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Chapter 4

On the evening that succeeded this apparently pointless encounter he
had an interview more conclusive with Mrs. Bundy, for whose shrewd
and philosophic view of life he had several times expressed, even to
the good woman herself, a considerable relish. The situation at
Jersey Villas (Mrs. Ryves had suddenly flown off to Dover) was such
as to create in him a desire for moral support, and there was a kind
of domestic determination in Mrs. Bundy which seemed, in general, to
advertise it. He had asked for her on coming in, but had been told
she was absent for the hour; upon which he had addressed himself
mechanically to the task of doing up his dishonoured manuscript--the
ingenious fiction about which Mr. Locket had been so stupid--for
further adventures and not improbable defeats. He passed a restless,
ineffective afternoon, asking himself if his genius were a horrid
delusion, looking out of his window for something that didn't happen,
something that seemed now to be the advent of a persuasive Mr. Locket
and now the return, from an absence more disappointing even than Mrs.
Bundy's, of his interesting neighbour of the parlours. He was so
nervous and so depressed that he was unable even to fix his mind on
the composition of the note with which, on its next peregrination, it
was necessary that his manuscript should be accompanied. He was too
nervous to eat, and he forgot even to dine; he forgot to light his
candles, he let his fire go out, and it was in the melancholy chill
of the late dusk that Mrs. Bundy, arriving at last with his lamp,
found him extended moodily upon his sofa. She had been informed that
he wished to speak to her, and as she placed on the malodorous
luminary an oily shade of green pasteboard she expressed the friendly
hope that there was nothing wrong with his 'ealth.

The young man rose from his couch, pulling himself together
sufficiently to reply that his health was well enough but that his
spirits were down in his hoots. He had a strong disposition to
"draw" his landlady on the subject of Mrs. Ryves, as well as a vivid
conviction that she constituted a theme as to which Mrs. Bundy would
require little pressure to tell him even more than she knew. At the
same time he hated to appear to pry into the secrets of his absent
friend; to discuss her with their bustling hostess resembled too much
for his taste a gossip with a tattling servant about an unconscious
employer. He left out of account however Mrs. Bundy's knowledge of
the human heart, for it was this fine principle that broke down the
barriers after he had reflected reassuringly that it was not meddling
with Mrs. Ryves's affairs to try and find out if she struck such an
observer as happy. Crudely, abruptly, even a little blushingly, he
put the direct question to Mrs. Bundy, and this led tolerably
straight to another question, which, on his spirit, sat equally heavy
(they were indeed but different phases of the same), and which the
good woman answered with expression when she ejaculated: "Think it a
liberty for you to run down for a few hours? If she do, my dear sir,
just send her to me to talk to!" As regards happiness indeed she
warned Baron against imposing too high a standard on a young thing
who had been through so much, and before he knew it he found himself,
without the responsibility of choice, in submissive receipt of Mrs.
Bundy's version of this experience. It was an interesting picture,
though it had its infirmities, one of them congenital and consisting
of the fact that it had sprung essentially from the virginal brain of
Miss Teagle. Amplified, edited, embellished by the richer genius of
Mrs. Bundy, who had incorporated with it and now liberally introduced
copious interleavings of Miss Teagle's own romance, it gave Peter
Baron much food for meditation, at the same time that it only half
relieved his curiosity about the causes of the charming woman's
underlying strangeness. He sounded this note experimentally in Mrs.
Bundy's ear, but it was easy to see that it didn't reverberate in her
fancy. She had no idea of the picture it would have been natural for
him to desire that Mrs. Ryves should present to him, and she was
therefore unable to estimate the points in respect to which his
actual impression was irritating. She had indeed no adequate
conception of the intellectual requirements of a young man in love.
She couldn't tell him why their faultless friend was so isolated, so
unrelated, so nervously, shrinkingly proud. On the other hand she
could tell him (he knew it already) that she had passed many years of
her life in the acquisition of accomplishments at a seat of learning
no less remote than Boulogne, and that Miss Teagle had been
intimately acquainted with the late Mr. Everard Ryves, who was a
"most rising" young man in the city, not making any year less than
his clear twelve hundred. "Now that he isn't there to make them, his
mourning widow can't live as she had then, can she?" Mrs. Bundy
asked.

Baron was not prepared to say that she could, but he thought of
another way she might live as he sat, the next day, in the train
which rattled him down to Dover. The place, as he approached it,
seemed bright and breezy to him; his roamings had been neither far
enough nor frequent enough to make the cockneyfied coast insipid.
Mrs. Bundy had of course given him the address he needed, and on
emerging from the station he was on the point of asking what
direction he should take. His attention however at this moment was
drawn away by the bustle of the departing boat. He had been long
enough shut up in London to be conscious of refreshment in the mere
act of turning his face to Paris. He wandered off to the pier in
company with happier tourists and, leaning on a rail, watched
enviously the preparation, the agitation of foreign travel. It was
for some minutes a foretaste of adventure; but, ah, when was he to
have the very draught? He turned away as he dropped this
interrogative sigh, and in doing so perceived that in another part of
the pier two ladies and a little boy were gathered with something of
the same wistfulness. The little boy indeed happened to look round
for a moment, upon which, with the keenness of the predatory age, he
recognised in our young man a source of pleasures from which he
lately had been weaned. He bounded forward with irrepressible cries
of "Geegee!" and Peter lifted him aloft for an embrace. On putting
him down the pilgrim from Jersey Villas stood confronted with a
sensibly severe Miss Teagle, who had followed her little charge.
"What's the matter with the old woman?" he asked himself as he
offered her a hand which she treated as the merest detail. Whatever
it was, it was (and very properly, on the part of a loyal suivante)
the same complaint as that of her employer, to whom, from a distance,
for Mrs. Ryves had not advanced an inch, he flourished his hat as she
stood looking at him with a face that he imagined rather white. Mrs.
Ryves's response to this salutation was to shift her position in such
a manner as to appear again absorbed in the Calais boat. Peter
Baron, however, kept hold of the child, whom Miss Teagle artfully
endeavoured to wrest from him--a policy in which he was aided by
Sidney's own rough but instinctive loyalty; and he was thankful for
the happy effect of being dragged by his jubilant friend in the very
direction in which he had tended for so many hours. Mrs. Ryves
turned once more as he came near, and then, from the sweet, strained
smile with which she asked him if he were on his way to France, he
saw that if she had been angry at his having followed her she had
quickly got over it.

"No, I'm not crossing; but it came over me that you might be, and
that's why I hurried down--to catch you before you were off."

"Oh, we can't go--more's the pity; but why, if we could," Mrs. Ryves
inquired, "should you wish to prevent it?"

"Because I've something to ask you first, something that may take
some time." He saw now that her embarrassment had really not been
resentful; it had been nervous, tremulous, as the emotion of an
unexpected pleasure might have been. "That's really why I determined
last night, without asking your leave first to pay you this little
visit--that and the intense desire for another bout of horse-play
with Sidney. Oh, I've come to see you," Peter Baron went on, "and I
won't make any secret of the fact that I expect you to resign
yourself gracefully to the trial and give me all your time. The
day's lovely, and I'm ready to declare that the place is as good as
the day. Let me drink deep of these things, drain the cup like a man
who hasn't been out of London for months and months. Let me walk
with you and talk with you and lunch with you--I go back this
afternoon. Give me all your hours in short, so that they may live in
my memory as one of the sweetest occasions of life."

The emission of steam from the French packet made such an uproar that
Baron could breathe his passion into the young woman's ear without
scandalising the spectators; and the charm which little by little it
scattered over his fleeting visit proved indeed to be the collective
influence of the conditions he had put into words. "What is it you
wish to ask me?" Mrs. Ryves demanded, as they stood there together;
to which he replied that he would tell her all about it if she would
send Miss Teagle off with Sidney. Miss Teagle, who was always
anticipating her cue, had already begun ostentatiously to gaze at the
distant shores of France and was easily enough induced to take an
earlier start home and rise to the responsibility of stopping on her
way to contend with the butcher. She had however to retire without
Sidney, who clung to his recovered prey, so that the rest of the
episode was seasoned, to Baron's sense, by the importunate twitch of
the child's little, plump, cool hand. The friends wandered together
with a conjugal air and Sidney not between them, hanging wistfully,
first, over the lengthened picture of the Calais boat, till they
could look after it, as it moved rumbling away, in a spell of silence
which seemed to confess--especially when, a moment later, their eyes
met--that it produced the same fond fancy in each. The presence of
the boy moreover was no hindrance to their talking in a manner that
they made believe was very frank. Peter Baron presently told his
companion what it was he had taken a journey to ask, and he had time
afterwards to get over his discomfiture at her appearance of having
fancied it might be something greater. She seemed disappointed (but
she was forgiving) on learning from him that he had only wished to
know if she judged ferociously his not having complied with her
request to respect certain seals.

"How ferociously do you suspect me of having judged it?" she
inquired.

"Why, to the extent of leaving the house the next moment."

They were still lingering on the great granite pier when he touched
on this matter, and she sat down at the end while the breeze, warmed
by the sunshine, ruffled the purple sea. She coloured a little and
looked troubled, and after an instant she repeated interrogatively:
"The next moment?"

"As soon as I told you what I had done. I was scrupulous about this,
you will remember; I went straight downstairs to confess to you. You
turned away from me, saying nothing; I couldn't imagine--as I vow I
can't imagine now--why such a matter should appear so closely to
touch you. I went out on some business and when I returned you had
quitted the house. It had all the look of my having offended you, of
your wishing to get away from me. You didn't even give me time to
tell you how it was that, in spite of your advice, I determined to
see for myself what my discovery represented. You must do me justice
and hear what determined me."

Mrs. Ryves got up from her scat and asked him, as a particular
favour, not to allude again to his discovery. It was no concern of
hers at all, and she had no warrant for prying into his secrets. She
was very sorry to have been for a moment so absurd as to appear to do
so, and she humbly begged his pardon for her meddling. Saying this
she walked on with a charming colour in her cheek, while he laughed
out, though he was really bewildered, at the endless capriciousness
of women. Fortunately the incident didn't spoil the hour, in which
there were other sources of satisfaction, and they took their course
to her lodgings with such pleasant little pauses and excursions by
the way as permitted her to show him the objects of interest at
Dover. She let him stop at a wine-merchant's and buy a bottle for
luncheon, of which, in its order, they partook, together with a
pudding invented by Miss Teagle, which, as they hypocritically
swallowed it, made them look at each other in an intimacy of
indulgence. They came out again and, while Sidney grubbed in the
gravel of the shore, sat selfishly on the Parade, to the
disappointment of Miss Teagle, who had fixed her hopes on a fly and a
ladylike visit to the castle. Baron had his eye on his watch--he had
to think of his train and the dismal return and many other melancholy
things; but the sea in the afternoon light was a more appealing
picture; the wind had gone down, the Channel was crowded, the sails
of the ships were white in the purple distance. The young man had
asked his companion (he had asked her before) when she was to come
back to Jersey Villas, and she had said that she should probably stay
at Dover another week. It was dreadfully expensive, but it was doing
the child all the good in the world, and if Miss Teagle could go up
for some things she should probably be able to manage an extension.
Earlier in the day she had said that she perhaps wouldn't return to
Jersey Villas at all, or only return to wind up her connection with
Mrs. Bundy. At another moment she had spoken of an early date, an
immediate reoccupation of the wonderful parlours. Baron saw that she
had no plan, no real reasons, that she was vague and, in secret,
worried and nervous, waiting for something that didn't depend on
herself. A silence of several minutes had fallen upon them while
they watched the shining sails; to which Mrs. Ryves put an end by
exclaiming abruptly, but without completing her sentence: "Oh, if
you had come to tell me you had destroyed them--"

"Those terrible papers? I like the way you talk about 'destroying!'
You don't even know what they are."

"I don't want to know; they put me into a state."

"What sort of a state?"

"I don't know; they haunt me."

"They haunted me; that was why, early one morning, suddenly, I
couldn't keep my hands off them. I had told you I wouldn't touch
them. I had deferred to your whim, your superstition (what is it?)
but at last they got the better of me. I had lain awake all night
threshing about, itching with curiosity. It made me ill; my own
nerves (as I may say) were irritated, my capacity to work was gone.
It had come over me in the small hours in the shape of an obsession,
a fixed idea, that there was nothing in the ridiculous relics and
that my exaggerated scruples were making a fool of me. It was ten to
one they were rubbish, they were vain, they were empty; that they had
been even a practical joke on the part of some weak-minded gentleman
of leisure, the former possessor of the confounded davenport. The
longer I hovered about them with such precautions the longer I was
taken in, and the sooner I exposed their insignificance the sooner I
should get back to my usual occupations. This conviction made my
hand so uncontrollable that that morning before breakfast I broke one
of the seals. It took me but a few minutes to perceive that the
contents were not rubbish; the little bundle contained old letters--
very curious old letters."

"I know--I know; 'private and confidential.' So you broke the other
seals?" Mrs. Ryves looked at him with the strange apprehension he
had seen in her eyes when she appeared at his door the moment after
his discovery.

"You know, of course, because I told you an hour later, though you
would let me tell you very little."

Baron, as he met this queer gaze, smiled hard at her to prevent her
guessing that he smarted with the fine reproach conveyed in the tone
of her last words; but she appeared able to guess everything, for she
reminded him that she had not had to wait that morning till he came
downstairs to know what had happened above, but had shown him at the
moment how she had been conscious of it an hour before, had passed on
her side the same tormented night as he, and had had to exert
extraordinary self-command not to rush up to his rooms while the
study of the open packets was going on. "You're so sensitively
organised and you've such mysterious powers that you re uncanny,"
Baron declared.

"I feel what takes place at a distance; that's all."

"One would think somebody you liked was in danger."

"I told you that that was what was present to me the day I came up to
see you."

"Oh, but you don't like me so much as that," Baron argued, laughing.

She hesitated. "No, I don't know that I do."

"It must be for someone else--the other person concerned. The other
day, however, you wouldn't let me tell you that person's name."

Mrs. Ryves, at this, rose quickly. "I don't want to know it; it's
none of my business."

"No, fortunately, I don't think it is," Baron rejoined, walking with
her along the Parade. She had Sidney by the hand now, and the young
man was on the other side of her. They moved toward the station--she
had offered to go part of the way. "But with your miraculous gift
it's a wonder you haven't divined."

"I only divine what I want," said Mrs. Ryves.

"That's very convenient!" exclaimed Peter, to whom Sidney had
presently come round again. "Only, being thus in the dark, it's
difficult to see your motive for wishing the papers destroyed."

Mrs. Ryves meditated, looking fixedly at the ground. "I thought you
might do it to oblige me."

"Does it strike you that such an expectation, formed in such
conditions, is reasonable?"

Mrs. Ryves stopped short, and this time she turned on him the clouded
clearness of her eyes. "What do you mean to do with them?"

It was Peter Baron's turn to meditate, which he did, on the empty
asphalt of the Parade (the "season," at Dover, was not yet), where
their shadows were long in the afternoon light. He was under such a
charm as he had never known, and he wanted immensely to be able to
reply: "I'll do anything you like if you'll love me." These words,
however, would have represented a responsibility and have constituted
what was vulgarly termed an offer. An offer of what? he quickly
asked himself here, as he had already asked himself after making in
spirit other awkward dashes in the same direction--of what but his
poverty, his obscurity, his attempts that had come to nothing, his
abilities for which there was nothing to show? Mrs. Ryves was not
exactly a success, but she was a greater success than Peter Baron.
Poor as he was he hated the sordid (he knew she didn't love it), and
he felt small for talking of marriage. Therefore he didn't put the
question in the words it would have pleased him most to hear himself
utter, but he compromised, with an angry young pang, and said to her:
"What will you do for me if I put an end to them?"

She shook her head sadly--it was always her prettiest movement. "I
can promise nothing--oh, no, I can't promise! We must part now," she
added. "You'll miss your train."

He looked at his watch, taking the hand she held out to him. She
drew it away quickly, and nothing then was left him, before hurrying
to the station, but to catch up Sidney and squeeze him till he
uttered a little shriek. On the way back to town the situation
struck him as grotesque.

Henry James

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