The Coxon Fund, by Henry James

Chapter 8

George Gravener didn’t follow her, for late in September, after the House had risen, I met him in a railway-carriage. He was coming up from Scotland and I had just quitted some relations who lived near Durham. The current of travel back to London wasn’t yet strong; at any rate on entering the compartment I found he had had it for some time to himself. We fared in company, and though he had a blue-book in his lap and the open jaws of his bag threatened me with the white teeth of confused papers, we inevitably, we even at last sociably conversed. I saw things weren’t well with him, but I asked no question till something dropped by himself made, as it had made on another occasion, an absence of curiosity invidious. He mentioned that he was worried about his good old friend Lady Coxon, who, with her niece likely to be detained some time in America, lay seriously ill at Clockborough, much on his mind and on his hands.

“Ah Miss Anvoy’s in America?”

“Her father has got into horrid straits — has lost no end of money.”

I waited, after expressing due concern, but I eventually said: “I hope that raises no objection to your marriage.”

“None whatever; moreover it’s my trade to meet objections. But it may create tiresome delays, of which there have been too many, from various causes, already. Lady Coxon got very bad, then she got much better. Then Mr. Anvoy suddenly began to totter, and now he seems quite on his back. I’m afraid he’s really in for some big reverse. Lady Coxon’s worse again, awfully upset by the news from America, and she sends me word that she MUST have Ruth. How can I supply her with Ruth? I haven’t got Ruth myself!”

“Surely you haven’t lost her?” I returned.

“She’s everything to her wretched father. She writes me every post — telling me to smooth her aunt’s pillow. I’ve other things to smooth; but the old lady, save for her servants, is really alone. She won’t receive her Coxon relations — she’s angry at so much of her money going to them. Besides, she’s hopelessly mad,” said Gravener very frankly.

I don’t remember whether it was this, or what it was, that made me ask if she hadn’t such an appreciation of Mrs. Saltram as might render that active person of some use.

He gave me a cold glance, wanting to know what had put Mrs. Saltram into my head, and I replied that she was unfortunately never out of it. I happened to remember the wonderful accounts she had given me of the kindness Lady Coxon had shown her. Gravener declared this to be false; Lady Coxon, who didn’t care for her, hadn’t seen her three times. The only foundation for it was that Miss Anvoy, who used, poor girl, to chuck money about in a manner she must now regret, had for an hour seen in the miserable woman — you could never know what she’d see in people — an interesting pretext for the liberality with which her nature overflowed. But even Miss Anvoy was now quite tired of her. Gravener told me more about the crash in New York and the annoyance it had been to him, and we also glanced here and there in other directions; but by the time we got to Doncaster the principal thing he had let me see was that he was keeping something back. We stopped at that station, and, at the carriage-door, some one made a movement to get in. Gravener uttered a sound of impatience, and I felt sure that but for this I should have had the secret. Then the intruder, for some reason, spared us his company; we started afresh, and my hope of a disclosure returned. My companion held his tongue, however, and I pretended to go to sleep; in fact I really dozed for discouragement. When I reopened my eyes he was looking at me with an injured air. He tossed away with some vivacity the remnant of a cigarette and then said: “If you’re not too sleepy I want to put you a case.” I answered that I’d make every effort to attend, and welcomed the note of interest when he went on: “As I told you a while ago, Lady Coxon, poor dear, is demented.” His tone had much behind it — was full of promise. I asked if her ladyship’s misfortune were a trait of her malady or only of her character, and he pronounced it a product of both. The case he wanted to put to me was a matter on which it concerned him to have the impression — the judgement, he might also say — of another person. “I mean of the average intelligent man, but you see I take what I can get.” There would be the technical, the strictly legal view; then there would be the way the question would strike a man of the world. He had lighted another cigarette while he talked, and I saw he was glad to have it to handle when he brought out at last, with a laugh slightly artificial: “In fact it’s a subject on which Miss Anvoy and I are pulling different ways.”

“And you want me to decide between you? I decide in advance for Miss Anvoy.”

“In advance — that’s quite right. That’s how I decided when I proposed to her. But my story will interest you only so far as your mind isn’t made up.” Gravener puffed his cigarette a minute and then continued: “Are you familiar with the idea of the Endowment of Research?”

“Of Research?” I was at sea a moment.

“I give you Lady Coxon’s phrase. She has it on the brain.”

“She wishes to endow —?”

“Some earnest and ‘loyal’ seeker,” Gravener said. “It was a sketchy design of her late husband’s, and he handed it on to her; setting apart in his will a sum of money of which she was to enjoy the interest for life, but of which, should she eventually see her opportunity — the matter was left largely to her discretion — she would best honour his memory by determining the exemplary public use. This sum of money, no less than thirteen thousand pounds, was to be called The Coxon Fund; and poor Sir Gregory evidently proposed to himself that The Coxon Fund should cover his name with glory — be universally desired and admired. He left his wife a full declaration of his views, so far at least as that term may be applied to views vitiated by a vagueness really infantine. A little learning’s a dangerous thing, and a good citizen who happens to have been an ass is worse for a community than bad sewerage. He’s worst of all when he’s dead, because then he can’t be stopped. However, such as they were, the poor man’s aspirations are now in his wife’s bosom, or fermenting rather in her foolish brain: it lies with her to carry them out. But of course she must first catch her hare.”

“Her earnest loyal seeker?”

“The flower that blushes unseen for want of such a pecuniary independence as may aid the light that’s in it to shine upon the human race. The individual, in a word, who, having the rest of the machinery, the spiritual, the intellectual, is most hampered in his search.”

“His search for what?”

“For Moral Truth. That’s what Sir Gregory calls it.”

I burst out laughing. “Delightful munificent Sir Gregory! It’s a charming idea.”

“So Miss Anvoy thinks.”

“Has she a candidate for the Fund?”

“Not that I know of — and she’s perfectly reasonable about it. But Lady Coxon has put the matter before her, and we’ve naturally had a lot of talk.”

“Talk that, as you’ve so interestingly intimated, has landed you in a disagreement.”

“She considers there’s something in it,” Gravener said.

“And you consider there’s nothing?”

“It seems to me a piece of solemn twaddle — which can’t fail to be attended with consequences certainly grotesque and possibly immoral. To begin with, fancy constituting an endowment without establishing a tribunal — a bench of competent people, of judges.”

“The sole tribunal is Lady Coxon?”

“And any one she chooses to invite.”

“But she has invited you,” I noted.

“I’m not competent — I hate the thing. Besides, she hasn’t,” my friend went on. “The real history of the matter, I take it, is that the inspiration was originally Lady Coxon’s own, that she infected him with it, and that the flattering option left her is simply his tribute to her beautiful, her aboriginal enthusiasm. She came to England forty years ago, a thin transcendental Bostonian, and even her odd happy frumpy Clockborough marriage never really materialised her. She feels indeed that she has become very British — as if that, as a process, as a ‘Werden,’ as anything but an original sign of grace, were conceivable; but it’s precisely what makes her cling to the notion of the ‘Fund’ — cling to it as to a link with the ideal.”

“How can she cling if she’s dying?”

“Do you mean how can she act in the matter?” Gravener asked. “That’s precisely the question. She can’t! As she has never yet caught her hare, never spied out her lucky impostor — how should she, with the life she has led? — her husband’s intention has come very near lapsing. His idea, to do him justice, was that it SHOULD lapse if exactly the right person, the perfect mixture of genius and chill penury, should fail to turn up. Ah the poor dear woman’s very particular — she says there must be no mistake.”

I found all this quite thrilling — I took it in with avidity. “And if she dies without doing anything, what becomes of the money?” I demanded.

“It goes back to his family, if she hasn’t made some other disposition of it.”

“She may do that then — she may divert it?”

“Her hands are not tied. She has a grand discretion. The proof is that three months ago she offered to make the proceeds over to her niece.”

“For Miss Anvoy’s own use?”

“For Miss Anvoy’s own use — on the occasion of her prospective marriage. She was discouraged — the earnest seeker required so earnest a search. She was afraid of making a mistake; every one she could think of seemed either not earnest enough or not poor enough. On the receipt of the first bad news about Mr. Anvoy’s affairs she proposed to Ruth to make the sacrifice for her. As the situation in New York got worse she repeated her proposal.”

“Which Miss Anvoy declined?”

“Except as a formal trust.”

“You mean except as committing herself legally to place the money?”

“On the head of the deserving object, the great man frustrated,” said Gravener. “She only consents to act in the spirit of Sir Gregory’s scheme.”

“And you blame her for that?” I asked with some intensity.

My tone couldn’t have been harsh, but he coloured a little and there was a queer light in his eye. “My dear fellow, if I ‘blamed’ the young lady I’m engaged to I shouldn’t immediately say it even to so old a friend as you.” I saw that some deep discomfort, some restless desire to be sided with, reassuringly, approvingly mirrored, had been at the bottom of his drifting so far, and I was genuinely touched by his confidence. It was inconsistent with his habits; but being troubled about a woman was not, for him, a habit: that itself was an inconsistency. George Gravener could stand straight enough before any other combination of forces. It amused me to think that the combination he had succumbed to had an American accent, a transcendental aunt and an insolvent father; but all my old loyalty to him mustered to meet this unexpected hint that I could help him. I saw that I could from the insincere tone in which he pursued: “I’ve criticised her of course, I’ve contended with her, and it has been great fun.” Yet it clearly couldn’t have been such great fun as to make it improper for me presently to ask if Miss Anvoy had nothing at all settled on herself. To this he replied that she had only a trifle from her mother — a mere four hundred a year, which was exactly why it would be convenient to him that she shouldn’t decline, in the face of this total change in her prospects, an accession of income which would distinctly help them to marry. When I enquired if there were no other way in which so rich and so affectionate an aunt could cause the weight of her benevolence to be felt, he answered that Lady Coxon was affectionate indeed, but was scarcely to be called rich. She could let her project of the Fund lapse for her niece’s benefit, but she couldn’t do anything else. She had been accustomed to regard her as tremendously provided for, and she was up to her eyes in promises to anxious Coxons. She was a woman of an inordinate conscience, and her conscience was now a distress to her, hovering round her bed in irreconcilable forms of resentful husbands, portionless nieces and undiscoverable philosophers.

We were by this time getting into the whirr of fleeting platforms, the multiplication of lights. “I think you’ll find,” I said with a laugh, “that your predicament will disappear in the very fact that the philosopher is undiscoverable.”

He began to gather up his papers. “Who can set a limit to the ingenuity of an extravagant woman?”

“Yes, after all, who indeed?” I echoed as I recalled the extravagance commemorated in Adelaide’s anecdote of Miss Anvoy and the thirty pounds.

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