Henry James (1843–1916)
I went so far, in the evening, as to make a beginning. The weather had changed back, a great wind was abroad, and beneath the lamp, in my room, with Flora at peace beside me, I sat for a long time before a blank sheet of paper and listened to the lash of the rain and the batter of the gusts. Finally I went out, taking a candle; I crossed the passage and listened a minute at Miles’s door. What, under my endless obsession, I had been impelled to listen for was some betrayal of his not being at rest, and I presently caught one, but not in the form I had expected. His voice tinkled out. “I say, you there — come in.” It was a gaiety in the gloom!
I went in with my light and found him, in bed, very wide awake, but very much at his ease. “Well, what are you up to?” he asked with a grace of sociability in which it occurred to me that Mrs. Grose, had she been present, might have looked in vain for proof that anything was “out.”
I stood over him with my candle. “How did you know I was there?”
“Why, of course I heard you. Did you fancy you made no noise? You’re like a troop of cavalry!” he beautifully laughed.
“Then you weren’t asleep?”
“Not much! I lie awake and think.”
I had put my candle, designedly, a short way off, and then, as he held out his friendly old hand to me, had sat down on the edge of his bed. “What is it,” I asked, “that you think of?”
“What in the world, my dear, but you?”
“Ah, the pride I take in your appreciation doesn’t insist on that! I had so far rather you slept.”
“Well, I think also, you know, of this queer business of ours.”
I marked the coolness of his firm little hand. “Of what queer business, Miles?”
“Why, the way you bring me up. And all the rest!”
I fairly held my breath a minute, and even from my glimmering taper there was light enough to show how he smiled up at me from his pillow. “What do you mean by all me rest?”
“Oh, you know, you know!”
I could say nothing for a minute, though I felt, as I held his hand and our eyes continued to meet, that my silence had all the air of admitting his charge and that nothing in the whole world of reality was perhaps at that moment so fabulous as our actual relation. “Certainly you shall go back to school,” I said, “if it be that that troubles you. But not to the old place — we must find another, a better. How could I know it did trouble you, this question, when you never told me so, never spoke of it at all?” His dear, listening face, framed in its smooth whiteness, made him for the minute as appealing as some wistful patient in a children’s hospital; and I would have given, as the resemblance came to me, all I possessed on earth really to be the nurse or the sister of charity who might have helped to cure him. Well, even as it was, I perhaps might help! “Do you know you’ve never said a word to me about your school — I mean the old one; never mentioned it in any way?”
He seemed to wonder; he smiled with the same loveliness. But he clearly gained time; he waited, he called for guidance. “Haven’t I?” It wasn’t for me to help him — it was for the thing I had met!
Something in his tone and the expression of his face, as I got this from him, set my heart aching with such a pang as it had never yet known; so unutterably touching was it to see his little brain puzzled and his little resources taxed to play, under the spell laid on him, a part of innocence and consistency. “No, never — from the hour you came back, You’ve never mentioned to me one of your masters, one of your comrades, nor the least little thing that ever happened to you at school. Never, little Miles — no, never — have you given me an inkling of anything that may have happened there. Therefore you can fancy how much I’m in the dark. Until you came out, that way, this morning, you had, since the first hour I saw you, scarce even made a reference to anything in your previous life. You seemed so perfectly to accept the present.” It was extraordinary how my absolute conviction of his secret precocity (or whatever I might call the poison of an influence that I dared but half to phrase) made him, in spite of the faint breath of his inward trouble, appear as accessible as an older person — imposed him almost as an intellectual equal. “I thought you wanted to go on as you are.”
It struck me that at this he just faintly colored. He gave, at any rate, like a convalescent slightly fatigued, a languid shake of his head. “I don’t — I don’t. I want to get away.”
“You’re tired of Bly?”
“Oh, no, I like Bly.”
“Well, then — ?”
“Oh, you know what a boy wants!”
I felt that I didn’t know so well as Miles, and I took temporary refuge. “You want to go to your uncle?”
Again, at this, with his sweet ironic face, he made a movement on the pillow. “Ah, you can’t get off with that!”
I was silent a little, and it was I, now, I think, who changed color. “My dear, I don’t want to get off!”
“You can’t, even if you do. You can’t, you can’t!” — he lay beautifully staring. “My uncle must come down, and you must completely settle things.”
“If we do,” I returned with some spirit, “you may be sure it will be to take you quite away.”
“Well, don’t you understand that that’s exactly what I’m working for? You’ll have to tell him — about the way you’ve let it all drop: you’ll have to tell him a tremendous lot!”
The exultation with which he uttered this helped me somehow, for the instant, to meet him rather more. “And how much will you, Miles, have to tell him? There are things he’ll ask you!”
He turned it over. “Very likely. But what things?”
“The things you’ve never told me. To make up his mind what to do with you. He can’t send you back — ”
“Oh, I don’t want to go back!” he broke in. “I want a new field.”
He said it with admirable serenity, with positive unimpeachable gaiety; and doubtless it was that very note that most evoked for me the poignancy, the unnatural childish tragedy, of his probable reappearance at the end of three months with all this bravado and still more dishonor. It overwhelmed me now that I should never be able to bear that, and it made me let myself go. I threw myself upon him and in the tenderness of my pity I embraced him. “Dear little Miles, dear little Miles — !”
My face was close to his, and he let me kiss him, simply taking it with indulgent good humor. “Well, old lady?”
“Is there nothing — nothing at all that you want to tell me?”
He turned off a little, facing round toward the wall and holding up his hand to look at as one had seen sick children look. “I’ve told you — I told you this morning.”
Oh, I was sorry for him! “That you just want me not to worry you?”
He looked round at me now, as if in recognition of my understanding him; then ever so gently, “To let me alone,” he replied.
There was even a singular little dignity in it, something that made me release him, yet, when I had slowly risen, linger beside him. God knows I never wished to harass him, but I felt that merely, at this, to turn my back on him was to abandon or, to put it more truly, to lose him “I’ve just begun a letter to your uncle,” I said.
“Well, then, finish it!”
I waited a minute. “What happened before?”
He gazed up at me again. “Before what?”
“Before you came back. And before you went away ”
For some time he was silent, but he continued to meet my eyes. “What happened?”
It made me, the sound of the words, in which it seemed to me that I caught for the very first time a small faint quaver of consenting consciousness — it made me drop on my knees beside the bed and seize once more the chance of possessing him. “Dear little Miles, dear little Miles, if you knew how I want to help you! It’s only that, it’s nothing but that, and I’d rather die than give you a pain or do you a wrong — I’d rather die than hurt a hair of you. Dear little Miles” — oh, I brought it out now even if I should go too far — “I just want you to help me to save you!” But I knew in a moment after this that I had gone too far. The answer to my appeal was instantaneous, but it came in the form of an extraordinary blast and chill, a gust of frozen air, and a shake of the room as great as if, in the wild wind, the casement had crashed in. The boy gave a loud, high shriek, which, lost in the rest of the shock of sound, might have seemed, indistinctly, though I was so close to him, a note either of jubilation or of terror. I jumped to my feet again and was conscious of darkness. So for a moment we remained, while I stared about me and saw mat the drawn curtains were unstirred and the window tight. “Why, the candle’s out!” I then cried.
“It was I who blew it, dear!” said Miles.