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Some Stories by Henry James is a small collection of tales. The best story is considered „Brooksmith”, about a butler who descends into the depths when the master dies, whom he apparently forced to serve. After that, „The Real Thing” is published about an emaciated couple desperately trying to find a way to make a living.

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Contents

BROOKSMITH

THE REAL THING

THE STORY OF IT

FLICKERBRIDGE

MRS. MEDWIN

BROOKSMITH

We are scattered now, the friends of the late Mr. Oliver 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. Mr. Offord, the most agreeable, the most attaching of bachelors, was a retired diplomatist, living on his pension and on something of his own over and above; a good deal confined, by his infirmities, to his 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 his butler and his 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 himself to the prime minister. By having been for years, in foreign lands, the most delightful Englishman any one had ever known, Mr. Offord had in my opinion rendered signal service to his country. But I suppose he 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, his principal reward was simply that we went to see him.

Oh we went perpetually, and it was not our fault if he 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 him. His circle therefore was essentially composed of habitués, who were habitués for each other as well as for him, 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 he were plucking a flower. Mr. Offord’s drawing-room was indeed Brooksmith’s garden, his pruned and tended human parterre, and if we all flourished there and grew well in our places it was largely owing to his 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 women 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 Mr. Offord contradicts this induction only, I fear, more insidiously to confirm it. The sallow and slightly smoked drawing-room in which he spent so large a portion of the last years of his 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 there was no Mrs. Offord. The dear man had indeed, at the most, been capable of one of those sacrifices to which women are deemed peculiarly apt: he 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. He 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 his own fireside had become a summary of his habits. Why should he 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. Mr. Offord wasn’t rich; he had nothing but his pension and the use for life of the somewhat superannuated house.

When I’m 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 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. Mr. Offord had solved the insoluble; he had, without feminine help–save in the sense that ladies were dying to come to him and that he saved the lives of several–established a salon; but I might have guessed that there was a method in his madness, a law in his success. He hadn’t 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 nor 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 he hadn’t established the salon at least he 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 his even-handed justice, all untainted with flunkeyism. He had none of that vulgarity–his 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 he had plenty of school he carried it without arrogance–he had remained articulate and human. L’Ecole Anglaise Mr. Offord used laughingly to call him when, later on, it happened more than once that we had some conversation about him. But I remember accusing Mr. Offord of not doing him quite ideal justice. That he wasn’t one of the giants of the school, however, was admitted by my old friend, who really understood him perfectly and was devoted to him, as I shall show; which doubtless poor Brooksmith had himself felt, to his cost, when his value in the market was originally determined. The utility of his class in general is estimated by the foot and the inch, and poor Brooksmith had only about five feet three to put into circulation. He acknowledged the inadequacy of this provision, and I’m sure was penetrated with the everlasting fitness of the relation between service and stature. If HE had been Mr. Offord he certainly would have found Brooksmith wanting, and indeed the laxity of his employer on this score was one of many things he had had to condone and to which he had at last indulgently adapted himself.

I remember the old man’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 he was exposed to being addressed as “my dear fellow” and “my poor child.” Strange and deep must such a probation have been to him, and he doubtless emerged from it tempered and purified. This was written to a certain extent in his appearance; in his spare brisk little person, in his 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 his small clear anxious eyes, even in the permitted, though not exactly encouraged, tuft on his chin. “He thinks me rather mad, but I’ve broken him in, and now he likes the place, he likes the company,” said the old man. 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, Mr. Offord remarked: “What he likes is the talk–mingling in the conversation.” I was conscious I had never seen Brooksmith permit himself this freedom, but I guessed in a moment that what Mr. 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, sir, isn’t it, sir?” he said to me one day at the foot of the stairs when he 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 man 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 his time of life and his infirmities and always addicted moreover–this was the exaggeration–to the art of giving you pleasure by letting you do things for him. There were certain things Mr. Offord was capable of pretending he liked you to do even when he didn’t–this, I mean, if he thought you liked 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 he acted as moderator; he averted misunderstandings or cleared them up. He had been capable, strange as it may appear, of acquiring for this purpose an insight into the French tongue, which was often used at Mr. 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 master 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 Mr. Offord used to read passages to him from Montaigne and Saint-Simon, for he read perpetually when alone–when they were alone, that is–and Brooksmith was always about. Perhaps you’ll say no wonder Mr. Offord’s butler regarded him as “rather mad.” However, if I’m not sure what he thought about Montaigne I’m convinced he admired Saint-Simon. A certain feeling for letters must have rubbed off on him from the mere handling of his master’s books, which he 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, he 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 his purpose was to catch it you weren’t discreet, you were in fact scarce human, to call him 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, he fastened upon the footman who was helping him in the service and who, in an undertone, had asked him 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 Mr. Offord was relating a very curious anecdote, never before perhaps made so public, and imparted to the narrator by an eye-witness of the fact, bearing on Lord 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 Mr 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 he held it poised and trickling over the rug, and I then became aware that he was looking at me with deep acknowledging eyes–his air of universal responsibility. I immediately understood–there was scarce need of question and answer as they passed between us. When I took in 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, sir!” said Brooksmith; and that was the beginning of the end.

Mr. 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,” Mr. Offord said when he reappeared; and then I recognised what a note of change that would be–for he 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 his; and as ours, even when HE talked, it could only be inferior. In this form it was a distress to Brooksmith, whose attention now wandered from it altogether: he had so much closer a vision of his master’s intimate conditions than our superficialities represented. There were better hours, and he was more in and out of the room, but I could see he was conscious of the decline, almost of the collapse, of our great institution. He 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–he had to tell me that his employer didn’t receive, I half expected to hear him say after a moment “Do you think I ought to, sir, in his place?”–as he might have asked me, with the return of autumn, if I thought he had better light the drawing-room fire.

He had a resigned philosophic sense of what his guests–our guests, as I came to regard them in our colloquies–would expect. His feeling was that he wouldn’t absolutely have approved of himself as a substitute for Mr. Offord; but he was so saturated with the religion of habit that he would have made, for our friends, the necessary sacrifice to the divinity. He would take them on a little further, till they could look about them. I think I saw him also mentally confronted with the opportunity to deal–for once in his life–with some of his own dumb preferences, his limitations of sympathy, weeding a little in prospect and returning to a purer tradition. It was not unknown to me that he considered that toward the end of our host’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 than 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 Mr. Offord would provide for him, but what would he provide?–that was the great point. He couldn’t provide society; and society had become a necessity of Brooksmith’s nature. I must add that he never showed a symptom of what I may call sordid solicitude–anxiety on his own account. He was rather livid and intensely grave, as befitted a man before whose eyes the “shade of that which once was great” was passing away. He had the solemnity of a person winding up, under depressing circumstances, a long-established and celebrated business; he was a kind of social executor or liquidator. But his 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 man”; but even if my income had permitted I shouldn’t have ventured to say to Brooksmith (emulating Mr. Offord) “My dear fellow, 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 he should have me on his mind.

One of the most assiduous members of our circle had been Lady Kenyon, and I remember his telling me one day that her ladyship had in spite of her own infirmities, lately much aggravated, been in person to inquire. In answer to this I remarked that she would feel it more than any one. Brooksmith had a pause before saying in a certain tone–there’s no reproducing some of his tones–”I’ll go and see her.” I went to see her myself and learned he had waited on her; but when I said to her, 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 his own account, she replied a trifle disappointingly: “Do you mean in a public-house?” I looked at her in a way that I think Brooksmith himself 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 to 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–”Mr. 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 he took me upstairs–always by his own proposal–and our dear old friend, in bed (in a curious flowered and brocaded casaque which made him, especially as his 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. He was royally whimsical about his sufferings and not at all concerned–quite as if the Constitution provided for the case about his successor. He glided over our sufferings charmingly, and none of his 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 man 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 he wasn’t able to stand was not what Mr. Offord said about him, but what he wasn’t able to say in return. His idea of conversation for himself was giving you the convenience of speaking to him; and when he went to “see” Lady Kenyon for instance it was to carry her the tribute of his receptive silence. Where would the speech of his 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 he had most on his conscience.

What had become of it however when Mr. Offord passed away like any inferior person–was relegated to eternal stillness after the manner of a butler above-stairs? His aspect on the event–for the several successive days–may be imagined, and the multiplication by funereal observance of the things he 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 Mr. Offord again, but I had come literally to call on Brooksmith. I wanted to ask him if there was anything I could do for him, tainted with vagueness as this inquiry could only be. My presumptuous dream of taking him into my own service had died away: my service wasn’t worth his being taken into. My offer could only be to help him to find another place, and yet there was an indelicacy, as it were, in taking for granted that his thoughts would immediately be fixed on another. I had a hope that he would be able to give his life a different form–though certainly not the form, the frequent result of such bereavements, of his setting up a little shop. That would have been dreadful; for I should have wished to forward any enterprise he might embark in, yet how could I have brought myself to go and pay him shillings and take back coppers, over a counter? My visit then was simply an intended compliment. He took it as such, gratefully and with all the tact in the world. He knew I really couldn’t help him and that I knew he 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 him. The executors were in possession, as was still more apparent when he made me pass for a few minutes into the dining-room, where various objects were muffled up for removal.

Two definite facts, however, he had to communicate; one being that he was to leave the house for ever that night (servants, for some mysterious reason, seem always to depart by night), and the other–he mentioned it only at the last and with hesitation–that he was already aware his late master had left him a legacy of eighty pounds. “I’m very glad,” I said, and Brooksmith was of the same mind: “It was so like him to think of me.” This was all that passed between us on the subject, and I know nothing of his judgement of Mr. 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 very small shop; but, I repeat, I couldn’t bear to think of that. I asked my friend if he had been able to save a little, and he replied: “No, sir; I’ve had to do things.” I didn’t inquire what things they might have been; they were his own affair, and I took his word for them as assentingly as if he had had the greatness of an ancient house to keep up; especially as there was something in his manner that seemed to convey a prospect of further sacrifice.

“I shall have to turn round a bit, sir–I shall have to look about me,” he said; and then he added indulgently, magnanimously: “If you should happen to hear of anything for me–”

I couldn’t let him finish; this was, in its essence, too much in the really grand manner. It would be a help to my getting him off my mind to be able to pretend I could find the right place, and that help he wished to give me, for it was doubtless painful to him 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 he should go, whatever he should do, he would miss our old friend terribly–miss him even more than I should, having been with him so much more. This led him to make the speech that has remained with me as the very text of the whole episode.

“Oh sir, it’s sad for you, very sad indeed, and for a great many gentlemen and ladies; that it is, sir. But for me, sir, it is, if I may say so, still graver even than that: it’s just the loss of something that was everything. For me, sir,” he went on with rising tears, “he was just all, if you know what I mean, sir. You have others, sir, I daresay–not that I would have you understand me to speak of them as in any way tantamount. But you have the pleasures of society, sir; if it’s only in talking about him, sir, as I daresay you do freely–for all his blest memory has to fear from it–with gentlemen and ladies who have had the same honour. That’s not for me, sir, and I’ve to keep my associations to myself. Mr. Offord was MY society, and now, you see, I just haven’t any. You go back to conversation, sir, after all, and I go back to my place,” Brooksmith stammered, without exaggerated irony or dramatic bitterness, but with a flat unstudied veracity and his hand on the knob of the street-door. He turned it to let me out and then he added: “I just go downstairs, sir, again, and I stay there.”

“My poor child,” I replied in my emotion, quite as Mr. Offord used to speak, “my dear fellow, leave it to me: WE’LL look after you, we’ll all do something for you.”

“Ah if you could give me some one like him! But there ain’t two such in the world,” Brooksmith said as we parted.

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