There is another world, but it is in this one.

Paul Eluard. Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, Gallimard, 1968.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Morbid symptoms: Five strange stories by Henry James

Nevertheless, among all her feverish transitions from hope to fear, from exaltation to despair, she never, for a moment, ceased to keep a cunning watch upon her physical sensations, and to lie in wait for morbid symptoms.


-- "De Grey: A Romance" (1868)





"De Grey: A Romance" (1868)


...."Let me read you ten words," said the priest, opening at a fly-leaf of the volume, on which a memorandum or register had been inscribed in a great variety of hands, all minute and some barely legible. "God be with you!" and the old man crossed himself. Involuntarily, Margaret did the same. "'George De Grey,'" he read, "'met and loved, September, 1786, Antonietta Gambini, of Milan. She died October 9th, same year. John De Grey married, April 4th, 1749, Henrietta Spencer. She died May 7th. George De Grey engaged himself October, 1710, to Mary Fortescue. She died October 31st. Paul De Grey, aged nineteen, betrothed June, 1672, at Bristol, England, to Lucretia Lefevre, aged thirty-one, of that place. She died July 27th. John De Grey, affianced January 10th, 1649, to Blanche Ferrars, of Castle Ferrars, Cumberland. She died, by her lover's hand, January 12th. Stephen De Grey offered his hand to Isabel Stirling, October, 1619. She died within the month. Paul De Grey exchanged pledges with Magdalen Scrope, August, 1586. She died in childbirth, September, 1587.'" Father Herbert paused. "Is it enough?" he asked, looking up with glowing eyes. "There are two pages more. The De Greys are an ancient line; they keep their records."


Margaret had listened with a look of deepening, fierce, passionate horror,—a look more of anger and of wounded pride than of terror. She sprang towards the priest with the lightness of a young cat, and dashed the hideous record from his hand.


​"What abominable nonsense is this!" she cried. "What does it mean? I barely heard it; I despise it; I laugh at it."


The old man seized her arm with a firm grasp. "Paul De Grey," he said, in an awful voice, "exchanged pledge with Margaret Aldis, August, 1821. She died—with the falling leaves."


Poor Margaret looked about her for help, inspiration, comfort of some kind. The room contained nothing but serried lines of old parchment-covered books, each seeming a grim repetition of the volume at her feet. A vast peal of thunder resounded through the noon-day stillness. Suddenly her strength deserted her; she felt her weakness and loneliness, the grasp of the hand of fate. Father Herbert put out his arms, she flung herself on his neck, and burst into tears.


"Do you still refuse to leave him?" asked the priest "If you leave him, you're saved."


"Saved?" cried Margaret, raising her head; "and Paul?"


"Ah, there it is.—He'll forget you."


The young girl pondered a moment. "To have him do that," she said, "I should apparently have to die." Then wringing her hands with a fresh burst of grief, "Is it certain," she cried, "that there are no exceptions?"


Whether today we consider "De Grey'' a tyro potboiler or an example of higher commercial melodrama, it suffers by comparison with "The Romance of Certain Old Clothes." Yet for the lover of strange and uncanny stories, "De Grey'' has a place and an unmistakable flavor.


In writing it, James must have felt close to the kind of aesthetic impulses that motivated Hawthorne to work on a tale like "The Ancestral Footstep." The De Grey family, on the surface innocuous to the point of boredom, turns out to harbor a historical and still living curse.


*     *     *


"The Last of the Valerii" (1874)


Here we arrive at an antiquarian -- or anthropomorphist? -- supernatural tale; perhaps international Hawthornianism. Bleiler gives it a demerit for the "maundering American narrator," but James has perfectly realised the tone of an older, cultured American painter witnessing a crisis of his Yankee goddaughter, who has just married the heir to a destitute Italian house. 


....It was a help to ungrudging feelings that the Count, yielding to his wife's urgency, had undertaken a series of systematic excavations. To excavate is an expensive luxury, and neither Marco nor his latter forefathers had possessed the means for a disinterested pursuit of archæology. But his young wife had persuaded herself that the much-trodden soil of the Villa was as full of buried treasures as a bride-cake of plums, and that it would be a pretty compliment to the ancient house which had accepted her as mistress to devote a portion of her dowry to bringing its mouldy honours to the light. I think she was not without a fancy that this liberal process would help to disinfect her Yankee dollars of the impertinent odour of trade. She took learned advice on the subject, and was soon ready to swear to you, proceeding from irrefutable premises, that a colossal gilt-bronze Minerva, mentioned by Strabo, was placidly awaiting resurrection at a point twenty rods from the north-west angle of the house. She had a couple of asthmatic old antiquaries to lunch, whom, having plied with unwonted potations, she walked off their legs in the grounds; and though they agreed on nothing else in the world, they individually assured her that researches properly conducted would probably yield an unequalled harvest of discoveries. The Count had been not only indifferent but even unfriendly to the scheme, and had more than once arrested his wife's complacent allusions to it by an unaccustomed acerbity of tone. "Let them lie, the poor disinherited gods, the Minerva, the Apollo, the Ceres you are so sure of finding," he said, "and don't break their rest. What do you want of them? We can't worship them. Would you put them on pedestals to stare and mock at them? If you can't believe in them, don't disturb them. Peace be with them!" I remember being a good deal impressed by a confession drawn from him by his wife's playfully declaring, in answer to some remonstrances in this strain, that he was really and truly superstitious. "Yes, by Bacchus, I am superstitious!" he cried. "Too much so, perhaps! But I'm an old Italian, and you must take me as you find me. There have been things seen and done here which leave strange influences behind! They don't touch you, doubtless, who come of another race. But me they touch often, in the whisper of the leaves and the odour of the mouldy soil and the blank eyes of the old statues. I can't bear to look the statues in the face. I seem to see other strange eyes in the empty sockets, and I hardly know what they say to me. I call the poor old statues ghosts. In conscience, we have enough on the place already, lurking and peering in every shady nook. Don't dig up any more, or I won't answer for my wits!"


This account of Marco's sensibilities was too fantastic not to seem to his wife almost a joke; and though I imagined there was more in it, he made a joke so seldom that I should have been sorry to convert the poor girl's smile into a suspicion....


Marco's warning is sadly prophetic. When a statue of Juno is excavated on the Villa's grounds and erected, it becomes the sole object of Marco's worship. 


....The next day, meeting in the garden the functionary who had conducted the excavation, I shook my finger at him with an intention of portentous gravity. But he only grinned like the malicious earth-gnome to which I had always compared him, and twisted his moustache as if my menace were a capital joke. "If you dig any more holes here," I said, "you shall be thrust into the deepest of them, and have the earth packed down on top of you. We have made enough discoveries, and we want no more statues. Your Juno has almost ruined us."


He burst out laughing. "I expected as much – I had my notion!"


"What was your notion?"


"That the Signor Conte would begin and say his prayers to her."


"Good heavens! Is the case so common? Why did you expect it?"


"On the contrary, the case is rare. But I have fumbled so long in the monstrous heritage of antiquity that I have learned a multitude of secrets – learned that ancient relics may work modern miracles. There is a pagan element in all of us – I don't speak for you, illustrissimi forestieri – and the old gods have still their worshippers. The old spirit still throbs here and there, and the Signor Conte has his share of it. He's a good fellow, but, between ourselves, he's an impossible Christian!" And this singular personage resumed his impertinent hilarity. 


Stories about Gilded Age American railroad or tinned beef barons and their children loosed on Europe are a rich stream in supernatural literature. Wilde certainly showed this when he sent-up the genre with "The Canterbury Ghost." Even tales of getting to and from Europe, like F. Marion Crawford's "The Upper Berth," compel reader attention and loyalty.


"The Last of the Valerii" is certainly redolent in mood of the crepuscular shade the poet Robert Lowell referred to with his sublime line "the sun on brick at dusk."



*     *     *


"The Aspern Papers" (1888)


The narrator arrives in Venice in search of papers of the U.S. poet Jeffrey Aspern. They are in the possession of the ancient Misses Bordereau, aunt and niece. The aunt is reputed to be a former lover of Aspern, hence her possession of letters, etc.


The narrator insinuates himself into the household as a renter. Over the weeks he learns what each Miss Bordereau apparently desires. When the aunt is taken ill and put to bed, his plan to play the long game swamped in an impulsive late night prowl around the palazzo.


With this, Poe's "imp of the perverse" enters the macabre equation:


....I went out of the house and took a long walk, as far as the Piazza, where my restlessness declined to quit me. I was unable to sit down (it was very late now but there were people still at the little tables in front of the cafés); I could only walk round and round, and I did so half a dozen times. I was uncomfortable, but it gave me a certain pleasure to have told Miss Tita who I really was. At last I took my way home again, slowly getting all but inextricably lost, as I did whenever I went out in Venice: so that it was considerably past midnight when I reached my door. The sala, upstairs, was as dark as usual and my lamp as I crossed it found nothing satisfactory to show me. I was disappointed, for I had notified Miss Tita that I would come back for a report, and I thought she might have left a light there as a sign. The door of the ladies' apartment was closed; which seemed an intimation that my faltering friend had gone to bed, tired of waiting for me. I stood in the middle of the place, considering, hoping she would hear me and perhaps peep out, saying to myself too that she would never go to bed with her aunt in a state so critical; she would sit up and watch—she would be in a chair, in her dressing-gown. I went nearer the door; I stopped there and listened. I heard nothing at all and at last I tapped gently. No answer came and after another minute I turned the handle. There was no light in the room; this ought to have prevented me from going in, but it had ​no such effect. If I have candidly narrated the importunities, the indelicacies, of which my desire to possess myself of Jeffrey Aspern's papers had rendered me capable I need not shrink from confessing this last indiscretion. I think it was the worst thing I did; yet there were extenuating circumstances. I was deeply though doubtless not disinterestedly anxious for more news of the old lady, and Miss Tita had accepted from me, as it were, a rendezvous which it might have been a point of honour with me to keep. It may be said that her leaving the place dark was a positive sign that she released me, and to this I can only reply that I desired not to be released.


The door of Miss Bordereau's room was open and I could see beyond it the faintness of a taper. There was no sound—my footstep caused no one to stir. I came further into the room; I lingered there with my lamp in my hand. I wanted to give Miss Tita a chance to come to me if she were with her aunt, as she must be. I made no noise to call her; I only waited to see if she would not notice my light. She did not, and I explained this (I found afterwards I was right) by the idea that she had fallen asleep. If she had fallen asleep her aunt was not on her mind, and my explanation ought to have led me to go out as I had come. I must repeat again that it did not, for I found myself at the same moment thinking of something else. I had no definite purpose, no bad intention, but I felt myself held to the spot by an acute, though absurd, sense of opportunity. For what I could not have said, inasmuch as it was not in my mind that I might commit a theft. Even if it had been I was confronted with the evident fact that Miss Bordereau ​did not leave her secretary, her cupboard and the drawers of her tables gaping. I had no keys, no tools and no ambition to smash her furniture. None the less it came to me that I was now, perhaps alone, unmolested, at the hour of temptation and secrecy, nearer to the tormenting treasure than I had ever been. I held up my lamp, let the light play on the different objects as if it could tell me some thing. Still there came no movement from the other room. If Miss Tita was sleeping she was sleeping sound. Was she doing so—generous creature—on purpose to leave me the field? Did she know I was there and was she just keeping quiet to see what I would do—what I could do? But what could I do, when it came to that? She herself knew even better than I how little.


I stopped in front of the secretary, looking at it very idiotically; for what had it to say to me after all? In the first place it was locked, and in the second it almost surely contained nothing in which I was interested. Ten to one the papers had been destroyed; and even if they had not been destroyed the old woman would not have put them in such a place as that after removing them from the green trunk would not have transferred them, if she had the idea of their safety on her brain, from the better hiding-place to the worse. The secretary was more conspicuous, more accessible in a room in which she could no longer mount guard. It opened with a key, but there was a little brass handle, like a button, as well; I saw this as I played my lamp over it. I did something more than this at that moment: I caught a glimpse of the possibility that Miss Tita wished me really to understand. If she did not ​wish me to understand, if she wished me to keep away, why had she not locked the door of communication between the sitting-room and the sala? That would have been a definite sign that I was to leave them alone. If I did not leave them alone she meant me to come for a purpose—a purpose now indicated by the quick, fantastic idea that to oblige me she had unlocked the secretary. She had not left the key, but the lid would probably move if I touched the button. This theory fascinated me, and I bent over very close to judge. I did not propose to do anything, not even—not in the least—to let down the lid; I only wanted to test my theory, to see if the cover would move. I touched the button with my hand—a mere touch would tell me; and as I did so (it is embarrassing for me to relate it), I looked over my shoulder. It was a chance, an instinct, for I had not heard anything. I almost let my luminary drop and certainly I stepped back, straightening myself up at what I saw. Miss Bordereau stood there in her night-dress, in the doorway of her room, watching me; her hands were raised, she had lifted the everlasting curtain that covered half her face, and for the first, the last, the only time I beheld her extraordinary eyes. They glared at me, they made me horribly ashamed. I never shall forget her strange little bent white tottering figure, with its lifted head, her attitude, her expression; neither shall I forget the tone in which as I turned, looking at her, she hissed out passionately, furiously:


'Ah, you publishing scoundrel!'


I know not what I stammered, to excuse myself, to explain; but I went towards her, to tell her I ​meant no harm. She waved me off with her old hands, retreating before me in horror; and the next thing I knew she had fallen back with a quick spasm, as if death had descended on her, into Miss Tita's arms....


This is a droll comedy of frustration and misunderstanding. The narrator wrong-foots himself every time events seem to be turning to his advantage. 


*     *     *


"Sir Edmund Orme" (1891)


....I closed the door and turned round to find that Sir Edmund Orme had during the moment my back was presented to him retired by the window. Mrs. Marden stood there and we looked at each other long. It had only then—as the girl flitted away—come home to me that her daughter was unconscious of what had happened. It was that, oddly enough, that gave me a sudden, sharp shake, and not my own perception of our visitor, which appeared perfectly natural. It made the fact vivid to me that she had been equally unaware of him in church, and the two facts together—now that they were over—set my heart more sensibly beating. I wiped my forehead, and Mrs. Marden broke out with a low distressful wail: "Now you know my life—now you know my life!"


"In God's name who is he—what is he?"


"He's a man I wronged."


"How did you wrong him?"


"Oh, awfully—years ago."


"Years ago? Why, he's very young."


"Young—young?" cried Mrs. Marden. "He was born before I was!"


"Then why does he look so?"


She came nearer to me, she laid her hand on my arm, and there was something in her face that made me shrink a little. "Don't you understand—don't you feel?" she murmured, reproachfully.


"I feel very queer!" I laughed; and I was conscious that my laugh betrayed it.


"He's dead!" said Mrs. Marden, from her white face.


"Dead?" I panted. "Then that gentleman was — ?" I couldn't even say the word.


​"Call him what you like—there are twenty vulgar names. He's a perfect presence."


"He's a splendid presence!" I cried. "The place is haunted—haunted!" I exulted in the word as if it represented the fulfilment of my dearest dream.


"It isn't the place—more's the pity! That has nothing to do with it!"


"Then it's you, dear lady?" I said, as if this were still better.


"No, nor me either—I wish it were!"


"Perhaps it's me," I suggested with a sickly smile.


"It's nobody but my child—my innocent, innocent child!" And with this Mrs. Marden broke down—she dropped into a chair and burst into tears. I stammered some question—I pressed on her some bewildered appeal, but she waved me off, unexpectedly and passionately. I persisted—couldn't I help her, couldn't I intervene? "You have intervened," she sobbed; "you're in it, you're in it."


"I'm very glad to be in anything so curious," I boldly declared.


"Glad or not, you can't get out of it."


"I don't want to get out of it—it's too interesting."


"I'm glad you like it. Go away."


"But I want to know more about it."


"You'll see all you want—go away!"


"But I want to understand what I see."


"How can you—when I don't understand myself?"


"We'll do so together—we'll make it out."


At this she got up, doing what she could to obliterate her tears. "Yes, it will be better together—that's why I've liked you."


"Oh, we'll see it through!" I declared.


"Then you must control yourself better."


​"I will, I will—with practice."


"You'll get used to it," said Mrs. Marden, in a tone I never forgot. "But go and join them—I'll come in a moment."


"Sir Edmund Orme" is a story of developing trust and comradeship between a young man and the older woman whose daughter he wants to wed.


Mrs. Marden in youth motivated the suicide of her fiance Sir Edmund Orme when she overthrew him. Now Orme pays Mrs. Marden and Miss Marden intermittent visits; only the mother, and eventually our narrator, can see him.


Both the narrator and Mrs. Marden leverage devotion for Miss Marden through several encounters. Some are in broad daylight, others at night; Orme is not confined to place, but but to person.


James clearly intends the story to be a supernatural episode in a larger mosaic of stories about the material and moral contradictions of wooing and betrothal. It is a confident tale of modest clarity.


*     *     *


"Jersey Villas" or, "Sir Dominick Ferrand" (1892)


....On leaving the house (he lived at No. 3, the door of which stood open to a small front garden), he encountered the lady who, a week before, had taken possession of the rooms on the ground floor, the "parlours" of Mrs. Bundy's terminology. He had heard her, and from his window, two or three times, had even seen her pass in and out, and this observation had created in his mind a vague prejudice in her favour. Such a prejudice, it was true, had been subjected to a violent test; it had been fairly apparent that she had a light step, but it was still less to be overlooked that she had a cottage piano. She had furthermore a little boy and a very sweet voice, of which Peter Baron had caught the accent, not from her singing (for she only played), but from her gay admonitions to her child, whom she occasionally allowed to amuse himself—under restrictions very publicly enforced—in the tiny black patch which, as a forecourt to each house, was held, in the humble row, to be a feature. Jersey Villas stood in pairs, semi-detached, and Mrs. Ryves—such was the name under which the new lodger presented herself—had been admitted to the house as confessedly musical. Mrs. Bundy, the earnest proprietress of No. 3, who considered her "parlours" (they were a dozen feet ​square), even more attractive, if possible, than the second floor with which Baron had had to content himself—Mrs. Bundy, who reserved the drawing-room for a casual dressmaking business, had threshed out the subject of the new lodger in advance with our young man, reminding him that her affection for his own person was a proof that, other things being equal, she positively preferred tenants who were clever.


This was the case with Mrs. Ryves; she had satisfied Mrs. Bundy that she was not a simple strummer. Mrs. Bundy admitted to Peter Baron that, for herself, she had a weakness for a pretty tune, and Peter could honestly reply that his ear was equally sensitive. Everything would depend on the "touch" of their inmate. Mrs. Ryves's piano would blight his existence if her hand should prove heavy or her selections vulgar; but if she played agreeable things and played them in an agreeable way she would render him rather a service while he smoked the pipe of "form." Mrs. Bundy, who wanted to let her rooms, guaranteed on the part of the stranger a first-class talent, and Mrs. Ryves, who evidently knew thoroughly what she was about, had not falsified this somewhat rash prediction. 


In "Jersey Villas" James gives us several overlapping duos of interacting characters crisscrossing fluidly over documents discovered in an old davenport. The handling of the papers will either unite or ruin future romantic prospects for unsuccessful writer Peter Baron and unsuccessful music composer Mrs. Ryves. They will also unite or ruin business prospects for Peter Baron and Mr. Locket, editor of the journal Promiscuous.


Unlike the muniment cupboard in Reggie Oliver's story "Feng Shui," the davenport papers play a non-malevolent role in "Jersey Villas." They have a soft supernatural force that can scotch or defer decisions, clouding common sense thought.


All of which leads Mr. Baron and Mrs. Ryves to a lot of expensive toing and froing, spending train and cab fare they do not have. In the end, however, they are able to weather the hazzards of fortune, uniting as romantic and creative partners.


"Jersey Villas" is a fun story, one with scrapes and obstacles whose melodrama never inflates to dread; like the early chapters of Machen's "A Fragment of Life," the young couple just have too much going for them to fail.



*     *     *



Jay

18 April 2021






















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