Crapy Cornelia, by Henry James


There would have been a wonder for us meanwhile in his continued use, as it were, of his happy formula — brought out to Cornelia Rasch within ten minutes, or perhaps only within twenty, of his having settled into the quite comfortable chair that, two days later, she indicated to him by her fireside. He had arrived at her address through the fortunate chance of his having noticed her card, as he went out, deposited, in the good old New York fashion, on one of the rococo tables of Mrs. Worthingham’s hall. His eye had been caught by the pencilled indication that was to affect him, the next instant, as fairly placed there for his sake. This had really been his luck, for he shouldn’t have liked to write to Mrs. Worthingham for guidance — that he felt, though too impatient just now to analyze the reluctance. There was nobody else he could have approached for a clue, and with this reflection he was already aware of how it testified to their rare little position, his and Cornelia’s — position as conscious, ironic, pathetic survivors together of a dead and buried society — that there would have been, in all the town, under such stress, not a member of their old circle left to turn to. Mrs. Worthingham had practically, even if accidentally, helped him to knowledge; the last nail in the coffin of the poor dear extinct past had been planted for him by his having thus to reach his antique contemporary through perforation of the newest newness. The note of this particular recognition was in fact the more prescribed to him that the ground of Cornelia’s return to a scene swept so bare of the associational charm was certainly inconspicuous. What had she then come back for? — he had asked himself that; with the effect of deciding that it probably would have been, a little, to “look after” her remnant of property. Perhaps she had come to save what little might still remain of that shrivelled interest; perhaps she had been, by those who took care of it for her, further swindled and despoiled, so that she wished to get at the facts. Perhaps on the other hand — it was a more cheerful chance — her investments, decently administered, were making larger returns, so that the rigorous thrift of Bognor could be finally relaxed.

He had little to learn about the attraction of Europe, and rather expected that in the event of his union with Mrs Worthingham he should find himself pleading for it with the competence of one more in the “know” about Paris and Rome, about Venice and Florence, than even she could be. He could have lived on in his New York, that is in the sentimental, the spiritual, the more or less romantic visitation of it; but had it been positive for him that he could live on in hers? — unless indeed the possibility of this had been just (like the famous vertige de l’abîme, like the solicitation of danger, or otherwise of the dreadful) the very hinge of his whole dream. However that might be, his curiosity was occupied rather with the conceivable hinge of poor Cornelia’s: it was perhaps thinkable that even Mrs. Worthingham’s New York, once it should have become possible again at all, might have put forth to this lone exile a plea that wouldn’t be in the chords of Bognor. For himself, after all, too, the attraction had been much more of the Europe over which one might move at one’s ease, and which therefore could but cost, and cost much, right and left, than of the Europe adapted to scrimping. He saw himself on the whole scrimping with more zest even in Mrs. Worthingham’s New York than under the inspiration of Bognor. Apart from which it was yet again odd, not to say perceptibly pleasing to him, to note where the emphasis of his interest fell in this fumble of fancy over such felt oppositions as the new, the latest, the luridest power of money and the ancient reserves and moderations and mediocrities. These last struck him as showing by contrast the old brown surface and tone as of velvet rubbed and worn, shabby, and even a bit dingy, but all soft and subtle and still velvety — which meant still dignified; whereas the angular facts of current finance were as harsh and metallic and bewildering as some stacked “exhibit” of ugly patented inventions, things his mediaeval mind forbade his taking in. He had for instance the sense of knowing the pleasant little old Rasch fortune — pleasant as far as it went; blurred memories and impressions of what it had been and what it hadn’t, of how it had grown and how languished and how melted; they came back to him and put on such vividness that he could almost have figured himself testify for them before a bland and encouraging Board. The idea of taking the field in any manner on the subject of Mrs. Worthingham’s resources would have affected him on the other hand as an odious ordeal, some glare of embarrassment and exposure in a circle of hard unhelpful attention, of converging, derisive, unsuggestive eyes.

In Cornelia’s small and quite cynically modern flat — the house had a grotesque name, “The Gainsborough,” but at least wasn’t an awful boarding-house, as he had feared, and she could receive him quite honourably, which was so much to the good — he would have been ready to use at once to her the greatest freedom of friendly allusion: “Have you still your old ‘family interest’ in those two houses in Seventh Avenue? — one of which was next to a corner grocery, don’t you know? and was occupied as to its lower part by a candy-shop where the proportion of the stock of suspectedly stale popcorn to that of rarer and stickier joys betrayed perhaps a modest capital on the part of your father’s, your grandfather’s, or whoever’s tenant, but out of which I nevertheless remember once to have come as out of a bath of sweets, with my very garments, and even the separate hairs of my head, glued together. The other of the pair, a tobacconist’s, further down, had before it a wonderful huge Indian who thrust out wooden cigars at an indifferent world — you could buy candy cigars too, at the pop-corn shop, and I greatly preferred them to the wooden; I remember well how I used to gape in fascination at the Indian and wonder if the last of the Mohicans was like him; besides admiring so the resources of a family whose ‘property’ was in such forms. I haven’t been round there lately — we must go round together; but don’t tell me the forms have utterly perished!” It was after that fashion he might easily have been moved, and with almost no transition, to break out to Cornelia — quite as if taking up some old talk, some old community of gossip, just where they had left it; even with the consciousness perhaps of overdoing a little, of putting at its maximum, for the present harmony, recovery, recapture (what should he call it?) the pitch and quantity of what the past had held for them.

He didn’t in fact, no doubt, dart straight off to Seventh Avenue, there being too many other old things and much nearer and long subsequent; the point was only that for everything they spoke of after he had fairly begun to lean back and stretch his legs, and after she had let him, above all, light the first of a succession of cigarettes — for everything they spoke of he positively cultivated extravagance and excess, piling up the crackling twigs as on the very altar of memory; and that by the end of half an hour she had lent herself, all gallantly, to their game. It was the game of feeding the beautiful iridescent flame, ruddy and green and gold, blue and pink and amber and silver, with anything they could pick up, anything that would burn and flicker. Thick-strown with such gleanings the occasion seemed indeed, in spite of the truth that they perhaps wouldn’t have proved, under cross-examination, to have rubbed shoulders in the other life so very hard. Casual contacts, qualified communities enough, there had doubtless been, but not particular “passages,” nothing that counted, as he might think of it, for their “very own” together, for nobody’s else at all. These shades of historic exactitude didn’t signify; the more and the less that there had been made perfect terms — and just by his being there and by her rejoicing in it — with their present need to have had all their past could be made to appear to have given them. It was to this tune they proceeded, the least little bit as if they knowingly pretended — he giving her the example and setting her the pace of it, and she, poor dear, after a first inevitable shyness, an uncertainty of wonder, a breathlessness of courage, falling into step and going whatever length he would.

She showed herself ready for it, grasping gladly at the perception of what he must mean; and if she didn’t immediately and completely fall in — not in the first half-hour, not even in the three or four others that his visit, even whenever he consulted his watch, still made nothing of — she yet understood enough as soon as she understood that, if their finer economy hadn’t so beautifully served, he might have been conveying this, that, and the other incoherent and easy thing by the comparatively clumsy method of sound and statement. “No, I never made love to you; it would in fact have been absurd, and I don’t care — though I almost know, in the sense of almost remembering! — who did and who didn’t; but you were always about, and so was I, and, little as you may yourself care who I did it to, I dare say you remember (in the sense of having known of it!) any old appearances that told. But we can’t afford at this time of day not to help each other to have had — well, everything there was, since there’s no more of it now, nor any way of coming by it except so; and therefore let us make together, let us make over and recreate, our lost world; for which we have after all and at the worst such a lot of material. You were in particular my poor dear sisters’ friend — they thought you the funniest little brown thing possible; so isn’t that again to the good? You were mine only to the extent that you were so much in and out of the house — as how much, if we come to that, wasn’t one in and out, south of Thirtieth Street and north of Washington Square, in those days, those spacious, sociable, Arcadian days, that we flattered ourselves we filled with the modern fever, but that were so different from any of these arrangements of pretended hourly Time that dash themselves forever to pieces as from the fiftieth floors of sky-scrapers.”

This was the kind of thing that was in the air, whether he said it or not, and that could hang there even with such quite other things as more crudely came out; came in spite of its being perhaps calculated to strike us that these last would have been rather and most the unspoken and the indirect. They were Cornelia’s contribution, and as soon as she had begun to talk of Mrs. Worthingham — he didn’t begin it! — they had taken their place bravely in the centre of the circle. There they made, the while, their considerable little figure, but all within the ring formed by fifty other allusions, fitful but really intenser irruptions that hovered and wavered and came and went, joining hands at moments and whirling round as in chorus, only then again to dash at the slightly huddled centre with a free twitch or peck or push or other taken liberty, after the fashion of irregular frolic motions in a country dance or a Christmas game.

“You’re so in love with her and want to marry her!” — she said it all sympathetically and yearningly, poor crapy Cornelia; as if it were to be quite taken for granted that she knew all about it. And then when he had asked how she knew — why she took so informed a tone about it; all on the wonder of her seeming so much more “in” it just at that hour than he himself quite felt he could figure for: “Ah, how but from the dear lovely thing herself? Don’t you suppose she knows it?”

“Oh, she absolutely ‘knows’ it, does she?” — he fairly heard himself ask that; and with the oddest sense at once of sharply wanting the certitude and yet of seeing the question, of hearing himself say the words, through several thicknesses of some wrong medium. He came back to it from a distance; as he would have had to come back (this was again vivid to him) should he have got round again to his ripe intention three days before — after his now present but then absent friend, that is, had left him planted before his now absent but then present one for the purpose. “Do you mean she — at all confidently! — expects?” he went on, not much minding if it couldn’t but sound foolish; the time being given it for him meanwhile by the sigh, the wondering gasp, all charged with the unutterable, that the tone of his appeal set in motion. He saw his companion look at him, but it might have been with the eyes of thirty years ago; when — very likely. — he had put her some such question about some girl long since dead. Dimly at first, then more distinctly, didn’t it surge back on him for the very strangeness that there had been some such passage as this between them — yes, about Mary Cardew! — in the autumn of ‘68?

“Why, don’t you realise your situation?” Miss Rasch struck him as quite beautifully wailing — above all to such an effect of deep interest, that is, on her own part and in him.

“My situation?” — he echoed, he considered; but reminded afresh, by the note of the detached, the far-projected in it, of what he had last remembered of his sentient state on his once taking ether at the dentist’s.

“Yours and hers — the situation of her adoring you. I suppose you at least know it,” Cornelia smiled.

Yes, it was like the other time and yet it wasn’t. She was like — poor Cornelia was — everything that used to be; that somehow was most definite to him. Still he could quite reply “Do you call it — her adoring me — my situation?”

“Well, it’s a part of yours, surely — if you’re in love with her.”

“Am I, ridiculous old person! in love with her?” White–Mason asked.

“I may be a ridiculous old person,” Cornelia returned — “and, for that matter, of course I am! But she’s young and lovely and rich and clever: so what could be more natural?”

“Oh, I was applying that opprobrious epithet —!” He didn’t finish, though he meant he had applied it to himself. He had got up from his seat; he turned about and, taking in, as his eyes also roamed, several objects in the room, serene and sturdy, not a bit cheap-looking, little old New York objects of ‘68, he made, with an inner art, as if to recognise them — made so, that is, for himself; had quite the sense for the moment of asking them, of imploring them, to recognise him, to be for him things of his own past. Which they truly were, he could have the next instant cried out; for it meant that if three or four of them, small sallow carte-de-visite photographs, faithfully framed but spectrally faded, hadn’t in every particular, frames and balloon skirts and false “property” balustrades of unimaginable terraces and all, the tone of time, the secret for warding and easing off the perpetual imminent ache of one’s protective scowl, one would verily but have to let the scowl stiffen, or to take up seriously the question of blue goggles, during what might remain of life.

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