The Jolly Corner
"EVERY ONE asks me what I 'think' of everything" said SpencerBrydon; "and I make answer as I can--begging or dodging the questionputting them off with any nonsense. It wouldn't matter to any of them really"he went on"foreven were it possible to meet in that stand-and-deliverway so silly a demand on so big a subjectmy 'thoughts' would still be almostaltogether about something that concerns only myself." He was talking toMiss Stavertonwith whom for a couple of months now he had availed himself ofevery possible occasion to talk; this disposition and this resourcethiscomfort and supportas the situation in fact presented itselfhaving promptlyenough taken the first place in the considerable array of rather unattenuatedsurprises attending his so strangely belated return to America. Everything wassomehow a surprise; and that might be natural when one had so long and soconsistently neglected everythingtaken pains to give surprises so much marginfor play. He had given them more than thirty years--thirty-threeto be exact;and they now seemed to him to have organised their performance quite on thescale of that license. He had been twenty-three on leaving New York--he wasfifty-six today: unless indeed he were to reckon as he had sometimessince hisrepatriationfound himself feeling; in which case he would have lived longerthan is often allotted to man. It would have taken a centuryhe repeatedly saidto himselfand said also to Alice Stavertonit would have taken a longerabsence and a more averted mind than those even of which he had been guiltytopile up the differencesthe newnessesthe queernessesabove all the bignessesfor the better or the worsethat at present assaulted his vision wherever helooked.
The great fact all the while however had been the incalculability; since hehad supposed himselffrom decade to decadeto be allowingand in the mostliberal and intelligent mannerfor brilliancy of change. He actually saw thathe had allowed for nothing; he missed what he would have been sure of findinghe found what he would never have imagined. Proportions and values wereupside-down; the ugly things he had expectedthe ugly things of his far awayyouthwhen he had too promptly waked up to a sense of the ugly--these uncannyphenomena placed him ratheras it happenedunder the charm; whereas the "swagger"thingsthe modernthe monstrousthe famous thingsthose he had moreparticularlylike thousands of ingenuous enquirers every yearcome over to seewere exactly his sources of dismay. They were as so many set traps fordispleasureabove all for reactionof which his restless tread was constantlypressing the spring. It was interestingdoubtlessthe whole showbut it wouldhave been too disconcerting hadn't a certain finer truth saved the situation. Hehad distinctly notin this steadier lightcome over all for the monstrosities;he had comenot only in the last analysis but quite on the face of the actunder an impulse with which they had nothing to do. He had come--putting thething pompously--to look at his "property" which he had thus for athird of a century not been within four thousand miles of; orexpressing itless sordidlyhe had yielded to the humour of seeing again his house on thejolly corneras he usuallyand quite fondlydescribed it--the one in which hehad first seen the lightin which various members of his family had lived andhad diedin which the holidays of his over-schooled boyhood had been passed andthe few social flowers of his chilled adolescence gatheredand whichalienatedthen for so long a periodhadthrough the successive deaths of his twobrothers and the termination of old arrangementscome wholly into his hands. Hewas the owner of anothernot quite so "good"--the jolly corner havingbeenfrom far backsuperlatively extended and consecrated; and the value ofthe pair represented his main capitalwith an income consistingin these lateryearsof their respective rents which (thanks precisely to their originalexcellent type) had never been depressingly low. He could live in "Europe"as he had been in the habit of livingon the product of these flourishing NewYork leasesand all the better sincethat of the second structurethe merenumber in its long rowhaving within a twelvemonth fallen inrenovation at ahigh advance had proved beautifully possible.
These were items of property indeedbut he had found himself since hisarrival distinguishing more than ever between them. The house within the streettwo bristling blocks westwardwas already in course of reconstruction as a tallmass of flats; he had accededsome time beforeto overtures for thisconversion--in whichnow that it was going forwardit had been not the leastof his astonishments to find himself ableon the spotand though without aprevious ounce of such experienceto participate with a certain intelligencealmost with a certain authority. He had lived his life with his back so turnedto such concerns and his face addressed to those of so different an order thathe scarce knew what to make of this lively stirin a compartment of his mindnever yet penetratedof a capacity for business and a sense for construction.These virtuesso common all round him nowhad been dormant in his ownorganism--where it might be said of them perhaps that they had slept the sleepof the just. At presentin the splendid autumn weather--the autumn at least wasa pure boon in the terrible place--he loafed about his "work"undeterredsecretly agitated; not in the least "minding" that thewhole propositionas they saidwas vulgar and sordidand ready to climbladdersto walk the plankto handle materials and look wise about themto askquestionsin fineand challenge explanations and really "go into"figures.
It amusedit verily quite charmed him; andby the same strokeit amusedand even moreAlice Stavertonthough perhaps charming her perceptibly less.She wasn't however going to be better off for itas he was--and soastonishingly much: nothing was now likelyhe knewever to make her better offthan she found herselfin the afternoon of lifeas the delicately frugalpossessor and tenant of the small house in Irving Place to which she had subtlymanaged to cling through her almost unbroken New York career. If he knew the wayto it now better than to any other address among the dreadful multipliednumberings which seemed to him to reduce the whole place to some vastledger-pageovergrownfantasticof ruled and criss-crossed lines andfigures--if he had formedfor his consolationthat habitit was really not alittle because of the charm of his having encountered and recognisedin thevast wilderness of the wholesalebreaking through the mere gross generalisationof wealth and force and successa small still scene where items and shadesalldelicate thingskept the sharpness of the notes of a high voice perfectlytrainedand where economy hung about like the scent of a garden. His old friendlived with one maid and herself dusted her relics and trimmed her lamps andpolished her silver; she stood offin the awful modern crushwhen she couldbut she sallied forth and did battle when the challenge was really to "spirit"the spirit she after all confessed toproudly and a little shylyas to that ofthe better timethat of their commontheir quite far-away and antediluviansocial period and order. She made use of the street-cars when need betheterrible things that people scrambled for as the panic-stricken at sea scramblefor the boats; she affrontedinscrutablyunder stressall the publicconcussions and ordeals; and yetwith that slim mystifying grace of herappearancewhich defied you to say if she were a fair young woman who lookedolder through troubleor a fine smooth older one who looked young throughsuccessful indifference; with her precious referenceabove allto memories andhistories into which he could entershe was as exquisite for him as some palepressed flower (a rarity to begin with)andfailing other sweetnessesshe wasa sufficient reward of his effort. They had communities of knowledge"their"knowledge (this discriminating possessive was always on her lips) of presencesof the other agepresences all over laidin his caseby the experience of aman and the freedom of a wandereroverlaid by pleasureby infidelitybypassages of life that were strange and dim to herjust by "Europe" inshortbut still unobscuredstill exposed and cherishedunder that piousvisitation of the spirit from which she had never been diverted.
She had come with him one day to see how his "apartment-house" wasrising; he had helped her over gaps and explained to her plansand while theywere there had happened to havebefore hera brief but lively discussion withthe man in chargethe representative of the building-firm that had undertakenhis work. He had found himself quite "standing-up" to this personageover a failure on the latter's part to observe some detail of one of their notedconditionsand had so lucidly urged his case thatbesides ever so prettilyflushingat the timefor sympathy in his triumphshe had afterwards said tohim (though to a slightly greater effect of irony) that he had clearly for toomany years neglected a real gift. If he had but stayed at home he would haveanticipated the inventor of the skyscraper. If he had but stayed at home hewould have discovered his genius in time really to start some new variety ofawful architectural hare and run it till it burrowed in a gold-mine. He was toremember these wordswhile the weeks elapsedfor the small silver ring theyhad sounded over the queerest and deepest of his own lately most disguised andmost muffled vibrations. It had begun to be present to him after the firstfortnightit had broken out with the oddest abruptnessthis particular wantonwonderment: it met him there--and this was the image under which he himselfjudged the matteror at leastnot a littlethrilled and flushed with it--verymuch as he might have been met by some strange figuresome unexpected occupantat a turn of one of the dim passages of an empty house. The quaint analogy quitehauntingly remained with himwhen he didn't indeed rather improve it by a stillintenser form: that of his opening a door behind which he would have made sureof finding nothinga door into a room shuttered and voidand yet so comingwith a great suppressed starton some quite erect confronting presencesomething planted in the middle of the place and facing him through the dusk.After that visit to the house in construction he walked with his companion tosee the other and always so much the better onewhich in the eastward directionformed one of the cornersthe "jolly" one preciselyof the streetnow so generally dishonoured and disfigured in its westward reachesand of thecomparatively conservative Avenue. The Avenue still had pretensionsas MissStaverton saidto decency; the old people had mostly gonethe old names wereunknownand here and there an old association seemed to strayall vaguelylike some very aged personout too latewhom you might meet and feel theimpulse to watch or followin kindnessfor safe restoration to shelter.
They went in togetherour friends; he admitted himself with his keyas hekept no one therehe explainedpreferringfor his reasonsto leave the placeemptyunder a simple arrangement with a good woman living in the neighbourhoodand who came for a daily hour to open windows and dust and sweep. Spencer Brydonhad his reasons and was growingly aware of them; they seemed to him better eachtime he was therethough he didn't name them: all to his companionany morethan he told her as yet how oftenhow quite absurdly oftenhe himself came. Heonly let her see for the presentwhile they walked through the great blankroomsthat absolute vacancy reigned and thatfrom top to bottomthere wasnothing but Mrs. Muldoon's broomstickin a cornerto tempt the burglar. Mrs.Muldoon was then on the premisesand she loquaciously attended the visitorspreceding them from room to room and pushing back shutters and throwing upsashes--all to show themas she remarkedhow little there was to see. Therewas little indeed to see in the great gaunt shell where the main dispositionsand the general apportionment of spacethe style of an age of ampler allowanceshad nevertheless for its master their honest pleading messageaffecting him assome good old servant'ssome lifelong retainer's appeal for a characteroreven for a retiring-pension; yet it was also a remark of Mrs. Muldoon's thatglad as she was to oblige him by her noonday roundthere was a request shegreatly hoped he would never make of her. If he should wish her for any reasonto come in after dark she would just tell himif he "plased" that hemust ask it of somebody else.
The fact that there was nothing to see didn't militate for the worthy womanagainst what one might seeand she put it frankly to Miss Staverton that nolady could be expected to likecould she? "scraping up to thim top storeysin the ayvil hours." The gas and the electric light were off the houseandshe fairly evoked a gruesome vision of her march through the great greyrooms--so many of them as there were tool--with her glimmering taper. MissStaverton met her honest glare with a smile and the profession that she herselfcertainly would recoil from such an adventure. Spencer Brydon meanwhile held hispeace--for the moment; the question of the "evil" hours in his oldhome had already become too grave for him. He had begun some time since to"crape" and he knew just why a packet of candles addressed to thatpursuit had been stowed by his own hand three weeks beforeat the back of adrawer of the fine old sideboard that occupiedas a "fixture" thedeep recess in the dining-room. Just now he laughed at his companions--quicklyhowever changing the subject; for the reason thatin the first placehis laughstruck him even at that moment as starting the odd echothe conscious humanresonance (he scarce knew how to qualify it) that sounds made while he was therealone sent back to his ear or his fancy; and thatin the secondhe imaginedAlice Staverton for the instant on the point of asking himwith a divinationif he ever so prowled. There were divinations he was unprepared forand he hadat all events averted enquiry by the time Mrs. Muldoon had left thempassing onto other parts.
There was happily enough to sayon so consecrated a spotthat could be saidfreely and fairly; so that a whole train of declarations was precipitated by hisfriend's having herself broken outafter a yearning look round: "But Ihope you don't mean they want you to pull this to pieces!" His answer camepromptlywith his re-awakened wrath: it was of course exactly what they wantedand what they were "at" him fordailywith the iteration of peoplewho couldn't for their life understand a man's liability to decent feelings. Hehad found the placejust as it stood and beyond what he could expressaninterest and a joy. There were values other than the beastly rent-valuesand inshortin short--! But it was thus Miss Staverton took him up. "In shortyou're to make so good a thing of your sky-scraper thatliving in luxury onthose ill-gotten gainsyou can afford for a while to be sentimental here!"Her smile had for himwith the wordsthe particular mild irony with which hefound half her talk suffused; an irony without bitterness and that cameexactlyfrom her having so much imagination--notlike the cheap sarcasms with which oneheard most peopleabout the world of "society" bid for thereputation of clevernessfrom nobody's really having any. It was agreeable tohim at this very moment to be sure that when he had answeredafter a briefdemur"Well yes: so preciselyyou may put it!" her imagination wouldstill do him justice. He explained that even if never a dollar were to come tohim from the other house he would nevertheless cherish this one; and he dweltfurtherwhile they lingered and wanderedon the fact of the stupefaction hewas already excitingthe positive mystification he felt himself create.
He spoke of the value of all he read into itinto the mere sight of thewallsmere shapes of the roomsmere sound of the floorsmere feelin hishandof the old silver-plated knobs of the several mahogany doorswhichsuggested the pressure of the palms of the dead; the seventy years of the pastin fine that these things representedthe annals of nearly three generationscounting his grandfather'sthe one that had ended thereand the impalpableashes of his long-extinct youthafloat in the very air like microscopic motes.She listened to everything; she was a woman who answered intimately but whoutterly didn't chatter. She scattered abroad therefore no cloud of words; shecould assentshe could agreeabove all she could encouragewithout doing that.Only at the last she went a little further than he had done himself. "Andthen how do you know? You may stillafter allwant to live here." Itrather indeed pulled him upfor it wasn't what he had been thinkingat leastin her sense of the words. "You mean I may decide to stay on for the sakeof it?"
"Wellwith such a home--!" Butquite beautifullyshe had toomuch tact to dot so monstrous an iand it was precisely an illustration of theway she didn't rattle. How could any one--of any wit--insist on any one else's"wanting" to live in New York?
"Oh" he said"I might have lived here (since I had myopportunity early in life); I might have put in here all these years. Theneverything would have been different enough--andI dare say'funny' enough.But that's another matter. And then the beauty of it--I mean of my perversityof my refusal to agree to a 'deal'--is just in the total absence of a reason.Don't you see that if I had a reason about the matter at all it would have to bethe other wayand would then be inevitably a reason of dollars? There are noreasons here but of dollars. Let us therefore have none whatever--not the ghostof one.
"They were back in the hall then for departurebut from where theystood the vista was largethrough an open doorinto the great square mainsaloonwith its almost antique felicity of brave spaces between windows. Hereyes came back from that reach and met his own a moment. "Are you very surethe 'ghost' of one doesn'tmuch ratherserve--?
"He had a positive sense of turning pale. But it was as near as theywere then to come. For he made answerhe believedbetween a glare and a grin:"Oh ghosts--of course the place must swarm with them I should be ashamed ofit if it didn't. Poor Mrs. Muldoon's rightand it's why I haven't asked her todo more than look in."
Miss Staverton's gaze again lost itselfand things she didn't utterit wasclearcame and went in her mind. She might even for the minuteoff there inthe fine roomhave imagined some element dimly gathering. Simplified like thedeath-mask of a handsome faceit perhaps produced for her just then an effectakin to the stir of an expression in the "set" commemorative plaster.Yet whatever her impression may have been she produced instead a vagueplatitude. "Wellif it were only furnished and lived in--!"
She appeared to imply that in case of its being still furnished he might havebeen a little less opposed to the idea of a return. But she passed straight intothe vestibuleas if to leave her words behind herand the next moment he hadopened the house-door and was standing with her on the steps. He closed the doorandwhile he re-pocketed his keylooking up and downthey took in thecomparatively harsh actuality of the Avenuewhich reminded him of the assaultof the outer light of the Desert on the traveller emerging from an Egyptiantomb. But he risked before they stepped into the street his gathered answer toher speech. "For me it is lived in. For me it is furnished." At whichit was easy for her to sigh "Ah yes--!" all vaguely and discreetly;since his parents and his favourite sisterto say nothing of other kininnumbershad run their course and met their end there. That representedwithinthe wallsineffaceable life.
It was a few days after this thatduring an hour passed with her againhehad expressed his impatience of the too flattering curiosity--among the peoplehe met--about his appreciation of New York. He had arrived at none at all thatwas socially producibleand as for that matter of his "thinking"(thinking the better or the worse of anything there) he was wholly taken up withone subject of thought. It was mere vain egoismand it was moreoverif shelikeda morbid obsession. He found all things come back to the question of whathe personally might have beenhow he might have led his life and "turnedout" if he had not soat the outsetgiven it up. And confessing for thefirst time to the intensity within him of this absurd speculation--which butproved alsono doubtthe habit of too selfishly thinking--he affirmed theimpotence there of any other source of interestany other native appeal."What would it have made of mewhat would it have made of me? I keep forever wonderingall idiotically; as if I could possibly know! I see what it hasmade of dozens of othersthose I meetand it positively aches within metothe point of exasperationthat it would have made something of me as well. OnlyI can't make out whatand the worry of itthe small rage of curiosity never tobe satisfiedbrings back what I remember to have feltonce or twiceafterjudging bestfor reasonsto burn some important letter unopened. I've beensorryI've hated it--I've never known what was in the letter. You may of coursesay it's a trifle--!"
"I don't say it's a trifle" Miss Staverton gravely interrupted.
She was seated by her fireand before heron his feet and restlessheturned to and fro between this intensity of his idea and a fitful and unseeinginspectionthrough his single eye-glassof the dear little old objects on herchimney-piece. Her interruption made him for an instant look at her harder."I shouldn't care if you did!" he laughedhowever; "and it'sonly a figureat any ratefor the way I now feel. Not to have followed myperverse young course--and almost in the teeth of my father's curseas I maysay; not to have kept it upso'over there' from that day to thiswithout adoubt or a pang; notabove allto have liked itto have loved itso muchloved itno doubtwith such an abysmal conceit of my own preference: somevariation from thatI saymust have produced some different effect for my lifeand for my 'form.' I should have stuck here--if it had been possible; and I wastoo youngat twenty-threeto judgepour deux souswhether it were possible.If I had waited I might have seen it wasand then I might have beenby stayingheresomething nearer to one of these types who have been hammered so hard andmade so keen by their conditions. It isn't that I admire them so much--thequestion of any charm in themor of any charmbeyond that of the rankmoney-passionexerted by their conditions for themhas nothing to do with thematter: it's only a question of what fantasticyet perfectly possibledevelopment of my own nature I mayn't have missed. It comes over me that I hadthen a strange alter ego deep down somewhere within meas the full-blown floweris in the small tight budand that I just took the courseI just transferredhim to the climatethat blighted him for once and for ever."
"And you wonder about the flower" Miss Staverton said. "So doIif you want to know; and so I've been wondering these several weeks. Ibelieve in the flower" she continued"I feel it would have beenquite splendidquite huge and monstrous."
"Monstrous above all!" her visitor echoed; "and I imaginebythe same strokequite hideous and offensive."
"You don't believe that" she returned; "if you did youwouldn't wonder. You'd knowand that would be enough for you. What youfeel--and what I feel for you--is that you'd have had power."
"You'd have liked me that way?" he asked.
She barely hung fire. "How should I not have liked you?"
"I see. You'd have liked mehave preferred mea billionaire!"
"How should I not have liked you?" she simply again asked.
He stood before her still--her question kept him motionless. He took it inso much there was of it; and indeed his not otherwise meeting it testified tothat. "I know at least what I am" he simply went on; "the otherside of the medal's clear enough. I've not been edifying--I believe I'm thoughtin a hundred quarters to have been barely decent. I've followed strange pathsand worshipped strange gods; it must have come to you again and again--in factyou've admitted to me as much--that I was leadingat any time these thirtyyearsa selfish frivolous scandalous life. And you see what it has made ofme."
She just waitedsmiling at him. "You see what it has made of me."
"Oh you're a person whom nothing can have altered. You were born to bewhat you areanywhereanyway: you've the perfection nothing else could haveblighted. And don't you see howwithout my exileI shouldn't have been waitingtill now--?" But he pulled up for the strange pang.
"The great thing to see" she presently said"seems to me tobe that it has spoiled nothing. It hasn't spoiled your being here at last. Ithasn't spoiled this. It hasn't spoiled your speaking--" She also howeverfaltered.
He wondered at everything her controlled emotion might mean. "Do youbelieve then--too dreadfully!--that I am as good as I might ever havebeen?"
"Oh no! Far from it!" With which she got up from her chair and wasnearer to him. "But I don't care" she smiled.
"You mean I'm good enough?"
She considered a little. "Will you believe it if I say so? I mean willyou let that settle your question for you?" And then as if making out inhis face that he drew back from thisthat he had some idea whichhoweverabsurdhe couldn't yet bargain away: "Oh you don't care either--but verydifferently: you don't care for anything but yourself."
Spencer Brydon recognised it--it was in fact what he had absolutelyprofessed. Yet he importantly qualified. "He isn't myself. He's the just sototally other person. But I do want to see him" he added. "And I can.And I shall."
Their eyes met for a minute while he guessed from something in hers that shedivined his strange sense. But neither of them otherwise expressed itand herapparent understandingwith no protesting shockno easy derisiontouched himmore deeply than anything yetconstituting for his stifled perversityon thespotan element that was like breathable air. What she said however wasunexpected. "WellI've seen him."
"I've seen him in a dream."
"Oh a 'dream'--!" It let him down.
"But twice over" she continued. "I saw him as I see younow."
"You've dreamed the same dream--?"
"Twice over" she repeated. "The very same."
This did somehow a little speak to himas it also gratified him. "Youdream about me at that rate?"
"Ah about him!" she smiled.
His eyes again sounded her. "Then you know all about him." And asshe said nothing more: "What's the wretch like?"
She hesitatedand it was as if he were pressing her so hard thatresistingfor reasons of her ownshe had to turn away. "I'll tell you some othertime!"
It was after this that there was most of a virtue for himmost of acultivated charmmost of a preposterous secret thrillin the particular formof surrender to his obsession and of address to what he more and more believedto be his privilege. It was what in these weeks he was living for-- since hereally felt life to begin but after Mrs. Muldoon had retired from the scene andvisiting the ample house from attic to cellarmaking sure he was alonehe knewhimself in safe of in safe possession andas he tacitly expressed itlethimself go. He sometimes came twice in the twenty-four hours; the moments heliked best were those of gathering duskof the short autumn twilight; this wasthe time of whichagain and againhe found himself hoping most. Then he couldas seemed to himmost intimately wander and waitlinger and listenfeel hisfine attentionnever in his life before so fineon the pulse of the greatvague place: he preferred the lampless hour and only wished he might haveprolonged each day the deep crepuscular spell. Later--rarely much beforemidnightbut then for a considerable vigil--he watched with his glimmeringlight; moving slowlyholding it highplaying it farrejoicing above allasmuch as he mightin open vistasreaches of communication between rooms and bypassages; the long straight chance or showas he would have called itfor therevelation he pretended to invite. It was practice he found he could perfectly"work" without exciting remark; no one was in the least the wiser forit; even Alice Stavertonwho was moreover a well of discretiondidn't quitefully imagine.
He let himself in and let himself out with the assurance of calmproprietorship; and accident so far favoured him thatif a fat Avenue"officer" had happened on occasion to see him entering ateleven-thirtyhe had never yetto the best of his beliefbeen noticed asemerging at two. He walked there on the crisp November nightsarrived regularlyat the evening's end; it was as easy to do this after dining out as to take hisway to a club or to his hotel. When he left his clubif he hadn't been diningoutit was ostensibly to go to his hotel; and when he left his hotelif he hadspent a part of the evening thereit was ostensibly to go to his club.Everything was easy in fine; everything conspired and promoted: there was trulyeven in the strain of his experience something that glossed oversomething thatsalved and simplifiedall the rest of consciousness. He circulatedtalkedrenewedloosely and pleasantlyold relations--met indeedso far as he couldnew expectations and seemed to make out on the whole that in spite of thecareerof such different contactswhich he had spoken of to Miss Staverton asministering so littlefor those who might have watched itto edificationhewas positively rather liked than not. He was a dim secondary social success--andall with people who had truly not an idea of him. It was all mere surface soundthis murmur of their welcomethis popping of their corks--just as his gesturesof response were the extravagant shadowsemphatic in proportion as they meantlittleof some game of ombres chinoises. He projected himself all dayinthoughtstraight over the bristling line of hard unconscious heads and into theotherthe realthe waiting life; the life thatas soon as he had heard behindhim the click of his great house-doorbegan for himon the jolly cornerasbeguilingly as the slow opening bars of some rich music follows the tap of theconductor's wand.
He always caught the first effect of the steel point of his stick on the oldmarble of the hall pavementlarge black-and-white squares that he remembered asthe admiration of his childhood and that had then made in himas he now sawfor the growth of an early conception of style. This effect was the dimreverberating tinkle as of some far-off bell hung who should say where?--in thedepths of the houseof the pastof that mystical other world that might haveflourished for him had he notfor weal or woeabandoned it. On this impressionhe did ever the same thing; he put his stick noiselessly away in acorner--feeling the place once more in the likeness of some great glass bowlall precious concave crystalset delicately humming by the play of a moistfinger round its edge. The concave crystal heldas it werethis mystical otherworldand the indescribably fine murmur of its rim was the sigh therethescarce audible pathetic wail to his strained earof all the old baffledforsworn possibilities. What he did therefore by this appeal of his hushedpresence was to wake them into such measure of ghostly life as they might stillenjoy. They were shyall but unappeasably shybut they weren't reallysinister; at least they weren't as he had hitherto felt them--before they hadtaken the Form he so yearned to make them takethe Form he at moments sawhimself in the light of fairly hunting on tiptoethe points of his eveningshoesfrom room to room and from storey to storey.
That was the essence of his vision--which was all rank follyif one wouldwhile he was out of the house and otherwise occupiedbut which took on the lastverisimilitude as soon as he was placed and posted. He knew what he meant andwhat he wanted; it was as clear as the figure on a cheque presented in demandfor cash. His alter ego "walked" --that was the note of his image ofhimwhile his image of his motive for his own odd pastime was the desire towaylay him and meet him. He roamedslowlywarilybut all restlesslyhehimself did--Mrs. Muldoon had been rightabsolutelywith her figure of their"craping"; and the presence he watched for would roam restlessly too.But it would be as cautious and as shifty; the conviction of its probableinfact its already quite sensiblequite audible evasion of pursuit grew for himfrom night to nightlaying on him finally a rigour to which nothing in his lifehad been comparable. It had been the theory of many superficially-judgingpersonshe knewthat he was wasting that life in a surrender to sensationsbut he had tasted of no pleasure so fine as his actual tensionhad beenintroduced to no sport that demanded at once the patience and the nerve of thisstalking of a creature more subtleyet at bay perhaps more formidablethan anybeast of the forest. The termsthe comparisonsthe very practices of the chasepositively came again into play; there were even moments when passages of hisoccasional experience as a sportsmanstirred memoriesfrom his younger timeof moor and mountain and desertrevived for him--and to the increase of hiskeenness--by the tremendous force of analogy. He found himself at moments--oncehe had placed his single light on some mantel-shelf or in some recess--steppingback into shelter or shadeeffacing himself behind a door or in an embrasureas he had sought of old the vantage of rock and tree; he found himself holdinghis breath and living in the joy of the instantthe supreme suspense created bybig game alone.
He wasn't afraid (though putting himself the question as he believedgentlemen on Bengal tiger-shoots or in close quarters with the great bear of theRockies had been known to confess to having put it); and this indeed--since hereat least he might be frank!--because of the impressionso intimate and sostrangethat he himself produced as yet a dreadproduced certainly a strainbeyond the liveliest he was likely to feel. They fell for him into categoriesthey fairly became familiarthe signsfor his own perceptionof the alarm hispresence and his vigilance created; though leaving him always to remarkportentouslyon his probably having formed a relationhis probably enjoying aconsciousnessunique in the experience of man. People enoughfirst and lasthad been in terror of apparitionsbut who had ever before so turned the tablesand become himselfin the apparitional worldan incalculable terror? He mighthave found this sublime had he quite dared to think of it; but he didn't toomuch insisttrulyon that side of his privilege. With habit and repetition hegained to an extraordinary degree the power to penetrate the dusk of distancesand the darkness of cornersto resolve back into their innocence thetreacheries of uncertain lightthe evil-looking forms taken in the gloom bymere shadowsby accidents of the airby shifting effects of perspective;putting down his dim luminary he could still wander on without itpass intoother rooms andonly knowing it was there behind him in case of needsee hisway aboutvisually project for his purpose a comparative clearness. It made himfeelthis acquired facultylike some monstrous stealthy cat; he wondered if hewould have glared at these moments with large shining yellow eyesand what itmightn't verily befor the poor hard-pressed alter egoto be confronted withsuch a type.
He liked however the open shutters; he opened everywhere those Mrs. Muldoonhad closedclosing them as carefully afterwardsso that she shouldn't notice:he liked--oh this he did likeand above all in the upper rooms!--the sense ofthe hard silver of the autumn stars through the window-panesand scarcely lessthe flare of the street-lamps belowthe white electric lustre which it wouldhave taken curtains to keep out. This was human actual social; this was of theworld he had lived inand he was more at his ease certainly for thecountenancecoldly general and impersonalthat all the while and in spite ofhis detachment it seemed to give him. He had support of course mostly in therooms at the wide front and the prolonged side; it failed him considerably inthe central shades and the parts at the back. But if he sometimeson hisroundswas glad of his optical reachso none the less often the rear of thehouse affected him as the very jungle of his prey. The place was there moresubdivided; a large "extension" in particularwhere small rooms forservants had been multiplied abounded in nooks and cornersin closets andpassagesin the ramifications especially of an ample back staircase over whichhe leanedmany a timeto look far down--not deterred from his gravity evenwhile aware that he mightfor a spectatorhave figured some solemn simpletonplaying at hide-and-seek. Outside in fact he might himself make that ironicrapprochement; but within the wallsand in spite of the clear windowshisconsistency was proof against the cynical light of New York.
It had belonged to that idea of the exasperated consciousness of his victimto become a real test for him; since he had quite put it to himself from thefirst thatoh distinctly! he could "cultivate" his whole perception.He had felt it as above all open to cultivation--which indeed was but anothername for his manner of spending his time. He was bringing it onbringing it toperfectionby practice; in consequence of which it had grown so fine that hewas now aware of impressionsattestations of his general postulatethatcouldn't have broken upon him at once. This was the case more specifically witha phenomenon at last quite frequent for him in the upper roomstherecognition--absolutely unmistakeableand by a turn dating from a particularhourhis resumption of his campaign after a diplomatic dropa calculatedabsence of three nights--of his being definitely followedtracked at a distancecarefully taken and to the express end that he should the less confidentlylessarrogantlyappear to himself merely to pursue. It worriedit finally quitebroke him upfor it provedof all the conceivable impressionsthe one leastsuited to his book. He was kept in sight while remaining himself--as regards theessence of his position--sightlessand his only recourse then was in abruptturnsrapid recoveries of ground. He wheeled aboutretracing his stepsas ifhe might so catch in his face at least the stirred air of some other quickrevolution. It was indeed true that his fully dislocalised thought of thesemanoeuvres recalled to him Pantaloonat the Christmas farcebuffeted andtricked from behind by ubiquitous Harlequin; but it left intact the influence ofthe conditions themselves each time he was re-exposed to themso that in factthis associationhad he suffered it to become constantwould on a certain sidehave but ministered to his intenser gravity. He had madeas I have saidtocreate on the premises the baseless sense of a reprievehis three absences; andthe result of the third was to confirm the after-effect of the second.
On his returnthat night--the night succeeding his last intermission--hestood in the hall and looked up the staircase with a certainty more intimatethan any he had yet known. "He's thereat the topand waiting--notas ingeneralfalling back for disappearance. He's holding his groundand it's thefirst time--which is a proofisn't it? that something has happened forhim." So Brydon argued with his hand on the banister and his foot on thelowest stair; in which position he felt as never before the air chilled by hislogic. He himself turned cold in itfor he seemed of a sudden to know what nowwas involved. "Harder pressed?--yeshe takes it inwith its thus makingclear to him that I've comeas they say'to stay.' He finally doesn't like andcan't bear itin the senseI meanthat his wrathhis menaced interestnowbalances with his dread. I've hunted him till he has 'turned': thatup thereis what has happened--he's the fanged or the antlered animal brought at last tobay." There came to himas I say--but determined by an influence beyond mynotation!--the acuteness of this certainty; under which however the next momenthe had broken into a sweat that he would as little have consented to attributeto fear as he would have dared immediately to act upon it for enterprise. itmarked none the less a prodigious thrilla thrill that represented suddendismayno doubtbut also representedand with the selfsame throbthestrangestthe most joyouspossibly the next minute almost the proudestduplication of consciousness.
"He has been dodgingretreatinghidingbut nowworked up to angerhe'll fight!"--this intense impression made a single mouthfulas it wereof terror and applause. But what was wondrous was that the applausefor thefelt factwas so eagersinceif it was his other self he was running toearththis ineffable identity was thus in the last resort not unworthy of him.It bristled there--somewhere near at handhowever unseen still--as the huntedthingeven as the trodden worm of the adage must at last bristle; and Brydon atthis instant tasted probably of a sensation more complex than had ever beforefound itself consistent with sanity. It was as if it would have shamed him thata character so associated with his own should triumphantly succeed in justskulkingshould to the end not risk the openso that the drop of this dangerwason the spota great lift of the whole situation. Yet with another rareshift of the same subtlety he was already trying to measure by how much more hehimself might now be in peril of fear; so rejoicing that he couldin anotherformactively inspire that fearand simultaneously quaking for the form inwhich he might passively know it.
The apprehension of knowing it must after a little have grown in himand thestrangest moment of his adventure perhapsthe most memorable or really mostinterestingafterwardsof his crisiswas the lapse of certain instants ofconcentrated conscious combatthe sense of a need to hold on to something. evenafter the manner of a man slipping and slipping on some awful incline; the vividimpulseabove allto moveto actto chargesomehow and upon something--toshow himselfin a wordthat he wasn't afraid. The state of"holding-on" was thus the state to which he was momentarily reduced;if there had been anythingin the great vacancyto seizehe would presentlyhave been aware of having clutched it as he might under a shock at home haveclutched the nearest chair-back. He had been surprised at any rate--of this hewas aware--into something unprecedented since his original appropriation of theplace; he had closed his eyesheld them tightfor a long minuteas with thatinstinct of dismay and that terror of vision. When he opened them the roomtheother contiguous roomsextraordinarilyseemed lighter--so lightalmostthatat first he took the change for day. He stood firmhowever that might bejustwhere he had paused; his resistance had helped him--it was as if there weresomething he had tided over. He knew after a little what this was--it had beenin the imminent danger of flight. He had stiffened his will against going;without this he would have made for the stairsand it seemed to him thatstillwith his eyes closedhe would have descended themwould have known howstraight and swiftlyto the bottom.
Wellas he had held outhere he was--still at the topamong the moreintricate upper rooms and with the gauntlet of the othersof all the rest ofthe housestill to run when it should be his time to go. He would go at histime--only at his time: didn't he go every night very much at the same hour? Hetook out his watch--there was light for that: it was scarcely a quarter pastoneand he had never withdrawn so soon. He reached his lodgings for the mostpart at two--with his walk of a quarter of an hour. He would wait for the lastquarter--he wouldn't stir till then; and he kept his watch there with his eyeson itreflecting while he held it that this deliberate waita wait with aneffortwhich he recognisedwould serve perfectly for the attestation hedesired to make. It would prove his courage--unless indeed the latter might mostbe proved by his budging at last from his place. What he mainly felt now wasthatsince he hadn't originally scuttledhe had his dignities--which had neverin his life seemed so many--all to preserve and to carry aloft. This was beforehim in truth as a physical imagean image almost worthy of an age of greaterromance. That remark indeed glimmered for him only to glow the next instant witha finer light; since what age of romanceafter allcould have matched eitherthe state of his mind or"objectively" as they saidthe wonder ofhis situation? The only difference would have been thatbrandishing hisdignities over his head as in a parchment scrollhe might then--that is in theheroic time--have proceeded downstairs with a drawn sword in his other grasp.
At presentreallythe light he had set down on the mantel of the next roomwould have to figure his sword; which utensilin the course of a minutehe hadtaken the requisite number of steps to possess himself of. The door between therooms was openand from the second another door opened to a third. These roomsas he rememberedgave all three upon a common corridor as wellbut there was afourthbeyond themwithout issue save through the preceding. To have movedtohave heard his step againwas appreciably a help; though even in recognisingthis he lingered once more a little by the chimney-piece on which his light hadrested. When he next movedjust hesitating where to turnhe found himselfconsidering a circumstance thatafter his first and comparatively vagueapprehension of itproduced in him the start that often attends some pang ofrecollectionthe violent shock of having ceased happily to forget. He had comeinto sight of the door in which the brief chain of communication ended and whichhe now surveyed from the nearer thresholdthe one not directly facing it.Placed at some distance to the left of this pointit would have admitted him tothe last room of the fourthe room without other approach or egresshad itnotto his intimate convictionbeen closed since his former visitationthematter probably of a quarter of an hour before. He stared with all his eyes atthe wonder of the factarrested again where he stood and again holding hisbreath while he sounded its sense. Surely it had been subsequently closed--thatis it had been on his previous passage indubitably open!
He took it full in the face that something had happened between--that hecouldn't not have noticed before (by which he meant on his original tour of allthe rooms that evening) that such a barrier had exceptionally presented itself.He had indeed since that moment undergone an agitation so extraordinary that itmight have muddled for him any earlier view; and he tried to convince himselfthat he might perhaps then have gone into the room andinadvertentlyautomaticallyon coming outhave drawn the door after him. The difficulty wasthat this exactly was what he never did; it was against his whole policyas hemight have saidthe essence of which was to keep vistas clear. He had them fromthe firstas he was well aware quite on the brain: the strange apparitionatthe far end of one of themof his baffled "prey" (which had become byso sharp an irony so little the term now to apply!) was the form of success hisimagination had most cherishedprojecting into it always a refinement ofbeauty. He had known fifty times the start of perception that had afterwardsdropped; had fifty times gasped to himself "There!" under some fondbrief hallucination. The houseas the case stoodadmirably lent itself; hemight wonder at the tastethe native architecture of the particular timewhichcould rejoice so in the multiplication of doors--the opposite extreme to themodernthe actual almost complete proscription of them; but it had fairlycontributed to provoke this obsession of the presence encounteredtelescopicallyas he might sayfocussed and studied in diminishing perspectiveand as by a rest for the elbow.
It was with these considerations that his present attention was charged--theyperfectly availed to make what he saw portentous. He couldn'tby any lapsehave blocked that aperture; and if he hadn'tif it was unthinkablewhy whatelse was clear but that there had been another agent? Another agent?--he hadbeen catchingas he felta moment backthe very breath of him; but when hadhe been so close as in this simplethis logicalthis completely personal act?It was so logicalthat isthat one might have taken it for personal; yet forwhat did Brydon take ithe asked himselfwhilesoftly pantinghe felt hiseyes almost leave their sockets. Ah this time at last they werethe twotheopposed projections of himin presence; and this timeas much as one wouldthe question of danger loomed. With it roseas not beforethe question ofcourage--for what he knew the blank face of the door to say to him was"Show us how much you have!" It staredit glared back at him withthat challenge; it put to him the two alternatives: should he just push it openor not? Oh to have this consciousness was to think--and to thinkBrydon knewas he stood therewaswith the lapsing momentsnot to have acted! Not to haveacted--that was the misery and the pang--was even still not to act; was in factall to feel the thing in anotherin a new and terrible way. How long did hepause and how long did he debate? There was presently nothing to measure it; forhis vibration had already changed--as just by the effect of its intensity. Shutup thereat baydefiantand with the prodigy of the thing palpably proveablydonethus giving notice like some stark signboard--under that accession ofaccent the situation itself had turned; and Brydon at last remarkably made uphis mind on what it had turned to.
It had turned altogether to a different admonition; to a supreme hintforhimof the value of Discretion! This slowly dawnedno doubt--for it could takeits time; so perfectlyon his thresholdhad he been stayedso little as yethad he either advanced or retreated. It was the strangest-of all things that nowwhenby his taking ten steps and applying his hand to a latchor even hisshoulder and his kneeif necessaryto a panelall the hunger of his primeneed might have been methis high curiosity crownedhis unrest assuaged--itwas amazingbut it was also exquisite and rarethat insistence should haveata touchquite dropped from him. Discretion--he jumped at that; and yet notverilyat such a pitchbecause it saved his nerves or his skinbut becausemuch more valuablyit saved the situation. When I say he "jumped" atit I feel the consonance of this term with the fact that--at the end indeed of Iknow not how long--he did move againhe crossed straight to the door. Hewouldn't touch it--it seemed now that he might if he would: he would only justwait there a littleto showto provethat he wouldn't. He had thus anotherstationclose to the thin partition by which revelation was denied him; butwith his eyes bent and his hands held off in a mere intensity of stillness. Helistened as if there had been something to hearbut this attitudewhile itlastedwas his own communication. "If you won't then--good: I spare youand I give up. You affect me as by the appeal positively for pity: you convinceme that for reasons rigid and sublime-- what do I know?--we both of us shouldhave suffered. I respect them thenandthough moved and privileged as Ibelieveit has never been given to manI retireI renounce--neveron myhonourto try again. So rest for ever--and let me!"
Thatfor Brydon was the deep sense of this last demonstration--solemnmeasureddirectedas he felt it to be He brought it to a closehe turnedaway; and now verily he knew how deeply he had been stirred. He retraced hissteps taking up his candleburnthe observedwell-nigh to the socketandmarking againlighten it as he wouldthe distinctness of his footfall; afterwhichin a momenthe knew himself at the other side of the house. He did herewhat he had not yet done at these hours--he opened half a casementone of thosein the frontand let in the air of the night; a thing he would have taken atany time previous for a sharp rupture of his spell. His spell was broken now andit didn't matter--broken by his concession and his surrenderwhich made it idlehenceforth that he should ever come back. The empty street--its other life somarked even by the great lamplit vacancy--was within callwithin touch hestayed there as to be in it againhigh above it though he was still perched; hewatched as for some comforting common factsome vulgar human notethe passageof a scavenger or a thiefsome night-bird however base. He would have blessedthat sign of life; he would have welcomed positively the slow approach of hisfriend the policemanwhom he had hitherto only sought to avoidand was notsure that if the patrol had come into sight he mightn't have felt the impulse toget into relation with itto hail iton some pretextfrom his fourth floor.
The pretext that wouldn't have been too silly or too compromisingtheexplanation that would have saved his dignity and kept his namein such a caseout of the papers was not definite to him: he was so occupied with the thoughtof recording his Discretion--as an effect of the vow he had just uttered to hisintimate adversary--that the importance of this loomed large and something hadovertaken all ironically his sense of proportion. If there had been a ladderapplied to the front of the houseeven one of the vertiginous perpendicularsemployed by painters and roofers and sometimes left standing overnighthe wouldhave managed somehowastride of the window-sillto compass by outstretched legand arm that mode of descent. If there had been some such uncanny thing as hehad found in his room at hotelsa workable fire-escape in the form of notchedcable or a canvas shoothe would have availed himself of it as a proof--wellof his present delicacy. He nursed that sentimentas the question stoodalittle in vainand even--at the end of he scarce knewonce morehowlong--found itas by the action on his mind of the failure of response of theouter worldsinking back to vague anguish. It seemed to him he had waited anage for some stir of the great grim hush; the life of the town was itself undera spell--so unnaturallyup and down the whole prospect of known and rather uglyobjectsthe blankness and the silence lasted. Had they everhe asked himselfthe hard-faced houseswhich had begun to look livid in the dim dawnhad theyever spoken so little to any need of his spirit? Great builded voidsgreatcrowded stillnesses put onoftenin the heart of citiesfor the small hoursa sort of sinister maskand it was of this large collective negation thatBrydon presently became conscious--all the more that the break of day wasalmost incrediblynow at handproving to him what night he had made of it.
He looked again at his watchsaw what had become of his time-values (he hadtaken hours for minutes--notas in other tense situationsminutes for hours)and the strange air of the streets was but the weakthe sullen flush of a dawnin which everything was still locked up. His choked appeal from his own openwindow had been the sole note of lifeand he could but break off at last as fora worse despair. Yet while so deeply demoralised he was capable again of animpulse denoting--at least by his present measure--extraordinary resolution; ofretracing his steps to the spot where he had turned cold with the extinction ofhis last pulse of doubt as to there being in the place another presence than hisown. This required an effort strong enough to sicken him; but he had his reasonwhich over-mastered for the moment everything else. There was the whole of therest of the house to traverseand how should he screw himself to that if thedoor he had seen closed were at present open? He could hold to the idea that theclosing had practically been for him an act of mercya chance offered him todescenddepartget off the ground and never again profane it. This conceptionheld togetherit worked; but what it meant for him depended now clearly on theamount of forbearance his recent actionor rather his recent inactionhadengendered. The image of the "presence" whatever it waswaitingthere for him to go--this image had not yet been so concrete for his nerves aswhen he stopped short of the point at which certainty would have come to him.Forwith all his resolutionor more exactly with all his dreadhe did stopshort--he hung back from really seeing. The risk was too great and his fear toodefinite: it took at this moment an awful specific form.
He knew--yesas he had never known anything--thatshould he see the dooropenit would all too abjectly be the end of him. It would mean that the agentof his shame --for his shame was the deep abjection--was once more at large andin general possession; and what glared him thus in the face was the act thatthis would determine for him. It would send him straight about to the window hehad left openand by that windowbe long ladder and dangling rope as absent asthey wouldhe saw himself uncontrollably insanely fatally take his way to thestreet. The hideous chance of this he at least could avert; but he could onlyavert it by recoiling in time from assurance. He had the whole house to dealwiththis fact was still there; only he now knew that uncertainty alone couldstart him. He stole back from where he had checked himself--merely to do so wassuddenly like safety--andmaking blindly for the greater staircaseleft gapingrooms and sounding passages behind. Here was the top of the stairswith a finelarge dim descent and three spacious landings to mark off. His instinct was allfor mildnessbut his feet were harsh on the floorsandstrangelywhen he hadin a couple of minutes become aware of thisit counted somehow for help. Hecouldn't have spokenthe tone of his voice would have scared himand thecommon conceit or resource of "whistling in the dark" (whetherliterally or figuratively) have appeared basely vulgar; yet he liked none theless to hear himself goand when he had reached his first landing-- taking itall with no rushbut quite steadily--that stage of success drew from him a gaspof relief. The housewithalseemed immensethe scale of space againinordinate; the open rooms to no one of which his eyes deflectedgloomed intheir shuttered state like mouths of caverns; only the high skylight that formedthe crown of the deep well created for him a medium in which he could advancebut which might have beenfor queerness of coloursome watery under-world. Hetried to think of something nobleas that his property was really grandasplendid possession; but this nobleness took the form too of the clear delightwith which he was finally to sacrifice it. They might come in nowthe buildersthe destroyers-- they might come as soon as they would. At the end of twoflights he had dropped to another zoneand from the middle of the thirdwithonly one more lefthe recognised the influence of the lower windowsofhalf-drawn blindsof the occasional gleam of street-lampsof the glazed spacesof the vestibule. This was the bottom of the seawhich showed an illuminationof its own and which he even saw paved--when at a given moment he drew up tosink a long look over the banisters--with the marble squares of his childhood.By that time indubitably he feltas he might have said in a commoner causebetter; it had allowed him to stop and draw breathand the ease increased withthe sight of the old black-and-white slabs. But what he most felt was that nowsurelywith the element of impunity pulling him as by hard firm handsthe casewas settled for what he might have seen above had he dared that last look. Theclosed doorblessedly remote nowwas still closed--and he had only in short toreach that of the house.
He came down furtherhe crossed the passage forming the access to the lastflight; and if here again he stopped an instant it was almost for the sharpnessof the thrill of assured escape. It made him shut his eyes--which opened againto the straight slope of the remainder of the stairs. Here was impunity stillbut impunity almost excessive; inasmuch as the side-lights and the highfan-tracery of the entrance were glimmering straight into the hall; anappearance producedhe the next instant sawby the fact that the vestibulegaped widethat the hinged halves of the inner door had been thrown far back.Out of that again the question sprang at himmaking his eyesas he felthalfstart from his headas they had doneat the top of the housebefore the signof the other door. If he had left that one openhadn't he left this one closedand wasn't he now in most immediate presence of some inconceivable occultactivity? It was as sharpthe questionas a knife in his sidebut the answerhung fire still and seemed to lose itself in the vague darkness to which thethin admitted dawnglimmering archwise over the whole outer door made asemicircular margina cold silvery nimbus that seemed to play a little as helooked--to shift and expand and contract.
It was as if there had been something within itprotected by indistinctnessand corresponding in extent with the opaque surface behindthe painted panelsof the last barrier to his escapeof which the key was in his pocket. Theindistinctness mocked him even while he staredaffected him as somehowshrouding or challenging certitudeso that after faltering an instant on hisstep he let himself go with the sense that here was at last something to meetto touchto taketo know--something all unnatural and dreadfulbut to advanceupon which was the condition for him either of liberation or of supreme defeat.The penumbradense and darkwas the virtual screen of a figure which stood init as still as some image erect in a niche or as some black-vizored sentinelguarding a treasure. Brydon was to know afterwardswas to recall and make outthe particular thing he had believed during the rest of his descent. He sawinits great grey glimmering marginthe central vagueness diminishand he felt itto be taking the very form toward whichfor so many daysthe passion of hiscuriosity had yearned. It gloomedit loomedit was somethingit was somebodythe prodigy of a personal presence.
Rigid and consciousspectral yet humana man of his own substance andstature waited there to measure himself with his power to dismay. This onlycould it be--this only till he recognisedwith his advancethat what made theface dim was the pair of raised hands that covered it and in whichso far frombeing offered in defianceit was buried as for dark deprecation. So Brydonbefore himtook him in; with every fact of him nowin the higher lighthardand acute--his planted stillnesshis vivid truthhis grizzled bent head andwhite masking handshis queer actuality of evening-dressof dangling doubleeye-glassof gleaming silk lappet and white linenof pearl button and goldwatchguard and polished shoe. No portrait by a great modern master could havepresented him with more intensitythrust him out of his frame with more artasif there had been "treatment" of the consummate sortin his everyshade and salience. The revulsionfor our friendhad becomebefore he knewitimmense--this dropin the act of apprehensionto the sense of hisadversary's inscrutable manoeuvre. That meaning at leastwhile he gapeditoffered him; for he could but gape at his other self in this other anguishgapeas a proof that hestanding there for the achievedthe enjoyedthe triumphantlifecouldn't be faced in his triumph. Wasn't the proof in the splendidcovering handsstrong and completely spread?--so spread and so intentionalthatin spite of a special verity that surpassed every otherthe fact that oneof these hands had lost two fingerswhich were reduced to stumpsas ifaccidentally shot awaythe face was effectually guarded and saved.
"Saved" thoughwould it be?--Brydon breathed his wonder till thevery impunity of his attitude and the very insistence of his eyes producedashe felta sudden stir which showed the next instant as a deeper portentwhilethe head raised itselfthe betrayal of a braver purpose. The handsas helookedbegan to moveto open; thenas if deciding in a flashdropped fromthe face and left it uncovered and presented. Horrorwith the sighthad leapedinto Brydon's throatgasping there in a sound he couldn't utter; for the baredidentity was too hideous as hisand his glare was the passion of his protest.The facethat faceSpencer Brydon's?--he searched it stillbut looking awayfrom it in dismay and denialfalling straight from his height and sublimity. Itwas unknowninconceivableawfuldisconnected from any possibility--! He hadbeen "sold" he inwardly moanedstalking such game as this: thepresence before him was a presencethe horror within him a horrorbut thewaste of his nights had been only grotesque and the success of his adventure anirony. Such an identity fitted his at no pointmade its alternative monstrous.A thousand times yesas it came upon him nearer now--the face was the face of astranger. It came upon him nearer nowquite as one of those expanding fantasticimages projected by the magic lantern of childhood; for the strangerwhoever hemight beevilodiousblatantvulgarhad advanced as for aggressionand heknew himself give ground. Then harder pressed stillsick with the force of hisshockand falling back as under the hot breath and the roused passion of a lifelarger than his owna rage of personality before which his own collapsedhefelt the whole vision turn to darkness and his very feet give way. His head wentround; he was going; he had gone.
What had next brought him backclearly--though after how long?--was Mrs.Muldoon's voicecoming to him from quite nearfrom so near that he seemedpresently to see her as kneeling on the ground before him while he lay lookingup at her; himself not wholly on the groundbut half-raised andupheld--consciousyesof tenderness of support andmore particularlyof ahead pillowed in extraordinary softness and faintly refreshing fragrance. Heconsideredhe wonderedhis wit but half at his service- then another faceintervenedbending more directly over himand he finally knew that AliceStaverton had made her lap an ample and perfect cushion to himand that she hadto this end seated herself on the lowest degree of the staircasethe rest ofhis long person remaining stretched on his old black-and-white slabs. They werecoldthese marble squares of his youth; but he somehow was notin this richreturn of consciousness--the most wonderful hourlittle by littlethat he hadever knownleaving himas it didso gratefullyso abysmally passiveand yetas with a treasure of intelligence waiting all round him for quietappropriation; dissolvedhe might call itin the air of the place andproducing the golden glow of a late autumn afternoon. He had come backyes--come back from further away than any man but himself had ever travelled;but it was strange how with this sense what he had come back to seemed reallythe great thingand as if his prodigious journey had been all for the sake ofit. Slowly but surely his consciousness grewhis vision of his state thuscompleting itself: he had been miraculously carried back--lifted and carefullyborne as from where he had been picked upthe uttermost end of an interminablegrey passage. Even with this he was suffered to restand what had now broughthim to knowledge was the break in the long mild motion.
It had brought him to knowledgeto knowledge--yesthis was the beauty ofhis state; which came to resemble more and more that of a man who has gone tosleep on some news of a great inheritanceand thenafter dreaming it awayafter profaning it with matters strange to ithas waked up again to serenity ofcertitude and has only to lie and watch it grow. This was the drift of hispatience--that he had only to let it shine on him. He must moreoverwithintermissionsstill have been lifted and borne- since why and how else shouldhe have known himselflater onwith the afternoon glow intenserno longer atthe foot of his stairs--situated as these now seemed at that dark other end ofhis tunnel--but on a deep window-bench of his high saloonover which had beenspreadcouch-fashiona mantle of soft stuff lined with grey fur that wasfamiliar to his eyes and that one of his hands kept fondly feeling as for itspledge of truth. Mrs. Muldoon's face had gonebut the otherthe second he hadrecognisedhung over him in a way that showed how he was still propped andpillowed. He took it all inand the more he took it the more it seemed tosuffice: he was as much at peace as if he had had food and drink. It was the twowomen who had found himon Mrs. Muldoon's having pliedat her usual hourherlatch-key --and on her having above all arrived while Miss Staverton stilllingered near the house. She had been turning awayall anxietyfrom worryingthe vain bell-handle--her calculation having been of the hour of the goodwoman's visit; but the latterblessedlyhad come up while she was still thereand they had entered together. He had then lainbeyond the vestibulevery muchas he was lying now --quitethat isas he appeared to have fallenbut all sowondrously without bruise or gash; only in a depth of stupor. What he most tookinhoweverat presentwith the steadier clearancewas that Alice Stavertonhad for a long unspeakable moment not doubted he was dead.
"It must have been that I was." He made it out as she held him."Yes--I can only have died. You brought me literally to life. Only"he wonderedhis eyes rising to her"onlyin the name of all thebenedictionshow?"
It took her but an instant to bend her face and kiss himand something inthe manner of itand in the way her hands clasped and locked his head while hefelt the cool charity and virtue of her lipssomething in all this beatitudesomehow answered everything. "And now I keep you" she said.
"Oh keep mekeep me" he pleaded while her face still hung overhim: in response to which it dropped again and stayed closeclingingly close.It was the seal of their situation--of which he tasted the impress for a longblissful moment in silence. But he came back. "Yet how did youknow--?"
"I was uneasy. You were to have comeyou remember-- and you had sent noword."
"YesI remember--I was to have gone to you at one today." Itcaught on to their "old" life and relation--which were so near and sofar. "I was still out there in my strange darkness--where was itwhat wasit? I must have stayed there so long." He could but wonder at the death andthe duration of his swoon.
"Since last night?" she asked with a shade of fear for her possibleindiscretion.
"Since this morning--it must have been: the cold dim dawn of today.Where have I been" he vaguely wailed"where have I been?" Hefelt her hold him closeand it was as if this helped him now to make in allsecurity his mild moan. "What a long dark day!"
All in her tenderness she had waited a moment. "In the cold dimdawn?" she quavered.
But he had already gone on piecing together the parts of the whole prodigy."As I didn't turn up you came straight--?
"She barely cast about. "I went first to your hotel-- where theytold me of your absence. You had dined out last evening and hadn't been backsince. But they appeared to know you had been at your club."
"So you had the idea of this--?"
"Of what?" she asked in a moment.
"Well--of what has happened."
"I believed at least you'd have been here. I've knownall along"she said"that you've been coming."
"WellI've believed it. I said nothing to you after that talk we had amonth ago--but I felt sure. I knew you would" she declared.
"That I'd persistyou mean?"
"That you'd see him."
"Ah but I didn't" cried Brydon with his long wail. "There'ssomebody--an awful beast; whom I broughttoo horriblyto bay. But it's notme."
At this she bent over him againand her eyes were in his eyes."No--it's not you." And it was as ifwhile her face hoveredhe mighthave made out in ithadn't it been so nearsome particular meaning blurred bya smile. "Nothank heaven" she repeated--"it's not you! Ofcourse it wasn't to have been."
"Ah but it was" he gently insisted. And he stared before him nowas he had been staring for so many weeks. "I was to have knownmyself."
"You couldn't!" she returned consolingly. And then revertingandas if to account further for what she had herself done"But it wasn't onlythatthat you hadn't been at home" she went on. "I waited till thehour at which we had found Mrs. Muldoon that day of my going with you; and shearrivedas I've told youwhilefailing to bring any one to the doorIlingered in my despair on the steps. After a littleif she hadn't comeby sucha mercyI should have found means to hunt her up. But it wasn't" saidAlice Stavertonas if once more with her fine intention-- "it wasn't onlythat."
His eyesas he layturned back to her. "What more then?"
She met itthe wonder she had stirred. "In the cold dim dawnyou say?Wellin the cold dim dawn of this morning I too saw you."
"Saw him" said Alice Staverton. "It must have been at thesame moment."
He lay an instant taking it in--as if he wished to be quite reasonable."At the same moment?"
"Yes--in my dream againthe same one I've named to you. He came back tome. Then I knew it for a sign. He had come to you."
At this Brydon raised himself; he had to see her better. She helped him whenshe understood his movementand he sat upsteadying himself beside her thereon the window-bench and with his right hand grasping her left. "He didn'tcome to me."
"You came to yourself" she beautifully smiled.
"Ah I've come to myself now--thanks to youdearest. But this brutewith his awful face--this brute's a black stranger. He's none of meeven as Imight have been" Brydon sturdily declared.
But she kept the clearness that was like the breath of infallibility."Isn't the whole point that you'd have been different?"
He almost scowled for it. "As different as that--?"
Her look again was more beautiful to him than the things of this world."Haven't you exactly wanted to know how different? So this morning"she said"you appeared to me."
"A black stranger!"
"Then how did you know it was I?"
"Becauseas I told you weeks agomy mindmy imaginationhad workedso over what you mightwhat you mightn't have been--to show youyou seehowI've thought of you. In the midst of that you came to me--that my wonder mightbe answered. So I knew" she went on; "and believed thatsince thequestion held you too so fastas you told me that dayyou too would see foryourself. And when this morning I again saw I knew it would be because youhad--and also thenfrom the first momentbecause you somehow wanted me. Heseemed to tell me of that. So why" she strangely smiled"shouldn't Ilike him?"
It brought Spencer Brydon to his feet. "You 'like' that horror--?"
"I could have liked him. And to me" she said"he was nohorror. I had accepted him."
"'Accepted'--?" Brydon oddly sounded.
"Beforefor the interest of his difference--yes. And as I didn't disownhimas I knew him--which you at lastconfronted with him in his differencesocruelly didn'tmy dear--wellhe must have beenyou seeless dreadful to me.And it may have pleased him that I pitied him.
"She was beside him on her feetbut still holding his hand--still withher arm supporting him. But though it all brought for him thus a dim light"You 'pitied' him?" he grudginglyresentfully asked.
"He has been unhappy; he has been ravaged" she said.
"And haven't I been unhappy? Am not I--you've only to look atme!--ravaged?"
"Ah I don't say I like him better" she granted after a thought."But he's grimhe's worn--and things have happened to him. He doesn't makeshiftfor sightwith your charming monocle."
"No"--it struck Brydon: "I couldn't have sported mine'downtown.' They'd have guyed me there."
"His great convex pince-nez--I saw itI recognised the kind--is for hispoor ruined sight. And his poor right hand--!"
"Ah!" Brydon winced--whether for his proved identity or for hislost fingers. Then"He has a million a year" he lucidly added."But he hasn't you."
"And he isn't--nohe isn't--you!" she murmured as he drew her tohis breast.