The Sacred Fount, by Henry James


I gave up by going, decidedly, to the smoking-room, where several men had gathered and where Obert, a little apart from them, was in charmed communion with the bookshelves. They are wonderful, everywhere, at Newmarch, the bookshelves, but he put a volume back as he saw me come in, and a moment later, when we were seated, I said to him again, as a recall of our previous passage, “Then you could tell what I was talking about!” And I added, to complete my reference, “Since you thought Mrs. Server was the person whom, when I stopped you, I was sorry to learn from you I had missed.”

His momentary silence appeared to admit the connection I established. “Then you find you have missed her? She wasn’t there for you?”

“There’s no one ‘there for me’; so that I fear that if you weren’t, as it happens, here for me, my amusement would be quite at an end. I had, in fact,” I continued, “already given it up as lost when I came upon you, a while since, in conversation with the lady we’ve named. At that, I confess, my prospects gave something of a flare. I said to myself that since your interest hadn’t then wholly dropped, why, even at the worst, should mine? Yours was mine, wasn’t it? for a little, this morning. Or was it mine that was yours? We exchanged, at any rate, some lively impressions. Only, before we had done, your effort dropped or your discretion intervened: you gave up, as none of your business, the question that had suddenly tempted us.”

“And you gave it up too,” said my friend.

“Yes, and it was on the idea that it was mine as little as yours that we separated.”

“Well then?” He kept his eyes, with his head thrown back, on the warm bindings, admirable for old gilt and old colour, that covered the opposite wall.

“Well then, if I’ve correctly gathered that you’re, in spite of our common renunciation, still interested, I confess to you that I am. I took my detachment too soon for granted. I haven’t been detached. I’m not, hang me! detached now. And it’s all because you were originally so suggestive.”


“Why, from the moment we met here yesterday — the moment of my first seeing you with Mrs. Server. The look you gave me then was really the beginning of everything. Everything” — and I spoke now with real conviction — “was traceably to spring from it.”

“What do you mean,” he asked, “by everything?”

“Well, this failure of detachment. What you said to me as we were going up yesterday afternoon to dress — what you said to me then is responsible for it. And since it comes to that,” I pursued, “I make out for myself now that you’re not detached either — unless, that is, simply detached from me. I had indeed a suspicion of that as I passed through the room there.”

He smoked through another pause. “You’ve extraordinary notions of responsibility.”

I watched him a moment, but he only stared at the books without looking round. Something in his voice had made me more certain, and my certainty made me laugh. “I see you are serious!”

But he went on quietly enough. “You’ve extraordinary notions of responsibility. I deny altogether mine.”

“You are serious — you are!” I repeated with a gaiety that I meant as inoffensive and that I believe remained so. “But no matter. You’re no worse than I.”

“I’m clearly, by your own story, not half so bad. But, as you say, no matter. I don’t care.”

I ventured to keep it up. “Oh, don’t you?”

His good nature was proof. “I don’t care.”

“Then why didn’t you so much as look at me a while ago?”

“Didn’t I look at you?”

“You know perfectly you didn’t. Mrs. Server did — with her unutterable intensity; making me feel afresh, by the way, that I’ve never seen a woman compromise herself so little by proceedings so compromising. But though you saw her intensity, it never diverted you for an instant from your own.”

He lighted before he answered this a fresh cigarette. “A man engaged in talk with a charming woman scarcely selects that occasion for winking at somebody else.”

“You mean he contents himself with winking at her? My dear fellow, that wasn’t enough for you yesterday, and it wouldn’t have been enough for you this morning, among the impressions that led to our last talk. It was just the fact that you did wink, that you had winked, at me that wound me up.”

“And what about the fact that you had winked at me? Your winks — come” — Obert laughed — “are portentous!”

“Oh, if we recriminate,” I cheerfully said after a moment, “we agree.”

“I’m not so sure,” he returned, “that we agree.”

“Ah, then, if we differ it’s still more interesting. Because, you know, we didn’t differ either yesterday or this morning.”

Without hurry or flurry, but with a decent confusion, his thoughts went back. “I thought you said just now we did — recognising, as you ought, that you were keen about a chase of which I washed my hands.”

“No — I wasn’t keen. You’ve just mentioned that you remember my giving up. I washed my hands too.”

It seemed to leave him with the moral of this. “Then, if our hands are clean, what are we talking about?”

I turned, on it, a little more to him, and looked at him so long that he had at last to look at me; with which, after holding his eyes another moment, I made my point. “Our hands are not clean.”

“Ah, speak for your own!” — and as he moved back I might really have thought him uneasy. There was a hint of the same note in the way he went on: “I assure you I decline all responsibility. I see the responsibility as quite beautifully yours.”

“Well,” I said, “I only want to be fair. You were the first to bring it out that she was changed.”

“Well, she isn’t changed!” said my friend with an almost startling effect, for me, of suddenness. “Or rather,” he immediately and incongruously added, “she is. She’s changed back.”

“‘Back’?” It made me stare.

“Back,” he repeated with a certain sharpness and as if to have done at last, for himself, with the muddle of it.

But there was that in me that could let him see he had far from done; and something, above all, told me now that he absolutely mustn’t have before I had. I quickly moreover saw that I must, with an art, make him want not to. “Back to what she was when you painted her?”

He had to think an instant for this. “No — not quite to that.”

“To what then?”

He tried in a manner to oblige me. “To something else.”

It seemed so, for my thought, the gleam of something that fitted, that I was almost afraid of quenching the gleam by pressure. I must then get everything I could from him without asking too much. “You don’t quite know to what else?”

“No — I don’t quite know.” But there was a sound in it, this time, that I took as the hint of a wish to know — almost a recognition that I might help him.

I helped him accordingly as I could and, I may add, as far as the positive flutter he had stirred in me suffered. It fitted — it fitted! “If her change is to something other, I suppose then a change back is not quite the exact name for it.”

“Perhaps not.” I fairly thrilled at his taking the suggestion as if it were an assistance. “She isn’t at any rate what I thought her yesterday.”

It was amazing into what depths this dropped for me and with what possibilities it mingled. “I remember what you said of her yesterday.”

I drew him on so that I brought back for him the very words he had used. “She was so beastly unhappy.” And he used them now visibly not as a remembrance of what he had said, but for the contrast of the fact with what he at present perceived; so that the value this gave for me to what he at present perceived was immense.

“And do you mean that that’s gone?”

He hung fire, however, a little as to saying so much what he meant, and while he waited he again looked at me. “What do you mean? Don’t you think so yourself?”

I laid my hand on his arm and held him a moment with a grip that betrayed, I daresay, the effort in me to keep my thoughts together and lose not a thread. It betrayed at once, doubtless, the danger of that failure and the sharp foretaste of success. I remember that with it, absolutely, I struck myself as knowing again the joy of the intellectual mastery of things unamenable, that joy of determining, almost of creating results, which I have already mentioned as an exhilaration attached to some of my plunges of insight. “It would take long to tell you what I mean.”

The tone of it made him fairly watch me as I had been watching him. “Well, haven’t we got the whole night?”

“Oh, it would take more than the whole night — even if we had it!”

“By which you suggest that we haven’t it?”

“No — we haven’t it. I want to get away.”

“To go to bed? I thought you were so keen.”

“I am keen. Keen is no word for it. I don’t want to go to bed. I want to get away.”

“To leave the house — in the middle of the night?”

“Yes — absurd as it may seem. You excite me too much. You don’t know what you do to me.”

He continued to look at me; then he gave a laugh which was not the contradiction, but quite the attestation, of the effect produced on him by my grip. If I had wanted to hold him I held him. It only came to me even that I held him too much. I felt this in fact with the next thing he said. “If you’re too excited, then, to be coherent now, will you tell me to-morrow?”

I took time myself now to relight. Ridiculous as it may sound, I had my nerves to steady; which is a proof, surely, that for real excitement there are no such adventures as intellectual ones. “Oh, to-morrow I shall be off in space!”

“Certainly we shall neither of us be here. But can’t we arrange, say, to meet in town, or even to go up together in such conditions as will enable us to talk?”

I patted his arm again. “Thank you for your patience. It’s really good of you. Who knows if I shall be alive to-morrow? We are meeting. We do talk.”

But with all I had to think of I must have fallen, on this, into the deepest of silences, for the next thing I remember is his returning: “We don’t!” I repeated my gesture of reassurance, I conveyed that I should be with him again in a minute, and presently, while he gave me time, he came back to something of his own. “My wink, at all events, would have been nothing for any question between us, as I’ve just said, without yours. That’s what I call your responsibility. It was, as we put the matter, the torch of your analogy —— ”

“Oh, the torch of my analogy!”

I had so groaned it — as if for very ecstasy — that it pulled him up, and I could see his curiosity as indeed reaffected. But he went on with a coherency that somewhat admonished me: “It was your making me, as I told you this morning, think over what you had said about Brissenden and his wife: it was that —— ”

“That made you think over” — I took him straight up — “what you yourself had said about our troubled lady? Yes, precisely. That was the torch of my analogy. What I showed you in the one case seemed to tell you what to look for in the other. You thought it over. I accuse you of nothing worse than of having thought it over. But you see what thinking it over does for it.”

The way I said this appeared to amuse him. “I see what it does for you!”

“No, you don’t! Not at all yet. That’s just the embarrassment.”

“Just whose?” If I had thanked him for his patience he showed that he deserved it. “Just yours?”

“Well, say mine. But when you do ——!” And I paused as for the rich promise of it.

“When I do see where you are, you mean?”

“The only difficulty is whether you can see. But we must try. You’ve set me whirling round, but we must go step by step. Oh, but it’s all in your germ!” — I kept that up. “If she isn’t now beastly unhappy —— ”

“She’s beastly happy?” he broke in, getting firmer hold, if not of the real impression he had just been gathering under my eyes, then at least of something he had begun to make out that my argument required. “Well, that is the way I see her difference. Her difference, I mean,” he added, in his evident wish to work with me, “her difference from her other difference! There!” He laughed as if, also, he had found himself fairly fantastic. “Isn’t that clear for you?”

“Crystalline — for me. But that’s because I know why.”

I can see again now the long look that, on this, he gave me. I made out already much of what was in it. “So then do I!”

“But how in the world ——? I know, for myself, how I know.”

“So then do I,” he after a moment repeated.

“And can you tell me?”

“Certainly. But what I’ve already named to you — the torch of your analogy.”

I turned this over. “You’ve made evidently an admirable use of it. But the wonderful thing is that you seem to have done so without having all the elements.”

He on his side considered. “What do you call all the elements?”

“Oh, it would take me long to tell you!” I couldn’t help laughing at the comparative simplicity with which he asked it. “That’s the sort of thing we just now spoke of taking a day for. At any rate, such as they are, these elements,” I went on, “I believe myself practically in possession of them. But what I don’t quite see is how you can be.”

Well, he was able to tell me. “Why in the world shouldn’t your analogy have put me?” He spoke with gaiety, but with lucidity. “I’m not an idiot either.”

“I see.” But there was so much!

“Did you think I was?” he amiably asked.

“No. I see,” I repeated. Yet I didn’t, really, fully; which he presently perceived.

“You made me think of your view of the Brissenden pair till I could think of nothing else.”

“Yes — yes,” I said. “Go on.”

“Well, as you had planted the theory in me, it began to bear fruit. I began to watch them. I continued to watch them. I did nothing but watch them.”

The sudden lowering of his voice in this confession — as if it had represented a sort of darkening of his consciousness — again amused me. “You too? How then we’ve been occupied! For I, you see, have watched — or had, until I found you just now with Mrs. Server — everyone, everything but you.”

“Oh, I’ve watched you,” said Ford Obert as if he had then perhaps after all the advantage of me. “I admit that I made you out for myself to be back on the scent; for I thought I made you out baffled.”

To learn whether I really had been was, I saw, what he would most have liked; but I also saw that he had, as to this, a scruple about asking me. What I most saw, however, was that to tell him I should have to understand. “What scent do you allude to?”

He smiled as if I might have fancied I could fence. “Why, the pursuit of the identification that’s none of our business — the identification of her lover.”

“Ah, it’s as to that,” I instantly replied, “you’ve judged me baffled? I’m afraid,” I almost as quickly added, “that I must admit I have been. Luckily, at all events, it is none of our business.”

“Yes,” said my friend, amused on his side, “nothing’s our business that we can’t find out. I saw you hadn’t found him. And what,” Obert continued, “does he matter now?”

It took but a moment to place me for seeing that my companion’s conviction on this point was a conviction decidedly to respect; and even that amount of hesitation was but the result of my wondering how he had reached it. “What, indeed?” I promptly replied. “But how did you see I had failed?”

“By seeing that I myself had. For I’ve been looking too. He isn’t here,” said Ford Obert.

Delighted as I was that he should believe it, I was yet struck by the complacency of his confidence, which connected itself again with my observation of their so recent colloquy. “Oh, for you to be so sure, has Mrs. Server squared you?”

Is he here?” he for all answer to this insistently asked.

I faltered but an instant. “No; he isn’t here. It’s no thanks to one’s scruples, but perhaps it’s lucky for one’s manners. I speak at least for mine. If you’ve watched,” I pursued, “you’ve doubtless sufficiently seen what has already become of mine. He isn’t here, at all events,” I repeated, “and we must do without his identity. What, in fact, are we showing each other,” I asked, “but that we have done without it?”

I have!” my friend declared with supreme frankness and with something of the note, as I was obliged to recognise, of my own constructive joy. “I’ve done perfectly without it.”

I saw in fact that he had, and it struck me really as wonderful. But I controlled the expression of my wonder. “So that if you spoke therefore just now of watching them —— ”

“I meant of course” — he took it straight up — “watching the Brissendens. And naturally, above all,” he as quickly subjoined, “the wife.”

I was now full of concurrence. “Ah, naturally, above all, the wife.”

So far as was required it encouraged him. “A woman’s lover doesn’t matter — doesn’t matter at least to anyone but himself, doesn’t matter to you or to me or to her — when once she has given him up.”

It made me, this testimony of his observation, show, in spite of my having by this time so counted on it, something of the vivacity of my emotion. “She has given him up?”

But the surprise with which he looked round put me back on my guard. “Of what else then are we talking?”

“Of nothing else, of course,” I stammered. “But the way you see ——!” I found my refuge in the gasp of my admiration.

“I do see. But” — he would come back to that — “only through your having seen first. You gave me the pieces. I’ve but put them together. You gave me the Brissendens — bound hand and foot; and I’ve but made them, in that sorry state, pull me through. I’ve blown on my torch, in other words, till, flaring and smoking, it has guided me, through a magnificent chiaroscuro of colour and shadow, out into the light of day.”

I was really dazzled by his image, for it represented his personal work. “You’ve done more than I, it strikes me — and with less to do it with. If I gave you the Brissendens I gave you all I had.”

“But all you had was immense, my dear man. The Brissendens are immense.”

“Of course the Brissendens are immense! If they hadn’t been immense they wouldn’t have been — nothing would have been — anything.” Then after a pause, “Your image is splendid,” I went on — “your being out of the cave. But what is it exactly,” I insidiously threw out, “that you call the ‘light of day’?”

I remained a moment, however, not sure whether I had been too subtle or too simple. He had another of his cautions. “What do you ——?”

But I was determined to make him give it me all himself, for it was from my not prompting him that its value would come. “You tell me,” I accordingly rather crudely pleaded, “first.”

It gave us a moment during which he so looked as if I asked too much, that I had a fear of losing all. He even spoke with some impatience. “If you really haven’t found it for yourself, you know. I scarce see what you can have found.”

Then I had my inspiration. I risked an approach to roughness, and all the more easily that my words were strict truth. “Oh, don’t be afraid — greater things than yours!”

It succeeded, for it played upon his curiosity, and he visibly imagined that, with impatience controlled, he should learn what these things were. He relaxed, he responded, and the next moment I was in all but full enjoyment of the piece wanted to make all my other pieces right — right because of that special beauty in my scheme through which the whole depended so on each part and each part so guaranteed the whole. “What I call the light of day is the sense I’ve arrived at of her vision.”

“Her vision?” — I just balanced in the air.

“Of what they have in common. His — poor chap’s — extraordinary situation too.”

“Bravo! And you see in that ——?”

“What, all these hours, has touched, fascinated, drawn her. It has been an instinct with her.”


It saw him, my approval, safely into port. “The instinct of sympathy, pity — the response to fellowship in misery; the sight of another fate as strange, as monstrous as her own.”

I couldn’t help jumping straight up — I stood before him. “So that whoever may have been the man, the man now, the actual man —— ”

“Oh,” said Obert, looking, luminous and straight, up at me from his seat, “the man now, the actual man ——!” But he stopped short, with his eyes suddenly quitting me and his words becoming a formless ejaculation. The door of the room, to which my back was turned, had opened, and I quickly looked round. It was Brissenden himself who, to my supreme surprise, stood there, with rapid inquiry in his attitude and face. I saw, as soon as he caught mine, that I was what he wanted, and, immediately excusing myself for an instant to Obert, I anticipated, by moving across the room, the need, on poor Briss’s part, of my further demonstration. My whole sense of the situation blazed up at the touch of his presence, and even before I reached him it had rolled over me in a prodigious wave that I had lost nothing whatever. I can’t begin to say how the fact of his appearance crowned the communication my interlocutor had just made me, nor in what a bright confusion of many things I found myself facing poor Briss. One of these things was precisely that he had never been so much poor Briss as at this moment. That ministered to the confusion as well as to the brightness, for if his being there at all renewed my sources and replenished my current — spoke all, in short, for my gain — so, on the other hand, in the light of what I had just had from Obert, his particular aspect was something of a shock. I can’t present this especial impression better than by the mention of my instant certitude that what he had come for was to bring me a message and that somehow — yes, indubitably — this circumstance seemed to have placed him again at the very bottom of his hole. It was down in that depth that he let me see him — it was out of it that he delivered himself. Poor Briss! poor Briss! — I had asked myself before he spoke with what kindness enough I could meet him. Poor Briss! poor Briss! — I am not even now sure that I didn’t first meet him by that irrepressible murmur. It was in it all for me that, thus, at midnight, he had traversed on his errand the length of the great dark house. I trod with him, over the velvet and the marble, through the twists and turns, among the glooms and glimmers and echoes, every inch of the way, and I don’t know what humiliation, for him, was constituted there, between us, by his long pilgrimage. It was the final expression of his sacrifice.

“My wife has something to say to you.”

“Mrs. Briss? Good!” — and I could only hope the candour of my surprise was all I tried to make it. “Is she with you there?”

“No, but she has asked me to say to you that if you’ll presently be in the drawing-room she’ll come.”

Who could doubt, as I laid my hand on his shoulder, fairly patting it, in spite of myself, for applause — who could doubt where I would presently be? “It’s most uncommonly good of both of you.”

There was something in his inscrutable service that, making him almost august, gave my dissimulated eagerness the sound of a heartless compliment. I stood for the hollow chatter of the vulgar world, and he — oh, he was as serious as he was conscious; which was enough. “She says you’ll know what she wishes — and she was sure I’d find you here. So I may tell her you’ll come?”

His courtesy half broke my heart. “Why, my dear man, with all the pleasure ——! So many thousand thanks. I’ll be with her.”

“Thanks to you. She’ll be down. Good-night.” He looked round the room — at the two or three clusters of men, smoking, engaged, contented, on their easy seats and among their popped corks; he looked over an instant at Ford Obert, whose eyes, I thought, he momentarily held. It was absolutely as if, for me, he were seeking such things — out of what was closing over him — for the last time. Then he turned again to the door, which, just not to fail humanly to accompany him a step, I had opened. On the other side of it I took leave of him. The passage, though there was a light in the distance, was darker than the smoking-room, and I had drawn the door to.

“Good-night, Brissenden. I shall be gone to-morrow before you show.”

I shall never forget the way that, struck by my word, he let his white face fix me in the dusk. “‘Show’? What do I show?”

I had taken his hand for farewell, and, inevitably laughing, but as the falsest of notes, I gave it a shake. “You show nothing! You’re magnificent.”

He let me keep his hand while things unspoken and untouched, unspeakable and untouchable, everything that had been between us in the wood a few hours before, were between us again. But so we could only leave them, and, with a short, sharp “Good-bye!” he completely released himself. With my hand on the latch of the closed door I watched a minute his retreat along the passage, and I remember the reflection that, before rejoining Obert, I made on it. I seemed perpetually, at Newmarch, to be taking his measure from behind.

Ford Obert has since told me that when I came back to him there were tears in my eyes, and I didn’t know at the moment how much the words with which he met me took for granted my consciousness of them. “He looks a hundred years old!”

“Oh, but you should see his shoulders, always, as he goes off! Two centuries — ten! Isn’t it amazing?”

It was so amazing that, for a little, it made us reciprocally stare. “I should have thought,” he said, “that he would have been on the contrary —— ”

“Visibly rejuvenated? So should I. I must make it out,” I added. “I shall.”

But Obert, with less to go upon, couldn’t wait. It was wonderful, for that matter — and for all I had to go upon — how I myself could. I did so, at this moment, in my refreshed intensity, by the help of confusedly lighting another cigarette, which I should have no time to smoke. “I should have thought,” my friend continued, “that he too might have changed back.”

I took in, for myself, so much more of it than I could say! “Certainly. You wouldn’t have thought he would have changed forward.” Then with an impulse that bridged over an abyss of connections I jumped to another place. “Was what you most saw while you were there with her — was this that her misery, the misery you first phrased to me, has dropped?”

“Dropped, yes.” He was clear about it. “I called her beastly unhappy to you though I even then knew that beastly unhappiness wasn’t quite all of it. It was part of it, it was enough of it; for she was — well, no doubt you could tell me. Just now, at all events” — and recalling, reflecting, deciding, he used, with the strongest effect, as he so often did in painting, the simplest term — “just now she’s all right.”

“All right?”

He couldn’t know how much more than was possible my question gave him to answer. But he answered it on what he had; he repeated: “All right.”

I wondered, in spite of the comfort I took, as I had more than once in life had occasion to take it before, at the sight of the painter-sense deeply applied. My wonder came from the fact that Lady John had also found Mrs. Server all right, and Lady John had a vision as closed as Obert’s was open. It didn’t suit my book for both these observers to have been affected in the same way. “You mean you saw nothing whatever in her that was the least bit strange?”

“Oh, I won’t say as much as that. But nothing that was more strange than that she should be — well, after all, all right.”

“All there, eh?” I after an instant risked.

I couldn’t put it to him more definitely than that, though there was a temptation to try to do so. For Obert to have found her all there an hour or two after I had found her all absent, made me again, in my nervousness, feel even now a trifle menaced. Things had, from step to step, to hang together, and just here they seemed — with all allowances — to hang a little apart. My whole superstructure, I could only remember, reared itself on my view of Mrs. Server’s condition; but it was part of my predicament — really equal in its way to her own — that I couldn’t without dishonouring myself give my interlocutor a practical lead. The question of her happiness was essentially subordinate; what I stood or fell by was that of her faculty. But I couldn’t, on the other hand — and remain “straight” — insist to my friend on the whereabouts of this stolen property. If he hadn’t missed it in her for himself I mightn’t put him on the track of it; since, with the demonstration he had before my eyes received of the rate at which Long was, as one had to call it, intellectually living, nothing would be more natural than that he should make the cases fit. Now my personal problem, unaltered in the least particular by anything, was for me to have worked to the end without breathing in another ear that Long had been her lover. That was the only thing in the whole business that was simple. It made me cling an instant the more, both for bliss and bale, to the bearing of this fact of Obert’s insistence. Even as a sequel to his vision of her change, almost everything was wrong for her being all right except the one fact of my recent view, from the window, of the man unnamed. I saw him again sharply in these seconds, and to notice how he still kept clear of our company was almost to add certitude to the presumption of his rare reasons. Mrs. Server’s being now, by a wonderful turn, all right would at least decidedly offer to these reasons a basis. It would be something Long’s absence would fit. It would supply ground, in short, for the possibility that, by a process not less wonderful, he himself was all wrong. If he was all wrong my last impression of him would be amply accounted for. If he was all wrong — if he, in any case, felt himself going so — what more consequent than that he should have wished to hide it, and that the most immediate way for this should have seemed to him, markedly gregarious as he usually was, to keep away from the smokers? It came to me unspeakably that he was still hiding it and was keeping away. How, accordingly, must he not — and must not Mrs. Briss — have been in the spirit of this from the moment that, while I talked with Lady John, the sight of these two seated together had given me its message! But Obert’s answer to my guarded challenge had meanwhile come. “Oh, when a woman’s so clever ——!”

That was all, with its touch of experience and its hint of philosophy; but it was stupefying. She was already then positively again “so clever?” This was really more than I could as yet provide an explanation for, but I was pressed; Brissenden would have reached his wife’s room again, and I temporised. “It was her cleverness that held you so that when I passed you couldn’t look at me?”

He looked at me at present well enough. “I knew you were passing, but I wanted precisely to mark for you the difference. If you really want to know,” the poor man confessed, “I was a little ashamed of myself. I had given her away to you, you know, rather, before.”

“And you were bound you wouldn’t do it again?”

He smiled in his now complete candour. “Ah, there was no reason.” Then he used, happily, to right himself, my own expression. “She was all there.”

“I see — I see.” Yet I really didn’t see enough not to have for an instant to turn away.

“Where are you going?” he asked.

“To do what Brissenden came to me for.”

“But I don’t know, you see, what Brissenden came to you for.”

“Well, with a message. She was to have seen me this evening, but, as she gave me no chance, I was afraid I had lost it and that, so rather awkwardly late, she didn’t venture. But what he arrived for just now, at her request, was to say she does venture.”

My companion stared. “At this extraordinary hour?”

“Ah, the hour,” I laughed, “is no more extraordinary than any other part of the business: no more so, for instance, than this present talk of yours and mine. What part of the business isn’t extraordinary? If it is, at all events, remarkably late, that’s her fault.”

Yet he not unnaturally, in spite of my explanation, continued to wonder. “And — a — where is it then you meet?”

“Oh, in the drawing-room or the hall. So good-night.”

He got up to it, moving with me to the door; but his mystification, little as I could, on the whole, soothe it, still kept me. “The household sits up for you?”

I wondered myself, but found an assurance. “She must have squared the household! And it won’t probably take us very long.”

His mystification frankly confessed itself, at this, plain curiosity. The ground of such a conference, for all the point I had given his ingenuity, simply baffled him. “Do you mean you propose to discuss with her ——?”

“My dear fellow,” I smiled with my hand on the door, “it’s she — don’t you see? — who proposes.”

“But what in the world ——?”

“Oh, that I shall have to wait to tell you.”

“With all the other things?” His face, while he sounded mine, seemed to say that I must then take his expectation as serious. But it seemed to say also that he was — definitely, yes — more at a loss than consorted with being quite sure of me. “Well, it will make a lot, really ——!” But he broke off. “You do,” he sighed with an effort at resignation, “know more than I!”

“And haven’t I admitted that?”

“I’ll be hanged if you don’t know who he is!” the poor fellow, for all answer, now produced.

He said it as if I had, after all, not been playing fair, and it made me for an instant hesitate. “No, I really don’t know. But it’s exactly what I shall perhaps now learn.”

“You mean that what she has proposed is to tell you?”

His darkness had so deepened that I saw only now what I should have seen sooner — the misconception that, in my excessive estimate of the distance he had come with me, I had not at first caught. But it was a misconception that only enriched his testimony; it involved such a conviction of the new link between our two sacrificed friends that it immediately constituted for me the strongest light he would, in our whole talk, have thrown. Yes, he had not yet thrown so much as in this erroneous supposition of the source of my summons. It took me of course, at the same time, but a few seconds to remind myself again of the innumerable steps he had necessarily missed. His question meanwhile, rightly applied by my own thought, brought back to that thought, by way of answer, an immense suggestion, which moreover, for him too, was temporarily answer enough. “She’ll tell me who he won’t have been!”

He looked vague. “Ah, but that —— ”

“That,” I declared, “will be luminous.”

He made it out. “As a sign, you think, that he must be the very one she denies?”

“The very one!” I laughed; and I left him under this simple and secure impression that my appointment was with Mrs. Server.

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