A Round of Visits, by Henry James

III

Outside in the intensity of the cold — it was a jump from the Tropics to the Pole — he felt afresh the force of what he had just been saying; that if it weren’t for the fact of Mrs. Ash’s good letter of welcome, despatched, characteristically, as soon as she had, like the faithful sufferer in Fiftieth Street, observed his name, in a newspaper, on one of the hotel-lists, he should verily, for want of a connection and an abutment, have scarce dared to face the void and the chill together, but have sneaked back into the jungle and there tried to lose himself. He made, as it was, the opposite effort, resolute to walk, though hovering now and then at vague crossways, radiations of roads to nothing, or taking cold counsel of the long but still sketchy vista, as it struck him, of the northward Avenue, bright and bleak, fresh and harsh, rich and evident somehow, a perspective like a page of florid modern platitudes. He didn’t quite know what he had expected for his return — not certainly serenades and deputations; but without Mrs. Ash his mail would have quite lacked geniality, and it was as if Phil Blood-good had gone off not only with so large a slice of his small peculium, but with all the broken bits of the past, the loose ends of old relationships, that he had supposed he might pick up again. Well, perhaps he should still pick up a few — by the sweat of his brow; no motion of their own at least, he by this time judged, would send them fluttering into his hand.

Which reflections but quickened his forecast of this charm of the old Paris inveteracy renewed — the so-prized custom of nine years before, when he still believed in results from his fond frequentation of the Beaux Arts; that of walking over the river to the Rue de Marignan, precisely, every Sunday without exception, and sitting at her fireside, and often all offensively, no doubt, outstaying every one. How he had used to want those hours then, and how again, after a little, at present, the Rue de Marignan might have been before him! He had gone to her there at that time with his troubles, such as they were, and they had always worked for her amusement — which had been her happy, her clever way of taking them: she couldn’t have done anything better for them in that phase, poor innocent things compared with what they might have been, than be amused by them. Perhaps that was what she would still be — with those of his present hour; now too they might inspire her with the touch she best applied and was most instinctive mistress of: this didn’t at all events strike him as what he should most resent. It wasn’t as if Mrs. Folliott, to make up for boring him with her own plaint, for example, had had so much as a gleam of conscious diversion over his.

“I’m so delighted to see you, I’ve such immensities to tell you!” — it began with the highest animation twenty minutes later, the very moment he stood there, the sense of the Rue de Marignan in the charming room and in the things about all reconstituted, regrouped, wonderfully preserved, down to the very sitting-places in the same relations, and down to the faint sweet mustiness of generations of cigarettes; but everything else different, and even vaguely alien, and by a measure still other than that of their own stretched interval and of the dear delightful woman’s just a little pathetic alteration of face. He had allowed for the nine years, and so, it was to be hoped, had she; but the last thing, otherwise, that would have been touched, he immediately felt, was the quality, the intensity, of her care to see him. She cared, oh so visibly and touchingly and almost radiantly — save for her being, yes, distinctly, a little more battered than from even a good nine years’ worth; nothing could in fact have perched with so crowning an impatience on the heap of what she had to “tell” as that special shade of revived consciousness of having him in particular to tell it to. It wasn’t perhaps much to matter how soon she brought out and caused to ring, as it were, on the little recognised marqueterie table between them (such an anciently envied treasure), the heaviest gold-piece of current history she was to pay him with for having just so felicitously come back: he knew already, without the telling, that intimate domestic tension must lately, within those walls, have reached a climax and that he could serve supremely — oh how he was going to serve! — as the most sympathetic of all pairs of ears.

The whole thing was upon him, in any case, with the minimum of delay: Bob had had it from her, definitely, the first of the week, and it was absolutely final now, that they must set up avowedly separate lives — without horrible “proceedings” of any sort, but with her own situation, her independence, secured to her once for all. She had been coming to it, taking her time, and she had gone through — well, so old a friend would guess enough what; but she was at the point, oh blessedly now, where she meant to stay, he’d see if she didn’t; with which, in this wonderful way, he himself had arrived for the cream of it and she was just selfishly glad. Bob had gone to Washington — ostensibly on business, but really to recover breath; she had, speaking vulgarly, knocked the wind out of him and was allowing him time to turn round. Mrs. Folliott moreover, she was sure, would have gone — was certainly believed to have been seen there five days ago; and of course his first necessity, for public use, would be to patch up something with Mrs. Folliott. Mark knew about Mrs. Folliott? — who was only, for that matter, one of a regular “bevy.” Not that it signified, however, if he didn’t: she would tell him about her later.

He took occasion from the first fraction of a break not quite to know what he knew about Mrs. Folliott — though perhaps he could imagine a little; and it was probably at this minute that, having definitely settled to a position, and precisely in his very own tapestry bergère, the one with the delicious little spectral “subjects” on the back and seat, he partly exhaled, and yet managed partly to keep to himself, the deep resigned sigh of a general comprehension. He knew what he was “in” for, he heard her go on — she said it again and again, seemed constantly to be saying it while she smiled at him with her peculiar fine charm, her positive gaiety of sensibility, scarce dimmed: “I’m just selfishly glad, just selfishly glad!” Well, she was going to have reason to be; she was going to put the whole case to him, all her troubles and plans, and each act of the tragi-comedy of her recent existence, as to the dearest and safest sympathiser in all the world. There would be no chance for his case, though it was so much for his case he had come; yet there took place within him but a mild, dumb convulsion, the momentary strain of his substituting, by the turn of a hand, one prospect of interest for another.

Squaring himself in his old bergère, and with his lips, during the effort, compressed to the same passive grimace that had an hour or two before operated for the encouragement of Mrs. Folliott — just as it was to clear the stage completely for the present more prolonged performance — he shut straight down, as he even in the act called it to himself, on any personal claim for social consideration and rendered a perfect little agony of justice to the grounds of his friend’s vividness. For it was all the justice that could be expected of him that, though, secretly, he wasn’t going to be interested in her being interesting, she was yet going to be so, all the same, by the very force of her lovely material (Bob Ash was such a pure pearl of a donkey!) and he was going to keep on knowing she was — yes, to the very end. When after the lapse of an hour he rose to go, the rich fact that she had been was there between them, and with an effect of the frankly, fearlessly, harmlessly intimate fireside passage for it that went beyond even the best memories of the pleasant past. He hadn’t “amused” her, no, in quite the same way as in the Rue de Marignan time — it had then been he who for the most part took frequent turns, emphatic, explosive, elocutionary, over that wonderful waxed parquet while she laughed as for the young perversity of him from the depths of the second, the matching bergère. To-day she herself held and swept the floor, putting him merely to the trouble of his perpetual “Brava!” But that was all through the change of basis — the amusement, another name only for the thrilled absorption, having been inevitably for him; as how could it have failed to be with such a regular “treat” to his curiosity? With the tea-hour now other callers were turning up, and he got away on the plea of his wanting so to think it all over. He hoped again he hadn’t too queer a grin with his assurance to her, as if she would quite know what he meant, that he had been thrilled to the core. But she returned, quite radiantly, that he had carried her completely away; and her sincerity was proved by the final frankness of their temporary parting. “My pleasure of you is selfish, horribly, I admit; so that if that doesn’t suit you —!” Her faded beauty flushed again as she said it.

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