Oh, she let me know as soon as, round the corner of the house, she loomed again into view. "What in the name of goodness is the matter - ?" She was now flushed and out of breath.
I said nothing till she came quite near. "With me?" I must have made a wonderful face. "Do I show it?"
"You're as white as a sheet. You look awful."
I considered; I could meet on this, without scruple, any innocence. My need to respect the bloom of Mrs. Grose's had dropped, without a rustle, from my shoulders, and if I wavered for the instant it was not with what I kept back. I put out my hand to her and she took it; I held her hard a little, liking to feel her close to me. There was a kind of support in the shy heave of her surprise. "You came for me for church, of course, but I can't go."
"Has anything happened?"
"Yes. You must know now. Did I look very queer?"
"Through this window? Dreadful!"
"Well," I said, "I've been frightened." Mrs. Grose's eyes expressed plainly that SHE had no wish to be, yet also that she knew too well her place not to be ready to share with me any marked inconvenience. Oh, it was quite settled that she MUST share! "Just what you saw from the dining room a minute ago was the effect of that. What I saw - just before - was much worse."
Her hand tightened. "What was it?"
"An extraordinary man. Looking in."
"What extraordinary man?"
"I haven't the least idea."
Mrs. Grose gazed round us in vain. "Then where is he gone?"
"I know still less."
"Have you seen him before?"
"Yes - once. On the old tower."
She could only look at me harder. "Do you mean he's a stranger?"
"Oh, very much!"
"Yet you didn't tell me?"
"No - for reasons. But now that you've guessed - "
Mrs. Grose's round eyes encountered this charge. "Ah, I haven't guessed!" she said very simply. "How can I if YOU don't imagine?"
"I don't in the very least."
"You've seen him nowhere but on the tower?"
"And on this spot just now."
Mrs. Grose looked round again. "What was he doing on the tower?"
"Only standing there and looking down at me."
She thought a minute. "Was he a gentleman?"
I found I had no need to think. "No." She gazed in deeper wonder. "No."
"Then nobody about the place? Nobody from the village?"
"Nobody - nobody. I didn't tell you, but I made sure."
She breathed a vague relief: this was, oddly, so much to the good. It only went indeed a little way. "But if he isn't a gentleman - "
"What IS he? He's a horror."
"He's - God help me if I know WHAT he is!"
Mrs. Grose looked round once more; she fixed her eyes on the duskier distance, then, pulling herself together, turned to me with abrupt inconsequence. "It's time we should be at church."
"Oh, I'm not fit for church!"
"Won't it do you good?"
"It won't do THEM - ! I nodded at the house.
"I can't leave them now."
"You're afraid - ?"
I spoke boldly. "I'm afraid of HIM."
Mrs. Grose's large face showed me, at this, for the first time, the faraway faint glimmer of a consciousness more acute: I somehow made out in it the delayed dawn of an idea I myself had not given her and that was as yet quite obscure to me. It comes back to me that I thought instantly of this as something I could get from her; and I felt it to be connected with the desire she presently showed to know more. "When was it - on the tower?"
"About the middle of the month. At this same hour."
"Almost at dark," said Mrs. Grose.
"Oh, no, not nearly. I saw him as I see you."
"Then how did he get in?"
"And how did he get out?" I laughed. "I had no opportunity to ask him! This evening, you see," I pursued, "he has not been able to get in."
"He only peeps?"
"I hope it will be confined to that!" She had now let go my hand; she turned away a little. I waited an instant; then I brought out: "Go to church. Goodbye. I must watch."
Slowly she faced me again. "Do you fear for them?"
We met in another long look. "Don't YOU?" Instead of answering she came nearer to the window and, for a minute, applied her face to the glass. "You see how he could see," I meanwhile went on.
She didn't move. "How long was he here?"
"Till I came out. I came to meet him."
Mrs. Grose at last turned round, and there was still more in her face. "I couldn't have come out."
"Neither could I!" I laughed again. "But I did come. I have my duty."
"So have I mine," she replied; after which she added: "What is he like?"
"I've been dying to tell you. But he's like nobody."
"Nobody?" she echoed.
"He has no hat." Then seeing in her face that she already, in this, with a deeper dismay, found a touch of picture, I quickly added stroke to stroke. "He has red hair, very red, close-curling, and a pale face, long in shape, with straight, good features and little, rather queer whiskers that are as red as his hair. His eyebrows are, somehow, darker; they look particularly arched and as if they might move a good deal. His eyes are sharp, strange - awfully; but I only know clearly that they're rather small and very fixed. His mouth's wide, and his lips are thin, and except for his little whiskers he's quite clean-shaven. He gives me a sort of sense of looking like an actor."
"An actor!" It was impossible to resemble one less, at least, than Mrs. Grose at that moment.
"I've never seen one, but so I suppose them. He's tall, active, erect," I continued, "but never - no, never! - a gentleman."
My companion's face had blanched as I went on; her round eyes started and her mild mouth gaped. "A gentleman?" she gasped, confounded, stupefied: "a gentleman HE?"
"You know him then?"
She visibly tried to hold herself. "But he IS handsome?"
I saw the way to help her. "Remarkably!"
"And dressed - ?"
"In somebody's clothes. "They're smart, but they're not his own."
She broke into a breathless affirmative groan: "They're the master's!"
I caught it up. "You DO know him?"
She faltered but a second. "Quint!" she cried.
"Peter Quint - his own man, his valet, when he was here!"
"When the master was?"
Gaping still, but meeting me, she pieced it all together. "He never wore his hat, but he did wear - well, there were waistcoats missed. They were both here - last year. Then the master went, and Quint was alone."
I followed, but halting a little. "Alone?"
"Alone with US." Then, as from a deeper depth, "In charge," she added.
"And what became of him?"
She hung fire so long that I was still more mystified. "He went, too," she brought out at last.
Her expression, at this, became extraordinary. "God knows where! He died."
"Died?" I almost shrieked.
She seemed fairly to square herself, plant herself more firmly to utter the wonder of it. "Yes. Mr. Quint is dead."
It took of course more than that particular passage to place us together in presence of what we had now to live with as we could - my dreadful liability to impressions of the order so vividly exemplified, and my companion's knowledge, henceforth - a knowledge half consternation and half compassion - of that liability. There had been, this evening, after the revelation left me, for an hour, so prostrate - there had been, for either of us, no attendance on any service but a little service of tears and vows, of prayers and promises, a climax to the series of mutual challenges and pledges that had straightway ensued on our retreating together to the schoolroom and shutting ourselves up there to have everything out. The result of our having everything out was simply to reduce our situation to the last rigor of its elements. She herself had seen nothing, not the shadow of a shadow, and nobody in the house but the governess was in the governess's plight; yet she accepted without directly impugning my sanity the truth as I gave it to her, and ended by showing me, on this ground, an awestricken tenderness, an expression of the sense of my more than questionable privilege, of which the very breath has remained with me as that of the sweetest of human charities.
What was settled between us, accordingly, that night, was that we thought we might bear things together; and I was not even sure that, in spite of her exemption, it was she who had the best of the burden. I knew at this hour, I think, as well as I knew later, what I was capable of meeting to shelter my pupils; but it took me some time to be wholly sure of what my honest ally was prepared for to keep terms with so compromising a contract. I was queer company enough - quite as queer as the company I received; but as I trace over what we went through I see how much common ground we must have found in the one idea that, by good fortune, COULD steady us. It was the idea, the second movement, that led me straight out, as I may say, of the inner chamber of my dread. I could take the air in the court, at least, and there Mrs. Grose could join me. Perfectly can I recall now the particular way strength came to me before we separated for the night. We had gone over and over every feature of what I had seen.
"He was looking for someone else, you say - someone who was not you?"
"He was looking for little Miles." A portentous clearness now possessed me. "THAT'S whom he was looking for."
"But how do you know?"
"I know, I know, I know!" My exaltation grew. "And YOU know, my dear!"
She didn't deny this, but I required, I felt, not even so much telling as that. She resumed in a moment, at any rate: "What if HE should see him?"
"Little Miles? That's what he wants!"
She looked immensely scared again. "The child?"
"Heaven forbid! The man. He wants to appear to THEM." That he might was an awful conception, and yet, somehow, I could keep it at bay; which, moreover, as we lingered there, was what I succeeded in practically proving. I had an absolute certainty that I should see again what I had already seen, but something within me said that by offering myself bravely as the sole subject of such experience, by accepting, by inviting, by surmounting it all, I should serve as an expiatory victim and guard the tranquility of my companions. The children, in especial, I should thus fence about and absolutely save. I recall one of the last things I said that night to Mrs. Grose.
"It does strike me that my pupils have never mentioned - "
She looked at me hard as I musingly pulled up. "His having been here and the time they were with him?"
"The time they were with him, and his name, his presence, his history, in any way."
"Oh, the little lady doesn't remember. She never heard or knew."
"The circumstances of his death?" I thought with some intensity. "Perhaps not. But Miles would remember - Miles would know."
"Ah, don't try him!" broke from Mrs. Grose.
I returned her the look she had given me. "Don't be afraid." I continued to think. "It IS rather odd."
"That he has never spoken of him?"
"Never by the least allusion. And you tell me they were `great friends'?"
"Oh, it wasn't HIM!" Mrs. Grose with emphasis declared. "It was Quint's own fancy. To play with him, I mean - to spoil him." She paused a moment; then she added: "Quint was much too free."
This gave me, straight from my vision of his face - SUCH a face! - a sudden sickness of disgust. "Too free with MY boy?"
"Too free with everyone!"
I forbore, for the moment, to analyze this description further than by the reflection that a part of it applied to several of the members of the household, of the half-dozen maids and men who were still of our small colony. But there was everything, for our apprehension, in the lucky fact that no discomfortable legend, no perturbation of scullions, had ever, within anyone's memory attached to the kind old place. It had neither bad name nor ill fame, and Mrs. Grose, most apparently, only desired to cling to me and to quake in silence. I even put her, the very last thing of all, to the test. It was when, at midnight, she had her hand on the schoolroom door to take leave. "I have it from you then - for it's of great importance - that he was definitely and admittedly bad?"
"Oh, not admittedly. I knew it - but the master didn't."
"And you never told him?"
"Well, he didn't like tale-bearing - he hated complaints. He was terribly short with anything of that kind, and if people were all right to HIM - "
"He wouldn't be bothered with more?" This squared well enough with my impressions of him: he was not a trouble-loving gentleman, nor so very particular perhaps about some of the company HE kept. All the same, I pressed my interlocutress. "I promise you I would have told!"
She felt my discrimination. "I daresay I was wrong. But, really, I was afraid."
"Afraid of what?"
"Of things that man could do. Quint was so clever - he was so deep."
I took this in still more than, probably, I showed. "You weren't afraid of anything else? Not of his effect - ?"
"His effect?" she repeated with a face of anguish and waiting while I faltered.
"On innocent little precious lives. They were in your charge."
"No, they were not in mine!" she roundly and distressfully returned. "The master believed in him and placed him here because he was supposed not to be well and the country air so good for him. So he had everything to say. Yes" - she let me have it - "even about THEM."
"Them - that creature?" I had to smother a kind of howl. "And you could bear it!"
"No. I couldn't - and I can't now!" And the poor woman burst into tears.
A rigid control, from the next day, was, as I have said, to follow them; yet how often and how passionately, for a week, we came back together to the subject! Much as we had discussed it that Sunday night, I was, in the immediate later hours in especial - for it may be imagined whether I slept - still haunted with the shadow of something she had not told me. I myself had kept back nothing, but there was a word Mrs. Grose had kept back. I was sure, moreover, by morning, that this was not from a failure of frankness, but because on every side there were fears. It seems to me indeed, in retrospect, that by the time the morrow's sun was high I had restlessly read into the fact before us almost all the meaning they were to receive from subsequent and more cruel occurrences. What they gave me above all was just the sinister figure of the living man - the dead one would keep awhile! - and of the months he had continuously passed at Bly, which, added up, made a formidable stretch. The limit of this evil time had arrived only when, on the dawn of a winter's morning, Peter Quint was found, by a laborer going to early work, stone dead on the road from the village: a catastrophe explained - superficially at least - by a visible wound to his head; such a wound as might have been produced - and as, on the final evidence, HAD been - by a fatal slip, in the dark and after leaving the public house, on the steepish icy slope, a wrong path altogether, at the bottom of which he lay. The icy slope, the turn mistaken at night and in liquor, accounted for much - practically, in the end and after the inquest and boundless chatter, for everything; but there had been matters in his life - strange passages and perils, secret disorders, vices more than suspected - that would have accounted for a good deal more.
I scarce know how to put my story into words that shall be a credible picture of my state of mind; but I was in these days literally able to find a joy in the extraordinary flight of heroism the occasion demanded of me. I now saw that I had been asked for a service admirable and difficult; and there would be a greatness in letting it be seen - oh, in the right quarter! - that I could succeed where many another girl might have failed. It was an immense help to me - I confess I rather applaud myself as I look back! - that I saw my service so strongly and so simply. I was there to protect and defend the little creatures in the world the most bereaved and the most lovable, the appeal of whose helplessness had suddenly become only too explicit, a deep, constant ache of one's own committed heart. We were cut off, really, together; we were united in our danger. They had nothing but me, and I - well, I had THEM. It was in short a magnificent chance. This chance presented itself to me in an image richly material. I was a screen - I was to stand before them. The more I saw, the less they would. I began to watch them in a stifled suspense, a disguised excitement that might well, had it continued too long, have turned to something like madness. What saved me, as I now see, was that it turned to something else altogether. It didn't last as suspense - it was superseded by horrible proofs. Proofs, I say, yes - from the moment I really took hold.
This moment dated from an afternoon hour that I happened to spend in the grounds with the younger of my pupils alone. We had left Miles indoors, on the red cushion of a deep window seat; he had wished to finish a book, and I had been glad to encourage a purpose so laudable in a young man whose only defect was an occasional excess of the restless. His sister, on the contrary, had been alert to come out, and I strolled with her half an hour, seeking the shade, for the sun was still high and the day exceptionally warm. I was aware afresh, with her, as we went, of how, like her brother, she contrived - it was the charming thing in both children - to let me alone without appearing to drop me and to accompany me without appearing to surround. They were never importunate and yet never listless. My attention to them all really went to seeing them amuse themselves immensely without me: this was a spectacle they seemed actively to prepare and that engaged me as an active admirer. I walked in a world of their invention - they had no occasion whatever to draw upon mine; so that my time was taken only with being, for them, some remarkable person or thing that the game of the moment required and that was merely, thanks to my superior, my exalted stamp, a happy and highly distinguished sinecure. I forget what I was on the present occasion; I only remember that I was something very important and very quiet and that Flora was playing very hard. We were on the edge of the lake, and, as we had lately begun geography, the lake was the Sea of Azof.
Suddenly, in these circumstances, I became aware that, on the other side of the Sea of Azof, we had an interested spectator. The way this knowledge gathered in me was the strangest thing in the world - the strangest, that is, except the very much stranger in which it quickly merged itself. I had sat down with a piece of work - for I was something or other that could sit - on the old stone bench which overlooked the pond; and in this position I began to take in with certitude, and yet without direct vision, the presence, at a distance, of a third person. The old trees, the thick shrubbery, made a great and pleasant shade, but it was all suffused with the brightness of the hot, still hour. There was no ambiguity in anything; none whatever, at least, in the conviction I from one moment to another found myself forming as to what I should see straight before me and across the lake as a consequence of raising my eyes. They were attached at this juncture to the stitching in which I was engaged, and I can feel once more the spasm of my effort not to move them till I should so have steadied myself as to be able to make up my mind what to do. There was an alien object in view - a figure whose right of presence I instantly, passionately questioned. I recollect counting over perfectly the possibilities, reminding myself that nothing was more natural, for instance, then the appearance of one of the men about the place, or even of a messenger, a postman, or a tradesman's boy, from the village. That reminder had as little effect on my practical certitude as I was conscious - still even without looking - of its having upon the character and attitude of our visitor. Nothing was more natural than that these things should be the other things that they absolutely were not.
Of the positive identity of the apparition I would assure myself as soon as the small clock of my courage should have ticked out the right second; meanwhile, with an effort that was already sharp enough, I transferred my eyes straight to little Flora, who, at the moment, was about ten yards away. My heart had stood still for an instant with the wonder and terror of the question whether she too would see; and I held my breath while I waited for what a cry from her, what some sudden innocent sign either of interest or of alarm, would tell me. I waited, but nothing came; then, in the first place - and there is something more dire in this, I feel, than in anything I have to relate - I was determined by a sense that, within a minute, all sounds from her had previously dropped; and, in the second, by the circumstance that, also within the minute, she had, in her play, turned her back to the water. This was her attitude when I at last looked at her - looked with the confirmed conviction that we were still, together, under direct personal notice. She had picked up a small flat piece of wood, which happened to have in it a little hole that had evidently suggested to her the idea of sticking in another fragment that might figure as a mast and make the thing a boat. This second morsel, as I watched her, she was very markedly and intently attempting to tighten in its place. My apprehension of what she was doing sustained me so that after some seconds I felt I was ready for more. Then I again shifted my eyes - I faced what I had to face.
I got hold of Mrs. Grose as soon after this as I could; and I can give no intelligible account of how I fought out the interval. Yet I still hear myself cry as I fairly threw myself into her arms: "They KNOW - it's too monstrous: they know, they know!"
"And what on earth - ?" I felt her incredulity as she held me.
"Why, all that WE know - and heaven knows what else besides!" Then, as she released me, I made it out to her, made it out perhaps only now with full coherency even to myself. "Two hours ago, in the garden" - I could scarce articulate - "Flora SAW!"
Mrs. Grose took it as she might have taken a blow in the stomach. "She has told you?" she panted.
"Not a word - that's the horror. She kept it to herself! The child of eight, THAT child!" Unutterable still, for me, was the stupefaction of it.
Mrs. Grose, of course, could only gape the wider. "Then how do you know?"
"I was there - I saw with my eyes: saw that she was perfectly aware."
"Do you mean aware of HIM?"
"No - of HER." I was conscious as I spoke that I looked prodigious things, for I got the slow reflection of them in my companion's face. "Another person - this time; but a figure of quite as unmistakable horror and evil: a woman in black, pale and dreadful - with such an air also, and such a face! - on the other side of the lake. I was there with the child - quiet for the hour; and in the midst of it she came."
"Came how - from where?"
"From where they come from! She just appeared and stood there - but not so near."
"And without coming nearer?"
"Oh, for the effect and the feeling, she might have been as close as you!"
My friend, with an odd impulse, fell back a step. "Was she someone you've never seen?"
"Yes. But someone the child has. Someone YOU have." Then, to show how I had thought it all out: "My predecessor - the one who died."
"Miss Jessel. You don't believe me?" I pressed.
She turned right and left in her distress. "How can you be sure?"
This drew from me, in the state of my nerves, a flash of impatience. "Then ask Flora - SHE'S sure!" But I had no sooner spoken than I caught myself up. "No, for God's sake, DON'T!" She'll say she isn't - she'll lie!"
Mrs. Grose was not too bewildered instinctively to protest. "Ah, how CAN you?"
"Because I'm clear. Flora doesn't want me to know."
"It's only then to spare you."
"No, no - there are depths, depths! The more I go over it, the more I see in it, and the more I see in it, the more I fear. I don't know what I DON'T see - what I DON'T fear!"
Mrs. Grose tried to keep up with me. "You mean you're afraid of seeing her again?"
"Oh, no; that's nothing - now!" Then I explained. "It's of NOT seeing her."
But my companion only looked wan. "I don't understand you."
"Why, it's that the child may keep it up - and that the child assuredly WILL - without my knowing it."
At the image of this possibility Mrs. Grose for a moment collapsed, yet presently to pull herself together again, as if from the positive force of the sense of what, should we yield an inch, there would really be to give way to. "Dear, dear - we must keep our heads! And after all, if she doesn't mind it - !" She even tried a grim joke. "Perhaps she likes it!"
"Likes SUCH things - a scrap of an infant!"
"Isn't it just a proof of her blessed innocence?" my friend bravely inquired.
She brought me, for the instant, almost round. "Oh, we must clutch at THAT - we must cling to it! If it isn't a proof of what you say, it's a proof of - God knows what! For the woman's a horror of horrors."
Mrs. Grose, at this, fixed her eyes a minute on the ground; then at last raising them, "Tell me how you know," she said.
"Then you admit it's what she was?" I cried.
"Tell me how you know," my friend simply repeated.
"Know? By seeing her! By the way she looked."
"At you, do you mean - so wickedly?"
"Dear me, no - I could have borne that. She gave me never a glance. She only fixed the child."
Mrs. Grose tried to see it. "Fixed her?"
"Ah, with such awful eyes!"
She stared at mine as if they might really have resembled them. "Do you mean of dislike?"
"God help us, no. Of something much worse."
"Worse than dislike? - this left her indeed at a loss.
"With a determination - indescribable. With a kind of fury of intention."
I made her turn pale. "Intention?"
"To get hold of her." Mrs. Grose - her eyes just lingering on mine - gave a shudder and walked to the window; and while she stood there looking out I completed my statement. "THAT'S what Flora knows."
After a little she turned round. "The person was in black, you say?"
"In mourning - rather poor, almost shabby. But - yes - with extraordinary beauty." I now recognized to what I had at last, stroke by stroke, brought the victim of my confidence, for she quite visibly weighed this. "Oh, handsome - very, very," I insisted; "wonderfully handsome. But infamous."
She slowly came back to me. "Miss Jessel - WAS infamous." She once more took my hand in both her own, holding it as tight as if to fortify me against the increase of alarm I might draw from this disclosure. "They were both infamous," she finally said.
So, for a little, we faced it once more together; and I found absolutely a degree of help in seeing it now so straight. "I appreciate," I said, "the great decency of your not having hitherto spoken; but the time has certainly come to give me the whole thing." She appeared to assent to this, but still only in silence; seeing which I went on: "I must have it now. Of what did she die? Come, there was something between them."
"There was everything."
"In spite of the difference - ?"
"Oh, of their rank, their condition" - she brought it woefully out. "SHE was a lady."
I turned it over; I again saw. "Yes - she was a lady."
"And he so dreadfully below," said Mrs. Grose.
I felt that I doubtless needn't press too hard, in such company, on the place of a servant in the scale; but there was nothing to prevent an acceptance of my companion's own measure of my predecessor's abasement. There was a way to deal with that, and I dealt; the more readily for my full vision - on the evidence - of our employer's late clever, good-looking "own" man; impudent, assured, spoiled, depraved. "The fellow was a hound."
Mrs. Grose considered as if it were perhaps a little a case for a sense of shades. "I've never seen one like him. He did what he wished."
"With them all."
It was as if now in my friend's own eyes Miss Jessel had again appeared. I seemed at any rate, for an instant, to see their evocation of her as distinctly as I had seen her by the pond; and I brought out with decision: "It must have been also what SHE wished!"
Mrs. Grose's face signified that it had been indeed, but she said at the same time: "Poor woman - she paid for it!"
"Then you do know what she died of?" I asked.
"No - I know nothing. I wanted not to know; I was glad enough I didn't; and I thanked heaven she was well out of this!"
"Yet you had, then, your idea - "
"Of her real reason for leaving? Oh, yes - as to that. She couldn't have stayed. Fancy it here - for a governess! And afterward I imagined - and I still imagine. And what I imagine is dreadful."
"Not so dreadful as what I do," I replied; on which I must have shown her - as I was indeed but too conscious - a front of miserable defeat. It brought out again all her compassion for me, and at the renewed touch of her kindness my power to resist broke down. I burst, as I had, the other time, made her burst, into tears; she took me to her motherly breast, and my lamentation overflowed. "I don't do it!" I sobbed in despair; "I don't save or shield them! It's far worse than I dreamed - they're lost!"
What I had said to Mrs. Grose was true enough: there were in the matter I had put before her depths and possibilities that I lacked resolution to sound; so that when we met once more in the wonder of it we were of a common mind about the duty of resistance to extravagant fancies. We were to keep our heads if we should keep nothing else - difficult indeed as that might be in the face of what, in our prodigious experience, was least to be questioned. Late that night, while the house slept, we had another talk in my room, when she went all the way with me as to its being beyond doubt that I had seen exactly what I had seen. To hold her perfectly in the pinch of that, I found I had only to ask her how, if I had "made it up," I came to be able to give, of each of the persons appearing to me, a picture disclosing, to the last detail, their special marks - a portrait on the exhibition of which she had instantly recognized and named them. She wished of course - small blame to her! - to sink the whole subject; and I was quick to assure her that my own interest in it had now violently taken the form of a search for the way to escape from it. I encountered her on the ground of a probability that with recurrence - for recurrence we took for granted - I should get used to my danger, distinctly professing that my personal exposure had suddenly become the least of my discomforts. It was my new suspicion that was intolerable; and yet even to this complication the later hours of the day had brought a little ease.
On leaving her, after my first outbreak, I had of course returned to my pupils, associating the right remedy for my dismay with that sense of their charm which I had already found to be a thing I could positively cultivate and which had never failed me yet. I had simply, in other words, plunged afresh into Flora's special society and there become aware - it was almost a luxury! - that she could put her little conscious hand straight upon the spot that ached. She had looked at me in sweet speculation and then had accused me to my face of having "cried." I had supposed I had brushed away the ugly signs: but I could literally - for the time, at all events - rejoice, under this fathomless charity, that they had not entirely disappeared. To gaze into the depths of blue of the child's eyes and pronounce their loveliness a trick of premature cunning was to be guilty of a cynicism in preference to which I naturally preferred to abjure my judgment and, so far as might be, my agitation. I couldn't abjure for merely wanting to, but I could repeat to Mrs. Grose - as I did there, over and over, in the small hours - that with their voices in the air, their pressure on one's heart, and their fragrant faces against one's cheek, everything fell to the ground but their incapacity and their beauty. It was a pity that, somehow, to settle this once for all, I had equally to re-enumerate the signs of subtlety that, in the afternoon, by the lake had made a miracle of my show of self-possession. It was a pity to be obliged to reinvestigate the certitude of the moment itself and repeat how it had come to me as a revelation that the inconceivable communion I then surprised was a matter, for either party, of habit. It was a pity that I should have had to quaver out again the reasons for my not having, in my delusion, so much as questioned that the little girl saw our visitant even as I actually saw Mrs. Grose herself, and that she wanted, by just so much as she did thus see, to make me suppose she didn't, and at the same time, without showing anything, arrive at a guess as to whether I myself did! It was a pity that I needed once more to describe the portentous little activity by which she sought to divert my attention - the perceptible increase of movement, the greater intensity of play, the singing, the gabbling of nonsense, and the invitation to romp.
Yet if I had not indulged, to prove there was nothing in it, in this review, I should have missed the two or three dim elements of comfort that still remained to me. I should not for instance have been able to asseverate to my friend that I was certain - which was so much to the good - that I at least had not betrayed myself. I should not have been prompted, by stress of need, by desperation of mind - I scarce know what to call it - to invoke such further aid to intelligence as might spring from pushing my colleague fairly to the wall. She had told me, bit by bit, under pressure, a great deal; but a small shifty spot on the wrong side of it all still sometimes brushed my brow like the wing of a bat; and I remember how on this occasion - for the sleeping house and the concentration alike of our danger and our watch seemed to help - I felt the importance of giving the last jerk to the curtain. "I don't believe anything so horrible," I recollect saying; "no, let us put it definitely, my dear, that I don't. But if I did, you know, there's a thing I should require now, just without sparing you the least bit more - oh, not a scrap, come! - to get out of you. What was it you had in mind when, in our distress, before Miles came back, over the letter from his school, you said, under my insistence, that you didn't pretend for him that he had not literally EVER been `bad'? He has NOT literally `ever,' in these weeks that I myself have lived with him and so closely watched him; he has been an imperturbable little prodigy of delightful, lovable goodness. Therefore you might perfectly have made the claim for him if you had not, as it happened, seen an exception to take. What was your exception, and to what passage in your personal observation of him did you refer?"
It was a dreadfully austere inquiry, but levity was not our note, and, at any rate, before the gray dawn admonished us to separate I had got my answer. What my friend had had in mind proved to be immensely to the purpose. It was neither more nor less than the circumstance that for a period of several months Quint and the boy had been perpetually together. It was in fact the very appropriate truth that she had ventured to criticize the propriety, to hint at the incongruity, of so close an alliance, and even to go so far on the subject as a frank overture to Miss Jessel. Miss Jessel had, with a most strange manner, requested her to mind her business, and the good woman had, on this, directly approached little Miles. What she had said to him, since I pressed, was that SHE liked to see young gentlemen not forget their station.
I pressed again, of course, at this. "You reminded him that Quint was only a base menial?"
"As you might say! And it was his answer, for one thing, that was bad."
"And for another thing?" I waited. "He repeated your words to Quint?"
"No, not that. It's just what he WOULDN'T!" she could still impress upon me. "I was sure, at any rate," she added, "that he didn't. But he denied certain occasions."
"When they had been about together quite as if Quint were his tutor - and a very grand one - and Miss Jessel only for the little lady. When he had gone off with the fellow, I mean, and spent hours with him."
"He then prevaricated about it - he said he hadn't?" Her assent was clear enough to cause me to add in a moment: "I see. He lied."
"Oh!" Mrs. Grose mumbled. This was a suggestion that it didn't matter; which indeed she backed up by a further remark. "You see, after all, Miss Jessel didn't mind. She didn't forbid him."
I considered. "Did he put that to you as a justification?"
At this she dropped again. "No, he never spoke of it."
"Never mentioned her in connection with Quint?"
She saw, visibly flushing, where I was coming out. "Well, he didn't show anything. He denied," she repeated; "he denied."
Lord, how I pressed her now! "So that you could see he knew what was between the two wretches?"
"I don't know - I don't know!" the poor woman groaned.
"You do know, you dear thing," I replied; "only you haven't my dreadful boldness of mind, and you keep back, out of timidity and modesty and delicacy, even the impression that, in the past, when you had, without my aid, to flounder about in silence, most of all made you miserable. But I shall get it out of you yet! There was something in the boy that suggested to you," I continued, "that he covered and concealed their relation."
"Oh, he couldn't prevent - "
"Your learning the truth? I daresay! But, heavens," I fell, with vehemence, athinking, "what it shows that they must, to that extent, have succeeded in making of him!"
"Ah, nothing that's not nice NOW!" Mrs. Grose lugubriously pleaded.
"I don't wonder you looked queer," I persisted, "when I mentioned to you the letter from his school!"
"I doubt if I looked as queer as you!" she retorted with homely force. "And if he was so bad then as that comes to, how is he such an angel now?"
"Yes, indeed - and if he was a fiend at school! How, how, how? Well," I said in my torment, "you must put it to me again, but I shall not be able to tell you for some days. Only, put it to me again!" I cried in a way that made my friend stare. "There are directions in which I must not for the present let myself go." Meanwhile I returned to her first example - the one to which she had just previously referred - of the boy's happy capacity for an occasional slip. "If Quint - on your remonstrance at the time you speak of - was a base menial, one of the things Miles said to you, I find myself guessing, was that you were another." Again her admission was so adequate that I continued: "And you forgave him that?"
"Oh, yes!" And we exchanged there, in the stillness, a sound of the oddest amusement. Then I went on: "At all events, while he was with the man - "
"Miss Flora was with the woman. It suited them all!"
It suited me, too, I felt, only too well; by which I mean that it suited exactly the particularly deadly view I was in the very act of forbidding myself to entertain. But I so far succeeded in checking the expression of this view that I will throw, just here, no further light on it than may be offered by the mention of my final observation to Mrs. Grose. "His having lied and been impudent are, I confess, less engaging specimens than I had hoped to have from you of the outbreak in him of the little natural man. Still," I mused, "They must do, for they make me feel more than ever that I must watch."
It made me blush, the next minute, to see in my friend's face how much more unreservedly she had forgiven him than her anecdote struck me as presenting to my own tenderness an occasion for doing. This came out when, at the schoolroom door, she quitted me. "Surely you don't accuse HIM - "
"Of carrying on an intercourse that he conceals from me? Ah, remember that, until further evidence, I now accuse nobody." Then, before shutting her out to go, by another passage, to her own place, "I must just wait," I wound up.