“Then it has been — what do you say? a whole fortnight? — without your making a sign?”
Kate put that to him distinctly, in the December dusk of Lancaster Gate and on the matter of the time he had been back; but he saw with it straightway that she was as admirably true as ever to her instinct — which was a system as well — of not admitting the possibility between them of small resentments, of trifles to trip up their general trust. That by itself, the renewed beauty of it, would at this fresh sight of her have stirred him to his depths if something else, something no less vivid but quite separate, hadn’t stirred him still more. It was in seeing her that he felt what their interruption had been, and that they met across it even as persons whose adventures, on either side, in time and space, of the nature of perils and exiles, had had a peculiar strangeness. He wondered if he were as different for her as she herself had immediately appeared: which was but his way indeed of taking in, with his thrill, that — even going by the mere first look — she had never been so handsome. That fact bloomed for him, in the firelight and lamplight that glowed their welcome through the London fog, as the flower of her difference; just as her difference itself — part of which was her striking him as older in a degree for which no mere couple of months could account — was the fruit of their intimate relation. If she was different it was because they had chosen together that she should be, and she might now, as a proof of their wisdom, their success, of the reality of what had happened — of what in fact, for the spirit of each, was still happening — been showing it to him for pride. His having returned and yet kept, for numbered days, so still, had been, he was quite aware, the first point he should have to tackle; with which consciousness indeed he had made a clean breast of it in finally addressing Mrs. Lowder a note that had led to his present visit. He had written to Aunt Maud as the finer way; and it would doubtless have been to be noted that he needed no effort not to write to Kate. Venice was three weeks behind him — he had come up slowly; but it was still as if even in London he must conform to her law. That was exactly how he was able, with his faith in her steadiness, to appeal to her feeling for the situation and explain his stretched delicacy. He had come to tell her everything, so far as occasion would serve them; and if nothing was more distinct than that his slow journey, his waits, his delay to reopen communication had kept pace with this resolve, so the inconsequence was doubtless at bottom but one of the elements of intensity. He was gathering everything up, everything he should tell her. That took time, and the proof was that, as he felt on the spot, he couldn’t have brought it all with him before this afternoon. He had brought it, to the last syllable, and, out of the quantity it wouldn’t be hard — as he in fact found — to produce, for Kate’s understanding, his first reason.
“A fortnight, yes — it was a fortnight Friday; but I’ve only been keeping in, you see, with our wonderful system.” He was so easily justified as that this of itself plainly enough prevented her saying she didn’t see. Their wonderful system was accordingly still vivid for her; and such a gage of its equal vividness for himself was precisely what she must have asked. He hadn’t even to dot his i’s beyond the remark that on the very face of it, she would remember, their wonderful system attached no premium to rapidities of transition. “I couldn’t quite — don’t you know? — take my rebound with a rush; and I suppose I’ve been instinctively hanging off to minimise, for you as well as for myself, the appearances of rushing. There’s a sort of fitness. But I knew you’d understand.” It was presently as if she really understood so well that she almost appealed from his insistence — yet looking at him too, he was not unconscious, as if this mastery of fitnesses was a strong sign for her of what she had done to him. He might have struck her as expert for contingencies in the very degree of her having in Venice struck him as expert. He smiled over his plea for a renewal with stages and steps, a thing shaded, as they might say, and graduated; though — finely as she must respond — she met the smile but as she had met his entrance five minutes before. Her soft gravity at that moment — which was yet not solemnity, but the look of a consciousness charged with life to the brim and wishing not to overflow — had not qualified her welcome; what had done this being much more the presence in the room, for a couple of minutes, of the footman who had introduced him and who had been interrupted in preparing the tea-table.
Mrs. Lowder’s reply to Densher’s note had been to appoint the tea-hour, five o’clock on Sunday, for his seeing them. Kate had thereafter wired him, without a signature, “Come on Sunday before tea — about a quarter of an hour, which will help us”; and he had arrived therefore scrupulously at twenty minutes to five. Kate was alone in the room and hadn’t delayed to tell him that Aunt Maud, as she had happily gathered, was to be, for the interval — not long but precious — engaged with an old servant, retired and pensioned, who had been paying her a visit and who was within the hour to depart again for the suburbs. They were to have the scrap of time, after the withdrawal of the footman, to themselves, and there was a moment when, in spite of their wonderful system, in spite of the proscription of rushes and the propriety of shades, it proclaimed itself indeed precious. And all without prejudice — that was what kept it noble — to Kate’s high sobriety and her beautiful self-command. If he had his discretion she had her perfect manner, which was her decorum. Mrs. Stringham, he had, to finish with the question of his delay, furthermore observed, Mrs. Stringham would have written to Mrs. Lowder of his having quitted the place; so that it wasn’t as if he were hoping to cheat them. They’d know he was no longer there.
“Yes, we’ve known it.”
“And you continue to hear?”
“From Mrs. Stringham? Certainly. By which I mean Aunt Maud does.”
“Then you’ve recent news?”
Her face showed a wonder. “Up to within a day or two I believe. But haven’t you?”
“No — I’ve heard nothing.” And it was now that he felt how much he had to tell her. “I don’t get letters. But I’ve been sure Mrs. Lowder does.” With which he added: “Then of course you know.” He waited as if she would show what she knew; but she only showed in silence the dawn of a surprise that she couldn’t control. There was nothing but for him to ask what he wanted. “Is Miss Theale alive?”
Kate’s look at this was large. “Don’t you know?”
“How should I, my dear — in the absence of everything?” And he himself stared as for light. “She’s dead?” Then as with her eyes on him she slowly shook her head he uttered a strange “Not yet?”
It came out in Kate’s face that there were several questions on her lips, but the one she presently put was: “Is it very terrible?”
“The manner of her so consciously and helplessly dying?” He had to think a moment. “Well, yes — since you ask me: very terrible to me — so far as, before I came away, I had any sight of it. But I don’t think,” he went on, “that — though I’ll try — I can quite tell you what it was, what it is, for me. That’s why I probably just sounded to you,” he explained, “as if I hoped it might be over.”
She gave him her quietest attention, but he by this time saw that, so far as telling her all was concerned, she would be divided between the wish and the reluctance to hear it; between the curiosity that, not unnaturally, would consume her and the opposing scruple of a respect for misfortune. The more she studied him too — and he had never so felt her closely attached to his face — the more the choice of an attitude would become impossible to her. There would simply be a feeling uppermost, and the feeling wouldn’t be eagerness. This perception grew in him fast, and he even, with his imagination, had for a moment the quick forecast of her possibly breaking out at him, should he go too far, with a wonderful: “What horrors are you telling me?” It would have the sound — wouldn’t it be open to him fairly to bring that out himself? — of a repudiation, for pity and almost for shame, of everything that in Venice had passed between them. Not that she would confess to any return upon herself; not that she would let compunction or horror give her away; but it was in the air for him — yes — that she wouldn’t want details, that she positively wouldn’t take them, and that, if he would generously understand it from her, she would prefer to keep him down. Nothing, however, was more definite for him than that at the same time he must remain down but so far as it suited him. Something rose strong within him against his not being free with her. She had been free enough about it all, three months before, with him. That was what she was at present only in the sense of treating him handsomely. “I can believe,” she said with perfect consideration, “how dreadful for you much of it must have been.”
He didn’t however take this up; there were things about which he wished first to be clear. “There’s no other possibility, by what you now know? I mean for her life.” And he had just to insist — she would say as little as she could. “She is dying?”
It was strange to him, in the matter of Milly, that Lancaster Gate could make him any surer; yet what in the world, in the matter of Milly, wasn’t strange? Nothing was so much so as his own behaviour — his present as well as his past. He could but do as he must. “Has Sir Luke Strett,” he asked, “gone back to her?”
“I believe he’s there now.”
“Then,” said Densher, “it’s the end.”
She took it in silence for whatever he deemed it to be; but she spoke otherwise after a minute. “You won’t know, unless you’ve perhaps seen him yourself, that Aunt Maud has been to him.”
“Oh!” Densher exclaimed, with nothing to add to it.
“For real news,” Kate herself after an instant added.
“She hasn’t thought Mrs. Stringham’s real?”
“It’s perhaps only I who haven’t. It was on Aunt Maud’s trying again three days ago to see him that she heard at his house of his having gone. He had started I believe some days before.”
“And won’t then by this time be back?”
Kate shook her head. “She sent yesterday to know.”
“He won’t leave her then”— Densher had turned it over —“while she lives. He’ll stay to the end. He’s magnificent.”
“I think she is,” said Kate.
It had made them again look at each other long; and what it drew from him rather oddly was: “Oh you don’t know!”
“Well, she’s after all my friend.”
It was somehow, with her handsome demur, the answer he had least expected of her; and it fanned with its breath, for a brief instant, his old sense of her variety. “I see. You would have been sure of it. You were sure of it.”
“Of course I was sure of it.”
And a pause again, with this, fell upon them; which Densher, however, presently broke. “If you don’t think Mrs. Stringham’s news ‘real’ what do you think of Lord Mark’s?”
She didn’t think anything. “Lord Mark’s?”
“You haven’t seen him?”
“Not since he saw her.”
“You’ve known then of his seeing her?”
“Certainly. From Mrs. Stringham.”
“And have you known,” Densher went on, “the rest?”
Kate wondered. “What rest?”
“Why everything. It was his visit that she couldn’t stand — it was what then took place that simply killed her.”
“Oh!” Kate seriously breathed. But she had turned pale, and he saw that, whatever her degree of ignorance of these connexions, it wasn’t put on. “Mrs. Stringham hasn’t said that.”
He observed none the less that she didn’t ask what had then taken place; and he went on with his contribution to her knowledge. “The way it affected her was that it made her give up. She has given up beyond all power to care again, and that’s why she’s dying.”
“Oh!” Kate once more slowly sighed, but with a vagueness that made him pursue.
“One can see now that she was living by will — which was very much what you originally told me of her.”
“I remember. That was it.”
“Well then her will, at a given moment, broke down, and the collapse was determined by that fellow’s dastardly stroke. He told her, the scoundrel, that you and I are secretly engaged.”
Kate gave a quick glare. “But he doesn’t know it!”
“That doesn’t matter. She did by the time he had left her. Besides,” Densher added, “he does know it. When,” he continued, “did you last see him?”
But she was lost now in the picture before her. “That was what made her worse?”
He watched her take it in-it so added to her sombre beauty. Then he spoke as Mrs. Stringham had spoken. “She turned her face to the wall.”
“Poor Milly!” said Kate.
Slight as it was, her beauty somehow gave it style; so that he continued consistently: “She learned it, you see, too soon — since of course one’s idea had been that she might never even learn it at all. And she had felt sure — through everything we had done — of there not being between us, so far at least as you were concerned, anything she need regard as a warning.”
She took another moment for thought. “It wasn’t through anything you did — whatever that may have been — that she gained her certainty. It was by the conviction she got from me.”
“Oh it’s very handsome,” Densher said, “for you to take your share!”
“Do you suppose,” Kate asked, “that I think of denying it?”
Her look and her tone made him for the instant regret his comment, which indeed had been the first that rose to his lips as an effect absolutely of what they would have called between them her straightness. Her straightness, visibly, was all his own loyalty could ask. Still, that was comparatively beside the mark. “Of course I don’t suppose anything but that we’re together in our recognitions, our responsibilities — whatever we choose to call them. It isn’t a question for us of apportioning shares or distinguishing invidiously among such impressions as it was our idea to give.”
“It wasn’t your idea to give impressions,” said Kate.
He met this with a smile that he himself felt, in its strained character, as queer. “Don’t go into that!”
It was perhaps not as going into it that she had another idea — an idea born, she showed, of the vision he had just evoked. “Wouldn’t it have been possible then to deny the truth of the information? I mean of Lord Mark’s.”
Densher wondered. “Possible for whom?”
“Why for you.”
“To tell her he lied?”
“To tell her he’s mistaken.”
Densher stared — he was stupefied; the “possible” thus glanced at by Kate being exactly the alternative he had had to face in Venice and to put utterly away from him. Nothing was stranger than such a difference in their view of it. “And to lie myself, you mean, to do it? We are, my dear child,” he said, “I suppose, still engaged.”
“Of course we’re still engaged. But to save her life —!”
He took in for a little the way she talked of it. Of course, it was to be remembered, she had always simplified, and it brought back his sense of the degree in which, to her energy as compared with his own, many things were easy; the very sense that so often before had moved him to admiration. “Well, if you must know — and I want you to be clear about it — I didn’t even seriously think of a denial to her face. The question of it — as possibly saving her — was put to me definitely enough; but to turn it over was only to dismiss it. Besides,” he added, “it wouldn’t have done any good.”
“You mean she would have had no faith in your correction?” She had spoken with a promptitude that affected him of a sudden as almost glib; but he himself paused with the overweight of all he meant, and she meanwhile went on. “Did you try?”
“I hadn’t even a chance.”
Kate maintained her wonderful manner, the manner of at once having it all before her and yet keeping it all at its distance. “She wouldn’t see you?”
“Not after your friend had been with her.”
She hesitated. “Couldn’t you write?”
It made him also think, but with a difference. “She had turned her face to the wall.”
This again for a moment hushed her, and they were both too grave now for parenthetic pity. But her interest came out for at least the minimum of light. “She refused even to let you speak to her?”
“My dear girl,” Densher returned, “she was miserably, prohibitively ill.”
“Well, that was what she had been before.”
“And it didn’t prevent? No,” Densher admitted, “it didn’t; and I don’t pretend that she’s not magnificent.”
“She’s prodigious,” said Kate Croy.
He looked at her a moment. “So are you, my dear. But that’s how it is,” he wound up; “and there we are.”
His idea had been in advance that she would perhaps sound him much more deeply, asking him above all two or three specific things. He had fairly fancied her even wanting to know and trying to find out how far, as the odious phrase was, he and Milly had gone, and how near, by the same token, they had come. He had asked himself if he were prepared to hear her do that, and had had to take for answer that he was prepared of course for everything. Wasn’t he prepared for her ascertaining if her two or three prophecies had found time to be made true? He had fairly believed himself ready to say whether or no the overture on Milly’s part promised according to the boldest of them had taken place. But what was in fact blessedly coming to him was that so far as such things were concerned his readiness wouldn’t be taxed. Kate’s pressure on the question of what had taken place remained so admirably general that even her present enquiry kept itself free of sharpness. “So then that after Lord Mark’s interference you never again met?”
It was what he had been all the while coming to. “No; we met once — so far as it could be called a meeting. I had stayed — I didn’t come away.”
“That,” said Kate, “was no more than decent.”
“Precisely”— he felt himself wonderful; “and I wanted to be no less. She sent for me, I went to her, and that night I left Venice.”
His companion waited. “Wouldn’t that then have been your chance?”
“To refute Lord Mark’s story? No, not even if before her there I had wanted to. What did it signify either? She was dying.”
“Well,” Kate in a manner persisted, “why not just because she was dying?” She had however all her discretion. “But of course I know that seeing her you could judge.”
“Of course seeing her I could judge. And I did see her! If I had denied you moreover,” Densher said with his eyes on her, “I’d have stuck to it.”
She took for a moment the intention of his face. “You mean that to convince her you’d have insisted or somehow proved —?”
“I mean that to convince you I’d have insisted or somehow proved —!”
Kate looked for her moment at a loss. “To convince ‘me’?”
“I wouldn’t have made my denial, in such conditions, only to take it back afterwards.”
With this quickly light came for her, and with it also her colour flamed. “Oh you’d have broken with me to make your denial a truth? You’d have ‘chucked’ me”— she embraced it perfectly —“to save your conscience?”
“I couldn’t have done anything else,” said Merton Densher. “So you see how right I was not to commit myself, and how little I could dream of it. If it ever again appears to you that I might have done so, remember what I say.”
Kate again considered, but not with the effect at once to which he pointed. “You’ve fallen in love with her.”
“Well then say so — with a dying woman. Why need you mind and what does it matter?”
It came from him, the question, straight out of the intensity of relation and the face-to-face necessity into which, from the first, from his entering the room, they had found themselves thrown; but it gave them their most extraordinary moment. “Wait till she is dead! Mrs. Stringham,” Kate added, “is to telegraph.” After which, in a tone still different, “For what then,” she asked, “did Milly send for you?”
“It was what I tried to make out before I went. I must tell you moreover that I had no doubt of its really being to give me, as you say, a chance. She believed, I suppose, that I might deny; and what, to my own mind, was before me in going to her was the certainty that she’d put me to my test. She wanted from my own lips — so I saw it — the truth. But I was with her for twenty minutes, and she never asked me for it.”
“She never wanted the truth”— Kate had a high headshake. “She wanted you. She would have taken from you what you could give her and been glad of it, even if she had known it false. You might have lied to her from pity, and she have seen you and felt you lie, and yet — since it was all for tenderness — she would have thanked you and blessed you and clung to you but the more. For that was your strength, my dear man — that she loves you with passion.”
“Oh my ‘strength’!” Densher coldly murmured.
“Otherwise, since she had sent for you, what was it to ask of you?” And then — quite without irony — as he waited a moment to say: “Was it just once more to look at you?”
“She had nothing to ask of me — nothing, that is, but not to stay any longer. She did to that extent want to see me. She had supposed at first — after he had been with her — that I had seen the propriety of taking myself off. Then since I hadn’t — seeing my propriety as I did in another way — she found, days later, that I was still there. This,” said Densher, “affected her.”
“Of course it affected her.”
Again she struck him, for all her dignity, as glib. “If it was somehow for her I was still staying, she wished that to end, she wished me to know how little there was need of it. And as a manner of farewell she wished herself to tell me so.”
“And she did tell you so?”
“Face-to-face, yes. Personally, as she desired.”
“And as you of course did.”
“No, Kate,” he returned with all their mutual consideration; “not as I did. I hadn’t desired it in the least.”
“You only went to oblige her?”
“To oblige her. And of course also to oblige you.”
“Oh for myself certainly I’m glad.”
“‘Glad’?”— he echoed vaguely the way it rang out.
“I mean you did quite the right thing. You did it especially in having stayed. But that was all?” Kate went on. “That you mustn’t wait?”
“That was really all — and in perfect kindness.”
“Ah kindness naturally: from the moment she asked of you such a — well, such an effort. That you mustn’t wait — that was the point,” Kate added —“to see her die.”
“That was the point, my dear,” Densher said.
“And it took twenty minutes to make it?”
He thought a little. “I didn’t time it to a second. I paid her the visit — just like another.”
“Like another person?”
“Like another visit.”
“Oh!” said Kate. Which had apparently the effect of slightly arresting his speech — an arrest she took advantage of to continue; making with it indeed her nearest approach to an enquiry of the kind against which he had braced himself. “Did she receive you — in her condition — in her room?”
“Not she,” said Merton Densher. “She received me just as usual: in that glorious great salone, in the dress she always wears, from her inveterate corner of her sofa.” And his face for the moment conveyed the scene, just as hers equally embraced it. “Do you remember what you originally said to me of her?”
“Ah I’ve said so many things.”
“That she wouldn’t smell of drugs, that she wouldn’t taste of medicine. Well, she didn’t.”
“So that it was really almost happy?”
It took him a long time to answer, occupied as he partly was in feeling how nobody but Kate could have invested such a question with the tone that was perfectly right. She meanwhile, however, patiently waited. “I don’t think I can attempt to say now what it was. Some day — perhaps. For it would be worth it for us.”
“Some day — certainly.” She seemed to record the promise. Yet she spoke again abruptly. “She’ll recover.”
“Well,” said Densher, “you’ll see.”
She had the air an instant of trying to. “Did she show anything of her feeling? I mean,” Kate explained, “of her feeling of having been misled.”
She didn’t press hard, surely; but he had just mentioned that he would have rather to glide. “She showed nothing but her beauty and her strength.”
“Then,” his companion asked, “what’s the use of her strength?”
He seemed to look about for a use he could name; but he had soon given it up. “She must die, my dear, in her own extraordinary way.”
“Naturally. But I don’t see then what proof you have that she was ever alienated.”
“I have the proof that she refused for days and days to see me.”
“But she was ill.”
“That hadn’t prevented her — as you yourself a moment ago said — during the previous time. If it had been only illness it would have made no difference with her.”
“She would still have received you?”
“She would still have received me.”
“Oh well,” said Kate, “if you know —!”
“Of course I know. I know moreover as well from Mrs. Stringham.”
“And what does Mrs. Stringham know?”
She looked at him longer. “Everything?”
“Because you’ve told her?”
“Because she has seen for herself. I’ve told her nothing. She’s a person who does see.”
Kate thought. “That’s by her liking you too. She as well is prodigious. You see what interest in a man does. It does it all round. So you needn’t be afraid.”
“I’m not afraid,” said Densher.
Kate moved from her place then, looking at the clock, which marked five. She gave her attention to the tea-table, where Aunt Maud’s huge silver kettle, which had been exposed to its lamp and which she had not soon enough noticed, was hissing too hard. “Well, it’s all most wonderful!” she exclaimed as she rather too profusely — a sign her friend noticed — ladled tea into the pot. He watched her a moment at this occupation, coming nearer the table while she put in the steaming water. “You’ll have some?”
He hesitated. “Hadn’t we better wait —?”
“For Aunt Maud?” She saw what he meant — the deprecation, by their old law, of betrayals of the intimate note. “Oh you needn’t mind now. We’ve done it!”
“Squared her. You’ve pleased her.”
Densher mechanically accepted his tea. He was thinking of something else, and his thought in a moment came out. “What a brute then I must be!”
“A brute —?”
“To have pleased so many people.”
“Ah,” said Kate with a gleam of gaiety, “you’ve done it to please me.” But she was already, with her gleam, reverting a little. “What I don’t understand is — won’t you have any sugar?”
“What I don’t understand,” she went on when she had helped him, “is what it was that had occurred to bring her round again. If she gave you up for days and days, what brought her back to you?”
She asked the question with her own cup in her hand, but it found him ready enough in spite of his sense of the ironic oddity of their going into it over the tea-table. “It was Sir Luke Strett who brought her back. His visit, his presence there did it.”
“He brought her back then to life.”
“Well, to what I saw.”
“And by interceding for you?”
“I don’t think he interceded. I don’t indeed know what he did.”
Kate wondered. “Didn’t he tell you?”
“I didn’t ask him. I met him again, but we practically didn’t speak of her.”
Kate stared. “Then how do you know?”
“I see. I feel. I was with him again as I had been before —”
“Oh and you pleased him too? That was it?”
“He understood,” said Densher.
“But understood what?”
He waited a moment. “That I had meant awfully well.”
“Ah, and made her understand? I see,” she went on as he said nothing. “But how did he convince her?”
Densher put down his cup and turned away. “You must ask Sir Luke.”
He stood looking at the fire and there was a time without sound. “The great thing,” Kate then resumed, “is that she’s satisfied. Which,” she continued, looking across at him, “is what I’ve worked for.”
“Satisfied to die in the flower of her youth?”
“Well, at peace with you.”
“Oh ‘peace’!” he murmured with his eyes on the fire.
“The peace of having loved.”
He raised his eyes to her. “Is that peace?”
“Of having been loved,” she went on. “That is. Of having,” she wound up, “realised her passion. She wanted nothing more. She has had all she wanted.”
Lucid and always grave, she gave this out with a beautiful authority that he could for the time meet with no words. He could only again look at her, though with the sense in so doing that he made her more than he intended take his silence for assent. Quite indeed as if she did so take it she quitted the table and came to the fire. “You may think it hideous that I should now, that I should yet”— she made a point of the word —“pretend to draw conclusions. But we’ve not failed.”
“Oh!” he only again murmured.
She was once more close to him, close as she had been the day she came to him in Venice, the quickly returning memory of which intensified and enriched the fact. He could practically deny in such conditions nothing that she said, and what she said was, with it, visibly, a fruit of that knowledge. “We’ve succeeded.” She spoke with her eyes deep in his own. “She won’t have loved you for nothing.” It made him wince, but she insisted. “And you won’t have loved me.”
He was to remain for several days under the deep impression of this inclusive passage, so luckily prolonged from moment to moment, but interrupted at its climax, as may be said, by the entrance of Aunt Maud, who found them standing together near the fire. The bearings of the colloquy, however, sharp as they were, were less sharp to his intelligence, strangely enough, than those of a talk with Mrs. Lowder alone for which she soon gave him — or for which perhaps rather Kate gave him — full occasion. What had happened on her at last joining them was to conduce, he could immediately see, to her desiring to have him to herself. Kate and he, no doubt, at the opening of the door, had fallen apart with a certain suddenness, so that she had turned her hard fine eyes from one to the other; but the effect of this lost itself, to his mind, the next minute, in the effect of his companion’s rare alertness. She instantly spoke to her aunt of what had first been uppermost for herself, inviting her thereby intimately to join them, and doing it the more happily also, no doubt, because the fact she resentfully named gave her ample support. “Had you quite understood, my dear, that it’s full three weeks —?” And she effaced herself as if to leave Mrs. Lowder to deal from her own point of view with this extravagance. Densher of course straightway noted that his cue for the protection of Kate was to make, no less, all of it he could; and their tracks, as he might have said, were fairly covered by the time their hostess had taken afresh, on his renewed admission, the measure of his scant eagerness. Kate had moved away as if no great showing were needed for her personal situation to be seen as delicate. She had been entertaining their visitor on her aunt’s behalf — a visitor she had been at one time suspected of favouring too much and who had now come back to them as the stricken suitor of another person. It wasn’t that the fate of the other person, her exquisite friend, didn’t, in its tragic turn, also concern herself: it was only that her acceptance of Mr. Densher as a source of information could scarcely help having an awkwardness. She invented the awkwardness under Densher’s eyes, and he marvelled on his side at the instant creation. It served her as the fine cloud that hangs about a goddess in an epic, and the young man was but vaguely to know at what point of the rest of his visit she had, for consideration, melted into it and out of sight.
He was taken up promptly with another matter — the truth of the remarkable difference, neither more nor less, that the events of Venice had introduced into his relation with Aunt Maud and that these weeks of their separation had caused quite richly to ripen for him. She had not sat down to her tea-table before he felt himself on terms with her that were absolutely new, nor could she press on him a second cup without her seeming herself, and quite wittingly, so to define and establish them. She regretted, but she quite understood, that what was taking place had obliged him to hang off; they had — after hearing of him from poor Susan as gone — been hoping for an early sight of him; they would have been interested, naturally, in his arriving straight from the scene. Yet she needed no reminder that the scene precisely — by which she meant the tragedy that had so detained and absorbed him, the memory, the shadow, the sorrow of it — was what marked him for unsociability. She thus presented him to himself, as it were, in the guise in which she had now adopted him, and it was the element of truth in the character that he found himself, for his own part, adopting. She treated him as blighted and ravaged, as frustrate and already bereft; and for him to feel that this opened for him a new chapter of frankness with her he scarce had also to perceive how it smoothed his approaches to Kate. It made the latter accessible as she hadn’t yet begun to be; it set up for him at Lancaster Gate an association positively hostile to any other legend. It was quickly vivid to him that, were he minded, he could “work” this association: he had but to use the house freely for his prescribed attitude and he need hardly ever be out of it. Stranger than anything moreover was to be the way that by the end of a week he stood convicted to his own sense of a surrender to Mrs. Lowder’s view. He had somehow met it at a point that had brought him on — brought him on a distance that he couldn’t again retrace. He had private hours of wondering what had become of his sincerity; he had others of simply reflecting that he had it all in use. His only want of candour was Aunt Maud’s wealth of sentiment. She was hugely sentimental, and the worst he did was to take it from her. He wasn’t so himself — everything was too real; but it was none the less not false that he had been through a mill.
It was in particular not false for instance that when she had said to him, on the Sunday, almost cosily, from her sofa behind the tea, “I want you not to doubt, you poor dear, that I’m with you to the end!” his meeting her halfway had been the only course open to him. She was with him to the end — or she might be-in a way Kate wasn’t; and even if it literally made her society meanwhile more soothing he must just brush away the question of why it shouldn’t. Was he professing to her in any degree the possession of an aftersense that wasn’t real? How in the world could he, when his aftersense, day by day, was his greatest reality? Such only was at bottom what there was between them, and two or three times over it made the hour pass. These were occasions — two and a scrap — on which he had come and gone without mention of Kate. Now that almost as never yet he had licence to ask for her, the queer turn of their affair made it a false note. It was another queer turn that when he talked with Aunt Maud about Milly nothing else seemed to come up. He called upon her almost avowedly for that purpose, and it was the queerest turn of all that the state of his nerves should require it. He liked her better; he was really behaving, he had occasion to say to himself, as if he liked her best. The thing was absolutely that she met him halfway. Nothing could have been broader than her vision, than her loquacity, than her sympathy. It appeared to gratify, to satisfy her to see him as he was; that too had its effect. It was all of course the last thing that could have seemed on the cards, a change by which he was completely free with this lady; and it wouldn’t indeed have come about if — for another monstrosity — he hadn’t ceased to be free with Kate. Thus it was that on the third time in especial of being alone with her he found himself uttering to the elder woman what had been impossible of utterance to the younger. Mrs. Lowder gave him in fact, on the ground of what he must keep from her, but one uneasy moment. That was when, on the first Sunday, after Kate had suppressed herself, she referred to her regret that he mightn’t have stayed to the end. He found his reason difficult to give her, but she came after all to his help.
“You simply couldn’t stand it?”
“I simply couldn’t stand it. Besides you see —!” But he paused.
“Besides what?” He had been going to say more — then he saw dangers; luckily however she had again assisted him. “Besides — oh I know! — men haven’t, in many relations, the courage of women.”
“They haven’t the courage of women.”
“Kate or I would have stayed,” she declared —“if we hadn’t come away for the special reason that you so frankly appreciated.”
Densher had said nothing about his appreciation: hadn’t his behaviour since the hour itself sufficiently shown it? But he presently said — he couldn’t help going so far: “I don’t doubt, certainly, that Miss Croy would have stayed.” And he saw again into the bargain what a marvel was Susan Shepherd. She did nothing but protect him — she had done nothing but keep it up. In copious communication with the friend of her youth she had yet, it was plain, favoured this lady with nothing that compromised him. Milly’s act of renouncement she had described but as a change for the worse; she had mentioned Lord Mark’s descent, as even without her it might be known, so that she mustn’t appear to conceal it; but she had suppressed explanations and connexions, and indeed, for all he knew, blessed Puritan soul, had invented commendable fictions. Thus it was absolutely that he was at his ease. Thus it was that, shaking for ever, in the unrest that didn’t drop, his crossed leg, he leaned back in deep yellow satin chairs and took such comfort as came. She asked, it was true, Aunt Maud, questions that Kate hadn’t; but this was just the difference, that from her he positively liked them. He had taken with himself on leaving Venice the resolution to regard Milly as already dead to him — that being for his spirit the only thinkable way to pass the time of waiting. He had left her because it was what suited her, and it wasn’t for him to go, as they said in America, behind this; which imposed on him but the sharper need to arrange himself with his interval. Suspense was the ugliest ache to him, and he would have nothing to do with it; the last thing he wished was to be unconscious of her — what he wished to ignore was her own consciousness, tortured, for all he knew, crucified by its pain. Knowingly to hang about in London while the pain went on — what would that do but make his days impossible? His scheme was accordingly to convince himself — and by some art about which he was vague — that the sense of waiting had passed. “What in fact,” he restlessly reflected, “have I any further to do with it? Let me assume the thing actually over — as it at any moment may be-and I become good again for something at least to somebody. I’m good, as it is, for nothing to anybody, least of all to her.” He consequently tried, so far as shutting his eyes and stalking grimly about was a trial; but his plan was carried out, it may well be guessed, neither with marked success nor with marked consistency. The days, whether lapsing or lingering, were a stiff reality; the suppression of anxiety was a thin idea; the taste of life itself was the taste of suspense. That he was waiting was in short at the bottom of everything; and it required no great sifting presently to feel that if he took so much more, as he called it, to Mrs. Lowder this was just for that reason.
She helped him to hold out, all the while that she was subtle enough — and he could see her divine it as what he wanted — not to insist on the actuality of their tension. His nearest approach to success was thus in being good for something to Aunt Maud, in default of any one better; her company eased his nerves even while they pretended together that they had seen their tragedy out. They spoke of the dying girl in the past tense; they said no worse of her than that she had been stupendous. On the other hand, however — and this was what wasn’t for Densher pure peace — they insisted enough that stupendous was the word. It was the thing, this recognition, that kept him most quiet; he came to it with her repeatedly; talking about it against time and, in particular, we have noted, speaking of his supreme personal impression as he hadn’t spoken to Kate. It was almost as if she herself enjoyed the perfection of the pathos; she sat there before the scene, as he couldn’t help giving it out to her, very much as a stout citizen’s wife might have sat, during a play that made people cry, in the pit or the family-circle. What most deeply stirred her was the way the poor girl must have wanted to live.
“Ah yes indeed — she did, she did: why in pity shouldn’t she, with everything to fill her world? The mere money of her, the darling, if it isn’t too disgusting at such a time to mention that —!”
Aunt Maud mentioned it — and Densher quite understood — but as fairly giving poetry to the life Milly clung to: a view of the “might have been” before which the good lady was hushed anew to tears. She had had her own vision of these possibilities, and her own social use for them, and since Milly’s spirit had been after all so at one with her about them, what was the cruelty of the event but a cruelty, of a sort, to herself? That came out when he named, as the horrible thing to know, the fact of their young friend’s unapproachable terror of the end, keep it down though she would; coming out therefore often, since in so naming it he found the strangest of reliefs. He allowed it all its vividness, as if on the principle of his not at least spiritually shirking. Milly had held with passion to her dream of a future, and she was separated from it, not shrieking indeed, but grimly, awfully silent, as one might imagine some noble young victim of the scaffold, in the French Revolution, separated at the prison-door from some object clutched for resistance. Densher, in a cold moment, so pictured the case for Mrs. Lowder, but no moment cold enough had yet come to make him so picture it to Kate. And it was the front so presented that had been, in Milly, heroic; presented with the highest heroism, Aunt Maud by this time knew, on the occasion of his taking leave of her. He had let her know, absolutely for the girl’s glory, how he had been received on that occasion: with a positive effect — since she was indeed so perfectly the princess that Mrs. Stringham always called her — of princely state.
Before the fire in the great room that was all arabesques and cherubs, all gaiety and gilt, and that was warm at that hour too with a wealth of autumn sun, the state in question had been maintained and the situation — well, Densher said for the convenience of exquisite London gossip, sublime. The gossip — for it came to as much at Lancaster Gate — wasn’t the less exquisite for his use of the silver veil, nor on the other hand was the veil, so touched, too much drawn aside. He himself for that matter took in the scene again at moments as from the page of a book. He saw a young man far off and in a relation inconceivable, saw him hushed, passive, staying his breath, but half understanding, yet dimly conscious of something immense and holding himself painfully together not to lose it. The young man at these moments so seen was too distant and too strange for the right identity; and yet, outside, afterwards, it was his own face Densher had known. He had known then at the same time what the young man had been conscious of, and he was to measure after that, day by day, how little he had lost. At present there with Mrs. Lowder he knew he had gathered all — that passed between them mutely as in the intervals of their associated gaze they exchanged looks of intelligence. This was as far as association could go, but it was far enough when she knew the essence. The essence was that something had happened to him too beautiful and too sacred to describe. He had been, to his recovered sense, forgiven, dedicated, blessed; but this he couldn’t coherently express. It would have required an explanation — fatal to Mrs. Lowder’s faith in him — of the nature of Milly’s wrong. So, as to the wonderful scene, they just stood at the door. They had the sense of the presence within — they felt the charged stillness; after which, their association deepened by it, they turned together away.
That itself indeed, for our restless friend, became by the end of a week the very principle of reaction: so that he woke up one morning with such a sense of having played a part as he needed self-respect to gainsay. He hadn’t in the least stated at Lancaster Gate that, as a haunted man — a man haunted with a memory — he was harmless; but the degree to which Mrs. Lowder accepted, admired and explained his new aspect laid upon him practically the weight of a declaration. What he hadn’t in the least stated her own manner was perpetually stating; it was as haunted and harmless that she was constantly putting him down. There offered itself however to his purpose such an element as plain honesty, and he had embraced, by the time he dressed, his proper corrective. They were on the edge of Christmas, but Christmas this year was, as in the London of so many other years, disconcertingly mild; the still air was soft, the thick light was grey, the great town looked empty, and in the Park, where the grass was green, where the sheep browsed, where the birds multitudinously twittered, the straight walks lent themselves to slowness and the dim vistas to privacy. He held it fast this morning till he had got out, his sacrifice to honour, and then went with it to the nearest post-office and fixed it fast in a telegram; thinking of it moreover as a sacrifice only because he had, for reasons, felt it as an effort. Its character of effort it would owe to Kate’s expected resistance, not less probable than on the occasion of past appeals; which was precisely why he — perhaps innocently — made his telegram persuasive. It had, as a recall of tender hours, to be, for the young woman at the counter, a trifle cryptic; but there was a good deal of it in one way and another, representing as it did a rich impulse and costing him a couple of shillings. There was also a moment later on, that day, when, in the Park, as he measured watchfully one of their old alleys, he might have been supposed by a cynical critic to be reckoning his chance of getting his money back. He was waiting — but he had waited of old; Lancaster Gate as a danger was practically at hand — but she had risked that danger before. Besides it was smaller now, with the queer turn of their affair; in spite of which indeed he was graver as he lingered and looked out.
Kate came at last by the way he had thought least likely, came as if she had started from the Marble Arch; but her advent was response — that was the great matter; response marked in her face and agreeable to him, even after Aunt Maud’s responses, as nothing had been since his return to London. She had not, it was true, answered his wire, and he had begun to fear, as she was late, that with the instinct of what he might be again intending to press upon her she had decided — though not with ease — to deprive him of his chance. He would have of course, she knew, other chances, but she perhaps saw the present as offering her special danger. This, in fact, Densher could himself feel, was exactly why he had so prepared it, and he had rejoiced, even while he waited, in all that the conditions had to say to him of their simpler and better time. The shortest day of the year though it might be, it was, in the same place, by a whim of the weather, almost as much to their purpose as the days of sunny afternoons when they had taken their first trysts. This and that tree, within sight, on the grass, stretched bare boughs over the couple of chairs in which they had sat of old and in which — for they really could sit down again — they might recover the clearness of their prime. It was to all intents however this very reference that showed itself in Kate’s face as, with her swift motion, she came toward him. It helped him, her swift motion, when it finally brought her nearer; helped him, for that matter, at first, if only by showing him afresh how terribly well she looked. It had been all along, he certainly remembered, a phenomenon of no rarity that he had felt her, at particular moments, handsomer than ever before; one of these for instance being still present to him as her entrance, under her aunt’s eyes, at Lancaster Gate, the day of his dinner there after his return from America; and another her aspect on the same spot two Sundays ago — the light in which she struck the eyes he had brought back from Venice. In the course of a minute or two now he got, as he had got it the other times, his apprehension of the special stamp of the fortune of the moment.
Whatever it had been determined by as the different hours recurred to him, it took on at present a prompt connexion with an effect produced for him in truth more than once during the past week, only now much intensified. This effect he had already noted and named: it was that of the attitude assumed by his friend in the presence of the degree of response on his part to Mrs. Lowder’s welcome which she couldn’t possibly have failed to notice. She had noticed it, and she had beautifully shown him so; wearing in its honour the finest shade of studied serenity, a shade almost of gaiety over the workings of time. Everything of course was relative, with the shadow they were living under; but her condonation of the way in which he now, for confidence, distinguished Aunt Maud had almost the note of cheer. She had so by her own air consecrated the distinction, invidious in respect to herself though it might be; and nothing, really, more than this demonstration, could have given him had he still wanted it the measure of her superiority. It was doubtless for that matter this superiority alone that on the winter noon gave smooth decision to her step and charming courage to her eyes — a courage that deepened in them when he had presently got to what he did want. He had delayed after she had joined him not much more than long enough for him to say to her, drawing her hand into his arm and turning off where they had turned of old, that he wouldn’t pretend he hadn’t lately had moments of not quite believing he should ever again be so happy. She answered, passing over the reasons, whatever they had been, of his doubt, that her own belief was in high happiness for them if they would only have patience; though nothing at the same time could be dearer than his idea for their walk. It was only make-believe of course, with what had taken place for them, that they couldn’t meet at home; she spoke of their opportunities as suffering at no point. He had at any rate soon let her know that he wished the present one to suffer at none, and in a quiet spot, beneath a great wintry tree, he let his entreaty come sharp.
“We’ve played our dreadful game and we’ve lost. We owe it to ourselves, we owe it to our feeling for ourselves and for each other, not to wait another day. Our marriage will — fundamentally, somehow, don’t you see? — right everything that’s wrong, and I can’t express to you my impatience. We’ve only to announce it — and it takes off the weight.”
“To ‘announce’ it?” Kate asked. She spoke as if not understanding, though she had listened to him without confusion.
“To accomplish it then — tomorrow if you will; do it and announce it as done. That’s the least part of it — after it nothing will matter. We shall be so right,” he said, “that we shall be strong; we shall only wonder at our past fear. It will seem an ugly madness. It will seem a bad dream.”
She looked at him without flinching — with the look she had brought at his call; but he felt now the strange chill of her brightness. “My dear man, what has happened to you?”
“Well, that I can bear it no longer. That’s simply what has happened. Something has snapped, has broken in me, and here I am. It’s as I am that you must have me.”
He saw her try for a time to appear to consider it; but he saw her also not consider it. Yet he saw her, felt her, further — he heard her, with her clear voice — try to be intensely kind with him. “I don’t see, you know, what has changed.” She had a large strange smile. “We’ve been going on together so well, and you suddenly desert me?”
It made him helplessly gaze. “You call it so ‘well’? You’ve touches, upon my soul —!”
“I call it perfect — from my original point of view. I’m just where I was; and you must give me some better reason than you do, my dear, for your not being. It seems to me,” she continued, “that we’re only right as to what has been between us so long as we do wait. I don’t think we wish to have behaved like fools.” He took in while she talked her imperturbable consistency; which it was quietly, queerly hopeless to see her stand there and breathe into their mild remembering air. He had brought her there to be moved, and she was only immoveable — which was not moreover, either, because she didn’t understand. She understood everything, and things he refused to; and she had reasons, deep down, the sense of which nearly sickened him. She had too again most of all her strange significant smile. “Of course if it’s that you really know something —?” It was quite conceivable and possible to her, he could see, that he did. But he didn’t even know what she meant, and he only looked at her in gloom. His gloom however didn’t upset her. “You do, I believe, only you’ve a delicacy about saying it. Your delicacy to me, my dear, is a scruple too much. I should have no delicacy in hearing it, so that if you can tell me you know —”
“Well?” he asked as she still kept what depended on it.
“Why then I’ll do what you want. We needn’t, I grant you, in that case wait; and I can see what you mean by thinking it nicer of us not to. I don’t even ask you,” she continued, “for a proof. I’m content with your moral certainty.”
By this time it had come over him — it had the force of a rush. The point she made was clear, as clear as that the blood, while he recognised it, mantled in his face. “I know nothing whatever.”
“You’ve not an idea?”
“I’ve not an idea.”
“I’d consent,” she said —“I’d announce it tomorrow, today, I’d go home this moment and announce it to Aunt Maud, for an idea: I mean an idea straight from you, I mean as your own, given me in good faith. There, my dear!”— and she smiled again. “I call that really meeting you.”
If it was then what she called it, it disposed of his appeal, and he could but stand there with his wasted passion — for it was in high passion that he had from the morning acted — in his face. She made it all out, bent upon her — the idea he didn’t have, and the idea he had, and his failure of insistence when it brought up that challenge, and his sense of her personal presence, and his horror, almost, of her lucidity. They made in him a mixture that might have been rage, but that was turning quickly to mere cold thought, thought which led to something else and was like a new dim dawn. It affected her then, and she had one of the impulses, in all sincerity, that had before this, between them, saved their position. When she had come nearer to him, when, putting her hand upon him, she made him sink with her, as she leaned to him, into their old pair of chairs, she prevented irresistibly, she forestalled, the waste of his passion. She had an advantage with his passion now.
He had said to her in the Park when challenged on it that nothing had “happened” to him as a cause for the demand he there made of her — happened he meant since the account he had given, after his return, of his recent experience. But in the course of a few days — they had brought him to Christmas morning — he was conscious enough, in preparing again to seek her out, of a difference on that score. Something had in this case happened to him, and, after his taking the night to think of it he felt that what it most, if not absolutely first, involved was his immediately again putting himself in relation with her. The fact itself had met him there — in his own small quarters — on Christmas Eve, and had not then indeed at once affected him as implying that consequence. So far as he on the spot and for the next hours took its measure — a process that made his night mercilessly wakeful — the consequences possibly implied were numerous to distraction. His spirit dealt with them, in the darkness, as the slow hours passed; his intelligence and his imagination, his soul and his sense, had never on the whole been so intensely engaged. It was his difficulty for the moment that he was face to face with alternatives, and that it was scarce even a question of turning from one to the other. They were not in a perspective in which they might be compared and considered; they were, by a strange effect, as close as a pair of monsters of whom he might have felt on either cheek the hot breath and the huge eyes. He saw them at once and but by looking straight before him; he wouldn’t for that matter, in his cold apprehension, have turned his head by an inch. So it was that his agitation was still — was not, for the slow hours a matter of restless motion. He lay long, after the event, on the sofa where, extinguishing at a touch the white light of convenience that he hated, he had thrown himself without undressing. He stared at the buried day and wore out the time; with the arrival of the Christmas dawn moreover, late and grey, he felt himself somehow determined. The common wisdom had had its say to him — that safety in doubt was not action; and perhaps what most helped him was this very commonness. In his case there was nothing of that — in no case in his life had there ever been less: which association, from one thing to another, now worked for him as a choice. He acted, after his bath and his breakfast, in the sense of that marked element of the rare which he felt to be the sign of his crisis. And that is why, dressed with more state than usual and quite as if for church, he went out into the soft Christmas day.
Action, for him, on coming to the point, it appeared, carried with it a certain complexity. We should have known, walking by his side, that his final prime decision hadn’t been to call at the door of Sir Luke Strett, and yet that this step, though subordinate, was none the less urgent. His prime decision was for another matter, to which impatience, once he was on the way, had now added itself; but he remained sufficiently aware that he must compromise with the perhaps excessive earliness. This, and the ferment set up within him, were together a reason for not driving; to say nothing of the absence of cabs in the dusky festal desert. Sir Luke’s great square was not near, but he walked the Distance without seeing a hansom. He had his interval thus to turn over his view — the view to which what had happened the night before had not sharply reduced itself; but the complexity just mentioned was to be offered within the next few minutes another item to assimilate. Before Sir Luke’s house, when he reached it, a brougham was drawn up — at the sight of which his heart had a lift that brought him for the instant to a stand. This pause wasn’t long, but it was long enough to flash upon him a revelation in the light of which he caught his breath. The carriage, so possibly at such an hour and on such a day Sir Luke’s own, had struck him as a sign that the great doctor was back. This would prove something else, in turn, still more intensely, and it was in the act of the double apprehension that Densher felt himself turn pale. His mind rebounded for the moment like a projectile that has suddenly been met by another: he stared at the strange truth that what he wanted more than to see Kate Croy was to see the witness who had just arrived from Venice. He wanted positively to be in his presence and to hear his voice — which was the spasm of his consciousness that produced the flash. Fortunately for him, on the spot, there supervened something in which the flash went out. He became aware within this minute that the coachman on the box of the brougham had a face known to him, whereas he had never seen before, to his knowledge, the great doctor’s carriage. The carriage, as he came nearer, was simply Mrs. Lowder’s; the face on the box was just the face that, in coming and going at Lancaster Gate, he would vaguely have noticed, outside, in attendance. With this the rest came: the lady of Lancaster Gate had, on a prompting not wholly remote from his own, presented herself for news; and news, in the house, she was clearly getting, since her brougham had stayed. Sir Luke was then back — only Mrs. Lowder was with him.
It was under the influence of this last reflexion that Densher again delayed; and it was while he delayed that something else occurred to him. It was all round, visibly — given his own new contribution — a case of pressure; and in a case of pressure Kate, for quicker knowledge, might have come out with her aunt. The possibility that in this event she might be sitting in the carriage — the thing most likely — had had the effect, before he could check it, of bringing him within range of the window. It wasn’t there he had wished to see her; yet if she was there he couldn’t pretend not to. What he had however the next moment made out was that if some one was there it wasn’t Kate Croy. It was, with a sensible shock for him, the person who had last offered him a conscious face from behind the clear plate of a café in Venice. The great glass at Florian’s was a medium less obscure, even with the window down, than the air of the London Christmas; yet at present also, none the less, between the two men, an exchange of recognitions could occur. Densher felt his own look a gaping arrest — which, he disgustedly remembered, his back as quickly turned, appeared to repeat itself as his special privilege. He mounted the steps of the house and touched the bell with a keen consciousness of being habitually looked at by Kate’s friend from positions of almost insolent vantage. He forgot for the time the moment when, in Venice, at the palace, the encouraged young man had in a manner assisted at the departure of the disconcerted, since Lord Mark was not looking disconcerted now any more than he had looked from his bench at his café. Densher was thinking that he seemed to show as vagrant while another was ensconced. He was thinking of the other as — in spite of the difference of situation — more ensconced than ever; he was thinking of him above all as the friend of the person with whom his recognition had, the minute previous, associated him. The man was seated in the very place in which, beside Mrs. Lowder’s, he had looked to find Kate, and that was a sufficient identity. Meanwhile at any rate the door of the house had opened and Mrs. Lowder stood before him. It was something at least that she wasn’t Kate. She was herself, on the spot, in all her affluence; with presence of mind both to decide at once that Lord Mark, in the brougham, didn’t matter and to prevent Sir Luke’s butler, by a firm word thrown over her shoulder, from standing there to listen to her passage with the gentleman who had rung. “I’ll tell Mr. Densher; you needn’t wait!” And the passage, promptly and richly, took place on the steps.
“He arrives, travelling straight, tomorrow early. I couldn’t not come to learn.”
“No more,” said Densher simply, “could I. On my way,” he added, “to Lancaster Gate.”
“Sweet of you.” She beamed on him dimly, and he saw her face was attuned. It made him, with what she had just before said, know all, and he took the thing in while he met the air of portentous, of almost functional, sympathy that had settled itself as her medium with him and that yet had now a fresh glow. “So you have had your message?”
He knew so well what she meant, and so equally with it what he “had had” no less than what he hadn’t, that, with but the smallest hesitation, he strained the point. “Yes — my message.”
“Our dear dove then, as Kate calls her, has folded her wonderful wings.”
“Yes — folded them.”
It rather racked him, but he tried to receive it as she intended, and she evidently took his formal assent for self-control. “Unless it’s more true,” she accordingly added, “that she has spread them the wider.”
He again but formally assented, though, strangely enough, the words fitted a figure deep in his own imagination. “Rather, yes — spread them the wider.”
“For a flight, I trust, to some happiness greater —!”
“Exactly. Greater,” Densher broke in; but now with a look, he feared, that did a little warn her off.
“You were certainly,” she went on with more reserve, “entitled to direct news. Ours came late last night: I’m not sure otherwise I shouldn’t have gone to you. But you’re coming,” she asked, “to me?”
He had had a minute by this time to think further, and the window of the brougham was still within range. Her rich “me,” reaching him moreover through the mild damp, had the effect of a thump on his chest. “Squared,” Aunt Maud? She was indeed squared, and the extent of it just now perversely enough took away his breath. His look from where they stood embraced the aperture at which the person sitting in the carriage might have shown, and he saw his interlocutress, on her side, understand the question in it, which he moreover then uttered. “Shall you be alone?” It was, as an immediate instinctive parley with the image of his condition that now flourished in her, almost hypocritical. It sounded as if he wished to come and overflow to her, yet this was exactly what he didn’t. The need to overflow had suddenly — since the night before — dried up in him, and he had never been aware of a deeper reserve.
But she had meanwhile largely responded. “Completely alone. I should otherwise never have dreamed; feeling, dear friend, but too much!” Failing on her lips what she felt came out for him in the offered hand with which she had the next moment condolingly pressed his own. “Dear friend, dear friend!”— she was deeply “with” him, and she wished to be still more so: which was what made her immediately continue. “Or wouldn’t you this evening, for the sad Christmas it makes us, dine with me tête-à-tête?”
It put the thing off, the question of a talk with her — making the difference, to his relief, of several hours; but it also rather mystified him. This however didn’t diminish his need of caution. “Shall you mind if I don’t tell you at once?”
“Not in the least — leave it open: it shall be as you may feel, and you needn’t even send me word. I only will mention that today, of all days, I shall otherwise sit there alone.”
Now at least he could ask. “Without Miss Croy?”
“Without Miss Croy. Miss Croy,” said Mrs. Lowder, “is spending her Christmas in the bosom of her more immediate family.”
He was afraid, even while he spoke, of what his face might show. “You mean she has left you?”
Aunt Maud’s own face for that matter met the enquiry with a consciousness in which he saw a reflexion of events. He was made sure by it, even at the moment and as he had never been before, that since he had known these two women no confessed nor commented tension, no crisis of the cruder sort would really have taken form between them: which was precisely a high proof of how Kate had steered her boat. The situation exposed in Mrs. Lowder’s present expression lighted up by contrast that superficial smoothness; which afterwards, with his time to think of it, was to put before him again the art, the particular gift, in the girl, now so placed and classed, so intimately familiar for him, as her talent for life. The peace, within a day or two — since his seeing her last — had clearly been broken; differences, deep down, kept there by a diplomacy on Kate’s part as deep, had been shaken to the surface by some exceptional jar; with which, in addition, he felt Lord Mark’s odd attendance at such an hour and season vaguely associated. The talent for life indeed, it at the same time struck him, would probably have shown equally in the breach, or whatever had occurred; Aunt Maud having suffered, he judged, a strain rather than a stroke. Of these quick thoughts, at all events, that lady was already abreast. “She went yesterday morning — and not with my approval, I don’t mind telling you — to her sister: Mrs. Condrip, if you know who I mean, who lives somewhere in Chelsea. My other niece and her affairs — that I should have to say such things today! — are a constant worry; so that Kate, in consequence — well, of events! — has simply been called in. My own idea, I’m bound to say, was that with such events she need have, in her situation, next to nothing to do.”
“But she differed with you?”
“She differed with me. And when Kate differs with you —!”
“Oh I can imagine.” He had reached the point in the scale of hypocrisy at which he could ask himself why a little more or less should signify. Besides, with the intention he had had he must know. Kate’s move, if he didn’t know, might simply disconcert him; and of being disconcerted his horror was by this time fairly superstitious. “I hope you don’t allude to events at all calamitous.”
“No — only horrid and vulgar.”
“Oh!” said Merton Densher.
Mrs. Lowder’s soreness, it was still not obscure, had discovered in free speech to him a momentary balm. “They’ve the misfortune to have, I suppose you know, a dreadful horrible father.”
“Oh!” said Densher again.
“He’s too bad almost to name, but he has come upon Marian, and Marian has shrieked for help.”
Densher wondered at this with intensity; and his curiosity compromised for an instant with his discretion. “Come upon her — for money?”
“Oh for that of course always. But, at this blessed season, for refuge, for safety: for God knows what. He’s there, the brute. And Kate’s with them. And that,” Mrs. Lowder wound up, going down the steps, “is her Christmas.”
She had stopped again at the bottom while he thought of an answer. “Yours then is after all rather better.”
“It’s at least more decent.” And her hand once more came out. “But why do I talk of our troubles? Come if you can.”
He showed a faint smile. “Thanks. If I can.”
“And now — I dare say — you’ll go to church?”
She had asked it, with her good intention, rather in the air and by way of sketching for him, in the line of support, something a little more to the purpose than what she had been giving him. He felt it as finishing off their intensities of expression that he found himself to all appearance receiving her hint as happy. “Why yes — I think I will”: after which, as the door of the brougham, at her approach, had opened from within, he was free to turn his back. He heard the door, behind him, sharply close again and the vehicle move off in another direction than his own.
He had in fact for the time no direction; in spite of which indeed he was at the end of ten minutes aware of having walked straight to the south. That, he afterwards recognised, was, very sufficiently, because there had formed itself in his mind, even while Aunt Maud finally talked, an instant recognition of his necessary course. Nothing was open to him but to follow Kate, nor was anything more marked than the influence of the step she had taken on the emotion itself that possessed him. Her complications, which had fairly, with everything else, an awful sound — what were they, a thousand times over, but his own? His present business was to see that they didn’t escape an hour longer taking their proper place in his life. He accordingly would have held his course hadn’t it suddenly come over him that he had just lied to Mrs. Lowder — a term it perversely eased him to keep using — even more than was necessary. To what church was he going, to what church, in such a state of his nerves, could he go? — he pulled up short again, as he had pulled up in sight of Mrs. Lowder’s carriage, to ask it. And yet the desire queerly stirred in him not to have wasted his word. He was just then however by a happy chance in the Brompton Road, and he bethought himself with a sudden light that the Oratory was at hand. He had but to turn the other way and he should find himself soon before it. At the door then, in a few minutes, his idea was really — as it struck him — consecrated: he was, pushing in, on the edge of a splendid service — the flocking crowd told of it — which glittered and resounded, from distant depths, in the blaze of altar-lights and the swell of organ and choir. It didn’t match his own day, but it was much less of a discord than some other things actual and possible. The Oratory in short, to make him right, would do.
The difference was thus that the dusk of afternoon — dusk thick from an early hour — had gathered when he knocked at Mrs. Condrip’s door. He had gone from the church to his club, wishing not to present himself in Chelsea at luncheon-time and also remembering that he must attempt independently to make a meal. This, in the event, he but imperfectly achieved: he dropped into a chair in the great dim void of the club library, with nobody, up or down, to be seen, and there after a while, closing his eyes, recovered an hour of the sleep he had lost during the night. Before doing this indeed he had written — it was the first thing he did — a short note, which, in the Christmas desolation of the place, he had managed only with difficulty and doubt to commit to a messenger. He wished it carried by hand, and he was obliged, rather blindly, to trust the hand, as the messenger, for some reason, was unable to return with a gage of delivery. When at four o’clock he was face to face with Kate in Mrs. Condrip’s small drawing-room he found to his relief that his notification had reached her. She was expectant and to that extent prepared; which simplified a little — if a little, at the present pass, counted. Her conditions were vaguely vivid to him from the moment of his coming in, and vivid partly by their difference, a difference sharp and suggestive, from those in which he had hitherto constantly seen her. He had seen her but in places comparatively great; in her aunt’s pompous house, under the high trees of Kensington and the storied ceilings of Venice. He had seen her, in Venice, on a great occasion, as the centre itself of the splendid Piazza: he had seen her there, on a still greater one, in his own poor rooms, which yet had consorted with her, having state and ancientry even in their poorness; but Mrs. Condrip’s interior, even by this best view of it and though not flagrantly mean, showed itself as a setting almost grotesquely inapt. Pale, grave and charming, she affected him at once as a distinguished stranger — a stranger to the little Chelsea street — who was making the best of a queer episode and a place of exile. The extraordinary thing was that at the end of three minutes he felt himself less appointedly a stranger in it than she.
A part of the queerness — this was to come to him in glimpses — sprang from the air as of a general large misfit imposed on the narrow room by the scale and mass of its furniture. The objects, the ornaments were, for the sisters, clearly relics and survivals of what would, in the case of Mrs. Condrip at least, have been called better days. The curtains that overdraped the windows, the sofas and tables that stayed circulation, the chimney-ornaments that reached to the ceiling and the florid chandelier that almost dropped to the floor, were so many mementoes of earlier homes and so many links with their unhappy mother. Whatever might have been in itself the quality of these elements Densher could feel the effect proceeding from them, as they lumpishly blocked out the decline of the dim day, to be ugly almost to the point of the sinister. They failed to accommodate or to compromise; they asserted their differences without tact and without taste. It was truly having a sense of Kate’s own quality thus promptly to see them in reference to it. But that Densher had this sense was no new thing to him, nor did he in strictness need, for the hour, to be reminded of it. He only knew, by one of the tricks his imagination so constantly played him, that he was, so far as her present tension went, very specially sorry for her — which was not the view that had determined his start in the morning; yet also that he himself would have taken it all, as he might say, less hard. He could have lived in such a place; but it wasn’t given to those of his complexion, so to speak, to be exiled anywhere. It was by their comparative grossness that they could somehow make shift. His natural, his inevitable, his ultimate home — left, that is, to itself — wasn’t at all unlikely to be as queer and impossible as what was just round them, though doubtless in less ample masses. As he took in moreover how Kate wouldn’t have been in the least the creature she was if what was just round them hadn’t mismatched her, hadn’t made for her a medium involving compunction in the spectator, so, by the same stroke, that became the very fact of her relation with her companions there, such a fact as filled him at once, oddly, both with assurance and with suspense. If he himself, on this brief vision, felt her as alien and as ever so unwittingly ironic, how must they not feel her and how above all must she not feel them?
Densher could ask himself that even after she had presently lighted the tall candles on the mantel-shelf. This was all their illumination but the fire, and she had proceeded to it with a quiet dryness that yet left play, visibly, to her implication between them, in their trouble and failing anything better, of the presumably genial Christmas hearth. So far as the genial went this had in strictness, given their conditions, to be all their geniality. He had told her in his note nothing but that he must promptly see her and that he hoped she might be able to make it possible; but he understood from the first look at her that his promptitude was already having for her its principal reference. “I was prevented this morning, in the few minutes,” he explained, “asking Mrs. Lowder if she had let you know, though I rather gathered she had; and it’s what I’ve been in fact since then assuming. It was because I was so struck at the moment with your having, as she did tell me, so suddenly come here.”
“Yes, it was sudden enough.” Very neat and fine in the contracted firelight, with her hands in her lap, Kate considered what he had said. He had spoken immediately of what had happened at Sir Luke Strett’s door. “She has let me know nothing. But that doesn’t matter — if it’s what you mean.”
“It’s part of what I mean,” Densher said; but what he went on with, after a pause during which she waited, was apparently not the rest of that. “She had had her telegram from Mrs. Stringham; late last night. But to me the poor lady hasn’t wired. The event,” he added, “will have taken place yesterday, and Sir Luke, starting immediately, one can see, and travelling straight, will get back tomorrow morning. So that Mrs. Stringham, I judge, is left to face in some solitude the situation bequeathed to her. But of course,” he wound up, “Sir Luke couldn’t stay.”
Her look at him might have had in it a vague betrayal of the sense that he was gaining time. “Was your telegram from Sir Luke?”
“No — I’ve had no telegram.”
She wondered. “But not a letter —?”
“Not from Mrs. Stringham — no.” He failed again however to develop this — for which her forbearance from another question gave him occasion. From whom then had he heard? He might at last, confronted with her, really have been gaining time; and as if to show that she respected this impulse she made her enquiry different. “Should you like to go out to her — to Mrs. Stringham?”
About that at least he was clear. “Not at all. She’s alone, but she’s very capable and very courageous. Besides —!” He had been going on, but he dropped.
“Besides,” she said, “there’s Eugenio? Yes, of course one remembers Eugenio.”
She had uttered the words as definitely to show them for not untender; and he showed equally every reason to assent. “One remembers him indeed, and with every ground for it. He’ll be of the highest value to her — he’s capable of anything. What I was going to say,” he went on, “is that some of their people from America must quickly arrive.”
On this, as happened, Kate was able at once to satisfy him. “Mr. Someone-or-other, the person principally in charge of Milly’s affairs — her first trustee, I suppose — had just got there at Mrs. Stringham’s last writing.”
“Ah that then was after your aunt last spoke to me — I mean the last time before this morning. I’m relieved to hear it. So,” he said, “they’ll do.”
“Oh they’ll do.” And it came from each still as if it wasn’t what each was most thinking of. Kate presently got however a step nearer to that. “But if you had been wired to by nobody what then this morning had taken you to Sir Luke?”
“Oh something else — which I’ll presently tell you. It’s what made me instantly need to see you; it’s what I’ve come to speak to you of. But in a minute. I feel too many things,” he went on, “at seeing you in this place.” He got up as he spoke; she herself remained perfectly still. His movement had been to the fire, and, leaning a little, with his back to it, to look down on her from where he stood, he confined himself to his point. “Is it anything very bad that has brought you?”
He had now in any case said enough to justify her wish for more; so that, passing this matter by, she pressed her own challenge. “Do you mean, if I may ask, that she, dying —?” Her face, wondering, pressed it more than her words.
“Certainly you may ask,” he after a moment said. “What has come to me is what, as I say, I came expressly to tell you. I don’t mind letting you know,” he went on, “that my decision to do this took for me last night and this morning a great deal of thinking of. But here I am.” And he indulged in a smile that couldn’t, he was well aware, but strike her as mechanical.
She went straighter with him, she seemed to show, than he really went with her. “You didn’t want to come?”
“It would have been simple, my dear”— and he continued to smile —“if it had been, one way or the other, only a question of ‘wanting.’ It took, I admit it, the idea of what I had best do, all sorts of difficult and portentous forms. It came up for me really — well, not at all for my happiness.”
This word apparently puzzled her — she studied him in the light of it. “You look upset — you’ve certainly been tormented. You’re not well.”
“Oh — well enough!”
But she continued without heeding. “You hate what you’re doing.”
“My dear girl, you simplify”— and he was now serious enough. “It isn’t so simple even as that.”
She had the air of thinking what it then might be. “I of course can’t, with no clue, know what it is.” She remained none the less patient and still. “If at such a moment she could write you one’s inevitably quite at sea. One doesn’t, with the best will in the world, understand.” And then as Densher had a pause which might have stood for all the involved explanation that, to his discouragement, loomed before him: “You haven’t decided what to do.”
She had said it very gently, almost sweetly, and he didn’t instantly say otherwise. But he said so after a look at her. “Oh yes — I have. Only with this sight of you here and what I seem to see in it for you —!” And his eyes, as at suggestions that pressed, turned from one part of the room to another.
“Horrible place, isn’t it?” said Kate.
It brought him straight back to his enquiry. “Is it for anything awful you’ve had to come?”
“Oh that will take as long to tell you as anything you may have. Don’t mind,” she continued, “the ‘sight of me here,’ nor whatever — which is more than I yet know myself — may be ‘in it’ for me. And kindly consider too that, after all, if you’re in trouble I can a little wish to help you. Perhaps I can absolutely even do it.”
“My dear child, it’s just because of the sense of your wish —! I suppose I’m in trouble — I suppose that’s it.” He said this with so odd a suddenness of simplicity that she could only stare for it — which he as promptly saw. So he turned off as he could his vagueness. “And yet I oughtn’t to be.” Which sounded indeed vaguer still.
She waited a moment. “Is it, as you say for my own business, anything very awful?”
“Well,” he slowly replied, “you’ll tell me if you find it so. I mean if you find my idea —”
He was so slow that she took him up. “Awful?” A sound of impatience — the form of a laugh — at last escaped her. “I can’t find it anything at all till I know what you’re talking about.”
It brought him then more to the point, though it did so at first but by making him, on the hearthrug before her, with his hands in his pockets, turn awhile to and fro. There rose in him even with this movement a recall of another time — the hour in Venice, the hour of gloom and storm, when Susan Shepherd had sat in his quarters there very much as Kate was sitting now, and he had wondered, in pain even as now, what he might say and mightn’t. Yet the present occasion after all was somehow the easier. He tried at any rate to attach that feeling to it while he stopped before his companion. “The communication I speak of can’t possibly belong — so far as its date is concerned — to these last days. The postmark, which is legible, does; but it isn’t thinkable, for anything else, that she wrote —!” He dropped, looking at her as if she’d understand.
It was easy to understand. “On her deathbed?” But Kate took an instant’s thought. “Aren’t we agreed that there was never any one in the world like her?”
“Yes.” And looking over her head he spoke clearly enough. “There was never any one in the world like her.”
Kate, from her chair, always without a movement, raised her eyes to the unconscious reach of his own. Then when the latter again dropped to her she added a question. “And won’t it further depend a little on what the communication is?”
“A little perhaps — but not much. It’s a communication,” said Densher.
“Do you mean a letter?”
“Yes, a letter. Addressed to me in her hand — in hers unmistakeably.”
Kate thought. “Do you know her hand very well?”
It was as if his tone for this prompted — with a slight strangeness — her next demand. “Have you had many letters from her?”
“No. Only three notes.” He spoke looking straight at her. “And very, very short ones.”
“Ah,” said Kate, “the number doesn’t matter. Three lines would be enough if you’re sure you remember.”
“I’m sure I remember. Besides,” Densher continued, “I’ve seen her hand in other ways. I seem to recall how you once, before she went to Venice, showed me one of her notes precisely for that. And then she once copied me something.”
“Oh,” said Kate almost with a smile, “I don’t ask you for the detail of your reasons. One good one’s enough.” To which however she added as if precisely not to speak with impatience or with anything like irony: “And the writing has its usual look?”
Densher answered as if even to better that description of it. “It’s beautiful.”
“Yes — it was beautiful. Well,” Kate, to defer to him still, further remarked, “it’s not news to us now that she was stupendous. Anything’s possible.”
“Yes, anything’s possible”— he appeared oddly to catch at it. “That’s what I say to myself. It’s what I’ve been believing you,” he a trifle vaguely explained, “still more certain to feel.”
She waited for him to say more, but he only, with his hands in his pockets, turned again away, going this time to the single window of the room, where in the absence of lamplight the blind hadn’t been drawn. He looked out into the lamplit fog, lost himself in the small sordid London street — for sordid, with his other association, he felt it — as he had lost himself, with Mrs. Stringham’s eyes on him, in the vista of the Grand Canal. It was present then to his recording consciousness that when he had last been driven to such an attitude the very depth of his resistance to the opportunity to give Kate away was what had so driven him. His waiting companion had on that occasion waited for him to say he would; and what he had meantime glowered forth at was the inanity of such a hope. Kate’s attention, on her side, during these minutes, rested on the back and shoulders he thus familiarly presented — rested as with a view of their expression, a reference to things unimparted, links still missing and that she must ever miss, try to make them out as she would. The result of her tension was that she again took him up. “You received — what you spoke of — last night?”
It made him turn round. “Coming in from Fleet Street — earlier by an hour than usual — I found it with some other letters on my table. But my eyes went straight to it, in an extraordinary way, from the door. I recognised it, knew what it was, without touching it.”
“One can understand.” She listened with respect. His tone however was so singular that she presently added: “You speak as if all this while you hadn’t touched it.”
“Oh yes, I’ve touched it. I feel as if, ever since, I’d been touching nothing else. I quite firmly,” he pursued as if to be plainer, “took hold of it.”
“Then where is it?”
“Oh I have it here.”
“And you’ve brought it to show me?”
“I’ve brought it to show you.”
So he said with a distinctness that had, among his other oddities, almost a sound of cheer, yet making no movement that matched his words. She could accordingly but offer again her expectant face, while his own, to her impatience, seemed perversely to fill with another thought. “But now that you’ve done so you feel you don’t want to.”
“I want to immensely,” he said. “Only you tell me nothing.”
She smiled at him, with this, finally, as if he were an unreasonable child. “It seems to me I tell you quite as much as you tell me. You haven’t yet even told me how it is that such explanations as you require don’t come from your document itself.” Then as he answered nothing she had a flash. “You mean you haven’t read it?”
“I haven’t read it.”
She stared. “Then how am I to help you with it?”
Again leaving her while she never budged he paced five strides, and again he was before her. “By telling me this. It’s something, you know, that you wouldn’t tell me the other day.”
She was vague. “The other day?”
“The first time after my return — the Sunday I came to you. What’s he doing,” Densher went on, “at that hour of the morning with her? What does his having been with her there mean?”
“Of whom are you talking?”
“Of that man — Lord Mark of course. What does it represent?”
“Oh with Aunt Maud?”
“Yes, my dear — and with you. It comes more or less to the same thing; and it’s what you didn’t tell me the other day when I put you the question.”
Kate tried to remember the other day. “You asked me nothing about any hour.”
“I asked you when it was you last saw him — previous, I mean, to his second descent at Venice. You wouldn’t say, and as we were talking of a matter comparatively more important I let it pass. But the fact remains, you know, my dear, that you haven’t told me.”
Two things in this speech appeared to have reached Kate more distinctly than the others. “I ‘wouldn’t say’? — and you ‘let it pass’?” She looked just coldly blank. “You really speak as if I were keeping something back.”
“Well, you see,” Densher persisted, “you’re not even telling me now. All I want to know,” he nevertheless explained, “is whether there was a connexion between that proceeding on his part, which was practically — oh beyond all doubt! — the shock precipitating for her what has now happened, and anything that had occurred with him previously for yourself. How in the world did he know we’re engaged?”
Kate slowly rose; it was, since she had lighted the candles and sat down, the first movement she had made. “Are you trying to fix it on me that I must have told him?”
She spoke not so much in resentment as in pale dismay — which he showed he immediately took in. “My dear child, I’m not trying to ‘fix’ anything; but I’m extremely tormented and I seem not to understand. What has the brute to do with us anyway?”
“What has he indeed?” Kate asked.
She shook her head as if in recovery, within the minute, of some mild allowance for his unreason. There was in it — and for his reason really — one of those half-inconsequent sweetnesses by which she had often before made, over some point of difference, her own terms with him. Practically she was making them now, and essentially he was knowing it; yet inevitably, all the same, he was accepting it. She stood there close to him, with something in her patience that suggested her having supposed, when he spoke more appealingly, that he was going to kiss her. He hadn’t been, it appeared; but his continued appeal was none the less the quieter. “What’s he doing, from ten o’clock on Christmas morning, with Mrs. Lowder?”
Kate looked surprised. “Didn’t she tell you he’s staying there?”
“At Lancaster Gate?” Densher’s surprise met it. “‘Staying’? — since when?”
“Since day before yesterday. He was there before I came away.” And then she explained — confessing it in fact anomalous. “It’s an accident — like Aunt Maud’s having herself remained in town for Christmas, but it isn’t after all so monstrous. We stayed — and, with my having come here, she’s sorry now — because we neither of us, waiting from day to day for the news you brought, seemed to want to be with a lot of people.”
“You stayed for thinking of — Venice?”
“Of course we did. For what else? And even a little,” Kate wonderfully added —“it’s true at least of Aunt Maud — for thinking of you.”
He appreciated. “I see. Nice of you every way. But whom,” he enquired, “has Lord Mark stayed for thinking of?”
“His being in London, I believe, is a very commonplace matter. He has some rooms which he has had suddenly some rather advantageous chance to let — such as, with his confessed, his decidedly proclaimed want of money, he hasn’t had it in him, in spite of everything, not to jump at.”
Densher’s attention was entire. “In spite of everything? In spite of what?”
“Well, I don’t know. In spite, say, of his being scarcely supposed to do that sort of thing.”
“To try to get money?”
“To try at any rate in little thrifty ways. Apparently however he has had for some reason to do what he can. He turned at a couple of days’ notice out of his place, making it over to his tenant; and Aunt Maud, who’s deeply in his confidence about all such matters, said: ‘Come then to Lancaster Gate — to sleep at least — till, like all the world, you go to the country.’ He was to have gone to the country — I think to Matcham — yesterday afternoon: Aunt Maud, that is, told me he was.”
Kate had been somehow, for her companion, through this statement, beautifully, quite soothingly, suggestive. “Told you, you mean, so that you needn’t leave the house?”
“Yes — so far as she had taken it into her head that his being there was part of my reason.”
“And was it part of your reason?”
“A little if you like. Yet there’s plenty here — as I knew there would be-without it. So that,” she said candidly, “doesn’t matter. I’m glad I am here: even if for all the good I do —!” She implied however that that didn’t matter either. “He didn’t, as you tell me, get off then to Matcham; though he may possibly, if it is possible, be going this afternoon. But what strikes me as most probable — and it’s really, I’m bound to say, quite amiable of him — is that he has declined to leave Aunt Maud, as I’ve been so ready to do, to spend her Christmas alone. If moreover he has given up Matcham for her it’s a procédé that won’t please her less. It’s small wonder therefore that she insists, on a dull day, in driving him about. I don’t pretend to know,” she wound up, “what may happen between them; but that’s all I see in it.”
“You see in everything, and you always did,” Densher returned, “something that, while I’m with you at least, I always take from you as the truth itself.”
She looked at him as if consciously and even carefully extracting the sting of his reservation; then she spoke with a quiet gravity that seemed to show how fine she found it. “Thank you.” It had for him, like everything else, its effect. They were still closely face to face, and, yielding to the impulse to which he hadn’t yielded just before, he laid his hands on her shoulders, held her hard a minute and shook her a little, far from untenderly, as if in expression of more mingled things, all difficult, than he could speak. Then bending his head he applied his lips to her cheek. He fell, after this, away for an instant, resuming his unrest, while she kept the position in which, all passive and as a statue, she had taken his demonstration. It didn’t prevent her, however, from offering him, as if what she had had was enough for the moment, a further indulgence. She made a quiet lucid connexion and as she made it sat down again. “I’ve been trying to place exactly, as to its date, something that did happen to me while you were in Venice. I mean a talk with him. He spoke to me — spoke out.”
“Ah there you are!” said Densher who had wheeled round.
“Well, if I’m ‘there,’ as you so gracefully call it, by having refused to meet him as he wanted — as he pressed — I plead guilty to being so. Would you have liked me,” she went on, “to give him an answer that would have kept him from going?”
It made him a little awkwardly think. “Did you know he was going?”
“Never for a moment; but I’m afraid that — even if it doesn’t fit your strange suppositions — I should have given him just the same answer if I had known. If it’s a matter I haven’t, since your return, thrust upon you, that’s simply because it’s not a matter in the memory of which I find a particular joy. I hope that if I’ve satisfied you about it,” she continued, “it’s not too much to ask of you to let it rest.”
“Certainly,” said Densher kindly, “I’ll let it rest.” But the next moment he pursued: “He saw something. He guessed.”
“If you mean,” she presently returned, “that he was unfortunately the one person we hadn’t deceived, I can’t contradict you.”
“No — of course not. But why,” Densher still risked, “was he unfortunately the one person —? He’s not really a bit intelligent.”
“Intelligent enough apparently to have seen a mystery, a riddle, in anything so unnatural as — all things considered and when it came to the point — my attitude. So he gouged out his conviction, and on his conviction he acted.”
Densher seemed for a little to look at Lord Mark’s conviction as if it were a blot on the face of nature. “Do you mean because you had appeared to him to have encouraged him?”
“Of course I had been decent to him. Otherwise where were we?”
“You and I. What I appeared to him, however, hadn’t mattered. What mattered was how I appeared to Aunt Maud. Besides, you must remember that he has had all along his impression of you. You can’t help it,” she said, “but you’re after all — well, yourself.”
“As much myself as you please. But when I took myself to Venice and kept myself there — what,” Densher asked, “did he make of that?”
“Your being in Venice and liking to be-which is never on any one’s part a monstrosity — was explicable for him in other ways. He was quite capable moreover of seeing it as dissimulation.”
“In spite of Mrs. Lowder?”
“No,” said Kate, “not in spite of Mrs. Lowder now. Aunt Maud, before what you call his second descent, hadn’t convinced him — all the more that my refusal of him didn’t help. But he came back convinced.” And then as her companion still showed a face at a loss: “I mean after he had seen Milly, spoken to her and left her. Milly convinced him.”
“Milly?” Densher again but vaguely echoed.
“That you were sincere. That it was her you loved.” It came to him from her in such a way that he instantly, once more, turned, found himself yet again at his window. “Aunt Maud, on his return here,” she meanwhile continued, “had it from him. And that’s why you’re now so well with Aunt Maud.”
He only for a minute looked out in silence — after which he came away. “And why you are.” It was almost, in its extremely affirmative effect between them, the note of recrimination; or it would have been perhaps rather if it hadn’t been so much more the note of truth. It was sharp because it was true, but its truth appeared to impose it as an argument so conclusive as to permit on neither side a sequel. That made, while they faced each other over it without speech, the gravity of everything. It was as if there were almost danger, which the wrong word might start. Densher accordingly at last acted to better purpose: he drew, standing there before her, a pocket-book from the breast of his waistcoat and he drew from the pocket-book a folded letter to which her eyes attached themselves. He restored then the receptacle to its place and, with a movement not the less odd for being visibly instinctive and unconscious, carried the hand containing his letter behind him. What he thus finally spoke of was a different matter. “Did I understand from Mrs. Lowder that your father’s in the house?”
If it never had taken her long in such excursions to meet him it was not to take her so now. “In the house, yes. But we needn’t fear his interruption”— she spoke as if he had thought of that. “He’s in bed.”
“Do you mean with illness?”
She sadly shook her head. “Father’s never ill. He’s a marvel. He’s only — endless.”
Densher thought. “Can I in any way help you with him?”
“Yes.” She perfectly, wearily, almost serenely, had it all. “By our making your visit as little of an affair as possible for him — and for Marian too.”
“I see. They hate so your seeing me. Yet I couldn’t — could I? — not have come.”
“No, you couldn’t not have come.”
“But I can only, on the other hand, go as soon as possible?”
Quickly it almost upset her. “Ah don’t, today, put ugly words into my mouth. I’ve enough of my trouble without it.”
“I know — I know!” He spoke in instant pleading. “It’s all only that I’m as troubled for you. When did he come?”
“Three days ago — after he hadn’t been near her for more than a year, after he had apparently, and not regrettably, ceased to remember her existence; and in a state which made it impossible not to take him in.”
Densher hesitated. “Do you mean in such want —?”
“No, not of food, of necessary things — not even, so far as his appearance went, of money. He looked as wonderful as ever. But he was — well, in terror.”
“In terror of what?”
“I don’t know. Of somebody — of something. He wants, he says, to be quiet. But his quietness is awful.”
She suffered, but he couldn’t not question. “What does he do?”
It made Kate herself hesitate. “He cries.”
Again for a moment he hung fire, but he risked it. “What has he done?”
It made her slowly rise, and they were once more fully face to face. Her eyes held his own and she was paler than she had been. “If you love me — now — don’t ask me about father.”
He waited again a moment. “I love you. It’s because I love you that I’m here. It’s because I love you that I’ve brought you this.” And he drew from behind him the letter that had remained in his hand.
But her eyes only — though he held it out — met the offer. “Why you’ve not broken the seal!”
“If I had broken the seal — exactly — I should know what’s within. It’s for you to break the seal that I bring it.”
She looked — still not touching the thing — inordinately grave. “To break the seal of something to you from her?”
“Ah precisely because it’s from her. I’ll abide by whatever you think of it.”
“I don’t understand,” said Kate. “What do you yourself think?” And then as he didn’t answer: “It seems to me I think you know. You have your instinct. You don’t need to read. It’s the proof.”
Densher faced her words as if they had been an accusation, an accusation for which he was prepared and which there was but one way to face. “I have indeed my instinct. It came to me, while I worried it out, last night. It came to me as an effect of the hour.” He held up his letter and seemed now to insist more than to confess. “This thing had been timed.”
“For Christmas Eve?”
“For Christmas Eve.”
Kate had suddenly a strange smile. “The season of gifts!” After which, as he said nothing, she went on: “And had been written, you mean, while she could write, and kept to be so timed?”
Only meeting her eyes while he thought, he again didn’t reply. “What do you mean by the proof?”
“Why of the beauty with which you’ve been loved. But I won’t,” she said, “break your seal.”
“You positively decline?”
“Positively. Never.” To which she added oddly: “I know without.”
He had another pause. “And what is it you know?”
“That she announces to you she has made you rich.”
His pause this time was longer. “Left me her fortune?”
“Not all of it, no doubt, for it’s immense. But money to a large amount. I don’t care,” Kate went on, “to know how much.” And her strange smile recurred. “I trust her.”
“Did she tell you?” Densher asked.
“Never!” Kate visibly flushed at the thought. “That wouldn’t, on my part, have been playing fair with her. And I did,” she added, “play fair.”
Densher, who had believed her — he couldn’t help it — continued, holding his letter, to face her. He was much quieter now, as if his torment had somehow passed. “You played fair with me, Kate; and that’s why — since we talk of proofs — I want to give you one. I’ve wanted to let you see — and in preference even to myself — something I feel as sacred.”
She frowned a little. “I don’t understand.”
“I’ve asked myself for a tribute, for a sacrifice by which I can peculiarly recognise —”
“Peculiarly recognise what?” she demanded as he dropped.
“The admirable nature of your own sacrifice. You were capable in Venice of an act of splendid generosity.”
“And the privilege you offer me with that document is my reward?”
He made a movement. “It’s all I can do as a symbol of my attitude.”
She looked at him long. “Your attitude, my dear, is that you’re afraid of yourself. You’ve had to take yourself in hand. You’ve had to do yourself violence.”
“So it is then you meet me?”
She bent her eyes hard a moment to the letter, from which her hand still stayed itself. “You absolutely desire me to take it?”
“I absolutely desire you to take it.”
“To do what I like with it?”
“Short of course of making known its terms. It must remain — pardon my making the point — between you and me.”
She had a last hesitation, but she presently broke it. “Trust me.” Taking from him the sacred script she held it a little while her eyes again rested on those fine characters of Milly’s that they had shortly before discussed. “To hold it,” she brought out, “is to know.”
“Oh I know!” said Merton Densher.
“Well then if we both do —!” She had already turned to the fire, nearer to which she had moved, and with a quick gesture had jerked the thing into the flame. He started — but only half — as to undo her action: his arrest was as prompt as the latter had been decisive. He only watched, with her, the paper burn; after which their eyes again met. “You’ll have it all,” Kate said, “from New York.”
It was after he had in fact, two months later, heard from New York that she paid him a visit one morning at his own quarters — coming not as she had come in Venice, under his extreme solicitation, but as a need recognised in the first instance by herself, even though also as the prompt result of a missive delivered to her. This had consisted of a note from Densher accompanying a letter, “just to hand,” addressed him by an eminent American legal firm, a firm of whose high character he had become conscious while in New York as of a thing in the air itself, and whose head and front, the principal executor of Milly Theale’s copious will, had been duly identified at Lancaster Gate as the gentleman hurrying out, by the straight southern course, before the girl’s death, to the support of Mrs. Stringham. Densher’s act on receipt of the document in question — an act as to which and to the bearings of which his resolve had had time to mature — constituted in strictness, singularly enough, the first reference to Milly, or to what Milly might or might not have done, that had passed between our pair since they had stood together watching the destruction, in the little vulgar grate at Chelsea, of the undisclosed work of her hand. They had at the time, and in due deference now, on his part, to Kate’s mention of her responsibility for his call, immediately separated, and when they met again the subject was made present to them — at all events till some flare of new light — only by the intensity with which it mutely expressed its absence. They were not moreover in these weeks to meet often, in spite of the fact that this had, during January and a part of February, actually become for them a comparatively easy matter. Kate’s stay at Mrs. Condrip’s prolonged itself under allowances from her aunt which would have been a mystery to Densher had he not been admitted, at Lancaster Gate, really in spite of himself, to the esoteric view of them. “It’s her idea,” Mrs. Lowder had there said to him as if she really despised ideas — which she didn’t; “and I’ve taken up with my own, which is to give her her head till she has had enough of it. She has had enough of it, she had that soon enough; but as she’s as proud as the deuce she’ll come back when she has found some reason — having nothing in common with her disgust — of which she can make a show. She calls it her holiday, which she’s spending in her own way — the holiday to which, once a year or so, as she says, the very maids in the scullery have a right. So we’re taking it on that basis. But we shall not soon, I think, take another of the same sort. Besides, she’s quite decent; she comes often — whenever I make her a sign; and she has been good, on the whole, this year or two, so that, to be decent myself, I don’t complain. She has really been, poor dear, very much what one hoped; though I needn’t, you know,” Aunt Maud wound up, “tell you, after all, you clever creature, what that was.”
It had been partly in truth to keep down the opportunity for this that Densher’s appearances under the good lady’s roof markedly, after Christmas, interspaced themselves. The phase of his situation that on his return from Venice had made them for a short time almost frequent was at present quite obscured, and with it the impulse that had then acted. Another phase had taken its place, which he would have been painfully at a loss as yet to name or otherwise set on its feet, but of which the steadily rising tide left Mrs. Lowder, for his desire, quite high and dry. There had been a moment when it seemed possible that Mrs. Stringham, returning to America under convoy, would pause in London on her way and be housed with her old friend; in which case he was prepared for some apparent zeal of attendance. But this danger passed — he had felt it a danger, and the person in the world whom he would just now have most valued seeing on his own terms sailed away westward from Genoa. He thereby only wrote to her, having broken, in this respect, after Milly’s death, the silence as to the sense of which, before that event, their agreement had been so deep. She had answered him from Venice twice, and had had time to answer him twice again from New York. The last letter of her four had come by the same post as the document he sent on to Kate, but he hadn’t gone into the question of also enclosing that. His correspondence with Milly’s companion was somehow already presenting itself to him as a feature — as a factor, he would have said in his newspaper — of the time whatever it might be, long or short, in store for him; but one of his acutest current thoughts was apt to be devoted to his not having yet mentioned it to Kate. She had put him no question, no “Don’t you ever hear?”— so that he hadn’t been brought to the point. This he described to himself as a mercy, for he liked his secret. It was as a secret that, in the same personal privacy, he described his transatlantic commerce, scarce even wincing while he recognised it as the one connexion in which he wasn’t straight. He had in fact for this connexion a vivid mental image — he saw it as a small emergent rock in the waste of waters, the bottomless grey expanse of straightness. The fact that he had on several recent occasions taken with Kate an out-of-the-way walk that was each time to define itself as more remarkable for what they didn’t say than for what they did — this fact failed somehow to mitigate for him a strange consciousness of exposure. There was something deep within him that he had absolutely shown to no one — to the companion of these walks in particular not a bit more than he could help; but he was none the less haunted, under its shadow, with a dire apprehension of publicity. It was as if he had invoked that ugliness in some stupid good faith; and it was queer enough that on his emergent rock, clinging to it and to Susan Shepherd, he should figure himself as hidden from view. That represented no doubt his belief in her power, or in her delicate disposition to protect him. Only Kate at all events knew — what Kate did know, and she was also the last person interested to tell it; in spite of which it was as if his act, so deeply associated with her and never to be recalled nor recovered, was abroad on the winds of the world. His honesty, as he viewed it with Kate, was the very element of that menace: to the degree that he saw at moments, as to their final impulse or their final remedy, the need to bury in the dark blindness of each other’s arms the knowledge of each other that they couldn’t undo.
Save indeed that the sense in which it was in these days a question of arms was limited, this might have been the intimate expedient to which they were actually resorting. It had its value, in conditions that made everything count, that thrice over, in Battersea Park — where Mrs. Lowder now never drove — he had adopted the usual means, in sequestered alleys, of holding her close to his side. She could make absences, on her present footing, without having too inordinately to account for them at home — which was exactly what gave them for the first time an appreciable margin. He supposed she could always say in Chelsea — though he didn’t press it — that she had been across the town, in decency, for a look at her aunt; whereas there had always been reasons at Lancaster Gate for her not being able to plead the look at her other relatives. It was therefore between them a freedom of a purity as yet untasted; which for that matter also they made in various ways no little show of cherishing as such. They made the show indeed in every way but the way of a large use — an inconsequence that they almost equally gave time to helping each other to regard as natural. He put it to his companion that the kind of favour he now enjoyed at Lancaster Gate, the wonderful warmth of his reception there, cut in a manner the ground from under their feet. He was too horribly trusted — they had succeeded too well. He couldn’t in short make appointments with her without abusing Aunt Maud, and he couldn’t on the other hand haunt that lady without tying his hands. Kate saw what he meant just as he saw what she did when she admitted that she was herself, to a degree scarce less embarrassing, in the enjoyment of Aunt Maud’s confidence. It was special at present — she was handsomely used; she confessed accordingly to a scruple about misapplying her licence. Mrs. Lowder then finally had found — and all unconsciously now — the way to baffle them. It wasn’t however that they didn’t meet a little, none the less, in the southern quarter, to point for their common benefit the moral of their defeat. They crossed the river; they wandered in neighbourhoods sordid and safe; the winter was mild, so that, mounting to the top of trams, they could rumble together to Clapham or to Greenwich. If at the same time their minutes had never been so counted it struck Densher that by a singular law their tone — he scarce knew what to call it — had never been so bland. Not to talk of what they might have talked of drove them to other ground; it was as if they used a perverse insistence to make up what they ignored. They concealed their pursuit of the irrelevant by the charm of their manner; they took precautions for the courtesy they had formerly left to come of itself; often, when he had quitted her, he stopped short, walking off, with the aftersense of their change. He would have described their change — had he so far faced it as to describe it — by their being so damned civil. That had even, with the intimate, the familiar at the point to which they had brought them, a touch almost of the droll. What danger had there ever been of their becoming rude — after each had long since made the other so tremendously tender? Such were the things he asked himself when he wondered what in particular he most feared.
Yet all the while too the tension had its charm — such being the interest of a creature who could bring one back to her by such different roads. It was her talent for life again; which found in her a difference for the differing time. She didn’t give their tradition up; she but made of it something new. Frankly moreover she had never been more agreeable nor in a way — to put it prosaically — better company: he felt almost as if he were knowing her on that defined basis — which he even hesitated whether to measure as reduced or as extended; as if at all events he were admiring her as she was probably admired by people she met “out.” He hadn’t in fine reckoned that she would still have something fresh for him; yet this was what she had — that on the top of a tram in the Borough he felt as if he were next her at dinner. What a person she would be if they had been rich — with what a genius for the so-called great life, what a presence for the so-called great house, what a grace for the so-called great positions! He might regret at once, while he was about it, that they weren’t princes or billionaires. She had treated him on their Christmas to a softness that had struck him at the time as of the quality of fine velvet, meant to fold thick, but stretched a little thin; at present, however, she gave him the impression of a contact multitudinous as only the superficial can be. She had throughout never a word for what went on at home. She came out of that and she returned to it, but her nearest reference was the look with which, each time, she bade him good-bye. The look was her repeated prohibition: “It’s what I have to see and to know — so don’t touch it. That but wakes up the old evil, which I keep still, in my way, by sitting by it. I go now — leave me alone! — to sit by it again. The way to pity me — if that’s what you want — is to believe in me. If we could really do anything it would be another matter.”
He watched her, when she went her way, with the vision of what she thus a little stiffly carried. It was confused and obscure, but how, with her head high, it made her hold herself! He really in his own person might at these moments have been swaying a little aloft as one of the objects in her poised basket. It was doubtless thanks to some such consciousness as this that he felt the lapse of the weeks, before the day of Kate’s mounting of his stair, almost swingingly rapid. They contained for him the contradiction that, whereas periods of waiting are supposed in general to keep the time slow, it was the wait, actually, that made the pace trouble him. The secret of that anomaly, to be plain, was that he was aware of how, while the days melted, something rare went with them. This something was only a thought, but a thought precisely of such freshness and such delicacy as made the precious, of whatever sort, most subject to the hunger of time. The thought was all his own, and his intimate companion was the last person he might have shared it with. He kept it back like a favourite pang; left it behind him, so to say, when he went out, but came home again the sooner for the certainty of finding it there. Then he took it out of its sacred corner and its soft wrappings; he undid them one by one, handling them, handling it, as a father, baffled and tender, might handle a maimed child. But so it was before him — in his dread of who else might see it. Then he took to himself at such hours, in other words, that he should never, never know what had been in Milly’s letter. The intention announced in it he should but too probably know; only that would have been, but for the depths of his spirit, the least part of it. The part of it missed for ever was the turn she would have given her act. This turn had possibilities that, somehow, by wondering about them, his imagination had extraordinarily filled out and refined. It had made of them a revelation the loss of which was like the sight of a priceless pearl cast before his eyes — his pledge given not to save it — into the fathomless sea, or rather even it was like the sacrifice of something sentient and throbbing, something that, for the spiritual ear, might have been audible as a faint far wail. This was the sound he cherished when alone in the stillness of his rooms. He sought and guarded the stillness, so that it might prevail there till the inevitable sounds of life, once more, comparatively coarse and harsh, should smother and deaden it — doubtless by the same process with which they would officiously heal the ache in his soul that was somehow one with it. It moreover deepened the sacred hush that he couldn’t complain. He had given poor Kate her freedom.
The great and obvious thing, as soon as she stood there on the occasion we have already named, was that she was now in high possession of it. This would have marked immediately the difference — had there been nothing else to do it — between their actual terms and their other terms, the character of their last encounter in Venice. That had been his idea, whereas her present step was her own; the few marks they had in common were, from the first moment, to his conscious vision, almost pathetically plain. She was as grave now as before; she looked around her, to hide it, as before; she pretended, as before, in an air in which her words at the moment itself fell flat, to an interest in the place and a curiosity about his “things”; there was a recall in the way in which, after she had failed a little to push up her veil symmetrically and he had said she had better take it off altogether, she had acceded to his suggestion before the glass. It was just these things that were vain; and what was real was that his fancy figured her after the first few minutes as literally now providing the element of reassurance which had previously been his care. It was she, supremely, who had the presence of mind. She made indeed for that matter very prompt use of it. “You see I’ve not hesitated this time to break your seal.”
She had laid on the table from the moment of her coming in the long envelope, substantially filled, which he had sent her enclosed in another of still ampler make. He had however not looked at it — his belief being that he wished never again to do so; besides which it had happened to rest with its addressed side up. So he “saw” nothing, and it was only into her eyes that her remark made him look, declining any approach to the object indicated. “It’s not ‘my’ seal, my dear; and my intention — which my note tried to express — was all to treat it to you as not mine.”
“Do you mean that it’s to that extent mine then?”
“Well, let us call it, if we like, theirs — that of the good people in New York, the authors of our communication. If the seal is broken well and good; but we might, you know,” he presently added, “have sent it back to them intact and inviolate. Only accompanied,” he smiled with his heart in his mouth, “by an absolutely kind letter.”
Kate took it with the mere brave blink with which a patient of courage signifies to the exploring medical hand that the tender place is touched. He saw on the spot that she was prepared, and with this signal sign that she was too intelligent not to be, came a flicker of possibilities. She was — merely to put it at that — intelligent enough for anything. “Is it what you’re proposing we should do?”
“Ah it’s too late to do it — well, ideally. Now, with that sign that we know —!”
“But you don’t know,” she said very gently.
“I refer,” he went on without noticing it, “to what would have been the handsome way. Its being dispatched again, with no cognisance taken but one’s assurance of the highest consideration, and the proof of this in the state of the envelope — that would have been really satisfying.”
She thought an instant. “The state of the envelope proving refusal, you mean, not to be based on the insufficiency of the sum?”
Densher smiled again as for the play, however whimsical, of her humour. “Well yes — something of that sort.”
“So that if cognisance has been taken — so far as I’m concerned — it spoils the beauty?”
“It makes the difference that I’m disappointed in the hope — which I confess I entertained — that you’d bring the thing back to me as you had received it.”
“You didn’t express that hope in your letter.”
“I didn’t want to. I wanted to leave it to yourself. I wanted — oh yes, if that’s what you wish to ask me — to see what you’d do.”
“You wanted to measure the possibilities of my departure from delicacy?”
He continued steady now; a kind of ease — from the presence, as in the air, of something he couldn’t yet have named — had come to him. “Well, I wanted — in so good a case — to test you.”
She was struck — it showed in her face — by his expression. “It is a good case. I doubt whether a better,” she said with her eyes on him, “has ever been known.”
“The better the case then the better the test!”
“How do you know,” she asked in reply to this, “what I’m capable of?”
“I don’t, my dear! Only with the seal unbroken I should have known sooner.”
“I see”— she took it in. “But I myself shouldn’t have known at all. And you wouldn’t have known, either, what I do know.”
“Let me tell you at once,” he returned, “that if you’ve been moved to correct my ignorance I very particularly request you not to.”
She just hesitated. “Are you afraid of the effect of the corrections? Can you only do it by doing it blindly?”
He waited a moment. “What is it that you speak of my doing?”
“Why the only thing in the world that I take you as thinking of. Not accepting — what she has done. Isn’t there some regular name in such cases? Not taking up the bequest.”
“There’s something you forget in it,” he said after a moment. “My asking you to join with me in doing so.”
Her wonder but made her softer, yet at the same time didn’t make her less firm. “How can I ‘join’ in a matter with which I’ve nothing to do?”
“How? By a single word.”
“And what word?”
“Your consent to my giving up.”
“My consent has no meaning when I can’t prevent you.”
“You can perfectly prevent me. Understand that well,” he said.
She seemed to face a threat in it. “You mean you won’t give up if I don’t consent?”
“Yes. I do nothing.”
“That, as I understand, is accepting.”
Densher paused. “I do nothing formal.”
“You won’t, I suppose you mean, touch the money.”
“I won’t touch the money.”
It had a sound — though he had been coming to it — that made for gravity. “Who then in such an event will?”
“Any one who wants or who can.”
Again a little she said nothing: she might say too much. But by the time she spoke he had covered ground. “How can I touch it but through you?”
“You can’t. Any more,” he added, “than I can renounce it except through you.”
“Oh ever so much less! There’s nothing,” she explained, “in my power.”
“I’m in your power,” Merton Densher said.
“In what way?”
“In the way I show — and the way I’ve always shown. When have I shown,” he asked as with a sudden cold impatience, “anything else? You surely must feel — so that you needn’t wish to appear to spare me in it — how you ‘have’ me.”
“It’s very good of you, my dear,” she nervously laughed, “to put me so thoroughly up to it!”
“I put you up to nothing. I didn’t even put you up to the chance that, as I said a few moments ago, I saw for you in forwarding that thing. Your liberty is therefore in every way complete.”
It had come to the point really that they showed each other pale faces, and that all the unspoken between them looked out of their eyes in a dim terror of their further conflict. Something even rose between them in one of their short silences — something that was like an appeal from each to the other not to be too true. Their necessity was somehow before them, but which of them must meet it first? “Thank you!” Kate said for his word about her freedom, but taking for the minute no further action on it. It was blest at least that all ironies failed them, and during another slow moment their very sense of it cleared the air.
There was an effect of this in the way he soon went on. “You must intensely feel that it’s the thing for which we worked together.”
She took up the remark, however, no more than if it were commonplace; she was already again occupied with a point of her own. “Is it absolutely true — for if it is, you know, it’s tremendously interesting — that you haven’t so much as a curiosity about what she has done for you?”
“Would you like,” he asked, “my formal oath on it?”
“No — but I don’t understand. It seems to me in your place —!”
“Ah,” he couldn’t help breaking in, “what do you know of my place? Pardon me,” he at once added; “my preference is the one I express.”
She had in an instant nevertheless a curious thought. “But won’t the facts be published?”
“‘Published’?”— he winced.
“I mean won’t you see them in the papers?”
“Ah never! I shall know how to escape that.”
It seemed to settle the subject, but she had the next minute another insistence. “Your desire is to escape everything?”
“And do you need no more definite sense of what it is you ask me to help you to renounce?”
“My sense is sufficient without being definite. I’m willing to believe that the amount of money’s not small.”
“Ah there you are!” she exclaimed.
“If she was to leave me a remembrance,” he quietly pursued, “it would inevitably not be meagre.”
Kate waited as for how to say it. “It’s worthy of her. It’s what she was herself — if you remember what we once said that was.”
He hesitated — as if there had been many things. But he remembered one of them. “Stupendous?”
“Stupendous.” A faint smile for it — ever so small — had flickered in her face, but had vanished before the omen of tears, a little less uncertain, had shown themselves in his own. His eyes filled — but that made her continue. She continued gently. “I think that what it really is must be that you’re afraid. I mean,” she explained, “that you’re afraid of all the truth. If you’re in love with her without it, what indeed can you be more? And you’re afraid — it’s wonderful! — to be in love with her.”
“I never was in love with her,” said Densher.
She took it, but after a little she met it. “I believe that now — for the time she lived. I believe it at least for the time you were there. But your change came — as it might well — the day you last saw her; she died for you then that you might understand her. From that hour you did.” With which Kate slowly rose. “And I do now. She did it for us.” Densher rose to face her, and she went on with her thought. “I used to call her, in my stupidity — for want of anything better — a dove. Well she stretched out her wings, and it was to that they reached. They cover us.”
“They cover us,” Densher said.
“That’s what I give you,” Kate gravely wound up. “That’s what I’ve done for you.”
His look at her had a slow strangeness that had dried, on the moment, his tears. “Do I understand then —?”
“That I do consent?” She gravely shook her head. “No — for I see. You’ll marry me without the money; you won’t marry me with it. If I don’t consent you don’t.”
“You lose me?” He showed, though naming it frankly, a sort of awe of her high grasp. “Well, you lose nothing else. I make over to you every penny.”
Prompt was his own clearness, but she had no smile this time to spare. “Precisely — so that I must choose.”
“You must choose.”
Strange it was for him then that she stood in his own rooms doing it, while, with an intensity now beyond any that had ever made his breath come slow, he waited for her act. “There’s but one thing that can save you from my choice.”
“From your choice of my surrender to you?”
“Yes”— and she gave a nod at the long envelope on the table —“your surrender of that.”
“What is it then?”
“Your word of honour that you’re not in love with her memory.”
“Oh — her memory!”
“Ah”— she made a high gesture —“don’t speak of it as if you couldn’t be. I could in your place; and you’re one for whom it will do. Her memory’s your love. You want no other.”
He heard her out in stillness, watching her face but not moving. Then he only said: “I’ll marry you, mind you, in an hour.”
“As we were?”
“As we were.”
But she turned to the door, and her headshake was now the end. “We shall never be again as we were!”
This web edition published by:
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10