The Sacred Fount, by Henry James


I did on the morrow several things, but the first was not to redeem that vow. It was to address myself straight to Grace Brissenden. “I must let you know that, in spite of your guarantee, it doesn’t go at all — oh, but not at all! I’ve tried Lady John, as you enjoined, and I can’t but feel that she leaves us very much where we were.” Then, as my listener seemed not quite to remember where we had been, I came to her help. “You said yesterday at Paddington, to explain the change in Gilbert Long — don’t you recall? — that that woman, plying him with her genius and giving him of her best, is clever enough for two. She’s not clever enough then, it strikes me, for three — or at any rate for four. I confess I don’t see it. Does she really dazzle you?”

My friend had caught up. “Oh, you’ve a standard of wit!”

“No, I’ve only a sense of reality — a sense not at all satisfied by the theory of such an influence as Lady John’s.”

She wondered. “Such a one as whose else then?”

“Ah, that’s for us still to find out! Of course this can’t be easy; for as the appearance is inevitably a kind of betrayal, it’s in somebody’s interest to conceal it.”

This Mrs. Brissenden grasped. “Oh, you mean in the lady’s?”

“In the lady’s most. But also in Long’s own, if he’s really tender of the lady — which is precisely what our theory posits.”

My companion, once roused, was all there. “I see. You call the appearance a kind of betrayal because it points to the relation behind it.”


“And the relation — to do that sort of thing — must be necessarily so awfully intimate.”


“And kept therefore in the background exactly in that proportion.”

“Exactly in that proportion.”

“Very well then,” said Mrs. Brissenden, “doesn’t Mr. Long’s tenderness of Lady John quite fall in with what I mentioned to you?”

I remembered what she had mentioned to me. “His making her come down with poor Briss?”

“Nothing less.”

“And is that all you go upon?”

“That and lots more.”

I thought a minute — but I had been abundantly thinking. “I know what you mean by ‘lots.’ Is Brissenden in it?”

“Dear no — poor Briss! He wouldn’t like that. I saw the manoeuvre, but Guy didn’t. And you must have noticed how he stuck to her all last evening.”

“How Gilbert Long stuck to Lady John? Oh yes, I noticed. They were like Lord Lutley and Mrs. Froome. But is that what one can call being tender of her?”

My companion weighed it. “He must speak to her sometimes. I’m glad you admit, at any rate,” she continued, “that it does take what you so prettily call some woman’s secretly giving him of her best to account for him.”

“Oh, that I admit with all my heart — or at least with all my head. Only, Lady John has none of the signs —— ”

“Of being the beneficent woman? What then are they — the signs — to be so plain?” I was not yet quite ready to say, however; on which she added: “It proves nothing, you know, that you don’t like her.”

“No. It would prove more if she didn’t like me, which — fatuous fool as you may find me — I verily believe she does. If she hated me it would be, you see, for my ruthless analysis of her secret. She has no secret. She would like awfully to have — and she would like almost as much to be believed to have. Last evening, after dinner, she could feel perhaps for a while that she was believed. But it won’t do. There’s nothing in it. You asked me just now,” I pursued, “what the signs of such a secret would naturally be. Well, bethink yourself a moment of what the secret itself must naturally be.”

Oh, she looked as if she knew all about that! “Awfully charming — mustn’t it? — to act upon a person, through an affection, so deeply.”

“Yes — it can certainly be no vulgar flirtation.” I felt a little like a teacher encouraging an apt pupil; but I could only go on with the lesson. “Whoever she is, she gives all she has. She keeps nothing back — nothing for herself.”

“I see — because he takes everything. He just cleans her out.” She looked at me — pleased at last really to understand — with the best conscience in the world. “Who is the lady then?”

But I could answer as yet only by a question. “How can she possibly be a woman who gives absolutely nothing whatever; who scrapes and saves and hoards; who keeps every crumb for herself? The whole show’s there — to minister to Lady John’s vanity and advertise the business — behind her smart shop-window. You can see it, as much as you like, and even amuse yourself with pricing it. But she never parts with an article. If poor Long depended on her —— ”

“Well, what?” She was really interested.

“Why, he’d be the same poor Long as ever. He would go as he used to go — naked and unashamed. No,” I wound up, “he deals — turned out as we now see him — at another establishment.”

“I’ll grant it,” said Mrs. Brissenden, “if you’ll only name me the place.”

Ah, I could still but laugh and resume! “He doesn’t screen Lady John — she doesn’t screen herself — with your husband or with anybody. It’s she who’s herself the screen! And pleased as she is at being so clever, and at being thought so, she doesn’t even know it. She doesn’t so much as suspect it. She’s an unmitigated fool about it. ‘Of course Mr. Long’s clever, because he’s in love with me and sits at my feet, and don’t you see how clever I am? Don’t you hear what good things I say — wait a little, I’m going to say another in about three minutes; and how, if you’ll only give him time too, he comes out with them after me? They don’t perhaps sound so good, but you see where he has got them. I’m so brilliant, in fine, that the men who admire me have only to imitate me, which, you observe, they strikingly do.’ Something like that is all her philosophy.”

My friend turned it over. “You do sound like her, you know. Yet how, if a woman’s stupid —— ”

“Can she have made a man clever? She can’t. She can’t at least have begun it. What we shall know the real person by, in the case that you and I are studying, is that the man himself will have made her what she has become. She will have done just what Lady John has not done — she will have put up the shutters and closed the shop. She will have parted, for her friend, with her wit.”

“So that she may be regarded as reduced to idiocy?”

“Well — so I can only see it.”

“And that if we look, therefore, for the right idiot —— ”

“We shall find the right woman — our friend’s mystic Egeria? Yes, we shall be at least approaching the truth. We shall ‘burn,’ as they say in hide-and-seek.” I of course kept to the point that the idiot would have to be the right one. Any idiot wouldn’t be to the purpose. If it was enough that a woman was a fool the search might become hopeless even in a house that would have passed but ill for a fool’s paradise. We were on one of the shaded terraces, to which, here and there, a tall window stood open. The picture without was all morning and August, and within all clear dimness and rich gleams. We stopped once or twice, raking the gloom for lights, and it was at some such moment that Mrs. Brissenden asked me if I then regarded Gilbert Long as now exalted to the position of the most brilliant of our companions. “The cleverest man of the party?” — it pulled me up a little. “Hardly that, perhaps — for don’t you see the proofs I’m myself giving you? But say he is” — I considered — “the cleverest but one.” The next moment I had seen what she meant. “In that case the thing we’re looking for ought logically to be the person, of the opposite sex, giving us the maximum sense of depletion for his benefit? The biggest fool, you suggest, must, consistently, be the right one? Yes again; it would so seem. But that’s not really, you see, the short cut it sounds. The biggest fool is what we want, but the question is to discover who is the biggest.”

“I’m glad then I feel so safe!” Mrs. Brissenden laughed.

“Oh, you’re not the biggest!” I handsomely conceded. “Besides, as I say, there must be the other evidence — the evidence of relations.”

We had gone on, with this, a few steps, but my companion again checked me, while her nod toward a window gave my attention a lead. “Won’t that, as it happens, then do?” We could just see, from where we stood, a corner of one of the rooms. It was occupied by a seated couple, a lady whose face was in sight and a gentleman whose identity was attested by his back, a back somehow replete for us, at the moment, with a guilty significance. There was the evidence of relations. That we had suddenly caught Long in the act of presenting his receptacle at the sacred fount seemed announced by the tone in which Mrs. Brissenden named the other party — “Mme. de Dreuil!” We looked at each other, I was aware, with some elation; but our triumph was brief. The Comtesse de Dreuil, we quickly felt — an American married to a Frenchman — wasn’t at all the thing. She was almost as much “all there” as Lady John. She was only another screen, and we perceived, for that matter, the next minute, that Lady John was also present. Another step had placed us within range of her; the picture revealed in the rich dusk of the room was a group of three. From that moment, unanimously, we gave up Lady John, and as we continued our stroll my friend brought out her despair. “Then he has nothing but screens? The need for so many does suggest a fire!” And in spite of discouragement she sounded, interrogatively, one after the other, the names of those ladies the perfection of whose presence of mind might, when considered, pass as questionable. We soon, however, felt our process to be, practically, a trifle invidious. Not one of the persons named could, at any rate — to do them all justice — affect us as an intellectual ruin. It was natural therefore for Mrs. Brissenden to conclude with scepticism. “She may exist — and exist as you require her; but what, after all, proves that she’s here? She mayn’t have come down with him. Does it necessarily follow that they always go about together?”

I was ready to declare that it necessarily followed. I had my idea, and I didn’t see why I shouldn’t bring it out. “It’s my belief that he no more goes away without her than you go away without poor Briss.”

She surveyed me in splendid serenity. “But what have we in common?”

“With the parties to an abandoned flirtation? Well, you’ve in common your mutual attachment and the fact that you’re thoroughly happy together.”

“Ah,” she good-humouredly answered, “we don’t flirt!”

“Well, at all events, you don’t separate. He doesn’t really suffer you out of his sight, and, to circulate in the society you adorn, you don’t leave him at home.”

“Why shouldn’t I?” she asked, looking at me, I thought, just a trifle harder.

“It isn’t a question of why you shouldn’t — it’s a question of whether you do. You don’t — do you? That’s all.”

She thought it over as if for the first time. “It seems to me I often leave him when I don’t want him.”

“Oh, when you don’t want him — yes. But when don’t you want him? You want him when you want to be right, and you want to be right when you mix in a scene like this. I mean,” I continued for my private amusement, “when you want to be happy. Happiness, you know, is, to a lady in the full tide of social success, even more becoming than a new French frock. You have the advantage, for your beauty, of being admirably married. You bloom in your husband’s presence. I don’t say he need always be at your elbow; I simply say that you’re most completely yourself when he’s not far off. If there were nothing else there would be the help given you by your quiet confidence in his lawful passion.”

“I’m bound to say,” Mrs. Brissenden replied, “that such help is consistent with his not having spoken to me since we parted, yesterday, to come down here by different trains. We haven’t so much as met since our arrival. My finding him so indispensable is consistent with my not having so much as looked at him. Indispensable, please, for what?”

“For your not being without him.”

“What then do I do with him?”

I hesitated — there were so many ways of putting it; but I gave them all up. “Ah, I think it will be only he who can tell you! My point is that you’ve the instinct — playing in you, on either side, with all the ease of experience — of what you are to each other. All I mean is that it’s the instinct that Long and his good friend must have. They too perhaps haven’t spoken to each other. But where he comes she does, and where she comes he does. That’s why I know she’s among us.”

“It’s wonderful what you know!” Mrs. Brissenden again laughed. “How can you think of them as enjoying the facilities of people in our situation?”

“Of people married and therefore logically in presence? I don’t,” I was able to reply, “speak of their facilities as the same, and I recognise every limit to their freedom. But I maintain, none the less, that so far as they can go, they do go. It’s a relation, and they work the relation: the relation, exquisite surely, of knowing they help each other to shine. Why are they not, therefore, like you and Brissenden? What I make out is that when they do shine one will find — though only after a hunt, I admit, as you see — they must both have been involved. Feeling their need, and consummately expert, they will have managed, have arranged.”

She took it in with her present odd mixture of the receptive and the derisive. “Arranged what?”

“Oh, ask her!”

“I would if I could find her!” After which, for a moment, my interlocutress again considered. “But I thought it was just your contention that she doesn’t shine. If it’s Lady John’s perfect repair that puts that sort of thing out of the question, your image, it seems to me, breaks down.”

It did a little, I saw, but I gave it a tilt up. “Not at all. It’s a case of shining as Brissenden shines.” I wondered if I might go further — then risked it. “By sacrifice.”

I perceived at once that I needn’t fear: her conscience was too good — she was only amused. “Sacrifice, for mercy’s sake, of what?”

“Well — for mercy’s sake — of his time.”

“His time?” She stared. “Hasn’t he all the time he wants?”

“My dear lady,” I smiled, “he hasn’t all the time you want!”

But she evidently had not a glimmering of what I meant. “Don’t I make things of an ease, don’t I make life of a charm, for him?”

I’m afraid I laughed out. “That’s perhaps exactly it! It’s what Gilbert Long does for his victim — makes things, makes life, of an ease and a charm.”

She stopped yet again, really wondering at me now. “Then it’s the woman, simply, who’s happiest?”

“Because Brissenden’s the man who is? Precisely!”

On which for a minute, without her going on, we looked at each other. “Do you really mean that if you only knew me as I am, it would come to you in the same way to hunt for my confederate? I mean if he weren’t made obvious, you know, by his being my husband.”

I turned this over. “If you were only in flirtation — as you reminded me just now that you’re not? Surely!” I declared. “I should arrive at him, perfectly, after all eliminations, on the principle of looking for the greatest happiness —— ”

“Of the smallest number? Well, he may be a small number,” she indulgently sighed, “but he’s wholly content! Look at him now there,” she added the next moment, “and judge.” We had resumed our walk and turned the corner of the house, a movement that brought us into view of a couple just round the angle of the terrace, a couple who, like ourselves, must have paused in a sociable stroll. The lady, with her back to us, leaned a little on the balustrade and looked at the gardens; the gentleman close to her, with the same support, offered us the face of Guy Brissenden, as recognisable at a distance as the numbered card of a “turn” — the black figure upon white — at a music-hall. On seeing us he said a word to his companion, who quickly jerked round. Then his wife exclaimed to me — only with more sharpness — as she had exclaimed at Mme. de Dreuil: “By all that’s lovely — May Server!” I took it, on the spot, for a kind of “Eureka!” but without catching my friend’s idea. I was only aware at first that this idea left me as unconvinced as when the other possibilities had passed before us. Wasn’t it simply the result of this lady’s being the only one we had happened not to eliminate? She had not even occurred to us. She was pretty enough perhaps for any magic, but she hadn’t the other signs. I didn’t believe, somehow — certainly not on such short notice — either in her happiness or in her flatness. There was a vague suggestion, of a sort, in our having found her there with Brissenden: there would have been a pertinence, to our curiosity, or at least to mine, in this juxtaposition of the two persons who paid, as I had amused myself with calling it, so heroically; yet I had only to have it marked for me (to see them, that is, side by side,) in order to feel how little — at any rate superficially — the graceful, natural, charming woman ranged herself with the superannuated youth.

She had said a word to him at sight of us, in answer to his own, and in a minute or two they had met us. This had given me time for more than one reflection. It had also given Mrs. Brissenden time to insist to me on her identification, which I could see she would be much less quick to drop than in the former cases. “We have her,” she murmured; “we have her; it’s she!” It was by her insistence in fact that my thought was quickened. It even felt a kind of chill — an odd revulsion — at the touch of her eagerness. Singular perhaps that only then — yet quite certainly then — the curiosity to which I had so freely surrendered myself began to strike me as wanting in taste. It was reflected in Mrs. Brissenden quite by my fault, and I can’t say just what cause for shame, after so much talk of our search and our scent, I found in our awakened and confirmed keenness. Why in the world hadn’t I found it before? My scruple, in short, was a thing of the instant; it was in a positive flash that the amusing question was stamped for me as none of my business. One of the reflections I have just mentioned was that I had not had a happy hand in making it so completely Mrs. Brissenden’s. Another was, however, that nothing, fortunately, that had happened between us really signified. For what had so suddenly overtaken me was the consciousness of this anomaly: that I was at the same time as disgusted as if I had exposed Mrs. Server and absolutely convinced that I had yet not exposed her.

While, after the others had greeted us and we stood in vague talk, I caught afresh the effect of their juxtaposition, I grasped, with a private joy that was quite extravagant — as so beyond the needed mark — at the reassurance it offered. This reassurance sprang straight from a special source. Brissenden’s secret was so aware of itself as to be always on the defensive. Shy and suspicious, it was as much on the defensive at present as I had felt it to be — so far as I was concerned — the night before. What was there accordingly in Mrs. Server — frank and fragrant in the morning air — to correspond to any such consciousness? Nothing whatever — not a symptom. Whatever secrets she might have had, she had not that one; she was not in the same box; the sacred fount, in her, was not threatened with exhaustion. We all soon re-entered the house together, but Mrs. Brissenden, during the few minutes that followed, managed to possess herself of the subject of her denunciation. She put me off with Guy, and I couldn’t help feeling it as a sign of her concentration. She warmed to the question just as I had thrown it over; and I asked myself rather ruefully what on earth I had been thinking of. I hadn’t in the least had it in mind to “compromise” an individual; but an individual would be compromised if I didn’t now take care.

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