Kate slowly rose; it was, since she had lighted the candles and sat down, the first movement she had made. "Are you trying to fix it on me that I must have told him?"
She spoke not so much in resentment as in pale dismay—which he showed that he immediately took in. "My dear child, I'm not trying to 'fix' anything; but I'm extremely tormented and I seem not to understand. What has the brute to do with us any way?"
"What has he indeed?" Kate asked.
She shook her head as if in recovery, within the minute, of some mild allowance for his unreason. There was in it—and for his reason really—one of those half-inconsequent sweetnesses by which she had often before made, over some point of difference, her own terms with him. Practically she was making them now, and essentially he was knowing it; yet, inevitably, all the same, he was accepting it. She stood there close to him, with something in her patience that suggested her having supposed, when he spoke more appealingly, that he was going to kiss her. He had not been, it appeared; but his continued appeal was none the less the quieter. "What's he doing, from ten o'clock on Christmas morning, with Mrs. Lowder?"
Kate looked surprised. "Didn't she tell you he's staying there?"
"At Lancaster Gate?" Densher's surprise met it. "'Staying'? since when?"
"Since day before yesterday. He was there before I came away." And then she explained—confessing it in fact anomalous. "It's an accident—like Aunt Maud's having herself remained in town for Christmas, but it isn't after all so monstrous. We stayed—and, with my having come here, she's sorry now—because we neither of us, waiting from day to day for the news you brought, seemed to want to be with a lot of people."
"You stayed for thinking of—Venice?"
"Of course we did. For what else? And even a little," Kate wonderfully added—"it's true at least of Aunt Maud—for thinking of you."
He appreciated. "I see. Nice of you every way. But whom," he inquired, "has Lord Mark stayed for thinking of?"
"His being in London, I believe, is a very commonplace matter. He has some rooms which he has had, suddenly, some rather advantageous chance to let—such as, with his confessed, his decidedly proclaimed want of money, he hasn't had it in him, in spite of everything, not to jump at."
Densher's attention was entire. "In spite of everything? In spite of what?"
"Well, I don't know. In spite, say, of his being scarcely supposed to do that sort of thing."
"To try to get money?"
"To try, at any rate, in little thrifty ways. Apparently, however, he has had, for some reason, to do what he can. He turned, at a couple of days' notice, out of his place, making it over to his tenant; and Aunt Maud, who is deeply in his confidence about all such matters, said: 'Come then to Lancaster Gate—to sleep at least—till, like all the world, you go to the country.' He was to have gone to the country—I think to Matcham—yesterday afternoon: Aunt Maud, that is, told me he was."
Kate had been, somehow, for her companion, through this statement, beautifully, quite soothingly suggestive. "Told you, you mean, so that you needn't leave the house?"
"Yes—so far as she had taken it into her head that his being there was part of my reason."
"And was it part of your reason?"
"A little, if you like. Yet there's plenty here—as I knew there would be—without it. So that," she said candidly, "doesn't matter. I'm glad I am here: even if for all the good I do———!" She implied, however, that that didn't matter either. "He didn't, as you tell me, get off then to Matcham; though he may possibly, if it is possible, be going this afternoon. But what strikes me as most probable—and it's really, I'm bound to say, quite amiable of him—is that he has declined to leave Aunt Maud, as I've been so ready to do, to spend her Christmas alone. If, moreover, he has given up Matcham for her, it's a procédé that won't please her less. It's small wonder therefore that she insists, on a dull day, in driving him about. I don't pretend to know," she wound up, "what may happen between them; but that's all I see in it."
"You see in everything, and you always did," Densher returned, "something that, while I'm with you at least, I always take from you as the truth itself."
She looked at him as if consciously and even carefully extracting the sting of his reservation; then she spoke with a quiet gravity that seemed to show how fine she found it. "Thank you." It had for him, like everything else, its effect. They were still closely face to face, and, yielding to the impulse to which he had not yielded just before, he laid his hands on her shoulders, held her hard a minute and shook her a little, far from untenderly, as if in expression of more mingled things, all difficult, than he could speak. Then, bending, he applied his lips to her cheek. He fell, after this, away for an instant, resuming his unrest, while she kept the position in which, all passive and as a statue, she had taken his demonstration. It didn't prevent her, however, from offering him, as if what she had had was enough for the moment, a further indulgence. She made a quiet, lucid connection and, as she made it, sat down again. "I've been trying to place exactly, as to its date, something that did happen to me while you were in Venice. I mean a talk with him. He spoke to me—spoke out."
"Ah, there you are!" said Densher who had wheeled round.
"Well, if I'm 'there,' as you so gracefully call it, by having refused to meet him as he wanted—as he pressed—I plead guilty to being so. Would you have liked me," she went on, "to give him an answer that would have kept him from going?"
It made him, a little awkwardly, think. "Did you know he was going?"
"Never for a moment; but I'm afraid that—even if it doesn't fit your strange suppositions—I should have given him just the same answer if I had known. If it's a matter I haven't, since your return, thrust upon you, that's simply because it's not a matter in the memory of which I find a particular joy. I hope that if I've satisfied you about it," she continued, "it's not too much to ask of you to let it rest."
"Certainly," said Densher kindly, "I'll let it rest." But the next moment he pursued: "He saw something. He guessed."
"If you mean," she presently returned, "that he was unfortunately the one person we hadn't deceived, I can't contradict you."
"No—of course not. But why," Densher still risked, "was he unfortunately the one person———? He's not clever."
"He's clever enough, apparently, to have seen a mystery, a riddle, in anything so unnatural as—all things considered, and when it came to the point—my attitude. So he gouged out his conviction, and on his conviction he acted."
Densher seemed, for a little, to look at Lord Mark's conviction as if it were a blot on the face of nature. "Do you mean because you had appeared to him to have encouraged him?"
"Of course I had been decent to him. Otherwise where were we?"
"You and I. What I appeared to him, however, hadn't mattered. What mattered was how I appeared to Aunt Maud. Besides, you must remember that he has had all along his impression of you. You can't help it," she said, "but you're after all—well, yourself."
"As much myself as you please. But when I took myself to Venice and kept myself there—what," Densher asked, "did he make of that?"
"Your being in Venice and liking to be—which is never on any one's part a monstrosity—was explicable for him in other ways. He was quite capable moreover of seeing it as dissimulation."
"In spite of Mrs. Lowder?"
"No," said Kate, "not in spite of Mrs. Lowder now. Aunt Maud, before what you call his second descent, hadn't convinced him—all the more that my refusal of him didn't help. But he came back convinced." And then as her companion still showed a face at a loss: "I mean after he had seen Milly, spoken to her and left her. Milly convinced him."
"Milly?" Densher again but vaguely echoed.
"That you were sincere. That it was her you loved." It came to him from her in such a way that he instantly, once more, turned, found himself yet again at his window. "Aunt Maud, on his return here," she meanwhile continued, "had it from him. And that's why you're now so well with Aunt Maud."
He only, for a minute, looked out in silence—after which he came away. "And why you are." It was almost, in its extremely affirmative effect between them, the note of recrimination; or it would have been perhaps rather if it hadn't been so much more the note of truth. It was sharp because it was true, but its truth appeared to impose it as an argument so conclusive as to permit on neither side a sequel. That made, while they faced each other over it without speech, the gravity of everything. It was as if there were almost danger, which the wrong word might start. Densher accordingly, at last, acted to better purpose: he drew, standing there before her, a pocketbook from the breast of his waistcoat and he drew from the pocketbook a folded letter, to which her eyes attached themselves. He restored then the receptacle to its place, and, with a movement not the less odd for being visibly instinctive and unconscious, carried the hand containing his letter behind him. What he thus finally spoke of was a different matter. "Did I understand from Mrs. Lowder that your father's in the house?"
If it never had taken her long, in such excursions, to meet him, it was not to take her so now. "In the house, yes. But we needn't fear his interruption"—she spoke as if he had thought of that. "He's in bed."
"Do you mean with illness?"
She sadly shook her head. "Father's never ill. He's a marvel. He's only endless."
Densher thought. "Can I, in any way, help you with him?"
"Yes." She perfectly, wearily, almost serenely, had it all. "By our making your visit as little of an affair as possible for him—and for Marian too."
"I see. They hate so your seeing me. Yet I couldn't—could I?—not have come."
"No, you couldn't not have come."
"But I can only, on the other hand, go as soon as possible?"
Quickly, it almost upset her. "Ah, don't, to-day, put ugly words into my mouth. I've enough of my trouble without it."
"I know—I know!" He spoke in instant pleading. "It's all, only, that I'm as troubled for you. When did he come?"
"Three days ago—after he had not been near her for more than a year, after he had apparently, and not regrettably, ceased to remember her existence; and in a state which made it impossible not to take him in."
Densher hesitated. "Do you mean in such want———?"
"No, not of food, of necessary things—not even, so far as his appearance went, of money. He looked as wonderful as ever. But he was—well, in terror."
"In terror of what?"
"I don't know. Of somebody—of something. He wants, he says, to be quiet. But his quietness is awful."
She suffered, but she couldn't not question. "What does he do?"
It made Kate herself hesitate. "He cries."
Again for a moment he hung fire, but he risked it. "What has he done?"
It made her slowly rise, and they were fully, once more, face to face. Her eyes held his own, and she was paler than she had been. "If you love me—now—don't ask me about father."
He waited again a moment. "I love you. It's because I love you that I'm here. It's because I love you that I've brought you this." And he drew from behind him the letter that had remained in his hand.
But her eyes only—though he held it out—met the offer. "Why, you've not broken the seal!"
"If I had broken the seal—exactly—I should know what's within. It's for you to break the seal that I bring it."
She looked—still not touching the thing—inordinately grave. "To break the seal of something to you from her?"
"Ah, precisely because it's from her. I'll abide by whatever you think of it."
"I don't understand," said Kate. "What do you yourself think?" And then as he didn't answer: "It seems to me I think you know. You have your instinct. You don't need to read. It's the proof."
Densher faced her words like an accusation, but like an accusation for which he had been prepared and which there was but one way to face. "I have indeed my instinct. It came to me, while I worried it out, last night. It came to me as an effect of the hour." He held up his letter, and seemed now to insist more than to confess. "This thing had been timed."
"For Christmas eve?"
"For Christmas eve."
Kate had suddenly a strange smile. "The season of gifts!" After which, as he said nothing, she went on: "And had been written, you mean, while she could write, and kept to be so timed?"
Only meeting her eyes while he thought, he again didn't reply. "What do you mean by the proof?"
"Why, of the beauty with which you've been loved. But I won't," she said, "break your seal."
"You positively decline?"
"Positively. Never." To which she added oddly: "I know without."
He had another pause. "And what is it you know?"
"That she announces to you she has made you rich."
His pause this time was longer. "Left me her fortune?"
"Not all of it, no doubt, for it's immense. But money to a large amount. I don't care," Kate went on, "to know how much." And her strange smile recurred. "I trust her."
"Did she tell you?" Densher asked.
"Never!" Kate visibly flushed at the thought. "That wouldn't, on my part, have been playing fair with her. And I did," she added, "play fair."
Densher, who had believed her—he couldn't help it—continued, holding his letter, to face her. He was much quieter now, as if his torment had some how passed. "You played fair with me, Kate; and that's why—since we talk of proofs—I want to give you one. I've wanted to let you see—and in preference even to myself—something I feel as sacred."
She frowned a little. "I don't understand."
"I've asked myself for a tribute, for a sacrifice by which I can specially recognise———"
"Specially recognise what?" she demanded as he dropped.
"The admirable nature of your own sacrifice. You were capable in Venice of an act of splendid generosity."
"And the privilege you offer me with that document is my reward?"
He made a movement. "It's all I can do as a symbol of my attitude."
She looked at him long. "Your attitude, my dear, is that you're afraid of yourself. You've had to take yourself in hand. You've had to do yourself violence."
"So it is then you meet me?"
She bent her eyes hard a moment to the letter, from which her hand still stayed itself. "You absolutely desire me to take it?"
"I absolutely desire you to take it."
"To do what I like with it?"
"Short, of course, of making known its terms. It must remain—pardon my making the point—between you and me."
She had a last hesitation, but she presently broke it, "Trust me." Taking from him the sacred script, she held it a little, while her eyes again rested on those fine characters of Milly's which they had shortly before discussed. "To hold it," she brought out, "is to know."
"Oh, I know!" said Merton Densher.
"Well then, if we both do———!" She had already turned to the fire, nearer to which she had moved, and, with a quick gesture, had jerked the thing into the flame. He started—but only half— as if to undo her action: his arrest was as prompt as the latter had been decisive. He only watched, with her, the paper burn; after which their eyes again met. "You'll have it all," Kate said, "from New York."