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“Peter Quint—his own man, his valet, when he was here!”
“When the master was?”
Gaping still, but meeting me, she pieced it all together. “He never wore his hat, but he did wear—well, there were waistcoats missed. They were both here—last year. Then the master went, and Quint was alone.”
I followed, but halting a little. “Alone?”
“Alone with us.” Then, as from a deeper depth, “In charge,” she added.
“And what became of him?”
She hung fire so long that I was still more mystified. “He went, too,” she brought out at last.
Her expression, at this, became extraordinary. “God knows where! He died.”
“Died?” I almost shrieked.
She seemed fairly to square herself, plant herself more firmly to utter the wonder of it. “Yes. Mr. Quint is dead.”
It took of course more than that particular passage to place us together in presence of what we had now to live with as we could—my dreadful liability to impressions of the order so vividly exemplified, and my companion’s knowledge, henceforth—a knowledge half consternation and half compassion—of that liability. There had been, this evening, after the revelation left me, for an hour, so prostrate—there had been, for either of us, no attendance on any service but a little service of tears and vows, of prayers and promises, a climax to the series of mutual challenges and pledges that had straightway ensued on our retreating together to the schoolroom and shutting ourselves up there to have everything out. The result of our having everything out was simply to reduce our situation to the last rigor of its elements. She herself had seen nothing, not the shadow of a shadow, and nobody in the house but the governess was in the governess’s plight; yet she accepted without directly impugning my sanity the truth as I gave it to her, and ended by showing me, on this ground, an awestricken tenderness, an expression of the sense of my more than questionable privilege, of which the very breath has remained with me as that of the sweetest of human charities.
What was settled between us, accordingly, that night, was that we thought we might bear things together; and I was not even sure that, in spite of her exemption, it was she who had the best of the burden. I knew at this hour, I think, as well as I knew later, what I was capable of meeting to shelter my pupils; but it took me some time to be wholly sure of what my honest ally was prepared for to keep terms with so compromising a contract. I was queer company enough—quite as queer as the company I received; but as I trace over what we went through I see how much common ground we must have found in the one idea that, by good fortune, could steady us. It was the idea, the second movement, that led me straight out, as I may say, of the inner chamber of my dread. I could take the air in the court, at least, and there Mrs. Grose could join me. Perfectly can I recall now the particular way strength came to me before we separated for the night. We had gone over and over every feature of what I had seen.
“He was looking for someone else, you say—someone who was not you?”
“He was looking for little Miles.” A portentous clearness now possessed me. “That’s whom he was looking for.”
“But how do you know?”
“I know, I know, I know!” My exaltation grew. “And you know, my dear!”
She didn’t deny this, but I required, I felt, not even so much telling as that. She resumed in a moment, at any rate: “What if he should see him?”
“Little Miles? That’s what he wants!”
She looked immensely scared again. “The child?”
“Heaven forbid! The man. He wants to appear to them.” That he might was an awful conception, and yet, somehow, I could keep it at bay; which, moreover, as we lingered there, was what I succeeded in practically proving. I had an absolute certainty that I should see again what I had already seen, but something within me said that by offering myself bravely as the sole subject of such experience, by accepting, by inviting, by surmounting it all, I should serve as an expiatory victim and guard the tranquility of my companions. The children, in especial, I should thus fence about and absolutely save. I recall one of the last things I said that night to Mrs. Grose.
“It does strike me that my pupils have never mentioned—”
She looked at me hard as I musingly pulled up. “His having been here and the time they were with him?”
“The time they were with him, and his name, his presence, his history, in any way.”
“Oh, the little lady doesn’t remember. She never heard or knew.”
“The circumstances of his death?” I thought with some intensity. “Perhaps not. But Miles would remember—Miles would know.”
“Ah, don’t try him!” broke from Mrs. Grose.
I returned her the look she had given me. “Don’t be afraid.” I continued to think. “It is rather odd.”
“That he has never spoken of him?”
“Never by the least allusion. And you tell me they were ‘great friends’?”
“Oh, it wasn’t him!” Mrs. Grose with emphasis declared. “It was Quint’s own fancy. To play with him, I mean—to spoil him.” She paused a moment; then she added: “Quint was much too free.”
This gave me, straight from my vision of his face—such a face!—a sudden sickness of disgust. “Too free with my boy?”
“Too free with everyone!”
I forbore, for the moment, to analyze this description further than by the reflection that a part of it applied to several of the members of the household, of the half-dozen maids and men who were still of our small colony. But there was everything, for our apprehension, in the lucky fact that no discomfortable legend, no perturbation of scullions, had ever, within anyone’s memory attached to the kind old place. It had neither bad name nor ill fame, and Mrs. Grose, most apparently, only desired to cling to me and to quake in silence. I even put her, the very last thing of all, to the test. It was when, at midnight, she had her hand on the schoolroom door to take leave. “I have it from you then—for it’s of great importance—that he was definitely and admittedly bad?”
“Oh, not admittedly. I knew it—but the master didn’t.”
“And you never told him?”
“Well, he didn’t like tale-bearing—he hated complaints. He was terribly short with anything of that kind, and if people were all right to him—”
“He wouldn’t be bothered with more?” This squared well enough with my impressions of him: he was not a trouble-loving gentleman, nor so very particular perhaps about some of the company he kept. All the same, I pressed my interlocutress. “I promise you I would have told!”
She felt my discrimination. “I daresay I was wrong. But, really, I was afraid.”
“Afraid of what?”
“Of things that man could do. Quint was so clever—he was so deep.”