The Coxon Fund, by Henry James

Chapter 6

I had almost avoided the general election, but some of its consequences, on my return, had smartly to be faced. The season, in London, began to breathe again and to flap its folded wings. Confidence, under the new Ministry, was understood to be reviving, and one of the symptoms, in a social body, was a recovery of appetite. People once more fed together, and it happened that, one Saturday night, at somebody’s house, I fed with George Gravener. When the ladies left the room I moved up to where he sat and begged to congratulate him. “On my election?” he asked after a moment; so that I could feign, jocosely, not to have heard of that triumph and to be alluding to the rumour of a victory still more personal. I dare say I coloured however, for his political success had momentarily passed out of my mind. What was present to it was that he was to marry that beautiful girl; and yet his question made me conscious of some discomposure — I hadn’t intended to put this before everything. He himself indeed ought gracefully to have done so, and I remember thinking the whole man was in this assumption that in expressing my sense of what he had won I had fixed my thoughts on his “seat.” We straightened the matter out, and he was so much lighter in hand than I had lately seen him that his spirits might well have been fed from a twofold source. He was so good as to say that he hoped I should soon make the acquaintance of Miss Anvoy, who, with her aunt, was presently coming up to town. Lady Coxon, in the country, had been seriously unwell, and this had delayed their arrival. I told him I had heard the marriage would be a splendid one; on which, brightened and humanised by his luck, he laughed and said “Do you mean for HER?” When I had again explained what I meant he went on: “Oh she’s an American, but you’d scarcely know it; unless, perhaps,” he added, “by her being used to more money than most girls in England, even the daughters of rich men. That wouldn’t in the least do for a fellow like me, you know, if it wasn’t for the great liberality of her father. He really has been most kind, and everything’s quite satisfactory.” He added that his eldest brother had taken a tremendous fancy to her and that during a recent visit at Coldfield she had nearly won over Lady Maddock. I gathered from something he dropped later on that the free-handed gentleman beyond the seas had not made a settlement, but had given a handsome present and was apparently to be looked to, across the water, for other favours. People are simplified alike by great contentments and great yearnings, and, whether or no it was Gravener’s directness that begot my own, I seem to recall that in some turn taken by our talk he almost imposed it on me as an act of decorum to ask if Miss Anvoy had also by chance expectations from her aunt. My enquiry drew out that Lady Coxon, who was the oddest of women, would have in any contingency to act under her late husband’s will, which was odder still, saddling her with a mass of queer obligations complicated with queer loopholes. There were several dreary people, Coxon cousins, old maids, to whom she would have more or less to minister. Gravener laughed, without saying no, when I suggested that the young lady might come in through a loophole; then suddenly, as if he suspected my turning a lantern on him, he declared quite dryly: “That’s all rot — one’s moved by other springs!”

A fortnight later, at Lady Coxon’s own house, I understood well enough the springs one was moved by. Gravener had spoken of me there as an old friend, and I received a gracious invitation to dine. The Knight’s widow was again indisposed — she had succumbed at the eleventh hour; so that I found Miss Anvoy bravely playing hostess without even Gravener’s help, since, to make matters worse, he had just sent up word that the House, the insatiable House, with which he supposed he had contracted for easier terms, positively declined to release him. I was struck with the courage, the grace and gaiety of the young lady left thus to handle the fauna and flora of the Regent’s Park. I did what I could to help her to classify them, after I had recovered from the confusion of seeing her slightly disconcerted at perceiving in the guest introduced by her intended the gentleman with whom she had had that talk about Frank Saltram. I had at this moment my first glimpse of the fact that she was a person who could carry a responsibility; but I leave the reader to judge of my sense of the aggravation, for either of us, of such a burden, when I heard the servant announce Mrs. Saltram. From what immediately passed between the two ladies I gathered that the latter had been sent for post-haste to fill the gap created by the absence of the mistress of the house. “Good!” I remember crying, “she’ll be put by ME;” and my apprehension was promptly justified. Mrs. Saltram taken in to dinner, and taken in as a consequence of an appeal to her amiability, was Mrs. Saltram with a vengeance. I asked myself what Miss Anvoy meant by doing such things, but the only answer I arrived at was that Gravener was verily fortunate. She hadn’t happened to tell him of her visit to Upper Baker Street, but she’d certainly tell him to-morrow; not indeed that this would make him like any better her having had the innocence to invite such a person as Mrs. Saltram on such an occasion. It could only strike me that I had never seen a young woman put such ignorance into her cleverness, such freedom into her modesty; this, I think, was when, after dinner, she said to me frankly, with almost jubilant mirth: “Oh you don’t admire Mrs. Saltram?” Why should I? This was truly a young person without guile. I had briefly to consider before I could reply that my objection to the lady named was the objection often uttered about people met at the social board — I knew all her stories. Then as Miss Anvoy remained momentarily vague I added: “Those about her husband.”

“Oh yes, but there are some new ones.”

“None for me. Ah novelty would be pleasant!”

“Doesn’t it appear that of late he has been particularly horrid?”

“His fluctuations don’t matter”, I returned, “for at night all cats are grey. You saw the shade of this one the night we waited for him together. What will you have? He has no dignity.”

Miss Anvoy, who had been introducing with her American distinctness, looked encouragingly round at some of the combinations she had risked. “It’s too bad I can’t see him.”

“You mean Gravener won’t let you?”

“I haven’t asked him. He lets me do everything.”

“But you know he knows him and wonders what some of us see in him.”

“We haven’t happened to talk of him,” the girl said.

“Get him to take you some day out to see the Mulvilles.”

“I thought Mr. Saltram had thrown the Mulvilles over.”

“Utterly. But that won’t prevent his being planted there again, to bloom like a rose, within a month or two.”

Miss Anvoy thought a moment. Then, “I should like to see them,” she said with her fostering smile.

“They’re tremendously worth it. You mustn’t miss them.”

“I’ll make George take me,” she went on as Mrs. Saltram came up to interrupt us. She sniffed at this unfortunate as kindly as she had smiled at me and, addressing the question to her, continued: “But the chance of a lecture — one of the wonderful lectures? Isn’t there another course announced?”

“Another? There are about thirty!” I exclaimed, turning away and feeling Mrs. Saltram’s little eyes in my back. A few days after this I heard that Gravener’s marriage was near at hand — was settled for Whitsuntide; but as no invitation had reached me I had my doubts, and there presently came to me in fact the report of a postponement. Something was the matter; what was the matter was supposed to be that Lady Coxon was now critically ill. I had called on her after my dinner in the Regent’s Park, but I had neither seen her nor seen Miss Anvoy. I forget to-day the exact order in which, at this period, sundry incidents occurred and the particular stage at which it suddenly struck me, making me catch my breath a little, that the progression, the acceleration, was for all the world that of fine drama. This was probably rather late in the day, and the exact order doesn’t signify. What had already occurred was some accident determining a more patient wait. George Gravener, whom I met again, in fact told me as much, but without signs of perturbation. Lady Coxon had to be constantly attended to, and there were other good reasons as well. Lady Coxon had to be so constantly attended to that on the occasion of a second attempt in the Regent’s Park I equally failed to obtain a sight of her niece. I judged it discreet in all the conditions not to make a third; but this didn’t matter, for it was through Adelaide Mulville that the side-wind of the comedy, though I was at first unwitting, began to reach me. I went to Wimbledon at times because Saltram was there, and I went at others because he wasn’t. The Pudneys, who had taken him to Birmingham, had already got rid of him, and we had a horrible consciousness of his wandering roofless, in dishonour, about the smoky Midlands, almost as the injured Lear wandered on the storm-lashed heath. His room, upstairs, had been lately done up (I could hear the crackle of the new chintz) and the difference only made his smirches and bruises, his splendid tainted genius, the more tragic. If he wasn’t barefoot in the mire he was sure to be unconventionally shod. These were the things Adelaide and I, who were old enough friends to stare at each other in silence, talked about when we didn’t speak. When we spoke it was only about the brilliant girl George Gravener was to marry and whom he had brought out the other Sunday. I could see that this presentation had been happy, for Mrs. Mulville commemorated it after her sole fashion of showing confidence in a new relation. “She likes me — she likes me”: her native humility exulted in that measure of success. We all knew for ourselves how she liked those who liked her, and as regards Ruth Anvoy she was more easily won over than Lady Maddock.

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