The Sacred Fount
"Ah, well," he laughed, but as if his interest had quickly dropped, "youth is—comparatively speaking—beauty."
"Oh, not always. Look at poor Briss himself."
"Well, if you like better, beauty is youth."
"Not always, either," I returned. "Certainly only when it is beauty. To see how little it may be either, look," I repeated, "at poor Briss."
"I thought you told me just now not to!" He rose at last in his impatience.
"Well, at present you can."
I also got up, the other men at the same moment moved, and the subject of our reference stood in view. This indeed was but briefly, for, as if to examine a picture behind him, the personage in question suddenly turned his back. Long, however, had had time to take him in and then to decide. "I've looked. What then?"
"You don't see anything?"
"Not what everyone else must?"
"No, confound you!"
I already felt that, to be so tortuous, he must have had a reason, and the search for his reason was what, from this moment, drew me on. I had in fact half guessed it as we stood there. But this only made me the more explanatory. "It isn't really, however, that Brissenden has grown less lovely—it's only that he has grown less young."
To which my friend, as we quitted the room, replied simply: "Oh!"
The effect I have mentioned was, none the less, too absurd. The poor youth's back, before us, still as if consciously presented, confessed to the burden of time. "How old," I continued, "did we make out this afternoon that he would be?"
"That who would?"
"Why, poor Briss."
He fairly pulled up in our march. "Have you got him on the brain?"
"Don't I seem to remember, my dear man, that it was you yourself who knew? He's thirty at the most. He can't possibly be more. And there he is: as fine, as swaddled, as royal a mummy, to the eye, as one would wish to see. Don't pretend! But it's all right." I laughed as I took myself up. "I must talk to Lady John."
I did talk to her, but I must come to it. What is most to the point just here is an observation or two that, in the smoking-room, before going to bed, I exchanged with Ford Obert. I forbore, as I have hinted, to show all I saw, but it was lawfully open to me to judge of what other people did; and I had had before dinner my little proof that, on occasion, Obert could see as much as most. Yet I said nothing more to him for the present about Mrs. Server. The Brissendens were new to him, and his experience of every sort of facial accident, of human sign, made him just the touchstone I wanted. Nothing, naturally, was easier than to turn him on the question of the fair and the foul, type and character, weal and woe, among our fellow-visitors; so that my mention of the air of disparity in the couple I have just named came in its order and produced its effect. This effect was that of my seeing—which was all I required—that if the disparity was marked for him this expert observer could yet read it quite the wrong way. Why had so fine a young creature married a man three times her age? He was of course astounded when I told him the young creature was much nearer three times Brissenden's, and this led to some interesting talk between us as to the consequences, in general, of such association on such terms. The particular case before us, I easily granted, sinned by over-emphasis, but it was a fair, though a gross, illustration of what almost always occurred when twenty and forty, when thirty and sixty, mated or mingled, lived together in intimacy. Intimacy of course had to be postulated. Then either the high number or the low always got the upper hand, and it was usually the high that succeeded. It seemed, in other words, more possible to go back than to keep still, to grow young than to remain so. If Brissenden had been of his wife's age and his wife of Brissenden's, it would thus be he who must have redescended the hill, it would be she who would have been pushed over the brow. There was really a touching truth in it, the stuff of—what did people call such things?—an apologue or a parable. "One of the pair," I said, "has to pay for the other. What ensues is a miracle, and miracles are expensive. What's a greater one than to have your youth twice over? It's a second wind, another 'go'—which isn't the sort of thing life mostly treats us to. Mrs. Briss had to get her new blood, her extra allowance of time and bloom, somewhere; and from whom could she so conveniently extract them as from Guy himself? She has, by an extraordinary feat of legerdemain, extracted them; and he, on his side, to supply her, has had to tap the sacred fount. But the sacred fount is like the greedy man's description of the turkey as an 'awkward' dinner dish. It may be sometimes too much for a single share, but it's not enough to go round."
Obert was at all events sufficiently struck with my view to throw out a question on it. "So that, paying to his last drop, Mr. Briss, as you call him, can only die of the business?"
"Oh, not yet, I hope. But before her—yes: long."
He was much amused. "How you polish them off!"
"I only talk," I returned, "as you paint; not a bit worse! But one must indeed wonder," I conceded, "how the poor wretches feel."
"You mean whether Brissenden likes it?"
I made up my mind on the spot. "If he loves her he must. That is if he loves her passionately, sublimely." I saw it all. "It's in fact just because he does so love her that the miracle, for her, is wrought."
"Well," my friend reflected, "for taking a miracle coolly–!"
"She hasn't her equal? Yes, she does take it. She just quietly, but just selfishly, profits by it."
"And doesn't see then how her victim loses?"
"No. She can't. The perception, if she had it, would be painful and terrible—might even be fatal to the process. So she hasn't it. She passes round it. It takes all her flood of life to meet her own chance. She has only a wonderful sense of success and well-being. The other consciousness–"
"Is all for the other party?"
"The author of the sacrifice."
"Then how beautifully 'poor Briss,'" my companion said, "must have it!"
I had already assured myself. He had gone to bed, and my fancy followed him. "Oh, he has it so that, though he goes, in his passion, about with her, he dares scarcely show his face." And I made a final induction. "The agents of the sacrifice are uncomfortable, I gather, when they suspect or fear that you see."
My friend was charmed with my ingenuity. "How you've worked it out!"
"Well, I feel as if I were on the way to something."
He looked surprised. "Something still more?"
"Something still more." I had an impulse to tell him I scarce knew what. But I kept it under. "I seem to snuff up–"
"The sense of a discovery to be made."
"And of what?"
"I'll tell you to-morrow. Good-night."
I did on the morrow several things, but the first was not to redeem that vow. It was to address myself straight to Grace Brissenden. "I must let you know that, in spite of your guarantee, it doesn't go at all—oh, but not at all! I've tried Lady John, as you enjoined, and I can't but feel that she leaves us very much where we were." Then, as my listener seemed not quite to remember where we had been, I came to her help. "You said yesterday at Paddington, to explain the change in Gilbert Long—don't you recall?—that that woman, plying him with her genius and giving him of her best, is clever enough for two. She's not clever enough then, it strikes me, for three—or at any rate for four. I confess I don't see it. Does she really dazzle you?"
My friend had caught up. "Oh, you've a standard of wit!"
"No, I've only a sense of reality—a sense not at all satisfied by the theory of such an influence as Lady John's."
She wondered. "Such a one as whose else then?"
"Ah, that's for us still to find out! Of course this can't be easy; for as the appearance is inevitably a kind of betrayal, it's in somebody's interest to conceal it."
This Mrs. Brissenden grasped. "Oh, you mean in the lady's?"
"In the lady's most. But also in Long's own, if he's really tender of the lady—which is precisely what our theory posits."
My companion, once roused, was all there. "I see. You call the appearance a kind of betrayal because it points to the relation behind it."