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Chapter 4

Mrs. Saltram made a great affair of her right to be informed where
her husband had been the second evening he failed to meet his
audience. She came to me to ascertain, but I couldn't satisfy her,
for in spite of my ingenuity I remained in ignorance. It wasn't
till much later that I found this had not been the case with Kent
Mulville, whose hope for the best never twirled the thumbs of him
more placidly than when he happened to know the worst. He had
known it on the occasion I speak of--that is immediately after. He
was impenetrable then, but ultimately confessed. What he confessed
was more than I shall now venture to make public. It was of course
familiar to me that Saltram was incapable of keeping the
engagements which, after their separation, he had entered into with
regard to his wife, a deeply wronged, justly resentful, quite
irreproachable and insufferable person. She often appeared at my
chambers to talk over his lapses; for if, as she declared, she had
washed her hands of him, she had carefully preserved the water of
this ablution, which she handed about for analysis. She had arts
of her own of exciting one's impatience, the most infallible of
which was perhaps her assumption that we were kind to her because
we liked her. In reality her personal fall had been a sort of
social rise--since I had seen the moment when, in our little
conscientious circle, her desolation almost made her the fashion.
Her voice was grating and her children ugly; moreover she hated the
good Mulvilles, whom I more and more loved. They were the people
who by doing most for her husband had in the long run done most for
herself; and the warm confidence with which he had laid his length
upon them was a pressure gentle compared with her stiffer
persuadability. I'm bound to say he didn't criticise his
benefactors, though practically he got tired of them; she, however,
had the highest standards about eleemosynary forms. She offered
the odd spectacle of a spirit puffed up by dependence, and indeed
it had introduced her to some excellent society. She pitied me for
not knowing certain people who aided her and whom she doubtless
patronised in turn for their luck in not knowing me. I dare say I
should have got on with her better if she had had a ray of
imagination--if it had occasionally seemed to occur to her to
regard Saltram's expressions of his nature in any other manner than
as separate subjects of woe. They were all flowers of his
character, pearls strung on an endless thread; but she had a
stubborn little way of challenging them one after the other, as if
she never suspected that he HAD a character, such as it was, or
that deficiencies might be organic; the irritating effect of a mind
incapable of a generalisation. One might doubtless have overdone
the idea that there was a general licence for such a man; but if
this had happened it would have been through one's feeling that
there could be none for such a woman.

I recognised her superiority when I asked her about the aunt of the
disappointed young lady: it sounded like a sentence from an
English-French or other phrase-book. She triumphed in what she
told me and she may have triumphed still more in what she withheld.
My friend of the other evening, Miss Anvoy, had but lately come to
England; Lady Coxon, the aunt, had been established here for years
in consequence of her marriage with the late Sir Gregory of that
name. She had a house in the Regent's Park, a Bath-chair and a
fernery; and above all she had sympathy. Mrs. Saltram had made her
acquaintance through mutual friends. This vagueness caused me to
feel how much I was out of it and how large an independent circle
Mrs. Saltram had at her command. I should have been glad to know
more about the disappointed young lady, but I felt I should know
most by not depriving her of her advantage, as she might have
mysterious means of depriving me of my knowledge. For the present,
moreover, this experience was stayed, Lady Coxon having in fact
gone abroad accompanied by her niece. The niece, besides being
immensely clever, was an heiress, Mrs. Saltram said; the only
daughter and the light of the eyes of some great American merchant,
a man, over there, of endless indulgences and dollars. She had
pretty clothes and pretty manners, and she had, what was prettier
still, the great thing of all. The great thing of all for Mrs.
Saltram was always sympathy, and she spoke as if during the absence
of these ladies she mightn't know where to turn for it. A few
months later indeed, when they had come back, her tone perceptibly
changed: she alluded to them, on my leading her up to it, rather
as to persons in her debt for favours received. What had happened
I didn't know, but I saw it would take only a little more or a
little less to make her speak of them as thankless subjects of
social countenance--people for whom she had vainly tried to do
something. I confess I saw how it wouldn't be in a mere week or
two that I should rid myself of the image of Ruth Anvoy, in whose
very name, when I learnt it, I found something secretly to like. I
should probably neither see her nor hear of her again: the
knight's widow (he had been mayor of Clockborough) would pass away
and the heiress would return to her inheritance. I gathered with
surprise that she had not communicated to his wife the story of her
attempt to hear Mr..Saltram, and I founded this reticence on the
easy supposition that Mrs. Saltram had fatigued by overpressure the
spring of the sympathy of which she boasted. The girl at any rate
would forget the small adventure, be distracted, take a husband;
besides which she would lack occasion to repeat her experiment.

We clung to the idea of the brilliant course, delivered without an
accident, that, as a lecturer, would still make the paying public
aware of our great man, but the fact remained that in the case of
an inspiration so unequal there was treachery, there was fallacy at
least, in the very conception of a series. In our scrutiny of ways
and means we were inevitably subject to the old convention of the
synopsis, the syllabus, partly of course not to lose the advantage
of his grand free hand in drawing up such things; but for myself I
laughed at our playbills even while I stickled for them. It was
indeed amusing work to be scrupulous for Frank Saltram, who also at
moments laughed about it, so far as the comfort of a sigh so
unstudied as to be cheerful might pass for such a sound. He
admitted with a candour all his own that he was in truth only to be
depended on in the Mulvilles' drawing-room. "Yes," he suggestively
allowed, "it's there, I think, that I'm at my best; quite late,
when it gets toward eleven--and if I've not been too much worried."
We all knew what too much worry meant; it meant too enslaved for
the hour to the superstition of sobriety. On the Saturdays I used
to bring my portmanteau, so as not to have to think of eleven
o'clock trains. I had a bold theory that as regards this temple of
talk and its altars of cushioned chintz, its pictures and its
flowers, its large fireside and clear lamplight, we might really
arrive at something if the Mulvilles would but charge for
admission. Here it was, however, that they shamelessly broke down;
as there's a flaw in every perfection this was the inexpugnable
refuge of their egotism. They declined to make their saloon a
market, so that Saltram's golden words continued the sole coin that
rang there. It can have happened to no man, however, to be paid a
greater price than such an enchanted hush as surrounded him on his
greatest nights. The most profane, on these occasions, felt a
presence; all minor eloquence grew dumb. Adelaide Mulville, for
the pride of her hospitality, anxiously watched the door or
stealthily poked the fire. I used to call it the music-room, for
we had anticipated Bayreuth. The very gates of the kingdom of
light seemed to open and the horizon of thought to flash with the
beauty of a sunrise at sea.

In the consideration of ways and means, the sittings of our little
board, we were always conscious of the creak of Mrs. Saltram's
shoes. She hovered, she interrupted, she almost presided, the
state of affairs being mostly such as to supply her with every
incentive for enquiring what was to be done next. It was the
pressing pursuit of this knowledge that, in concatenations of
omnibuses and usually in very wet weather, led her so often to my
door. She thought us spiritless creatures with editors and
publishers; but she carried matters to no great effect when she
personally pushed into back-shops. She wanted all moneys to be
paid to herself: they were otherwise liable to such strange
adventures. They trickled away into the desert--they were mainly
at best, alas, a slender stream. The editors and the publishers
were the last people to take this remarkable thinker at the
valuation that has now pretty well come to be established. The
former were half-distraught between the desire to "cut" him and the
difficulty of finding a crevice for their shears; and when a volume
on this or that portentous subject was proposed to the latter they
suggested alternative titles which, as reported to our friend,
brought into his face the noble blank melancholy that sometimes
made it handsome. The title of an unwritten book didn't after all
much matter, but some masterpiece of Saltram's may have died in his
bosom of the shudder with which it was then convulsed. The ideal
solution, failing the fee at Kent Mulville's door, would have been
some system of subscription to projected treatises with their non-
appearance provided for--provided for, I mean, by the indulgence of
subscribers. The author's real misfortune was that subscribers
were so wretchedly literal. When they tastelessly enquired why
publication hadn't ensued I was tempted to ask who in the world had
ever been so published. Nature herself had brought him out in
voluminous form, and the money was simply a deposit on borrowing
the work.

Henry James

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