They came to it almost immediately; he was to wonder afterwards at the fewness of their steps. "She has turned her face to the wall."
"You mean she's worse?"
The poor lady stood there as she had stopped; Densher had, in the instant flare of his eagerness, his curiosity, all responsive at sight of her, waved away, on the spot, the padrona, who had offered to relieve her of her mackintosh. She looked vaguely about through her wet veil, intensely conscious now of the step she had taken and wishing it not to have been in the dark, but clearly, as yet, seeing nothing. "I don't know how she is—and it's why I've come to you."
"I'm glad enough you've come," he said, "and it's quite—you make me feel—as if I had been wretchedly waiting for you."
She showed him again her blurred eyes—she had caught at his word. "Have you been wretched?"
Now, however, on his lips, the word expired. It would have sounded for him like a complaint, and before something he already made out in his visitor he knew his own trouble as small. Hers, under her damp draperies, which shamed his lack of a fire, was great, and he felt she had brought it all with her. He answered that he had been patient and above all that he had been still. "As still as a mouse—you'll have seen it for yourself. Stiller, for three days together, than I've ever been in my life. It has seemed to me the only thing."
This qualification of it as a policy or a remedy was straightway, for his friend, plainly, a light that her own light could answer. "It has been best. I've wondered for you. But it has been best," she said again.
"Yet it has done no good?"
"I don't know. I've been afraid you were gone." Then as he gave a headshake which, though slow, was deeply mature: "You won't go?"
"Is to 'go,'" he asked, "to be still?"
"Oh, I mean if you'll stay for me."
"I'll do anything for you. Isn't it for you alone now I can?"
She thought of it, and he could see even more of the relief she was taking from him. His presence, his face, his voice, the old rooms themselves, so meagre yet so charged, where Kate had admirably been to him—these things counted for her, now she had them, as the help she had been wanting: so that she still only stood there taking them all in. With it, however, characteristically, popped up a throb of her conscience. What she thus tasted was almost a personal joy. It told Densher of the three days she on her side had spent. "Well, anything you do for me—is for her too. Only, only———!"
"Only nothing now matters?"
She looked at him a minute as if he were the fact itself that he expressed. "Then you know?"
"Is she dying?" he asked for all answer.
Mrs. Stringham waited—her face seemed to sound him. Then her own reply was strange. "She hasn't so much as named you. We haven't spoken."
"Not for three days?"
"No more," she simply went on, "than if it were all over. Not even by the faintest allusion."
"Oh," said Densher with more light, "you mean you haven't spoken about me."
"About what else? No more than if you were dead."
"Well," he answered after a moment, "I am dead."
"Then I am," said Susan Shepherd with a drop of her arms on her waterproof.
It was a tone that, for the minute, imposed itself in its dry despair; it represented, in the bleak place, which had no life of its own, none but the life Kate had left—the sense of which, for that matter, by mystic channels, might fairly be reaching the visitor—the very impotence of their extinction. And Densher had nothing to oppose it, nothing but again: "Is she dying?"
It made her, however, as if these were crudities, almost material pangs, only say as before: "Then you know?"
"Yes," he at last returned, "I know. But the marvel to me is that you do. I've no right in fact to imagine, or to assume, that you do."
"You may," said Susan Shepherd, "all the same. I know."
Her eyes, through her veil, kept pressing him. "No—not everything. That's why I've come."
"That I shall really tell you?" With which, as she hesitated, and it affected him, he brought out, in a groan, a doubting "Oh, oh!" It turned him from her to the place itself, which was a part of what was in him, was the abode, the worn shrine more than ever, of the fact in possession, the fact, now an association, for which he had hired it. That was not for telling, but Susan Shepherd was, none the less, so decidedly wonderful that the sense of it might really have begun, by an effect already operating, to be a part of her knowledge. He saw, and it stirred him, that she hadn't come to judge him; had come rather, so far as she might dare, to pity. This showed him her own abasement—that, at any rate, of grief; and made him feel with a rush of friendliness that he liked to be with her. The rush had quickened when she met his groan with an attenuation.
"We shall at all events—if that's anything—be together."
It was his own good impulse in herself. "It's what I've ventured to feel. It's much," She replied in effect, silently, that it was whatever he liked; on which, so far as he had been afraid for anything, he knew his fear had dropped. The comfort was huge, for it gave back to him something precious, over which, in the effort of recovery, his own hand had too imperfectly closed. Kate, he remembered, had said to him, with her sole and single boldness—and also on grounds he hadn't then measured—that Mrs. Stringham was a person who wouldn't, at a pinch, in a stretch of confidence, wince. It was but another of the cases in which was Kate showing. "You don't think then very horridly of me?"
And her answer was the more valuable that it came without nervous effusion—quite as if she understood what he might conceivably have believed. She turned over in fact what she thought, and that was what helped him. "Oh, you've been extraordinary!"
It made him aware the next moment of how they had been planted there. She took off her cloak with his aid, though when she had also, accepting a seat, removed her veil, he recognised in her personal ravage that the words she had just uttered to him were the one flowers she had to throw. They were all her consolation for him, and the consolation, even, still depended on the event. She sat with him, at any rate, in the grey clearance—as sad as a winter dawn—made by their meeting. The image she again evoked for him loomed in it but the larger. "She has turned her face to the wall."
He saw, with the last vividness, and it was as if, in their silences, they were simply so leaving what he saw. "She doesn't speak at all? I don't mean not of me."
"Of nothing—of no one." And she went on, Susan Shepherd, giving it out as she had had to take it. "She doesn't want to die. Think of her age. Think of her goodness. Think of her beauty. Think of all she is. Think of all she has. She lies there stiffening herself and clinging to it. So I thank God———!" the poor lady wound up with a kind of wan inconsequence.
He wondered. "You thank God———?"
"That she's so quiet."
He continued to wonder. "Is she so quiet?"
"She's more than quiet. She's grim. It's what she has never been. So you see—all these days. I can't tell you—but it's better so. It would kill me if she were to tell me."
"To tell you?" He was still at a loss.
"How she feels. How she clings. How she doesn't want it."
"How she doesn't want to die? Of course she doesn't want it." He had a long pause, and they might have been thinking together of what they could even now do to prevent it. This, however, was not what he brought out. Milly's "grimness," and the great hushed palace, were present to him; present with the little woman before him as she must have been waiting there and listening. "Only, what harm have you done her?"
Mrs. Stringham looked about in her darkness. "I don't know. I come and talk of her here with you."
It made him again hesitate. "Does she utterly hate me?"
"I don't know. How can I? No one ever will."
"She'll never tell?"
"She'll never tell."
Once more he thought. "She must be magnificent."
"She is magnificent."
His friend, after all, helped him, and he turned it, so far as he could, all over. "Would she see me again?"
It made his companion stare. "Should you like to see her?"
"You mean as you describe her?" He saw her surprise, and it took him some time. "No."
"Ah then!" Mrs. Stringham sighed.
"But if she could bear it I'd do anything."
She had for the moment her vision of this, but it collapsed. "I don't see what you can do."
"I don't, either. But she might."
Mrs. Stringham continued to think. "It's too late."
"Too late for her to see———?"
The very decision of her despair—it was after all so lucid—kindled in him a heat. "But the doctor, all the while———?"
"Tacchini? Oh, he's kind. He comes. He's proud of having been approved and coached by a great London man. He hardly in fact goes away; so that I scarce know what becomes of his other patients. He thinks her, justly enough, a great personage; he treats her like royalty; he's waiting on events. But she has barely consented to see him, and, though she has told him, generously—for she thinks of me, dear creature—that he may come, that he may stay, for my sake, he spends most of his time only hovering at her door, prowling through the rooms, trying to entertain me, in that ghastly saloon, with the gossip of Venice, and meeting me, in doorways, in the sala, on the staircase, with an agreeable, intolerable smile. We don't," said Susan Shepherd, "talk of her."
"By her request?"
"Absolutely. I don't do what she doesn't wish. We talk of the price of provisions."
"By her request too?"
"Absolutely. She named it to me as a subject when she said, the first time, that if it would be any comfort to me he might stay as much as we liked."
Densher took it all in. "But he isn't any comfort to you!"
"None whatever. That, however," she added, "is not his fault. Nothing's any comfort."
"Certainly," Densher observed, "as I but too horribly feel, I'm not."
"No. But I didn't come for that."
"You came for me."
"Well, then, call it that." But she looked at him a moment with eyes filled full, and something came up in her, the next instant, from deeper still. "I came at bottom of course———"
"You came at bottom of course for our friend herself. But if it's, as you say, too late for me to do anything?"
She continued to look at him, and with an impatience, which he saw growing in her, of the truth itself. "So I did say. But, with you here"—and she turned her vision again strangely about her—"with you here, and with everything, I feel that we mustn't abandon her."
"God forbid we should abandon her."
"Then you won't?" His tone had made her flush again.
"How do you mean I 'won't,' if she abandons me? What can I do if she won't see me?"
"But you said just now you wouldn't like it."
"I said I shouldn't like it in the light of what you tell me. I shouldn't like it only to see her as you make me. I should like it if I could help her. But even then," Densher pursued without faith, "she would have to want it first herself. And there," he continued to make out, "is the devil of it. She won't want it herself. She can't!"
He had got up in his impatience of it, and she watched him while he helplessly moved. "There's one thing you can do. There's only that, and even for that there are difficulties. But there is that." He stood before her with his hands in his pockets, and he had soon enough, from her eyes, seen what was coming. She paused as if waiting for his leave to utter it, and, as he only let her wait, they heard, in the silence, on the Canal, the renewed downpour of rain. She had at last to speak, but, as if still with her fear, she only half spoke. "I think you really know yourself what it is."
He did know what it was, and with it even, as she said—rather!—there were difficulties. He turned away on them, on everything, for a moment; he moved to the other window and looked at the sheeted channel, wider, like a river, where the houses opposite, blurred and belittled, stood at twice their distance. Mrs. Stringham said nothing, was as mute, in fact, for the minute as if she had "had" him, and he was the first again to speak. When he did so, however, it was not in straight answer to her last remark—he only started from that. He said, as he came back to her, "Let me, you know, see—one must understand," almost as if, for the time, he had accepted it. And what he wished to understand was where, on the essence of the question, was the voice of Sir Luke Strett. If they talked of not giving her up shouldn't he be the one least of all to do it? "Aren't we, at the worst, in the dark without him?"
"Oh," said Mrs. Stringham, "it's he who has kept me going. I wired the first night, and he answered like an angel. He'll come like one. Only he can't arrive, at the nearest, till Thursday afternoon."
"Well then, that's something."
She hesitated. "Something—yes. She likes him."
"Rather! I can see it still, the face with which, when he was here in October—that night when she was in white, when she had people there and those musicians—she committed him to my care. It was beautiful for both of us—she put us in relation. She asked me, for the time, to take him about; I did so, and we quite hit it off. That proved," Densher said with a quick sad smile, "that she liked him."
"He liked you," Susan Shepherd presently risked.
"Ah, I know nothing about that."
"You ought to then. He went with you to galleries and churches; you saved his time for him, showed him the choicest things, and you perhaps will remember telling me, myself, that if he hadn't been a great surgeon he might really have been a great judge. I mean of the beautiful."
"Well," the young man admitted, "that's what he is in having judged her. He hasn't," he went on, "judged her for nothing. His interest in her—which we must make the most of—can only be supremely beneficent."
He still roamed, while he spoke, with his hands in his pockets, and she saw him, on this, as her eyes sufficiently betrayed, trying to keep his distance from the recognition he had a few moments before partly confessed to. "I'm glad," she dropped, "you like him!"
There was something for him in the sound of it. "Well, I do no more, dear lady, than you do yourself. Surely you like him. Surely, when he was here, we all liked him."
"Yes, but I seem to feel I know what he thinks. And I should think, with all the time you spent with him, you would know it," she said, "yourself."
Densher stopped short, though at first without a word. "We never spoke of her. Neither of us mentioned her, even to sound her name, and nothing whatever, in connection with her, passed between us."
Mrs. Stringham stared up at him, surprised at this picture. But she had plainly an idea that, after an instant, resisted it. "That was his professional propriety."
"Precisely. But it was also my sense of that, and it was something more besides." And he spoke with sudden intensity. "I couldn't talk to him about her!"
"Oh!" said Susan Shepherd.
"I can't talk to any one about her."
"Except to me," his friend continued.
"Except to you." The ghost of her smile, a gleam of significance, had waited on her words, and it kept him, for honesty, looking at her. For honesty too—that is for his own words—he had quickly coloured: he was sinking so, at a stroke, the burden of his discourse with Kate. His visitor, for the minute, while their eyes met, might have been watching him hold it down. And he had to hold it down—the effort of which, precisely, made him red. He couldn't let it come up; at least not yet. She might make what she would of it. He attemped to repeat his statement, but he really modified it. "Sir Luke, at all events, had nothing to tell me, and I had nothing to tell him. Make-believe talk was impossible for us, and———"
"And real"—she had taken him right up with a huge emphasis—"was more impossible still." No doubt he didn't deny it; and she had straightway drawn her conclusion. "Then that proves what I say—that there were immensities between you. Otherwise you'd have chattered."
"I dare say," Densher granted, "we were both thinking of her."
"You were neither of you thinking of any one else. That's why you kept together."
Well, that too, if she desired, he admitted; but he came straight back to what he had originally said. "I haven't a notion, all the same, of what he thinks." She faced him, visibly, with the question into which he had already observed that her special shade of earnestness was perpetually, right and left, flowering—"Are you very sure?"—and he could only note her apparent difference from himself. "You, I judge, believe that he thinks she's gone."
She took it, but she bore up. "It doesn't matter what I believe."
"Well, we shall see"—and he felt almost basely superficial. More and more, for the last five minutes, had he known she had brought something with her, and never, in respect to anything, had he had such a wish to postpone. He would have liked to put everything off till Thursday; he was sorry it was now Tuesday; he wondered if he were afraid. Yet it wasn't of Sir Luke, who was coming; nor of Milly, who was dying; nor of Mrs. Stringham, who was sitting there. It wasn't, strange to say, of Kate either, for Kate's presence affected him suddenly as having swooned or trembled away. Susan Shepherd's, thus prolonged, had suffused it with some influence under which it had ceased to act. She was as absent to his sensibility as she had constantly been, since her departure, absent, as an echo or a reference, from the palace; and it was the first time, among the objects now surrounding him, that his sensibility so noted her. He knew soon enough that it was of himself he was afraid, and that even, if he didn't take care, he should infallibly be more so. "Meanwhile," he added for his companion, "it has been everything for me to see you."
She slowly rose, at the words, which might almost have conveyed to her the hint of his taking care. She stood there as if, in fact, she had seen him abruptly moved to dismiss her. But the abruptness would have been in this case so marked as fairly to offer ground for insistence to her imagination of his state. It would take her moreover, she clearly showed him she was thinking, but a minute or two to insist. Besides, she had already said it. "Will you do it if he asks you? I mean if Sir Luke himself puts it to you. And will you give him"—oh, she was earnest now!—"the opportunity to put it to you?"
"The opportunity to put what?"
"That if you deny it to her, that may still do something."
Densher felt himself—as had already once befallen him in the quarter-of-an-hour—turn red to the top of his forehead. Turning red had, however, for him, as a sign of shame, been, so to speak, discounted; his consciousness of it at the present moment was rather as a sign of his fear. It showed him sharply enough of what he was afraid. "If I deny what to her?"
Hesitation, on the demand, revived in her, for hadn't he all along, been letting her see that he knew? "Why, what Lord Mark told her?"
"And what did Lord Mark tell her?"
Mrs. Stringham had a look of bewilderment—of seeing him as suddenly perverse. "I've been judging that you yourself know." And it was she who now blushed deep.
It quickened his pity for her, but he was beset too by other things. "Then you know———"
"Of his dreadful visit?" She stared. "Why, it's what has done it."
"Yes—I understand that. But you also know———"
He had faltered again, but all she knew she now wanted to say. "I'm speaking," she said soothingly, "of what he told her. It's that that I've taken you as knowing."
"Oh!" he sounded in spite of himself.
It appeared to have for her, he saw the next moment, the quality of relief, as if he had supposed her thinking of something else. Thereupon, straightway, that lightened it. "Oh, you thought I've known it for true!"
Her light had heightened her flush, and he saw that he had betrayed himself. Not, however, that it mattered, as he immediately saw still better. There it was now, all of it, at last, and this at least there was no postponing. They were left there with her idea—the one she was wishing to make him recognise. He had expressed ten minutes before his need to understand, and she was acting, after all, but on that. Only what he was to understand was no small matter; it might be larger even than as yet appeared.
He took again one of his turns, not meeting what she had last said; he mooned a minute, as he would have called it, at a window; and of course she could see that she had driven him to the wall. She did clearly, without delay, see it; on which her sense of having "caught" him became, as promptly, a scruple, and she spoke as if not to press it. "What I mean is that he told her you've been all the while engaged to Miss Croy."
He gave a jerk round; it was almost—to hear it—the touch of a lash; and he said—idiotically, as he afterwards knew—the first thing that came into his head. "All what while?"
"Oh, it's not I who say it." She spoke in gentleness. "I only repeat to you what he told her."
Densher, from whom an impatience had escaped, had already caught himself up. "Pardon my brutality. Of course I know what you're talking about. I saw him, toward the evening," he further explained, "in the Piazza; only just saw him through the glass at Florian's—without any words. In fact I scarcely know him, and there wouldn't have been occasion. It was but once, moreover—he must have gone that night. But I knew he wouldn't have come for nothing, and I turned it over—what he would have come for."
Oh, so had Mrs. Stringham. "He came for exasperation."
Densher approved. "He came to let her know that he knows better than she for whom it was she had a couple of months before, in her fool's paradise, refused him."
"How you do know!"—and Mrs. Stringham almost smiled.
"I know that—but I don't know the good it does him."
"The good, he thinks, if he has patience—not too much—may be to come. He doesn't know what he has done to her. Only we, you see, do that."
He saw, but he wondered. "She kept from him—what she felt?"
"She was able—I'm sure of it—not to show anything. He dealt her his blow, and she took it with out a sign." Mrs. Stringham, it was plain, spoke by book, and it brought into play again her appreciation of what she related. "She's magnificent."
Densher again gravely assented. "Magnificent!"
"And he," she went on, "is an idiot of idiots."
"An idiot of idiots." For a moment, on it all, on the stupid doom in it, they looked at each other. "Yet he's thought so awfully clever."
"So awfully—it's Maud Lowder's own view. And he was nice, in London," said Mrs. Stringham, "to me. One could almost pity him—he has had such a good conscience."
"That's exactly the inevitable ass."
"Yes, but it wasn't—I could see from the only few things she first told me—that he meant her the least harm. He intended none whatever."
"That's always the ass at his worst," Densher replied. "He only of course meant harm to me."
"And good to himself—he thought that would come. He had been unable to swallow," Mrs. Stringham pursued, "what had happened on his other visit. He had been then too sharply humil iated." "Oh, I saw that."
"Yes, and he also saw you. He saw you received, as it were, while he was turned away."
"Perfectly," Densher said—"I've filled it out. And also that he has known meanwhile for what I was then received. For a stay of all these weeks. He had had it to think of."
"Precisely—it was more than he could bear. But he has it," said Mrs. Stringham, "to think of still."
"Only, after all," asked Densher, who himself, somehow, at this point, was having more to think of even than he had yet had—"only, after all, how has he happened to know? That is, to know enough."
"What do you call enough?" Mrs. Stringham inquired.
"He can only have acted—it would have been his only safety—from full knowledge."
He had gone on without heeding her question; but, face to face as they were, something had none the less passed between them. It was this that, after an instant, made her again interrogative. "What do you mean by full knowledge?"
Densher met it indirectly. "Where has he been since October?"
"I think he has been back to England. He came, in fact, I have reason to believe, straight from there."
"Straight to do this job? All the way for his half-hour?"
"Well, to try again—with the help perhaps of a new fact. To make himself right with her, possibly —a different attempt from the other. He had at any rate something to tell her, and he didn't know his opportunity would reduce itself to half-an-hour. Or perhaps indeed half-an-hour would be just what was most effective. It has been!" said Susan Shepherd.
Her companion took it in, understanding but too well; yet as she lighted the matter for him more, really, than his own courage had quite dared—putting the absent dots on several i's—he saw new questions swarm. They had been till now in a bunch, entangled and confused; and they fell apart, each showing for itself. The first he put to her was at any rate abrupt. "Have you heard of late from Mrs. Lowder?"
"Oh yes, two or three times. She depends, naturally, upon news of Milly."
He hesitated. "And does she depend, naturally, upon news of me?"
His friend matched for an instant his deliberation. "I've given her none that hasn't been decently good. This will have been the first."
"'This?'" Densher was thinking.
"Lord Mark's having been here, and her being as she is."
He thought a moment longer. "What has she written about him? Has she written that he has been with them?"
"She has mentioned him but once—it was in her letter before the last. Then she said something."
"And what did she say?"
Mrs. Stringham produced it with an effort. "Well, it was in reference to Miss Croy. That she thought Kate was thinking of him. Or perhaps I should say, rather, that he was thinking of her—only, it seemed this time to have struck Mrs. Lowder, because of his seeing the way more open to him."
Densher listened with his eyes on the ground, but he presently raised them to speak, and there was that in his face which proved him aware of a queerness in his question. "Does she mean he has been encouraged to propose to her niece?"
"I don't know what she means."
"Of course not"—he recovered himself; "and I oughtn't to seem to trouble you to piece together what I can't piece myself. Only, I think," he added, "I can piece it."
She spoke a little timidly, but she risked it. "I dare say I can piece it too."
It was one of the things in her—and his conscious face took it from her as such—that, from the moment of her coming in, had seemed to mark for him, as to what concerned him, the long jump of her perception. They had parted four days earlier with many things, between them, deep down. But these things were now on their troubled surface, and it wasn't he who had brought them so quickly up. Women were wonderful—at least this one was. But so, not less, was Milly, was Aunt Maud; so, most of all, was his very Kate. Well, he already knew what he had been feeling about the circle of petticoats. They were all such petticoats! It was just the fineness of his tangle. The sense of that, in its turn, for us too, might have been not unconnected with his making an inquiry of his visitor that quite passed over her remark. "Has Miss Croy meanwhile written to our friend?"
"Oh," Mrs. Stringham amended, "her friend also. But not a single word that I know of."
He had taken it for certain she hadn't—the thing being, after all, but a shade more strange than his having himself, for six weeks, with Milly, never mentioned the young lady in question. It was, for that matter, but a shade more strange than Milly's not having mentioned her. In spite of which, and however inconsequently, he blushed, once more, for Kate's silence. He got away from it in fact as quickly as possible, and the furthest he could get was by reverting for a minute to the man they had been judging. "How did he manage to get at her? She had only—with what had passed between them before—to say she couldn't see him."
"Oh, she was disposed to kindness. She was easier," the good lady explained with a slight embarrassment, "than at the other time."
"She was off her guard. There was a difference."
"Yes. But exactly not the difference."
"Exactly not the difference of her having to be harsh. Perfectly. She could afford to be the opposite." With which, as he said nothing, she just impatiently completed her sense. "She had had you here for six weeks."
"Oh," Densher softly groaned.
"Besides, I think he must have written her first—written, I mean, in a tone to smooth his way. That it would be a kindness to himself. Then on the spot———"
"On the spot," Densher broke in, "he un masked? The horrid little beast!"
It made Susan Shepherd turn slightly pale, though quickened, as for hope, the intensity of her look at him. "Oh, he went off without an alarm."
"And he must have gone off also without a hope."
"Ah that, certainly."
"Then it was mere base revenge. Hasn't he known her, into the bargain," the young man asked—"didn't he, weeks before, see her, judge her, feel her, as having, for such a suit as his, not more perhaps than a few months to live?"
Mrs. Stringham at first, for reply, but looked at him in silence; and it gave more force to what she then remarkably added. "He has doubtless been aware of what you speak of, just as you have yourself been aware."
"He has wanted her, you mean, just because———?"
"Just because," said Susan Shepherd.
"The hound!" Merton Densher brought out. He moved off, however, with a hot face, as soon as he had spoken, conscious again of an intention in his visitor's reserve. Dusk was now deeper, and after he had once more taken counsel of the dreariness without he turned to his companion. "Shall we have lights—a lamp or the candles?"
"Not for me."
"Not for me."
He waited at the window another moment; then he faced his friend with a thought. "He will have proposed to Miss Croy. That's what has happened."
Her reserve continued. "It's you who must judge."
"Well, I do judge. Mrs. Lowder will have done so too—only she, poor lady, wrong. Miss Croy's refusal of him will have struck him"—Densher continued to make it out—"as a phenomenon requiring a reason."
"And you've been clear to him as the reason?"
"Not too clear—since I'm sticking here, and since that has been a fact to make his descent upon Miss Theale relevant. But clear enough. He has believed," said Densher bravely, "that I may have been a reason at Lancaster Gate, and yet at the same time have been up to something in Venice."
Mrs. Stringham took her courage from his own. "Up to something? Up to what?"
"God knows. To some 'game,' as they say. To some deviltry. To some duplicity."
"Which of course," Mrs. Stringham observed, "is a monstrous supposition." Her companion, after a stiff minute—long, sensibly, for each—fell away from her again, and then added to it another minute, which he spent once more looking out with his hands in his pockets. This was no answer, he perfectly knew, to what she had dropped, and it even seemed to state, for his own ears, that no answer was possible. She left him to himself, and he was glad she had declined, for their further colloquy, the advantage of lights. These would have been an advantage mainly to herself. Yet she got her benefit, too; even from the absence of them. It came out in her very tone when at last she addressed him—so differently, for confidence—in words she had already used. "If Sir Luke himself asks it of you as something you can do for him, will you deny to Milly herself what she has been made so dreadfully to believe?"
Oh, how he knew he hung back! But at last he said: "You're absolutely certain then that she does believe it?"
"Certain?" She appealed to their whole situation. "Judge!"
He took his time again to judge. "Do you believe it?"
He was conscious that his own appeal pressed her hard; it eased him a little that her answer must be a pain to her discretion. She answered, none the less, and he was truly the harder pressed. "What I believe will inevitably depend more or less on your action. You can perfectly settle it—if you care. I promise to believe you down to the ground if, to save her life, you consent to a denial."
"But a denial, when it comes to that—confound the whole thing, don't you see!—of exactly what?"
It was as if he were hoping she would narrow; but in fact she enlarged. "Of everything."
Everything had never even yet seemed to him so incalculably much. "Oh!" he simply moaned into the gloom.