IT was after they had gone that he truly felt the difference, which was most to be felt moreover in his faded old rooms. He had recovered from the first a part of his attachment to this scene of contemplation, within sight, as it was, of the Rialto bridge, on the hither side of that arch of associations and the left going up the Canal; he had seen it in a particular light, to which, more and more, his mind and his hands adjusted it; but the interest the place now wore for him had risen at a bound, becoming a force that, on the spot, completely engaged and absorbed him, and relief from which—if relief was the name—he could find only by getting away and out of reach. What had come to pass within his walls lingered there as an obsession importunate to all his senses; it lived again, as a cluster of pleasant memories, at every hour and in every object; it made everything but itself irrelevant and tasteless. It remained, in a word, a conscious, watchful presence, active on its own side, forever to be reckoned with, in face of which the effort at detachment was scarcely less futile than frivolous. Kate had come to him; it was only once—and this not from any failure of their need, but from such impossibilities, for bravery alike and for subtlety, as there was at the last no blinking; yet she had come, that once, to stay, as people called it; and what survived of her, what reminded and insisted, was something he couldn't have banished if he had wished. Luckily he didn't wish, even though there might be for a man almost a shade of the awful in so unqualified a consequence of his act. It had simply worked, his idea, the idea he had made her accept; and all erect before him, really covering the ground as far as he could see, was the fact of the gained success that this represented. It was, otherwise, but the fact of the idea as directly applied, as converted from a luminous conception into an historic truth. He had known it before but as desired and urged, as convincingly insisted on for the help it would render; so that at present, with the help rendered, it seemed to acknowledge its office and to set up, for memory and faith, an insistence of its own. He had, in fine, judged his friend's pledge in advance as an inestimable value, and what he must not know his case for was that of a possession of the value to the full. Wasn't it perhaps even rather the value that possessed him, kept him thinking of it and waiting on it, turning round and round it and making sure of it again from this side and that.
It played for him—certainly in this prime afterglow—the part of a treasure kept, at home, in safety and sanctity, something he was sure of finding in its place when, with each return, he worked his heavy old key in the lock. The door had but to open for him to be with it again and for it to be all there; so intensely there that, as we say, no other act was possible to him than the renewed act, almost the hallucination, of intimacy. Wherever he looked or sat or stood, to whatever aspect he gave for the instant the advantage, it was in view as nothing of the moment, nothing begotten of time or of chance could be, or ever would; it was in view as, when the curtain has risen, the play on the stage is in view, night after night, for the fiddlers. He remained thus, in his own theatre, in his single person, perpetual orchestra to the ordered drama, the confirmed "run"; playing low and slow, moreover, in the regular way, for the situations of most importance. No other visitor was to come to him; he met, he bumped occasionally, in the Piazza or in his walks, against claimants to acquaintance, remembered or forgotten, at present mostly effusive, sometimes even inquisitive; but he gave no address and encouraged no approach; he couldn't, for his life, he felt, have opened his door to a third person. Such a person would have interrupted him, would have profaned his secret or perhaps have guessed it; would at any rate have broken the spell of what he conceived himself—in the absence of anything "to show"—to be inwardly doing. He was giving himself up—that was quite enough—to the general feeling of his renewed engagement to fidelity. The force of the engagement, the quantity of the article to be supplied, the special solidity of the contract, the way, above all, as a service for which the price named by him had been magnificently paid, his equivalent office was to take effect—such items might well fill his consciousness when there was nothing from outside to interfere. Never was a consciousness more rounded and fastened down over what filled it; which is precisely what we have spoken of as, in its degree, the oppression of success, the somewhat chilled state—tending to the solitary—of supreme recognition. If it was lightly awful to feel so justified, this was by the loss of the warmth of the element of mystery. The lucid reigned instead of it, and it was into the lucid that he sat and stared. He shook himself out of it a dozen times a day, tried to break by his own act his constant still communion. It wasn't still communion she had meant to bequeath him; it was the very different business of that kind of fidelity of which the other name was careful action.
Nothing, he perfectly knew, was less like careful action than the immersion he enjoyed at home. The actual grand queerness was that to be faithful to Kate he had positively to take his eyes, his arms, his lips straight off her—he had to let her alone. He had to remember it was time to go to the palace—which, in truth, was a mercy, since the check was imperative. What it came to, fortunately, as yet, was that when he closed the door behind him for an absence he always shut her in. Shut her out—it came to that rather, when once he had got a little away; and before he reached the palace, much more after hearing at his heels the bang of the greater portone, he felt free enough not to know his position as oppressively false. As Kate was all in his poor rooms, and not a ghost of her left for the grander, it was only on reflection that the falseness came out; so long as he left it to the mercy of beneficent chance it offered him no face and made of him no claim that he couldn't meet without aggravation of his inward sense. This aggravation had been his original horror; yet what—in Milly's presence, each day—was horror doing with him but virtually letting him off? He shouldn't perhaps get off to the end; there was time enough still for the possibility of shame to pounce. Still, however, he did constantly a little more what he liked best, and that kept him, for the time, more safe. What he liked best was, in any case, to know why things were as he felt them; and he knew it pretty well, in this case, ten days after the retreat of his other friends. He then fairly perceived that—even putting their purity of motive at its highest—it was neither Kate nor he who made his strange relation to Milly, who made her own, so far as it might be, innocent; it was neither of them who practically purged it—if practically purged it was. Milly herself did everything—so far at least as he was concerned—Milly herself, and Milly's house, and Milly's hospitality, and Milly's manner, and Milly's character, and, perhaps still more than anything else, Milly's imagination, Mrs. Stringham and Sir Luke indeed a little aiding: whereby he knew the blessing of a fair pretext to ask himself what more he had to do. Something incalculable wrought for them—for him and Kate; something outside, beyond, above themselves, and doubtless ever so much better, than they: which wasn't a reason, however—its being so much better—for them not to profit by it. Not to profit by it, so far as profit could be reckoned, would have been to go directly against it; and the spirit of generosity at present engendered in Densher could have felt no greater pang than by his having to go directly against Milly.
To go with her was the thing, so far as she could herself go; which, from the moment her tenure of her loved palace was prolonged, was only possible by his remaining near her. This remaining was of course, on the face of it, the most "marked" of demonstrations—which was exactly why Kate had required it; it was so marked that on the very evening of the day it had taken effect Milly herself had not been able not to reach out to him, with an exquisite awkwardness, for some account of it. It was as if she had wanted from him some name that, now they were to be almost alone together, they could, for their further ease, know it and call it by—it being, after all, almost rudimentary that his presence, of which the absence of the others made quite a different thing, couldn't but have for himself some definite basis. She only wondered about the basis it would have for himself, and how he would describe it; that would quite do for her—it even would have done for her, he could see, had he produced some reason merely common, had he said he was waiting for money, or for clothes, or for letters, or for orders from Fleet Street, without which, as she might have heard, newspaper men never took a step. He hadn't, in the event, quite sunk to that; but he had none the less had three with her, that night, on Mrs. Stringham's leaving them alone—Mrs. Stringham proved really prodigious—his acquaintance with a shade of awkwardness darker than any Milly could know. He had supposed himself, beforehand, on the question of what he was doing or pretending, in possession of some tone that would serve; but there were three minutes in which he found himself incapable of promptness quite as a gentleman whose pocket has been picked finds himself incapable of purchase. It even didn't help him, oddly, that he was sure Kate would in some way have spoken for him—or, rather, not so much in some way as in one very particular way. He hadn't asked her, at the last, what she might, in the connection, have said; nothing would have induced him to ask, after she had been to see him: his lips were so sealed by that passage, his spirit in fact so hushed, in respect to any charge upon her freedom. There was something he could only therefore read back into the probabilities, and when he left the palace, an hour afterwards, it was with a sense of having breathed there, in the very air, the truth he imagined.
Just this perception it was, however, that had made him, for the time, ugly to himself in his awkwardness. It was horrible, with this creature, to be awkward; it was odious to be seeking excuses for the relation that involved it. Any relation that involved it was by the very fact as much discredited as a dish would be at dinner if one had to take medicine as a sauce. What Kate would have said in one of the young women's last talks was that—if Milly absolutely must have the truth about it—Mr. Densher was staying because she had really seen no way but to require it of him. If he stayed he didn't follow her—or didn't appear to her aunt to be doing so; and when she kept him from following her Mrs. Lowder couldn't pretend, in scenes, the renewal of which at this time of day was painful, that she after all didn't snub him as she might. She did nothing in fact but snub him—wouldn't that have been part of the story?—only Aunt Maud's suspicions were of the sort that had repeatedly to be dealt with. He had been, by the same token, reasonable enough—as he now, for that matter, well might; he had consented to oblige them, aunt and niece, by giving the plainest sign possible that he could exist away from London. To exist away from London was to exist away from Kate Croy—which was a gain, much appreciated, to the latter's comfort. There was a minute, at this hour, out of Densher's three, during which he knew the terror of Milly's bringing out some such allusion to their friend's explanation as he must meet with words that wouldn't destroy it. To destroy it was to destroy everything, to destroy probably Kate herself, to destroy in particular by a breach of faith still uglier than anything else, the beauty of their own last passage. He had given her his word of honour that if she would come to him he would act absolutely in her sense, and he had done so with a full enough vision of what her sense implied. What it implied, for one thing, was that, to night, in the great saloon, noble in its half-lighted beauty, and straight in the white face of his young hostess, divine in her trust, or at any rate inscrutable in her mercy—what it implied was that he should lie with his lips. The single thing, of all things, that could save him from it would be Milly's letting him off after having thus scared him. What made her mercy inscrutable was that if she had already more than once saved him it was yet apparently without knowing how nearly he was lost.
These were transcendent motions, not the less blessed for being obscure; whereby, yet once more, he was to feel the pressure lighten. He was kept on his feet, in short, by the felicity of her not presenting him with Kate's version as a version to adopt. He couldn't stand up to lie—he felt as if he would have to go down on his knees. As it was he just sat there shaking a little for nervousness the leg he had crossed over the other. She was sorry for his snub, but he had nothing more to subscribe to, to perjure himself about, than the three or four inanities he had, on his own side, feebly prepared for the crisis. He scrambled a little higher than the reference to money and clothes, letters and directions from his manager; but he brought out the beauty of the chance for him—there before him like a temptress painted by Titian—to do a little quiet writing. He was vivid, for a moment, on the difficulty of writing quietly in London; and he was precipitate, almost explosive, on his idea, long cherished, of a book.
The explosion lighted her face. "You'll do your book here?"
"I hope to begin it."
"It's something you haven't begun?"
"Well, only just."
"And since you came?"
She was so full of interest that he shouldn't perhaps after all be too easily let off. "I tried to think a few days ago that I had broken ground."
Scarcely anything, it was indeed clear, could have let him in deeper. "I'm afraid we've made an awful mess of your time."
"Of course you have. But what I'm hanging on for now is precisely to repair that ravage."
"Then you mustn't mind me, you know."
"You'll see," he tried to say with ease, "how little I shall mind anything."
"You'll want"—Milly had thrown herself into it—"the best part of your days."
He thought a moment; he did what he could to wreathe it in smiles. "Oh, I shall make shift with the worst part. The best will be for you." And he wished Kate could hear him. It didn't help him moreover that he visibly, even pathetically, imaged to her by such touches his quest for comfort against discipline. He was to sink Kate's snub, and also the hard law she had now laid on him, in a high intellectual effort. This at least was his crucifixion—that Milly was so interested. She was so interested that she presently asked him if he found his rooms propitious, while he felt that in just decently answering her he put on a brazen mask. He should need it quite particularly were she to express again her imagination of coming to tea with him—an extremity that he saw he was not to be spared. "We depend on you, Susie and I, you know, not to forget we're coming"—the extremity was but to face that remainder, yet it demanded all his tact. Facing their visit itself—to this, no matter what he might have to do, he would never consent, as we know, to be pushed; and that even though it might be exactly such a demonstration as would figure for him at the top of Kate's list of his proprieties. He could wonder freely enough, deep within, if Kate's view of that especial propriety had not been modified by a subsequent occurrence; but his deciding that it was quite likely not to have been had no effect on his own preference for tact. It pleased him to think of "tact" as his present prop in doubt; that glossed his predicament over, for it was of application among the sensitive and the kind. He wasn't inhuman, in fine, so long as it would serve. It had to serve now, accordingly, to help him not to sweeten Milly's hopes. He didn't want to be rude to them, but he still less wanted them to flower again in the particular connection; so that, casting about him, in his anxiety, for a middle way to meet her, he put his foot, with unhappy effect, just in the wrong place. "Will it be safe for you to break into your custom of not leaving the house?"
"'Safe?'———" She had for twenty seconds an exquisite pale glare. Oh, but he didn't need it, by that time, to wince; he had winced, for himself, as soon as he had made his mistake. He had done what, so unforgettably, she had asked him in London not to do; he had touched, all alone with her here, the supersensitive nerve of which she had warned him. He had not, since the occasion in London, touched it again till now; but he saw himself freshly warned that it was able to bear still less. So for the moment he knew as little what to do as he had ever known it in his life. He couldn't emphasise that he thought of her as dying, yet he couldn't pretend he thought of her as indifferent to precautions. Meanwhile too she had narrowed his choice. "You suppose me so awfully bad?"
He turned, in his pain, within himself; but by the time the colour had mounted to the roots of his hair he had found what he wanted. "I'll believe whatever you tell me."
"Well then, I'm splendid."
"Oh, I don't need you to tell me that."
"I mean I'm capable of life."
"I've never doubted it."
"I mean," she went on, "that I want so to live———!"
"Well?" he asked while she paused with the intensity of it.
"Well, that I know I can."
"Whatever you do?" He shrank from solemnity about it.
"Whatever I do. If I want to."
"If you want to do it?"
"If I want to live. I can," Milly repeated.
He had clumsily brought it on himself, but he hesitated with all the pity of it. "Ah then, that I believe."
"I will, I will," she declared; yet with the weight of it somehow turned for him to mere light and sound.
He felt himself smiling through a mist. "You simply must!"
It brought her straight again to the fact. "Well then, if you say it, why mayn't we pay you our visit?"
"Will it help you to live?"
"Every little helps," she laughed; "and it's very little for me, in general, to stay at home. Only I shan't want to miss it———!"
"Yes?"—she had dropped again.
"Well, on the day you give us a chance."
It was amazing what this brief exchange had at this point done with him. His great scruple suddenly broke, giving way to something inordinately strange, something of a nature clear to him only when he had left her. "You can come," he said, "when you like."
What had taken place for him, however—the drop, almost with violence, of everything but a sense of her own reality—apparently showed in his face or his manner, and even so vividly that she could take it for something else. "I see how you feel—that I'm an awful bore about it and that, sooner than have any such upset, you'll go. So it's no matter."
"No matter? Oh!"—he quite protested now.
"If it drives you away to escape us. We want you not to go."
It was beautiful how she spoke for Mrs. Stringham. Whatever it was, at any rate, he shook his head. "I won't go."
"Then I won't go!" she brightly declared.
"You mean you won't come to me?"
"No—never now. It's over. But it's all right. I mean, apart from that," she went on, "that I won't do anything that I oughtn't, or that I'm not forced to."
"Oh, who can ever force you?" he asked with his hand-to-mouth way, at all times, of speaking for her encouragement. "You're the least coercible of creatures."
"Because, you think, I'm so free?"
"The freest person probably now in the world. You've got everything."
"Well," she smiled, "call it so. I don't complain."
On which again, in spite of himself, it let him in. "No, I know you don't complain."
As soon as he had said it he had himself heard the pity in it. His telling her she had "everything" was extravagant kind humour, whereas his knowing so tenderly that she didn't complain was terrible kind gravity. Milly felt, he could see, the difference; he might as well have praised her outright for looking death in the face. She looked him again, for the moment, and it made nothing better for him that she took him up more gently than ever. "It isn't a merit—when one sees one's way."
"To peace and plenty? Well, I dare say not."
"I mean to keeping what one has."
"Oh, that's success. If what one has is good," Densher said at random, "it's enough to try for."
"Well, it's my limit. I'm not trying for more." To which then she added with a change: "And now about your book."
"My book———?" He had got, in a moment, far from it.
"The one you're now to understand that nothing will induce either Susie or me to run the risk of spoiling."
He hesitated, but he made up his mind. "I'm not doing a book."
"Not what you said?" she asked in a wonder. "You're not writing?"
He already felt relieved. "I don't know, upon my honour, what I'm doing."
It made her visibly grave; so that, disconcerted in another way, he was afraid of what she would see in it. She saw in fact exactly what he feared, but again his honour, as he called it, was saved even while she didn't know she had threatened it. Taking his words for a betrayal of the sense that he, on his side, might complain, what she clearly wanted was to urge on him some such patience as he should be perhaps able to arrive at with her indirect help. Still more clearly, however, she wanted to be sure of how far she might venture; and he could see her make out in a moment that she had a sort of test. "Then if it's not for your book———?"
"What am I staying for?"
"I mean with your London work—with all you have to do. Isn't it rather empty for you?"
"Empty for me?" He remembered how Kate had said that she might propose marriage, and he wondered if this were the way she would naturally begin it. It would leave him, such an incident, he already felt, at a loss, and the note of his finest anxiety might have been in the vagueness of his reply. "Oh, well———!"
"I ask too many questions?" She settled it for herself before he could protest. "You stay because you've got to."
He grasped at it. "I stay because I've got to." And he couldn't have said when he had uttered it if it were loyal to Kate or disloyal. It gave her, in a manner, away; it showed the tip of the ear of her plan. Yet Milly took it, he perceived, but as a plain statement of his truth. He was waiting for what Kate would have told her of—the permission, from Lancaster Gate, to come any nearer. To remain friends with either niece or aunt he mustn't stir without it. All this Densher read in the girl's sense of the spirit of his reply; so that it made him feel he was lying, and he had to think of something to correct it. What he thought of was, in an instant, "Isn't it enough, whatever may be one's other complications, to stay, after all, for you?"
"Oh, you must judge."
He was on his feet, by this time, to take leave, and also because he was at last too restless. The speech in question, at least, wasn't disloyal to Kate; that was the very tone of their bargain. So was it, by being loyal, another kind of lie, the lie of the uncandid profession of a motive. He was staying so little "for" Milly that he was staying positively against her. He didn't, none the less, know, and at last, thank goodness, he didn't care. The only thing he could say might make it either better or worse. "Well then, so long as I don't go, you must think of me all as judging!"