The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
"Oh, more or less." I fancy my smile was pale. "Not absolutely. We shouldn't like that!" I went on.
"No--I suppose we shouldn't. Of course we have the others."
"We have the others--we have indeed the others," I concurred.
"Yet even though we have them," he returned, still with his hands in his pockets and planted there in front of me, "they don't much count, do they?"
I made the best of it, but I felt wan. "It depends on what you call `much'!"
"Yes"--with all accommodation--"everything depends!" On this, however, he faced to the window again and presently reached it with his vague, restless, cogitating step. He remained there awhile, with his forehead against the glass, in contemplation of the stupid shrubs I knew and the dull things of November. I had always my hypocrisy of "work," behind which, now, I gained the sofa. Steadying myself with it there as I had repeatedly done at those moments of torment that I have described as the moments of my knowing the children to be given to something from which I was barred, I sufficiently obeyed my habit of being prepared for the worst. But an extraordinary impression dropped on me as I extracted a meaning from the boy's embarrassed back-- none other than the impression that I was not barred now. This inference grew in a few minutes to sharp intensity and seemed bound up with the direct perception that it was positively he who was. The frames and squares of the great window were a kind of image, for him, of a kind of failure. I felt that I saw him, at any rate, shut in or shut out. He was admirable, but not comfortable: I took it in with a throb of hope. Wasn't he looking, through the haunted pane, for something he couldn't see?--and wasn't it the first time in the whole business that he had known such a lapse? The first, the very first: I found it a splendid portent. It made him anxious, though he watched himself; he had been anxious all day and, even while in his usual sweet little manner he sat at table, had needed all his small strange genius to give it a gloss. When he at last turned round to meet me, it was almost as if this genius had succumbed. "Well, I think I'm glad Bly agrees with me!"
"You would certainly seem to have seen, these twenty-four hours, a good deal more of it than for some time before. I hope," I went on bravely, "that you've been enjoying yourself."
"Oh, yes, I've been ever so far; all round about--miles and miles away. I've never been so free."
He had really a manner of his own, and I could only try to keep up with him. "Well, do you like it?"
He stood there smiling; then at last he put into two words--"Do you?"-- more discrimination than I had ever heard two words contain. Before I had time to deal with that, however, he continued as if with the sense that this was an impertinence to be softened. "Nothing could be more charming than the way you take it, for of course if we're alone together now it's you that are alone most. But I hope," he threw in, "you don't particularly mind!"
"Having to do with you?" I asked. "My dear child, how can I help minding? Though I've renounced all claim to your company--you're so beyond me-- I at least greatly enjoy it. What else should I stay on for?"
He looked at me more directly, and the expression of his face, graver now, struck me as the most beautiful I had ever found in it. "You stay on just for that?"
"Certainly. I stay on as your friend and from the tremendous interest I take in you till something can be done for you that may be more worth your while. That needn't surprise you." My voice trembled so that I felt it impossible to suppress the shake. "Don't you remember how I told you, when I came and sat on your bed the night of the storm, that there was nothing in the world I wouldn't do for you?"
"Yes, yes!" He, on his side, more and more visibly nervous, had a tone to master; but he was so much more successful than I that, laughing out through his gravity, he could pretend we were pleasantly jesting. "Only that, I think, was to get me to do something for you!"
"It was partly to get you to do something," I conceded. "But, you know, you didn't do it."
"Oh, yes," he said with the brightest superficial eagerness, "you wanted me to tell you something."
"That's it. Out, straight out. What you have on your mind, you know."
"Ah, then, is that what you've stayed over for?"
He spoke with a gaiety through which I could still catch the finest little quiver of resentful passion; but I can't begin to express the effect upon me of an implication of surrender even so faint. It was as if what I had yearned for had come at last only to astonish me. "Well, yes--I may as well make a clean breast of it. it was precisely for that."
He waited so long that I supposed it for the purpose of repudiating the assumption on which my action had been founded; but what he finally said was: "Do you mean now--here?"
"There couldn't be a better place or time." He looked round him uneasily, and I had the rare--oh, the queer!--impression of the very first symptom I had seen in him of the approach of immediate fear. It was as if he were suddenly afraid of me--which struck me indeed as perhaps the best thing to make him. Yet in the very pang of the effort I felt it vain to try sternness, and I heard myself the next instant so gentle as to be almost grotesque. "You want so to go out again?"
"Awfully!" He smiled at me heroically, and the touching little bravery of it was enhanced by his actually flushing with pain. He had picked up his hat, which he had brought in, and stood twirling it in a way that gave me, even as I was just nearly reaching port, a perverse horror of what I was doing. To do it in any way was an act of violence, for what did it consist of but the obtrusion of the idea of grossness and guilt on a small helpless creature who had been for me a revelation of the possibilities of beautiful intercourse? Wasn't it base to create for a being so exquisite a mere alien awkwardness? I suppose I now read into our situation a clearness it couldn't have had at the time, for I seem to see our poor eyes already lighted with some spark of a prevision of the anguish that was to come. So we circled about, with terrors and scruples, like fighters not daring to close. But it was for each other we feared! That kept us a little longer suspended and unbruised. "I'll tell you everything," Miles said--"I mean I'll tell you anything you like. You'll stay on with me, and we shall both be all right, and I will tell you--I will. But not now."
"Why not now?"
My insistence turned him from me and kept him once more at his window in a silence during which, between us, you might have heard a pin drop. Then he was before me again with the air of a person for whom, outside, someone who had frankly to be reckoned with was waiting. "I have to see Luke."
I had not yet reduced him to quite so vulgar a lie, and I felt proportionately ashamed. But, horrible as it was, his lies made up my truth. I achieved thoughtfully a few loops of my knitting. "Well, then, go to Luke, and I'll wait for what you promise. Only, in return for that, satisfy, before you leave me, one very much smaller request."
He looked as if he felt he had succeeded enough to be able still a little to bargain. "Very much smaller--?"
"Yes, a mere fraction of the whole. Tell me"--oh, my work preoccupied me, and I was offhand!--"if, yesterday afternoon, from the table in the hall, you took, you know, my letter."