The Story of It, by Henry James

Chapter I

The weather had turned so much worse that the rest of the day was certainly lost. The wind had risen and the storm gathered force; they gave from time to time a thump at the firm windows and dashed even against those protected by the verandah their vicious splotches of rain. Beyond the lawn, beyond the cliff, the great wet brush of the sky dipped deep into the sea. But the lawn, already vivid with the touch of May, showed a violence of watered green; the budding shrubs and trees repeated the note as they tossed their thick masses, and the cold troubled light, filling the pretty saloon, marked the spring afternoon as sufficiently young. The two ladies seated there in silence could pursue without difficulty — as well as, clearly, without interruption — their respective tasks; a confidence expressed, when the noise of the wind allowed it to be heard, by the sharp scratch of Mrs. Dyott’s pen at the table where she was busy with letters.

Her visitor, settled on a small sofa that, with a palm-tree, a screen, a stool, a stand, a bowl of flowers and three photographs in silver frames, had been arranged near the light wood-fire as a choice “corner” — Maud Blessingbourne, her guest, turned audibly, though at intervals neither brief nor regular, the leaves of a book covered in lemon-coloured paper and not yet despoiled of a certain fresh crispness. This effect of the volume, for the eye, would have made it, as presumably the newest French novel — and evidently, from the attitude of the reader, “good” — consort happily with the special tone of the room, a consistent air of selection and suppression, one of the finer aesthetic evolutions. If Mrs. Dyott was fond of ancient French furniture and distinctly difficult about it, her inmates could be fond — with whatever critical cocks of charming dark-braided heads over slender sloping shoulders — of modern French authors. Nothing bad passed for half an hour — nothing at least, to be exact, but that each of the companions occasionally and covertly intermitted her pursuit in such a manner as to ascertain the degree of absorption of the other without turning round. What their silence was charged with therefore was not only a sense of the weather, but a sense, so to speak, of its own nature. Maud Blessingbourne, when she lowered her book into her lap, closed her eyes with a conscious patience that seemed to say she waited; but it was nevertheless she who at last made the movement representing a snap of their tension. She got up and stood by the fire, into which she looked a minute; then came round and approached the window as if to see what was really going on. At this Mrs. Dyott wrote with refreshed intensity. Her little pile of letters had grown, and if a look of determination was compatible with her fair and slightly faded beauty the habit of attending to her business could always keep pace with any excursion of her thought. Yet she was the first who spoke.

“I trust your book has been interesting.”

“Well enough; a little mild.”

A louder throb of the tempest had blurred the sound of the words. “A little wild?”

“Dear no — timid and tame; unless I’ve quite lost my sense.”

“Perhaps you have,” Mrs. Dyott placidly suggested — “reading so many.”

Her companion made a motion of feigned despair. “Ah you take away my courage for going to my room, as I was just meaning to, for another.”

“Another French one?”

“I’m afraid.”

“Do you carry them by the dozen —?”

“Into innocent British homes?” Maud tried to remember. “I believe I brought three — seeing them in a shop-window as I passed through town. It never rains but it pours! But I’ve already read two.”

“And are they the only ones you do read?”

“French ones?” Maud considered. “Oh no. D’Annunzio.”

“And what’s that?” Mrs. Dyott asked as she affixed a stamp.

“Oh you dear thing!” Her friend was amused, yet almost showed pity. “I know you don’t read,” Maud went on; “but why should you? YOU live!”

“Yes — wretchedly enough,” Mrs. Dyott returned, getting her letters together. She left her place, holding them as a neat achieved handful, and came over to the fire, while Mrs. Blessingbourne turned once more to the window, where she was met by another flurry.

Maud spoke then as if moved only by the elements. “Do you expect him through all this?”

Mrs. Dyott just waited, and it had the effect, indescribably, of making everything that had gone before seem to have led up to the question. This effect was even deepened by the way she then said “Whom do you mean?”

“Why I thought you mentioned at luncheon that Colonel Voyt was to walk over. Surely he can’t.”

“Do you care very much?” Mrs. Dyott asked.

Her friend now hesitated. “It depends on what you call ‘much.’ If you mean should I like to see him — then certainly.”

“Well, my dear, I think he understands you’re here.”

“So that as he evidently isn’t coming,” Maud laughed, “it’s particularly flattering! Or rather,” she added, giving up the prospect again, “it would be, I think, quite extraordinarily flattering if he did. Except that of course,” she threw in, “he might come partly for you.”

“‘Partly’ is charming. Thank you for ‘partly.’ If you ARE going upstairs, will you kindly,” Mrs Dyott pursued, “put these into the box as you pass?”

The younger woman, taking the little pile of letters, considered them with envy. “Nine! You ARE good. You’re always a living reproach!”

Mrs. Dyott gave a sigh. “I don’t do it on purpose. The only thing, this afternoon,” she went on, reverting to the other question, “would be their not having come down.”

“And as to that you don’t know.”

“No — I don’t know.” But she caught even as she spoke a rat-tat-tat of the knocker, which struck her as a sign. “Ah there!”

“Then I go.” And Maud whisked out.

Mrs. Dyott, left alone, moved with an air of selection to the window, and it was as so stationed, gazing out at the wild weather, that the visitor, whose delay to appear spoke of the wiping of boots and the disposal of drenched mackintosh and cap, finally found her. He was tall lean fine, with little in him, on the whole, to confirm the titular in the “Colonel Voyt” by which he was announced. But he had left the army, so that his reputation for gallantry mainly depended now on his fighting Liberalism in the House of Commons. Even these facts, however, his aspect scantily matched; partly, no doubt, because he looked, as was usually said, un-English. His black hair, cropped close, was lightly powdered with silver, and his dense glossy beard, that of an emir or a caliph, and grown for civil reasons, repeated its handsome colour and its somewhat foreign effect. His nose had a strong and shapely arch, and the dark grey of his eyes was tinted with blue. It had been said of him — in relation to these signs — that he would have struck you as a Jew had he not, in spite of his nose, struck you so much as an Irishman. Neither responsibility could in fact have been fixed upon him, and just now, at all events, he was only a pleasant weather-washed wind-battered Briton, who brought in from a struggle with the elements that he appeared quite to have enjoyed a certain amount of unremoved mud and an unusual quantity of easy expression. It was exactly the silence ensuing on the retreat of the servant and the closed door that marked between him and his hostess the degree of this ease. They met, as it were, twice: the first time while the servant was there and the second as soon as he was not. The difference was great between the two encounters, though we must add in justice to the second that its marks were at first mainly negative. This communion consisted only in their having drawn each other for a minute as close as possible — as possible, that is, with no help but the full clasp of hands. Thus they were mutually held, and the closeness was at any rate such that, for a little, though it took account of dangers, it did without words. When words presently came the pair were talking by the fire and she had rung for tea. He had by this time asked if the note he had despatched to her after breakfast had been safely delivered.

“Yes, before luncheon. But I’m always in a state when — except for some extraordinary reason — you send such things by hand. I knew, without it, that you had come. It never fails. I’m sure when you’re there — I’m sure when you’re not.”

He wiped, before the glass, his wet moustache. “I see. But this morning I had an impulse.”

“It was beautiful. But they make me as uneasy, sometimes, your impulses, as if they were calculations; make me wonder what you have in reserve.”

“Because when small children are too awfully good they die? Well, I AM a small child compared to you — but I’m not dead yet. I cling to life.”

He had covered her with his smile, but she continued grave. “I’m not half so much afraid when you’re nasty.”

“Thank you! What then did you do,” he asked, “with my note?”

“You deserve that I should have spread it out on my dressing-table — or left it, better still, in Maud Blessingbourne’s room.”

He wondered while he laughed. “Oh but what does SHE deserve?”

It was her gravity that continued to answer. “Yes — it would probably kill her.”

“She believes so in you?”

“She believes so in YOU. So don’t be TOO nice to her.”

He was still looking, in the chimney-glass, at the state of his beard — brushing from it, with his handkerchief, the traces of wind and wet. “If she also then prefers me when I’m nasty it seems to me I ought to satisfy her. Shall I now at any rate see her?”

“She’s so like a pea on a pan over the possibility of it that she’s pulling herself together in her room.”

“Oh then we must try and keep her together. But why, graceful tender, pretty too — quite or almost as she is — doesn’t she re-marry?”

Mrs. Dyott appeared — and as if the first time — to look for the reason. “Because she likes too many men.”

It kept up his spirits. “And how many MAY a lady like —?”

“In order not to like any of them too much? Ah that, you know, I never found out — and it’s too late now. When,” she presently pursued, “did you last see her?”

He really had to think. “Would it have been since last November or so? — somewhere or other where we spent three days.”

“Oh at Surredge? I know all about that. I thought you also met afterwards.”

He had again to recall. “So we did! Wouldn’t it have been somewhere at Christmas? But it wasn’t by arrangement!” he laughed, giving with his forefinger a little pleasant nick to his hostess’s chin. Then as if something in the way she received this attention put him back to his question of a moment before: “Have you kept my note?”

She held him with her pretty eyes. “Do you want it back?”

“Ah don’t speak as if I did take things —!”

She dropped her gaze to the fire. “No, you don’t; not even the hard things a really generous nature often would.” She quitted, however, as if to forget that, the chimney-place. “I put it THERE!”

“You’ve burnt it? Good!” It made him easier, but he noticed the next moment on a table the lemon-coloured volume left there by Mrs. Blessingbourne, and, taking it up for a look, immediately put it down. “You might while you were about it have burnt that too.”

“You’ve read it?”

“Dear yes. And you?”

“No,” said Mrs. Dyott; “it wasn’t for me Maud brought it.”

It pulled her visitor up. “Mrs. Blessingbourne brought it?”

“For such a day as this.” But she wondered. “How you look! Is it so awful?”

“Oh like his others.” Something had occurred to him; his thought was already far. “Does she know?”

“Know what?”

“Why anything.”

But the door opened too soon for Mrs. Dyott, who could only murmur quickly — “Take care!”

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