It was after he had in fact, two months later, heard from New York that she paid him a visit one morning in his own quarters—coming not as she had come in Venice, under his extreme solicitation, but as a need recognised in the first instance by herself, even though also as the prompt result of a missive delivered to her. This had consisted of a note from Densher, accompanying a letter, "just to hand," addressed to him by an eminent American legal firm, a firm of whose high character he had become conscious while in New York as of a thing in the air itself, and whose head and front, to the principal executor of Milly Theale's copious will, had been duly identified at Lancaster Gate as the gentleman hurrying out, by the straight southern course, before the girl's death, to the support of Mrs. Stringham. Densher's act on receipt of the document in question—an act as to which, and the bearings of which, his resolve had had time to mature—constituted, in strictness, singularly enough, the first reference to Milly, or to what Milly might or might not have done, that had passed between our pair since they had stood together watching the destruction, in the little vulgar grate at Chelsea, of the unrevealed work of her hand. They had, at the time, and in due deference now, on his part, to Kate's mention of her responsibility for his call, immediately separated, and when they met again the subject was made present to them—at all events till some flare of new light—only by the intensity with which it mutely expressed its absence. They were not moreover in these weeks to meet often, in spite of the fact that this had, during January and a part of February, actually become for them a comparatively easy matter. Kate's stay at Mrs. Condrip's prolonged itself under allowances from her aunt which would have been a mystery to Densher had he not been admitted, at Lancaster Gate, really in spite of himself, to the esoteric view of them. "It's her idea," Mrs. Lowder had there said to him as if she really despised ideas—which she didn't; "and I've taken up with my own, which is to give her, till she has had enough of it, her head. She has had enough of it—she had that soon enough; but as she's as proud as the deuce she'll come back when she has found some reason—having nothing in common with her disgust—of which she can make a show. She calls it her holiday, which she's spending in her own way—the holiday to which, once a year or so, as she says, the very maids in the scullery have a right. So we're taking it on that basis. But we shall not soon, I think, take another of the same sort. Besides, she's quite decent; she comes often—whenever I make her a sign; and she has been good, on the whole, this year or two, so that, to be decent myself, I don't complain. She has really been, poor dear, very much what one hoped; though I needn't, you know," Aunt Maud wound up, "tell you, after all, you clever creature, what that was."
It had been partly, in truth, to keep down the opportunity for this that Densher's appearances under the good lady's roof markedly, after Christmas, interspaced themselves. The phase of his situation that, on his return from Venice, had made them for a short time almost frequent was at present quite obscured, and with it the impulse that had then acted. Another phase had taken its place, which he would have been painfully at a loss as yet to name or otherwise set on its feet, but of which the steadily rising tide left Mrs. Lowder, for his desire, quite high and dry. There had been a moment when it seemed possible that Mrs. Stringham, returning to America under convoy, would pause in London on her way and be housed with her old friend; in which case he was prepared for some apparent zeal of attendance. But this danger passed—he had felt it a danger, and the person in the world whom he would just now have most valued seeing on his own terms sailed away westward from Genoa. He thereby only wrote to her, having broken, in this respect, after Milly's death, the silence as to the sense of which, before that event, their agreement had been so deep. She had answered him from Venice twice and had had time to answer him twice again from New York. The last letter of her four had come by the same post as the document he sent on to Kate, but he had not gone into the question of also enclosing that. His correspondence with Milly's companion was somehow already presenting itself to him as a feature—as a factor, he would have said in his newspaper—of the time, whatever it might be, long or short, in store for him; but one of his acutest current thoughts was apt to be devoted to his not having yet mentioned it to Kate. She had put him no question, no "Don't you ever hear?"—so that he had not been brought to the point. This he described to himself as a mercy, for he liked his secret. It was as a secret that, in the same personal privacy, he described his transatlantic commerce, scarce even wincing while he recognised it as the one connection in which he wasn't straight. He had in fact for this connection a vivid mental image—he saw it as a small emergent rock in the waste of waters, the bottomless grey expanse of straightness. The fact that he had now, on several occasions, taken with Kate an out-of-the-way walk that had, each time, defined itself as more remarkable for what they didn't say than for what they did—this fact failed somehow to mitigate for him a strange consciousness of exposure. There was something deep within him that he had absolutely shown to no one—to the companion of these walks in particular not a bit more than he could help; but he was none the less haunted, under its shadow, with a dire apprehension of publicity. It was as if he had invoked that ugliness in some stupid good faith; and it was queer enough that on his emergent rock, clinging to it and to Susan Shepherd, he should figure himself as hidden from view. That represented, no doubt, his belief in her power, or in her delicate disposition, to protect him. Only Kate, at all events, knew—what Kate did know, and she was also the last person interested to tell it; in spite of which it was as if his act, so deeply associated with her and never to be recalled nor recovered, was abroad on the winds of the world. His honesty, as he viewed it, with Kate, was the very element of that menace: to the degree that he saw at moments, as to their final impulse or their final remedy, the need to bury in the dark blindness of each other's arms the knowledge of each other that they couldn't undo.
Save indeed that the sense in which it was in these days a question of arms was limited, this might have been the intimate expedient to which they were actually resorting. It had its value, in conditions that made everything count, that thrice over, in Battersea Park—where Mrs. Lowder now never drove—he had adopted the usual means, in sequestered alleys, of holding her close to his side. She could make absences, on her present footing, without having too inordinately to account for them at home—which was exactly what, for the first time, gave them an appreciable margin. He supposed she could always say in Chelsea—though he didn't press it—that she had been across the town, in decency, for a look at her aunt; whereas there had always been reasons at Lancaster Gate for her not being able to plead the look at her other relatives. It was therefore between them a freedom of a purity as yet untasted; which, for that matter, also, they made, in various ways, no little show of cherishing as such. They made the show indeed in every way but the way of a large use—an inconsequence that they almost equally gave time to helping each other to regard as natural. He put it to his companion that the kind of favour he now enjoyed at Lancaster Gate, the wonderful warmth of his reception there, cut, in a manner, the ground from under their feet. He was too horribly trusted—they had succeeded too well. He couldn't in short make appointments with her without abusing Aunt Maud, and he couldn't on the other hand haunt that lady without tying his hands. Kate saw what he meant just as he saw what she did when she admitted that she was herself, to a degree scarce less embarrassing, in the enjoyment of Aunt Maud's confidence. It was special at present—she was handsomely used; she confessed accordingly to a scruple about misapplying her licence. Mrs. Lowder then finally had found—and all unconsciously now—the way to baffle them. It was not, however, that they didn't meet a little, none the less, in the southern quarter, to point, for their common benefit, the moral of their defeat. They crossed the river; they wandered in neighbourhoods sordid and safe; the winter was mild, so that, mounting to the top of trams, they could rumble together to Clapham or to Greenwich. If at the same time their minutes had never been so counted it struck Densher that, by a singular law, their tone—he scarce knew what to call it—had never been so bland. Not to talk of what they might have talked of drove them to other ground; it was as if they used a perverse insistence to make up what they ignored. They concealed their pursuit of the irrelevant by the charm of their manner; they took precautions for a courtesy that they had formerly left to come of itself; often, when he had quitted her, he stopped short, walking off, with the aftersense of their change. He would have described their change—had he so far faced it as to describe it—by their being so damned civil. That had even, with the intimate, the familiar at the point to which they had brought them, a touch almost of the funny. What danger had there ever been of their becoming rude—after each had, long since, made the other so tremendously tender? Such were the things he asked himself when he wondered what in particular he most feared.
Yet all the while too the tension had its charm—such being the interest of a creature who could bring one back to her by such different roads. It was her talent for life again; which found in her a difference for the differing time. She didn't give their tradition up; she but made of it something new. Frankly, moreover, she had never been more agreeable, nor, in a way—to put it prosaically—better company: he felt almost as if he were knowing her on that defined basis—which he even hesitated whether to measure as reduced or as extended; as if at all events he were admiring her as she was probably admired by people she met "out." He hadn't, in fine, reckoned that she would still have something fresh for him; yet this was what she had—that on the top of a tram in the Borough he felt as if he were next her at dinner. What a person she would be if they had been rich—with what a genius for the so-called great life, what a presence for the so-called great house, what a grace for the so-called great positions! He might regret at once, while he was about it, that they weren't princes or billionaires. She had treated him on their Christmas to a softness that had struck him at the time as of the quality of fine velvet, meant to fold thick, but stretched a little thin; at present, however, she gave him the impression of a contact multitudinous as only the superficial can be. Moreover, throughout, she had nothing to say of what went on at home. She came out of that, and she returned to it, but her nearest reference was the look with which, each time, she bade him good-bye. The look was her repeated prohibition: "It's what I have to see and to know—so don't touch it. That but wakes up the old evil, which I keep still, in my way, by sitting by it. I go now—leave me alone!—to sit by it again. The way to pity me—if that's what you want—is to believe in me. If we could really do anything it would be another matter."
He watched her, when she went her way, with the vision of what she thus a little stiffly carried. It was confused and obscure, but how, with her head high, it made her hold herself! He in truth, in his own person, might at these moments have been swaying a little, aloft, as one of the objects in her poised basket. It was doubtless thanks to some such consciousness as this that he felt the lapse of the weeks, before the day of Kate's mounting of his stair, almost swingingly rapid. They contained for him the contradiction that, whereas periods of waiting are supposed in general to keep the time slow, it was the wait, actually, that made the pace trouble him. The secret of that anomaly, to be plain, was that he was aware of how, while the days melted, something rare went with them. This something was only a thought, but a thought precisely of that freshness and that delicacy that made the precious, of whatever sort, most subject to the hunger of time. The thought was all his own, and his intimate companion was the last person he might have shared it with. He kept it back like a favourite pang; left it behind him, so to say, when he went out, but came home again the sooner for the certainty of finding it there. Then he took it out of its sacred corner and its soft wrappings; he undid them one by one, handling them, handling it, as a father, baffled and tender, might handle a maimed child. But so it was before him—in his dread of who else might see it. Then he took to himself at such hours, in other words, that he should never, never know what had been in Milly's letter. The intention announced in it he should but too probably know; but that would have been, but for the depths of his spirit, the least part of it. The part of it missed forever was the turn she would have given her act. That turn had possibilities that, somehow, by wondering about them, his imagination had extraordinarily filled out and refined. It had made of them a revelation the loss of which was like the sight of a priceless pearl cast before his eyes—his pledge given not to save it—into the fathomless sea, or rather even it was like the sacrifice of something sentient and throbbing, something that, for the spiritual ear, might have been audible as a faint, far wail. This was the sound that he cherished, when alone, in the stillness of his rooms. He sought and guarded the stillness, so that it might prevail there till the inevitable sounds of life, once more, comparatively coarse and harsh, should smother and deaden it—doubtless by the same process with which they would officiously heal the ache, in his soul, that was somehow one with it. It deepened moreover the sacred hush that he couldn't complain. He had given poor Kate her freedom.
The great and obvious thing, as soon as she stood there on the occasion we have already named, was that she was now in high possession of it. This would have marked immediately the difference—had there been nothing else to do it—between their actual terms and their other terms, the character of their last encounter in Venice. That had been his idea, whereas her present step was her own; the few marks they had in common were, from the first moment, to his conscious vision, almost pathetically plain. She was as grave now as before; she looked around her, to hide it, as before; she pretended, as before, in an air in which her words at the moment itself fell flat, to an interest in the place and a curiosity about his "things"; there was a recall, in short, in the way in which, after she had failed, a little, to push up her veil symmetrically and he had said she had better take it off altogether, she had acceded to his suggestion before the glass. It was just these things that were vain; and what was real was that his fancy figured her after the first few minutes as literally now providing the element of reassurance which had previously been his care. It was she, supremely, who had the presence of mind. She made indeed, for that matter, very prompt use of it. "You see I've not hesitated this time to break your seal."
She had laid on the table from the moment of her coming in the long envelope, substantially filled, which he had sent her enclosed in another of still ampler make. He had, however, not looked at it—his belief being that he wished never again to do so; besides which it had happened to rest with its addressed side up. So he "saw" nothing, and it was only into her eyes that her remark make him look, without an approach to the object indicated. "It's not 'my' seal, my dear; and my intention—which my note tried to express—was all to treat it to you as not mine."
"Do you mean that it's to that extent mine then?"
"Well, let us call it, if we like, theirs—that of the good people in New York, the authors of our communication. If the seal is broken well and good; but we might, you know," he presently added, "have sent it back to them intact and inviolate. Only accompanied," he smiled with his heart in his mouth, "by an absolutely kind letter."
Kate took it with the mere brave blink with which a patient of courage signifies to the exploring medical hand that the tender place is touched. He saw on the spot that she was prepared, and with this signal sign that she was too intelligent not to be, came a flicker of possibilities. She was—merely to put it at that—intelligent enough for anything. "Is it what you're proposing we should do?"
"Ah, it's too late to do it—well, ideally. Now, with that sign that we know———!"
"But you don't know," she said very gently.
"I refer," he went on without noticing it, "to what would have been the handsome way. It's being despatched again, with no cognisance taken but one's assurance of the highest consideration, and the proof of this in the state of the envelope—that would have been really satisfying."
She thought an instant. "The state of the envelope proving refusal, you mean, not to be based on the insufficiency of the sum?"
Densher smiled again as for the play, however whimsical, of her humour. "Well yes—something of that sort."
"So that if cognisance has been taken—so far as I'm concerned—it spoils the beauty?"
"It makes the difference that I'm disappointed in the hope—which I confess I entertained—that you'd bring the thing back to me as you had received it."
"You didn't express that hope in your letter."
"I didn't want to. I wanted to leave it to yourself. I wanted—oh yes, if that's what you wish to ask me—to see what you'd do."
"You wanted to measure the possibilities of my departure from delicacy?"
He continued steady now; a kind of ease—in the presence, as in the air, of something he couldn't as yet have named—had come to him. "Well, I wanted—in so good a case—to test you."
She was struck—it showed in her face—by his expression. "It is a good case. I doubt if a better," she said with her eyes on him, "has ever been known."
"The better the case then the better the test!"
"How do you know," she asked in reply to this, "what I'm capable of?"
"I don't, my dear! Only, with the seal unbroken, I should have known sooner."
"I see"—she took it in. "But I myself shouldn't have known at all. And you wouldn't have known, either, what I do know."
"Let me tell you at once," he returned, "that if you've been moved to correct my ignorance I very particularly request you not to."
She just hesitated. "Are you afraid of the effect of the corrections? Can you only do it by doing it blindly?"
He waited a moment. "What is it that you speak of my doing?"
"Why, the only thing in the world that I take you as thinking of. Not accepting—what she has done. Isn't there some regular name in such cases? Not taking up the bequest."
"There's something you forget in it," he said after a moment. "My asking you to join with me in doing so."
Her wonder but made her softer, yet didn't, at the same time, make her less firm. "How can I 'join' in a matter with which I've nothing to do?"
"How? By a single word."
"And what word?"
"Your consent to my giving up."
"My consent has no meaning when I can't prevent you."
"You can perfectly prevent me. Understand that well," he said.
She seemed to face a threat in it. "You mean you won't give up if I don't consent?"
"Yes. I do nothing."
"That, as I understand, is accepting."
Densher paused. "I do nothing formal."
"You won't, I suppose you mean, touch the money."
"I won't touch the money."
It had a sound—though he had been coming to it—that made for gravity. "Who then, in such an event, will?"
"Any one who wants or who can."
Again, a little, she said nothing: she might say too much. But by the time she spoke she had covered ground. "How can I touch it but through you?"
"You can't. Any more," he added, "than I can renounce it except through you."
"Oh, ever so much less! There's nothing," she said, "in my power."
"I'm in your power," Merton Densher returned.
"In what way?"
"In the way I show—and the way I've always shown. When have I shown," he asked as with a sudden cold impatience, "anything else? You surely must feel—so that you needn't wish to appear to spare me in it—how you 'have' me."
"It's very good of you, my dear," she nervously laughed, "to put me so thoroughly up to it!"
"I put you up to nothing. I didn't even put you up to the chance that, as I said a few moments ago, I saw for you in forwarding that thing. Your liberty is therefore in every way complete."
It had come to the point, really, that they showed each other pale faces, and that all the unspoken between them looked out of their eyes in a dim terror of their further conflict. Something even rose between them in one of their short silences—something that was like an appeal from each to the other not to be too true. Their necessity was somehow before them, but which of them must meet it first? "Thank you!" Kate said for his word about her freedom, but taking for the minute no further action on it. It was blessed at least that all ironies failed them, and during another slow moment their very sense of it cleared the air.
There was an effect of this in the way he soon went on. "You must intensely feel that it's the thing for which we worked together."
She took up the remark, however, no more than if it were commonplace; she was already again occupied with a point of her own. "Is it absolutely true—for if it is, you know, it's tremendously interesting—that you haven't so much as a curiosity as to what she has done for you?"
"Would you like," he asked, "my formal oath on it?"
"No—but I don't understand. It seems to me in your place———"
"Ah," he couldn't help from breaking in, "what do you know of my place? Pardon me," he immediately added; "my preference is the one I express."
She had in an instant, all the same, a curious thought. "But won't the facts be published?"
"I mean won't you see them in the papers?"
"Ah, never! I shall know how to escape that."
It seemed to settle the subject, but she had, the next minute, another insistence. "Your desire is to escape everything?"
"And do you need no more definite sense of what it is that you ask me to help you to renounce?"
"My sense is sufficient without being definite . I'm willing to believe that the amount of money is not small."
"Ah, there you are!" she exclaimed.
"If she was to leave me a remembrance," he quietly pursued, "it would inevitably not be meagre."
Kate waited as for how to say it. "It's worthy of her. It's what she was herself—if you remember what we once said that was."
He hesitated, as if there had been many things. But he remembered one of them. "Stupendous?"
"Stupendous." A faint smile for it—ever so small—had flickered in her face, but had vanished before the omen of tears, a little less uncertain, had shown themselves in his own. His eyes filled—but that made her continue. She continued gently. "I think that what it really is must be that you're afraid. I mean," she explained, "that you're afraid of all the truth. If you're in love with her without it, what indeed can you be more. And you're afraid—it's wonderful!—to be in love with her."
"I never was in love with her," said Densher.
She took it, but after a little she met it. "I believe that now—for the time she lived. I believe it at least for the time you were there. But your change came—as it might well—the day you last saw her: she died for you then that you might understand her. From that hour you did." With which Kate slowly rose. "And I do now. She did it for us." Densher rose to face here, and she went on with her thought. "I used to call her, in my stupidity—for want of anything better—a dove. Well, she stretched out her wings, and it was to that they reached. They cover us."
"They cover us," Densher said.
"That's what I give you," Kate gravely wound up. "That's what I've done for you."
His look at her had a slow strangeness that had dried, on the moment, his tears. "Do I understand then———?"
"That I do consent?" She gravely shook her head. "No—for I see. You'll marry me without the money; you won't marry me with it. If I don't consent, you don't."
"You lose me?" He showed, though naming it frankly, a sort of awe of her high grasp. "Well, you lose nothing else. I make over to you every penny."
Prompt was his own clearness, but she had no smile, this time, to spare. "Precisely—so that I must choose."
"You must choose."
Strange it was for him then that she stood in his own rooms doing it, while, with an intensity now beyond any that had ever made his breath come slow to him, he waited for her act. "There's but one thing that can save you from my choice."
"From your choice of my surrender to you?"
"Yes"—and she gave a nod at the long envelope on the table—"your surrender of that."
"What is it then?"
"Your word of honour that you're not in love with her memory."
"Ah"—she made a high gesture—"don't speak of it as if you couldn't be. I could, in your place; and you're one for whom it will do. Her memory's your love. You want no other."
He heard her out in stillness, watching her face, but not moving. Then he only said: "I'll marry you, mind you, in an hour."
"As we were?"
"As we were."
But she turned to the door, and her headshake was now the end. "We shall never be again as we were!"