The Sacred Fount, by Henry James


It was in the moment of turning away that I somehow learned, without looking, that Mrs. Brissenden had also immediately moved. I wanted to look and yet had my reasons for not appearing to do it too quickly; in spite of which I found my friends, even after an interval, still distinguishable as separating for the avoidance of comment. Gilbert Long, rising directly after his associate, had already walked away, but this associate, lingering where she stood and meeting me with it, availed herself of the occasion to show that she wished to speak to me. Such was the idea she threw out on my forthwith going to her. “For a few minutes — presently.”

“Do you mean alone? Shall I come with you?”

She hesitated long enough for me to judge her as a trifle surprised at my being so ready — as if indeed she had rather hoped I wouldn’t be; which would have been an easy pretext to her to gain time. In fact, with a face not quite like the brave face she had at each step hitherto shown me, yet unlike in a fashion I should certainly not have been able to define on the spot; with an expression, in short, that struck me as taking refuge in a general reminder that not my convenience, but her own, was in question, she replied: “Oh, no — but before it’s too late. A few minutes hence. Where shall you be?” she asked with a shade, as I imagined, of awkwardness. She had looked about as for symptoms of acceptance of the evening’s end on the part of the ladies, but we could both see our hostess otherwise occupied. “We don’t go up quite yet. In the morning,” she added as with an afterthought, “I suppose you leave early.”

I debated. “I haven’t thought. And you?”

She looked at me straighter now. “I haven’t thought either.” Then she was silent, neither turning away nor coming to the point, as it seemed to me she might have done, of telling me what she had in her head. I even fancied that her momentary silence, combined with the way she faced me — as if that might speak for her — was meant for an assurance that, whatever train she should take in the morning, she would arrange that it shouldn’t be, as it had been the day before, the same as mine. I really caught in her attitude a world of invidious reference to the little journey we had already made together. She had sympathies, she had proprieties that imposed themselves, and I was not to think that any little journey was to be thought of again in those conditions. It came over me that this might have been quite a matter discussed by her, discussed and settled, with her interlocutor on the sofa. It came over me that if, before our break-up for the night, I should happen also to have a minute’s talk with that interlocutor, I would equally get from it the sense of an intention unfavourable to our departing in the same group. And I wondered if this, in that case, wouldn’t affect me as marking a change back to Long’s old manner — a forfeiture of the conditions, whatever view might be taken of them, that had made him, at Paddington, suddenly show himself as so possible and so pleasant. If he “changed back,” wouldn’t Grace Brissenden change by the same law? And if Grace Brissenden did, wouldn’t her husband? Wouldn’t the miracle take the form of the rejuvenation of that husband? Would it, still by the same token, take the form of her becoming very old, becoming if not as old as her husband, at least as old, as one might say, as herself? Would it take the form of her becoming dreadfully plain — plain with the plainness of mere stout maturity and artificial preservation? And if it took this form for the others, which would it take for May Server? Would she, at a bound as marked as theirs, recover her presence of mind and her lost equipment?

The kind of suspense that these rising questions produced for me suffered naturally no drop after Mrs. Briss had cut everything short by rustling voluminously away. She had something to say to me, and yet she hadn’t; she had nothing to say, and yet I felt her to have already launched herself in a statement. There were other persons I had made uncomfortable without at all intending it, but she at least had not suffered from me, and I had no wish that she should; according to which she had no pressure to fear. My suspense, in spite of this, remained — indeed all the more sensibly that I had suddenly lost my discomfort on the subject of redeeming my pledge to her. It had somehow left me at a stroke, my dread of her calling me, as by our agreement, to submit in respect to what we had talked of as the identification of the woman. That call had been what I looked for from her after she had seen me break with Lady John; my first idea then could only be that I must come, as it were, to time. It was strange that, the next minute, I should find myself sure that I was, as I may put it, free; it was at all events indisputable that as I stood there watching her recede and fairly studying, in my preoccupation, her handsome affirmative back and the special sweep of her long dress — it was indisputable that, on some intimation I could, at the instant, recognise but not seize, my consciousness was aware of having performed a full revolution. If I was free, that was what I had been only so short a time before, what I had been as I drove, in London, to the station. Was this now a foreknowledge that, on the morrow, in driving away, I should feel myself restored to that blankness? The state lost was the state of exemption from intense obsessions, and the state recovered would therefore logically match it. If the foreknowledge had thus, as by the stir of the air from my friend’s whisk of her train, descended upon me, my liberation was in a manner what I was already tasting. Yet how I also felt, with it, something of the threat of a chill to my curiosity! The taste of its being all over, that really sublime success of the strained vision in which I had been living for crowded hours — was this a taste that I was sure I should particularly enjoy? Marked enough it was, doubtless, that even in the stress of perceiving myself broken with I ruefully reflected on all the more, on the ever so much, I still wanted to know!

Well, something of this quantity, in any case, would come, since Mrs. Briss did want to speak to me. The suspense that remained with me, as I have indicated, was the special fresh one she had just produced. It fed, for a little, positively, on that survey of her fine retreating person to which I have confessed that my eyes attached themselves. These seconds were naturally few, and yet my memory gathers from them something that I can only compare, in its present effect, to the scent of a strange flower passed rapidly under my nose. I seem in other words to recall that I received in that brush the very liveliest impression that my whole adventure was to yield — the impression that is my reason for speaking of myself as having at the juncture in question “studied” Mrs. Brissenden’s back. Study of a profound sort would appear needed in truth to account for it. It was as handsome and affirmative that she at once met and evaded my view, but was not the affirmation (as distinguished from the handsomeness, which was a matter of stature and mass,) fairly downright and defiant? Didn’t what I saw strike me as saying straight at me, as far as possible, “I am young — I am and I will be; see, see if I’m not; there, there, there!” — with “there’s” as insistent and rhythmical as the undulations of her fleeing presence, as the bejewelled nod of her averted brow? If her face had not been hidden, should I not precisely have found myself right in believing that it looked, exactly, for those instants, dreadfully older than it had ever yet had to? The answer ideally cynical would have been: “Oh, any woman of your resources can look young with her back turned! But you’ve had to turn it to make that proclamation.” She passed out of the room proclaiming, and I did stand there a little defeated, even though with her word for another chance at her. Was this word one that she would keep? I had got off — yes, to a certainty. But so too had not she?

Naturally, at any rate, I didn’t stay planted; and though it seemed long it was probably for no great time after this that I roamed in my impatience. I was divided between the discourtesy of wishing the ladies would go to bed and the apprehension that if they did too soon go I might yet lose everything. Was Mrs. Briss waiting for more privacy, or was she only waiting for a complete escape? Of course, even while I asked myself that, I had to remember how much I was taking for granted on her part in the way of conscious motive. Still, if she had not a motive for escaping, why had she not had one, five minutes before, for coming to the point with me? This inquiry kept me hovering where she might at any instant find me, but that was not inconsistent with my presently passing, like herself, into another room. The first one I entered — there were great chains of them at Newmarch — showed me once more, at the end opposite the door, the object that all day had been, present or absent, most in my eyes, and that there now could be no fallacy in my recognising. Mrs. Server’s unquenchable little smile had never yet been so far from quenched as when it recognised, on its own side, that I had just had time to note how Ford Obert was, for a change, taking it in. These two friends of mine appeared to have moved together, after the music, to the corner in which I should not have felt it as misrepresenting the matter to say that I surprised them. They owed nothing of the harmony that held them — unlike my other couple — to the constraint of a common seat; a small glazed table, a receptacle for minute objects of price, extended itself between them as if it had offered itself as an occasion for their drawing toward it a pair of low chairs; but their union had nevertheless such an air of accepted duration as led it slightly to puzzle me. This would have been a reason the more for not interrupting it even had I not peculiarly wished to respect it. It was grist to my mill somehow that something or other had happened as a consequence of which Obert had lost the impulse to repeat to me his odd invitation to intervene. He gave me no notice as I passed; the notice was all from his companion. It constituted, I felt, on her part, precisely as much and precisely as little of an invitation as it had constituted at the moment — so promptly following our arrival — of my first seeing them linked; which is but another way of saying that nothing in Mrs. Server appeared to acknowledge a lapse. It was nearly midnight, but she was again under arms; everything conceivable — or perhaps rather inconceivable — had passed between us before dinner, but her face was exquisite again in its repudiation of any reference.

Any reference, I saw, would have been difficult to me, had I unluckily been forced to approach her. What would have made the rare delicacy of the problem was that blankness itself was the most direct reference of all. I had, however, as I passed her by, a comprehension as inward as that with which I had watched Mrs. Briss’s retreat. “What shall I see when I next see you?” was what I had mutely asked of Mrs. Briss; but “God grant I don’t see you again at all!” was the prayer sharply determined in my heart as I left Mrs. Server behind me. I left her behind me for ever, but the prayer has not been answered. I did see her again; I see her now; I shall see her always; I shall continue to feel at moments in my own facial muscles the deadly little ache of her heroic grin. With this, however, I was not then to reckon, and my simple philosophy of the moment could be but to get out of the room. The result of that movement was that, two minutes later, at another doorway, but opening this time into a great corridor, I found myself arrested by a combination that should really have counted for me as the least of my precious anomalies, but that — as accident happened to protect me — I watched, so long as I might, with intensity. I should in this connection describe my eyes as yet again engaging the less scrutable side of the human figure, were it not that poor Briss’s back, now presented to me beside his wife’s — for these were the elements of the combination — had hitherto seemed to me the most eloquent of his aspects. It was when he presented his face that he looked, each time, older; but it was when he showed you, from behind, the singular stoop of his shoulders, that he looked oldest.

They had just passed the door when I emerged, and they receded, at a slow pace and with a kind of confidential nearness, down the long avenue of the lobby. Her head was always high and her husband’s always low, so that I couldn’t be sure — it might have been only my fancy — that the contrast of this habit was more marked in them than usual. If I had known nothing about them I should have just unimaginatively said that talk was all on one side and attention all on the other. I, of course, for that matter, did know nothing about them; yet I recall how it came to me, as my extemporised shrewdness hung in their rear, that I mustn’t think anything too grossly simple of what might be taking place between them. My position was, in spite of myself, that of my having mastered enough possibilities to choose from. If one of these might be — for her face, in spite of the backward cock of her head, was turned to him — that she was looking her time of life straight at him and yet making love to him with it as hard as ever she could, so another was that he had been already so thoroughly got back into hand that she had no need of asking favours, that she was more splendid than ever, and that, the same poor Briss as before his brief adventure, he was only feeling afresh in his soul, as a response to her, the gush of the sacred fount. Presumptous choice as to these alternatives failed, on my part, in time, let me say, to flower; it rose before me in time that, whatever might be, for the exposed instant, the deep note of their encounter, only one thing concerned me in it: its being wholly their own business. So for that I liberally let it go, passing into the corridor, but proceeding in the opposite sense and aiming at an issue which I judged I should reach before they would turn in their walk. I had not, however, reached it before I caught the closing of the door furthest from me; at the sound of which I looked about to find the Brissendens gone. They had not remained for another turn, but had taken their course, evidently, back to the principal drawing-room, where, no less presumably, the procession of the ladies bedward was even then forming. Mrs. Briss would fall straight into it, and I had accordingly lost her. I hated to appear to pursue her, late in the day as it may appear to affirm that I put my dignity before my curiosity.

Free again, at all events, to wait or to wander, I lingered a minute where I had stopped — close to a wide window, as it happened, that, at this end of the passage, stood open to the warm darkness and overhung, from no great height, one of the terraces. The night was mild and rich, and though the lights within were, in deference to the temperature, not too numerous, I found the breath of the outer air a sudden corrective to the grossness of our lustre and the thickness of our medium, our general heavy humanity. I felt its taste sweet, and while I leaned for refreshment on the sill I thought of many things. One of those that passed before me was the way that Newmarch and its hospitalities were sacrificed, after all, and much more than smaller circles, to material frustrations. We were all so fine and formal, and the ladies in particular at once so little and so much clothed, so beflounced yet so denuded, that the summer stars called to us in vain. We had ignored them in our crystal cage, among our tinkling lamps; no more free really to alight than if we had been dashing in a locked railway-train across a lovely land. I remember asking myself if I mightn’t still take a turn under them, and I remember that on appealing to my watch for its sanction I found midnight to have struck. That then was the end, and my only real alternatives were bed or the smoking-room. The difficulty with bed was that I was in no condition to sleep, and the difficulty about rejoining the men was that — definitely, yes — there was one of them I desired not again to see. I felt it with sharpness as I leaned on the sill; I felt it with sadness as I looked at the stars; I felt once more what I had felt on turning a final back five minutes before, so designedly, on Mrs. Server. I saw poor Briss as he had just moved away from me, and I knew, as I had known in the other case, that my troubled sense would fain feel I had practically done with him. It would be well, for aught I could do for him, that I should have seen the last of him. What remained with me from that vision of his pacing there with his wife was the conviction that his fate, whatever it was, held him fast. It wouldn’t let him go, and all I could ask of it now was that it should let me. I would go — I was going; if I had not had to accept the interval of the night I should indeed already have gone. The admonitions of that moment — only confirmed, I hasten to add, by what was still to come — were that I should catch in the morning, with energy, an earlier train to town than anyone else was likely to take, and get off alone by it, bidding farewell for a long day to Newmarch. I should be in small haste to come back, for I should leave behind me my tangled theory, no loose thread of which need I ever again pick up, in no stray mesh of which need my foot again trip. It was on my way to the place, in fine, that my obsession had met me, and it was by retracing those steps that I should be able to get rid of it. Only I must break off sharp, must escape all reminders by forswearing all returns.

That was very well, but it would perhaps have been better still if I had gone straight to bed. In that case I should have broken off sharp — too sharp to become aware of something that kept me a minute longer at the window and that had the instant effect of making me wonder if, in the interest of observation, I mightn’t snap down the electric light that, playing just behind me, must show where I stood. I resisted this impulse and, with the thought that my position was in no way compromising, chanced being myself observed. I presently saw moreover that I was really not in evidence: I could take in freely what I had at first not been sure of, the identity of the figure stationed just within my range, but just out of that of the light projected from my window. One of the men of our company had come out by himself for a stroll, and the man was Gilbert Long. He had paused, I made out, in his walk; his back was to the house, and, resting on the balustrade of the terrace with a cigarette in his lips, he had given way to a sense of the fragrant gloom. He moved so little that I was sure — making no turn that would have made me draw back; he only smoked slowly in his place and seemed as lost in thought as I was lost in my attention to him. I scarce knew what this told me; all I felt was that, however slight the incident and small the evidence, it essentially fitted in. It had for my imagination a value, for my theory a price, and it in fact constituted an impression under the influence of which this theory, just impatiently shaken off, perched again on my shoulders. It was of the deepest interest to me to see Long in such detachment, in such apparent concentration. These things marked and presented him more than any had yet done, and placed him more than any yet in relation to other matters. They showed him, I thought, as serious, his situation as grave. I couldn’t have said what they proved, but I was as affected by them as if they proved everything. The proof simply acted from the instant the vision of him alone there in the warm darkness was caught. It was just with all that was in the business that he was, that he had fitfully needed to be, alone. Nervous and restless after separating, under my eyes, from Mrs. Briss, he had wandered off to the smoking-room, as yet empty; he didn’t know what to do either, and was incapable of bed and of sleep. He had observed the communication of the smoking-room with the terrace and had come out into the air; this was what suited him, and, with pauses and meditations, much, possibly, by this time to turn over, he prolonged his soft vigil. But he at last moved, and I found myself startled. I gave up watching and retraced my course. I felt, none the less, fairly humiliated. It had taken but another turn of an eye to re-establish all my connections.

I had not, however, gone twenty steps before I met Ford Obert, who had entered the corridor from the other end and was, as he immediately let me know, on his way to the smoking-room.

“Is everyone then dispersing?”

“Some of the men, I think,” he said, “are following me; others, I believe — wonderful creatures! — have gone to array themselves. Others still, doubtless, have gone to bed.”

“And the ladies?”

“Oh, they’ve floated away — soared aloft; to high jinks — isn’t that the idea? — in their own quarters. Don’t they too, at these hours, practise sociabilities of sorts? They make, at any rate, here, an extraordinary picture on that great staircase.”

I thought a moment. “I wish I had seen it. But I do see it. Yes — splendid. Is the place wholly cleared of them?”

“Save, it struck me, so far as they may have left some ‘black plume as a token’ —— ”

“Not, I trust,” I returned, “of any ‘lie’ their ‘soul hath spoken!’ But not one of them lingers?”

He seemed to wonder. “‘Lingers?’ For what?”

“Oh, I don’t know — in this house!”

He looked at our long vista, still lighted — appeared to feel with me our liberal ease, which implied that unseen powers waited on our good pleasure and sat up for us. There is nothing like it in fact, the liberal ease at Newmarch. Yet Obert reminded me — if I needed the reminder — that I mustn’t after all presume on it. “Was one of them to linger for you?”

“Well, since you ask me, it was what I hoped. But since you answer for it that my hope has not been met, I bow to a superior propriety.”

“You mean you’ll come and smoke with me? Do then come.”

“What, if I do,” I asked with an idea, “will you give me?”

“I’m afraid I can promise you nothing more that I deal in than a bad cigarette.”

“And what then,” I went on, “will you take from me?”

He had met my eyes, and now looked at me a little with a smile that I thought just conscious. “Well, I’m afraid I can’t take any more —— ”

“Of the sort of stuff,” I laughed, “you’ve already had? Sorry stuff, perhaps — a poor thing but mine own! Such as it is, I only ask to keep it for myself, and that isn’t what I meant. I meant what flower will you gather, what havoc will you play ——?”

“Well?” he said as I hesitated.

“Among superstitions that I, after all, cherish. Mon siège est fait — a great glittering crystal palace. How many panes will you reward me for amiably sitting up with you by smashing?”

It might have been my mere fancy — but it was my fancy — that he looked at me a trifle harder. “How on earth can I tell what you’re talking about?”

I waited a moment, then went on: “Did you happen to count them?”

“Count whom?”

“Why, the ladies as they filed up. Was the number there?”

He gave a jerk of impatience. “Go and see for yourself!”

Once more I just waited. “But suppose I should find Mrs. Server ——?”

“Prowling there on the chance of you? Well — I thought she was what you wanted.”

“Then,” I returned, “you could tell what I was talking about!” For a moment after this we faced each other without more speech, but I presently continued: “You didn’t really notice if any lady stayed behind?”

“I think you ask too much of me,” he at last brought out. “Take care of your ladies, my dear man, yourself! Go,” he repeated, “and see.”

“Certainly — it’s better; but I’ll rejoin you in three minutes.” And while he went his way to the smoking-room I proceeded without more delay to assure myself, performing in the opposite sense the journey I had made ten minutes before. It was extraordinary what the sight of Long alone in the outer darkness had done for me: my expression of it would have been that it had put me “on” again at the moment of my decidedly feeling myself off. I believed that if I hadn’t seen him I could now have gone to bed without seeing Mrs. Briss; but my renewed impression had suddenly made the difference. If that was the way he struck me, how might not, if I could get at her, she? And she might, after all, in the privacy at last offered us by empty rooms, be waiting for me. I went through them all, however, only to find them empty indeed. In conformity with the large allowances of every sort that were the law of Newmarch, they were still open and lighted, so that if I had believed in Mrs. Briss’s reappearance I might conveniently, on the spot, have given her five minutes more. I am not sure, for that matter, that I didn’t. I remember at least wondering if I mightn’t ring somewhere for a servant and cause a question to be sent up to her. I didn’t ring, but I must have lingered a little on the chance of the arrival of servants to extinguish lights and see the house safe. They had not arrived, however, by the time I again felt that I must give up.

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