The Figure in the Carpet, by Henry James

Chapter 6

Six months after our friend had left England George Corvick, who made his living by his pen, contracted for a piece of work which imposed on him an absence of some length and a journey of some difficulty, and his undertaking of which was much of a surprise to me. His brother-inlaw had become editor of a great provincial paper, and the great provincial paper, in a fine flight of fancy, had conceived the idea of sending a “special commissioner” to India. Special commissioners had begun, in the “metropolitan press,” to be the fashion, and the journal in question must have felt it had passed too long for a mere country cousin. Corvick had no hand, I knew, for the big brush of the correspondent, but that was his brother-inlaw’s affair, and the fact that a particular task was not in his line was apt to be with himself exactly a reason for accepting it. He was prepared to out-Herod the metropolitan press; he took solemn precautions against priggishness, he exquisitely outraged taste. Nobody ever knew it — that offended principle was all his own. In addition to his expenses he was to be conveniently paid, and I found myself able to help him, for the usual fat book, to a plausible arrangement with the usual fat publisher. I naturally inferred that his obvious desire to make a little money was not unconnected with the prospect of a union with Gwendolen Erme. I was aware that her mother’s opposition was largely addressed to his want of means and of lucrative abilities, but it so happened that, on my saying the last time I saw him something that bore on the question of his separation from our young lady, he brought out with an emphasis that startled me: “Ah I’m not a bit engaged to her, you know!”

“Not overtly,” I answered, “because her mother doesn’t like you. But I’ve always taken for granted a private understanding.”

“Well, there WAS one. But there isn’t now.” That was all he said save something about Mrs. Erme’s having got on her feet again in the most extraordinary way — a remark pointing, as I supposed, the moral that private understandings were of little use when the doctor didn’t share them. What I took the liberty of more closely inferring was that the girl might in some way have estranged him. Well, if he had taken the turn of jealousy for instance it could scarcely be jealousy of me. In that case — over and above the absurdity of it — he wouldn’t have gone away just to leave us together. For some time before his going we had indulged in no allusion to the buried treasure, and from his silence, which my reserve simply emulated, I had drawn a sharp conclusion. His courage had dropped, his ardour had gone the way of mine — this appearance at least he left me to scan. More than that he couldn’t do; he couldn’t face the triumph with which I might have greeted an explicit admission. He needn’t have been afraid, poor dear, for I had by this time lost all need to triumph. In fact I considered I showed magnanimity in not reproaching him with his collapse, for the sense of his having thrown up the game made me feel more than ever how much I at last depended on him. If Corvick had broken down I should never know; no one would be of any use if HE wasn’t. It wasn’t a bit true I had ceased to care for knowledge; little by little my curiosity not only had begun to ache again, but had become the familiar torment of my days and my nights. There are doubtless people to whom torments of such an order appear hardly more natural than the contortions of disease; but I don’t after all know why I should in this connexion so much as mention them. For the few persons, at any rate, abnormal or not, with whom my anecdote is concerned, literature was a game of skill, and skill meant courage, and courage meant honour, and honour meant passion, meant life. The stake on the table was of a special substance and our roulette the revolving mind, but we sat round the green board as intently as the grim gamblers at Monte Carlo. Gwendolen Erme, for that matter, with her white face and her fixed eyes, was of the very type of the lean ladies one had met in the temples of chance. I recognised in Corvick’s absence that she made this analogy vivid. It was extravagant, I admit, the way she lived for the art of the pen. Her passion visibly preyed on her, and in her presence I felt almost tepid. I got hold of “Deep Down” again: it was a desert in which she had lost herself, but in which too she had dug a wonderful hole in the sand — a cavity out of which Corvick had still more remarkably pulled her.

Early in March I had a telegram from her, in consequence of which I repaired immediately to Chelsea, where the first thing she said to me was: “He has got it, he has got it!”

She was moved, as I could see, to such depths that she must mean the great thing. “Vereker’s idea?”

“His general intention. George has cabled from Bombay.”

She had the missive open there; it was emphatic though concise. “Eureka. Immense.” That was all — he had saved the cost of the signature. I shared her emotion, but I was disappointed. “He doesn’t say what it is.”

“How could he — in a telegram? He’ll write it.”

“But how does he know?”

“Know it’s the real thing? Oh I’m sure that when you see it you do know. Vera incessu patuit dea!”

“It’s you, Miss Erme, who are a ‘dear’ for bringing me such news!”- -I went all lengths in my high spirits. “But fancy finding our goddess in the temple of Vishnu! How strange of George to have been able to go into the thing again in the midst of such different and such powerful solicitations!”

“He hasn’t gone into it, I know; it’s the thing itself, let severely alone for six months, that has simply sprung out at him like a tigress out of the jungle. He didn’t take a book with him — on purpose; indeed he wouldn’t have needed to — he knows every page, as I do, by heart. They all worked in him together, and some day somewhere, when he wasn’t thinking, they fell, in all their superb intricacy, into the one right combination. The figure in the carpet came out. That’s the way he knew it would come and the real reason — you didn’t in the least understand, but I suppose I may tell you now — why he went and why I consented to his going. We knew the change would do it — that the difference of thought, of scene, would give the needed touch, the magic shake. We had perfectly, we had admirably calculated. The elements were all in his mind, and in the secousse of a new and intense experience they just struck light.” She positively struck light herself — she was literally, facially luminous. I stammered something about unconscious cerebration, and she continued: “He’ll come right home — this will bring him.”

“To see Vereker, you mean?”

“To see Vereker — and to see ME. Think what he’ll have to tell me!”

I hesitated. “About India?”

“About fiddlesticks! About Vereker — about the figure in the carpet.”

“But, as you say, we shall surely have that in a letter.”

She thought like one inspired, and I remembered how Corvick had told me long before that her face was interesting. “Perhaps it can’t be got into a letter if it’s ‘immense.’”

“Perhaps not if it’s immense bosh. If he has hold of something that can’t be got into a letter he hasn’t hold of THE thing. Vereker’s own statement to me was exactly that the ‘figure’ WOULD fit into a letter.”

“Well, I cabled to George an hour ago — two words,” said Gwendolen.

“Is it indiscreet of me to ask what they were?”

She hung fire, but at last brought them out. “‘Angel, write.’”

“Good!” I exclaimed. “I’ll make it sure — I’ll send him the same.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56