May Bertram

“So that I’m the only person who knows?”

“The only person in the world.”

“Well,” she quickly replied, “I myself have never spoken.  I’ve never, never repeated of you what you told me.”  She looked at him so that he perfectly believed her.  Their eyes met over it in such a way that he was without a doubt.  “And I never will.”

She spoke with an earnestness that, as if almost excessive, put him at ease about her possible derision.  Somehow the whole question was a new luxury to him—that is from the moment she was in possession.  If she didn’t take the sarcastic view she clearly took the sympathetic, and that was what he had had, in all the long time, from no one whomsoever.  What he felt was that he couldn’t at present have begun to tell her, and yet could profit perhaps exquisitely by the accident of having done so of old.  “Please don’t then.  We’re just right as it is.”

“Oh I am,” she laughed, “if you are!”  To which she added: “Then you do still feel in the same way?”

It was impossible he shouldn’t take to himself that she was really interested, though it all kept coming as a perfect surprise.  He had thought of himself so long as abominably alone, and lo he wasn’t alone a bit.  He hadn’t been, it appeared, for an hour—since those moments on the Sorrento boat.  It was she who had been, he seemed to see as he looked at her—she who had been made so by the graceless fact of his lapse of fidelity.  To tell her what he had told her—what had it been but to ask something of her? something that she had given, in her charity, without his having, by a remembrance, by a return of the spirit, failing another encounter, so much as thanked her.  What he had asked of her had been simply at first not to laugh at him.  She had beautifully not done so for ten years, and she was not doing so now.  So he had endless gratitude to make up.  Only for that he must see just how he had figured to her.  “What, exactly, was the account I gave—?”

“Of the way you did feel?  Well, it was very simple.  You said you had had from your earliest time, as the deepest thing within you, the sense of being kept for something rare and strange, possibly prodigious and terrible, that was sooner or later to happen to you, that you had in your bones the foreboding and the conviction of, and that would perhaps overwhelm you.”

“Do you call that very simple?” John Marcher asked.

She thought a moment.  “It was perhaps because I seemed, as you spoke, to understand it.”

“You do understand it?” he eagerly asked.

Again she kept her kind eyes on him.  “You still have the belief?”

— Henry James, The Beast in the Jungle

One thought on “May Bertram”

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