“Sorry to be late,” said I, after respectfully saluting my mother-in-law, “but I couldn’t help it. Things turned up at the last minute and they had to be attended to. Where’s Aunt Elizabeth?”
“She went to New York,” said my mother-in-law, “on the 5.40 train.”
by Henry James
It’s evidently a great thing in life to have got hold of a convenient expression, and a sign of our inordinate habit of living by words. I have sometimes flattered myself that I live less exclusively by them than the people about me; paying with them, paying with them only, as the phrase is (there I am at it, exactly, again!) rather less than my companions, who, with the exception, perhaps, a little—sometimes!—of poor Mother, succeed by their aid in keeping away from every truth, in ignoring every reality, as comfortably as possible. Poor Mother, who is worth all the rest of us put together, and is really worth two or three of poor Father, deadly decent as I admit poor Father mainly to be, sometimes meets me with a look, in some connection, suggesting that, deep within, she dimly understands, and would really understand a little better if she weren’t afraid to: for, like all of us, she lives surrounded by the black forest of the “facts of life” very much as the people in the heart of Africa live in their dense wilderness of nocturnal terrors, the mysteries and monstrosities that make them seal themselves up in the huts as soon as it gets dark. She, quite exquisite little Mother, would often understand, I believe, if she dared, if she knew how to dare; and the vague, dumb interchange then taking place between us, and from the silence of which we have never for an instant deviated, represents perhaps her wonder as to whether I mayn’t on some great occasion show her how.
The difficulty is that, alas, mere intelligent useless wretch as I am, I’ve never hitherto been sure of knowing how myself; for am I too not as steeped in fears as any of them? My fears, mostly, are different, and of different dangers—also I hate having them, whereas they love them and hug them to their hearts; but the fact remains that, save in this private precinct of my overflow, which contains, under a strong little brass lock, several bad words and many good resolutions, I have never either said or done a bold thing in my life. What I seem always to feel, doubtless cravenly enough, under her almost pathetic appeal, has been that it isn’t yet the occasion, the really good and right one, for breaking out; than which nothing could more resemble of course the inveterate argument of the helpless. Any occasion is good enough for the helpful; since there’s never any that hasn’t weak sides for their own strength to make up. However, if there could be conceivably a good one, I’ll be hanged if I don’t seem to see it gather now, and if I sha’n’t write myself here “poor”