The Story of It, by Henry James

Chapter II

It was in fact Mrs. Blessingbourne, who had under her arm the book she had gone up for — a pair of covers showing this time a pretty, a candid blue. She was followed next minute by the servant, who brought in tea, the consumption of which, with the passage of greetings, inquiries and other light civilities between the two visitors, occupied a quarter of an hour. Mrs. Dyott meanwhile, as a contribution to so much amenity, mentioned to Maud that her fellow guest wished to scold her for the books she read — a statement met by this friend with the remark that he must first be sure about them. But as soon as he had picked up the new, the blue volume he broke out into a frank “Dear, dear!”

“Have you read that too?” Mrs. Dyott inquired. “How much you’ll have to talk over together! The other one,” she explained to him, “Maud speaks of as terribly tame.”

“Ah I must have that out with her! You don’t feel the extraordinary force of the fellow?” Voyt went on to Mrs. Blessingbourne.

And so, round the hearth, they talked — talked soon, while they warmed their toes, with zest enough to make it seem as happy a chance as any of the quieter opportunities their imprisonment might have involved. Mrs. Blessingbourne did feel, it then appeared, the force of the fellow, but she had her reserves and reactions, in which Voyt was much interested. Mrs. Dyott rather detached herself, mainly gazing, as she leaned back, at the fire; she intervened, however, enough to relieve Maud of the sense of being listened to. That sense, with Maud, was too apt to convey that one was listened to for a fool. “Yes, when I read a novel I mostly read a French one,” she had said to Voyt in answer to a question about her usual practice; “for I seem with it to get hold more of the real thing — to get more life for my money. Only I’m not so infatuated with them but that sometimes for months and months on end I don’t read any fiction at all.”

The two books were now together beside them. “Then when you begin again you read a mass?”

“Dear no. I only keep up with three or four authors.”

He laughed at this over the cigarette he had been allowed to light. “I like your ‘keeping up,’ and keeping up in particular with ‘authors.’”

“One must keep up with somebody,” Mrs. Dyott threw off.

“I daresay I’m ridiculous,” Mrs. Blessingbourne conceded without heeding it; “but that’s the way we express ourselves in my part of the country.”

“I only alluded,” said Voyt, “to the tremendous conscience of your sex. It’s more than mine can keep up with. You take everything too hard. But if you can’t read the novel of British and American manufacture, heaven knows I’m at one with you. It seems really to show our sense of life as the sense of puppies and kittens.”

“Well,” Maud more patiently returned, “I’m told all sorts of people are now doing wonderful things; but somehow I remain outside.”

“Ah it’s THEY, it’s our poor twangers and twaddlers who remain outside. They pick up a living in the street. And who indeed would want them in?”

Mrs. Blessingbourne seemed unable to say, and yet at the same time to have her idea. The subject, in truth, she evidently found, was not so easy to handle. “People lend me things, and I try; but at the end of fifty pages — ”

“There you are! Yes — heaven help us!”

“But what I mean,” she went on, “isn’t that I don’t get woefully weary of the eternal French thing. What’s THEIR sense of life?”

“Ah voila!” Mrs. Dyott softly sounded.

“Oh but it IS one; you can make it out,” Voyt promptly declared. “They do what they feel, and they feel more things than we. They strike so many more notes, and with so different a hand. When it comes to any account of a relation say between a man and a woman — I mean an intimate or a curious or a suggestive one — where are we compared to them? They don’t exhaust the subject, no doubt,” he admitted; “but we don’t touch it, don’t even skim it. It’s as if we denied its existence, its possibility. You’ll doubtless tell me, however,” he went on, “that as all such relations ARE for us at the most much simpler we can only have all round less to say about them.”

She met this imputation with the quickest amusement. “I beg your pardon. I don’t think I shall tell you anything of the sort. I don’t know that I even agree with your premiss.”

“About such relations?” He looked agreeably surprised. “You think we make them larger? — or subtler?”

Mrs. Blessingbourne leaned back, not looking, like Mrs. Dyott, at the fire, but at the ceiling. “I don’t know what I think.”

“It’s not that she doesn’t know,” Mrs. Dyott remarked. “It’s only that she doesn’t say.”

But Voyt had this time no eye for their hostess. For a moment he watched Maud. “It sticks out of you, you know, that you’ve yourself written something. Haven’t you — and published? I’ve a notion I could read YOU.”

“When I do publish,” she said without moving, “you’ll be the last one I shall tell. I HAVE,” she went on, “a lovely subject, but it would take an amount of treatment —!”

“Tell us then at least what it is.”

At this she again met his eyes. “Oh to tell it would be to express it, and that’s just what I can’t do. What I meant to say just now,” she added, “was that the French, to my sense, give us only again and again, for ever and ever, the same couple. There they are once more, as one has had them to satiety, in that yellow thing, and there I shall certainly again find them in the blue.”

“Then why do you keep reading about them?” Mrs. Dyott demanded.

Maud cast about. “I don’t!” she sighed. “At all events, I shan’t any more. I give it up.”

“You’ve been looking for something, I judge,” said Colonel Voyt, “that you’re not likely to find. It doesn’t exist.”

“What is it?” Mrs. Dyott desired to know.

“I never look,” Maud remarked, “for anything but an interest.”

“Naturally. But your interest,” Voyt replied, “is in something different from life.”

“Ah not a bit! I LOVE life in art, though I hate it anywhere else. It’s the poverty of the life those people show, and the awful bounders, of both sexes, that they represent.”

“Oh now we have you!” her interlocutor laughed. “To me, when all’s said and done, they seem to be — as near as art can come — in the truth of the truth. It can only take what life gives it, though it certainly may be a pity that that isn’t better. Your complaint of their monotony is a complaint of their conditions. When you say we get always the same couple what do you mean but that we get always the same passion? Of course we do!” Voyt pursued. “If what you’re looking for is another, that’s what you won’t anywhere find.”

Maud for a while said nothing, and Mrs. Dyott seemed to wait. “Well, I suppose I’m looking, more than anything else, for a decent woman.”

“Oh then you mustn’t look for her in pictures of passion. That’s not her element nor her whereabouts.”

Mrs. Blessingbourne weighed the objection. “Does it not depend on what you mean by passion?”

“I think I can mean only one thing: the enemy to behaviour.”

“Oh I can imagine passions that are on the contrary friends to it.”

Her fellow-guest thought. “Doesn’t it depend perhaps on what you mean by behaviour?”

“Dear no. Behaviour’s just behaviour — the most definite thing in the world.”

“Then what do you mean by the ‘interest’ you just now spoke of? The picture of that definite thing?”

“Yes — call it that. Women aren’t ALWAYS vicious, even when they’re — ”

“When they’re what?” Voyt pressed.

“When they’re unhappy. They can be unhappy and good.”

“That one doesn’t for a moment deny. But can they be ‘good’ and interesting?”

“That must be Maud’s subject!” Mrs. Dyott interposed. “To show a woman who IS. I’m afraid, my dear,” she continued, “you could only show yourself.”

“You’d show then the most beautiful specimen conceivable” — and Voyt addressed himself to Maud. “But doesn’t it prove that life is, against your contention, more interesting than art? Life you embellish and elevate; but art would find itself able to do nothing with you, and, on such impossible terms, would ruin you.”

The colour in her faint consciousness gave beauty to her stare. “‘Ruin’ me?”

“He means,” Mrs. Dyott again indicated, “that you’d ruin ‘art.’”

“Without on the other hand” — Voyt seemed to assent — “its giving at all a coherent impression of you.”

“She wants her romance cheap!” said Mrs. Dyott.

“Oh no — I should be willing to pay for it. I don’t see why the romance — since you give it that name — should be all, as the French inveterately make it, for the women who are bad.”

“Oh they pay for it!” said Mrs. Dyott.

“DO they?”

“So at least” — Mrs. Dyott a little corrected herself — “one has gathered (for I don’t read your books, you know!) that they’re usually shown as doing.”

Maud wondered, but looking at Voyt, “They’re shown often, no doubt, as paying for their badness. But are they shown as paying for their romance?”

“My dear lady,” said Voyt, “their romance is their badness. There isn’t any other. It’s a hard law, if you will, and a strange, but goodness has to go without that luxury. Isn’t to BE good just exactly, all round, to go without?” He put it before her kindly and clearly — regretfully too, as if he were sorry the truth should be so sad. He and she, his pleasant eyes seemed to say, would, had they had the making of it, have made it better. “One has heard it before — at least I have; one has heard your question put. But always, when put to a mind not merely muddled, for an inevitable answer. ‘Why don’t you, cher monsieur, give us the drama of virtue?’ ‘Because, chere madame, the high privilege of virtue is precisely to avoid drama.’ The adventures of the honest lady? The honest lady hasn’t, can’t possibly have, adventures.”

Mrs. Blessingbourne only met his eyes at first, smiling with some intensity. “Doesn’t it depend a little on what you call adventures?”

“My poor Maud,” said Mrs. Dyott as if in compassion for sophistry so simple, “adventures are just adventures. That’s all you can make of them!”

But her friend talked for their companion and as if without hearing. “Doesn’t it depend a good deal on what you call drama?” Maud spoke as one who had already thought it out. “Doesn’t it depend on what you call romance?”

Her listener gave these arguments his very best attention. “Of course you may call things anything you like — speak of them as one thing and mean quite another. But why should it depend on anything? Behind these words we use — the adventure, the novel, the drama, the romance, the situation, in short, as we most comprehensively say — behind them all stands the same sharp fact which they all in their different ways represent.”

“Precisely!” Mrs. Dyott was full of approval.

Maud however was full of vagueness. “What great fact?”

“The fact of a relation. The adventure’s a relation; the relation’s an adventure. The romance, the novel, the drama are the picture of one. The subject the novelist treats is the rise, the formation, the development, the climax and for the most part the decline of one. And what is the honest lady doing on that side of the town?”

Mrs. Dyott was more pointed. “She doesn’t so much as FORM a relation.”

But Maud bore up. “Doesn’t it depend again on what you call a relation?”

“Oh,” said Mrs. Dyott, “if a gentleman picks up her pocket-handkerchief — ”

“Ah even that’s one,” their friend laughed, “if she has thrown it to him. We can only deal with one that is one.”

“Surely,” Maud replied. “But if it’s an innocent one — ”

“Doesn’t it depend a good deal,” Mrs. Dyott asked, “on what you call innocent?”

“You mean that the adventures of innocence have so often been the material of fiction? Yes,” Voyt replied; “that’s exactly what the bored reader complains of. He has asked for bread and been given a stone. What is it but, with absolute directness, a question of interest or, as people say, of the story? What’s a situation undeveloped but a subject lost? If a relation stops, where’s the story? If it doesn’t stop, where’s the innocence? It seems to me you must choose. It would be very pretty if it were otherwise, but that’s how we flounder. Art is our flounderings shown.”

Mrs. Blessingbourne — and with an air of deference scarce supported perhaps by its sketchiness — kept her deep eyes on this definition. “But sometimes we flounder out.”

It immediately touched in Colonel Voyt the spring of a genial derision. “That’s just where I expected YOU would! One always sees it come.”

“He has, you notice,” Mrs. Dyott parenthesised to Maud, “seen it come so often I; and he has always waited for it and met it.”

“Met it, dear lady, simply enough! It’s the old story, Mrs. Blessingbourne. The relation’s innocent that the heroine gets out of. The book’s innocent that’s the story of her getting out. But what the devil — in the name of innocence — was she doing IN?”

Mrs. Dyott promptly echoed the question. “You have to be in, you know, to GET out. So there you are already with your relation. It’s the end of your goodness.”

“And the beginning,” said Voyt, “of your play!”

“Aren’t they all, for that matter, even the worst,” Mrs. Dyott pursued, “supposed SOME time or other to get out? But if meanwhile they’ve been in, however briefly, long enough to adorn a tale?”

“They’ve been in long enough to point a moral. That is to point ours!” With which, and as if a sudden flush of warmer light had moved him, Colonel Voyt got up. The veil of the storm had parted over a great red sunset.

Mrs. Dyott also was on her feet, and they stood before his charming antagonist, who, with eyes lowered and a somewhat fixed smile, had not moved.

“We’ve spoiled her subject!” the elder lady sighed.

“Well,” said Voyt, “it’s better to spoil an artist’s subject than to spoil his reputation. I mean,” he explained to Maud with his indulgent manner, “his appearance of knowing what he has got hold of, for that, in the last resort, is his happiness.”

She slowly rose at this, facing him with an aspect as handsomely mild as his own. “You can’t spoil my happiness.”

He held her hand an instant as he took leave. “I wish I could add to it!”

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