The Coxon Fund, by Henry James

Chapter 3

If that first night was one of the liveliest, or at any rate was the freshest, of my exaltations, there was another, four years later, that was one of my great discomposures. Repetition, I well knew by this time, was the secret of Saltram’s power to alienate, and of course one would never have seen him at his finest if one hadn’t seen him in his remorses. They set in mainly at this season and were magnificent, elemental, orchestral. I was quite aware that one of these atmospheric disturbances was now due; but none the less, in our arduous attempt to set him on his feet as a lecturer, it was impossible not to feel that two failures were a large order, as we said, for a short course of five. This was the second time, and it was past nine o’clock; the audience, a muster unprecedented and really encouraging, had fortunately the attitude of blandness that might have been looked for in persons whom the promise of (if I’m not mistaken) An Analysis of Primary Ideas had drawn to the neighbourhood of Upper Baker Street. There was in those days in that region a petty lecture-hall to be secured on terms as moderate as the funds left at our disposal by the irrepressible question of the maintenance of five small Saltrams — I include the mother — and one large one. By the time the Saltrams, of different sizes, were all maintained we had pretty well poured out the oil that might have lubricated the machinery for enabling the most original of men to appear to maintain them.

It was I, the other time, who had been forced into the breach, standing up there for an odious lamplit moment to explain to half a dozen thin benches, where earnest brows were virtuously void of anything so cynical as a suspicion, that we couldn’t so much as put a finger on Mr. Saltram. There was nothing to plead but that our scouts had been out from the early hours and that we were afraid that on one of his walks abroad — he took one, for meditation, whenever he was to address such a company — some accident had disabled or delayed him. The meditative walks were a fiction, for he never, that any one could discover, prepared anything but a magnificent prospectus; hence his circulars and programmes, of which I possess an almost complete collection, are the solemn ghosts of generations never born. I put the case, as it seemed to me, at the best; but I admit I had been angry, and Kent Mulville was shocked at my want of public optimism. This time therefore I left the excuses to his more practised patience, only relieving myself in response to a direct appeal from a young lady next whom, in the hall, I found myself sitting. My position was an accident, but if it had been calculated the reason would scarce have eluded an observer of the fact that no one else in the room had an approach to an appearance. Our philosopher’s “tail” was deplorably limp. This visitor was the only person who looked at her ease, who had come a little in the spirit of adventure. She seemed to carry amusement in her handsome young head, and her presence spoke, a little mystifyingly, of a sudden extension of Saltram’s sphere of influence. He was doing better than we hoped, and he had chosen such an occasion, of all occasions, to succumb to heaven knew which of his fond infirmities. The young lady produced an impression of auburn hair and black velvet, and had on her other hand a companion of obscurer type, presumably a waiting-maid. She herself might perhaps have been a foreign countess, and before she addressed me I had beguiled our sorry interval by finding in her a vague recall of the opening of some novel of Madame Sand. It didn’t make her more fathomable to pass in a few minutes from this to the certitude that she was American; it simply engendered depressing reflexions as to the possible check to contributions from Boston. She asked me if, as a person apparently more initiated, I would recommend further waiting, and I answered that if she considered I was on my honour I would privately deprecate it. Perhaps she didn’t; at any rate our talk took a turn that prolonged it till she became aware we were left almost alone. I presently ascertained she knew Mrs. Saltram, and this explained in a manner the miracle. The brotherhood of the friends of the husband was as nothing to the brotherhood, or perhaps I should say the sisterhood, of the friends of the wife. Like the Kent Mulvilles I belonged to both fraternities, and even better than they I think I had sounded the abyss of Mrs. Saltram’s wrongs. She bored me to extinction, and I knew but too well how she had bored her husband; but there were those who stood by her, the most efficient of whom were indeed the handful of poor Saltram’s backers. They did her liberal justice, whereas her mere patrons and partisans had nothing but hatred for our philosopher. I’m bound to say it was we, however — we of both camps, as it were — who had always done most for her.

I thought my young lady looked rich — I scarcely knew why; and I hoped she had put her hand in her pocket. I soon made her out, however, not at all a fine fanatic — she was but a generous, irresponsible enquirer. She had come to England to see her aunt, and it was at her aunt’s she had met the dreary lady we had all so much on our mind. I saw she’d help to pass the time when she observed that it was a pity this lady wasn’t intrinsically more interesting. That was refreshing, for it was an article of faith in Mrs. Saltram’s circle — at least among those who scorned to know her horrid husband — that she was attractive on her merits. She was in truth a most ordinary person, as Saltram himself would have been if he hadn’t been a prodigy. The question of vulgarity had no application to him, but it was a measure his wife kept challenging you to apply. I hasten to add that the consequences of your doing so were no sufficient reason for his having left her to starve. “He doesn’t seem to have much force of character,” said my young lady; at which I laughed out so loud that my departing friends looked back at me over their shoulders as if I were making a joke of their discomfiture. My joke probably cost Saltram a subscription or two, but it helped me on with my interlocutress. “She says he drinks like a fish,” she sociably continued, “and yet she allows that his mind’s wonderfully clear.” It was amusing to converse with a pretty girl who could talk of the clearness of Saltram’s mind. I expected next to hear she had been assured he was awfully clever. I tried to tell her — I had it almost on my conscience — what was the proper way to regard him; an effort attended perhaps more than ever on this occasion with the usual effect of my feeling that I wasn’t after all very sure of it. She had come to-night out of high curiosity — she had wanted to learn this proper way for herself. She had read some of his papers and hadn’t understood them; but it was at home, at her aunt’s, that her curiosity had been kindled — kindled mainly by his wife’s remarkable stories of his want of virtue. “I suppose they ought to have kept me away,” my companion dropped, “and I suppose they’d have done so if I hadn’t somehow got an idea that he’s fascinating. In fact Mrs. Saltram herself says he is.”

“So you came to see where the fascination resides? Well, you’ve seen!”

My young lady raised fine eyebrows. “Do you mean in his bad faith?”

“In the extraordinary effects of it; his possession, that is, of some quality or other that condemns us in advance to forgive him the humiliation, as I may call it, to which he has subjected us.”

“The humiliation?”

“Why mine, for instance, as one of his guarantors, before you as the purchaser of a ticket.”

She let her charming gay eyes rest on me. “You don’t look humiliated a bit, and if you did I should let you off, disappointed as I am; for the mysterious quality you speak of is just the quality I came to see.”

“Oh, you can’t ‘see’ it!” I cried.

“How then do you get at it?”

“You don’t! You mustn’t suppose he’s good-looking,” I added.

“Why his wife says he’s lovely!”

My hilarity may have struck her as excessive, but I confess it broke out afresh. Had she acted only in obedience to this singular plea, so characteristic, on Mrs. Saltram’s part, of what was irritating in the narrowness of that lady’s point of view? “Mrs. Saltram,” I explained, “undervalues him where he’s strongest, so that, to make up for it perhaps, she overpraises him where he’s weak. He’s not, assuredly, superficially attractive; he’s middle-aged, fat, featureless save for his great eyes.”

“Yes, his great eyes,” said my young lady attentively. She had evidently heard all about his great eyes — the beaux yeux for which alone we had really done it all.

“They’re tragic and splendid — lights on a dangerous coast. But he moves badly and dresses worse, and altogether he’s anything but smart.”

My companion, who appeared to reflect on this, after a moment appealed. “Do you call him a real gentleman?”

I started slightly at the question, for I had a sense of recognising it: George Gravener, years before, that first flushed night, had put me face to face with it. It had embarrassed me then, but it didn’t embarrass me now, for I had lived with it and overcome it and disposed of it. “A real gentleman? Emphatically not!”

My promptitude surprised her a little, but I quickly felt how little it was to Gravener I was now talking. “Do you say that because he’s — what do you call it in England? — of humble extraction?”

“Not a bit. His father was a country school-master and his mother the widow of a sexton, but that has nothing to do with it. I say it simply because I know him well.”

“But isn’t it an awful drawback?”

“Awful — quite awful.”

“I mean isn’t it positively fatal?”

“Fatal to what? Not to his magnificent vitality.”

Again she had a meditative moment. “And is his magnificent vitality the cause of his vices?”

“Your questions are formidable, but I’m glad you put them. I was thinking of his noble intellect. His vices, as you say, have been much exaggerated: they consist mainly after all in one comprehensive defect.”

“A want of will?”

“A want of dignity.”

“He doesn’t recognise his obligations?”

“On the contrary, he recognises them with effusion, especially in public: he smiles and bows and beckons across the street to them. But when they pass over he turns away, and he speedily loses them in the crowd. The recognition’s purely spiritual — it isn’t in the least social. So he leaves all his belongings to other people to take care of. He accepts favours, loans, sacrifices — all with nothing more deterrent than an agony of shame. Fortunately we’re a little faithful band, and we do what we can.” I held my tongue about the natural children, engendered, to the number of three, in the wantonness of his youth. I only remarked that he did make efforts — often tremendous ones. “But the efforts,” I said, “never come to much: the only things that come to much are the abandonments, the surrenders.”

“And how much do they come to?”

“You’re right to put it as if we had a big bill to pay, but, as I’ve told you before, your questions are rather terrible. They come, these mere exercises of genius, to a great sum total of poetry, of philosophy, a mighty mass of speculation, notation, quotation. The genius is there, you see, to meet the surrender; but there’s no genius to support the defence.”

“But what is there, after all, at his age, to show?”

“In the way of achievement recognised and reputation established?” I asked. “To ‘show’ if you will, there isn’t much, since his writing, mostly, isn’t as fine, isn’t certainly as showy, as his talk. Moreover two-thirds of his work are merely colossal projects and announcements. ‘Showing’ Frank Saltram is often a poor business,” I went on: “we endeavoured, you’ll have observed, to show him to-night! However, if he HAD lectured he’d have lectured divinely. It would just have been his talk.”

“And what would his talk just have been?”

I was conscious of some ineffectiveness, as well perhaps as of a little impatience, as I replied: “The exhibition of a splendid intellect.” My young lady looked not quite satisfied at this, but as I wasn’t prepared for another question I hastily pursued: “The sight of a great suspended swinging crystal — huge lucid lustrous, a block of light — flashing back every impression of life and every possibility of thought!”

This gave her something to turn over till we had passed out to the dusky porch of the hall, in front of which the lamps of a quiet brougham were almost the only thing Saltram’s treachery hadn’t extinguished. I went with her to the door of her carriage, out of which she leaned a moment after she had thanked me and taken her seat. Her smile even in the darkness was pretty. “I do want to see that crystal!”

“You’ve only to come to the next lecture.”

“I go abroad in a day or two with my aunt.”

“Wait over till next week,” I suggested. “It’s quite worth it.”

She became grave. “Not unless he really comes!” At which the brougham started off, carrying her away too fast, fortunately for my manners, to allow me to exclaim “Ingratitude!”

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