“The Figure in the Carpet” is a short story (sometimes considered a novella) by American writer Henry James first published in 1896. It is told in the first person; the narrator, whose name is never revealed, meets his favorite author and becomes obsessed with discovering the secret meaning or intention of all the author’s works.
I had done a few things and earned a few pence—I had perhaps even had time to begin to think I was finer than was perceived by the patronising; but when I take the little measure of my course (a fidgety habit, for it’s none of the longest yet) I count my real start from the evening George Corvick, breathless and worried, came in to ask me a service. He had done more things than I, and earned more pence, though there were chances for cleverness I thought he sometimes missed. I could only however that evening declare to him that he never missed one for kindness. There was almost rapture in hearing it proposed to me to prepare for The Middle, the organ of our lucubrations, so called from the position in the week of its day of appearance, an article for which he had made himself responsible and of which, tied up with a stout string, he laid on my table the subject. I pounced upon my opportunity—that is on the first volume of it—and paid scant attention to my friend’s explanation of his appeal. What explanation could be more to the point than my obvious fitness for the task? I had written on Hugh Vereker, but never a word in The Middle, where my dealings were mainly with the ladies and the minor poets. This was his new novel, an advance copy, and whatever much or little it should do for his reputation I was clear on the spot as to what it should do for mine. Moreover, if I always read him as soon as I could get hold of him, I had a particular reason for wishing to read him now: I had accepted an invitation to Bridges for the following Sunday, and it had been mentioned in Lady Jane’s note that Mr. Vereker was to be there. I was young enough to have an emotion about meeting a man of his renown, and innocent enough to believe the occasion would demand the display of an acquaintance with his “last.”
Corvick, who had promised a review of it, had not even had time to read it; he had gone to pieces in consequence of news requiring—as on precipitate reflection he judged—that he should catch the night-mail to Paris. He had had a telegram from Gwendolen Erme in answer to his letter offering to fly to her aid. I knew already about Gwendolen Erme; I had never seen her, but I had my ideas, which were mainly to the effect that Corvick would marry her if her mother would only die. That lady seemed now in a fair way to oblige him; after some dreadful mistake about some climate or some waters, she had suddenly collapsed on the return from abroad. Her daughter, unsupported and alarmed, desiring to make a rush for home but hesitating at the risk, had accepted our friend’s assistance, and it was my secret belief that at the sight of him Mrs. Erme would pull round. His own belief was scarcely to be called secret; it discernibly at any rate differed from mine. He had showed me Gwendolen’s photograph with the remark that she wasn’t pretty but was awfully interesting; she had published at the age of nineteen a novel in three volumes, “Deep Down,” about which, in The Middle, he had been really splendid. He appreciated my present eagerness and undertook that the periodical in question should do no less; then at the last, with his hand on the door, he said to me: “Of course you’ll be all right, you know.” Seeing I was a trifle vague he added: “I mean you won’t be silly.”
“Silly—about Vereker! Why, what do I ever find him but awfully clever?”
“Well, what’s that but silly? What on earth does awfully clever mean? For God’s sake try to get at him. Don’t let him suffer by our arrangement. Speak of him, you know, if you can, as I should have spoken of him.”
I wondered an instant. “You mean as far and away the biggest of the lot—that sort of thing?”
Corvick almost groaned. “Oh, you know, I don’t put them back to back that way; it’s the infancy of art! But he gives me a pleasure so rare; the sense of”—he mused a little—”something or other.”
I wondered again. “The sense, pray, of what?”
“My dear man, that’s just what I want you to say!”
Even before Corvick had banged the door I had begun, book in hand, to prepare myself to say it. I sat up with Vereker half the night; Corvick couldn’t have done more than that. He was awfully clever—I stuck to that, but he wasn’t a bit the biggest of the lot. I didn’t allude to the lot, however; I flattered myself that I emerged on this occasion from the infancy of art. “It’s all right,” they declared vividly at the office; and when the number appeared I felt there was a basis on which I could meet the great man. It gave me confidence for a day or two, and then that confidence dropped. I had fancied him reading it with relish, but if Corvick was not satisfied how could Vereker himself be? I reflected indeed that the heat of the admirer was sometimes grosser even than the appetite of the scribe. Corvick at all events wrote me from Paris a little ill-humouredly. Mrs. Erme was pulling round, and I hadn’t at all said what Vereker gave him the sense of.
The effect of my visit to Bridges was to turn me out for more profundity. Hugh Vereker, as I saw him there, was of a contact so void of angles that I blushed for the poverty of imagination involved in my small precautions. If he was in spirits it was not because he had read my review; in fact on the Sunday morning I felt sure he hadn’t read it, though The Middle had been out three days and bloomed, I assured myself, in the stiff garden of periodicals which gave one of the ormolu tables the air of a stand at a station. The impression he made on me personally was such that I wished him to read it, and I corrected to this end with a surreptitious hand what might be wanting in the careless conspicuity of the sheet. I am afraid I even watched the result of my manœuvre, but up to luncheon I watched in vain.
When afterwards, in the course of our gregarious walk, I found myself for half an hour, not perhaps without another manœuvre, at the great man’s side, the result of his affability was a still livelier desire that he should not remain in ignorance of the peculiar justice I had done him. It was not that he seemed to thirst for justice; on the contrary I had not yet caught in his talk the faintest grunt of a grudge—a note for which my young experience had already given me an ear. Of late he had had more recognition, and it was pleasant, as we used to say in The Middle, to see that it drew him out. He wasn’t of course popular, but I judged one of the sources of his good humour to be precisely that his success was independent of that. He had none the less become in a manner the fashion; the critics at least had put on a spurt and caught up with him. We had found out at last how clever he was, and he had had to make the best of the loss of his mystery. I was strongly tempted, as I walked beside him, to let him know how much of that unveiling was my act; and there was a moment when I probably should have done so had not one of the ladies of our party, snatching a place at his other elbow, just then appealed to him in a spirit comparatively selfish. It was very discouraging: I almost felt the liberty had been taken with myself.
I had had on my tongue’s end, for my own part, a phrase or two about the right word at the right time; but later on I was glad not to have spoken, for when on our return we clustered at tea I perceived Lady Jane, who had not been out with us, brandishing The Middle with her longest arm. She had taken it up at her leisure; she was delighted with what she had found, and I saw that, as a mistake in a man may often be a felicity in a woman, she would practically do for me what I hadn’t been able to do for myself. “Some sweet little truths that needed to be spoken,” I heard her declare, thrusting the paper at rather a bewildered couple by the fireplace. She grabbed it away from them again on the reappearance of Hugh Vereker, who after our walk had been upstairs to change something. “I know you don’t in general look at this kind of thing, but it’s an occasion really for doing so. You haven’t seen it? Then you must. The man has actually got at you, at what I always feel, you know.” Lady Jane threw into her eyes a look evidently intended to give an idea of what she always felt; but she added that she couldn’t have expressed it. The man in the paper expressed it in a striking manner. “Just see there, and there, where I’ve dashed it, how he brings it out.” She had literally marked for him the brightest patches of my prose, and if I was a little amused Vereker himself may well have been. He showed how much he was when before us all Lady Jane wanted to read something aloud. I liked at any rate the way he defeated her purpose by jerking the paper affectionately out of her clutch. He would take it upstairs with him, would look at it on going to dress. He did this half an hour later—I saw it in his hand when he repaired to his room. That was the moment at which, thinking to give her pleasure, I mentioned to Lady Jane that I was the author of the review. I did give her pleasure, I judged, but perhaps not quite so much as I had expected. If the author was “only me” the thing didn’t seem quite so remarkable. Hadn’t I had the effect rather of diminishing the lustre of the article than of adding to my own? Her ladyship was subject to the most extraordinary drops. It didn’t matter; the only effect I cared about was the one it would have on Vereker up there by his bedroom fire.
At dinner I watched for the signs of this impression, tried to fancy there was some happier light in his eyes; but to my disappointment Lady Jane gave me no chance to make sure. I had hoped she would call triumphantly down the table, publicly demand if she hadn’t been right. The party was large—there were people from outside as well, but I had never seen a table long enough to deprive Lady Jane of a triumph. I was just reflecting in truth that this interminable board would deprive me of one, when the guest next me, dear woman—she was Miss Poyle, the vicar’s sister, a robust, unmodulated person—had the happy inspiration and the unusual courage to address herself across it to Vereker, who was opposite, but not directly, so that when he replied they were both leaning forward. She inquired, artless body, what he thought of Lady Jane’s “panegyric,” which she had read—not connecting it however with her right-hand neighbour; and while I strained my ear for his reply I heard him, to my stupefaction, call back gaily, with his mouth full of bread: “Oh, it’s all right—it’s the usual twaddle!”
I had caught Vereker’s glance as he spoke, but Miss Poyle’s surprise was a fortunate cover for my own. “You mean he doesn’t do you justice?” said the excellent woman.
Vereker laughed out, and I was happy to be able to do the same. “It’s a charming article,” he tossed us.
Miss Poyle thrust her chin half across the cloth.
“Oh you’re so deep!” she drove home.
“As deep as the ocean! All I pretend is, the author doesn’t see—”
A dish was at this point passed over his shoulder, and we had to wait while he helped himself.
“Doesn’t see what?” my neighbour continued.
“Doesn’t see anything.”
“Dear me—how very stupid!”
“Not a bit,” Vereker laughed again. “Nobody does.”
The lady on his further side appealed to him, and Miss Poyle sank back to me. “Nobody sees anything!” she cheerfully announced; to which I replied that I had often thought so too, but had somehow taken the thought for a proof on my own part of a tremendous eye. I didn’t tell her the article was mine; and I observed that Lady Jane, occupied at the end of the table, had not caught Vereker’s words.
I rather avoided him after dinner, for I confess he struck me as cruelly conceited, and the revelation was a pain. “The usual twaddle”—my acute little study! That one’s admiration should have had a reserve or two could gall him to that point? I had thought him placid, and he was placid enough; such a surface was the hard, polished glass that encased the bauble of his vanity. I was really ruffled, the only comfort was that if nobody saw anything George Corvick was quite as much out of it as I. This comfort however was not sufficient, after the ladies had dispersed, to carry me in the proper manner—I mean in a spotted jacket and humming an air—into the smoking-room. I took my way in some dejection to bed; but in the passage I encountered Mr. Vereker, who had been up once more to change, coming out of his room. He was humming an air and had on a spotted jacket, and as soon as he saw me his gaiety gave a start.
“My dear young man,” he exclaimed, “I’m so glad to lay hands on you! I’m afraid I most unwittingly wounded you by those words of mine at dinner to Miss Poyle. I learned but half an hour ago from Lady Jane that you wrote the little notice in The Middle.”
I protested that no bones were broken; but he moved with me to my own door, his hand on my shoulder, kindly feeling for a fracture; and on hearing that I had come up to bed he asked leave to cross my threshold and just tell me in three words what his qualification of my remarks had represented. It was plain he really feared I was hurt, and the sense of his solicitude suddenly made all the difference to me. My cheap review fluttered oft into space, and the best things I had said in it became flat enough beside the brilliancy of his being there. I can see him there still, on my rug, in the firelight and his spotted jacket, his fine, clear face all bright with the desire to be tender to my youth. I don’t know what he had at first meant to say, but I think the sight of my relief touched him, excited him, brought up words to his lips from far within. It was so these words presently conveyed to me something that, as I afterwards knew, he had never uttered to any one. I have always done justice to the generous impulse that made him speak; it was simply compunction for a snub unconsciously administered to a man of letters in a position inferior to his own, a man of letters moreover in the very act of praising him. To make the thing right he talked to me exactly as an equal and on the ground of what we both loved best. The hour, the place, the unexpectedness deepened the impression: he couldn’t have done any thing more exquisitely successful.
“I don’t quite know how to explain it to you,” he said, “but it was the very fact that your notice of my book had a spice of intelligence, it was just your exceptional sharpness that produced the feeling—a very old story with me, I beg you to believe—under the momentary influence of which I used in speaking to that good lady the words you so naturally resent. I don’t read the things in the newspapers unless they’re thrust upon me as that one was—it’s always one’s best friend that does it! But I used to read them sometimes—ten years ago. I daresay they were in general rather stupider then; at any rate it always seemed to me that they missed my little point with a perfection exactly as admirable when they patted me on the back as when they kicked me in the shins. Whenever since I’ve happened to have a glimpse of them they were still blazing away— still missing it, I mean, deliciously. You miss it, my dear fellow, with inimitable assurance; the fact of your being awfully clever and your article’s being awfully nice doesn’t make a hair’s breadth of difference. It’s quite with you rising young men,” Vereker laughed, “that I feel most what a failure I am!”
I listened with intense interest; it grew intenser as he talked. “You a failure—heavens! What then may your ‘little point’ happen to be?”
“Have I got to tell you, after all these years and labours?” There was something in the friendly reproach of this—jocosely exaggerated—that made me, as an ardent young seeker for truth, blush to the roots of my hair. I’m as much in the dark as ever, though I’ve grown used in a sense to my obtuseness; at that moment, however, Vereker’s happy accent made me appear to myself, and probably to him, a rare donkey. I was on the point of exclaiming, “Ah, yes, don’t tell me: for my honour, for that of the craft, don’t!” when he went on in a manner that showed he had read my thought and had his own idea of the probability of our some day redeeming ourselves. “By my little point I mean— what shall I call it?—the particular thing I’ve written my books most for. Isn’t there for every writer a particular thing of that sort, the thing that most makes him apply himself, the thing without the effort to achieve which he wouldn’t write at all, the very passion of his passion, the part of the business in which, for him, the flame of art burns most intensely? Well, it’s that!“
I considered a moment. I was fascinated easily, you’ll say; but I wasn’t going after all to be put off my guard. “Your description’s certainly beautiful, but it doesn’t make what you describe very distinct.”
“I promise you it would be distinct if it should dawn on you at all.” I saw that the charm of our topic overflowed for my companion into an emotion as lively as my own. “At any rate,” he went on, “I can speak for myself: there’s an idea in my work without which I wouldn’t have given a straw for the whole job. It’s the finest, fullest intention of the lot, and the application of it has been, I think, a triumph of patience, of ingenuity. I ought to leave that to somebody else to say; but that nobody does say it is precisely what we’re talking about. It stretches, this little trick of mine, from book to book, and everything else, comparatively, plays over the surface of it. The order, the form, the texture of my books will perhaps some day constitute for the initiated a complete representation of it. So it’s naturally the thing for the critic to look for. It strikes me,” my visitor added, smiling, “even as the thing for the critic to find.”
This seemed a responsibility indeed. “You call it a little trick?”
“That’s only my little modesty. It’s really an exquisite scheme.”
“And you hold that you’ve carried the scheme out?”
“The way I’ve carried it out is the thing in life I think a bit well of myself for.”
I was silent a moment. “Don’t you think you ought—just a trifle—to assist the critic?”
“Assist him? What else have I done with every stroke of my pen? I’ve shouted my intention in his great blank face!” At this, laughing out again, Vereker laid his hand on my shoulder to show that the allusion was not to my personal appearance.
“But you talk about the initiated. There must therefore, you see, be initiation.”
“What else in heaven’s name is criticism supposed to be?” I’m afraid I coloured at this too; but I took refuge in repeating that his account of his silver lining was poor in something or other that a plain man knows things by. “That’s only because you’ve never had a glimpse of it,” he replied. “If you had had one the element in question would soon have become practically all you’d see. To me it’s exactly as palpable as the marble of this chimney. Besides, the critic just isn’t a plain man: if he were, pray, what would he be doing in his neighbour’s garden? You’re anything but a plain man yourself, and the very raison d’être of you all is that you’re little demons of subtlety. If my great affair’s a secret, that’s only because it’s a secret in spite of itself—the amazing event has made it one. I not only never took the smallest precaution to do so, but never dreamed of any such accident. If I had I shouldn’t in advance have had the heart to go on. As it was I only became aware little by little, and meanwhile I had done my work.”
“And now you quite like it?” I risked.
“Your secret. It’s the same thing.”
“Your guessing that,” Vereker replied, “is a proof that you’re as clever as I say!” I was encouraged by this to remark that he would clearly be pained to part with it, and he confessed that it was indeed with him now the great amusement of life. “I live almost to see if it will ever be detected.” He looked at me for a jesting challenge; something at the back of his eyes seemed to peep out. “But I needn’t worry—it won’t!”
“You fire me as I’ve never been fired,” I returned; “you make me determined to do or die.” Then I asked: “Is it a kind of esoteric message?”
His countenance fell at this—he put out his hand as if to bid me good-night. “Ah, my dear fellow, it can’t be described in cheap journalese!”
I knew of course he would be awfully fastidious, but our talk had made me feel how much his nerves were exposed. I was unsatisfied—I kept hold of his hand. “I won’t make use of the expression then,” I said, “in the article in which I shall eventually announce my discovery, though I daresay I shall have hard work to do without it. But meanwhile, just to hasten that difficult birth, can’t you give a fellow a clue?” I felt much more at my ease.
“My whole lucid effort gives him a clue— every page and line and letter. The thing’s as concrete there as a bird in a cage, a bait on a hook, a piece of cheese in a mouse-trap. It’s stuck into every volume as your foot is stuck into your shoe. It governs every line, it chooses every word, it dots every i, it places every comma.”
I scratched my head. “Is it something in the style or something in the thought? An element of form or an element of feeling?”
He indulgently shook my hand again, and I felt my questions to be crude and my distinctions pitiful. “Good-night, my dear boy—don’t bother about it. After all, you do like a fellow.”
“And a little intelligence might spoil it?” I still detained him.
He hesitated. “Well, you’ve got a heart in your body. Is that an element of form or an element of feeling? What I contend that nobody has ever mentioned in my work is the organ of life.”
“I see—it’s some idea about life, some sort of philosophy. Unless it be,” I added with the eagerness of a thought perhaps still happier, “some kind of game you’re up to with your style, something you’re after in the language. Perhaps it’s a preference for the letter P!” I ventured profanely to break out. “Papa, potatoes, prunes—that sort of thing?” He was suitably indulgent: he only said I hadn’t got the right letter. But his amusement was over; I could see he was bored. There was nevertheless something else I had absolutely to learn. “Should you be able, pen in hand, to state it clearly yourself—to name it, phrase it, formulate it?”
“Oh,” he almost passionately sighed, “if I were only, pen in hand, one of you chaps!”
“That would be a great chance for you of course. But why should you despise us chaps for not doing what you can’t do yourself?”
“Can’t do?” He opened his eyes. “Haven’t I done it in twenty volumes? I do it in my way,” he continued. “You don’t do it in yours.”
“Ours is so devilish difficult,” I weakly observed.
“So is mine. We each choose our own. There’s no compulsion. You won’t come down and smoke?”
“No. I want to think this thing out.”
“You’ll tell me then in the morning that you’ve laid me bare?”
“I’ll see what I can do; I’ll sleep on it. But just one word more,” I added. We had left the room—I walked again with him a few steps along the passage. “This extraordinary general intention, as you call it—for that’s the most vivid description I can induce you to make of it—is then generally a sort of buried treasure?”
His face lighted. “Yes, call it that, though it’s perhaps not for me to do so.”
“Nonsense!” I laughed. “You know you’re hugely proud of it.”
“Well, I didn’t propose to tell you so; but it is the joy of my soul!”
“You mean it’s a beauty so rare, so great?”
He hesitated a moment. “The loveliest thing in the world!” We had stopped, and on these words he left me; but at the end of the corridor, while I looked after him rather yearningly, he turned and caught sight of my puzzled face. It made him earnestly, indeed I thought quite anxiously, shake his head and wave his finger. “Give it up—give it up!”
This wasn’t a challenge—it was fatherly advice. If I had had one of his books at hand I would have repeated my recent act of faith—I would have spent half the night with him. At three o’clock in the morning, not sleeping, remembering moreover how indispensable he was to Lady Jane, I stole down to the library with a candle. There wasn’t, so far as I could discover, a line of his writing in the house.
Returning to town I feverishly collected them all; I picked out each in its order and held it up to the light. This gave me a maddening month, in the course of which several things took place. One of these, the last, I may as well immediately mention, was that I acted on Vereker’s advice: I renounced my ridiculous attempt. I could really make nothing of the business; it proved a dead loss. After all, before, as he had himself observed, I liked him; and what now occurred was simply that my new intelligence and vain preoccupation damaged my liking. I not only failed to find his general intention—I found myself missing the subordinate intentions I had formerly found. His books didn’t even remain the charming things they had been for me; the exasperation of my search put me out of conceit of them. Instead of being a pleasure the more they became a resource the less; for from the moment I was unable to follow up the author’s hint I of course felt it a point of honour not to make use professionally of my knowledge of them. I had no knowledge—nobody had any. It was humiliating, but I could bear it—they only annoyed me now. At last they even bored me, and I accounted for my confusion—perversely, I confess—by the idea that Vereker had made a fool of me. The buried treasure was a bad joke, the general intention a monstrous pose.
The great incident of the time however was that I told George Corvick all about the matter and that my information had an immense effect upon him. He had at last come back, but so, unfortunately, had Mrs. Erme, and there was as yet, I could see, no question of his nuptials. He was immensely stirred up by the anecdote I had brought from Bridges; it fell in so completely with the sense he had had from the first that there was more in Vereker than met the eye. When I remarked that the eye seemed what the printed page had been expressly invented to meet he immediately accused me of being spiteful because I had been foiled. Our commerce had always that pleasant latitude. The thing Vereker had mentioned to me was exactly the thing he, Corvick, had wanted me to speak of in my review. On my suggesting at last that with the assistance I had now given him he would doubtless be prepared to speak of it himself he admitted freely that before doing this there was more he must understand. What he would have said, had he reviewed the new book, was that there was evidently in the writer’s inmost art something to be understood. I hadn’t so much as hinted at that: no wonder the writer hadn’t been flattered! I asked Corvick what he really considered he meant by his own supersubtlety, and, unmistakably kindled, he replied: “It isn’t for the vulgar—it isn’t for the vulgar!” He had hold of the tail of something; he would pull hard, pull it right out. He pumped me dry on Vereker’s strange confidence and, pronouncing me the luckiest of mortals, mentioned half a dozen questions he wished to goodness I had had the gumption to put. Yet on the other hand he didn’t want to be told too much—it would spoil the fun of seeing what would come. The failure of my fun was at the moment of our meeting not complete, but I saw it ahead, and Corvick saw that I saw it. I, on my side, saw likewise that one of the first things he would do would be to rush off with my story to Gwendolen.
On the very day after my talk with him I was surprised by the receipt of a note from Hugh Vereker, to whom our encounter at Bridges had been recalled, as he mentioned, by his falling, in a magazine, on some article to which my signature was appended. “I read it with great pleasure,” he wrote, “and remembered under its influence our lively conversation by your bedroom fire. The consequence of this has been that I begin to measure the temerity of my having saddled you with a knowledge that you may find something of a burden. Now that the fit’s over I can’t imagine how I came to be moved so much beyond my wont. I had never before related, no matter in what expansion, the history of my little secret, and I shall never speak of the business again. I was accidentally so much more explicit with you than it had ever entered into my game to be, that I find this game-I mean the pleasure of playing it—suffers considerably. In short, if you can understand it, I’ve spoiled a part of my fun. I really don’t want to give anybody what I believe you clever young men call the tip. That’s of course a selfish solicitude, and I name it to you for what it may be worth to you. If you’re disposed to humour me, don’t repeat my revelation. Think me demented—it’s your right; but don’t tell anybody why.”
The sequel to this communication was that as early on the morrow as I dared I drove straight to Mr. Vereker’s door. He occupied in those years one of the honest old houses in Kensington-square. He received me immediately, and as soon as I came in I saw I had not lost my power to minister to his mirth. He laughed out at the sight of my face, which doubtless expressed my perturbation. I had been indiscreet—my compunction was great. “I have told somebody,” I panted, “and I’m sure that person will by this time have told somebody else! It’s a woman, into the bargain.”
“The person you’ve told?”
“No, the other person. I’m quite sure he must have told her.”
“For all the good it will do her—or do me! A woman will never find out.”
“No, but she’ll talk all over the place: she’ll do just what you don’t want.”
Vereker thought a moment, but he was not so disconcerted as I had feared: he felt that if the harm was done it only served him right. “It doesn’t matter—don’t worry.”
“I’ll do my best, I promise you, that your talk with me shall go no further.”
“Very good; do what you can.”
“In the meantime,” I pursued, “George Corvick’s possession of the tip may, on his part, really lead to something.”
“That will be a brave day.”
I told him about Corvick’s cleverness, his admiration, the intensity of his interest in my anecdote; and without making too much of the divergence of our respective estimates mentioned that my friend was already of opinion that he saw much further into a certain affair than most people. He was quite as fired as I had been at Bridges. He was moreover in love with the young lady: perhaps the two together would puzzle something out.
Vereker seemed struck with this. “Do you mean they’re to be married?”
“I daresay that’s what it will come to.”
“That may help them,” he conceded, “but we must give them time!”
I spoke of my own renewed assault and confessed my difficulties; whereupon he repeated his former advice: “Give it up, give it up!” He evidently didn’t think me intellectually equipped for the adventure. I stayed half an hour, and he was most good-natured, but I couldn’t help pronouncing him a man of shifting moods. He had been free with me in a mood, he had repented in a mood, and now in a mood he had turned indifferent. This general levity helped me to believe that, so far as the subject of the tip went, there wasn’t much in it. I contrived however to make him answer a few more questions about it, though he did so with visible impatience. For himself, beyond doubt, the thing we were all so blank about was vividly there. It was something, I guessed, in the primal plan, something like a complex figure in a Persian carpet. He highly approved of this image when I used it, and he used another himself. “It’s the very string,” he said, “that my pearls are strung on!” The reason of his note to me had been that he really didn’t want to give us a grain of succour—our destiny was a thing too perfect in its way to touch. He had formed the habit of depending upon it, and if the spell was to break it must break by some force of its own. He comes back to me from that last occasion—for I was never to speak to him again—as a man with some safe secret for enjoyment. I wondered as I walked away where he had got his tip.
When I spoke to George Corvick of the caution I had received he made me feel that any doubt of his delicacy would be almost an insult. He had instantly told Gwendolen, but Gwendolen’s ardent response was in itself a pledge of discretion. The question would now absorb them, and they would enjoy their fun too much to wish to share it with the crowd. They appeared to have caught instinctively Vereker’s peculiar notion of fun. Their intellectual pride, however, was not such as to make them indifferent to any further light I might throw on the affair they had in hand. They were indeed of the “artistic temperament,” and I was freshly struck with my colleague’s power to excite himself over a question of art. He called it letters, he called it life—it was all one thing. In what he said I now seemed to understand that he spoke equally for Gwendolen, to whom, as soon as Mrs. Erme was sufficiently better to allow her a little leisure, he made a point of introducing me. I remember our calling together one Sunday in August at a huddled house in Chelsea, and my renewed envy of Corvick’s possession of a friend who had some light to mingle with his own. He could say things to her that I could never say to him. She had indeed no sense of humour and, with her pretty way of holding her head on one side, was one of those persons whom you want, as the phrase is, to shake, but who have learnt Hungarian by themselves. She conversed perhaps in Hungarian with Corvick; she had remarkably little English for his friend. Corvick afterwards told me that I had chilled her by my apparent indisposition to oblige her with the detail of what Vereker had said to me. I admitted that I felt I had given thought enough to this exposure: hadn’t I even made up my mind that it was hollow, wouldn’t stand the test? The importance they attached to it was irritating—it rather envenomed my dissent.
That statement looks unamiable, and what probably happened was that I felt humiliated at seeing other persons derive a daily joy from an experiment which had brought me only chagrin. I was out in the cold while, by the evening fire, under the lamp, they followed the chase for which I myself had sounded the horn. They did as I had done, only more deliberately and sociably—they went over their author from the beginning. There was no hurry, Corvick said—the future was before them and the fascination could only grow; they would take him page by page, as they would take one of the classics, inhale him in slow draughts and let him sink deep in. I doubt whether they would have got so wound up if they had not been in love: poor Vereker’s secret gave them endless occasion to put their young heads together. None the less it represented the kind of problem for which Corvick had a special aptitude, drew out the particular pointed patience of which, had he lived, he would have given more striking and, it is to be hoped, more fruitful examples. He at least was, in Vereker’s words, a little demon of subtlety. We had begun by disputing, but I soon saw that without my stirring a finger his infatuation would have its bad hours. He would bound off on false scents as I had done—he would clap his hands over new lights and see them blown out by the wind of the turned page. He was like nothing, I told him, but the maniacs who embrace some bedlamitical theory of the cryptic character of Shakespeare. To this he replied that if we had had Shakespeare’s own word for his being cryptic he would immediately have accepted it. The case there was altogether different—we had nothing but the word of Mr. Snooks. I rejoined that I was stupefied to see him attach such importance even to the word of Mr. Vereker. He inquired thereupon whether I treated Mr. Vereker’s word as a lie. I wasn’t perhaps prepared, in my unhappy rebound, to go as far as that, but I insisted that till the contrary was proved I should view it as too fond an imagination. I didn’t, I confess, say—I didn’t at that time quite know—all I felt. Deep down, as Miss Erme would have said, I was uneasy, I was expectant. At the core of my personal confusion—for my curiosity lived in its ashes—was the sharpness of a sense that Corvick would at last probably come out somewhere. He made, in defence of his credulity, a great point of the fact that from of old, in his study of this genius, he had caught whiffs and hints of he didn’t know what, faint wandering notes of a hidden music. That was just the rarity, that was the charm: it fitted so perfectly into what I reported.
If I returned on several occasions to the little house in Chelsea I daresay it was as much for news of Vereker as for news of Miss Erme’s mamma. The hours spent there by Corvick were present to my fancy as those of a chessplayer bent with a silent scowl, all the lamplit winter, over his board and his moves. As my imagination filled it out the picture held me fast. On the other side of the table was a ghostlier form, the faint figure of an antagonist good-humouredly but a little wearily secure—an antagonist who leaned back in his chair with his hands in his pockets and a smile on his fine clear face. Close to Corvick, behind him, was a girl who had begun to strike me as pale and wasted and even, on more familiar view, as rather handsome, and who rested on his shoulder and hung upon his moves. He would take up a chessman and hold it poised a while over one of the little squares, and then he would put it back in its place with a long sigh of disappointment. The young lady, at this, would slightly but uneasily shift her position and look across, very hard, very long, very strangely, at their dim participant. I had asked them at an early stage of the business if it mightn’t contribute to their success to have some closer communication with him. The special circumstances would surely be held to have given me a right to introduce them. Corvick immediately replied that he had no wish to approach the altar before he had prepared the sacrifice. He quite agreed with our friend both as to the sport and as to the honour—he would bring down the animal with his own rifle. When I asked him if Miss Erme were as keen a shot he said after an hesitation: “No; I’m ashamed to say she wants to set a trap. She’d give anything to see him; she says she requires another tip. She’s really quite morbid about it. But she must play fair—she shan’t see him!” he emphatically added. I had a suspicion that they had even quarrelled a little on the subject—a suspicion not corrected by the way he more than once exclaimed to me: “She’s quite incredibly literary, you know—quite fantastically!” I remember his saying of her that she felt in italics and thought in capitals. “Oh, when I’ve run him to earth,” he also said, “then, you know, I shall knock at his door. Rather—I beg you to believe. I’ll have it from his own lips: ‘Right you are, my boy; you’ve done it this time!’ He shall crown me victor—with the critical laurel.”
Meanwhile he really avoided the chances London life might have given him of meeting the distinguished novelist; a danger however that disappeared with Vereker’s leaving England for an indefinite absence, as the newspapers announced—going to the south for motives connected with the health of his wife, which had long kept her in retirement. A year—more than a year—had elapsed since the incident at Bridges, but I had not encountered him again. I think at bottom I was rather ashamed—I hated to remind him that though I had irremediably missed his point a reputation for acuteness was rapidly overtaking me. This scruple led me a dance; kept me out of Lady Jane’s house, made me even decline, when in spite of my bad manners she was a second time so good as to make me a sign, an invitation to her beautiful seat. I once saw her with Vereker at a concert and was sure I was seen by them, but I slipped out without being caught. I felt, as on that occasion I splashed along in the rain, that I couldn’t have done anything else; and yet I remember saying to myself that it was hard, was even cruel. Not only had I lost the books, but I had lost the man himself: they and their author had been alike spoiled for me. I knew too which was the loss I most regretted. I had liked the man still better than I had liked the books.
Six months after Vereker had left England George Corvick, who made his living by his pen, contracted for a piece of work which imposed on him an absence of some length and a journey of some difficulty, and his undertaking of which was much of a surprise to me. His brother-in-law had become editor of a great provincial paper, and the great provincial paper, in a fine flight of fancy, had conceived the idea of sending a “special commissioner” to India. Special commissioners had begun, in the “metropolitan press,” to be the fashion, and the journal in question felt that it had passed too long for a mere country cousin. Corvick had no hand, I knew, for the big brush of the correspondent, but that was his brother-in-law’s affair, and the fact that a particular task was not in his line was apt to be with himself exactly a reason for accepting it. He was prepared to out-Herod the metropolitan press; he took solemn precautions against priggishness, he exquisitely outraged taste. Nobody ever knew it—the taste was all his own. In addition to his expenses he was to be conveniently paid, and I found myself able to help him, for the usual fat book, to a plausible arrangement with the usual fat publisher. I naturally inferred that his obvious desire to make a little money was not unconnected with the prospect of a union with Gwendolen Erme. I was aware that her mother’s opposition was largely addressed to his want of means and of lucrative abilities, but it so happened that, on my saying the last time I saw him something that bore on the question of his separation from our young lady, he exclaimed with an emphasis that startled me: “Ah, I’m not a bit engaged to her, you know!”
“Not overtly,” I answered, “because her mother doesn’t like you. But I’ve always taken for granted a private understanding.”
“Well, there was one. But there isn’t now.” That was all he said, except something about Mrs. Erme’s having got on her feet again in the most extraordinary way—a remark from which I gathered he wished me to think he meant that private understandings were of little use when the doctor didn’t share them. What I took the liberty of really thinking was that the girl might in some way have estranged him. Well, if he had taken the turn of jealousy for instance it could scarcely be jealousy of me. In that case (besides the absurdity of it) he wouldn’t have gone away to leave us together. For some time before his departure we had indulged in no allusion to the buried treasure, and from his silence, of which mine was the consequence, I had drawn a sharp conclusion. His courage had dropped, his ardour had gone the way of mine—this inference at least he left me to enjoy. More than that he couldn’t do; he couldn’t face the triumph with which I might have greeted an explicit admission. He needn’t have been afraid, poor dear, for I had by this time lost all need to triumph. In fact I considered that I showed magnanimity in not reproaching him with his collapse, for the sense of his having thrown up the game made me feel more than ever how much I at last depended on him. If Corvick had broken down I should never know; no one would be of any use if he wasn’t. It wasn’t a bit true that I had ceased to care for knowledge; little by little my curiosity had not only begun to ache again, but had become the familiar torment of my consciousness. There are doubtless people to whom torments of such an order appear hardly more natural than the contortions of disease; but I don’t know after all why I should in this connection so much as mention them. For the few persons, at any rate, abnormal or not, with whom my anecdote is concerned, literature was a game of skill, and skill meant courage, and courage meant honour, and honour meant passion, meant life. The stake on the table was of a different substance, and our roulette was the revolving mind, but we sat round the green board as intently as the grim gamblers at Monte Carlo. Gwendolen Erme, for that matter, with her white face and her fixed eyes, was of the very type of the lean ladies one had met in the temples of chance. I recognised in Corvick’s absence that she made this analogy vivid. It was extravagant, I admit, the way she lived for the art of the pen. Her passion visibly preyed upon her, and in her presence I felt almost tepid. I got hold of “Deep Down” again: it was a desert in which she had lost herself, but in which too she had dug a wonderful hole in the sand —a cavity out of which Corvick had still more remarkably pulled her.
Early in March I had a telegram from her, in consequence of which I repaired immediately to Chelsea, where the first thing she said to me was: “He has got it, he has got it!”
She was moved, as I could see, to such depths that she must mean the great thing. “Vereker’s idea?”
“His general intention. George has cabled from Bombay.”
She had the missive open there; it was emphatic, but it was brief. “Eureka. Immense.” That was all—he had saved the money of the signature. I shared her emotion, but I was disappointed. “He doesn’t say what it is.”
“How could he—in a telegram? He’ll write it.”
“But how does he know?”
“Know it’s the real thing? Oh, I’m sure when you see it you do know. Vera incessu patuit dea!“
“It’s you, Miss Erme, who are a dear for bringing me such news!”—I went all lengths in my high spirits. “But fancy finding our goddess in the temple of Vishnu! How strange of George to have been able to go into the thing again in the midst of such different and such powerful solicitations!”
“He hasn’t gone into it, I know; it’s the thing itself, let severely alone for six months, that has simply sprung out at him like a tigress out of the jungle. He didn’t take a book with him—on purpose; indeed he wouldn’t have needed to—he knows every page, as I do, by heart. They all worked in him together, and some day somewhere, when he wasn’t thinking, they fell, in all their superb intricacy, into the one right combination. The figure in the carpet came out. That’s the way he knew it would come and the real reason—you didn’t in the least understand, but I suppose I may tell you now—why he went and why I consented to his going. We knew the change would do it, the difference of thought, of scene, would give the needed touch, the magic shake. We had perfectly, we had admirably calculated. The elements were all in his mind, and in the secousse of a new and intense experience they just struck light.” She positively struck light herself—she was literally, facially luminous. I stammered something about unconscious cerebration, and she continued: “He’ll come right home—this will bring him.”
“To see Vereker, you mean?”
“To see Vereker—and to see me. Think what he’ll have to tell me!”
I hesitated. “About India?”
“About fiddlesticks! About Vereker—about the figure in the carpet.”
“But, as you say, we shall surely have that in a letter.”
She thought like one inspired, and I remembered how Corvick had told me long before that her face was interesting. “Perhaps it won’t go in a letter if it’s ‘immense.'”
“Perhaps not if it’s immense bosh. If he has got something that won’t go in a letter he hasn’t got the thing. Vereker’s own statement to me was exactly that the ‘figure’ would go in a letter.”
“Well, I cabled to George an hour ago—two words,” said Gwendolen.
“Is it indiscreet of me to inquire what they were?”
She hung fire, but at last she brought them out. “‘Angel, write.'”
“Good!” I exclaimed. “I’ll make it sure—I’ll send him the same.”
My words however were not absolutely the same—I put something instead of “angel”; and in the sequel my epithet seemed the more apt, for when eventually we heard from Corvick it was merely, it was thoroughly to be tantalised. He was magnificent in his triumph, he described his discovery as stupendous; but his ecstasy only obscured it—there were to be no particulars till he should have submitted his conception to the supreme authority. He had thrown up his commission, he had thrown up his book, he had thrown up everything but the instant need to hurry to Rapallo, on the Genoese shore, where Vereker was making a stay. I wrote him a letter which was to await him at Aden—I besought him to relieve my suspense. That he found my letter was indicated by a telegram which, reaching me after weary days and without my having received an answer to my laconic dispatch at Bombay, was evidently intended as a reply to both communications. Those few words were in familiar French, the French of the day, which Corvick often made use of to show he wasn’t a prig. It had for some persons the opposite effect, but his message may fairly be paraphrased. “Have patience; I want to see, as it breaks on you, the face you’ll make!” “Tellement envie de voir ta tête!“—that was what I had to sit down with. I can certainly not be said to have sat down, for I seem to remember myself at this time as rushing constantly between the little house in Chelsea and my own. Our impatience, Gwendolen’s and mine, was equal, but I kept hoping her light would be greater. We all spent during this episode, for people of our means, a great deal of money in telegrams, and I counted on the receipt of news from Rapallo immediately after the junction of the discoverer with the discovered. The interval seemed an age, but late one day I heard a hansom rattle up to my door with a crash engendered by a hint of liberality. I lived with my heart in my mouth and I bounded to the window—a movement which gave me a view of a young lady erect on the footboard of the vehicle and eagerly looking up at my house. At sight of me she flourished a paper with a movement that brought me straight down, the movement with which, in melodramas, handkerchiefs and reprieves are flourished at the foot of the scaffold.
“Just seen Vereker—not a note wrong. Pressed me to bosom—keeps me a month.” So much I read on her paper while the cabby dropped a grin from his perch. In my excitement I paid him profusely and in hers she suffered it; then as he drove away we started to walk about and talk. We had talked, heaven knows, enough before, but this was a wondrous lift. We pictured the whole scene at Rapallo, where he would have written, mentioning my name, for permission to call; that is I pictured it, having more material than my companion, whom I felt hang on my lips as we stopped on purpose before shop-windows we didn’t look into. About one thing we were clear: if he was staying on for fuller communication we should at least have a letter from him that would help us through the dregs of delay. We understood his staying on, and yet each of us saw, I think, that the other hated it. The letter we were clear about arrived; it was for Gwendolen, and I called upon her in time to save her the trouble of bringing it to me. She didn’t read it out, as was natural enough; but she repeated to me what it chiefly embodied. This consisted of the remarkable statement that he would tell her when they were married exactly what she wanted to know.
“Only when we’re married—not before,” she explained. “It’s tantamount to saying—isn’t it?—that I must marry him straight off!” She smiled at me while I flushed with disappointment, a vision of fresh delay that made me at first unconscious of my surprise. It seemed more than a hint that on me as well he would impose some tiresome condition. Suddenly, while she reported several more things from his letter, I remembered what he had told me before going away. He found Mr. Vereker deliriously interesting and his own possession of the secret a kind of intoxication. The buried treasure was all gold and gems. Now that it was there it seemed to grow and grow before him; it was in all time, in all tongues, one of the most wonderful flowers of art. Nothing, above all, when once one was face to face with it, had been more consummately done. When once it came out it came out, was there with a splendour that made you ashamed; and there had not been, save in the bottomless vulgarity of the age, with every one tasteless and tainted, every sense stopped, the smallest reason why it should have been overlooked. It was immense, but it was simple—it was simple, but it was immense, and the final knowledge of it was an experience quite apart. He intimated that the charm of such an experience, the desire to drain it, in its freshness, to the last drop, was what kept him there close to the source. Gwendolen, frankly radiant as she tossed me these fragments, showed the elation of a prospect more assured than my own. That brought me back to the question of her marriage, prompted me to ask her if what she meant by what she had just surprised me with was that she was under an engagement.
“Of course I am!” she answered. “Didn’t you know it?” She appeared astonished; but I was still more so, for Corvick had told me the exact contrary. I didn’t mention this, however; I only reminded her that I had not been to that degree in her confidence, or even in Corvick’s, and that moreover I was not in ignorance of her mother’s interdict. At bottom I was troubled by the disparity of the two assertions; but after a moment I felt that Corvick’s was the one I least doubted. This simply reduced me to asking myself if the girl had on the spot improvised an engagement—vamped up an old one or dashed off a new—in order to arrive at the satisfaction she desired. I reflected that she had resources of which I was destitute; but she made her case slightly more intelligible by rejoining presently: “What the state of things has been is that we felt of course bound to do nothing in mamma’s lifetime.”
“But now you think you’ll just dispense with your mother’s consent?”
“Ah, it may not come to that!” I wondered what it might come to, and she went on: “Poor dear, she may swallow the dose. In fact, you know,” she added with a laugh, “she really must!“—a proposition of which, on behalf of every one concerned, I fully acknowledged the force.
Nothing more annoying had ever happened to me than to become aware before Corvick’s arrival in England that I should not be there to put him through. I found myself abruptly called to Germany by the alarming illness of my younger brother, who, against my advice, had gone to Munich to study, at the feet indeed of a great master, the art of portraiture in oils. The near relative who made him an allowance had threatened to withdraw it if he should, under specious pretexts, turn for superior truth to Paris—Paris being somehow, for a Cheltenham aunt, the school of evil, the abyss. I deplored this prejudice at the time, and the deep injury of it was now visible first in the fact that it had not saved the poor boy, who was clever, frail and foolish, from congestion of the lungs, and second in the greater remoteness from London to which the event condemned me. I am afraid that what was uppermost in my mind during several anxious weeks was the sense that if we had only been in Paris I might have run over to see Corvick. This was actually out of the question from every point of view: my brother, whose recovery gave us both plenty to do, was ill for three months, during which I never left him and at the end of which we had to face the absolute prohibition of a return to England. The consideration of climate imposed itself, and he was in no state to meet it alone. I took him to Meran and there spent the summer with him, trying to show him by example how to get back to work and nursing a rage of another sort that I tried not to show him.
The whole business proved the first of a series of phenomena so strangely combined that, taken together (which was how I had to take them) they form as good an illustration as I can recall of the manner in which, for the good of his soul doubtless, fate sometimes deals with a man’s avidity. These incidents certainly had larger bearings than the comparatively meagre consequence we are here concerned with—though I feel that consequence also to be a thing to speak of with some respect. It’s mainly in such a light, I confess, at any rate, that at this hour the ugly fruit of my exile is present to me. Even at first indeed the spirit in which my avidity, as I have called it, made me regard this term owed no element of ease to the fact that before coming back from Rapallo George Corvick addressed me in a way I didn’t like. His letter had none of the sedative action that I must to-day profess myself sure he had wished to give it, and the march of occurrences was not so ordered as to make up for what it lacked. He had begun on the spot, for one of the quarterlies, a great last word on Vereker’s writings, and this exhaustive study, the only one that would have counted, have existed, was to turn on the new light, to utter—oh, so quietly!—the unimagined truth. It was in other words to trace the figure in the carpet through every convolution, to reproduce it in every tint. The result, said Corvick, was to be the greatest literary portrait ever painted, and what he asked of me was just to be so good as not to trouble him with questions till he should hang up his masterpiece before me. He did me the honour to declare that, putting aside the great sitter himself, all aloft in his indifference, I was individually the connoisseur he was most working for. I was therefore to be a good boy and not try to peep under the curtain before the show was ready: I should enjoy it all the more if I sat very still.
I did my best to sit very still, but I couldn’t help giving a jump on seeing in The Times after I had been a week or two in Munich and before, as I knew, Corvick had reached London, the announcement of the sudden death of poor Mrs. Erme. I instantly wrote to Gwendolen for particulars, and she replied that her mother had succumbed to long-threatened failure of the heart. She didn’t say, but I took the liberty of reading into her words, that from the point of view of her marriage and also of her eagerness, which was quite a match for mine, this was a solution more prompt than could have been expected and more radical than waiting for the old lady to swallow the dose. I candidly admit indeed that at the time—for I heard from her repeatedly—I read some singular things into Gwendolen’s words and some still more extraordinary ones into her silences. Pen in hand, this way, I live the time over, and it brings back the oddest sense of my having been for months and in spite of myself a kind of coerced spectator. All my life had taken refuge in my eyes, which the procession of events appeared to have committed itself to keep astare. There were days when I thought of writing to Hugh Vereker and simply throwing myself on his charity. But I felt more deeply that I hadn’t fallen quite so low, besides which, quite properly, he would send me about my business. Mrs. Erme’s death brought Corvick straight home, and within the month he was united “very quietly”—as quietly I suppose as he meant in his article to bring out his trouvaille—to the young lady he had loved and quitted. I use this last term, I may parenthetically say, because I subsequently grew sure that at the time he went to India, at the time of his great news from Bombay, there was no engagement whatever. There was none at the moment she affirmed the opposite. On the other hand he certainly became engaged the day he returned. The happy pair went down to Torquay for their honeymoon, and there, in a reckless hour, it occurred to poor Corvick to take his young bride a drive. He had no command of that business: this had been brought home to me of old in a little tour we had once made together in a dogcart. In a dogcart he perched his companion for a rattle over Devonshire hills, on one of the likeliest of which he brought his horse, who, it was true, had bolted, down with such violence that the occupants of the cart were hurled forward and that he fell horribly on his head. He was killed on the spot; Gwendolen escaped unhurt.
I pass rapidly over the question of this unmitigated tragedy, of what the loss of my best friend meant for me, and I complete my little history of my patience and my pain by the frank statement of my having, in a postscript to my very first letter to her after the receipt of the hideous news, asked Mrs. Corvick whether her husband had not at least finished the great article on Vereker. Her answer was as prompt as my inquiry: the article, which had been barely begun, was a mere heartbreaking scrap. She explained that Corvick had just settled down to it when he was interrupted by her mother’s death; then, on his return, he had been kept from work by the engrossments into which that calamity plunged them. The opening pages were all that existed; they were striking, they were promising, but they didn’t unveil the idol. That great intellectual feat was obviously to have formed his climax. She said nothing more, nothing to enlighten me as to the state of her own knowledge—the knowledge for the acquisition of which I had conceived her doing prodigious things. This was above all what I wanted to know: had she seen the idol unveiled? Had there been a private ceremony for a palpitating audience of one? For what else but that ceremony had the previous ceremony been enacted? I didn’t like as yet to press her, though when I thought of what had passed between us on the subject in Corvick’s absence her reticence surprised me. It was therefore not till much later, from Meran, that I risked another appeal, risked it in some trepidation, for she continued to tell me nothing. “Did you hear in those few days of your blighted bliss,” I wrote, “what we desired so to hear?” I said “we” as a little hint; and she showed me she could take a little hint. “I heard everything,” she replied, “and I mean to keep it to myself!”
It was impossible not to be moved with the strongest sympathy for her, and on my return to England I showed her every kindness in my power. Her mother’s death had made her means sufficient, and she had gone to live in a more convenient quarter. But her loss had been great and her visitation cruel; it never would have occurred to me moreover to suppose she could come to regard the enjoyment of a technical tip, of a piece of literary experience, as a counterpoise to her grief. Strange to say, none the less, I couldn’t help fancying after I had seen her a few times that I caught a glimpse of some such oddity. I hasten to add that there had been other things I couldn’t help fancying; and as I never felt I was really clear about these, so, as to the point I here touch on, I give her memory the benefit of every doubt. Stricken and solitary, highly accomplished and now, in her deep mourning, her maturer grace, and her uncomplaining sorrow incontestably handsome, she presented herself as leading a life of singular dignity and beauty. I had at first found a way to believe that I should soon get the better of the reserve formulated the week after the catastrophe in her reply to an appeal as to which I was not unconscious that it might strike her as mistimed. Certainly that reserve was something of a shock to me—certainly it puzzled me the more I thought of it, though I tried to explain it, with moments of success, by the supposition of exalted sentiments, of superstitious scruples, of a refinement of loyalty. Certainly it added at the same time hugely to the price of Vereker’s secret, precious as that mystery already appeared. I may as well confess abjectly that Mrs. Corvick’s unexpected attitude was the final tap on the nail that was to fix, as they say, my luckless idea, convert it into the obsession of which I am for ever conscious.
But this only helped me the more to be artful, to be adroit, to allow time to elapse before renewing my suit. There were plenty of speculations for the interval, and one of them was deeply absorbing. Corvick had kept his information from his young friend till after the removal of the last barriers to their intimacy; then he had let the cat out of the bag. Was it Gwendolen’s idea, taking a hint from him, to liberate this animal only on the basis of the renewal of such a relation? Was the figure in the carpet traceable or describable only for husbands and wives—for lovers supremely united? It came back to me in a mystifying manner that in Kensington-square, when I told him that Corvick would have told the girl he loved, some word had dropped from Vereker that gave colour to this possibility. There might be little in it, but there was enough to make me wonder if I should have to marry Mrs. Corvick to get what I wanted. Was I prepared to offer her this price for the blessing of her knowledge? Ah! that way madness lay—so I said to myself at least in bewildered hours. I could see meanwhile the torch she refused to pass on flame away in her chamber of memory—pour through her eyes a light that made a glow in her lonely house. At the end of six months I was fully sure of what this warm presence made up to her for. We had talked again and again of the man who had brought us together, of his talent, his character, his personal charm, his certain career, his dreadful doom, and even of his clear purpose in that great study which was to have been a supreme literary portrait, a kind of critical Vandyke or Velasquez. She had conveyed to me in abundance that she was tongue-tied by her perversity, by her piety, that she would never break the silence it had not been given to the “right person,” as she said, to break. The hour however finally arrived. One evening when I had been sitting with her longer than usual I laid my hand firmly on her arm.
“Now, at last, what is it?”
She had been expecting me; she was ready. She gave a long, slow, soundless headshake, merciful only in being inarticulate. This mercy didn’t prevent its hurling at me the largest, finest, coldest “Never!” I had yet, in the course of a life that had known denials, had to take full in the face. I took it and was aware that with the hard blow the tears had come into my eyes. So for a while we sat and looked at each other; after which I slowly rose. I was wondering if some day she would accept me; but this was not what I brought out. I said as I smoothed down my hat: “I know what to think then; it’s nothing!”
A remote, disdainful pity for me shone out of her dim smile; then she exclaimed in a voice that I hear at this moment: “It’s my life!” As I stood at the door she added: “You’ve insulted him!”
“Do you mean Vereker?”
“I mean—the Dead!”
I recognised when I reached the street the justice of her charge. Yes, it was her life—I recognised that too; but her life none the less made room with the lapse of time for another interest. A year and a half after Corvick’s death she published in a single volume her second novel, “Overmastered,” which I pounced on in the hope of finding in it some tell-tale echo or some peeping face. All I found was a much better book than her younger performance, showing I thought the better company she had kept. As a tissue tolerably intricate it was a carpet with a figure of its own; but the figure was not the figure I was looking for. On sending a review of it to The Middle I was surprised to learn from the office that a notice was already in type. When the paper came out I had no hesitation in attributing this article, which I thought rather vulgarly overdone, to Drayton Deane, who in the old days had been something of a friend of Corvick’s, yet had only within a few weeks made the acquaintance of his widow. I had had an early copy of the book, but Deane had evidently had an earlier. He lacked all the same the light hand with which Corvick had gilded the gingerbread—he laid on the tinsel in splotches.
Six months later appeared “The Right of Way,” the last chance, though we didn’t know it, that we were to have to redeem ourselves. Written wholly during Vereker’s absence, the book had been heralded, in a hundred paragraphs, by the usual ineptitudes. I carried it, as early a copy as any, I this time flattered my self, straightway to Mrs. Corvick. This was the only use I had for it; I left the inevitable tribute of The Middle to some more ingenious mind and some less irritated temper. “But I already have it,” Gwendolen said. “Drayton Deane was so good as to bring it to me yesterday, and I’ve just finished it.”
“Yesterday? How did he get it so soon?”
“He gets everything soon. He’s to review it in The Middle.”
“He—Drayton Deane—review Vereker?” I couldn’t believe my ears.
“Why not? One fine ignorance is as good as another.”
I winced, but I presently said: “You ought to review him yourself!”
“I don’t ‘review,'” she laughed. “I’m reviewed!”
Just then the door was thrown open. “Ah yes, here’s your reviewer!” Drayton Deane was there with his long legs and his tall forehead: he had come to see what she thought of “The Right of Way,” and to bring news which was singularly relevant. The evening papers were just out with a telegram on the author of that work, who, in Rome, had been ill for some days with an attack of malarial fever. It had at first not been thought grave, but had taken in consequence of complications a turn that might give rise to anxiety. Anxiety had indeed at the latest hour begun to be felt.
I was struck in the presence of these tidings with the fundamental detachment that Mrs. Corvick’s public regret quite failed to conceal: it gave me the measure of her consummate independence. That independence rested on her knowledge, the knowledge which nothing now could destroy and which nothing could make different. The figure in the carpet might take on another twist or two, but the sentence had virtually been written. The writer might go down to his grave: she was the person in the world to whom—as if she had been his favoured heir—his continued existence was least of a need. This reminded me how I had observed at a particular moment—after Corvick’s death—the drop of her desire to see him face to face. She had got what she wanted without that. I had been sure that if she hadn’t got it she wouldn’t have been restrained from the endeavour to sound him personally by those superior reflections, more conceivable on a man’s part than on a woman’s, which in my case had served as a deterrent. It wasn’t however, I hasten to add, that my case, in spite of this invidious comparison, wasn’t ambiguous enough. At the thought that Vereker was perhaps at that moment dying there rolled over me a wave of anguish—a poignant sense of how inconsistently I still depended on him. A delicacy that it was my one compensation to suffer to rule me had left the Alps and the Apennines between us, but the vision of the waning opportunity made me feel as if I might in my despair at last have gone to him. Of course I would really have done nothing of the sort. I remained five minutes, while my companions talked of the new book, and when Drayton Deane appealed to me for my opinion of it I replied, getting up, that I detested Hugh Vereker—simply couldn’t read him. I went away with the moral certainty that as the door closed behind me Deane would remark that I was awfully superficial. His hostess wouldn’t contradict him.
I continue to trace with a briefer touch our intensely odd concatenation. Three weeks after this came Vereker’s death, and before the year was out the death of his wife. That poor lady I had never seen, but I had had a futile theory that, should she survive him long enough to be decorously accessible, I might approach her with the feeble flicker of my petition. Did she know and if she knew would she speak? It was much to be presumed that for more reasons than one she would have nothing to say; but when she passed out of all reach I felt that renouncement was indeed my appointed lot. I was shut up in my obsession for ever—my gaolers had gone off with the key. I find myself quite as vague as a captive in a dungeon about the time that further elapsed before Mrs. Corvick became the wife of Drayton Deane. I had foreseen, through my bars, this end of the business, though there was no indecent haste and our friendship had rather fallen off. They were both so “awfully intellectual” that it struck people as a suitable match, but I knew better than any one the wealth of understanding the bride would contribute to the partnership. Never, for a marriage in literary circles—so the newspapers described the alliance—had a bride been so handsomely dowered. I began with due promptness to look for the fruit of their union—that fruit, I mean, of which the premonitory symptoms would be peculiarly visible in the husband. Taking for granted the splendour of the lady’s nuptial gift, I expected to see him make a show commensurate with his increase of means. I knew what his means had been—his article on “The Right of Way” had distinctly given one the figure. As he was now exactly in the position in which still more exactly I was not I watched from month to month, in the likely periodicals, for the heavy message poor Corvick had been unable to deliver and the responsibility of which would have fallen on his successor. The widow and wife would have broken by the rekindled hearth the silence that only a widow and wife might break, and Deane would be as aflame with the knowledge as Corvick in his own hour, as Gwendolen in hers had been. Well, he was aflame doubtless, but the fire was apparently not to become a public blaze. I scanned the periodicals in vain: Drayton Deane filled them with exuberant pages, but he withheld the page I most feverishly sought. He wrote on a thousand subjects, but never on the subject of Vereker. His special line was to tell truths that other people either “funked,” as he said, or overlooked, but he never told the only truth that seemed to me in these days to signify. I met the couple in those literary circles referred to in the papers: I have sufficiently intimated that it was only in such circles we were all constructed to revolve. Gwendolen was more than ever committed to them by the publication of her third novel, and I myself definitely classed by holding the opinion that this work was inferior to its immediate predecessor. Was it worse because she had been keeping worse company? If her secret was, as she had told me, her life—a fact discernible in her increasing bloom, an air of conscious privilege that, cleverly corrected by pretty charities, gave distinction to her appearance—it had yet not a direct influence on her work. That only made—everything only made—one yearn the more for it, rounded it off with a mystery finer and subtler.
It was therefore from her husband I could never remove my eyes: I hovered about him in a manner that might have made him uneasy. I went even so far as to engage him in conversation. Didn’t he know, hadn’t he come into it as a matter of course?—that question hummed in my brain. Of course he knew; otherwise he wouldn’t return my stare so queerly. His wife had told him what I wanted, and he was amiably amused at my impotence. He didn’t laugh—he was not a laugher: his system was to present to my irritation, so that I should crudely expose myself, a conversational blank as vast as his big bare brow. It always happened that I turned away with a settled conviction from these unpeopled expanses, which seemed to complete each other geographically and to symbolise together Drayton Deane’s want of voice, want of form. He simply hadn’t the art to use what he knew; he literally was incompetent to take up the duty where Corvick had left it. I went still further—it was the only glimpse of happiness I had. I made up my mind that the duty didn’t appeal to him. He wasn’t interested, he didn’t care. Yes, it quite comforted me to believe him too stupid to have joy of the thing I lacked. He was as stupid after as before, and that deepened for me the golden glory in which the mystery was wrapped. I had of course however to recollect that his wife might have imposed her conditions and exactions. I had above all to recollect that with Vereker’s death the major incentive dropped. He was still there to be honoured by what might be done—he was no longer there to give it his sanction. Who, alas, but he had the authority?
Two children were born to the pair, but the second cost the mother her life. After this calamity I seemed to see another ghost of a chance. I jumped at it in thought, but I waited a certain time for manners, and at last my opportunity arrived in a remunerative way. His wife had been dead a year when I met Drayton Deane in the smoking-room of a small club of which we both were members, but where for months—perhaps because I rarely entered it—I had not seen him. The room was empty and the occasion propitious. I deliberately offered him, to have done with the matter for ever, that advantage for which I felt he had long been looking.
“As an older acquaintance of your late wife’s than even you were,” I began, “you must let me say to you something I have on my mind. I shall be glad to make any terms with you that you see fit to name for the information she had from George Corvick—the information, you know; that he, poor fellow, in one of the happiest hours of his life, had straight from Hugh Vereker.”
He looked at me like a dim phrenological bust. “The information———?”
“Vereker’s secret, my dear man—the general intention of his books: the string the pearls were strung on, the buried treasure, the figure in the carpet.”
He began to flush—the numbers on his bumps to come out. “Vereker’s books had a general intention?”
I stared in my turn. “You don’t mean to say you don’t know it?” I thought for a moment he was playing with me. “Mrs. Deane knew it; she had it, as I say, straight from Corvick, who had, after infinite search and to Vereker’s own delight, found the very mouth of the cave. Where is the mouth? He told after their marriage—and told alone—the person who, when the circumstances were reproduced, must have told you. Have I been wrong in taking for granted that she admitted you, as one of the highest privileges of the relation in which you stood to her, to the knowledge of which she was after Corvick’s death the sole depositary? All I know is that that knowledge is infinitely precious, and what I want you to understand is that if you will in your turn admit me to it you will do me a kindness for which I shall be everlastingly grateful.”
He had turned at last very red; I daresay he had begun by thinking I had lost my wits. Little by little he followed me; on my own side I stared with a livelier surprise. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.
He wasn’t acting—it was the absurd truth. “She didn’t tell you———”
“Nothing about Hugh Vereker.”
I was stupefied; the room went round. It had been too good even for that! “Upon your honour?”
“Upon my honour. What the devil’s the matter with you?” he demanded.
“I’m astounded—I’m disappointed. I wanted to get it out of you.”
“It isn’t in me!” he awkwardly laughed. “And even if it were———”
“If it were you’d let me have it—oh yes, in common humanity. But I believe you. I see—I see!” I went on, conscious, with the full turn of the wheel, of my great delusion, my false view of the poor man’s attitude. What I saw, though I couldn’t say it, was that his wife hadn’t thought him worth enlightening. This struck me as strange for a woman who had thought him worth marrying. At last I explained it by the reflection that she couldn’t possibly have married him for his understanding. She had married him for something else. He was to some extent enlightened now, but he was even more astonished, more disconcerted: he took a moment to compare my story with his quickened memories. The result of his meditation was his presently saying with a good deal of rather feeble form:
“This is the first I hear of what you allude to. I think you must be mistaken as to Mrs. Drayton Deane’s having had any unmentioned, and still less any unmentionable, knowledge about Hugh Vereker. She would certainly have wished it—if it bore on his literary character—to be used.”
“It was used. She used it herself. She told me with her own lips that she ‘lived’ on it.”
I had no sooner spoken than I repented of my words; he grew so pale that I felt as if I had struck him. “Ah, ‘lived’———!” he murmured, turning short away from me.
My compunction was real; I laid my hand on his shoulder. “I beg you to forgive me—I’ve made a mistake. You don’t know what I thought you knew. You could, if I had been right, have rendered me a service; and I had my reasons for assuming that you would be in a position to meet me.”
“Your reasons?” he asked. “What were your reasons?”
I looked at him well; I hesitated; I considered. “Come and sit down with me here, and I’ll tell you.” I drew him to a sofa, I lighted another cigarette and, beginning with the anecdote of Vereker’s one descent from the clouds, I gave him an account of the extraordinary chain of accidents that had in spite of it kept me till that hour in the dark. I told him in a word just what I’ve written out here. He listened with deepening attention, and I became aware, to my surprise, by his ejaculations, by his questions, that he would have been after all not unworthy to have been trusted by his wife. So abrupt an experience of her want of trust had an agitating effect on him, but I saw that immediate shock throb away little by little and then gather again into waves of wonder and curiosity—waves that promised, I could perfectly judge, to break in the end with the fury of my own highest tides. I may say that to-day as victims of unappeased desire there isn’t a pin to choose between us. The poor man’s state is almost my consolation; there are indeed moments when I feel it to be almost my revenge.
Source: The Gutenberg project
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