The Velvet Glove, by Henry James


Well, it was all confounding enough, but this indication in particular would have jostled our friend’s grasp of the presented cup had he had, during the next ten minutes, more independence of thought. That, however, was out of the question when one positively felt, as with a pang somewhere deep within, or even with a smothered cry for alarm, one’s whole sense of proportion shattered at a blow and ceasing to serve. “Not straight, and not too fast, shall we?” was the ineffable young woman’s appeal to him, a few minutes later, beneath the wide glass porch-cover that sheltered their brief wait for their chariot of fire. It was there even as she spoke; the capped charioteer, with a great clean curve, drew up at the steps of the porch, and the Princess’s footman, before rejoining him in front, held open the door of the car. She got in, and Berridge was the next instant beside her; he could only say: “As you like, Princess — where you will; certainly let us prolong it; let us prolong everything; don’t let us have it over — strange and beautiful as it can only be! — a moment sooner than we must.” So he spoke, in the security of their intimate English, while the perpendicular imperturbable valet-de-pied, white-faced in the electric light, closed them in and then took his place on the box where the rigid liveried backs of the two men, presented through the glass, were like a protecting wall; such a guarantee of privacy as might come — it occurred to Berridge’s inexpugnable fancy — from a vision of tall guards erect round Eastern seraglios.

His companion had said something, by the time they started, about their taking a turn, their looking out for a few of the night-views of Paris that were so wonderful; and after that, in spite of his constantly prized sense of knowing his enchanted city and his way about, he ceased to follow or measure their course, content as he was with the particular exquisite assurance it gave him. That was knowing Paris, of a wondrous bland April night; that was hanging over it from vague consecrated lamp-studded heights and taking in, spread below and afar, the great scroll of all its irresistible story, pricked out, across river and bridge and radiant place, and along quays and boulevards and avenues, and around monumental circles and squares, in syllables of fire, and sketched and summarised, further and further, in the dim fire-dust of endless avenues; that was all of the essence of fond and thrilled and throbbing recognition, with a thousand things understood and a flood of response conveyed, a whole familiar possessive feeling appealed to and attested.

“From you, you know, it would be such a pleasure, and I think — in fact I’m sure — it would do so much for the thing in America.” Had she gone on as they went, or had there been pauses of easy and of charmed and of natural silence, breaks and drops from talk, but only into greater confidence and sweetness? — such as her very gesture now seemed a part of; her laying her gloved hand, for emphasis, on the back of his own, which rested on his knee and which took in from the act he scarce knew what melting assurance. The emphasis, it was true — this came to him even while for a minute he held his breath — seemed rather that of Amy Evans; and if her talk, while they rolled, had been in the sense of these words (he had really but felt that they were shut intimately in together, all his consciousness, all his discrimination of meanings and indications being so deeply and so exquisitely merged in that) the case wasn’t as surely and sublimely, as extravagantly, as fabulously romantic for him as his excited pulses had been seeming to certify. Her hand was there on his own, in precious living proof, and splendid Paris hung over them, as a consecrating canopy, her purple night embroidered with gold; yet he waited, something stranger still having glimmered for him, waited though she left her hand, which expressed emphasis and homage and tenderness, and anything else she liked indeed — since it was all then a matter of what he next heard and what he slowly grew cold as he took from her.

“You know they do it here so charmingly — it’s a compliment a clever man is always so glad to pay a literary friend, and sometimes, in the case of a great name like yours, it renders such a service to a poor little book like mine!” She spoke ever so humbly and yet ever so gaily — and still more than before with this confidence of the sincere admirer and the comrade. That, yes, through his sudden sharpening chill, was what first became distinct for him; she was mentioning somehow her explanation and her conditions — her motive, in fine, disconcerting, deplorable, dreadful, in respect to the experience, otherwise so boundless, that he had taken her as having opened to him; and she was doing it, above all, with the clearest coolness of her general privilege. What in particular she was talking about he as yet, still holding his breath, wondered; it was something she wanted him to do for her — which was exactly what he had hoped, but something of what trivial and, heaven forgive them both, of what dismal order? Most of all, meanwhile, he felt the dire penetration of two or three of the words she had used; so that after a painful minute the quaver with which he repeated them resembled his-drawing, slowly, carefully, timidly, some barbed dart out of his flesh.

“A ‘literary friend’?” he echoed as he turned his face more to her; so that, as they sat, the whites of her eyes, near to his own, gleamed in the dusk like some silver setting of deep sapphires.

It made her smile — which in their relation now was like the breaking of a cool air-wave over the conscious sore flush that maintained itself through his general chill. “Ah, of course you don’t allow that I am literary — and of course if you’re awfully cruel and critical and incorruptible you won’t let it say for me what I so want it should!”

“Where are we, where, in the name of all that’s damnably, of all that’s grotesquely delusive, are we?” he said, without a sign, to himself; which was the form of his really being quite at sea as to what she was talking about. That uncertainty indeed he could but frankly betray by taking her up, as he cast about him, on the particular ambiguity that his voice perhaps already showed him to find most irritating. “Let it show? ‘It,’ dear Princess ——?”

“Why, my dear man, let your Preface show, the lovely, friendly, irresistible log-rolling Preface that I’ve been asking you if you wouldn’t be an angel and write for me.”

He took it in with a deep long gulp — he had never, it seemed to him, had to swallow anything so bitter. “You’ve been asking me if I wouldn’t write you a Preface?”

“To ‘The Velvet Glove’ — after I’ve sent it to you and you’ve judged if you really can. Of course I don’t want you to perjure yourself; but” — and she fairly brushed him again, at their close quarters, with her fresh fragrant smile — “I do want you so to like me, and to say it all out beautifully and publicly.” “You want me to like you, Princess?” “But, heaven help us, haven’t you understood?” Nothing stranger could conceivably have been, it struck him — if he was right now — than this exquisite intimacy of her manner of setting him down on the other side of an abyss. It was as if she had lifted him first in her beautiful arms, had raised him up high, high, high, to do it, pressing him to her immortal young breast while he let himself go, and then, by some extraordinary effect of her native force and her alien quality, setting him down exactly where she wanted him to be — which was a thousand miles away from her. Once more, so preposterously face to face with her for these base issues, he took it all in; after which he felt his eyes close, for amazement, despair and shame, and his head, which he had some time before, baring his brow to the mild night, eased of its crush-hat, sink to confounded rest on the upholstered back of the seat. The act, the ceasing to see, and if possible to hear, was for the moment a retreat, an escape from a state that he felt himself fairly flatter by thinking of it as “awkward”; the state of really wishing that his humiliation might end, and of wondering in fact if the most decent course open to him mightn’t be to ask her to stop the motor and let him down.

He spoke no word for a long minute, or for considerably more than that; during which time the motor went and went, now even somewhat faster, and he knew, through his closed eyes, that the outer lights had begun to multiply and that they were getting back somewhere into the spacious and decorative quarters. He knew this, and also that his retreat, for all his attitude as of accommodating thought, his air — that presently and quickly came to him — of having perhaps gathered himself in, for an instant, at her behest, to turn over, in his high ingenuity, some humbugging “rotten” phrase or formula that he might place at her service and make the note of such an effort; he became aware, I say, that his lapse was but a half-retreat, with her strenuous presence and her earnest pressure and the close cool respiration of her good faith absolutely timing the moments of his stillness and the progress of the car. Yes, it was wondrous well, he had all but made the biggest of all fools of himself, almost as big a one as she was still, to every appearance, in her perfect serenity, trying to make of him; and the one straight answer to it would be that he should reach forward and touch the footman’s shoulder and demand that the vehicle itself should make an end.

That would be an answer, however, he continued intensely to see, only to inanely importunate, to utterly superfluous Amy Evans — not a bit to his at last exquisitely patient companion, who was clearly now quite taking it from him that what kept him in his attitude was the spring of the quick desire to oblige her, the charming loyal impulse to consider a little what he could do for her, say “handsomely yet conscientiously” (oh the loveliness!) before he should commit himself. She was enchanted — that seemed to breathe upon him; she waited, she hung there, she quite bent over him, as Diana over the sleeping Endymion, while all the conscientious man of letters in him, as she might so supremely have phrased it, struggled with the more peccable, the more muddled and “squared,” though, for her own ideal, the so much more banal comrade. Yes, he could keep it up now — that is he could hold out for his real reply, could meet the rather marked tension of the rest of their passage as well as she; he should be able somehow or other to make his wordless detachment, the tribute of his ostensibly deep consideration of her request, a retreat in good order. She was, for herself, to the last point of her guileless fatuity, Amy Evans and an asker for “lifts,” a conceiver of twaddle both in herself and in him; or at least, so far as she fell short of all this platitude, it was no fault of the really affecting folly of her attempt to become a mere magazine mortal after the only fashion she had made out, to the intensification of her self-complacency, that she might.

Nothing might thus have touched him more — if to be touched, beyond a certain point, hadn’t been to be squared — than the way she failed to divine the bearing of his thoughts; so that she had probably at no one small crisis of her life felt so much a promise in the flutter of her own as on the occasion of the beautiful act she indulged in at the very moment, he was afterward to recognise, of their sweeping into her great smooth, empty, costly street — a desert, at that hour, of lavish lamplight and sculptured stone. She raised to her lips the hand she had never yet released and kept it there a moment pressed close against them; he himself closing his eyes to the deepest detachment he was capable of while he took in with a smothered sound of pain that this was the conferred bounty by which Amy Evans sought most expressively to encourage, to sustain and to reward. The motor had slackened and in a moment would stop; and meanwhile even after lowering his hand again she hadn’t let it go. This enabled it, while he after a further moment roused himself to a more confessed consciousness, to form with his friend’s a more active relation, to possess him of hers, in turn, and with an intention the straighter that her glove had by this time somehow come off. Bending over it without hinderance, he returned as firmly and fully as the application of all his recovered wholeness of feeling, under his moustache, might express, the consecration the bareness of his own knuckles had received; only after which it was that, still thus drawing out his grasp of her, and having let down their front glass by his free hand, he signified to the footman his view of their stopping short.

They had arrived; the high, closed porte-cochere, in its crested stretch of wall, awaited their approach; but his gesture took effect, the car pulled up at the edge of the pavement, the man, in an instant, was at the door and had opened it; quickly moving across the walk, the next moment, to press the bell at the gate. Berridge, as his hand now broke away, felt he had cut his cable; with which, after he had stepped out, he raised again the glass he had lowered and closed, its own being already down, the door that had released him. During these motions he had the sense of his companion, still radiant and splendid, but somehow momentarily suppressed, suspended, silvered over and celestially blurred, even as a summer moon by the loose veil of a cloud. So it was he saw her while he leaned for farewell on the open window-ledge; he took her in as her visible intensity of bright vagueness filled the circle that the interior of the car made for her. It was such a state as she would have been reduced to — he felt this, was certain of it — for the first time in her life; and it was he, poor John Berridge, after all, who would have created the condition.

“Good-night, Princess. I sha’n’t see you again.”

Vague was indeed no word for it — shine though she might, in her screened narrow niche, as with the liquefaction of her pearls, the glimmer of her tears, the freshness of her surprise. “You won’t come in — when you’ve had no supper?”

He smiled at her with a purpose of kindness that could never in his life have been greater; and at first but smiled without a word. He presently shook his head, however — doubtless also with as great a sadness. “I seem to have supped to my fill, Princess. Thank you, I won’t come in.”

It drew from her, while she looked at him, a long low anxious wail. “And you won’t do my Preface?”

“No, Princess, I won’t do your Preface. Nothing would induce me to say a word in print about you. I’m in fact not sure I shall ever mention you in any manner at all as long as ever I live.”

He had felt for an instant as if he were speaking to some miraculously humanised idol, all sacred, all jewelled, all votively hung about, but made mysterious, in the recess of its shrine, by the very thickness of the accumulated lustre. And “Then you don’t like me —?” was the marvellous sound from the image.

“Princess,” was in response the sound of the worshipper, “Princess, I adore you. But I’m ashamed for you.”

“Ashamed ——?”

“You are Romance — as everything, and by what I make out every one, about you is; so what more do you want? Your Preface — the only one worth speaking of — was written long ages ago by the most beautiful imagination of man.”

Humanised at least for these moments, she could understand enough to declare that she didn’t. “I don’t, I don’t!”

“You don’t need to understand. Don’t attempt such base things. Leave those to us. Only live. Only be. We’ll do the rest.”

She moved over — she had come close to the window. “Ah, but Mr. Berridge ——!”

He raised both hands; he shook them at her gently, in deep and soft deprecation. “Don’t sound my dreadful name. Fortunately, however, you can’t help yourself.”

“Ah, voyons! I so want ———!”

He repeated his gesture, and when he brought down his hands they closed together on both of hers, which now quite convulsively grasped the window-ledge. “Don’t speak, because when you speak you really say things —!” “You are Romance,” he pronounced afresh and with the last intensity of conviction and persuasion. “That’s all you have to do with it,” he continued while his hands, for emphasis, pressed hard on her own.

Their faces, in this way, were nearer together than ever, but with the effect of only adding to the vividness of that dire non-intelligence from which, all perversely and incalculably, her very beauty now appeared to gain relief. This made for him a pang and almost an anguish; the fear of her saying something yet again that would wretchedly prove how little he moved her perception. So his eyes, of remonstrant, of suppliant intention, met hers close, at the same time that these, so far from shrinking, but with their quite other swimming plea all bedimmed now, seemed almost to wash him with the tears of her failure. He soothed, he stroked, he reassured her hands, for tender conveyance of his meaning, quite as she had just before dealt with his own for brave demonstration of hers. It was during these instants as if the question had been which of them could most candidly and fraternally plead. Full but of that she kept it up. “Ah, if you’d only think, if you’d only try ——!”

He couldn’t stand it — she was capable of believing he had edged away, excusing himself and trumping up a factitious theory, because he hadn’t the wit, hadn’t the hand, to knock off the few pleasant pages she asked him for and that any proper Frenchman, master of the metier, would so easily and gallantly have promised. Should she so begin to commit herself he’d, by the immortal gods, anticipate it in the manner most admirably effective — in fact he’d even thus make her further derogation impossible. Their faces were so close that he could practise any rich freedom — even though for an instant, while the back of the chauffeur guarded them on that side and his own presented breadth, amplified by his loose mantle, filled the whole window-space, leaving him no observation from any quarter to heed, he uttered, in a deep-drawn final groan, an irrepressible echo of his pang for what might have been, the muffled cry of his insistence. “You are Romance!” — he drove it intimately, inordinately home, his lips, for a long moment, sealing it, with the fullest force of authority, on her own; after which, as he broke away and the car, starting again, turned powerfully across the pavement, he had no further sound from her than if, all divinely indulgent but all humanly defeated, she had given the question up, falling back to infinite wonder. He too fell back, but could still wave his hat for her as she passed to disappearance in the great floridly framed aperture whose wings at once came together behind her.

This web edition published by:

The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

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