The text is from Lady Barbarina, The Siege of London, An International Episode, and other tales published by Macmillan and Co., 1922.
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That solemn piece of upholstery the curtain of the Comédie Française had fallen upon the first act of the piece, and our two Americans had taken advantage of the interval to pass out of the huge hot theatre in company with the other occupants of the stalls. But they were among the first to return, and they beguiled the rest of the intermission with looking at the house, which had lately been cleansed of its historic cobwebs and ornamented with frescoes illustrative of the classic drama. In the month of September the audience at the Théâtre Français is comparatively thin, and on this occasion the drama —L’Aventurière of Emile Augier — had no pretensions to novelty. Many of the boxes were empty, others were occupied by persons of provincial or nomadic appearance. The boxes are far from the stage, near which our spectators were placed; but even at a distance Rupert Waterville was able to appreciate details. He was fond of appreciating details, and when he went to the theatre he looked about him a good deal, making use of a dainty but remarkably powerful glass. He knew that such a course was wanting in true distinction and that it was indelicate to level at a lady an instrument often only less injurious in effect than a double-barrelled pistol; but he was always very curious, and was sure, in any case, that at that moment, at that antiquated play — so he was pleased to qualify the masterpiece of a contemporary — he shouldn’t be observed by any one he knew. Standing up therefore with his back to the stage he made the circuit of the boxes while several other persons near him performed the operation with even greater coolness.
“Not a single pretty woman,” he remarked at last to his friend; an observation which Littlemore, sitting in his place and staring with a bored expression at the new-looking curtain, received in perfect silence. He rarely indulged in these optical excursions; he had been a great deal in Paris and had ceased to vibrate more than a few times a day; he believed the French capital could have no more surprises for him, though it had had a good many in former days. Waterville was still in the stage of surprise; he suddenly expressed this emotion. “By Jove, I beg your pardon, I beg her pardon! There is after all a woman who may be called”— he paused a little, inspecting her —“an approach to a beauty!”
“How near an approach?” Littlemore responded.
“An unusual kind — an indescribable kind.” Littlemore was not heeding his answer, but presently heard himself appealed to. “I say, I wish very much you’d do me a favour.”
“I did you a favour in coming here,” said Littlemore. “It’s insufferably hot, and the play’s like a dinner that has been dressed by the kitchen-maid. The actors are all doublures.”
“It’s simply to answer me this: is she respectable now?” Waterville demanded, inattentive to his friend’s epigram.
Littlemore gave a groan, without turning his head. “You’re always wanting to know if they’re respectable. What on earth can it matter?”
“I’ve made such mistakes — I’ve lost all confidence,” said poor Waterville, to whom European civilisation had not ceased to be a novelty and who during the last six months had found himself confronted with problems for which his training had little prepared him. Whenever he encountered a very nice-looking woman he was sure to discover that she belonged to the class represented by the heroine of M. Augier’s drama; and whenever his attention rested upon a person of a florid style of attraction there was the strongest probability that she would turn out a countess. The countesses often looked so unnaturally cheap and the others unnaturally expensive. Littlemore distinguished at a glance; he never made mistakes.
“Simply for looking at them it doesn’t matter, I suppose,” Waterville ingenuously sighed.
“You stare at them all alike,” Littlemore went on, still without moving; “except indeed when I tell you they aren’t decent — then your eyes, my dear man, grow as large as saucers.”
“If your judgement’s against this lady I promise never to look at her again. I mean the one in the third box from the passage, in white, with the red flowers,” the younger man said as Littlemore slowly rose and stood beside him. “The fellow with her is leaning forward. It’s he who makes me doubt. Will you have the glass?”
Littlemore looked about him without concentration. “No, thank you, I can see without staring. The young man’s a very good young man,” he presently reported.
“Very indeed, but he’s several years younger than she. Wait till she turns her head.”
She turned it very soon — she apparently had been speaking to the ouvreuse, at the door of the box — and presented her face to the public; a fair harmonious face, with smiling eyes, smiling lips, a low brow ornamented with delicate rings of black hair and ears marked by the sparkle of diamonds sufficiently large to be seen across the Théâtre Français. Littlemore looked at her, then started and held out his hand. “The glass, please!”
“Do you know her?” his friend asked as he directed the little instrument.
He made no answer; he only looked in silence; then he gave the glass back. “No, she’s not respectable.” And he dropped again into his seat. As Waterville remained standing he added: “Please sit down; I think she saw me.”
“Don’t you want her to see you?” pursued the interrogator, promptly complying.
Littlemore hesitated. “I don’t want to spoil her game.” By this time the entr’acte was at an end and the curtain going up.
It had been Waterville’s idea that they should go to the theatre. Littlemore, who was always for not going anywhere, had recommended that, the evening being lovely, they should simply sit and smoke at the door of the Grand Café in comparatively pensive isolation. Nevertheless Waterville enjoyed the second act even less than he had done the first, which he thought heavy. He began to wonder whether his companion would wish to stay to the end; a useless line of speculation, for now that he had got to the theatre Littlemore’s aversion to change would certainly keep him from moving. Waterville also wondered what he knew about the lady in the box. Once or twice he glanced at his friend, and then was sure the latter wasn’t following the play. He was thinking of something else; he was thinking of that woman. When the curtain fell again he sat in his place, making way for his neighbours, as usual, to edge past him, grinding his knees — his legs were long — with their own protuberances. When the two men were alone in the stalls he spoke. “I think I should like to see her again, after all.” He spoke in fact as if Waterville might have known all about her. Waterville was conscious of not doing so, but as there was evidently a good deal to know he recognised he should lose nothing by exerting some art. So for the moment he asked no question; he only said: “Well, here’s the glass.”
Littlemore gave him a glance of good-natured compassion. “I don’t mean I want to keep letting that off at her. I mean I should rather like to see her as I used to.”
“And how did you use to?” asked Waterville with no art now.
“On the back piazza at San Pablo.” And as his comrade, in receipt of this information, only stared he went on: “Come out where we can breathe and I’ll tell you more.”
They made their way to the low and narrow door, more worthy of a rabbit-hutch than of a great theatre, by which you pass from the stalls of the Comédie to the lobby, and as Littlemore went by first his ingenuous friend behind him could see that he glanced up at the box in the occupants of which they were interested. The more interesting of these had her back to the house; she was apparently just leaving the box, after her companion; but as she hadn’t put on her mantle it was evident they weren’t quitting the theatre. Littlemore’s pursuit of fresh air didn’t lead him to the street; he had passed his arm into Waterville’s and when they reached the fine frigid staircase that ascends to the public foyer he began silently to mount it. Littlemore was averse to active pleasures, but his friend reflected that now at least he had launched himself — he was going to look for the lady whom, with a monosyllable, he appeared to have classified. The young man resigned himself for the moment to asking no questions, and the two strolled together into the shining saloon where Houdon’s admirable statue of Voltaire, reflected in a dozen mirrors, is gaped at by visitors too obviously less acute than the genius expressed in those living features. Waterville knew that Voltaire was witty; he had read Candide and had already had several opportunities of appreciating the statue. The foyer was not crowded; only a dozen groups were scattered over the polished floor, several others having passed out to the balcony which overhangs the square of the Palais Royal. The windows were open, the myriad lights of Paris made the dull summer evening look like an anniversary or a revolution; a murmur of voices seemed to come up, and even in the foyer one heard the slow click of the horses and the rumble of the crookedly-driven fiacres on the hard smooth street-surface. A lady and a gentleman, their backs to our friends, stood before the image of the genius loci; the lady was dressed in white, including a white bonnet. Littlemore felt in the scene, as so many persons feel it just there, something of the finest essence of France, and he gave a significant laugh.
“It seems comical to see her here! The last time was in New Mexico.”
“In New Mexico?”
“At San Pablo.”
“Oh on the back piazza,” said Waterville, putting things together. He had not been aware of the position of San Pablo, for if on the occasion of his lately being appointed to a subordinate diplomatic post in London he had been paying a good deal of attention to European geography he had rather neglected that of his own country.
They hadn’t spoken loud and weren’t standing near her, but suddenly, as if she had heard them, the lady in white turned round. Her eye caught Waterville’s first, and in that glance he saw that if she was aware of something it wasn’t because they had exceeded but because she had extraordinary quickness of ear. There was no prompt recognition in it — none even when it rested lightly on George Littlemore. But recognition flashed out a moment later, accompanied with a delicate increase of colour and a quick extension of her settled smile. She had turned completely round; she stood there in sudden friendliness, with parted lips; with a hand, gloved to the elbow, almost imperiously offered. She was even prettier than at a distance. “Well, I declare!” she cried; so loud that every one in the room appeared to feel personally addressed. Waterville was surprised; he hadn’t been prepared, even after the mention of the back piazza, to find her of so unmistakable race. Her companion turned round as she spoke; he was a fresh lean young man in evening dress; he kept his hands in his pockets; Waterville was sure he was of race quite other. He looked very grave — for such a fair festive young man — and gave our two friends, though his height was not superior to theirs, a narrow vertical glance. Then he turned back to the statue of Voltaire as if it had been among his premonitions, after all, that the lady he was attending would recognise people he didn’t know and didn’t even perhaps care to know. This possibly confirmed slightly Littlemore’s assertion that she wasn’t respectable. The young man was that at least; consummately so. “Where in the world did you drop from?” the lady inquired.
“I’ve been here for some time,” Littlemore said, going forward rather deliberately to shake hands with her. He took it alertly, yet was more serious than she, keeping his eye on her own as if she had been just a trifle dangerous. Such was the manner in which a duly discreet person would have approached some glossy graceful animal which had an occasional trick of biting.
“Here in Paris, do you mean?”
“No; here and there — in Europe generally.”
“Well, it’s queer I haven’t met you.”
“Better late than never!” said Littlemore. His smile was a little fixed.
“Well, you look very natural,” the lady went on.
“So do you — or very charming — it’s the same thing,” he answered, laughing and evidently wishing to be easy. It was as if, face to face and after a considerable lapse of time, he had found her more imposing than he expected when, in the stalls below, he determined to come and meet her. As he spoke the young man who was with her gave up his inspection of Voltaire and faced about listlessly, without looking at his companion’s acquaintances.
“I want to introduce you to my friend,” she went on. “Sir Arthur Demesne — Mr. Littlemore. Mr. Littlemore — Sir Arthur Demesne. Sir Arthur Demesne’s an Englishman — Mr. Littlemore’s a countryman of mine, an old friend. I haven’t seen him for years. For how long? Don’t let’s count — I wonder you knew me,” she continued, addressing this recovered property. “I’m fearfully changed.” All this was said in a clear gay tone which was the more audible as she spoke with an odd sociable slowness. The two men, to do honour to her introduction, silently exchanged a glance; the Englishman perhaps coloured a little. He was very conscious of his companion. “I haven’t introduced you to many people yet,” she dropped.
“Oh I don’t mind,” said Sir Arthur Demesne.
“Well, it’s queer to see you!” she pursued, with her charming eyes still on Littlemore. “You’ve changed, too — I can see that.”
“Not where you’re concerned.”
“That’s what I want to find out. Why don’t you introduce your friend? I see he’s dying to know me!” And then when he had proceeded with this ceremony, which he reduced to its simplest elements, merely glancing at Rupert Waterville and murmuring his name, “Ah, you don’t tell him who I am!” the lady cried while the young secretary made her a formal salutation. “I hope you haven’t forgotten!”
Littlemore showed her a face intended to express more than what he had hitherto permitted himself; if its meaning had been put into words these would have been: “Ah, but by which name?”
She answered the unspoken question, putting out her hand as she had done to Littlemore. “Happy to make your acquaintance, Mr. Waterville. I’m Mrs. Headway — perhaps you’ve heard of me. If you’ve ever been in America you must have heard of me. Not so much in New York, but in the Western cities. You are an American? Well then we’re all compatriots — except Sir Arthur Demesne. Let me introduce you to Sir Arthur. Sir Arthur Demesne, Mr. Waterville — Mr. Waterville, Sir Arthur Demesne. Sir Arthur Demesne’s a member of Parliament: don’t he look young?” She waited for no judgement on this appeal, but suddenly made another as she moved her bracelets back over long loose gloves. “Well, Mr. Littlemore, what are you thinking of?”
He was thinking that he must indeed have forgotten her name, for the one she had pronounced awakened no association. But he could hardly tell her that. “I’m thinking of San Pablo.”
“The back piazza at my sister’s? Oh don’t; it was too horrid. She has left now. I believe every one has left.” The member of Parliament drew out his watch with the air of a man who could take no part in these domestic reminiscences; he appeared to combine a generic self-possession with a degree of individual shyness. He said something about its being time they should go back to their seats, but Mrs. Headway paid no attention to the remark. Waterville wished her to linger and indeed felt almost as free to examine her as he had to walk, in a different spirit, round the statue of the author of Candide. Her low-growing hair, with its fine dense undulations, was of a shade of blackness that has now become rare; her complexion had the bloom of a white flower; her profile, when she turned her head, was as pure and fine as the outline of a cameo. “You know this is their first theatre,” she continued, as if to rise to the occasion. “And this is Voltaire, the celebrated writer.”
“I’m devoted to the Comédie Française”— Waterville rose as well.
“Dreadfully bad house; we didn’t hear a word,” said Sir Arthur Demesne.
“Ah, yes, the sad far boxes!” murmured Waterville.
“I’m rather disappointed,” Mrs. Headway went on. “But I want to see what becomes of that woman.”
“Doña Clorinde? Oh I suppose they’ll shoot her. They generally shoot the women in French plays,” Littlemore said.
“It will remind me of San Pablo!” cried Mrs. Headway.
“Ah, at San Pablo the women did the shooting.”
“They don’t seem to have killed you!” she returned archly.
“No, but I’m riddled with wounds.”
“Well, this is very remarkable”— the lady reverted to Houdon’s statue. “It’s beautifully modelled.”
“You’re perhaps reading M. de Voltaire,” Littlemore suggested.
“No; but I’ve purchased his works.”
“They’re not proper reading for ladies,” said the young Englishman severely, offering his arm to his charge.
“Ah, you might have told me before I had bought them!” she exclaimed in exaggerated dismay.
“I couldn’t imagine you’d buy a hundred and fifty volumes.”
“A hundred and fifty? I’ve only bought two.”
“Perhaps two won’t hurt you!” Littlemore hopefully contributed.
She darted him a reproachful ray. “I know what you mean — that I’m too bad already! Well, bad as I am you must come and see me.” And she threw him the name of her hotel as she walked away with her Englishman. Waterville looked after the latter with a certain interest; he had heard of him in London and had seen his portrait in Vanity Fair.
It was not yet time to go down, in spite of this gentleman’s saying so, and Littlemore and his friend passed out to the balcony of the foyer. “Headway — Headway? Where the deuce did she get that name?” Littlemore asked as they looked down into the flaring dusk.
“From her husband I suppose,” his friend suggested.
“From her husband? From which? The last was named Beck.”
“How many has she had?” the younger man inquired, anxious to hear how it was Mrs. Headway wasn’t respectable.
“I haven’t the least idea. But it wouldn’t be difficult to find out, as I believe they’re all living. She was Mrs. Beck — Nancy Beck — when I knew her.”
“Nancy Beck!” cried Waterville, aghast. He was thinking of her delicate profile, like that of a pretty Roman empress. There was a great deal to be explained.
Littlemore explained it in a few words before they returned to their places, admitting indeed that he wasn’t yet able to clear up her present appearance. She was a memory of his Western days; he had seen her last some six years before. He had known her very well and in several places; the circle of her activity was chiefly the South-west. This activity had been during that time of a vague character, except in the sense that it was exclusively social. She was supposed to have a husband, one Philadelphia Beck, the editor of a Democratic newspaper, the Dakota Sentinel; but Littlemore had never seen him — the pair were living apart — and it had been the impression at San Pablo that matrimony, for Mr. and Mrs. Beck, was about played out. He remembered now to have heard afterwards that she was getting a divorce. She got divorces very easily, she was so taking in court. She had got one or two before from a man whose name he couldn’t remember, and there was a legend that even these were not the first. She had been enormously divorced! When he first met her in California she called herself Mrs. Grenville, which he had been given to understand was not an appellation acquired by matrimony, but her parental name, resumed after the dissolution of an unfortunate union. She had had these episodes — her unions were all unfortunate — and had borne half-a-dozen names. She was a charming woman, especially for New Mexico; but she had been divorced too often — it was a tax on one’s credulity: she must have repudiated more husbands than she had married.
At San Pablo she was staying with her sister, whose actual spouse — she too had been divorced — the principal man of the place, kept a bank (with the aid of a six-shooter), and who had never suffered Nancy to want for a home during her unattached periods. Nancy had begun very young; she must be about thirty-seven today. That was all he meant by her not being respectable. Her chronology was rather mixed; her sister at least had once told him that there was one winter when she didn’t know herself who was Nancy’s husband. She had gone in mainly for editors — she esteemed the journalistic profession. They must all have been dreadful ruffians, for her own amiability was manifest. It was well known that whatever she had done she had done in self-defence. In fine she had done things — that was the main point now. She had been as pretty as could still be seen, and as good-natured and as clever as could likewise be yet measured; she had been quite the best company in those parts. She was a genuine product of the wild West — a flower of the Pacific slope; ignorant, absurd, crude, but full of pluck and spirit, of natural intelligence and of a certain intermittent haphazard felicity of impulse. She used to sigh that she only wanted a chance — apparently she had found that now. At one time, without her, he didn’t see how he could have put up with the life. He had started a cattle-ranch, to which San Pablo was the nearest town, and he used to ride over to see her. Sometimes he stayed there a week; then he went to see her every evening. It was infernally hot; they used to sit on the back piazza. She was always as attractive and very nearly as well-dressed as they had just beheld her. As far as appearance went she might have been transplanted at an hour’s notice from that dusty old settlement to the city by the Seine.
“Some of those barbaric women are wonderful,” Littlemore said. “Like her, they only want a chance.”
He hadn’t been in love with her — there never was anything of that sort between them. There might have been of course, but as happened there wasn’t. Headway would have been then the successor of Beck; perhaps there had been others between. She was in no sort of “society”; she only had a local reputation (“the well-known Texan belle,” the newspapers called her — the other editors, to whom she wasn’t married), though indeed in that spacious civilisation the locality was large. She knew nothing of the East and to the best of his belief at that period had never seen New York. Various things might have happened in those six years, however; no doubt she had “come up.” The West was sending us everything (Littlemore spoke as a New Yorker); no doubt it would send us at last our brilliant women. The well-known Texan belle used to look quite over the head of New York; even in those days she thought and talked of Paris, which there was no prospect of her knowing: that was the way she had got on in New Mexico. She had had her ambition, her presentiments; she had known she was meant for better things. Even at San Pablo she had prefigured her member of Parliament; every now and then a wandering Englishman came within her range. They weren’t all Sir Arthurs, like her present acquisition, but they were usually a change from the editors. What she was doing with her present acquisition Littlemore was curious to see. She was certainly — if he had any capacity for that state of mind, which was not too apparent — making the gentleman happy. She looked very splendid; Headway had probably made a “pile,” an achievement not to be imputed to any of the others. She didn’t accept money — he was sure she didn’t accept money. With all of which, on their way back to their seats, Littlemore, whose tone had been humorous, but with that strain of the pensive which is inseparable from retrospect, suddenly burst into audible laughter. “The modelling of statues and the works of Voltaire!” he broke out, recurring to two or three things she had said. “It’s touching to hear her attempt those flights, for in New Mexico she knew nothing about modelling.”
“She didn’t strike me as affected,” Waterville demurred, feeling a vague impulse to view her in becoming lights.
“Oh no; she’s only — as she says — fearfully changed.”
They were in their places before the play went on again, and they both gave another glance at Mrs. Headway’s box. She now was leaning back behind the slow movements of her fan and evidently watching Littlemore as if she had waited to see him come in. Sir Arthur Demesne sat beside her, rather gloomily resting a round pink chin upon a high stiff collar; neither of them seemed to speak.
“Are you sure she makes him happy?” Waterville asked.
“Yes — that’s the way those people show it.”
“But does she go about alone with him at that rate? Where’s her husband?”
“I suppose she has divorced him.”
“And does she want to marry the Baronet?” Waterville went on as if his companion was omniscient.
It amused Littlemore for the moment to appear so. “He wants to marry her, I guess.”
“And be divorced like the others?”
“Oh no; this time she has got what she wants,” said Littlemore as the curtain rose.
He suffered three days to elapse before he called at the Hôtel Meurice, which she had designated, and we may occupy this interval in adding a few words to the story we have taken from his lips. George Littlemore’s residence in the Far West had been of the usual tentative sort — he had gone there to replenish a pocket depleted by youthful extravagance. His first attempts had failed; the days had pretty well passed when a fortune was to be picked up even by a young man who might be supposed to have inherited from an honourable father, lately removed, some of those fine abilities, mainly dedicated to the importation of tea, to which the elder Mr. Littlemore was indebted for the power of leaving his son markedly at ease. Littlemore had dissipated his patrimony and was not quick to discover his talents, which, restricted chiefly to an unlimited faculty for smoking and horse-breaking, appeared to lie in the direction of none of the professions called liberal. He had been sent to Harvard to have them cultivated, but here they had taken such a form that repression had been found more necessary than stimulus — repression embodied in an occasional sojourn in one of the lovely villages of the Connecticut Valley. Rustication saved him perhaps in the sense that it detached him; it undermined his ambitions, which had been foolish. At the age of thirty he had mastered none of the useful arts, unless we include in the number the great art of indifference. But he was roused from too consistent an application of it by a stroke of good luck. To oblige a luckless friend, even in more pressing need of cash than himself, he had purchased for a moderate sum — the proceeds of a successful game of poker — a share in a silver-mine which the disposer of it, with unusual candour, admitted to be destitute of metal. Littlemore looked into his mine and recognised the truth of the contention, which, however, was demolished some two years later by a sudden revival of curiosity on the part of one of the other shareholders. This gentleman, convinced that a silver-mine without silver is as rare as an effect without a cause, discovered the sparkle of the precious element deep down in the reasons of things. The discovery was agreeable to Littlemore, and was the beginning of a fortune which, through several dull years and in many rough places, he had repeatedly despaired of, and which a man whose purpose had never been very keen, nor his aim very high, didn’t perhaps altogether deserve.
It was before he saw himself successful that he had made the acquaintance of the lady now established at the Hôtel Meurice. To-day he owned the largest share in his mine, which had remained perversely productive and enabled him to buy, among other things, in Montana, a cattle-ranch of higher type than the dry acres near San Pablo. Ranches and mines encourage security, and the consciousness of not having to watch the sources of his income too anxiously — a tax on ideal detachment which spoils the idea — now added itself to his usual coolness. It was not that this same coolness hadn’t been considerably tried. To take only one — the principal — instance: he had lost his wife after only a twelvemonth of marriage, some three years before the date at which we meet him. He had been turned thirty-eight when he distinguished and wooed and won an ardent girl of twenty-three, who, like himself, had consulted all the probabilities in expecting a succession of happy years. She had left him a small daughter, now entrusted to the care of his only sister, the wife of an English squire and mistress of a dull park in Hampshire. This lady, Mrs. Dolphin by name, had captivated her landowner during a journey in which Mr. Dolphin had promised himself to examine the institutions of the United States. The institution on which he had reported most favourably was the pretty girls of the larger towns, and he had returned to New York a year or two later to marry Miss Littlemore, who, unlike her brother, had not wasted her patrimony. Her sister-inlaw, married several years later and coming to Europe on this occasion, had died in London — where she had flattered herself the doctors were infallible — a week after the birth of her little girl; and poor Littlemore, though relinquishing his child for the moment, had lingered on the scene of his deep disconcertment to be within call of the Hampshire nursery. He was a presence to attract admiring attention, especially since his hair and moustache had turned to so fine a silver. Tall and clean-limbed, with a good figure and a bad carriage, he looked capable but indolent, and was exposed to imputations of credit and renown, those attaching to John Gilpin, of which he was far from being either conscious or desirous. His eye was at once keen and quiet, his smile dim and dilatory, but perfectly sincere. His principal occupation today was doing nothing, and he did it with a beautiful consistency. This exercise excited real envy on the part of Rupert Waterville, who was ten years younger and who had too many ambitions and anxieties — none of them very important, but making collectively a considerable incubus — to be able to wait for inspiration. He thought of it as the last social grace, he hoped some day to arrive at it; it made a man so independent — he had his resources within his own breast. Littlemore could sit for a whole evening without utterance or movement, smoking cigars and looking absently at his finger-nails. As every one knew him for a good fellow who had made his fortune this free and even surface offered by him to contact couldn’t be attributed to stupidity or moroseness. It seemed to imply a fund of reminiscence, an experience of life that had left him hundreds of things to think about. Waterville felt that if he himself could make a good use of these present years and keep a sharp lookout for experience he too at forty-four might have time to look at his finger-nails. He cultivated the conceit that such contemplations — not of course in their literal but in their symbolic intensity — were a sign of a man of the world. Waterville, reckoning possibly without an ungrateful Department of State, also nursed the fond fancy that he had embraced the diplomatic career. He was the junior of the two secretaries who render the personnel of the United States Legation in London exceptionally numerous, and was at present enjoying his annual leave of absence. It became a diplomatist to be inscrutable, and though he had by no means, as a whole, taken Littlemore for his model — there were much better ones in the diplomatic body accredited to the Court of Saint James’s — he thought the right effect of fine ease suggested when of an evening, in Paris, after one had been asked what one would like to do, one replied that one would like to do nothing, and simply sat for an interminable time in front of the Grand Café on the Boulevard de la Madeleine (one was very fond of cafés) ordering a succession of demi-tasses. It was seldom Littlemore cared even to go to the theatre, and the visit to the Comédie Française, which we have described, had been undertaken at Waterville’s instance. He had seen Le Demi–Monde a few nights before and had been told that L’Aventurière would show him a particular treatment of the same subject — the justice to be meted out to compromised women who attempt to thrust themselves into honourable families. It seemed to him that in both of these cases the ladies had deserved their fate, but he wished it might have been brought about by a little less lying on the part of the representatives of honour. Littlemore and he, without being intimate, were very good friends and spent much of their time together. As it turned out Littlemore was grateful for the chance that had led him to a view of this new incarnation of Nancy Beck.
His delay in going to see her was nevertheless calculated; there were more reasons for it than we need at once go into. When he did go, however, Mrs. Headway was at home and he was scarce surprised to find Sir Arthur Demesne in her sitting-room. There was something in the air that spoke of the already ample stretch of this gentleman’s visit. Littlemore thought probable that, given the circumstances, he would now bring it to a close; he must have learned from their hostess that this welcomed compatriot was an old and familiar friend. He might of course have definite rights — he had every appearance of it, but the more they were rooted the more gracefully he could afford to waive them. Littlemore made these reflexions while the friend in possession faced him without sign of departure. Mrs. Headway was very gracious — she had ever the manner of having known you a hundred years; she scolded Littlemore extravagantly for not having been to see her sooner, but this was only a form of the gracious. By daylight she looked a little faded, but there was a spirit in her that rivalled the day. She had the best rooms in the hotel and an air of extreme opulence and prosperity; her courier sat outside, in the antechamber, and she evidently knew how to live. She attempted to include Sir Arthur in the conversation, but though the young man remained in his place he failed to grasp the offered perch. He followed but as from the steep bank of the stream, where yet he was evidently not at his ease. The conversation therefore remained superficial — a quality that of old had by no means belonged to Mrs. Headway’s interviews with her friends. The Englishman hovered with a distant air which Littlemore at first, with a good deal of private amusement, simply attributed to jealousy.
But after a time Mrs. Headway spoke to the point. “My dear Sir Arthur, I wish very much you’d go.”
The member of Parliament got up and took his hat. “I thought I should oblige you by staying.”
“To defend me against Mr. Littlemore? I’ve known him since I was a baby — I know the worst he can do.” She fixed her charming smile on her retreating visitor and added with much unexpectedness: “I want to talk to him about my past!”
“That’s just what I want to hear,” said Sir Arthur, with his hand on the door.
“We’re going to talk American; you wouldn’t understand us! He speaks in the English style,” she explained in her little sufficient way as the Baronet, who announced that at all events he would come back in the evening, let himself out.
“He doesn’t know about your past?” Littlemore inquired, trying not to make the question sound impertinent.
“Oh yes; I’ve told him everything; but he doesn’t understand. One has to hold an Englishman by the head, you know, and kind of force it down. He has never heard of a woman being —” But here Mrs. Headway checked herself, while Littlemore filled out the blank. “What are you laughing at? It doesn’t matter,” she went on; “there are more things in the world than those people have heard of. However, I like them very much; at least I like him. He’s such a regular gentleman; do you know what I mean? Only, as he stays too long and he ain’t amusing, I’m very glad to see you for a change.”
“Do you mean I’m not a regular gentleman?” Littlemore asked.
“No indeed; you used to be out there. I think you were the only one — and I hope you are still. That’s why I recognised you the other night — I might have cut you, you know.”
“You can still, if you like. It’s not too late.”
“Oh no, that’s not what I want. I want you to help me.”
“To help you?”
Mrs. Headway fixed her eyes for a moment on the door. “Do you suppose that man is there still?”
“The member of Parliament?”
“No, I mean Max. Max is my courier,” said Mrs. Headway with some impressiveness.
“I haven’t the least idea. I’ll see if you like.”
“No — in that case I should have to give him an order, and I don’t know what in the world to ask him to do. He sits there for hours; with my simple habits I afford him no employment. I’m afraid I’ve no grand imagination.”
“The burden of grandeur!” said Littlemore.
“Oh yes, I’m very grand for clothes and things. But on the whole I like it. I’m only afraid he’ll hear. I talk so very loud. That’s another thing I’m trying to get over.”
“Why do you want to be different?”
“Well, because everything else is so,” Mrs. Headway bravely pleaded. “Did you hear that I had lost my husband?” she went on abruptly.
“Do you mean — a — Mr. —?” and Littlemore paused with an effect that didn’t seem to come home to her.
“I mean Mr. Headway,” she said with dignity. “I’ve been through a good deal since you saw me last: marriage and death and trouble and all sorts of things.”
“You had been through a good deal of marriage before that,” her old friend ventured to observe.
She rested her eyes on him with extravagant intensity and without a change of colour. “Not so much, not so much! —”
“Not so much as might have been thought?”
“Not so much as was reported. I forget whether I was married when I saw you last.”
“It was one of the reports,” said Littlemore. “But I never saw Mr. Beck.”
“You didn’t lose much; he was too mean to live. I’ve done certain things in my life that I’ve never understood; no wonder others can’t do much with them. But that’s all over! Are you sure Max doesn’t hear?” she asked quickly.
“Not at all sure. But if you suspect him of listening at the keyhole I’d send him away.”
“I don’t think he does that. I’m always rushing to the door.”
“Then he doesn’t hear. I had no idea you had so many secrets. When I parted with you Mr. Headway was in the future.”
“Well, now he’s in the past. He was a pleasant man — I can understand my doing that. But he only lived a year. He had neuralgia of the heart; he left me very well off.” She mentioned these various facts as if they were quite of the same order.
“I’m glad to hear that. You used to have expensive tastes.”
“I’ve plenty of money,” said Mrs. Headway. “Mr. Headway had property at Denver, which has increased immensely in value. After his death I tried New York. But I don’t take much stock in New York.” Littlemore’s hostess spoke these last words in a tone that reeked of some strong experience. “I mean to live in Europe. I guess I can do with Europe,” she stated; and the manner of it had the touch of prophecy, as the other proposition had had the echo of history.
Littlemore was much struck with all this; he was greatly enlivened by Mrs. Headway. “Then you’re travelling with that young man?” he pursued, with the coolness of a person who wishes to make his entertainment go as far as possible.
She folded her arms as she leaned back in her chair. “Look here, Mr. Littlemore; I’m about as sweet-tempered as I used to be in America, but I know a great deal more. Of course I ain’t travelling with that young man. He’s only a good friend.”
“He isn’t a good lover?” Littlemore ventured.
“Do people travel — publicly — with their lovers? I don’t want you to laugh at me — I want you to help me.” Her appeal might, in its almost childish frankness, have penetrated; she recognised his wisdom. “As I tell you, I’ve taken a great fancy to this grand old Europe; I feel as if I should never go back. But I want to see something of the life. I think it would suit me — if I could get started a little. George Littlemore,” she added in a moment —“I may as well be real, for I ain’t at all ashamed. I want to get into society. That’s what I’m after!”
He settled himself in his chair with the feeling of a man who, knowing that he will have to pull, seeks to obtain a certain leverage. It was in a tone of light jocosity, almost of encouragement, however, that he repeated: “Into society? It seems to me you’re in it already, with the big people over here for your adorers.”
“That’s just what I want to know — if they are big,” she promptly said. “Is a Baronet much?”
“So they’re apt to think. But I know very little about it.”
“Ain’t you in society yourself?”
“I? Never in the world! Where did you get that idea? I care no more about society than about Max’s buttons.”
Mrs. Headway’s countenance assumed for a moment a look of extreme disappointment, and Littlemore could see that, having heard of his silver-mine and his cattle-ranch, and knowing that he was living in Europe, she had hoped to find him eminent in the world of fashion. But she speedily took heart. “I don’t believe a word of it. You know you’re a real gentleman — you can’t help yourself.”
“I may be a gentleman, but I’ve none of the habits of one.” Littlemore had a pause and then added: “I guess I’ve sat too much on back piazzas.”
She flushed quickly; she instantly understood — understood even more than he had meant to say. But she wished to make use of him, and it was of more importance that she should appear forgiving — especially as she had the happy consciousness of being so — than that she should punish a cruel speech. She would be wise, however, to recognise everything. “That makes no difference — a gentleman’s always a gentleman.”
“Ah, not the way a lady’s always a lady!” he laughed.
“Well, talking of ladies, it’s unnatural that, through your sister, you shouldn’t know something about European society,” said Mrs. Headway.
At the mention of his sister, made with a studied lightness of reference which he caught as it passed, Littlemore was unable to repress a start. “What in the world have you to do with my sister?” he would have liked to say. The introduction of this relative was disagreeable to him; she belonged quite to another order of ideas, and it was out of the question Mrs. Headway should ever make her acquaintance — if this was what, as the latter would have said, she was “after.” But he took advantage of a side issue. “What do you mean by European society? One can’t talk about that. It’s an empty phrase.”
“Well, I mean English society; I mean the society your sister lives in; that’s what I mean,” said his hostess, who was quite prepared to be definite. “I mean the people I saw in London last May — the people I saw at the opera and in the park, the people who go to the Queen’s drawing-rooms. When I was in London I stayed at that hotel on the corner of Piccadilly — the one looking straight down Saint James’s Street — and I spent hours together at the window there looking at the people in the carriages. I had a carriage of my own, and when I wasn’t at my window I was riding all around. I was all alone; I saw every one, but I knew no one — I had no one to tell me. I didn’t know Sir Arthur then — I only met him a month ago at Homburg. He followed me to Paris — that’s how he came to be my guest.” Serenely, prosaically, without a breath of the inflation of vanity, she made this last assertion: it was as if she were used to being followed or as if a gentleman one met at Homburg would inevitably follow. In the same tone she went on: “I attracted a good deal of attention in London — I could easily see that.”
“You’ll do that wherever you go,” Littlemore said — insufficiently enough, as he felt.
“I don’t want to attract so much; I think it’s vulgar.” She spoke as if she liked to use the word. She was evidently open to new sources of pleasure.
“Every one was looking at you the other night at the theatre,” Littlemore continued. “How can you hope to escape notice?”
“I don’t want to escape notice. People have always looked at me and I guess they always will. But there are different ways of being looked at, and I know the way I want. I mean to have it too!” Mrs. Headway prettily shrilled. Yes, she was full of purpose.
He sat there face to face with her and for some time said nothing. He had a mixture of feelings, and the memory of other places, other hours, was stealing over him. There had been of old a very considerable absence of interposing surfaces between these two — he had known her as one knew people only amid the civilisation of big tornadoes and back piazzas. He had liked her extremely in a place where it would have been ridiculous to be difficult to please. But his sense of this fact was somehow connected with other and such now alien facts; his liking for Nancy Beck was an emotion of which the sole setting was a back piazza. She presented herself here on a new basis — she appeared to want to be classified afresh. Littlemore said to himself that this was too much trouble; he had taken her at the great time in that way — he couldn’t begin at this late hour to take her in another way. He asked himself if she were going to be a real bore. It wasn’t easy to suppose her bent on ravage, but she might become tiresome if she were too disposed to be different. It made him rather afraid when she began to talk about European society, about his sister, to pronounce things vulgar. Littlemore was naturally merciful and decently just; but there was in his composition an element of the indolent, the sceptical, perhaps even the brutal, which made him decidedly prefer the simplicity of their former terms of intercourse. He had no particular need to see a woman rise again, as the mystic process was called; he didn’t believe in women’s rising again. He believed in their not going down, thought it perfectly possible and eminently desirable; but held it was much better for society that the divisions, the categories, the differing values, should be kept clear. He didn’t believe in bridging the chasms, in muddling the kinds. In general he didn’t pretend to say what was good for society — society seemed to him rather in a bad way; but he had a conviction on this particular point. Nancy Beck going in for the great prizes, that spectacle might be entertaining for a simple spectator; but it would be a nuisance, an embarrassment, from the moment anything more than detached “fun” should represent his share. He had no wish to be “mean,” but it might be well to show her he wasn’t to be humbugged.
“Oh if there’s anything you want you’ll have it,” he said in answer to her last remark. “You’ve always had what you want.”
“Well, I want something new this time. Does your sister reside in London?”
“My dear lady, what do you know about my sister?” Littlemore asked. “She’s not a woman you’d care in the least for.”
His old friend had a marked pause. “You don’t really respect me!” she then abruptly and rather gaily cried. It had one of her “Texan” effects of drollery; so that, yes, evidently, if he wished to preserve the simplicity of their former intercourse she was willing to humour him.
“Ah, my dear Mrs. Beck —!” he vaguely protested, using her former name quite by accident. At San Pablo he — and apparently she — had never thought whether he respected her or not. That never came up.
“That’s a proof of it — calling me by that hateful name! Don’t you believe I’m married? I haven’t been fortunate in my names,” she pensively added.
“You make it very awkward when you say such mad things. My sister lives most of the year in the country; she’s very simple, rather dull, perhaps a trifle narrow-minded. You’re very clever, very lively, and as large and loose and free as all creation. That’s why I think you wouldn’t like her.”
“You ought to be ashamed to run down your sister!” Mrs. Headway made prompt answer. “You told me once — at San Pablo — that she was the nicest woman you knew. I made a note of that, you see. And you told me she was just my age. So that makes it rather inglorious for you if you won’t introduce me!” With which she gave a laugh that perhaps a little heralded danger. “I’m not in the least afraid of her being dull. It’s all right, it’s just refined and nice, to be dull. I’m ever so much too exciting.”
“You are indeed, ever so much! But nothing is more easy than to know my sister,” said Littlemore, who knew perfectly that what he said was untrue. And then as a diversion from this delicate topic he brought out: “Are you going to marry Sir Arthur?”
“Don’t you think I’ve been married about enough?”
“Possibly; but this is a new line, it would be different. An Englishman — that’s a new sensation.”
“If I should marry it would be a European,” she said judiciously.
“Your chance is very good — they’re all marrying Americans.”
“He would have to be some one fine, the man I should marry now. I have a good deal to make up, you know. That’s what I want to learn about Sir Arthur. All this time you haven’t told me.”
“I’ve nothing in the world to tell — I’ve never heard of him. Hasn’t he told you himself?”
“Nothing at all; he’s very modest. He doesn’t brag nor ‘blow’ nor make himself out anything great. That’s what I like him for: I think it’s in such good taste. I do love good taste!” said Mrs. Headway. “But all this time,” she added, “you haven’t told me you’d help me.”
“How can I help you? I’m no one here, you know — I’ve no power.”
“You can help me by not preventing me. I want you to promise not to prevent me.” She continued to give him her charming conscious eyes, which seemed to look far into his own.
“Good Lord, how could I prevent you?”
“Well, I’m not quite sure of how. But you might try.”
“Oh I’m too lazy and too stupid,” Littlemore said.
“Yes,” she replied, musing as she still looked at him. “I think you’re too stupid. But I think you’re also too kind,” she added more graciously. She was almost irresistible when she said such a thing as that.
They talked for a quarter of an hour longer, and at last — as if she had had scruples — she spoke to him of his own marriage, of the death of his wife, matters to which she alluded more felicitously (as he thought) than to some other points. “If you’ve a little girl you ought to be very happy; that’s what I should like to have. Lord, I should make her a nice woman! Not like me — in another style!” When he rose to leave her she made a great point of his coming again — she was to be some weeks longer in Paris. And he must bring Mr. Waterville.
“Your English friend won’t like that — our coming very often,” Littlemore reminded her as he stood with his hand on the door.
But she met this without difficulty. “I don’t know what he has to do with it.”
“Neither do I. Only he must be in love with you.”
“That doesn’t give him any right. Mercy, if I had had to put myself out for all the men that have been in love with me!”
“Of course you’d have had a terrible life. Even doing as you please you’ve had rather an agitated one,” Littlemore pursued. “But your young Englishman’s sentiments appear to give him the right to sit there, after one comes in, looking blighted and bored. That might become very tiresome.”
“The moment he becomes tiresome I send him away. You can trust me for that.”
“Oh it doesn’t matter after all.” Our friend was perfectly conscious that nothing would suit him less than to have undisturbed possession of Mrs. Headway.
She came out with him into the antechamber. Mr. Max, the courier, was fortunately not there. She lingered a little; she appeared to have more to say. “On the contrary he likes you to come,” she then continued; “he wants to study my friends.”
“To study them?”
“He wants to find out about me, and he thinks they may tell him something. Some day he’ll ask you right out ‘What sort of a woman is she anyway?’”
“Hasn’t he found out yet?”
“He doesn’t understand me,” said Mrs. Headway, surveying the front of her dress. “He has never seen any one like me.”
“I should imagine not!”
“So he’ll just try to find out from you.”
“Well then he shall find out,” Littlemore returned. “I’ll just tell him you’re the most charming woman in Europe.”
“That ain’t a description! Besides, he knows it. He wants to know if I’m respectable.”
“Why should he fuss about it?” Littlemore asked — not at once.
She grew a little pale; she seemed to be watching his lips. “Well, mind you tell him all right,” she went on, with her wonderful gay glare, the strain of which yet brought none of her colour back.
“Respectable? I’ll tell him you’re adorable!”
She stood a moment longer. “Ah, you’re no use!” she rather harshly wailed. And she suddenly turned away and passed back into her sitting-room, with the heavy rustle of her far-trailing skirts.
“Elle ne doute de rien!” Littlemore said to himself as he walked away from the hotel; and he repeated the phrase in talking about her to Waterville. “She wants to be right,” he added; “but she’ll never really succeed. She has begun too late, she’ll never get on the true middle of the note. However, she won’t know when she’s wrong, so it doesn’t signify!” And he more or less explained what he meant by this discrimination. She’d remain in certain essentials incurable. She had no delicacy; no discretion; no shading; she was a woman who suddenly said to you, “You don’t really respect me!” As if that were a thing for a woman to say!
“It depends upon what she meant by it.” Waterville could always imagine alternatives.
“The more she meant by it the less she ought to say it!” Littlemore declared.
But he returned to the Hôtel Meurice and on the next occasion took this companion with him. The secretary of legation, who had not often been in close quarters with pretty women whose respectability, or whose lack of it, was so frankly discussable, was prepared to find the well-known Texan belle a portentous type. He was afraid there might be danger in her, but on the whole he felt armed. The object of his devotion at present was his country, or at least the Department of State; he had no intention of being diverted from that allegiance. Besides, he had his ideal of the attractive woman — a person pitched in a very much lower key than this shining, smiling, rustling, chattering daughter of the Territories. The woman he should care for would have repose, a sense of the private in life, and the implied, even the withheld, in talk; would sometimes let one alone. Mrs. Headway was personal, familiar, intimate, perpetually appealing or accusing, demanding explanations and pledges, saying things one had to answer. All this was accompanied with a hundred smiles and radiations and other natural graces, but the general effect was distinctly fatiguing. She had certainly a great deal of charm, an immense desire to please, and a wonderful collection of dresses and trinkets; but she was eager and clamorous, and it was hard for other people to be put to serve her appetite. If she wanted to get into society there was no reason why those of her visitors who had the luck to be themselves independent, to be themselves placed, and to be themselves by the same token critical, should wish to see her there; for it was this absence of common social encumbrances made her drawing-room attractive. There was no doubt whatever that she was several women in one, and she ought to content herself with that sort of numerical triumph. Littlemore said to Waterville that it was stupid of her to wish to scale the heights; she ought to know how much more she was in her element scouring the plain. She appeared vaguely to irritate him; even her fluttering attempts at self-culture — she had become a great judge of books and pictures and plays, and pronounced off-hand — constituted a vague invocation, an appeal for sympathy onerous to a man who disliked the trouble of revising old decisions consecrated by a certain amount of reminiscence that might be called tender. She exerted, however, effectively enough one of the arts of solicitation — she often startled and surprised. Even Waterville felt a touch of the unexpected, though not indeed an excess of it, to belong to his conception of the woman who should have an ideal repose. Of course there were two kinds of surprises, and only one of them thoroughly pleasant, though Mrs. Headway dealt impartially in both. She had the sudden delights, the odd exclamations, the queer curiosities of a person who has grown up in a country where everything is new and many things ugly, and who, with a natural turn for the arts and amenities of life, makes a tardy acquaintance with some of the finer usages, the higher pleasures. She was provincial; it was easy to see how she embodied that term; it took no great cleverness. But what was Parisian enough — if to be Parisian was the measure of success — was the way she picked up ideas and took a hint from every circumstance. “Only give me time and I guess I’ll come out all right,” she said to Littlemore, who watched her progress with a mixture of admiration and regret. She delighted to speak of herself as a poor little barbarian grubbing up crumbs of knowledge, and this habit borrowed beautiful relief from her delicate face, her so highly developed dress and the free felicity of her manners.
One of her surprises was, that after that first visit she said no more to Littlemore about Mrs. Dolphin. He did her perhaps the grossest injustice, but he had quite expected her to bring up this lady whenever they met. “If she’ll only leave Agnes alone she may do what she will,” he said to Waterville, expressing his satisfaction. “My sister would never look at her, and it would be very awkward to have to tell her so.” She counted on aid; she made him feel this simply by the way she looked at him; but for the moment she demanded no definite service. She held her tongue but waited, and her patience itself was a deeper admonition. In the way of society, it had to be noted, her privileges were meagre, Sir Arthur Demesne and her two compatriots being, so far as the latter could discover, her only visitors. She might have had other friends, but she held her head very high and liked better to see no one than not to see the best company. She went in, clearly, for producing the effect of being by no means so neglected as fastidious. There were plenty of Americans in Paris, but in this direction she failed to extend her acquaintance; the nice people wouldn’t come to her, and nothing would have induced her to receive the others. She had a perfect and inexorable view of those she wished to avoid. Littlemore expected her every day to ask why he didn’t bring some of his friends — as to which he had his answer ready. It was rather a poor one, for it consisted but of the “academic” assurance that he wished to keep her for himself. She would be sure to retort that this was “too thin,” as indeed it was; yet the days went by without her calling him to account. The little American colony in Paris abounded in amiable women, but there were none to whom Littlemore could make up his mind to say that it would be a favour to him they should call on Mrs. Headway. He shouldn’t like them the better for doing so, and he wished to like those of whom he might ask a favour. Except, therefore, that he occasionally spoke of her as a full-blown flower of the West, still very pretty, but of not at all orthodox salon scent, who had formerly been a great chum of his, she remained unknown in the circles of the Avenue Gabriel and the streets that encircle the Arch of Triumph. To ask the men to go see her without asking the ladies would only accentuate the fact that he didn’t ask the ladies; so he asked no one at all. Besides, it was true — just a little — that he wished to keep her to himself, and he was fatuous enough to believe she really cared more for him than for any outsider. Of course, however, he would never dream of marrying her, whereas her Englishman apparently was capable of that quaintness. She hated her old past; she often made that point, talking of this “dark backward” as if it were an appendage of the same order as a thieving cook or a noisy bedroom or even an inconvenient protrusion of drapery. Therefore, as Littlemore was part of the very air of the previous it might have been supposed she would hate him too and wish to banish him, with all the images he recalled, from her sight. But she made an exception in his favour, and if she disliked their early relations as a chapter of her own history she seemed still to like them as a chapter of his. He felt how she clung to him, how she believed he could make a great and blest difference for her and in the long run would. It was to the long run that she appeared little by little to have attuned herself.
She succeeded perfectly in maintaining harmony between Sir Arthur Demesne and her American visitors, who spent much less time in her drawing-room. She had easily persuaded him that there were no grounds for jealousy and that they had no wish, as she said, to crowd him out; for it was ridiculous to be jealous of two persons at once, and Rupert Waterville, after he had learned the way to her favour and her fireside, presented himself as often as his original introducer. The two indeed usually came together and they ended by relieving their competitor of a part of the weight of his problem. This amiable and earnest but slightly fatuous young man, who had not yet made up his mind, was sometimes rather oppressed with the magnitude of the undertaking, and when alone with Mrs. Headway occasionally found the tension of his thoughts quite painful. He was very slim and straight and looked taller than his height; he had the prettiest silkiest hair, which waved away from a large white forehead, and he was endowed with a nose of the so-called Roman model. He looked, in spite of these attributes, younger than his years, partly on account of the delicacy of his complexion and the almost child-like candour of his round blue eyes. He was diffident and self-conscious; there were certain letters he couldn’t pronounce. At the same time he carried himself as one brought up to fill a considerable place in the world, with whom confidence had become a duty and correctness a habit, and who, though he might occasionally be a little awkward about small things, would be sure to acquit himself honourably in great ones. He was very simple and believed himself very serious; he had the blood of a score of Warwickshire squires in his veins, mingled in the last instance with the somewhat paler fluid still animating the long-necked daughter of a banker who, after promising himself high glories as a father-inlaw, had by the turn of events been reduced to looking for them in Sir Baldwin Demesne. The boy who was the only fruit of that gentleman’s marriage had come into his title at five years of age; his mother, who was somehow parentally felt to have a second time broken faith with expectation by not having better guarded the neck of her husband, broken in the hunting-field, watched over him with a tenderness that burned as steadily as a candle shaded by a transparent hand. She never admitted even to herself that he was not the cleverest of men; but it took all her own cleverness, which was much greater, to maintain this appearance. Fortunately he wasn’t wild, so that he would never marry an actress or a governess, like two or three of the young men who had been at Eton with him. With this ground of nervousness the less Lady Demesne awaited with a proud patience his appointment to some high office. He represented in Parliament the Conservative instincts and vote of a red-roofed market town, and, sending regularly to his bookseller for the new publications on economical subjects, was determined his political development should have a massive statistical basis. He was not conceited; he was only misinformed — misinformed, I mean, about himself. He thought himself essential to the propriety of things — not as an individual, but as an institution. This conviction indeed was too sacred to betray itself by vulgar assumptions. If he was a little man in a big place he never strutted nor talked loud; he merely felt it as a luxury that he had a large social circumference. It was like sleeping in a big bed; practically one didn’t toss about the more, but one felt a greater freshness.
He had never seen anything like Mrs. Headway; he hardly knew by what standard to measure her. She was not at all the English lady — not one of those with whom he had been accustomed to converse; yet it was impossible not to make out in her a temper and a tone. He might have been sure she was provincial, but as he was much under her charm he compromised by pronouncing her only foreign. It was of course provincial to be foreign; but this was after all a peculiarity which she shared with a great many nice people. He wasn’t wild, and his mother had flattered herself that in this all-important matter he wouldn’t be perverse; yet it was far from regular that he should have taken a fancy to an American widow, five years older than himself, who knew no one and who sometimes didn’t appear to understand exactly who he was. Though he believed in no alternative to the dignity of the British consciousness, it was precisely her foreignness that pleased him; she seemed as little as possible of his own race and creed; there wasn’t a touch of Warwickshire in her composition. She was like an Hungarian or a Pole, with the difference that he could almost make out her speech. The unfortunate young man was engulfed even while not admitting that he had done more than estimate his distance to the brink. He would love wisely — one might even so love agreeably. He had intelligently arranged his life; he had determined to marry at thirty-two. A long line of ancestors was watching him; he hardly knew what they would think of Mrs. Headway. He hardly knew what he thought himself; the only thing he was absolutely sure of was that she made the time pass as it passed in no other pursuit. That, indeed, rather worried him; he was by no means sure anything so precious should be so little accounted for. There was nothing so to account but the fragments of Mrs. Headway’s conversation, the peculiarities of her accent, the sallies of her wit, the audacities of her fancy, the odd echoes of her past. Of course he knew she had had a past; she wasn’t a young girl, she was a widow — and widows were essentially the expression of an accomplished fact. He was not jealous of her antecedents, but he would have liked a little to piece them together, and it was here the difficulty occurred. The subject was illumined with fitful flashes, but never placed itself before him as a general picture. He asked her various questions, but her answers were so startling that, like sudden luminous points, they seemed to intensify the darkness round their edges. She had apparently spent her life in a remote province of a barbarous country, but it didn’t follow from this that she herself had been low. She had been a lily among thistles, and there was something romantic possibly in the interest taken by a man of his position in a woman of hers. It pleased Sir Arthur to believe he was romantic; that had been the case with several of his ancestors, who supplied a precedent without which he would scarce perhaps have ventured to trust himself. He was the victim of perplexities from which a single spark of direct perception would have saved him. He took everything in the literal sense; a grain of humour or of imagination would have saved him, but such things were never so far from him as when he had begun to stray helplessly in the realm of wonder. He sat there vaguely waiting for something to happen and not committing himself by rash declarations. If he was in love it was in his own way, reflectively, inexpressibly, obstinately. He was waiting for the formula which would justify his conduct and Mrs. Headway’s peculiarities. He hardly knew where it would come from; you might have thought from his manner that he would discover it in one of the elaborate entreés that were served to the pair when she consented to dine with him at Bignon’s or the Café Anglais; or in one of the luxurious band-boxes that arrived from the Rue de la Paix and from which she often lifted the lid in the presence of her admirer. There were moments when he got weary of waiting in vain, and at these moments the arrival of her American friends — he often asked himself why she had so few — seemed to lift the mystery from his shoulders and give him a chance to rest. This apology for a plan she herself might yet scarce contribute to, since she couldn’t know how much ground it was expected to cover. She talked about her past because she thought it the best thing to do; she had a shrewd conviction that it was somehow better made use of and confessed to, even in a manner presented or paraded, than caused to stretch behind her as a mere nameless desert. She could at least a little irrigate and plant the waste. She had to have some geography, though the beautiful blank rose-coloured map-spaces of unexplored countries were what she would have preferred. She had no objection to telling fibs, but now that she was taking a new departure wished to indulge only in such as were imperative. She would have been delighted might she have squeezed through with none at all. A few, verily, were indispensable, and we needn’t attempt to scan too critically the more or less adventurous excursions into poetry and fable with which she entertained and mystified Sir Arthur. She knew of course that as a product of fashionable circles she was nowhere, but she might have great success as a child of nature.
Rupert Waterville, in the midst of intercourse in which every one perhaps had a good many mental reserves, never forgot that he was in a representative position, that he was official and responsible; and he asked himself more than once how far he was sure it was right, as they said in Boston, to countenance Mrs. Headway’s claim to the character even of the American lady thrown to the surface by the late inordinate spread of excavation. In his own way as puzzled as poor Sir Arthur, he indeed flattered himself he was as particular as any Englishman could be. Suppose that after all this free association the well-known Texan belle should come over to London and ask at the Legation to be presented to the Queen? It would be so awkward to refuse her — of course they would have to refuse her — that he was very careful to make no tacit promises. She might construe anything as a tacit promise — he knew how the smallest gestures of diplomatists were studied and interpreted. It was his effort, therefore, to be really diplomatic in his relations with this attractive but dangerous woman. The party of four used often to dine together — Sir Arthur pushed his confidence so far — and on these occasions their fair friend, availing herself of one of the privileges of a femme du monde even at the most expensive restaurant, used to wipe her glasses with her napkin. One evening when after polishing a goblet she held it up to the light, giving it, with her head on one side, the least glimmer of a wink, he noted as he watched her that she looked like a highly modern bacchante. He observed at this moment that the Baronet was gazing at her too, and wondered if the same idea had come to him. He often wondered what the Baronet thought; he had devoted first and last a good deal of attention to the psychology of the English “great land-owning” consciousness. Littlemore, alone, at this moment, was characteristically detached; he never appeared to watch Mrs. Headway, though she so often watched him. Waterville asked himself among other things why Sir Arthur hadn’t brought his own friends to see her, for Paris during the several weeks that now elapsed abounded in English visitors. He guessed at her having asked him and his having refused; he would have liked particularly to know if she had asked him. He explained his curiosity to Littlemore, who, however, took very little interest in it. Littlemore expressed nevertheless the conviction that she would have asked him; she never would be deterred by false delicacy.
“She has been very delicate with you,” Waterville returned to this. “She hasn’t been at all pressing of late.”
“It’s only because she has given me up. She thinks I’m a brute.”
“I wonder what she thinks of me,” Waterville pensively said.
“Oh, she counts upon you to introduce her to the American Minister at the Court of Saint James’s,” Littlemore opined without mercy. “It’s lucky for you our representative here’s absent.”
“Well, the Minister has settled two or three difficult questions and I suppose can settle this one. I shall do nothing but by the orders of my chief.” He was very fond of alluding to his chief.
“She does me injustice,” Littlemore added in a moment. “I’ve spoken to several people about her.”
“Oh, but what have you told them?”
“That she lives at the Hôtel Meurice and wants to know nice people.”
“They’re flattered, I suppose, at your thinking them nice, but they don’t go,” said Waterville.
“I spoke of her to Mrs. Bagshaw, and Mrs. Bagshaw has promised to go.”
“Ah,” Waterville murmured; “you don’t call Mrs. Bagshaw nice! Mrs. Headway won’t take up with Mrs. Bagshaw.”
“Well, then, that’s exactly what she wants — to be able to cut some one!”
Waterville had a theory that Sir Arthur was keeping Mrs. Headway as a surprise — he meant perhaps to produce her during the next London season. He presently, however, learned as much about the matter as he could have desired to know. He had once offered to accompany his beautiful compatriot to the Museum of the Luxembourg and tell her a little about the modern French school. She had not examined this collection, in spite of her resolve to see everything remarkable — she carried her “Murray” in her lap even when she went to see the great tailor in the Rue de la Paix, to whom, as she said, she had given no end of points — for she usually went to such places with Sir Arthur, who was indifferent to the modern painters of France. “He says there are much better men in England. I must wait for the Royal Academy next year. He seems to think one can wait for anything, but I’m not so good at waiting as he. I can’t afford to wait — I’ve waited long enough.” So much as this Mrs. Headway said on the occasion of her arranging with Rupert Waterville that they should some day visit the Luxembourg together. She alluded to the Englishman as if he were her husband or her brother, her natural protector and companion.
“I wonder if she knows how that sounds?” Waterville again throbbingly brooded. “I don’t believe she would do it if she knew how it sounds.” And he also drew the moral that when one was a well-known Texan belle there was no end to the things one had to learn: so marked was the difference between being well-known and being well-bred. Clever as she was, Mrs. Headway was right in saying she couldn’t afford to wait. She must learn, she must live quickly. She wrote to Waterville one day to propose that they should go to the Museum on the morrow; Sir Arthur’s mother was in Paris, on her way to Cannes, where she was to spend the winter. She was only passing through, but she would be there three days, and he would naturally give himself up to her. She appeared to have the properest ideas as to what a gentleman would propose to do for his mother. She herself, therefore, should be free, and she named the hour at which she should expect him to call for her. He was punctual to the appointment, and they drove across the river in a large high-hung barouche in which she constantly rolled about Paris. With Mr. Max on the box — the courier sported enormous whiskers — this vehicle had an appearance of great respectability, though Sir Arthur assured her (what she repeated to her other friends) that in London next year they would do the thing much better for her. It struck her other friends, of course, that this backer was prepared to go very far; which on the whole was what Waterville would have expected of him. Littlemore simply remarked that at San Pablo she drove herself about in a ramshackle buggy with muddy wheels and a mule very often in the shafts. Waterville throbbed afresh as he asked himself if the mother of a Tory M.P. would really consent to know her. She must of course be aware that it was a woman who was keeping her son in Paris at a season when English gentlemen were most naturally employed in shooting partridges.
“She’s staying at the Hôtel du Rhin, and I’ve made him feel that he mustn’t leave her while she’s here,” Mrs. Headway said as they drove up the narrow Rue de Seine. “Her name’s Lady Demesne, but her full title’s the Honourable Lady Demesne, as she’s a Baron’s daughter. Her father used to be a banker, but he did something or other for the Government — the Tories, you know they call them — and so he was raised to the peerage. So you see one can be raised! She has a lady with her as a companion.” Waterville’s neighbour gave him this information with a seriousness that made him smile; he tried to measure the degree to which it wouldn’t have occurred to her that he didn’t know how a Baron’s daughter was addressed. In that she was truly provincial; she had a way of exaggerating the value of her intellectual acquisitions and of assuming that others had shared her darkness. He noted, too, that she had ended by suppressing poor Sir Arthur’s name altogether and designating him only by a sort of conjugal pronoun. She had been so much and so easily married that she was full of these misleading references to gentlemen.
They walked through the gallery of the Luxembourg, and, except that Mrs. Headway directed her beautiful gold face-à-main to everything at once and to nothing long enough, talked, as usual, rather too loud and bestowed too much attention on the bad copies and strange copyists that formed a circle round several indifferent pictures, she was an agreeable companion and a grateful recipient of “tips.” She was quick to understand, and Waterville was sure that before she left the gallery she had made herself mistress of a new subject and was quite prepared to compare the French school critically with the London exhibitions of the following year. As he had remarked more than once with Littlemore, she did alternate in the rummest stripes. Her conversation, her personality, were full of little joints and seams, all of them very visible, where the old and the new had been pieced and white-threaded together. When they had passed through the different rooms of the palace Mrs. Headway proposed that instead of returning directly they should take a stroll in the adjoining gardens, which she wished very much to see and was sure she should like. She had quite seized the difference between the old Paris and the new, and felt the force of the romantic associations of the Latin quarter as perfectly as if she had enjoyed all the benefits of modern culture. The autumn sun was warm in the alleys and terraces of the Luxembourg; the masses of foliage above them, clipped and squared, rusty with ruddy patches, shed a thick lacework over the white sky, which was streaked with the palest blue. The beds of flowers near the palace were of the vividest yellow and red, and the sunlight rested on the smooth grey walls of those parts of its basement that looked south; in front of which, on the long green benches, a row of brown-cheeked nurses, in white caps and white aprons, sat yielding sustenance to as many bundles of white drapery. There were other white caps wandering in the broad paths, attended by little brown French children; the small straw-seated chairs were piled and stacked in some places and disseminated in others. An old lady in black, with white hair fastened over each of her temples by a large black comb, sat on the edge of a stone bench (too high for her delicate length) motionless, staring straight before her and holding a large door-key; under a tree a priest was reading — you could see his lips move at a distance; a young soldier, dwarfish and red-legged, strolled past with his hands in his pockets, which were very much distended. Waterville sat down with Mrs. Headway on the straw-bottomed chairs and she presently said: “I like this — it’s even better than the pictures in the gallery. It’s more of a picture.”
“Everything in France is a picture — even things that are ugly,” Waterville replied. “Everything makes a subject.”
“Well, I like France!” she summed up with a small incongruous sigh. Then suddenly, from an impulse more conceivably allied to such a sound, she added: “He asked me to go and see her, but I told him I wouldn’t. She may come and see me if she likes.” This was so abrupt that Waterville was slightly confounded; then he saw she had returned by a short cut to Sir Arthur Demesne and his honourable mother. Waterville liked to know about other people’s affairs, yet didn’t like this taste to be imputed to him; and therefore, though much desiring to see how the old lady, as he called her, would treat his companion, he was rather displeased with the latter for being so confidential. He had never assumed he was so intimate with her as that. Mrs. Headway, however, had a manner of taking intimacy for granted — a manner Sir Arthur’s mother at least wouldn’t be sure to like. He showed for a little no certainty of what she was talking about, but she scarcely explained. She only went on through untraceable transitions. “The least she can do is to come. I’ve been very kind to her son. That’s not a reason for my going to her — it’s a reason for her coming to me. Besides, if she doesn’t like what I’ve done she can leave me alone. I want to get into European society, but I want to do so in my own way. I don’t want to run after people; I want them to run after me. I guess they will, some day!” Waterville listened to this with his eyes on the ground; he felt himself turn very red. There was something in such crudities on the part of the ostensibly refined that shocked and mortified him, and Littlemore had been right in speaking of her lack of the nuance. She was terribly distinct; her motives, her impulses, her desires glared like the lighted signs of cafés-concerts. She needed to keep on view, to hand about, like a woman with things to sell on an hotel-terrace, her precious intellectual wares. Vehement thought, with Mrs. Headway, was inevitably speech, though speech was not always thought, and now she had suddenly become vehement. “If she does once come — then, ah then, I shall be too perfect with her; I shan’t let her go! But she must take the first step. I confess I hope she’ll be nice.”
“Perhaps she won’t,” said Waterville perversely.
“Well, I don’t care if she ain’t. He has never told me anything about her; never a word about any of his own belongings. If I wished I might believe he’s ashamed of them.”
“I don’t think it’s that.”
“I know it ain’t. I know what it is. It’s just regular European refinement. He doesn’t want to show off; he’s too much of a gentleman. He doesn’t want to dazzle me — he wants me to like him for himself. Well, I do like him,” she added in a moment. “But I shall like him still better if he brings his mother. They shall know that in America.”
“Do you think it will make an impression in America?” Waterville amusedly asked.
“It will show I’m visited by the British aristocracy. They won’t love that.”
“Surely they grudge you no innocent pleasure,” the young man laughed.
“They grudged me common politeness — when I was in New York! Did you ever hear how they treated me when I came on from my own section?”
Waterville stared; this episode was quite new to him. His companion had turned toward him; her pretty head was tossed back like a flower in the wind; there was a flush in her cheek, a more questionable charm in her eye. “Ah, my dear New Yorkers, they’re incapable of rudeness!” he cried.
“You’re one of them, I see. But I don’t speak of the men. The men were well enough — though they did allow it.”
“Allow what, Mrs. Headway?” He was quite thrillingly in the dark.
She wouldn’t answer at once; her eyes, glittering a little, were fixed on memories still too vivid. “What did you hear about me over there? Don’t pretend you heard nothing.”
He had heard nothing at all; there had not been a word about Mrs. Headway in New York. He couldn’t pretend and he was obliged to tell her this. “But I’ve been away,” he added, “and in America I didn’t go out. There’s nothing to go out for in New York — only insipid boys and girls.”
“There are plenty of spicy old women, who settled I was a bad bold thing. They found out I was in the ‘gay’ line. They discovered I was known to the authorities. I am very well known all out West — I’m known from Chicago to San Francisco; if not personally, at least by reputation. I’m known to all classes. People can tell you out there. In New York they decided I wasn’t good enough. Not good enough for New York! What do you say to that?”— it rang out for derision. Whether she had struggled with her pride before making her avowal her confidant of this occasion never knew. The strange want of dignity, as he felt, in her grievance seemed to indicate that she had no pride, and yet there was a sore spot, really a deep wound, in her heart which, touched again, renewed its ache. “I took a house for the winter — one of the handsomest houses in the place — but I sat there all alone. They thought me ‘gay,’ me gay there on Fifty–Eighth Street without so much as a cat!”
Waterville was embarrassed; diplomatist as he was he hardly knew what line to take. He couldn’t see the need or the propriety of her overflow; though the incident appeared to have been most curious and he was glad to know the facts on the best authority. It was the first he did know of this remarkable woman’s having spent a winter in his native city — which was virtually a proof of her having come and gone in complete obscurity. It was vain for him to pretend he had been a good deal away, for he had been appointed to his post in London only six months before, and Mrs. Headway’s social failure ante-dated that event. In the midst of these reflexions he had an inspiration. He attempted neither to question, to explain nor to apologise; he ventured simply to lay his hand for an instant on her own and to exclaim as gallantly as possible: “I wish I had known!”
“I had plenty of men — but men don’t count. If they’re not a positive help they’re a hindrance, so that the more you have the worse it looks. The women simply turned their backs.”
“They were afraid of you — they were jealous,” the young man produced.
“It’s very good of you to try and patch it up; all I know is that not one of them crossed my threshold. No, you needn’t try and tone it down; I know perfectly how the case stands. In New York, if you please, I didn’t go.”
“So much the worse for New York!” cried Waterville, who, as he afterwards said to Littlemore, had got quite worked up.
“And now you know why I want to get into society over here?” She jumped up and stood before him; with a dry hard smile she looked down at him. Her smile itself was an answer to her question; it expressed a sharp vindictive passion. There was an abruptness in her movements which left her companion quite behind; but as he still sat there returning her glance he felt he at last in the light of that smile, the flash of that almost fierce demand, understood Mrs. Headway.
She turned away to walk to the gate of the garden, and he went with her, laughing vaguely and uneasily at her tragic tone. Of course she expected him to serve, all obligingly, all effectively, her rancour; but his female relations, his mother and his sisters, his innumerable cousins, had been a party to the slight she had suffered, and he reflected as he walked along that after all they had been right. They had been right in not going to see a woman who could chatter that way about her social wrongs; whether she were respectable or not they had had the true assurance she’d be vulgar. European society might let her in, but European society had its limpness. New York, Waterville said to himself with a glow of civic pride, was quite capable of taking a higher stand in such a matter than London. They went some distance without speaking; at last he said, expressing honestly the thought at that moment uppermost in his mind: “I hate that phrase, ‘getting into society.’ I don’t think one ought to attribute to one’s self that sort of ambition. One ought to assume that one’s in the confounded thing — that one is society — and to hold that if one has good manners one has, from the social point of view, achieved the great thing. ‘The best company’s where I am,’ any lady or gentleman should feel. The rest can take care of itself.”
For a moment she appeared not to understand, then she broke out: “Well, I suppose I haven’t good manners; at any rate I’m not satisfied! Of course I don’t talk right — I know that very well. But let me get where I want to first — then I’ll look after the details. If I once get there I shall be perfect!” she cried with a tremor of passion. They reached the gate of the garden and stood a moment outside, opposite the low arcade of the Odéon, lined with bookstalls, at which Waterville cast a slightly wistful glance, waiting for Mrs. Headway’s carriage, which had drawn up at a short distance. The whiskered Max had seated himself within and, on the tense elastic cushions, had fallen into a doze. The carriage got into motion without his waking; he came to his senses only as it stopped again. He started up staring and then without confusion proceeded to descend.
“I’ve learned it in Italy — they call it the siesta,” he remarked with an agreeable smile, holding the door open to Mrs. Headway.
“Well, I should think you had and they might!” this lady replied, laughing amicably as she got into the vehicle, where Waterville placed himself beside her. It was not a surprise to him that she spoiled her courier; she naturally would spoil her courier. But civilisation begins at home, he brooded; and the incident threw an ironic light on her desire to get into society. It failed, however, to divert her thoughts from the subject she was discussing with her friend, for as Max ascended the box and the carriage went on its way she threw out another note of defiance. “If once I’m all right over here I guess I can make New York do something! You’ll see the way those women will squirm.”
Waterville was sure his mother and sisters wouldn’t squirm; but he felt afresh, as the carriage rolled back to the Hôtel Meurice, that now he understood Mrs. Headway. As they were about to enter the court of the hotel a closed carriage passed before them, and while a few moments later he helped his companion to alight he saw that Sir Arthur Demesne had stepped from the other vehicle. Sir Arthur perceived Mrs. Headway and instantly gave his hand to a lady seated in the coupé. This lady emerged with a certain slow impressiveness, and as she stood before the door of the hotel — a woman still young and fair, with a good deal of height, gentle, tranquil, plainly dressed, yet distinctly imposing — it came over our young friend that the Tory member had brought his principal female relative to call on Nancy Beck. Mrs. Headway’s triumph had begun; the dowager Lady Demesne had taken the first step. Waterville wondered whether the ladies in New York, notified by some magnetic wave, were beginning to be convulsed. Mrs. Headway, quickly conscious of what had happened, was neither too prompt to appropriate the visit nor too slow to acknowledge it. She just paused, smiling at Sir Arthur.
“I should like to introduce my mother — she wants very much to know you.” He approached Mrs. Headway; the lady had taken his arm. She was at once simple and circumspect; she had every resource of the English matron.
Mrs. Headway, without advancing a step, put out a hand as if to draw her quickly closer. “I declare you’re too sweet!” Waterville heard her say.
He was turning away, as his own business was over; but the young Englishman, who had surrendered his companion, not to say his victim, to the embrace, as it might now almost be called, of their hostess, just checked him with a friendly gesture. “I daresay I shan’t see you again — I’m going away.”
“Good-bye then,” said Waterville. “You return to England?”
“No — I go to Cannes with my mother.”
“You remain at Cannes?”
“Till Christmas very likely.”
The ladies, escorted by Mr. Max, had passed into the hotel, and Waterville presently concluded this exchange. He smiled as he walked away, making it analytically out that poor Sir Arthur had obtained a concession, in the domestic sphere, only at the price of a concession.
The next morning he looked up Littlemore, from whom he had a standing invitation to breakfast, and who, as usual, was smoking a cigar and turning over a dozen newspapers. Littlemore had a large apartment and an accomplished cook; he got up late and wandered about his rooms all the morning, stopping from time to time to look out of his windows, which overhung the Place de la Madeleine. They had not been seated many minutes at breakfast when the visitor mentioned that Mrs. Headway was about to be abandoned by her friend, who was going to Cannes.
But once more he was to feel how little he might ever enlighten this comrade. “He came last night to bid me good-bye,” Littlemore said.
Again Waterville wondered. “Very civil of him, then, all of a sudden.”
“He didn’t come from civility — he came from curiosity. Having dined here he had a pretext for calling.”
“I hope his curiosity was satisfied,” our young man generously dropped.
“Well, I suspect not. He sat here some time, but we talked only about what he didn’t want to know.”
“And what did he want to know?”
“Whether I know anything against Nancy Beck.”
Waterville stared. “Did he call her Nancy Beck?”
“We never mentioned her; but I saw what he was after and that he quite yearned to lead up to her. I wouldn’t do it.”
“Ah, poor man!” Waterville sighed.
“I don’t see why you pity him,” said Littlemore. “Mrs. Beck’s admirers were never pitied.”
“Well, of course he wants to marry her.”
“Let him do it then. I’ve nothing to say to it.”
“He believes there’s something about her, somewhere in time or space, that may make a pretty big mouthful.”
“Let him leave it alone then.”
“How can he if he’s really hit?”— Waterville spoke as from sad experience.
“Ah, my dear fellow, he must settle it himself. He has no right at any rate to put me such a question. There was a moment, just as he was going, when he had it on his tongue’s end. He stood there in the doorway, he couldn’t leave me — he was going to plump out with it. He looked at me straight, and I looked straight at him; we remained that way for almost a minute. Then he decided not, on the whole, to risk it and took himself off.”
Waterville assisted at this passage with intense interest. “And if he had asked you, what would you have said?”
“What do you think?”
“Well, I suppose you’d have said that his question wasn’t fair.”
“That would have been tantamount to admitting the worst.”
“Yes,” Waterville brooded again, “you couldn’t do that. On the other hand if he had put it to you on your honour whether she’s a woman to marry it would have been very awkward.”
“Awkward enough. Luckily he has no business to put things to me on my honour. Moreover, nothing has passed between us to give him the right to ask me any questions about Mrs. Headway. As she’s a great friend of mine he can’t pretend to expect me to give confidential information.”
“You don’t think she’s a woman to marry, all the same,” Waterville returned. “And if a man were to try to corner you on it you might knock him down, but it wouldn’t be an answer.”
“It would have to serve,” said Littlemore. “There are cases where a man must lie nobly,” he added.
Waterville looked grave. “What cases?”
“Well, where a woman’s honour’s at stake.”
“I see what you mean. That’s of course if he has been himself concerned with her.”
“Himself or another. It doesn’t matter.”
“I think it does matter. I don’t like false swearing,” said Waterville. “It’s a delicate question.”
They were interrupted by the arrival of the servant with a second course, and Littlemore gave a laugh as he helped himself. “It would be a lark to see her married to that superior being!”
“It would be a great responsibility.”
“Responsibility or not, it would be very amusing.”
“Do you mean, then, to give her a leg up?”
“Heaven forbid! But I mean to bet on her.”
Waterville gave his companion a serious glance; he thought him strangely superficial. The alternatives looked all formidable, however, and he sighed as he laid down his fork.
The Easter holidays that year were unusually genial; mild watery sunshine assisted the progress of the spring. The high dense hedges, in Warwickshire, were like walls of hawthorn embedded in banks of primrose, and the finest trees in England, springing out of them with a regularity which suggested conservative principles, began more densely and downily to bristle. Rupert Waterville, devoted to his duties and faithful in attendance at the Legation, had had little time to enjoy the rural hospitality that shows the English, as he had promptly learned to say, at their best. Freshly yet not wildly exotic he had repeatedly been invited to grace such scenes, but had had hitherto to practise with reserve the great native art of “staying.” He cultivated method and kept the country-houses in reserve; he would take them up in their order, after he should have got a little more used to London. Without hesitation, however, he had accepted the appeal from Longlands; it had come to him in a simple and familiar note from Lady Demesne, with whom he had no acquaintance. He knew of her return from Cannes, where she had spent the whole winter, for he had seen it related in a Sunday newspaper; yet it was with a certain surprise that he heard from her in these informal terms. “Dear Mr. Waterville, my son tells me you will perhaps be able to come down here on the seventeenth to spend two or three days. If you can it will give us much pleasure. We can promise you the society of your charming countrywoman Mrs. Headway.”
He had seen Mrs. Headway; she had written him, a fortnight before from an hotel in Cork Street, to say she had arrived in London for the season and should be happy to see him. He had called on her, trembling with the fear that she would break ground about her presentation at Court; but he was agreeably surprised by her overlooking for the hour this topic. She had spent the winter in Rome, travelling directly from that city to England, with just a little stop in Paris to buy a few clothes. She had taken much satisfaction in Rome, where she had made many friends; she assured him she knew half the Roman nobility. “They’re charming people; they’ve only one fault, they stay too long,” she said. And in answer to his always slower process, “I mean when they come to see you,” she explained. “They used to come every evening and then wanted to stay till the next day. They were all princes and counts. I used to give them cigars and cocktails — nobody else did. I knew as many people as I wanted,” she added in a moment, feeling perhaps again in her visitor the intimate intelligence with which six months before he had listened to her account of her discomfiture in New York. “There were lots of English; I knew all the English and I mean to visit them here. The Americans waited to see what the English would do, so as to do the opposite. Thanks to that I was spared some precious specimens. There are, you know, some fearful ones. Besides, in Rome society doesn’t matter if you’ve a feeling for the ruins and the Campagna; I found I had an immense feeling for the Campagna. I was always mooning round in some damp old temple. It reminded me a good deal of the country round San Pablo — if it hadn’t been for the temples. I liked to think it all over when I was riding round; I was always brooding over the past.” At this moment, nevertheless, Mrs. Headway had dismissed the past; she was prepared to give herself up wholly to the actual. She wished Waterville to advise her as to how she should live — what she should do. Should she stay at an hotel or should she take a house? She guessed she had better take a house if she could find a nice one. Max wanted to look for one, and she didn’t know but what she’d let him; he got her such a nice one in Rome. She said nothing about Sir Arthur Demesne, who, it seemed to Waterville, would have been her natural guide and sponsor; he wondered whether her relations with the Tory member had come to an end. Waterville had met him a couple of times since the opening of Parliament, and they had exchanged twenty words, none of which, however, had had reference to Mrs. Headway. Our young man, the previous autumn, had been recalled to London just after the incident of which he found himself witness in the court of the Hôtel Meurice; and all he knew of its consequence was what he had learned from Littlemore, who, proceeding to America, where he had suddenly been advised of reasons for his spending the winter, passed through the British capital. Littlemore had then reported that Mrs. Headway was enchanted with Lady Demesne and had no words to speak of her kindness and sweetness. “She told me she liked to know her son’s friends, and I told her I liked to know my friends’ mothers,” dear Nancy had reported. “I should be willing to be old if I could be like that,” she had added, forgetting for the moment that the crown of the maturer charm dangled before her at a diminishing distance. The mother and son, at any rate, had retired to Cannes together, and at this moment Littlemore had received letters from home which caused him to start for Arizona. Mrs. Headway had accordingly been left to her own devices, and he was afraid she had bored herself, though Mrs. Bagshaw had called upon her. In November she had travelled to Italy, not by way of Cannes.
“What do you suppose she’s up to in Rome?” Waterville had asked; his imagination failing him here, as he was not yet in possession of that passage.
“I haven’t the least idea. And I don’t care!” Littlemore had added in a moment. Before leaving London he had further mentioned that Mrs. Headway, on his going to take leave of her in Paris, had made another and rather an unexpected attack. “About the society business — she said I must really do something: she couldn’t go on that way. And she appealed to me in the name — I don’t think I quite know how to say it.”
“I should be ever so glad if you’d try,” Waterville had earnestly said, constantly reminding himself that Americans in Europe were after all, in a degree, to a man in his position, as the sheep to the shepherd.
“Well, in the name of the affection we had formerly entertained for each other.”
“So she was good enough to call it. But I deny it all. If one had to have an affection for every woman one used to sit up ‘evenings’ with —!” And Littlemore had paused, not defining the result of such an obligation. Waterville had tried to imagine what it would be; while his friend had embarked for New York without telling him how, in the event, he had resisted Mrs. Headway’s attack.
At Christmas Waterville knew of Sir Arthur’s return to England and believed he also knew that the Baronet hadn’t gone down to Rome. He had a theory that Lady Demesne was a very clever woman — clever enough to make her son do what she preferred and yet also make him think it his own choice. She had been politic, accommodating, on the article of the one civility rendered the American lady; but, having seen and judged that heroine, had determined to stop short and to make her son, if possible, stop. She had been sweet and kind, as Mrs. Headway said, because for the moment this was easiest; but she had paid her last visit on the same occasion as her first. She had been sweet and kind, but she had set her face as a stone, and if poor Nancy, camping on this new field, expected to find any vague promises redeemed, she would taste of the bitterness of shattered hopes. He had made up his mind that, shepherd as he was, and Mrs. Headway one of his sheep, it was none of his present duty to run about after her, especially as she could be trusted not to stray too far. He saw her a second time, and she still said nothing about Sir Arthur. Waterville, who always had a theory, made sure she was watching the clock, that this proved admirer was behind the hour. She was also getting into a house; her courier had found her in Chesterfield Street a little gem, which was to cost her only what jewels cost. After all this our young man caught his breath at Lady Demesne’s note, and he went down to Longlands with much the same impatience with which, in Paris, he would have gone, had he been able, to the first night of a new comedy. It seemed to him that through a sudden stroke of good fortune he had received a billet d’auteur.
It was agreeable to him to arrive at an English country-house at the close of the day. He liked the drive from the station in the twilight, the sight of the fields and copses and cottages, vague and lonely in contrast to his definite lighted goal; the sound of the wheels on the long avenue, which turned and wound repeatedly without bringing him to what he reached however at last — the wide grey front with a glow in its scattered windows and a sweep of still firmer gravel up to the door. The front at Longlands, which was of this sober complexion, had a grand pompous air; it was attributed to the genius of Sir Christopher Wren. There were wings curving forward in a semi-circle, with statues placed at intervals on the cornice; so that in the flattering dusk it suggested a great Italian villa dropped by some monstrous hand in an English park. He had taken a late train, which left him but twenty minutes to dress for dinner. He prided himself considerably on the art of dressing both quickly and well; but this process left him no time to wonder if the apartment to which he had been assigned befitted his diplomatic dignity. On emerging from his room he found there was an ambassador in the house, and this discovery was a check to unrest. He tacitly assumed that he should have had a better room if it hadn’t been for the ambassador, who was of course counted first. The large brilliant house gave an impression of the last century and of foreign taste, of light colours, high vaulted ceilings with pale mythological frescoes, gilded doors surmounted by old French panels, faded tapestries and delicate damasks, stores of ancient china among which great jars of pink roses were conspicuous. The company had assembled for dinner in the principal hall, which was animated by a fire of great logs, and the muster was so large that Waterville feared he was last. Lady Demesne gave him a smile and a touch of her hand; she lacked effusiveness and, saying nothing in particular, treated him as if he had been a common guest. He wasn’t sure whether he liked or hated that; but these alternatives mattered equally little to his hostess, who looked at her friends as if to verify a catalogue. The master of the house was talking to a lady before the fire; when he caught sight of Waterville across the room he waved “How d’ye do” with an air of being delighted to see him. He had never had that air in Paris, and Waterville had a chance to observe, what he had often heard, to how much greater advantage the English appear in their country-houses. Lady Demesne turned to him again with the sweet vague smile that could somehow present a view without making a point.
“We’re waiting for Mrs. Headway.”
“Ah, she has arrived?” Waterville had quite forgotten this attraction.
“She came at half-past five. At six she went to dress. She has had two hours.”
“Let us hope the results will be proportionate,” the young man laughed.
“Oh the results — I don’t know!” Lady Demesne murmured without looking at him; and in these simple words he found the confirmation of his theory that she was playing a deep game. He weighed the question of whom he should sit next to at dinner, and hoped, with due deference to Mrs. Headway’s charms, that he might abut on a less explored province. The results of a toilet she had protracted through two hours were presently visible. She appeared on the staircase which descended to the hall and which, for three minutes, as she came down rather slowly, facing the people beneath, placed her in considerable relief. Waterville, as he watched her, felt the great importance of the moment for her: it represented her entrance into English society. Well, she entered English society in good shape, as Nancy Beck would have said; with a brave free smile, suggestive of no flutter, on her lips, and with the trophies of the Rue de la Paix trailing behind her. She made a portentous rumour as she moved. People turned their eyes to her; there was soon a perceptible diminution of talk; though talk hadn’t been particularly audible. She looked very much alone, and it seemed rather studied of her to come down last, though possibly, before her glass, she had but been unable to please herself. For she evidently felt the importance of the occasion, and Waterville was sure her heart beat fast. She showed immense pluck, however; she smiled more intensely and advanced like a woman acquainted with every social drawback of beauty. She had at any rate the support of these inconveniences; for nothing on this occasion was wanting to her lustre, and the determination to succeed, which might have made her hard, was veiled in the virtuous consciousness that she had neglected nothing. Lady Demesne went forward to meet her; Sir Arthur took no notice of her; and presently Waterville found himself proceeding to dinner with the wife of an ecclesiastic, to whom his hostess had presented him in the desolation of the almost empty hall, when the other couples had flourished away. The rank of this ecclesiastic in the hierarchy he learned early on the morrow; but in the meantime it seemed to him somehow strange that in England ecclesiastics should have wives. English life even at the end of a year was full of those surprises. The lady, however, was very easily accounted for; she was in no sense a violent exception, and there had been no need of the Reformation and the destruction of a hundred abbeys to produce her. Her name was Mrs. April; she was wrapped in a large lace shawl; to eat her dinner she removed but one glove, and the other gave Waterville an odd impression that the whole repast, in spite of its great completeness, was something of the picnic order.
Mrs. Headway was opposite, at a little distance; she had been taken in, as Waterville learned from his neighbour, by a General, a gentleman with a lean aquiline face and a cultivated whisker, and she had on the other side a smart young man of an identity less definite. Poor Sir Arthur sat between two ladies much older than himself, whose names, redolent of history, Waterville had often heard and had associated with figures more romantic. Mrs. Headway gave her countryman no greeting; she evidently hadn’t seen him till they were seated at table, when she stared at him with a violence of surprise that was like the interruption of a lively tune. It was a copious and well-ordered banquet, but as he looked up and down the table he sought to appraise the contributed lustre, the collective scintillae, that didn’t proceed from silver, porcelain, glass or shining damask. Presently renouncing the effort, however, he became conscious he was judging the affair much more from Mrs. Headway’s point of view than from his own. He knew no one but Mrs. April, who, displaying an almost motherly desire to give him information, told him the names of many of their companions; in return for which he explained to her that he was not in that set. Mrs. Headway got on in perfection with her warrior; Waterville noticed her more than he showed; he saw how that officer, evidently a cool hand, was drawing her out. Waterville hoped she would be careful. He was capable, in his way, of frolic thought, and as he compared her with the rest of the company said to himself that she was a very plucky little woman and that her present undertaking had a touch of the heroic. She was alone against many, and her opponents were a serried phalanx; those who were there represented a thousand others. Her type so violated every presumption blooming there that to the eye of the imagination she stood very much on her merits. Such people seemed so completely made up, so unconscious of effort, so surrounded with things to rest upon; the men with their clean complexions, their well-hung chins, their cold pleasant eyes, their shoulders set back, their absence of gesture; the women, several very handsome, half-strangled in strings of pearls, with smooth plain tresses, seeming to look at nothing in particular, supporting silence as if it were as becoming as candle-light, yet talking a little sometimes in fresh rich voices. They were all wrapped in a community of ideas, of traditions; they understood each other’s accent, even each other’s deviations. Mrs. Headway, with all her prettiness, exceeded these licences. She was foreign, exaggerated, she had too much expression; she might have been engaged for the evening. Waterville remarked, moreover, that English society was always clutching at amusement and that the business was transacted on a cash basis. If Mrs. Headway should sufficiently amuse she would succeed, and her fortune — if fortune there was — would be no hindrance.
In the drawing-room, after dinner, he went up to her, but she gave him no greeting. She only faced him with an expression he had never seen before — a strange bold expression of displeasure. It made her fearfully common. “Why have you come down here?” she asked. “Have you come to watch me?”
Waterville coloured to the roots of his hair. He knew it was terribly little like a diplomatist, but he was unable to control his heat. He was justly shocked, he was angry and in addition he was mystified. “I came because I was asked.”
“Who asked you?”
“The same person who asked you, I suppose — Lady Demesne.”
“She’s an old cat!” And Nancy Beck turned away from him.
He turned from her as well. He didn’t know what he had done to deserve such treatment. It was a complete surprise; he had never seen her like that before. She was a very vulgar woman; that was the way people dealt with each other, he supposed, on hideous back piazzas. He threw himself almost passionately into contact with the others, who all seemed to him, possibly a little by contrast, extraordinarily genial and friendly. He had not, however, the consolation of seeing Mrs. Headway punished for her rudeness — she wasn’t in the least neglected. On the contrary, in the part of the room where she sat the group was denser and repeatedly broke into gusts of unanimous laughter. Yes, if she should amuse them she might doubtless get anywhere and do anything, and evidently she was amusing them.
If she was strange, at any rate he hadn’t come to the end of her strangeness. The next day was a Sunday and uncommonly fine; he was down before breakfast and took a walk in the park, stopping to gaze at the thin-legged deer on the remoter slopes, who reminded him of small pin-cushions turned upside down, and wandering along the edge of a large sheet of ornamental water which had a temple in imitation of that of Vesta on an island in the middle. He thought at this time no more of Mrs. Headway; he only reflected that these stately objects had for at least a hundred years furnished a background to a great deal of heavy history. Further reflexion would perhaps have suggested to him that she might yet become a feature in the record that so spread itself. Two or three ladies failed to appear at breakfast; the well-known Texan belle was one of them.
“She tells me she never leaves her room till noon,” he heard Lady Demesne say to the General, her companion of the previous evening, who had asked about her. “She takes three hours to dress.”
“She’s a monstrous clever woman!” the General declared.
“To do it in three hours?”
“No, I mean the way she keeps her wits about her.”
“Yes; I think she’s very clever,” said Lady Demesne on a system in which our young man flattered himself he saw more meaning than the General could. There was something in this tall straight deliberate woman, who seemed at once to yearn and to retire, that Waterville admired. With her delicate surface, her conventional mildness, he made out she was strong; she had set her patience upon a height and carried it like a diadem. She had the young American little visibly on her mind, but every now and then she indulged in some vague demonstration that showed she had not forgotten him. Sir Arthur himself was apparently in excellent spirits, though he too never bustled nor overflowed; he only went about looking very fresh and fair, as if he took a bath every hour or two, and very secure against the unexpected. Waterville had exchanged even fewer remarks with him than with his mother; but the master of the house had found occasion to say the night before, in the smoking-room, that he was delighted this friend had been able to come, and that if he was fond of real English scenery there were several things about that he should like very much to show him.
“You must give me an hour or two before you go, you know; I really think there are some things you’ll care for.”
Sir Arthur spoke as if Waterville would be very fastidious; he seemed to wish to do the right thing by him. On the Sunday morning after breakfast he inquired if he should care to go to church; most of the ladies and several of the men were going. “It’s just as you please, you know; but there’s rather a pretty walk across the fields and a curious little church — they say of King Stephen’s time.”
Waterville knew what this meant; it was already a treasure. Besides, he liked going to church, above all when he sat in the Squire’s pew, which was sometimes as big as a boudoir and all fadedly upholstered to match. So he replied that he should be delighted. Then he added without explaining his reason: “Is Mrs. Headway going?”
“I really don’t know,” said his host with an abrupt change of tone — as if he inquired into the movements of the housekeeper.
“The English are awfully queer!” Waterville consoled himself with secretly exclaiming; to which wisdom, since his arrival among them, he had had recourse whenever he encountered a gap in the consistency of things. The church was even a rarer treasure than Sir Arthur’s description of it, and Waterville felt Mrs. Headway had been a fool not to come. He knew what she was after — she wished to study English life so that she might take possession of it; and to pass in among a hedge of bobbing rustics and sit among the monuments of the old Demesnes would have told her a great deal about English life. If she wished to fortify herself for the struggle she had better come to that old church. When he returned to Longlands — he had walked back across the meadows with the archdeacon’s lady, who was a vigorous pedestrian — it wanted half an hour of luncheon and he was unwilling to go indoors. He remembered he had not yet seen the gardens, and wandered away in search of them. They were on a scale that enabled him to find them without difficulty, and they looked as if they had been kept up unremittingly for a century or two. He hadn’t advanced very far between their blooming borders when he heard a voice that he recognised, and a moment after, at the turn of an alley, came upon Mrs. Headway, who was attended by the master of the scene. She was bareheaded beneath her parasol, which she flung back, stopping short as she beheld her compatriot.
“Oh it’s Mr. Waterville come to spy me out as usual!” It was with this remark she greeted the slightly-embarrassed young man.
“Hallo, you’ve come home from church?” Sir Arthur said, pulling out his watch.
Waterville was struck with his coolness. He admired it; for, after all, he noted, it must have been disagreeable to him to be interrupted. He felt rather an ass, and wished he had kept hold of Mrs. April, to give him the air of having come for her sake. Mrs. Headway was looking adorably fresh in attire that Waterville, who had his ideas on such matters, felt sure wouldn’t be regarded as the proper thing for a Sunday morning in an English country-house: a négligé of white flounces and frills interspersed with yellow ribbons — a garment Madame de Pompadour might have sported to receive Louis XV., but probably wouldn’t have worn for a public airing. The sight of this costume gave the finishing touch to his impression that she knew on the whole what she was about. She would take a line of her own; she wouldn’t be too accommodating. She wouldn’t come down to breakfast; she wouldn’t go to church; she would wear on Sunday mornings little elaborately informal dresses and look dreadfully unBritish and unProtestant. Perhaps after all this was best. She began to talk with a certain volubility.
“Isn’t this too lovely? I walked all the way from the house. I’m not much at walking, but the grass in this place is like a parlour. The whole thing’s driving me wild. Sir Arthur, you ought to go and look after the Ambassador; it’s shameful the way I’ve kept you. You don’t trouble about the Ambassador? You said just now you had scarcely spoken to him, and you must make that right up. I never saw such a way of neglecting your guests. Is it the usual style over here? Go and take him out to ride or make him play a game of billiards. Mr. Waterville will take me home; besides, I want to scold him for spying on me.”
Our young man sharply resented her charge. “I had no idea whatever you were here.”
“We weren’t hiding,” said Sir Arthur quietly. “Perhaps you’ll see Mrs. Headway back to the house. I think I ought to look after old Davidoff. I believe luncheon’s at two.”
He left them, and Waterville wandered through the gardens with Mrs. Headway. She at once sought again to learn if he had come there to “dog” her; but this inquiry wasn’t accompanied, to his surprise, with the acrimony she had displayed the night before. He was determined not to let that pass, however; when people had treated him in that way they shouldn’t be allowed to forget it.
“Do you suppose I’m always thinking of you?” he derisively demanded. “You’re out of my mind sometimes. I came this way to look at the gardens, and if you hadn’t spoken to me should have passed on.”
Mrs. Headway was perfectly good-natured; she appeared not even to hear his defence. “He has got two other places,” she simply rejoined. “That’s just what I wanted to know.”
He wouldn’t nevertheless be turned from his grievance. That mode of reparation to a person whom you had insulted which consisted in forgetting you had done so was doubtless largely in use on back piazzas; but a creature of any spirit required a different form. “What did you mean last night by accusing me of having come down here to watch you? Pardon me if I tell you I think you grossly rude.” The sting of the imputation lay in the fact that there was a certain amount of truth in it; yet for a moment Mrs. Headway, looking very blank, failed to recover it. “She’s a barbarian, after all,” thought Waterville. “She thinks a woman may slap a man’s face and run away!”
“Oh,” she cried suddenly, “I remember — I was angry with you! I didn’t expect to see you. But I didn’t really mind about it at all. Every now and then I get mad like that and work it off on any one that’s handy. But it’s over in three minutes and I never think of it again. I confess I was mad last night; I could have shot the old woman.”
“‘The old woman’?”
“Sir Arthur’s mother. She has no business here anyway. In this country when the husband dies they’re expected to clear out. She has a house of her own ten miles from here and another in Portman Square; so she ain’t in want of good locations. But she sticks — she sticks to him like a strong plaster. It came over me as I kind of analysed that she didn’t invite me here because she liked me, but because she suspects me. She’s afraid we’ll make a match and she thinks I ain’t good enough for her son. She must think I’m in a great hurry to make him mine. I never went after him, he came after me. I should never have thought of anything if it hadn’t been for him. He began it last summer at Homburg; he wanted to know why I didn’t come to England; he told me I should have great success. He doesn’t know much about it anyway; he hasn’t got much gumption. But he’s a very nice man all the same; it’s very pleasant to see him surrounded by his —” And Mrs. Headway paused a moment, her appreciation ranging: “Surrounded by all his old heirlooms. I like the old place,” she went on; “it’s beautifully mounted; I’m quite satisfied with what I’ve seen. I thought Lady Demesne well-impressed; she left a card on me in London and very soon after wrote to me to ask me here. But I’m very quick; I sometimes see things in a flash. I saw something yesterday when she came to speak to me at dinner-time. She saw I looked pretty and refined, and it made her blue with rage; she hoped I’d be some sort of a horror. I’d like very much to oblige her, but what can one do? Then I saw she had asked me only because he insisted. He didn’t come to see me when I first arrived — he never came near me for ten days. She managed to prevent him; she got him to make some promise. But he changed his mind after a little, and then he had to do something really polite. He called three days in succession, and he made her come. She’s one of those women who holds out as long as she can and then seems to give in while she’s really fussing more than ever. She hates me as if I knew something about her — when I don’t even know what she thinks I’ve done myself. She’s very underhand; she’s a regular old cat. When I saw you last night at dinner I thought she had got you here to help her.”
“To help her?” Waterville echoed.
“To tell her about me. To give her information she can make use of against me. You may give her all you like!”
Waterville was almost breathless with the attention he had paid this extraordinary burst of confidence, and now he really felt faint. He stopped short; Mrs. Headway went on a few steps and then, stopping too, turned and shone at him in the glow of her egotism. “You’re the most unspeakable woman!” he wailed. She seemed to him indeed a barbarian.
She laughed at him — he felt she was laughing at his expression of face — and her laugh rang through the stately gardens. “What sort of a woman’s that?”
“You’ve got no delicacy”— he’d keep it up.
She coloured quickly, though, strange to say, without further irritation. “No delicacy?”
“You ought to keep those things to yourself.”
“Oh I know what you mean; I talk about everything. When I’m excited I’ve got to talk. But I must do things in my own way. I’ve got plenty of delicacy when people are nice to me. Ask Arthur Demesne if I ain’t delicate — ask George Littlemore if I ain’t. Don’t stand there all day; come on to lunch!” And Mrs. Headway resumed her walk while her companion, having balanced, slowly overtook her. “Wait till I get settled; then I’ll be delicate,” she pursued. “You can’t be delicate when you’re trying to save your life. It’s very well for you to talk, with the whole State Department to back you. Of course I’m excited. I’ve got right hold of this thing, and I don’t mean to let go!” Before they reached the house she let him know why he had been invited to Longlands at the same time as herself. Waterville would have liked to believe his personal attractions sufficiently explained the fact, but she took no account of this supposition. Mrs. Headway preferred to see herself in an element of ingenious machination, where everything that happened referred to her and was aimed at her. Waterville had been asked then because he represented, however modestly, the American Legation, and their host had a friendly desire to make it appear that his pretty American visitor, of whom no one knew anything, was under the protection of that establishment. “It would start me better,” the lady in question complacently set forth. “You can’t help yourself — you’ve helped to start me. If he had known the Minister he’d have asked him — or the first secretary. But he don’t know them.”
They reached the house by the time she had developed her idea, which gave Waterville a pretext more than sufficient for detaining her in the portico. “Do you mean to say Sir Arthur has told you this?” he inquired almost sternly.
“Told me? Of course not! Do you suppose I’d let him take the tone with me that I need any favours? I’d like to hear him tell me I’m in want of assistance!”
“I don’t see why he shouldn’t — at the pace you go yourself. You say it to every one.”
“To every one? I say it to you and to George Littlemore — when I get nervous. I say it to you because I like you, and to him because I’m afraid of him. I’m not in the least afraid of you, by the way. I’m all alone — I haven’t got any one. I must have some comfort, mustn’t I? Sir Arthur scolded me for putting you off last night — he noticed it; and that was what made me guess his idea.”
“I’m much obliged to him,” said Waterville rather bewildered.
“So mind you answer for me. Don’t you want me to take your arm to go in?”
“You’re a most extraordinary combination!” he gave to all the winds as she stood smiling at him.
“Oh come, don’t you fall in love with me!” she cried with a laugh; and, without taking his arm, she passed in before him.
That evening, before he went to dress for dinner, he wandered into the library, where he felt certain he should find some superior bindings. There was no one in the room and he spent a happy half-hour among treasures of old reading and triumphs of old morocco. He had a great esteem for good literature, he held that it should have handsome covers. The daylight had begun to wane, but whenever, in the rich-looking dimness, he made out the glimmer of a well-gilded back, he took down the volume and carried it to one of the deep-set windows. He had just finished the inspection of a delightfully fragrant folio, and was about to carry it back to its niche, when he found himself face to face with Lady Demesne. He was sharply startled, for her tall slim figure, her preserved fairness, which looked white in the high brown room, and the air of serious intention with which she presented herself, all gave something spectral to her presence. He saw her countenance dimly light, however, and heard her say with the vague despair of her neutrality: “Are you looking at our books? I’m afraid they’re rather dull.”
“Dull? Why they’re as bright as the day they were bound.” And he turned on her the glittering panels of his folio.
“I’m afraid I haven’t looked at them for a long time,” she murmured, going nearer to the window, where she stood looking out. Beyond the clear pane the park stretched away, the menace of night already mantling the great limbs of the oaks. The place appeared cold and empty, and the trees had an air of conscious importance, as if Nature herself had been bribed somehow to take the side of county families. Her ladyship was no easy person for talk; spontaneity had never come to her, and to express herself might have been for her modesty like some act of undressing in public. Her very simplicity was conventional, though it was rather a noble convention. You might have pitied her for the sense of her living tied so tight, with consequent moral cramps, to certain rigid ideals. This made her at times seem tired, like a person who had undertaken too much. She said nothing for a moment, and there was an appearance of design in her silence, as if she wished to let him know she had appealed to him without the trouble of announcing it. She had been accustomed to expect people would suppose things, to save her questions and explanations. Waterville made some haphazard remark about the beauty of the evening — in point of fact the weather had changed for the worse — to which she vouchsafed no reply. But she presently said with her usual gentleness: “I hoped I should find you here — I should like to ask you something.”
“Anything I can tell you — I shall be delighted!” the young man declared.
She gave him a pleading look that seemed to say: “Please be very simple — very simple indeed.” Then she glanced about her as if there had been other people in the room; she didn’t wish to appear closeted with him or to have come on purpose. There she was at any rate, and she proceeded. “When my son told me he should ask you to come down I was very glad. I mean of course we were delighted —” And she paused a moment. But she next went on: “I want to ask you about Mrs. Headway.”
“Ah, here it is!” cried Waterville within himself. But he could show no wincing. “Ah yes, I see!”
“Do you mind my asking you? I hope you don’t mind. I haven’t any one else to ask.”
“Your son knows her much better than I do.” He said this without intention of malice, simply to escape from the difficulties of the situation, but after he had spoken was almost frightened by his mocking sound.
“I don’t think he knows her. She knows him— which is very different. When I ask him about her he merely tells me she’s fascinating. She is fascinating,” said her ladyship with inimitable dryness.
“So I think, myself. I like her very much,” Waterville returned cheerfully.
“You’re in all the better position to speak of her then.”
“To speak well of her,” the young man smiled.
“Of course — if you can. I should be delighted to hear you do that. That’s what I wish — to hear some good of her.”
It might have seemed after this that nothing could have remained but for our friend to break out in categoric praise of his fellow guest; but he was no more to be tempted into that danger than into another. “I can only say I like her,” he repeated. “She has been very kind to me.”
“Every one seems to like her,” said Lady Demesne with an unstudied effect of pathos. “She’s certainly very amusing.”
“She’s very good-natured. I think she has no end of good intentions.”
“What do you mean by good intentions?” asked Lady Demesne very sweetly.
“Well, it strikes me she wants to be friendly and pleasant.”
“Indeed she does! But of course you have to defend her. She’s your countrywoman.”
“To defend her I must wait till she’s attacked,” Waterville laughed.
“That’s very true. I needn’t call your attention to the fact that I’m not attacking her,” his hostess observed. “I should never attack a person staying in this house. I only want to know something about her, and if you can’t tell me perhaps at least you can mention some one who will.”
“She’ll tell you herself. Tell you by the hour!”
“What she has told my son? I shouldn’t understand it. My son doesn’t understand it.” She had a full pause, a profusion of patience; then she resumed disappointedly: “It’s very strange. I rather hoped you might explain it.”
He turned the case over. “I’m afraid I can’t explain Mrs. Headway,” he concluded.
“I see you admit she’s very peculiar.”
Even to this, however, he hesitated to commit himself. “It’s too great a responsibility to answer you.” He allowed he was very disobliging; he knew exactly what Lady Demesne wished him to say. He was unprepared to blight the reputation of Mrs. Headway to accommodate her; and yet, with his cultivated imagination, he could enter perfectly into the feelings of this tender formal serious woman who — it was easy to see — had looked for her own happiness in the observance of duty and in extreme constancy to two or three objects of devotion chosen once for all. She must indeed have had a conception of life in the light of which Nancy Beck would show both for displeasing and for dangerous. But he presently became aware she had taken his last words as a concession in which she might find help.
“You know why I ask you these things then?”
“I think I’ve an idea,” said Waterville, persisting in irrelevant laughter. His laugh sounded foolish in his own ears.
“If you know that, I think you ought to assist me.” Her tone changed now; there was a quick tremor in it; he could feel the confession of distress. The distress verily was deep; it had pressed her hard before she made up her mind to speak to him. He was sorry for her and determined to be very serious.
“If I could help you I would. But my position’s very difficult.”
“It’s not so difficult as mine!” She was going all lengths; she was really appealing to him. “I don’t imagine you under obligations to Mrs. Headway. You seem to me so different,” she added.
He was not insensible to any discrimination that told in his favour; but these words shocked him as if they had been an attempt at bribery. “I’m surprised you don’t like her,” he ventured to bring out.
She turned her eyes through the window. “I don’t think you’re really surprised, though possibly you try to be. I don’t like her at any rate, and I can’t fancy why my son should. She’s very pretty and appears very clever; but I don’t trust her. I don’t know what has taken possession of him; it’s not usual in his family to marry people like that. Surely she’s of no breeding. The person I should propose would be so very different — perhaps you can see what I mean. There’s something in her history we don’t understand. My son understands it no better than I. If you could throw any light on it, that might be a help. If I treat you with such confidence the first time I see you it’s because I don’t know where to turn. I’m exceedingly anxious.”
It was plain enough she was anxious; her manner had become more vehement; her eyes seemed to shine in the thickening dusk. “Are you very sure there’s danger?” Waterville asked. “Has he proposed to her and has she jumped at him?”
“If I wait till they settle it all it will be too late. I’ve reason to believe that my son’s not engaged, but I fear he’s terribly entangled. At the same time he’s very uneasy, and that may save him yet. He has a great sense of honour. He’s not satisfied about her past life; he doesn’t know what to think of what we’ve been told. Even what she admits is so strange. She has been married four or five times. She has been divorced again and again. It seems so extraordinary. She tells him that in America it’s different, and I dare say you haven’t our ideas; but really there’s a limit to everything. There must have been great irregularities — I’m afraid great scandals. It’s dreadful to have to accept such things. He hasn’t told me all this, but it’s not necessary he should tell me. I know him well enough to guess.”
“Does he know you’re speaking to me?” Waterville asked.
“Not in the least. But I must tell you I shall repeat to him anything you may say against her.”
“I had better say nothing then. It’s very delicate. Mrs. Headway’s quite undefended. One may like her or not, of course. I’ve seen nothing of her that isn’t perfectly correct,” our young man wound up.
“And you’ve heard nothing?”
He remembered Littlemore’s view that there were cases in which a man was bound in honour to tell an untruth, and he wondered if this were such a one. Lady Demesne imposed herself, she made him believe in the reality of her grievance, and he saw the gulf that divided her from a pushing little woman who had lived with Western editors. She was right to wish not to be connected with Mrs. Headway. After all, there had been nothing in his relations with that lady to hold him down to lying for her. He hadn’t sought her acquaintance, she had sought his; she had sent for him to come and see her. And yet he couldn’t give her away — that stuck in his throat. “I’m afraid I really can’t say anything. And it wouldn’t matter. Your son won’t give her up because I happen not to like her.”
“If he were to believe she had done wrong he’d give her up.”
“Well, I’ve no right to say so,” said Waterville.
Lady Demesne turned away; he indeed disappointed her and he feared she was going to break out: “Why then do you suppose I asked you here?” She quitted her place near the window and prepared apparently to leave the room. But she stopped short. “You know something against her, but you won’t say it.”
He hugged his folio and looked awkward. “You attribute things to me. I shall never say anything.”
“Of course you’re perfectly free. There’s some one else who knows, I think — another American — a gentleman who was in Paris when my son was there. I’ve forgotten his name.”
“A friend of Mrs. Headway’s? I suppose you mean George Littlemore.”
“Yes — Mr. Littlemore. He has a sister whom I’ve met; I didn’t know she was his sister till today. Mrs. Headway spoke of her, but I find she doesn’t know her. That itself is a proof, I think. Do you think he would help me?” Lady Demesne asked very simply.
“I doubt it, but you can try.”
“I wish he had come with you. Do you think he’d come?”
“He’s in America at this moment, but I believe he soon comes back.”
She took this in with interest. “I shall go to his sister; I shall ask her to bring him to see me. She’s extremely nice; I think she’ll understand. Unfortunately there’s very little time.”
Waterville bethought himself. “Don’t count too much on George Littlemore,” he said gravely.
“You men have no pity,” she grimly sighed.
“Why should we pity you? How can Mrs. Headway hurt such a person as you?” he asked.
Lady Demesne cast about. “It hurts me to hear her voice.”
“Her voice is very liquid.” He liked his word.
“Possibly. But she’s horrible!”
This was too much, it seemed to Waterville; Nancy Beck was open to criticism, and he himself had declared she was a barbarian. Yet she wasn’t horrible. “It’s for your son to pity you. If he doesn’t how can you expect it of others?”
“Oh but he does!” And with a majesty that was more striking even than her logic his hostess moved to the door.
Waterville advanced to open it for her, and as she passed out he said: “There’s one thing you can do — try to like her!”
She shot him a woeful glance. “That would be — worst of all!”
George Littlemore arrived in London on the twentieth of May, and one of the first things he did was to go and see Waterville at the Legation, where he mentioned that he had taken for the rest of the season a house at Queen Anne’s Gate, so that his sister and her husband, who, under the pressure of diminished rents, had let their own town residence, might come up and spend a couple of months with him.
“One of the consequences of your having a house will be that you’ll have to entertain the Texan belle,” our young man said.
Littlemore sat there with his hands crossed on his stick; he looked at his friend with an eye that failed to kindle at the mention of this lady’s name. “Has she got into European society?” he rather languidly inquired.
“Very much, I should say. She has a house and a carriage and diamonds and everything handsome. She seems already to know a lot of people; they put her name in the Morning Post. She has come up very quickly; she’s almost famous. Every one’s asking about her — you’ll be plied with questions.”
Littlemore listened gravely. “How did she get in?”
“She met a large party at Longlands and made them all think her great fun. They must have taken her up; she only wanted a start.”
Her old friend rallied after a moment to the interest of this news, marking his full appreciation of it by a burst of laughter. “To think of Nancy Beck! The people here do beat the Dutch! There’s no one they won’t go after. They wouldn’t touch her in New York.”
“Oh New York’s quite old-fashioned and rococo,” said Waterville; and he announced to Littlemore that Lady Demesne was very eager for his arrival and wanted his aid to prevent her son’s bringing such a person into the family. Littlemore was apparently not alarmed at her ladyship’s projects, and intimated, in the manner of a man who thought them rather impertinent, that he could trust himself to keep out of her way. “It isn’t a proper marriage at any rate,” the second secretary urged.
“Why not if he loves her?”
“Oh if that’s all you want!”— which seemed a degree of cynicism startling to his companion.
“Would you marry her yourself?”
“Certainly if I were in love with her.”
“You took care not to be that.”
“Yes, I did — and so Demesne had better have done. However, since he’s bitten —!” But Littlemore let the rest of his sentence too indifferently drop.
Waterville presently asked him how he would manage, in view of his sister’s advent, about asking Mrs. Headway to his house; and he replied that he would manage by simply not asking her. On this Waterville pronounced him highly inconsistent; to which Littlemore rejoined that it was very possible. But he asked whether they couldn’t talk about something else than Mrs. Headway. He couldn’t enter into the young man’s interest in her — they were sure to have enough of her later without such impatience.
Waterville would have been sorry to give a false idea of his interest in the wonderful woman; he knew too well the feeling had definite limits. He had been two or three times to see her, but it was a relief to be able to believe her quite independent of him. There had been no revival of those free retorts which had marked their stay at Longlands. She could dispense with assistance now; she knew herself in the current of success. She pretended to be surprised at her good fortune, especially at its rapidity; but she was really surprised at nothing. She took things as they came and, being essentially a woman of action, wasted almost as little time in elation as she would have done in despondence. She talked a great deal about Lord Edward and Lady Margaret and such others of that “standing” as had shown a desire for her acquaintance; professing to measure perfectly the sources of a growing popularity. “They come to laugh at me,” she said; “they come simply to get things to repeat. I can’t open my mouth but they burst into fits. It’s a settled thing that I’m a grand case of the American funny woman; if I make the least remark they begin to roar. I must express myself somehow; and indeed when I hold my tongue they think me funnier than ever. They repeat what I say to a great person, and a great person told some of them the other night that he wanted to hear me for himself. I’ll do for him what I do for the others; no better and no worse. I don’t know how I do it; I talk the only way I can. They tell me it isn’t so much the things I say as the way I say them. Well, they’re very easy to please. They don’t really care for me, you know — they don’t love me for myself and the way I want to be loved; it’s only to be able to repeat Mrs. Headway’s ‘last.’ Every one wants to have it first; it’s a regular race.” When she found what was expected of her she undertook to supply the article in abundance — the poor little woman worked hard at the vernacular. If the taste of London lay that way she would do her best to gratify it; it was only a pity she hadn’t known before: she would have made more extensive preparations. She had thought it a disadvantage of old to live in Arizona, in Dakotah, in the newly-admitted States; but now she saw that, as she phrased it to herself, this was the best thing that ever had happened to her. She tried to recover the weird things she had heard out there, and keenly regretted she hadn’t taken them down in writing; she drummed up the echoes of the Rocky Mountains and practised the intonations of the Pacific slope. When she saw her audience in convulsions she argued that this was success: she inferred that had she only come five years sooner she might have married a Duke. That would have been even a greater attraction for the London world than the actual proceedings of Sir Arthur Demesne, who, however, lived sufficiently in the eye of society to justify the rumour that there were bets about town as to the issue of his already protracted courtship. It was food for curiosity to see a young man of his pattern — one of the few “earnest” young men of the Tory side, with an income sufficient for tastes more vivid than those by which he was known — make up to a lady several years older than himself, whose fund of Texan slang was even larger than her stock of dollars. Mrs. Headway had got a good many new ideas since her arrival in London, but she had also not lost her grasp of several old ones. The chief of these — it was now a year old — was that Sir Arthur was the very most eligible and, shrewdly considered, taking one thing with another, most valuable young man in the world. There were of course a good many things he wasn’t. He wasn’t amusing; he wasn’t insinuating; he wasn’t of an absolutely irrepressible ardour. She believed he was constant, but he was certainly not eager. With these things, however, she could perfectly dispense; she had in particular quite outlived the need of being amused. She had had a very exciting life, and her vision of happiness at present was to be magnificently bored. The idea of complete and uncriticised respectability filled her soul with satisfaction; her imagination prostrated itself in the presence of this virtue. She was aware she had achieved it but ill in her own person; but she could now at least connect herself with it by sacred ties. She could prove in that way what was her deepest feeling. This was a religious appreciation of Sir Arthur’s great quality — his smooth and rounded, his blooming lily-like exemption from social flaws.
She was at home when Littlemore went to see her and surrounded by several visitors to whom she was giving a late cup of tea and to whom she introduced her tall compatriot. He stayed till they dispersed, in spite of the manœuvres of a gentleman who evidently desired to outlinger him, but who, whatever might have been his happy fortune on former visits, received on this occasion no encouragement from their hostess. He looked at Littlemore slowly, beginning with his boots and travelling up as if to discover the reason of so unexpected a preference, and then, with no salutation to him, left the pair face to face.
“I’m curious to see what you’ll do for me now you’ve got your sister with you,” Mrs. Headway presently remarked, having heard of this circumstance from Rupert Waterville. “I realise you’ll have to do something, you know. I’m sorry for you, but I don’t see how you can get off. You might ask me to dine some day when she’s dining out. I’d come even then, I think, because I want to keep on the right side of you.”
“I call that the wrong side,” said Littlemore.
“Yes, I see. It’s your sister that’s on the right side. You’re in rather a bad fix, ain’t you? You’ve got to be ‘good’ and mean, or you’ve got to be kind with a little courage. However, you take those things very quietly. There’s something in you that exasperates me. What does your sister think of me? Does she hate me?” Nancy persisted.
“She knows nothing about you.”
“Have you told her nothing?”
“Never a word.”
“Hasn’t she asked you? That shows how she hates me. She thinks I ain’t creditable to America. I know that way of doing it. She wants to show people over here that, however they may be taken in by me, she knows much better. But she’ll have to ask you about me; she can’t go on for ever. Then what’ll you say?”
“That you’re the biggest ‘draw’ in Europe.”
“Oh shucks!” she cried, out of her repertory.
“Haven’t you got into European society?”
“Maybe I have, maybe I haven’t. It’s too soon to see. I can’t tell this season. Every one says I’ve got to wait till next, to see if it’s the same. Sometimes they take you right up for a few weeks and then just drop you anywhere. You’ve got to make it a square thing somehow — to drive in a nail.”
“You speak as if it were your coffin,” said Littlemore.
“Well, it is a kind of coffin. I’m burying my past!”
He winced at this — he was tired to death of her past. He changed the subject and turned her on to London, a topic as to which her freshness of view and now unpremeditated art of notation were really interesting, displayed as they were at the expense of most of her new acquaintances and of some of the most venerable features of the great city. He himself looked at England from the outside as much as it was possible to do; but in the midst of her familiar allusions to people and things known to her only since yesterday he was struck with the truth that she would never really be initiated. She buzzed over the surface of things like a fly on a window-pane. This surface immensely pleased her; she was flattered, encouraged, excited; she dropped her confident judgements as if she were scattering flowers, talked about her intentions, her prospects, her discoveries, her designs. But she had really learnt no more about English life than about the molecular theory. The words in which he had described her of old to Waterville came back to him: “Elle ne doute de rien!” Suddenly she jumped up; she was going out to dine and it was time to dress. “Before you leave I want you to promise me something,” she said off-hand, but with a look he had seen before and that pressed on the point — oh so intensely! “You’ll be sure to be questioned about me.” And then she paused.
“How do people know I know you?”
“You haven’t ‘blown’ about it? Is that what you mean? You can be a brute when you try. They do know it at any rate. Possibly I may have told them. They’ll come to you to ask about me. I mean from Lady Demesne. She’s in an awful state. She’s so afraid of it — of the way he wants me.”
In himself too, after all, she could still press the spring of careless mirth. “I’m not afraid, if you haven’t yet brought it off.”
“Well, he can’t make up his mind. I appeal to him so, yet he can’t quite place me where he’d have to have me.” Her lucidity and her detachment were both grotesque and touching.
“He must be a poor creature if he won’t take you as you are. I mean for the sweet sake of what you are,” Littlemore added.
This wasn’t a very gallant form, but she made the best of it. “Well — he wants to be very careful, and so he ought!”
“If he asks too many questions he’s not worth marrying,” Littlemore rather cheaply opined.
“I beg your pardon — he’s worth marrying whatever he does; he’s worth marrying for me. And I want to marry him — that’s what I want to do.”
Her old friend had a pause of some blankness. “Is he waiting for me to settle it?”
“He’s waiting for I don’t know what — for some one to come and tell him that I’m the sweetest of the sweet. Then he’ll believe it. Some one who has been out there and knows all about me. Of course you’re the man, you’re created on purpose. Don’t you remember how I told you in Paris he wanted to ask you? He was ashamed and gave it up; he tried to forget me. But now it’s all on again — only meanwhile his mother has been at him. She works night and day, like a weasel in a hole, to persuade him that I’m too much beneath him. He’s very fond of her and very open to influence; I mean from her — not from any one else. Except me of course. Oh I’ve influenced him, I’ve explained everything fifty times over. But some memories, you know, are like those lumpish or pointed things you can’t get into your trunk — they won’t pack anyway; and he keeps coming back to them. He wants every little speck explained. He won’t come to you himself, but his mother will, or she’ll send some of her people. I guess she’ll send the lawyer — the family solicitor they call him. She wanted to send him out to America to make inquiries, only she didn’t know where to send. Of course I couldn’t be expected to give the places — they’ve got to find them out the best way they can. She knows all about you and has made up to your sister; a big proof, as she never makes up to any one. So you see how much I know. She’s waiting for you; she means to hold you with her glittering eye. She has an idea she can— can make you say what’ll meet her views. Then she’ll lay it before Sir Arthur. So you’ll be so good as to have none — not a view.”
Littlemore had, however disguisedly, given her every attention; but the conclusion left him all too consciously staring. “You don’t mean that anything I can say will make a difference?”
“Don’t be affected! You know it will as well as I.”
“You make him out not only a laggard in love but almost a dastard in war.”
“Never mind what I make him out. I guess if I can understand him you can accept him. And I appeal to you solemnly. You can save me or you can lose me. If you lose me you’ll be a coward. And if you say a word against me I’ll be lost.”
“Go and dress for dinner — that’s your salvation,” Littlemore returned as he quitted her at the head of the stairs.
It was very well for him to take that tone; but he felt as he walked home that he should scarcely know what to say to people who were determined, as she put it, to hold him with glittering eyes. She had worked a certain spell; she had succeeded in making him feel responsible. The sight of her success, however, rather hardened his heart; he might have pitied her if she had “muffed” it, as they said, but he just sensibly resented her heavy scoring. He dined alone that evening while his sister and her husband, who had engagements every day for a month, partook of their repast at the expense of friends. Mrs. Dolphin, however, came home rather early and immediately sought admittance to the small apartment at the foot of the staircase which was already spoken of as her brother’s den. Reggie had gone on to a “squash” somewhere, and she had returned in her eagerness to the third member of their party. She was too impatient even to wait for morning. She looked impatient; she was very unlike George Littlemore. “I want you to tell me about Mrs. Headway,” she at once began, while he started slightly at the coincidence of this remark with his own thoughts. He was just making up his mind at last to speak to her. She unfastened her cloak and tossed it over a chair, then pulled off her long tight black gloves, which were not so fine as those Mrs. Headway wore; all this as if she were preparing herself for an important interview. She was a fair neat woman, who had once been pretty, with a small thin voice, a finished manner and a perfect knowledge of what it was proper to do on every occasion in life. She always did it, and her conception of it was so definite that failure would have left her without excuse. She was usually not taken for an American, but she made a point of being one, because she flattered herself that she was of a type which under that banner borrowed distinction from rarity. She was by nature a great conservative and had ended by figuring as a better Tory than her husband; to the effect of being thought by some of her old friends to have changed immensely since her marriage. She knew English society as if she had compiled a red-covered handbook of the subject; had a way of looking prepared for far-reaching social action; had also thin lips and pretty teeth; and was as positive as she was amiable. She told her brother that Mrs. Headway had given out that he was her most intimate friend; whereby she thought it rather odd he had never spoken of her “at home.” Littlemore admitted, on this, that he had known her a long time, referred to the conditions in which the acquaintance had sprung up, and added that he had seen her that afternoon. He sat there smoking his cigar and looking up at the cornice while Mrs. Dolphin delivered herself of a series of questions. Was it true that he liked her so much, was it true he thought her a possible woman to marry, was it true that her antecedents had not been most peculiar?
“I may as well tell you I’ve a letter from Lady Demesne,” his visitor went on. “It came to me just before I went out, and I have it in my pocket.”
She drew forth the missive, which she evidently wished to read him; but he gave her no invitation to proceed. He knew she had come to him to extract a declaration adverse to Mrs. Headway’s projects, and however little edification he might find in this lady’s character he hated to be arraigned or prodded. He had a great esteem for Mrs. Dolphin, who, among other Hampshire notions, had picked up that of the major weight of the male members of any family, so that she treated him with a consideration which made his having an English sister rather a luxury. Nevertheless he was not, on the subject of his old Texan friend, very accommodating. He admitted once for all that she hadn’t behaved properly — it wasn’t worth while to split hairs about that; but he couldn’t see that she was much worse than lots of other women about the place — women at once less amusing and less impugned; and he couldn’t get up much feeling about her marrying or not marrying. Moreover, it was none of his business, and he intimated that it was none of Mrs. Dolphin’s.
“One surely can’t resist the claims of common humanity!” his sister replied; and she added that he was very inconsistent. He didn’t respect Mrs. Headway, he knew the most dreadful things about her, he didn’t think her fit company for his own flesh and blood. And yet he was willing not to save poor Arthur Demesne.
“Perfectly willing!” Littlemore returned. “I’ve nothing to do with saving others. All I’ve got to do is not to marry her myself.”
“Don’t you think then we’ve any responsibilities, any duties to society?”
“I don’t know what you mean. Society can look after itself. If she can bring it off she’s welcome. It’s a splendid sight in its way.”
“How do you mean splendid?”
“Why she has run up the tree as if she were a squirrel!”
“It’s very true she has an assurance à toute épreuve. But English society has become scandalously easy. I never saw anything like the people who are taken up. Mrs. Headway has had only to appear to succeed. If they can only make out big enough spots in you they’ll find you attractive. It’s like the decadence of the Roman Empire. You can see to look at this person that she’s not a lady. She’s pretty, very pretty, but she might be a dissipated dressmaker. She wouldn’t go down for a minute in New York. I’ve seen her three times — she apparently goes everywhere. I didn’t speak of her — I was wanting to see what you’d do. I judged you meant to do nothing, then this letter decided me. It’s written on purpose to be shown you; it’s what the poor lady —such a nice woman herself — wants you to do. She wrote to me before I came to town, and I went to see her as soon as I arrived. I think it very important. I told her that if she’d draw up a little statement I’d put it before you as soon as we should get settled. She’s in real distress. I think you ought to feel for her. You ought to communicate the facts exactly as they stand. A woman has no right to do such things as Mrs. Headway and come and ask to be accepted. She may make it up with her conscience, but she can’t make it up with society. Last night at Lady Dovedale’s I was afraid she’d know who I was and get somehow at me. I believe she’d really have been capable of it, and I got so frightened I went away. If Sir Arthur wishes to marry her for what she is, of course he’s welcome. But at least he ought to know.”
Mrs. Dolphin was neither agitated nor voluble; she moved from point to point with the temper and method of a person accustomed to preside at committees and to direct them. She deeply desired, however, that Mrs. Headway’s triumphant career should be checked; such a person had sufficiently abused a tolerance already so overstrained. Herself a party to an international marriage, Mrs. Dolphin naturally desired the class to which she belonged to close its ranks and carry its standard high.
“It seems to me she’s quite as good as the poor young man himself,” said Littlemore, lighting another cigar.
“As good? What do you mean by ‘good’? No one has ever breathed a word against him.”
“Very likely. But he’s a nonentity of the first water, and she at least a positive quantity, not to say a positive force. She’s a person, and a very clever one. Besides, she’s quite as good as the women lots of them have married. It’s new to me that your alliances have been always so august.”
“I know nothing about other cases,” Mrs. Dolphin said, “I only know about this one. It so happens that I’ve been brought near it, and that an appeal has been made to me. The English are very romantic — the most romantic people in the world, if that’s what you mean. They do the strangest things from the force of passion — even those of whom you would least expect it. They marry their cooks, they marry their coachmen, and their romances always have the most miserable end. I’m sure this one would be wretched. How can you pretend that such a flaming barbarian can be worked into any civilisation? What I see is a fine old race — one of the oldest and most honourable in England, people with every tradition of good conduct and high principle — and a dreadful disreputable vulgar little woman, who hasn’t an idea of what such things are, trying to force her way into it. I hate to see such things — I want to go to the rescue!”
“Well, I don’t,” Littlemore returned at his leisure. “I don’t care a pin for the fine old race.”
“Not from interested motives, of course, any more than I. But surely on artistic grounds, on grounds of decency?”
“Mrs. Headway isn’t indecent — you go too far. You must remember that she’s an old friend of mine.” He had become rather stern; Mrs. Dolphin was forgetting the consideration due, from an English point of view, to brothers.
She forgot it even a little more. “Oh if you’re in love with her too!” she quite wailed, turning away.
He made no answer to this, and the words had no sting for him. But at last, to finish the affair, he asked what in the world the old lady wanted him to do. Did she want him to go out into Piccadilly and announce to the passers-by that there had been one winter when even Mrs. Headway’s sister didn’t know who was her husband?
Mrs. Dolphin’s reply was to read out Lady Demesne’s letter, which her brother, as she folded it up again, pronounced one of the most extraordinary communications he had ever listened to. “It’s very sad — it’s a cry of distress,” she declared. “The whole meaning of it is that she wishes you’d come and see her. She doesn’t say it in so many words, but I can read between the lines. Besides, she told me she’d give anything to see you. Let me assure you it’s your duty to go.”
“To go and abuse Nancy Beck?”
“Go and rave about her if you like!” This was very clever of Mrs. Dolphin, but her brother was not so easily beguiled. He didn’t take that view of his duty, and he declined to cross her ladyship’s threshold. “Then she’ll come and see you,” said his visitor with decision.
“If she does I’ll tell her Nancy’s an angel.”
“If you can say so conscientiously she’ll be delighted to hear it.” And she gathered up her cloak and gloves.
Meeting Rupert Waterville the next day, as he often did, at the Saint George’s Club, which offers a much-appreciated hospitality to secretaries of legation and to the natives of the countries they assist in representing, Littlemore let him know that his prophecy had been fulfilled and that Lady Demesne had been making proposals for an interview. “My sister read me a desperate letter from her.”
Our young man was all critical attention again. “‘Desperate’?”
“The letter of a woman so scared that she’ll do anything. I may be a great brute, but her scare amuses me.”
“You’re in the position of Olivier de Jalin in Le Demi–Monde,” Waterville remarked.
“In Le Demi–Monde?” Littlemore was not quick at catching literary allusions.
“Don’t you remember the play we saw in Paris? Or like Don Fabrice in L’Aventurière. A bad woman tries to marry an honourable man, who doesn’t know how bad she is, and they who do know step in and push her back.”
“Yes, it comes to me. There was a good deal of lying,” Littlemore recalled, “all round.”
“They prevented the marriage, however — which is the great thing.”
“The great thing if your heart’s set! One of the active parties was the intimate friend of the man in love, the other was his son. Demesne’s nothing at all to me.”
“He’s a very good fellow,” said Waterville.
“Then go and talk to him.”
“Play the part of Olivier de Jalin? Oh I can’t. I’m not Olivier. But I think I do wish he’d corner me of himself. Mrs. Headway oughtn’t really to be allowed to pass.”
“I wish to heaven they’d let me alone,” Littlemore murmured ruefully and staring a while out of the window.
“Do you still hold to that theory you propounded in Paris? Are you willing to commit perjury?” Waterville asked.
“Assuredly I can refuse to answer questions — even that one.”
“As I told you before, that will amount to a condemnation.”
Longmore frowningly debated. “It may amount to what it pleases. I guess I’ll go back to Paris.”
“That will be the same as not answering. But it’s quite the best thing you can do. I’ve really been thinking it out,” Waterville continued, “and I don’t hold that from the point of view of social good faith she’s an article we ought to contribute —!” He looked at the matter clearly now from a great elevation; his tone, the expression of his face, betrayed this lofty flight; the effect of which, as he glanced down at his didactic young friend, Littlemore found peculiarly irritating.
He shifted about. “No, after all, hanged if they shall drive me away!” he exclaimed abruptly; and he walked off while his companion wondered.
The morning after this the elder man received a note from Mrs. Headway — a short and simple note, consisting merely of the words: “I shall be at home this afternoon; will you come and see me at five? I’ve something particular to say to you.” He sent no answer to the question, but went to the little house in Chesterfield Street at the hour its mistress had proposed.
“I don’t believe you know what sort of a woman I am!” she began as soon as he stood before her.
“Oh Lord!” Littlemore groaned as he dropped into a chair. Then he added: “Please don’t strike up that air!”
“Ah, but it’s exactly what I’ve wanted to say. It’s very important. You don’t know me — you don’t understand me. You think you do — but you don’t.”
“It isn’t for the want of your having told me — many many times!” And Littlemore had a hard critical smile, irritated as he was at so austere a prospect. The last word of all was decidedly that Mrs. Headway was a dreadful bore. It was always the last word about such women, who never really deserved to be spared.
She glared at him a little on this; her face was no longer the hospitable inn-front with the showy sign of the Smile. The sign had come down; she looked sharp and strained, almost old; the change was complete. It made her serious as he had never seen her — having seen her always only either too pleased or too disgusted. “Yes, I know; men are so stupid. They know nothing about women but what women tell them. And women tell them things on purpose to see how stupid they can be. I’ve told you things like that just for amusement when it was dull. If you believed them it was your own fault. But now I want you really to know.”
“I don’t want to know. I know enough.”
“How do you mean you know enough?” she cried with all her sincerity. “What business have you to know anything?” The poor little woman, in her passionate purpose, was not obliged to be consistent, and the loud laugh with which Littlemore greeted this must have seemed to her unduly harsh. “You shall know what I want you to know, however. You think me a bad woman — you don’t respect me; I told you that in Paris. I’ve done things I don’t understand, myself, today; that I admit as fully as you please. But I’ve completely changed, and I want to change everything. You ought to enter into that, you ought to see what I want. I hate everything that has happened to me before this; I loathe it, I despise it. I went on that way trying — trying one thing and another. But now I’ve got what I want. Do you expect me to go down on my knees to you? I believe I will, I’m so anxious. You can help me — no one else can do a thing; they’re only waiting to see if he’ll do it. I told you in Paris you could help me, and it’s just as true now. Say a good word for me for Christ’s sake! You haven’t lifted your little finger, or I should know it by this time. It will just make the difference. Or if your sister would come and see me I should be all right. Women are pitiless, pitiless, and you’re pitiless too. It isn’t that Mrs. Dolphin’s anything so great, most of my friends are better than that! — but she’s the one woman who knows, and every one seems to know she knows. He knows it, and he knows she doesn’t come. So she kills me — she kills me! I understand perfectly what he wants — I’ll do everything, be anything, I’ll be the most perfect wife. The old woman will adore me when she knows me — it’s too stupid of her not to see. Everything in the past’s over; it has all fallen away from me; it’s the life of another woman. This was what I wanted; I knew I should find it some day. I knew I should be at home in the best — and with the highest. What could I do in those horrible places? I had to take what I could. But now I’ve got nice surroundings. I want you to do me justice. You’ve never done me justice. That’s what I sent for you for.”
Littlemore had suddenly ceased to be bored, but a variety of feelings had taken the place of that one. It was impossible not to be touched; she really meant what she said. People don’t change their nature, but they change their desires, their ideal, their effort. This incoherent passionate plea was an assurance that she was literally panting to be respectable. But the poor woman, whatever she did, was condemned, as he had said of old, in Paris, to Waterville, to be only half right. The colour rose to her visitor’s face as he listened to her outpouring of anxiety and egotism; she hadn’t managed her early life very well, but there was no need of her going down on her knees. “It’s very painful to me to hear all this. You’re under no obligation to say such things to me. You entirely misconceive my attitude — my influence.”
“Oh yes, you shirk it — you only wish to shirk it!” she cried, flinging away fiercely the sofa-cushion on which she had been resting.
“Marry whom you damn please!” Littlemore quite shouted, springing to his feet.
He had hardly spoken when the door was thrown open and the servant announced Sir Arthur Demesne. This shy adventurer entered with a certain briskness, but stopped short on seeing Mrs. Headway engaged with another guest. Recognising Littlemore, however, he gave a light exclamation which might have passed for a greeting. Mrs. Headway, who had risen as he came in, looked with wonderful eyes from one of the men to the other; then, like a person who had a sudden inspiration, she clasped her hands together and cried out: “I’m so glad you’ve met. If I had arranged it it couldn’t be better!”
“If you had arranged it?” said Sir Arthur, crinkling a little his high white forehead, while the conviction rose before Littlemore that she had indeed arranged it.
“I’m going to do something very queer”— and her extravagant manner confirmed her words.
“You’re excited, I’m afraid you’re ill.” Sir Arthur stood there with his hat and his stick; he was evidently much annoyed.
“It’s an excellent opportunity; you must forgive me if I take advantage.” And she flashed a tender touching ray at the Baronet. “I’ve wanted this a long time — perhaps you’ve seen I wanted it. Mr. Littlemore has known me from far back; he’s an old old friend. I told you that in Paris, don’t you remember? Well he’s my only one, and I want him to speak for me.” Her eyes had turned now to Littlemore; they rested upon him with a sweetness that only made the whole proceeding more audacious. She had begun to smile again, though she was visibly trembling. “He’s my only one,” she continued; “it’s a great pity, you ought to have known others. But I’m very much alone and must make the best of what I have. I want so much that some one else than myself should speak for me. Women usually can ask that service of a relative or of another woman. I can’t; it’s a great pity, but it’s not my fault, it’s my misfortune. None of my people are here — I’m terribly alone in the world. But Mr. Littlemore will tell you; he’ll say he has known me for ever so long. He’ll tell you if he knows any reason — if there’s anything against me. He has been wanting the chance — he thought he couldn’t begin himself. You see I treat you as an old friend, dear Mr. Littlemore. I’ll leave you with Sir Arthur. You’ll both excuse me.” The expression of her face, turned towards Littlemore as she delivered herself of this singular proposal, had the intentness of a magician who wishes to work a spell. She darted at Sir Arthur another pleading ray and then swept out of the room.
The two men remained in the extraordinary position she had created for them; neither of them moved even to open the door for her. She closed it behind her, and for a moment there was a deep portentous silence. Sir Arthur Demesne, very pale, stared hard at the carpet.
“I’m placed in an impossible situation,” Littlemore said at last, “and I don’t imagine you accept it any more than I do.” His fellow-visitor kept the same attitude, neither looking up nor answering. Littlemore felt a sudden gush of pity for him. Of course he couldn’t accept the situation, but all the same he was half-sick with anxiety to see how this nondescript American, who was both so precious and so superfluous, so easy and so abysmal, would consider Mrs. Headway’s challenge. “Have you any question to ask me?” Littlemore went on. At which Sir Arthur looked up. The other had seen the look before; he had described it to Waterville after Mrs. Headway’s admirer came to call on him in Paris. There were other things mingled with it now — shame, annoyance, pride; but the great thing, the intense desire to know, was paramount. “Good God, how can I tell him?” seemed to hum in Littlemore’s ears.
Sir Arthur’s hesitation would have been of the briefest; but his companion heard the tick of the clock while it lasted. “Certainly I’ve no question to ask,” the young man said in a voice of cool almost insolent surprise.
“Good-day then, confound you.”
“The same to you!”
But Littlemore left him in possession. He expected to find Mrs. Headway at the foot of the staircase; but he quitted the house without interruption.
On the morrow, after luncheon, as he was leaving the vain retreat at Queen Anne’s Gate, the postman handed him a letter. Littlemore opened and read it on the steps, an operation which took but a moment.
DEAR MR. LITTLEMORE— It will interest you to know that I’m engaged to
be married to Sir Arthur Demesne and that our marriage is to take place as soon as their stupid old Parliament rises. But it’s not to come out for some days, and I’m sure I can trust meanwhile to your complete discretion.
Yours very sincerely,
P.S.— He made me a terrible scene for what I did yesterday, but he
came back in the evening and we fixed it all right. That’s how the thing comes to be settled. He won’t tell me what passed between you — he requested me never to allude to the subject. I don’t care — I was bound you should speak!
Littlemore thrust this epistle into his pocket and marched away with it. He had come out on various errands, but he forgot his business for the time and before he knew it had walked into Hyde Park. He left the carriages and riders to one side and followed the Serpentine into Kensington Gardens, of which he made the complete circuit. He felt annoyed, and more disappointed than he understood — than he would have understood if he had tried. Now that Nancy Beck had succeeded her success was an irritation, and he was almost sorry he hadn’t said to Sir Arthur: “Oh well, she was pretty bad, you know.” However, now they were at one they would perhaps leave him alone. He walked the irritation off and before he went about his original purposes had ceased to think of Mrs. Headway. He went home at six o’clock, and the servant who admitted him informed him in doing so that Mrs. Dolphin had requested he should be told on his return that she wished to see him in the drawing-room. “It’s another trap!” he said to himself instinctively; but in spite of this reflexion he went upstairs. On entering his sister’s presence he found she had a visitor. This visitor, to all appearance on the point of departing, was a tall elderly woman, and the two ladies stood together in the middle of the room.
“I’m so glad you’ve come back,” said Mrs. Dolphin without meeting her brother’s eye. “I want so much to introduce you to Lady Demesne that I hoped you’d come in. Must you really go — won’t you stay a little?” she added, turning to her companion; and without waiting for an answer went on hastily: “I must leave you a moment — excuse me. I’ll come back!” Before he knew it Littlemore found himself alone with her ladyship and understood that since he hadn’t been willing to go and see her she had taken upon herself to make an advance. It had the queerest effect, all the same, to see his sister playing the same tricks as Nancy Beck!
“Ah, she must be in a fidget!” he said to himself as he stood before Lady Demesne. She looked modest and aloof, even timid, as far as a tall serene woman who carried her head very well could look so; and she was such a different type from Mrs. Headway that his present vision of Nancy’s triumph gave her by contrast something of the dignity of the vanquished. It made him feel as sorry for her as he had felt for her son. She lost no time; she went straight to the point. She evidently felt that in the situation in which she had placed herself her only advantage could consist in being simple and business-like.
“I’m so fortunate as to catch you. I wish so much to ask you if you can give me any information about a person you know and about whom I have been in correspondence with Mrs. Dolphin. I mean Mrs. Headway.”
“Won’t you sit down?” asked Littlemore.
“No, thank you. I’ve only a moment.”
“May I ask you why you make this inquiry?”
“Of course I must give you my reason. I’m afraid my son will marry her.”
Littlemore was puzzled — then saw she wasn’t yet aware of the fact imparted to him in Mrs. Headway’s note. “You don’t like her?” he asked, exaggerating, in spite of himself, the interrogative inflexion.
“Not at all,” said Lady Demesne, smiling and looking at him. Her smile was gentle, without rancour; he thought it almost beautiful.
“What would you like me to say?” he asked.
“Whether you think her respectable.”
“What good will that do you? How can it possibly affect the event?”
“It will do me no good, of course, if your opinion’s favourable. But if you tell me it’s not I shall be able to say to my son that the one person in London who has known her more than six months thinks so and so of her.”
This speech, on Lady Demesne’s clear lips, evoked no protest from her listener. He had suddenly become conscious of the need to utter the simple truth with which he had answered Rupert Waterville’s first question at the Théâtre Français. He brought it out. “I don’t think Mrs. Headway respectable.”
“I was sure you would say that.” She seemed to pant a little.
“I can say nothing more — not a word. That’s my opinion. I don’t think it will help you.”
“I think it will. I wanted to have it from your own lips. That makes all the difference,” said Lady Demesne. “I’m exceedingly obliged to you.” And she offered him her hand; after which he accompanied her in silence to the door.
He felt no discomfort, no remorse, at what he had said; he only felt relief — presumably because he believed it would make no difference. It made a difference only in what was at the bottom of all things — his own sense of fitness. He only wished he had driven it home that Mrs. Headway would probably be for her son a capital wife. But that at least would make no difference. He requested his sister, who had wondered greatly at the brevity of his interview with her friend, to spare him all questions on the subject; and Mrs. Dolphin went about for some days in the happy faith that there were to be no dreadful Americans in English society compromising her native land.
Her faith, however, was short-lived. Nothing had made any difference; it was perhaps too late. The London world heard in the first days of July, not that Sir Arthur Demesne was to marry Mrs. Headway, but that the pair had been privately and, it was to be hoped as regards Mrs. Headway on this occasion, indissolubly united. His mother gave neither sign nor sound; she only retired to the country.
“I think you might have done differently,” said Mrs. Dolphin, very pale, to her brother. “But of course everything will come out now.”
“Yes, and make her more the fashion than ever!” Littlemore answered with cynical laughter. After his little interview with the elder Lady Demesne he didn’t feel at liberty to call again on the younger; and he never learned — he never even wished to know — whether in the pride of her success she forgave him.
Waterville — it was very strange — was positively scandalised at this success. He held that Mrs. Headway ought never to have been allowed to marry a confiding gentleman, and he used in speaking to Littlemore the same words as Mrs. Dolphin. He thought Littlemore might have done differently. But he spoke with such vehemence that Littlemore looked at him hard — hard enough to make him blush. “Did you want to marry her yourself?” his friend inquired. “My dear fellow, you’re in love with her! That’s what’s the matter with you.”
This, however, blushing still more, Waterville indignantly denied. A little later he heard from New York that people were beginning to ask who in the world Lady Demesne “had been.”
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