It had been a day of agitations and alarms, of smoke and steam and grit. Even yet she felt, did Mrs. Osmond, the awful surge and rhythm of the train’s wheels, beating on and on within her. It was as if she were still seated at the carriage window, as she had sat for what seemed impossibly many hours, gazing with unseeing eyes upon the placid English countryside flowing away from her endlessly in all the soft- green splendour of the early- summer afternoon. Her thoughts had sped along with the speeding train but, unlike the train, to no end. Indeed, she had never registered so acutely the mind’s unstoppable senseless headlong rush as she had since leaving Gardencourt. The great snorting and smoking brute that had paused with brusque impatience at the meek little village station and suffered her to take her place in one of its lattermost compartments— her fingertips still retained the impression of hot plush and greasy leather— now stood gasping after its mighty efforts under the high, soot- blackened glass canopy of the throbbing terminus, disgorging on to the platform its complement of dazed, bedraggled travellers and their jumbles of baggage. Well, she told herself, she had arrived somewhere, at least.
Staines, her maid, had hardly stepped down from the train before she flew into an altercation with a red- faced railway porter. Had she not been a female it might have been said of Staines that she was a fellow with a heart of oak. She was tall and gaunt, a person all of angles, with long wrists and large feet, and a jaw that put one in mind of the blade of a primitive axe. In the years that she had been in Mrs. Osmond’s employ, or, given how closely they were conjoined, better say in the years that they had been together, Staines’s devotion to her mistress had not wavered by a jot. In their long period of exile in the south her forbearance had extended to putting up with the Italian market and the Italian kitchen, and, which required an even more saintly fortitude, with Italian plumbing. Indeed, such was her steadfastness that on occasion Mrs. Osmond— Isabel—found herself longing wistfully for even half a day’s respite from her servant’s unrelenting, stone-hard solicitude. In their recent travels together the chief token and proof of Staines’s loyalty had been a permanently maintained state of vexedness, not only in face of the impudence of porters, cab- drivers, boot-boys and the like, but also against what she considered her mistress’s wilful credulousness, deplorable gullibility and incurably soft heart. Now, as the maid, her bonnet fairly wagging from the force of her indignation, stood berating the porter for unspecified shortcomings—as a Londoner she was exercising her right to quarrel with her own kind, in her own city—Isabel moved away with that wide-eyed blandness of manner she had perfected over the years at the scenes of so many similar confrontations between Staines’s will and the world’s recalcitrance.
She longed for the hotel and its stilly-breathing cool and shadowed spaces, in which she might sit perfectly immobile for a long time and let her reeling mind run down of its own accord. She would rest if only she could stop thinking, but how to effect that marvellous trick? The death of her cousin Ralph Touchett on a recent eve in his mother’s house at Gardencourt—extraordinary to reflect that there had been an exact, measurable moment, marked by a click on the clock, when for him eternity had begun— had left her with a hard task to solve, like an exercise in geometry or algebra. The solution she was required to derive was no more or less than to find a fit mode by which to mourn the young man’s passing. In truth, her cousin could no longer have been described as young, but that was how she thought of him, and no doubt how she would think of him always. Perhaps that was the main part of her difficulty, that it seemed a scandal to shed tears for a person whose life had been so marked by the slow vastation of a wasting illness that he could hardly have been said to have had a life at all. Thinking this, she at once chided herself. Who was she to judge the quality of any life, however brief or burdened? Behind the chidden thought, however, lay a darker, irrepressible formulation, which was, that the intensest living Ralph had done he had done through her, by way of a passionate vicariousness, watching in smiling wonderment from his seat at the ringside her breath- taking flights, her spangled swoopings, to and fro in the powdery light high up, oh, so high up, under the big, the tremendous, top. To have lived through someone else, even someone he professed to adore, that had been the height of Ralph’s triumph, and the depth of his failure. How she wished now she had been capable of that greatness he had hoped for in her, those loftier leaps, those ever more graceful pirouettes in mid- air, those weightless landings on one braced toe, those sweeping bows with swan’s‑ neck arms widespread. If she had lifted him up, she had also let him down. What he could not have expected, what he could not have imagined possible for one so firmly balanced as she, was the great, the catastrophic plunge from airy heights that had been precipitated by her marrying the perfectly wrong person.
Behind her now she heard an unmistakably solid step, and a moment later Staines loomed at her shoulder, her scant plumage ruffled and crackling, and she readied herself for the inevitable rebuke.
“Why, there you are, ma’am!” the maid said loudly, for she had a voice as large and forceful as the rest of her. “I was looking for you everywheres among all this pushing and pulling crowd.”
“I merely walked on,” Isabel mildly protested, offering a mitigating smile. Staines, however, was in no mood to be mollified, and her mistress waited, almost with interest, to know how she herself should be implicated in that recent struggle on the platform, of which she had experienced no more than a hard glare from the porter’s soiled eye and a muffled oath directed at her departing back.
“The gall of that fellow!” the maid said now, puffing out her cheeks in the way she did when she was wroth. “Well, he got a piece of my mind, I can tell you.” Here she made a marked pause, as she notched the barb to her bow-string, and when she resumed it was in a tone seemingly more of regret than reproval. “Of course, if he’d have known you was in mourning I have no doubt he would have presented a very different attitude.”
This time Isabel reserved her smile to herself. The maid’s veiled yet pointed reference was to the dispute she and her mistress had engaged in, before departing Gardencourt, over the matter of a mourning band, a dispute in which, unusually, the more determined of the two combatants had been forced to concede. It was to all intents a perfectly acceptable circlet of black crape that the servant had proffered, with a matchingly solemn mien, and it was a question as to which of them had been the more surprised when Isabel had declined, politely but firmly, to allow itto be pinned high up about the sleeve of her travelling coat. After a second of shocked silence the maid had begun to remonstrate, but her remonstrances proved to no avail; it was one of those instances, few but momentous, when the mistress showed her steel and the maid prudently stepped back. Mrs. Osmond would not wear a mourning band, and that, incontestably, was that. Staines had sulked, of course, and had bided her time, until now, when her mistress’s flashing blade was safely back in its scabbard and she could risk a retributive shot. “Yes, I’m sure,” she said, with a sort of toss of the head in her tone, “I’m sure even a ruffian of his sort would have shown a bit of respect for a person’s loss, if he’d only of been able to see the evidence of it.”
To this Isabel did not respond; she had found, over the years, that a remote and unemphatic silence was often the most effective counter to her maid’s insinuative provocations. In truth, she was not certain herself why she had refused, to the point of vehemence, to have the thing on her sleeve. Perhaps it was that to her it would have been somehow to claim too much to make such publicity of her sorrow; that it would have been a breach of common decency— a breach, even, of common modesty. On the other hand, she was sure Ralph himself would be only too delighted to behold her draped from top to toe in black bombazine, complete with jet veil and broad sash, but only so that he could tease her and laugh at her in his fond, ironical fashion. So perhaps, after all, she thought now, she should have consented to the harmless convention of the band, if only to afford Ralph’s spirit a moment of amusement in the place he dwelt in now, that realm of shades where surely he would welcome the opportunity for even the most wan of smiles. He had given her so much, and had asked so little in return.
Coming out at last from the cinder- smelling confines of the station, she felt as if she had dived into some clear light vaporous medium that was at once more and less than air. She had lived for so long amid southern harshnesses that London looked to her almost immaterial, with no sharp edges to it at all. Even in sunlight, as now, the city had a pearly sheen, and its shadows were the deepest shade of mauve. The crowds, too, weaving their endlessly shifting tapestry to and fro before her, had to her eye a quality of dreamy vagueness, as if all these people, despite the determination of their step and the fixity of their forward gaze, were not entirely certain of their destination, as likewise they could not quite remember their setting-off place, and yet minded not at all, in either case. Already she felt smoothed down and soothed; she had not been aware, before arriving in it, how achingly she had yearned for the strangely tender accommodations of this great metropolis of the north. She did not know London, not with any intimacy; she had spent time here, on visits, but for the most part she had viewed it not through her own eyes but through the eyes of others—those of her husband, of Ralph Touchett and his mother, of her friend Henrietta Stackpole; of painters, too, and of poets and novelists—so many!— the Dickenses and Thackerays, the Byrons and the Brownings, all the bards who had sung to her, in the far-off city of Albany where she had passed the years of her youth, of this magically distant Land of Cockaigne.
Before she discerned the man himself her ear was caught by the sound of his weeping. It was a strange, unhuman sound, and at first she looked about for some wounded creature nearby, a fledgling gull, perhaps, fallen from the edge of some high parapet and mewling for its mother. But, no, it was a man. He was burly and broad but not at all strong-looking,with a big box-shaped head and hair of a fiery ginger shade and curly ginger whiskers. He had positioned himself at the corner of the wide thoroughfare that led the way out of the station precincts. She did not think she had ever seen or heard a grown man crying like this, copiously, helplessly, unstaunchably. His washed- blue eyes were red- rimmed, and his swollen and glistening nether lip trembled like a baby’s. He wore a collarless shirt, an ancient pair of moleskin trousers shiny with grime, and a jacket of rusty serge that was much too small for him and pinched him under the arms and left his frail white wrists defencelessly exposed. He stood in one spot but kept turning his body first in one direction and then the other, caught it seemed in a trance of convulsive indecision. Beside him on the pavement was a shapeless bundle of something tied up in a knotted rag. It had seemed at first he was wearing shoes, but now that Isabel looked more closely she saw that his feet were bare but thoroughly caked with black, tar- like dirt. The coppery brightness of his whiskers, through which dark glinting rivulets of tears were coursing, and the pulpy paleness of his lightly freckled skin, somehow added to and intensified, for her, the sorrow and abjection of the spectacle he made; it was as if he had been flayed of a protective integument, and his flaming hair were blushing for him to be so nakedly and shamefully on show.
“Oh, look, that poor creature!” she breathed, laying a hand on her maid’s arm to stay her. “We must do something to help him.”
Staines, however, was unimpressed, and barely cast a glance in the direction of the weeping man where he stood sobbing and shaking and rocking. “There’s no helping them as can’t help themselves,” she said, with a sniff, and went resolutely on, despite her mistress’s restraining touch. Isabel, after a moment’s hesitation, had no alternative but to follow her, albeit with a troubled heart. It was strange— surely Staines, who most likely had sprung from the same depths of society as had the weeping man, was the one in whom the urge to render him succour should have been strongest, instead of which she had turned her face against him, with lips compressed into a white line. And yet it was understandable, after all: the maid’s instincts were those of a still uninfected person spurning a doomed victim of the plague. To Isabel, however, whose store of bullion in the bank guaranteed her immunity, it was plain that her duty lay precisely in helping such as he, the unfortunate and fallen ones of the world. But the rules were the rules: they applied in both directions, downwards as well as upwards, and she knew the impossibility of disobeying her servant and going to the weeping man even if it were for no more than to press a coin shamefacedly into his hand.
In the hansom cab, the choosing of which was a right Staines naturally arrogated to herself, Isabel sat hard by the open window to have the benefit of what freshness the city air could offer. After her moment of mild exaltation on exiting the station she had relapsed once more into her former state of diminished numbness. The lingering rhythm of the train was replaced by the harshing of the cab’s steel-rimmed wheels on the metalled roadway. She viewed the panorama of the city passing in the window as if it were a running series of exhibits under glass. She felt dulled and dazed, like one who after a long illness is taken out for a supposedly invigorating “spin.” They had crossed the park and come out into the cacophonous bustle of Knightsbridge. She glanced at Staines sitting opposite her, stiffly upright with her big jaw stolidly set and her sceptical gaze fixed upon the passage of brightly bedecked shop-fronts.“Are you happy to be amid familiar sights?” she asked. “I mean, are you happy to be home, even if only briefly?”
The maid turned upon her a stare as stony as adamant. “What, you mean London?” she said. She gave herself a scornful sort of twitch, bridling her bony shoulders. “This”— directing the tip ofher sharp nose at the fashionable parade of parasols and silk hats along the busy pavement—“this is not my London, ma’am.”
To this rebuff Isabel responded with her smile of practised vagueness, and once again retreated into herself, as into the folds of a capacious, all- covering cape. She could never be annoyed with Staines, not fully; she knew that what appeared in the young woman a large, unremitting and ill- tempered disdain was no more than a mask for an incapacity to show her ever- marvelling appreciation of Isabel’s tolerance and loyalty. For the maid loved her mistress, incoherently, inexpressibly, and would be willing, as she might say herself, to walk barefoot over burning coals, if thereby she might strike up for Isabel a spark of needed warmth. Acknowledging this fact to herself for the thousandth time, Isabel found her thoughts turning back to the somehow related matter of the weeping man. It was true, she had never witnessed a grown‑up human being display in public such helplessness, such haplessness, such raw infantile grief, yet now it occurred to her, who had lately suffered so many blows to the spirit, to wonder why it was not more common, why it was not an everyday occurrence, to be witnessed at any time at any street corner— why were we not all given to periodic outbursts of public wailings? For in the scale of things, she was sure, the weight of the world’s sorrow would sink the balance so sharply that the pan on that side would make a brassy bang on the counter- top. Indeed, she felt at this moment that she might direct the cab to stop, and leap down and run back and take her place beside that poor soul and pour out her own distress upon the commonplace air; but of course she did not.
How had the man arrived at such a sorry pass? From the intense manner of his weeping it might have newly dawned on him how desperate were his circumstances, yet it was not lately he had stumbled into such wretched straits, that much was plain. Perhaps some fresh misfortune had just befallen him. It seemed to Isabel that he was bewailing not the particular but the general, as if today at last all of his misfortunate and bedevilled life, if it merited to be called a life, had come to a head somehow and overwhelmed him. Should she have defied Staines and offered him, if nothing else, at least a word or two of comfort? She suspected there would be no comforting a sorrow such as his, yet that suspicion, however strong it might be, did not exonerate her. Was it not her duty, from her place of vantage, to reach down a hand to the crushed and helpless, to the ones who might have soared but instead had plummeted from the sky and lay now with broken wing, flailing and twitching on the pavement at her feet? Her spirit, the better part of her, moaned in sympathy with the weeping man, yet in another cold and calculating region of her consciousness the necessary defences were already being erected. What, after all, could she have done for the poor wretch? What comfort would a word of hers have brought to him? Money, yes, she might have given him money, and a large portion of it, at that; but even her silver would not have saved him, for surely he was beyond saving. No: as well hope to help the lost souls in Hades. And yet.
Copyright © 2017 by John Banville. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.