The Sacred Fount, by Henry James


I saw other things, many things, after this, but I had already so much matter for reflection that I saw them almost in spite of myself. The difficulty with me was in the momentum already acquired by the act — as well as, doubtless, by the general habit — of observation. I remember indeed that on separating from Mrs. Brissenden I took a lively resolve to get rid of my ridiculous obsession. It was absurd to have consented to such immersion, intellectually speaking, in the affairs of other people. One had always affairs of one’s own, and I was positively neglecting mine. Such, for a while, was my foremost reflection; after which, in their order or out of it, came an inevitable train of others. One of the first of these was that, frankly, my affairs were by this time pretty well used to my neglect. There were connections enough in which it had never failed. A whole cluster of such connections, effectually displacing the centre of interest, now surrounded me, and I was — though always but intellectually — drawn into their circle. I did my best for the rest of the day to turn my back on them, but with the prompt result of feeling that I meddled with them almost more in thinking them over in isolation than in hovering personally about them. Reflection was the real intensity; reflection, as to poor Mrs. Server in particular, was an indiscreet opening of doors. She became vivid in the light of the so limited vision of her that I already possessed — try positively as I would not further to extend it. It was something not to ask another question, to keep constantly away both from Mrs. Brissenden and from Ford Obert, whom I had rashly invited to a degree of participation; it was something to talk as hard as possible with other persons and on other subjects, to mingle in groups much more superficial than they supposed themselves, to give ear to broader jokes, to discuss more tangible mysteries.

The day, as it developed, was large and hot, an unstinted splendour of summer; excursions, exercise, organised amusement were things admirably spared us; life became a mere arrested ramble or stimulated lounge, and we profited to the full by the noble freedom of Newmarch, that overarching ease which in nothing was so marked as in the tolerance of talk. The air of the place itself, in such conditions, left one’s powers with a sense of play; if one wanted something to play at one simply played at being there. I did this myself, with the aid, in especial, of two or three solitary strolls, unaccompanied dips, of half an hour a-piece, into outlying parts of the house and the grounds. I must add that while I resorted to such measures not to see I only fixed what I had seen, what I did see, the more in my mind. One of these things had been the way that, at luncheon, Gilbert Long, watching the chance given him by the loose order in which we moved to it, slipped, to the visible defeat of somebody else, into the chair of conspicuity beside clever Lady John. A second was that Mrs. Server then occupied a place as remote as possible from this couple, but not from Guy Brissenden, who had found means to seat himself next her while my notice was engaged by the others. What I was at the same time supremely struck with could doubtless only be Mrs. Server’s bright ubiquity, as it had at last come to seem to me, and that of the companions she had recruited for the occasion. Attended constantly by a different gentleman, she was in the range of my vision wherever I turned — she kept repeating her picture in settings separated by such intervals that I wondered at the celerity with which she proceeded from spot to spot. She was never discernibly out of breath, though the associate of her ecstasy at the given moment might have been taken as being; and I kept getting afresh the impression which, the day before, had so promptly followed my arrival, the odd impression, as of something the matter with each party, that I had gathered, in the grounds, from the sight of her advance upon me with Obert. I had by this time of course made out — and it was absurd to shut my eyes to it — what that particular something, at least, was. It was that Obert had quickly perceived something to be the matter with her, and that she, on her side, had become aware of his discovery.

I wondered hereupon if the discovery were inevitable for each gentleman in succession, and if this were their reason for changing so often. Did everyone leave her, like Obert, with an uneasy impression of her, and were these impressions now passed about with private hilarity or profundity, though without having reached me save from the source I have named? I affected myself as constantly catching her eye, as if she wished to call my attention to the fact of who was with her and who was not. I had kept my distance since our episode with the pastels, and yet nothing could more come home to me than that I had really not, since then, been absent from her. We met without talk, but not, thanks to these pointed looks, without contact. I daresay that, for that matter, my cogitations — for I must have bristled with them — would have made me as stiff a puzzle to interpretative minds as I had suffered other phenomena to become to my own. I daresay I wandered with a tell-tale restlessness of which the practical detachment might well have mystified those who hadn’t suspicions. Whenever I caught Mrs. Server’s eye it was really to wonder how many suspicions she had. I came upon her in great dim chambers, and I came upon her before sweeps of view. I came upon her once more with the Comte de Dreuil, with Lord Lutley, with Ford Obert, with almost every other man in the house, and with several of these, as if there had not been enough for so many turns, two or three times over. Only at no moment, whatever the favouring frame, did I come upon her with Gilbert Long. It was of course an anomaly that, as an easy accident, I was not again myself set in the favouring frame. That I consistently escaped being might indeed have been the meaning most marked in our mute recognitions.

Discretion, then, I finally felt, played an odd part when it simply left one more attached, morally, to one’s prey. What was most evident to me by five o’clock in the afternoon was that I was too preoccupied not to find it the best wisdom to accept my mood. It was all very well to run away; there would be no effectual running away but to have my things quickly packed and catch, if possible, a train for town. On the spot I had to be on it; and it began to dawn before me that there was something quite other I possibly might do with Mrs. Server than endeavour ineffectually to forget her. What was none of one’s business might change its name should importunity take the form of utility. In resisted observation that was vivid thought, in inevitable thought that was vivid observation, through a succession, in short, of phases in which I shall not pretend to distinguish one of these elements from the other, I found myself cherishing the fruit of the seed dropped equally by Ford Obert and by Mrs. Briss. What was the matter with me? — so much as that I had ended by asking myself; and the answer had come as an unmistakable return of the anxiety produced in me by my first seeing that I had fairly let Grace Brissenden loose. My original protest against the flash of inspiration in which she had fixed responsibility on Mrs. Server had been in fact, I now saw, but the scared presentiment of something in store for myself. This scare, to express it sharply, had verily not left me from that moment; and if I had been already then anxious it was because I had felt myself foredoomed to be sure the poor lady herself would be. Why I should have minded this, should have been anxious at her anxiety and scared at her scare, was a question troubling me too little on the spot for me to suffer it to trouble me, as a painter of my state, in this place. It is sufficient that when so much of the afternoon had waned as to bring signs of the service of tea in the open air, I knew how far I was gone in pity for her. For I had at last had to take in what my two interlocutors had given me. Their impression, coinciding and, as one might say, disinterested, couldn’t, after a little, fail in some degree to impose itself. It had its value. Mrs. Server was “nervous.”

It little mattered to me now that Mrs. Briss had put it to me — that I had even whimsically put it to myself — that I was perhaps in love with her. That was as good a name as another for an interest springing up in an hour, and was moreover a decent working hypothesis. The sentiment had not indeed asserted itself at “first sight,” though it might have taken its place remarkably well among the phenomena of what is known as second. The real fact was, none the less, that I was quite too sorry for her to be anything except sorry. This odd feeling was something that I may as well say I shall not even now attempt to account for — partly, it is true, because my recital of the rest of what I was to see in no small measure does so. It was a force that I at this stage simply found I had already succumbed to. If it was not the result of what I had granted to myself was the matter with her, then it was rather the very cause of my making that concession. It was a different thing from my first prompt impulse to shield her. I had already shielded her — fought for her so far as I could or as the case immediately required. My own sense of how I was affected had practically cleared up, in short, in the presence of this deeper vision of her. My divinations and inductions had finally brought home to me that in the whole huge, brilliant, crowded place I was the only person save one who was in anything that could be called a relation to her. The other person’s relation was concealed, and mine, so far as she herself was concerned, was unexpressed — so that I suppose what most, at the juncture in question, stirred within me was the wonder of how I might successfully express it. I felt that so long as I didn’t express it I should be haunted with the idea of something infinitely touching and tragic in her loneliness — possibly in her torment, in her terror. If she was “nervous” to the tune I had come to recognise, it could only be because she had grounds. And what might her grounds more naturally be than that, arranged and arrayed, disguised and decorated, pursuing in vain, through our careless company, her search for the right shade of apparent security, she felt herself none the less all the while the restless victim of fear and failure?

Once my imagination had seen her in this light the touches it could add to the picture might be trusted to be telling. Further observation was to convince me of their truth, but while I waited for it with my apprehension that it would come in spite of me I easily multiplied and lavished them. I made out above all what she would most be trying to hide. It was not, so to speak, the guarded primary fact — it could only be, wretched woman, that produced, that disastrous, treacherous consequence of the fact which her faculties would exhibit, and most of all the snapped cord of her faculty of talk. Guy Brissenden had, at the worst, his compromised face and figure to show and to shroud — if he were really, that is, as much aware of them as one had suspected. She had her whole compromised machinery of thought and speech, and if these signs were not, like his, external, that made her case but the harder, for she had to create, with intelligence rapidly ebbing, with wit half gone, the illusion of an unimpaired estate. She was like some unhappy lady robbed of her best jewels — obliged so to dispose and distribute the minor trinkets that had escaped as still to give the impression of a rich écrin. Was not that embarrassment, if one analysed a little, at the bottom of her having been all day, in the vulgar phrase and as the three of us had too cruelly noted, all over the place? Was indeed, for that matter, this observation confined to us, or had it at last been irrepressibly determined on the part of the company at large? This was a question, I hasten to add, that I would not now for the world have put to the test. I felt I should have known how to escape had any rumour of wonder at Mrs. Server’s ways been finally conveyed to me. I might from this moment have, as much as I liked, my own sense of it, but I was definitely conscious of a sort of loyalty to her that would have rendered me blank before others: though not indeed that — oh, at last, quite the contrary! — it would have forbidden me to watch and watch. I positively dreaded the accident of my being asked by one of the men if I knew how everyone was talking about her. If everyone was talking about her, I wanted positively not to know. But nobody was, probably — they scarcely could be as yet. Without suggestive collateral evidence there would be nobody in the house so conscientiously infernal as Mrs. Brissenden, Obert and I.

Newmarch had always, in our time, carried itself as the great asylum of the finer wit, more or less expressly giving out that, as invoking hospitality or other countenance, none of the stupid, none even of the votaries of the grossly obvious, need apply; but I could luckily at present reflect that its measurements in this direction had not always been my own, and that, moreover, whatever precision they possessed, human blandness, even in such happy halls, had not been quite abolished. There was a sound law in virtue of which one could always — alike in privileged and unprivileged circles — rest more on people’s density than on their penetrability. Wasn’t it their density too that would be practically nearest their good nature? Whatever her successive partners of a moment might have noticed, they wouldn’t have discovered in her reason for dropping them quickly a principle of fear that they might notice her failure articulately to keep up. My own actual vision, which had developed with such affluence, was that, in a given case, she could keep up but for a few minutes and was therefore obliged to bring the contact to an end before exposure. I had consistently mastered her predicament: she had at once to cultivate contacts, so that people shouldn’t guess her real concentration, and to make them a literal touch and go, so that they shouldn’t suspect the enfeeblement of her mind. It was obviously still worth everything to her that she was so charming. I had theorised with Mrs. Brissenden on her supposititious inanity, but the explanation of such cynicism in either of us could only be a sensibility to the truth that attractions so great might float her even a long time after intelligence pure and simple should have collapsed.

Was not my present uneasiness, none the less, a private curiosity to ascertain just how much or how little of that element she had saved from the wreck? She dodged, doubled, managed, broke off, clutching occasions, yet doubtless risking dumbnesses, vaguenesses and other betrayals, depending on attitudes, motions, expressions, a material personality, in fine, in which a plain woman would have found nothing but failure; and peace therefore might rule the scene on every hypothesis but that of her getting, to put it crudely, worse. How I remember saying to myself that if she didn’t get better she surely must get worse! — being aware that I referred on the one side to her occult surrender and on the other to its awful penalty. It became present to me that she possibly might recover if anything should happen that would pull her up, turn her into some other channel. If, however, that consideration didn’t detain me longer the fact may stand as a sign of how little I believed in any check. Gilbert Long might die, but not the intensity he had inspired. The analogy with the situation of the Brissendens here, I further considered, broke down; I at any rate rather positively welcomed the view that the sacrificed party to that union might really find the arrest of his decline, if not the renewal of his youth, in the loss of his wife. Would this lady indeed, as an effect of his death, begin to wrinkle and shrivel? It would sound brutal to say that this was what I should have preferred to hold, were it not that I in fact felt forced to recognise the slightness of such a chance. She would have loved his youth, and have made it her own, in death as in life, and he would have quitted the world, in truth, only the more effectually to leave it to her. Mrs. Server’s quandary — which was now all I cared for — was exactly in her own certitude of every absence of issue. But I need give little more evidence of how it had set me thinking.

As much as anything else, perhaps, it was the fear of what one of the men might say to me that made me for an hour or two, at this crisis, continuously shy. Nobody, doubtless, would have said anything worse than that she was more of a flirt than ever, that they had all compared notes and would accordingly be interested in some hint of another, possibly a deeper, experience. It would have been almost as embarrassing to have to tell them how little experience I had had in fact as to have had to tell them how much I had had in fancy — all the more that I had as yet only my thin idea of the line of feeling in her that had led her so to spare me. Tea on the terraces represented, meanwhile, among us, so much neglect of everything else that my meditations remained for some time as unobserved as I could desire. I was not, moreover, heeding much where they carried me, and became aware of what I owed them only on at last finding myself anticipated as the occupant of an arbour into which I had strolled. Then I saw I had reached a remote part of the great gardens, and that for some of my friends also secluded thought had inducements; though it was not, I hasten to add, that either of the pair I here encountered appeared to be striking out in any very original direction. Lady John and Guy Brissenden, in the arbour, were thinking secludedly together; they were together, that is, because they were scarce a foot apart, and they were thinking, I inferred, because they were doing nothing else. Silence, by every symptom, had definitely settled on them, and whatever it was I interrupted had no resemblance to talk. Nothing — in the general air of evidence — had more struck me than that what Lady John’s famous intellect seemed to draw most from Brissenden’s presence was the liberty to rest. Yet it shook off this languor as soon as she saw me; it threw itself straight into the field; it went, I could see, through all the motions required of it by her ladyship’s fallacious philosophy. I could mark these emotions, and what determined them, as behind clear glass.

I found, on my side, a rare intellectual joy, the oddest secret exultation, in feeling her begin instantly to play the part I had attributed to her in the irreducible drama. She broke out in a manner that could only have had for its purpose to represent to me that mere weak amiability had committed her to such a predicament. It was to humour her friend’s husband that she had strayed so far, for she was somehow sorry for him, and — good creature as we all knew her — had, on principle, a kind little way of her own with silly infatuations. His was silly, but it was unmistakable, and she had for some time been finding it, in short, a case for a special tact. That he bored her to death I might have gathered by the way they sat there, and she could trust me to believe — couldn’t she? — that she was only musing as to how she might most humanely get rid of him. She would lead him safely back to the fold if I would give her time. She seemed to ask it all, oddly, of me, to take me remarkably into her confidence, to refer me, for a specimen of his behaviour, to his signal abandonment of his wife the day before, his having waited over, to come down, for the train in which poor she was to travel. It was at all events, I felt, one of the consequences of having caught on to so much that I by this time found myself catching on to everything. I read into Lady John’s wonderful manner — which quite clamoured, moreover, for an interpretation — all that was implied in the lesson I had extracted from other portions of the business. It was distinctly poor she who gave me the lead, and it was not less definite that she put it to me that I should render her a service either by remaining with them or by inventing something that would lure her persecutor away. She desired him, even at the cost of her being left alone, distracted from his pursuit.

Poor he, in his quarter, I hasten to add, contributed to my picking out this embroidery nothing more helpful than a sustained detachment. He said as little as possible, seemed heedless of what was otherwise said, and only gave me on his own account a look or two of dim suggestiveness. Yet it was these looks that most told with me, and what they, for their part, conveyed was a plea that directly contradicted Lady John’s. I understood him that it was he who was bored, he who had been pursued, he for whom perversity had become a dreadful menace, he, in fine, who pleaded for my intervention. He was so willing to trust me to relieve him of his companion that I think he would simply have bolted without deferring to me if I had not taken my precautions against it. I had, as it happened, another momentary use for him than this: I wished on the one hand not to lose him and on the other not to lose Lady John, though I had quickly enough guessed this brilliant woman’s real preference, of which it in fact soon became my lively wish to see the proof. The union of these two was too artificial for me not already to have connected with it the service it might render, in her ladyship’s view, to that undetected cultivation, on her part, of a sentiment for Gilbert Long which, through his feigned response to it, fitted so completely to the other pieces in my collection. To see all this was at the time, I remember, to be as inhumanly amused as if one had found one could create something. I had created nothing but a clue or two to the larger comprehension I still needed, yet I positively found myself overtaken by a mild artistic glow. What had occurred was that, for my full demonstration, I needed Long, and that, by the same stroke, I became sure I should certainly get him by temporising a little.

Lady John was in love with him and had kicked up, to save her credit, the dust of a fictive relation with another man — the relation one of mere artifice and the man one in her encouragement of whom nobody would believe. Yet she was also discoverably divided between her prudence and her vanity, for if it was difficult to make poor Briss figure at all vividly as an insistent satellite, the thankless tact she had to employ gave her exactly, she argued, the right to be refreshingly fanned with an occasional flap of the flag under which she had, as she ridiculously fancied, truly conquered. If she was where I found her because her escort had dragged her there, she had made the best of it through the hope of assistance from another quarter. She had held out on the possibility that Mr. Long — whom one could without absurdity sit in an arbour with — might have had some happy divination of her plight. He had had such divinations before — thanks to a condition in him that made sensibility abnormal — and the least a wretched woman could do when betrayed by the excess of nature’s bounty was to play admirer against admirer and be “talked about” on her own terms. She would just this once have admitted it, I was to gather, to be an occasion for pleading guilty — oh, so harmlessly! — to a consciousness of the gentleman mutely named between us. Well, the “proof” I just alluded to was that I had not sat with my friends five minutes before Gilbert Long turned up.

I saw in a moment how neatly my being there with them played his game; I became in this fashion a witness for him that he could almost as little leave Lady John alone as — well, as other people could. It may perfectly have been the pleasure of this reflection that again made him free and gay — produced in him, in any case, a different shade of manner from that with which, before luncheon, as the consequence perhaps of a vague flair for my possible penetration, I had suspected him of edging away from me. Not since my encounter with him at Paddington the afternoon before had I had so to recognise him as the transfigured talker. To see Lady John with him was to have little enough doubt of her recognitions, just as this spectacle also dotted each “i” in my conviction of his venial — I can only call it that — duplicity. I made up my mind on the spot that it had been no part of his plan to practise on her, and that the worst he could have been accused of was a good-natured acceptance, more apparent than real, for his own purposes, of her theory — which she from time to time let peep out — that they would have liked each other better if they hadn’t been each, alas! so good. He profited by the happy accident of having pleased a person so much in evidence, and indeed it was tolerably clear to me that neither party was duped. Lady John didn’t want a lover; this would have been, as people say, a larger order than, given the other complications of her existence, she could meet; but she wanted, in a high degree, the appearance of carrying on a passion that imposed alike fearless realisations and conscious renouncements, and this circumstance fully fell in with the convenience and the special situation of her friend. Her vanity rejoiced, so far as she dared to let it nibble, and the mysteries she practised, the dissimulations she elaborated, the general danger of detection in which she flattered herself that she publicly walked, were after all so much grist to the mill of that appetite.

By just so much, however, as it could never come up between them that there was another woman in Gilbert’s history, by just so much would it on the other hand have been an articulate axiom that as many of the poor Brisses of the world as she might care to accommodate would be welcome to figure in her own. This personage, under that deeper induction, I suddenly became aware that I also greatly pitied — pitied almost as much as I pitied Mrs. Server; and my pity had doubtless something to do with the fact that, after I had proposed to him that we should adjourn together and we had, on his prompt, even though slightly dry response, placed the invidious arbour at a certain distance, I passed my hand into his arm. There were things I wanted of him, and the first was that he should let me show him I could be kind to him. I had made of the circumstance of tea at the house a pretext for our leaving the others, each of whom I felt as rather showily calling my attention to their good old ground for not wishing to rejoin the crowd. As to what Brissenden wished I had made up my mind; I had made up my mind as to the subject of his thoughts while they wandered, during his detention, from Lady John; and if the next of my wishes was to enter into his desire, I had decided on giving it effect by the time we reached the shortest of the vistas at the end of which the house reared a brave front.

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