The Bench of Desolation, by Henry James

VI

Off there on the bench of desolation a week later she made him a more particular statement, which it had taken the remarkably tense interval to render possible. After leaving her at the hotel that last Sunday he had gone forth in his reaggravated trouble and walked straight before him, in the teeth of the west wind, close to the iron rails of the stretched Marina and with his telltale face turned from persons occasionally met, and toward the surging sea. At the Land’s End, even in the confirmed darkness and the perhaps imminent big blow, his immemorial nook, small shelter as it yielded, had again received him; and it was in the course of this heedless session, no doubt, where the agitated air had nothing to add to the commotion within him, that he began to look his extraordinary fortune a bit straighter in the face and see it confess itself at once a fairy-tale and a nightmare That, visibly, confoundingly, she was still attached to him (attached in fact was a mild word!) and that the unquestionable proof of it was in this offered pecuniary salve, of the thickest composition, for his wounds and sores and shames — these things were the fantastic fable, the tale of money in handfuls, that he seemed to have only to stand there and swallow and digest and feel himself full-fed by; but the whole of the rest was nightmare, and most of all nightmare his having thus to thank one through whom Nan and his little girls had known torture.

He didn’t care for himself now, and this unextinguished and apparently inextinguishable charm by which he had held her was a fact incredibly romantic; but he gazed with a longer face than he had ever had for anything in the world at his potential acceptance of a great bouncing benefit from the person he intimately, if even in a manner indirectly, associated with the conditions to which his lovely wife and his children (who would have been so lovely too) had pitifully succumbed. He had accepted the social relation — which meant he had taken even that on trial — without knowing what it so dazzlingly masked; for a social relation it had become with a vengeance when it drove him about the place as now at his hours of freedom (and he actually and recklessly took, all demoralised and unstrung and unfit either for work or for anything else, other liberties that would get him into trouble) under this queer torment of irreconcilable things, a bewildered consciousness of tenderness and patience and cruelty, of great evident mystifying facts that were as little to be questioned as to be conceived or explained, and that were yet least, withal, to be lost sight of.

On that Sunday night he had wandered wild, incoherently ranging and throbbing, but this became the law of his next days as well, since he lacked more than ever all other resort or refuge and had nowhere to carry, to deposit, or contractedly let loose and lock up, as it were, his swollen consciousness, which fairly split in twain the raw shell of his sordid little boarding-place. The arch of the sky and the spread of sea and shore alone gave him space; he could roam with himself anywhere, in short, far or near — he could only never take himself back. That certitude — that this was impossible to him even should she wait there among her plushes and bronzes ten years — was the thing he kept closest clutch of; it did wonders for what he would have called his self-respect. Exactly as he had left her so he would stand off — even though at moments when he pulled up sharp somewhere to put himself an intensest question his heart almost stood still. The days of the week went by, and as he had left her she stayed; to the extent, that is, of his having neither sight nor sound of her, and of the failure of every sign. It took nerve, he said, not to return to her, even for curiosity — since how, after all, in the name of wonder, had she invested the fruits of her extortion to such advantage, there being no chapter of all the obscurity of the years to beat that for queer-ness? But he dropped, tired to death, on benches, half a dozen times an evening — exactly on purpose to recognise that the nerve required was just the nerve he had.

As the days without a token from her multiplied he came in as well for hours — and these indeed mainly on the bench of desolation — of sitting stiff and stark in presence of the probability that he had lost everything for ever. When he passed the Royal he never turned an eyelash, and when he met Captain Roper on the Front, three days after having been introduced to him, he “cut him dead” — another privileged consequence of a social relation — rather than seem to himself to make the remotest approach to the question of whether Miss Cookham had left Properley. He had cut people in the days of his life before, just as he had come to being himself cut — since there had been no time for him wholly without one or other face of that necessity — but had never effected such a severance as of this rare connection, which helped to give him thus the measure of his really precious sincerity. If he had lost what had hovered before him he had lost it, his only tribute to which proposition was to grind his teeth with one of those “scrunches,” as he would have said, of which the violence fairly reached his ear. It wouldn’t make him lift a finger, and in fact if Kate had simply taken herself off on the Tuesday or the Wednesday she would have been reabsorbed again into the darkness from which she had emerged — and no lifting of fingers, the unspeakable chapter closed, would evermore avail. That at any rate was the kind of man he still was — even after all that had come and gone, and even if for a few dazed hours certain things had seemed pleasant. The dazed hours had passed, the surge of the old bitterness had dished him (shouldn’t he have been shamed if it hadn’t?), and he might sit there as before, as always, with nothing at all on earth to look to. He had therefore wrongfully believed himself to be degraded; and the last word about him would be that he couldn’t then, it appeared, sink to vulgarity as he had tried to let his miseries make him.

And yet on the next Sunday morning, face to face with him again at the Land’s End, what she very soon came to was: “As if I believed you didn’t know by what cord you hold me!” Absolutely too, and just that morning in fact, above all, he wouldn’t, he quite couldn’t have taken his solemn oath that he hadn’t a sneaking remnant, as he might have put it to himself — a remnant of faith in tremendous things still to come of their interview. The day was sunny and breezy, the sea of a cold purple; he wouldn’t go to church as he mostly went of Sunday mornings, that being in its way too a social relation — and not least when two-and-thruppenny tan-coloured gloves were new; which indeed he had the art of keeping them for ages. Yet he would dress himself as he scarce mustered resources for even to figure on the fringe of Society, local and transient, at St. Bernard’s, and in this trim he took his way westward; occupied largely, as he went, it might have seemed to any person pursuing the same course and happening to observe him, in a fascinated study of the motions of his shadow, the more or less grotesque shape projected, in front of him and mostly a bit to the right, over the blanched asphalt of the Parade and dandling and dancing at such a rate, shooting out and then contracting, that, viewed in themselves, its eccentricities might have formed the basis of an interesting challenge: “Find the state of mind, guess the nature of the agitation, possessing the person so remarkably represented!” Herbert Dodd, for that matter, might have been himself attempting to make by the sun’s sharp aid some approach to his immediate horoscope.

It had at any rate been thus put before him that the dandling and dancing of his image occasionally gave way to perfect immobility, when he stopped and kept his eyes on it. “Suppose she should come, suppose she should!” it is revealed at least to ourselves that he had at these moments audibly breathed — breathed with the intensity of an arrest between hope and fear. It had glimmered upon him from early, with the look of the day, that, given all else that could happen, this would be rather, as he put it, in her line; and the possibility lived for him, as he proceeded, to the tune of a suspense almost sickening. It was, from one small stage of his pilgrimage to another, the “For ever, never!” of the sentimental case the playmates of his youth used to pretend to settle by plucking the petals of a daisy. But it came to his truly turning faint — so “queer” he felt — when, at the gained point of the long stretch from which he could always tell, he arrived within positive sight of his immemorial goal. His seat was taken and she was keeping it for him — it could only be she there in possession; whereby it shone out for Herbert Dodd that if he hadn’t been quite sure of her recurrence she had at least been quite sure of his. That pulled him up to some purpose, where recognition began for them — or to the effect, in other words, of his pausing to judge if he could bear, for the sharpest note of their intercourse, this inveterate demonstration of her making him do what she liked. What settled the question for him then — and just while they avowedly watched each other, over the long interval, before closing, as if, on either side, for the major advantage — what settled it was this very fact that what she liked she liked so terribly. If it were simply to “use” him, as she had said the last time, and no matter to the profit of which of them she called it, one might let it go for that; since it could make her wait over, day after day, in that fashion, and with such a spending of money, on the hazard of their meeting again. How could she be the least sure he would ever again consent to it after the proved action on him, a week ago, of her last monstrous honesty? It was indeed positively as if he were now himself putting this influence — and for their common edification — to the supreme, to the finest test. He had a sublime, an ideal flight, which lasted about a minute. “Suppose, now that I see her there and what she has taken so characteristically for granted, suppose I just show her that she hasn’t only confidently to wait or whistle for me, and that the length of my leash is greater than she measures, and that everything’s impossible always? — show it by turning my back on her now and walking straight away. She won’t be able not to understand that!

Nothing had passed, across their distance, but the mute apprehension of each on the part of each; the whole expanse, at the church hour, was void of other life (he had scarce met a creature on his way from end to end), and the sun-seasoned gusts kept brushing the air and all the larger prospect clean. It was through this beautiful lucidity that he watched her watch him, as it were — watch him for what he would do. Neither moved at this high tension; Kate Cookham, her face fixed on him, only waited with a stiff appearance of leaving him, not for dignity but — to an effect of even deeper perversity — for kindness, free to choose. It yet somehow affected him at present, this attitude, as a gage of her knowing too — knowing, that is, that he wasn’t really free, that this was the thinnest of vain parades, the poorest of hollow heroics, that his need, his solitude, his suffered wrong, his exhausted rancour, his foredoomed submission to any shown interest, all hung together too heavy on him to let the weak wings of his pride do more than vaguely tremble. They couldn’t, they didn’t carry him a single beat further away; according to which he stood rooted, neither retreating nor advancing, but presently correcting his own share of the bleak exchange by looking off at the sea. Deeply conscious of the awkwardness this posture gave him, he yet clung to it as the last shred of his honour, to the clear argument that it was one thing for him to have felt beneath all others, the previous days, that she was to be counted on, but quite a different for her to have felt that he was. His checked approach, arriving thus at no term, could in these odd conditions have established that he wasn’t only if Kate Cookham had, as either of them might have said, taken it so — if she had given up the game at last by rising, by walking away and adding to the distance between them, and he had then definitely let her vanish into space. It became a fact that when she did finally rise — though after how long our record scarce takes on itself to say — it was not to confirm their separation but to put an end to it; and this by slowly approaching him till she had come within earshot He had wondered, once aware of it in spite of his averted face, what she would say and on what note, as it were, she would break their week’s silence; so that he had to recognise anew, her voice reaching him, that remarkable quality in her which again and again came up for him as her art.

“There are twelve hundred and sixty pounds, to be definite, but I have it all down for you — and you’ve only to draw.”

They lost themselves, these words, rare and exquisite, in the wide bright genial medium and the Sunday stillness, but even while that occurred and he was gaping for it she was herself there, in her battered ladylike truth, to answer for them, to represent them, and, if a further grace than their simple syllabled beauty were conceivable, almost embarrassingly to cause them to materialise. Yes, she let her smart and tight little reticule hang as if it bulged, beneath its clasp, with the whole portentous sum, and he felt himself glare again at this vividest of her attested claims. She might have been ready, on the spot, to open the store to the plunge of his hand, or, with the situation otherwise conceived, to impose on his pauperised state an acceptance of alms on a scale unprecedented in the annals of street charity. Nothing so much counted for him, however, neither grave numeral nor elegant fraction, as the short, rich, rounded word that the breeze had picked up as it dropped and seemed now to blow about between them. “To draw — to draw?” Yes, he gaped it as if it had no sense; the fact being that even while he did so he was reading into her use of the term more romance than any word in the language had ever had for him. He, Herbert Dodd, was to live to “draw,” like people, scarce hampered by the conditions of earth, whom he had remotely and circuitously heard about, and in fact when he walked back with her to where she had been sitting it was very much, for his strained nerves, as if the very bench of desolation itself were to be the scene of that exploit and he mightn’t really live till he reached it.

When they had sat down together she did press the spring of her reticule, from which she took, not a handful of gold nor a packet of crisp notes, but an oblong sealed letter, which she had thus waited on him, she remarked, on purpose to deliver, and which would certify, with sundry particulars, to the credit she had opened for him at a London bank. He received it without looking at it — he held it, in the same manner, conspicuous and unassimilated, for most of the rest of the immediate time, appearing embarrassed with it, nervously twisting and flapping it, yet thus publicly retaining it even while aware, beneath everything, of the strange, the quite dreadful, wouldn’t it be? engagement that such inaction practically stood for. He could accept money to that amount, yes — but not for nothing in return. For what then in return? He kept asking himself for what, while she said other things and made above all, in her high, shrewd, successful way the point that, no, he needn’t pretend that his conviction of her continued personal interest in him wouldn’t have tided him oyer any question besetting him since their separation. She put it to him that the deep instinct of where he should at last find her must confidently have worked for him, since she confessed to her instinct of where she should find him; which meant — oh it came home to him as he fingered his sealed treasure! — neither more nor less than that she had now created between them an equality of experience. He wasn’t to have done all the suffering, she was to have “been through” things he couldn’t even guess at; and, since he was bargaining away his right ever again to allude to the unforgettable, so much there was of it, what her tacit proposition came to was that they were “square” and might start afresh.

He didn’t take up her charge, as his so compromised “pride” yet in a manner prompted him, that he had enjoyed all the week all those elements of ease about her; the most he achieved for that was to declare, with an ingenuity contributing to float him no small distance further, that of course he had turned up at their old place of tryst, which had been, through the years, the haunt of his solitude and the goal of his walk any Sunday morning that seemed too beautiful for church; but that he hadn’t in the least built on her presence there — since that supposition gave him, she would understand, wouldn’t she? the air, disagreeable to him, of having come in search of her. Her quest of himself, once he had been seated there, would have been another matter — but in short “Of course after all you did come to me, just now, didn’t you?” He felt himself, too, lamely and gracelessly grin, as for the final kick of his honour, in confirmation of the record that he had then yielded but to her humility. Her humility became for him at this hour and to this tune, on the bench of desolation, a quantity more prodigious and even more mysterious than that other guaranteed quantity the finger-tips of his left hand could feel the tap by the action of his right; though what was in especial extraordinary was the manner in which she could keep making him such allowances and yet meet him again, at some turn, as with her residuum for her clever self so great.

“Come to you, Herbert Dodd?” she imperturbably echoed. “I’ve been coming to you for the last ten years!”

There had been for him just before this sixty supreme seconds of intensest aspiration — a minute of his keeping his certificate poised for a sharp thrust back at her, the thrust of the wild freedom of his saying: “No, no, I can’t give them up; I can’t simply sink them deep down in my soul forever, with no cross in all my future to mark that burial; so that if this is what our arrangement means I must decline to have anything to do with it.” The words none the less hadn’t come, and when she had herself, a couple of minutes later, spoken those others, the blood rose to his face as if, given his stiffness and her extravagance, he had just indeed saved himself.

Everything in fact stopped, even his fidget with his paper; she imposed a hush, she imposed at any rate the conscious decent form of one, and he couldn’t afterward have told how long, at this juncture, he must have sat simply gazing before him. It was so long, at any rate, that Kate herself got up — and quite indeed, presently, as if her own forms were now at an end. He had returned her nothing — so what was she waiting for? She had been on the two other occasions momentarily at a loss, but never so much so, no doubt, as was thus testified to by her leaving the bench and moving over once more to the rail of the terrace. She could carry it off, in a manner, with her resources, that she was waiting with so little to wait for; she could face him again, after looking off at the sea, as if this slightly stiff delay, not wholly exempt from awkwardness, had been but a fine scruple of her courtesy. She had gathered herself in; after giving him time to appeal she could take it that he had decided and that nothing was left for her to do. “Well then,” she clearly launched at him across the broad walk — “well then, good-bye.”

She had come nearer with it, as if he might rise for some show of express separation; but he only leaned back motionless, his eyes on her now — he kept her a moment before him. “Do you mean that we don’t — that we don’t —?” But he broke down.

“Do I ‘mean’ —?” She remained as for questions he might ask, but it was wellnigh as if there played through her dotty veil an irrepressible irony for that particular one. “I’ve meant, for long years, I think, all I’m capable of meaning. I’ve meant so much that I can’t mean more. So there it is.”

“But if you go,” he appealed — and with a sense as of final flatness, however he arranged it, for his own attitude — “but if you go sha’n’t I see you again?”

She waited a little, and it was strangely for him now as if — though at last so much more gorged with her tribute than she had ever been with his — something still depended on her. “Do you like to see me?” she very simply asked.

At this he did get up; that was easier than to say — at least with responsive simplicity; and again for a little he looked hard and in silence at his letter; which at last, however, raising his eyes to her own for the act, while he masked their conscious ruefulness, to his utmost, in some air of assurance, he slipped into the inner pocket of his coat, letting it settle there securely. “You’re too wonderful.” But he frowned at her with it as never in his life. “Where does it all come from?”

“The wonder of poor me?” Kate Cookham said. “It comes from you.”

He shook his head slowly — feeling, with his letter there against his heart, such a new agility, almost such a new range of interest. “I mean so much money — so extraordinarily much.”

Well, she held him a while blank. “Does it seem to you extraordinarily much — twelve-hundred-and-sixty? Because, you know,” she added, “it’s all.”

“It’s enough!” he returned with a slight thoughtful droop of his head to the right and his eyes attached to the far horizon as through a shade of shyness for what he was saying. He felt all her own lingering nearness somehow on his cheek.

“It’s enough? Thank you then!” she rather oddly went on.

He shifted a little his posture. “It was more than a hundred a year — for you to get together.”

“Yes,” she assented, “that was what year by year I tried for.”

“But that you could live all the while and save that —!” Yes, he was at liberty, as he hadn’t been, quite pleasantly to marvel. All his wonderments in life had been hitherto unanswered — and didn’t the change mean that here again was the social relation?

“Ah, I didn’t live as you saw me the other day.”

“Yes,” he answered — and didn’t he the next instant feel he must fairly have smiled with it? — “the other day you were going it!”

“For once in my life,” said Kate Cookham. “I’ve left the hotel,” she after a moment added.

“Ah, you’re in — a — lodgings?” he found himself inquiring as for positive sociability.

She had apparently a slight shade of hesitation, but in an instant it was all right; as what he showed he wanted to know she seemed mostly to give him. “Yes — but far of course from here. Up on the hill.” To which, after another instant, “At The Mount, Castle Terrace,” she subjoined.

“Oh, I know The Mount. And Castle Terrace is awfully sunny and nice.”

“Awfully sunny and nice,” Kate Cookham took from him.

“So that if it isn’t,” he pursued, “like the Royal, why you’re at least comfortable.”

“I shall be comfortable anywhere now,” she replied with a certain dryness.

It was astonishing, however, what had become of his own. “Because I’ve accepted ——?”

“Call it that!” she dimly smiled.

“I hope then at any rate,” he returned, “you can now thoroughly rest” He spoke as for a cheerful conclusion and moved again also to smile, though as with a poor grimace, no doubt; since what he seemed most clearly to feel was that since he “accepted” he mustn’t, for his last note, have accepted in sulkiness or gloom. With that, at the same time, he couldn’t but know, in all his fibres, that with such a still-watching face as the dotty veil didn’t disguise for him there was no possible concluding, at least on his part On hers, on hers it was — as he had so often for a week had reflectively to pronounce things — another affair. Ah, somehow, both formidably and helpfully, her face concluded — yet in a sense so strangely enshrouded in things she didn’t tell him. What must she, what mustn’t she, have done? What she had said — and she had really told him nothing — was no account of her life; in the midst of which conflict of opposed recognitions, at any rate, it was as if, for all he could do, he himself now considerably floundered. “But I can’t think — I can’t think ——!”

“You can’t think I can have made so much money in the time and been honest?”

“Oh, you’ve been honest!” Herbert Dodd distinctly allowed.

It moved her stillness to a gesture — which, however, she had as promptly checked; and she went on the next instant as for further generosity to his failure of thought. “Everything was possible, under my stress, with my hatred.”

“Your hatred —?” For she had paused as if it were after all too difficult.

“Of what I should for so long have been doing to you.”

With this, for all his failures, a greater light than any yet shone upon him. “It made you think of ways ——?”

“It made me think of everything. It made me work,” said Kate Cookham. She added, however, the next moment: “But that’s my story.”

“And I mayn’t hear it?”

“No — because I mayn’t hear yours.”

“Oh, mine —!” he said with the strangest, saddest, yet after all most resigned sense of surrender of it; which he tried to make sound as if he couldn’t have told it, for its splendor of sacrifice and of misery, even if he would.

It seemed to move in her a little, exactly, that sense of the invidious. “Ah, mine too, I assure you ——!”

He rallied at once to the interest. “Oh, we can talk then?”

“Never,” she all oddly replied. “Never,” said Kate Cookham.

They remained so, face to face; the effect of which for him was that he had after a little understood why. That was fundamental. “Well, I see.”

Thus confronted they stayed; and then, as he saw with a contentment that came up from deeper still, it was indeed she who, with her worn fine face, would conclude. “But I can take care of you.”

“You have!” he said as with nothing left of him but a beautiful appreciative candour.

“Oh, but you’ll want it now in a way —!” she responsibly answered.

He waited a moment, dropping again on the seat. So, while she still stood, he looked up at her; with the sense somehow that there were too many things and that they were all together, terribly, irresistibly, doubtless blessedly, in her eyes and her whole person; which thus affected him for the moment as more than he could bear. He leaned forward, dropping his elbows to his knees and pressing his head on his hands. So he stayed, saying nothing; only, with the sense of her own sustained, renewed and wonderful action, knowing that an arm had passed round him and that he was held. She was beside him on the bench of desolation.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38