A Round of Visits, by Henry James

V

Within the apartment to which he had been admitted, moreover, the fine intelligence we have imputed to him was in the course of three minutes confirmed; since it took him no longer than that to say to himself, facing his old acquaintance, that he had never seen any one so improved. The place, which had the semblance of a high studio light as well as a general air of other profusions and amplitudes, might have put him off a little by its several rather glaringly false accents, those of contemporary domestic “art” striking a little wild. The scene was smaller, but the rich confused complexion of the Pocahontas, showing through Du Barry paint and patches, might have set the example — which had been followed with the costliest candour — so that, clearly, Winch was in these days rich, as most people in New York seemed rich; as, in spite of Bob’s depredations, Florence Ash was, as even Mrs. Folliott was in spite of Phil Bloodgood’s, as even Phil Bloodgood himself must have been for reasons too obvious; as in fine every one had a secret for being, or for feeling, or for looking, every one at least but Mark Monteith.

These facts were as nothing, however, in presence of his quick and strong impression that his pale, nervous, smiling, clean-shaven host had undergone since their last meeting some extraordinary process of refinement. He had been ill, unmistakably, and the effects of a plunge into plain clean living, where any fineness had remained, were often startling, sometimes almost charming. But independently of this, and for a much longer time, some principle of intelligence, some art of life, would discernibly have worked in him. Remembered from college years and from those two or three luckless and faithless ones of the Law School as constitutionally common, as consistently and thereby doubtless even rather powerfully coarse, clever only for uncouth and questionable things, he yet presented himself now as if he had suddenly and mysteriously been educated. There was a charm in his wide, “drawn,” convalescent smile, in the way his fine fingers — had he anything like fine fingers of old? — played, and just fidgeted, over the prompt and perhaps a trifle incoherent offer of cigars, cordials, ashtrays, over the question of his visitor’s hat, stick, fur coat, general best accommodation and ease; and how the deuce, accordingly, had charm, for coming out so on top, Mark wondered, “squared” the other old elements? For the short interval so to have dealt with him what force had it turned on, what patented process, of the portentous New York order in which there were so many, had it skilfully applied? Were these the things New York did when you just gave her all her head, and that he himself then had perhaps too complacently missed? Strange almost to the point of putting him positively off at first — quite as an exhibition of the uncanny — this sense of Newton’s having all the while neither missed nor muffed anything, and having, as with an eye to the coup de théâtre to come, lowered one’s expectations, at the start, to that abject pitch. It might have been taken verily for an act of bad faith — really for such a rare stroke of subtlety as could scarce have been achieved by a straight or natural aim.

So much as this at least came and went in Monteith’s agitated mind; the oddest intensity of apprehension, admiration, mystification, which the high north-light of the March afternoon and the quite splendidly vulgar appeal of fifty overdone decorative effects somehow fostered and sharpened. Everything had already gone, however, the next moment, for wasn’t the man he had come so much too intelligently himself to patronise absolutely bowling him over with the extraordinary speech: “See here, you know — you must be ill, or have had a bad shock, or some beastly upset: are you very sure you ought to have come out?” Yes, he after an instant believed his ears; coarse common Newton Winch, whom he had called on because he could, as a gentleman, after all afford to, coarse common Newton Winch, who had had troubles and been epidemically poisoned, lamentably sick, who bore in his face and in the very tension, quite exactly the “charm,” of his manner, the traces of his late ordeal, and, for that matter, of scarce completed gallant emergence — this astonishing ex-comrade was simply writing himself at a stroke (into our friend’s excited imagination at all events) the most distinguished of men. Oh, he was going to be interesting, if Florence Ash had been going to be; but Mark felt how, under the law of a lively present difference, that would be as an effect of one’s having one’s self thoroughly rallied. He knew within the minute that the tears stood in his eyes; he stared through them at his friend with a sharp “Why, how do you know? How can you?” To which he added before Winch could speak: “I met your charming sister-in-law a couple of hours since — at luncheon, at the Pocahontas; and heard from her that you were badly laid up and had spoken of me. So I came to minister to you.”

The object of this design hovered there again, considerably restless, shifting from foot to foot, changing his place, beginning and giving up motions, striking matches for a fresh cigarette, offering them again, redundantly, to his guest and then not lighting himself — but all the while with the smile of another creature than the creature known to Mark; all the while with the history of something that had happened to him ever so handsomely shining out. Mark was conscious within himself from this time on of two quite distinct processes of notation — that of his practically instant surrender to the consequences of the act of perception in his host of which the two women trained suppos-ably in the art of pleasing had been altogether incapable; and that of some other condition on Newton’s part that left his own poor power of divination nothing less than shamed. This last was signally the case on the former’s saying, ever so responsively, almost radiantly, in answer to his account of how he happened to come: “Oh then it’s very interesting!” That was the astonishing note, after what he had been through: neither Mrs. Folliott nor Florence Ash had so much as hinted or breathed to him that he might have incurred that praise. No wonder therefore he was now taken — with this fresh party’s instant suspicion and imputation of it; though it was indeed for some minutes next as if each tried to see which could accuse the other of the greater miracle of penetration. Mark was so struck, in a word, with the extraordinarily straight guess Winch had had there in reserve for him that, other quick impressions helping, there was nothing for him but to bring out, himself: “There must be, my dear man, something rather wonderful the matter with you!” The quite more intensely and more irresistibly drawn grin, the quite unmistakably deeper consciousness in the dark, wide eye, that accompanied the not quite immediate answer to which remark he was afterward to remember. “How do you know that — or why do you think it?” “Because there must be — for you to see! I shouldn’t have expected it.”

“Then you take me for a damned fool?” laughed wonderful Newton Winch.

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