Henry James had come to visit. He’d sent a telegram first and Cora had torn it open and skimmed it as she rushed to do something else, and then she’d had to sit down and parse it.
Chers Enfants—Since I will be in the vicinity of Brede for reasons I will not deprive you the pleasure of divining, I will ‘drop by’ toward tea time in response to your extremely kind ‘open’ invitation (the openness of which can constitute an ambiguous ouverture d’esprit one sometime cowers before). A bientôt—your Oncle d’Amérique in lavished affection if not in fact in wealth.
She found the grammar hard to diagram mentally and the quotation marks embracing ordinary words somewhat ominous. Tea time? Good heavens, he’d be here in a moment! Why did he write such beardless sentences?
She found Lucy in the blackened medieval kitchen, holding dishes under the trickle of sink water and humming fiercely. “Do we have any cake to serve Mr. James?” Cora asked.
“Lord, madam, is that old woman coming to bother us again with his hemming and hawing?”
Cora started giggling. “Can you help me put my hair up? I’ve been airing it only half an hour but Mr. James will be shocked to see it down.”
Lucy dried her cold red hands on her dirty apron and accompanied Cora to her dressing table, the one that sat at an angle on its spindly legs and caught only a glimmer of cold blue light in its tarnished mirror. Once Lucy’s hands warmed up they went about their work with agility.
When she rose from doing her beauté, Cora looked out the oriel window and spied Mr. James on his bicycle, approaching the house. “Oh, God,” she mumbled as she almost simultaneously clapped a smile to her lips. She hurried to the great oak door just as Mr. James was removing the bicycle clips from his trousers and straightening the plaid leg. He lifted his soft brown hat as if in greeting, but it was only to pass a large white handkerchief over his shiny skull. He tilted his head to one side in response to Cora’s high birdcalls of greeting.
A bright, droll smile cracked open the tragic mask of his face. A sort of rumbling of language began in his feet and shivered up his legs, shook his torso, and finally spilled from his throat in a high, nasal stammer: “There was—and undoubtedly still is—a mist on the hills that I find, er—” And here he paused and stuttered as he sought the mot juste, his eyes wandering as if the word itself were a butterfly drifting from the small-leaved boxwood bush into the smoky vastness of the hall. “That I find, er—”
“Picturesque?” Cora asked brightly.
But Mr. James instantly pushed the offensive banality aside and at last spat out, “Damn picturesque.”
The words so painfully chosen plunged him into an iridescent play of irony and pleasure that swirled over his features and ended in a firm thrusting forward of his shaved jaw.
As Cora followed him upstairs to Stevie’s studio the great man stopped suddenly and nearly knocked her over. He stood there, one step above her, and asked her minutely detailed questions about arrangements for Stevie’s care and her plans to take him to Germany and the Black Forest. His questions implied she needed supervision. At every point he would start his infernal rumbling in search of the right word, as if he were an espresso pot—a purely egotistical exercise, she thought, because she dared say he had no respect for her opinion. In any event, she was always quite happy with the slipshod approximations of ordinary human conversation.
Nor did he like her. She knew that James had reportedly told someone after she first met him that she was a bi-roxide blonde, considerably older than her husband, with a dull common manner and a past. And he’d claimed that initially he’d taken her to be a servant.
The minute he saw Stevie on his daybed Mr. James lit up and trundled his solid, portly body to his side, though typically he couldn’t summon up the customary effusions. Rather, he looked back at her and then again at Stevie and at last he said, with a strangely episcopal opening of his hands, palms up, “And here is Cora, and here is Stevie.” Then, because he could never say anything just once, he added, “And here is Stevie.” And he settled on the straw-seated wood chair with an abruptness that made her fear he’d crash through the bottom.
Stevie seemed happy, though he’d just awakened from a deep, feverish sleep. As though to distract his visitor from his own disorientation, he asked in a boy’s clear voice, “Tell me, why do you live here?”
Mr. James appeared startled—he who usually barraged his friends with questions but was of such an extreme discretion that he almost never submitted to their interrogations, which in any case were invariably fruitless. But now he said, “Here? In Sussex?”
James said, “I like golfers. I like seeing them strolling about in their plus fours.”
He and Stevie laughed at the silliness of it all. “If you mean in England,” the older man continued, “I’ve always been half English, since I spent so much of my boyhood reading Punch. But if I’m half English, I’m also half French, since when I’m in a rush I jot notes to myself in French.”
He ended his remarks with an odd drumroll of his hand on the side table. Nothing this man came up with, Cora thought, was foreseeable, neither his words nor his deeds. At her place of business in Florida, the Hotel de Dream, she’d never entertained his sort. “Not the sort of individual we’d get,” she thought dismissively.
She could tell by the way James lit up around her husband that he was queer as a football bat. At first, she’d thought it was just due to how English and prissy he’d become, but her friend the late, dear, disabused Harold Frederic, another transplanted American writer, had set her straight: “He’s all woman and he wants everyone to treat him like a pope—or the Queen Henrietta Maria.”
But Mr. James never gave into his impulses—he wouldn’t hug or kiss the poor, thin, sweating Stevie. No, he would study him and prod him and then slather him with praise in a sentence that might end with a sting in its tail.
“Mr. James,” she said, “did you know I’ve invented a canteen filter?”
The great man looked at her, wild-eyed; he liked to be prepared for any turn the talk might take, but she had left him nonplussed once again. “A— A— A— A what?”
“When we were covering the war in Greece I realized how hard it was for soldiers to find pure water—water that wouldn’t give them dysentery. You know, poor Stevie was crippled with it; he barely got off the pot fifteen minutes to actually witness the wretched war. And so I’ve come up with an invention; it’s going to make my fortune. It’s a filter, fixed right inside the canteen, that removes all impurities. It only needs to be cleaned once a week. Would you like to see the maquette I’ve had fabricated? I’m collaborating with an engineer, Mr. Fredrick Bowen. I’d never be able to go it alone. He’s made three models and has separated mud from water. He says he’s uncovered important facts about metallic and carbon content.”
Henry James’s face registered his growing horror at everything she was conjuring up: leaking bowels, money, mud, war, and the unspeakable manufactured item itself. His mouth twitched and his eyes tightened in small spasms, as if unheard explosions were being detonated far inside the cavern of his mammoth head. At last, recognizing that she’d become an immense and immovable detour, he lifted his hands above his head. He appeared to be warding off a downpour of pebbles.
Cora liked shocking him. She saw that he didn’t know what to make of her bright, breezy manner. Maybe he found her filter to be irrelevant to the grand deathbed scene with Stevie he was preparing. A fife to the full orchestra that was raising its hushed, murmuring chorus. She didn’t give a damn. She needed to live, to survive, and what means did she have beyond the filter and the pages Stevie kept grinding out? The money would go into the trip to Germany she was planning; she needed every penny for the journey. She said to James, whose upraised hands were only now very slowly wilting back to his lap, “What about it? Wanna see the filter?”
“I can’t,” Mr. James said, “extract everything I need to from what you just uttered, but if I scurry off with it like some great nut in my pouch, you can be sure that later, when I’m alone, I will, er, extract something to your advantage.”
“It’s all very simple,” Cora said to this man whose feelings she was sure were as undiluted as hers but whose thoughts were so infernally dirty and roiled. “I’m going to need money, lots of it, when we take the train to Dover on May seventh—that’s just next week, come to think of it—and make our way to the Continent. We’ll need our own railway carriage, and a doctor and a nurse or two to travel with us.”
Mr. James blinked rhythmically under the successive blows of Cora’s words. She knew he hated the stinging red hand of fact slapping him back and forth across the face.
“We’ll stop in Dover for a few days until Stevie has all his energy back. We’ll stay at the Lord Warden hotel, which Mr. Conrad tells me is just off the Admiralty Pier where steamers depart for Calais and Ostend three times a day. Of course, we’ll take our dog, Spongie, too, but I’d wager the whole shebang will cost up to a hundred pounds, everything rounded off to the nearest zero.”
Mr. James’s sensitive, stony face had been willed into impassivity, but it still flinched under the rapid blows of “Spongie,” “shebang,” and “nearest zero.” In an orthographical aside to himself, he wondered if it was spelled c-h-e-b-a-n-g. He’d seen it written once like that in Mark Twain.
Suddenly he remembered something and brought out of his pocket a dog-eared copy of a magazine. “I have a story in here,” Mr. James said, fixing Stevie with a scowl. “I’ve dedicated it to you. I think—” and here he broke off for a rhetorical effect. “I think it will be of special interest to you.”
Cora didn’t mind it when other men “mashed” on Stevie. Nor other women. She knew he was famous and young and so sweet and sincere that he was irresistible. His fame worked into the equation because it constituted something like a bold-printed finger stamped in the margin in red to draw the reader’s attention to a remarkable passage.
Stevie was soft-spoken and frail and really insignificant physically except for his eyes, the irises the color of wet sand, their soulfulness enhanced by his flowing mustaches in an oddly romantic reciprocity she’d noticed in other young men. Stevie went to some pains to shave that little groove between the septum of his nose and the top of his upper lip. The philtrum, it was called; Stevie had taught her that, he who loved strange words.
She didn’t mind that other people admired her little husband and even lusted after him. In her work at the bordello she’d observed the hydraulics of desire so often that she didn’t take pleasure too seriously. Some men could mistake lust for love—but she felt that Stevie in any case wouldn’t lust after this pudgy, bald man, though he loved Mr. James’s conversation (she could smell James’s lemony eau de cologne, now that his body was heating up as he rumbled along in conversation).
She left the men and went to her own room to work on the copy for her next article.
She thought how different they were, Mr. James and Stevie. James never did anything or went anywhere and had no hobbies; all he did was write and contemplate life as obscured by the prismatic interference of the mirrors in his mind. Stevie was a fellow of action. He was fearless in war, as everyone said, and he liked to drink and woo the ladies.
Their New Year’s Eve party, three months before, had shown in the twentieth century with a three-day orgy. The quantities of drink and food, all consumed by the light of hundreds of candles, had made James say that Stevie had the manners of a Mile End Roader, by which he meant a poor, foul-mouthed cockney. For decades Mr. James had been acquiring English polish and had beat them at their own game, whereas here was Stevie, earning the exorbitant sum of twenty pounds per thirty words, writing methodically in his tiny script on long sheets of foolscap to pay for these routs. Stevie thought he was the Baron of Brede, with the dogs snapping at bones under the table amongst the rushes and the guests throwing bread down from the minstrels’ gallery, thereby setting off massive food fights—here was little Stevie, as pale as old ivory, laughing so hard he wept, the little prince amidst his rowdy courtiers. And Mr. James disapproved of anyone taking England and its traditions so lightly, as if it were all available just as an amusing motive to be sounded on an out-of-tune spinet, something as inconsequential and nourishing as air.
And then, Mr. James couldn’t write good clear prose like Stevie. James had thought about his art for half a century and devoted all his life force to it, but Stevie laughed at it all, would never be caught saying a word about “art,” shrugged and pled ignorance if the subject came up, very drunk and fluty imitated Mr. James, though Stevie’s New Jersey accent kept any parody from succeeding.
And yet Stevie was the great American stylist. He had no critical chatter, no culture, though he’d thumbed carelessly through Anatole France and George Gissing. But he got it all.
Oh, Stevie, she thought. How she loved his bantam arrogance, that hard, nagging core of primary masculinity that kept throbbing inside him—an assertiveness that Mr. James would never know and could approximate only through a eunuch’s sly attitudinizing. Stevie was a man, even in his exhausted state. She loved his profile, the way his upper lip protruded, his ear as intricate as a cross-section of a fetus, his eyes as flat and sandy as a shark’s, his cheekbones high as a Mohawk’s. She loved the timbre of his nasal voice—the knowing tone of someone who always got the joke and caught the reference.
Not that he was a scoffer. He appreciated all these great writers they were meeting—James and Conrad, especially; Wells and Gissing—and enjoyed their acceptance and admiration. He was their equal and was treated as such, whereas back in America he would have to pay homage to men who were his inferiors: William Dean Howells and that cultured chatterbox Huneker.
She was the reason Stevie was living in England, even though its climate was so bad for his lungs. In puritanical America, people knew about her past, whereas here in England they were out of range, and those who did know didn’t care or were compromised themselves—Ford Madox Hueffer and Wells and Harold Frederic all had divorced or separated, and Lord knew Henry James was what her Florida girls called a “morphrodite,” by which they probably meant a “hermaphrodite.”
After Mr. James left, Cora went back to Stevie’s room. She asked to see the copy of the Anglo-American Review containing James’s short story. She wondered why James thought the story would be of special interest to Crane.
“May I have it?”
She wanted her husband to give it to her, not just lend it, because she felt it might contain some veiled, super-subtle attack on her that Stevie would surely be able to decode.
With his usual acuteness and generosity, Stevie understood right away how anxious it made her. “Here,” he said. “I’m going to make you a present of it.” He wrote
These pages were given by Henry James to Stephen Crane
and by him to
Mrs. Stephen Crane
Cora suddenly had tears in her eyes, as if someone had handed back a sheaf of blackmailer’s letters.
“Don’t you want to read it?”
“You can just give me the gist—”
Which suddenly struck them both as so funny that they laughed, astonished. Precisely because Henrietta Maria’s stories always lacked “gist.”
Back in her room she read “The Great Condition,” which, as best she could make out through the smoke screen of prose, told the story of an American widow with a past. A rich young Englishman wants to marry her even though she has no fortune, but will do so only if she can swear there was no scandalous moment during her life in the Sandwich Islands. (Where? Unable to picture them on the map.)
The American widow tells him she will confide the whole truth to him, but only six months after he marries her. (The slyboots, Cora thinks, admiringly.) But the young man, Braddle, keeps wondering if there might not be “some chapter in the book difficult to read aloud—some unlikely page she’d like to tear out.”
In the end Braddle hurtles off to the Sandwich Islands and the widow marries his best friend, a man so in love with her that he doesn’t trouble her with suspicions about her past. At last Braddle comes back from his international inquest and admits he can find absolutely no traces of scandal. He’s lost the prize, Mrs. Damerel, and all because he was troubled by something as elusive as honor.
Cora stiffened. She stood and paced the room, thrashing her skirt impatiently with the crop. She’d been nagged and nibbled by the queer strategies of James’s language: “We live in beguiled suppositions,” he’d written, “without the dreadful fatal too much,” a phrase that had left her stumbling forward: “Too much what?” “Is there anything ‘off’ about her,” Braddle had asked. Of Mrs. Damerel: “The charming woman was not altogether so young as Braddle, which was doubtless a note to his embarrassment.”
Was Stevie embarrassed that she, Cora, was a few years older? No, he liked it. He liked sleeping with his head on her breasts (that was one way for a man to be younger) or playing the spoiled tyrant as he reared above her and plunged in (that was the other way). And, of course, he enjoyed reversing their ages and making her suck on his thumb as if she were the baby; he’d even tried to feed her with his hard, brown, minuscule nipple, which had brought her scant benefit.
Outside her window, the light hung on breathlessly in an endless English evening. She thought the farmers nearby must have eaten their suppers and were longing for bed. But still the horses stood in the fields, shifting their weight occasionally as they grew bigger and darker and flatter as dusk fell.
She hated Mr. James’s story, for though it ended innocently enough, it was designed to trouble Stevie. It took place in England; the woman was older and American, guiltless, though every line suggested that a past was a deplorable thing for a woman to have. Cora took out her sewing scissors and cut out the pages and threw them on the grate, where a feeble blue fire flashed orange and ate them with mindless greed before circling and settling back down to doze.