The Coxon Fund, by Henry James

Chapter 2

It is furthermore remarkable that though the two stories are distinct — my own, as it were, and this other — they equally began, in a manner, the first night of my acquaintance with Frank Saltram, the night I came back from Wimbledon so agitated with a new sense of life that, in London, for the very thrill of it, I could only walk home. Walking and swinging my stick, I overtook, at Buckingham Gate, George Gravener, and George Gravener’s story may be said to have begun with my making him, as our paths lay together, come home with me for a talk. I duly remember, let me parenthesise, that it was still more that of another person, and also that several years were to elapse before it was to extend to a second chapter. I had much to say to him, none the less, about my visit to the Mulvilles, whom he more indifferently knew, and I was at any rate so amusing that for long afterwards he never encountered me without asking for news of the old man of the sea. I hadn’t said Mr. Saltram was old, and it was to be seen that he was of an age to outweather George Gravener. I had at that time a lodging in Ebury Street, and Gravener was staying at his brother’s empty house in Eaton Square. At Cambridge, five years before, even in our devastating set, his intellectual power had seemed to me almost awful. Some one had once asked me privately, with blanched cheeks, what it was then that after all such a mind as that left standing. “It leaves itself!” I could recollect devoutly replying. I could smile at present for this remembrance, since before we got to Ebury Street I was struck with the fact that, save in the sense of being well set up on his legs, George Gravener had actually ceased to tower. The universe he laid low had somehow bloomed again — the usual eminences were visible. I wondered whether he had lost his humour, or only, dreadful thought, had never had any — not even when I had fancied him most Aristophanesque. What was the need of appealing to laughter, however, I could enviously enquire, where you might appeal so confidently to measurement? Mr. Saltram’s queer figure, his thick nose and hanging lip, were fresh to me: in the light of my old friend’s fine cold symmetry they presented mere success in amusing as the refuge of conscious ugliness. Already, at hungry twenty-six, Gravener looked as blank and parliamentary as if he were fifty and popular. In my scrap of a residence — he had a worldling’s eye for its futile conveniences, but never a comrade’s joke — I sounded Frank Saltram in his ears; a circumstance I mention in order to note that even then I was surprised at his impatience of my enlivenment. As he had never before heard of the personage it took indeed the form of impatience of the preposterous Mulvilles, his relation to whom, like mine, had had its origin in an early, a childish intimacy with the young Adelaide, the fruit of multiplied ties in the previous generation. When she married Kent Mulville, who was older than Gravener and I and much more amiable, I gained a friend, but Gravener practically lost one. We reacted in different ways from the form taken by what he called their deplorable social action — the form (the term was also his) of nasty second-rate gush. I may have held in my ‘for interieur’ that the good people at Wimbledon were beautiful fools, but when he sniffed at them I couldn’t help taking the opposite line, for I already felt that even should we happen to agree it would always be for reasons that differed. It came home to me that he was admirably British as, without so much as a sociable sneer at my bookbinder, he turned away from the serried rows of my little French library.

“Of course I’ve never seen the fellow, but it’s clear enough he’s a humbug.”

“Clear ‘enough’ is just what it isn’t,” I replied; “if it only were!” That ejaculation on my part must have been the beginning of what was to be later a long ache for final frivolous rest. Gravener was profound enough to remark after a moment that in the first place he couldn’t be anything but a Dissenter, and when I answered that the very note of his fascination was his extraordinary speculative breadth my friend retorted that there was no cad like your cultivated cad, and that I might depend upon discovering — since I had had the levity not already to have enquired — that my shining light proceeded, a generation back, from a Methodist cheesemonger. I confess I was struck with his insistence, and I said, after reflexion: “It may be — I admit it may be; but why on earth are you so sure?” — asking the question mainly to lay him the trap of saying that it was because the poor man didn’t dress for dinner. He took an instant to circumvent my trap and come blandly out the other side.

“Because the Kent Mulvilles have invented him. They’ve an infallible hand for frauds. All their geese are swans. They were born to be duped, they like it, they cry for it, they don’t know anything from anything, and they disgust one — luckily perhaps! — with Christian charity.” His vehemence was doubtless an accident, but it might have been a strange foreknowledge. I forget what protest I dropped; it was at any rate something that led him to go on after a moment: “I only ask one thing — it’s perfectly simple. Is a man, in a given case, a real gentleman?”

“A real gentleman, my dear fellow — that’s so soon said!”

“Not so soon when he isn’t! If they’ve got hold of one this time he must be a great rascal!”

“I might feel injured,” I answered, “if I didn’t reflect that they don’t rave about ME.”

“Don’t be too sure! I’ll grant that he’s a gentleman,” Gravener presently added, “if you’ll admit that he’s a scamp.”

“I don’t know which to admire most, your logic or your benevolence.”

My friend coloured at this, but he didn’t change the subject. “Where did they pick him up?”

“I think they were struck with something he had published.”

“I can fancy the dreary thing!”

“I believe they found out he had all sorts of worries and difficulties.”

“That of course wasn’t to be endured, so they jumped at the privilege of paying his debts!” I professed that I knew nothing about his debts, and I reminded my visitor that though the dear Mulvilles were angels they were neither idiots nor millionaires. What they mainly aimed at was reuniting Mr. Saltram to his wife. “I was expecting to hear he has basely abandoned her,” Gravener went on, at this, “and I’m too glad you don’t disappoint me.”

I tried to recall exactly what Mrs. Mulville had told me. “He didn’t leave her — no. It’s she who has left him.”

“Left him to US?” Gravener asked. “The monster — many thanks! I decline to take him.”

“You’ll hear more about him in spite of yourself. I can’t, no, I really can’t resist the impression that he’s a big man.” I was already mastering — to my shame perhaps be it said — just the tone my old friend least liked.

“It’s doubtless only a trifle,” he returned, “but you haven’t happened to mention what his reputation’s to rest on.”

“Why on what I began by boring you with — his extraordinary mind.”

“As exhibited in his writings?”

“Possibly in his writings, but certainly in his talk, which is far and away the richest I ever listened to.”

“And what’s it all about?”

“My dear fellow, don’t ask me! About everything!” I pursued, reminding myself of poor Adelaide. “About his ideas of things,” I then more charitably added. “You must have heard him to know what I mean — it’s unlike anything that ever WAS heard.” I coloured, I admit, I overcharged a little, for such a picture was an anticipation of Saltram’s later development and still more of my fuller acquaintance with him. However, I really expressed, a little lyrically perhaps, my actual imagination of him when I proceeded to declare that, in a cloud of tradition, of legend, he might very well go down to posterity as the greatest of all great talkers. Before we parted George Gravener had wondered why such a row should be made about a chatterbox the more and why he should be pampered and pensioned. The greater the wind-bag the greater the calamity. Out of proportion to everything else on earth had come to be this wagging of the tongue. We were drenched with talk — our wretched age was dying of it. I differed from him here sincerely, only going so far as to concede, and gladly, that we were drenched with sound. It was not however the mere speakers who were killing us — it was the mere stammerers. Fine talk was as rare as it was refreshing — the gift of the gods themselves, the one starry spangle on the ragged cloak of humanity. How many men were there who rose to this privilege, of how many masters of conversation could he boast the acquaintance? Dying of talk? — why we were dying of the lack of it! Bad writing wasn’t talk, as many people seemed to think, and even good wasn’t always to be compared to it. From the best talk indeed the best writing had something to learn. I fancifully added that we too should peradventure be gilded by the legend, should be pointed at for having listened, for having actually heard. Gravener, who had glanced at his watch and discovered it was midnight, found to all this a retort beautifully characteristic of him.

“There’s one little fact to be borne in mind in the presence equally of the best talk and of the worst.” He looked, in saying this, as if he meant great things, and I was sure he could only mean once more that neither of them mattered if a man wasn’t a real gentleman. Perhaps it was what he did mean; he deprived me however of the exultation of being right by putting the truth in a slightly different way. “The only thing that really counts for one’s estimate of a person is his conduct.” He had his watch still in his palm, and I reproached him with unfair play in having ascertained beforehand that it was now the hour at which I always gave in. My pleasantry so far failed to mollify him that he promptly added that to the rule he had just enunciated there was absolutely no exception.

“None whatever?”

“None whatever.”

“Trust me then to try to be good at any price!” I laughed as I went with him to the door. “I declare I will be, if I have to be horrible!”

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