The Tree of Knowledge, by Henry James

III

‘I know now,’ Lance said to him the next year, ‘why you were so much against it.’ He had come back supposedly for a mere interval and was looking about him at Carrara Lodge, where indeed he had already on two or three occasions since his expatriation briefly reappeared. This had the air of a longer holiday. ‘Something rather awful has happened to me. It isn’t so very good to know.’

‘I’m bound to say high spirits don’t show in your face,’ Peter was rather ruefully forced to confess. ‘Still, are you very sure you do know?’

‘Well, I at least know about as much as I can bear.’ These remarks were exchanged in Peter’s den, and the young man, smoking cigarettes, stood before the fire with his back against the mantel. Something of his bloom seemed really to have left him.

Poor Peter wondered. ‘You’re clear then as to what in particular I wanted you not to go for?’

‘In particular?’ Lance thought. ‘It seems to me that in particular there can have been only one thing.’

They stood for a little sounding each other. ‘Are you quite sure?’

‘Quite sure I’m a beastly duffer? Quite — by this time.’

‘Oh!’ — and Peter turned away as if almost with relief.

‘It’s that that isn’t pleasant to find out.’

‘Oh I don’t care for “that”,’ said Peter, presently coming round again. ‘I mean I personally don’t.’

‘Yet I hope you can understand a little that I myself should!’

‘Well, what do you mean by it?’ Peter sceptically asked.

And on this Lance had to explain — how the upshot of his studies in Paris had inexorably proved a mere deep doubt of his means. These studies had so waked him up that a new light was in his eyes; but what the new light did was really to show him too much. ‘Do you know what’s the matter with me? I’m too horribly intelligent. Paris was really the last place for me. I’ve learnt what I can’t do.’

Poor Peter stared — it was a staggerer; but even after they had had, on the subject, a longish talk in which the boy brought out to the full the hard truth of his lesson, his friend betrayed less pleasure than usually breaks into a face to the happy tune of ‘I told you so!’ Poor Peter himself made now indeed so little a point of having told him so that Lance broke ground in a different place a day or two after. ‘What was it then that — before I went — you were afraid I should find out?’ This, however, Peter refused to tell him — on the ground that if he hadn’t yet guessed perhaps he never would, and that in any case nothing at all for either of them was to be gained by giving the thing a name. Lance eyed him on this an instant with the bold curiosity of youth — with the air indeed of having in his mind two or three names, of which one or other would be right. Peter nevertheless, turning his back again, offered no encouragement, and when they parted afresh it was with some show of impatience on the side of the boy. Accordingly on their next encounter Peter saw at a glance that he had now, in the interval, divined and that, to sound his note, he was only waiting till they should find themselves alone. This he had soon arranged and he then broke straight out. ‘Do you know your conundrum has been keeping me awake? But in the watches of the night the answer came over me — so that, upon my honour, I quite laughed out. Had you been supposing I had to go to Paris to learn that? Even now, to see him still so sublimely on his guard, Peter’s young friend had to laugh afresh. ‘You won’t give a sign till you’re sure? Beautiful old Peter!’ But Lance at last produced it. ‘Why, hang it, the truth about the Master.’

It made between them for some minutes a lively passage, full of wonder for each at the wonder of the other. ‘Then how long have you understood — ’

‘The true value of his work? I understood it,’ Lance recalled, ‘as soon as I began to understand anything. But I didn’t begin fully to do that, I admit, till I got là-bas.’

‘Dear, dear!’ — Peter gasped with retrospective dread.

‘But for what have you taken me? I’m a hopeless muff — that I had to have rubbed in. But I’m not such a muff as the Master!’ Lance declared.

‘Then why did you never tell me —?’

‘That I hadn’t, after all’ — the boy took him up — ‘remained such an idiot? Just because I never dreamed you knew. But I beg your pardon. I only wanted to spare you. And what I don’t now understand is how the deuce then for so long you’ve managed to keep bottled.’

Peter produced his explanation, but only after some delay and with a gravity not void of embarrassment. ‘It was for your mother.’

‘Oh!’ said Lance.

‘And that’s the great thing now — since the murder is out. I want a promise from you. I mean’ — and Peter almost feverishly followed it up — ‘a vow from you, solemn and such as you owe me here on the spot, that you’ll sacrifice anything rather than let her ever guess — ’

‘That I’ve guessed?’ — Lance took it in. ‘I see.’ He evidently after a moment had taken in much. ‘But what is it you’ve in mind that I may have a chance to sacrifice?’

‘Oh one has always something.’

Lance looked at him hard. ‘Do you mean that you’ve had —?’ The look he received back, however, so put the question by that he found soon enough another. ‘Are you really sure my mother doesn’t know?’

Peter, after renewed reflexion, was really sure. ‘If she does she’s too wonderful.’

‘But aren’t we all too wonderful?’

‘Yes,’ Peter granted — ‘but in different ways. The thing’s so desperately important because your father’s little public consists only, as you know then,’ Peter developed — ‘well, of how many?’

‘First of all,’ the Master’s son risked, ‘of himself. And last of all too. I don’t quite see of whom else.’

Peter had an approach to impatience. ‘Of your mother, I say — always.’

Lance cast it all up. ‘You absolutely feel that?’

‘Absolutely.’

‘Well then with yourself that makes three.’

‘Oh me!’ — and Peter, with a wag of his kind old head, modestly excused himself. The number’s at any rate small enough for any individual dropping out to be too dreadfully missed. Therefore, to put it in a nutshell, take care, my boy — that’s all — that you’re not!’

I’ve got to keep on humbugging?’ Lance wailed.

‘It’s just to warn you of the danger of your failing of that that I’ve seized this opportunity.’

‘And what do you regard in particular,’ the young man asked, ‘as the danger?’

‘Why this certainty: that the moment your mother, who feels so strongly, should suspect your secret — well,’ said Peter desperately, ‘the fat would be on the fire.’

Lance for a moment seemed to stare at the blaze. ‘She’d throw me over?’

‘She’d throw him over.’

‘And come round to us?’

Peter, before he answered, turned away. ‘Come round to you.’ But he had said enough to indicate — and, as he evidently trusted, to avert — the horrid contingency.

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