The Figure in the Carpet, by Henry James

Chapter 7

My words however were not absolutely the same — I put something instead of “angel”; and in the sequel my epithet seemed the more apt, for when eventually we heard from our traveller it was merely, it was thoroughly to be tantalised. He was magnificent in his triumph, he described his discovery as stupendous; but his ecstasy only obscured it — there were to be no particulars till he should have submitted his conception to the supreme authority. He had thrown up his commission, he had thrown up his book, he had thrown up everything but the instant need to hurry to Rapallo, on the Genoese shore, where Vereker was making a stay. I wrote him a letter which was to await him at Aden — I besought him to relieve my suspense. That he had found my letter was indicated by a telegram which, reaching me after weary days and in the absence of any answer to my laconic dispatch to him at Bombay, was evidently intended as a reply to both communications. Those few words were in familiar French, the French of the day, which Covick often made use of to show he wasn’t a prig. It had for some persons the opposite effect, but his message may fairly be paraphrased. “Have patience; I want to see, as it breaks on you, the face you’ll make!” “Tellement envie de voir ta tete!” — that was what I had to sit down with. I can certainly not be said to have sat down, for I seem to remember myself at this time as rattling constantly between the little house in Chelsea and my own. Our impatience, Gwendolen’s and mine, was equal, but I kept hoping her light would be greater. We all spent during this episode, for people of our means, a great deal of money in telegrams and cabs, and I counted on the receipt of news from Rapallo immediately after the junction of the discoverer with the discovered. The interval seemed an age, but late one day I heard a hansom precipitated to my door with the crash engendered by a hint of liberality. I lived with my heart in my mouth and accordingly bounded to the window — a movement which gave me a view of a young lady erect on the footboard of the vehicle and eagerly looking up at my house. At sight of me she flourished a paper with a movement that brought me straight down, the movement with which, in melodramas, handkerchiefs and reprieves are flourished at the foot of the scaffold.

“Just seen Vereker — not a note wrong. Pressed me to bosom — keeps me a month.” So much I read on her paper while the cabby dropped a grin from his perch. In my excitement I paid him profusely and in hers she suffered it; then as he drove away we started to walk about and talk. We had talked, heaven knows, enough before, but this was a wondrous lift. We pictured the whole scene at Rapallo, where he would have written, mentioning my name, for permission to call; that is I pictured it, having more material than my companion, whom I felt hang on my lips as we stopped on purpose before shop-windows we didn’t look into. About one thing we were clear: if he was staying on for fuller communication we should at least have a letter from him that would help us through the dregs of delay. We understood his staying on, and yet each of us saw, I think, that the other hated it. The letter we were clear about arrived; it was for Gwendolen, and I called on her in time to save her the trouble of bringing it to me. She didn’t read it out, as was natural enough; but she repeated to me what it chiefly embodied. This consisted of the remarkable statement that he’d tell her after they were married exactly what she wanted to know.

“Only THEN, when I’m his wife — not before,” she explained. “It’s tantamount to saying — isn’t it? — that I must marry him straight off!” She smiled at me while I flushed with disappointment, a vision of fresh delay that made me at first unconscious of my surprise. It seemed more than a hint that on me as well he would impose some tiresome condition. Suddenly, while she reported several more things from his letter, I remembered what he had told me before going away. He had found Mr. Vereker deliriously interesting and his own possession of the secret a real intoxication. The buried treasure was all gold and gems. Now that it was there it seemed to grow and grow before him; it would have been, through all time and taking all tongues, one of the most wonderful flowers of literary art. Nothing, in especial, once you were face to face with it, could show for more consummately DONE. When once it came out it came out, was there with a splendour that made you ashamed; and there hadn’t been, save in the bottomless vulgarity of the age, with every one tasteless and tainted, every sense stopped, the smallest reason why it should have been overlooked. It was great, yet so simple, was simple, yet so great, and the final knowledge of it was an experience quite apart. He intimated that the charm of such an experience, the desire to drain it, in its freshness, to the last drop, was what kept him there close to the source. Gwendolen, frankly radiant as she tossed me these fragments, showed the elation of a prospect more assured than my own. That brought me back to the question of her marriage, prompted me to ask if what she meant by what she had just surprised me with was that she was under an engagement.

“Of course I am!” she answered. “Didn’t you know it?” She seemed astonished, but I was still more so, for Corvick had told me the exact contrary. I didn’t mention this, however; I only reminded her how little I had been on that score in her confidence, or even in Corvick’s, and that, moreover I wasn’t in ignorance of her mother’s interdict. At bottom I was troubled by the disparity of the two accounts; but after a little I felt Corvick’s to be the one I least doubted. This simply reduced me to asking myself if the girl had on the spot improvised an engagement — vamped up an old one or dashed off a new — in order to arrive at the satisfaction she desired. She must have had resources of which I was destitute, but she made her case slightly more intelligible by returning presently: “What the state of things has been is that we felt of course bound to do nothing in mamma’s lifetime.”

“But now you think you’ll just dispense with mamma’s consent?”

“Ah it mayn’t come to that!” I wondered what it might come to, and she went on: “Poor dear, she may swallow the dose. In fact, you know,” she added with a laugh, “she really MUST!” — a proposition of which, on behalf of every one concerned, I fully acknowledged the force.

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