A London Life, by Henry James


Laura Wing was sharply ill for three days, but on the fourth she made up her mind she was better, though this was not the opinion of Lady Davenant, who would not hear of her getting up. The remedy she urged was lying still and yet lying still; but this specific the girl found well-nigh intolerable — it was a form of relief that only ministered to fever. She assured her friend that it killed her to do nothing: to which her friend replied by asking her what she had a fancy to do. Laura had her idea and held it tight, but there was no use in producing it before Lady Davenant, who would have knocked it to pieces. On the afternoon of the first day Lionel Berrington came, and though his intention was honest he brought no healing. Hearing she was ill he wanted to look after her — he wanted to take her back to Grosvenor Place and make her comfortable: he spoke as if he had every convenience for producing that condition, though he confessed there was a little bar to it in his own case. This impediment was the ‘cheeky’ aspect of Miss Steet, who went sniffing about as if she knew a lot, if she should only condescend to tell it. He saw more of the children now; ‘I’m going to have ’em in every day, poor little devils,’ he said; and he spoke as if the discipline of suffering had already begun for him and a kind of holy change had taken place in his life. Nothing had been said yet in the house, of course, as Laura knew, about Selina’s disappearance, in the way of treating it as irregular; but the servants pretended so hard not to be aware of anything in particular that they were like pickpockets looking with unnatural interest the other way after they have cribbed a fellow’s watch. To a certainty, in a day or two, the governess would give him warning: she would come and tell him she couldn’t stay in such a place, and he would tell her, in return, that she was a little donkey for not knowing that the place was much more respectable now than it had ever been.

This information Selina’s husband imparted to Lady Davenant, to whom he discoursed with infinite candour and humour, taking a highly philosophical view of his position and declaring that it suited him down to the ground. His wife couldn’t have pleased him better if she had done it on purpose; he knew where she had been every hour since she quitted Laura at the opera — he knew where she was at that moment and he was expecting to find another telegram on his return to Grosvenor Place. So if it suited her it was all right, wasn’t it? and the whole thing would go as straight as a shot. Lady Davenant took him up to see Laura, though she viewed their meeting with extreme disfavour, the girl being in no state for talking. In general Laura had little enough mind for it, but she insisted on seeing Lionel: she declared that if this were not allowed her she would go after him, ill as she was — she would dress herself and drive to his house. She dressed herself now, after a fashion; she got upon a sofa to receive him. Lady Davenant left him alone with her for twenty minutes, at the end of which she returned to take him away. This interview was not fortifying to the girl, whose idea — the idea of which I have said that she was tenacious — was to go after her sister, to take possession of her, cling to her and bring her back. Lionel, of course, wouldn’t hear of taking her back, nor would Selina presumably hear of coming; but this made no difference in Laura’s heroic plan. She would work it, she would compass it, she would go down on her knees, she would find the eloquence of angels, she would achieve miracles. At any rate it made her frantic not to try, especially as even in fruitless action she should escape from herself — an object of which her horror was not yet extinguished.

As she lay there through inexorably conscious hours the picture of that hideous moment in the box alternated with the vision of her sister’s guilty flight. She wanted to fly, herself — to go off and keep going for ever. Lionel was fussily kind to her and he didn’t abuse Selina — he didn’t tell her again how that lady’s behaviour suited his book. He simply resisted, with a little exasperating, dogged grin, her pitiful appeal for knowledge of her sister’s whereabouts. He knew what she wanted it for and he wouldn’t help her in any such game. If she would promise, solemnly, to be quiet, he would tell her when she got better, but he wouldn’t lend her a hand to make a fool of herself. Her work was cut out for her — she was to stay and mind the children: if she was so keen to do her duty she needn’t go further than that for it. He talked a great deal about the children and figured himself as pressing the little deserted darlings to his bosom. He was not a comedian, and she could see that he really believed he was going to be better and purer now. Laura said she was sure Selina would make an attempt to get them — or at least one of them; and he replied, grimly, ‘Yes, my dear, she had better try!’ The girl was so angry with him, in her hot, tossing weakness, for refusing to tell her even whether the desperate pair had crossed the Channel, that she was guilty of the immorality of regretting that the difference in badness between husband and wife was so distinct (for it was distinct, she could see that) as he made his dry little remark about Selina’s trying. He told her he had already seen his solicitor, the clever Mr. Smallshaw, and she said she didn’t care.

On the fourth day of her absence from Grosvenor Place she got up, at an hour when she was alone (in the afternoon, rather late), and prepared herself to go out. Lady Davenant had admitted in the morning that she was better, and fortunately she had not the complication of being subject to a medical opinion, having absolutely refused to see a doctor. Her old friend had been obliged to go out — she had scarcely quitted her before — and Laura had requested the hovering, rustling lady’s-maid to leave her alone: she assured her she was doing beautifully. Laura had no plan except to leave London that night; she had a moral certainty that Selina had gone to the Continent. She had always done so whenever she had a chance, and what chance had ever been larger than the present? The Continent was fearfully vague, but she would deal sharply with Lionel — she would show him she had a right to knowledge. He would certainly be in town; he would be in a complacent bustle with his lawyers. She had told him that she didn’t believe he had yet gone to them, but in her heart she believed it perfectly. If he didn’t satisfy her she would go to Lady Ringrose, odious as it would be to her to ask a favour of this depraved creature: unless indeed Lady Ringrose had joined the little party to France, as on the occasion of Selina’s last journey thither. On her way downstairs she met one of the footmen, of whom she made the request that he would call her a cab as quickly as possible — she was obliged to go out for half an hour. He expressed the respectful hope that she was better and she replied that she was perfectly well — he would please tell her ladyship when she came in. To this the footman rejoined that her ladyship had come in — she had returned five minutes before and had gone to her room. ‘Miss Frothingham told her you were asleep, Miss,’ said the man, ‘and her ladyship said it was a blessing and you were not to be disturbed.’

‘Very good, I will see her,’ Laura remarked, with dissimulation: ‘only please let me have my cab.’

The footman went downstairs and she stood there listening; presently she heard the house-door close — he had gone out on his errand. Then she descended very softly — she prayed he might not be long. The door of the drawing-room stood open as she passed it, and she paused before it, thinking she heard sounds in the lower hall. They appeared to subside and then she found herself faint — she was terribly impatient for her cab. Partly to sit down till it came (there was a seat on the landing, but another servant might come up or down and see her), and partly to look, at the front window, whether it were not coming, she went for a moment into the drawing-room. She stood at the window, but the footman was slow; then she sank upon a chair — she felt very weak. Just after she had done so she became aware of steps on the stairs and she got up quickly, supposing that her messenger had returned, though she had not heard wheels. What she saw was not the footman she had sent out, but the expansive person of the butler, followed apparently by a visitor. This functionary ushered the visitor in with the remark that he would call her ladyship, and before she knew it she was face to face with Mr. Wendover. At the same moment she heard a cab drive up, while Mr. Wendover instantly closed the door.

‘Don’t turn me away; do see me — do see me!’ he said. ‘I asked for Lady Davenant — they told me she was at home. But it was you I wanted, and I wanted her to help me. I was going away — but I couldn’t. You look very ill — do listen to me! You don’t understand — I will explain everything. Ah, how ill you look!’ the young man cried, as the climax of this sudden, soft, distressed appeal. Laura, for all answer, tried to push past him, but the result of this movement was that she found herself enclosed in his arms. He stopped her, but she disengaged herself, she got her hand upon the door. He was leaning against it, so she couldn’t open it, and as she stood there panting she shut her eyes, so as not to see him. ‘If you would let me tell you what I think — I would do anything in the world for you!’ he went on.

‘Let me go — you persecute me!’ the girl cried, pulling at the handle.

‘You don’t do me justice — you are too cruel!’ Mr. Wendover persisted.

‘Let me go — let me go!’ she only repeated, with her high, quavering, distracted note; and as he moved a little she got the door open. But he followed her out: would she see him that night? Where was she going? might he not go with her? would she see him to-morrow?

‘Never, never, never!’ she flung at him as she hurried away. The butler was on the stairs, descending from above; so he checked himself, letting her go. Laura passed out of the house and flew into her cab with extraordinary speed, for Mr. Wendover heard the wheels bear her away while the servant was saying to him in measured accents that her ladyship would come down immediately.

Lionel was at home, in Grosvenor Place: she burst into the library and found him playing papa. Geordie and Ferdy were sporting around him, the presence of Miss Steet had been dispensed with, and he was holding his younger son by the stomach, horizontally, between his legs, while the child made little sprawling movements which were apparently intended to represent the act of swimming. Geordie stood impatient on the brink of the imaginary stream, protesting that it was his turn now, and as soon as he saw his aunt he rushed at her with the request that she would take him up in the same fashion. She was struck with the superficiality of their childhood; they appeared to have no sense that she had been away and no care that she had been ill. But Lionel made up for this; he greeted her with affectionate jollity, said it was a good job she had come back, and remarked to the children that they would have great larks now that auntie was home again. Ferdy asked if she had been with mummy, but didn’t wait for an answer, and she observed that they put no question about their mother and made no further allusion to her while they remained in the room. She wondered whether their father had enjoined upon them not to mention her, and reflected that even if he had such a command would not have been efficacious. It added to the ugliness of Selina’s flight that even her children didn’t miss her, and to the dreariness, somehow, to Laura’s sense, of the whole situation that one could neither spend tears on the mother and wife, because she was not worth it, nor sentimentalise about the little boys, because they didn’t inspire it. ‘Well, you do look seedy — I’m bound to say that!’ Lionel exclaimed; and he recommended strongly a glass of port, while Ferdy, not seizing this reference, suggested that daddy should take her by the waistband and teach her to ‘strike out.’ He represented himself in the act of drowning, but Laura interrupted this entertainment, when the servant answered the bell (Lionel having rung for the port), by requesting that the children should be conveyed to Miss Steet. ‘Tell her she must never go away again,’ Lionel said to Geordie, as the butler took him by the hand; but the only touching consequence of this injunction was that the child piped back to his father, over his shoulder, ‘Well, you mustn’t either, you know!’

‘You must tell me or I’ll kill myself — I give you my word!’ Laura said to her brother-in-law, with unnecessary violence, as soon as they had left the room.

‘I say, I say,’ he rejoined, ‘you are a wilful one! What do you want to threaten me for? Don’t you know me well enough to know that ain’t the way? That’s the tone Selina used to take. Surely you don’t want to begin and imitate her!’ She only sat there, looking at him, while he leaned against the chimney-piece smoking a short cigar. There was a silence, during which she felt the heat of a certain irrational anger at the thought that a little ignorant, red-faced jockey should have the luck to be in the right as against her flesh and blood. She considered him helplessly, with something in her eyes that had never been there before — something that, apparently, after a moment, made an impression on him. Afterwards, however, she saw very well that it was not her threat that had moved him, and even at the moment she had a sense, from the way he looked back at her, that this was in no manner the first time a baffled woman had told him that she would kill herself. He had always accepted his kinship with her, but even in her trouble it was part of her consciousness that he now lumped her with a mixed group of female figures, a little wavering and dim, who were associated in his memory with ‘scenes,’ with importunities and bothers. It is apt to be the disadvantage of women, on occasions of measuring their strength with men, that they may perceive that the man has a larger experience and that they themselves are a part of it. It is doubtless as a provision against such emergencies that nature has opened to them operations of the mind that are independent of experience. Laura felt the dishonour of her race the more that her brother-in-law seemed so gay and bright about it: he had an air of positive prosperity, as if his misfortune had turned into that. It came to her that he really liked the idea of the public éclaircissement — the fresh occupation, the bustle and importance and celebrity of it. That was sufficiently incredible, but as she was on the wrong side it was also humiliating. Besides, higher spirits always suggest finer wisdom, and such an attribute on Lionel’s part was most humiliating of all. ‘I haven’t the least objection at present to telling you what you want to know. I shall have made my little arrangements very soon and you will be subpoenaed.’

‘Subpoenaed?’ the girl repeated, mechanically.

‘You will be called as a witness on my side.’

‘On your side.’

‘Of course you’re on my side, ain’t you?’

‘Can they force me to come?’ asked Laura, in answer to this.

‘No, they can’t force you, if you leave the country.’

‘That’s exactly what I want to do.’

‘That will be idiotic,’ said Lionel, ‘and very bad for your sister. If you don’t help me you ought at least to help her.’

She sat a moment with her eyes on the ground. ‘Where is she — where is she?’ she then asked.

‘They are at Brussels, at the Hôtel de Flandres. They appear to like it very much.’

‘Are you telling me the truth?’

‘Lord, my dear child, I don’t lie!’ Lionel exclaimed. ‘You’ll make a jolly mistake if you go to her,’ he added. ‘If you have seen her with him how can you speak for her?’

‘I won’t see her with him.’

‘That’s all very well, but he’ll take care of that. Of course if you’re ready for perjury ——!’ Lionel exclaimed.

‘I’m ready for anything.’

‘Well, I’ve been kind to you, my dear,’ he continued, smoking, with his chin in the air.

‘Certainly you have been kind to me.’

‘If you want to defend her you had better keep away from her,’ said Lionel. ‘Besides for yourself, it won’t be the best thing in the world — to be known to have been in it.’

‘I don’t care about myself,’ the girl returned, musingly.

‘Don’t you care about the children, that you are so ready to throw them over? For you would, my dear, you know. If you go to Brussels you never come back here — you never cross this threshold — you never touch them again!’

Laura appeared to listen to this last declaration, but she made no reply to it; she only exclaimed after a moment, with a certain impatience, ‘Oh, the children will do anyway!’ Then she added passionately, ‘You won’t, Lionel; in mercy’s name tell me that you won’t!’

‘I won’t what?’

‘Do the awful thing you say.’

‘Divorce her? The devil I won’t!’

‘Then why do you speak of the children — if you have no pity for them?’

Lionel stared an instant. ‘I thought you said yourself that they would do anyway!’

Laura bent her head, resting it on the back of her hand, on the leathern arm of the sofa. So she remained, while Lionel stood smoking; but at last, to leave the room, she got up with an effort that was a physical pain. He came to her, to detain her, with a little good intention that had no felicity for her, trying to take her hand persuasively. ‘Dear old girl, don’t try and behave just as she did! If you’ll stay quietly here I won’t call you, I give you my honour I won’t; there! You want to see the doctor — that’s the fellow you want to see. And what good will it do you, even if you bring her home in pink paper? Do you candidly suppose I’ll ever look at her — except across the court-room?’

‘I must, I must, I must!’ Laura cried, jerking herself away from him and reaching the door.

‘Well then, good-bye,’ he said, in the sternest tone she had ever heard him use.

She made no answer, she only escaped. She locked herself in her room; she remained there an hour. At the end of this time she came out and went to the door of the schoolroom, where she asked Miss Steet to be so good as to come and speak to her. The governess followed her to her apartment and there Laura took her partly into her confidence. There were things she wanted to do before going, and she was too weak to act without assistance. She didn’t want it from the servants, if only Miss Steet would learn from them whether Mr. Berrington were dining at home. Laura told her that her sister was ill and she was hurrying to join her abroad. It had to be mentioned, that way, that Mrs. Berrington had left the country, though of course there was no spoken recognition between the two women of the reasons for which she had done so. There was only a tacit hypocritical assumption that she was on a visit to friends and that there had been nothing queer about her departure. Laura knew that Miss Steet knew the truth, and the governess knew that she knew it. This young woman lent a hand, very confusedly, to the girl’s preparations; she ventured not to be sympathetic, as that would point too much to badness, but she succeeded perfectly in being dismal. She suggested that Laura was ill herself, but Laura replied that this was no matter when her sister was so much worse. She elicited the fact that Mr. Berrington was dining out — the butler believed with his mother — but she was of no use when it came to finding in the ‘Bradshaw’ which she brought up from the hall the hour of the night-boat to Ostend. Laura found it herself; it was conveniently late, and it was a gain to her that she was very near the Victoria station, where she would take the train for Dover. The governess wanted to go to the station with her, but the girl would not listen to this — she would only allow her to see that she had a cab. Laura let her help her still further; she sent her down to talk to Lady Davenant’s maid when that personage arrived in Grosvenor Place to inquire, from her mistress, what in the world had become of poor Miss Wing. The maid intimated, Miss Steet said on her return, that her ladyship would have come herself, only she was too angry. She was very bad indeed. It was an indication of this that she had sent back her young friend’s dressing-case and her clothes. Laura also borrowed money from the governess — she had too little in her pocket. The latter brightened up as the preparations advanced; she had never before been concerned in a flurried night-episode, with an unavowed clandestine side; the very imprudence of it (for a sick girl alone) was romantic, and before Laura had gone down to the cab she began to say that foreign life must be fascinating and to make wistful reflections. She saw that the coast was clear, in the nursery — that the children were asleep, for their aunt to come in. She kissed Ferdy while her companion pressed her lips upon Geordie, and Geordie while Laura hung for a moment over Ferdy. At the door of the cab she tried to make her take more money, and our heroine had an odd sense that if the vehicle had not rolled away she would have thrust into her hand a keepsake for Captain Crispin.

A quarter of an hour later Laura sat in the corner of a railway-carriage, muffled in her cloak (the July evening was fresh, as it so often is in London — fresh enough to add to her sombre thoughts the suggestion of the wind in the Channel), waiting in a vain torment of nervousness for the train to set itself in motion. Her nervousness itself had led her to come too early to the station, and it seemed to her that she had already waited long. A lady and a gentleman had taken their place in the carriage (it was not yet the moment for the outward crowd of tourists) and had left their appurtenances there while they strolled up and down the platform. The long English twilight was still in the air, but there was dusk under the grimy arch of the station and Laura flattered herself that the off-corner of the carriage she had chosen was in shadow. This, however, apparently did not prevent her from being recognised by a gentleman who stopped at the door, looking in, with the movement of a person who was going from carriage to carriage. As soon as he saw her he stepped quickly in, and the next moment Mr. Wendover was seated on the edge of the place beside her, leaning toward her, speaking to her low, with clasped hands. She fell back in her seat, closing her eyes again. He barred the way out of the compartment.

‘I have followed you here — I saw Miss Steet — I want to implore you not to go! Don’t, don’t! I know what you’re doing. Don’t go, I beseech you. I saw Lady Davenant, I wanted to ask her to help me, I could bear it no longer. I have thought of you, night and day, these four days. Lady Davenant has told me things, and I entreat you not to go!’

Laura opened her eyes (there was something in his voice, in his pressing nearness), and looked at him a moment: it was the first time she had done so since the first of those detestable moments in the box at Covent Garden. She had never spoken to him of Selina in any but an honourable sense. Now she said, ‘I’m going to my sister.’

‘I know it, and I wish unspeakably you would give it up — it isn’t good — it’s a great mistake. Stay here and let me talk to you.’

The girl raised herself, she stood up in the carriage. Mr. Wendover did the same; Laura saw that the lady and gentleman outside were now standing near the door. ‘What have you to say? It’s my own business!’ she returned, between her teeth. ‘Go out, go out, go out!’

‘Do you suppose I would speak if I didn’t care — do you suppose I would care if I didn’t love you?’ the young man murmured, close to her face.

‘What is there to care about? Because people will know it and talk? If it’s bad it’s the right thing for me! If I don’t go to her where else shall I go?’

‘Come to me, dearest, dearest!’ Mr. Wendover went on. ‘You are ill, you are mad! I love you — I assure you I do!’

She pushed him away with her hands. ‘If you follow me I will jump off the boat!’

‘Take your places, take your places!’ cried the guard, on the platform. Mr. Wendover had to slip out, the lady and gentleman were coming in. Laura huddled herself into her corner again and presently the train drew away.

Mr. Wendover did not get into another compartment; he went back that evening to Queen’s Gate. He knew how interested his old friend there, as he now considered her, would be to hear what Laura had undertaken (though, as he learned, on entering her drawing-room again, she had already heard of it from her maid), and he felt the necessity to tell her once more how her words of four days before had fructified in his heart, what a strange, ineffaceable impression she had made upon him: to tell her in short and to repeat it over and over, that he had taken the most extraordinary fancy ——! Lady Davenant was tremendously vexed at the girl’s perversity, but she counselled him patience, a long, persistent patience. A week later she heard from Laura Wing, from Antwerp, that she was sailing to America from that port — a letter containing no mention whatever of Selina or of the reception she had found at Brussels. To America Mr. Wendover followed his young compatriot (that at least she had no right to forbid), and there, for the moment, he has had a chance to practise the humble virtue recommended by Lady Davenant. He knows she has no money and that she is staying with some distant relatives in Virginia; a situation that he — perhaps too superficially — figures as unspeakably dreary. He knows further that Lady Davenant has sent her fifty pounds, and he himself has ideas of transmitting funds, not directly to Virginia but by the roundabout road of Queen’s Gate. Now, however, that Lionel Berrington’s deplorable suit is coming on he reflects with some satisfaction that the Court of Probate and Divorce is far from the banks of the Rappahannock. ‘Berrington versus Berrington and Others’ is coming on — but these are matters of the present hour.

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