He had said to her in the Park, when challenged on it, that nothing had "happened" to him as a cause for the demand he there made of her—happened, he meant, since the account he had given, after his return, of his recent experience. But in the course of a few days—they had brought him to Christmas morning—he was conscious enough, in preparing again to seek her out, of a difference on that score. Something had in this case happened to him, and, after his taking the night to think of it, he felt that what it most, if not absolutely first, involved was his immediately again putting himself in relation with her. The fact itself had met him there—in his own small quarters—on Christmas eve, and had not then indeed instantly affected him as implying that consequence. So far as he on the spot and for the next hours took its measure—a process that made his night mercilessly wakeful—the consequences possibly implied were numerous to distraction. His spirit dealt with them, in the darkness, as the slow hours passed; his intelligence and his imagination, his soul and his sense had never, on the whole, been so intensely engaged. It was his difficulty for the moment that he was face to face with alternatives, and that it was scarce even a question of turning from one to the other. They were not in a perspective in which they might be compared and considered; they were, by a strange effect, as close as a pair of monsters of whom he might have felt on either cheek the hot breath and the huge eyes. He saw them at once and but by looking straight before him; he wouldn't, for that matter, in his cold apprehension, have turned his head by an inch. So it was that his agitation was still—was not, for the slow hours, a matter of restless motion. He lay long, after the event, on the sofa on which, extinguishing at a touch the white light of convenience that he hated, he had thrown himself without undressing. He stared at the buried day and wore out the time; with the arrival of the Christmas dawn, moreover, late and grey, he felt himself somehow determined. The common wisdom had had its say to him—that safety, in doubt, was not action; and perhaps what most helped him was this very commonness. In his case there was nothing of that—in no case in his life had there ever been less: which association, from one thing to another, now worked for him as a choice. He acted, after his bath and his breakfast, in the sense of that marked element of the rare which he felt to be the sign of his crisis. And that is why, dressed with more state than usual and quite as if for church, he went out into the soft Christmas day.
Action, for him, on coming to the point, it appeared, carried with it a certain complexity. We should have known, walking by his side, that his final prime decision had not been to call at the door of Sir Luke Strett, and yet that this step, though subordinate, was none the less urgent. His prime decision was for another matter, to which impatience, once he was on the way, had now added itself; but he remained sufficiently aware that he must compromise with the perhaps excessive earliness. This, and the ferment set up within him, were, together, a reason for not driving; to say nothing of the absence of cabs in the dusky festal desert. Sir Luke's great square was not near, but he walked the distance without seeing a hansom. He had his interval thus to turn over his view—the view to which what had happened the night before had now sharply reduced itself; but the complexity just mentioned was to be offered, within the next few minutes, another item to assimilate. Before Sir Luke's house, when he reached it, a brougham was drawn up—at the sight of which his heart had a lift that brought him, for the instant, to a stand. This pause was not long, but it was long enough to flash upon him a revelation in the light of which he caught his breath. The carriage, so possibly at such an hour and on such a day Sir Luke's own, had struck him as a sign that the great doctor was back. This would prove something else, in turn, still more intensely, and it was in the act of the double apprehension that Densher felt himself turn pale. His mind rebounded for the moment like a projectile that has suddenly been met by another: he stared at the strange truth that what he wanted more than to see Kate Croy was to see the witness who had just arrived from Venice. He wanted positively to be in his presence and to hear his voice—which was the spasm of his consciousness that produced the flash. Fortunately for him, on the spot, there supervened something in which the flash went out. He became aware within this minute that the coachman on the box of the brougham had a face known to him, whereas he had never seen before, to his knowledge, the great doctor's carriage. The carriage, as he came nearer, was simply Mrs. Lowder's; the face on the box was just the face that, in coming and going at Lancaster Gate, he would vaguely have noticed, outside, in attendance. With this the rest came: the lady of Lancaster Gate had, on a prompting not wholly remote from his own, presented herself for news; and news, in the house, she was clearly getting, since her brougham had stayed. Sir Luke was then back—only Mrs. Lowder was with him.
It was under the influence of this last reflection that Densher again delayed; and it was while he delayed that something else occurred to him. It was all round, visibly—given his own new contribution—a case of pressure; and in a case of pressure Kate, for quicker knowledge, might have come out with her aunt. The possibility that in this event she might be sitting in the carriage—the thing most likely—had had the effect, before he could check it, of bringing him within range of the window. It wasn't there he had wished to see her; yet if she was there he couldn't pretend not to. What he had, however, the next moment made out was that if some one was there it wasn't Kate Croy. It was, with a sensible shock from him, the person who had last offered him a conscious face from behind the clear plate of a café in Venice. The great glass at Florian's was a medium less obscure, even with the window down, than the air of the London Christmas; yet at present also, none the less, between the two men, an exchange of recognitions could occur. Densher felt his own look a gaping arrest—which, he disgustedly remembered, his back as quickly turned, appeared to repeat itself as his special privilege. He mounted the steps of the house and touched the bell with a keen consciousness of being habitually looked at by Kate's friend from positions of almost insolent vantage. He forgot, for the time, the moment when, in Venice, at the palace, the encouraged young man had in a manner assisted at the departure of the disconcerted, since Lord Mark was not looking disconcerted now any more than he had looked from his bench at his café. Densher was thinking that he seemed to show as vagrant while another was ensconced. He was thinking of the other as—in spite of the difference of situation—more ensconced than ever; he was thinking of him above all as the friend of the person with whom his recognition had, the minute previous, associated him. The man was seated in the very place in which, beside Mrs. Lowder's, he had looked to find Kate, and that was a sufficient identity. Meanwhile, at any rate, the door of the house had opened and Mrs. Lowder stood before him. It was something at least that she wasn't Kate. She was herself, on the spot, in all her affluence; with presence of mind both to decide at once that Lord Mark, in the brougham, didn't matter and to prevent Sir Luke's butler, by a firm word thrown over her shoulder, from standing there to listen to her passage with the gentleman who had rung. "I'll tell Mr. Densher; you needn't wait!" And the passage, promptly and richly, took place on the steps.
"He arrives, travelling straight, to-morrow early. I could not come to learn."
"No more," said Densher simply, "could I. On my way," he added, "to Lancaster Gate."
"Sweet of you." She beamed on him dimly, and he saw her face was attuned. It made him, with what she had just before said, know all, and he took the thing in while he met the air of portentous, of almost functional, sympathy that had settled itself as her medium with him and that yet had now a fresh glow. "So you have had your message?"
He knew so well what she meant, and so equally with it what he "had had," no less than what he hadn't, that, with but the smallest hesitation, he strained the point. "Yes—my message."
"Our dear dove then, as Kate calls her, has folded her wonderful wings."
It rather racked him, but he tried to receive it as she intended, and she evidently took his formal assent for self-control. "Unless it's more true," she accordingly added, "that she has spread them the wider."
He again but formally assented, though, strangely enough, the words fitted an image deep in his own consciousness. "Rather, yes—spread them the wider."
"For a flight, I trust, to some happiness greater———"
"Exactly. Greater," Densher broke in; but now with a look, he feared, that did, a little, warn her off.
"You were certainly," she went on with more reserve, "entitled to direct news. Ours came, last night, late: I'm not sure, otherwise, I shouldn't have gone to you. But you're coming," she asked, "to me?"
He had had a minute, by this time, to think further; and the window of the brougham was still within range. Her rich "me," reaching him, moreover, through the mild damp, had the effect of a thump on his chest. "Squared," Aunt Maud? She was indeed squared, and the extent of it, just now, perversely enough, took away his breath. His look, from where they stood, embraced the aperture at which the person sitting in the carriage might have shown, and he saw his interlocutress, on her side, understand the question in it, which he moreover then uttered. "Shall you be alone?" It was, as an immediate instinctive parley with the image of his condition that now flourished in her, almost hypocritical. It sounded as if he wished to come and overflow to her, yet this was exactly what he didn't. The need to overflow had suddenly—since the night before—dried up in him, and he had never been conscious of a deeper reserve.
But she had meanwhile largely responded. "Completely alone. I should otherwise never have dreamed; feeling, dear friend, but too much!" What she felt, failing on her lips, came out for him in the offered hand with which, the next moment, she had condolingly pressed his own. "Dear friend, dear friend!"—she was deeply "with" him, and she wished to be still more so: which was what made her immediately continue. "Or wouldn't you, this evening, for the sad Christmas it makes us, dine with me tête-à-tête?"
It put the thing off, the question of a talk with her—making the difference, to his relief, of several hours; but it also rather mystified him. This, however, didn't diminish his need of caution. "Shall you mind if I don't tell you at once?"
"Not in the least—leave it open: it shall be as you may feel, and you needn't even send me word. I only will mention that to-day, of all days, I shall otherwise sit there alone."
Now at least he could ask. "Without Miss Croy?"
"Without Miss Croy. Miss Croy," said Mrs. Lowder, "is spending her Christmas in the bosom of her more immediate family."
He was afraid, even while he spoke, of what his face might show. "You mean she has left you?"
Aunt Maud's own face, for that matter, met the inquiry with a consciousness in which he saw a reflection of events. He perceived from it, even at the moment and as he had never done before, that, since he had known these two women, no confessed nor commented tension, no crisis of the cruder sort, would really have taken form between them: which was precisely a high proof of how Kate had steered her boat. The situation exposed in Mrs. Lowder's present expression lighted up by contrast that superficial smoothness; which afterwards, with his time to think of it, was to put before him again the art, the particular gift, in the girl, now so placed and classed, so intimately familiar for him, as her talent for life. The peace, clearly, within a day or two—since his seeing her last—had been broken; differences, deep down, kept there by a diplomacy, on Kate's part, as deep, had been shaken to the surface by some exceptional jar; with which, in addition, he felt Lord Mark's odd attendance at such an hour and season vaguely associated. The talent for life indeed, it at the same time struck him, would probably have shown equally in the breach, or whatever had occurred; Aunt Maud having suffered, he judged, a strain rather than a stroke. With these quick thoughts, at all events, that lady was already abreast. "She went yesterday morning—and not with my approval, I don't mind telling you—to her sister: Mrs. Condrip, if you know who I mean, who lives somewhere in Chelsea. My other niece and her affairs—that I should have to say such things to-day!—are a constant worry; so that Kate, in consequence—well, of events!—has simply been called in. My own idea, I'm bound to say, was that with such events she need have, in her situation, next to nothing to do."
"But she differed with you?"
"She differed with me. And when Kate differs with you———!"
"Oh, I can imagine." He had reached the point, in the matter of hypocrisy, at which he could ask himself why a little more or less should signify. Besides, with the intention he had had, he must know. Kate's move, if he didn't know, might simply disconcert him; and of being disconcerted his horror was by this time fairly superstitious. "I hope you don't allude to events at all calamitous."
"No—only horrid and vulgar."
"Oh!" said Merton Densher.
Mrs. Lowder's soreness, it was still not obscure, had discovered in free speech to him a momentary balm. "They've the misfortune to have, I suppose you know, a dreadful, horrible father."
"Oh!" said Densher again.
"He's too bad almost to name, but he has come upon Marian, and Marian has shrieked for help."
Densher wondered, at this, with intensity; and his curiosity compromised for an instant with his discretion. "Come upon her—for money?"
"Oh, for that, of course, always. But, at this blessed season, for refuge, for safety: for God knows what. He's there, the brute. And Kate's with them. And that," Mrs. Lowder wound up, going down the steps, "is her Christmas."
She had stopped again at the bottom, while he thought of an answer. "Yours then is after all rather better."
"It's at least more decent." And her hand, once more, came out. "But why do I talk of our troubles? Come if you can."
He showed a faint smile. "Thanks. If I can."
"And now—I dare say—you'll go to church?"
She had asked it, with her good intention, rather in the air and by way of sketching for him, in the line of support, something a little more to the purpose than what she had been giving him. He felt it as finishing off their intensities of expression that he found himself, to all appearance, receiving her hint as happy. "Why, yes—I think I will": after which, as the door of the brougham, at her approach, had opened from within, he was free to turn his back. He heard the door, behind him, sharply close again and the vehicle move off in another direction than his own.
He had in fact, for the time, no direction; in spite of which indeed, at the end of ten minutes, he was aware of having walked straight to the south. That, he afterwards recognised, was, very sufficiently, because there had formed itself in his mind, even while Aunt Maud finally talked, an instant recognition of his necessary course. Nothing was open to him but to follow Kate, nor was anything more marked than the influence of the step she had taken on the emotion itself that possessed him. Her complications, which had fairly, with everything else, an awful sound—what were they, a thousand times over, but his own? His present business was to see that they didn't escape an hour longer taking their proper place in his life. He accordingly would have held his course had it not suddenly come over him that he had just lied to Mrs. Lowder—a term it perversely eased him to keep using—even more than was necessary. To what church was he going, to what church, in such a state of his nerves, could he go?—he pulled up short again, as he had pulled up in sight of Mrs. Lowder's carriage, to ask it. And yet the desire queerly stirred in him not to have wasted his word. He was just then, however, by a happy chance, in the Brompton Road, and he bethought himself, with a sudden light, that the Oratory was at hand. He had but to turn the other way and he should find himself soon before it. At the door then, in a few minutes, his idea was really—as it struck him—consecrated: he was, pushing in, on the edge of a splendid service—the flocking crowd told of it—which glittered and resounded, from distant depths, in the blaze of altar-lights and the swell of organ and choir. It didn't match his own day, but it was much less of a discord than some other things actual and possible. The Oratory, in short, to make him right, would do.