The Sacred Fount, by Henry James


I stayed him there while I put it to him that he would probably in fact prefer to go back.

“You’re not going then yourself?”

“No, I don’t particularly want tea; and I may as well now confess to you that I’m taking a lonely, unsociable walk. I don’t enjoy such occasions as these,” I said, “unless I from time to time get off by myself somewhere long enough to tell myself how much I do enjoy them. That’s what I was cultivating solitude for when I happened just now to come upon you. When I found you there with Lady John there was nothing for me but to make the best of it; but I’m glad of this chance to assure you that, every appearance to the contrary notwithstanding, I wasn’t prowling about in search of you.”

“Well,” my companion frankly replied, “I’m glad you turned up. I wasn’t especially amusing myself.”

“Oh, I think I know how little!”

He fixed me a moment with his pathetic old face, and I knew more than ever that I was sorry for him. I was quite extraordinarily sorry, and I wondered whether I mightn’t without offence or indiscretion really let him see it. It was to this end I had held him and wanted a little to keep him, and I was reassured as I felt him, though I had now released him, linger instead of leaving me. I had made him uneasy last night, and a new reason or two for my doing so had possibly even since then come up; yet these things also would depend on the way he might take them. The look with which he at present faced me seemed to hint that he would take them as I hoped, and there was no curtness, but on the contrary the dawn of a dim sense that I might possibly aid him, in the tone with which he came half-way. “You ‘know’?”

“Ah,” I laughed, “I know everything!”

He didn’t laugh; I hadn’t seen him laugh, at Newmarch, once; he was continuously, portentously grave, and I at present remembered how the effect of this had told for me at luncheon, contrasted as it was with that of Mrs. Server’s desperate, exquisite levity. “You know I decidedly have too much of that dreadful old woman?”

There was a sound in the question that would have made me, to my own sense, start, though I as quickly hoped I had not done so to Brissenden’s. I couldn’t have persuaded myself, however, that I had escaped showing him the flush of my effort to show nothing. I had taken his disgusted allusion as to Mrs. Brissenden, and the action of that was upsetting. But nothing, fortunately, was psychologically more interesting than to grasp the next moment the truth of his reference. It was only the fact of his himself looking so much older than Lady John that had blinded me for an instant to the propriety of his not thinking of her as young. She wasn’t young as he had a right to call people, and I felt a glow — also, I feared, too visible — as soon as I had seen whom he meant. His meaning Lady John did me somehow so much good that I believed it would have done me still more to hear him call her a harridan or a Jezebel. It was none of my business; how little was anything, when it came to that, my business! — yet indefinably, unutterably, I felt assuaged for him and comforted. I verily believe it hung in the balance a minute or two that in my impulse to draw him out, so that I might give him my sympathy, I was prepared to risk overturning the edifice of my precautions. I luckily, as it happened, did nothing of the sort; I contrived to breathe consolingly on his secret without betraying an intention. There was almost no one in the place save two or three of the very youngest women whom he wouldn’t have had a right to call old. Lady John was a hag, then; Mrs. Server herself was more than on the turn; Gilbert Long was fat and forty; and I cast about for some light in which I could show that I— à plus forte raison — was a pantaloon. “Of course you can’t quite see the fun of it, and it really isn’t fair to you. You struck me as much more in your element,” I ventured to add, “when, this morning, more than once, I chanced to observe you led captive by Mrs. Server.”

“Oh, that’s a different affair,” he answered with an accent that promised a growth of confidence.

“Mrs. Server’s an old woman,” I continued, “but she can’t seem to a fellow like you as old as Lady John. She has at any rate more charm; though perhaps not,” I added, “quite so much talk.”

On this he said an extraordinary thing, which all but made me start again. “Oh, she hasn’t any talk!”

I took, as quickly as possible, refuge in a surprised demurrer. “Not any?”

“None to speak of.”

I let all my wonder come. “But wasn’t she chattering to you at luncheon?” It forced him to meet my eyes at greater length, and I could already see that my experiment — for insidiously and pardonably such I wished to make it — was on the way to succeed. I had been right then, and I knew where I stood. He couldn’t have been “drawn” on his wife, and he couldn’t have been drawn, in the least directly, on himself, but as he could thus easily be on Lady John, so likewise he could on other women, or on the particular one, at least, who mattered to me. I felt I really knew what I was about, for to draw him on Mrs. Server was in truth to draw him indirectly on himself. It was indeed perhaps because I had by this time in a measure expressed, in terms however general, the interest with which he inspired me, that I now found myself free to shift the ground of my indiscretion. I only wanted him to know that on the question of Mrs. Server I was prepared to go as far with him as he should care to move. How it came to me now that he was the absolutely safe person in the house to talk of her with! “I was too far away from you to hear,” I had gone on; “and I could only judge of her flow of conversation from the animated expression of her face. It was extraordinarily animated. But that, I admit,” I added, “strikes one always as a sort of parti pris with her. She’s never not extraordinarily animated.”

“She has no flow of conversation whatever,” said Guy Brissenden.

I considered. “Really?”

He seemed to look at me quite without uneasiness now. “Why, haven’t you seen for yourself ——?”

“How the case stands with her on that head? Do you mean haven’t I talked with her? Well, scarcely; for it’s a fact that every man in the house but I strikes me as having been deluged with that privilege: if indeed,” I laughed, “her absence of topics suffers it to be either a privilege or a deluge! She affects me, in any case, as determined to have nothing to do with me. She walks all the rest of you about; she gives you each your turn; me only she skips, she systematically ignores. I’m half consoled for it, however,” I wound up, “by seeing what short innings any individual of you has. You personally strike me as having had the longest.”

Brissenden appeared to wonder where I was coming out, yet not as if he feared it. There was even a particular place, if I could but guess it, where he would have liked me to come. “Oh, she’s extremely charming. But of course she’s strikingly odd.”

“Odd? — really?”

“Why, in the sense, I mean, that I thought you suggested you’ve noticed.”

“That of extravagant vivacity? Oh, I’ve had to notice it at a distance, without knowing what it represents.”

He just hesitated. “You haven’t any idea at all what it represents?”

“How should I have,” I smiled, “when she never comes near me? I’ve thought that, as I tell you, marked. What does her avoidance of me represent? Has she happened, with you, to throw any light on it?”

“I think,” said Brissenden after another moment, “that she’s rather afraid of you.”

I could only be surprised. “The most harmless man in the house?”

Are you really?” he asked — and there was a touch of the comic in hearing him put it with his inveterate gravity.

“If you take me for anything else,” I replied, “I doubt if you’ll find anyone to back you.”

My companion, on this, looked away for a little, turned about, fixed his eyes on the house, seemed, as with a drop of interest, on the point of leaving me. But instead of leaving me he brought out the next moment: “I don’t want anyone to back me. I don’t care. I didn’t mean just now,” he continued, “that Mrs. Server has said to me anything against you, or that she fears you because she dislikes you. She only told me she thought you disliked her.”

It gave me a kind of shock. “A creature so beautiful, and so — so —— ”

“So what?” he asked as I found myself checked by my desire to come to her aid.

“Well, so brilliantly happy.”

I had all his attention again. “Is that what she is?”

“Then don’t you, with your opportunities, know?” I was conscious of rather an inspiration, a part of which was to be jocose. “What are you trying,” I laughed, “to get out of me?”

It struck me luckily that, though he remained as proof against gaiety as ever, he was, thanks to his preoccupation, not disagreeably affected by my tone. “Of course if you’ve no idea, I can get nothing.”

“No idea of what?”

Then it was that I at last got it straight. “Well, of what’s the matter with her.”

“Is there anything particular? If there is,” I went on, “there’s something that I’ve got out of you!”

“How so, if you don’t know what it is?”

“Do you mean if you yourself don’t?” But without detaining him on this, “Of what in especial do the signs,” I asked, “consist?”

“Well, of everyone’s thinking so — that there’s something or other.”

This again struck me, but it struck me too much. “Oh, everyone’s a fool!”

He saw, in his queer wan way, how it had done so. “Then you have your own idea?”

I daresay my smile at him, while I waited, showed a discomfort. “Do you mean people are talking about her?”

But he waited himself. “Haven’t they shown you ——?”

“No, no one has spoken. Moreover I wouldn’t have let them.”

“Then there you are!” Brissenden exclaimed. “If you’ve kept them off, it must be because you differ with them.”

“I shan’t be sure of that,” I returned, “till I know what they think! However, I repeat,” I added, “that I shouldn’t even then care. I don’t mind admitting that she much interests me.”

“There you are, there you are!” he said again.

“That’s all that’s the matter with her so far as I’m concerned. You see, at any rate, how little it need make her afraid of me. She’s lovely and she’s gentle and she’s happy.”

My friend kept his eyes on me. “What is there to interest you so in that? Isn’t it a description that applies here to a dozen other women? You can’t say, you know, that you’re interested in them, for you just spoke of them as so many fools.”

There was a certain surprise for me in so much acuteness, which, however, doubtless admonished me as to the need of presence of mind. “I wasn’t thinking of the ladies — I was thinking of the men.”

“That’s amiable to me,” he said with his gentle gloom.

“Oh, my dear Brissenden, I except ‘you.’”

“And why should you?”

I felt a trifle pushed. “I’ll tell you some other time. And among the ladies I except Mrs. Brissenden, with whom, as you may have noticed, I’ve been having much talk.”

“And will you tell me some other time about that too?” On which, as I but amicably shook my head for no, he had his first dimness of pleasantry. “I’ll get it then from my wife.”

“Never. She won’t tell you.”

“She has passed you her word? That won’t alter the fact that she tells me everything.”

He really said it in a way that made me take refuge for an instant in looking at my watch. “Are you going back to tea? If you are, I’ll, in spite of my desire to roam, walk twenty steps with you.” I had already again put my hand into his arm, and we strolled for a little till I threw off that I was sure Mrs. Server was waiting for him. To this he replied that if I wished to get rid of him he was as willing to take that as anything else for granted — an observation that I, on my side, answered with an inquiry, though an inquiry that had nothing to do with it. “Do you also tell everything to Mrs. Brissenden?”

It brought him up shorter than I had expected. “Do you ask me that in order that I shan’t speak to her of this?”

I showed myself at a loss. “Of ‘this’ ——?”

“Why, of what we’ve made out —— ”

“About Mrs. Server, you and I? You must act as to that, my dear fellow, quite on your own discretion. All the more that what on earth have we made out? I assure you I haven’t a secret to confide to you about her, except that I’ve never seen a person more unquenchably radiant.”

He almost jumped at it. “Well, that’s just it!”

“But just what?”

“Why, what they’re all talking about. That she is so awfully radiant. That she’s so tremendously happy. It’s the question,” he explained, “of what in the world she has to make her so.”

I winced a little, but tried not to show it. “My dear man, how do I know?”

“She thinks you know,” he after a moment answered.

I could only stare. “Mrs. Server thinks I know what makes her happy?” I the more easily represented such a conviction as monstrous in that it truly had its surprise for me.

But Brissenden now was all with his own thought. “She isn’t happy.”

“You mean that that’s what’s the matter with her under her appearance ——? Then what makes the appearance so extraordinary?”

“Why, exactly what I mention — that one doesn’t see anything whatever in her to correspond to it.”

I hesitated. “Do you mean in her circumstances?”

“Yes — or in her character. Her circumstances are nothing wonderful. She has none too much money; she has had three children and lost them; and nobody that belongs to her appears ever to have been particularly nice to her.”

I turned it over. “How you do get on with her!”

“Do you call it getting on with her to be the more bewildered the more I see her?”

“Isn’t to say you’re bewildered only, on the whole, to say you’re charmed? That always — doesn’t it? — describes more or less any engrossed relation with a lovely lady.”

“Well, I’m not sure I’m so charmed.” He spoke as if he had thought this particular question over for himself; he had his way of being lucid without brightness. “I’m not at all easily charmed, you know,” he the next moment added; “and I’m not a fellow who goes about much after women.”

“Ah, that I never supposed! Why in the world should you? It’s the last thing!” I laughed. “But isn’t this — quite (what shall one call it?) innocently — rather a peculiar case?”

My question produced in him a little gesture of elation — a gesture emphasised by a snap of his forefinger and thumb. “I knew you knew it was special! I knew you’ve been thinking about it!”

“You certainly,” I replied with assurance, “have, during the last five minutes, made me do so with some sharpness. I don’t pretend that I don’t now recognise that there must be something the matter. I only desire — not unnaturally — that there should be, to put me in the right for having thought, if, as you’re so sure, such a freedom as that can be brought home to me. If Mrs. Server is beautiful and gentle and strange,” I speciously went on, “what are those things but an attraction?”

I saw how he had them, whatever they were, before him as he slowly shook his head. “They’re not an attraction. They’re too queer.”

I caught in an instant my way to fall in with him; and not the less that I by this time felt myself committed, up to the intellectual eyes, to ascertaining just how queer the person under discussion might be. “Oh, of course I’m not speaking of her as a party to a silly flirtation, or an object of any sort of trivial pursuit. But there are so many different ways of being taken.”

“For a fellow like you. But not for a fellow like me. For me there’s only one.”

“To be, you mean, in love?”

He put it a little differently. “Well, to be thoroughly pleased.”

“Ah, that’s doubtless the best way and the firm ground. And you mean you’re not thoroughly pleased with Mrs. Server?”

“No — and yet I want to be kind to her. Therefore what’s the matter?”

“Oh, if it’s what’s the matter with you you ask me, that extends the question. If you want to be kind to her, you get on with her, as we were saying, quite enough for my argument. And isn’t the matter also, after all,” I demanded, “that you simply feel she desires you to be kind?”

“She does that.” And he looked at me as with the sense of drawing from me, for his relief, some greater help than I was as yet conscious of the courage to offer. “It is that she desires me. She likes it. And the extraordinary thing is that I like it.”

“And why in the world shouldn’t you?”

“Because she terrifies me. She has something to hide.”

“But, my dear man,” I asked with a gaiety singularly out of relation to the small secret thrill produced in me by these words — “my dear man, what woman who’s worth anything hasn’t?”

“Yes, but there are different ways. What she tries for is this false appearance of happiness.”

I weighed it. “But isn’t that the best thing?”

“It’s terrible to have to keep it up.”

“Ah, but if you don’t for her? If it all comes on herself?”

“It doesn’t,” Guy Brissenden presently said. “I do — ‘for’ her — help to keep it up.” And then, still unexpectedly to me, came out the rest of his confession. “I want to — I try to; that’s what I mean by being kind to her, and by the gratitude with which she takes it. One feels that one doesn’t want her to break down.”

It was on this — from the poignant touch in it — that I at last felt I had burnt my ships and didn’t care how much I showed I was with him. “Oh, but she won’t. You must keep her going.”

He stood a little with a thumb in each pocket of his trousers, and his melancholy eyes ranging far over my head — over the tops of the highest trees. “Who am I to keep people going?”

“Why, you’re just the man. Aren’t you happy?”

He still ranged the tree-tops. “Yes.”

“Well, then, you belong to the useful class. You’ve the wherewithal to give. It’s the happy people who should help the others.”

He had, in the same attitude, another pause. “It’s easy for you to talk!”

“Because I’m not happy?”

It made him bring his eyes again down to me. “I think you’re a little so now at my expense.”

I shook my head reassuringly. “It doesn’t cost you anything if — as I confess to it now — I do to some extent understand.”

“That’s more, then, than — after talking of it this way with you — I feel that I do!”

He had brought that out with a sudden sigh, turning away to go on; so that we took a few steps more. “You’ve nothing to trouble about,” I then freely remarked, “but that you are as kind as the case requires and that you do help. I daresay that you’ll find her even now on the terrace looking out for you.” I patted his back, as we went a little further, but as I still preferred to stay away from the house I presently stopped again. “Don’t fall below your chance. Noblesse oblige. We’ll pull her through.”

“You say ‘we,’” he returned, “but you do keep out of it!”

“Why should you wish me to interfere with you?” I asked. “I wouldn’t keep out of it if she wanted me as much as she wants you. That, by your own admission, is exactly what she doesn’t.”

“Well, then,” said Brissenden, “I’ll make her go for you. I think I want your assistance quite as much as she can want mine.”

“Oh,” I protested for this, “I’ve really given you already every ounce of mine I can squeeze out. And you know for yourself far more than I do.”

“No, I don’t!” — with which he became quite sharp; “for you know how you know it — which I’ve not a notion of. It’s just what I think,” he continued, facing me again, “you ought to tell me.”

“I’m a little in doubt of what you’re talking of, but I suppose you to allude to the oddity of my being so much interested without my having been more informed.”

“You’ve got some clue,” Brissenden said; “and a clue is what I myself want.”

“Then get it,” I laughed, “from Mrs. Server!”

He wondered. “Does she know?”

I had still, after all, to dodge a little. “Know what?”

“Why, that you’ve found out what she has to hide.”

“You’re perfectly free to ask her. I wonder even that you haven’t done so yet.”

“Well,” he said with the finest stroke of unconsciousness he had yet shown me — “well, I suppose it’s because I’m afraid of her.”

“But not too much afraid,” I risked suggesting, “to be hoping at this moment that you’ll find her if you go back to where most of our party is gathered. You’re not going for tea — you’re going for Mrs. Server: just of whom it was, as I say, you were thinking while you sat there with Lady John. So what is it you so greatly fear?”

It was as if I could see through his dim face a sort of gratitude for my making all this out to him. “I don’t know that it’s anything that she may do to me.” He could make it out in a manner for himself. “It’s as if something might happen to her. It’s what I told you — that she may break down. If you ask me how, or in what,” he continued, “how can I tell you? In whatever it is that she’s trying to do. I don’t understand it.” Then he wound up with a sigh that, in spite of its softness, he imperfectly stifled. “But it’s something or other!”

“What would it be, then,” I asked, “but what you speak of as what I’ve ‘found out’? The effort you distinguish in her is the effort of concealment — vain, as I gather it strikes you both, so far as I, in my supernatural acuteness, am concerned.”

Following this with the final ease to which my encouragement directly ministered, he yet gave me, before he had quite arrived, a queer sidelong glance. “Wouldn’t it really be better if you were to tell me? I don’t ask her myself, you see. I don’t put things to her in that way.”

“Oh, no — I’ve shown you how I do see. That’s a part of your admirable consideration. But I must repeat that nothing would induce me to tell you.”

His poor old face fairly pleaded. “But I want so to know.”

“Ah, there it is!” I almost triumphantly laughed.

“There what is?”

“Why, everything. What I’ve divined, between you and Mrs. Server, as the tie. Your wanting so to know.”

I felt as if he were now, intellectually speaking, plastic wax in my hand. “And her wanting me not to?”

“Wanting me not to,” I smiled.

He puzzled it out. “And being willing, therefore —— ”

“That you — you only, for sympathy, for fellowship, for the wild wonder of it — should know? Well, for all those things, and in spite of what you call your fear, try her!” With which now at last I quitted him.

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