Beever direct you to inquire of me? ”

Jean hesitated. “ O! anyone, I think, who would be here to tell me in case Mrs. Bream shouldn’t be quite so well.”

“She isn’t quite so well.”

The younger girl’s face showed the flicker of a fear of losing her entertainment; on perceiving which the elder pursued:

“But we shan’t romp or racket shall we? We shall be very quiet.”

“Very, very quiet,” Jean eagerly echoed.

Her new friend’s smile became a laugh, which was followed by the abrupt question: “ Do you mean to be long with Mrs. Beever? ”

“Till her son comes home. You know he’s at Oxford, and his term soon ends.”

“And yours ends with it you depart as he arrives? ”

“Mrs. Beever tells me I positively shan’t,” said Jean.

“Then you positively won’t. Everything is done here exactly as Mrs. Beever tells us. Don’t you like her son? ” Rose Armiger asked.

“I don’t know yet; it’s exactly what she wants me to find out.”

“Then you’ll have to be very clear.”

“But if I find out I don’t? ” Jean risked.

“I shall be very sorry for you! ”

“I think then it will be the only thing in this love of an old place that I shan’t have liked.”

Rose Armiger for a moment rested her eyes on her visitor, who was more and more conscious that she was strange and yet not, as Jean had always supposed strange people to be, disagreeable. “ Do you like me? ” she unexpectedly inquired.

“How can I tell at the end of three minutes? ”

I can tell at the end of one! You must try to like me you must be very kind to me,” Miss Armiger declared. Then she added: “ Do you like Mr. Bream? ”

Jean considered; she felt that she must rise to the occasion. “ Oh, immensely! ” At this her interlocutress laughed again, and it made her con tinue with more reserve: “ Of course I only saw him for five minutes yesterday at the Bank.”

“Oh, we know how long you saw him! ” Miss Armiger exclaimed. “He has told us all about your visit.”

Jean was slightly awe-stricken: this picture seemed to include so many people. “ Whom has he told?” Her companion had the air of being amused at everything she said; but for Jean it was an air, none the less, with a kind of foreign charm in it. “Why, the very first person was of course his poor little wife.”

“But I’m not to see her> am I? ” Jean rather eagerly asked, puzzled by the manner of the allu sion and but half suspecting it to be a part of her informant’s general ease.

“You’re not to see her, but even if you were she wouldn’t hurt you for it,” this young lady replied. “She understands his friendly way and likes above all his beautiful frankness.”

Jean’s bewilderment began to look as if she too now, as she remembered, understood and liked these things. It might have been in confirmation of what was in her mind that she presently said: “ He told me I might see the wonderful baby. He told me he would show it to me himself.”

“I’m sure he’ll be delighted to do that. He’s awfully proud of the wonderful baby.”

“I suppose it’s very lovely,” Jean remarked with growing confidence.

“Lovely! Do you think babies are ever lovely? ”

Taken aback by this challenge, Jean reflected a little; she found, however, nothing better to say than, rather timidly: “ I like dear little children, don’t you? ”

Miss Armiger in turn considered. “Not a bit!” she then replied. “ It would be very sweet and attractive of me to say I adore them; but I never pretend to feelings I can’t keep up, don’t you know? If you’d like, all the same, to see Effie,” she obligingly added, “ I’ll so far sacrifice myself as to get her for you.”

Jean smiled as if this pleasantry were contagious. “You won’t sacrifice her? ”

Rose Armiger stared. “ I won’t destroy her.”

“Then do get her.”

“Not yet, not yet! ” cried another voice that of Mrs. Beever, who had just been introduced and who, having heard the last words of the two girls, came, accompanied by the servant, down the hall. “The baby’s of no importance. We’ve come over for the mother. Is it true that Julia has had a bad turn?” she asked of Rose Armiger.

Miss Armiger had a peculiar way of looking at a person before speaking, and she now, with this detachment, delayed so long to answer Mrs. Beever that Jean also rested her eyes, as if for a reason, on the good lady from Eastmead. She greatly admired her, but in that instant, the first of seeing her at Bounds, she perceived once for all how the differ ence of the setting made another thing of the gem. Short and solid, with rounded corners and full supports, her hair very black and very flat, her eyes very small for the amount of expression they could show, Mrs. Beever was so “ early Victorian ” as to be almost prehistoric was constructed to move amid massive mahogany and sit upon banks of Berlin-wool. She was like an odd volume, “sensibly ” bound, of some old magazine. Jean knew that the great social event of her younger years had been her going to a fancy-ball in the character of an Andalusian, an incident of which she still carried a memento in the shape of a hideous fan. Jean was so constituted that she also knew, more dimly but at the end of five minutes, that the elegance at Mr. Bream’s was slightly provincial. It made none the less a medium in which Mrs. Beever looked superlatively local. That indeed in turn caused Jean to think the old place still more of a “ love.”

“I believe our poor friend feels rather down,” Miss Armiger finally brought out. “But I don’t imagine it’s of the least consequence,” she im mediately added.

The contrary of this was, however, in some degree foreshadowed in a speech directed to Jean by the footman who had admitted her. He re ported Mr. Bream as having been in his wife’s room for nearly an hour, and Dr. Ramage as having arrived some time before and not yet come out. Mrs. Beever decreed, upon this news, that they must drop their idea of lunching and that Jean must go straight back to the friends who had been left at the other house. It was these friends who, on the way from church, had mentioned their having got wind of the rumour the quick circulation of which testified to the compactness of Wilverley that there had been a sudden change in Mrs. Bream since the hour at which her husband’s note was written. Mrs. Beever dismissed her companion to Eastmead with a message for her visitors. Jean was to entertain them there in her stead and to understand that she might return to luncheon only in case of being sent for. At the door the girl paused and exclaimed rather wistfully to Rose Armiger: “ Well, then, give her my love! ”

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