In the Cage, by Henry James

Chapter 10

“They’re the most awful wretches, I assure you — the lot all about there.”

“Then why do you want to stay among them?”

“My dear man, just because they are. It makes me hate them so.”

“Hate them? I thought you liked them.”

“Don’t be stupid. What I ‘like’ is just to loathe them. You wouldn’t believe what passes before my eyes.”

“Then why have you never told me? You didn’t mention anything before I left.”

“Oh I hadn’t got round to it then. It’s the sort of thing you don’t believe at first; you have to look round you a bit and then you understand. You work into it more and more. Besides,” the girl went on, “this is the time of the year when the worst lot come up. They’re simply packed together in those smart streets. Talk of the numbers of the poor! What I can vouch for is the numbers of the rich! There are new ones every day, and they seem to get richer and richer. Oh, they do come up!” she cried, imitating for her private recreation — she was sure it wouldn’t reach Mr. Mudge — the low intonation of the counter-clerk.

“And where do they come from?” her companion candidly enquired.

She had to think a moment; then she found something. “From the ‘spring meetings.’ They bet tremendously.”

“Well, they bet enough at Chalk Farm, if that’s all.”

“It isn’t all. It isn’t a millionth part!” she replied with some sharpness. “It’s immense fun” — she had to tantalise him. Then as she had heard Mrs. Jordan say, and as the ladies at Cocker’s even sometimes wired, “It’s quite too dreadful!” She could fully feel how it was Mr. Mudge’s propriety, which was extreme — he had a horror of coarseness and attended a Wesleyan chapel — that prevented his asking for details. But she gave him some of the more innocuous in spite of himself, especially putting before him how, at Simpkin’s and Ladle’s, they all made the money fly. That was indeed what he liked to hear: the connexion was not direct, but one was somehow more in the right place where the money was flying than where it was simply and meagrely nesting. The air felt that stir, he had to acknowledge, much less at Chalk Farm than in the district in which his beloved so oddly enjoyed her footing. She gave him, she could see, a restless sense that these might be familiarities not to be sacrificed; germs, possibilities, faint foreshowings — heaven knew what — of the initiation it would prove profitable to have arrived at when in the fulness of time he should have his own shop in some such paradise. What really touched him — that was discernible — was that she could feed him with so much mere vividness of reminder, keep before him, as by the play of a fan, the very wind of the swift bank-notes and the charm of the existence of a class that Providence had raised up to be the blessing of grocers. He liked to think that the class was there, that it was always there, and that she contributed in her slight but appreciable degree to keep it up to the mark. He couldn’t have formulated his theory of the matter, but the exuberance of the aristocracy was the advantage of trade, and everything was knit together in a richness of pattern that it was good to follow with one’s finger-tips. It was a comfort to him to be thus assured that there were no symptoms of a drop. What did the sounder, as she called it, nimbly worked, do but keep the ball going?

What it came to therefore for Mr. Mudge was that all enjoyments were, as might be said, inter-related, and that the more people had the more they wanted to have. The more flirtations, as he might roughly express it, the more cheese and pickles. He had even in his own small way been dimly struck with the linked sweetness connecting the tender passion with cheap champagne, or perhaps the other way round. What he would have liked to say had he been able to work out his thought to the end was: “I see, I see. Lash them up then, lead them on, keep them going: some of it can’t help, some time, coming our way.” Yet he was troubled by the suspicion of subtleties on his companion’s part that spoiled the straight view. He couldn’t understand people’s hating what they liked or liking what they hated; above all it hurt him somewhere — for he had his private delicacies — to see anything but money made out of his betters. To be too enquiring, or in any other way too free, at the expense of the gentry was vaguely wrong; the only thing that was distinctly right was to be prosperous at any price. Wasn’t it just because they were up there aloft that they were lucrative? He concluded at any rate by saying to his young friend: “If it’s improper for you to remain at Cocker’s, then that falls in exactly with the other reasons I’ve put before you for your removal.”

“Improper?” — her smile became a prolonged boldness. “My dear boy, there’s no one like you!”

“I dare say,” he laughed; “but that doesn’t help the question.”

“Well,” she returned, “I can’t give up my friends. I’m making even more than Mrs. Jordan.”

Mr. Mudge considered. “How much is she making?”

“Oh you dear donkey!” — and, regardless of all the Regent’s Park, she patted his cheek. This was the sort of moment at which she was absolutely tempted to tell him that she liked to be near Park Chambers. There was a fascination in the idea of seeing if, on a mention of Captain Everard, he wouldn’t do what she thought he might; wouldn’t weigh against the obvious objection the still more obvious advantage. The advantage of course could only strike him at the best as rather fantastic; but it was always to the good to keep hold when you had hold, and such an attitude would also after all involve a high tribute to her fidelity. Of one thing she absolutely never doubted: Mr. Mudge believed in her with a belief —! She believed in herself too, for that matter: if there was a thing in the world no one could charge her with it was being the kind of low barmaid person who rinsed tumblers and bandied slang. But she forbore as yet to speak; she had not spoken even to Mrs. Jordan; and the hush that on her lips surrounded the Captain’s name maintained itself as a kind of symbol of the success that, up to this time, had attended something or other — she couldn’t have said what — that she humoured herself with calling, without words, her relation with him.

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