The Tree of Knowledge, by Henry James


Within six months again, none the less, his fear was on more occasions than one all before him. Lance had returned to Paris for another trial; then had reappeared at home and had had, with his father, for the first time in his life, one of the scenes that strike sparks. He described it with much expression to Peter, touching whom (since they had never done so before) it was the sign of a new reserve on the part of the pair at Carrara Lodge that they at present failed, on a matter of intimate interest, to open themselves — if not in joy then in sorrow — to their good friend. This produced perhaps practically between the parties a shade of alienation and a slight intermission of commerce — marked mainly indeed by the fact that to talk at his ease with his old playmate Lance had in general to come to see him. The closest if not quite the gayest relation they had yet known together was thus ushered in. The difficulty for poor Lance was a tension at home — begotten by the fact that his father wished him to be at least the sort of success he himself had been. He hadn’t ‘chucked’ Paris — though nothing appeared more vivid to him than that Paris had chucked him: he would go back again because of the fascination in trying, in seeing, in sounding the depths — in learning one’s lesson, briefly, even if the lesson were simply that of one’s impotence in the presence of one’s larger vision. But what did the Master, all aloft in his senseless fluency, know of impotence, and what vision — to be called such — had he in all his blind life ever had? Lance, heated and indignant, frankly appealed to his godparent on this score.

His father, it appeared, had come down on him for having, after so long, nothing to show, and hoped that on his next return this deficiency would be repaired. The thing, the Master complacently set forth was — for any artist, however inferior to himself — at least to ‘do’ something. ‘What can you do? That’s all I ask!’ He had certainly done enough, and there was no mistake about what he had to show. Lance had tears in his eyes when it came thus to letting his old friend know how great the strain might be on the ‘sacrifice’ asked of him. It wasn’t so easy to continue humbugging — as from son to parent — after feeling one’s self despised for not grovelling in mediocrity. Yet a noble duplicity was what, as they intimately faced the situation, Peter went on requiring; and it was still for a time what his young friend, bitter and sore, managed loyally to comfort him with. Fifty pounds more than once again, it was true, rewarded both in London and in Paris the young friend’s loyalty; none the less sensibly, doubtless, at the moment, that the money was a direct advance on a decent sum for which Peter had long since privately prearranged an ultimate function. Whether by these arts or others, at all events, Lance’s just resentment was kept for a season — but only for a season — at bay. The day arrived when he warned his companion that he could hold out — or hold in — no longer. Carrara Lodge had had to listen to another lecture delivered from a great height — an infliction really heavier at last than, without striking back or in some way letting the Master have the truth, flesh and blood could bear.

‘And what I don’t see is,’ Lance observed with a certain irritated eye for what was after all, if it came to that, owing to himself too; ‘what I don’t see is, upon my honour, how you, as things are going, can keep the game up.’

‘Oh the game for me is only to hold my tongue,’ said placid Peter. ‘And I have my reason.’

‘Still my mother?’

Peter showed a queer face as he had often shown it before — that is by turning it straight away. ‘What will you have? I haven’t ceased to like her.’

‘She’s beautiful — she’s a dear of course,’ Lance allowed; ‘but what is she to you, after all, and what is it to you that, as to anything whatever, she should or she shouldn’t?’

Peter, who had turned red, hung fire a little. ‘Well — it’s all simply what I make of it.’

There was now, however, in his young friend a strange, an adopted insistence. ‘What are you after all to her?’

‘Oh nothing. But that’s another matter.’

‘She cares only for my father,’ said Lance the Parisian.

‘Naturally — and that’s just why.’

‘Why you’ve wished to spare her?’

‘Because she cares so tremendously much.’

Lance took a turn about the room, but with his eyes still on his host. ‘How awfully — always — you must have liked her!’

‘Awfully. Always,’ said Peter Brench.

The young man continued for a moment to muse — then stopped again in front of him. ‘Do you know how much she cares?’ Their eyes met on it, but Peter, as if his own found something new in Lance’s, appeared to hesitate, for the first time in an age, to say he did know. ‘I’ve only just found out,’ said Lance. ‘She came to my room last night, after being present, in silence and only with her eyes on me, at what I had had to take from him: she came — and she was with me an extraordinary hour.’

He had paused again and they had again for a while sounded each other. Then something — and it made him suddenly turn pale — came to Peter. ‘She does know?’

‘She does know. She let it all out to me — so as to demand of me no more than “that”, as she said, of which she herself had been capable. She has always, always known,’ said Lance without pity.

Peter was silent a long time; during which his companion might have heard him gently breathe, and on touching him might have felt within him the vibration of a long low sound suppressed. By the time he spoke at last he had taken everything in. ‘Then I do see how tremendously much.’

‘Isn’t it wonderful?’ Lance asked.

‘Wonderful,’ Peter mused.

‘So that if your original effort to keep me from Paris was to keep me from knowledge —!’ Lance exclaimed as if with a sufficient indication of this futility.

It might have been at the futility Peter appeared for a little to gaze. ‘I think it must have been — without my quite at the time knowing it — to keep me!’ he replied at last as he turned away.

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