Henry James and the Long Trip Home
London, December 1891
Emily was tired of the formal manners, the fussy clothing and the conversation about trivial things with people she didn’t know. There must have been 20 of them around the huge table.
There was only one other person in the room that she had met before. Henry James was seated to her left. She was surprised to find he knew who she was. "You are Anna Lothorp’s little sister," he said. She was so astonished she could only nod in answer.
"How did you get invited to this dreadful affair?" he asked. The servant who appeared between them with a carafe, gave him a withering look.
She sighed and told him, "I was to come with friends, but there was an illness in the family."
He was much more of Anna’s age. In fact Anna had dined at their house on Quincy Street, and had hated every minute of it. And now Emily was about to repeat the experience.
"How long have you been here? I seem to remember Willy writing to me that your husband had died and you had taken your grief abroad."
"If you mean in Europe, March 1890, so almost two years. I’ve been in London for about a month.”
"Have you loved every minute of it?" he asked, with a cutting sarcasm. Could he read her thoughts?
"No. It was fun at first, but…" She was trapped between Mr. James on her left and someone named Bryant on her right. It would be impolite to burst into tears right here.
Mr. James deftly changed the subject. "Have you been to the South Kensington Museum?" he asked.
"No. Should I go? What is there worth looking at?"
"Harvard would do well to look into establishing a museum of its own. For art, I mean, not for those dreadful Natural History exhibits. How can something dead and stuffed be natural?"
She took a deep breath as her tears receded.
"Now be a good girl and talk to the gent on the other side of you. Lord, how I hate these affairs."
It felt like hours before the guests were allowed to leave. Emily was reminded of waiting for the school day at Mrs. Agassiz to end.
As they bustled into their coats ready to step into the cold damp evening, she found Mr. James at her side.
"I would be honored if you allowed me to show you the museum tomorrow. It has some fine examples of Flaxman and Landseer. I can pick you up at the Fields place about two if that is convenient."
Why does Henry James want to take me to a museum? He must want something.
"I must admit, I have an ulterior motive. I hope you will love the museum, of course. I was hoping to find someone like minded to enjoy it with me."
Likeminded? Does living a quarter of a mile apart make two people like minded? Surely he was simply being kind.
The day was bright and clear but cold. She would spend the morning in the shops looking for things to send to her nieces and nephews for the holiday. Late as always, it would be well into the New Year before they received them.
She found perfect gifts for each of the children if they had been ten years younger. Nothing that would suit the young men and women they had become. Nothing for their mothers; even less for their fathers.
A small leather-bound note book appealed to her, but she didn't know of anyone well suited for it. She liked it enough to spend more than a few coins on it.
By two she had put away her purchases to wrap and send tomorrow and was ready when Mr. James rang the bell.
Emily asked him what he was working on at the moment. He laughed and replied, "When in doubt in conversation with a Cambridge man, ask him about his book. Every man in Cambridge is writing a book. The old saw should include the many women who are doing the same."
"But you actually are," she protested.
It was getting dark when they left the museum. Mr. James slipped a small package into her hand. She could feel the smooth paper and lacy ribbon, but she was unable to distinguish the color in the shadows of the cab. The box was heavier than she had expected.
"Oh, but I have nothing for you."
"This is a gift, not a present. There is no obligation to reciprocate. I think you will understand when you open it."
Under the street lamp in front of the Field's house, Emily untied the silver ribbon with care and tore the red paper off the box."
"This is the fossil of a chambered nautilus. It's very nice but…"
He took her free hand as an elder and wiser brother might. "The golden spiral. There is a bit of history that comes with the object. Remember the Holmes poem? 'Leave thy low vaulted past, let each new temple, nobler than the last'…well, you know it.
"Professor Agassiz gave this to your father sometime before the war. Your father had to make a very difficult decision."
"But he and father didn't like each other. Why would he give him such a gift?"
"I believe you are confusing academic disagreement with personal dislike. You remember the great debate that followed your father's book on education. But didn't the Lothorp girls attend Mrs. Agassiz's school? And didn't your father continue to attend the Professor's morning lectures fairly regularly?"
She would have to think about that for a while.
"How did you get it?" she asked him.
"Your father gave it to my father when he had to make a similar decision, and he passed it on to me when I decided to give up law to write novels."
He shrugged as though the whole story were perfectly clear."Now you are making a decision that will change the rest of your life. You must have it."
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