The Other House, by Henry James

xxix

ROSE had come for a purpose, Vidal saw, to which she would make but a bound, and she seemed in fact to take the spring as she instantly broke out: “For what did you come back to me? for what did you come back?” She approached him quickly, but he made, more quickly, a move that gained him space and that might well have been the result of two sharp impressions: one of these the sense that in a single hour she had so altered as to be ugly, without a trace of the charm that had haunted him; and the other the sense that, thus ravaged and dis figured, wrecked in the gust that had come and gone, she required of him something that she had never required. A monstrous reality flared up in their relation, the perception of which was a shock that he was conscious for the moment of betraying that he feared, finding no words to answer her and showing her, across the room, while she repeated her question, a face blanched by the change in her own. “ For what did you come back to me? for what did you come back? ”

He gaped at her; then as if there were help for him in the simple fact that on his own side he could immediately recall, he stammered out: “ To you to you? I hadn’t the slightest notion you were here! ”

“Didn’t you come to see where I was? Didn’t you come absolutely and publicly for me?” He jerked round again to the window with the vague, wild gesture of a man in horrible pain, and she went on without vehemence, but with clear, deep inten sity: “ It was exactly when you found I was here that you did come back. You had a perfect chance, on learning it, not to show; but you didn’t take the chance, you quickly put it aside. You reflected, you decided, you insisted we should meet.” Her voice, as if in harmony with the power of her plea, dropped to a vibration more muffled, a soft but inexorable pressure. “ I hadn’t called you, I hadn’t troubled you, I left you as perfectly alone as I’ve been alone. It was your own passion and your own act you’ve dropped upon me, you’ve over whelmed me. You’ve overwhelmed me, I say, because I speak from the depths of my surrender. But you didn’t do it, I imagine, to be cruel, and if you didn’t do it to be cruel you did it to take what it would give you.” Gradually, as she talked, he faced round again; she stood there supported by the high back of a chair, either side of which she held tight. “You know what I am, if any man has known, and it’s to the thing I am whatever that is you’ve come back at last from so far. It’s the thing I am whatever that is I now count on you to stand by.”

“Whatever that is?” Dennis mournfully mar-veiled. “ I feel, on the contrary, that I’ve never, never known! ”

“Well, it’s before anything a woman who has such a need as no woman has ever had.” Then she eagerly added: “ Why on earth did you descend on me if you hadn’t need of me? ”

Dennis took for an instant, quite as if she were not there, several turns in the wide place; moving in the dumb distress of a man confronted with the greatest danger of his life and obliged, while pre cious minutes lapse, to snatch at a way of safety. His whole air was an instinctive retreat from being carried by assault, and he had the effect both of keeping far from her and of revolving blindly round her. At last, in his hesitation, he pulled up before her. “ What makes, all of a sudden, the tremendous need you speak of? Didn’t you remind me but an hour ago of how remarkably low, at our last meeting, it had dropped? ”

Rose’s eyes, in the dimness, widened with their wonder. “ You can speak to me in harshness of what I did an hour ago? You can taunt me with an act of penance that might have moved you that did move you? Does it mean,” she continued, “ that you’ve none the less embraced the alternative that seems to you most worthy of your courage? Did I only stoop, in my deep contrition, to make it easier for you to knock me down? I gave you your chance to refuse me, and what you’ve come back for then will have been only, most handsomely, to take it. In that case you did injustice there to the question of your revenge. What fault have you to find with anything so splendid? ”

Dennis had listened with his eyes averted, and he met her own again as if he had not heard, only bringing out his previous words with a harder iteration: “ What makes your tremendous need? what makes your tremendous need?” he spoke as if that tone were the way of safety. “ I don’t in the least see why it should have taken such a jump. You must do justice, even after your act of this afternoon a demonstration far greater than any I dreamed of asking of you you must do justice to my absolute necessity for seeing everything clear. I didn’t there in the garden see anything clear at all I was only startled and wonder-struck and puzzled. Certainly I was touched, as you say I was so touched that I particularly suffered. But I couldn’t pretend I was satisfied or gratified, or even that I was particularly convinced. You often failed of old, I know, to give me what I really wanted from you, and yet it never prevented the success of your effect on what shall I call it?” He stopped short. “ On God knows what baser, obscurer part of me! I’m not such a brute as to say,” he quickly went on, “ that that effect was not produced this afternoon ”

“You confine yourself to saying,” Rose inter rupted, “ that it’s not produced in our actual situa tion.”

He stared through the thicker dusk; after which, “I don’t understand you!” he dropped. “ I do say,” he declared, “that, whatever your success to day may be admitted to consist of, I didn’t at least then make the admission. I didn’t at that moment understand you any more than I do now; and I don’t think I said anything to lead you to suppose I did. I showed you simply that I was bewildered, and I couldn’t have shown it more than by the abrupt way I left you. I don’t recognise that I’m committed to anything that deprives me of the right of asking you for a little more light.”

“Do you recognise by chance,” Rose returned, “the horrible blow?”

“That has fallen on all this wretched place? I’m unutterably shocked by it. But where does it come into our relations? ”

Rose smiled in exquisite pity, which had the air, however, of being more especially for herself. “You say you were painfully affected; but you really invite me to go further still. Haven’t I put the dots on all the horrid i’s and dragged myself through the dust of enough confessions? ”

Dennis slowly and grimly shook his head; he doggedly clung to his only refuge. “ I don’t under stand you I don’t understand you.”

Rose, at this, surmounted her scruples. “ It would be inexpressibly horrible to me to appear to be free to profit by Mr. Bream’s misfortune.”

Dennis thought a moment. “ To appear, you mean, to have an interest in the fact that the death of his daughter leaves him at liberty to invite you to become his wife? ”

“You express it to admiration.”

He discernibly wondered. “ But why should you be in danger of that torment to your delicacy if Mr. Bream has the best of reasons for doing nothing to contribute to it? ”

“The best of Mr. Bream’s reasons,” Rose re joined, “won’t be nearly so good as the worst of mine.”

“That of your making a match with some one else? I see,” her companion said. “ That’s the precaution I’m to have the privilege of putting in your power.”

She gave the strangest of smiles; the whites of her excited eyes shimmered in the gloom. “ Your loyalty makes my position perfect.”

Dennis hesitated. “ And what does it make my own? ”

“Exactly the one you came to take. You have taken it by your startling presence; you’re up to your eyes in it, and there’s nothing that will become you so as to wear it bravely and gallantly. If you don’t like it,” Rose added, “you should have thought of that before! ”

“You like it so much on your side,” Dennis retorted, “that you appear to have engaged in measures to create it even before the argument for it had acquired the force that you give such a fine account of.”

“Do you mean by giving it out as an accomplished fact? It was never too soon to give it out; the right moment was the moment you were there. Your arrival changed everything; it gave me on the spot my advantage; it precipitated my grasp of it.”

Vidal’s expression was like a thing battered dead, and his voice was a sound that matched it. “ You call your grasp your announcement? ”

She threw back her head. “ My announcement has reached you? Then you know I’ve cut off your retreat.” Again he turned away from her; he flung himself on the sofa on which, shortly before, Mrs. Beever had sunk down to sob, and, as if with the need to hold on to something, buried his face in one of the hard, square cushions. She came a little nearer to him; she went on with her low lucidity: “So you can’t abandon me you can’t. You came to me through doubts you spoke to me through fears. You’re mine! ”

She left him to turn this over; she moved off and approached the door at which Mrs. Beever had gone out, standing there in strained attention till, in the silence, Dennis at last raised his head. “ What is it you look to me to do?” he asked.

She came away from the door. “ Simply to see me through.”

He was on his feet again. “ Through what, in the name of horror? ”

“Through everything. If I count on you, it’s to support me. If I say things, it’s for you to say them.”

“Even when they’re black lies?” Dennis brought out.

Her answer was immediate. “ What need should I

have of you if they were white ones?” He was unable to tell her, only meeting her mettle with his stupor, and she continued, with the lightest hint of reproach in her quiet pain: “I thank you for giving that graceful name to my weak boast that you admire me.”

He had a sense of comparative idiotcy. “ Do you expect me on that admiration to marry you? ”

“Bless your innocent heart, no! for what do you take me? I expect you simply to make people believe that you mean to.”

“And how long will they believe it if I don’t? ”

“Oh, if it should come to that,” said Rose, “you can easily make them believe that you have! ” She took a step so rapid that it was almost a spring; she had him now and, with her hands on his shoulders, she held him fast. “ So you see, after all, dearest, how little I ask! ”

He submitted, with no movement but to close his eyes before the new-born dread of her caress. Yet he took the caress when it came the dire confes sion of her hard embrace, the long entreaty of her stony kiss. He might still have been a creature trapped in steel; after she had let him go he still stood at a loss how to turn. There was something, however, that he presently opened his eyes to try. “That you went over with me that’s what you wish me to say? ”

“Over to Bounds? Is that what I said? I can’t think.” But she thought all the same. “ Thank you for fixing it. If it’s that, stick to it! ”

“And to our having left the child with Miss Martle? ”

This brought her up a moment. “ Don’t ask me simply meet the case as it comes. I give you,” she added in a marvellous manner, “ a perfectly free hand! ”

“You’re very liberal,” said Dennis, “ but I think you simplify too much.”

“I can hardly do that if to simplify is to leave it to your honour. It’s the beauty of my position that you’re believed.”

“That, then, gives me a certain confidence in telling you that Miss Martle was the whole time with me.”

Rose stared. “ Of what time do you speak? ”

“The time after you had gone over to Bounds with Effie.”

Rose thought again. “ Where was she with you?”

“By the river, on this side.”

“On this side? You didn’t go to Bounds? ”

“Not when I left you for the purpose. I obeyed an impulse that made me do just the opposite. You see,” said Dennis, “that there’s a flaw in my honour! You had filled my cup too full I couldn’t carry it straight. I kept by the stream I took a walk.”

Rose gave a low, vague sound. “ But Miss Martle and I were there together.”

“You were together till you separated. On my return to the bridge I met her.”

Rose hesitated. “ Where was she going? ”

“Over to Bounds but I prevented her.”

“You mean she joined you? ”

“In the kindest manner for another turn. I took her the same way again.”

Once more Rose thought. “ But if she was going over, why in the world should she have let you? ”

Dennis considered. “ I think she pitied me.”

“Because she spoke to you of me? ”

“No; because she didn’t. But I spoke to her of you,” said Dennis.

“And what did you say? ”

He hung fire a moment. “That a short time before I saw you cross to Bounds.”

Rose slowly sat down. “ You saw me? ”

“On the bridge, distinctly. With the child in your arms.”

“Where were you then? ”

“Far up the stream beyond your observation.”

She looked at him fixedly, her hands locked together between her knees. “You were watch ing me?” Portentous and ghostly, in the darker room, had become their confronted estrange ment.

Dennis waited as if he had a choice of answers; but at last he simply said: “ I saw no more.”

His companion as slowly rose again and moved to the window, beyond which the garden had now grown vague. She stood before it a while; then, without coming away, turned her back to it, so that he saw her handsome head, with the face obscure, against the evening sky. “ Shall I tell you who did it?” she asked.

Dennis Vidal faltered. “If you feel that you’re prepared.”

“I’ve been preparing. I see it’s best.” Again,, however, she was silent.

This lasted so long that Dennis finally spoke. “Who did it?”

“Tony Bream to marry Jean.”

A loud sound leaped from him, which was thrown back by the sudden opening of the door and a consequent gush of light. Manning marched in with a high lamp, and Doctor Ramage stood on the threshold.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 21:02