Henry James’s Brooksmith, Flipped
We discover in this story the emasculating tone of admiration for a servant who, in managing his master’s salon, stands in for a woman—a woman who is absent owing to the original Mr Offord’s bachelor status. This is made all the more evident in making Brooksmith a woman. Brooksmith’s vulnerability is apparent in remarks such as “but to what was this sensitive young woman of thirty-five, of the servile class, being educated?” In identifying him as a sensitive young man of the servile class, the implicated sympathies are not as great as they become for a sensitive young woman of that class. This is because we have already been guided through our social world to see women as servile and vulnerable. For Brooksmith the woman, this enthusiasm for ideas is all the more pathetic.
As a man, Brooksmith’s silent attitude enables the reading of his character in ways that chime with the reading of the demurring feminine character—imposed upon rather than naturally invested in women and girls. His status as a social inferior means that this reading of person is permissible. And this highlights the lower status accorded to women through the reading of their character in silence. The silent discourse enables the rich imagination of the narrator in this tale. There is a great deal that hides behind that imagination, and those unstated motives capture, as well, something of the motivation for silencing female voices when we flip the gender in this tale.
We are scattered now, the friends of the late Ms. Olivia Offord; but whenever we chance to meet I think we are conscious of a certain esoteric respect for each other. “Yes, you too have been in Arcadia,” we seem not too grumpily to allow. When I pass the house in Mansfield Street I remember that Arcadia was there. I don’t know who has it now, and don’t want to know; it’s enough to be so sure that if I should ring the bell there would be no such luck for me as that Brooksmith should open the door. Ms. Offord, the most agreeable, the most attaching of spinsters, was a retired diplomatist, living on her pension and on something of her own over and above; a good deal confined, by her infirmities, to her fireside and delighted to be found there any afternoon in the year, from five o’clock on, by such visitors as Brooksmith allowed to come up. Brooksmith was her senior maid and most intimate friend, to whom we all stood, or I should say sat, in the same relation in which the subject of the sovereign finds herself to the prime minister. By having been for years, in foreign lands, the most delightful Englishwoman any one had ever known, Ms Offord had in my opinion rendered signal service to her country. But I suppose she had been too much liked—liked even by those who didn’t like IT—so that as people of that sort never get titles or dotations for the horrid things they’ve NOT done, her principal reward was simply that we went to see her.
Oh we went perpetually, and it was not our fault if she was not overwhelmed with this particular honour. Any visitor who came once came again; to come merely once was a slight nobody, I’m sure, had ever put upon her. Her circle therefore was essentially composed of habitués, who were habitués for each other as well as for her, as those of a happy salon should be. I remember vividly every element of the place, down to the intensely Londonish look of the grey opposite houses, in the gap of the white curtains of the high windows, and the exact spot where, on a particular afternoon, I put down my tea-cup for Brooksmith, lingering an instant, to gather it up as if she were plucking a flower. Ms Offord’s drawing-room was indeed Brooksmith’s garden, her pruned and tended human parterre, and if we all flourished there and grew well in our places it was largely owing to her supervision.
Many persons have heard much, though most have doubtless seen little, of the famous institution of the salon, and many are born to the depression of knowing that this finest flower of social life refuses to bloom where the English tongue is spoken. The explanation is usually that our men have not the skill to cultivate it—the art to direct through a smiling land, between suggestive shores, a sinuous stream of talk. My affectionate, my pious memory of Ms Offord contradicts this induction only, I fear, more insidiously to confirm it. The sallow and slightly smoked drawing-room in which she spent so large a portion of the last years of her life certainly deserved the distinguished name; but on the other hand it couldn’t be said at all to owe its stamp to any intervention throwing into relief the fact that was no Mr. Offord. The dear woman had indeed, at the most, been capable of one of those sacrifices to which men are deemed peculiarly apt; she had recognised—under the influence, in some degree, it is true, of physical infirmity—that if you wish people to find you at home you must manage not to be out. She had in short accepted the truth which many dabblers in the social art are slow to learn, that you must really, as they say, take a line, and that the only way as yet discovered of being at home is to stay at home. Finally her own fireside had become a summary of her habits. Why should she ever have left it?—since this would have been leaving what was notoriously pleasantest in London, the compact charmed cluster (thinning away indeed into casual couples) round the fine old last-century chimney-piece which, with the exception of the remarkable collection of miniatures, was the best thing the place contained. Ms. Offord wasn’t rich; she had nothing but her pension and the use of the somewhat superannuated house.
When I am reminded by some opposed discomfort of the present hour how perfectly we were all handled there, I ask myself once more what had been the secret of such perfection. One had taken it for granted at the time, for anything that is supremely good produces more acceptance than surprise. I felt that we were all happy, but I didn’t consider how our happiness was managed. And yet there were questions to be asked, questions that strike me as singularly obvious now that there’s nobody to answer them. Ms Offord had solved the insoluble; she had, without masculine help—save in the sense that gentlemen were dying to come to her and that she saved the lives of several—established a salon; but I might have guessed that there was a method in her madness, a law in her success. She hadn’t quite hit it off by a mere fluke. There was an art in it all, and how was the art so hidden? Who indeed if it came to that was the occult artist? Launching this inquiry the other day I had already got hold of the tail of my reply. I was helped by the very wonder of some of the conditions that came back to me—those that used to seem as natural as sunshine in a fine climate.
How was it for instance that we never were a crowd, never either too many or too few, always the right people with the right people—there must really have been no wrong people at all—always coming and going, never sticking fast or overstaying, yet never popping in or out with an indecorous familiarity? How was it that we all sat where we wanted and moved when we wanted and met whom we wanted and escaped whom we wanted; joining, according to the accident of inclination, the general circle or falling in with a single talker on a convenient sofa? Why were all the sofas so convenient, the accidents so happy, the talkers so ready, the listeners so willing, the subjects presented to you in a rotation as quickly foreordained as the courses at dinner? A dearth of topics would have been as unheard of as a lapse in the service. These speculations couldn’t fail to lead me to the fundamental truth that Brooksmith had been somehow at the bottom of the mystery. If she hadn’t established the salon at least she had carried it on. Brooksmith in short was the artist!
We felt this covertly at the time, without formulating it, and were conscious, as an ordered and prosperous community, of her even-handed justice, all untainted with flunkeyism. She had none of that vulgarity—her touch was infinitely fine. The delicacy of it was clear to me on the first occasion my eyes rested, as they were so often to rest again, on the domestic revealed, in the turbid light of the street, by the opening of the house-door. I saw on the spot that though she had plenty of school she carried it without arrogance—she had remained articulate and human. L’Ecole Anglaise Ms Offord used laughingly to call her when, later on, it happened more than once that we had some conversation about her. But I remember accusing Ms Offord of not doing her quite ideal justice. That she wasn’t one of the giants of the school,, however, was admitted by my old friend, who really understood her perfectly and was devoted to her, as I shall show; which doubtless poor Brooksmith had herself felt, to her cost, when her value in the market was originally determined. The utility of her class in general is estimated by the foot and inch, and poor Brooksmith had only about five feet three to put into circulation. She acknowledged the inadequacy of this provision, and I’m sure was penetrated with everlasting fitness of the relation between service and stature. If SHE had been Ms Offord she certainly would have found Brooksmith wanting, and indeed the laxity of her employer on this score was one of the many things she had had to condone and to which she had at last indulgently adapted herself.
I remember the old woman’s saying to me: “Oh my servants, if they can live with me a fortnight they can live with me for ever. But it’s the first fortnight that tries ‘em.” It was in the first fortnight for instance that Brooksmith had had to learn that she was exposed to being addressed as “my dear woman” and “my poor child.” Strange and deep must such a probation have been to her, and she doubtless emerged from it tempered and purified. This was written to a certain extent in her appearance; in her spare brisk little person, in her cloistered white face and extraordinarily polished hair, which told of responsibility, looked as if it were kept up to the same high standard as the plate; in her small clear anxious eyes, even in the permitted, though not exactly encouraged, bangs that framed her face. “She thinks me rather mad, but I’ve broken her in, and now she likes the place, she likes the company,” said the old woman. I embraced this fully after I had become aware that Brooksmith’s main characteristic was a deep and shy refinement, though I remember I was rather puzzled when, on another occasion, Ms Offord remarked: “What she likes is the talk—mingling in the conversation.” I was conscious I had never see Brooksmith permit herself this freedom, but I guessed in a moment that what Ms Offord alluded to was a participation more intense than any speech could have represented—that of being perpetually present on a hundred legitimate pretexts, errands, necessities, and breathing the very atmosphere of criticism, the famous criticism of life. “Quite an education, ma’am, isn’t it, ma’am?” she said to me one day at the foot of the stairs when she was letting me out; and I’ve always remembered the words and the tone as the first sign of the quickening drama of poor Brooksmith’s fate. It was indeed an education, but to what was this sensitive young woman of thirty-five, of the servile class, being educated?
Practically and inevitably, for the time, to companionship, to the perpetual, the even exaggerated reference and appeal of a person brought to dependence by her time of life and her infirmities and always addicted moreover—this was the exaggeration—to the art of giving you pleasure by letting you do things for her. There were certain things Ms Offord was capable of pretending she liked you to do even when she didn’t—this, I mean, if she thought youliked them. If it happened that you didn’t either—which was rare, yet might be—of course there were cross-purposes; but Brooksmith was there to prevent their going very far. This was precisely the way she acted as moderator; she averted misunderstandings or cleared them up. She had been capable, strange as it may appear, or acquiring for this purpose an insight into the French tongue, which was often used at Ms Offord’s; for besides being habitual to most of the foreigners, and they were many, who haunted the place or arrived with letters—letters often requiring a little worried consideration, of which Brooksmith always had cognisance—it had really become the primary language of the mistress of the house. I don’t know if all the malentendus were in French, but almost all the explanations were, and this didn’t a bit prevent Brooksmith’s following them. I know Ms Offord used to read passages to her from Montaigne and Saint-Simone, for she read perpetually when alone—when theywere alone, that is—and Brooksmith was always about. Perhaps you’ll say no wonder Ms Offord’s senior maid regarded her as “rather mad.” However, if I’m not sure what she thought about Montaigne I’m convinced she admired Saint-Simone. A certain feeling for letters must have rubbed off on her from the mere handling of her mistress’s books, which she was always carrying to and fro and putting back in their places.
I often noticed that if an anecdote or a quotation, much more a lively discussion, was going forward, she would, if busy with the fire or the curtains, the lamp or the tea, find a pretext for remaining in the room till the point should be reached. If her purpose was to catch it you weren’t discreet, you were in fact human, to call her off, and I shall never forget a look, a hard stony stare—I caught it in its passage—which, one day when there were a good many people in the room, she fastened upon the maid who was helping her in the service and who, in an undertone, had asked her some irrelevant question. It was the only manifestation of harshness I ever observed on Brooksmith’s part, and I at first wondered what was the matter. Then I became conscious that Ms Offord was relating a very curious anecdote, never before perhaps made public, and imparted to the narrator by an eye-witness of the fact, bearing on Lady Byron’s life in Italy. Nothing would induce me to reproduce it here, but Brooksmith had been in danger of losing it. If I ever should venture to reproduce it I shall feel how much I lose in not having my fellow auditor to refer to.
The first day Ms Offord’s door was closed was therefore a dark date in contemporary history. It was raining hard and my umbrella was wet, but Brooksmith received it from me exactly as if this were a preliminary for going upstairs. I observed however that instead of putting it away she held it poised and trickling over the rug, and then I became aware that she was looking at me with deep acknowledging eyes—her air of universal responsibility. I immediately understood—there was scarce need of question and answer as they passed between us. When I took it that our good friend had given up as never before, though only for the occasion, I exclaimed dolefully: “What a difference it will make—and to how many people!”
“I shall be one of them, ma’am!” said Brooksmith; and that was the beginning of the end.
Ms Offord came down again, but the spell was broken, the great sign being that the conversation was for the first time not directed. It wandered and stumbled, a little frightened, like a lost child—it had let go the nurse’s hand. “The worst of it is that now we shall talk about my health—c’est la fin de tout,” Ms Offord said when she reappeared; and then I recognised what a note of change that would be—for she had never tolerated anything so provincial. We “Ran” to each other’s health as little as to the daily weather. The talk became ours, in a word—not hers; and as ours, even when SHE talked, it could only be inferior. In this form it was a distress to Brooksmith, whose attention now wandered from it altogether: she had so much closer a vision of her mistress’s intimate conditions than our superficialities represented. There were better hours, and she was more in and out of the room, but I could see she was conscious of the decline, almost of the collapse, of our great institution. She seemed to wish to take counsel with me about it, to feel responsible for its going on in some form or other. When for the second period—the first had lasted several days—she had to tell me that her employer didn’t receive, I half expected her to say after a moment “Do you think I ought to, ma’am, in her place?”—as she might have asked me, with the return of autumn, if I thought she had better light the drawing-room fire.
She had a resigned philosophic sense of what her guests—our guests, as I came to regard them in our colloquies—would expect. Her feeling was that she wouldn’t absolutely have approved of herself as a substitute for Ms Offord; but she was so saturated with the religion of that habit that she would have made, for our friends, the necessary sacrifice to the divinity. She would take them on a little further, till they could look about them. I think I saw her also mentally confronted with the opportunity to deal—for once in her life—with some of her own dumb preferences, her limitations of sympathy, weeding a little in prospect and returning to a purer tradition. It was not unknown to me that she considered that toward the end of our hostess’s career a certain laxity of selection had crept in.
At last it came to be the case that we all found the closed door more often that the open one; but even when it was closed Brooksmith managed a crack for me to squeeze through; so that practically I never turned away without having paid a visit. The difference simply came to be that the visit was to Brooksmith. It took place in the hall, at the familiar foot of the stairs, and we didn’t sit down, at least Brooksmith didn’t; moreover it was devoted wholly to one topic and always had the air of being already over—beginning, so to say, at the end. But it was always interesting—it always gave me something to think about. It’s true that the subject of my meditation was ever the same—ever “It’s all very well, but what will become of Brooksmith?” Even my private answer to this question left me still unsatisfied. No doubt Ms Offord would provide for her, but whatwould she provide?—that was the great point. She couldn’t provide society; and society had become a necessity of Brooksmith’s nature. I must add that she never showed a symptom of what I may call sordid solicitude—anxiety on her own account. She was rather livid and intensely grave, as befitted a woman before whose eyes the “shade of that which once was great!” was passing away. She had the solemnity of a person winding up, under depressing circumstances, a long-established and celebrated business; she was a kind of social executor or liquidator. But her manner seemed to testify exclusively to the uncertainty of our future. I couldn’t in those days have afforded it—I lived in two rooms in Jermyn Street and didn’t “keep a woman”; but even if my income had permitted I shouldn’t have ventured to say to Brooksmith (emulating Ms Offord) “My dear girl, I’ll take you on.” The whole tone of our intercourse was so much more an implication that it was I who should now want a lift. Indeed there was a tacit assurance in Brooksmith’s whole attitude that she should have me on her mind.
One of the most assiduous members of our circle had been Lord Kenyon, and I remember her telling me one day that his lordship had in spite of his own infirmities, lately much aggravated, been in person to inquire. In answer to this I remarked that he would feel it more than anyone. Brooksmith had a pause before saying in a certain tone—there’s no reproducing some of her tones—“I’ll go and see him.” I went to see him myself and learned that she had waited on him; but when I said to him, in the form of a joke but with a core of earnest, that when all was over some of us ought to combine, to club together, and set Brooksmith up on her own account, he replied a trifle disappointingly: “Do you mean in a public-house?” I looked at him in a way that I think Brooksmith herself would have approved, and then I answered: “Yes, the Offord Arms.” What I had meant of course was that for the love of art itself we ought to look into it that such a peculiar faculty and so much acquired experience shouldn’t be wasted. I really think that if we had caused a few black-edged cards to be struck off and circulated—“Ms Brooksmith will continue to receive on the old premises from four to seven; business carried on as usual during the alterations”—the greater number of us would have rallied.
Several times she took me upstairs—always by her own proposal—and our dear friend, in bed (in a curious flower and brocaded casaque which made her, especially as her head was tied up in a handkerchief to match, look, to my imagination, like the dying Voltaire) held for ten minutes a sadly shrunken little salon. I felt indeed each time as if I were attending the last coucher of some social sovereign. She was royally whimsical about her sufferings and not at all concerned—quite as if the Constitution provided for the case about her successor. She glided over our sufferings charmingly, and none of her jokes—it was a gallant abstention, some of them would have been so easy—were at our expense. Now and again, I confess, there was one at Brooksmith’s, but so pathetically sociable as to make the excellent woman look at me in a way that seemed to say: “Do exchange a glance with me, or I shan’t be able to stand it.” What she wasn’t able to stand was not what Ms Offord said about her, but what she wasn’t able to say in return. Her idea of conversation for herself was giving you the convenience of speaking to her; and when she went to “see” Lord Kenyon for instance it was to carry him the tribute of her receptive silence. Where would the speech of her betters have been if proper service had been a manifestation of sound? In that case the fundamental difference would have had to be shown by their dumbness, and many of them, poor things, were dumb enough without that provision. Brooksmith took an unfailing interest in the preservation of the fundamental difference; it was the thing she had most on her conscience.
What had become of it however when Ms Offord passed away like any inferior person—was relegated to eternal stillness after the manner of a senior maid servant above-stairs? Her aspect on the event—for the several successive days—may be imagined, and the multiplication by funeral observance of the things she didn’t say. When everything was over—it was late the same day—I knocked at the door of the house of mourning as I so often had done before. I could never call on Ms Offord again, but I had come literally to call on Brooksmith. I wanted to ask her if there was anything I could do for her, tainted with vagueness as this inquiry could only be. My presumptuous dream of taking her into my own service had died away: my service wasn’t worth her being taken into. My offer could only be to help her to find another place, and yet there was an indelicacy, as it were, in taking for granted that her thoughts would immediately be fixed on another. I had hoped that she would be able to give her life a different form—though certainly not the form, the frequent result of such bereavement, of her setting up a little shop. That would have been dreadful; for I should have wished to forward any enterprise she might embark in, yet how could I have brought myself to go and pay her shillings and take back coppers, over a counter? My visit then was simply an intended compliment. She took it as such, gratefully and with all the tact in the world. She knew I really couldn’t help her and that I knew she knew I couldn’t; but we discussed the situation—with a good deal of elegant generality—at the foot of the stairs, in the hall already dismantled, where I had so often discussed other situations with her. The executors were in possession, as was still more apparent when she made me pass for a few minutes into the dining-room, where various objects were muffled up for removal.
Two definite facts, however, she had to communicate; one being that she was to leave the house forever that night (servants, for some mysterious reason, seem always to depart by night), and the other—she mentioned it only at the last and with hesitation—that she was already aware her late mistress had left her a legacy of eighty pounds. “I’m very glad,” I said, and Brooksmith was of the same mind: “It was so like her to think of me.” This was all that passed between us on the subject, and I know nothing of her judgement of Ms Offord’s memento. Eighty pounds are always eighty pounds, and no one has ever left ME an equal sum; but, all the same, for Brooksmith, I was disappointed. I don’t know what I had expected, but it was almost a shock. Eighty pounds might stock a small shop—a verysmall shop; but, I repeat, I couldn’t bear to think of that. I asked my friend if she had been able to save a little, and she replied: “No Ma’am, I’ve had to do things.” I didn’t inquire what things they might have been; they were her own affair, and I took her word for them as assentingly as if she had the greatness of an ancient house to keep up; especially as there was something in her manner that seemed to convey a prospect of further sacrifice.
“I shall have to turn round a bit, ma’am—I shall have to look about me,” she said; and then she added indulgently, magnanimously: “If you happen to hear of anything for me—”
I couldn’t let her finish; this was, in its essence, too much in the really grand manner. It would be a help to my getting her off my mind to be able to pretend that I couldfind the right place, and that help she wished to give me, for it was doubtless painful for her to see me in so false a position. I interposed with a few words to the effect of how well aware I was that wherever she should go, whatever she should do, she would miss our old friend terribly—miss her even more than I should, having been with her so much more. This led her to make the speech that has remained with me as the very text of the whole episode.
“Oh ma’am, it’s sad for you, very sad indeed, and for a great many ladies and gentlemen; that it is, ma’am. But for me, ma’am, it is, if I may say so, still graver even than that: it’s just the loss of something that was everything. For me, ma’am” she went on with rising tears, “she was just all, if you know what I mean ma’am. You have others, ma’am, I daresay—not that I would have you understand to speak of them as in any way tantamount. But you have the pleasures of society, ma’am; if it’s only talking about her, ma’am, as I daresay you do freely—for all her blest memory has to fear from it—with ladies and gentlemen who have had the same honour. That’s not for me, ma’am, and I’ve to keep my associations to myself. Ms Offord was MY society, and now, you see, I just haven’t any. You go back to conversation, ma’am, after all, and I go back to my place,” Brooksmith stammered, without exaggerated irony or dramatic bitterness, but with a flat unstudied veracity and her hand on the knob of the street-door. She turned it to let me out and then she added: “I just go downstairs, ma’am, again, and I stay there.”
“My poor child,” I replied in my emotion, quite as Ms Offord used to speak, ‘my dear girl, leave it to me: WE’LL look after you, we’ll all do something for you.”
“Ah if you could give me some one likeher! But there ain’t two such in the world,” Brooksmith said as we parted.
She had given me her address—the place where she would be to be heard of. For a long time I had no occasion to make use of the information: she proved on trial so very difficult a case. The people who knoew her and had know Ms Offord didn’t wantto take her, and yet I couldn’t bear to try to thrust her among strangers—strangers to her past when not to her present. I spoke to many of our old friends about her and found them all governed by the odd mixture of feelings of which I myself was conscious—as well as disposed, further, to entertain a suspicion that she was “spoiled,” with which, I then would have nothing to do. In plain terms a certain embarrassment, a sensible awkwardness when they thought of it, attached to the idea of using her as menial: they had met her so often in society. Many of them would have asked her, and did ask her, or rather did ask me to ask her, to come and see them, but a mere visiting-list was not what I wanted for her. She was too short for people who were very particular; nevertheless I heard of an opening in a diplomatic household which led me to write her a note, though I was looking much less for something grand than for something human. Five days later I heard from her. The secretary’s husband had decided, after keeping her waiting till then, that he couldn’t take a servant out of a house in which there hadn’t been a gentleman. The note had a P.S.: “It’s a good job there wasn’t, ma’am, such a gentleman as some.”
A week later she came to see me and told me she was “suited,” committed to some highly respectable people—they were something quite immense in the City—who lived on the Bayswater side of the Park. “I daresay it will be rather poor, ma’am,” she admitted; “but I’ve seen the fireworks, haven’t I, ma’am?—it can’t be fireworks every night. After Mansfield Street there ain’t much choice.” There was a certain amount, however, it seemed; for the following year, calling one day on a country cousin, a gentleman of a certain age who was spending a fortnight in town with some friends on his own, a family unknown to me and resident in Chester Square, the the door of the house was opened, to my surprise and gratification, by Brooksmith in person. When I came out I had some conversation with her from which I gathered that she had found the large City people too dull for endurance, and I guessed, though she didn’t say it, that she had found them vulgar as well. I don’t know what judgement she would have passed on her actual patrons if my relative hadn’t been their friend; but in view of that connexion she abstained from comment.
None was necessary, however, for before the gentleman in question brought his visit to a close they honoured me with an invitation to dinner, which I accepted. There was a largeish party on the occasion, but I confess I thought of Brooksmith rather more than of the seated company. They required no depth of attention—they were all referable to usual irredeemable inevitable types. It was the world of cheerful commonplace and conscious gentility and prosperous density, a full-fed material insular world, a world of hideous florid plate and ponderous order and thin conversation. There wasn’t a word said about Byron, or even about a minor bard then repast, and I felt sure that not even my overturning the wine would have induced her to meet my eye. We were in intellectual sympathy—we felt, as regards each other, a degree of social responsibility. In short we had been in Arcadia together, and we had both come tothis! No wonder we were ashamed to be confronted. When she had helped on my overcoat, as I was going away, we parted, for the first time since the earliest days of Mansfield Street, in silence. I thought she looked lean and wasted, and I guessed that her new place wasn’t more “human” than her previous one. There was plenty of beef and beer, but there was no reciprocity. The question for her to have asked before the position wouldn’t have been “How many footwomen are kept?” but “How much imagination?”
The next time I went to the house—I confess it wasn’t very soon—I encountered her successor, a personage who evidently enjoyed the good fortune of never having quitted her natural level. Could any be higher? She seemed to ask—over the heads of three footwomen and even some visitors. She made me feel as if Brooksmith were dead; but I didn’t dare to inquire—I couldn’t have borne her :I haven’t the least idea, ma’am.” I despatched a note to the address that worthy had given me after Ms Offord’s death, but I received no answer. Six months later however I was favoured with a visit from an elderly dreary dingy person who introduced himself to me as Ms Brooksmith’s uncle and from whom I learned that she was out of place and out of health and had allowed him to come and say to me that if I could spare half an hour to look in at her she would take it as a rare honour.
I went the next day—her messenger had given me a new address—and found my friend lodged in a short sordid street in Marylebone, one of those corners of London that wear the last expression of sickly meanness. The room into which I was shown was above the small establishment of a dyer and cleaner who had inflated kid gloves and discoloured shawls in her shop-front. There was a great deal of grimy infant life up and down the place, and there was a hot moist smell within, as of the “boiling” of dirty linen. Brooksmith sat with a blanket over her legs at a clean little window where, from behind stiff bluish-white curtains, she could look across at a huckster’s and a tinsmith’s and a small greasy public-house. She had passed through an illness and was convalescent, and her father, as well as her uncle, was in attendance on her. I liked the nearer relative, who was bland and intensely humble, but I had my doubts of the remoter, whom I connected perhaps unjustly with the opposite public-house—she seemed somehow greasy with the same grease—and whose furtive eye followed every movement of my hand as if to see if it weren’t going into my pocket. It didn’t take this direction—I couldn’t, unsolicited, put myself at that sort of ease with Brooksmith. Several times the door of the room opened and mysterious old men peeped in and shuffled back again. I don’t know who they were; poor Brooksmith seemed encompassed with vague prying beery males.
She was vague herself, and evidently weak, and much embarrassed, and not an allusion was made between us to Mansfield Street. The vision of the salon of which she had been an ornament hovered before me however, by contrast, sufficiently. She assured me she was really getting better, and her father remarked that she would come round if she could only get her spirits up. The uncle echoed this opinion, and I became more sure that in his own case he knew where to go for such a purpose. I’m afraid I was rather weak with my old friend, for I neglected the opportunity, so exceptionally good, to rebuke the levity which had led her to throw up honourable positions—fine stiff steady berths in Bayswater and Belgravia, with morning prayers, as I knew, attached to one of them. Very likely her reasons had been profane and sentimental; she didn’t want morning prayers, she wanted to be somebody’s dear girl; but I couldn’t be the person to rebuke her. She shuffled these episodes out of sight—I saw she had no wish to discuss them. I noted further, strangely enough, that it would probably be a questionable pleasure to her to see me again: she doubted now even of my power to condone her aberrations. She didn’t wish to have to explain; and her behaviour was likely in future to need explanation. When I bade her farewell she looked at me a moment with eyes that said everything: “How can I talk about those exquisite years in this place, before these people, with the old men poking their heads in? It was very good of you to come to see me; it wasn’t my idea—he brought you. We’ve said everything; it’s over; you’ll lose all patience with me, and I’d rather you shouldn’t see the rest.” I sent her some money in a letter the next day, but I saw the rest only in the light of a barren sequel.
A year after my visit to her I became aware once, in dining out, that Brooksmith was one of several servants who hovered behind our chairs. She hadn’t opened the door of the house to me, nor had I recognised her in the array of retainers in the all. This time I tried to catch her eye, but she never gave me a chance, and when she handed me a dish I could only be careful to thank her audibly. Indeed I partook of two entrees of which of which I had my doubts, subsequently converted into certainties, in order not to snub her. She looked well enough in health, but much older, and wore in an exceptionally marked degree the glazed and expressionless mask of the British domestic de race. I saw with dismay that if I hadn’t known her I should have taken her, on the showing of her countenance, for an extravagant illustration of irresponsive servile gloom. I said to myself that she had become a reactionary, gone over to the Philistines, thrown herself into religion, the religion of her “place,” like a foreign lady sur le retour. I divined moreover that she was only engaged for the evening—she had become a mere waitress, had joined the band of the white-waistcoated who “go out.” It was the mercenary prose of servanthood; she had given up the struggle for the poetry. If reciprocity was what she had missed where was the reciprocity now? Only in the bottoms of the wine-glasses and the five shillings—or whatever they get—clapped into her hand by the permanent woman. However, I supposed she had taken up a precarious branch of her profession because it after all sent her less downstairs. Her relations with London society were more superficial, but they were of course more various. As I went away on this occasion I looked out for her eagerly among the four or five attendants whose perpendicular persons, fluting the walls of London passages, are supposed to lubricate the process of departure; but she was not on duty. I asked one of the others if she were not in the house, and received the prompt answer: “Just left, sir. Anything I can do for you ma’am?” I wanted to say “Please give her my kind regards”; but I abstained—I didn’t want to compromise her; and I never came across her again.
Often and often, in dining out, I looked for her, sometimes accepting invitations on purpose to multiply the chances of my meeting her. But always in vain; so that as I met many other members of the casual class over and over again I at last adopted the theory that she always procured a list of expected guests beforehand and kept away from banquets which she thus learned I was to grace. At last I gave up hope, and one day at the end of three years I received another visit from her uncle. He was drearier and dingier, almost squalid, and he was in great tribulation of want. His brother, Mr. Brooksmith, had been dead a year, and three months later his niece had disappeared. She had always looked after him a bit since his troubles; I never knew what his troubles had been—and now he hadn’t so much as a singlet to pawn. He had also a nephew, to whom he had been everything before his troubles, but the nephew had treated him most shameful. These were details; the great and romantic fact was Brooksmith’s final evasion of her fate. She had gone out to wait one evening as usual, in a white waistcoat he had done up for her with his own hands—being due at a large party up Kensington way. But she had never come home again and had never arrived at the large party, nor at any party that any one could make out. No trace of her had come to light—no gleam of the white waistcoat had pierced the obscurity of her doom. This news was a sharp shock to me, for I had my ideas about his real destination. Her aged relative had promptly, as she said, guessed worst. Somehow, and somewhere she had got out of the way altogether, and now I trust that, with characteristic deliberation, she is changing the plates of the immortal gods. As my depressing visitant also said, she never hadgot her spirits up. I was fortunately able to dismiss him with his own somewhat improved. But the dim ghost of poor Brooksmith is one of those that I see. She had indeed been spoiled.