Louisa Pallant, by Henry James


This piece of strategy left me staring and made me, I must confess, quite furious. My only consolation was that Archie, when I told him, looked as blank as myself, and that the trick touched him more nearly, for I was not now in love with Louisa. We agreed that we required an explanation and we pretended to expect one the next day in the shape of a letter satisfactory even to the point of being apologetic. When I say “we” pretended I mean that I did, for my suspicion that he knew what had been on foot — through an arrangement with Linda — lasted only a moment. If his resentment was less than my own his surprise was equally great. I had been willing to bolt, but I felt slighted by the ease with which Mrs. Pallant had shown she could part with us. Archie professed no sense of a grievance, because in the first place he was shy about it and because in the second it was evidently not definite to him that he had been encouraged — equipped as he was, I think, with no very particular idea of what constituted encouragement. He was fresh from the wonderful country in which there may between the ingenuous young be so little question of “intentions.” He was but dimly conscious of his own and could by no means have told me whether he had been challenged or been jilted. I didn’t want to exasperate him, but when at the end of three days more we were still without news of our late companions I observed that it was very simple:— they must have been just hiding from us; they thought us dangerous; they wished to avoid entanglements. They had found us too attentive and wished not to raise false hopes. He appeared to accept this explanation and even had the air — so at least I inferred from his asking me no questions — of judging the matter might be delicate for myself. The poor youth was altogether much mystified, and I smiled at the image in his mind of Mrs. Pallant fleeing from his uncle’s importunities. We decided to leave Homburg, but if we didn’t pursue our fugitives it wasn’t simply that we were ignorant of where they were. I could have found that out with a little trouble, but I was deterred by the reflexion that this would be Louisa’s reasoning. She was a dreadful humbug and her departure had been a provocation — I fear it was in that stupid conviction that I made out a little independent itinerary with Archie. I even believed we should learn where they were quite soon enough, and that our patience — even my young man’s — would be longer than theirs. Therefore I uttered a small private cry of triumph when three weeks later — we happened to be at Interlaken — he reported to me that he had received a note from Miss Pallant. The form of this confidence was his enquiring if there were particular reasons why we should longer delay our projected visit to the Italian lakes. Mightn’t the fear of the hot weather, which was moreover at that season our native temperature, cease to operate, the middle of September having arrived? I answered that we would start on the morrow if he liked, and then, pleased apparently that I was so easy to deal with, he revealed his little secret. He showed me his letter, which was a graceful natural document — it covered with a few flowing strokes but a single page of note-paper — not at all compromising to the young lady. If, however, it was almost the apology I had looked for — save that this should have come from the mother — it was not ostensibly in the least an invitation. It mentioned casually — the mention was mainly in the words at the head of her paper — that they were on the Lago Maggiore, at Baveno; but it consisted mainly of the expression of a regret that they had had so abruptly to leave Homburg. Linda failed to say under what necessity they had found themselves; she only hoped we hadn’t judged them too harshly and would accept “this hasty line” as a substitute for the omitted good-bye. She also hoped our days were passing pleasantly and with the same lovely weather that prevailed south of the Alps; and she remained very sincerely and with the kindest remembrances —!

The note contained no message from her mother, and it was open to me to suppose, as I should prefer, either that Mrs. Pallant hadn’t known she was writing or that they wished to make us think she hadn’t known. The letter might pass as a common civility of the girl’s to a person with whom she had been on easy terms. It was, however, for something more than this that my nephew took it; so at least I gathered from the touching candour of his determination to go to Baveno. I judged it idle to drag him another way; he had money in his own pocket and was quite capable of giving me the slip. Yet — such are the sweet incongruities of youth — when I asked him to what tune he had been thinking of Linda since they left us in the lurch he replied: “Oh I haven’t been thinking at all! Why should I?” This fib was accompanied by an exorbitant blush. Since he was to obey his young woman’s signal I must equally make out where it would take him, and one splendid morning we started over the Simplon in a post-chaise.

I represented to him successfully that it would be in much better taste for us to alight at Stresa, which as every one knows is a resort of tourists, also on the shore of the major lake, at about a mile’s distance from Baveno. If we stayed at the latter place we should have to inhabit the same hotel as our friends, and this might be awkward in view of a strained relation with them. Nothing would be easier than to go and come between the two points, especially by the water, which would give Archie a chance for unlimited paddling. His face lighted up at the vision of a pair of oars; he pretended to take my plea for discretion very seriously, and I could see that he had at once begun to calculate opportunities for navigation with Linda. Our post-chaise — I had insisted on easy stages and we were three days on the way — deposited us at Stresa toward the middle of the afternoon, and it was within an amazingly short time that I found myself in a small boat with my nephew, who pulled us over to Baveno with vigorous strokes. I remember the sweetness of the whole impression. I had had it before, but to my companion it was new, and he thought it as pretty as the opera: the enchanting beauty of the place and, hour, the stillness of the air and water, with the romantic fantastic Borromean Islands set as great jewels in a crystal globe. We disembarked at the steps by the garden-foot of the hotel, and somehow it seemed a perfectly natural part of the lovely situation that I should immediately become conscious of Mrs. Pallant and her daughter seated on the terrace and quietly watching us. They had the air of expectation, which I think we had counted on. I hadn’t even asked Archie if he had answered Linda’s note; this was between themselves and in the way of supervision I had done enough in coming with him.

There is no doubt our present address, all round, lacked a little the easiest grace — or at least Louisa’s and mine did. I felt too much the appeal of her exhibition to notice closely the style of encounter of the young people. I couldn’t get it out of my head, as I have sufficiently indicated, that Mrs. Pallant was playing a game, and I’m afraid she saw in my face that this suspicion had been the motive of my journey. I had come there to find her out. The knowledge of my purpose couldn’t help her to make me very welcome, and that’s why I speak of our meeting constrainedly. We observed none the less all the forms, and the admirable scene left us plenty to talk about. I made no reference before Linda to the retreat from Homburg. This young woman looked even prettier than she had done on the eve of that manoeuvre and gave no sign of an awkward consciousness. She again so struck me as a charming clever girl that I was freshly puzzled to know why we should get — or should have got — into a tangle about her. People had to want to complicate a situation to do it on so simple a pretext as that Linda was in every way beautiful. This was the clear fact: so why shouldn’t the presumptions be in favour of every result of it? One of the effects of that cause, on the spot, was that at the end of a very short time Archie proposed to her to take a turn with him in his boat, which awaited us at the foot of the steps. She looked at her mother with a smiling “May I, mamma?” and Mrs. Pallant answered “Certainly, darling, if you’re not afraid.” At this — I scarcely knew why — I sought the relief of laughter: it must have affected me as comic that the girl’s general competence should suffer the imputation of that particular flaw. She gave me a quick slightly sharp look as she turned away with my nephew; it appeared to challenge me a little — “Pray what’s the matter with YOU?” It was the first expression of the kind I had ever seen in her face. Mrs. Pallant’s attention, on the other hand, rather strayed from me; after we had been left there together she sat silent, not heeding me, looking at the lake and mountains — at the snowy crests crowned with the flush of evening. She seemed not even to follow our young companions as they got into their boat and pushed off. For some minutes I respected her mood; I walked slowly up and down the terrace and lighted a cigar, as she had always permitted me to do at Homburg. I found in her, it was true, rather a new air of weariness; her fine cold well-bred face was pale; I noted in it new lines of fatigue, almost of age. At last I stopped in front of her and — since she looked so sad — asked if she had been having bad news.

“The only bad news was when I learned — through your nephew’s note to Linda — that you were coming to us.”

“Ah then he wrote?”

“Certainly he wrote.”

“You take it all harder than I do,” I returned as I sat down beside her. And then I added, smiling: “Have you written to his mother?”

Slowly at last, and more directly, she faced me. “Take care, take care, or you’ll have been more brutal than you’ll afterwards like,” she said with an air of patience before the inevitable.

“Never, never! Unless you think me brutal if I ask whether you knew when Linda wrote.”

She had an hesitation. “Yes, she showed me her letter. She wouldn’t have done anything else. I let it go because I didn’t know what course was best. I’m afraid to oppose her to her face.”

“Afraid, my dear friend, with that girl?”

“That girl? Much you know about her! It didn’t follow you’d come. I didn’t take that for granted.”

“I’m like you,” I said — “I too am afraid of my nephew. I don’t venture to oppose him to his face. The only thing I could do — once he wished it — was to come with him.”

“I see. Well, there are grounds, after all, on which I’m glad,” she rather inscrutably added.

“Oh I was conscientious about that! But I’ve no authority; I can neither drive him nor stay him — I can use no force,” I explained. “Look at the way he’s pulling that boat and see if you can fancy me.”

“You could tell him she’s a bad hard girl — one who’d poison any good man’s life!” my companion broke out with a passion that startled me.

At first I could only gape. “Dear lady, what do you mean?”

She bent her face into her hands, covering it over with them, and so remained a minute; then she continued a little differently, though as if she hadn’t heard my question: “I hoped you were too disgusted with us — after the way we left you planted.”

“It was disconcerting assuredly, and it might have served if Linda hadn’t written. That patched it up,” I gaily professed. But my gaiety was thin, for I was still amazed at her violence of a moment before. “Do you really mean that she won’t do?” I added.

She made no direct answer; she only said after a little that it didn’t matter whether the crisis should come a few weeks sooner or a few weeks later, since it was destined to come at the first chance, the favouring moment. Linda had marked my young man — and when Linda had marked a thing!

“Bless my soul — how very grim — ” But I didn’t understand. “Do you mean she’s in love with him?”

“It’s enough if she makes him think so — though even that isn’t essential.”

Still I was at sea. “If she makes him think so? Dear old friend, what’s your idea? I’ve observed her, I’ve watched her, and when all’s said what has she done? She has been civil and pleasant to him, but it would have been much more marked if she hadn’t. She has really shown him, with her youth and her natural charm, nothing more than common friendliness. Her note was nothing; he let me see it.”

“I don’t think you’ve heard every word she has said to him,” Mrs. Pallant returned with an emphasis that still struck me as perverse.

“No more have you, I take it!” I promptly cried. She evidently meant more than she said; but if this excited my curiosity it also moved, in a different connexion, my indulgence.

“No, but I know my own daughter. She’s a most remarkable young woman.”

“You’ve an extraordinary tone about her,” I declared “such a tone as I think I’ve never before heard on a mother’s lips. I’ve had the same impression from you — that of a disposition to ‘give her away,’ but never yet so strong.”

At this Mrs. Pallant got up; she stood there looking down at me. “You make my reparation — my expiation — difficult!” And leaving me still more astonished she moved along the terrace.

I overtook her presently and repeated her words. “Your reparation — your expiation? What on earth are you talking about?”

“You know perfectly what I mean — it’s too magnanimous of you to pretend you don’t.”

“Well, at any rate,” I said, “I don’t see what good it does me, or what it makes up to me for, that you should abuse your daughter.”

“Oh I don’t care; I shall save him!” she cried as we went, and with an extravagance, as I felt, of sincerity. At the same moment two ladies, apparently English, came toward us — scattered groups had been sitting there and the inmates of the hotel were moving to and fro — and I observed the immediate charming transition, the fruit of such years of social practice, by which, as they greeted us, her tension and her impatience dropped to recognition and pleasure. They stopped to speak to her and she enquired with sweet propriety as to the “continued improvement” of their sister. I strolled on and she presently rejoined me; after which she had a peremptory note. “Come away from this — come down into the garden.” We descended to that blander scene, strolled through it and paused on the border of the lake.


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