Eugene Pickering by Henry James


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Page 1

Most of the spectators were too attentive to the play to have many
thoughts for each other; but before long I noticed a lady who evidently
had an eye for her neighbours as well as for the table. She was seated
about half-way between my friend and me, and I presently observed that
she was trying to catch his eye. Though at Homburg, as people said, "one
could never be sure," I yet doubted whether this lady were one of those
whose especial vocation it was to catch a gentleman's eye. She was
youthful rather than elderly, and pretty rather than plain; indeed, a few
minutes later, when I saw her smile, I thought her wonderfully pretty.
She had a charming gray eye and a good deal of yellow hair disposed in
picturesque disorder; and though her features were meagre and her
complexion faded, she gave one a sense of sentimental, artificial
gracefulness. She was dressed in white muslin very much puffed and
filled, but a trifle the worse for wear, relieved here and there by a
pale blue ribbon. I used to flatter myself on guessing at people's
nationality by their faces, and, as a rule, I guessed aright. This
faded, crumpled, vaporous beauty, I conceived, was a German--such a
German, somehow, as I had seen imagined in literature. Was she not a
friend of poets, a correspondent of philosophers, a muse, a priestess of
aesthetics--something in the way of a Bettina, a Rahel? My conjectures,
however, were speedily merged in wonderment as to what my diffident
friend was making of her. She caught his eye at last, and raising an
ungloved hand, covered altogether with blue-gemmed rings--turquoises,
sapphires, and lapis--she beckoned him to come to her. The gesture was
executed with a sort of practised coolness, and accompanied with an
appealing smile. He stared a moment, rather blankly, unable to suppose
that the invitation was addressed to him; then, as it was immediately
repeated with a good deal of intensity, he blushed to the roots of his
hair, wavered awkwardly, and at last made his way to the lady's chair. By
the time he reached it he was crimson, and wiping his forehead with his
pocket-handkerchief. She tilted back, looked up at him with the same
smile, laid two fingers on his sleeve, and said something,
interrogatively, to which he replied by a shake of the head. She was
asking him, evidently, if he had ever played, and he was saying no. Old
players have a fancy that when luck has turned her back on them they can
put her into good-humour again by having their stakes placed by a novice.
Our young man's physiognomy had seemed to his new acquaintance to express
the perfection of inexperience, and, like a practical woman, she had
determined to make him serve her turn. Unlike most of her neighbours,
she had no little pile of gold before her, but she drew from her pocket a
double napoleon, put it into his hand, and bade him place it on a number
of his own choosing. He was evidently filled with a sort of delightful
trouble; he enjoyed the adventure, but he shrank from the hazard. I
would have staked the coin on its being his companion's last; for
although she still smiled intently as she watched his hesitation, there
was anything but indifference in her pale, pretty face. Suddenly, in
desperation, he reached over and laid the piece on the table. My
attention was diverted at this moment by my having to make way for a lady
with a great many flounces, before me, to give up her chair to a rustling
friend to whom she had promised it; when I again looked across at the
lady in white muslin, she was drawing in a very goodly pile of gold with
her little blue-gemmed claw. Good luck and bad, at the Homburg tables,
were equally undemonstrative, and this happy adventuress rewarded her
young friend for the sacrifice of his innocence with a single, rapid,
upward smile. He had innocence enough left, however, to look round the
table with a gleeful, conscious laugh, in the midst of which his eyes
encountered my own. Then suddenly the familiar look which had vanished
from his face flickered up unmistakably; it was the boyish laugh of a
boyhood's friend. Stupid fellow that I was, I had been looking at Eugene
Pickering!

Though I lingered on for some time longer he failed to recognise me.
Recognition, I think, had kindled a smile in my own face; but, less
fortunate than he, I suppose my smile had ceased to be boyish. Now that
luck had faced about again, his companion played for herself--played and
won, hand over hand. At last she seemed disposed to rest on her gains,
and proceeded to bury them in the folds of her muslin. Pickering had
staked nothing for himself, but as he saw her prepare to withdraw he
offered her a double napoleon and begged her to place it. She shook her
head with great decision, and seemed to bid him put it up again; but he,
still blushing a good deal, pressed her with awkward ardour, and she at
last took it from him, looked at him a moment fixedly, and laid it on a
number. A moment later the croupier was raking it in. She gave the
young man a little nod which seemed to say, "I told you so;" he glanced
round the table again and laughed; she left her chair, and he made a way
for her through the crowd. Before going home I took a turn on the
terrace and looked down on the esplanade. The lamps were out, but the
warm starlight vaguely illumined a dozen figures scattered in couples.
One of these figures, I thought, was a lady in a white dress.

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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Mon 19th Aug 2019, 12:25