It was after they had gone that he truly felt the difference, which was most to be felt moreover in his faded old rooms. He had recovered from the first a part of his attachment to this scene of contemplation, within sight, as it was, of the Rialto bridge, on the hither side of that arch of associations and the left going up the Canal; he had seen it in a particular light, to which, more and more, his mind and his hands adjusted it; but the interest the place now wore for him had risen at a bound, becoming a force that, on the spot, completely engaged and absorbed him, and relief from which — if relief was the name — he could find only by getting away and out of reach. What had come to pass within his walls lingered there as an obsession importunate to all his senses; it lived again, as a cluster of pleasant memories, at every hour and in every object; it made everything but itself irrelevant and tasteless. It remained, in a word, a conscious watchful presence, active on its own side, for ever to be reckoned with, in face of which the effort at detachment was scarcely less futile than frivolous. Kate had come to him; it was only once — and this not from any failure of their need, but from such impossibilities, for bravery alike and for subtlety, as there was at the last no blinking; yet she had come, that once, to stay, as people called it; and what survived of her, what reminded and insisted, was something he couldn’t have banished if he had wished. Luckily he didn’t wish, even though there might be for a man almost a shade of the awful in so unqualified a consequence of his act. It had simply worked, his idea, the idea he had made her accept; and all erect before him, really covering the ground as far as he could see, was the fact of the gained success that this represented. It was, otherwise, but the fact of the idea as directly applied, as converted from a luminous conception into an historic truth. He had known it before but as desired and urged, as convincingly insisted on for the help it would render; so that at present, with the help rendered, it seemed to acknowledge its office and to set up, for memory and faith, an insistence of its own. He had in fine judged his friend’s pledge in advance as an inestimable value, and what he must now know his case for was that of a possession of the value to the full. Wasn’t it perhaps even rather the value that possessed him, kept him thinking of it and waiting on it, turning round and round it and making sure of it again from this side and that?
It played for him — certainly in this prime afterglow — the part of a treasure kept at home in safety and sanctity, something he was sure of finding in its place when, with each return, he worked his heavy old key in the lock. The door had but to open for him to be with it again and for it to be all there; so intensely there that, as we say, no other act was possible to him than the renewed act, almost the hallucination, of intimacy. Wherever he looked or sat or stood, to whatever aspect he gave for the instant the advantage, it was in view as nothing of the moment, nothing begotten of time or of chance could be, or ever would; it was in view as, when the curtain has risen, the play on the stage is in view, night after night, for the fiddlers. He remained thus, in his own theatre, in his single person, perpetual orchestra to the ordered drama, the confirmed “run”; playing low and slow, moreover, in the regular way, for the situations of most importance. No other visitor was to come to him; he met, he bumped occasionally, in the Piazza or in his walks, against claimants to acquaintance, remembered or forgotten, at present mostly effusive, sometimes even inquisitive; but he gave no address and encouraged no approach; he couldn’t for his life, he felt, have opened his door to a third person. Such a person would have interrupted him, would have profaned his secret or perhaps have guessed it; would at any rate have broken the spell of what he conceived himself — in the absence of anything “to show”— to be inwardly doing. He was giving himself up — that was quite enough — to the general feeling of his renewed engagement to fidelity. The force of the engagement, the quantity of the article to be supplied, the special solidity of the contract, the way, above all, as a service for which the price named by him had been magnificently paid, his equivalent office was to take effect — such items might well fill his consciousness when there was nothing from outside to interfere. Never was a consciousness more rounded and fastened down over what filled it; which is precisely what we have spoken of as, in its degree, the oppression of success, the somewhat chilled state — tending to the solitary — of supreme recognition. If it was slightly awful to feel so justified, this was by the loss of the warmth of the element of mystery. The lucid reigned instead of it, and it was into the lucid that he sat and stared. He shook himself out of it a dozen times a day, tried to break by his own act his constant still communion. It wasn’t still communion she had meant to bequeath him; it was the very different business of that kind of fidelity of which the other name was careful action.
Nothing, he perfectly knew, was less like careful action than the immersion he enjoyed at home. The actual grand queerness was that to be faithful to Kate he had positively to take his eyes, his arms, his lips straight off her — he had to let her alone. He had to remember it was time to go to the palace — which in truth was a mercy, since the check was not less effectual than imperative. What it came to, fortunately, as yet, was that when he closed the door behind him for an absence he always shut her in. Shut her out — it came to that rather, when once he had got a little away; and before he reached the palace, much more after hearing at his heels the bang of the greater portone, he felt free enough not to know his position as oppressively false. As Kate was all in his poor rooms, and not a ghost of her left for the grander, it was only on reflexion that the falseness came out; so long as he left it to the mercy of beneficent chance it offered him no face and made of him no claim that he couldn’t meet without aggravation of his inward sense. This aggravation had been his original horror; yet what — in Milly’s presence, each day — was horror doing with him but virtually letting him off? He shouldn’t perhaps get off to the end; there was time enough still for the possibility of shame to pounce. Still, however, he did constantly a little more what he liked best, and that kept him for the time more safe. What he liked best was, in any case, to know why things were as he felt them; and he knew it pretty well, in this case, ten days after the retreat of his other friends. He then fairly perceived that — even putting their purity of motive at its highest — it was neither Kate nor he who made his strange relation to Milly, who made her own, so far as it might be, innocent; it was neither of them who practically purged it — if practically purged it was. Milly herself did everything — so far at least as he was concerned — Milly herself, and Milly’s house, and Milly’s hospitality, and Milly’s manner, and Milly’s character, and, perhaps still more than anything else, Milly’s imagination, Mrs. Stringham and Sir Luke indeed a little aiding: whereby he knew the blessing of a fair pretext to ask himself what more he had to do. Something incalculable wrought for them — for him and Kate; something outside, beyond, above themselves, and doubtless ever so much better than they: which wasn’t a reason, however — its being so much better — for them not to profit by it. Not to profit by it, so far as profit could be reckoned, would have been to go directly against it; and the spirit of generosity at present engendered in Densher could have felt no greater pang than by his having to go directly against Milly.
To go with her was the thing, so far as she could herself go; which, from the moment her tenure of her loved palace stretched on, was possible but by his remaining near her. This remaining was of course on the face of it the most “marked” of demonstrations — which was exactly why Kate had required it; it was so marked that on the very evening of the day it had taken effect Milly herself hadn’t been able not to reach out to him, with an exquisite awkwardness, for some account of it. It was as if she had wanted from him some name that, now they were to be almost alone together, they could, for their further ease, know it and call it by — it being, after all, almost rudimentary that his presence, of which the absence of the others made quite a different thing, couldn’t but have for himself some definite basis. She only wondered about the basis it would have for himself, and how he would describe it; that would quite do for her — it even would have done for her, he could see, had he produced some reason merely trivial, had he said he was waiting for money or clothes, for letters or for orders from Fleet Street, without which, as she might have heard, newspaper men never took a step. He hadn’t in the event quite sunk to that; but he had none the less had there with her, that night, on Mrs. Stringham’s leaving them alone — Mrs. Stringham proved really prodigious — his acquaintance with a shade of awkwardness darker than any Milly could know. He had supposed himself beforehand, on the question of what he was doing or pretending, in possession of some tone that would serve; but there were three minutes of his feeling incapable of promptness quite in the same degree in which a gentleman whose pocket has been picked feels incapable of purchase. It even didn’t help him, oddly, that he was sure Kate would in some way have spoken for him — or rather not so much in some way as in one very particular way. He hadn’t asked her, at the last, what she might, in the connexion, have said; nothing would have induced him to put such a question after she had been to see him: his lips were so sealed by that passage, his spirit in fact so hushed, in respect to any charge upon her freedom. There was something he could only therefore read back into the probabilities, and when he left the palace an hour afterwards it was with a sense of having breathed there, in the very air, the truth he had been guessing.
Just this perception it was, however, that had made him for the time ugly to himself in his awkwardness. It was horrible, with this creature, to be awkward; it was odious to be seeking excuses for the relation that involved it. Any relation that involved it was by the very fact as much discredited as a dish would be at dinner if one had to take medicine as a sauce. What Kate would have said in one of the young women’s last talks was that — if Milly absolutely must have the truth about it — Mr. Densher was staying because she had really seen no way but to require it of him. If he stayed he didn’t follow her — or didn’t appear to her aunt to be doing so; and when she kept him from following her Mrs. Lowder couldn’t pretend, in scenes, the renewal of which at this time of day was painful, that she after all didn’t snub him as she might. She did nothing in fact but snub him — wouldn’t that have been part of the story? — only Aunt Maud’s suspicions were of the sort that had repeatedly to be dealt with. He had been, by the same token, reasonable enough — as he now, for that matter, well might; he had consented to oblige them, aunt and niece, by giving the plainest sign possible that he could exist away from London. To exist away from London was to exist away from Kate Croy — which was a gain, much appreciated, to the latter’s comfort. There was a minute, at this hour, out of Densher’s three, during which he knew the terror of Milly’s uttering some such allusion to their friend’s explanation as he must meet with words that wouldn’t destroy it. To destroy it was to destroy everything, to destroy probably Kate herself, to destroy in particular by a breach of faith still uglier than anything else the beauty of their own last passage. He had given her his word of honour that if she would come to him he would act absolutely in her sense, and he had done so with a full enough vision of what her sense implied. What it implied for one thing was that to-night in the great saloon, noble in its half-lighted beauty, and straight in the white face of his young hostess, divine in her trust, or at any rate inscrutable in her mercy — what it implied was that he should lie with his lips. The single thing, of all things, that could save him from it would be Milly’s letting him off after having thus scared him. What made her mercy inscrutable was that if she had already more than once saved him it was yet apparently without knowing how nearly he was lost.
These were transcendent motions, not the less blest for being obscure; whereby yet once more he was to feel the pressure lighten. He was kept on his feet in short by the felicity of her not presenting him with Kate’s version as aversion to adopt. He couldn’t stand up to lie — he felt as if he should have to go down on his knees. As it was he just sat there shaking a little for nervousness the leg he had crossed over the other. She was sorry for his suffered snub, but he had nothing more to subscribe to, to perjure himself about, than the three or four inanities he had, on his own side, feebly prepared for the crisis. He scrambled a little higher than the reference to money and clothes, letters and directions from his manager; but he brought out the beauty of the chance for him — there before him like a temptress painted by Titian — to do a little quiet writing. He was vivid for a moment on the difficulty of writing quietly in London; and he was precipitate, almost explosive, on his idea, long cherished, of a book.
The explosion lighted her face. “You’ll do your book here?”
“I hope to begin it.”
“It’s something you haven’t begun?”
“Well, only just.”
“And since you came?”
She was so full of interest that he shouldn’t perhaps after all be too easily let off. “I tried to think a few days ago that I had broken ground.”
Scarcely anything, it was indeed clear, could have let him in deeper. “I’m afraid we’ve made an awful mess of your time.”
“Of course you have. But what I’m hanging on for now is precisely to repair that ravage.”
“Then you mustn’t mind me, you know.”
“You’ll see,” he tried to say with ease, “how little I shall mind anything.”
“You’ll want”— Milly had thrown herself into it —“the best part of your days.”
He thought a moment: he did what he could to wreathe it in smiles. “Oh I shall make shift with the worst part. The best will be for you.” And he wished Kate could hear him. It didn’t help him moreover that he visibly, even pathetically, imaged to her by such touches his quest for comfort against discipline. He was to bury Kate’s so signal snub, and also the hard law she had now laid on him, under a high intellectual effort. This at least was his crucifixion — that Milly was so interested. She was so interested that she presently asked him if he found his rooms propitious, while he felt that in just decently answering her he put on a brazen mask. He should need it quite particularly were she to express again her imagination of coming to tea with him — an extremity that he saw he was not to be spared. “We depend on you, Susie and I, you know, not to forget we’re coming”— the extremity was but to face that remainder, yet it demanded all his tact. Facing their visit itself — to that, no matter what he might have to do, he would never consent, as we know, to be pushed; and this even though it might be exactly such a demonstration as would figure for him at the top of Kate’s list of his proprieties. He could wonder freely enough, deep within, if Kate’s view of that especial propriety had not been modified by a subsequent occurrence; but his deciding that it was quite likely not to have been had no effect on his own preference for tact. It pleased him to think of “tact” as his present prop in doubt; that glossed his predicament over, for it was of application among the sensitive and the kind. He wasn’t inhuman, in fine, so long as it would serve. It had to serve now, accordingly, to help him not to sweeten Milly’s hopes. He didn’t want to be rude to them, but he still less wanted them to flower again in the particular connexion; so that, casting about him in his anxiety for a middle way to meet her, he put his foot, with unhappy effect, just in the wrong place. “Will it be safe for you to break into your custom of not leaving the house?”
“‘Safe’—?” She had for twenty seconds an exquisite pale glare. Oh but he didn’t need it, by that time, to wince; he had winced for himself as soon as he had made his mistake. He had done what, so unforgettably, she had asked him in London not to do; he had touched, all alone with her here, the supersensitive nerve of which she had warned him. He had not, since the occasion in London, touched it again till now; but he saw himself freshly warned that it was able to bear still less. So for the moment he knew as little what to do as he had ever known it in his life. He couldn’t emphasise that he thought of her as dying, yet he couldn’t pretend he thought of her as indifferent to precautions. Meanwhile too she had narrowed his choice. “You suppose me so awfully bad?”
He turned, in his pain, within himself; but by the time the colour had mounted to the roots of his hair he had found what he wanted. “I’ll believe whatever you tell me.”
“Well then, I’m splendid.”
“Oh I don’t need you to tell me that.”
“I mean I’m capable of life.”
“I’ve never doubted it.”
“I mean,” she went on, “that I want so to live —!”
“Well?” he asked while she paused with the intensity of it.
“Well, that I know I can.”
“Whatever you do?” He shrank from solemnity about it.
“Whatever I do. If I want to.”
“If you want to do it?”
“If I want to live. I can,” Milly repeated.
He had clumsily brought it on himself, but he hesitated with all the pity of it. “Ah then that I believe.”
“I will, I will,” she declared; yet with the weight of it somehow turned for him to mere light and sound.
He felt himself smiling through a mist. “You simply must!”
It brought her straight again to the fact. “Well then, if you say it, why mayn’t we pay you our visit?”
“Will it help you to live?”
“Every little helps,” she laughed; “and it’s very little for me, in general, to stay at home. Only I shan’t want to miss it —!”
“Yes?”— she had dropped again.
“Well, on the day you give us a chance.”
It was amazing what so brief an exchange had at this point done with him. His great scruple suddenly broke, giving way to something inordinately strange, something of a nature to become clear to him only when he had left her. “You can come,” he said, “when you like.”
What had taken place for him, however — the drop, almost with violence, of everything but a sense of her own reality — apparently showed in his face or his manner, and even so vividly that she could take it for something else. “I see how you feel — that I’m an awful bore about it and that, sooner than have any such upset, you’ll go. So it’s no matter.”
“No matter? Oh!”— he quite protested now.
“If it drives you away to escape us. We want you not to go.”
It was beautiful how she spoke for Mrs. Stringham. Whatever it was, at any rate, he shook his head. “I won’t go.”
“Then I won’t go!” she brightly declared.
“You mean you won’t come to me?”
“No — never now. It’s over. But it’s all right. I mean, apart from that,” she went on, “that I won’t do anything I oughtn’t or that I’m not forced to.”
“Oh who can ever force you?” he asked with his hand-to-mouth way, at all times, of speaking for her encouragement. “You’re the least coercible of creatures.”
“Because, you think, I’m so free?”
“The freest person probably now in the world. You’ve got everything.”
“Well,” she smiled, “call it so. I don’t complain.”
On which again, in spite of himself, it let him in. “No I know you don’t complain.”
As soon as he had said it he had himself heard the pity in it. His telling her she had “everything” was extravagant kind humour, whereas his knowing so tenderly that she didn’t complain was terrible kind gravity. Milly felt, he could see, the difference; he might as well have praised her outright for looking death in the face. This was the way she just looked him again, and it was of no attenuation that she took him up more gently than ever. “It isn’t a merit — when one sees one’s way.”
“To peace and plenty? Well, I dare say not.”
“I mean to keeping what one has.”
“Oh that’s success. If what one has is good,” Densher said at random, “it’s enough to try for.”
“Well, it’s my limit. I’m not trying for more.” To which then she added with a change: “And now about your book.”
“My book —?” He had got in a moment so far from it.
“The one you’re now to understand that nothing will induce either Susie or me to run the risk of spoiling.”
He cast about, but he made up his mind. “I’m not doing a book.”
“Not what you said?” she asked in a wonder. “You’re not writing?”
He already felt relieved. “I don’t know, upon my honour, what I’m doing.”
It made her visibly grave; so that, disconcerted in another way, he was afraid of what she would see in it. She saw in fact exactly what he feared, but again his honour, as he called it, was saved even while she didn’t know she had threatened it. Taking his words for a betrayal of the sense that he, on his side, might complain, what she clearly wanted was to urge on him some such patience as he should be perhaps able to arrive at with her indirect help. Still more clearly, however, she wanted to be sure of how far she might venture; and he could see her make out in a moment that she had a sort of test.
“Then if it’s not for your book —?”
“What am I staying for?”
“I mean with your London work — with all you have to do. Isn’t it rather empty for you?”
“Empty for me?” He remembered how Kate had held that she might propose marriage, and he wondered if this were the way she would naturally begin it. It would leave him, such an incident, he already felt, at a loss, and the note of his finest anxiety might have been in the vagueness of his reply. “Oh well —!”
“I ask too many questions?” She settled it for herself before he could protest. “You stay because you’ve got to.”
He grasped at it. “I stay because I’ve got to.” And he couldn’t have said when he had uttered it if it were loyal to Kate or disloyal. It gave her, in a manner, away; it showed the tip of the ear of her plan. Yet Milly took it, he perceived, but as a plain statement of his truth. He was waiting for what Kate would have told her of — the permission from Lancaster Gate to come any nearer. To remain friends with either niece or aunt he mustn’t stir without it. All this Densher read in the girl’s sense of the spirit of his reply; so that it made him feel he was lying, and he had to think of something to correct that. What he thought of was, in an instant, “Isn’t it enough, whatever may be one’s other complications, to stay after all for you?”
“Oh you must judge.”
He was by this time on his feet to take leave, and was also at last too restless. The speech in question at least wasn’t disloyal to Kate; that was the very tone of their bargain. So was it, by being loyal, another kind of lie, the lie of the uncandid profession of a motive. He was staying so little “for” Milly that he was staying positively against her. He didn’t, none the less, know, and at last, thank goodness, didn’t care. The only thing he could say might make it either better or worse. “Well then, so long as I don’t go, you must think of me all as judging!”
He didn’t go home, on leaving her — he didn’t want to; he walked instead, through his narrow ways and his campi with gothic arches, to a small and comparatively sequestered café where he had already more than once found refreshment and comparative repose, together with solutions that consisted mainly and pleasantly of further indecisions. It was a literal fact that those awaiting him there to-night, while he leaned back on his velvet bench with his head against a florid mirror and his eyes not looking further than the fumes of his tobacco, might have been regarded by him as a little less limp than usual. This wasn’t because, before getting to his feet again, there was a step he had seen his way to; it was simply because the acceptance of his position took sharper effect from his sense of what he had just had to deal with. When half an hour before, at the palace, he had turned about to Milly on the question of the impossibility so inwardly felt, turned about on the spot and under her eyes, he had acted, by the sudden force of his seeing much further, seeing how little, how not at all, impossibilities mattered. It wasn’t a case for pedantry; when people were at her pass everything was allowed. And her pass was now, as by the sharp click of a spring, just completely his own — to the extent, as he felt, of her deep dependence on him. Anything he should do or shouldn’t would have close reference to her life, which was thus absolutely in his hands — and ought never to have reference to anything else. It was on the cards for him that he might kill her — that was the way he read the cards as he sat in his customary corner. The fear in this thought made him let everything go, kept him there actually, all motionless, for three hours on end. He renewed his consumption and smoked more cigarettes than he had ever done in the time. What had come out for him had come out, with this first intensity, as a terror; so that action itself, of any sort, the right as well as the wrong — if the difference even survived — had heard in it a vivid “Hush!” the injunction to keep from that moment intensely still. He thought in fact while his vigil lasted of several different ways for his doing so, and the hour might have served him as a lesson in going on tiptoe.
What he finally took home, when he ventured to leave the place, was the perceived truth that he might on any other system go straight to destruction. Destruction was represented for him by the idea of his really bringing to a point, on Milly’s side, anything whatever. Nothing so “brought,” he easily argued, but must be in one way or another a catastrophe. He was mixed up in her fate, or her fate, if that should be better, was mixed up in him, so that a single false motion might either way snap the coil. They helped him, it was true, these considerations, to a degree of eventual peace, for what they luminously amounted to was that he was to do nothing, and that fell in after all with the burden laid on him by Kate. He was only not to budge without the girl’s leave — not, oddly enough at the last, to move without it, whether further or nearer, any more than without Kate’s. It was to this his wisdom reduced itself — to the need again simply to be kind. That was the same as being still — as studying to create the minimum of vibration. He felt himself as he smoked shut up to a room on the wall of which something precious was too precariously hung. A false step would bring it down, and it must hang as long as possible. He was aware when he walked away again that even Fleet Street wouldn’t at this juncture successfully touch him. His manager might wire that he was wanted, but he could easily be deaf to his manager. His money for the idle life might be none too much; happily, however, Venice was cheap, and it was moreover the queer fact that Milly in a manner supported him. The greatest of his expenses really was to walk to the palace to dinner. He didn’t want, in short, to give that up, and he should probably be able, he felt, to stay his breath and his hand. He should be able to be still enough through everything.
He tried that for three weeks, with the sense after a little of not having failed. There had to be a delicate art in it, for he wasn’t trying — quite the contrary — to be either distant or dull. That would not have been being “nice,” which in its own form was the real law. That too might just have produced the vibration he desired to avert; so that he best kept everything in place by not hesitating or fearing, as it were, to let himself go — go in the direction, that is to say, of staying. It depended on where he went; which was what he meant by taking care. When one went on tiptoe one could turn off for retreat without betraying the manoeuvre. Perfect tact — the necessity for which he had from the first, as we know, happily recognised — was to keep all intercourse in the key of the absolutely settled. It was settled thus for instance that they were indissoluble good friends, and settled as well that her being the American girl was, just in time and for the relation they found themselves concerned in, a boon inappreciable. If, at least, as the days went on, she was to fall short of her prerogative of the great national, the great maidenly ease, if she didn’t diviningly and responsively desire and labour to record herself as possessed of it, this wouldn’t have been for want of Densher’s keeping her, with his idea, well up to it — wouldn’t have been in fine for want of his encouragement and reminder. He didn’t perhaps in so many words speak to her of the quantity itself as of the thing she was least to intermit; but he talked of it, freely, in what he flattered himself was an impersonal way, and this held it there before her — since he was careful also to talk pleasantly. It was at once their idea, when all was said, and the most marked of their conveniences. The type was so elastic that it could be stretched to almost anything; and yet, not stretched, it kept down, remained normal, remained properly within bounds. And he had meanwhile, thank goodness, without being too much disconcerted, the sense, for the girl’s part of the business, of the queerest conscious compliance, of her doing very much what he wanted, even though without her quite seeing why. She fairly touched this once in saying: “Oh yes, you like us to be as we are because it’s a kind of facilitation to you that we don’t quite measure: I think one would have to be English to measure it!”— and that too, strangely enough, without prejudice to her good nature. She might have been conceived as doing — that is of being — what he liked in order perhaps only to judge where it would take them. They really as it went on saw each other at the game; she knowing he tried to keep her in tune with his conception, and he knowing she thus knew it. Add that he again knew she knew, and yet that nothing was spoiled by it, and we get a fair impression of the line they found most completely workable. The strangest fact of all for us must be that the success he himself thus promoted was precisely what figured to his gratitude as the something above and beyond him, above and beyond Kate, that made for daily decency. There would scarce have been felicity — certainly too little of the right lubricant — had not the national character so invoked been, not less inscrutably than entirely, in Milly’s chords. It made up her unity and was the one thing he could unlimitedly take for granted.
He did so then, daily, for twenty days, without deepened fear of the undue vibration that was keeping him watchful. He knew in his nervousness that he was living at best from day to day and from hand to mouth; yet he had succeeded, he believed, in avoiding a mistake. All women had alternatives, and Milly’s would doubtless be shaky too; but the national character was firm in her, whether as all of her, practically, by this time, or but as a part; the national character that, in a woman still so young, made of the air breathed a virtual non-conductor. It wasn’t till a certain occasion when the twenty days had passed that, going to the palace at tea-time, he was met by the information that the signorina padrona was not “receiving.” The announcement met him, in the court, on the lips of one of the gondoliers, met him, he thought, with such a conscious eye as the knowledge of his freedoms of access, hitherto conspicuously shown, could scarce fail to beget. Densher had not been at Palazzo Leporelli among the mere receivable, but had taken his place once for all among the involved and included, so that on being so flagrantly braved he recognised after a moment the propriety of a further appeal. Neither of the two ladies, it appeared, received, and yet Pasquale was not prepared to say that either was poco bene. He was yet not prepared to say that either was anything, and he would have been blank, Densher mentally noted, if the term could ever apply to members of a race in whom vacancy was but a nest of darknesses — not a vain surface, but a place of withdrawal in which something obscure, something always ominous, indistinguishably lived. He felt afresh indeed at this hour the force of the veto laid within the palace on any mention, any cognition, of the liabilities of its mistress. The state of her health was never confessed to there as a reason. How much it might deeply be taken for one was another matter; of which he grew fully aware on carrying his question further. This appeal was to his friend Eugenio, whom he immediately sent for, with whom, for three rich minutes, protected from the weather, he was confronted in the gallery that led from the water-steps to the court, and whom he always called, in meditation, his friend; seeing it was so elegantly presumable he would have put an end to him if he could. That produced a relation which required a name of its own, an intimacy of consciousness in truth for each — an intimacy of eye, of ear, of general sensibility, of everything but tongue. It had been, in other words, for the five weeks, far from occult to our young man that Eugenio took a view of him not less finely formal than essentially vulgar, but which at the same time he couldn’t himself raise an eyebrow to prevent. It was all in the air now again; it was as much between them as ever while Eugenio waited on him in the court.
The weather, from early morning, had turned to storm, the first sea-storm of the autumn, and Densher had almost invidiously brought him down the outer staircase — the massive ascent, the great feature of the court, to Milly’s piano nobile. This was to pay him — it was the one chance — for all imputations; the imputation in particular that, clever, tanto bello and not rich, the young man from London was — by the obvious way — pressing Miss Theale’s fortune hard. It was to pay him for the further ineffable intimation that a gentleman must take the young lady’s most devoted servant (interested scarcely less in the high attraction) for a strangely casual appendage if he counted in such a connexion on impunity and prosperity. These interpretations were odious to Densher for the simple reason that they might have been so true of the attitude of an inferior man, and three things alone, accordingly, had kept him from righting himself. One of these was that his critic sought expression only in an impersonality, a positive inhumanity, of politeness; the second was that refinements of expression in a friend’s servant were not a thing a visitor could take action on; and the third was the fact that the particular attribution of motive did him after all no wrong. It was his own fault if the vulgar view, the view that might have been taken of an inferior man, happened so incorrigibly to fit him. He apparently wasn’t so different from inferior men as that came to. If therefore, in fine, Eugenio figured to him as “my friend” because he was conscious of his seeing so much of him, what he made him see on the same lines in the course of their present interview was ever so much more. Densher felt that he marked himself, no doubt, as insisting, by dissatisfaction with the gondolier’s answer, on the pursuit taken for granted in him; and yet felt it only in the augmented, the exalted distance that was by this time established between them. Eugenio had of course reflected that a word to Miss Theale from such a pair of lips would cost him his place; but he could also bethink himself that, so long as the word never came — and it was, on the basis he had arranged, impossible — he enjoyed the imagination of mounting guard. He had never so mounted guard, Densher could see, as during these minutes in the damp loggia where the storm-gusts were strong; and there came in fact for our young man, as a result of his presence, a sudden sharp sense that everything had turned to the dismal. Something had happened — he didn’t know what; and it wasn’t Eugenio who would tell him. What Eugenio told him was that he thought the ladies — as if their liability had been equal — were a “leetle” fatigued, just a “leetle leetle,” and without any cause named for it. It was one of the signs of what Densher felt in him that, by a profundity, a true deviltry of resource, he always met the latter’s Italian with English and his English with Italian. He now, as usual, slightly smiled at him in the process — but ever so slightly this time, his manner also being attuned, our young man made out, to the thing, whatever it was, that constituted the rupture of peace.
This manner, while they stood a long minute facing each other over all they didn’t say, played a part as well in the sudden jar to Densher’s protected state. It was a Venice all of evil that had broken out for them alike, so that they were together in their anxiety, if they really could have met on it; a Venice of cold lashing rain from a low black sky, of wicked wind raging through narrow passes, of general arrest and interruption, with the people engaged in all the water-life huddled, stranded and wageless, bored and cynical, under archways and bridges. Our young man’s mute exchange with his friend contained meanwhile such a depth of reference that, had the pressure been but slightly prolonged, they might have reached a point at which they were equally weak. Each had verily something in mind that would have made a hash of mutual suspicion and in presence of which, as a possibility, they were more united than disjoined. But it was to have been a moment for Densher that nothing could ease off — not even the formal propriety with which his interlocutor finally attended him to the portone and bowed upon his retreat. Nothing had passed about his coming back, and the air had made itself felt as a non-conductor of messages. Densher knew of course, as he took his way again, that Eugenio’s invitation to return was not what he missed; yet he knew at the same time that what had happened to him was part of his punishment. Out in the square beyond the fondamenta that gave access to the land-gate of the palace, out where the wind was higher, he fairly, with the thought of it, pulled his umbrella closer down. It couldn’t be, his consciousness, unseen enough by others — the base predicament of having, by a concatenation, just to take such things: such things as the fact that one very acute person in the world, whom he couldn’t dispose of as an interested scoundrel, enjoyed an opinion of him that there was no attacking, no disproving, no (what was worst of all) even noticing. One had come to a queer pass when a servant’s opinion so mattered. Eugenio’s would have mattered even if, as founded on a low vision of appearances, it had been quite wrong. It was the more disagreeable accordingly that the vision of appearances was quite right, and yet was scarcely less low.
Such as it was, at any rate, Densher shook it off with the more impatience that he was independently restless. He had to walk in spite of weather, and he took his course, through crooked ways, to the Piazza, where he should have the shelter of the galleries. Here, in the high arcade, half Venice was crowded close, while, on the Molo, at the limit of the expanse, the old columns of the Saint Theodore and of the Lion were the frame of a door wide open to the storm. It was odd for him, as he moved, that it should have made such a difference — if the difference wasn’t only that the palace had for the first time failed of a welcome. There was more, but it came from that; that gave the harsh note and broke the spell. The wet and the cold were now to reckon with, and it was to Densher precisely as if he had seen the obliteration, at a stroke, of the margin on a faith in which they were all living. The margin had been his name for it — for the thing that, though it had held out, could bear no shock. The shock, in some form, had come, and he wondered about it while, threading his way among loungers as vague as himself, he dropped his eyes sightlessly on the rubbish in shops. There were stretches of the gallery paved with squares of red marble, greasy now with the salt spray; and the whole place, in its huge elegance, the grace of its conception and the beauty of its detail, was more than ever like a great drawing-room, the drawing-room of Europe, profaned and bewildered by some reverse of fortune. He brushed shoulders with brown men whose hats askew, and the loose sleeves of whose pendent jackets, made them resemble melancholy maskers. The tables and chairs that overflowed from the cafés were gathered, still with a pretence of service, into the arcade, and here and there a spectacled German, with his coat-collar up, partook publicly of food and philosophy. These were impressions for Densher too, but he had made the whole circuit thrice before he stopped short, in front of Florian’s, with the force of his sharpest. His eye had caught a face within the café— he had spotted an acquaintance behind the glass. The person he had thus paused long enough to look at twice was seated, well within range, at a small table on which a tumbler, half-emptied and evidently neglected, still remained; and though he had on his knee, as he leaned back, a copy of a French newspaper — the heading of the Figaro was visible — he stared straight before him at the little opposite rococo wall. Densher had him for a minute in profile, had him for a time during which his identity produced, however quickly, all the effect of establishing connexions — connexions startling and direct; and then, as if it were the one thing more needed, seized the look, determined by a turn of the head, that might have been a prompt result of the sense of being noticed. This wider view showed him all Lord Mark — Lord Mark as encountered, several weeks before, the day of the first visit of each to Palazzo Leporelli. For it had been all Lord Mark that was going out, on that occasion, as he came in-he had felt it, in the hall, at the time; and he was accordingly the less at a loss to recognise in a few seconds, as renewed meeting brought it to the surface, the same potential quantity.
It was a matter, the whole passage — it could only be-but of a few seconds; for as he might neither stand there to stare nor on the other hand make any advance from it, he had presently resumed his walk, this time to another pace. It had been for all the world, during his pause, as if he had caught his answer to the riddle of the day. Lord Mark had simply faced him — as he had faced him, not placed by him, not at first — as one of the damp shuffling crowd. Recognition, though hanging fire, had then clearly come; yet no light of salutation had been struck from these certainties. Acquaintance between them was scant enough for neither to take it up. That neither had done so was not, however, what now mattered, but that the gentleman at Florian’s should be in the place at all. He couldn’t have been in it long; Densher, as inevitably a haunter of the great meeting-ground, would in that case have seen him before. He paid short visits; he was on the wing; the question for him even as he sat there was of his train or of his boat. He had come back for something — as a sequel to his earlier visit; and whatever he had come back for it had had time to be done. He might have arrived but last night or that morning; he had already made the difference. It was a great thing for Densher to get this answer. He held it close, he hugged it, quite leaned on it as he continued to circulate. It kept him going and going — it made him no less restless. But it explained — and that was much, for with explanations he might somehow deal. The vice in the air, otherwise, was too much like the breath of fate. The weather had changed, the rain was ugly, the wind wicked, the sea impossible, because of Lord Mark. It was because of him, a fortiori, that the palace was closed. Densher went round again twice; he found the visitor each time as he had found him first. Once, that is, he was staring before him; the next time he was looking over his Figaro, which he had opened out. Densher didn’t again stop, but left him apparently unconscious of his passage — on another repetition of which Lord Mark had disappeared. He had spent but the day; he would be off that night; he had now gone to his hotel for arrangements. These things were as plain to Densher as if he had had them in words. The obscure had cleared for him — if cleared it was; there was something he didn’t see, the great thing; but he saw so round it and so close to it that this was almost as good. He had been looking at a man who had done what he had come for, and for whom, as done, it temporarily sufficed. The man had come again to see Milly, and Milly had received him. His visit would have taken place just before or just after luncheon, and it was the reason why he himself had found her door shut.
He said to himself that evening, he still said even on the morrow, that he only wanted a reason, and that with this perception of one he could now mind, as he called it, his business. His business, he had settled, as we know, was to keep thoroughly still; and he asked himself why it should prevent this that he could feel, in connexion with the crisis, so remarkably blameless. He gave the appearances before him all the benefit of being critical, so that if blame were to accrue he shouldn’t feel he had dodged it. But it wasn’t a bit he who, that day, had touched her, and if she was upset it wasn’t a bit his act. The ability so to think about it amounted for Densher during several hours to a kind of exhilaration. The exhilaration was heightened fairly, besides, by the visible conditions — sharp, striking, ugly to him — of Lord Mark’s return. His constant view of it, for all the next hours, of which there were many, was as a demonstration on the face of it sinister even to his own actual ignorance. He didn’t need, for seeing it as evil, seeing it as, to a certainty, in a high degree “nasty,” to know more about it than he had so easily and so wonderfully picked up. You couldn’t drop on the poor girl that way without, by the fact, being brutal. Such a visit was a descent, an invasion, an aggression, constituting precisely one or other of the stupid shocks he himself had so decently sought to spare her. Densher had indeed drifted by the next morning to the reflexion — which he positively, with occasion, might have brought straight out — that the only delicate and honourable way of treating a person in such a state was to treat her as he, Merton Densher, did. With time, actually — for the impression but deepened — this sense of the contrast, to the advantage of Merton Densher, became a sense of relief, and that in turn a sense of escape. It was for all the world — and he drew a long breath on it — as if a special danger for him had passed. Lord Mark had, without in the least intending such a service, got it straight out of the way. It was he, the brute, who had stumbled into just the wrong inspiration and who had therefore produced, for the very person he had wished to hurt, an impunity that was comparative innocence, that was almost like purification. The person he had wished to hurt could only be the person so unaccountably hanging about. To keep still meanwhile was, for this person, more comprehensively, to keep it all up; and to keep it all up was, if that seemed on consideration best, not, for the day or two, to go back to the palace.
The day or two passed — stretched to three days; and with the effect, extraordinarily, that Densher felt himself in the course of them washed but the more clean. Some sign would come if his return should have the better effect; and he was at all events, in absence, without the particular scruple. It wouldn’t have been meant for him by either of the women that he was to come back but to face Eugenio. That was impossible — the being again denied; for it made him practically answerable, and answerable was what he wasn’t. There was no neglect either in absence, inasmuch as, from the moment he didn’t get in, the one message he could send up would be some hope on the score of health. Since accordingly that sort of expression was definitely forbidden him he had only to wait — which he was actually helped to do by his feeling with the lapse of each day more and more wound up to it. The days in themselves were anything but sweet; the wind and the weather lasted, the fireless cold hinted at worse; the broken charm of the world about was broken into smaller pieces. He walked up and down his rooms and listened to the wind — listened also to tinkles of bells and watched for some servant of the palace. He might get a note, but the note never came; there were hours when he stayed at home not to miss it. When he wasn’t at home he was in circulation again as he had been at the hour of his seeing Lord Mark. He strolled about the Square with the herd of refugees; he raked the approaches and the cafés on the chance the brute, as he now regularly imaged him, might be still there. He could only be there, he knew, to be received afresh; and that — one had but to think of it — would be indeed stiff. He had gone, however — it was proved; though Densher’s care for the question either way only added to what was most acrid in the taste of his present ordeal. It all came round to what he was doing for Milly — spending days that neither relief nor escape could purge of a smack of the abject. What was it but abject for a man of his parts to be reduced to such pastimes? What was it but sordid for him, shuffling about in the rain, to have to peep into shops and to consider possible meetings? What was it but odious to find himself wondering what, as between him and another man, a possible meeting would produce? There recurred moments when in spite of everything he felt no straighter than another man. And yet even on the third day, when still nothing had come, he more than ever knew that he wouldn’t have budged for the world.
He thought of the two women, in their silence, at last — he at all events thought of Milly — as probably, for her reasons, now intensely wishing him to go. The cold breath of her reasons was, with everything else, in the air; but he didn’t care for them any more than for her wish itself, and he would stay in spite of her, stay in spite of odium, stay in spite perhaps of some final experience that would be, for the pain of it, all but unbearable. That would be his one way, purified though he was, to mark his virtue beyond any mistake. It would be accepting the disagreeable, and the disagreeable would be a proof; a proof of his not having stayed for the thing — the agreeable, as it were — that Kate had named. The thing Kate had named was not to have been the odium of staying in spite of hints. It was part of the odium as actual too that Kate was, for her comfort, just now well aloof. These were the first hours since her flight in which his sense of what she had done for him on the eve of that event was to incur a qualification. It was strange, it was perhaps base, to be thinking such things so soon; but one of the intimations of his solitude was that she had provided for herself. She was out of it all, by her act, as much as he was in it; and this difference grew, positively, as his own intensity increased. She had said in their last sharp snatch of talk — sharp though thickly muffled, and with every word in it final and deep, unlike even the deepest words they had ever yet spoken: “Letters? Never — now. Think of it. Impossible.” So that as he had sufficiently caught her sense — into which he read, all the same, a strange inconsequence — they had practically wrapped their understanding in the breach of their correspondence. He had moreover, on losing her, done justice to her law of silence; for there was doubtless a finer delicacy in his not writing to her than in his writing as he must have written had he spoken of themselves. That would have been a turbid strain, and her idea had been to be noble; which, in a degree, was a manner. Only it left her, for the pinch, comparatively at ease. And it left him, in the conditions, peculiarly alone. He was alone, that is, till, on the afternoon of his third day, in gathering dusk and renewed rain, with his shabby rooms looking doubtless, in their confirmed dreariness, for the mere eyes of others, at their worst, the grinning padrona threw open the door and introduced Mrs. Stringham. That made at a bound a difference, especially when he saw that his visitor was weighted. It appeared part of her weight that she was in a wet waterproof, that she allowed her umbrella to be taken from her by the good woman without consciousness or care, and that her face, under her veil, richly rosy with the driving wind, was — and the veil too — as splashed as if the rain were her tears.
They came to it almost immediately; he was to wonder afterwards at the fewness of their steps. “She has turned her face to the wall.”
“You mean she’s worse?”
The poor lady stood there as she had stopped; Densher had, in the instant flare of his eagerness, his curiosity, all responsive at sight of her, waved away, on the spot, the padrona, who had offered to relieve her of her mackintosh. She looked vaguely about through her wet veil, intensely alive now to the step she had taken and wishing it not to have been in the dark, but clearly, as yet, seeing nothing. “I don’t know how she is — and it’s why I’ve come to you.”
“I’m glad enough you’ve come,” he said, “and it’s quite — you make me feel — as if I had been wretchedly waiting for you.”
She showed him again her blurred eyes — she had caught at his word. “Have you been wretched?”
Now, however, on his lips, the word expired. It would have sounded for him like a complaint, and before something he already made out in his visitor he knew his own trouble as small. Hers, under her damp draperies, which shamed his lack of a fire, was great, and he felt she had brought it all with her. He answered that he had been patient and above all that he had been still. “As still as a mouse — you’ll have seen it for yourself. Stiller, for three days together, than I’ve ever been in my life. It has seemed to me the only thing.”
This qualification of it as a policy or a remedy was straightway for his friend, he saw, a light that her own light could answer. “It has been best. I’ve wondered for you. But it has been best,” she said again.
“Yet it has done no good?”
“I don’t know. I’ve been afraid you were gone.” Then as he gave a headshake which, though slow, was deeply mature: “You won’t go?”
“Is to ‘go,’” he asked, “to be still?”
“Oh I mean if you’ll stay for me.”
“I’ll do anything for you. Isn’t it for you alone now I can?”
She thought of it, and he could see even more of the relief she was taking from him. His presence, his face, his voice, the old rooms themselves, so meagre yet so charged, where Kate had admirably been to him — these things counted for her, now she had them, as the help she had been wanting: so that she still only stood there taking them all in. With it however popped up characteristically a throb of her conscience. What she thus tasted was almost a personal joy. It told Densher of the three days she on her side had spent. “Well, anything you do for me — is for her too. Only, only —!”
“Only nothing now matters?”
She looked at him a minute as if he were the fact itself that he expressed. “Then you know?”
“Is she dying?” he asked for all answer.
Mrs. Stringham waited — her face seemed to sound him. Then her own reply was strange. “She hasn’t so much as named you. We haven’t spoken.”
“Not for three days?”
“No more,” she simply went on, “than if it were all over. Not even by the faintest allusion.”
“Oh,” said Densher with more light, “you mean you haven’t spoken about me?”
“About what else? No more than if you were dead.”
“Well,” he answered after a moment, “I am dead.”
“Then I am,” said Susan Shepherd with a drop of her arms on her waterproof.
It was a tone that, for the minute, imposed itself in its dry despair; it represented, in the bleak place, which had no life of its own, none but the life Kate had left — the sense of which, for that matter, by mystic channels, might fairly be reaching the visitor — the very impotence of their extinction. And Densher had nothing to oppose it withal, nothing but again: “Is she dying?”
It made her, however, as if these were crudities, almost material pangs, only say as before: “Then you know?”
“Yes,” he at last returned, “I know. But the marvel to me is that you do. I’ve no right in fact to imagine or to assume that you do.”
“You may,” said Susan Shepherd, “all the same. I know.”
Her eyes, through her veil, kept pressing him. “No — not everything. That’s why I’ve come.”
“That I shall really tell you?” With which, as she hesitated and it affected him, he brought out in a groan a doubting “Oh, oh!” It turned him from her to the place itself, which was a part of what was in him, was the abode, the worn shrine more than ever, of the fact in possession, the fact, now a thick association, for which he had hired it. That was not for telling, but Susan Shepherd was, none the less, so decidedly wonderful that the sense of it might really have begun, by an effect already operating, to be a part of her knowledge. He saw, and it stirred him, that she hadn’t come to judge him; had come rather, so far as she might dare, to pity. This showed him her own abasement — that, at any rate, of grief; and made him feel with a rush of friendliness that he liked to be with her. The rush had quickened when she met his groan with an attenuation.
“We shall at all events — if that’s anything — be together.”
It was his own good impulse in herself. “It’s what I’ve ventured to feel. It’s much.” She replied in effect, silently, that it was whatever he liked; on which, so far as he had been afraid for anything, he knew his fear had dropped. The comfort was huge, for it gave back to him something precious, over which, in the effort of recovery, his own hand had too imperfectly closed. Kate, he remembered, had said to him, with her sole and single boldness — and also on grounds he hadn’t then measured — that Mrs. Stringham was a person who wouldn’t, at a pinch, in a stretch of confidence, wince. It was but another of the cases in which Kate was always showing. “You don’t think then very horridly of me?”
And her answer was the more valuable that it came without nervous effusion — quite as if she understood what he might conceivably have believed. She turned over in fact what she thought, and that was what helped him. “Oh you’ve been extraordinary!”
It made him aware the next moment of how they had been planted there. She took off her cloak with his aid, though when she had also, accepting a seat, removed her veil, he recognised in her personal ravage that the words she had just uttered to him were the one flower she had to throw. They were all her consolation for him, and the consolation even still depended on the event. She sat with him at any rate in the grey clearance, as sad as a winter dawn, made by their meeting. The image she again evoked for him loomed in it but the larger. “She has turned her face to the wall.”
He saw with the last vividness, and it was as if, in their silences, they were simply so leaving what he saw. “She doesn’t speak at all? I don’t mean not of me.”
“Of nothing — of no one.” And she went on, Susan Shepherd, giving it out as she had had to take it. “She doesn’t want to die. Think of her age. Think of her goodness. Think of her beauty. Think of all she is. Think of all she has. She lies there stiffening herself and clinging to it all. So I thank God —!” the poor lady wound up with a wan inconsequence.
He wondered. “You thank God —?”
“That she’s so quiet.”
He continued to wonder. “Is she so quiet?”
“She’s more than quiet. She’s grim. It’s what she has never been. So you see — all these days. I can’t tell you — but it’s better so. It would kill me if she were to tell me.”
“To tell you?” He was still at a loss.
“How she feels. How she clings. How she doesn’t want it.”
“How she doesn’t want to die? Of course she doesn’t want it.” He had a long pause, and they might have been thinking together of what they could even now do to prevent it. This, however, was not what he brought out. Milly’s “grimness” and the great hushed palace were present to him; present with the little woman before him as she must have been waiting there and listening. “Only, what harm have you done her?”
Mrs. Stringham looked about in her darkness. “I don’t know. I come and talk of her here with you.”
It made him again hesitate. “Does she utterly hate me?”
“I don’t know. How can I? No one ever will.”
“She’ll never tell?”
“She’ll never tell.”
Once more he thought. “She must be magnificent.”
“She is magnificent.”
His friend, after all, helped him, and he turned it, so far as he could, all over. “Would she see me again?”
It made his companion stare. “Should you like to see her?”
“You mean as you describe her?” He felt her surprise, and it took him some time. “No.”
“Ah then!” Mrs. Stringham sighed.
“But if she could bear it I’d do anything.”
She had for the moment her vision of this, but it collapsed. “I don’t see what you can do.”
“I don’t either. But she might.”
Mrs. Stringham continued to think. “It’s too late.”
“Too late for her to see —?”
The very decision of her despair — it was after all so lucid — kindled in him a heat. “But the doctor, all the while —?”
“Tacchini? Oh he’s kind. He comes. He’s proud of having been approved and coached by a great London man. He hardly in fact goes away; so that I scarce know what becomes of his other patients. He thinks her, justly enough, a great personage; he treats her like royalty; he’s waiting on events. But she has barely consented to see him, and, though she has told him, generously — for she thinks of me, dear creature — that he may come, that he may stay, for my sake, he spends most of his time only hovering at her door, prowling through the rooms, trying to entertain me, in that ghastly saloon, with the gossip of Venice, and meeting me, in doorways, in the sala, on the staircase, with an agreeable intolerable smile. We don’t,” said Susan Shepherd, “talk of her.”
“By her request?”
“Absolutely. I don’t do what she doesn’t wish. We talk of the price of provisions.”
“By her request too?”
“Absolutely. She named it to me as a subject when she said, the first time, that if it would be any comfort to me he might stay as much as we liked.”
Densher took it all in. “But he isn’t any comfort to you!”
“None whatever. That, however,” she added, “isn’t his fault. Nothing’s any comfort.”
“Certainly,” Densher observed, “as I but too horribly feel, I’m not.”
“No. But I didn’t come for that.”
“You came for me.”
“Well then call it that.” But she looked at him a moment with eyes filled full, and something came up in her the next instant from deeper still. “I came at bottom of course —”
“You came at bottom of course for our friend herself. But if it’s, as you say, too late for me to do anything?”
She continued to look at him, and with an irritation, which he saw grow in her, from the truth itself. “So I did say. But, with you here”— and she turned her vision again strangely about her —“with you here, and with everything, I feel we mustn’t abandon her.”
“God forbid we should abandon her.”
“Then you won’t?” His tone had made her flush again.
“How do you mean I ‘won’t,’ if she abandons me? What can I do if she won’t see me?”
“But you said just now you wouldn’t like it.”
“I said I shouldn’t like it in the light of what you tell me. I shouldn’t like it only to see her as you make me. I should like it if I could help her. But even then,” Densher pursued without faith, “she would have to want it first herself. And there,” he continued to make out, “is the devil of it. She won’t want it herself. She can’t!”
He had got up in his impatience of it, and she watched him while he helplessly moved. “There’s one thing you can do. There’s only that, and even for that there are difficulties. But there is that.” He stood before her with his hands in his pockets, and he had soon enough, from her eyes, seen what was coming. She paused as if waiting for his leave to utter it, and as he only let her wait they heard in the silence, on the Canal, the renewed downpour of rain. She had at last to speak, but, as if still with her fear, she only half-spoke. “I think you really know yourself what it is.”
He did know what it was, and with it even, as she said — rather! — there were difficulties. He turned away on them, on everything, for a moment; he moved to the other window and looked at the sheeted channel, wider, like a river, where the houses opposite, blurred and belittled, stood at twice their distance. Mrs. Stringham said nothing, was as mute in fact, for the minute, as if she had “had” him, and he was the first again to speak. When he did so, however, it was not in straight answer to her last remark — he only started from that. He said, as he came back to her, “Let me, you know, see — one must understand,” almost as if he had for the time accepted it. And what he wished to understand was where, on the essence of the question, was the voice of Sir Luke Strett. If they talked of not giving her up shouldn’t he be the one least of all to do it? “Aren’t we, at the worst, in the dark without him?”
“Oh,” said Mrs. Stringham, “it’s he who has kept me going. I wired the first night, and he answered like an angel. He’ll come like one. Only he can’t arrive, at the nearest, till Thursday afternoon.”
“Well then that’s something.”
She considered. “Something — yes. She likes him.”
“Rather! I can see it still, the face with which, when he was here in October — that night when she was in white, when she had people there and those musicians — she committed him to my care. It was beautiful for both of us — she put us in relation. She asked me, for the time, to take him about; I did so, and we quite hit it off. That proved,” Densher said with a quick sad smile, “that she liked him.”
“He liked you,” Susan Shepherd presently risked.
“Ah I know nothing about that.”
“You ought to then. He went with you to galleries and churches; you saved his time for him, showed him the choicest things, and you perhaps will remember telling me myself that if he hadn’t been a great surgeon he might really have been a great judge. I mean of the beautiful.”
“Well,” the young man admitted, “that’s what he is — in having judged her. He hasn’t,” he went on, “judged her for nothing. His interest in her — which we must make the most of — can only be supremely beneficent.”
He still roamed, while he spoke, with his hands in his pockets, and she saw him, on this, as her eyes sufficiently betrayed, trying to keep his distance from the recognition he had a few moments before partly confessed to. “I’m glad,” she dropped, “you like him!”
There was something for him in the sound of it. “Well, I do no more, dear lady, than you do yourself. Surely you like him. Surely, when he was here, we all liked him.”
“Yes, but I seem to feel I know what he thinks. And I should think, with all the time you spent with him, you’d know it,” she said, “yourself.”
Densher stopped short, though at first without a word. “We never spoke of her. Neither of us mentioned her, even to sound her name, and nothing whatever in connexion with her passed between us.”
Mrs. Stringham stared up at him, surprised at this picture. But she had plainly an idea that after an instant resisted it. “That was his professional propriety.”
“Precisely. But it was also my sense of that virtue in him, and it was something more besides.” And he spoke with sudden intensity. “I couldn’t talk to him about her!”
“Oh!” said Susan Shepherd.
“I can’t talk to any one about her.”
“Except to me,” his friend continued.
“Except to you.” The ghost of her smile, a gleam of significance, had waited on her words, and it kept him, for honesty, looking at her. For honesty too — that is for his own words — he had quickly coloured: he was sinking so, at a stroke, the burden of his discourse with Kate. His visitor, for the minute, while their eyes met, might have been watching him hold it down. And he had to hold it down — the effort of which, precisely, made him red. He couldn’t let it come up; at least not yet. She might make what she would of it. He attempted to repeat his statement, but he really modified it. “Sir Luke, at all events, had nothing to tell me, and I had nothing to tell him. Make-believe talk was impossible for us, and —”
“And real”— she had taken him right up with a huge emphasis —“was more impossible still.” No doubt — he didn’t deny it; and she had straightway drawn her conclusion. “Then that proves what I say — that there were immensities between you. Otherwise you’d have chattered.”
“I dare say,” Densher granted, “we were both thinking of her.”
“You were neither of you thinking of any one else. That’s why you kept together.”
Well, that too, if she desired, he took from her; but he came straight back to what he had originally said. “I haven’t a notion, all the same, of what he thinks.” She faced him, visibly, with the question into which he had already observed that her special shade of earnestness was perpetually flowering, right and left —“Are you very sure?”— and he could only note her apparent difference from himself. “You, I judge, believe that he thinks she’s gone.”
She took it, but she bore up. “It doesn’t matter what I believe.”
“Well, we shall see”— and he felt almost basely superficial. More and more, for the last five minutes, had he known she had brought something with her, and never in respect to anything had he had such a wish to postpone. He would have liked to put everything off till Thursday; he was sorry it was now Tuesday; he wondered if he were afraid. Yet it wasn’t of Sir Luke, who was coming; nor of Milly, who was dying; nor of Mrs. Stringham, who was sitting there. It wasn’t, strange to say, of Kate either, for Kate’s presence affected him suddenly as having swooned or trembled away. Susan Shepherd’s, thus prolonged, had cast on it some influence under which it had ceased to act. She was as absent to his sensibility as she had constantly been, since her departure, absent, as an echo or a reference, from the palace; and it was the first time, among the objects now surrounding him, that his sensibility so noted her. He knew soon enough that it was of himself he was afraid, and that even, if he didn’t take care, he should infallibly be more so. “Meanwhile,” he added for his companion, “it has been everything for me to see you.” She slowly rose at the words, which might almost have conveyed to her the hint of his taking care. She stood there as if she had in fact seen him abruptly moved to dismiss her. But the abruptness would have been in this case so marked as fairly to offer ground for insistence to her imagination of his state. It would take her moreover, she clearly showed him she was thinking, but a minute or two to insist. Besides, she had already said it. “Will you do it if he asks you? I mean if Sir Luke himself puts it to you. And will you give him”— oh she was earnest now! —“the opportunity to put it to you?”
“The opportunity to put what?”
“That if you deny it to her, that may still do something.”
Densher felt himself — as had already once befallen him in the quarter of an hour — turn red to the top of his forehead. Turning red had, however, for him, as a sign of shame, been, so to speak, discounted: his consciousness of it at the present moment was rather as a sign of his fear. It showed him sharply enough of what he was afraid. “If I deny what to her?”
Hesitation, on the demand, revived in her, for hadn’t he all along been letting her see that he knew? “Why, what Lord Mark told her.”
“And what did Lord Mark tell her?”
Mrs. Stringham had a look of bewilderment — of seeing him as suddenly perverse. “I’ve been judging that you yourself know.” And it was she who now blushed deep.
It quickened his pity for her, but he was beset too by other things. “Then you know —”
“Of his dreadful visit?” She stared. “Why it’s what has done it.”
“Yes — I understand that. But you also know —”
He had faltered again, but all she knew she now wanted to say. “I’m speaking,” she said soothingly, “of what he told her. It’s that that I’ve taken you as knowing.”
“Oh!” he sounded in spite of himself.
It appeared to have for her, he saw the next moment, the quality of relief, as if he had supposed her thinking of something else. Thereupon, straightway, that lightened it. “Oh you thought I’ve known it for true!”
Her light had heightened her flush, and he saw that he had betrayed himself. Not, however, that it mattered, as he immediately saw still better. There it was now, all of it at last, and this at least there was no postponing. They were left with her idea — the one she was wishing to make him recognise. He had expressed ten minutes before his need to understand, and she was acting after all but on that. Only what he was to understand was no small matter; it might be larger even than as yet appeared.
He took again one of his turns, not meeting what she had last said; he mooned a minute, as he would have called it, at a window; and of course she could see that she had driven him to the wall. She did clearly, without delay, see it; on which her sense of having “caught” him became as promptly a scruple, which she spoke as if not to press. “What I mean is that he told her you’ve been all the while engaged to Miss Croy.”
He gave a jerk round; it was almost — to hear it — the touch of a lash; and he said — idiotically, as he afterwards knew — the first thing that came into his head. “All what while?”
“Oh it’s not I who say it.” She spoke in gentleness. “I only repeat to you what he told her.”
Densher, from whom an impatience had escaped, had already caught himself up. “Pardon my brutality. Of course I know what you’re talking about. I saw him, toward the evening,” he further explained, “in the Piazza; only just saw him — through the glass at Florian’s — without any words. In fact I scarcely know him — there wouldn’t have been occasion. It was but once, moreover — he must have gone that night. But I knew he wouldn’t have come for nothing, and I turned it over — what he would have come for.”
Oh so had Mrs. Stringham. “He came for exasperation.”
Densher approved. “He came to let her know that he knows better than she for whom it was she had a couple of months before, in her fool’s paradise, refused him.”
“How you do know!”— and Mrs. Stringham almost smiled.
“I know that — but I don’t know the good it does him.”
“The good, he thinks, if he has patience — not too much — may be to come. He doesn’t know what he has done to her. Only we, you see, do that.”
He saw, but he wondered. “She kept from him — what she felt?”
“She was able — I’m sure of it — not to show anything. He dealt her his blow, and she took it without a sign.” Mrs. Stringham, it was plain, spoke by book, and it brought into play again her appreciation of what she related. “She’s magnificent.”
Densher again gravely assented. “Magnificent!”
“And he,” she went on, “is an idiot of idiots.”
“An idiot of idiots.” For a moment, on it all, on the stupid doom in it, they looked at each other. “Yet he’s thought so awfully clever.”
“So awfully — it’s Maud Lowder’s own view. And he was nice, in London,” said Mrs. Stringham, “to me. One could almost pity him — he has had such a good conscience.”
“That’s exactly the inevitable ass.”
“Yes, but it wasn’t — I could see from the only few things she first told me — that he meant her the least harm. He intended none whatever.”
“That’s always the ass at his worst,” Densher returned. “He only of course meant harm to me.”
“And good to himself — he thought that would come. He had been unable to swallow,” Mrs. Stringham pursued, “what had happened on his other visit. He had been then too sharply humiliated.”
“Oh I saw that.”
“Yes, and he also saw you. He saw you received, as it were, while he was turned away.”
“Perfectly,” Densher said —“I’ve filled it out. And also that he has known meanwhile for what I was then received. For a stay of all these weeks. He had had it to think of.”
“Precisely — it was more than he could bear. But he has it,” said Mrs. Stringham, “to think of still.”
“Only, after all,” asked Densher, who himself somehow, at this point, was having more to think of even than he had yet had —“only, after all, how has he happened to know? That is, to know enough.”
“What do you call enough?” Mrs. Stringham enquired.
“He can only have acted — it would have been his sole safety — from full knowledge.”
He had gone on without heeding her question; but, face to face as they were, something had none the less passed between them. It was this that, after an instant, made her again interrogative. “What do you mean by full knowledge?”
Densher met it indirectly. “Where has he been since October?”
“I think he has been back to England. He came in fact, I’ve reason to believe, straight from there.”
“Straight to do this job? All the way for his half-hour?”
“Well, to try again — with the help perhaps of a new fact. To make himself possibly right with her — a different attempt from the other. He had at any rate something to tell her, and he didn’t know his opportunity would reduce itself to half an hour. Or perhaps indeed half an hour would be just what was most effective. It has been!” said Susan Shepherd.
Her companion took it in, understanding but too well; yet as she lighted the matter for him more, really, than his own courage had quite dared — putting the absent dots on several i’s — he saw new questions swarm. They had been till now in a bunch, entangled and confused; and they fell apart, each showing for itself. The first he put to her was at any rate abrupt. “Have you heard of late from Mrs. Lowder.”
“Oh yes, two or three times. She depends naturally upon news of Milly.”
He hesitated. “And does she depend, naturally, upon news of me?”
His friend matched for an instant his deliberation.
“I’ve given her none that hasn’t been decently good. This will have been the first.”
“‘This’?” Densher was thinking.
“Lord Mark’s having been here, and her being as she is.”
He thought a moment longer. “What has Mrs. Lowder written about him? Has she written that he has been with them?”
“She has mentioned him but once — it was in her letter before the last. Then she said something.”
“And what did she say?”
Mrs. Stringham produced it with an effort. “Well it was in reference to Miss Croy. That she thought Kate was thinking of him. Or perhaps I should say rather that he was thinking of her — only it seemed this time to have struck Maud that he was seeing the way more open to him.”
Densher listened with his eyes on the ground, but he presently raised them to speak, and there was that in his face which proved him aware of a queerness in his question. “Does she mean he has been encouraged to propose to her niece?”
“I don’t know what she means.”
“Of course not”— he recovered himself; “and I oughtn’t to seem to trouble you to piece together what I can’t piece myself. Only I ‘guess,’” he added, “I can piece it.”
She spoke a little timidly, but she risked it. “I dare say I can piece it too.”
It was one of the things in her — and his conscious face took it from her as such — that from the moment of her coming in had seemed to mark for him, as to what concerned him, the long jump of her perception. They had parted four days earlier with many things, between them, deep down. But these things were now on their troubled surface, and it wasn’t he who had brought them so quickly up. Women were wonderful — at least this one was. But so, not less, was Milly, was Aunt Maud; so, most of all, was his very Kate. Well, he already knew what he had been feeling about the circle of petticoats. They were all such petticoats! It was just the fineness of his tangle. The sense of that, in its turn, for us too, might have been not unconnected with his putting to his visitor a question that quite passed over her remark. “Has Miss Croy meanwhile written to our friend?”
“Oh,” Mrs. Stringham amended, “her friend also. But not a single word that I know of.”
He had taken it for certain she hadn’t — the thing being after all but a shade more strange than his having himself, with Milly, never for six weeks mentioned the young lady in question. It was for that matter but a shade more strange than Milly’s not having mentioned her. In spite of which, and however inconsequently, he blushed anew for Kate’s silence. He got away from it in fact as quickly as possible, and the furthest he could get was by reverting for a minute to the man they had been judging. “How did he manage to get at her? She had only — with what had passed between them before — to say she couldn’t see him.”
“Oh she was disposed to kindness. She was easier,” the good lady explained with a slight embarrassment, “than at the other time.”
“She was off her guard. There was a difference.”
“Yes. But exactly not the difference.”
“Exactly not the difference of her having to be harsh. Perfectly. She could afford to be the opposite.” With which, as he said nothing, she just impatiently completed her sense. “She had had you here for six weeks.”
“Oh!” Densher softly groaned.
“Besides, I think he must have written her first — written I mean in a tone to smooth his way. That it would be a kindness to himself. Then on the spot —”
“On the spot,” Densher broke in, “he unmasked? The horrid little beast!”
It made Susan Shepherd turn slightly pale, though quickening, as for hope, the intensity of her look at him. “Oh he went off without an alarm.”
“And he must have gone off also without a hope.”
“Ah that, certainly.”
“Then it was mere base revenge. Hasn’t he known her, into the bargain,” the young man asked —“didn’t he, weeks before, see her, judge her, feel her, as having for such a suit as his not more perhaps than a few months to live?”
Mrs. Stringham at first, for reply, but looked at him in silence; and it gave more force to what she then remarkably added. “He has doubtless been aware of what you speak of, just as you have yourself been aware.”
“He has wanted her, you mean, just because —?”
“Just because,” said Susan Shepherd.
“The hound!” Merton Densher brought out. He moved off, however, with a hot face, as soon as he had spoken, conscious again of an intention in his visitor’s reserve. Dusk was now deeper, and after he had once more taken counsel of the dreariness without he turned to his companion. “Shall we have lights — a lamp or the candles?”
“Not for me.”
“Not for me.”
He waited at the window another moment and then faced his friend with a thought. “He will have proposed to Miss Croy. That’s what has happened.”
Her reserve continued. “It’s you who must judge.”
“Well, I do judge. Mrs. Lowder will have done so too — only she, poor lady, wrong. Miss Croy’s refusal of him will have struck him”— Densher continued to make it out —“as a phenomenon requiring a reason.”
“And you’ve been clear to him as the reason?”
“Not too clear — since I’m sticking here and since that has been a fact to make his descent on Miss Theale relevant. But clear enough. He has believed,” said Densher bravely, “that I may have been a reason at Lancaster Gate, and yet at the same time have been up to something in Venice.”
Mrs. Stringham took her courage from his own. “‘Up to’ something? Up to what?”
“God knows. To some ‘game,’ as they say. To some deviltry. To some duplicity.”
“Which of course,” Mrs. Stringham observed, “is a monstrous supposition.” Her companion, after a stiff minute — sensibly long for each — fell away from her again, and then added to it another minute, which he spent once more looking out with his hands in his pockets. This was no answer, he perfectly knew, to what she had dropped, and it even seemed to state for his own ears that no answer was possible. She left him to himself, and he was glad she had declined, for their further colloquy, the advantage of lights. These would have been an advantage mainly to herself. Yet she got her benefit too even from the absence of them. It came out in her very tone when at last she addressed him — so differently, for confidence — in words she had already used. “If Sir Luke himself asks it of you as something you can do for him, will you deny to Milly herself what she has been made so dreadfully to believe?”
Oh how he knew he hung back! But at last he said: “You’re absolutely certain then that she does believe it?”
“Certain?” She appealed to their whole situation. “Judge!”
He took his time again to judge. “Do you believe it?”
He was conscious that his own appeal pressed her hard; it eased him a little that her answer must be a pain to her discretion. She answered none the less, and he was truly the harder pressed. “What I believe will inevitably depend more or less on your action. You can perfectly settle it — if you care. I promise to believe you down to the ground if, to save her life, you consent to a denial.”
“But a denial, when it comes to that — confound the whole thing, don’t you see! — of exactly what?”
It was as if he were hoping she would narrow; but in fact she enlarged. “Of everything.”
Everything had never even yet seemed to him so incalculably much. “Oh!” he simply moaned into the gloom.
The near Thursday, coming nearer and bringing Sir Luke Strett, brought also blessedly an abatement of other rigours. The weather changed, the stubborn storm yielded, and the autumn sunshine, baffled for many days, but now hot and almost vindictive, came into its own again and, with an almost audible paean, a suffusion of bright sound that was one with the bright colour, took large possession. Venice glowed and plashed and called and chimed again; the air was like a clap of hands, and the scattered pinks, yellows, blues, sea-greens, were like a hanging-out of vivid stuffs, a laying-down of fine carpets. Densher rejoiced in this on the occasion of his going to the station to meet the great doctor. He went after consideration, which, as he was constantly aware, was at present his imposed, his only, way of doing anything. That was where the event had landed him — where no event in his life had landed him before. He had thought, no doubt, from the day he was born, much more than he had acted; except indeed that he remembered thoughts — a few of them — which at the moment of their coming to him had thrilled him almost like adventures. But anything like his actual state he had not, as to the prohibition of impulse, accident, range — the prohibition in other words of freedom — hitherto known. The great oddity was that if he had felt his arrival, so few weeks back, especially as an adventure, nothing could now less resemble one than the fact of his staying. It would be an adventure to break away, to depart, to go back, above all, to London, and tell Kate Croy he had done so; but there was something of the merely, the almost meanly, obliged and involved sort in his going on as he was. That was the effect in particular of Mrs. Stringham’s visit, which had left him as with such a taste in his mouth of what he couldn’t do. It had made this quantity clear to him, and yet had deprived him of the sense, the other sense, of what, for a refuge, he possibly could.
It was but a small make-believe of freedom, he knew, to go to the station for Sir Luke. Nothing equally free, at all events, had he yet turned over so long. What then was his odious position but that again and again he was afraid? He stiffened himself under this consciousness as if it had been a tax levied by a tyrant. He hadn’t at any time proposed to himself to live long enough for fear to preponderate in his life. Such was simply the advantage it had actually got of him. He was afraid for instance that an advance to his distinguished friend might prove for him somehow a pledge or a committal. He was afraid of it as a current that would draw him too far; yet he thought with an equal aversion of being shabby, being poor, through fear. What finally prevailed with him was the reflexion that, whatever might happen, the great man had, after that occasion at the palace, their young woman’s brief sacrifice to society — and the hour of Mrs. Stringham’s appeal had brought it well to the surface — shown him marked benevolence. Mrs. Stringham’s comments on the relation in which Milly had placed them made him — it was unmistakeable — feel things he perhaps hadn’t felt. It was in the spirit of seeking a chance to feel again adequately whatever it was he had missed — it was, no doubt, in that spirit, so far as it went a stroke for freedom, that Densher, arriving betimes, paced the platform before the train came in. Only, after it had come and he had presented himself at the door of Sir Luke’s compartment with everything that followed — only, as the situation developed, the sense of an anti-climax to so many intensities deprived his apprehensions and hesitations even of the scant dignity they might claim. He could scarce have said if the visitor’s manner less showed the remembrance that might have suggested expectation, or made shorter work of surprise in presence of the fact.
Sir Luke had clean forgotten — so Densher read — the rather remarkable young man he had formerly gone about with, though he picked him up again, on the spot, with one large quiet look. The young man felt himself so picked, and the thing immediately affected him as the proof of a splendid economy. Opposed to all the waste with which he was now connected the exhibition was of a nature quite nobly to admonish him. The eminent pilgrim, in the train, all the way, had used the hours as he needed, thinking not a moment in advance of what finally awaited him. An exquisite case awaited him — of which, in this queer way, the remarkable young man was an outlying part; but the single motion of his face, the motion into which Densher, from the platform, lightly stirred its stillness, was his first renewed cognition. If, however, he had suppressed the matter by leaving Victoria he would at once suppress now, in turn, whatever else suited. The perception of this became as a symbol of the whole pitch, so far as one might one’s self be concerned, of his visit. One saw, our friend further meditated, everything that, in contact, he appeared to accept — if only, for much, not to trouble to sink it: what one missed was the inward use he made of it. Densher began wondering, at the great water-steps outside, what use he would make of the anomaly of their having there to separate. Eugenio had been on the platform, in the respectful rear, and the gondola from the palace, under his direction, bestirred itself, with its attaching mixture of alacrity and dignity, on their coming out of the station together. Densher didn’t at all mind now that, he himself of necessity refusing a seat on the deep black cushions beside the guest of the palace, he had Milly’s three emissaries for spectators; and this susceptibility, he also knew, it was something to have left behind. All he did was to smile down vaguely from the steps — they could see him, the donkeys, as shut out as they would. “I don’t,” he said with a sad headshake, “go there now.”
“Oh!” Sir Luke Strett returned, and made no more of it; so that the thing was splendid, Densher fairly thought, as an inscrutability quite inevitable and unconscious. His friend appeared not even to make of it that he supposed it might be for respect to the crisis. He didn’t moreover afterwards make much more of anything — after the classic craft, that is, obeying in the main Pasquale’s inimitable stroke from the poop, had performed the manoeuvre by which it presented, receding, a back, so to speak, rendered positively graceful by the high black hump of its felze. Densher watched the gondola out of sight — he heard Pasquale’s cry, borne to him across the water, for the sharp firm swerve into a side-canal, a short cut to the palace. He had no gondola of his own; it was his habit never to take one; and he humbly — as in Venice it is humble — walked away, though not without having for some time longer stood as if fixed where the guest of the palace had left him. It was strange enough, but he found himself as never yet, and as he couldn’t have reckoned, in presence of the truth that was the truest about Milly. He couldn’t have reckoned on the force of the difference instantly made — for it was all in the air as he heard Pasquale’s cry and saw the boat disappear — by the mere visibility, on the spot, of the personage summoned to her aid. He hadn’t only never been near the facts of her condition — which counted so as a blessing for him; he hadn’t only, with all the world, hovered outside an impenetrable ring fence, within which there reigned a kind of expensive vagueness made up of smiles and silences and beautiful fictions and priceless arrangements, all strained to breaking; but he had also, with every one else, as he now felt, actively fostered suppressions which were in the direct interest of every one’s good manner, every one’s pity, every one’s really quite generous ideal. It was a conspiracy of silence, as the cliché went, to which no one had made an exception, the great smudge of mortality across the picture, the shadow of pain and horror, finding in no quarter a surface of spirit or of speech that consented to reflect it. “The mere aesthetic instinct of mankind —!” our young man had more than once, in the connexion, said to himself; letting the rest of the proposition drop, but touching again thus sufficiently on the outrage even to taste involved in one’s having to see. So then it had been — a general conscious fool’s paradise, from which the specified had been chased like a dangerous animal. What therefore had at present befallen was that the specified, standing all the while at the gate, had now crossed the threshold as in Sir Luke Strett’s person and quite on such a scale as to fill out the whole precinct. Densher’s nerves, absolutely his heart-beats too, had measured the change before he on this occasion moved away.
The facts of physical suffering, of incurable pain, of the chance grimly narrowed, had been made, at a stroke, intense, and this was to be the way he was now to feel them. The clearance of the air, in short, making vision not only possible but inevitable, the one thing left to be thankful for was the breadth of Sir Luke’s shoulders, which, should one be able to keep in line with them, might in some degree interpose. It was, however, far from plain to Densher for the first day or two that he was again to see his distinguished friend at all. That he couldn’t, on any basis actually serving, return to the palace — this was as solid to him, every whit, as the other feature of his case, the fact of the publicity attaching to his proscription through his not having taken himself off. He had been seen often enough in the Leporelli gondola. As, accordingly, he was not on any presumption destined to meet Sir Luke about the town, where the latter would have neither time nor taste to lounge, nothing more would occur between them unless the great man should surprisingly wait upon him. His doing that, Densher further reflected, wouldn’t even simply depend on Mrs. Stringham’s having decided to — as they might say — turn him on. It would depend as well — for there would be practically some difference to her — on her actually attempting it; and it would depend above all on what Sir Luke would make of such an overture. Densher had for that matter his own view of the amount, to say nothing of the particular sort, of response it might expect from him. He had his own view of the ability of such a personage even to understand such an appeal. To what extent could he be prepared, and what importance in fine could he attach? Densher asked himself these questions, in truth, to put his own position at the worst. He should miss the great man completely unless the great man should come to see him, and the great man could only come to see him for a purpose unsupposable. Therefore he wouldn’t come at all, and consequently there was nothing to hope.
It wasn’t in the least that Densher invoked this violence to all probability; but it pressed on him that there were few possible diversions he could afford now to miss. Nothing in his predicament was so odd as that, incontestably afraid of himself, he was not afraid of Sir Luke. He had an impression, which he clung to, based on a previous taste of the visitor’s company, that he would somehow let him off. The truth about Milly perched on his shoulders and sounded in his tread, became by the fact of his presence the name and the form, for the time, of everything in the place; but it didn’t, for the difference, sit in his face, the face so squarely and easily turned to Densher at the earlier season. His presence on the first occasion, not as the result of a summons, but as a friendly whim of his own, had had quite another value; and though our young man could scarce regard that value as recoverable he yet reached out in imagination to a renewal of the old contact. He didn’t propose, as he privately and forcibly phrased the matter, to be a hog; but there was something he after all did want for himself. It was something — this stuck to him — that Sir Luke would have had for him if it hadn’t been impossible. These were his worst days, the two or three; those on which even the sense of the tension at the palace didn’t much help him not to feel that his destiny made but light of him. He had never been, as he judged it, so down. In mean conditions, without books, without society, almost without money, he had nothing to do but to wait. His main support really was his original idea, which didn’t leave him, of waiting for the deepest depth his predicament could sink him to. Fate would invent, if he but gave it time, some refinement of the horrible. It was just inventing meanwhile this suppression of Sir Luke. When the third day came without a sign he knew what to think. He had given Mrs. Stringham during her call on him no such answer as would have armed her faith, and the ultimatum she had described as ready for him when he should be ready was therefore — if on no other ground than her want of this power to answer for him — not to be presented. The presentation, heaven knew, was not what he desired.
That was not, either, we hasten to declare — as Densher then soon enough saw — the idea with which Sir Luke finally stood before him again. For stand before him again he finally did; just when our friend had gloomily embraced the belief that the limit of his power to absent himself from London obligations would have been reached. Four or five days, exclusive of journeys, represented the largest supposable sacrifice — to a head not crowned — on the part of one of the highest medical lights in the world; so that really when the personage in question, following up a tinkle of the bell, solidly rose in the doorway, it was to impose on Densher a vision that for the instant cut like a knife. It spoke, the fact, and in a single dreadful word, of the magnitude — he shrank from calling it anything else — of Milly’s case. The great man had not gone then, and an immense surrender to her immense need was so expressed in it that some effect, some help, some hope, were flagrantly part of the expression. It was for Densher, with his reaction from disappointment, as if he were conscious of ten things at once — the foremost being that just conceivably, since Sir Luke was still there, she had been saved. Close upon its heels, however, and quite as sharply, came the sense that the crisis — plainly even now to be prolonged for him — was to have none of that sound simplicity. Not only had his visitor not dropped in to gossip about Milly, he hadn’t dropped in to mention her at all; he had dropped in fairly to show that during the brief remainder of his stay, the end of which was now in sight, as little as possible of that was to be looked for. The demonstration, such as it was, was in the key of their previous acquaintance, and it was their previous acquaintance that had made him come. He was not to stop longer than the Saturday next at hand, but there were things of interest he should like to see again meanwhile. It was for these things of interest, for Venice and the opportunity of Venice, for a prowl or two, as he called it, and a turn about, that he had looked his young man up — producing on the latter’s part, as soon as the case had, with the lapse of a further twenty-four hours, so defined itself, the most incongruous, yet most beneficent revulsion. Nothing could in fact have been more monstrous on the surface — and Densher was well aware of it — than the relief he found during this short period in the tacit drop of all reference to the palace, in neither hearing news nor asking for it. That was what had come out for him, on his visitor’s entrance, even in the very seconds of suspense that were connecting the fact also directly and intensely with Milly’s state. He had come to say he had saved her — he had come, as from Mrs. Stringham, to say how she might be saved — he had come, in spite of Mrs. Stringham, to say she was lost: the distinct throbs of hope, of fear, simultaneous for all their distinctness, merged their identity in a bound of the heart just as immediate and which remained after they had passed. It simply did wonders for him — this was the truth — that Sir Luke was, as he would have said, quiet.
The result of it was the oddest consciousness as of a blest calm after a storm. He had been trying for weeks, as we know, to keep superlatively still, and trying it largely in solitude and silence; but he looked back on it now as on the heat of fever. The real, the right stillness was this particular form of society. They walked together and they talked, looked up pictures again and recovered impressions — Sir Luke knew just what he wanted; haunted a little the dealers in old wares; sat down at Florian’s for rest and mild drinks; blessed above all the grand weather, a bath of warm air, a pageant of autumn light. Once or twice while they rested the great man closed his eyes — keeping them so for some minutes while his companion, the more easily watching his face for it, made private reflexions on the subject of lost sleep. He had been up at night with her — he in person, for hours; but this was all he showed of it and was apparently to remain his nearest approach to an allusion. The extraordinary thing was that Densher could take it in perfectly as evidence, could turn cold at the image looking out of it; and yet that he could at the same time not intermit a throb of his response to accepted liberation. The liberation was an experience that held its own, and he continued to know why, in spite of his deserts, in spite of his folly, in spite of everything, he had so fondly hoped for it. He had hoped for it, had sat in his room there waiting for it, because he had thus divined in it, should it come, some power to let him off. He was being let off; dealt with in the only way that didn’t aggravate his responsibility. The beauty was also that this wasn’t on system or on any basis of intimate knowledge; it was just by being a man of the world and by knowing life, by feeling the real, that Sir Luke did him good. There had been in all the case too many women. A man’s sense of it, another man’s, changed the air; and he wondered what man, had he chosen, would have been more to his purpose than this one. He was large and easy — that was the benediction; he knew what mattered and what didn’t; he distinguished between the essence and the shell, the just grounds and the unjust for fussing. One was thus — if one were concerned with him or exposed to him at all — in his hands for whatever he should do, and not much less affected by his mercy than one might have been by his rigour. The grand thing — it did come to that — was the way he carried off, as one might fairly call it, the business of making odd things natural. Nothing, if they hadn’t taken it so, could have exceeded the unexplained oddity, between them, of Densher’s now complete detachment from the poor ladies at the palace; nothing could have exceeded the no less marked anomaly of the great man’s own abstentions of speech. He made, as he had done when they met at the station, nothing whatever of anything; and the effect of it, Densher would have said, was a relation with him quite resembling that of doctor and patient. One took the cue from him as one might have taken a dose — except that the cue was pleasant in the taking.
That was why one could leave it to his tacit discretion, why for the three or four days Densher again and again did so leave it; merely wondering a little, at the most, on the eve of Saturday, the announced term of the episode. Waiting once more on this latter occasion, the Saturday morning, for Sir Luke’s reappearance at the station, our friend had to recognise the drop of his own borrowed ease, the result, naturally enough, of the prospect of losing a support. The difficulty was that, on such lines as had served them, the support was Sir Luke’s personal presence. Would he go without leaving some substitute for that? — and without breaking, either, his silence in respect to his errand? Densher was in still deeper ignorance than at the hour of his call, and what was truly prodigious at so supreme a moment was that — as had immediately to appear — no gleam of light on what he had been living with for a week found its way out of him. What he had been doing was proof of a huge interest as well as of a huge fee; yet when the Leporelli gondola again, and somewhat tardily, approached, his companion, watching from the water-steps, studied his fine closed face as much as ever in vain. It was like a lesson, from the highest authority, on the subject of the relevant, so that its blankness affected Densher of a sudden almost as a cruelty, feeling it quite awfully compatible, as he did, with Milly’s having ceased to exist. And the suspense continued after they had passed together, as time was short, directly into the station, where Eugenio, in the field early, was mounting guard over the compartment he had secured. The strain, though probably lasting, at the carriage-door, but a couple of minutes, prolonged itself so for our poor gentleman’s nerves that he involuntarily directed a long look at Eugenio, who met it, however, as only Eugenio could. Sir Luke’s attention was given for the time to the right bestowal of his numerous effects, about which he was particular, and Densher fairly found himself, so far as silence could go, questioning the representative of the palace. It didn’t humiliate him now; it didn’t humiliate him even to feel that that personage exactly knew how little he satisfied him. Eugenio resembled to that extent Sir Luke — to the extent of the extraordinary things with which his facial habit was compatible. By the time, however, that Densher had taken from it all its possessor intended Sir Luke was free and with a hand out for farewell. He offered the hand at first without speech; only on meeting his eyes could our young man see that they had never yet so completely looked at him. It was never, with Sir Luke, that they looked harder at one time than at another; but they looked longer, and this, even a shade of it, might mean on his part everything. It meant, Densher for ten seconds believed, that Milly Theale was dead; so that the word at last spoken made him start.
“I shall come back.”
“Then she’s better?”
“I shall come back within the month,” Sir Luke repeated without heeding the question. He had dropped Densher’s hand, but he held him otherwise still. “I bring you a message from Miss Theale,” he said as if they hadn’t spoken of her. “I’m commissioned to ask you from her to go and see her.”
Densher’s rebound from his supposition had a violence that his stare betrayed. “She asks me?”
Sir Luke had got into the carriage, the door of which the guard had closed; but he spoke again as he stood at the window, bending a little but not leaning out. “She told me she’d like it, and I promised that, as I expected to find you here, I’d let you know.”
Densher, on the platform, took it from him, but what he took brought the blood into his face quite as what he had had to take from Mrs. Stringham. And he was also bewildered. “Then she can receive —?”
“She can receive you.”
“And you’re coming back —?”
“Oh because I must. She’s not to move. She’s to stay. I come to her.”
“I see, I see,” said Densher, who indeed did see — saw the sense of his friend’s words and saw beyond it as well. What Mrs. Stringham had announced, and what he had yet expected not to have to face, had then come. Sir Luke had kept it for the last, but there it was, and the colourless compact form it was now taking — the tone of one man of the world to another, who, after what had happened, would understand — was but the characteristic manner of his appeal. Densher was to understand remarkably much; and the great thing certainly was to show that he did. “I’m particularly obliged, I’ll go today.” He brought that out, but in his pause, while they continued to look at each other, the train had slowly creaked into motion. There was time but for one more word, and the young man chose it, out of twenty, with intense concentration. “Then she’s better?”
Sir Luke’s face was wonderful. “Yes, she’s better.” And he kept it at the window while the train receded, holding him with it still. It was to be his nearest approach to the utter reference they had hitherto so successfully avoided. If it stood for everything; never had a face had to stand for more. So Densher, held after the train had gone, sharply reflected; so he reflected, asking himself into what abyss it pushed him, even while conscious of retreating under the maintained observation of Eugenio.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:51