The Coxon Fund, by Henry James

Chapter 11

I was unable this time to stay to dinner: such at any rate was the plea on which I took leave. I desired in truth to get away from my young lady, for that obviously helped me not to pretend to satisfy her. How COULD I satisfy her? I asked myself — how could I tell her how much had been kept back? I didn’t even know and I certainly didn’t desire to know. My own policy had ever been to learn the least about poor Saltram’s weaknesses — not to learn the most. A great deal that I had in fact learned had been forced upon me by his wife. There was something even irritating in Miss Anvoy’s crude conscientiousness, and I wondered why, after all, she couldn’t have let him alone and been content to entrust George Gravener with the purchase of the good house. I was sure he would have driven a bargain, got something excellent and cheap. I laughed louder even than she, I temporised, I failed her; I told her I must think over her case. I professed a horror of responsibilities and twitted her with her own extravagant passion for them. It wasn’t really that I was afraid of the scandal, the moral discredit for the Fund; what troubled me most was a feeling of a different order. Of course, as the beneficiary of the Fund was to enjoy a simple life-interest, as it was hoped that new beneficiaries would arise and come up to new standards, it wouldn’t be a trifle that the first of these worthies shouldn’t have been a striking example of the domestic virtues. The Fund would start badly, as it were, and the laurel would, in some respects at least, scarcely be greener from the brows of the original wearer. That idea, however, was at that hour, as I have hinted, not the source of solicitude it ought perhaps to have been, for I felt less the irregularity of Saltram’s getting the money than that of this exalted young woman’s giving it up. I wanted her to have it for herself, and I told her so before I went away. She looked graver at this than she had looked at all, saying she hoped such a preference wouldn’t make me dishonest.

It made me, to begin with, very restless — made me, instead of going straight to the station, fidget a little about that many-coloured Common which gives Wimbledon horizons. There was a worry for me to work off, or rather keep at a distance, for I declined even to admit to myself that I had, in Miss Anvoy’s phrase, been saddled with it. What could have been clearer indeed than the attitude of recognising perfectly what a world of trouble The Coxon Fund would in future save us, and of yet liking better to face a continuance of that trouble than see, and in fact contribute to, a deviation from attainable bliss in the life of two other persons in whom I was deeply interested? Suddenly, at the end of twenty minutes, there was projected across this clearness the image of a massive middle-aged man seated on a bench under a tree, with sad far-wandering eyes and plump white hands folded on the head of a stick — a stick I recognised, a stout gold-headed staff that I had given him in devoted days. I stopped short as he turned his face to me, and it happened that for some reason or other I took in as I had perhaps never done before the beauty of his rich blank gaze. It was charged with experience as the sky is charged with light, and I felt on the instant as if we had been overspanned and conjoined by the great arch of a bridge or the great dome of a temple. Doubtless I was rendered peculiarly sensitive to it by something in the way I had been giving him up and sinking him. While I met it I stood there smitten, and I felt myself responding to it with a sort of guilty grimace. This brought back his attention in a smile which expressed for me a cheerful weary patience, a bruised noble gentleness. I had told Miss Anvoy that he had no dignity, but what did he seem to me, all unbuttoned and fatigued as he waited for me to come up, if he didn’t seem unconcerned with small things, didn’t seem in short majestic? There was majesty in his mere unconsciousness of our little conferences and puzzlements over his maintenance and his reward.

After I had sat by him a few minutes I passed my arm over his big soft shoulder — wherever you touched him you found equally little firmness — and said in a tone of which the suppliance fell oddly on my own ear: “Come back to town with me, old friend — come back and spend the evening.” I wanted to hold him, I wanted to keep him, and at Waterloo, an hour later, I telegraphed possessively to the Mulvilles. When he objected, as regards staying all night, that he had no things, I asked him if he hadn’t everything of mine. I had abstained from ordering dinner, and it was too late for preliminaries at a club; so we were reduced to tea and fried fish at my rooms — reduced also to the transcendent. Something had come up which made me want him to feel at peace with me — and which, precisely, was all the dear man himself wanted on any occasion. I had too often had to press upon him considerations irrelevant, but it gives me pleasure now to think that on that particular evening I didn’t even mention Mrs. Saltram and the children. Late into the night we smoked and talked; old shames and old rigours fell away from us; I only let him see that I was conscious of what I owed him. He was as mild as contrition and as copious as faith; he was never so fine as on a shy return, and even better at forgiving than at being forgiven. I dare say it was a smaller matter than that famous night at Wimbledon, the night of the problematical sobriety and of Miss Anvoy’s initiation; but I was as much in it on this occasion as I had been out of it then. At about 1.30 he was sublime.

He never, in whatever situation, rose till all other risings were over, and his breakfasts, at Wimbledon, had always been the principal reason mentioned by departing cooks. The coast was therefore clear for me to receive her when, early the next morning, to my surprise, it was announced to me his wife had called. I hesitated, after she had come up, about telling her Saltram was in the house, but she herself settled the question, kept me reticent by drawing forth a sealed letter which, looking at me very hard in the eyes, she placed, with a pregnant absence of comment, in my hand. For a single moment there glimmered before me the fond hope that Mrs. Saltram had tendered me, as it were, her resignation and desired to embody the act in an unsparing form. To bring this about I would have feigned any humiliation; but after my eyes had caught the superscription I heard myself say with a flatness that betrayed a sense of something very different from relief: “Oh the Pudneys!” I knew their envelopes though they didn’t know mine. They always used the kind sold at post-offices with the stamp affixed, and as this letter hadn’t been posted they had wasted a penny on me. I had seen their horrid missives to the Mulvilles, but hadn’t been in direct correspondence with them.

“They enclosed it to me, to be delivered. They doubtless explain to you that they hadn’t your address.”

I turned the thing over without opening it. “Why in the world should they write to me?”

“Because they’ve something to tell you. The worst,” Mrs. Saltram dryly added.

It was another chapter, I felt, of the history of their lamentable quarrel with her husband, the episode in which, vindictively, disingenuously as they themselves had behaved, one had to admit that he had put himself more grossly in the wrong than at any moment of his life. He had begun by insulting the matchless Mulvilles for these more specious protectors, and then, according to his wont at the end of a few months, had dug a still deeper ditch for his aberration than the chasm left yawning behind. The chasm at Wimbledon was now blessedly closed; but the Pudneys, across their persistent gulf, kept up the nastiest fire. I never doubted they had a strong case, and I had been from the first for not defending him — reasoning that if they weren’t contradicted they’d perhaps subside. This was above all what I wanted, and I so far prevailed that I did arrest the correspondence in time to save our little circle an infliction heavier than it perhaps would have borne. I knew, that is I divined, that their allegations had gone as yet only as far as their courage, conscious as they were in their own virtue of an exposed place in which Saltram could have planted a blow. It was a question with them whether a man who had himself so much to cover up would dare his blow; so that these vessels of rancour were in a manner afraid of each other. I judged that on the day the Pudneys should cease for some reason or other to be afraid they would treat us to some revelation more disconcerting than any of its predecessors. As I held Mrs. Saltram’s letter in my hand it was distinctly communicated to me that the day had come — they had ceased to be afraid. “I don’t want to know the worst,” I presently declared.

“You’ll have to open the letter. It also contains an enclosure.”

I felt it — it was fat and uncanny. “Wheels within wheels!” I exclaimed. “There’s something for me too to deliver.”

“So they tell me — to Miss Anvoy.”

I stared; I felt a certain thrill. “Why don’t they send it to her directly?”

Mrs. Saltram hung fire. “Because she’s staying with Mr. and Mrs. Mulville.”

“And why should that prevent?”

Again my visitor faltered, and I began to reflect on the grotesque, the unconscious perversity of her action. I was the only person save George Gravener and the Mulvilles who was aware of Sir Gregory Coxon’s and of Miss Anvoy’s strange bounty. Where could there have been a more signal illustration of the clumsiness of human affairs than her having complacently selected this moment to fly in the face of it? “There’s the chance of their seeing her letters. They know Mr. Pudney’s hand.”

Still I didn’t understand; then it flashed upon me. “You mean they might intercept it? How can you imply anything so base?” I indignantly demanded

“It’s not I— it’s Mr. Pudney!” cried Mrs. Saltram with a flush. “It’s his own idea.”

“Then why couldn’t he send the letter to you to be delivered?”

Mrs. Saltram’s embarrassment increased; she gave me another hard look. “You must make that out for yourself.”

I made it out quickly enough. “It’s a denunciation?”

“A real lady doesn’t betray her husband!” this virtuous woman exclaimed.

I burst out laughing, and I fear my laugh may have had an effect of impertinence. “Especially to Miss Anvoy, who’s so easily shocked? Why do such things concern HER?” I asked, much at a loss.

“Because she’s there, exposed to all his craft. Mr. and Mrs. Pudney have been watching this: they feel she may be taken in.”

“Thank you for all the rest of us! What difference can it make when she has lost her power to contribute?”

Again Mrs. Saltram considered; then very nobly: “There are other things in the world than money.” This hadn’t occurred to her so long as the young lady had any; but she now added, with a glance at my letter, that Mr. and Mrs. Pudney doubtless explained their motives. “It’s all in kindness,” she continued as she got up.

“Kindness to Miss Anvoy? You took, on the whole, another view of kindness before her reverses.”

My companion smiled with some acidity “Perhaps you’re no safer than the Mulvilles!”

I didn’t want her to think that, nor that she should report to the Pudneys that they had not been happy in their agent; and I well remember that this was the moment at which I began, with considerable emotion, to promise myself to enjoin upon Miss Anvoy never to open any letter that should come to her in one of those penny envelopes. My emotion, and I fear I must add my confusion, quickly deepened; I presently should have been as glad to frighten Mrs. Saltram as to think I might by some diplomacy restore the Pudneys to a quieter vigilance.

“It’s best you should take my view of my safety,” I at any rate soon responded. When I saw she didn’t know what I meant by this I added: “You may turn out to have done, in bringing me this letter, a thing you’ll profoundly regret.” My tone had a significance which, I could see, did make her uneasy, and there was a moment, after I had made two or three more remarks of studiously bewildering effect, at which her eyes followed so hungrily the little flourish of the letter with which I emphasised them that I instinctively slipped Mr. Pudney’s communication into my pocket. She looked, in her embarrassed annoyance, capable of grabbing it to send it back to him. I felt, after she had gone, as if I had almost given her my word I wouldn’t deliver the enclosure. The passionate movement, at any rate, with which, in solitude, I transferred the whole thing, unopened, from my pocket to a drawer which I double-locked would have amounted, for an initiated observer, to some such pledge.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56