Merton Densher, who passed the best hours of each night at the office of his newspaper, had at times, during the day, to make up for it, a sense, or at least an appearance, of leisure, in accordance with which he was not infrequently to be met, in different parts of the town, at moments when men of business are hidden from the public eye. More than once, during the present winter’s end, he had deviated, toward three o’clock, or toward four, into Kensington Gardens, where he might for a while, on each occasion, have been observed to demean himself as a person with nothing to do. He made his way indeed, for the most part, with a certain directness, over to the north side; but once that ground was reached his behaviour was noticeably wanting in point. He moved seemingly at random from alley to alley; he stopped for no reason and remained idly agaze; he sat down in a chair and then changed to a bench; after which he walked about again, only again to repeat both the vagueness and the vivacity. Distinctly, he was a man either with nothing at all to do or with ever so much to think about; and it was not to be denied that the impression he might often thus easily make had the effect of causing the burden of proof, in certain directions, to rest on him. It was a little the fault of his aspect, his personal marks, which made it almost impossible to name his profession.
He was a longish, leanish, fairish young Englishman, not unamenable, on certain sides, to classification — as for instance by being a gentleman, by being rather specifically one of the educated, one of the generally sound and generally pleasant; yet, though to that degree neither extraordinary nor abnormal, he would have failed to play straight into an observer’s hands. He was young for the House of Commons, he was loose for the army. He was refined, as might have been said, for the city, and, quite apart from the cut of his cloth, he was sceptical, it might have been felt, for the church. On the other hand he was credulous for diplomacy, or perhaps even for science, while he was perhaps at the same time too much in his mere senses for poetry, and yet too little in them for art. You would have got fairly near him by making out in his eyes the potential recognition of ideas; but you would have quite fallen away again on the question of the ideas themselves. The difficulty with Densher was that he looked vague without looking weak — idle without looking empty. It was the accident, possibly, of his long legs, which were apt to stretch themselves; of his straight hair and his well-shaped head, never, the latter, neatly smooth, and apt, into the bargain, at the time of quite other calls upon it, to throw itself suddenly back and, supported behind by his uplifted arms and interlocked hands, place him for unconscionable periods in communion with the ceiling, the tree-tops, the sky. He was in short visibly absent-minded, irregularly clever, liable to drop what was near and to take up what was far; he was more a respecter, in general, than a follower of custom. He suggested above all, however, that wondrous state of youth in which the elements, the metals more or less precious, are so in fusion and fermentation that the question of the final stamp, the pressure that fixes the value, must wait for comparative coolness. And it was a mark of his interesting mixture that if he was irritable it was by a law of considerable subtlety — a law that, in intercourse with him, it might be of profit, though not easy, to master. One of the effects of it was that he had for you surprises of tolerance as well as of temper.
He loitered, on the best of the relenting days, the several occasions we speak of, along the part of the Gardens nearest to Lancaster Gate, and when, always, in due time, Kate Croy came out of her aunt’s house, crossed the road and arrived by the nearest entrance, there was a general publicity in the proceeding which made it slightly anomalous. If their meeting was to be bold and free it might have taken place within doors; if it was to be shy or secret it might have taken place almost anywhere better than under Mrs. Lowder’s windows. They failed indeed to remain attached to that spot; they wandered and strolled, taking in the course of more than one of these interviews a considerable walk, or else picked out a couple of chairs under one of the great trees and sat as much apart — apart from every one else — as possible. But Kate had, each time, at first, the air of wishing to expose herself to pursuit and capture if those things were in question. She made the point that she was not underhand, any more than she was vulgar; that the Gardens were charming in themselves and this use of them a matter of taste; and that, if her aunt chose to glare at her from the drawing-room or to cause her to be tracked and overtaken, she could at least make it convenient that this should be easily done. The fact was that the relation between these young persons abounded in such oddities as were not inaptly symbolised by assignations that had a good deal more appearance than motive. Of the strength of the tie that held them we shall sufficiently take the measure; but it was meanwhile almost obvious that if the great possibility had come up for them it had done so, to an exceptional degree, under the protection of the famous law of contraries. Any deep harmony that might eventually govern them would not be the result of their having much in common — having anything, in fact, but their affection; and would really find its explanation in some sense, on the part of each, of being poor where the other was rich. It is nothing new indeed that generous young persons often admire most what nature hasn’t given them — from which it would appear, after all, that our friends were both generous.
Merton Densher had repeatedly said to himself — and from far back — that he should be a fool not to marry a woman whose value would be in her differences; and Kate Croy, though without having quite so philosophised, had quickly recognised in the young man a precious unlikeness. He represented what her life had never given her and certainly, without some such aid as his, never would give her; all the high, dim things she lumped together as of the mind. It was on the side of the mind that Densher was rich for her, and mysterious and strong; and he had rendered her in especial the sovereign service of making that element real. She had had, all her days, to take it terribly on trust; no creature she had ever encountered having been able in any degree to testify for it directly. Vague rumours of its existence had made their precarious way to her; but nothing had, on the whole, struck her as more likely than that she should live and die without the chance to verify them. The chance had come — it was an extraordinary one — on the day she first met Densher; and it was to the girl’s lasting honour that she knew on the spot what she was in the presence of. That occasion indeed, for everything that straightway flowered in it, would be worthy of high commemoration; Densher’s perception went out to meet the young woman’s and quite kept pace with her own recognition. Having so often concluded on the fact of his weakness, as he called it, for life — his strength merely for thought — life, he logically opined, was what he must somehow arrange to annex and possess. This was so much a necessity that thought by itself only went on in the void; it was from the immediate air of life that it must draw its breath. So the young man, ingenious but large, critical but ardent too, made out both his case and Kate Croy’s. They had originally met before her mother’s death — an occasion marked for her as the last pleasure permitted by the approach of that event; after which the dark months had interposed a screen and, for all Kate knew, made the end one with the beginning.
The beginning — to which she often went back — had been a scene, for our young woman, of supreme brilliancy; a party given at a “gallery” hired by a hostess who fished with big nets. A Spanish dancer, understood to be at that moment the delight of the town, an American reciter, the joy of a kindred people, an Hungarian fiddler, the wonder of the world at large — in the name of these and other attractions the company in which, by a rare privilege, Kate found herself had been freely convoked. She lived under her mother’s roof, as she considered, obscurely, and was acquainted with few persons who entertained on that scale; but she had had dealings with two or three connected, as appeared, with such — two or three through whom the stream of hospitality, filtered or diffused, could thus now and then spread to outlying receptacles. A good-natured lady in fine, a friend of her mother and a relative of the lady of the gallery, had offered to take her to the party in question and had there fortified her, further, with two or three of those introductions that, at large parties, lead to other things — that had at any rate, on this occasion, culminated for her in conversation with a tall, fair, slightly unbrushed and rather awkward, but on the whole not dreary, young man. The young man had affected her as detached, as — it was indeed what he called himself — awfully at sea, as much more distinct from what surrounded them than any one else appeared to be, and even as probably quite disposed to be making his escape when pulled up to be placed in relation with her. He gave her his word for it indeed, that same evening, that only their meeting had prevented his flight, but that now he saw how sorry he should have been to miss it. This point they had reached by midnight, and though in respect to such remarks everything was in the tone, the tone was by midnight there too. She had had originally her full apprehension of his coerced, certainly of his vague, condition — full apprehensions often being with her immediate; then she had had her equal consciousness that, within five minutes, something between them had — well, she couldn’t call it anything but come. It was nothing, but it was somehow everything — it was that something for each of them had happened.
They had found themselves looking at each other straight, and for a longer time on end than was usual even at parties in galleries; but that, after all, would have been a small affair, if there hadn’t been something else with it. It wasn’t, in a word, simply that their eyes had met; other conscious organs, faculties, feelers had met as well, and when Kate afterwards imaged to herself the sharp, deep fact she saw it, in the oddest way, as a particular performance. She had observed a ladder against a garden wall, and had trusted herself so to climb it as to be able to see over into the probable garden on the other side. On reaching the top she had found herself face to face with a gentleman engaged in a like calculation at the same moment, and the two inquirers had remained confronted on their ladders. The great point was that for the rest of that evening they had been perched — they had not climbed down; and indeed, during the time that followed, Kate at least had had the perched feeling — it was as if she were there aloft without a retreat. A simpler expression of all this is doubtless but that they had taken each other in with interest; and without a happy hazard six months later the incident would have closed in that account of it. The accident, meanwhile, had been as natural as anything in London ever is: Kate had one afternoon found herself opposite Mr. Densher on the Underground Railway. She had entered the train at Sloane Square to go to Queen’s Road, and the carriage in which she had found a place was all but full. Densher was already in it — on the other bench and at the furthest angle; she was sure of him before they had again started. The day and the hour were darkness, there were six other persons, and she had been busy placing herself; but her consciousness had gone to him as straight as if they had come together in some bright level of the desert. They had on neither part a second’s hesitation; they looked across the choked compartment exactly as if she had known he would be there and he had expected her to come in; so that, though in the conditions they could only exchange the greeting of movements, smiles, silence, it would have been quite in the key of these passages that they should have alighted for ease at the very next station. Kate was in fact sure that the very next station was the young man’s true goal — which made it clear that he was going on only from the wish to speak to her. He had to go on, for this purpose, to High Street, Kensington, as it was not till then that the exit of a passenger gave him his chance.
His chance put him, however, in quick possession of the seat facing her, the alertness of his capture of which seemed to show her his impatience. It helped them, moreover, with strangers on either side, little to talk; though this very restriction perhaps made such a mark for them as nothing else could have done. If the fact that their opportunity had again come round for them could be so intensely expressed between them without a word, they might very well feel on the spot that it had not come round for nothing. The extraordinary part of the matter was that they were not in the least meeting where they had left off, but ever so much further on, and that these added links added still another between High Street and Notting Hill Gate, and then between the latter station and Queen’s Road an extension really inordinate. At Notting Hill Gate, Kate’s right-hand neighbour descended, whereupon Densher popped straight into that seat; only there was not much gained when a lady, the next instant, popped into Densher’s. He could say almost nothing to her — she scarce knew, at least, what he said; she was so occupied with a certainty that one of the persons opposite, a youngish man with a single eyeglass, which he kept constantly in position, had made her out from the first as visibly, as strangely affected. If such a person made her out, what then did Densher do? — a question in truth sufficiently answered when, on their reaching her station, he instantly followed her out of the train. That had been the real beginning — the beginning of everything else; the other time, the time at the party, had been but the beginning of that. Never in life before had she so let herself go; for always before — so far as small adventures could have been in question for her — there had been, by the vulgar measure, more to go upon. He had walked with her to Lancaster Gate, and then she had walked with him away from it — for all the world, she said to herself, like the housemaid giggling to the baker.
This appearance, she was afterwards to feel, had been all in order for a relation that might precisely best be described in the terms of the baker and the housemaid. She could say to herself that from that hour they had kept company; that had come to represent, technically speaking, alike the range and the limit of their tie. He had on the spot, naturally, asked leave to call upon her — which, as a young person who wasn’t really young, who didn’t pretend to be a sheltered flower, she as rationally gave. That — she was promptly clear about it — was now her only possible basis; she was just the contemporary London female, highly modern, inevitably battered, honourably free. She had of course taken her aunt straight into her confidence — had gone through the form of asking her leave; and she subsequently remembered that though, on this occasion, she had left the history of her new alliance as scant as the facts themselves, Mrs. Lowder had struck her at the time surprisingly mild. It had been, in every way, the occasion, full of the reminder that her hostess was deep: it was definitely then that she had begun to ask herself what Aunt Maud was, in vulgar parlance, “up to.” “You may receive, my dear, whom you like”— that was what Aunt Maud, who in general objected to people’s doing as they liked, had replied; and it bore, this unexpectedness, a good deal of looking into. There were many explanations, and they were all amusing — amusing, that is, in the line of the sombre and brooding amusement, cultivated by Kate in her actual high retreat. Merton Densher came the very next Sunday; but Mrs. Lowder was so consistently magnanimous as to make it possible to her niece to see him alone. She saw him, however, on the Sunday following, in order to invite him to dinner; and when, after dining, he came again — which he did three times, she found means to treat his visit as preponderantly to herself. Kate’s conviction that she didn’t like him made that remarkable; it added to the evidence, by this time voluminous, that she was remarkable all round. If she had been, in the way of energy, merely usual, she would have kept her dislike direct; whereas it was now as if she were seeking to know him in order to see best where to “have” him. That was one of the reflections made in our young woman’s high retreat; she smiled from her lookout, in the silence that was only the fact of hearing irrelevant sounds, as she caught the truth that you could easily accept people when you wanted them so to be delivered to you. When Aunt Maud wished them despatched, it was not to be done by deputy; it was clearly always a matter reserved for her own hand. But what made the girl wonder most was the implications of so much diplomacy in respect to her own value. What view might she take of her position in the light of this appearance that her companion feared so, as yet, to upset her? It was as if Densher were accepted partly under the dread that if he hadn’t been she would act in resentment. Hadn’t her aunt considered the danger that she would in that case have broken off, have seceded? The danger was exaggerated — she would have done nothing so gross; but that, it seemed, was the way Mrs. Lowder saw her and believed her to be reckoned with. What importance therefore did she really attach to her, what strange interest could she take on their keeping on terms? Her father and her sister had their answer to this — even without knowing how the question struck her; they saw the lady of Lancaster Gate as panting to make her fortune, and the explanation of that appetite was that, on the accident of a nearer view than she had before enjoyed, she had been charmed, been dazzled. They approved, they admired in her one of the belated fancies of rich, capricious, violent old women — the more marked, moreover, because the result of no plot; and they piled up the possible results for the person concerned. Kate knew what to think of her own power thus to carry by storm; she saw herself as handsome, no doubt, but as hard, and felt herself as clever but as cold; and as so much too imperfectly ambitious, furthermore, that it was a pity, for a quiet life, she couldn’t settle to be either finely or stupidly indifferent. Her intelligence sometimes kept her still — too still — but her want of it was restless; so that she got the good, it seemed to her, of neither extreme. She saw herself at present, none the less, in a situation, and even her sad, disillusioned mother, dying, but with Aunt Maud interviewing the nurse on the stairs, had not failed to remind her that it was of the essence of situations to be, under Providence, worked. The dear woman had died in the belief that she was actually working the one then produced.
Kate took one of her walks with Densher just after her visit to Mr. Croy; but most of it went, as usual, to their sitting in talk. They had, under the trees, by the lake, the air of old friends — phases of apparent earnestness, in particular, in which they might have been settling every question in their vast young world; and periods of silence, side by side, perhaps even more, when “a long engagement!” would have been the final reading of the signs on the part of a passer struck with them, as it was so easy to be. They would have presented themselves thus as very old friends rather than as young persons who had met for the first time but a year before and had spent most of the interval without contact. It was indeed for each, already, as if they were older friends; and though the succession of their meetings might, between them, have been straightened out, they only had a confused sense of a good many, very much alike, and a confused intention of a good many more, as little different as possible. The desire to keep them just as they were had perhaps to do with the fact that in spite of the presumed diagnosis of the stranger there had been for them as yet no formal, no final understanding. Densher had at the very first pressed the question, but that, it had been easy to reply, was too soon; so that a singular thing had afterwards happened. They had accepted their acquaintance as too short for an engagement, but they had treated it as long enough for almost anything else, and marriage was somehow before them like a temple without an avenue. They belonged to the temple and they met in the grounds; they were in the stage at which grounds in general offered much scattered refreshment. But Kate had meanwhile had so few confidants that she wondered at the source of her father’s suspicions. The diffusion of rumour was of course, in London, remarkable, and for Marian not less — as Aunt Maud touched neither directly — the mystery had worked. No doubt she had been seen. Of course she had been seen. She had taken no trouble not to be seen, and it was a thing, clearly, she was incapable of taking. But she had been seen how? — and what was there to see? She was in love — she knew that: but it was wholly her own business, and she had the sense of having conducted herself, of still so doing, with almost violent conformity.
“I’ve an idea — in fact I feel sure — that Aunt Maud means to write to you; and I think you had better know it.” So much as this she said to him as soon as they met, but immediately adding to it: “So as to make up your mind how to take her. I know pretty well what she’ll say to you.”
“Then will you kindly tell me?”
She thought a little. “I can’t do that. I should spoil it. She’ll do the best for her own idea.”
“Her idea, you mean, that I’m a sort of a scoundrel; or, at the best, not good enough for you?”
They were side by side again in their penny chairs, and Kate had another pause. “Not good enough for her.“
“Oh, I see. And that’s necessary.”
He put it as a truth rather more than as a question; but there had been plenty of truths between them that each had contradicted. Kate, however, let this one sufficiently pass, only saying the next moment: “She has behaved extraordinarily.”
“And so have we,” Densher declared. “I think, you know, we’ve been awfully decent.”
“For ourselves, for each other, for people in general, yes. But not for her. For her,” said Kate, “we’ve been monstrous. She has been giving us rope. So if she does send for you,” the girl repeated, “you must know where you are.”
“That I always know. It’s where you are that concerns me.”
“Well,” said Kate after an instant, “her idea of that is what you’ll have from her.” He gave her a long look, and whatever else people who wouldn’t let her alone might have wished, for her advancement, his long looks were the thing in the world she could never have enough of. What she felt was that, whatever might happen, she must keep them, must make them most completely her possession; and it was already strange enough that she reasoned, or at all events began to act, as if she might work them in with other and alien things, privately cherish them, and yet, as regards the rigour of it, pay no price. She looked it well in the face, she took it intensely home, that they were lovers; she rejoiced to herself and, frankly, to him, in their wearing of the name; but, distinguished creature that, in her way, she was, she took a view of this character that scarce squared with the conventional. The character itself she insisted on as their right, taking that so for granted that it didn’t seem even bold; but Densher, though he agreed with her, found himself moved to wonder at her simplifications, her values. Life might prove difficult — was evidently going to; but meanwhile they had each other, and that was everything. This was her reasoning, but meanwhile, for him, each other was what they didn’t have, and it was just the point. Repeatedly, however, it was a point that, in the face of strange and special things, he judged it rather awkwardly gross to urge. It was impossible to keep Mrs. Lowder out of their scheme. She stood there too close to it and too solidly; it had to open a gate, at a given point, do what they would to take her in. And she came in, always, while they sat together rather helplessly watching her, as in a coach-infour; she drove round their prospect as the principal lady at the circus drives round the ring, and she stopped the coach in the middle to alight with majesty. It was our young man’s sense that she was magnificently vulgar, but yet, quite, that this wasn’t all. It wasn’t with her vulgarity that she felt his want of means, though that might have helped her richly to embroider it; nor was it with the same infirmity that she was strong, original, dangerous.
His want of means — of means sufficient for anyone but himself — was really the great ugliness, and was, moreover, at no time more ugly for him than when it rose there, as it did seem to rise, shameless, face to face with the elements in Kate’s life colloquially and conveniently classed by both of them as funny. He sometimes indeed, for that matter, asked himself if these elements were as funny as the innermost fact, so often vivid to him, of his own consciousness — his private inability to believe he should ever be rich. His conviction on this head was in truth quite positive and a thing by itself; he failed, after analysis, to understand it, though he had naturally more lights on it than any one else. He knew how it subsisted in spite of an equal consciousness of his being neither mentally nor physically quite helpless, neither a dunce nor a cripple; he knew it to be absolute, though secret, and also, strange to say, about common undertakings, not discouraging, not prohibitive. Only now was he having to think if it were prohibitive in respect to marriage; only now, for the first time, had he to weigh his case in scales. The scales, as he sat with Kate, often dangled in the line of his vision; he saw them, large and black, while he talked or listened, take, in the bright air, singular positions. Sometimes the right was down and sometimes the left; never a happy equipoise — one or the other always kicking the beam. Thus was kept before him the question of whether it were more ignoble to ask a woman to take her chance with you, or to accept it from one’s conscience that her chance could be at the best but one of the degrees of privation; whether, too, otherwise, marrying for money mightn’t after all be a smaller cause of shame than the mere dread of marrying without. Through these variations of mood and view, all the same, the mark on his forehead stood clear; he saw himself remain without whether he married or not. It was a line on which his fancy could be admirably active; the innumerable ways of making money were beautifully present to him; he could have handled them, for his newspaper, as easily as he handled everything. He was quite aware how he handled everything; it was another mark on his forehead; the pair of smudges from the thumb of fortune, the brand on the passive fleece, dated from the primal hour and kept each other company. He wrote, as for print, with deplorable ease; since there had been nothing to stop him even at the age of ten, so there was as little at twenty; it was part of his fate in the first place and part of the wretched public’s in the second. The innumerable ways of making money were, no doubt, at all events, what his imagination often was busy with after he had tilted his chair and thrown back his head with his hands clasped behind it. What would most have prolonged that attitude, moreover, was the reflection that the ways were ways only for others. Within the minute, now — however this might be-he was aware of a nearer view than he had yet quite had of those circumstances on his companion’s part that made least for simplicity of relation. He saw above all how she saw them herself, for she spoke of them at present with the last frankness, telling him of her visit to her father and giving him, in an account of her subsequent scene with her sister, an instance of how she was perpetually reduced to patching up, in one way or another, that unfortunate woman’s hopes.
“The tune,” she exclaimed, “to which we’re a failure as a family!” With which he had it again all from her — and this time, as it seemed to him, more than all: the dishonour her father had brought them, his folly and cruelty and wickedness; the wounded state of her mother, abandoned, despoiled and helpless, yet, for the management of such a home as remained to them, dreadfully unreasonable too; the extinction of her two young brothers — one, at nineteen, the eldest of the house, by typhoid fever, contracted at a poisonous little place, as they had afterwards found out, that they had taken for a summer; the other, the flower of the flock, a middy on the Britannia, dreadfully drowned, and not even by an accident at sea, but by cramp, unrescued, while bathing, too late in the autumn, in a wretched little river during a holiday visit to the home of a shipmate. Then Marian’s unnatural marriage, in itself a kind of spiritless turning of the other cheek to fortune: her actual wretchedness and plaintiveness, her greasy children, her impossible claims, her odious visitors — these things completed the proof of the heaviness, for them all, of the hand of fate. Kate confessedly described them with an excess of impatience; it was much of her charm for Densher that she gave in general that turn to her descriptions, partly as if to amuse him by free and humorous colour, partly — and that charm was the greatest — as if to work off, for her own relief, her constant perception of the incongruity of things. She had seen the general show too early and too sharply, and she was so intelligent that she knew it and allowed for that misfortune; therefore when, in talk with him, she was violent and almost unfeminine, it was almost as if they had settled, for intercourse, on the short cut of the fantastic and the happy language of exaggeration. It had come to be definite between them at a primary stage that, if they could have no other straight way, the realm of thought at least was open to them. They could think whatever they liked about whatever they would — or, in other words, they could say it. Saying it for each other, for each other alone, only of course added to the taste. The implication was thereby constant that what they said when not together had no taste for them at all, and nothing could have served more to launch them, at special hours, on their small floating island than such an assumption that they were only making believe everywhere else. Our young man, it must be added, was conscious enough that it was Kate who profited most by this particular play of the fact of intimacy. It always seemed to him that she had more life than he to react from, and when she recounted the dark disasters of her house and glanced at the hard, odd offset of her present exaltation — since as exaltation it was apparently to be considered — he felt his own grey domestic annals to make little show. It was naturally, in all such reference, the question of her father’s character that engaged him most, but her picture of her adventure in Chirk Street gave him a sense of how little as yet that character was clear to him. What was it, to speak plainly, that Mr. Croy had originally done?
“I don’t know — and I don’t want to. I only know that years and years ago — when I was about fifteen — something or other happened that made him impossible. I mean impossible for the world at large first, and then, little by little, for mother. We of course didn’t know it at the time,” Kate explained, “but we knew it later; and it was, oddly enough, my sister who first made out that he had done something. I can hear her now — the way, one cold, black Sunday morning when, on account of an extraordinary fog, we had not gone to church, she broke it to me by the school-room fire. I was reading a history-book by the lamp — when we didn’t go to church we had to read history-books — and I suddenly heard her say, out of the fog, which was in the room, and apropos of nothing: ‘Papa has done something wicked.’ And the curious thing was that I believed it on the spot and have believed it ever since, though she could tell me nothing more — neither what was the wickedness, nor how she knew, nor what would happen to him, nor anything else about it. We had our sense, always, that all sorts of things had happened, were all the while happening, to him; so that when Marian only said she was sure, tremendously sure, that she had made it out for herself, but that that was enough, I took her word for it — it seemed somehow so natural. We were not, however, to ask mother — which made it more natural still, and I said never a word. But mother, strangely enough, spoke of it to me, in time, of her own accord very much later on. He hadn’t been with us for ever so long, but we were used to that. She must have had some fear, some conviction that I had an idea, some idea of her own that it was the best thing to do. She came out as abruptly as Marian had done: ‘If you hear anything against your father — anything I mean, except that he’s odious and vile — remember it’s perfectly false.’ That was the way I knew — it was true, though I recall that I said to her then that I of course knew it wasn’t. She might have told me it was true, and yet have trusted me to contradict fiercely enough any accusation of him that I should meet — to contradict it much more fiercely and effectively, I think, than she would have done herself. As it happens, however,” the girl went on, “I’ve never had occasion, and I’ve been conscious of it with a sort of surprise. It has made the world, at times, seem more decent. No one has so much as breathed to me. That has been a part of the silence, the silence that surrounds him, the silence that, for the world, has washed him out. He doesn’t exist for people. And yet I’m as sure as ever. In fact, though I know no more than I did then, I’m more sure. And that,” she wound up, “is what I sit here and tell you about my own father. If you don’t call it a proof of confidence I don’t know what will satisfy you.”
“It satisfies me beautifully,” Densher declared, “but it doesn’t, my dear child, very greatly enlighten me. You don’t, you know, really tell me anything. It’s so vague that what am I to think but that you may very well be mistaken? What has he done, if no one can name it?”
“He has done everything.”
“Oh — everything! Everything’s nothing.”
“Well then,” said Kate, “he has done some particular thing. It’s known — only, thank God, not to us. But it has been the end of him. You could doubtless find out with a little trouble. You can ask about.”
Densher for a moment said nothing; but the next moment he made it up. “I wouldn’t find out for the world, and I’d rather lose my tongue than put a question.”
“And yet it’s a part of me,” said Kate.
“A part of you?”
“My father’s dishonour.” Then she sounded for him, but more deeply than ever yet, her note of proud, still pessimism. “How can such a thing as that not be the great thing in one’s life?”
She had to take from him again, on this, one of his long looks, and she took it to its deepest, its headiest dregs. “I shall ask you, for the great thing in your life,” he said, “to depend on me a little more.” After which, just hesitating, “Doesn’t he belong to some club?” he inquired.
She had a grave headshake. “He used to — to many.”
“But he has dropped them?”
“They’ve dropped him. Of that I’m sure. It ought to do for you. I offered him,” the girl immediately continued —“and it was for that I went to him — to come and be with him, make a home for him so far as is possible. But he won’t hear of it.”
Densher took this in with visible, but generous, wonder. “You offered him —‘impossible’ as you describe him to me — to live with him and share his disadvantages?” The young man saw for the moment but the high beauty of it. “You are gallant!”
“Because it strikes you as being brave for him?” She wouldn’t in the least have this. “It wasn’t courage — it was the opposite. I did it to save myself — to escape.”
He had his air, so constant at this stage, as of her giving him finer things than any one to think about. “Escape from what?”
“Do you by any chance mean from me?”
“No; I spoke to him of you, told him — or what amounted to it — that I would bring you, if he would allow it, with me.”
“But he won’t allow it,” said Densher.
“Won’t hear of it on any terms. He won’t help me, won’t save me, won’t hold out a finger to me,” Kate went on; “he simply wriggles away, in his inimitable manner, and throws me back.”
“Back then, after all, thank goodness,” Densher concurred, “on me.”
But she spoke again as with the sole vision of the whole scene she had evoked. “It’s a pity, because you’d like him. He’s wonderful — he’s charming.” Her companion gave one of the laughs that marked in him, again, his feeling in her tone, inveterately, something that banished the talk of other women, so far as he knew other women, to the dull desert of the conventional, and she had already continued. “He would make himself delightful to you.”
“Even while objecting to me?”
“Well, he likes to please,” the girl explained —“personally. He would appreciate you and be clever with you. It’s to me he objects — that is as to my liking you.”
“Heaven be praised then,” Densher exclaimed, “that you like me enough for the objection!”
But she met it after an instant with some inconsequence. “I don’t. I offered to give you up, if necessary, to go to him. But it made no difference, and that’s what I mean,” she pursued, “by his declining me on any terms. The point is, you see, that I don’t escape.”
Densher wondered. “But if you didn’t wish to escape me?“
“I wished to escape Aunt Maud. But he insists that it’s through her and through her only that I may help him; just as Marian insists that it’s through her, and through her only, that I can help her. That’s what I mean,” she again explained, “by their turning me back.”
The young man thought. “Your sister turns you back too?”
“Oh, with a push!”
“But have you offered to live with your sister?”
“I would in a moment if she’d have me. That’s all my virtue — a narrow little family feeling. I’ve a small stupid piety — I don’t know what to call it.” Kate bravely sustained it; she made it out. “Sometimes, alone, I’ve to smother my shrieks when I think of my poor mother. She went through things — they pulled her down; I know what they were now — I didn’t then, for I was a pig; and my position, compared with hers, is an insolence of success. That’s what Marian keeps before me; that’s what papa himself, as I say, so inimitably does. My position’s a value, a great value, for them both”— she followed and followed. Lucid and ironic, she knew no merciful muddle. “It’s the value — the only one they have.”
Everything between our young couple moved today, in spite of their pauses, their margin, to a quicker measure — the quickness and anxiety playing lightning-like in the sultriness. Densher watched, decidedly, as he had never done before. “And the fact you speak of holds you!”
“Of course, it holds me. It’s a perpetual sound in my ears. It makes me ask myself if I’ve any right to personal happiness, any right to anything but to be as rich and overflowing, as smart and shining, as I can be made.”
Densher had a pause. “Oh, you might, with good luck, have the personal happiness too.”
Her immediate answer to this was a silence like his own; after which she gave him straight in the face, but quite simply and quietly: “Darling!”
It took him another moment; then he was also quiet and simple. “Will you settle it by our being married tomorrow — as we can, with perfect ease, civilly?”
“Let us wait to arrange it,” Kate presently replied, “till after you’ve seen her.”
“Do you call that adoring me?” Densher demanded.
They were talking, for the time, with the strangest mixture of deliberation and directness, and nothing could have been more in the tone of it than the way she at last said: “You’re afraid of her yourself.”
He gave a smile a trifle glassy. “For young persons of a great distinction and a very high spirit, we’re a caution!”
“Yes,” she took it straight up; “we’re hideously intelligent. But there’s fun in it too. We must get our fun where we can. I think,” she added, and for that matter, not without courage, “our relation’s beautiful. It’s not a bit vulgar. I cling to some saving romance in things.”
It made him break into a laugh which had more freedom than his smile. “How you must be afraid you’ll chuck me!”
“No, no, that would be vulgar. But, of course, I do see my danger,” she admitted, “of doing something base.”
“Then what can be so base as sacrificing me?”
“I shan’t sacrifice you; don’t cry out till you’re hurt. I shall sacrifice nobody and nothing, and that’s just my situation, that I want and that I shall try for everything. That,” she wound up, “is how I see myself, and how I see you quite as much, acting for them.”
“For ‘them’?” and the young man strongly, extravagantly marked his coldness. “Thank you!”
“Don’t you care for them?”
“Why should I? What are they to me but a serious nuisance?”
As soon as he had permitted himself this qualification of the unfortunate persons she so perversely cherished, he repented of his roughness — and partly because he expected a flash from her. But it was one of her finest sides that she sometimes flashed with a mere mild glow. “I don’t see why you don’t make out a little more that if we avoid stupidity we may do all. We may keep her.”
He stared. “Make her pension us?”
“Well, wait at least till we have seen.”
He thought. “Seen what can be got out of her?”
Kate for a moment said nothing. “After all I never asked her; never, when our troubles were at the worst, appealed to her nor went near her. She fixed upon me herself, settled on me with her wonderful gilded claws.”
“You speak,” Densher observed, “as if she were a vulture.”
“Call it an eagle — with a gilded beak as well, and with wings for great flights. If she’s a thing of the air, in short — say at once a balloon — I never myself got into her car. I was her choice.”
It had really, her sketch of the affair, a high colour and a great style; at all of which he gazed a minute as at a picture by a master. “What she must see in you!”
“Wonders!” And, speaking it loud, she stood straight up. “Everything. There it is.”
Yes, there it was, and as she remained before him he continued to face it. “So that what you mean is that I’m to do my part in somehow squaring her?”
“See her, see her,” Kate said with impatience.
“And grovel to her?”
“Ah, do what you like!” And she walked in her impatience away.
His eyes had followed her at this time quite long enough, before he overtook her, to make out more than ever, in the poise of her head, the pride of her step — he didn’t know what best to call it — a part, at least, of Mrs. Lowder’s reasons. He consciously winced while he figured his presenting himself as a reason opposed to these; though, at the same moment, with the source of Aunt Maud’s inspiration thus before him, he was prepared to conform, by almost any abject attitude or profitable compromise, to his companion’s easy injunction. He would do as she liked — his own liking might come off as it would. He would help her to the utmost of his power; for, all the rest of that day and the next, her easy injunction, tossed off that way as she turned her beautiful back, was like the crack of a great whip in the blue air, the high element in which Mrs. Lowder hung. He wouldn’t grovel perhaps — he wasn’t quite ready for that; but he would be patient, ridiculous, reasonable, unreasonable, and above all deeply diplomatic. He would be clever, with all his cleverness — which he now shook hard, as he sometimes shook his poor, dear, shabby, old watch, to start it up again. It wasn’t, thank goodness, as if there weren’t plenty of that, and with what they could muster between them it would be little to the credit of their star, however pale, that defeat and surrender — surrender so early, so immediate — should have to ensue. It was not indeed that he thought of that disaster as, at the worst, a direct sacrifice of their possibilities: he imaged — it which was enough as some proved vanity, some exposed fatuity, in the idea of bringing Mrs. Lowder round. When, shortly afterwards, in this lady’s vast drawing-room — the apartments at Lancaster Gate had struck him from the first as of prodigious extent — he awaited her, at her request, conveyed in a “reply-paid” telegram, his theory was that of their still clinging to their idea, though with a sense of the difficulty of it really enlarged to the scale of the place.
He had the place for a long time — it seemed to him a quarter of an hour — to himself; and while Aunt Maud kept him and kept him, while observation and reflection crowded on him, he asked himself what was to be expected of a person who could treat one like that. The visit, the hour were of her own proposing, so that her delay, no doubt, was but part of a general plan of putting him to inconvenience. As he walked to and fro, however, taking in the message of her massive, florid furniture, the immense expression of her signs and symbols, he had as little doubt of the inconvenience he was prepared to suffer. He found himself even facing the thought that he had nothing to fall back on, and that that was as great a humiliation in a good cause as a proud man could desire. It had not yet been so distinct to him that he made no show — literally not the smallest; so complete a show seemed made there all about him; so almost abnormally affirmative, so aggressively erect, were the huge, heavy objects that syllabled his hostess story. “When all’s said and done, you know, she’s colossally vulgar”— he had once all but said that of Mrs. Lowder to her niece; only just keeping it back at the last, keeping it to himself with all its danger about it. It mattered because it bore so directly, and he at all events quite felt it a thing that Kate herself would some day bring out to him. It bore directly at present, and really all the more that somehow, strangely, it didn’t in the least imply that Aunt Maud was dull or stale. She was vulgar with freshness, almost with beauty, since there was beauty, to a degree, in the play of so big and bold a temperament. She was in fine quite the largest possible quantity to deal with; and he was in the cage of the lioness without his whip — the whip, in a word, of a supply of proper retorts. He had no retort but that he loved the girl — which in such a house as that was painfully cheap. Kate had mentioned to him more than once that her aunt was Passionate, speaking of it as a kind of offset and uttering it as with a capital P, marking it as something that he might, that he in fact ought to, turn about in some way to their advantage. He wondered at this hour to what advantage he could turn it; but the case grew less simple the longer he waited. Decidedly there was something he hadn’t enough of. He stood as one fast.
His slow march to and fro seemed to give him the very measure; as he paced and paced the distance it became the desert of his poverty; at the sight of which expanse moreover he could pretend to himself as little as before that the desert looked redeemable. Lancaster Gate looked rich — that was all the effect; which it was unthinkable that any state of his own should ever remotely resemble. He read more vividly, more critically, as has been hinted, the appearances about him; and they did nothing so much as make him wonder at his aesthetic reaction. He hadn’t known — and in spite of Kate’s repeated reference to her own rebellions of taste — that he should “mind” so much how an independent lady might decorate her house. It was the language of the house itself that spoke to him, writing out for him, with surpassing breadth and freedom, the associations and conceptions, the ideals and possibilities of the mistress. Never, he flattered himself, had he seen anything so gregariously ugly — operatively, ominously so cruel. He was glad to have found this last name for the whole character; “cruel” somehow played into the subject for an article — that his impression put straight into his mind. He would write about the heavy horrors that could still flourish, that lifted their undiminished heads, in an age so proud of its short way with false gods; and it would be funny if what he should have got from Mrs. Lowder were to prove, after all, but a small amount of copy. Yet the great thing, really the dark thing, was that, even while he thought of the quick column he might add up, he felt it less easy to laugh at the heavy horrors than to quail before them. He couldn’t describe and dismiss them collectively, call them either Mid–Victorian or Early; not being at all sure they were rangeable under one rubric. It was only manifest they were splendid and were furthermore conclusively British. They constituted an order and they abounded in rare material — precious woods, metals, stuffs, stones. He had never dreamed of anything so fringed and scalloped, so buttoned and corded, drawn everywhere so tight, and curled everywhere so thick. He had never dreamed of so much gilt and glass, so much satin and plush, so much rosewood and marble and malachite. But it was, above all, the solid forms, the wasted finish, the misguided cost, the general attestation of morality and money, a good conscience and a big balance. These things finally represented for him a portentous negation of his own world of thought — of which, for that matter, in the presence of them, he became as for the first time hopelessly aware. They revealed it to him by their merciless difference. His interview with Aunt Maud, none the less, took by no means the turn he had expected. Passionate though her nature, no doubt Mrs. Lowder, on this occasion, neither threatened nor appealed. Her arms of aggression, her weapons of defence, were presumably close at hand, but she left them untouched and unmentioned, and was in fact so bland that he properly perceived only afterwards how adroit she had been. He properly perceived something else as well, which complicated his case; he shouldn’t have known what to call it if he hadn’t called it her really imprudent good-nature. Her blandness, in other words, was not mere policy — he wasn’t dangerous enough for policy; it was the result, he could see, of her fairly liking him a little. From the moment she did that she herself became more interesting; and who knew what might happen should he take to liking her? Well, it was a risk he naturally must face. She fought him, at any rate, but with one hand, with a few loose grains of stray powder. He recognised at the end of ten minutes, and even without her explaining it, that if she had made him wait it had not been to wound him; they had by that time almost directly met on the fact of her intention. She had wanted him to think for himself of what she proposed to say to him — not having otherwise announced it; wanted to let it come home to him on the spot, as she had shrewdly believed it would. Her first question, on appearing, had practically been as to whether he hadn’t taken her hint, and this inquiry assumed so many things that it made discussion, immediately, frank and large. He knew, with the question put, that the hint was just what he had taken; knew that she had made him quickly forgive her the display of her power; knew that if he didn’t take care he should understand her, and the strength of her purpose, to say nothing of that of her imagination, nothing of the length of her purse, only too well. Yet he pulled himself up with the thought, too, that he was not going to be afraid of understanding her; he was just going to understand and understand without detriment to the feeblest, even, of his passions. The play of one’s mind let one in, at the best, dreadfully, in action, in the need of action, where simplicity was all; but when one couldn’t prevent it the thing was to make it complete. There would never be mistakes but for the original fun of mistakes. What he must use his fatal intelligence for was to resist. Mrs. Lowder, meanwhile, might use it for whatever she liked.
It was after she had begun her statement of her own idea about Kate that he began, on his side, to reflect that — with her manner of offering it as really sufficient if he would take the trouble to embrace — it she couldn’t half hate him. That was all, positively, she seemed to show herself for the time as attempting; clearly, if she did her intention justice, she would have nothing more disagreeable to do. “If I hadn’t been ready to go very much further, you understand, I wouldn’t have gone so far. I don’t care what you repeat to her — the more you repeat to her, perhaps the better; and, at any rate, there’s nothing she doesn’t already know. I don’t say it for her; I say it for you — when I want to reach my niece I know how to do it straight.” So Aunt Maud delivered herself — as with homely benevolence, in the simplest, but the clearest terms; virtually conveying that, though a word to the wise was, doubtless, in spite of the advantage, not always enough, a word to the good could never fail to be. The sense our young man read into her words was that she liked him because he was good — was really, by her measure, good enough: good enough, that is, to give up her niece for her and go his way in peace. But was he good enough — by his own measure? He fairly wondered, while she more fully expressed herself, if it might be his doom to prove so. “She’s the finest possible creature — of course you flatter yourself that you know it. But I know it, quite as well as you possibly can — by which I mean a good deal better yet; and the tune to which I’m ready to prove my faith compares favourably enough, I think, with anything you can do. I don’t say it because she’s my niece — that’s nothing to me: I might have had fifty nieces, and I wouldn’t have brought one of them to this place if I hadn’t found her to my taste. I don’t say I wouldn’t have done something else, but I wouldn’t have put up with her presence. Kate’s presence, by good fortune, I marked early; Kate’s presence — unluckily for you — is everything I could possibly wish; Kate’s presence is, in short, as fine as you know, and I’ve been keeping it for the comfort of my declining years. I’ve watched it long; I’ve been saving it up and letting it, as you say of investments, appreciate, and you may judge whether, now it has begun to pay so, I’m likely to consent to treat for it with any but a high bidder. I can do the best with her, and I’ve my idea of the best.”
“Oh, I quite conceive,” said Densher, “that your idea of the best isn’t me.”
It was an oddity of Mrs. Lowder’s that her face in speech was like a lighted window at night, but that silence immediately drew the curtain. The occasion for reply allowed by her silence was never easy to take; yet she was still less easy to interrupt. The great glaze of her surface, at all events, gave her visitor no present help. “I didn’t ask you to come to hear what it isn’t — I asked you to come to hear what it is.”
“Of course,” Densher laughed, “it’s very great indeed.”
His hostess went on as if his contribution to the subject were barely relevant. “I want to see her high, high up — high up and in the light.”
“Ah, you naturally want to marry her to a duke, and are eager to smooth away any hitch.”
She gave him so, on this, the mere effect of the drawn blind that it quite forced him, at first, into the sense, possibly just, of having affected her as flip pant, perhaps even as low. He had been looked at so, in blighted moments of presumptuous youth, by big cold public men, but never, so far as he could recall, by any private lady. More than anything yet it gave him the measure of his companion’s subtlety, and thereby of Kate’s possible career. “Don’t be too impossible!”— he feared from his friend, for a moment, some such answer as that; and then felt, as she spoke otherwise, as if she were letting him off easily. “I want her to marry a great man.” That was all; but, more and more, it was enough; and if it hadn’t been her next words would have made it so. “And I think of her what I think. There you are.”
They sat for a little face to face upon it, and he was conscious of something deeper still, of something she wished him to understand if he only would. To that extent she did appeal — appealed to the intelligence she desired to show she believed him to possess. He was meanwhile, at all events, not the man wholly to fail of comprehension. “Of course I’m aware how little I can answer to any fond, proud dream. You’ve a view — a magnificent one; into which I perfectly enter. I thoroughly understand what I’m not, and I’m much obliged to you for not reminding me of it in any rougher way.” She said nothing — she kept that up; it might even have been to let him go further, if he was capable of it, in the way of poorness of spirit. It was one of those cases in which a man couldn’t show, if he showed at all, save for poor; unless indeed he preferred to show for asinine. It was the plain truth: he was — on Mrs. Lowder’s basis, the only one in question — a very small quantity, and he did know, damnably, what made quantities large. He desired to be perfectly simple; yet in the midst of that effort a deeper apprehension throbbed. Aunt Maud clearly conveyed it, though he couldn’t later on have said how. “You don’t really matter, I believe, so much as you think, and I’m not going to make you a martyr by banishing you. Your performances with Kate in the Park are ridiculous so far as they’re meant as consideration for me; and I had much rather see you myself — since you’re, in your way, my dear young man, delightful — and arrange with you, count with you, as I easily, as I perfectly should. Do you suppose me so stupid as to quarrel with you if it’s not really necessary? It won’t — it would be too absurd! — be necessary. I can bite your head off any day, any day I really open my mouth; and I’m dealing with you now, see — and successfully judge — without opening it. I do things handsomely all round — I place you in the presence of the plan with which, from the moment it’s a case of taking you seriously, you’re incompatible. Come then as near it as you like, walk all round it — don’t be afraid you’ll hurt it! — and live on with it before you.”
He afterwards felt that if she hadn’t absolutely phrased all this it was because she so soon made him out as going with her far enough. He was so pleasantly affected by her asking no promise of him, her not proposing he should pay for her indulgence by his word of honour not to interfere, that he gave her a kind of general assurance of esteem. Immediately afterwards, then, he spoke of these things to Kate, and what then came back to him first of all was the way he had said to her — he mentioned it to the girl — very much as one of a pair of lovers says in a rupture by mutual consent: “I hope immensely, of course, that you’ll always regard me as a friend.” This had perhaps been going far — he submitted it all to Kate; but really there had been so much in it that it was to be looked at, as they might say, wholly in its own light. Other things than those we have presented had come up before the close of his scene with Aunt Maud, but this matter of her not treating him as a peril of the first order easily predominated. There was moreover plenty to talk about on the occasion of his subsequent passage with our young woman, it having been put to him abruptly, the night before, that he might give himself a lift and do his newspaper a service — so flatteringly was the case expressed — by going, for fifteen or twenty weeks, to America. The idea of a series of letters from the United States from the strictly social point of view had for some time been nursed in the inner sanctuary at whose door he sat, and the moment was now deemed happy for letting it loose. The imprisoned thought had, in a word, on the opening of the door, flown straight out into Densher’s face, or perched at least on his shoulder, making him look up in surprise from his mere inky office-table. His account of the matter to Kate was that he couldn’t refuse — not being in a position, as yet, to refuse anything; but that his being chosen for such an errand confounded his sense of proportion. He was definite as to his scarce knowing how to measure the honour, which struck him as equivocal; he had not quite supposed himself the man for the class of job. This confused consciousness, he intimated, he had promptly enough betrayed to his manager; with the effect, however, of seeing the question surprisingly clear up. What it came to was that the sort of twaddle that was not in his chords was, unexpectedly, just what they happened this time not to want. They wanted his letters, for queer reasons, about as good as he could let them come; he was to play his own little tune and not be afraid; that was the whole point.
It would have been the whole, that is, had there not been a sharper one still in the circumstance that he was to start at once. His mission, as they called it at the office, would probably be over by the end of June, which was desirable; but to bring that about he must now not lose a week; his inquiries, he understood, were to cover the whole ground, and there were reasons of State — reasons operating at the seat of empire in Fleet Street — why the nail should be struck on the head. Densher made no secret to Kate of his having asked for a day to decide; and his account of that matter was that he felt he owed it to her to speak to her first. She assured him on this that nothing so much as that scruple had yet shown her how they were bound together; she was clearly proud of his letting a thing of such importance depend on her; but she was clearer still as to his instant duty. She rejoiced in his prospect and urged him to his task; she should miss him intensely — of course she should miss him; but she made so little of it that she spoke with jubilation of what he would see and would do. She made so much of this last quantity that he laughed at her innocence, though also with scarce the heart to give her the real size of his drop in the daily bucket. He was struck at the same time with her happy grasp of what had really occurred in Fleet Street — all the more that it was his own final reading. He was to pull the subject up — that was just what they wanted; and it would take more than all the United States together, visit them each as he might, to let him down. It was just because he didn’t nose about and wasn’t the usual gossipmonger that they had picked him out; it was a branch of their correspondence with which they evidently wished a new tone associated, such a tone as, from now on, it would have always to take from his example.
“How you ought indeed, when you understand so well, to be a journalist’s wife!” Densher exclaimed in admiration, even while she struck him as fairly hurrying him off.
But she was almost impatient of the praise. “What do you expect one not to understand when one cares for you?”
“Ah then, I’ll put it otherwise and say ‘How much you care for me!’”
“Yes,” she assented; “it fairly redeems my stupidity. I shall, with a chance to show it,” she added, “have some imagination for you.”
She spoke of the future this time as so little contingent, that he felt a queerness of conscience in making her the report that he presently arrived at on what had passed for him with the real arbiter of their destiny. The way for that had been blocked a little by his news from Fleet Street; but in the crucible of their happy discussion this element soon melted into the other, and in the mixture that ensued the parts were not to be distinguished. The young man moreover, before taking his leave, was to see why Kate had just spoken of the future as if they now really possessed it, and was to come to the vision by a devious way that deepened the final cheer. Their faces were turned to the illumined quarter as soon as he had answered her question in respect to the appearance of their being able to play a waiting game with success. It was for the possibility of that appearance that she had, a few days before, so earnestly pressed him to see her aunt; and if after his hour with that lady it had not struck Densher that he had seen her to the happiest purpose the poor facts flushed with a better meaning as Kate, one by one, took them up.
“If she consents to your coming, why isn’t that everything?”
“It is everything; everything she thinks it. It’s the probability — I mean as Mrs. Lowder measures probability — that I may be prevented from becoming a complication for her by some arrangement, any arrangement, through which you shall see me often and easily. She’s sure of my want of money, and that gives her time. She believes in my having a certain amount of delicacy, in my wishing to better my state before I put the pistol to your head in respect to sharing it. The time that will take figures for her as the time that will help her if she doesn’t spoil her chance by treating me badly. She doesn’t at all wish moreover,” Densher went on, “to treat me badly, for I believe, upon my honour, funny as it may sound to you, that she personally rather likes me, and that if you weren’t in question I might almost become her pet young man. She doesn’t disparage intellect and culture — quite the contrary; she wants them to adorn her board and be named in her programme; and I’m sure it has sometimes cost her a real pang that I should be so desirable, at once, and so impossible.” He paused a moment, and his companion then saw that a strange smile was in his face — a smile as strange even as the adjunct, in her own, of this informing vision. “I quite suspect her of believing that, if the truth were known, she likes me literally better than — deep down — you yourself do: wherefore she does me the honour to think that I may be safely left to kill my own cause. There, as I say, comes in her margin. I’m not the sort of stuff of romance that wears, that washes, that survives use, that resists familiarity. Once in any degree admit that, and your pride and prejudice will take care of the rest! the pride fed full, meanwhile, by the system she means to practise with you, and the prejudice excited by the comparison she’ll enable you to make, from which I shall come off badly. She likes me, but she’ll never like me so much as when she succeeded a little better in making me look wretched. For then you’ll like me less.”
Kate showed for this evocation a due interest, but no alarm; and it was a little as if to pay his tender cynicism back in kind that she after an instant replied: “I see, I see; what an immense affair she must think me! One was aware, but you deepen the impression.”
“I think you’ll make no mistake,” said Densher, “in letting it go as deep as it will.”
He had given her indeed, she made no scruple of showing, plenty to consider. “Her facing the music, her making you boldly as welcome as you say — that’s an awfully big theory, you know, and worthy of all the other big things that, in one’s acquaintance with people, give her a place so apart.”
“Oh, she’s grand,” the young man conceded; “she’s on the scale, altogether, of the car of Juggernaut which was a kind of image that came to me yesterday while I waited for her at Lancaster Gate. The things in your drawing-room there were like the forms of the strange idols, the mystic excrescences, with which one may suppose the front of the car to bristle.”
“Yes, aren’t they?” the girl returned; and they had, over all that aspect of their wonderful lady, one of those deep and free interchanges that made everything but confidence a false note for them. There were complications, there were questions; but they were so much more together than they were anything else. Kate uttered for a while no word of refutation of Aunt Maud’s “big” diplomacy, and they left it there, as they would have left any other fine product, for a monument to her powers. But, Densher related further, he had had in other respects too the car of Juggernaut to face; he omitted nothing from his account of his visit, least of all the way Aunt Maud had frankly at last — though indeed only under artful pressure — fallen foul of his very type, his want of the right marks, his foreign accidents, his queer antecedents. She had told him he was but half a Briton, which, he granted Kate, would have been dreadful if he hadn’t so let himself in for it.
“I was really curious, you see,” he explained, “to find out from her what sort of queer creature, what sort of social anomaly, in the light of such conventions as hers, such an education as mine makes one pass for.”
Kate said nothing for a little; but then, “Why should you care?” she asked.
“Oh,” he laughed, “I like her so much; and then, for a man of my trade, her views, her spirit, are essentially a thing to get hold of; they belong to the great public mind that we meet at every turn and that we must keep setting up ‘codes’ with. Besides,” he added, “I want to please her personally.”
“Ah, yes, we must please her personally!” his companion echoed; and the words may represent all their definite recognition, at the time, of Densher’s politic gain. They had in fact between this and his start for New York many matters to handle, and the question he now touched upon came up for Kate above all. She looked at him as if he had really told her aunt more of his immediate personal story than he had ever told herself. That, if it were so, was an accident, and it put him, for half an hour, on as much of the picture of his early years abroad, his migratory parents, his Swiss schools, his German university, as she had easy attention for. A man, he intimated, a man of their world, would have spotted him straight as to many of these points; a man of their world, so far as they had a world, would have been through the English mill. But it was none the less charming to make his confession to a woman; women had, in fact, for such differences, so much more imagination. Kate showed at present all his case could require; when she had had it from beginning to end she declared that she now made out more than ever yet of what she loved him for. She had herself, as a child, lived with some continuity in the world across the Channel, coming home again still a child; and had participated after that, in her teens, in her mother’s brief but repeated retreats to Dresden, to Florence, to Biarritz, weak and expensive attempts at economy from which there stuck to her — though in general coldly expressed, through the instinctive avoidance of cheap raptures — the religion of foreign things. When it was revealed to her how many more foreign things were in Merton Densher than he had hitherto taken the trouble to catalogue, she almost faced him as if he were a map of the continent or a handsome present of a delightful new “Murray.” He hadn’t meant to swagger, he had rather meant to plead, though with Mrs. Lowder he had meant also a little to explain. His father had been, in strange countries, in twenty settlements of the English, British chaplain, resident or occasional, and had had for years the unusual luck of never wanting a billet. His career abroad had therefore been unbroken, and, as his stipend had never been great, he had educated his children at the smallest cost, in the schools nearest; which was also a saving of railway fares. Densher’s mother, it further appeared, had practised on her side a distinguished industry, to the success of which — so far as success ever crowned it — this period of exile had much contributed: she copied, patient lady, famous pictures in great museums, having begun with a happy natural gift and taking in betimes the scale of her opportunity. Copyists abroad of course swarmed, but Mrs. Densher had had a sense and a hand of her own, had arrived at a perfection that persuaded, that even deceived, and that made the disposal of her work blissfully usual. Her son, who had lost her, held her image sacred, and the effect of his telling Kate all about her, as well as about other matters until then mixed and dim, was to render his history rich, his sources full, his outline anything but common. He had come round, he had come back, he insisted abundantly, to being a Briton: his Cambridge years, his happy connection, as it had proved, with his father’s college, amply certified to that, to say nothing of his subsequent plunge into London, which filled up the measure. But brave enough though his descent to English earth, he had passed, by the way, through zones of air that had left their ruffle on his wings, had been exposed to initiations ineffaceable. Something had happened to him that could never be undone.
When Kate Croy said to him as much he besought her not to insist, declaring that this indeed was what was too much the matter with him, that he had been but too probably spoiled for native, for insular use. On which, not unnaturally, she insisted the more, assuring him, without mitigation, that if he was complicated and brilliant she wouldn’t for the world have had him any thing less; so that he was reduced in the end to accusing her of putting the dreadful truth to him in the hollow guise of flattery. She was making out how abnormal he was in order that she might eventually find him impossible; and, as she could fully make it out but with his aid, she had to bribe him by feigned delight to help her. If her last word for him, in the connection, was that the way he saw himself was just a precious proof the more of his having tasted of the tree and being thereby prepared to assist her to eat, this gives the happy tone of their whole talk, the measure of the flight of time in the near presence of his settled departure. Kate showed, however, that she was to be more literally taken when she spoke of the relief Aunt Maud would draw from the prospect of his absence.
“Yet one can scarcely see why,” he replied, “when she fears me so little.”
His friend weighed his objection. “Your idea is that she likes you so much that she’ll even go so far as to regret losing you?”
Well, he saw it in their constant comprehensive way. “Since what she builds on is the gradual process of your alienation, she may take the view that the process constantly requires me. Mustn’t I be there to keep it going? It’s in my exile that it may languish.”
He went on with that fantasy, but at this point Kate ceased to attend. He saw after a little that she had been following some thought of her own, and he had been feeling the growth of something determinant even through the extravagance of much of the pleasantry, the warm, transparent irony, into which their livelier intimacy kept plunging like a confident swimmer. Suddenly she said to him with extraordinary beauty: “I engage myself to you for ever.”
The beauty was in everything, and he could have separated nothing — couldn’t have thought of her face as distinct from the whole joy. Yet her face had a new light. “And I pledge you — I call God to witness! — every spark of my faith; I give you every drop of my life.” That was all, for the moment, but it was enough, and it was almost as quiet as if it were nothing. They were in the open air, in an alley of the Gardens; the great space, which seemed to arch just then higher and spread wider for them, threw them back into deep concentration. They moved by a common instinct to a spot, within sight, that struck them as fairly sequestered, and there, before their time together was spent, they had extorted from concentration every advance it could make them. They had exchanged vows and tokens, sealed their rich compact, solemnized, so far as breathed words and murmured sounds and lighted eyes and clasped hands could do it, their agreement to belong only, and to belong tremendously, to each other. They were to leave the place accordingly an affianced couple; but before they left it other things still had passed. Densher had declared his horror of bringing to a premature end her happy relation with her aunt; and they had worked round together to a high level of wisdom and patience. Kate’s free profession was that she wished not to deprive him of Mrs. Lowder’s countenance, which, in the long run, she was convinced he would continue to enjoy; and as, by a blessed turn, Aunt Maud had demanded of him no promise that would tie his hands, they should be able to cultivate their destiny in their own way and yet remain loyal. One difficulty alone stood out, which Densher named.
“Of course it will never do — we must remember that — from the moment you allow her to found hopes of you for any one else in particular. So long as her view is content to remain as general as at present appears, I don’t see that we deceive her. At a given moment, you see, she must be undeceived: the only thing therefore is to be ready for the moment and to face it. Only, after all, in that case,” the young man observed, “one doesn’t quite make out what we shall have got from her.”
“What she’ll have got from us?“ Kate inquired with a smile. “What she’ll have got from us,” the girl went on, “is her own affair — it’s for her to measure. I asked her for nothing,” she added; “I never put myself upon her. She must take her risks, and she surely understands them. What we shall have got from her is what we’ve already spoken of,” Kate further explained; “it’s that we shall have gained time. And so, for that matter, will she.”
Densher gazed a little at all this clearness; his gaze was not at the present hour into romantic obscurity. “Yes; no doubt, in our particular situation, time’s everything. And then there’s the joy of it.”
She hesitated. “Of our secret?”
“Not so much perhaps of our secret in itself, but of what’s represented and, as we must somehow feel, protected and made deeper and closer by it.” And his fine face, relaxed into happiness, covered her with all his meaning. “Our being as we are.”
It was as if for a moment she let the meaning sink into her. “So gone?”
“So gone. So extremely gone. However,” he smiled, “we shall go a good deal further.” Her answer to which was only the softness of her silence — a silence that looked out for them both at the far reach of their prospect. This was immense, and they thus took final possession of it. They were practically united and they were splendidly strong; but there were other things — things they were precisely strong enough to be able successfully to count with and safely to allow for; in consequence of which they would, for the present, subject to some better reason, keep their understanding to themselves. It was not indeed, however, till after one more observation of Densher’s that they felt the question completely straightened out. “The only thing of course is that she may any day absolutely put it to you.”
Kate considered. “Ask me where, on my honour, we are? She may, naturally; but I doubt if in fact she will. While you’re away she’ll make the most of it. She’ll leave me alone.”
“But there’ll be my letters.”
The girl faced his letters. “Very, very many?”
“Very, very, very many — more than ever; and you know what that is! And then,” Densher added, “there’ll be yours.”
“Oh, I shan’t leave mine on the hall-table. I shall post them myself.”
He looked at her a moment. “Do you think then I had best address you elsewhere?” After which, before she could quite answer, he added with some emphasis: “I’d rather not, you know. It’s straighter.”
She might again have just waited. “Of course it’s straighter. Don’t be afraid I shan’t be straight. Address me,” she continued, “where you like. I shall be proud enough of its being known you write to me.”
He turned it over for the last clearness. “Even at the risk of its really bringing down the inquisition?”
Well, the last clearness now filled her. “I’m not afraid of the inquisition. If she asks if there’s anything definite between us, I know perfectly what I shall say.”
“That I am, of course, ‘gone’ for you?”
“That I love you as I shall never in my life love any one else, and that she can make what she likes of that.” She said it out so splendidly that it was like a new profession of faith, the fulness of a tide breaking through; and the effect of that, in turn, was to make her companion meet her with such eyes that she had time again before he could otherwise speak. “Besides, she’s just as likely to ask you.“
“Not while I’m away.”
“Then when you come back.”
“Well then,” said Densher, “we shall have had our particular joy. But what I feel is,” he candidly added, “that, by an idea of her own, her superior policy, she won’t ask me. She’ll let me off. I shan’t have to lie to her.”
“It will be left all to me?” asked Kate.
“All to you!” he tenderly laughed.
But it was, oddly, the very next moment as if he had perhaps been a shade too candid. His discrimination seemed to mark a possible, a natural reality, a reality not wholly disallowed by the account the girl had just given of her own intention. There was a difference in the air — even if none other than the supposedly usual difference in truth between man and woman; and it was almost as if the sense of this provoked her. She seemed to cast about an instant, and then she went back a little resentfully to something she had suffered to pass a minute before. She appeared to take up rather more seriously than she need the joke about her freedom to deceive. Yet she did this too in a beautiful way. “Men are too stupid — even you. You didn’t understand just now why, if I post my letters myself, it won’t be for any thing so vulgar as to hide them.”
“Oh, you said — for the pleasure.”
“Yes; but you didn’t, you don’t understand what the pleasure may be. There are refinements ——!” she more patiently dropped. “I mean of consciousness, of sensation, of appreciation,” she went on. “No,” she sadly insisted —“men don’t know. They know, in such matters, almost nothing but what women show them.”
This was one of the speeches, frequent in her, that, liberally, joyfully, intensely adopted and, in itself, as might be, embraced, drew him again as close to her, and held him as long, as their conditions permitted. “Then that’s exactly why we’ve such an abysmal need of you!”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56