The Sacred Fount, by Henry James

XIV

I had faced her again just in time to take it, and I immediately made up my mind how best to do so. “Then I go utterly to pieces!”

“You shouldn’t have perched yourself,” she laughed — she could by this time almost coarsely laugh — “in such a preposterous place!”

“Ah, that’s my affair,” I returned, “and if I accept the consequences I don’t quite see what you’ve to say to it. That I do accept them — so far as I make them out as not too intolerable and you as not intending them to be — that I do accept them is what I’ve been trying to signify to you. Only my fall,” I added, “is an inevitable shock. You remarked to me a few minutes since that you didn’t recover yourself in a flash. I differ from you, you see, in that I do; I take my collapse all at once. Here then I am. I’m smashed. I don’t see, as I look about me, a piece I can pick up. I don’t attempt to account for my going wrong; I don’t attempt to account for yours with me; I don’t attempt to account for anything. If Long is just what he always was it settles the matter, and the special clincher for us can be but your honest final impression, made precisely more aware of itself by repentance for the levity with which you had originally yielded to my contagion.”

She didn’t insist on her repentance; she was too taken up with the facts themselves. “Oh, but add to my impression everyone else’s impression! Has anyone noticed anything?”

“Ah, I don’t know what anyone has noticed. I haven’t,” I brooded, “ventured — as you know — to ask anyone.”

“Well, if you had you’d have seen — seen, I mean, all they don’t see. If they had been conscious they’d have talked.”

I thought. “To me?”

“Well, I’m not sure to you; people have such a notion of what you embroider on things that they’re rather afraid to commit themselves or to lead you on: they’re sometimes in, you know,” she luminously reminded me, “for more than they bargain for, than they quite know what to do with, or than they care to have on their hands.”

I tried to do justice to this account of myself. “You mean I see so much?”

It was a delicate matter, but she risked it. “Don’t you sometimes see horrors?”

I wondered. “Well, names are a convenience. People catch me in the act?”

“They certainly think you critical.”

“And is criticism the vision of horrors?”

She couldn’t quite be sure where I was taking her. “It isn’t, perhaps, so much that you see them —— ”

I started. “As that I perpetrate them?”

She was sure now, however, and wouldn’t have it, for she was serious. “Dear no — you don’t perpetrate anything. Perhaps it would be better if you did!” she tossed off with an odd laugh. “But — always by people’s idea — you like them.”

I followed. “Horrors?”

“Well, you don’t —— ”

“Yes ——?”

But she wouldn’t be hurried now. “You take them too much for what they are. You don’t seem to want —— ”

“To come down on them strong? Oh, but I often do!”

“So much the better then.”

“Though I do like — whether for that or not,” I hastened to confess, “to look them first well in the face.”

Our eyes met, with this, for a minute, but she made nothing of that. “When they have no face, then, you can’t do it! It isn’t at all events now a question,” she went on, “of people’s keeping anything back, and you’re perhaps in any case not the person to whom it would first have come.”

I tried to think then who the person would be. “It would have come to Long himself?”

But she was impatient of this. “Oh, one doesn’t know what comes — or what doesn’t — to Long himself! I’m not sure he’s too modest to misrepresent — if he had the intelligence to play a part.”

“Which he hasn’t!” I concluded.

“Which he hasn’t. It’s to me they might have spoken — or to each other.”

“But I thought you exactly held they had chattered in accounting for his state by the influence of Lady John.”

She got the matter instantly straight. “Not a bit. That chatter was mine only — and produced to meet yours. There had so, by your theory, to be a woman —— ”

“That, to oblige me, you invented her? Precisely. But I thought —— ”

“You needn’t have thought!” Mrs. Briss broke in. “I didn’t invent her.”

“Then what are you talking about?”

“I didn’t invent her,” she repeated, looking at me hard. “She’s true.” I echoed it in vagueness, though instinctively again in protest; yet I held my breath, for this was really the point at which I felt my companion’s forces most to have mustered. Her manner now moreover gave me a great idea of them, and her whole air was of taking immediate advantage of my impression. “Well, see here: since you’ve wanted it, I’m afraid that, however little you may like it, you’ll have to take it. You’ve pressed me for explanations and driven me much harder than you must have seen I found convenient. If I’ve seemed to beat about the bush it’s because I hadn’t only myself to think of. One can be simple for one’s self — one can’t be, always, for others.”

“Ah, to whom do you say it?” I encouragingly sighed; not even yet quite seeing for what issue she was heading.

She continued to make for the spot, whatever it was, with a certain majesty. “I should have preferred to tell you nothing more than what I have told you. I should have preferred to close our conversation on the simple announcement of my recovered sense of proportion. But you have, I see, got me in too deep.”

“O-oh!” I courteously attenuated.

“You’ve made of me,” she lucidly insisted, “too big a talker, too big a thinker, of nonsense.”

“Thank you,” I laughed, “for intimating that I trifle so agreeably.”

“Oh, you’ve appeared not to mind! But let me then at last not fail of the luxury of admitting that I mind. Yes, I mind particularly. I may be bad, but I’ve a grain of gumption.”

“‘Bad’?” It seemed more closely to concern me.

“Bad I may be. In fact,” she pursued at this high pitch and pressure, “there’s no doubt whatever I am.”

“I’m delighted to hear it,” I cried, “for it was exactly something strong I wanted of you!”

“It is then strong” — and I could see indeed she was ready to satisfy me. “You’ve worried me for my motive and harassed me for my ‘moment,’ and I’ve had to protect others and, at the cost of a decent appearance, to pretend to be myself half an idiot. I’ve had even, for the same purpose — if you must have it — to depart from the truth; to give you, that is, a false account of the manner of my escape from your tangle. But now the truth shall be told, and others can take care of themselves!” She had so wound herself up with this, reached so the point of fairly heaving with courage and candour, that I for an instant almost miscalculated her direction and believed she was really throwing up her cards. It was as if she had decided, on some still finer lines, just to rub my nose into what I had been spelling out; which would have been an anticipation of my own journey’s crown of the most disconcerting sort. I wanted my personal confidence, but I wanted nobody’s confession, and without the journey’s crown where was the personal confidence? Without the personal confidence, moreover, where was the personal honour? That would be really the single thing to which I could attach authority, for a confession might, after all, be itself a lie. Anybody, at all events, could fit the shoe to one. My friend’s intention, however, remained but briefly equivocal; my danger passed, and I recognised in its place a still richer assurance. It was not the unnamed, in short, who were to be named. “Lady John is the woman.”

Yet even this was prodigious. “But I thought your present position was just that she’s not!”

“Lady John is the woman,” Mrs. Briss again announced.

“But I thought your present position was just that nobody is!”

“Lady John is the woman,” she a third time declared.

It naturally left me gaping. “Then there is one?” I cried between bewilderment and joy.

“A woman? There’s her!” Mrs. Briss replied with more force than grammar. “I know,” she briskly, almost breezily added, “that I said she wouldn’t do (as I had originally said she would do better than any one), when you a while ago mentioned her. But that was to save her.”

“And you don’t care now,” I smiled, “if she’s lost!”

She hesitated. “She is lost. But she can take care of herself.”

I could but helplessly think of her. “I’m afraid indeed that, with what you’ve done with her, I can’t take care of her. But why is she now to the purpose,” I articulately wondered, “any more than she was?”

“Why? On the very system you yourself laid down. When we took him for brilliant, she couldn’t be. But now that we see him as he is —— ”

“We can only see her also as she is?” Well, I tried, as far as my amusement would permit, so to see her; but still there were difficulties. “Possibly!” I at most conceded. “Do you owe your discovery, however, wholly to my system? My system, where so much made for protection,” I explained, “wasn’t intended to have the effect of exposure.”

“It appears to have been at all events intended,” my companion returned, “to have the effect of driving me to the wall; and the consequence of that effect is nobody’s fault but your own.”

She was all logic now, and I could easily see, between my light and my darkness, how she would remain so. Yet I was scarce satisfied. “And it’s only on ‘that effect’ ——?”

“That I’ve made up my mind?” She was positively free at last to enjoy my discomfort. “Wouldn’t it be surely, if your ideas were worth anything, enough? But it isn’t,” she added, “only on that. It’s on something else.”

I had after an instant extracted from this the single meaning it could appear to yield. “I’m to understand that you know?”

“That they’re intimate enough for anything?” She faltered, but she brought it out. “I know.”

It was the oddest thing in the world for a little, the way this affected me without my at all believing it. It was preposterous, hang though it would with her somersault, and she had quite succeeded in giving it the note of sincerity. It was the mere sound of it that, as I felt even at the time, made it a little of a blow — a blow of the smart of which I was conscious just long enough inwardly to murmur: “What if she should be right?” She had for these seconds the advantage of stirring within me the memory of her having indeed, the day previous, at Paddington, “known” as I hadn’t. It had been really on what she then knew that we originally started, and an element of our start had been that I admired her freedom. The form of it, at least — so beautifully had she recovered herself — was all there now. Well, I at any rate reflected, it wasn’t the form that need trouble me, and I quickly enough put her a question that related only to the matter. “Of course if she is — it is smash!”

“And haven’t you yet got used to its being?”

I kept my eyes on her; I traced the buried figure in the ruins. “She’s good enough for a fool; and so” — I made it out — “is he! If he is the same ass — yes — they might be.”

And he is,” said Mrs. Briss, “the same ass!”

I continued to look at her. “He would have no need then of her having transformed and inspired him.”

“Or of her having deformed and idiotised herself,” my friend subjoined.

Oh, how it sharpened my look! “No, no — she wouldn’t need that.”

“The great point is that he wouldn’t!” Mrs. Briss laughed.

I kept it up. “She would do perfectly.”

Mrs. Briss was not behind. “My dear man, she has got to do!”

This was brisker still, but I held my way. “Almost anyone would do.”

It seemed for a little, between humour and sadness, to strike her. “Almost anyone would. Still,” she less pensively declared, “we want the right one.”

“Surely; the right one” — I could only echo it. “But how,” I then proceeded, “has it happily been confirmed to you?”

It pulled her up a trifle. “‘Confirmed’ ——?”

“That he’s her lover.”

My eyes had been meeting hers without, as it were, hers quite meeting mine. But at this there had to be intercourse. “By my husband.”

It pulled me up a trifle. “Brissenden knows?”

She hesitated; then, as if at my tone, gave a laugh. “Don’t you suppose I’ve told him?”

I really couldn’t but admire her. “Ah — so you have talked!”

It didn’t confound her. “One’s husband isn’t talk. You’re cruel moreover,” she continued, “to my joke. It was Briss, poor dear, who talked — though, I mean, only to me. He knows.”

I cast about. “Since when?”

But she had it ready. “Since this evening.”

Once more I couldn’t but smile. “Just in time then! And the way he knows ——?”

“Oh, the way!” — she had at this a slight drop. But she came up again. “I take his word.”

“You haven’t then asked him?”

“The beauty of it was — half an hour ago, upstairs — that I hadn’t to ask. He came out with it himself, and that — to give you the whole thing — was, if you like, my moment. He dropped it on me,” she continued to explain, “without in the least, sweet innocent, knowing what he was doing; more, at least, that is, than give her away.”

“Which,” I concurred, “was comparatively nothing!”

But she had no ear for irony, and she made out still more of her story. “He’s simple — but he sees.”

“And when he sees” — I completed the picture — “he luckily tells.”

She quite agreed with me that it was lucky, but without prejudice to his acuteness and to what had been in him moreover a natural revulsion. “He has seen, in short; there comes some chance when one does. His, as luckily as you please, came this evening. If you ask me what it showed him you ask more than I’ve either cared or had time to ask. Do you consider, for that matter” — she put it to me — “that one does ask?” As her high smoothness — such was the wonder of this reascendancy — almost deprived me of my means, she was wise and gentle with me. “Let us leave it alone.”

I fairly, while my look at her turned rueful, scratched my head. “Don’t you think it a little late for that?”

“Late for everything!” she impatiently said. “But there you are.”

I fixed the floor. There indeed I was. But I tried to stay there — just there only — as short a time as possible. Something, moreover, after all, caught me up. “But if Brissenden already knew ——?”

“If he knew ——?” She still gave me, without prejudice to her ingenuity — and indeed it was a part of this — all the work she could.

“Why, that Long and Lady John were thick?”

“Ah, then,” she cried, “you admit they are!”

“Am I not admitting everything you tell me? But the more I admit,” I explained, “the more I must understand. It’s to admit, you see, that I inquire. If Briss came down with Lady John yesterday to oblige Mr. Long —— ”

“He didn’t come,” she interrupted, “to oblige Mr. Long!”

“Well, then, to oblige Lady John herself —— ”

“He didn’t come to oblige Lady John herself!”

“Well, then, to oblige his clever wife —— ”

“He didn’t come to oblige his clever wife! He came,” said Mrs. Briss, “just to amuse himself. He has his amusements, and it’s odd,” she remarkably laughed, “that you should grudge them to him!”

“It would be odd indeed if I did! But put his proceeding,” I continued, “on any ground you like; you described to me the purpose of it as a screening of the pair.”

“I described to you the purpose of it as nothing of the sort. I didn’t describe to you the purpose of it,” said Mrs. Briss, “at all. I described to you,” she triumphantly set forth, “the effect of it — which is a very different thing.”

I could only meet her with admiration. “You’re of an astuteness ——!”

“Of course I’m of an astuteness! I see effects. And I saw that one. How much Briss himself had seen it is, as I’ve told you, another matter; and what he had, at any rate, quite taken the affair for was the sort of flirtation in which, if one is a friend to either party, and one’s own feelings are not at stake, one may now and then give people a lift. Haven’t I asked you before,” she demanded, “if you suppose he would have given one had he had an idea where these people are?”

“I scarce know what you have asked me before!” I sighed; “and ‘where they are’ is just what you haven’t told me.”

“It’s where my husband was so annoyed unmistakably to discover them.” And as if she had quite fixed the point she passed to another. “He’s peculiar, dear old Briss, but in a way by which, if one uses him — by which, I mean, if one depends on him — at all, one gains, I think, more than one loses. Up to a certain point, in any case that’s the least a case for subtlety, he sees nothing at all; but beyond it — when once he does wake up — he’ll go through a house. Nothing then escapes him, and what he drags to light is sometimes appalling.”

“Rather,” I thoughtfully responded — “since witness this occasion!”

“But isn’t the interest of this occasion, as I’ve already suggested,” she propounded, “simply that it makes an end, bursts a bubble, rids us of an incubus and permits us to go to bed in peace? I thank God,” she moralised, “for dear old Briss to-night.”

“So do I,” I after a moment returned; “but I shall do so with still greater fervour if you’ll have for the space of another question a still greater patience.” With which, as a final movement from her seemed to say how much this was to ask, I had on my own side a certain exasperation of soreness for all I had to acknowledge — even were it mere acknowledgment — that she had brought rattling down. “Remember,” I pleaded, “that you’re costing me a perfect palace of thought!”

I could see too that, held unexpectedly by something in my tone, she really took it in. Couldn’t I even almost see that, for an odd instant, she regretted the blighted pleasure of the pursuit of truth with me? I needed, at all events, no better proof either of the sweet or of the bitter in her comprehension than the accent with which she replied: “Oh, those who live in glass houses —— ”

“Shouldn’t — no, I know they shouldn’t — throw stones; and that’s precisely why I don’t.” I had taken her immediately up, and I held her by it and by something better still. “You, from your fortress of granite, can chuck them about as you will! All the more reason, however,” I quickly added, “that, before my frail, but, as I maintain, quite sublime structure, you honour me, for a few seconds, with an intelligent look at it. I seem myself to see it again, perfect in every part,” I pursued, “even while I thus speak to you, and to feel afresh that, weren’t the wretched accident of its weak foundation, it wouldn’t have the shadow of a flaw. I’ve spoken of it in my conceivable regret,” I conceded, “as already a mere heap of disfigured fragments; but that was the extravagance of my vexation, my despair. It’s in point of fact so beautifully fitted that it comes apart piece by piece — which, so far as that goes, you’ve seen it do in the last quarter of an hour at your own touch, quite handing me the pieces, one by one, yourself and watching me stack them along the ground. They’re not even in this state — see!” I wound up — “a pile of ruins!” I wound up, as I say, but only for long enough to have, with the vibration, the exaltation, of my eloquence, my small triumph as against her great one. “I should almost like, piece by piece, to hand them back to you.” And this time I completed my figure. “I believe that, for the very charm of it, you’d find yourself placing them by your own sense in their order and rearing once more the splendid pile. Will you take just one of them from me again,” I insisted, “and let me see if only to have it in your hands doesn’t positively start you off? That’s what I meant just now by asking you for another answer.” She had remained silent, as if really in the presence of the rising magnificence of my metaphor, and it was not too late for the one chance left me. “There was nothing, you know, I had so fitted as your account of poor Mrs. Server when, on our seeing them, from the terrace, together below, you struck off your explanation that old Briss was her screen for Long.”

“Fitted?” — and there was sincerity in her surprise. “I thought my stupid idea the one for which you had exactly no use!”

“I had no use,” I instantly concurred, “for your stupid idea, but I had great use for your stupidly, alas! having it. That fitted beautifully,” I smiled, “till the piece came out. And even now,” I added, “I don’t feel it quite accounted for.”

“Their being there together?”

“No. Your not liking it that they were.”

She stared. “Not liking it?”

I could see how little indeed she minded now, but I also kept the thread of my own intellectual history. “Yes. Your not liking it is what I speak of as the piece. I hold it, you see, up before you. What, artistically, would you do with it?”

But one might take a horse to water ——! I held it up before her, but I couldn’t make her look at it. “How do you know what I mayn’t, or may, have liked?”

It did bring me to. “Because you were conscious of not telling me? Well, even if you didn’t ——!”

“That made no difference,” she inquired with a generous derision, “because you could always imagine? Of course you could always imagine — which is precisely what is the matter with you! But I’m surprised at your coming to me with it once more as evidence of anything.”

I stood rebuked, and even more so than I showed her, for she need, obviously, only decline to take one of my counters to deprive it of all value as coin. When she pushed it across I had but to pocket it again. “It is the weakness of my case,” I feebly and I daresay awkwardly mused at her, “that any particular thing you don’t grant me becomes straightway the strength of yours. Of course, however” — and I gave myself a shake — “I’m absolutely rejoicing (am I not?) in the strength of yours. The weakness of my own is what, under your instruction, I’m now going into; but don’t you see how much weaker it will show if I draw from you the full expression of your indifference? How could you in fact care when what you were at the very moment urging on me so hard was the extravagance of Mrs. Server’s conduct? That extravagance then proved her, to your eyes, the woman who had a connection with Long to keep the world off the scent of — though you maintained that in spite of the dust she kicked up by it she was, at a pinch, now and then to be caught with him. That instead of being caught with him she was caught only with Brissenden annoyed you naturally for the moment; but what was that annoyance compared to your appreciation of her showing — by undertaking your husband, of all people! — just the more markedly as extravagant?”

She had been sufficiently interested this time to follow me. “What was it indeed?”

I greeted her acquiescence, but I insisted. “And yet if she is extravagant — what do you do with it?”

“I thought you wouldn’t hear of it!” she exclaimed.

I sought to combine firmness with my mildness. “What do you do with it?”

But she could match me at this. “I thought you wouldn’t hear of it!”

“It’s not a question of my dispositions. It’s a question of her having been, or not been, for you ‘all over the place,’ and of everyone’s also being, for you, on the chatter about it. You go by that in respect to Long — by your holding, that is, that nothing has been noticed; therefore mustn’t you go by it in respect to her — since I understand from you that everything has?”

“Everything always is,” Mrs. Briss agreeably replied, “in a place and a party like this; but so little — anything in particular — that, with people moving ‘every which’ way, it comes to the same as if nothing was. Things are not, also, gouged out to your tune, and it depends, still further, on what you mean by ‘extravagant.’”

“I mean whatever you yourself meant.”

“Well, I myself mean no longer, you know, what I did mean.”

“She isn’t then ——?”

But suddenly she was almost sharp with me. “Isn’t what?”

“What the woman we so earnestly looked for would have to be.”

“All gone?” She had hesitated, but she went on with decision. “No, she isn’t all gone, since there was enough of her left to make up to poor Briss.”

“Precisely — and it’s just what we saw, and just what, with her other dashes of the same sort, led us to have to face the question of her being — well, what I say. Or rather,” I added, “what you say. That is,” I amended, to keep perfectly straight, “what you say you don’t say.”

I took indeed too many precautions for my friend not to have to look at them. “Extravagant?” The irritation of the word had grown for her, yet I risked repeating it, and with the effect of its giving her another pause. “I tell you she isn’t, that!”

“Exactly; and it’s only to ask you what in the world then she is.”

“She’s horrid!” said Mrs. Briss.

“‘Horrid’?” I gloomily echoed.

“Horrid. It wasn’t,” she then developed with decision, “a ‘dash,’ as you say, ‘of the same sort’ — though goodness knows of what sort you mean; it wasn’t, to be plain, a ‘dash’ at all.” My companion was plain. “She settled. She stuck.” And finally, as I could but echo her again: “She made love to him.”

“But — a — really?”

“Really. That’s how I knew.”

I was at sea. “‘Knew’? But you saw.”

“I knew — that is I learnt — more than I saw. I knew she couldn’t be gone.”

It in fact brought light. “Knew it by him?”

“He told me,” said Mrs. Briss.

It brought light, but it brought also, I fear, for me, another queer grimace. “Does he then regularly tell?”

“Regularly. But what he tells,” she did herself the justice to declare, “is not always so much to the point as the two things I’ve repeated to you.”

Their weight then suggested that I should have them over again. “His revelation, in the first place, of Long and Lady John?”

“And his revelation in the second” — she spoke of it as a broad joke — “of May Server and himself.”

There was something in her joke that was a chill to my mind; but I nevertheless played up. “And what does he say that’s further interesting about that?”

“Why, that she’s awfully sharp.”

I gasped — she turned it out so. “She — Mrs. Server?”

It made her, however, equally stare. “Why, isn’t it the very thing you maintained?”

I felt her dreadful logic, but I couldn’t — with my exquisite image all contrasted, as in a flash from flint, with this monstrosity — so much as entertain her question. I could only stupidly again sound it. “Awfully sharp?”

“You after all then now don’t?” It was she herself whom the words at present described! “Then what on earth do you think?” The strange mixture in my face naturally made her ask it, but everything, within a minute, had somehow so given way under the touch of her supreme assurance, the presentation of her own now finished system, that I dare say I couldn’t at the moment have in the least trusted myself to tell her. She left me, however, in fact, small time — she only took enough, with her negations arrayed and her insolence recaptured, to judge me afresh, which she did as she gathered herself up into the strength of twenty-five. I didn’t after all — it appeared part of my smash — know the weight of her husband’s years, but I knew the weight of my own. They might have been a thousand, and nothing but the sense of them would in a moment, I saw, be left me. “My poor dear, you are crazy, and I bid you good-night!”

Nothing but the sense of them — on my taking it from her without a sound and watching her, through the lighted rooms, retreat and disappear — was at first left me; but after a minute something else came, and I grew conscious that her verdict lingered. She had so had the last word that, to get out of its planted presence, I shook myself, as I had done before, from my thought. When once I had started to my room indeed — and to preparation for a livelier start as soon as the house should stir again — I almost breathlessly hurried. Such a last word — the word that put me altogether nowhere — was too unacceptable not to prescribe afresh that prompt test of escape to other air for which I had earlier in the evening seen so much reason. I should certainly never again, on the spot, quite hang together, even though it wasn’t really that I hadn’t three times her method. What I too fatally lacked was her tone.

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