The Sacred Fount, by Henry James


I have said that I did many things on this wonderful day, but perhaps the simplest way to describe the rest of them is as a sustained attempt to avert that disaster. I succeeded, by vigilance, in preventing my late companion from carrying Mrs. Server off: I had no wish to see her studied — by anyone but myself at least — in the light of my theory. I felt by this time that I understood my theory, but I was not obliged to believe that Mrs. Brissenden did. I am afraid I must frankly confess that I called deception to my aid; to separate the two ladies I gave the more initiated a look in which I invited her to read volumes. This look, or rather the look she returned, comes back to me as the first note of a tolerably tight, tense little drama, a little drama of which our remaining hours at Newmarch were the all too ample stage. She understood me, as I meant, that she had better leave me to get at the truth — owing me some obligation, as she did, for so much of it as I had already communicated. This step was of course a tacit pledge that she should have the rest from me later on. I knew of some pictures in one of the rooms that had not been lighted the previous evening, and I made these my pretext for the effect I desired. I asked Mrs. Server if she wouldn’t come and see them with me, admitting at the same time that I could scarce expect her to forgive me for my share in the invasion of the quiet corner in which poor Briss had evidently managed so to interest her.

“Oh, yes,” she replied as we went our way, “he had managed to interest me. Isn’t he curiously interesting? But I hadn’t,” she continued on my being too struck with her question for an immediate answer — “I hadn’t managed to interest him. Of course you know why!” she laughed. “No one interests him but Lady John, and he could think of nothing, while I kept him there, but of how soon he could return to her.”

These remarks — of which I give rather the sense than the form, for they were a little scattered and troubled, and I helped them out and pieced them together — these remarks had for me, I was to find, unexpected suggestions, not all of which was I prepared on the spot to take up. “And is Lady John interested in our friend?”

“Not, I suppose, given her situation, so much as he would perhaps desire. You don’t know what her situation is?” she went on while I doubtless appeared to be sunk in innocence. “Isn’t it rather marked that there’s only one person she’s interested in?”

“One person?” I was thoroughly at sea.

But we had reached with it the great pictured saloon with which I had proposed to assist her to renew acquaintance and in which two visitors had anticipated us. “Why, here he is!” she exclaimed as we paused, for admiration, in the doorway. The high frescoed ceiling arched over a floor so highly polished that it seemed to reflect the faded pastels set, in rococo borders, in the walls and constituting the distinction of the place. Our companions, examining together one of the portraits and turning their backs, were at the opposite end, and one of them was Gilbert Long.

I immediately named the other. “Do you mean Ford Obert?”

She gave me, with a laugh, one of her beautiful looks. “Yes!”

It was answer enough for the moment, and the manner of it showed me to what legend she was committed. I asked myself, while the two men faced about to meet us, why she was committed to it, and I further considered that if Grace Brissenden, against every appearance, was right, there would now be something for me to see. Which of the two — the agent or the object of the sacrifice — would take most precautions? I kept my companion purposely, for a little while, on our side of the room, leaving the others, interested in their observations, to take their time to join us. It gave me occasion to wonder if the question mightn’t be cleared up on the spot. There was no question, I had compunctiously made up my mind, for Mrs. Server; but now I should see the proof of that conclusion. The proof of it would be, between her and her imputed lover, the absence of anything that was not perfectly natural. Mrs. Server, with her eyes raised to the painted dome, with response charmed almost to solemnity in her exquisite face, struck me at this moment, I had to concede, as more than ever a person to have a lover imputed. The place, save for its pictures of later date, a triumph of the florid decoration of two centuries ago, evidently met her special taste, and a kind of profane piety had dropped on her, drizzling down, in the cold light, in silver, in crystal, in faint, mixed delicacies of colour, almost as on a pilgrim at a shrine. I don’t know what it was in her — save, that is, the positive pitch of delicacy in her beauty — that made her, so impressed and presented, indescribably touching. She was like an awestruck child; she might have been herself — all Greuze tints, all pale pinks and blues and pearly whites and candid eyes — an old dead pastel under glass.

She was not too reduced to this state, however, not to take, soon enough, her own precaution — if a precaution it was to be deemed. I was acutely conscious that the naturalness to which I have just alluded would be, for either party, the only precaution worth speaking of. We moved slowly round the room, pausing here and there for curiosity; during which time the two men remained where we had found them. She had begun at last to watch them and had proposed that we should see in what they were so absorbed; but I checked her in the movement, raising my hand in a friendly admonition to wait. We waited then, face to face, looking at each other as if to catch a strain of music. This was what I had intended, for it had just come to me that one of the voices was in the air and that it had imposed close attention. The distinguished painter listened while — to all appearance — Gilbert Long did, in the presence of the picture, the explaining. Ford Obert moved, after a little, but not so as to interrupt — only so as to show me his face in a recall of what had passed between us the night before in the smoking-room. I turned my eyes from Mrs. Server’s; I allowed myself to commune a little, across the shining space, with those of our fellow-auditor. The occasion had thus for a minute the oddest little air of an aesthetic lecture prompted by accidental, but immense, suggestions and delivered by Gilbert Long.

I couldn’t, at the distance, with my companion, quite follow it, but Obert was clearly patient enough to betray that he was struck. His impression was at any rate doubtless his share of surprise at Long’s gift of talk. This was what his eyes indeed most seemed to throw over to me — “What an unexpected demon of a critic!” It was extraordinarily interesting — I don’t mean the special drift of Long’s eloquence, which I couldn’t, as I say, catch; but the phenomenon of his, of all people, dealing in that article. It put before me the question of whether, in these strange relations that I believed I had thus got my glimpse of, the action of the person “sacrificed” mightn’t be quite out of proportion to the resources of that person. It was as if these elements might really multiply in the transfer made of them; as if the borrower practically found himself — or herself — in possession of a greater sum than the known property of the creditor. The surrender, in this way, added, by pure beauty, to the thing surrendered. We all know the French adage about that plus belle fille du monde who can give but what she has; yet if Mrs. Server, for instance, had been the heroine of this particular connection, the communication of her intelligence to her friend would quite have falsified it. She would have given much more than she had.

When Long had finished his demonstration and his charged voice had dropped, we crossed to claim acquaintance with the work that had inspired him. The place had not been completely new to Mrs. Server any more than to myself, and the impression now made on her was but the intenser vibration of a chord already stirred; nevertheless I was struck with her saying, as a result of more remembrance than I had attributed to her “Oh yes, — the man with the mask in his hand!” On our joining the others I expressed regret at our having turned up too late for the ideas that, on a theme so promising, they would have been sure to produce, and Obert, quite agreeing that we had lost a treat, said frankly, in reference to Long, but addressing himself more especially to Mrs. Server: “He’s perfectly amazing, you know — he’s perfectly amazing!”

I observed that as a consequence of this Long looked neither at Mrs. Server nor at Obert; he looked only at me, and with quite a penetrable shade of shyness. Then again a strange thing happened, a stranger thing even than my quick sense, the previous afternoon at the station, that he was a changed man. It was as if he were still more changed — had altered as much since the evening before as during the so much longer interval of which I had originally to take account. He had altered almost like Grace Brissenden — he looked fairly distinguished. I said to myself that, without his stature and certain signs in his dress, I should probably not have placed him. Engrossed an instant with this view and with not losing touch of the uneasiness that I conceived I had fastened on him, I became aware only after she had spoken that Mrs. Server had gaily and gracefully asked of Obert why in the world so clever a man should not have been clever. “Obert,” I accordingly took upon myself to remark, “had evidently laboured under some extraordinary delusion. He must literally have doubted if Long was clever.”

“Fancy!” Mrs. Server explained with a charming smile at Long, who, still looking pleasantly competent and not too fatuous, amiably returned it.

“They’re natural, they’re natural,” I privately reflected; “that is, he’s natural to her, but he’s not so to me.” And as if seeing depths in this, and to try it, I appealed to him. “Do, my dear man, let us have it again. It’s the picture, of all pictures, that most needs an interpreter. Don’t we want,” I asked of Mrs. Server, “to know what it means?” The figure represented is a young man in black — a quaint, tight black dress, fashioned in years long past; with a pale, lean, livid face and a stare, from eyes without eyebrows, like that of some whitened old-world clown. In his hand he holds an object that strikes the spectator at first simply as some obscure, some ambiguous work of art, but that on a second view becomes a representation of a human face, modelled and coloured, in wax, in enamelled metal, in some substance not human. The object thus appears a complete mask, such as might have been fantastically fitted and worn.

“Yes, what in the world does it mean?” Mrs. Server replied. “One could call it — though that doesn’t get one much further — the Mask of Death.”

“Why so?” I demanded while we all again looked at the picture. “Isn’t it much rather the Mask of Life? It’s the man’s own face that’s Death. The other one, blooming and beautiful —— ”

“Ah, but with an awful grimace!” Mrs. Server broke in.

“The other one, blooming and beautiful,” I repeated, “is Life, and he’s going to put it on; unless indeed he has just taken it off.”

“He’s dreadful, he’s awful — that’s what I mean,” said Mrs. Server. “But what does Mr. Long think?”

“The artificial face, on the other hand,” I went on, as Long now said nothing, “is extremely studied and, when you carefully look at it, charmingly pretty. I don’t see the grimace.”

“I don’t see anything else!” Mrs. Server good-humouredly insisted. “And what does Mr. Obert think?”

He kept his eyes on her a moment before replying. “He thinks it looks like a lovely lady.”

“That grinning mask? What lovely lady?”

“It does,” I declared to him, really seeing what he meant — “it does look remarkably like Mrs. Server.”

She laughed, but forgivingly. “I’m immensely obliged. You deserve,” she continued to me, “that I should say the gentleman’s own face is the image of a certain other gentleman’s.”

“It isn’t the image of yours,” Obert said to me, fitting the cap, “but it’s a funny thing that it should really recall to one some face among us here, on this occasion — I mean some face in our party — that I can’t think of.” We had our eyes again on the ominous figure. “We’ve seen him yesterday — we’ve seen him already this morning.” Obert, oddly enough, still couldn’t catch it. “Who the deuce is it?”

“I know,” I returned after a moment — our friend’s reference having again, in a flash, become illuminating. “But nothing would induce me to tell.”

“If I were the flattered individual,” Long observed, speaking for the first time, “I’ve an idea that you’d give me the benefit of the compliment. Therefore it’s probably not me.”

“Oh, it’s not you in the least,” Mrs. Server blandly took upon herself to observe. “This face is so bad —— ”

“And mine is so good?” our companion laughed. “Thank you for saving me!”

I watched them look at each other, for there had been as yet between them no complete exchange. Yes, they were natural. I couldn’t have made it out that they were not. But there was something, all the same, that I wanted to know, and I put it immediately to Long. “Why do you bring against me such an accusation?”

He met the question — singularly enough — as if his readiness had suddenly deserted him. “I don’t know!” — and he turned off to another picture.

It left the three of us all the more confronted with the conundrum launched by Obert, and Mrs. Server’s curiosity remained. “Do name,” she said to me, “the flattered individual.”

“No, it’s a responsibility I leave to Obert.”

But he was clearly still at fault; he was like a man desiring, but unable, to sneeze. “I see the fellow — yet I don’t. Never mind.” He turned away too. “He’ll come to me.”

“The resemblance,” said Long, on this, at a distance from us and not turning, “the resemblance, which I shouldn’t think would puzzle anyone, is simply to ‘poor Briss’!”

“Oh, of course!” — and Obert gave a jump round.

“Ah — I do see it,” Mrs. Server conceded with her head on one side, but as if speaking rather for harmony.

I didn’t believe she saw it, but that only made her the more natural; which was also the air she had on going to join Long, in his new contemplation, after I had admitted that it was of Brissenden I myself had thought. Obert and I remained together in the presence of the Man with the Mask, and, the others being out of earshot, he reminded me that I had promised him the night before in the smoking-room to give him to-day the knowledge I had then withheld. If I had announced that I was on the track of a discovery, pray had I made it yet, and what was it, at any rate, that I proposed to discover? I felt now, in truth, more uncomfortable than I had expected in being kept to my obligation, and I beat about the bush a little till, instead of meeting it, I was able to put the natural question: “What wonderful things was Long just saying to you?”

“Oh, characteristic ones enough — whimsical, fanciful, funny. The things he says, you know.”

It was indeed a fresh view. “They strike you as characteristic?”

“Of the man himself and his type of mind? Surely. Don’t you? He talks to talk, but he’s really amusing.”

I was watching our companions. “Indeed he is — extraordinarily amusing.” It was highly interesting to me to hear at last of Long’s “type of mind.” “See how amusing he is at the present moment to Mrs. Server.”

Obert took this in; she was convulsed, in the extravagance always so pretty as to be pardonable, with laughter, and she even looked over at us as if to intimate with her shining, lingering eyes that we wouldn’t be surprised at her transports if we suspected what her entertainer, whom she had never known for such a humourist, was saying. Instead of going to find out, all the same, we remained another minute together. It was for me, now, I could see, that Obert had his best attention. “What’s the matter with them?”

It startled me almost as much as if he had asked me what was the matter with myself — for that something was, under this head, I was by this time unable to ignore. Not twenty minutes had elapsed since our meeting with Mrs. Server on the terrace had determined Grace Brissenden’s elation, but it was a fact that my nervousness had taken an extraordinary stride. I had perhaps not till this instant been fully aware of it — it was really brought out by the way Obert looked at me as if he fancied he had heard me shake. Mrs. Server might be natural, and Gilbert Long might be, but I should not preserve that calm unless I pulled myself well together. I made the effort, facing my sharp interlocutor; and I think it was at this point that I fully measured my dismay. I had grown — that was what was the matter with me — precipitately, preposterously anxious. Instead of dropping, the discomfort produced in me by Mrs. Brissenden had deepened to agitation, and this in spite of the fact that in the brief interval nothing worse, nothing but what was right, had happened. Had I myself suddenly fallen so much in love with Mrs. Server that the care for her reputation had become with me an obsession? It was of no use saying I simply pitied her: what did I pity her for if she wasn’t in danger? She was in danger: that rushed over me at present — rushed over me while I tried to look easy and delayed to answer my friend. She was in danger — if only because she had caught and held the search-light of Obert’s attention. I took up his inquiry. “The matter with them? I don’t know anything but that they’re young and handsome and happy — children, as who should say, of the world; children of leisure and pleasure and privilege.”

Obert’s eyes went back to them. “Do you remember what I said to you about her yesterday afternoon? She darts from flower to flower, but she clings, for the time, to each. You’ve been feeling, I judge, the force of my remark.”

“Oh, she didn’t at all ‘dart,’” I replied, “just now at me. I darted, much rather, at her.”

“Long didn’t, then,” Obert said, still with his eyes on them.

I had to wait a moment. “Do you mean he struck you as avoiding her?”

He in turn considered. “He struck me as having noticed with what intensity, ever since we came down, she has kept alighting. She inaugurated it, the instant she arrived, with me, and every man of us has had his turn. I dare say it’s only fair, certainly, that Long should have.”

“He’s lucky to get it, the brute! She’s as charming as she can possibly be.”

“That’s it, precisely; and it’s what no woman ought to be — as charming as she possibly can! — more than once or twice in her life. This lady is so every blessed minute, and to every blessed male. It’s as if she were too awfully afraid one wouldn’t take it in. If she but knew how one does! However,” my friend continued, “you’ll recollect that we differed about her yesterday — and what does it signify? One should of course bear lightly on anything so light. But I stick to it that she’s different.”

I pondered. “Different from whom?”

“Different from herself — as she was when I painted her. There’s something the matter with her.”

“Ah, then, it’s for me to ask you what. I don’t myself, you see, perceive it.”

He made for a little no answer, and we were both indeed by this time taken up with the withdrawal of the two other members of our group. They moved away together across the shining floor, pausing, looking up at the painted vault, saying the inevitable things — bringing off their retreat, in short, in the best order. It struck me somehow as a retreat, and yet I insisted to myself, once more, on its being perfectly natural. At the high door, which stood open, they stopped a moment and looked back at us — looked frankly, sociably, as if in consciousness of our sympathetic attention. Mrs. Server waved, as in temporary farewell, a free explanatory hand at me; she seemed to explain that she was now trying somebody else. Obert moreover added his explanation. “That’s the way she collars us.”

“Oh, Long doesn’t mind,” I said. “But what’s the way she strikes you as different?”

“From what she was when she sat to me? Well, a part of it is that she can’t keep still. She was as still then as if she had been paid for it. Now she’s all over the place.” But he came back to something else. “I like your talking, my dear man, of what you ‘don’t perceive.’ I’ve yet to find out what that remarkable quantity is. What you do perceive has at all events given me so much to think about that it doubtless ought to serve me for the present. I feel I ought to let you know that you’ve made me also perceive the Brissendens.” I of course remembered what I had said to him, but it was just this that now touched my uneasiness, and I only echoed the name, a little blankly, with the instinct of gaining time. “You put me on them wonderfully,” Obert continued, “though of course I’ve kept your idea to myself. All the same it sheds a great light.”

I could again but feebly repeat it. “A great light?”

“As to what may go on even between others still. It’s a jolly idea — a torch in the darkness; and do you know what I’ve done with it? I’ve held it up, I don’t mind telling you, to just the question of the change, since this interests you, in Mrs. Server. If you’ve got your mystery I’ll be hanged if I won’t have mine. If you’ve got your Brissendens I shall see what I can do with her. You’ve given me an analogy, and I declare I find it dazzling. I don’t see the end of what may be done with it. If Brissenden’s paying for his wife, for her amazing second bloom, who’s paying for Mrs. Server? Isn’t that — what do the newspapers call it? — the missing word? Isn’t it perhaps in fact just what you told me last night you were on the track of? But don’t add now,” he went on, more and more amused with his divination, “don’t add now that the man’s obviously Gilbert Long — for I won’t be put off with anything of the sort. She collared him much too markedly. The real man must be one she doesn’t markedly collar.”

“But I thought that what you a moment ago made out was that she so markedly collars all of us.” This was my immediate reply to Obert’s blaze of ingenuity, but I none the less saw more things in it than I could reply to. I saw, at any rate, and saw with relief, that if he should look on the principle suggested to him by the case of the Brissendens, there would be no danger at all of his finding it. If, accordingly, I was nervous for Mrs. Server, all I had to do was to keep him on this false scent. Since it was not she who was paid for, but she who possibly paid, his fancy might harmlessly divert him till the party should disperse. At the same time, in the midst of these reflections, the question of the “change” in her, which he was in so much better a position than I to measure, couldn’t help having for me its portent, and the sense of that was, no doubt, in my next words. “What makes you think that what you speak of was what I had in my head?”

“Well, the way, simply, that the shoe fits. She’s absolutely not the same person I painted. It’s exactly like Mrs. Brissenden’s having been for you yesterday not the same person you had last seen bearing her name.”

“Very good,” I returned, “though I didn’t in the least mean to set you digging so hard. However, dig on your side, by all means, while I dig on mine. All I ask of you is complete discretion.”

“Ah, naturally!”

“We ought to remember,” I pursued, even at the risk of showing as too sententious, “that success in such an inquiry may perhaps be more embarrassing than failure. To nose about for a relation that a lady has her reasons for keeping secret —— ”

“Is made not only quite inoffensive, I hold” — he immediately took me up — “but positively honourable, by being confined to psychologic evidence.”

I wondered a little. “Honourable to whom?”

“Why, to the investigator. Resting on the kind of signs that the game takes account of when fairly played — resting on psychologic signs alone, it’s a high application of intelligence. What’s ignoble is the detective and the keyhole.”

“I see,” I after a moment admitted. “I did have, last night, my scruples, but you warm me up. Yet I confess also,” I still added, “that if I do muster the courage of my curiosity, it’s a little because I feel even yet, as I think you also must, altogether destitute of a material clue. If I had a material clue I should feel ashamed: the fact would be deterrent. I start, for my part, at any rate, quite in the dark — or in a darkness lighted, at best, by what you have called the torch of my analogy. The analogy too,” I wound up, “may very well be only half a help. It was easy to find poor Briss, because poor Briss is here, and it’s always easy, moreover, to find a husband. But say Mrs. Server’s poor Briss — or his equivalent, whoever it may be — isn’t here.”

We had begun to walk away with this, but my companion pulled up at the door of the room. “I’m sure he is. She tells me he’s near.”

“‘Tells’ you?” I challenged it, but I uncomfortably reflected that it was just what I had myself told Mrs. Brissenden.

“She wouldn’t be as she is if he weren’t. Her being as she is is the sign of it. He wasn’t present — that is he wasn’t present in her life at all — when I painted her; and the difference we’re impressed with is exactly the proof that he is now.”

My difficulty in profiting by the relief he had so unconsciously afforded me resided of course in my not feeling free to show for quite as impressed as he was. I hadn’t really made out at all what he was impressed with, and I should only have spoiled everything by inviting him to be definite. This was a little of a worry, for I should have liked to know; but on the other hand I felt my track at present effectually covered. “Well, then, grant he’s one of us. There are more than a dozen of us — a dozen even with you and me and Brissenden counted out. The hitch is that we’re nowhere without a primary lead. As to Brissenden there was the lead.”

“You mean as afforded by his wife’s bloated state, which was a signal ——?”

“Precisely: for the search for something or other that would help to explain it. Given his wife’s bloated state, his own shrunken one was what was to have been predicated. I knew definitely, in other words, what to look for.”

“Whereas we don’t know here?”

“Mrs. Server’s state, unfortunately,” I replied, “is not bloated.”

He laughed at my “unfortunately,” though recognising that I spoke merely from the point of view of lucidity, and presently remarked that he had his own idea. He didn’t say what it was, and I didn’t ask, intimating thereby that I held it to be in this manner we were playing the game; but I indulgently questioned it in the light of its not yet having assisted him. He answered that the minutes we had just passed were what had made the difference; it had sprung from the strong effect produced on him after she came in with me. “It’s but now I really see her. She did and said nothing special, nothing striking or extraordinary; but that didn’t matter — it never does: one saw how she is. She’s nothing but that.”

“Nothing but what?”

“She’s all in it,” he insisted. “Or it’s all in her. It comes to the same thing.”

“Of course it’s all in her,” I said as impatiently as I could, though his attestation — for I wholly trusted his perception — left me so much in his debt. “That’s what we start with, isn’t it? It leaves us as far as ever from what we must arrive at.”

But he was too interested in his idea to heed my question. He was wrapped in the “psychologic” glow. “I have her!”

“Ah, but it’s a question of having him!”

He looked at me on this as if I had brought him back to a mere detail, and after an instant the light went out of his face. “So it is. I leave it to you. I don’t care.” His drop had the usual suddenness of the drops of the artistic temperament. “Look for the last man,” he nevertheless, but with more detachment, added. “I daresay it would be he.”

“The last? In what sense the last?”

“Well, the last sort of creature who could be believed of her.”

“Oh,” I rejoined as we went on, “the great bar to that is that such a sort of creature as the last won’t be here!”

He hesitated. “So much the better. I give him, at any rate, wherever he is, up to you.”

“Thank you,” I returned, “for the beauty of the present! You do see, then, that our psychologic glow doesn’t, after all, prevent the thing —— ”

“From being none of one’s business? Yes. Poor little woman!” He seemed somehow satisfied; he threw it all up. “It isn’t any of one’s business, is it?”

“Why, that’s what I was telling you,” I impatiently exclaimed, “that I feel!”

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