As his widow, she knew who she was and what she had inherited. She had loved him in her way and sometimes missed him. She knew what words like "loved" and "missed" meant when she thought of her husband. When she thought of Blunt, on the other hand, she was unsure what anything meant except the sonnets she had written about their love affair. She read them sparingly, often needing them if she woke in the night, but keeping them away from her much of the time. It was enough for her that all over London, in the houses of people who acquired new books of poetry, these poems rested silently and mysteriously between the pages. She found solace in the idea that people would read them without knowing their source.
She rebuilt her life as a widow and took care of her son and began, after a suitable period of mourning, to go out in London again and meet people and take part in things. She often asked herself if there was someone in the room, or in the street, who had read her sonnets and been puzzled or pained by them, even for a second.
She had read Henry James as his books appeared. In fact, it was a discussion about Roderick Hudson that caused Sir William to pay attention to her first. She had read an extract from it but did not have the book. He arranged for it to be sent to her. Some time after her marriage, when she was visiting Rome with Sir William, she met James and she remembered him fondly as a man who would talk seriously to a woman, even someone as young and provincial as she was. She remembered asking him at that first meeting in Rome how he could possibly have allowed Isabel Archer to marry the odious Osmond. He told her that Isabel was bound to do something foolish and, if she had not, there would have been no story. And he had enjoyed, he had said, as a poor man himself, bestowing so much money on his heroine. Henry James was kind and witty, she had felt then, and somehow managed not to be glib or patronizing.
Since her husband died she had seen Henry James a number of times, noticing always how much of himself he held back, how the expression on his face appeared to disguise as much as it disclosed. He had always been very polite to her, and they had often discussed the fate of the orphan Paul Harvey, with whose mother they had both been friends. She was surprised one evening to see the novelist at a supper that Lady Layard had invited her to; there were diplomats present and some foreigners, and a few military men and some minor politicians. It was not Henry James's world, and it was Lady Gregory's world only in that an extra woman was needed, as people might need an extra carriage or an extra towel in the bathroom. It did not matter who she was as long as she arrived on time and left at an appropriate moment and did not talk too loudly or compete in any way with the hostess.
It made sense to place her beside Henry James. In the company on a night where politics would be discussed between the men and silliness between the women, neither of them mattered. She looked forward to having the novelist on her right. Once she disposed of a young Spanish diplomat on her left, she would attend to James and ask him about his work. When they were all dead, she thought, he would be the one whose name would live on, but it was perhaps important for those who were rich or powerful to spend their evenings keeping this poor thought at bay.
It was the Spaniard's fingers she noticed, they were long and slender with beautiful rounded nails. She found herself glancing down at them as often as she could, hoping that the diplomat, whose accent was beyond her, would not spot what she was doing. She looked at his eyes and nodded as he spoke, all the time wondering if it would be rude for her to glance down again, this time for longer. Somewhere near London, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt was dining too, she thought, perhaps with his wife and some friends. She pictured him reaching for something at the table, a jug of water perhaps, and pouring it. She pictured his long slender fingers, the rounded nails, and then began to imagine his hair, how silky it was to the touch, and the fine bones on his face and his teeth and his breath.
Excerpted from The Empty Family by Colm Toibin. Copyright © 2011 by Colm Toibin. Excerpted by permission of Scribner. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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