Henry James, The Beast in the Jungle: Ch. 4

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CHAPTER IV

Then it was that, one afternoon, while the spring of the year was young and new she met all in her own way his frankest betrayal of these alarms.  He had gone in late to see her, but evening hadn't settled and she was presented to him in that long fresh light of waning April days which affects us often with a sadness sharper than the greyest hours of autumn.  The week had been warm, the spring was supposed to have begun early, and May Bartram sat, for the first time in the year, without a fire; a fact that, to Marcher's sense, gave the scene of which she formed part a smooth and ultimate look, an air of knowing, in its immaculate order and cold meaningless cheer, that it would never see a fire again.  Her own aspect-he could scarce have said why-intensified this note.  Almost as white as wax, with the marks and signs in her face as numerous and as fine as if they had been etched by a needle, with soft white draperies relieved by a faded green scarf on the delicate tone of which the years had further refined, she was the picture of a serene and exquisite but impenetrable sphinx, whose head, or indeed all whose person, might have been powdered with silver.  She was a sphinx, yet with her white petals and green fronds she might have been a lily too-only an artificial lily, wonderfully imitated and constantly kept, without dust or stain, though not exempt from a slight droop and a complexity of faint creases, under some clear glass bell.  The perfection of household care, of high polish and finish, always reigned in her rooms, but they now looked most as if everything had been wound up, tucked in, put away, so that she might sit with folded hands and with nothing more to do.  She was "out of it," to Marcher's vision; her work was over; she communicated with him as across some gulf or from some island of rest that she had already reached, and it made him feel strangely abandoned.  Was it-or rather wasn't it-that if for so long she had been watching with him the answer to their question must have swum into her ken and taken on its name, so that her occupation was verily gone?  He had as much as charged her with this in saying to her, many months before, that she even then knew something she was keeping from him.  It was a point he had never since ventured to press, vaguely fearing as he did that it might become a difference, perhaps a disagreement, between them.  He had in this later time turned nervous, which was what he in all the other years had never been; and the oddity was that his nervousness should have waited till he had begun to doubt, should have held off so long as he was sure.  There was something, it seemed to him, that the wrong word would bring down on his head, something that would so at least ease off his tension.  But he wanted not to speak the wrong word; that would make everything ugly.  He wanted the knowledge he lacked to drop on him, if drop it could, by its own august weight.  If she was to forsake him it was surely for her to take leave.  This was why he didn't directly ask her again what she knew; but it was also why, approaching the matter from another side, he said to her in the course of his visit: "What do you regard as the very worst that at this time of day can happen to me?"

He had asked her that in the past often enough; they had, with the odd irregular rhythm of their intensities and avoidances, exchanged ideas about it and then had seen the ideas washed away by cool intervals, washed like figures traced in sea-sand.  It had ever been the mark of their talk that the oldest allusions in it required but a little dismissal and reaction to come out again, sounding for the hour as new.  She could thus at present meet his enquiry quite freshly and patiently.  "Oh yes, I've repeatedly thought, only it always seemed to me of old that I couldn't quite make up my mind.  I thought of dreadful things, between which it was difficult to choose; and so must you have done."

"Rather!  I feel now as if I had scarce done anything else.  I appear to myself to have spent my life in thinking of nothing but dreadful things.  A great many of them I've at different times named to you, but there were others I couldn't name."

"They were too, too dreadful?"

"Too, too dreadful-some of them."