The Sacred Fount, by Henry James

XIII

I had felt I could risk such directness only by making it extravagant — by suggesting it as barely imaginable that she could so have played our game; and during the instant for which I had now pulled her up I could judge I had been right. It was an instant that settled everything, for I saw her, with intensity, with gallantry too, surprised but not really embarrassed, recognise that of course she must simply lie. I had been justified by making it so possible for her to lie. “It would have been a short cut,” I said, “and even more strikingly perhaps — to do it justice — a bold deed. But it would have been, in strictness, a departure — wouldn’t it? — from our so distinguished little compact. Yet while I look at you,” I went on, “I wonder. Bold deeds are, after all, quite in your line; and I’m not sure I don’t rather want not to have missed so much possible comedy. ‘I have it for you from Mr. Long himself that, every appearance to the contrary notwithstanding, his stupidity is unimpaired’ — isn’t that, for the beauty of it, after all, what you’ve veraciously to give me?” We stood face to face a moment, and I laughed out. “The beauty of it would be great!”

I had given her time; I had seen her safely to shore. It was quite what I had meant to do, but she now took still better advantage than I had expected of her opportunity. She not only scrambled up the bank, she recovered breath and turned round. “Do you imagine he would have told me?”

It was magnificent, but I felt she was still to better it should I give her a new chance. “Who the lady really is? Well, hardly; and that’s why, as you so acutely see, the question of your having risked such a step has occurred to me only as a jest. Fancy indeed” — I piled it up — “your saying to him: ‘We’re all noticing that you’re so much less of an idiot than you used to be, and we’ve different views of the miracle’!”

I had been going on, but I was checked without a word from her. Her look alone did it, for, though it was a look that partly spoiled her lie, it — by that very fact — sufficed to my confidence. “I’ve not spoken to a creature.”

It was beautifully said, but I felt again the abysses that the mere saying of it covered, and the sense of these wonderful things was not a little, no doubt, in my immediate cheer. “Ah, then, we’re all right!” I could have rubbed my hands over it. “I mean, however,” I quickly added, “only as far as that. I don’t at all feel comfortable about your new theory itself, which puts me so wretchedly in the wrong.”

“Rather!” said Mrs. Briss almost gaily. “Wretchedly indeed in the wrong!”

“Yet only — equally of course,” I returned after a brief brooding, “if I come within a conceivability of accepting it. Are you conscious that, in default of Long’s own word — equivocal as that word would be — you press it upon me without the least other guarantee?”

“And pray,” she asked, “what guarantee had you?”

“For the theory with which we started? Why, our recognised fact. The change in the man. You may say,” I pursued, “that I was the first to speak for him; but being the first didn’t, in your view, constitute a weakness when it came to your speaking yourself for Mrs. Server. By which I mean,” I added, “speaking against her.”

She remembered, but not for my benefit. “Well, you then asked me my warrant. And as regards Mr. Long and your speaking against him —— ”

“Do you describe what I say as ‘against’ him?” I immediately broke in.

It took her but an instant. “Surely — to have made him out horrid.”

I could only want to fix it. “‘Horrid’ ——?”

“Why, having such secrets.” She was roundly ready now. “Sacrificing poor May.”

“But you, dear lady, sacrificed poor May! It didn’t strike you as horrid then.”

“Well, that was only,” she maintained, “because you talked me over.”

I let her see the full process of my taking — or not taking — this in. “And who is it then that — if, as you say, you’ve spoken to no one — has, as I may call it, talked you under?”

She completed, on the spot, her statement of a moment before. “Not a creature has spoken to me.”

I felt somehow the wish to make her say it in as many ways as possible — I seemed so to enjoy her saying it. This helped me to make my tone approve and encourage. “You’ve communicated so little with anyone!” I didn’t even make it a question.

It was scarce yet, however, quite good enough. “So little? I’ve not communicated the least mite.”

“Precisely. But don’t think me impertinent for having for a moment wondered. What I should say to you if you had, you know, would be that you just accused me.”

“Accused you?”

“Of talking too much.”

It came back to her dim. “Are we accusing each other?”

Her tone seemed suddenly to put us nearer together than we had ever been at all. “Dear no,” I laughed — “not each other; only with each other’s help, a few of our good friends.”

“A few?” She handsomely demurred. “But one or two at the best.”

“Or at the worst!” — I continued to laugh. “And not even those, it after all appears, very much!”

She didn’t like my laughter, but she was now grandly indulgent. “Well, I accuse no one.”

I was silent a little; then I concurred. “It’s doubtless your best line; and I really quite feel, at all events, that when you mentioned a while since that I talk too much you only meant too much to you.”

“Yes — I wasn’t imputing to you the same direct appeal. I didn’t suppose,” she explained, “that — to match your own supposition of me — you had resorted to May herself.”

“You didn’t suppose I had asked her?” The point was positively that she didn’t; yet it made us look at each other almost as hard as if she did. “No, of course you couldn’t have supposed anything so cruel — all the more that, as you knew, I had not admitted the possibility.”

She accepted my assent; but, oddly enough, with a sudden qualification that showed her as still sharply disposed to make use of any loose scrap of her embarrassed acuteness. “Of course, at the same time, you yourself saw that your not admitting the possibility would have taken the edge from your cruelty. It’s not the innocent,” she suggestively remarked, “that we fear to frighten.”

“Oh,” I returned, “I fear, mostly, I think, to frighten any one. I’m not particularly brave. I haven’t, at all events, in spite of my certitude, interrogated Mrs. Server, and I give you my word of honour that I’ve not had any denial from her to prop up my doubt. It still stands on its own feet, and it was its own battle that, when I came here at your summons, it was prepared to fight. Let me accordingly remind you,” I pursued, “in connection with that, of the one sense in which you were, as you a moment ago said, talked over by me. I persuaded you apparently that Long’s metamorphosis was not the work of Lady John. I persuaded you of nothing else.”

She looked down a little, as if again at a trap. “You persuaded me that it was the work of somebody.” Then she held up her head. “It came to the same thing.”

If I had credit then for my trap it at least might serve. “The same thing as what?”

“Why, as claiming that it was she.”

“Poor May — ‘claiming’? When I insisted it wasn’t!”

Mrs. Brissenden flushed. “You didn’t insist it wasn’t anybody!”

“Why should I when I didn’t believe so? I’ve left you in no doubt,” I indulgently smiled, “of my beliefs. It was somebody — and it still is.”

She looked about at the top of the room. “The mistake’s now yours.”

I watched her an instant. “Can you tell me then what one does to recover from such mistakes?”

“One thinks a little.”

“Ah, the more I’ve thought the deeper I’ve sunk! And that seemed to me the case with you this morning,” I added, “the more you thought.”

“Well, then,” she frankly declared, “I must have stopped thinking!”

It was a phenomenon, I sufficiently showed, that thought only could meet. “Could you tell me then at what point?”

She had to think even to do that. “At what point?”

“What in particular determined, I mean, your arrest? You surely didn’t — launched as you were — stop short all of yourself.”

She fronted me, after all, still so bravely that I believed her for an instant not to be, on this article, without an answer she could produce. The unexpected therefore broke for me when she fairly produced none. “I confess I don’t make out,” she simply said, “while you seem so little pleased that I agree with you.”

I threw back, in despair, both head and hands. “But, you poor, dear thing, you don’t in the least agree with me! You flatly contradict me. You deny my miracle.”

“I don’t believe in miracles,” she panted.

“So I exactly, at this late hour, learn. But I don’t insist on the name. Nothing is, I admit, a miracle from the moment one’s on the track of the cause, which was the scent we were following. Call the thing simply my fact.”

She gave her high head a toss. “If it’s yours it’s nobody else’s!”

“Ah, there’s just the question — if we could know all! But my point is precisely, for the present, that you do deny it.”

“Of course I deny it,” said Mrs. Briss.

I took a moment, but my silence held her. “Your ‘of course’ would be what I would again contest, what I would denounce and brand as the word too much — the word that spoils, were it not that it seems best, that it in any case seems necessary, to let all question of your consistency go.”

On that I had paused, and, as I felt myself still holding her, I was not surprised when my pause had an effect. “You do let it go?”

She had tried, I could see, to put the inquiry as all ironic. But it was not all ironic; it was, in fact, little enough so to suggest for me some intensification — not quite, I trust, wanton — of her suspense. I should be at a loss to say indeed how much it suggested or half of what it told. These things again almost violently moved me, and if I, after an instant, in my silence, turned away, it was not only to keep her waiting, but to make my elation more private. I turned away to that tune that I literally, for a few minutes, quitted her, availing myself thus, superficially, of the air of weighing a consequence. I wandered off twenty steps and, while I passed my hand over my troubled head, looked vaguely at objects on tables and sniffed absently at flowers in bowls. I don’t know how long I so lost myself, nor quite why — as I must for some time have kept it up — my companion didn’t now really embrace her possible alternative of rupture and retreat. Or rather, as to her action in this last matter, I am, and was on the spot, clear: I knew at that moment how much she knew she must not leave me without having got from me. It came back in waves, in wider glimpses, and produced in so doing the excitement I had to control. It could not but be exciting to talk, as we talked, on the basis of those suppressed processes and unavowed references which made the meaning of our meeting so different from its form. We knew ourselves — what moved me, that is, was that she knew me — to mean, at every point, immensely more than I said or than she answered; just as she saw me, at the same points, measure the space by which her answers fell short. This made my conversation with her a totally other and a far more interesting thing than any colloquy I had ever enjoyed; it had even a sharpness that had not belonged, a few hours before, to my extraordinary interview with Mrs. Server. She couldn’t afford to quarrel with me for catechising her; she couldn’t afford not to have kept, in her way, faith with me; she couldn’t afford, after inconceivable passages with Long, not to treat me as an observer to be squared. She had come down to square me; she was hanging on to square me; she was suffering and stammering and lying; she was both carrying it grandly off and letting it desperately go: all, all to square me. And I caught moreover perfectly her vision of her way, and I followed her way even while I judged it, feeling that the only personal privilege I could, after all, save from the whole business was that of understanding. I couldn’t save Mrs. Server, and I couldn’t save poor Briss; I could, however, guard, to the last grain of gold, my precious sense of their loss, their disintegration and their doom; and it was for this I was now bargaining.

It was of giving herself away just enough not to spoil for me my bargain over my treasure that Mrs. Briss’s bribe would consist. She would let me see as far as I would if she could feel sure I would do nothing; and it was exactly in this question of how much I might have scared my couple into the sense I could “do” that the savour of my suspense most dwelt. I could have made them uneasy, of course, only by making them fear my intervention; and yet the idea of their being uneasy was less wonderful than the idea of my having, with all my precautions, communicated to them a consciousness. This was so the last thing I had wanted to do that I felt, during my swift excursion, how much time I should need in the future for recovery of the process — all of the finest wind-blown intimations, woven of silence and secrecy and air — by which their suspicion would have throbbed into life. I could only, provisionally and sketchily, figure it out, this suspicion, as having, little by little — not with a sudden start — felt itself in the presence of my own, just as my own now returned the compliment. What came back to me, as I have said, in waves and wider glimpses, was the marvel of their exchange of signals, the phenomenon, scarce to be represented, of their breaking ground with each other. They both had their treasure to guard, and they had looked to each other with the instinct of help. They had felt, on either side, the victim possibly slip, and they had connected the possibility with an interest discernibly inspired in me by this personage, and with a relation discoverably established by that interest. It wouldn’t have been a danger, perhaps, if the two victims hadn’t slipped together; and more amazing, doubtless, than anything else was the recognition by my sacrificing couple of the opportunity drawn by my sacrificed from being conjoined in my charity. How could they know, Gilbert Long and Mrs. Briss, that actively to communicate a consciousness to my other friends had no part in my plan? The most I had dreamed of, I could honourably feel, was to assure myself of their independent possession of one. These things were with me while, as I have noted, I made Grace Brissenden wait, and it was also with me that, though I condoned her deviation, she must take it from me as a charity. I had presently achieved another of my full revolutions, and I faced her again with a view of her overture and my answer to her last question. The terms were not altogether what my pity could have wished, but I sufficiently kept everything together to have to see that there were limits to my choice. “Yes, I let it go, your change of front, though it vexes me a little — and I’ll in a moment tell you why — to have to. But let us put it that it’s on a condition.”

“Change of front?” she murmured while she looked at me. “Your expressions are not of the happiest.”

But I saw it was only again to cover a doubt. My condition, for her, was questionable, and I felt it would be still more so on her hearing what it was. Meanwhile, however, in spite of her qualification of it, I had fallen back, once and for all, on pure benignity. “It scarce matters if I’m clumsy when you’re practically so bland. I wonder if you’ll understand,” I continued, “if I make you an explanation.”

“Most probably,” she answered, as handsome as ever, “not.”

“Let me at all events try you. It’s moreover the one I just promised; which was no more indeed than the development of a feeling I’ve already permitted myself to show you. I lose” — I brought it out — “by your agreeing with me!”

“‘Lose’?”

“Yes; because while we disagreed you were, in spite of that, on the right side.”

“And what do you call the right side?”

“Well” — I brought it out again — “on the same side as my imagination.”

But it gave her at least a chance. “Oh, your imagination!”

“Yes — I know what you think of it; you’ve sufficiently hinted how little that is. But it’s precisely because you regard it as rubbish that I now appeal to you.”

She continued to guard herself by her surprises. “Appeal? I thought you were on the ground, rather,” she beautifully smiled, “of dictation.”

“Well, I’m that too. I dictate my terms. But my terms are in themselves the appeal.” I was ingenious but patient. “See?”

“How in the world can I see?”

Voyons, then. Light or darkness, my imagination rides me. But of course if it’s all wrong I want to get rid of it. You can’t, naturally, help me to destroy the faculty itself, but you can aid in the defeat of its application to a particular case. It was because you so smiled, before, on that application, that I valued even my minor difference with you; and what I refer to as my loss is the fact that your frown leaves me struggling alone. The best thing for me, accordingly, as I feel, is to get rid altogether of the obsession. The way to do that, clearly, since you’ve done it, is just to quench the fire. By the fire I mean the flame of the fancy that blazed so for us this morning. What the deuce have you, for yourself, poured on it? Tell me,” I pleaded, “and teach me.”

Equally with her voice her face echoed me again. “Teach you?”

“To abandon my false gods. Lead me back to peace by the steps you’ve trod. By so much as they must have remained traceable to you, shall I find them of interest and profit. They must in fact be most remarkable: won’t they even — for what I may find in them — be more remarkable than those we should now be taking together if we hadn’t separated, if we hadn’t pulled up?” That was a proposition I could present to her with candour, but before her absence of precipitation had permitted her much to consider it I had already followed it on. “You’ll just tell me, however, that since I do pull up and turn back with you we shall just have not separated. Well, then, so much the better — I see you’re right. But I want,” I earnestly declared, “not to lose an inch of the journey.”

She watched me now as a Roman lady at the circus may have watched an exemplary Christian. “The journey has been a very simple one,” she said at last. “With my mind made up on a single point, it was taken at a stride.”

I was all interest. “On a single point?” Then, as, almost excessively deliberate, she still kept me: “You mean the still commonplace character of Long’s — a — consciousness?”

She had taken at last again the time she required. “Do you know what I think?”

“It’s exactly what I’m pressing you to make intelligible.”

“Well,” said Mrs. Briss, “I think you’re crazy.”

It naturally struck me. “Crazy?”

“Crazy.”

I turned it over. “But do you call that intelligible?”

She did it justice. “No: I don’t suppose it can be so for you if you are insane.”

I risked the long laugh which might have seemed that of madness. “‘If I am’ is lovely!” And whether or not it was the special sound, in my ear, of my hilarity, I remember just wondering if perhaps I mightn’t be. “Dear woman, it’s the point at issue!”

But it was as if she too had been affected. “It’s not at issue for me now.”

I gave her then the benefit of my stirred speculation. “It always happens, of course, that one is one’s self the last to know. You’re perfectly convinced?”

She not ungracefully, for an instant, faltered; but since I really would have it ——! “Oh, so far as what we’ve talked of is concerned, perfectly!”

“And it’s actually what you’ve come down then to tell me?”

“Just exactly what. And if it’s a surprise to you,” she added, “that I should have come down — why, I can only say I was prepared for anything.”

“Anything?” I smiled.

“In the way of a surprise.”

I thought; but her preparation was natural, though in a moment I could match it. “Do you know that’s what I was too?”

“Prepared ——?”

“For anything in the way of a surprise. But only from you,” I explained. “And of course — yes,” I mused, “I’ve got it. If I am crazy,” I went on — “it’s indeed simple.”

She appeared, however, to feel, from the influence of my present tone, the impulse, in courtesy, to attenuate. “Oh, I don’t pretend it’s simple!”

“No? I thought that was just what you did pretend.”

“I didn’t suppose,” said Mrs. Briss, “that you’d like it. I didn’t suppose that you’d accept it or even listen to it. But I owed it to you —— ” She hesitated.

“You owed it to me to let me know what you thought of me even should it prove very disagreeable?”

That perhaps was more than she could adopt. “I owed it to myself,” she replied with a touch of austerity.

“To let me know I’m demented?”

“To let you know I’m not.” We each looked, I think, when she had said it, as if she had done what she said. “That’s all.”

“All?” I wailed. “Ah, don’t speak as if it were so little. It’s much. It’s everything.”

“It’s anything you will!” said Mrs. Briss impatiently. “Good-night.”

“Good-night?” I was aghast. “You leave me on it?”

She appeared to profess for an instant all the freshness of her own that she was pledged to guard. “I must leave you on something. I couldn’t come to spend a whole hour.”

“But do you think it’s so quickly done — to persuade a man he’s crazy?”

“I haven’t expected to persuade you.”

“Only to throw out the hint?”

“Well,” she admitted, “it would be good if it could work in you. But I’ve told you,” she added as if to wind up and have done, “what determined me.”

“I beg your pardon” — oh, I protested! “That’s just what you’ve not told me. The reason of your change —— ”

“I’m not speaking,” she broke in, “of my change.”

“Ah, but I am!” I declared with a sharpness that threw her back for a minute on her reserves. “It’s your change,” I again insisted, “that’s the interesting thing. If I’m crazy, I must once more remind you, you were simply crazy with me; and how can I therefore be indifferent to your recovery of your wit or let you go without having won from you the secret of your remedy?” I shook my head with kindness, but with decision. “You mustn’t leave me till you’ve placed it in my hand.”

The reserves I had spoken of were not, however, to fail her. “I thought you just said that you let my inconsistency go.”

“Your moral responsibility for it — perfectly. But how can I show a greater indulgence than by positively desiring to enter into its history? It’s in that sense that, as I say,” I developed, “I do speak of your change. There must have been a given moment when the need of it — or when, in other words, the truth of my personal state — dawned upon you. That moment is the key to your whole position — the moment for us to fix.”

“Fix it,” said poor Mrs. Briss, “when you like!”

“I had much rather,” I protested, “fix it when you like. I want — you surely must understand if I want anything of it at all — to get it absolutely right.” Then as this plea seemed still not to move her, I once more compressed my palms. “You won’t help me?”

She bridled at last with a higher toss. “It wasn’t with such views I came. I don’t believe,” she went on a shade more patiently, “I don’t believe — if you want to know the reason — that you’re really sincere.”

Here indeed was an affair. “Not sincere — I?”

“Not properly honest. I mean in giving up.”

“Giving up what?”

“Why, everything.”

“Everything? Is it a question” — I stared — “of that?”

“You would if you were honest.”

“Everything?” I repeated.

Again she stood to it. “Everything.”

“But is that quite the readiness I’ve professed?”

“If it isn’t then, what is?”

I thought a little. “Why, isn’t it simply a matter rather of the renunciation of a confidence?”

“In your sense and your truth?” This, she indicated, was all she asked. “Well, what is that but everything?”

“Perhaps,” I reflected, “perhaps.” In fact, it no doubt was. “We’ll take it then for everything, and it’s as so taking it that I renounce. I keep nothing at all. Now do you believe I’m honest?”

She hesitated. “Well — yes, if you say so.”

“Ah,” I sighed, “I see you don’t! What can I do,” I asked, “to prove it?”

“You can easily prove it. You can let me go.”

“Does it strike you,” I considered, “that I should take your going as a sign of your belief?”

“Of what else, then?”

“Why, surely,” I promptly replied, “my assent to your leaving our discussion where it stands would constitute a very different symptom. Wouldn’t it much rather represent,” I inquired, “a failure of belief on my own part in your honesty? If you can judge me, in short, as only pretending —— ”

“Why shouldn’t you,” she put in for me, “also judge me? What have I to gain by pretending?”

“I’ll tell you,” I returned, laughing, “if you’ll tell me what I have.”

She appeared to ask herself if she could, and then to decide in the negative. “If I don’t understand you in any way, of course I don’t in that. Put it, at any rate,” she now rather wearily quavered, “that one of us has as little to gain as the other. I believe you,” she repeated. “There!”

“Thanks,” I smiled, “for the way you say it. If you don’t, as you say, understand me,” I insisted, “it’s because you think me crazy. And if you think me crazy I don’t see how you can leave me.”

She presently met this. “If I believe you’re sincere in saying you give up I believe you’ve recovered. And if I believe you’ve recovered I don’t think you crazy. It’s simple enough.”

“Then why isn’t it simple to understand me?”

She turned about, and there were moments in her embarrassment, now, from which she fairly drew beauty. Her awkwardness was somehow noble; her sense of her predicament was in itself young. “Is it ever?” she charmingly threw out.

I felt she must see at this juncture how wonderful I found her, and even that that impression — one’s whole consciousness of her personal victory — was a force that, in the last resort, was all on her side. “It was quite worth your while, this sitting up to this hour, to show a fellow how you bloom when other women are fagged. If that was really, with the truth that we’re so pulling about laid bare, what you did most want to show, why, then, you’ve splendidly triumphed, and I congratulate and thank you. No,” I quickly went on, “I daresay, to do you justice, the interpretation of my tropes and figures isn’t ‘ever’ perfectly simple. You doubtless have driven me into a corner with my dangerous explosive, and my only fair course must be therefore to sit on it till you get out of the room. I’m sitting on it now; and I think you’ll find you can get out as soon as you’ve told me this. Was the moment your change of view dawned upon you the moment of our exchanging a while ago, in the drawing-room, our few words?”

The light that, under my last assurances, had so considerably revived faded in her a little as she saw me again tackle the theme of her inconstancy; but the prospect of getting rid of me on these terms made my inquiry, none the less, worth trying to face. “That moment?” She showed the effort to think back.

I gave her every assistance. “It was when, after the music, I had been talking to Lady John. You were on a sofa, not far from us, with Gilbert Long; and when, on Lady John’s dropping me, I made a slight movement toward you, you most graciously met it by rising and giving me a chance while Mr. Long walked away.”

It was as if I had hung the picture before her, so that she had fairly to look at it. But the point that she first, in her effort, took up was not, superficially, the most salient. “Mr. Long walked away?”

“Oh, I don’t mean to say that that had anything to do with it.”

She continued to think. “To do with what?”

“With the way the situation comes back to me now as possibly marking your crisis.”

She wondered. “Was it a ‘situation’?”

“That’s just what I’m asking you. Was it? Was it the situation?”

But she had quite fallen away again. “I remember the moment you mean — it was when I said I would come to you here. But why should it have struck you as a crisis?”

“It didn’t in the least at the time, for I didn’t then know you were no longer ‘with’ me. But in the light of what I’ve since learned from you I seem to recover an impression which, on the spot, was only vague. The impression,” I explained, “of your taking a decision that presented some difficulty, but that was determined by something that had then — and even perhaps a little suddenly — come up for you. That’s the point” — I continued to unfold my case — “on which my question bears. Was this ‘something’ your conclusion, then and there, that there’s nothing in anything?”

She kept her distance. “‘In anything’?”

“And that I could only be, accordingly, out of my mind? Come,” I patiently pursued; “such a perception as that had, at some instant or other, to begin; and I’m only trying to aid you to recollect when the devil it did!”

“Does it particularly matter?” Mrs. Briss inquired.

I felt my chin. “That depends a little — doesn’t it? — on what you mean by ‘matter’! It matters for your meeting my curiosity, and that matters, in its turn, as we just arranged, for my releasing you. You may ask of course if my curiosity itself matters; but to that, fortunately, my reply can only be of the clearest. The satisfaction of my curiosity is the pacification of my mind. We’ve granted, we’ve accepted, I again press upon you, in respect to that precarious quantity, its topsy-turvy state. Only give me a lead; I don’t ask you for more. Let me for an instant see play before me any feeble reflection whatever of the flash of new truth that unsettled you.”

I thought for a moment that, in her despair, she would find something that would do. But she only found: “It didn’t come in a flash.”

I remained all patience. “It came little by little? It began then perhaps earlier in the day than the moment to which I allude? And yet,” I continued, “we were pretty well on in the day, I must keep in mind, when I had your last news of your credulity.”

“My credulity?”

“Call it then, if you don’t like the word, your sympathy.”

I had given her time, however, to produce at last something that, it visibly occurred to her, might pass. “As soon as I was not with you — I mean with you personally — you never had my sympathy.”

“Is my person then so irresistible?”

Well, she was brave. “It was. But it’s not, thank God, now!”

“Then there we are again at our mystery! I don’t think, you know,” I made out for her, “it was my person, really, that gave its charm to my theory; I think it was much more my theory that gave its charm to my person. My person, I flatter myself, has remained through these few hours — hours of tension, but of a tension, you see, purely intellectual — as good as ever; so that if we’re not, even in our anomalous situation, in danger from any such source, it’s simply that my theory is dead and that the blight of the rest is involved.”

My words were indeed many, but she plumped straight through them. “As soon as I was away from you I hated you.”

“Hated me?”

“Well, hated what you call ‘the rest’ — hated your theory.”

“I see. Yet,” I reflected, “you’re not at present — though you wish to goodness, no doubt, you were — away from me.”

“Oh, I don’t care now,” she said with courage; “since — for you see I believe you — we’re away from your delusions.”

“You wouldn’t, in spite of your belief,” — I smiled at her — “like to be a little further off yet?” But before she could answer, and because also, doubtless, the question had too much the sound of a taunt, I came up, as if for her real convenience, quite in another place. “Perhaps my idea — my timing, that is, of your crisis — is the result, in my mind, of my own association with that particular instant. It comes back to me that what I was most full of while your face signed to me and your voice then so graciously confirmed it, and while too, as I’ve said, Long walked away — what I was most full of, as a consequence of another go, just ended, at Lady John, was, once more, this same Lady John’s want of adjustability to the character you and I, in our associated speculation of the morning, had so candidly tried to fit her with. I was still even then, you see, speculating — all on my own hook, alas! — and it had just rolled over me with renewed force that she was nothing whatever, not the least little bit, to our purpose. The moment, in other words, if you understand, happened to be one of my moments; so that, by the same token, I simply wondered if it mightn’t likewise have happened to be one of yours.”

“It was one of mine,” Mrs. Briss replied as promptly as I could reasonably have expected; “in the sense that — as you’ve only to consider — it was to lead more or less directly to these present words of ours.”

If I had only to consider, nothing was more easy; but each time I considered, I was ready to show, the less there seemed left by the act. “Ah, but you had then already backed out. Won’t you understand — for you’re a little discouraging — that I want to catch you at the earlier stage?”

“To ‘catch’ me?” I had indeed expressions!

“Absolutely catch! Focus you under the first shock of the observation that was to make everything fall to pieces for you.”

“But I’ve told you,” she stoutly resisted, “that there was no ‘first’ shock.”

“Well, then, the second or the third.”

“There was no shock,” Mrs. Briss magnificently said, “at all.”

It made me somehow break into laughter. “You found it so natural then — and you so rather liked it — to make up your mind of a sudden that you had been steeped in the last intellectual intimacy with a maniac?”

She thought once more, and then, as I myself had just previously done, came up in another place. “I had at the moment you speak of wholly given up any idea of Lady John.”

But it was so feeble it made me smile. “Of course you had, you poor innocent! You couldn’t otherwise, hours before, have strapped the saddle so tight on another woman.”

“I had given up everything,” she stubbornly continued.

“It’s exactly what, in reference to that juncture, I perfectly embrace.”

“Well, even in reference to that juncture,” she resumed, “you may catch me as much as you like.” With which, suddenly, during some seconds, I saw her hold herself for a leap. “You talk of ‘focussing,’ but what else, even in those minutes, were you in fact engaged in?”

“Ah, then, you do recognise them,” I cried — “those minutes?”

She took her jump, though with something of a flop. “Yes — as, consenting thus to be catechised, I cudgel my brain for your amusement — I do recognise them. I remember what I thought. You focussed — I felt you focus. I saw you wonder whereabouts, in what you call our associated speculation, I would by that time be. I asked myself whether you’d understand if I should try to convey to you simply by my expression such a look as would tell you all. By ‘all’ I meant the fact that, sorry as I was for you — or perhaps for myself — it had struck me as only fair to let you know as straight as possible that I was nowhere. That was why I stared so, and I of course couldn’t explain to you,” she lucidly pursued, “to whom my stare had reference.”

I hung on her lips. “But you can now?”

“Perfectly. To Mr. Long.”

I remained suspended. “Ah, but this is lovely! It’s what I want.”

I saw I should have more of it, and more in fact came. “You were saying just now what you were full of, and I can do the same. I was full of him.”

I, on my side, was now full of eagerness. “Yes? He had left you full as he walked away?”

She winced a little at this renewed evocation of his retreat, but she took it as she had not done before, and I felt that with another push she would be fairly afloat. “He had reason to walk!”

I wondered. “What had you said to him?”

She pieced it out. “Nothing — or very little. But I had listened.”

“And to what?”

“To what he says. To his platitudes.”

“His platitudes?” I stared. “Long’s?”

“Why, don’t you know he’s a prize fool?”

I mused, sceptical but reasonable. “He was.”

“He is!”

Mrs. Briss was superb, but, as I quickly felt I might remind her, there was her possibly weak judgment. “Your confidence is splendid; only mustn’t I remember that your sense of the finer kinds of cleverness isn’t perhaps absolutely secure? Don’t you know? — you also, till just now, thought me a prize fool.”

If I had hoped, however, here to trip her up, I had reckoned without the impulse, and even perhaps the example, that she properly owed to me. “Oh, no — not anything of that sort, you, at all. Only an intelligent man gone wrong.”

I followed, but before I caught up, “Whereas Long’s only a stupid man gone right?” I threw out.

It checked her too briefly, and there was indeed something of my own it brought straight back. “I thought that just what you told me, this morning or yesterday, was that you had never known a case of the conversion of an idiot.”

I laughed at her readiness. Well, I had wanted to make her fight! “It’s true it would have been the only one.”

“Ah, you’ll have to do without it!” Oh, she was brisk now. “And if you know what I think of him, you know no more than he does.”

“You mean you told him?”

She hung fire but an instant. “I told him, practically — and it was in fact all I did have to say to him. It was enough, however, and he disgustedly left me on it. Then it was that, as you gave me the chance, I tried to telegraph you — to say to you on the spot and under the sharp impression: ‘What on earth do you mean by your nonsense? It doesn’t hold water!’ It’s a pity I didn’t succeed!” she continued — for she had become almost voluble. “It would have settled the question, and I should have gone to bed.”

I weighed it with the grimace that, I feared, had become almost as fixed as Mrs. Server’s. “It would have settled the question perhaps; but I should have lost this impression of you.”

“Oh, this impression of me!”

“Ah, but don’t undervalue it: it’s what I want! What was it then Long had said?”

She had it more and more, but she had it as nothing at all. “Not a word to repeat — you wouldn’t believe! He does say nothing at all. One can’t remember. It’s what I mean. I tried him on purpose, while I thought of you. But he’s perfectly stupid. I don’t see how we can have fancied ——!” I had interrupted her by the movement with which again, uncontrollably tossed on one of my surges of certitude, I turned away. How deep they must have been in together for her to have so at last gathered herself up, and in how doubly interesting a light, above all, it seemed to present Long for the future! That was, while I warned myself, what I most read in — literally an implication of the enhancement of this latter side of the prodigy. If his cleverness, under the alarm that, first stirring their consciousness but dimly, had so swiftly developed as to make next of each a mirror for the other, and then to precipitate for them, in some silence deeper than darkness, the exchange of recognitions, admissions and, as they certainly would have phrased it, tips — if his excited acuteness was henceforth to protect itself by dissimulation, what wouldn’t perhaps, for one’s diversion, be the new spectacle and wonder? I could in a manner already measure this larger play by the amplitude freshly determined in Mrs. Briss, and I was for a moment actually held by the thought of the possible finish our friend would find it in him to give to a represented, a fictive ineptitude. The sharpest jostle to my thought, in this rush, might well have been, I confess, the reflection that as it was I who had arrested, who had spoiled their unconsciousness, so it was natural they should fight against me for a possible life in the state I had given them instead. I had spoiled their unconsciousness, I had destroyed it, and it was consciousness alone that could make them effectively cruel. Therefore, if they were cruel, it was I who had determined it, inasmuch as, consciously, they could only want, they could only intend, to live. Wouldn’t that question have been, I managed even now to ask myself, the very basis on which they had inscrutably come together? “It’s life, you know,” each had said to the other, “and I, accordingly, can only cling to mine. But you, poor dear — shall you give up?” “Give up?” the other had replied; “for what do you take me? I shall fight by your side, please, and we can compare and exchange weapons and manoeuvres, and you may in every way count upon me.”

That was what, with greater vividness, was for the rest of the occasion before me, or behind me; and that I had done it all and had only myself to thank for it was what, from this minute, by the same token, was more and more for me the inner essence of Mrs. Briss’s attitude. I know not what heavy admonition of my responsibility had thus suddenly descended on me; but nothing, under it, was indeed more sensible than that practically it paralysed me. And I could only say to myself that this was the price — the price of the secret success, the lonely liberty and the intellectual joy. There were things that for so private and splendid a revel — that of the exclusive king with his Wagner opera — I could only let go, and the special torment of my case was that the condition of light, of the satisfaction of curiosity and of the attestation of triumph, was in this direct way the sacrifice of feeling. There was no point at which my assurance could, by the scientific method, judge itself complete enough not to regard feeling as an interference and, in consequence, as a possible check. If it had to go I knew well who went with it, but I wasn’t there to save them. I was there to save my priceless pearl of an inquiry and to harden, to that end, my heart. I should need indeed all my hardness, as well as my brightness, moreover, to meet Mrs. Briss on the high level to which I had at last induced her to mount, and, even while I prolonged the movement by which I had momentarily stayed her, the intermission of her speech became itself for me a hint of the peculiar pertinence of caution. It lasted long enough, this drop, to suggest that her attention was the sharper for my having turned away from it, and I should have feared a renewed challenge if she hadn’t, by good luck, presently gone on: “There’s really nothing in him at all!”

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