The Sacred Fount, by Henry James

XII

I went from one room to the other, but to find only, at first, as on my previous circuit, a desert on which the sun had still not set. Mrs. Brissenden was nowhere, but the whole place waited as we had left it, with seats displaced and flowers dispetalled, a fan forgotten on a table, a book laid down upon a chair. It came over me as I looked about that if she had “squared” the household, so large an order, as they said, was a sign sufficient of what I was to have from her. I had quite rather it were her doing — not mine; but it showed with eloquence that she had after all judged some effort or other to be worth her while. Her renewed delay moreover added to my impatience of mind in respect to the nature of this effort by striking me as already part of it. What, I asked myself, could be so much worth her while as to have to be paid for by so much apparent reluctance? But at last I saw her through a vista of open doors, and as I forthwith went to her — she took no step to meet me — I was doubtless impressed afresh with the “pull” that in social intercourse a woman always has. She was able to assume on the spot by mere attitude and air the appearance of having been ready and therefore inconvenienced. Oh, I saw soon enough that she was ready and that one of the forms of her readiness would be precisely to offer herself as having acted entirely to oblige me — to give me, as a sequel to what had already passed between us, the opportunity for which she had assured me I should thank her before I had done with her. Yet, as I felt sure, at the same time, that she had taken a line, I was curious as to how, in her interest, our situation could be worked. What it had originally left us with was her knowing I was wrong. I had promised her, on my honour, to be candid, but even if I were disposed to cease to contest her identification of Mrs. Server I was scarce to be looked to for such an exhibition of gratitude as might be held to repay her for staying so long out of bed. There were in short elements in the business that I couldn’t quite clearly see handled as favours to me. Her dress gave, with felicity, no sign whatever of preparation for the night, and if, since our last words, she had stood with any anxiety whatever before her glass, it had not been to remove a jewel or to alter the place of a flower. She was as much under arms as she had been on descending to dinner — as fresh in her array as if that banquet were still to come. She met me in fact as admirably — that was the truth that covered every other — as if she had been able to guess the most particular curiosity with which, from my end of the series of rooms, I advanced upon her.

A part of the mixture of my thoughts during these seconds had been the possibility — absurd, preposterous though it looks when phrased here — of some change in her person that would correspond, for me to the other changes I had had such keen moments of flattering myself I had made out. I had just had them over in the smoking-room, some of these differences, and then had had time to ask myself if I were not now to be treated to the vision of the greatest, the most wonderful, of all. I had already, on facing her, after my last moments with Lady John, seen difference peep out at me, and I had seen the impression of it confirmed by what had afterwards happened. It had been in her way of turning from me after that brief passage; it had been in her going up to bed without seeing me again; it had been once more in her thinking, for reasons of her own, better of that; and it had been most of all in her sending her husband down to me. Well, wouldn’t it finally be, still more than most of all ——? But I scarce had known, at this point, what grossness or what fineness of material correspondence to forecast. I only had waited there with these general symptoms so present that almost any further development of them occurred to me as conceivable. So much as this was true, but I was after a moment to become aware of something by which I was as strongly affected as if I had been quite unprepared. Yes, literally, that final note, in the smoking-room, the note struck in Obert’s ejaculation on poor Briss’s hundred years, had failed to achieve for me a worthy implication. I was forced, after looking at Grace Brissenden a minute, to recognise that my imagination had not risen to its opportunity. The full impression took a minute — a minute during which she said nothing; then it left me deeply and above all, as I felt, discernibly conscious of the prodigious thing, the thing, I had not thought of. This it was that gave her such a beautiful chance not to speak: she was so quite sufficiently occupied with seeing what I hadn’t thought of, and with seeing me, to make up for lost time, breathlessly think of it while she watched me.

All I had at first taken in was, as I say, her untouched splendour; I don’t know why that should have impressed me — as if it had been probable she would have appeared in her dressing-gown; it was the only thing to have expected. And it in fact plumed and enhanced her assurance, sustained her propriety, lent our belated interview the natural and casual note. But there was another service it still more rendered her: it so covered, at the first blush, the real message of her aspect, that she enjoyed the luxury — and I felt her enjoy it — of seeing my perception in arrest. Amazing, when I think of it, the number of things that occurred in these stayed seconds of our silence; but they are perhaps best represented by the two most marked intensities of my own sensation: the first the certitude that she had at no moment since her marriage so triumphantly asserted her defeat of time, and the second the conviction that I, losing with her while, as it were, we closed, a certain advantage I should never recover, had at no moment since the day before made so poor a figure on my own ground. Ah, it may have been only for six seconds that she caught me gaping at her renewed beauty; but six seconds, it was inevitable to feel, were quite enough for every purpose with which she had come down to me. She might have been a large, fair, rich, prosperous person of twenty-five; she was at any rate near enough to it to put me for ever in my place. It was a success, on her part, that, though I couldn’t as yet fully measure it, there could be no doubt of whatever, any more than of my somehow paying for it. Her being there at all, at such an hour, in such conditions, became, each moment, on the whole business, more and more a part of her advantage; the case for her was really in almost any aspect she could now make it wear to my imagination. My wealth of that faculty, never so stimulated, was thus, in a manner, her strength; by which I mean the impossibility of my indifference to the mere immense suggestiveness of our circumstances. How can I tell now to what tune the sense of all these played into my mind? — the huge oddity of the nameless idea on which we foregathered, the absence and hush of everything except that idea, so magnified in consequence and yet still, after all, altogether fantastic. There remained for her, there spoke for her too, her vividly “unconventional” step, the bravery of her rustling, on an understanding so difficult to give an account of, through places and times only made safe by the sleep of the unsuspecting. My imagination, in short, since I have spoken of it, couldn’t do other than work for her from the moment she had, so simply yet so wonderfully, not failed me. Therefore it was all with me again, the vision of her reasons. They were in fact sufficiently in the sound of what she presently said. “Perhaps you don’t know — but I mentioned in the proper quarter that I should sit up a little. They’re of a kindness here, luckily ——! So it’s all right.” It was all right, obviously — she made it so; but she made it so as well that, in spite of the splendour she showed me, she should be a little nervous. “We shall only take moreover,” she added, “a minute.”

I should perhaps have wondered more what she proposed to do in a minute had I not felt it as already more or less done. Yes, she might have been twenty-five, and it was a short time for that to have taken. However, what I clutched at, what I clung to, was that it was a nervous twenty-five. I might pay for her assurance, but wasn’t there something of mine for which she might pay? I was nervous also, but, as I took in again, with a glance through our great chain of chambers, the wonderful conditions that protected us, I did my best to feel sure that it was only because I was so amused. That — in so high a form — was what it came to in the end. “I supposed,” I replied, “that you’d have arranged; for, in spite of the way things were going, I hadn’t given you up. I haven’t understood, I confess,” I went on, “why you’ve preferred a conference so intensely nocturnal — of which I quite feel, however, that, if it has happened to suit you, it isn’t for me to complain. But I felt sure of you — that was the great thing — from the moment, half an hour ago, you so kindly spoke to me. I gave you, you see,” I laughed, “what’s called ‘rope.’”

“I don’t suppose you mean,” she exclaimed, “for me to hang myself! — for that, I assure you, is not at all what I’m prepared for.” Then she seemed again to give me the magnificence of her youth. It wasn’t, throughout, I was to feel, that she at all had abysses of irony, for she in fact happily needed none. Her triumph was in itself ironic enough, and all her point in her sense of her freshness. “Were you really so impatient?” But as I inevitably hung fire a little she continued before I could answer; which somewhat helped me indeed by showing the one flaw in her confidence. More extraordinary perhaps than anything else, moreover, was just my perception of this; which gives the value of all that each of us so visibly felt the other to have put together, to have been making out and gathering in, since we parted, on the terrace, after seeing Mrs. Server and Briss come up from under their tree. We had, of a truth, arrived at our results — though mine were naturally the ones for me to believe in; and it was prodigious that we openly met not at all where we had last left each other, but exactly on what our subsequent suppressed processes had achieved. We hadn’t named them — hadn’t alluded to them, and we couldn’t, no doubt, have done either; but they were none the less intensely there between us, with the whole bright, empty scene given up to them. Only she had her shrewd sense that mine, for reasons, might have been still more occult than her own. Hadn’t I possibly burrowed the deeper — to come out in some uncalculated place behind her back? That was the flaw in her confidence. She had in spite of it her firm ground, and I could feel, to do her justice, how different a complacency it was from such smug ignorance as Lady John’s. If I didn’t fear to seem to drivel about my own knowledge I should say that she had, in addition to all the rest of her “pull,” the benefit of striking me as worthy of me. She was in the mystic circle — not one of us more; she knew the size of it; and it was our now being in it alone together, with everyone else out and with the size greater than it had yet been at all — it was this that gave the hour, in fine, so sharp a stamp.

But she had meanwhile taken up my allusion to her having preferred so to wait. “I wanted to see you quietly; which was what I tried — not altogether successfully, it rather struck me at the moment — to make you understand when I let you know about it. You stared so that I didn’t quite know what was the matter. Nothing could be quiet, I saw, till the going to bed was over, and I felt it coming off then from one minute to the other. I didn’t wish publicly to be called away for it from this putting of our heads together, and, though you may think me absurd, I had a dislike to having our question of May up so long as she was hanging about. I knew of course that she would hang about till the very last moment, and that was what I perhaps a little clumsily — if it was my own fault! — made the effort to convey to you. She may be hanging about still,” Mrs. Briss continued, with her larger look round — her looks round were now immense; “but at any rate I shall have done what I could. I had a feeling — perfectly preposterous, I admit! — against her seeing us together; but if she comes down again, as I’ve so boldly done, and finds us, she’ll have no one but herself to thank. It’s a funny house, for that matter,” my friend rambled on, “and I’m not sure that anyone has gone to bed. One does what one likes; I’m an old woman, at any rate, and I do!” She explained now, she explained too much, she abounded, talking herself stoutly into any assurance that failed her. I had meanwhile with every word she uttered a sharper sense of the pressure, behind them all, of a new consciousness. It was full of everything she didn’t say, and what she said was no representation whatever of what was most in her mind. We had indeed taken a jump since noon — we had indeed come out further on. Just this fine dishonesty of her eyes, moreover — the light of a part to play, the excitement (heaven knows what it struck me as being!) of a happy duplicity — may well have been what contributed most to her present grand air.

It was in any case what evoked for me most the contrasted image, so fresh with me, of the other, the tragic lady — the image that had so embodied the unutterable opposite of everything actually before me. What was actually before me was the positive pride of life and expansion, the amplitude of conscious action and design; not the arid channel forsaken by the stream, but the full-fed river sweeping to the sea, the volume of water, the stately current, the flooded banks into which the source had swelled. There was nothing Mrs. Server had been able to risk, but there was a rich indifference to risk in the mere carriage of Grace Brissenden’s head. Her reference, for that matter, to our discussed subject had the effect of relegating to the realm of dim shades the lady representing it, and there was small soundness in her glance at the possibility on the part of this person of an anxious prowl back. There was indeed — there could be — small sincerity in any immediate demonstration from a woman so markedly gaining time and getting her advantages in hand. The connections between the two, certainly, were indirect and intricate, but it was positive to me that, for the spiritual ear, my companion’s words had the sound of a hard bump, a contact from the force of which the weaker vessel might have been felt to crack. At last, merciful powers, it was in pieces! The shock of the brass had told upon the porcelain, and I fancied myself for an instant facing Mrs. Briss over the damage — a damage from which I was never, as I knew, to see the poor banished ghost recover. As strange as anything was this effect almost of surprise for me in the freedom of her mention of “May.” For what had she come to me, if for anything, but to insist on her view of May, and what accordingly was more to the point than to mention her? Yet it was almost already as if to mention her had been to get rid of her. She was mentioned, however, inevitably and none the less promptly, anew — even as if simply to receive a final shake before being quite dropped. My friend kept it up. “If you were so bent on not losing what I might have to give you that you fortunately stuck to the ship, for poor Briss to pick you up, wasn’t this also” — she roundly put it to me — “a good deal because you’ve been nursing all day the grievance with which I this morning so comfortably furnished you?”

I just waited, but fairly for admiration. “Oh, I certainly had my reasons — as I’ve no less certainly had my luck — for not indeed deserting our dear little battered, but still just sufficiently buoyant vessel, from which everyone else appears, I recognise, to s’être sauvé. She’ll float a few minutes more! But (before she sinks!) do you mean by my grievance —— ”

“Oh, you know what I mean by your grievance!” She had no intention, Mrs. Briss, of sinking. “I was to give you time to make up your mind that Mrs. Server was our lady. You so resented, for some reason, my suggesting it that I scarcely believed you’d consider it at all; only I hadn’t forgotten, when I spoke to you a while since, that you had nevertheless handsomely promised me that you would do your best.”

“Yes, and, still more handsomely, that if I changed my mind, I would eat, in your presence, for my error, the largest possible slice of humble pie. If you didn’t see this morning,” I continued, “quite why I should have cared so much, so I don’t quite see why, in your different way, you should; at the same time that I do full justice to the good faith with which you’ve given me my chance. Please believe that if I could candidly embrace that chance I should feel all the joy in the world in repaying you. It’s only, alas! because I cling to my candour that I venture to disappoint you. If I cared this morning it was really simple enough. You didn’t convince me, but I should have cared just as much if you had. I only didn’t see what you saw. I needed more than you could then give me. I knew, you see, what I needed — I mean before I struck! It was the element of collateral support that we both lacked. I couldn’t do without it as you could. This was what I, clumsily enough, tried to show you I felt. You, on your side,” I pursued, “grasped admirably the evident truth that that element could be present only in such doses as practically to escape detection.” I kept it up as she had done, and I remember striking myself as scarce less excitedly voluble. I was conscious of being at a point at which I should have to go straight, to go fast, to go it, as the phrase is, blind, in order to go at all. I was also conscious — and it came from the look with which she listened to me and that told me more than she wished — I felt sharply, though but instinctively, in fine, that I should still, whatever I practically had lost, make my personal experience most rich and most complete by putting it definitely to her that, sorry as I might be not to oblige her, I had, even at this hour, no submission to make. I doubted in fact whether my making one would have obliged her; but I felt that, for all so much had come and gone, I was not there to take, for her possible profit, any new tone with her. She would sufficiently profit, at the worst, by the old. My old motive — old with the prodigious antiquity the few hours had given it — had quite left me; I seemed to myself to know little now of my desire to “protect” Mrs. Server. She was certainly, with Mrs. Briss at least, past all protection; and the conviction had grown with me, in these few minutes, that there was now no rag of the queer truth that Mrs. Briss hadn’t secretly — by which I meant morally — handled. But I none the less, on a perfectly simple reasoning, stood to my guns, and with no sense whatever, I must add, of now breaking my vow of the morning. I had made another vow since then — made it to the poor lady herself as we sat together in the wood; passed my word to her that there was no approximation I pretended even to myself to have made. How then was I to pretend to Mrs. Briss, and what facts had I collected on which I could respectably ground an acknowledgment to her that I had come round to her belief? If I had “caught” our incriminated pair together — really together — even for three minutes, I would, I sincerely considered, have come round. But I was to have performed this revolution on nothing less, as I now went on to explain to her. “Of course if you’ve got new evidence I shall be delighted to hear it; and of course I can’t help wondering whether the possession of it and the desire to overwhelm me with it aren’t, together, the one thing you’ve been nursing till now.”

Oh, how intensely she didn’t like such a tone! If she hadn’t looked so handsome I would say she made a wry face over it, though I didn’t even yet see where her dislike would make her come out. Before she came out, in fact, she waited as if it were a question of dashing her head at a wall. Then, at last, she charged. “It’s nonsense. I’ve nothing to tell you. I feel there’s nothing in it and I’ve given it up.”

I almost gaped — by which I mean that I looked as if I did — for surprise. “You agree that it’s not she ——?” Then, as she again waited, “It’s you who’ve come round?” I insisted.

“To your doubt of its being May? Yes — I’ve come round.”

“Ah, pardon me,” I returned; “what I expressed this morning was, if I remember rightly, not at all a ‘doubt,’ but a positive, intimate conviction that was inconsistent with any doubt. I was emphatic — purely and simply — that I didn’t see it.”

She looked, however, as if she caught me in a weakness here. “Then why did you say to me that if you should reconsider —— ”

“You should handsomely have it from me, and my grounds? Why, as I’ve just reminded you, as a form of courtesy to you — magnanimously to help you, as it were, to feel as comfortable as I conceived you naturally would desire to feel in your own conviction. Only for that. And now,” I smiled, “I’m to understand from you that, in spite of that immense allowance, you haven’t, all this while, felt comfortable?”

She gave, on this, in a wonderful, beautiful way, a slow, simplifying headshake. “Mrs. Server isn’t in it!”

The only way then to take it from her was that her concession was a prelude to something still better; and when I had given her time to see this dawn upon me I had my eagerness and I jumped into the breathless. “You’ve made out then who is?”

“Oh, I don’t make out, you know,” she laughed, “so much as you! She isn’t,” she simply repeated.

I looked at it, on my inspiration, quite ruefully — almost as if I now wished, after all, she were. “Ah, but, do you know? it really strikes me you make out marvels. You made out this morning quite what I couldn’t. I hadn’t put together anything so extraordinary as that — in the total absence of everything — it should have been our friend.”

Mrs. Briss appeared, on her side, to take in the intention of this. “What do you mean by the total absence? When I made my mistake,” she declared as if in the interest of her dignity, “I didn’t think everything absent.”

“I see,” I admitted. “I see,” I thoughtfully repeated. “And do you, then, think everything now?”

“I had my honest impression of the moment,” she pursued as if she had not heard me. “There were appearances that, as it at the time struck me, fitted.”

“Precisely” — and I recalled for her the one she had made most of. “There was in especial the appearance that she was at a particular moment using Brissenden to show whom she was not using. You felt then,” I ventured to observe, “the force of that.”

I ventured less than, already, I should have liked to venture; yet I none the less seemed to see her try on me the effect of the intimation that I was going far. “Is it your wish,” she inquired with much nobleness, “to confront me, to my confusion, with my inconsistency?” Her nobleness offered itself somehow as such a rebuke to my mere logic that, in my momentary irritation, I might have been on the point of assenting to her question. This imminence of my assent, justified by my horror of her huge egotism, but justified by nothing else and precipitating everything, seemed as marked for these few seconds as if we each had our eyes on it. But I sat so tight that the danger passed, leaving my silence to do what it could for my manners. She proceeded meanwhile to add a very handsome account of her own. “You should do me the justice to recognise how little I need have spoken another word to you, and how little, also, this amiable explanation to you is in the interest of one’s natural pride. It seems to me I’ve come to you here altogether in the interest of yours. You talk about humble pie, but I think that, upon my word — with all I’ve said to you — it’s I who have had to eat it. The magnanimity you speak of,” she continued with all her grandeur — “I really don’t see, either, whose it is but mine. I don’t see what account of anything I’m in any way obliged to give.”

I granted it quickly and without reserve. “You’re not obliged to give any — you’re quite right: you do it only because you’re such a large, splendid creature. I quite feel that, beside you” — I did, at least, treat myself to the amusement of saying — “I move in a tiny circle. Still, I won’t have it” — I could also, again, keep it up — “that our occasion has nothing for you but the taste of abasement. You gulp your mouthful down, but hasn’t it been served on gold plate? You’ve had a magnificent day — a brimming cup of triumph, and you’re more beautiful and fresh, after it all, and at an hour when fatigue would be almost positively graceful, than you were even this morning, when you met me as a daughter of the dawn. That’s the sort of sense,” I laughed, “that must sustain a woman!” And I wound up on a complete recovery of my good-humour. “No, no. I thank you — thank you immensely. But I don’t pity you. You can afford to lose.” I wanted her perplexity — the proper sharp dose of it — to result both from her knowing and her not knowing sufficiently what I meant; and when I in fact saw how perplexed she could be and how little, again, she could enjoy it, I felt anew my private wonder at her having cared and dared to meet me. Where was enjoyment, for her, where the insolence of success, if the breath of irony could chill them? Why, since she was bold, should she be susceptible, and how, since she was susceptible, could she be bold? I scarce know what, at this moment, determined the divination; but everything, the distinct and the dim alike, had cleared up the next instant at the touch of the real truth. The certitude of the source of my present opportunity had rolled over me before we exchanged another word. The source was simply Gilbert Long, and she was there because he had directed it. This connection hooked itself, like a sudden picture and with a click that fairly resounded through our empty rooms, into the array of the other connections, to the immense enrichment, as it was easy to feel, of the occasion, and to the immense confirmation of the very idea that, in the course of the evening, I had come near dismissing from my mind as too fantastic even for the rest of the company it should enjoy there. What I now was sure of flashed back, at any rate, every syllable of sense I could have desired into the suggestion I had, after the music, caught from the juxtaposition of these two. Thus solidified, this conviction, it spread and spread to a distance greater than I could just then traverse under Mrs. Briss’s eyes, but which, exactly for that reason perhaps, quickened my pride in the kingdom of thought I had won. I was really not to have felt more, in the whole business, than I felt at this moment that by my own right hand I had gained the kingdom. Long and she were together, and I was alone thus in face of them, but there was none the less not a single flower of the garden that my woven wreath should lack.

I must have looked queer to my friend as I grinned to myself over this vow; but my relish of the way I was keeping things together made me perhaps for the instant unduly rash. I cautioned myself, however, fortunately, before it could leave her — scared a little, all the same, even with Long behind her — an advantage to take, and, in infinitely less time than I have needed to tell it, I had achieved my flight into luminous ether and, alighting gracefully on my feet, reported myself at my post. I had in other words taken in both the full prodigy of the entente between Mrs. Server’s lover and poor Briss’s wife, and the finer strength it gave the last-named as the representative of their interest. I may add too that I had even taken time fairly not to decide which of these two branches of my vision — that of the terms of their intercourse, or that of their need of it — was likely to prove, in delectable retrospect, the more exquisite. All this, I admit, was a good deal to have come and gone while my privilege trembled, in its very essence, in the scale. Mrs. Briss had but a back to turn, and everything was over. She had, in strictness, already uttered what saved her honour, and her revenge on impertinence might easily be her withdrawing with one of her sweeps. I couldn’t certainly in that case hurry after her without spilling my cards. As my accumulations of lucidity, however, were now such as to defy all leakage, I promptly recognised the facilities involved in a superficial sacrifice; and with one more glance at the beautiful fact that she knew the strength of Long’s hand, I again went steadily and straight. She was acting not only for herself, and since she had another also to serve and, as I was sure, report to, I should sufficiently hold her. I knew moreover that I held her as soon as I had begun afresh. “I don’t mean that anything alters the fact that you lose gracefully. It is awfully charming, your thus giving yourself up, and yet, justified as I am by it, I can’t help regretting a little the excitement I found it this morning to pull a different way from you. Shall I tell you,” it suddenly came to me to put to her, “what, for some reason, a man feels aware of?” And then as, guarded, still uneasy, she would commit herself to no permission: “That pulling against you also had its thrill. You defended your cause. Oh,” I quickly added, “I know — who should know better? — that it was bad. Only — what shall I say? — you weren’t bad, and one had to fight. And then there was what one was fighting for! Well, you’re not bad now, either; so that you may ask me, of course, what more I want.” I tried to think a moment. “It isn’t that, thrown back on the comparative dullness of security, I find — as people have been known to — my own cause less good: no, it isn’t that.” After which I had my illumination. “I’ll tell you what it is: it’s the come-down of ceasing to work with you!”

She looked as if she were quite excusable for not following me. “To ‘work’?”

I immediately explained. “Even fighting was working, for we struck, you’ll remember, sparks, and sparks were what we wanted. There we are then,” I cheerfully went on. “Sparks are what we still want, and you’ve not come to me, I trust, with a mere spent match. I depend upon it that you’ve another to strike.” I showed her without fear all I took for granted. “Who, then, has?”

She was superb in her coldness, but her stare was partly blank. “Who then has what?”

“Why, done it.” And as even at this she didn’t light I gave her something of a jog. “You haven’t, with the force of your revulsion, I hope, literally lost our thread.” But as, in spite of my thus waiting for her to pick it up she did nothing, I offered myself as fairly stooping to the carpet for it and putting it back in her hand. “Done what we spent the morning wondering at. Who then, if it isn’t, certainly, Mrs. Server, is the woman who has made Gilbert Long — well, what you know?”

I had needed the moment to take in the special shade of innocence she was by this time prepared to show me. It was an innocence, in particular, in respect to the relation of anyone, in all the vast impropriety of things, to anyone. “I’m afraid I know nothing.”

I really wondered an instant how she could expect help from such extravagance. “But I thought you just recognised that you do enjoy the sense of your pardonable mistake. You knew something when you knew enough to see you had made it.”

She faced me as with the frank perception that, of whatever else one might be aware, I abounded in traps, and that this would probably be one of my worst. “Oh, I think one generally knows when one has made a mistake.”

“That’s all then I invite you — a mistake, as you properly call it — to allow me to impute to you. I’m not accusing you of having made fifty. You made none whatever, I hold, when you agreed with me with such eagerness about the striking change in him.”

She affected me as asking herself a little, on this, whether vagueness, the failure of memory, the rejection of nonsense, mightn’t still serve her. But she saw the next moment a better way. It all came back to her, but from so very far off. “The change, do you mean, in poor Mr. Long?”

“Of what other change — except, as you may say, your own — have you met me here to speak of? Your own, I needn’t remind you, is part and parcel of Long’s.”

“Oh, my own,” she presently returned, “is a much simpler matter even than that. My own is the recognition that I just expressed to you and that I can’t consent, if you please, to your twisting into the recognition of anything else. It’s the recognition that I know nothing of any other change. I stick, if you’ll allow me, to my ignorance.”

“I’ll allow you with joy,” I laughed, “if you’ll let me stick to it with you. Your own change is quite sufficient — it gives us all we need. It will give us, if we retrace the steps of it, everything, everything!”

Mrs. Briss considered. “I don’t quite see, do I? why, at this hour of the night, we should begin to retrace steps.”

“Simply because it’s the hour of the night you’ve happened, in your generosity and your discretion, to choose. I’m struck, I confess,” I declared with a still sharper conviction, “with the wonderful charm of it for our purpose.”

“And, pray, what do you call with such solemnity,” she inquired, “our purpose?”

I had fairly recovered at last — so far from being solemn — an appropriate gaiety. “I can only, with positiveness, answer for mine! That has remained all day the same — to get at the truth: not, that is, to relax my grasp of that tip of the tail of it which you so helped me this morning to fasten to. If you’ve ceased to care to help me,” I pursued, “that’s a difference indeed. But why,” I candidly, pleadingly asked, “should you cease to care?” It was more and more of a comfort to feel her imprisoned in her inability really to explain her being there. To show herself as she was explained it only so far as she could express that; which was just the freedom she could least take. “What on earth is between us, anyhow,” I insisted, “but our confounded interest? That’s only quickened, for me, don’t you see? by the charming way you’ve come round; and I don’t see how it can logically be anything less than quickened for yourself. We’re like the messengers and heralds in the tale of Cinderella, and I protest, I assure you, against any sacrifice of our dénoûment. We’ve still the glass shoe to fit.”

I took pleasure at the moment in my metaphor; but this was not the case, I soon enough perceived, with my companion. “How can I tell, please,” she demanded, “what you consider you’re talking about?”

I smiled; it was so quite the question Ford Obert, in the smoking-room, had begun by putting me. I hadn’t to take time to remind myself how I had dealt with him. “And you knew,” I sighed, “so beautifully, you glowed over it so, this morning!” She continued to give me, in every way, her disconnection from this morning, so that I had only to proceed: “You’ve not availed yourself of this occasion to pretend to me that poor Mr. Long, as you call him, is, after all, the same limited person —— ”

“That he always was, and that you, yesterday, so suddenly discovered him to have ceased to be?” — for with this she had waked up. But she was still thinking how she could turn it. “You see too much.”

“Oh, I know I do — ever so much too much. And much as I see, I express only half of it — so you may judge!” I laughed. “But what will you have? I see what I see, and this morning, for a good bit, you did me the honour to do the same. I returned, also, the compliment, didn’t I? by seeing something of what you saw. We put it, the whole thing, together, and we shook the bottle hard. I’m to take from you, after this,” I wound up, “that what it contains is a perfectly colourless fluid?”

I paused for a reply, but it was not to come so happily as from Obert. “You talk too much!” said Mrs. Briss.

I met it with amazement. “Why, whom have I told?”

I looked at her so hard with it that her colour began to rise, which made me promptly feel that she wouldn’t press that point. “I mean you’re carried away — you’re abused by a fine fancy: so that, with your art of putting things, one doesn’t know where one is — nor, if you’ll allow me to say so, do I quite think you always do. Of course I don’t deny you’re awfully clever. But you build up,” she brought out with a regret so indulgent and a reluctance so marked that she for some seconds fairly held the blow — “you build up houses of cards.”

I had been impatient to learn what, and, frankly, I was disappointed. This broke from me, after an instant, doubtless, with a bitterness not to be mistaken. “Long isn’t what he seems?”

“Seems to whom?” she asked sturdily.

“Well, call it — for simplicity — to me. For you see” — and I spoke as to show what it was to see — “it all stands or falls by that.”

The explanation presently appeared a little to have softened her. If it all stood or fell only by that, it stood or fell by something that, for her comfort, might be not so unsuccessfully disposed of. She exhaled, with the swell of her fine person, a comparative blandness — seemed to play with the idea of a smile. She had, in short, her own explanation. “The trouble with you is that you over-estimate the penetration of others. How can it approach your own?”

“Well, yours had for a while, I should say, distinct moments of keeping up with it. Nothing is more possible,” I went on, “than that I do talk too much; but I’ve done so — about the question in dispute between us — only to you. I haven’t, as I conceived we were absolutely not to do, mentioned it to anyone else, nor given anyone a glimpse of our difference. If you’ve not understood yourself as pledged to the same reserve, and have consequently,” I went on, “appealed to the light of other wisdom, it shows at least that, in spite of my intellectual pace, you must more or less have followed me. What am I not, in fine, to think of your intelligence,” I asked, “if, deciding for a resort to headquarters, you’ve put the question to Long himself?”

“The question?” She was straight out to sea again.

“Of the identity of the lady.”

She slowly, at this, headed about. “To Long himself?”

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