The Chaperon
Henry James
Novels
1:58 h
Level 7
The Chaperon is an 1893 short story by Henry James. The story revolves around young Rose Tramore and her mother, who was ostracized by London society.

The Chaperon

by
Henry James


I

An old lady, in a high drawing-room, had had her chair moved close to the fire, where she sat knitting and warming her knees. She was dressed in deep mourning; her face had a faded nobleness, tempered, however, by the somewhat illiberal compression assumed by her lips in obedience to something that was passing in her mind. She was far from the lamp, but though her eyes were fixed upon her active needles she was not looking at them. What she really saw was quite another train of affairs. The room was spacious and dim; the thick London fog had oozed into it even through its superior defences. It was full of dusky, massive, valuable things. The old lady sat motionless save for the regularity of her clicking needles, which seemed as personal to her and as expressive as prolonged fingers. If she was thinking something out, she was thinking it thoroughly.

When she looked up, on the entrance of a girl of twenty, it might have been guessed that the appearance of this young lady was not an interruption of her meditation, but rather a contribution to it. The young lady, who was charming to behold, was also in deep mourning, which had a freshness, if mourning can be fresh, an air of having been lately put on. She went straight to the bell beside the chimney-piece and pulled it, while in her other hand she held a sealed and directed letter. Her companion glanced in silence at the letter; then she looked still harder at her work. The girl hovered near the fireplace, without speaking, and after a due, a dignified interval the butler appeared in response to the bell. The time had been sufficient to make the silence between the ladies seem long. The younger one asked the butler to see that her letter should be posted; and after he had gone out she moved vaguely about the room, as if to give her grandmother — for such was the elder personage — a chance to begin a colloquy of which she herself preferred not to strike the first note. As equally with herself her companion was on the face of it capable of holding out, the tension, though it was already late in the evening, might have lasted long. But the old lady after a little appeared to recognise, a trifle ungraciously, the girl’s superior resources.

“Have you written to your mother?”
“Yes, but only a few lines, to tell her I shall come and see her in the morning.”
“Is that all you’ve got to say?” asked the grandmother.
“I don’t quite know what you want me to say.”
“I want you to say that you’ve made up your mind.”
“Yes, I’ve done that, granny.”

“You intend to respect your father’s wishes?”
“It depends upon what you mean by respecting them. I do justice to the feelings by which they were dictated.”
“What do you mean by justice?” the old lady retorted.

The girl was silent a moment; then she said: “You’ll see my idea of it.”
“I see it already! You’ll go and live with her.”
“I shall talk the situation over with her to-morrow and tell her that I think that will be best.”
“Best for her, no doubt!”
“What’s best for her is best for me.”
“And for your brother and sister?”

As the girl made no reply to this her grandmother went on: “What’s best for them is that you should acknowledge some responsibility in regard to them and, considering how young they are, try and do something for them.”
“They must do as I’ve done — they must act for themselves. They have their means now, and they’re free.”
“Free? They’re mere children.”
“Let me remind you that Eric is older than I.”

“He doesn’t like his mother,” said the old lady, as if that were an answer.
“I never said he did. And she adores him.”
“Oh, your mother’s adorations!”

“Don’t abuse her now,” the girl rejoined, after a pause.
The old lady forbore to abuse her, but she made up for it the next moment by saying: “It will be dreadful for Edith.”
“What will be dreadful?”
“Your desertion of her.”
“The desertion’s on her side.”

“Her consideration for her father does her honour.”
“Of course I’m a brute, n’en parlons plus ,” said the girl. “We must go our respective ways,” she added, in a tone of extreme wisdom and philosophy.

Her grandmother straightened out her knitting and began to roll it up. “Be so good as to ring for my maid,” she said, after a minute. The young lady rang, and there was another wait and another conscious hush. Before the maid came her mistress remarked: “Of course then you’ll not come to me, you know.”

“What do you mean by ‘coming’ to you?”
“I can’t receive you on that footing.”
“She’ll not come with me, if you mean that.”
“I don’t mean that,” said the old lady, getting up as her maid came in.

This attendant took her work from her, gave her an arm and helped her out of the room, while Rose Tramore, standing before the fire and looking into it, faced the idea that her grandmother’s door would now under all circumstances be closed to her. She lost no time however in brooding over this anomaly: it only added energy to her determination to act. All she could do to-night was to go to bed, for she felt utterly weary. She had been living, in imagination, in a prospective struggle, and it had left her as exhausted as a real fight. Moreover this was the culmination of a crisis, of weeks of suspense, of a long, hard strain. Her father had been laid in his grave five days before, and that morning his will had been read. In the afternoon she had got Edith off to St. Leonard’s with their aunt Julia, and then she had had a wretched talk with Eric. Lastly, she had made up her mind to act in opposition to the formidable will, to a clause which embodied if not exactly a provision, a recommendation singularly emphatic. She went to bed and slept the sleep of the just.

“Oh, my dear, how charming! I must take another house!” It was in these words that her mother responded to the announcement Rose had just formally made and with which she had vaguely expected to produce a certain dignity of effect. In the way of emotion there was apparently no effect at all, and the girl was wise enough to know that this was not simply on account of the general line of non-allusion taken by the extremely pretty woman before her, who looked like her elder sister. Mrs. Tramore had never manifested, to her daughter, the slightest consciousness that her position was peculiar; but the recollection of something more than that fine policy was required to explain such a failure, to appreciate Rose’s sacrifice. It was simply a fresh reminder that she had never appreciated anything, that she was nothing but a tinted and stippled surface. Her situation was peculiar indeed. She had been the heroine of a scandal which had grown dim only because, in the eyes of the London world, it paled in the lurid light of the contemporaneous. That attention had been fixed on it for several days, fifteen years before; there had been a high relish of the vivid evidence as to his wife’s misconduct with which, in the divorce-court, Charles Tramore had judged well to regale a cynical public. The case was pronounced awfully bad, and he obtained his decree. The folly of the wife had been inconceivable, in spite of other examples: she had quitted her children, she had followed the “other fellow” abroad. The other fellow hadn’t married her, not having had time: he had lost his life in the Mediterranean by the capsizing of a boat, before the prohibitory term had expired.

Mrs. Tramore had striven to extract from this accident something of the austerity of widowhood; but her mourning only made her deviation more public, she was a widow whose husband was awkwardly alive. She had not prowled about the Continent on the classic lines; she had come back to London to take her chance. But London would give her no chance, would have nothing to say to her; as many persons had remarked, you could never tell how London would behave. It would not receive Mrs. Tramore again on any terms, and when she was spoken of, which now was not often, it was inveterately said of her that she went nowhere. Apparently she had not the qualities for which London compounds; though in the cases in which it does compound you may often wonder what these qualities are. She had not at any rate been successful: her lover was dead, her husband was liked and her children were pitied, for in payment for a topic London will parenthetically pity. It was thought interesting and magnanimous that Charles Tramore had not married again. The disadvantage to his children of the miserable story was thus left uncorrected, and this, rather oddly, was counted as his sacrifice. His mother, whose arrangements were elaborate, looked after them a great deal, and they enjoyed a mixture of laxity and discipline under the roof of their aunt, Miss Tramore, who was independent, having, for reasons that the two ladies had exhaustively discussed, determined to lead her own life. She had set up a home at St. Leonard’s, and that contracted shore had played a considerable part in the upbringing of the little Tramores. They knew about their mother, as the phrase was, but they didn’t know her; which was naturally deemed more pathetic for them than for her. She had a house in Chester Square and an income and a victoria — it served all purposes, as she never went out in the evening — and had flowers on her window-sills, and a remarkable appearance of youth. The income was supposed to be in part the result of a bequest from the man for whose sake she had committed the error of her life, and in the appearance of youth there was a slightly impertinent implication that it was a sort of afterglow of the same connection.

Her children, as they grew older, fortunately showed signs of some individuality of disposition. Edith, the second girl, clung to her aunt Julia; Eric, the son, clung frantically to polo; while Rose, the elder daughter, appeared to cling mainly to herself. Collectively, of course, they clung to their father, whose attitude in the family group, however, was casual and intermittent. He was charming and vague; he was like a clever actor who often didn’t come to rehearsal. Fortune, which but for that one stroke had been generous to him, had provided him with deputies and trouble-takers, as well as with whimsical opinions, and a reputation for excellent taste, and whist at his club, and perpetual cigars on morocco sofas, and a beautiful absence of purpose. Nature had thrown in a remarkably fine hand, which he sometimes passed over his children’s heads when they were glossy from the nursery brush. On Rose’s eighteenth birthday he said to her that she might go to see her mother, on condition that her visits should be limited to an hour each time and to four in the year. She was to go alone; the other children were not included in the arrangement. This was the result of a visit that he himself had paid his repudiated wife at her urgent request, their only encounter during the fifteen years. The girl knew as much as this from her aunt Julia, who was full of tell-tale secrecies. She availed herself eagerly of the license, and in course of the period that elapsed before her father’s death she spent with Mrs. Tramore exactly eight hours by the watch. Her father, who was as inconsistent and disappointing as he was amiable, spoke to her of her mother only once afterwards. This occasion had been the sequel of her first visit, and he had made no use of it to ask what she thought of the personality in Chester Square or how she liked it. He had only said “Did she take you out?” and when Rose answered “Yes, she put me straight into a carriage and drove me up and down Bond Street,” had rejoined sharply “See that that never occurs again.” It never did, but once was enough, every one they knew having happened to be in Bond Street at that particular hour.