"THEN it has been—what do you say? a whole fortnight?—without your making a sign?"
Kate put that to him distinctly, in the December dusk of Lancaster Gate, and on the matter of the time he had been back; but he saw with it, straightway, that she was as admirably true as ever to her instinct—which was a system as well—of not admitting the possibility between them of small resentments, of trifles to trip up their general trust. That by itself, the renewed beauty of it, would, at this fresh sight of her, have stirred him to his depths if something else, something no less vivid, but quite separate, hadn't stirred him still more. It was in seeing her that he felt what their interruption had been, and that they met across it even as persons whose adventures, on either side, in time and space, of the nature of perils and exiles, had had a peculiar strangeness. He wondered if he were as different for her as she herself had immediately appeared: which was but his way indeed of taking it in, with his thrill, that—even going by the mere first look—she had never been so handsome. That fact bloomed for him, in the firelight and lamplight that glowed their welcome through the London fog, as the flower of her difference; just as her difference itself—part of which was her striking him as older in a degree for which no mere couple of months could account—was the fruit of their intimate relation. If she was different it was because they had chosen together that she should be, and she might now, as a proof of their wisdom, their success, of the reality of what had happened—of what in fact, for the spirit of each, was still happening—been showing it to him for pride. His having returned and yet kept, for numbered days, so still, had been, he was quite aware, the first point he should have to tackle; with which consciousness indeed he had made a clean breast of it in finally addressing Mrs. Lowder a note that had led to his present visit. He had written to Aunt Maud, as the finer way; and it would doubtless have been to be noted that he needed no effort not to write to Kate. Venice was three weeks behind him—he had come up slowly; but it was still as if even in London he must conform to her law. That was exactly how he was able, with his faith in her steadiness, to appeal to her feeling for the situation and explain his stretched delicacy. He had come to tell her everything, so far as occasion would serve them; and if nothing was more distinct than that his slow journey, his waits, his delay to reopen communication had kept pace with this resolve, so the inconsequence was doubtless at bottom but one of the accidents of intensity. He was gathering everything up, everything he should tell her. That took time, and the proof was that, as he felt on the spot, he couldn't have brought it all with him before this afternoon. He had brought it, to the last syllable, and, out of the quantity it wouldn't be hard—as he in fact found—to produce, for Kate's understanding, his first reason.
"A fortnight, yes—it was a fortnight Friday; but I've only been keeping in, you see, with our wonderful system." He was so easily justified as that this of itself plainly enough prevented her saying she didn't see. Their wonderful system was accordingly still vivid for her; and such a gage of its equal vividness for himself was precisely what she must have asked. He hadn't even to dot his i's beyond the remark that, on the very face of it, she would remember, their wonderful system attached no premium to rapidities of transition. "I couldn't quite—don't you know?—take my rebound with a rush; and I suppose I've been instinctively hanging off to minimise, for you as well as for myself, the appearance of rushing. There's a sort of fitness. But I knew you'd understand." It was presently as if she really understood so well that she almost appealed from his insistence—yet looking at him too, he was not unconscious, as if this mastery of fitnesses was a strong sign for her of what she had done to him. He might have struck her as expert for contingencies in the very degree in which, in Venice, she had struck him as expert. He smiled over his plea for a renewal with stages and steps, a thing shaded, as they might say, and graduated; though—finely as she must respond—she met the smile but as she had met his entrance five minutes before. Her soft gravity at that moment—which was yet not solemnity, but the look of a consciousness charged with life to the brim and wishing not to overflow—had not qualified her welcome; what had done this being much more the presence in the room, for a couple of minutes, of the footman who had introduced him and who had been interrupted in preparing the tea-table.
Mrs. Lowder's reply to Densher's note had been to appoint the tea-hour, five o'clock on Sunday, for his seeing them. Kate had thereafter wired him, without a signature, "Come on Sunday before time—about a quarter-of-an-hour, which will help us"; and he had arrived therefore, scrupulously, at twenty minutes to five. Kate was alone in the room, and she had not delayed to tell him that Aunt Maud, as she had happily gathered, was to be, for the interval—not long, but precious—engaged with an old servant, retired and pensioned, who had been paying her a visit and who was, within the hour, to depart again for the suburbs. They were to have the scrap of time, after the withdrawal of the footman, to themselves, and there was a moment when, in spite of their wonderful system, in spite of the proscription of rushes and the propriety of shades, it proclaimed itself indeed precious. And all without prejudice—that was what kept it noble—to Kate's high sobriety and her beautiful self-command. If he had his discretion she had her perfect manner, which was her decorum. Mrs. Stringham, he had, to finish with the question of his delay, furthermore observed, would have written to Mrs. Lowder of his having quitted the place; so that it wasn't as if he were hoping to cheat them. They would know he was no longer there.
"Yes, we've known it."
"And you continue to hear?"
"From Mrs. Stringham? Certainly. By which I mean Aunt Maud does."
"Then you've recent news?"
Her face showed a wonder. "Up to within a day or two I believe. But haven't you?"
"No—I've heard nothing." And it was now that he felt how much he had to tell her. "I don't get letters. But I've been sure Mrs. Lowder does." With which he added: "Then of course you know." He waited as if she would show what she knew; but she only showed, in silence, the dawn of a surprise that she couldn't control. There was nothing but for him to ask what he wanted. "Is Miss Theale alive?"
Kate's look, at this, was large. "Don't you know?"
"How should I, my dear—in the absence of everything?" And he himself stared as for light. "She's dead?" Then as, with her eyes on him, she slowly shook her head, he uttered a strange "Not yet?"
It came out in Kate's face that there were several questions on her lips, but the one she presently put was: "Is it very terrible?"
"The manner of her so consciously and helplessly dying?" He had to think a moment. "Well, yes—since you ask me: very terrible to me—so far as, before I came away, I had any sight of it. But I don't think," he went on, "that—though I'll try—I can quite tell you what it was, what it is, for me. That's why I probably just sounded to you," he explained, "as if I hoped it might be over."
She gave him her quietest attention, but he by this time saw that, so far as telling her all was concerned, she would be divided between the wish and the reluctance to hear it; between the curiosity that, not unnaturally, would consume her and the opposing scruple of a respect for misfortune. The more she studied him too—and he had never so felt her closely attached to his face—the more the choice of an attitude would become impossible to her. There would be a feeling, simply, uppermost, and the feeling wouldn't be eagerness. This perception grew in him fast, and he even, with his imagination, had for a moment the quick forecast of her possibly breaking out at him, should he go too far, with a wonderful: "What horrors are you telling me?" It would have the sound—wouldn't it be open to him fairly to bring that out himself?—of a repudiation, for pity and almost for shame, of everything that, in Venice, had passed between them. Not that she would confess to any return upon herself; not that she would let compunction or horror give her away; but it was in the air for him—yes—that she wouldn't want details, that she positively wouldn't take them, and that, if he would generously understand it from her, she would prefer to keep him down. Nothing, however, was more definite for him than that he, at the same time, must remain down but so far as it suited him. Something rose strong within him against his not being free with her. She had been free enough, about it all, three months before, with him. That was what she was at present only in the sense of treating him handsomely. "I can believe," she said with perfect consideration, "how dreadful for you much of it must have been."
He didn't, however, take this up; there were things about which he wished first to be clear. "There's no other possibility, by what you now know? I mean for her life." And he had just to insist—she would say as little as she could. "She is dying?"
It was strange to him, in the matter of Milly, that Lancaster Gate could make him any surer; yet what in the world, in the matter of Milly, was not strange? Nothing was so much so as his own behaviour—his present as well as his past. He could but do as he must. "Has Sir Luke Strett," he asked, "gone back to her?"
"I believe he's there now."
"Then," said Densher, "it's the end."
She took it in silence for whatever he deemed it to be; but she spoke otherwise after a minute. "You won't know, unless you've perhaps seen him yourself, that Aunt Maud has been to him."
"Oh!" Densher exclaimed, with nothing to add to it.
"For real news," Kate herself after an instant added.
"She hasn't thought Mrs. Stringham's real?"
"It's perhaps only I who haven't. It was on Aunt Maud's trying again, three days ago, to see him, that she heard, at his house, of his having gone. He had started, I believe, some days before."
"And won't then by this time be back?"
Kate shook her head. "She sent yesterday to know."
"He won't leave her then"—Densher had turned it over—"while she lives. He'll stay to the end. He's magnificent."
"I think she is," said Kate.
It had made them again look at each other long; and what it drew from him, rather oddly, was: "Oh, you don't know!"
"Well, she's after all my friend."
It was somehow, with her handsome demur, the answer he had least expected of her; and it fanned with its breath, for a brief instant, his old sense of her variety. "I see. You would have been sure of it. You were sure of it."
"Of course I was sure of it."
And a pause again, with this, fell upon them; which Densher, however, presently broke. "If you don't think Mrs. Stringham's news 'real.' what do you think of Lord Mark's?"
She didn't think anything. "Lord Mark's?"
"You haven't seen him?"
"Not since he saw her."
"You've known then of his seeing her?"
"Certainly. From Mrs. Stringham."
"And have you known," Densher went on, "the rest?"
Kate wondered. "What rest?"
"Why, everything. It was his visit that she couldn't stand—it was what then took place that simply killed her."
"Oh!" Kate seriously breathed. But she had turned pale, and he saw that, whatever her degree of ignorance of these connections, it was not put on. "Mrs. Stringham hasn't said that."
He observed, none the less, that she didn't ask what had then taken place; and he went on with his contribution to her knowledge. "The way it affected her was that it made her give up. She has given up beyond all power to care again, and that's why she's dying."
"Oh!" Kate once more slowly sighed, but with a vagueness that made him pursue.
"One can see now that she was living by will—which was very much what you originally told me of her."
"I remember. That was it."
"Well then, her will, at a given moment, broke down, and the collapse was determined by that fellow's dastardly stroke. He told her, the scoundrel, that you and I are secretly engaged."
Kate gave a quick glare. "But he doesn't know it!"
"That doesn't matter. She did, when he had left her. Besides," Densher added, "he does know it. When," he continued, "did you last see him?"
But she was lost now in the picture before her. "That was what made her worse?"
He watched her take it in—it so added to her sombre beauty. Then he spoke as Mrs. Stringham had spoken. "She turned her face to the wall."
"Poor Milly!" said Kate.
Slight as it was, her beauty somehow gave it style; so that he continued consistently: "She learned it, you see, too soon—since of course one's idea had been that she might never even learn it at all. And she had felt sure—through everything we had done—of there not being, between us, so far at least as you were concerned, anything she need regard as a warning."
She took another moment for thought. "It wasn't through anything you did—whatever that may have been—that she gained her certainty. It was by the conviction she got from me."
"Oh, it's very handsome," Densher said, "for you to take your share!"
"Do you suppose," Kate asked, "I think of denying it?"
Her look and her tone made him, for the instant, regret his comment, which indeed had been the first that rose to his lips as an effect, absolutely, of what they would have called between them her straightness. Her straightness, visibly, was all his own loyalty could ask. Still, that was comparatively beside the mark. "Of course I don't suppose anything but that we're together in our recognitions, our responsibilities—whatever we choose to call them. It isn't a question for us of apportioning shares or distinguishing invidiously among such impressions as it was our idea to give."
"It wasn't your idea to give impressions," said Kate.
He met this with a smile that he himself felt, in its strained character, as queer. "Don't go into that!"
It was perhaps not as going into it then that she had another idea—an idea born, as she showed, of the vision he had just evoked. "Wouldn't it have been possible then to deny the truth of the information? I mean of Lord Mark's."
Densher wondered. "Possible for whom?"
"Why, for you."
"To tell her that he lied?"
"To tell her he's mistaken."
Densher stared—he was stupefied; the "possible" thus glanced at by Kate being exactly the alternative he had had to face in Venice, and to put utterly away from him. Nothing was stranger than such a difference in their view of it. "And to lie myself, you mean, to do it? We are, my dear child," he said, "I suppose, still engaged."
"Of course we're still engaged. But to save her life———!"
He took in for a little the way she talked of it. Of course, it was to be remembered, she had always simplified, and it brought back his sense of the degree in which, to her energy as compared with his own, many things were easy; the very sense that so often before had moved him to admiration. "Well, if you must know—and I want you to be clear about it—I didn't even seriously think of a denial to her face. The question of it—as possibly saving her—was put to me definitely enough; but to turn it over was only to dismiss it. Besides," he added, "it wouldn't have done any good."
"You mean she would have had no faith in your correction?" She had spoken with a promptitude that affected him of a sudden as almost glib; but he himself paused with the overweight of all he meant, and she meanwhile went on. "Did you try?"
"I hadn't even the chance."
Kate maintained her wonderful manner, the manner of at once having it all before her and yet keeping it all at its distance. "She wouldn't see you?"
"Not after your friend had been with her."
She hesitated. "Couldn't you write?"
It made him also think, but with a difference. "She had turned her face to the wall."
This again for a moment hushed her, and they were both too grave now for parenthetic pity. But her interest came out for at least the minimum of light. "She refused even to let you speak to her?"
"My dear girl," Densher returned, "she was miserably, prohibitively ill."
"Well, that was what she had been before."
"And it didn't prevent? No," Densher admitted, "it didn't; and I don't pretend that she's not magnificent."
"She's prodigious," said Kate Croy.
He looked at her a moment. "So are you, my dear. But so it is," he wound up; "and there we are."
His idea had been, in advance, that she would perhaps sound him much more deeply, asking him, above all, two or three specific things. He had fairly fancied her even wanting to know and trying to find out how far, as the odious phrase was, he and Milly had gone, and how near, by the same token, they had come. He had asked himself if he were prepared to hear her do that, and had had to take for answer that he was prepared of course for everything. Wasn't he prepared for her ascertaining if her two or three prophecies had found time to be made true? He had fairly believed himself ready to say whether or no the overture on Milly's part, promised according to the boldest of them, had taken place. But what was in fact blessedly coming to him was that, so far as such things were concerned, his readiness wouldn't be taxed. Kate's pressure on the question of what had taken place remained so admirably general that even her present inquiry kept itself free of sharpness. "So then that after Lord Mark's interference you never again met?"
It was what he had been all the while coming to. "No; we met once—so far as it could be called a meeting. I had stayed—I didn't come away."
"That," said Kate, "was no more than decent."
"Precisely"—he felt himself wonderful; "and I wanted to be no less. She sent for me, I went to her, and that night I left Venice."
His companion waited. "Wouldn't that then have been your chance?"
"To refute Lord Mark's story? No, not even if, before her there, I had wanted to. What did it matter, either? She was dying."
"Well," Kate in a manner persisted. "Why not just because she was dying?" She had, however, all her discretion. "But of course, I know, seeing her, you could judge."
"Of course, seeing her, I could judge. And I did see her! If I had denied you, moreover," Densher said with his eyes on her, "I would have stuck to it."
She took for a moment the intention of his face. "You mean that, to convince her, you would have insisted or somehow proved———?"
"I mean that, to convince you, I would have insisted or somehow proved———!"
Kate looked for her moment at a loss. "To convince 'me'?"
"I wouldn't have made my denial, in such conditions, only to take it back afterwards."
With this quickly light came for her, and with it also her colour flamed. "Oh, you would have broken with me to make your denial a truth? You would have 'chucked' me"—she embraced it perfectly—"to save your conscience?"
"I couldn't have done anything else," said Merton Densher. "So you see how right I was not to commit myself, and how little I could dream of it. If it ever again appears to you that I might have done so, remember what I say."
Kate again considered, but not with the effect at once to which he pointed. "You have fallen in love with her."
"Well then, say so—with a dying woman. Why need you mind, and what does it matter?"
It came from him, the question, straight out of the intensity of relation and the face-to-face necessity into which, from the first, from his entering the room, they had found themselves thrown; but it gave them their most extraordinary moment. "Wait till she is dead! Mrs. Stringham," Kate added, "is to telegraph." After which, in a tone still different, "For what then," she asked, "did Milly send for you?"
"It was what I tried to make out before I went. I must tell you moreover that I had no doubt of its really being to give me, as you say, a chance. She believed, I suppose, that I might deny; and what, to my own mind, was before me in going to her was the certainty that she would put me to my test. She wanted from my own lips—so I saw it—the truth. But I was with her for twenty minutes, and she never asked me for it."
"She never wanted the truth"—Kate had a high headshake. "She wanted you. She would have taken from you what you could give her, and been glad of it even if she had known it false. You might have lied to her from pity, and she have seen you and felt you lie, and yet—since it was all for tenderness—she would have thanked you and blessed you and clung to you but the more. For that was your strength, my dear man—that she loves you with passion."
"Oh, my 'strength!'" Densher coldly murmured.
"What then, at least, since she had sent for you, was it to ask of you?" And then—quite without irony—as he waited a moment to say: "Was it just once more to look at you?"
"She had nothing to ask of me—nothing, that is, but not to stay any longer. She did, to that extent, want to see me. She had supposed, at first—after he had been with her—that I had seen the propriety of taking myself off. Then, since I hadn't—seeing my propriety as I did in another way—she found, days later, that I was still there. This," said Densher, "affected her."
"Of course it affected her."
Again she struck him, for all her dignity, as glib. "If it was, somehow, for her I was still staying, she wished that to end, she wished me to know how little there was need of it. And, as a manner of farewell, she wished herself to tell me so."
"And she did tell you so?"
"Face-to-face, yes. Personally, as she desired."
"And as you of course did."
"No, Kate," he returned with all their mutual consideration; "not as I did. I hadn't desired it in the least."
"You only went to oblige her?"
"To oblige her. And of course also to oblige you."
"Oh, for myself, certainly, I'm glad."
"'Glad?'" he echoed vaguely the way it rang out.
"I mean you did quite the right thing. You did it especially in having stayed. But that was all?" Kate went on. "That you mustn't wait?"
"That was really all—and in perfect kindness."
"Ah, kindness naturally: from the moment she asked of you such a—well, such an effort. That you mustn't wait—that was the point," Kate added—"to see her die."
"That was the point, my dear," Densher said.
"And it took twenty minutes to make it?"
He thought a little. "I didn't time it to a second. I paid her the visit—just like another."
"Like another person?"
"Like another visit."
"Oh!" said Kate. Which had apparently the effect of slightly arresting his speech—an arrest she took advantage of to continue; making with it indeed her nearest approach to an inquiry of the kind against which he had braced himself. "Did she receive you—in her condition—in her room?"
"Not she," said Merton Densher. "She received me just as usual: in that glorious great salone, in the dress she always wears, from her inveterate corner of her sofa." And his face, for the moment, conveyed the scene, just as hers, equally, embraced it. "Do you remember what you originally said to me of her?"
"Ah, I've said so many things."
"That she wouldn't smell of drugs, that she wouldn't taste of medicine. Well, she didn't."
"So that it was really almost happy?"
It took him a long time to answer, occupied as he partly was in feeling how nobody but Kate could have invested such a question with the tone that was perfectly right. She meanwhile, however, patiently waited. "I don't think I can attempt to say now what it was. Some day—perhaps. For it would be worth it for us."
"Some day—certainly." She took it as a generous promise. Yet she spoke again abruptly. "She'll recover."
"Well," said Densher, "you'll see."
She had the air an instant of trying to. "Did she show anything of her feeling? I mean," Kate explained, "of her feeling of having been misled."
She didn't press hard, surely; but he had just mentioned that he would have rather to glide. "She showed nothing but her beauty and her strength."
"Then," his companion asked, "what's the use of her strength?"
He seemed to look about for a use he could name; but he had soon given it up. "She must die, my dear, in her own extraordinary way."
"Naturally. But I don't see then what proof you have that she was ever alienated."
"I have the proof that she refused for days and days to see me."
"But she was ill."
"That hadn't prevented her—as you yourself a moment ago said—during the previous time. If it had been only illness it would have made no difference with her."
"She would still have received you?"
"She would still have received me."
"Oh, well," said Kate, "if you know———!"
"Of course I know. I know moreover, as well, from Mrs. Stringham."
"And what does Mrs. Stringham know?"
She looked at him longer. "Everything?"
"Because you've told her?"
"Because she has seen for herself. I've told her nothing. She's a person who does see."
Kate thought. "That's by her liking you too. She, as well, is prodigious. You see what interest in a man does. It does it all round. So you needn't be afraid."
"I'm not afraid," said Densher.
Kate moved from her place then, looking at the clock, which marked five. She gave her attention to the tea-table, where Aunt Maud's huge silver kettle, which had been exposed to its lamp and which she had not soon enough noticed, was hissing too hard. "Well, it's all most wonderful!" she exclaimed as she rather too profusely—a sign her friend noticed—ladled tea into the pot. He watched her a moment at this occupation, coming nearer the table while she put in the steaming water. "You'll have some?"
He hesitated. "Hadn't we better wait———?"
"For Aunt Maud?" She saw what he meant—the deprecation, by their old law, of betrayals of the intimate note. "Oh, you needn't mind now. We've done it!"
"Squared her. You've pleased her."
Densher mechanically accepted his tea. He was thinking of something else, and his thought in a moment came out. "What a brute then I must be!"
"To have pleased so many people."
"Ah," said Kate with a gleam of gaiety, "you've done it to please me." But she was already, with her gleam, reverting a little. "What I don't understand is—won't you have any sugar?"
"What I don't understand," she went on when she had helped him, "is what it was that had occurred to bring her round again. If she gave you up for days and days, what brought her back to you?"
She asked the question with her own cup in her hand, but it found him ready enough, in spite of his sense of the ironic oddity of their going into it over the tea-table. "It was Sir Luke Strett who brought her back. His visit, his presence there did it."
"He brought her back then to life."
"Well, to what I saw."
"And by interceding for you?"
"I don't think he interceded. I don't indeed know what he did."
Kate wondered. "Didn't he tell you?"
"I didn't ask him. I met him again, but we practically didn't speak of her."
Kate stared. "Then how do you know?"
"I see. I feel. I was with him again as I had been before———"
"Oh, and you pleased him too? That was it?"
"He understood," said Densher.
"But understood what?"
He waited a moment. "That I had meant awfully well."
"Ah, and made her understand? I see," she went on as he said nothing. "But how did he convince her?"
Densher put down his cup and turned away. "You must ask Sir Luke."
He stood looking at the fire, and there was a time without sound. "The great thing," Kate then resumed, "is that's she's satisfied. Which," she continued, looking across at him, "is what I've worked for."
"Satisfied to die in the flower of her youth?"
"Well, at peace with you."
"Oh, 'peace'!" he murmured with his eyes on the fire.
"The peace of having loved."
He raised his eyes to her. "Is that peace?"
"Of having been loved," she went on. "That is. Of having," she wound up, "realised her passion. She wanted nothing more. She has had all she wanted."
Lucid and always grave, she gave this out with a beautiful authority that he could for the time meet with no words. He could only again look at her, though with the sense, in so doing, that he made her, more than he intended, take his silence for assent. Quite indeed as if she did so take it she quitted the table and came to the fire. "You may think it hideous that I should now, that I should yet"—she made a point of the word—"pretend to draw conclusions. But we've not failed."
"Oh!" he only again murmured.
She was once more close to him, close as she had been the day she came to him in Venice, the quickly-returning memory of which intensified and enriched the fact. He could practically deny in such conditions nothing that she said, and what she said was, with it, visibly, a fruit of that knowledge. "We've succeeded." She spoke with her eyes deep in his own. "She won't have loved you for nothing." It made him wince, but she insisted. "And you won't have loved me."