Beast in the Jungle, by Henry James
What determined the speech that startled him in the course of their
encounter scarcely matters, being probably but some words spoken by
himself quite without intention--spoken as they lingered and slowly
moved together after their renewal of acquaintance. He had been
conveyed by friends an hour or two before to the house at which she
was staying; the party of visitors at the other house, of whom he
was one, and thanks to whom it was his theory, as always, that he
was lost in the crowd, had been invited over to luncheon. There
had been after luncheon much dispersal, all in the interest of the
original motive, a view of Weatherend itself and the fine things,
intrinsic features, pictures, heirlooms, treasures of all the arts,
that made the place almost famous; and the great rooms were so
numerous that guests could wander at their will, hang back from the
principal group and in cases where they took such matters with the
last seriousness give themselves up to mysterious appreciations and
measurements. There were persons to be observed, singly or in
couples, bending toward objects in out-of-the-way corners with
their hands on their knees and their heads nodding quite as with
the emphasis of an excited sense of smell. When they were two they
either mingled their sounds of ecstasy or melted into silences of
even deeper import, so that there were aspects of the occasion that
gave it for Marcher much the air of the "look round," previous to a
sale highly advertised, that excites or quenches, as may be, the
dream of acquisition. The dream of acquisition at Weatherend would
have had to be wild indeed, and John Marcher found himself, among
such suggestions, disconcerted almost equally by the presence of
those who knew too much and by that of those who knew nothing. The
great rooms caused so much poetry and history to press upon him
that he needed some straying apart to feel in a proper relation
with them, though this impulse was not, as happened, like the
gloating of some of his companions, to be compared to the movements
of a dog sniffing a cupboard. It had an issue promptly enough in a
direction that was not to have been calculated.
It led, briefly, in the course of the October afternoon, to his
closer meeting with May Bartram, whose face, a reminder, yet not
quite a remembrance, as they sat much separated at a very long
table, had begun merely by troubling him rather pleasantly. It
affected him as the sequel of something of which he had lost the
beginning. He knew it, and for the time quite welcomed it, as a
continuation, but didn't know what it continued, which was an
interest or an amusement the greater as he was also somehow aware--
yet without a direct sign from her--that the young woman herself
hadn't lost the thread. She hadn't lost it, but she wouldn't give
it back to him, he saw, without some putting forth of his hand for
it; and he not only saw that, but saw several things more, things
odd enough in the light of the fact that at the moment some
accident of grouping brought them face to face he was still merely
fumbling with the idea that any contact between them in the past
would have had no importance. If it had had no importance he
scarcely knew why his actual impression of her should so seem to
have so much; the answer to which, however, was that in such a life
as they all appeared to be leading for the moment one could but
take things as they came. He was satisfied, without in the least
being able to say why, that this young lady might roughly have
ranked in the house as a poor relation; satisfied also that she was
not there on a brief visit, but was more or less a part of the
establishment--almost a working, a remunerated part. Didn't she
enjoy at periods a protection that she paid for by helping, among
other services, to show the place and explain it, deal with the
tiresome people, answer questions about the dates of the building,
the styles of the furniture, the authorship of the pictures, the
favourite haunts of the ghost? It wasn't that she looked as if you
could have given her shillings--it was impossible to look less so.
Yet when she finally drifted toward him, distinctly handsome,
though ever so much older--older than when he had seen her before--
it might have been as an effect of her guessing that he had, within
the couple of hours, devoted more imagination to her than to all
the others put together, and had thereby penetrated to a kind of
truth that the others were too stupid for. She WAS there on harder
terms than any one; she was there as a consequence of things
suffered, one way and another, in the interval of years; and she
remembered him very much as she was remembered--only a good deal
By the time they at last thus came to speech they were alone in one
of the rooms--remarkable for a fine portrait over the chimney-
place--out of which their friends had passed, and the charm of it
was that even before they had spoken they had practically arranged
with each other to stay behind for talk. The charm, happily, was
in other things too--partly in there being scarce a spot at
Weatherend without something to stay behind for. It was in the way
the autumn day looked into the high windows as it waned; the way
the red light, breaking at the close from under a low sombre sky,
reached out in a long shaft and played over old wainscots, old
tapestry, old gold, old colour. It was most of all perhaps in the
way she came to him as if, since she had been turned on to deal
with the simpler sort, he might, should he choose to keep the whole
thing down, just take her mild attention for a part of her general
business. As soon as he heard her voice, however, the gap was
filled up and the missing link supplied; the slight irony he
divined in her attitude lost its advantage. He almost jumped at it
to get there before her. "I met you years and years ago in Rome.
I remember all about it." She confessed to disappointment--she had
been so sure he didn't; and to prove how well he did he began to
pour forth the particular recollections that popped up as he called
for them. Her face and her voice, all at his service now, worked
the miracle--the impression operating like the torch of a
lamplighter who touches into flame, one by one, a long row of gas-
jets. Marcher flattered himself the illumination was brilliant,
yet he was really still more pleased on her showing him, with
amusement, that in his haste to make everything right he had got
most things rather wrong. It hadn't been at Rome--it had been at
Naples; and it hadn't been eight years before--it had been more
nearly ten. She hadn't been, either, with her uncle and aunt, but
with her mother and brother; in addition to which it was not with
the Pembles HE had been, but with the Boyers, coming down in their
company from Rome--a point on which she insisted, a little to his
confusion, and as to which she had her evidence in hand. The
Boyers she had known, but didn't know the Pembles, though she had
heard of them, and it was the people he was with who had made them
acquainted. The incident of the thunderstorm that had raged round
them with such violence as to drive them for refuge into an
excavation--this incident had not occurred at the Palace of the
Caesars, but at Pompeii, on an occasion when they had been present
there at an important find.
He accepted her amendments, he enjoyed her corrections, though the
moral of them was, she pointed out, that he REALLY didn't remember
the least thing about her; and he only felt it as a drawback that
when all was made strictly historic there didn't appear much of
anything left. They lingered together still, she neglecting her
office--for from the moment he was so clever she had no proper
right to him--and both neglecting the house, just waiting as to see
if a memory or two more wouldn't again breathe on them. It hadn't
taken them many minutes, after all, to put down on the table, like
the cards of a pack, those that constituted their respective hands;
only what came out was that the pack was unfortunately not perfect-
-that the past, invoked, invited, encouraged, could give them,
naturally, no more than it had. It had made them anciently meet--
her at twenty, him at twenty-five; but nothing was so strange, they
seemed to say to each other, as that, while so occupied, it hadn't
done a little more for them. They looked at each other as with the
feeling of an occasion missed; the present would have been so much
better if the other, in the far distance, in the foreign land,
hadn't been so stupidly meagre. There weren't, apparently, all
counted, more than a dozen little old things that had succeeded in
coming to pass between them; trivialities of youth, simplicities of
freshness, stupidities of ignorance, small possible germs, but too
deeply buried--too deeply (didn't it seem?) to sprout after so many
years. Marcher could only feel he ought to have rendered her some
service--saved her from a capsized boat in the bay or at least
recovered her dressing-bag, filched from her cab in the streets of
Naples by a lazzarone with a stiletto. Or it would have been nice
if he could have been taken with fever all alone at his hotel, and
she could have come to look after him, to write to his people, to
drive him out in convalescence. THEN they would be in possession
of the something or other that their actual show seemed to lack.
It yet somehow presented itself, this show, as too good to be
spoiled; so that they were reduced for a few minutes more to
wondering a little helplessly why--since they seemed to know a
certain number of the same people--their reunion had been so long
averted. They didn't use that name for it, but their delay from
minute to minute to join the others was a kind of confession that
they didn't quite want it to be a failure. Their attempted
supposition of reasons for their not having met but showed how
little they knew of each other. There came in fact a moment when
Marcher felt a positive pang. It was vain to pretend she was an
old friend, for all the communities were wanting, in spite of which
it was as an old friend that he saw she would have suited him. He
had new ones enough--was surrounded with them for instance on the
stage of the other house; as a new one he probably wouldn't have so
much as noticed her. He would have liked to invent something, get
her to make-believe with him that some passage of a romantic or
critical kind HAD originally occurred. He was really almost
reaching out in imagination--as against time--for something that
would do, and saying to himself that if it didn't come this sketch
of a fresh start would show for quite awkwardly bungled. They
would separate, and now for no second or no third chance. They
would have tried and not succeeded. Then it was, just at the turn,
as he afterwards made it out to himself, that, everything else
failing, she herself decided to take up the case and, as it were,
save the situation. He felt as soon as she spoke that she had been
consciously keeping back what she said and hoping to get on without
it; a scruple in her that immensely touched him when, by the end of
three or four minutes more, he was able to measure it. What she
brought out, at any rate, quite cleared the air and supplied the
link--the link it was so odd he should frivolously have managed to
"You know you told me something I've never forgotten and that again
and again has made me think of you since; it was that tremendously
hot day when we went to Sorrento, across the bay, for the breeze.
What I allude to was what you said to me, on the way back, as we
sat under the awning of the boat enjoying the cool. Have you
He had forgotten, and was even more surprised than ashamed. But
the great thing was that he saw in this no vulgar reminder of any
"sweet" speech. The vanity of women had long memories, but she was
making no claim on him of a compliment or a mistake. With another
woman, a totally different one, he might have feared the recall
possibly even some imbecile "offer." So, in having to say that he
had indeed forgotten, he was conscious rather of a loss than of a
gain; he already saw an interest in the matter of her mention. "I
try to think--but I give it up. Yet I remember the Sorrento day."
"I'm not very sure you do," May Bartram after a moment said; "and
I'm not very sure I ought to want you to. It's dreadful to bring a
person back at any time to what he was ten years before. If you've
lived away from it," she smiled, "so much the better."
"Ah if YOU haven't why should I?" he asked.
"Lived away, you mean, from what I myself was?"
"From what I was. I was of course an ass," Marcher went on; "but I
would rather know from you just the sort of ass I was than--from
the moment you have something in your mind--not know anything."
Still, however, she hesitated. "But if you've completely ceased to
be that sort--?"
"Why I can then all the more bear to know. Besides, perhaps I
"Perhaps. Yet if you haven't," she added, "I should suppose you'd
remember. Not indeed that I in the least connect with my
impression the invidious name you use. If I had only thought you
foolish," she explained, "the thing I speak of wouldn't so have
remained with me. It was about yourself." She waited as if it
might come to him; but as, only meeting her eyes in wonder, he gave
no sign, she burnt her ships. "Has it ever happened?"
Then it was that, while he continued to stare, a light broke for
him and the blood slowly came to his face, which began to burn with
"Do you mean I told you--?" But he faltered, lest what came to him
shouldn't be right, lest he should only give himself away.
"It was something about yourself that it was natural one shouldn't
forget--that is if one remembered you at all. That's why I ask
you," she smiled, "if the thing you then spoke of has ever come to
Oh then he saw, but he was lost in wonder and found himself
embarrassed. This, he also saw, made her sorry for him, as if her
allusion had been a mistake. It took him but a moment, however, to
feel it hadn't been, much as it had been a surprise. After the
first little shock of it her knowledge on the contrary began, even
if rather strangely, to taste sweet to him. She was the only other
person in the world then who would have it, and she had had it all
these years, while the fact of his having so breathed his secret
had unaccountably faded from him. No wonder they couldn't have met
as if nothing had happened. "I judge," he finally said, "that I
know what you mean. Only I had strangely enough lost any sense of
having taken you so far into my confidence."
"Is it because you've taken so many others as well?"
"I've taken nobody. Not a creature since then."
"So that I'm the only person who knows?"
"The only person in the world."
"Well," she quickly replied, "I myself have never spoken. I've
never, never repeated of you what you told me." She looked at him
so that he perfectly believed her. Their eyes met over it in such
a way that he was without a doubt. "And I never will."
She spoke with an earnestness that, as if almost excessive, put him
at ease about her possible derision. Somehow the whole question
was a new luxury to him--that is from the moment she was in
possession. If she didn't take the sarcastic view she clearly took
the sympathetic, and that was what he had had, in all the long
time, from no one whomsoever. What he felt was that he couldn't at
present have begun to tell her, and yet could profit perhaps
exquisitely by the accident of having done so of old. "Please
don't then. We're just right as it is."
"Oh I am," she laughed, "if you are!" To which she added: "Then
you do still feel in the same way?"
It was impossible he shouldn't take to himself that she was really
interested, though it all kept coining as a perfect surprise. He
had thought of himself so long as abominably alone, and lo he
wasn't alone a bit. He hadn't been, it appeared, for an hour--
since those moments on the Sorrento boat. It was she who had been,
he seemed to see as he looked at her--she who had been made so by
the graceless fact of his lapse of fidelity. To tell her what he
had told her--what had it been but to ask something of her?
something that she had given, in her charity, without his having,
by a remembrance, by a return of the spirit, failing another
encounter, so much as thanked her. What he had asked of her had
been simply at first not to laugh at him. She had beautifully not
done so for ten years, and she was not doing so now. So he had
endless gratitude to make up. Only for that he must see just how
he had figured to her. "What, exactly, was the account I gave--?"
"Of the way you did feel? Well, it was very simple. You said you
had had from your earliest time, as the deepest thing within you,
the sense of being kept for something rare and strange, possibly
prodigious and terrible, that was sooner or later to happen to you,
that you had in your bones the foreboding and the conviction of,
and that would perhaps overwhelm you."
"Do you call that very simple?" John Marcher asked.
She thought a moment. "It was perhaps because I seemed, as you
spoke, to understand it."
"You do understand it?" he eagerly asked.
Again she kept her kind eyes on him. "You still have the belief?"
"Oh!" he exclaimed helplessly. There was too much to say.
"Whatever it's to be," she clearly made out, "it hasn't yet come."
He shook his head in complete surrender now. "It hasn't yet come.
Only, you know, it isn't anything I'm to do, to achieve in the
world, to be distinguished or admired for. I'm not such an ass as
THAT. It would be much better, no doubt, if I were."
"It's to be something you're merely to suffer?"
"Well, say to wait for--to have to meet, to face, to see suddenly
break out in my life; possibly destroying all further
consciousness, possibly annihilating me; possibly, on the other
hand, only altering everything, striking at the root of all my
world and leaving me to the consequences, however they shape
She took this in, but the light in her eyes continued for him not
to be that of mockery. "Isn't what you describe perhaps but the
expectation--or at any rate the sense of danger, familiar to so
many people--of falling in love?"
John Marcher thought. "Did you ask me that before?"
"No--I wasn't so free-and-easy then. But it's what strikes me
"Of course," he said after a moment, "it strikes you. Of course it
strikes ME. Of course what's in store for me may be no more than
that. The only thing is," he went on, "that I think if it had been
that I should by this time know."
"Do you mean because you've BEEN in love?" And then as he but
looked at her in silence: "You've been in love, and it hasn't
meant such a cataclysm, hasn't proved the great affair?"
"Here I am, you see. It hasn't been overwhelming."
"Then it hasn't been love," said May Bartram.
"Well, I at least thought it was. I took it for that--I've taken
it till now. It was agreeable, it was delightful, it was
miserable," he explained. "But it wasn't strange. It wasn't what
my affair's to be."
"You want something all to yourself--something that nobody else
knows or HAS known?"
"It isn't a question of what I 'want'--God knows I don't want
anything. It's only a question of the apprehension that haunts me-
-that I live with day by day."
He said this so lucidly and consistently that he could see it
further impose itself. If she hadn't been interested before she'd
have been interested now.
"Is it a sense of coming violence?"
Evidently now too again he liked to talk of it. "I don't think of
it as--when it does come--necessarily violent. I only think of it
as natural and as of course above all unmistakeable. I think of it
simply as THE thing. THE thing will of itself appear natural."
"Then how will it appear strange?"
Marcher bethought himself. "It won't--to ME."
"To whom then?"
"Well," he replied, smiling at last, "say to you."
"Oh then I'm to be present?"
"Why you are present--since you know."
"I see." She turned it over. "But I mean at the catastrophe."
At this, for a minute, their lightness gave way to their gravity;
it was as if the long look they exchanged held them together. "It
will only depend on yourself--if you'll watch with me."
"Are you afraid?" she asked.
"Don't leave me now," he went on.
"Are you afraid?" she repeated.
"Do you think me simply out of my mind?" he pursued instead of
answering. "Do I merely strike you as a harmless lunatic?"
"No," said May Bartram. "I understand you. I believe you."
"You mean you feel how my obsession--poor old thing--may correspond
to some possible reality?"
"To some possible reality."
"Then you WILL watch with me?"
She hesitated, then for the third time put her question. "Are you
"Did I tell you I was--at Naples?"
"No, you said nothing about it."
"Then I don't know. And I should like to know," said John Marcher.
"You'll tell me yourself whether you think so. If you'll watch
with me you'll see."
"Very good then." They had been moving by this time across the
room, and at the door, before passing out, they paused as for the
full wind-up of their understanding. "I'll watch with you," said
The fact that she "knew"--knew and yet neither chaffed him nor
betrayed him--had in a short time begun to constitute between them
a goodly bond, which became more marked when, within the year that
followed their afternoon at Weatherend, the opportunities for
meeting multiplied. The event that thus promoted these occasions
was the death of the ancient lady her great-aunt, under whose wing,
since losing her mother, she had to such an extent found shelter,
and who, though but the widowed mother of the new successor to the
property, had succeeded--thanks to a high tone and a high temper--
in not forfeiting the supreme position at the great house. The
deposition of this personage arrived but with her death, which,
followed by many changes, made in particular a difference for the
young woman in whom Marcher's expert attention had recognised from
the first a dependent with a pride that might ache though it didn't
bristle. Nothing for a long time had made him easier than the
thought that the aching must have been much soothed by Miss
Bartram's now finding herself able to set up a small home in
London. She had acquired property, to an amount that made that
luxury just possible, under her aunt's extremely complicated will,
and when the whole matter began to be straightened out, which
indeed took time, she let him know that the happy issue was at last
in view. He had seen her again before that day, both because she
had more than once accompanied the ancient lady to town and because
he had paid another visit to the friends who so conveniently made
of Weatherend one of the charms of their own hospitality. These
friends had taken him back there; he had achieved there again with
Mss Bartram some quiet detachment; and he had in London succeeded
in persuading her to more than one brief absence from her aunt.
They went together, on these latter occasions, to the National
Gallery and the South Kensington Museum, where, among vivid
reminders, they talked of Italy at large--not now attempting to
recover, as at first, the taste of their youth and their ignorance.
That recovery, the first day at Weatherend, had served its purpose
well, had given them quite enough; so that they were, to Marcher's
sense, no longer hovering about the head-waters of their stream,
but had felt their boat pushed sharply off and down the current.
They were literally afloat together; for our gentleman this was
marked, quite as marked as that the fortunate cause of it was just
the buried treasure of her knowledge. He had with his own hands
dug up this little hoard, brought to light--that is to within reach
of the dim day constituted by their discretions and privacies--the
object of value the hiding-place of which he had, after putting it
into the ground himself, so strangely, so long forgotten. The rare
luck of his having again just stumbled on the spot made him
indifferent to any other question; he would doubtless have devoted
more time to the odd accident of his lapse of memory if he hadn't
been moved to devote so much to the sweetness, the comfort, as he
felt, for the future, that this accident itself had helped to keep
fresh. It had never entered into his plan that any one should
"know", and mainly for the reason that it wasn't in him to tell any
one. That would have been impossible, for nothing but the
amusement of a cold world would have waited on it. Since, however,
a mysterious fate had opened his mouth betimes, in spite of him, he
would count that a compensation and profit by it to the utmost.
That the right person SHOULD know tempered the asperity of his
secret more even than his shyness had permitted him to imagine; and
May Bartram was clearly right, because--well, because there she
was. Her knowledge simply settled it; he would have been sure
enough by this time had she been wrong. There was that in his
situation, no doubt, that disposed him too much to see her as a
mere confidant, taking all her light for him from the fact--the
fact only--of her interest in his predicament; from her mercy,
sympathy, seriousness, her consent not to regard him as the
funniest of the funny. Aware, in fine, that her price for him was
just in her giving him this constant sense of his being admirably
spared, he was careful to remember that she had also a life of her
own, with things that might happen to HER, things that in
friendship one should likewise take account of. Something fairly
remarkable came to pass with him, for that matter, in this
connexion--something represented by a certain passage of his
consciousness, in the suddenest way, from one extreme to the other.
He had thought himself, so long as nobody knew, the most
disinterested person in the world, carrying his concentrated
burden, his perpetual suspense, ever so quietly, holding his tongue
about it, giving others no glimpse of it nor of its effect upon his
life, asking of them no allowance and only making on his side all
those that were asked. He hadn't disturbed people with the
queerness of their having to know a haunted man, though he had had
moments of rather special temptation on hearing them say they were
forsooth "unsettled." If they were as unsettled as he was--he who
had never been settled for an hour in his life--they would know
what it meant. Yet it wasn't, all the same, for him to make them,
and he listened to them civilly enough. This was why he had such
good--though possibly such rather colourless--manners; this was
why, above all, he could regard himself, in a greedy world, as
decently--as in fact perhaps even a little sublimely--unselfish.
Our point is accordingly that he valued this character quite
sufficiently to measure his present danger of letting it lapse,
against which he promised himself to be much on his guard. He was
quite ready, none the less, to be selfish just a little, since
surely no more charming occasion for it had come to him. "Just a
little," in a word, was just as much as Mss Bartram, taking one day
with another, would let him. He never would be in the least
coercive, and would keep well before him the lines on which
consideration for her--the very highest--ought to proceed. He
would thoroughly establish the heads under which her affairs, her
requirements, her peculiarities--he went so far as to give them the
latitude of that name--would come into their intercourse. All this
naturally was a sign of how much he took the intercourse itself for
granted. There was nothing more to be done about that. It simply
existed; had sprung into being with her first penetrating question
to him in the autumn light there at Weatherend. The real form it
should have taken on the basis that stood out large was the form of
their marrying. But the devil in this was that the very basis
itself put marrying out of the question. His conviction, his
apprehension, his obsession, in short, wasn't a privilege he could
invite a woman to share; and that consequence of it was precisely
what was the matter with him. Something or other lay in wait for
him, amid the twists and the turns of the months and the years,
like a crouching Beast in the Jungle. It signified little whether
the crouching Beast were destined to slay him or to be slain. The
definite point was the inevitable spring of the creature; and the
definite lesson from that was that a man of feeling didn't cause
himself to be accompanied by a lady on a tiger-hunt. Such was the
image under which he had ended by figuring his life.
They had at first, none the less, in the scattered hours spent
together, made no allusion to that view of it; which was a sign he
was handsomely alert to give that he didn't expect, that he in fact
didn't care, always to be talking about it. Such a feature in
one's outlook was really like a hump on one's back. The difference
it made every minute of the day existed quite independently of
discussion. One discussed of course LIKE a hunchback, for there
was always, if nothing else, the hunchback face. That remained,
and she was watching him; but people watched best, as a general
thing, in silence, so that such would be predominantly the manner
of their vigil. Yet he didn't want, at the same time, to be tense
and solemn; tense and solemn was what he imagined he too much
showed for with other people. The thing to be, with the one person
who knew, was easy and natural--to make the reference rather than
be seeming to avoid it, to avoid it rather than be seeming to make
it, and to keep it, in any case, familiar, facetious even, rather
than pedantic and portentous. Some such consideration as the
latter was doubtless in his mind for instance when he wrote
pleasantly to Miss Bartram that perhaps the great thing he had so
long felt as in the lap of the gods was no more than this
circumstance, which touched him so nearly, of her acquiring a house
in London. It was the first allusion they had yet again made,
needing any other hitherto so little; but when she replied, after
having given him the news, that she was by no means satisfied with
such a trifle as the climax to so special a suspense, she almost
set him wondering if she hadn't even a larger conception of
singularity for him than he had for himself. He was at all events
destined to become aware little by little, as time went by, that
she was all the while looking at his life, judging it, measuring
it, in the light of the thing she knew, which grew to be at last,
with the consecration of the years, never mentioned between them
save as "the real truth" about him. That had always been his own
form of reference to it, but she adopted the form so quietly that,
looking back at the end of a period, he knew there was no moment at
which it was traceable that she had, as he might say, got inside
his idea, or exchanged the attitude of beautifully indulging for
that of still more beautifully believing him.
It was always open to him to accuse her of seeing him but as the
most harmless of maniacs, and this, in the long run--since it
covered so much ground--was his easiest description of their
friendship. He had a screw loose for her but she liked him in
spite of it and was practically, against the rest of the world, his
kind wise keeper, unremunerated but fairly amused and, in the
absence of other near ties, not disreputably occupied. The rest of
the world of course thought him queer, but she, she only, knew how,
and above all why, queer; which was precisely what enabled her to
dispose the concealing veil in the right folds. She took his
gaiety from him--since it had to pass with them for gaiety--as she
took everything else; but she certainly so far justified by her
unerring touch his finer sense of the degree to which he had ended
by convincing her. SHE at least never spoke of the secret of his
life except as "the real truth about you," and she had in fact a
wonderful way of making it seem, as such, the secret of her own
life too. That was in fine how he so constantly felt her as
allowing for him; he couldn't on the whole call it anything else.
He allowed for himself, but she, exactly, allowed still more;
partly because, better placed for a sight of the matter, she traced
his unhappy perversion through reaches of its course into which he
could scarce follow it. He knew how he felt, but, besides knowing
that, she knew how he looked as well; he knew each of the things of
importance he was insidiously kept from doing, but she could add up
the amount they made, understand how much, with a lighter weight on
his spirit, he might have done, and thereby establish how, clever
as he was, he fell short. Above all she was in the secret of the
difference between the forms he went through--those of his little
office under Government, those of caring for his modest patrimony,
for his library, for his garden in the country, for the people in
London whose invitations he accepted and repaid--and the detachment
that reigned beneath them and that made of all behaviour, all that
could in the least be called behaviour, a long act of
dissimulation. What it had come to was that he wore a mask painted
with the social simper, out of the eye-holes of which there looked
eyes of an expression not in the least matching the other features.
This the stupid world, even after years, had never more than half
discovered. It was only May Bartram who had, and she achieved, by
an art indescribable, the feat of at once--or perhaps it was only
alternately--meeting the eyes from in front and mingling her own
vision, as from over his shoulder, with their peep through the
So while they grew older together she did watch with him, and so
she let this association give shape and colour to her own
existence. Beneath HER forms as well detachment had learned to
sit, and behaviour had become for her, in the social sense, a false
account of herself. There was but one account of her that would
have been true all the while and that she could give straight to
nobody, least of all to John Marcher. Her whole attitude was a
virtual statement, but the perception of that only seemed called to
take its place for him as one of the many things necessarily
crowded out of his consciousness. If she had moreover, like
himself, to make sacrifices to their real truth, it was to be
granted that her compensation might have affected her as more
prompt and more natural. They had long periods, in this London
time, during which, when they were together, a stranger might have
listened to them without in the least pricking up his ears; on the
other hand the real truth was equally liable at any moment to rise
to the surface, and the auditor would then have wondered indeed
what they were talking about. They had from an early hour made up
their mind that society was, luckily, unintelligent, and the margin
allowed them by this had fairly become one of their commonplaces.
Yet there were still moments when the situation turned almost
fresh--usually under the effect of some expression drawn from
herself. Her expressions doubtless repeated themselves, but her
intervals were generous. "What saves us, you know, is that we
answer so completely to so usual an appearance: that of the man
and woman whose friendship has become such a daily habit--or
almost--as to be at last indispensable." That for instance was a
remark she had frequently enough had occasion to make, though she
had given it at different times different developments. What we
are especially concerned with is the turn it happened to take from
her one afternoon when he had come to see her in honour of her
birthday. This anniversary had fallen on a Sunday, at a season of
thick fog and general outward gloom; but he had brought her his
customary offering, having known her now long enough to have
established a hundred small traditions. It was one of his proofs
to himself, the present he made her on her birthday, that he hadn't
sunk into real selfishness. It was mostly nothing more than a
small trinket, but it was always fine of its kind, and he was
regularly careful to pay for it more than he thought he could
afford. "Our habit saves you, at least, don't you see?" because it
makes you, after all, for the vulgar, indistinguishable from other
men. What's the most inveterate mark of men in general? Why the
capacity to spend endless time with dull women--to spend it I won't
say without being bored, but without minding that they are, without
being driven off at a tangent by it; which comes to the same thing.
I'm your dull woman, a part of the daily bread for which you pray
at church. That covers your tracks more than anything."
"And what covers yours?" asked Marcher, whom his dull woman could
mostly to this extent amuse. "I see of course what you mean by
your saving me, in this way and that, so far as other people are
concerned--I've seen it all along. Only what is it that saves YOU?
I often think, you know, of that."
She looked as if she sometimes thought of that too, but rather in a
different way. "Where other people, you mean, are concerned?"
"Well, you're really so in with me, you know--as a sort of result
of my being so in with yourself. I mean of my having such an
immense regard for you, being so tremendously mindful of all you've
done for me. I sometimes ask myself if it's quite fair. Fair I
mean to have so involved and--since one may say it--interested you.
I almost feel as if you hadn't really had time to do anything
"Anything else but be interested?" she asked. "Ah what else does
one ever want to be? If I've been 'watching' with you, as we long
ago agreed I was to do, watching's always in itself an absorption."
"Oh certainly," John Marcher said, "if you hadn't had your
curiosity -! Only doesn't it sometimes come to you as time goes on
that your curiosity isn't being particularly repaid?"
May Bartram had a pause. "Do you ask that, by any chance, because
you feel at all that yours isn't? I mean because you have to wait
Oh he understood what she meant! "For the thing to happen that
never does happen? For the Beast to jump out? No, I'm just where
I was about it. It isn't a matter as to which I can CHOOSE, I can
decide for a change. It isn't one as to which there CAN be a
change. It's in the lap of the gods. One's in the hands of one's
law--there one is. As to the form the law will take, the way it
will operate, that's its own affair."
"Yes," Miss Bartram replied; "of course one's fate's coming, of
course it HAS come in its own form and its own way, all the while.
Only, you know, the form and the way in your case were to have
been--well, something so exceptional and, as one may say, so
particularly YOUR own."
Something in this made him look at her with suspicion. "You say
'were to HAVE been,' as if in your heart you had begun to doubt."
"Oh!" she vaguely protested.
"As if you believed," he went on, "that nothing will now take
She shook her head slowly but rather inscrutably. "You're far from
He continued to look at her. "What then is the matter with you?"
"Well," she said after another wait, "the matter with me is simply
that I'm more sure than ever my curiosity, as you call it, will be
but too well repaid."
They were frankly grave now; he had got up from his seat, had
turned once more about the little drawing-room to which, year after
year, he brought his inevitable topic; in which he had, as he might
have said, tasted their intimate community with every sauce, where
every object was as familiar to him as the things of his own house
and the very carpets were worn with his fitful walk very much as
the desks in old counting-houses are worn by the elbows of
generations of clerks. The generations of his nervous moods had
been at work there, and the place was the written history of his
whole middle life. Under the impression of what his friend had
just said he knew himself, for some reason, more aware of these
things; which made him, after a moment, stop again before her. "Is
it possibly that you've grown afraid?"
"Afraid?" He thought, as she repeated the word, that his question
had made her, a little, change colour; so that, lest he should have
touched on a truth, he explained very kindly: "You remember that
that was what you asked ME long ago--that first day at Weatherend."
"Oh yes, and you told me you didn't know--that I was to see for
myself. We've said little about it since, even in so long a time."
"Precisely," Marcher interposed--"quite as if it were too delicate
a matter for us to make free with. Quite as if we might find, on
pressure, that I AM afraid. For then," he said, "we shouldn't,
should we? quite know what to do."
She had for the time no answer to this question. "There have been
days when I thought you were. Only, of course," she added, "there
have been days when we have thought almost anything."
"Everything. Oh!" Marcher softly groaned, as with a gasp, half
spent, at the face, more uncovered just then than it had been for a
long while, of the imagination always with them. It had always had
it's incalculable moments of glaring out, quite as with the very
eyes of the very Beast, and, used as he was to them, they could
still draw from him the tribute of a sigh that rose from the depths
of his being. All they had thought, first and last, rolled over
him; the past seemed to have been reduced to mere barren
speculation. This in fact was what the place had just struck him
as so full of--the simplification of everything but the state of
suspense. That remained only by seeming to hang in the void
surrounding it. Even his original fear, if fear it as had been,
had lost itself in the desert. "I judge, however," he continued,
"that you see I'm not afraid now."
"What I see, as I make it out, is that you've achieved something
almost unprecedented in the way of getting used to danger. Living
with it so long and so closely you've lost your sense of it; you
know it's there, but you're indifferent, and you cease even, as of
old, to have to whistle in the dark. Considering what the danger
is," May Bartram wound up, "I'm bound to say I don't think your
attitude could well be surpassed."
John Marcher faintly smiled. "It's heroic?"
"Certainly--call it that."
It was what he would have liked indeed to call it. "I AM then a
man of courage?"
"That's what you were to show me."
He still, however, wondered. "But doesn't the man of courage know
what he's afraid of--or not afraid of? I don't know THAT, you see.
I don't focus it. I can't name it. I only know I'm exposed."
"Yes, but exposed--how shall I say?--so directly. So intimately.
That's surely enough."
"Enough to make you feel then--as what we may call the end and the
upshot of our watch--that I'm not afraid?"
"You're not afraid. But it isn't," she said, "the end of our
watch. That is it isn't the end of yours. You've everything still
"Then why haven't you?" he asked. He had had, all along, to-day,
the sense of her keeping something back, and he still had it. As
this was his first impression of that it quite made a date. The
case was the more marked as she didn't at first answer; which in
turn made him go on. "You know something I don't." Then his
voice, for that of a man of courage, trembled a little. "You know
what's to happen." Her silence, with the face she showed, was
almost a confession--it made him sure. "You know, and you're
afraid to tell me. It's so bad that you're afraid I'll find out."
All this might be true, for she did look as if, unexpectedly to
her, he had crossed some mystic line that she had secretly drawn
round her. Yet she might, after all, not have worried; and the
real climax was that he himself, at all events, needn't. "You'll
never find out."
It was all to have made, none the less, as I have said, a date;
which came out in the fact that again and again, even after long
intervals, other things that passed between them were in relation
to this hour but the character of recalls and results. Its
immediate effect had been indeed rather to lighten insistence--
almost to provoke a reaction; as if their topic had dropped by its
own weight and as if moreover, for that matter, Marcher had been
visited by one of his occasional warnings against egotism. He had
kept up, he felt, and very decently on the whole, his consciousness
of the importance of not being selfish, and it was true that he had
never sinned in that direction without promptly enough trying to
press the scales the other way. He often repaired his fault, the
season permitting, by inviting his friend to accompany him to the
opera; and it not infrequently thus happened that, to show he
didn't wish her to have but one sort of food for her mind, he was
the cause of her appearing there with him a dozen nights in the
month. It even happened that, seeing her home at such times, he
occasionally went in with her to finish, as he called it, the
evening, and, the better to make his point, sat down to the frugal
but always careful little supper that awaited his pleasure. His
point was made, he thought, by his not eternally insisting with her
on himself; made for instance, at such hours, when it befell that,
her piano at hand and each of them familiar with it, they went over
passages of the opera together. It chanced to be on one of these
occasions, however, that he reminded her of her not having answered
a certain question he had put to her during the talk that had taken
place between them on her last birthday. "What is it that saves
YOU?"--saved her, he meant, from that appearance of variation from
the usual human type. If he had practically escaped remark, as she
pretended, by doing, in the most important particular, what most
men do--find the answer to life in patching up an alliance of a
sort with a woman no better than himself--how had she escaped it,
and how could the alliance, such as it was, since they must suppose
it had been more or less noticed, have failed to make her rather
positively talked about?
"I never said," May Bartram replied, "that it hadn't made me a good
deal talked about."
"Ah well then you're not 'saved.'"
"It hasn't been a question for me. If you've had your woman I've
had," she said, "my man."
"And you mean that makes you all right?"
Oh it was always as if there were so much to say!
"I don't know why it shouldn't make me--humanly, which is what
we're speaking of--as right as it makes you."
"I see," Marcher returned. "'Humanly,' no doubt, as showing that
you're living for something. Not, that is, just for me and my
May Bartram smiled. "I don't pretend it exactly shows that I'm not
living for you. It's my intimacy with you that's in question."
He laughed as he saw what she meant. "Yes, but since, as you say,
I'm only, so far as people make out, ordinary, you're--aren't you?
no more than ordinary either. You help me to pass for a man like
another. So if I AM, as I understand you, you're not compromised.
Is that it?"
She had another of her waits, but she spoke clearly enough.
"That's it. It's all that concerns me--to help you to pass for a
man like another."
He was careful to acknowledge the remark handsomely. "How kind,
how beautiful, you are to me! How shall I ever repay you?"
She had her last grave pause, as if there might be a choice of
ways. But she chose. "By going on as you are."
It was into this going on as he was that they relapsed, and really
for so long a time that the day inevitably came for a further
sounding of their depths. These depths, constantly bridged over by
a structure firm enough in spite of its lightness and of its
occasional oscillation in the somewhat vertiginous air, invited on
occasion, in the interest of their nerves, a dropping of the
plummet and a measurement of the abyss. A difference had been made
moreover, once for all, by the fact that she had all the while not
appeared to feel the need of rebutting his charge of an idea within
her that she didn't dare to express--a charge uttered just before
one of the fullest of their later discussions ended. It had come
up for him then that she "knew" something and that what she knew
was bad--too bad to tell him. When he had spoken of it as visibly
so bad that she was afraid he might find it out, her reply had left
the matter too equivocal to be let alone and yet, for Marcher's
special sensibility, almost too formidable again to touch. He
circled about it at a distance that alternately narrowed and
widened and that still wasn't much affected by the consciousness in
him that there was nothing she could "know," after all, any better
than he did. She had no source of knowledge he hadn't equally--
except of course that she might have finer nerves. That was what
women had where they were interested; they made out things, where
people were concerned, that the people often couldn't have made out
for themselves. Their nerves, their sensibility, their
imagination, were conductors and revealers, and the beauty of May
Bartram was in particular that she had given herself so to his
case. He felt in these days what, oddly enough, he had never felt
before, the growth of a dread of losing her by some catastrophe--
some catastrophe that yet wouldn't at all be the catastrophe:
partly because she had almost of a sudden begun to strike him as
more useful to him than ever yet, and partly by reason of an
appearance of uncertainty in her health, co-incident and equally
new. It was characteristic of the inner detachment he had hitherto
so successfully cultivated and to which our whole account of him is
a reference, it was characteristic that his complications, such as
they were, had never yet seemed so as at this crisis to thicken
about him, even to the point of making him ask himself if he were,
by any chance, of a truth, within sight or sound, within touch or
reach, within the immediate jurisdiction, of the thing that waited.
When the day came, as come it had to, that his friend confessed to
him her fear of a deep disorder in her blood, he felt somehow the
shadow of a change and the chill of a shock. He immediately began
to imagine aggravations and disasters, and above all to think of
her peril as the direct menace for himself of personal privation.
This indeed gave him one of those partial recoveries of equanimity
that were agreeable to him--it showed him that what was still first
in his mind was the loss she herself might suffer. "What if she
should have to die before knowing, before seeing--?" It would have
been brutal, in the early stages of her trouble, to put that
question to her; but it had immediately sounded for him to his own
concern, and the possibility was what most made him sorry for her.
If she did "know," moreover, in the sense of her having had some--
what should he think?--mystical irresistible light, this would make
the matter not better, but worse, inasmuch as her original adoption
of his own curiosity had quite become the basis of her life. She
had been living to see what would BE to be seen, and it would quite
lacerate her to have to give up before the accomplishment of the
vision. These reflexions, as I say, quickened his generosity; yet,
make them as he might, he saw himself, with the lapse of the
period, more and more disconcerted. It lapsed for him with a
strange steady sweep, and the oddest oddity was that it gave him,
independently of the threat of much inconvenience, almost the only
positive surprise his career, if career it could be called, had yet
offered him. She kept the house as she had never done; he had to
go to her to see her--she could meet him nowhere now, though there
was scarce a corner of their loved old London in which she hadn't
in the past, at one time or another, done so; and he found her
always seated by her fire in the deep old-fashioned chair she was
less and less able to leave. He had been struck one day, after an
absence exceeding his usual measure, with her suddenly looking much
older to him than he had ever thought of her being; then he
recognised that the suddenness was all on his side--he had just
simply and suddenly noticed. She looked older because inevitably,
after so many years, she WAS old, or almost; which was of course
true in still greater measure of her companion. If she was old, or
almost, John Marcher assuredly was, and yet it was her showing of
the lesson, not his own, that brought the truth home to him. His
surprises began here; when once they had begun they multiplied;
they came rather with a rush: it was as if, in the oddest way in
the world, they had all been kept back, sown in a thick cluster,
for the late afternoon of life, the time at which for people in
general the unexpected has died out.
One of them was that he should have caught himself--for he HAD so
done--REALLY wondering if the great accident would take form now as
nothing more than his being condemned to see this charming woman,
this admirable friend, pass away from him. He had never so
unreservedly qualified her as while confronted in thought with such
a possibility; in spite of which there was small doubt for him that
as an answer to his long riddle the mere effacement of even so fine
a feature of his situation would be an abject anticlimax. It would
represent, as connected with his past attitude, a drop of dignity
under the shadow of which his existence could only become the most
grotesques of failures. He had been far from holding it a failure-
-long as he had waited for the appearance that was to make it a
success. He had waited for quite another thing, not for such a
thing as that. The breath of his good faith came short, however,
as he recognised how long he had waited, or how long at least his
companion had. That she, at all events, might be recorded as
having waited in vain--this affected him sharply, and all the more
because of his it first having done little more than amuse himself
with the idea. It grew more grave as the gravity of her condition
grew, and the state of mind it produced in him, which he himself
ended by watching as if it had been some definite disfigurement of
his outer person, may pass for another of his surprises. This
conjoined itself still with another, the really stupefying
consciousness of a question that he would have allowed to shape
itself had he dared. What did everything mean--what, that is, did
SHE mean, she and her vain waiting and her probable death and the
soundless admonition of it all--unless that, at this time of day,
it was simply, it was overwhelmingly too late? He had never at any
stage of his queer consciousness admitted the whisper of such a
correction; he had never till within these last few months been so
false to his conviction as not to hold that what was to come to him
had time, whether HE struck himself as having it or not. That at
last, at last, he certainly hadn't it, to speak of, or had it but
in the scantiest measure--such, soon enough, as things went with
him, became the inference with which his old obsession had to
reckon: and this it was not helped to do by the more and more
confirmed appearance that the great vagueness casting the long
shadow in which he had lived had, to attest itself, almost no
margin left. Since it was in Time that he was to have met his
fate, so it was in Time that his fate was to have acted; and as he
waked up to the sense of no longer being young, which was exactly
the sense of being stale, just as that, in turn, was the sense of
being weak, he waked up to another matter beside. It all hung
together; they were subject, he and the great vagueness, to an
equal and indivisible law. When the possibilities themselves had
accordingly turned stale, when the secret of the gods had grown
faint, had perhaps even quite evaporated, that, and that only, was
failure. It wouldn't have been failure to be bankrupt,
dishonoured, pilloried, hanged; it was failure not to be anything.
And so, in the dark valley into which his path had taken its
unlooked-for twist, he wondered not a little as he groped. He
didn't care what awful crash might overtake him, with what ignominy
or what monstrosity he might yet he associated--since he wasn't
after all too utterly old to suffer--if it would only be decently
proportionate to the posture he had kept, all his life, in the
threatened presence of it. He had but one desire left--that he
shouldn't have been "sold."
Then it was that, one afternoon, while the spring of the year was
young and new she met all in her own way his frankest betrayal of
these alarms. He had gone in late to see her, but evening hadn't
settled and she was presented to him in that long fresh light of
waning April days which affects us often with a sadness sharper
than the greyest hours of autumn. The week had been warm, the
spring was supposed to have begun early, and May Bartram sat, for
the first time in the year, without a fire; a fact that, to
Marcher's sense, gave the scene of which she formed part a smooth
and ultimate look, an air of knowing, in its immaculate order and
cold meaningless cheer, that it would never see a fire again. Her
own aspect--he could scarce have said why--intensified this note.
Almost as white as wax, with the marks and signs in her face as
numerous and as fine as if they had been etched by a needle, with
soft white draperies relieved by a faded green scarf on the
delicate tone of which the years had further refined, she was the
picture of a serene and exquisite but impenetrable sphinx, whose
head, or indeed all whose person, might have been powdered with
silver. She was a sphinx, yet with her white petals and green
fronds she might have been a lily too--only an artificial lily,
wonderfully imitated and constantly kept, without dust or stain,
though not exempt from a slight droop and a complexity of faint
creases, under some clear glass bell. The perfection of household
care, of high polish and finish, always reigned in her rooms, but
they now looked most as if everything had been wound up, tucked in,
put away, so that she might sit with folded hands and with nothing
more to do. She was "out of it," to Marcher's vision; her work was
over; she communicated with him as across some gulf or from some
island of rest that she had already reached, and it made him feel
strangely abandoned. Was it--or rather wasn't it--that if for so
long she had been watching with him the answer to their question
must have swum into her ken and taken on its name, so that her
occupation was verily gone? He had as much as charged her with
this in saying to her, many months before, that she even then knew
something she was keeping from him. It was a point he had never
since ventured to press, vaguely fearing as he did that it might
become a difference, perhaps a disagreement, between them. He had
in this later time turned nervous, which was what he in all the
other years had never been; and the oddity was that his nervousness
should have waited till he had begun to doubt, should have held off
so long as he was sure. There was something, it seemed to him,
that the wrong word would bring down on his head, something that
would so at least ease off his tension. But he wanted not to speak
the wrong word; that would make everything ugly. He wanted the
knowledge he lacked to drop on him, if drop it could, by its own
august weight. If she was to forsake him it was surely for her to
take leave. This was why he didn't directly ask her again what she
knew; but it was also why, approaching the matter from another
side, he said to her in the course of his visit: "What do you
regard as the very worst that at this time of day CAN happen to
He had asked her that in the past often enough; they had, with the
odd irregular rhythm of their intensities and avoidances, exchanged
ideas about it and then had seen the ideas washed away by cool
intervals, washed like figures traced in sea-sand. It had ever
been the mark of their talk that the oldest allusions in it
required but a little dismissal and reaction to come out again,
sounding for the hour as new. She could thus at present meet his
enquiry quite freshly and patiently. "Oh yes, I've repeatedly
thought, only it always seemed to me of old that I couldn't quite
make up my mind. I thought of dreadful things, between which it
was difficult to choose; and so must you have done."
"Rather! I feel now as if I had scarce done anything else. I
appear to myself to have spent my life in thinking of nothing but
dreadful things. A great many of them I've at different times
named to you, but there were others I couldn't name."
"They were too, too dreadful?"
"Too, too dreadful--some of them."
She looked at him a minute, and there came to him as he met it, an
inconsequent sense that her eyes, when one got their full
clearness, were still as beautiful as they had been in youth, only
beautiful with a strange cold light--a light that somehow was a
part of the effect, if it wasn't rather a part of the cause, of the
pale hard sweetness of the season and the hour. "And yet," she
said at last, "there are horrors we've mentioned."
It deepened the strangeness to see her, as such a figure in such a
picture, talk of "horrors," but she was to do in a few minutes
something stranger yet--though even of this he was to take the full
measure but afterwards--and the note of it already trembled. It
was, for the matter of that, one of the signs that her eyes were
having again the high flicker of their prime. He had to admit,
however, what she said. "Oh yes, there were times when we did go
far." He caught himself in the act of speaking as if it all were
over. Well, he wished it were; and the consummation depended for
him clearly more and more on his friend.
But she had now a soft smile. "Oh far--!"
It was oddly ironic. "Do you mean you're prepared to go further?"
She was frail and ancient and charming as she continued to look at
him, yet it was rather as if she had lost the thread. "Do you
consider that we went far?"
"Why I thought it the point you were just making--that we HAD
looked most things in the face."
"Including each other?" She still smiled. "But you're quite
right. We've had together great imaginations, often great fears;
but some of them have been unspoken."
"Then the worst--we haven't faced that. I COULD face it, I
believe, if I knew what you think it. I feel," he explained, "as
if I had lost my power to conceive such things." And he wondered
if he looked as blank as he sounded. "It's spent."
"Then why do you assume," she asked, "that mine isn't?"
"Because you've given me signs to the contrary. It isn't a
question for you of conceiving, imagining, comparing. It isn't a
question now of choosing." At last he came out with it. "You know
something I don't. You've shown me that before."
These last words had affected her, he made out in a moment,
exceedingly, and she spoke with firmness. "I've shown you, my
He shook his head. "You can't hide it."
"Oh, oh!" May Bartram sounded over what she couldn't hide. It was
almost a smothered groan.
"You admitted it months ago, when I spoke of it to you as of
something you were afraid I should find out. Your answer was that
I couldn't, that I wouldn't, and I don't pretend I have. But you
had something therefore in mind, and I see now how it must have
been, how it still is, the possibility that, of all possibilities,
has settled itself for you as the worst. This," he went on, "is
why I appeal to you. I'm only afraid of ignorance to-day--I'm not
afraid of knowledge." And then as for a while she said nothing:
"What makes me sure is that I see in your face and feel here, in
this air and amid these appearances, that you're out of it. You've
done. You've had your experience. You leave me to my fate."
Well, she listened, motionless and white in her chair, as on a
decision to be made, so that her manner was fairly an avowal,
though still, with a small fine inner stiffness, an imperfect
surrender. "It WOULD be the worst," she finally let herself say.
"I mean the thing I've never said."
It hushed him a moment. "More monstrous than all the monstrosities
"More monstrous. Isn't that what you sufficiently express," she
asked, "in calling it the worst?"
Marcher thought. "Assuredly--if you mean, as I do, something that
includes all the loss and all the shame that are thinkable."
"It would if it SHOULD happen," said May Bartram. "What we're
speaking of, remember, is only my idea."
"It's your belief," Marcher returned. "That's enough for me. I
feel your beliefs are right. Therefore if, having this one, you
give me no more light on it, you abandon me."
"No, no!" she repeated. "I'm with you--don't you see?--still."
And as to make it more vivid to him she rose from her chair--a
movement she seldom risked in these days--and showed herself, all
draped and all soft, in her fairness and slimness. "I haven't
It was really, in its effort against weakness, a generous
assurance, and had the success of the impulse not, happily, been
great, it would have touched him to pain more than to pleasure.
But the cold charm in her eyes had spread, as she hovered before
him, to all the rest of her person, so that it was for the minute
almost a recovery of youth. He couldn't pity her for that; he
could only take her as she showed--as capable even yet of helping
him. It was as if, at the same time, her light might at any
instant go out; wherefore he must make the most of it. There
passed before him with intensity the three or four things he wanted
most to know; but the question that came of itself to his lips
really covered the others. "Then tell me if I shall consciously
She promptly shook her head. "Never!"
It confirmed the authority he imputed to her, and it produced on
him an extraordinary effect. "Well, what's better than that? Do
you call that the worst?"
"You think nothing is better?" she asked.
She seemed to mean something so special that he again sharply
wondered, though still with the dawn of a prospect of relief. "Why
not, if one doesn't KNOW?" After which, as their eyes, over his
question, met in a silence, the dawn deepened, and something to his
purpose came prodigiously out of her very face. His own, as he
took it in, suddenly flushed to the forehead, and he gasped with
the force of a perception to which, on the instant, everything
fitted. The sound of his gasp filled the air; then he became
articulate. "I see--if I don't suffer!"
In her own look, however, was doubt. "You see what?"
"Why what you mean--what you've always meant."
She again shook her head. "What I mean isn't what I've always
meant. It's different."
"It's something new?"
She hung back from it a little. "Something new. It's not what you
think. I see what you think."
His divination drew breath then; only her correction might be
wrong. "It isn't that I AM a blockhead?" he asked between
faintness and grimness. "It isn't that it's all a mistake?"
"A mistake?" she pityingly echoed. THAT possibility, for her, he
saw, would be monstrous; and if she guaranteed him the immunity
from pain it would accordingly not be what she had in mind. "Oh
no," she declared; "it's nothing of that sort. You've been right."
Yet he couldn't help asking himself if she weren't, thus pressed,
speaking but to save him. It seemed to him he should be most in a
hole if his history should prove all a platitude. "Are you telling
me the truth, so that I shan't have been a bigger idiot than I can
bear to know? I HAVEN'T lived with a vain imagination, in the most
besotted illusion? I haven't waited but to see the door shut in my
She shook her head again. "However the case stands THAT isn't the
truth. Whatever the reality, it IS a reality. The door isn't
shut. The door's open," said May Bartram.
"Then something's to come?"
She waited once again, always with her cold sweet eyes on him.
"It's never too late." She had, with her gliding step, diminished
the distance between them, and she stood nearer to him, close to
him, a minute, as if still charged with the unspoken. Her movement
might have been for some finer emphasis of what she was at once
hesitating and deciding to say. He had been standing by the
chimney-piece, fireless and sparely adorned, a small perfect old
French clock and two morsels of rosy Dresden constituting all its
furniture; and her hand grasped the shelf while she kept him
waiting, grasped it a little as for support and encouragement. She
only kept him waiting, however; that is he only waited. It had
become suddenly, from her movement and attitude, beautiful and
vivid to him that she had something more to give him; her wasted
face delicately shone with it--it glittered almost as with the
white lustre of silver in her expression. She was right,
incontestably, for what he saw in her face was the truth, and
strangely, without consequence, while their talk of it as dreadful
was still in the air, she appeared to present it as inordinately
soft. This, prompting bewilderment, made him but gape the more
gratefully for her revelation, so that they continued for some
minutes silent, her face shining at him, her contact imponderably
pressing, and his stare all kind but all expectant. The end, none
the less, was that what he had expected failed to come to him.
Something else took place instead, which seemed to consist at first
in the mere closing of her eyes. She gave way at the same instant
to a slow fine shudder, and though he remained staring--though he
stared in fact but the harder--turned off and regained her chair.
It was the end of what she had been intending, but it left him
thinking only of that.
"Well, you don't say--?"
She had touched in her passage a bell near the chimney and had sunk
back strangely pale. "I'm afraid I'm too ill."
"Too ill to tell me?" it sprang up sharp to him, and almost to his
lips, the fear she might die without giving him light. He checked
himself in time from so expressing his question, but she answered
as if she had heard the words.
"Don't you know--now?"
"'Now' -?" She had spoken as if some difference had been made
within the moment. But her maid, quickly obedient to her bell, was
already with them. "I know nothing." And he was afterwards to say
to himself that he must have spoken with odious impatience, such an
impatience as to show that, supremely disconcerted, he washed his
hands of the whole question.
"Oh!" said May Bartram.
"Are you in pain?" he asked as the woman went to her.
"No," said May Bartram.
Her maid, who had put an arm round her as if to take her to her
room, fixed on him eyes that appealingly contradicted her; in spite
of which, however, he showed once more his mystification.
"What then has happened?"
She was once more, with her companion's help, on her feet, and,
feeling withdrawal imposed on him, he had blankly found his hat and
gloves and had reached the door. Yet he waited for her answer.
"What WAS to," she said.
He came back the next day, but she was then unable to see him, and
as it was literally the first time this had occurred in the long
stretch of their acquaintance he turned away, defeated and sore,
almost angry--or feeling at least that such a break in their custom
was really the beginning of the end--and wandered alone with his
thoughts, especially with the one he was least able to keep down.
She was dying and he would lose her; she was dying and his life
would end. He stopped in the Park, into which he had passed, and
stared before him at his recurrent doubt. Away from her the doubt
pressed again; in her presence he had believed her, but as he felt
his forlornness he threw himself into the explanation that, nearest
at hand, had most of a miserable warmth for him and least of a cold
torment. She had deceived him to save him--to put him off with
something in which he should be able to rest. What could the thing
that was to happen to him be, after all, but just this thing that
had began to happen? Her dying, her death, his consequent
solitude--that was what he had figured as the Beast in the Jungle,
that was what had been in the lap of the gods. He had had her word
for it as he left her--what else on earth could she have meant? It
wasn't a thing of a monstrous order; not a fate rare and
distinguished; not a stroke of fortune that overwhelmed and
immortalised; it had only the stamp of the common doom. But poor
Marcher at this hour judged the common doom sufficient. It would
serve his turn, and even as the consummation of infinite waiting he
would bend his pride to accept it. He sat down on a bench in the
twilight. He hadn't been a fool. Something had BEEN, as she had
said, to come. Before he rose indeed it had quite struck him that
the final fact really matched with the long avenue through which he
had had to reach it. As sharing his suspense and as giving herself
all, giving her life, to bring it to an end, she had come with him
every step of the way. He had lived by her aid, and to leave her
behind would be cruelly, damnably to miss her. What could be more
overwhelming than that?
Well, he was to know within the week, for though she kept him a
while at bay, left him restless and wretched during a series of
days on each of which he asked about her only again to have to turn
away, she ended his trial by receiving him where she had always
received him. Yet she had been brought out at some hazard into the
presence of so many of the things that were, consciously, vainly,
half their past, and there was scant service left in the gentleness
of her mere desire, all too visible, to check his obsession and
wind up his long trouble. That was clearly what she wanted; the
one thing more for her own peace while she could still put out her
hand. He was so affected by her state that, once seated by her
chair, he was moved to let everything go; it was she herself
therefore who brought him back, took up again, before she dismissed
him, her last word of the other time. She showed how she wished to
leave their business in order. "I'm not sure you understood.
You've nothing to wait for more. It HAS come."
Oh how he looked at her! "Really?"
"The thing that, as you said, WAS to?"
"The thing that we began in our youth to watch for."
Face to face with her once more he believed her; it was a claim to
which he had so abjectly little to oppose. "You mean that it has
come as a positive definite occurrence, with a name and a date?"
"Positive. Definite. I don't know about the 'name,' but, oh with
He found himself again too helplessly at sea. "But come in the
night--come and passed me by?"
May Bartram had her strange faint smile. "Oh no, it hasn't passed
"But if I haven't been aware of it and it hasn't touched me--?"
"Ah your not being aware of it"--and she seemed to hesitate an
instant to deal with this--"your not being aware of it is the
strangeness in the strangeness. It's the wonder OF the wonder."
She spoke as with the softness almost of a sick child, yet now at
last, at the end of all, with the perfect straightness of a sibyl.
She visibly knew that she knew, and the effect on him was of
something co-ordinate, in its high character, with the law that had
ruled him. It was the true voice of the law; so on her lips would
the law itself have sounded. "It HAS touched you," she went on.
"It has done its office. It has made you all its own."
"So utterly without my knowing it?"
"So utterly without your knowing it." His hand, as he leaned to
her, was on the arm of her chair, and, dimly smiling always now,
she placed her own on it. "It's enough if I know it."
"Oh!" he confusedly breathed, as she herself of late so often had
"What I long ago said is true. You'll never know now, and I think
you ought to be content. You've HAD it," said May Bartram.
"But had what?"
"Why what was to have marked you out. The proof of your law. It
has acted. I'm too glad," she then bravely added, "to have been
able to see what it's NOT."
He continued to attach his eyes to her, and with the sense that it
was all beyond him, and that SHE was too, he would still have
sharply challenged her hadn't he so felt it an abuse of her
weakness to do more than take devoutly what she gave him, take it
hushed as to a revelation. If he did speak, it was out of the
foreknowledge of his loneliness to come. "If you're glad of what
it's 'not' it might then have been worse?"
She turned her eyes away, she looked straight before her; with
which after a moment: "Well, you know our fears."
He wondered. "It's something then we never feared?"
On this slowly she turned to him. "Did we ever dream, with all our
dreams, that we should sit and talk of it thus?"
He tried for a little to make out that they had; but it was as if
their dreams, numberless enough, were in solution in some thick
cold mist through which thought lost itself. "It might have been
that we couldn't talk."
"Well"--she did her best for him--"not from this side. This, you
see," she said, "is the OTHER side."
"I think," poor Marcher returned, "that all sides are the same to
me." Then, however, as she gently shook her head in correction:
"We mightn't, as it were, have got across--?"
"To where we are--no. We're HERE"--she made her weak emphasis.
"And much good does it do us!" was her friend's frank comment.
"It does us the good it can. It does us the good that IT isn't
here. It's past. It's behind," said May Bartram. "Before--" but
her voice dropped.
He had got up, not to tire her, but it was hard to combat his
yearning. She after all told him nothing but that his light had
failed--which he knew well enough without her. "Before--?" he
"Before you see, it was always to COME. That kept it present."
"Oh I don't care what comes now! Besides," Marcher added, "it
seems to me I liked it better present, as you say, than I can like
it absent with YOUR absence."
"Oh mine!"--and her pale hands made light of it.
"With the absence of everything." He had a dreadful sense of
standing there before her for--so far as anything but this proved,
this bottomless drop was concerned--the last time of their life.
It rested on him with a weight he felt he could scarce bear, and
this weight it apparently was that still pressed out what remained
in him of speakable protest. "I believe you; but I can't begin to
pretend I understand. NOTHING, for me, is past; nothing WILL pass
till I pass myself, which I pray my stars may be as soon as
possible. Say, however," he added, "that I've eaten my cake, as
you contend, to the last crumb--how can the thing I've never felt
at all be the thing I was marked out to feel?"
She met him perhaps less directly, but she met him unperturbed.
"You take your 'feelings' for granted. You were to suffer your
fate. That was not necessarily to know it."
"How in the world--when what is such knowledge but suffering?"
She looked up at him a while in silence. "No--you don't
"I suffer," said John Marcher.
"How can I help at least THAT?"
"DON'T!" May Bartram repeated.
She spoke it in a tone so special, in spite of her weakness, that
he stared an instant--stared as if some light, hitherto hidden, had
shimmered across his vision. Darkness again closed over it, but
the gleam had already become for him an idea. "Because I haven't
"Don't KNOW--when you needn't," she mercifully urged. "You
needn't--for we shouldn't."
"Shouldn't?" If he could but know what she meant!
"No--it's too much."
"Too much?" he still asked but with a mystification that was the
next moment of a sudden to give way. Her words, if they meant
something, affected him in this light--the light also of her wasted
face--as meaning ALL, and the sense of what knowledge had been for
herself came over him with a rush which broke through into a
question. "Is it of that then you're dying?"
She but watched him, gravely at first, as to see, with this, where
he was, and she might have seen something or feared something that
moved her sympathy. "I would live for you still--if I could." Her
eyes closed for a little, as if, withdrawn into herself, she were
for a last time trying. "But I can't!" she said as she raised them
again to take leave of him.
She couldn't indeed, as but too promptly and sharply appeared, and
he had no vision of her after this that was anything but darkness
and doom. They had parted for ever in that strange talk; access to
her chamber of pain, rigidly guarded, was almost wholly forbidden
him; he was feeling now moreover, in the face of doctors, nurses,
the two or three relatives attracted doubtless by the presumption
of what she had to "leave," how few were the rights, as they were
called in such cases, that he had to put forward, and how odd it
might even seem that their intimacy shouldn't have given him more
of them. The stupidest fourth cousin had more, even though she had
been nothing in such a person's life. She had been a feature of
features in HIS, for what else was it to have been so
indispensable? Strange beyond saying were the ways of existence,
baffling for him the anomaly of his lack, as he felt it to be, of
producible claim. A woman might have been, as it were, everything
to him, and it might yet present him, in no connexion that any one
seemed held to recognise. If this was the case in these closing
weeks it was the case more sharply on the occasion of the last
offices rendered, in the great grey London cemetery, to what had
been mortal, to what had been precious, in his friend. The
concourse at her grave was not numerous, but he saw himself treated
as scarce more nearly concerned with it than if there had been a
thousand others. He was in short from this moment face to face
with the fact that he was to profit extraordinarily little by the
interest May Bartram had taken in him. He couldn't quite have said
what he expected, but he hadn't surely expected this approach to a
double privation. Not only had her interest failed him, but he
seemed to feel himself unattended--and for a reason he couldn't
seize--by the distinction, the dignity, the propriety, if nothing
else, of the man markedly bereaved. It was as if, in the view of
society he had not BEEN markedly bereaved, as if there still failed
some sign or proof of it, and as if none the less his character
could never be affirmed nor the deficiency ever made up. There
were moments as the weeks went by when he would have liked, by some
almost aggressive act, to take his stand on the intimacy of his
loss, in order that it MIGHT be questioned and his retort, to the
relief of his spirit, so recorded; but the moments of an irritation
more helpless followed fast on these, the moments during which,
turning things over with a good conscience but with a bare horizon,
he found himself wondering if he oughtn't to have begun, so to
speak, further back.
He found himself wondering indeed at many things, and this last
speculation had others to keep it company. What could he have
done, after all, in her lifetime, without giving them both, as it
were, away? He couldn't have made known she was watching him, for
that would have published the superstition of the Beast. This was
what closed his mouth now--now that the Jungle had been thrashed to
vacancy and that the Beast had stolen away. It sounded too foolish
and too flat; the difference for him in this particular, the
extinction in his life of the element of suspense, was such as in
fact to surprise him. He could scarce have said what the effect
resembled; the abrupt cessation, the positive prohibition, of music
perhaps, more than anything else, in some place all adjusted and
all accustomed to sonority and to attention. If he could at any
rate have conceived lifting the veil from his image at some moment
of the past (what had he done, after all, if not lift it to HER?)
so to do this to-day, to talk to people at large of the Jungle
cleared and confide to them that he now felt it as safe, would have
been not only to see them listen as to a goodwife's tale, but
really to hear himself tell one. What it presently came to in
truth was that poor Marcher waded through his beaten grass, where
no life stirred, where no breath sounded, where no evil eye seemed
to gleam from a possible lair, very much as if vaguely looking for
the Beast, and still more as if acutely missing it. He walked
about in an existence that had grown strangely more spacious, and,
stopping fitfully in places where the undergrowth of life struck
him as closer, asked himself yearningly, wondered secretly and
sorely, if it would have lurked here or there. It would have at
all events sprung; what was at least complete was his belief in the
truth itself of the assurance given him. The change from his old
sense to his new was absolute and final: what was to happen had so
absolutely and finally happened that he was as little able to know
a fear for his future as to know a hope; so absent in short was any
question of anything still to come. He was to live entirely with
the other question, that of his unidentified past, that of his
having to see his fortune impenetrably muffled and masked.
The torment of this vision became then his occupation; he couldn't
perhaps have consented to live but for the possibility of guessing.
She had told him, his friend, not to guess; she had forbidden him,
so far as he might, to know, and she had even in a sort denied the
power in him to learn: which were so many things, precisely, to
deprive him of rest. It wasn't that he wanted, he argued for
fairness, that anything past and done should repeat itself; it was
only that he shouldn't, as an anticlimax, have been taken sleeping
so sound as not to be able to win back by an effort of thought the
lost stuff of consciousness. He declared to himself at moments
that he would either win it back or have done with consciousness
for ever; he made this idea his one motive in fine, made it so much
his passion that none other, to compare with it, seemed ever to
have touched him. The lost stuff of consciousness became thus for
him as a strayed or stolen child to an unappeasable father; he
hunted it up and down very much as if he were knocking at doors and
enquiring of the police. This was the spirit in which, inevitably,
he set himself to travel; he started on a journey that was to be as
long as he could make it; it danced before him that, as the other
side of the globe couldn't possibly have less to say to him, it
might, by a possibility of suggestion, have more. Before he
quitted London, however, he made a pilgrimage to May Bartram's
grave, took his way to it through the endless avenues of the grim
suburban necropolis, sought it out in the wilderness of tombs, and,
though he had come but for the renewal of the act of farewell,
found himself, when he had at last stood by it, beguiled into long
intensities. He stood for an hour, powerless to turn away and yet
powerless to penetrate the darkness of death; fixing with his eyes
her inscribed name and date, beating his forehead against the fact
of the secret they kept, drawing his breath, while he waited, as if
some sense would in pity of him rise from the stones. He kneeled
on the stones, however, in vain; they kept what they concealed; and
if the face of the tomb did become a face for him it was because
her two names became a pair of eyes that didn't know him. He gave
them a last long look, but no palest light broke.
He stayed away, after this, for a year; he visited the depths of
Asia, spending himself on scenes of romantic interest, of
superlative sanctity; but what was present to him everywhere was
that for a man who had known what HE had known the world was vulgar
and vain. The state of mind in which he had lived for so many
years shone out to him, in reflexion, as a light that coloured and
refined, a light beside which the glow of the East was garish cheap
and thin. The terrible truth was that he had lost--with everything
else--a distinction as well the things he saw couldn't help being
common when he had become common to look at them. He was simply
now one of them himself--he was in the dust, without a peg for the
sense of difference; and there were hours when, before the temples
of gods and the sepulchres of kings, his spirit turned for
nobleness of association to the barely discriminated slab in the
London suburb. That had become for him, and more intensely with
time and distance, his one witness of a past glory. It was all
that was left to him for proof or pride, yet the past glories of
Pharaohs were nothing to him as he thought of it. Small wonder
then that he came back to it on the morrow of his return. He was
drawn there this time as irresistibly as the other, yet with a
confidence, almost, that was doubtless the effect of the many
months that had elapsed. He had lived, in spite of himself, into
his change of feeling, and in wandering over the earth had
wandered, as might be said, from the circumference to the centre of
his desert. He had settled to his safety and accepted perforce his
extinction; figuring to himself, with some colour, in the likeness
of certain little old men he remembered to have seen, of whom, all
meagre and wizened as they might look, it was related that they had
in their time fought twenty duels or been loved by ten princesses.
They indeed had been wondrous for others while he was but wondrous
for himself; which, however, was exactly the cause of his haste to
renew the wonder by getting back, as he might put it, into his own
presence. That had quickened his steps and checked his delay. If
his visit was prompt it was because he had been separated so long
from the part of himself that alone he now valued.
It's accordingly not false to say that he reached his goal with a
certain elation and stood there again with a certain assurance.
The creature beneath the sod knew of his rare experience, so that,
strangely now, the place had lost for him its mere blankness of
expression. It met him in mildness--not, as before, in mockery; it
wore for him the air of conscious greeting that we find, after
absence, in things that have closely belonged to us and which seem
to confess of themselves to the connexion. The plot of ground, the
graven tablet, the tended flowers affected him so as belonging to
him that he resembled for the hour a contented landlord reviewing a
piece of property. Whatever had happened--well, had happened. He
had not come back this time with the vanity of that question, his
former worrying "What, WHAT?" now practically so spent. Yet he
would none the less never again so cut himself off from the spot;
he would come back to it every month, for if he did nothing else by
its aid he at least held up his head. It thus grew for him, in the
oddest way, a positive resource; he carried out his idea of
periodical returns, which took their place at last among the most
inveterate of his habits. What it all amounted to, oddly enough,
was that in his finally so simplified world this garden of death
gave him the few square feet of earth on which he could still most
live. It was as if, being nothing anywhere else for any one,
nothing even for himself, he were just everything here, and if not
for a crowd of witnesses or indeed for any witness but John
Marcher, then by clear right of the register that he could scan
like an open page. The open page was the tomb of his friend, and
there were the facts of the past, there the truth of his life,
there the backward reaches in which he could lose himself. He did
this from time to time with such effect that he seemed to wander
through the old years with his hand in the arm of a companion who
was, in the most extraordinary manner, his other, his younger self;
and to wander, which was more extraordinary yet, round and round a
third presence--not wandering she, but stationary, still, whose
eyes, turning with his revolution, never ceased to follow him, and
whose seat was his point, so to speak, of orientation. Thus in
short he settled to live--feeding all on the sense that he once HAD
lived, and dependent on it not alone for a support but for an
It sufficed him in its way for months and the year elapsed; it
would doubtless even have carried him further but for an accident,
superficially slight, which moved him, quite in another direction,
with a force beyond any of his impressions of Egypt or of India.
It was a thing of the merest chance--the turn, as he afterwards
felt, of a hair, though he was indeed to live to believe that if
light hadn't come to him in this particular fashion it would still
have come in another. He was to live to believe this, I say,
though he was not to live, I may not less definitely mention, to do
much else. We allow him at any rate the benefit of the conviction,
struggling up for him at the end, that, whatever might have
happened or not happened, he would have come round of himself to
the light. The incident of an autumn day had put the match to the
train laid from of old by his misery. With the light before him he
knew that even of late his ache had only been smothered. It was
strangely drugged, but it throbbed; at the touch it began to bleed.
And the touch, in the event, was the face of a fellow-mortal. This
face, one grey afternoon when the leaves were thick in the alleys,
looked into Marcher's own, at the cemetery, with an expression like
the cut of a blade. He felt it, that is, so deep down that he
winced at the steady thrust. The person who so mutely assaulted
him was a figure he had noticed, on reaching his own goal, absorbed
by a grave a short distance away, a grave apparently fresh, so that
the emotion of the visitor would probably match it for frankness.
This fact alone forbade further attention, though during the time
he stayed he remained vaguely conscious of his neighbour, a middle-
aged man apparently, in mourning, whose bowed back, among the
clustered monuments and mortuary yews, was constantly presented.
Marcher's theory that these were elements in contact with which he
himself revived, had suffered, on this occasion, it may be granted,
a marked, an excessive check. The autumn day was dire for him as
none had recently been, and he rested with a heaviness he had not
yet known on the low stone table that bore May Bartram's name. He
rested without power to move, as if some spring in him, some spell
vouchsafed, had suddenly been broken for ever. If he could have
done that moment as he wanted he would simply have stretched
himself on the slab that was ready to take him, treating it as a
place prepared to receive his last sleep. What in all the wide
world had he now to keep awake for? He stared before him with the
question, and it was then that, as one of the cemetery walks passed
near him, he caught the shock of the face.
His neighbour at the other grave had withdrawn, as he himself, with
force enough in him, would have done by now, and was advancing
along the path on his way to one of the gates. This brought him
close, and his pace, was slow, so that--and all the more as there
was a kind of hunger in his look--the two men were for a minute
directly confronted. Marcher knew him at once for one of the
deeply stricken--a perception so sharp that nothing else in the
picture comparatively lived, neither his dress, his age, nor his
presumable character and class; nothing lived but the deep ravage
of the features that he showed. He SHOWED them--that was the
point; he was moved, as he passed, by some impulse that was either
a signal for sympathy or, more possibly, a challenge to an opposed
sorrow. He might already have been aware of our friend, might at
some previous hour have noticed in him the smooth habit of the
scene, with which the state of his own senses so scantly consorted,
and might thereby have been stirred as by an overt discord. What
Marcher was at all events conscious of was in the first place that
the image of scarred passion presented to him was conscious too--of
something that profaned the air; and in the second that, roused,
startled, shocked, he was yet the next moment looking after it, as
it went, with envy. The most extraordinary thing that had happened
to him--though he had given that name to other matters as well--
took place, after his immediate vague stare, as a consequence of
this impression. The stranger passed, but the raw glare of his
grief remained, making our friend wonder in pity what wrong, what
wound it expressed, what injury not to be healed. What had the man
HAD, to make him by the loss of it so bleed and yet live?
Something--and this reached him with a pang--that HE, John Marcher,
hadn't; the proof of which was precisely John Marcher's arid end.
No passion had ever touched him, for this was what passion meant;
he had survived and maundered and pined, but where had been HIS
deep ravage? The extraordinary thing we speak of was the sudden
rush of the result of this question. The sight that had just met
his eyes named to him, as in letters of quick flame, something he
had utterly, insanely missed, and what he had missed made these
things a train of fire, made them mark themselves in an anguish of
inward throbs. He had seen OUTSIDE of his life, not learned it
within, the way a woman was mourned when she had been loved for
herself: such was the force of his conviction of the meaning of
the stranger's face, which still flared for him as a smoky torch.
It hadn't come to him, the knowledge, on the wings of experience;
it had brushed him, jostled him, upset him, with the disrespect of
chance, the insolence of accident. Now that the illumination had
begun, however, it blazed to the zenith, and what he presently
stood there gazing at was the sounded void of his life. He gazed,
he drew breath, in pain; he turned in his dismay, and, turning, he
had before him in sharper incision than ever the open page of his
story. The name on the table smote him as the passage of his
neighbour had done, and what it said to him, full in the face, was
that she was what he had missed. This was the awful thought, the
answer to all the past, the vision at the dread clearness of which
he turned as cold as the stone beneath him. Everything fell
together, confessed, explained, overwhelmed; leaving him most of
all stupefied at the blindness he had cherished. The fate he had
been marked for he had met with a vengeance--he had emptied the cup
to the lees; he had been the man of his time, THE man, to whom
nothing on earth was to have happened. That was the rare stroke--
that was his visitation. So he saw it, as we say, in pale horror,
while the pieces fitted and fitted. So SHE had seen it while he
didn't, and so she served at this hour to drive the truth home. It
was the truth, vivid and monstrous, that all the while he had
waited the wait was itself his portion. This the companion of his
vigil had at a given moment made out, and she had then offered him
the chance to baffle his doom. One's doom, however, was never
baffled, and on the day she told him his own had come down she had
seen him but stupidly stare at the escape she offered him.
The escape would have been to love her; then, THEN he would have
lived. SHE had lived--who could say now with what passion?--since
she had loved him for himself; whereas he had never thought of her
(ah how it hugely glared at him!) but in the chill of his egotism
and the light of her use. Her spoken words came back to him--the
chain stretched and stretched. The Beast had lurked indeed, and
the Beast, at its hour, had sprung; it had sprung in that twilight
of the cold April when, pale, ill, wasted, but all beautiful, and
perhaps even then recoverable, she had risen from her chair to
stand before him and let him imaginably guess. It had sprung as he
didn't guess; it had sprung as she hopelessly turned from him, and
the mark, by the time he left her, had fallen where it WAS to fall.
He had justified his fear and achieved his fate; he had failed,
with the last exactitude, of all he was to fail of; and a moan now
rose to his lips as he remembered she had prayed he mightn't know.
This horror of waking--THIS was knowledge, knowledge under the
breath of which the very tears in his eyes seemed to freeze.
Through them, none the less, he tried to fix it and hold it; he
kept it there before him so that he might feel the pain. That at
least, belated and bitter, had something of the taste of life. But
the bitterness suddenly sickened him, and it was as if, horribly,
he saw, in the truth, in the cruelty of his image, what had been
appointed and done. He saw the Jungle of his life and saw the
lurking Beast; then, while he looked, perceived it, as by a stir of
the air, rise, huge and hideous, for the leap that was to settle
him. His eyes darkened--it was close; and, instinctively turning,
in his hallucination, to avoid it, he flung himself, face down,
on the tomb.
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