The Patagonia, by Henry James


People usually spend the first hours of a voyage in squeezing themselves into their cabins, taking their little precautions, either so excessive or so inadequate, wondering how they can pass so many days in such a hole and asking idiotic questions of the stewards, who appear in comparison such men of the world. My own initiations were rapid, as became an old sailor, and so it seemed were Miss Mavis’s, for when I mounted to the deck at the end of half an hour I found her there alone, in the stern of the ship, looking back at the dwindling continent. It dwindled very fast for so big a place. I accosted her, having had no conversation with her amid the crowd of leave-takers and the muddle of farewells before we put off; we talked a little about the boat, our fellow-passengers and our prospects, and then I said — ‘I think you mentioned last night a name I know — that of Mr. Porterfield.’

‘Oh no, I never uttered it,’ she replied, smiling at me through her closely-drawn veil.

‘Then it was your mother.’

‘Very likely it was my mother.’ And she continued to smile, as if I ought to have known the difference.

‘I venture to allude to him because I have an idea I used to know him,’ I went on.

‘Oh, I see.’ Beyond this remark she manifested no interest in my having known him.

‘That is if it’s the same one.’ It seemed to me it would be silly to say nothing more; so I added ‘My Mr. Porterfield was called David.’

‘Well, so is ours.’ ‘Ours’ struck me as clever.

‘I suppose I shall see him again if he is to meet you at Liverpool,’ I continued.

‘Well, it will be bad if he doesn’t.’

It was too soon for me to have the idea that it would be bad if he did: that only came later. So I remarked that I had not seen him for so many years that it was very possible I should not know him.’

‘Well, I have not seen him for a great many years, but I expect I shall know him all the same.’

‘Oh, with you it’s different,’ I rejoined, smiling at her. ‘Hasn’t he been back since those days?’

‘I don’t know what days you mean.’

‘When I knew him in Paris — ages ago. He was a pupil of the École des Beaux Arts. He was studying architecture.’

‘Well, he is studying it still,’ said Grace Mavis.

‘Hasn’t he learned it yet?’

‘I don’t know what he has learned. I shall see.’ Then she added: ‘Architecture is very difficult and he is tremendously thorough.’

‘Oh, yes, I remember that. He was an admirable worker. But he must have become quite a foreigner, if it’s so many years since he has been at home.’

‘Oh, he is not changeable. If he were changeable —— ’ But here my interlocutress paused. I suspect she had been going to say that if he were changeable he would have given her up long ago. After an instant she went on: ‘He wouldn’t have stuck so to his profession. You can’t make much by it.’

‘You can’t make much?’

‘It doesn’t make you rich.’

‘Oh, of course you have got to practise it — and to practise it long.’

‘Yes — so Mr. Porterfield says.’

Something in the way she uttered these words made me laugh — they were so serene an implication that the gentleman in question did not live up to his principles. But I checked myself, asking my companion if she expected to remain in Europe long — to live there.

‘Well, it will be a good while if it takes me as long to come back as it has taken me to go out.’

‘And I think your mother said last night that it was your first visit.’

Miss Mavis looked at me a moment. ‘Didn’t mother talk!’

‘It was all very interesting.’

She continued to look at me. ‘You don’t think that.’

‘What have I to gain by saying it if I don’t?’

‘Oh, men have always something to gain.’

‘You make me feel a terrible failure, then! I hope at any rate that it gives you pleasure — the idea of seeing foreign lands.’

‘Mercy — I should think so.’

‘It’s a pity our ship is not one of the fast ones, if you are impatient.’

She was silent a moment; then she exclaimed, ‘Oh, I guess it will be fast enough!’

That evening I went in to see Mrs. Nettlepoint and sat on her sea-trunk, which was pulled out from under the berth to accommodate me. It was nine o’clock but not quite dark, as our northward course had already taken us into the latitude of the longer days. She had made her nest admirably and lay upon her sofa in a becoming dressing-gown and cap, resting from her labours. It was her regular practice to spend the voyage in her cabin, which smelt good (such was the refinement of her art), and she had a secret peculiar to herself for keeping her port open without shipping seas. She hated what she called the mess of the ship and the idea, if she should go above, of meeting stewards with plates of supererogatory food. She professed to be content with her situation (we promised to lend each other books and I assured her familiarly that I should be in and out of her room a dozen times a day), and pitied me for having to mingle in society. She judged this to be a limited privilege, for on the deck before we left the wharf she had taken a view of our fellow-passengers.

‘Oh, I’m an inveterate, almost a professional observer,’ I replied, ‘and with that vice I am as well occupied as an old woman in the sun with her knitting. It puts it in my power, in any situation, to see things. I shall see them even here and I shall come down very often and tell you about them. You are not interested to-day, but you will be to-morrow, for a ship is a great school of gossip. You won’t believe the number of researches and problems you will be engaged in by the middle of the voyage.’

‘I? Never in the world — lying here with my nose in a book and never seeing anything.’

‘You will participate at second hand. You will see through my eyes, hang upon my lips, take sides, feel passions, all sorts of sympathies and indignations. I have an idea that your young lady is the person on board who will interest me most.’

‘Mine, indeed! She has not been near me since we left the dock.’

‘Well, she is very curious.’

‘You have such cold-blooded terms,’ Mrs. Nettlepoint murmured. ‘Elle ne sait pas se conduire; she ought to have come to ask about me.’

‘Yes, since you are under her care,’ I said, smiling. ‘As for her not knowing how to behave — well, that’s exactly what we shall see.’

‘You will, but not I! I wash my hands of her.’

‘Don’t say that — don’t say that.’

Mrs. Nettlepoint looked at me a moment. ‘Why do you speak so solemnly?’

In return I considered her. ‘I will tell you before we land. And have you seen much of your son?’

‘Oh yes, he has come in several times. He seems very much pleased. He has got a cabin to himself.’

‘That’s great luck,’ I said, ‘but I have an idea he is always in luck. I was sure I should have to offer him the second berth in my room.’

‘And you wouldn’t have enjoyed that, because you don’t like him,’ Mrs. Nettlepoint took upon herself to say.

‘What put that into your head?’

‘It isn’t in my head — it’s in my heart, my coeur de mère. We guess those things. You think he’s selfish — I could see it last night.’

‘Dear lady,’ I said, ‘I have no general ideas about him at all. He is just one of the phenomena I am going to observe. He seems to me a very fine young man. However,’ I added, ‘since you have mentioned last night I will admit that I thought he rather tantalised you. He played with your suspense.’

‘Why, he came at the last just to please me,’ said Mrs. Nettlepoint.

I was silent a moment. ‘Are you sure it was for your sake?’

‘Ah, perhaps it was for yours!’

‘When he went out on the balcony with that girl perhaps she asked him to come,’ I continued.

‘Perhaps she did. But why should he do everything she asks him?’

‘I don’t know yet, but perhaps I shall know later. Not that he will tell me — for he will never tell me anything: he is not one of those who tell.’

‘If she didn’t ask him, what you say is a great wrong to her,’ said Mrs. Nettlepoint.

‘Yes, if she didn’t. But you say that to protect Jasper, not to protect her,’ I continued, smiling.

‘You are cold-blooded — it’s uncanny!’ my companion exclaimed.

‘Ah, this is nothing yet! Wait a while — you’ll see. At sea in general I’m awful — I pass the limits. If I have outraged her in thought I will jump overboard. There are ways of asking (a man doesn’t need to tell a woman that) without the crude words.’

‘I don’t know what you suppose between them,’ said Mrs. Nettlepoint.

‘Nothing but what was visible on the surface. It transpired, as the newspapers say, that they were old friends.’

‘He met her at some promiscuous party — I asked him about it afterwards. She is not a person he could ever think of seriously.’

‘That’s exactly what I believe.’

‘You don’t observe — you imagine,’ Mrs. Nettlepoint pursued.’ How do you reconcile her laying a trap for Jasper with her going out to Liverpool on an errand of love?’

‘I don’t for an instant suppose she laid a trap; I believe she acted on the impulse of the moment. She is going out to Liverpool on an errand of marriage; that is not necessarily the same thing as an errand of love, especially for one who happens to have had a personal impression of the gentleman she is engaged to.’

‘Well, there are certain decencies which in such a situation the most abandoned of her sex would still observe. You apparently judge her capable — on no evidence — of violating them.’

‘Ah, you don’t understand the shades of things,’ I rejoined. ‘Decencies and violations — there is no need for such heavy artillery! I can perfectly imagine that without the least immodesty she should have said to Jasper on the balcony, in fact if not in words — “I’m in dreadful spirits, but if you come I shall feel better, and that will be pleasant for you too.”’

‘And why is she in dreadful spirits?’

‘She isn’t!’ I replied, laughing.

‘What is she doing?’

‘She is walking with your son.’

Mrs. Nettlepoint said nothing for a moment; then she broke out, inconsequently — ‘Ah, she’s horrid!’

‘No, she’s charming!’ I protested.

‘You mean she’s “curious”?’

‘Well, for me it’s the same thing!’

This led my friend of course to declare once more that I was cold-blooded. On the afternoon of the morrow we had another talk, and she told me that in the morning Miss Mavis had paid her a long visit. She knew nothing about anything, but her intentions were good and she was evidently in her own eyes conscientious and decorous. And Mrs. Nettlepoint concluded these remarks with the exclamation ‘Poor young thing!’

‘You think she is a good deal to be pitied, then?’

‘Well, her story sounds dreary — she told me a great deal of it. She fell to talking little by little and went from one thing to another. She’s in that situation when a girl must open herself — to some woman.’

‘Hasn’t she got Jasper?’ I inquired.

‘He isn’t a woman. You strike me as jealous of him,’ my companion added.

‘I daresay he thinks so — or will before the end. Ah no — ah no!’ And I asked Mrs. Nettlepoint if our young lady struck her as a flirt. She gave me no answer, but went on to remark that it was odd and interesting to her to see the way a girl like Grace Mavis resembled the girls of the kind she herself knew better, the girls of ‘society,’ at the same time that she differed from them; and the way the differences and resemblances were mixed up, so that on certain questions you couldn’t tell where you would find her. You would think she would feel as you did because you had found her feeling so, and then suddenly, in regard to some other matter (which was yet quite the same) she would be terribly wanting. Mrs. Nettlepoint proceeded to observe (to such idle speculations does the vanity of a sea-voyage give encouragement) that she wondered whether it were better to be an ordinary girl very well brought up or an extraordinary girl not brought up at all.

‘Oh, I go in for the extraordinary girl under all circumstances.’

‘It is true that if you are very well brought up you are not ordinary,’ said Mrs. Nettlepoint, smelling her strong salts. ‘You are a lady, at any rate. C’est toujours ça.

‘And Miss Mavis isn’t one — is that what you mean?’

‘Well — you have seen her mother.’

‘Yes, but I think your contention would be that among such people the mother doesn’t count.’

‘Precisely; and that’s bad.’

‘I see what you mean. But isn’t it rather hard? If your mother doesn’t know anything it is better you should be independent of her, and yet if you are that constitutes a bad note.’ I added that Mrs. Mavis had appeared to count sufficiently two nights before. She had said and done everything she wanted, while the girl sat silent and respectful. Grace’s attitude (so far as her mother was concerned) had been eminently decent.

‘Yes, but she couldn’t bear it,’ said Mrs. Nettlepoint.

‘Ah, if you know it I may confess that she has told me as much.’

Mrs. Nettlepoint stared. ‘Told you? There’s one of the things they do!’

‘Well, it was only a word. Won’t you let me know whether you think she’s a flirt?’

‘Find out for yourself, since you pretend to study folks.’

‘Oh, your judgment would probably not at all determine mine. It’s in regard to yourself that I ask it.’

‘In regard to myself?’

‘To see the length of maternal immorality.’

Mrs. Nettlepoint continued to repeat my words. ‘Maternal immorality?’

‘You desire your son to have every possible distraction on his voyage, and if you can make up your mind in the sense I refer to that will make it all right. He will have no responsibility.’

‘Heavens, how you analyse! I haven’t in the least your passion for making up my mind.’

‘Then if you chance it you’ll be more immoral still.’

‘Your reasoning is strange,’ said the poor lady; ‘when it was you who tried to put it into my head yesterday that she had asked him to come.’

‘Yes, but in good faith.’

‘How do you mean in good faith?’

‘Why, as girls of that sort do. Their allowance and measure in such matters is much larger than that of young ladies who have been, as you say, very well brought up; and yet I am not sure that on the whole I don’t think them the more innocent. Miss Mavis is engaged, and she’s to be married next week, but it’s an old, old story, and there’s no more romance in it than if she were going to be photographed. So her usual life goes on, and her usual life consists (and that of ces demoiselles in general) in having plenty of gentlemen’s society. Having it I mean without having any harm from it.’

‘Well, if there is no harm from it what are you talking about and why am I immoral?’

I hesitated, laughing. ‘I retract — you are sane and clear. I am sure she thinks there won’t be any harm,’ I added. ‘That’s the great point.’

‘The great point?’

‘I mean, to be settled.’

‘Mercy, we are not trying them! How can we settle it?’

‘I mean of course in our minds. There will be nothing more interesting for the next ten days for our minds to exercise themselves upon.’

‘They will get very tired of it,’ said Mrs. Nettlepoint.

‘No, no, because the interest will increase and the plot will thicken. It can’t help it.’ She looked at me as if she thought me slightly Mephistophelean, and I went on — ‘So she told you everything in her life was dreary?’

‘Not everything but most things. And she didn’t tell me so much as I guessed it. She’ll tell me more the next time. She will behave properly now about coming in to see me; I told her she ought to.’

‘I am glad of that,’ I said. ‘Keep her with you as much as possible.’

‘I don’t follow you much,’ Mrs. Nettlepoint replied, ‘but so far as I do I don’t think your remarks are in very good taste.’

‘I’m too excited, I lose my head, cold-blooded as you think me. Doesn’t she like Mr. Porterfield?’

‘Yes, that’s the worst of it.’

‘The worst of it?’

‘He’s so good — there’s no fault to be found with him. Otherwise she would have thrown it all up. It has dragged on since she was eighteen: she became engaged to him before he went abroad to study. It was one of those childish muddles which parents in America might prevent so much more than they do. The thing is to insist on one’s daughter’s waiting, on the engagement’s being long; and then after you have got that started to take it on every occasion as little seriously as possible — to make it die out. You can easily tire it out. However, Mr. Porterfield has taken it seriously for some years. He has done his part to keep it alive. She says he adores her.’

‘His part? Surely his part would have been to marry her by this time.’

‘He has absolutely no money.’

‘He ought to have got some, in seven years.’

‘So I think she thinks. There are some sorts of poverty that are contemptible. But he has a little more now. That’s why he won’t wait any longer. His mother has come out, she has something — a little — and she is able to help him. She will live with them and bear some of the expenses, and after her death the son will have what there is.’

‘How old is she?’ I asked, cynically.

‘I haven’t the least idea. But it doesn’t sound very inspiring. He has not been to America since he first went out.’

‘That’s an odd way of adoring her.’

‘I made that objection mentally, but I didn’t express it to her. She met it indeed a little by telling me that he had had other chances to marry.’

‘That surprises me,’ I remarked. ‘And did she say that she had had?’

‘No, and that’s one of the things I thought nice in her; for she must have had. She didn’t try to make out that he had spoiled her life. She has three other sisters and there is very little money at home. She has tried to make money; she has written little things and painted little things, but her talent is apparently not in that direction. Her father has had a long illness and has lost his place — he was in receipt of a salary in connection with some waterworks — and one of her sisters has lately become a widow, with children and without means. And so as in fact she never has married any one else, whatever opportunities she may have encountered, she appears to have just made up her mind to go out to Mr. Porterfield as the least of her evils. But it isn’t very amusing.’

‘That only makes it the more honourable. She will go through with it, whatever it costs, rather than disappoint him after he has waited so long. It is true,’ I continued, ‘that when a woman acts from a sense of honour —— ’

‘Well, when she does?’ said Mrs. Nettlepoint, for I hesitated perceptibly.

‘It is so extravagant a course that some one has to pay for it.’

‘You are very impertinent. We all have to pay for each other, all the while; and for each other’s virtues as well as vices.’

‘That’s precisely why I shall be sorry for Mr. Porterfield when she steps off the ship with her little bill. I mean with her teeth clenched.’

‘Her teeth are not in the least clenched. She is in perfect good-humour.’

‘Well, we must try and keep her so,’ I said. ‘You must take care that Jasper neglects nothing.’

I know not what reflection this innocent pleasantry of mine provoked on the good lady’s part; the upshot of them at all events was to make her say — ‘Well, I never asked her to come; I’m very glad of that. It is all their own doing.’

‘Their own — you mean Jasper’s and hers?’

‘No indeed. I mean her mother’s and Mrs. Allen’s; the girl’s too of course. They put themselves upon us.’

‘Oh yes, I can testify to that. Therefore I’m glad too. We should have missed it, I think.’

‘How seriously you take it!’ Mrs. Nettlepoint exclaimed.

‘Ah, wait a few days!’ I replied, getting up to leave her.

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