The Sacred Fount, by Henry James


The first thing that happened to me after parting with him was to find myself again engaged with Mrs. Brissenden, still full of the quick conviction with which I had left her. “It is she — quite unmistakably, you know. I don’t see how I can have been so stupid as not to make it out. I haven’t your cleverness, of course, till my nose is rubbed into a thing. But when it is —!” She celebrated her humility in a laugh that was proud. “The two are off together.”

“Off where?”

“I don’t know where, but I saw them a few minutes ago most distinctly ‘slope.’ They’ve gone for a quiet, unwatched hour, poor dears, out into the park or the gardens. When one knows it, it’s all there. But what’s that vulgar song? — ‘You’ve got to know it first!’ It strikes me, if you don’t mind my telling you so, that the way you get hold of things is positively uncanny. I mean as regards what first marked her for you.”

“But, my dear lady,” I protested, “nothing at all first marked her for me. She isn’t marked for me, first or last. It was only you who so jumped at her.”

My interlocutress stared, and I had at this moment, I remember, an almost intolerable sense of her fatuity and cruelty. They were all unconscious, but they were, at that stage, none the less irritating. Her fine bosom heaved, her blue eyes expanded with her successful, her simplified egotism. I couldn’t, in short, I found, bear her being so keen about Mrs. Server while she was so stupid about poor Briss. She seemed to recall to me nobly the fact that she hadn’t a lover. No, she was only eating poor Briss up inch by inch, but she hadn’t a lover. “I don’t,” I insisted, “see in Mrs. Server any of the right signs.”

She looked almost indignant. “Even after your telling me that you see in Lady John only the wrong ones?”

“Ah, but there are other women here than Mrs. Server and Lady John.”

“Certainly. But didn’t we, a moment ago, think of them all and dismiss them? If Lady John’s out of the question, how can Mrs. Server possibly not be in it? We want a fool —— ”

“Ah, do we?” I interruptingly wailed.

“Why, exactly by your own theory, in which you’ve so much interested me! It was you who struck off the idea.”

“That we want a fool?” I felt myself turning gloomy enough. “Do we really want anyone at all?”

She gave me, in momentary silence, a strange smile. “Ah, you want to take it back now? You’re sorry you spoke. My dear man, you may be —— ” but that didn’t hinder the fact, in short, that I had kindled near me a fine, if modest and timid, intelligence. There did remain the truth of our friend’s striking development, to which I had called her attention. Regretting my rashness didn’t make the prodigy less. “You’ll lead me to believe, if you back out, that there’s suddenly someone you want to protect. Weak man,” she exclaimed with an assurance from which, I confess, I was to take alarm, “something has happened to you since we separated! Weak man,” she repeated with dreadful gaiety, “you’ve been squared!”

I literally blushed for her. “Squared?”

“Does it inconveniently happen that you find you’re in love with her yourself?”

“Well,” I replied on quick reflection, “do, if you like, call it that; for you see what a motive it gives me for being, in such a matter as this wonderful one that you and I happened to find ourselves for a moment making so free with, absolutely sure about her. I am absolutely sure. There! She won’t do. And for your postulate that she’s at the present moment in some sequestered spot in Long’s company, suffer me without delay to correct it. It won’t hold water. If you’ll go into the library, through which I have just passed, you’ll find her there in the company of the Comte de Dreuil.”

Mrs. Briss stared again. “Already? She was, at any rate, with Mr. Long, and she told me on my meeting them that they had just come from the pastels.”

“Exactly. They met there — she and I having gone together; and they retired together under my eyes. They must have parted, clearly, the moment after.”

She took it all in, turned it all over. “Then what does that prove but that they’re afraid to be seen?”

“Ah, they’re not afraid, since both you and I saw them!”

“Oh, only just long enough for them to publish themselves as not avoiding each other. All the same, you know,” she said, “they do.”

“Do avoid each other? How is your belief in that,” I asked, “consistent with your belief that they parade together in the park?”

“They ignore each other in public; they foregather in private.”

“Ah, but they don’t — since, as I tell you, she’s even while we talk the centre of the mystic circle of the twaddle of M. de Dreuil; chained to a stake if you can be. Besides,” I wound up, “it’s not only that she’s not the ‘right fool’ — it’s simply that she’s not a fool at all. We want the woman who has been rendered most inane. But this lady hasn’t been rendered so in any degree. She’s the reverse of inane. She’s in full possession.”

“In full possession of what?”

“Why, of herself.”

“Like Lady John?”

I had unfortunately to discriminate here. “No, not like Lady John.”

“Like whom then?”

“Like anyone. Like me; like you; like Brissenden. Don’t I satisfy you?” I asked in a moment.

She only looked at me a little, handsome and hard. “If you wished to satisfy me so easily you shouldn’t have made such a point of working me up. I daresay I, after all, however,” she added, “notice more things than you.”

“As for instance?”

“Well, May Server last evening. I was not quite conscious at the time that I did, but when one has had the ‘tip’ one looks back and sees things in a new light.”

It was doubtless because my friend irritated me more and more that I met this with a sharpness possibly excessive. “She’s perfectly natural. What I saw was a test. And so is he.”

But she gave me no heed. “If there hadn’t been so many people I should have noticed of myself after dinner that there was something the matter with her. I should have seen what it was. She was all over the place.”

She expressed it as the poor lady’s other critic had done, but this didn’t shut my mouth. “Ah, then, in spite of the people, you did notice. What do you mean by ‘all over the place’?”

“She couldn’t keep still. She was different from the woman one had last seen. She used to be so calm — as if she were always sitting for her portrait. Wasn’t she in fact always being painted in a pink frock and one row of pearls, always staring out at you in exhibitions, as if she were saying ‘Here they are again’? Last night she was on the rush.”

“The rush? Oh!”

“Yes, positively — from one man to another. She was on the pounce. She talked to ten in succession, making up to them in the most extraordinary way and leaving them still more crazily. She’s as nervous as a cat. Put it to any man here, and see if he doesn’t tell you.”

“I should think it quite unpleasant to put it to any man here,” I returned; “and I should have been sure you would have thought it the same. I spoke to you in the deepest confidence.”

Mrs. Brissenden’s look at me was for a moment of the least accommodating; then it changed to an intelligent smile. “How you are protecting her! But don’t cry out,” she added, “before you’re hurt. Since your confidence has distinguished me — though I don’t quite see why — you may be sure I haven’t breathed. So I all the more resent your making me a scene on the extraordinary ground that I’ve observed as well as yourself. Perhaps what you don’t like is that my observation may be turned on you. I confess it is.”

It was difficult to bear being put in the wrong by her, but I made an effort that I believe was not unsuccessful to recover my good humour. “It’s not in the least to your observation that I object, it’s to the extravagant inferences you draw from it. Of course, however, I admit I always want to protect the innocent. What does she gain, on your theory, by her rushing and pouncing? Had she pounced on Brissenden when we met him with her? Are you so very sure he hadn’t pounced on her? They had, at all events, to me, quite the air of people settled; she was not, it was clear, at that moment meditating a change. It was we, if you remember, who had absolutely to pull them apart.”

“Is it your idea to make out,” Mrs. Brissenden inquired in answer to this, “that she has suddenly had the happy thought of a passion for my husband?”

A new possibility, as she spoke, came to me with a whirr of wings, and I half expressed it. “She may have a sympathy.”

My interlocutress gazed at space. “You mean she may be sorry for him? On what ground?”

I had gone too far indeed; but I got off as I could. “You neglect him so! But what is she, at any rate,” I went on, “nervous — as nervous as you describe her — about?”

“About her danger; the contingency of its being fixed upon them — an intimacy so thoroughgoing that they can scarcely afford to let it be seen even as a mere acquaintance. Think of the circumstances — her personal ones, I mean, and admit that it wouldn’t do. It would be too bad a case. There’s everything to make it so. They must live on pins and needles. Anything proved would go tremendously hard for her.”

“In spite of which you’re surprised that I ‘protect’ her?”

It was a question, however, that my companion could meet. “From people in general, no. From me in particular, yes.”

In justice to Mrs. Brissenden I thought a moment. “Well, then, let us be fair all round. That you don’t, as you say, breathe is a discretion I appreciate; all the more that a little inquiry, tactfully pursued, would enable you to judge whether any independent suspicion does attach. A little loose collateral evidence might be picked up; and your scorning to handle it is no more than I should, after all, have expected of you.”

“Thank you for ‘after all’!” My companion tossed her head. “I know for myself what I scorn to handle. Quite apart from that there’s another matter. You must have noticed yourself that when people are so much liked —— ”

“There’s a kind of general, amiable consensus of blindness? Yes — one can think of cases. Popularity shelters and hallows — has the effect of making a good-natured world agree not to see.”

My friend seemed pleased that I so sufficiently understood. “This evidently has been a case then in which it has not only agreed not to see, but agreed not even to look. It has agreed in fact to look straight the other way. They say there’s no smoke without fire, but it appears there may be fire without smoke. I’m satisfied, at all events, that one wouldn’t in connection with these two find the least little puff. Isn’t that just what makes the magnificence of their success — the success that reduces us to playing over them with mere moonshine?” She thought of it; seemed fairly to envy it. “I’ve never seen such luck!”

“A rare case of the beauty of impunity as impunity?” I laughed. “Such a case puts a price on passions otherwise to be deprecated? I’m glad indeed you admit we’re ‘reduced.’ We are reduced. But what I meant to say just now was that if you’ll continue to join in the genial conspiracy while I do the same — each of us making an exception only for the other — I’ll pledge myself absolutely to the straight course. If before we separate I’ve seen reason to change my mind, I’ll loyally let you know.”

“What good will that do me,” she asked, “if you don’t change your mind? You won’t change it if you shut your eyes to her.”

“Ah, I feel I can’t do that now. I am interested. The proof of that is,” I pursued, “that I appeal to you for another impression of your own. I still don’t see the logic of her general importunity.”

“The logic is simply that she has a terror of appearing to encourage anyone in particular.”

“Why then isn’t it in her own interest, for the sake of the screen, just to do that? The appearance of someone in particular would be exactly the opposite of the appearance of Long. Your own admission is that that’s his line with Lady John.”

Mrs. Brissenden took her view. “Oh, she doesn’t want to do anything so like the real thing. And, as for what he does, they don’t feel in the same way. He’s not nervous.”

“Then why does he go in for a screen?”

“I mean” — she readily modified it — “that he’s not so nervous as May. He hasn’t the same reasons for panic. A man never has. Besides, there’s not so much in Mr. Long to show —— ”

“What, by my notion, has taken place? Why not, if it was precisely by the change in him that my notion was inspired? Any change in her I know comparatively little about.”

We hovered so near the case of Mr. and Mrs. Brissenden that it positively excited me, and all the more for her sustained unconsciousness. “Oh, the man’s not aware of his own change. He doesn’t see it as we do. It’s all to his advantage.”

“But we see it to his advantage. How should that prevent?”

“We see it to the advantage of his mind and his talk, but not to that of —— ”

“Well, what?” I pressed as she pulled up.

She was thinking how to name such mysteries. “His delicacy. His consideration. His thought for her. He would think for her if he weren’t selfish. But he is selfish — too much so to spare her, to be generous, to realise. It’s only, after all,” she sagely went on, feeding me again, as I winced to feel, with profundity of my own sort, “it’s only an excessive case, a case that in him happens to show as what the doctors call ‘fine,’ of what goes on whenever two persons are so much mixed up. One of them always gets more out of it than the other. One of them — you know the saying — gives the lips, the other gives the cheek.”

“It’s the deepest of all truths. Yet the cheek profits too,” I more prudently argued.

“It profits most. It takes and keeps and uses all the lips give. The cheek, accordingly,” she continued to point out, “is Mr. Long’s. The lips are what we began by looking for. We’ve found them. They’re drained — they’re dry, the lips. Mr. Long finds his improvement natural and beautiful. He revels in it. He takes it for granted. He’s sublime.”

It kept me for a minute staring at her. “So — do you know? — are you!”

She received this wholly as a tribute to her acuteness, and was therefore proportionately gracious. “That’s only because it’s catching. You’ve made me sublime. You found me dense. You’ve affected me quite as Mrs. Server has affected Mr. Long. I don’t pretend I show it,” she added, “quite as much as he does.”

“Because that would entail my showing it as much as, by your contention, she does? Well, I confess,” I declared, “I do feel remarkably like that pair of lips. I feel drained — I feel dry!” Her answer to this, with another toss of her head, was extravagant enough to mean forgiveness — was that I was impertinent, and her action in support of her charge was to move away from me, taking her course again to the terrace, easily accessible from the room in which we had been talking. She passed out of the window that opened to the ground, and I watched her while, in the brighter light, she put up her pink parasol. She walked a few paces, as if to look about her for a change of company, and by this time had reached a flight of steps that descended to a lower level. On observing that here, in the act to go down, she suddenly paused, I knew she had been checked by something seen below and that this was what made her turn the next moment to give me a look. I took it as an invitation to rejoin her, and I perceived when I had done so what had led her to appeal to me. We commanded from the point in question one of the shady slopes of the park and in particular a spreading beech, the trunk of which had been inclosed with a rustic circular bench, a convenience that appeared to have offered, for the moment, a sense of leafy luxury to a lady in pale blue. She leaned back, her figure presented in profile and her head a little averted as if for talk with some one on the other side of her, someone so placed as to be lost to our view.

“There!” triumphed Mrs. Brissenden again — for the lady was unmistakably Mrs. Server. Amusement was inevitable — the fact showed her as so correctly described by the words to which I had twice had to listen. She seemed really all over the place. “I thought you said,” my companion remarked, “that you had left her tucked away somewhere with M. de Dreuil.”

“Well,” I returned after consideration, “that is obviously M. de Dreuil.”

“Are you so sure? I don’t make out the person,” my friend continued — “I only see she’s not alone. I understood you moreover that you had lately left them in the house.”

“They were in the house, but there was nothing to keep them from coming out. They’ve had plenty of time while we’ve talked; they must have passed down by some of the other steps. Perhaps also,” I added, “it’s another man.”

But by this time she was satisfied. “It’s he!”

“Gilbert Long? I thought you just said,” I observed, “that you can make nobody out.”

We watched together, but the distance was considerable, and the second figure continued to be screened. “It must be he,” Mrs. Brissenden resumed with impatience, “since it was with him I so distinctly saw her.”

“Let me once more hold you to the fact,” I answered, “that she had, to my knowledge, succumbed to M. de Dreuil afterwards. The moments have fled, you see, in our fascinating discussion, and various things, on your theory of her pounce, have come and gone. Don’t I moreover make out a brown shoe, in a white gaiter, protruding from the other side of her dress? It must be Lord Lutley.”

Mrs. Brissenden looked and mused. “A brown shoe in a white gaiter?” At this moment Mrs. Server moved, and the next — as if it were time for another pounce — she had got up. We could, however, still distinguish but a shoulder and an out-stretched leg of her gentleman, who, on her movement, appeared, as in protest, to have affirmed by an emphatic shift of his seat his preference for their remaining as they were. This carried him further round the tree. We thus lost him, but she stood there while we waited, evidently exhorting him; after a minute of which she came away as in confidence that he would follow. During this process, with a face more visible, she had looked as charming as a pretty woman almost always does in rising eloquent before the apathetic male. She hadn’t yet noticed us, but something in her attitude and manner particularly spoke to me. There were implications in it to which I couldn’t be blind, and I felt how my neighbour also would have caught them and been confirmed in her certitude. In fact I felt the breath of her confirmation in another elated “There!” — in a “Look at her now!” Incontestably, while not yet aware of us, Mrs. Server confessed with every turn of her head to a part in a relation. It stuck out of her, her part in a relation; it hung before us, her part in a relation; it was large to us beyond the breadth of the glade. And since, off her guard, she so let us have it, with whom in the world could the relation — so much of one as that — be but with Gilbert Long? The question was not settled till she had come on some distance; then the producer of our tension, emerging and coming after her, offered himself to our united, to our confounded, anxiety once more as poor Briss.

That we should have been confounded was doubtless but a proof of the impression — the singular assurance of intimacy borne toward us on the soft summer air — that we had, however delusively, received. I should myself have been as ready as my neighbour to say “Whoever he is, they’re in deep!” — and on grounds, moreover, quite as recklessly, as fantastically constructive as hers. There was nothing to explain our impression but the fact of our already having seen them figure together, and of this we needed breathing-time to give them the natural benefit. It was not indeed as an absolute benefit for either that Grace Brissenden’s tone marked our recognition. “Dear Guy again?” — but she had recovered herself enough to laugh. “I should have thought he had had more than his turn!” She had recovered herself in fact much more than I; for somehow, from this instant, convinced as she had been and turning everything to her conviction, I found myself dealing, in thought, with still larger material. It was odd what a difference was made for me by the renewed sight of dear Guy. I didn’t of course analyse this sense at the time; that was still to come. Our friends meanwhile had noticed us, and something clearly passed between them — it almost produced, for an instant, a visible arrest in their advance — on the question of their having perhaps been for some time exposed.

They came on, however, and I waved them from afar a greeting, to which Mrs. Server alone replied. Distances were great at Newmarch and landscape-gardening on the grand scale; it would take them still some minutes to reach our place of vantage or to arrive within sound of speech. There was accordingly nothing marked in our turning away and strolling back to the house. We had been so intent that we confessed by this movement to a quick impulse to disown it. Yet it was remarkable that, before we went in, Mrs. Brissenden should have struck me afresh as having got all she wanted. Her recovery from our surprise was already so complete that her high lucidity now alone reigned. “You don’t require, I suppose, anything more than that?”

“Well, I don’t quite see, I’m bound to say, just where even ‘that’ comes in.” It incommoded me singularly little, at the point to which I had jumped, that this statement was the exact reverse of the truth. Where it came in was what I happened to be in the very act of seeing — seeing to the exclusion of almost everything else. It was sufficient that I might perhaps feel myself to have done at last with Mrs. Brissenden. I desired, at all events, quite as if this benefit were assured me, to leave her the honours of the last word.

She was finely enough prepared to take them. “Why, this invention of using my husband ——!” She fairly gasped at having to explain.

“Of ‘using’ him?”

“Trailing him across the scent as she does all of you, one after the other. Excuse my comparing you to so many red herrings. You each have your turn; only his seems repeated, poor dear, till he’s quite worn out with it.”

I kept for a little this image in my eye. “I can see of course that his whole situation must be something of a strain for him; for I’ve not forgotten what you told me yesterday of his service with Lady John. To have to work in such a way for two of them at once” — it couldn’t help, I admitted, being a tax on a fellow. Besides, when one came to think of it, the same man couldn’t be two red herrings. To show as Mrs. Server’s would directly impair his power to show as Lady John’s. It would seem, in short, a matter for his patronesses to have out together.

Mrs. Brissenden betrayed, on this, some annoyance at my levity. “Oh, the cases are not the same, for with Lady John it amuses him: he thinks he knows.”

“Knows what?”

“What she wants him for. He doesn’t know” — she kept it wonderfully clear — “that she really doesn’t want him for anything; for anything except, of course” — this came as a droll second thought — “himself.”

“And he doesn’t know, either” — I tried to remain at her level — “that Mrs. Server does.”

“No,” she assented, “he doesn’t know what it’s her idea to do with him.”

“He doesn’t know, in fine,” I cheerfully pursued, “the truth about anything. And of course, by your agreement with me, he’s not to learn it.”

She recognised her agreement with me, yet looked as if she had reserved a certain measure of freedom. Then she handsomely gave up even that. “I certainly don’t want him to become conscious.”

“It’s his unconsciousness,” I declared, “that saves him.”

“Yes, even from himself.”

“We must accordingly feed it.” In the house, with intention, we parted company; but there was something that, before this, I felt it due to my claim of consistency to bring out. “It wasn’t, at all events, Gilbert Long behind the tree!”

My triumph, however, beneath the sponge she was prepared to pass again over much of our experience, was short-lived. “Of course it wasn’t. We shouldn’t have been treated to the scene if it had been. What could she possibly have put poor Briss there for but just to show it wasn’t?”

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