A London Life, by Henry James


On one of the last days of June Mrs. Berrington showed her sister a note she had received from ‘your dear friend,’ as she called him, Mr. Wendover. This was the manner in which she usually designated him, but she had naturally, in the present phase of her relations with Laura, never indulged in any renewal of the eminently perverse insinuations by means of which she had attempted, after the incident at the Soane Museum, to throw dust in her eyes. Mr. Wendover proposed to Mrs. Berrington that she and her sister should honour with their presence a box he had obtained for the opera three nights later — an occasion of high curiosity, the first appearance of a young American singer of whom considerable things were expected. Laura left it to Selina to decide whether they should accept this invitation, and Selina proved to be of two or three differing minds. First she said it wouldn’t be convenient to her to go, and she wrote to the young man to this effect. Then, on second thoughts, she considered she might very well go, and telegraphed an acceptance. Later she saw reason to regret her acceptance and communicated this circumstance to her sister, who remarked that it was still not too late to change. Selina left her in ignorance till the next day as to whether she had retracted; then she told her that she had let the matter stand — they would go. To this Laura replied that she was glad — for Mr. Wendover. ‘And for yourself,’ Selina said, leaving the girl to wonder why every one (this universality was represented by Mrs. Lionel Berrington and Lady Davenant) had taken up the idea that she entertained a passion for her compatriot. She was clearly conscious that this was not the case; though she was glad her esteem for him had not yet suffered the disturbance of her seeing reason to believe that Lady Davenant had already meddled, according to her terrible threat. Laura was surprised to learn afterwards that Selina had, in London parlance, ‘thrown over’ a dinner in order to make the evening at the opera fit in. The dinner would have made her too late, and she didn’t care about it: she wanted to hear the whole opera.

The sisters dined together alone, without any question of Lionel, and on alighting at Covent Garden found Mr. Wendover awaiting them in the portico. His box proved commodious and comfortable, and Selina was gracious to him: she thanked him for his consideration in not stuffing it full of people. He assured her that he expected but one other inmate — a gentleman of a shrinking disposition, who would take up no room. The gentleman came in after the first act; he was introduced to the ladies as Mr. Booker, of Baltimore. He knew a great deal about the young lady they had come to listen to, and he was not so shrinking but that he attempted to impart a portion of his knowledge even while she was singing. Before the second act was over Laura perceived Lady Ringrose in a box on the other side of the house, accompanied by a lady unknown to her. There was apparently another person in the box, behind the two ladies, whom they turned round from time to time to talk with. Laura made no observation about Lady Ringrose to her sister, and she noticed that Selina never resorted to the glass to look at her. That Mrs. Berrington had not failed to see her, however, was proved by the fact that at the end of the second act (the opera was Meyerbeer’s Huguenots) she suddenly said, turning to Mr. Wendover: ‘I hope you won’t mind very much if I go for a short time to sit with a friend on the other side of the house.’ She smiled with all her sweetness as she announced this intention, and had the benefit of the fact that an apologetic expression is highly becoming to a pretty woman. But she abstained from looking at her sister, and the latter, after a wondering glance at her, looked at Mr. Wendover. She saw that he was disappointed — even slightly wounded: he had taken some trouble to get his box and it had been no small pleasure to him to see it graced by the presence of a celebrated beauty. Now his situation collapsed if the celebrated beauty were going to transfer her light to another quarter. Laura was unable to imagine what had come into her sister’s head — to make her so inconsiderate, so rude. Selina tried to perform her act of defection in a soothing, conciliating way, so far as appealing eyebeams went; but she gave no particular reason for her escapade, withheld the name of the friends in question and betrayed no consciousness that it was not usual for ladies to roam about the lobbies. Laura asked her no question, but she said to her, after an hesitation: ‘You won’t be long, surely. You know you oughtn’t to leave me here.’ Selina took no notice of this — excused herself in no way to the girl. Mr. Wendover only exclaimed, smiling in reference to Laura’s last remark: ‘Oh, so far as leaving you here goes ——!’ In spite of his great defect (and it was his only one, that she could see) of having only an ascending scale of seriousness, she judged him interestedly enough to feel a real pleasure in noticing that though he was annoyed at Selina’s going away and not saying that she would come back soon, he conducted himself as a gentleman should, submitted respectfully, gallantly, to her wish. He suggested that her friends might perhaps, instead, be induced to come to his box, but when she had objected, ‘Oh, you see, there are too many,’ he put her shawl on her shoulders, opened the box, offered her his arm. While this was going on Laura saw Lady Ringrose studying them with her glass. Selina refused Mr. Wendover’s arm; she said, ‘Oh no, you stay with her — I daresay he’ll take me:’ and she gazed inspiringly at Mr. Booker. Selina never mentioned a name when the pronoun would do. Mr. Booker of course sprang to the service required and led her away, with an injunction from his friend to bring her back promptly. As they went off Laura heard Selina say to her companion — and she knew Mr. Wendover could also hear it — ‘Nothing would have induced me to leave her alone with you!’ She thought this a very extraordinary speech — she thought it even vulgar; especially considering that she had never seen the young man till half an hour before and since then had not exchanged twenty words with him. It came to their ears so distinctly that Laura was moved to notice it by exclaiming, with a laugh: ‘Poor Mr. Booker, what does she suppose I would do to him?’

‘Oh, it’s for you she’s afraid,’ said Mr. Wendover.

Laura went on, after a moment: ‘She oughtn’t to have left me alone with you, either.’

‘Oh yes, she ought — after all!’ the young man returned.

The girl had uttered these words from no desire to say something flirtatious, but because they simply expressed a part of the judgment she passed, mentally, on Selina’s behaviour. She had a sense of wrong — of being made light of; for Mrs. Berrington certainly knew that honourable women didn’t (for the appearance of the thing) arrange to leave their unmarried sister sitting alone, publicly, at the playhouse, with a couple of young men — the couple that there would be as soon as Mr. Booker should come back. It displeased her that the people in the opposite box, the people Selina had joined, should see her exhibited in this light. She drew the curtain of the box a little, she moved a little more behind it, and she heard her companion utter a vague appealing, protecting sigh, which seemed to express his sense (her own corresponded with it) that the glory of the occasion had somehow suddenly departed. At the end of some minutes she perceived among Lady Ringrose and her companions a movement which appeared to denote that Selina had come in. The two ladies in front turned round — something went on at the back of the box. ‘She’s there,’ Laura said, indicating the place; but Mrs. Berrington did not show herself — she remained masked by the others. Neither was Mr. Booker visible; he had not, seemingly, been persuaded to remain, and indeed Laura could see that there would not have been room for him. Mr. Wendover observed, ruefully, that as Mrs. Berrington evidently could see nothing at all from where she had gone she had exchanged a very good place for a very bad one. ‘I can’t imagine — I can’t imagine —— ’ said the girl; but she paused, losing herself in reflections and wonderments, in conjectures that soon became anxieties. Suspicion of Selina was now so rooted in her heart that it could make her unhappy even when it pointed nowhere, and by the end of half an hour she felt how little her fears had really been lulled since that scene of dishevelment and contrition in the early dawn.

The opera resumed its course, but Mr. Booker did not come back. The American singer trilled and warbled, executed remarkable flights, and there was much applause, every symptom of success; but Laura became more and more unaware of the music — she had no eyes but for Lady Ringrose and her friend. She watched them earnestly — she tried to sound with her glass the curtained dimness behind them. Their attention was all for the stage and they gave no present sign of having any fellow-listeners. These others had either gone away or were leaving them very much to themselves. Laura was unable to guess any particular motive on her sister’s part, but the conviction grew within her that she had not put such an affront on Mr. Wendover simply in order to have a little chat with Lady Ringrose. There was something else, there was some one else, in the affair; and when once the girl’s idea had become as definite as that it took but little longer to associate itself with the image of Captain Crispin. This image made her draw back further behind her curtain, because it brought the blood to her face; and if she coloured for shame she coloured also for anger. Captain Crispin was there, in the opposite box; those horrible women concealed him (she forgot how harmless and well-read Lady Ringrose had appeared to her that time at Mellows); they had lent themselves to this abominable proceeding. Selina was nestling there in safety with him, by their favour, and she had had the baseness to lay an honest girl, the most loyal, the most unselfish of sisters, under contribution to the same end. Laura crimsoned with the sense that she had been, unsuspectingly, part of a scheme, that she was being used as the two women opposite were used, but that she had been outraged into the bargain, inasmuch as she was not, like them, a conscious accomplice and not a person to be given away in that manner before hundreds of people. It came back to her how bad Selina had been the day of the business in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and how in spite of intervening comedies the woman who had then found such words of injury would be sure to break out in a new spot with a new weapon. Accordingly, while the pure music filled the place and the rich picture of the stage glowed beneath it, Laura found herself face to face with the strange inference that the evil of Selina’s nature made her wish — since she had given herself to it — to bring her sister to her own colour by putting an appearance of ‘fastness’ upon her. The girl said to herself that she would have succeeded, in the cynical view of London; and to her troubled spirit the immense theatre had a myriad eyes, eyes that she knew, eyes that would know her, that would see her sitting there with a strange young man. She had recognised many faces already and her imagination quickly multiplied them. However, after she had burned a while with this particular revolt she ceased to think of herself and of what, as regarded herself, Selina had intended: all her thought went to the mere calculation of Mrs. Berrington’s return. As she did not return, and still did not, Laura felt a sharp constriction of the heart. She knew not what she feared — she knew not what she supposed. She was so nervous (as she had been the night she waited, till morning, for her sister to re-enter the house in Grosvenor Place) that when Mr. Wendover occasionally made a remark to her she failed to understand him, was unable to answer him. Fortunately he made very few; he was preoccupied — either wondering also what Selina was ‘up to’ or, more probably, simply absorbed in the music. What she had comprehended, however, was that when at three different moments she had said, restlessly, ‘Why doesn’t Mr. Booker come back?’ he replied, ‘Oh, there’s plenty of time — we are very comfortable.’ These words she was conscious of; she particularly noted them and they interwove themselves with her restlessness. She also noted, in her tension, that after her third inquiry Mr. Wendover said something about looking up his friend, if she didn’t mind being left alone a moment. He quitted the box and during this interval Laura tried more than ever to see with her glass what had become of her sister. But it was as if the ladies opposite had arranged themselves, had arranged their curtains, on purpose to frustrate such an attempt: it was impossible to her even to assure herself of what she had begun to suspect, that Selina was now not with them. If she was not with them where in the world had she gone? As the moments elapsed, before Mr. Wendover’s return, she went to the door of the box and stood watching the lobby, for the chance that he would bring back the absentee. Presently she saw him coming alone, and something in the expression of his face made her step out into the lobby to meet him. He was smiling, but he looked embarrassed and strange, especially when he saw her standing there as if she wished to leave the place.

‘I hope you don’t want to go,’ he said, holding the door for her to pass back into the box.

‘Where are they — where are they?’ she demanded, remaining in the corridor.

‘I saw our friend — he has found a place in the stalls, near the door by which you go into them — just here under us.’

‘And does he like that better?’

Mr. Wendover’s smile became perfunctory as he looked down at her. ‘Mrs. Berrington has made such an amusing request of him.’

‘An amusing request?’

‘She made him promise not to come back.’

‘Made him promise ——?’ Laura stared.

‘She asked him — as a particular favour to her — not to join us again. And he said he wouldn’t.’

‘Ah, the monster!’ Laura exclaimed, blushing crimson.

‘Do you mean poor Mr. Booker?’ Mr. Wendover asked. ‘Of course he had to assure her that the wish of so lovely a lady was law. But he doesn’t understand!’ laughed the young man.

‘No more do I. And where is the lovely lady?’ said Laura, trying to recover herself.

‘He hasn’t the least idea.’

‘Isn’t she with Lady Ringrose?’

‘If you like I will go and see.’

Laura hesitated, looking down the curved lobby, where there was nothing to see but the little numbered doors of the boxes. They were alone in the lamplit bareness; the finale of the act was ringing and booming behind them. In a moment she said: ‘I’m afraid I must trouble you to put me into a cab.’

‘Ah, you won’t see the rest? Do stay — what difference does it make?’ And her companion still held open the door of the box. Her eyes met his, in which it seemed to her that as well as in his voice there was conscious sympathy, entreaty, vindication, tenderness. Then she gazed into the vulgar corridor again; something said to her that if she should return she would be taking the most important step of her life. She considered this, and while she did so a great burst of applause filled the place as the curtain fell. ‘See what we are losing! And the last act is so fine,’ said Mr. Wendover. She returned to her seat and he closed the door of the box behind them.

Then, in this little upholstered receptacle which was so public and yet so private, Laura Wing passed through the strangest moments she had known. An indication of their strangeness is that when she presently perceived that while she was in the lobby Lady Ringrose and her companion had quite disappeared, she observed the circumstance without an exclamation, holding herself silent. Their box was empty, but Laura looked at it without in the least feeling this to be a sign that Selina would now come round. She would never come round again, nor would she have gone home from the opera. That was by this time absolutely definite to the girl, who had first been hot and now was cold with the sense of what Selina’s injunction to poor Mr. Booker exactly meant. It was worthy of her, for it was simply a vicious little kick as she took her flight. Grosvenor Place would not shelter her that night and would never shelter her more: that was the reason she tried to spatter her sister with the mud into which she herself had jumped. She would not have dared to treat her in such a fashion if they had had a prospect of meeting again. The strangest part of this remarkable juncture was that what ministered most to our young lady’s suppressed emotion was not the tremendous reflection that this time Selina had really ‘bolted’ and that on the morrow all London would know it: all that had taken the glare of certainty (and a very hideous hue it was), whereas the chill that had fallen upon the girl now was that of a mystery which waited to be cleared up. Her heart was full of suspense — suspense of which she returned the pressure, trying to twist it into expectation. There was a certain chance in life that sat there beside her, but it would go for ever if it should not move nearer that night; and she listened, she watched, for it to move. I need not inform the reader that this chance presented itself in the person of Mr. Wendover, who more than any one she knew had it in his hand to transmute her detestable position. To-morrow he would know, and would think sufficiently little of a young person of that breed: therefore it could only be a question of his speaking on the spot. That was what she had come back into the box for — to give him his opportunity. It was open to her to think he had asked for it — adding everything together.

The poor girl added, added, deep in her heart, while she said nothing. The music was not there now, to keep them silent; yet he remained quiet, even as she did, and that for some minutes was a part of her addition. She felt as if she were running a race with failure and shame; she would get in first if she should get in before the degradation of the morrow. But this was not very far off, and every minute brought it nearer. It would be there in fact, virtually, that night, if Mr. Wendover should begin to realise the brutality of Selina’s not turning up at all. The comfort had been, hitherto, that he didn’t realise brutalities. There were certain violins that emitted tentative sounds in the orchestra; they shortened the time and made her uneasier — fixed her idea that he could lift her out of her mire if he would. It didn’t appear to prove that he would, his also observing Lady Ringrose’s empty box without making an encouraging comment upon it. Laura waited for him to remark that her sister obviously would turn up now; but no such words fell from his lips. He must either like Selina’s being away or judge it damningly, and in either case why didn’t he speak? If he had nothing to say, why had he said, why had he done, what did he mean ——? But the girl’s inward challenge to him lost itself in a mist of faintness; she was screwing herself up to a purpose of her own, and it hurt almost to anguish, and the whole place, around her, was a blur and swim, through which she heard the tuning of fiddles. Before she knew it she had said to him, ‘Why have you come so often?’

‘So often? To see you, do you mean?’

‘To see me — it was for that? Why have you come?’ she went on. He was evidently surprised, and his surprise gave her a point of anger, a desire almost that her words should hurt him, lash him. She spoke low, but she heard herself, and she thought that if what she said sounded to him in the same way ——! ‘You have come very often — too often, too often!’

He coloured, he looked frightened, he was, clearly, extremely startled. ‘Why, you have been so kind, so delightful,’ he stammered.

‘Yes, of course, and so have you! Did you come for Selina? She is married, you know, and devoted to her husband.’ A single minute had sufficed to show the girl that her companion was quite unprepared for her question, that he was distinctly not in love with her and was face to face with a situation entirely new. The effect of this perception was to make her say wilder things.

‘Why, what is more natural, when one likes people, than to come often? Perhaps I have bored you — with our American way,’ said Mr. Wendover.

‘And is it because you like me that you have kept me here?’ Laura asked. She got up, leaning against the side of the box; she had pulled the curtain far forward and was out of sight of the house.

He rose, but more slowly; he had got over his first confusion. He smiled at her, but his smile was dreadful. ‘Can you have any doubt as to what I have come for? It’s a pleasure to me that you have liked me well enough to ask.’

For an instant she thought he was coming nearer to her, but he didn’t: he stood there twirling his gloves. Then an unspeakable shame and horror — horror of herself, of him, of everything — came over her, and she sank into a chair at the back of the box, with averted eyes, trying to get further into her corner. ‘Leave me, leave me, go away!’ she said, in the lowest tone that he could hear. The whole house seemed to her to be listening to her, pressing into the box.

‘Leave you alone — in this place — when I love you? I can’t do that — indeed I can’t.’

‘You don’t love me — and you torture me by staying!’ Laura went on, in a convulsed voice. ‘For God’s sake go away and don’t speak to me, don’t let me see you or hear of you again!’

Mr. Wendover still stood there, exceedingly agitated, as well he might be, by this inconceivable scene. Unaccustomed feelings possessed him and they moved him in different directions. Her command that he should take himself off was passionate, yet he attempted to resist, to speak. How would she get home — would she see him to-morrow — would she let him wait for her outside? To this Laura only replied: ‘Oh dear, oh dear, if you would only go!’ and at the same instant she sprang up, gathering her cloak around her as if to escape from him, to rush away herself. He checked this movement, however, clapping on his hat and holding the door. One moment more he looked at her — her own eyes were closed; then he exclaimed, pitifully, ‘Oh Miss Wing, oh Miss Wing!’ and stepped out of the box.

When he had gone she collapsed into one of the chairs again and sat there with her face buried in a fold of her mantle. For many minutes she was perfectly still — she was ashamed even to move. The one thing that could have justified her, blown away the dishonour of her monstrous overture, would have been, on his side, the quick response of unmistakable passion. It had not come, and she had nothing left but to loathe herself. She did so, violently, for a long time, in the dark corner of the box, and she felt that he loathed her too. ‘I love you!’ — how pitifully the poor little make-believe words had quavered out and how much disgust they must have represented! ‘Poor man — poor man!’ Laura Wing suddenly found herself murmuring: compassion filled her mind at the sense of the way she had used him. At the same moment a flare of music broke out: the last act of the opera had begun and she had sprung up and quitted the box.

The passages were empty and she made her way without trouble. She descended to the vestibule; there was no one to stare at her and her only fear was that Mr. Wendover would be there. But he was not, apparently, and she saw that she should be able to go away quickly. Selina would have taken the carriage — she could be sure of that; or if she hadn’t it wouldn’t have come back yet; besides, she couldn’t possibly wait there so long as while it was called. She was in the act of asking one of the attendants, in the portico, to get her a cab, when some one hurried up to her from behind, overtaking her — a gentleman in whom, turning round, she recognised Mr. Booker. He looked almost as bewildered as Mr. Wendover, and his appearance disconcerted her almost as much as that of his friend would have done. ‘Oh, are you going away, alone? What must you think of me?’ this young man exclaimed; and he began to tell her something about her sister and to ask her at the same time if he might not go with her — help her in some way. He made no inquiry about Mr. Wendover, and she afterwards judged that that distracted gentleman had sought him out and sent him to her assistance; also that he himself was at that moment watching them from behind some column. He would have been hateful if he had shown himself; yet (in this later meditation) there was a voice in her heart which commended his delicacy. He effaced himself to look after her — he provided for her departure by proxy.

‘A cab, a cab — that’s all I want!’ she said to Mr. Booker; and she almost pushed him out of the place with the wave of the hand with which she indicated her need. He rushed off to call one, and a minute afterwards the messenger whom she had already despatched rattled up in a hansom. She quickly got into it, and as she rolled away she saw Mr. Booker returning in all haste with another. She gave a passionate moan — this common confusion seemed to add a grotesqueness to her predicament.


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