In the Cage/Chapter VII

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In the Cage by Henry James
Chapter VII

“Then you do see them?” the girl again asked.

Mrs. Jordan hesitated, and indeed the point had been ambiguous before.  “Do you mean the guests?”

Her young friend, cautious about an undue exposure of innocence, was not quite sure.  “Well—the people who live there.”

“Lady Ventnor?  Mrs. Bubb?  Lord Rye?  Dear, yes.  Why they like one.”

“But does one personally know them?” our young lady went on, since that was the way to speak.  “I mean socially, don’t you know?—as you know me.”

“They’re not so nice as you!” Mrs. Jordan charmingly cried.  “But I shall see more and more of them.”

Ah this was the old story.  “But how soon?”

“Why almost any day.  Of course,” Mrs. Jordan honestly added, “they’re nearly always out.”

“Then why do they want flowers all over?”

“Oh that doesn’t make any difference.”  Mrs. Jordan was not philosophic; she was just evidently determined it shouldn’t make any.  “They’re awfully interested in my ideas, and it’s inevitable they should meet me over them.”

Her interlocutress was sturdy enough.  “What do you call your ideas?”

Mrs. Jordan’s reply was fine.  “If you were to see me some day with a thousand tulips you’d discover.”

“A thousand?”—the girl gaped at such a revelation of the scale of it; she felt for the instant fairly planted out.  “Well, but if in fact they never do meet you?” she none the less pessimistically insisted.

“Never?  They often do—and evidently quite on purpose.  We have grand long talks.”

There was something in our young lady that could still stay her from asking for a personal description of these apparitions; that showed too starved a state.  But while she considered she took in afresh the whole of the clergyman’s widow.  Mrs. Jordan couldn’t help her teeth, and her sleeves were a distinct rise in the world.  A thousand tulips at a shilling clearly took one further than a thousand words at a penny; and the betrothed of Mr. Mudge, in whom the sense of the race for life was always acute, found herself wondering, with a twinge of her easy jealousy, if it mightn’t after all then, for her also, be better—better than where she was—to follow some such scent.  Where she was was where Mr. Buckton’s elbow could freely enter her right side and the counter-clerk’s breathing—he had something the matter with his nose—pervade her left ear.  It was something to fill an office under Government, and she knew but too well there were places commoner still than Cocker’s; but it needed no great range of taste to bring home to her the picture of servitude and promiscuity she couldn’t but offer to the eye of comparative freedom.  She was so boxed up with her young men, and anything like a margin so absent, that it needed more art than she should ever possess to pretend in the least to compass, with any one in the nature of an acquaintance—say with Mrs. Jordan herself, flying in, as it might happen, to wire sympathetically to Mrs. Bubb—an approach to a relation of elegant privacy.  She remembered the day when Mrs. Jordan had, in fact, by the greatest chance, come in with fifty-three words for Lord Rye and a five-pound note to change.  This had been the dramatic manner of their reunion—their mutual recognition was so great an event.  The girl could at first only see her from the waist up, besides making but little of her long telegram to his lordship.  It was a strange whirligig that had converted the clergyman’s widow into such a specimen of the class that went beyond the sixpence.

Nothing of the occasion, all the more, had ever become dim; least of all the way that, as her recovered friend looked up from counting, Mrs. Jordan had just blown, in explanation, through her teeth and through the bars of the cage: “I do flowers, you know.”  Our young woman had always, with her little finger crooked out, a pretty movement for counting; and she had not forgotten the small secret advantage, a sharpness of triumph it might even have been called, that fell upon her at this moment and avenged her for the incoherence of the message, an unintelligible enumeration of numbers, colours, days, hours.  The correspondence of people she didn’t know was one thing; but the correspondence of people she did had an aspect of its own for her even when she couldn’t understand it.  The speech in which Mrs. Jordan had defined a position and announced a profession was like a tinkle of bluebells; but for herself her one idea about flowers was that people had them at funerals, and her present sole gleam of light was that lords probably had them most.  When she watched, a minute later, through the cage, the swing of her visitor’s departing petticoats, she saw the sight from the waist down; and when the counter-clerk, after a mere male glance, remarked, with an intention unmistakeably low, “Handsome woman!” she had for him the finest of her chills: “She’s the widow of a bishop.”  She always felt, with the counter-clerk, that it was impossible sufficiently to put it on; for what she wished to express to him was the maximum of her contempt, and that element in her nature was confusedly stored.  “A bishop” was putting it on, but the counter-clerk’s approaches were vile.  The night, after this, when, in the fulness of time, Mrs. Jordan mentioned the grand long talks, the girl at last brought out: “Should I see them?—I mean if I were to give up everything for you.”

Mrs. Jordan at this became most arch.  “I’d send you to all the bachelors!”

Our young lady could be reminded by such a remark that she usually struck her friend as pretty.  “Do they have their flowers?”

“Oceans.  And they’re the most particular.”  Oh it was a wonderful world.  “You should see Lord Rye’s.”

“His flowers?”

“Yes, and his letters.  He writes me pages on pages—with the most adorable little drawings and plans.  You should see his diagrams!”