The Sacred Fount, by Henry James


I’m afraid I can’t quite say what, after that, I at first did, nor just how I immediately profited by our separation. I felt absurdly excited, though this indeed was what I had felt all day; there had been in fact deepening degrees of it ever since my first mystic throb after finding myself, the day before in our railway-carriage, shut up to an hour’s contemplation and collation, as it were, of Gilbert Long and Mrs. Brissenden. I have noted how my first full contact with the changed state of these associates had caused the knell of the tranquil mind audibly to ring for me. I have spoken of my sharpened perception that something altogether out of the common had happened, independently, to each, and I could now certainly flatter myself that I hadn’t missed a feature of the road I had thus been beguiled to travel. It was a road that had carried me far, and verily at this hour I felt far. I daresay that for a while after leaving poor Briss, after what I may indeed call launching him, this was what I predominantly felt. To be where I was, to whatever else it might lead, treated me by its help to the taste of success. It appeared then that the more things I fitted together the larger sense, every way, they made — a remark in which I found an extraordinary elation. It justified my indiscreet curiosity; it crowned my underhand process with beauty. The beauty perhaps was only for me — the beauty of having been right; it made at all events an element in which, while the long day softly dropped, I wandered and drifted and securely floated. This element bore me bravely up, and my private triumph struck me as all one with the charm of the moment and of the place.

There was a general shade in all the lower reaches — a fine clear dusk in garden and grove, a thin suffusion of twilight out of which the greater things, the high tree-tops and pinnacles, the long crests of motionless wood and chimnied roof, rose into golden air. The last calls of birds sounded extraordinarily loud; they were like the timed, serious splashes, in wide, still water, of divers not expecting to rise again. I scarce know what odd consciousness I had of roaming at close of day in the grounds of some castle of enchantment. I had positively encountered nothing to compare with this since the days of fairy-tales and of the childish imagination of the impossible. Then I used to circle round enchanted castles, for then I moved in a world in which the strange “came true.” It was the coming true that was the proof of the enchantment, which, moreover, was naturally never so great as when such coming was, to such a degree and by the most romantic stroke of all, the fruit of one’s own wizardry. I was positively — so had the wheel revolved — proud of my work. I had thought it all out, and to have thought it was, wonderfully, to have brought it. Yet I recall how I even then knew on the spot that there was something supreme I should have failed to bring unless I had happened suddenly to become aware of the very presence of the haunting principle, as it were, of my thought. This was the light in which Mrs. Server, walking alone now, apparently, in the grey wood and pausing at sight of me, showed herself in her clear dress at the end of a vista. It was exactly as if she had been there by the operation of my intelligence, or even by that — in a still happier way — of my feeling. My excitement, as I have called it, on seeing her, was assuredly emotion. Yet what was this feeling, really? — of which, at the point we had thus reached, I seemed to myself to have gathered from all things an invitation to render some account.

Well, I knew within the minute that I was moved by it as by an extraordinary tenderness; so that this is the name I must leave it to make the best of. It had already been my impression that I was sorry for her, but it was marked for me now that I was sorrier than I had reckoned. All her story seemed at once to look at me out of the fact of her present lonely prowl. I met it without demur, only wanting her to know that if I struck her as waylaying her in the wood, as waiting for her there at eventide with an idea, I shouldn’t in the least defend myself from the charge. I can scarce clearly tell how many fine strange things I thought of during this brief crisis of her hesitation. I wanted in the first place to make it end, and while I moved a few steps toward her I felt almost as noiseless and guarded as if I were trapping a bird or stalking a fawn. My few steps brought me to a spot where another perspective crossed our own, so that they made together a verdurous circle with an evening sky above and great lengthening, arching recesses in which the twilight thickened. Oh, it was quite sufficiently the castle of enchantment, and when I noticed four old stone seats, massive and mossy and symmetrically placed, I recognised not only the influence, in my adventure, of the grand style, but the familiar identity of this consecrated nook, which was so much of the type of all the bemused and remembered. We were in a beautiful old picture, we were in a beautiful old tale, and it wouldn’t be the fault of Newmarch if some other green carrefour, not far off, didn’t balance with this one and offer the alternative of niches, in the greenness, occupied by weather-stained statues on florid pedestals.

I sat straight down on the nearest of our benches, for this struck me as the best way to express the conception with which the sight of Mrs. Server filled me. It showed her that if I watched her I also waited for her, and that I was therefore not affected in any manner she really need deprecate. She had been too far off for me to distinguish her face, but her approach had faltered long enough to let me see that if she had not taken it as too late she would, to escape me, have found some pretext for turning off. It was just my seating myself that made the difference — it was my being so simple with her that brought her on. She came slowly and a little wearily down the vista, and her sad, shy advance, with the massed wood on either side of her, was like the reminiscence of a picture or the refrain of a ballad. What made the difference with me — if any difference had remained to be made — was the sense of this sharp cessation of her public extravagance. She had folded up her manner in her flounced parasol, which she seemed to drag after her as a sorry soldier his musket. It was present to me without a pang that this was the person I had sent poor Briss off to find — the person poor Briss would owe me so few thanks for his failure to have found. It was equally marked to me that, however detached and casual she might, at the first sight of me, have wished to show herself, it was to alight on poor Briss that she had come out, it was because he had not been at the house and might therefore, on his side, be wandering, that she had taken care to be unaccompanied. My demonstration was complete from the moment I thus had them in the act of seeking each other, and I was so pleased at having gathered them in that I cared little what else they had missed. I neither moved nor spoke till she had come quite near me, and as she also gave no sound the meaning of our silence seemed to stare straight out. It absolutely phrased there, in all the wonderful conditions, a relation already established; but the strange and beautiful thing was that as soon as we had recognised and accepted it this relation put us almost at our ease. “You must be weary of walking,” I said at last, “and you see I’ve been keeping a seat for you.”

I had finally got up, as a sign of welcome, but I had directly afterwards resumed my position, and it was an illustration of the terms on which we met that we neither of us seemed to mind her being meanwhile on her feet. She stood before me as if to take in — with her smile that had by this time sunk quite to dimness — more than we should, either of us, after all, be likely to be able to say. I even saw from this moment, I think, that, whatever she might understand, she would be able herself to say but little. She gave herself, in that minute, more than she doubtless knew — gave herself, I mean, to my intenser apprehension. She went through the form of expression, but what told me everything was the way the form of expression broke down. Her lovely grimace, the light of the previous hours, was as blurred as a bit of brushwork in water-colour spoiled by the upsetting of the artist’s glass. She fixed me with it as she had fixed during the day forty persons, but it fluttered like a bird with a broken wing. She looked about and above, down each of our dusky avenues and up at our gilded tree-tops and our painted sky, where, at the moment, the passage of a flight of rooks made a clamour. She appeared to wish to produce some explanation of her solitude, but I was quickly enough sure that she would never find a presentable one. I only wanted to show her how little I required it. “I like a lonely walk,” I went on, “at the end of a day full of people: it’s always, to me, on such occasions, quite as if something has happened that the mind wants to catch and fix before the vividness fades. So I mope by myself an hour — I take stock of my impressions. But there’s one thing I don’t believe you know. This is the very first time, in such a place and at such an hour, that it has ever befallen me to come across a friend stricken with the same perversity and engaged in the same pursuit. Most people, don’t you see?” — I kept it up as I could — “don’t in the least know what has happened to them, and don’t care to know. That’s one way, and I don’t deny it may be practically the best. But if one does care to know, that’s another way. As soon as I saw you there at the end of the alley I said to myself, with quite a little thrill of elation, ‘Ah, then it’s her way too!’ I wonder if you’ll let me tell you,” I floundered pleasantly on, “that I immediately liked you the better for it. It seemed to bring us more together. That’s what I sat straight down here to show you. ‘Yes,’ I wished you to understand me as frankly saying, ‘I am, as well as you, on the mope, or on the muse, or on whatever you call it, and this isn’t half a bad corner for such a mood.’ I can’t tell you what a pleasure it is to me to see you do understand.”

I kept it up, as I say, to reassure and soothe and steady her; there was nothing, however fantastic and born of the pressure of the moment, that I wouldn’t have risked for that purpose. She was absolutely on my hands with her secret — I felt that from the way she stood and listened to me, silently showing herself relieved and pacified. It was marked that if I had hitherto seen her as “all over the place,” she had yet nowhere seemed to me less so than at this furthermost point. But if, though only nearer to her secret and still not in possession, I felt as justified as I have already described myself, so it equally came to me that I was quite near enough, at the pass we had reached, for what I should have to take from it all. She was on my hands — it was she herself, poor creature, who was: this was the thing that just now loomed large, and the secret was a comparative detail. “I think you’re very kind,” she said for all answer to the speech I have reported, and the minute after this she had sunk down, in confessed collapse, to my bench, on which she sat and stared before her. The mere mechanism of her expression, the dangling paper lantern itself, was now all that was left in her face. She remained a little as if discouraged by the sight of the weariness that her surrender had let out. I hesitated, from just this fear of adding to it, to commiserate her for it more directly, and she spoke again before I had found anything to say. She brought back her attention indeed as if with an effort and from a distance. “What is it that has happened to you?”

“Oh,” I laughed, “what is it that has happened to you?” My question had not been in the least intended for pressure, but it made her turn and look at me, and this, I quickly recognised, was all the answer the most pitiless curiosity could have desired — all the more, as well, that the intention in it had been no greater than in my words. Beautiful, abysmal, involuntary, her exquisite weakness simply opened up the depths it would have closed. It was in short a supremely unsuccessful attempt to say nothing. It said everything, and by the end of a minute my chatter — none the less out of place for being all audible — was hushed to positive awe by what it had conveyed. I saw as I had never seen before what consuming passion can make of the marked mortal on whom, with fixed beak and claws, it has settled as on a prey. She reminded me of a sponge wrung dry and with fine pores agape. Voided and scraped of everything, her shell was merely crushable. So it was brought home to me that the victim could be abased, and so it disengaged itself from these things that the abasement could be conscious. That was Mrs. Server’s tragedy, that her consciousness survived — survived with a force that made it struggle and dissemble. This consciousness was all her secret — it was at any rate all mine. I promised myself roundly that I would henceforth keep clear of any other.

I none the less — from simply sitting with her there — gathered in the sense of more things than I could have named, each of which, as it came to me, made my compassion more tender. Who of us all could say that his fall might not be as deep? — or might not at least become so with equal opportunity. I for a while fairly forgot Mrs. Server, I fear, in the intimacy of this vision of the possibilities of our common nature. She became such a wasted and dishonoured symbol of them as might have put tears in one’s eyes. When I presently returned to her — our session seeming to resolve itself into a mere mildness of silence — I saw how it was that whereas, in such cases in general, people might have given up much, the sort of person this poor lady was could only give up everything. She was the absolute wreck of her storm, accordingly, but to which the pale ghost of a special sensibility still clung, waving from the mast, with a bravery that went to the heart, the last tatter of its flag. There are impressions too fine for words, and I shall not attempt to say how it was that under the touch of this one I felt how nothing that concerned my companion could ever again be present to me but the fact itself of her admirable state. This was the source of her wan little glory, constituted even for her a small sublimity in the light of which mere minor identifications turned vulgar. I knew who he was now with a vengeance, because I had learnt precisely from that who she was; and nothing could have been sharper than the force with which it pressed upon me that I had really learnt more than I had bargained for. Nothing need have happened if I hadn’t been so absurdly, so fatally meditative about poor Long — an accident that most people, wiser people, appeared on the whole to have steered sufficiently clear of. Compared with my actual sense, the sense with which I sat there, that other vision was gross, and grosser still the connection between the two.

Such were some of the reflections in which I indulged while her eyes — with their strange intermissions of darkness or of light: who could say which? — told me from time to time that she knew whatever I was thinking of to be for her virtual advantage. It was prodigious what, in the way of suppressed communication, passed in these wonderful minutes between us. Our relation could be at the best but an equal confession, and I remember saying to myself that if she had been as subtle as I— which she wasn’t! — she too would have put it together that I had dreadfully talked about her. She would have traced in me my demonstration to Mrs. Briss that, whoever she was, she must logically have been idiotised. It was the special poignancy of her collapse that, so far at least as I was concerned, this was a ravage the extent of which she had ceased to try to conceal. She had been trying, and more or less succeeding, all day: the little drama of her public unrest had had, when one came to consider, no other argument. It had been terror that had directed her steps; the need constantly to show herself detached and free, followed by the sterner one not to show herself, by the same token, limp and empty. This had been the distinct, ferocious logic of her renewals and ruptures — the anxious mistrust of her wit, the haunting knowledge of the small distance it would take her at once, the consequent importance of her exactly timing herself, and the quick instinct of flight before the menace of discovery. She couldn’t let society alone, because that would have constituted a symptom; yet, for fear of the appearance of a worse one, she could only mingle in it with a complex diplomacy. She was accordingly exposed on every side, and to be with her a while thus quietly was to read back into her behaviour the whole explanation, which was positively simple to me now. To take up again the vivid analogy, she had been sailing all day, though scarce able to keep afloat, under the flag of her old reputation for easy response. She had given to the breeze any sad scrap of a substitute, for the play of mind once supposed remarkable. The last of all the things her stillness said to me was that I could judge from so poor a show what had become of her conversability. What I did judge was that a frantic art had indeed been required to make her pretty silences pass, from one crisis to another, for pretty speeches. Half this art, doubtless, was the glittering deceit of her smile, the sublime, pathetic overdone geniality which represented so her share in any talk that, every other eloquence failing, there could only be nothing at all from the moment it abandoned its office. There was nothing at all. That was the truth; in accordance with which I finally — for everything it might mean to myself — put out my hand and bore ever so gently on her own. Her own rested listlessly on the stone of our seat. Of course, it had been an immense thing for her that she was, in spite of everything, so lovely.

All this was quite consistent with its eventually coming back to me that, though she took from me with appreciation what was expressed in the gesture I have noted, it was certainly in quest of a still deeper relief that she had again come forth. The more I considered her face — and most of all, so permittedly, in her passive, conscious presence — the more I was sure of this and the further I could go in the imagination of her beautiful duplicity. I ended by divining that if I was assuredly good for her, because the question of keeping up with me had so completely dropped, and if the service I so rendered her was not less distinct to her than to myself — I ended by divining that she had none the less her obscure vision of a still softer ease. Guy Brissenden had become in these few hours her positive need — a still greater need than I had lately amused myself with making out that he had found her. Each had, by their unprecedented plight, something for the other, some intimacy of unspeakable confidence, that no one else in the world could have for either. They had been feeling their way to it, but at the end of their fitful day they had grown confusedly, yet beneficently sure. The explanation here again was simple — they had the sense of a common fate. They hadn’t to name it or to phrase it — possibly even couldn’t had they tried; peace and support came to them, without that, in the simple revelation of each other. Oh, how I made it out that if it was indeed very well for the poor lady to feel thus in my company that her burden was lifted, my company would be after all but a rough substitute for Guy’s! He was a still better friend, little as he could have told the reason; and if I could in this connection have put the words into her mouth, here follows something of the sense that I should have made them form.

“Yes, my dear man, I do understand you — quite perfectly now, and (by I know not what miracle) I’ve really done so to some extent from the first. Deep is the rest of feeling with you, in this way, that I’m watched, for the time, only as you watch me. It has all stopped, and I can stop. How can I make you understand what it is for me that there isn’t at last a creature any more in sight, that the wood darkens about me, that the sounds drop and the relief goes on; what can it mean for you even that I’ve given myself up to not caring whether or no, amongst others, I’m missed and spoken of? It does help my strange case, in fine, as you see, to let you keep me here; but I should have found still more what I was in need of if I had only found, instead of you, him whom I had in mind. He is as much better than you as you are than everyone else.” I finally felt, in a word, so qualified to attribute to my companion some such mute address as that, that it could only have, as the next consequence, a determining effect on me — an effect under the influence of which I spoke. “I parted with him, some way from here, some time ago. I had found him in one of the gardens with Lady John; after which we came away from her together. We strolled a little and talked, but I knew what he really wanted. He wanted to find you, and I told him he would probably do so at tea on the terrace. It was visibly with that idea — to return to the house — that he left me.”

She looked at me for some time on this, taking it in, yet still afraid of it. “You found him with Lady John?” she at last asked, and with a note in her voice that made me see what — as there was a precaution I had neglected — she feared.

The perception of this, in its turn, operated with me for an instant almost as the rarest of temptations. I had puzzled out everything and put everything together; I was as morally confident and as intellectually triumphant as I have frankly here described myself; but there was no objective test to which I had yet exposed my theory. The chance to apply one — and it would be infallible — had suddenly cropped up. There would be excitement, amusement, discernment in it; it would be indeed but a more roundabout expression of interest and sympathy. It would, above all, pack the question I had for so many hours been occupied with into the compass of a needle-point. I was dazzled by my opportunity. She had had an uncertainty, in other words, as to whom I meant, and that it kept her for some seconds on the rack was a trifle compared to my chance. She would give herself away supremely if she showed she suspected me of placing my finger on the spot — if she understood the person I had not named to be nameable as Gilbert Long. What had created her peril, of course, was my naming Lady John. Well, how can I say in any sufficient way how much the extraordinary beauty of her eyes during this brevity of suspense had to do with the event? It had everything — for it was what caused me to be touched beyond even what I had already been, and I could literally bear no more of that. I therefore took no advantage, or took only the advantage I had spoken with the intention of taking. I laughed out doubtless too nervously, but it didn’t compromise my tact. “Don’t you know how she’s perpetually pouncing on him?”

Still, however, I had not named him — which was what prolonged the tension. “Do you mean — a — do you mean ——?” With which she broke off on a small weak titter and a still weaker exclamation. “There are so many gentlemen!”

There was something in it that might in other conditions have been as trivial as the giggle of a housemaid; but it had in fact for my ear the silver ring of poetry. I told her instantly whom I meant. “Poor Briss, you know,” I said, “is always in her clutches.”

Oh, how it let her off! And yet, no sooner had it done so and had I thereby tasted on the instant the sweetness of my wisdom, than I became aware of something much more extraordinary. It let her off — she showed me this for a minute, in spite of herself; but the next minute she showed me something quite different, which was, most wonderful of all, that she wished me to see her as not quite feeling why I should so much take for granted the person I had named. “Poor Briss?” her face and manner appeared suddenly to repeat — quite, moreover (and it was the drollest, saddest part), as if all our friends had stood about us to listen. Wherein did poor Briss so intimately concern her? What, pray, was my ground for such free reference to poor Briss? She quite repudiated poor Briss. She knew nothing at all about him, and the whole airy structure I had erected with his aid might have crumbled at the touch she thus administered if its solidity had depended only on that. I had a minute of surprise which, had it lasted another minute as surprise pure and simple, might almost as quickly have turned to something like chagrin. Fortunately it turned instead into something even more like enthusiasm than anything I had yet felt. The stroke was extraordinary, but extraordinary for its nobleness. I quickly saw in it, from the moment I had got my point of view, more fine things than ever. I saw for instance that, magnificently, she wished not to incriminate him. All that had passed between us had passed in silence, but it was a different matter for what might pass in sound. We looked at each other therefore with a strained smile over any question of identities. It was as if it had been one thing — to her confused, relaxed intensity — to give herself up to me, but quite another thing to give up somebody else.

And yet, superficially arrested as I was for the time, I directly afterwards recognised in this instinctive discrimination — the last, the expiring struggle of her native lucidity — a supremely convincing bit of evidence. It was still more convincing than if she had done any of the common things — stammered, changed colour, shown an apprehension of what the person named might have said to me. She had had it from me that he and I had talked about her, but there was nothing that she accepted the idea of his having been able to say. I saw — still more than this — that there was nothing to my purpose (since my purpose was to understand) that she would have had, as matters stood, coherence enough to impute to him. It was extremely curious to me to divine, just here, that she hadn’t a glimmering of the real logic of Brissenden’s happy effect on her nerves. It was the effect, as coming from him, that a beautiful delicacy forbade her as yet to give me her word for; and she was certainly herself in the stage of regarding it as an anomaly. Why, on the contrary, I might have wondered, shouldn’t she have jumped at the chance, at the comfort, of seeing a preference trivial enough to be “worked” imputed to her? Why shouldn’t she have been positively pleased that people might helpfully couple her name with that of the wrong man? Why, in short, in the language that Grace Brissenden and I had used together, was not that lady’s husband the perfection of a red herring? Just because, I perceived, the relation that had established itself between them was, for its function, a real relation, the relation of a fellowship in resistance to doom.

Nothing could have been stranger than for me so to know it was while the stricken parties themselves were in ignorance; but nothing, at the same time, could have been, as I have since made out, more magnanimous than Mrs. Server’s attitude. She moved, groping and panting, in the gathering dusk of her fate, but there were calculations she still could dimly make. One of these was that she must drag no one else in. I verily believe that, for that matter, she had scruples, poignant and exquisite, even about letting our friend himself see how much she liked to be with him. She wouldn’t, at all events, let another see. I saw what I saw, I felt what I felt, but such things were exactly a sign that I could take care of myself. There was apparently, I was obliged to admit, but little apprehension in her of her unduly showing that our meeting had been anything of a blessing to her. There was no one indeed just then to be the wiser for it; I might perhaps else even have feared that she would have been influenced to treat the incident as closed. I had, for that matter, no wish to prolong it beyond her own convenience; it had already told me everything it could possibly tell. I thought I knew moreover what she would have got from it. I preferred, none the less, that we should separate by my own act; I wanted not to see her move in order to be free of me. So I stood up, to put her more at her ease, and it was while I remained before her that I tried to turn to her advantage what I had committed myself to about Brissenden.

“I had a fancy, at any rate, that he was looking for you — all the more that he didn’t deny it.”

She had not moved; she had let me take my hand from her own with as little sign as on her first feeling its touch. She only kept her eyes on me. “What made you have such a fancy?”

“What makes me ever have any?” I laughed. “My extraordinary interest in my fellow-creatures. I have more than most men. I’ve never really seen anyone with half so much. That breeds observation, and observation breeds ideas. Do you know what it has done?” I continued. “It has bred for me the idea that Brissenden’s in love with you.”

There was something in her eyes that struck me as betraying — and the appeal of it went to the heart — the constant dread that if entangled in talk she might show confusion. Nevertheless she brought out after a moment, as naturally and charmingly as possible: “How can that be when he’s so strikingly in love with his wife?”

I gave her the benefit of the most apparent consideration. “Strikingly, you call it?”

“Why, I thought it was noticed — what he does for her.”

“Well, of course she’s extremely handsome — or at least extremely fresh and attractive. He is in love with her, no doubt, if you take it by the quarter, or by the year, like a yacht or a stable,” I pushed on at random. “But isn’t there such a state also as being in love by the day?”

She waited, and I guessed from the manner of it exactly why. It was the most obscure of intimations that she would have liked better that I shouldn’t make her talk; but obscurity, by this time, offered me no more difficulties. The hint, none the less, a trifle disconcerted me, and, while I vaguely sought for some small provisional middle way between going and not going on, the oddest thing, as a fruit of my own delay, occurred. This was neither more nor less than the revival of her terrible little fixed smile. It came back as if with an audible click — as a gas-burner makes a pop when you light it. It told me visibly that from the moment she must talk she could talk only with its aid. The effect of its aid I indeed immediately perceived.

“How do I know?” she asked in answer to my question. “I’ve never been in love.”

“Not even by the day?”

“Oh, a day’s surely a long time.”

“It is,” I returned. “But I’ve none the less, more fortunately than you, been in love for a whole one.” Then I continued, from an impulse of which I had just become conscious and that was clearly the result of the heart-breaking facial contortion — heart-breaking, that is, when one knew what I knew — by which she imagined herself to represent the pleasant give-and-take of society. This sense, for me, was a quick horror of forcing her, in such conditions, to talk at all. Poor Briss had mentioned to me, as an incident of his contact with her, his apprehension of her breaking down; and now, at a touch, I saw what he had meant. She would break down if I didn’t look out. I found myself thus, from one minute to the other, as greatly dreading it for her, dreading it indeed for both of us, as I might have dreaded some physical accident or danger, her fall from an unmanageable horse or the crack beneath her of thin ice. It was impossible — that was the extraordinary impression — to come too much to her assistance. We had each of us all, in our way, hour after hour, been, as goodnaturedly as unwittingly, giving her a lift; yet what was the end of it but her still sitting there to assure me of a state of gratitude — that she couldn’t even articulate — for every hint of a perch that might still be held out? What could only, therefore, in the connection, strike me as indicated was fairly to put into her mouth — if one might do so without showing too ungracefully as alarmed — the words one might have guessed her to wish to use were she able to use any. It was a small service of anticipation that I tried to render her with as little of an air as possible of being remedial. “I daresay you wonder,” I remarked on these lines, “why, at all, I should have thrust Brissenden in.”

“Oh, I do so wonder!” she replied with the refined but exaggerated glee that is a frequent form in high companies and light colloquies. I did help her — it was admirable to feel it. She liked my imposing on her no more complex a proposition. She liked my putting the thing to her so much better than she could have put it to me. But she immediately afterwards looked away as if — now that we had put it, and it didn’t matter which of us best — we had nothing more to do with it. She gave me a hint of drops and inconsequences that might indeed have opened up abysses, and all the while she smiled and smiled. Yet whatever she did or failed of, as I even then observed to myself, how she remained lovely! One’s pleasure in that helped one somehow not to break down on one’s own side — since breaking down was in question — for commiseration. I didn’t know what she might have hours of for the man — whoever he was — to whom her sacrifice had been made; but I doubted if for any other person she had ever been so beautiful as she was for me at these moments. To have kept her so, to have made her more so — how might that result of their relation not in fact have shone as a blinding light into the eyes of her lover? What would he have been bound to make out in her after all but her passion and her beauty? Wasn’t it enough for such wonders as these to fill his consciousness? If they didn’t fill mine — even though occupying so large a place in it — was that not only because I had not the direct benefit of them as the other party to the prodigy had it? They filled mine too, for that matter, just at this juncture, long enough for me to describe myself as rendered subject by them to a temporary loss of my thread. What could pass muster with her as an account of my reason for evoking the blighted identity of our friend? There came constantly into her aspect, I should say, the strangest alternatives, as I can only most conveniently call them, of presence and absence — something like intermissions of intensity, cessations and resumptions of life. They were like the slow flickers of a troubled flame, breathed upon and then left, burning up and burning down. She had really burnt down — I mean so far as her sense of things went — while I stood there.

I stood long enough to see that it didn’t in the least signify whether or no I explained, and during this interval I found myself — to my surprise — in receipt of still better assistance than any I had to give. I had happened to turn, while I awkwardly enough, no doubt, rested and shifted, to the quarter from which Mrs. Server had arrived; and there, just at the end of the same vista, I gathered material for my proper reply. Her eyes at this moment were fixed elsewhere, and that gave me still a little more time, at the end of which my reference had all its point. “I supposed you to have Brissenden in your head,” I said, “because it’s evidently what he himself takes for granted. But let him tell you!” He was already close to us: missing her at the house, he had started again in search of her and had successfully followed. The effect on him of coming in sight of us had been for an instant to make him hang back as I had seen Mrs. Server hang. But he had then advanced just as she had done; I had waited for him to reach us; and now she saw him. She looked at him as she always looked at all of us, yet not at either of us as if we had lately been talking of him. If it was vacancy it was eloquent; if it was vigilance it was splendid. What was most curious, at all events, was that it was now poor Briss who was disconcerted. He had counted on finding her, but not on finding her with me, and I interpreted a certain ruefulness in him as the sign of a quick, uneasy sense that he must have been in question between us. I instantly felt that the right thing was to let him know he had been, and I mentioned to him, as a joke, that he had come just in time to save himself. We had been talking of him, and I wouldn’t answer for what Mrs. Server had been going to say. He took it gravely, but he took everything so gravely that I saw no symptom in that. In fact, as he appeared at first careful not to meet my eyes, I saw for a minute or two no symptom in anything — in anything, at least, but the way in which, standing beside me and before Mrs. Server’s bench, he received the conscious glare of her recognition without returning it and without indeed giving her a look. He looked all about — looked, as she herself had done after our meeting, at the charming place and its marks of the hour, at the rich twilight, deeper now in the avenues, and at the tree-tops and sky, more flushed now with colour. I found myself of a sudden quite as sorry for him as I had been for Mrs. Server, and I scarce know how it was suggested to me that during the short interval since our separation something had happened that made a difference in him. Was the difference a consciousness still more charged than I had left it? I couldn’t exactly say, and the question really lost itself in what soon came uppermost for me — the desire, above all, to spare them both and to spare them equally.

The difficulty, however, was to spare them in some fashion that would not be more marked than continuing to observe them. To leave them together without a decent pretext would be marked; but this, I eagerly recognised, was none the less what most concerned me. Whatever they might see in it, there was by this time little enough doubt of how it would indicate for my own mind that the wheel had completely turned. That was the point to which I had been brought by the lapse of a few hours. I had verily travelled far since the sight of the pair on the terrace had given its arrest to my first talk with Mrs. Briss. I was obliged to admit to myself that nothing could very well have been more singular than some of my sequences. I had come round to the opposite pole of the protest my companion had then drawn from me — which was the pole of agreement with herself; and it hung sharply before me that I was pledged to confess to her my revolution. I couldn’t now be in the presence of the two creatures I was in the very act of finally judging to be not a whit less stricken than I had originally imagined them — I couldn’t do this and think with any complacency of the redemption of my pledge; for the process by which I had at last definitely inculpated Mrs. Server was precisely such a process of providential supervision as made me morally responsible, so to speak, for her, and thereby intensified my scruples. Well, my scruples had the last word — they were what determined me to look at my watch and profess that, whatever sense of a margin Brissenden and Mrs. Server might still enjoy, it behoved me not to forget that I took, on such great occasions, an hour to dress for dinner. It was a fairly crude cover for my retreat; perhaps indeed I should rather say that my retreat was practically naked and unadorned. It formulated their relation. I left them with the formula on their hands, both queerly staring at it, both uncertain what to do with it. For some passage that would soon be a correction of this, however, one might surely feel that one could trust them. I seemed to feel my trust justified, behind my back, before I had got twenty yards away. By the time I had done this, I must add, something further had befallen me. Poor Briss had met my eyes just previous to my flight, and it was then I satisfied myself of what had happened to him at the house. He had met his wife; she had in some way dealt with him; he had been with her, however briefly, alone; and the intimacy of their union had been afresh impressed upon him. Poor Briss, in fine, looked ten years older.

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