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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.
I waited and waited, and the days, as they elapsed, took something from my consternation. A very few of them, in fact, passing, in constant sight of my pupils, without a fresh incident, sufficed to give to grievous fancies and even to odious memories a kind of brush of the sponge. I have spoken of the surrender to their extraordinary childish grace as a thing I could actively cultivate, and it may be imagined if I neglected now to address myself to this source for whatever it would yield. Stranger than I can express, certainly, was the effort to struggle against my new lights; it would doubtless have been, however, a greater tension still had it not been so frequently successful. I used to wonder how my little charges could help guessing that I thought strange things about them; and the circumstances that these things only made them more interesting was not by itself a direct aid to keeping them in the dark. I trembled lest they should see that they were so immensely more interesting. Putting things at the worst, at all events, as in meditation I so often did, any clouding of their innocence could only be—blameless and foredoomed as they were—a reason the more for taking risks. There were moments when, by an irresistible impulse, I found myself catching them up and pressing them to my heart. As soon as I had done so I used to say to myself: “What will they think of that? Doesn’t it betray too much?” It would have been easy to get into a sad, wild tangle about how much I might betray; but the real account, I feel, of the hours of peace that I could still enjoy was that the immediate charm of my companions was a beguilement still effective even under the shadow of the possibility that it was studied. For if it occurred to me that I might occasionally excite suspicion by the little outbreaks of my sharper passion for them, so too I remember wondering if I mightn’t see a queerness in the traceable increase of their own demonstrations.
They were at this period extravagantly and preternaturally fond of me; which, after all, I could reflect, was no more than a graceful response in children perpetually bowed over and hugged. The homage of which they were so lavish succeeded, in truth, for my nerves, quite as well as if I never appeared to myself, as I may say, literally to catch them at a purpose in it. They had never, I think, wanted to do so many things for their poor protectress; I mean—though they got their lessons better and better, which was naturally what would please her most—in the way of diverting, entertaining, surprising her; reading her passages, telling her stories, acting her charades, pouncing out at her, in disguises, as animals and historical characters, and above all astonishing her by the “pieces” they had secretly got by heart and could interminably recite. I should never get to the bottom—were I to let myself go even now—of the prodigious private commentary, all under still more private correction, with which, in these days, I overscored their full hours. They had shown me from the first a facility for everything, a general faculty which, taking a fresh start, achieved remarkable flights. They got their little tasks as if they loved them, and indulged, from the mere exuberance of the gift, in the most unimposed little miracles of memory. They not only popped out at me as tigers and as Romans, but as Shakespeareans, astronomers, and navigators. This was so singularly the case that it had presumably much to do with the fact as to which, at the present day, I am at a loss for a different explanation: I allude to my unnatural composure on the subject of another school for Miles. What I remember is that I was content not, for the time, to open the question, and that contentment must have sprung from the sense of his perpetually striking show of cleverness. He was too clever for a bad governess, for a parson’s daughter, to spoil; and the strangest if not the brightest thread in the pensive embroidery I just spoke of was the impression I might have got, if I had dared to work it out, that he was under some influence operating in his small intellectual life as a tremendous incitement.