The Jolly Corner by Henry James


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Page 1

These were items of property indeed, but he had found himself since his
arrival distinguishing more than ever between them. The house within the
street, two bristling blocks westward, was already in course of
reconstruction as a tall mass of flats; he had acceded, some time before,
to overtures for this conversion--in which, now that it was going
forward, it had been not the least of his astonishments to find himself
able, on the spot, and though without a previous ounce of such
experience, to participate with a certain intelligence, almost with a
certain authority. He had lived his life with his back so turned to such
concerns and his face addressed to those of so different an order that he
scarce knew what to make of this lively stir, in a compartment of his
mind never yet penetrated, of a capacity for business and a sense for
construction. These virtues, so common all round him now, had been
dormant in his own organism--where it might be said of them perhaps that
they had slept the sleep of the just. At present, in the splendid autumn
weather--the autumn at least was a pure boon in the terrible place--he
loafed about his "work" undeterred, secretly agitated; not in the least
"minding" that the whole proposition, as they said, was vulgar and
sordid, and ready to climb ladders, to walk the plank, to handle
materials and look wise about them, to ask questions, in fine, and
challenge explanations and really "go into" figures.

It amused, it verily quite charmed him; and, by the same stroke, it
amused, and even more, Alice Staverton, though perhaps charming her
perceptibly less. She wasn't, however, going to be better-off for it, as
_he_ was--and so astonishingly much: nothing was now likely, he knew,
ever to make her better-off than she found herself, in the afternoon of
life, as the delicately frugal possessor and tenant of the small house in
Irving Place to which she had subtly managed to cling through her almost
unbroken New York career. If he knew the way to it now better than to
any other address among the dreadful multiplied numberings which seemed
to him to reduce the whole place to some vast ledger-page, overgrown,
fantastic, of ruled and criss-crossed lines and figures--if he had
formed, for his consolation, that habit, it was really not a little
because of the charm of his having encountered and recognised, in the
vast wilderness of the wholesale, breaking through the mere gross
generalisation of wealth and force and success, a small still scene where
items and shades, all delicate things, kept the sharpness of the notes of
a high voice perfectly trained, and where economy hung about like the
scent of a garden. His old friend lived with one maid and herself dusted
her relics and trimmed her lamps and polished her silver; she stood oft,
in the awful modern crush, when she could, but she sallied forth and did
battle when the challenge was really to "spirit," the spirit she after
all confessed to, proudly and a little shyly, as to that of the better
time, that of _their_ common, their quite far-away and antediluvian
social period and order. She made use of the street-cars when need be,
the terrible things that people scrambled for as the panic-stricken at
sea scramble for the boats; she affronted, inscrutably, under stress, all
the public concussions and ordeals; and yet, with that slim mystifying
grace of her appearance, which defied you to say if she were a fair young
woman who looked older through trouble, or a fine smooth older one who
looked young through successful indifference with her precious reference,
above all, to memories and histories into which he could enter, she was
as exquisite for him as some pale pressed flower (a rarity to begin
with), and, failing other sweetnesses, she was a sufficient reward of his
effort. They had communities of knowledge, "their" knowledge (this
discriminating possessive was always on her lips) of presences of the
other age, presences all overlaid, in his case, by the experience of a
man and the freedom of a wanderer, overlaid by pleasure, by infidelity,
by passages of life that were strange and dim to her, just by "Europe" in
short, but still unobscured, still exposed and cherished, under that
pious visitation of the spirit from which she had never been diverted.

She had come with him one day to see how his "apartment-house" was
rising; he had helped her over gaps and explained to her plans, and while
they were there had happened to have, before her, a brief but lively
discussion with the man in charge, the representative of the building
firm that had undertaken his work. He had found himself quite "standing
up" to this personage over a failure on the latter's part to observe some
detail of one of their noted conditions, and had so lucidly argued his
case that, besides ever so prettily flushing, at the time, for sympathy
in his triumph, she had afterwards said to him (though to a slightly
greater effect of irony) that he had clearly for too many years neglected
a real gift. If he had but stayed at home he would have anticipated the
inventor of the sky-scraper. If he had but stayed at home he would have
discovered his genius in time really to start some new variety of awful
architectural hare and run it till it burrowed in a gold mine. He was to
remember these words, while the weeks elapsed, for the small silver ring
they had sounded over the queerest and deepest of his own lately most
disguised and most muffled vibrations.

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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Thu 21st Feb 2019, 1:56