The Figure in the Carpet, by Henry James

Chapter 11

It was therefore from her husband I could never remove my eyes: I beset him in a manner that might have made him uneasy. I went even so far as to engage him in conversation. Didn’t he know, hadn’t he come into it as a matter of course? — that question hummed in my brain. Of course he knew; otherwise he wouldn’t return my stare so queerly. His wife had told him what I wanted and he was amiably amused at my impotence. He didn’t laugh — he wasn’t a laugher: his system was to present to my irritation, so that I should crudely expose myself, a conversational blank as vast as his big bare brow. It always happened that I turned away with a settled conviction from these unpeopled expanses, which seemed to complete each other geographically and to symbolise together Drayton Deane’s want of voice, want of form. He simply hadn’t the art to use what he knew; he literally was incompetent to take up the duty where Corvick had left it. I went still further — it was the only glimpse of happiness I had. I made up my mind that the duty didn’t appeal to him. He wasn’t interested, he didn’t care. Yes, it quite comforted me to believe him too stupid to have joy of the thing I lacked. He was as stupid after as he had been before, and that deepened for me the golden glory in which the mystery was wrapped. I had of course none the less to recollect that his wife might have imposed her conditions and exactions. I had above all to remind myself that with Vereker’s death the major incentive dropped. He was still there to be honoured by what might be done — he was no longer there to give it his sanction. Who alas but he had the authority?

Two children were born to the pair, but the second cost the mother her life. After this stroke I seemed to see another ghost of a chance. I jumped at it in thought, but I waited a certain time for manners, and at last my opportunity arrived in a remunerative way. His wife had been dead a year when I met Drayton Deane in the smoking-room of a small club of which we both were members, but where for months — perhaps because I rarely entered it — I hadn’t seen him. The room was empty and the occasion propitious. I deliberately offered him, to have done with the matter for ever, that advantage for which I felt he had long been looking.

“As an older acquaintance of your late wife’s than even you were,” I began, “you must let me say to you something I have on my mind. I shall be glad to make any terms with you that you see fit to name for the information she must have had from George Corvick — the information you know, that had come to him, poor chap, in one of the happiest hours of his life, straight from Hugh Vereker.”

He looked at me like a dim phrenological bust. “The information —?”

“Vereker’s secret, my dear man — the general intention of his books: the string the pearls were strung on, the buried treasure, the figure in the carpet.”

He began to flush — the numbers on his bumps to come out. “Vereker’s books had a general intention?”

I stared in my turn. “You don’t mean to say you don’t know it?” I thought for a moment he was playing with me. “Mrs. Deane knew it; she had it, as I say, straight from Corvick, who had, after infinite search and to Vereker’s own delight, found the very mouth of the cave. Where IS the mouth? He told after their marriage — and told alone — the person who, when the circumstances were reproduced, must have told you. Have I been wrong in taking for granted that she admitted you, as one of the highest privileges of the relation in which you stood to her, to the knowledge of which she was after Corvick’s death the sole depositary? All I know is that that knowledge is infinitely precious, and what I want you to understand is that if you’ll in your turn admit me to it you’ll do me a kindness for which I shall be lastingly grateful.”

He had turned at last very red; I dare say he had begun by thinking I had lost my wits. Little by little he followed me; on my own side I stared with a livelier surprise. Then he spoke. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He wasn’t acting — it was the absurd truth.

“She DIDN’T tell you —?”

“Nothing about Hugh Vereker.”

I was stupefied; the room went round. It had been too good even for that! “Upon your honour?”

“Upon my honour. What the devil’s the matter with you?” he growled.

“I’m astounded — I’m disappointed. I wanted to get it out of you.”

“It isn’t in me!” he awkwardly laughed. “And even if it were — ”

“If it were you’d let me have it — oh yes, in common humanity. But I believe you. I see — I see!” I went on, conscious, with the full turn of the wheel, of my great delusion, my false view of the poor man’s attitude. What I saw, though I couldn’t say it, was that his wife hadn’t thought him worth enlightening. This struck me as strange for a woman who had thought him worth marrying. At last I explained it by the reflexion that she couldn’t possibly have married him for his understanding. She had married him for something else.

He was to some extent enlightened now, but he was even more astonished, more disconcerted: he took a moment to compare my story with his quickened memories. The result of his meditation was his presently saying with a good deal of rather feeble form: “This is the first I hear of what you allude to. I think you must be mistaken as to Mrs. Drayton Deane’s having had any unmentioned, and still less any unmentionable, knowledge of Hugh Vereker. She’d certainly have wished it — should it have borne on his literary character — to be used.”

“It was used. She used it herself. She told me with her own lips that she ‘lived’ on it.”

I had no sooner spoken than I repented of my words; he grew so pale that I felt as if I had struck him. “Ah, ‘lived’ —!” he murmured, turning short away from me.

My compunction was real; I laid my hand on his shoulder. “I beg you to forgive me — I’ve made a mistake. You don’t know what I thought you knew. You could, if I had been right, have rendered me a service; and I had my reasons for assuming that you’d be in a position to meet me.”

“Your reasons?” he asked. “What were your reasons?”

I looked at him well; I hesitated; I considered. “Come and sit down with me here, and I’ll tell you.” I drew him to a sofa, I lighted another cigar and, beginning with the anecdote of Vereker’s one descent from the clouds, I recited to him the extraordinary chain of accidents that had, in spite of the original gleam, kept me till that hour in the dark. I told him in a word just what I’ve written out here. He listened with deepening attention, and I became aware, to my surprise, by his ejaculations, by his questions, that he would have been after all not unworthy to be trusted by his wife. So abrupt an experience of her want of trust had now a disturbing effect on him; but I saw the immediate shock throb away little by little and then gather again into waves of wonder and curiosity — waves that promised, I could perfectly judge, to break in the end with the fury of my own highest tides. I may say that today as victims of unappeased desire there isn’t a pin to choose between us. The poor man’s state is almost my consolation; there are really moments when I feel it to be quite my revenge.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:47