The Given Case
by Henry James
Barton Reeve waited, with outward rigour and inward rage, till
every one had gone: there was in particular an objectionable,
travelled, superior young man — a young man with a long neck and bad
shoes, especially great on Roumania — whom he was determined to
outstay. He could only wonder the while whether he most hated designed
or unconscious unpleasantness. It was a Sunday afternoon, the time in
the week when, for some subtle reason, 'such people' — Reeve freely
generalised them — most take liberties. But even when the young man
had disappeared there still remained Mrs Gorton, Margaret Hamer's
sister and actual hostess — it was with this lady that Miss Hamer was
at present staying. He was sustained, however, as he had been for half
an hour previous, by the sense that the charming girl knew perfectly
he had something to say to her and was trying covertly to help him.
'Only hang on: leave the rest to me' — something of that sort she had
already conveyed to him. He left it to her now to get rid of her
sister, and was struck by the wholly natural air with which she soon
achieved this feat. It was not absolutely hidden from him that if he
had not been so insanely in love he might like her for herself. As it
was, he could only like her for Mrs Despard. Mrs Gorton was dining
out, but Miss Hamer was not; that promptly turned up, with the effect
of bringing on, for the former lady, the question of time to dress.
She still remained long enough to say over and over that it was
time. Meanwhile, a little awkwardly, they hung about by the fire.
Mrs Gorton looked at her pretty shoe on the fender, but Barton Reeve
and Miss Hamer were on their feet as if to declare that they were
"You're dining all alone?" he said to the girl.
"Women never dine alone," she laughed. "When they're alone they
Mrs Gorton looked at her with an expression of which Reeve became
aware: she was so handsome that, but for its marked gravity, it might
have represented the pleasure and pride of sisterhood. But just when
he most felt such complacency to be natural his hostess rather sharply
mystified him. "She won't be alone — more's the pity!"
Mrs Gorton spoke with more intention than he could seize, and the next
moment he was opening the door for her.
"I shall have a cup of coffee and a biscuit — and also, propped
up before me, Gardiner's Civil War. Don't you always read when
you dine alone?" Miss Hamer asked as he came back.
Women were strange — he was not to be drawn in that direction.
She had been showing him for an hour that she knew what he wanted; yet
now that he had got his chance — which she moreover had given him —
she looked as innocent as the pink face in the oval frame above the
chimney. It took him, however, but a moment to see more: her innocence
was her answer to the charge with which her sister had retreated, a
charge into which, the next minute, her conscious blankness itself
helped him to read a sense. Margaret Hamer was never alone, because
Phil Mackern was always — But it was none of his business! She
lingered there on the rug, and it somehow passed between them before
anything else was done that he quite recognised that. After the point
was thus settled he took his own affair straight up. "You know why I'm
here. It's because I believe you can help me."
"Men always think that. They think every one can 'help' them but
"And what do women think?" Barton Reeve asked with some asperity.
"It might be a little of a light for me if you were able to tell me that. What do they think a man is made of? What does
A little embarrassed, Margaret looked round her, wishing to show
she could be kind and patient, yet making no movement to sit down.
Mrs Gorton's allusion was still in the air — it had just affected
their common comfort. "I know what you mean. You assume she tells me
"I assume that you're her most intimate friend. I don't know to
whom else to turn."
The face the girl now took in was smooth-shaven and fine, a face
expressing penetration up to the limit of decorum. It was full of the
man's profession — passionately legal. Barton Reeve was certainly
concerned with advice, but not with taking it. "What particular
thing," she asked, "do you want me to do?"
"Well, to make her see what she's doing to me. From you she'll
take it. She won't take it from me. She doesn't believe me — she
thinks I'm 'prejudiced'. But she'll believe you."
Miss Hamer smiled, but not with cruelty. "And whom shall
"Ah, that's not kind of you!" Barton Reeve returned; after which,
for a moment, as he stood there sombre and sensitive, something
visibly came to him that completed his thought, but that he hesitated
to produce. Presently, as if to keep it back, he turned away with a
jerk. He knew all about the girl herself — the woman of whom they
talked had, out of the fulness of her own knowledge, told him; he knew
what would have given him a right to say: 'Oh, come; don't pretend
I've to reveal to you what the dire thing makes of us!' He
moved across the room and came back — felt himself even at this very
moment, in the grip of his passion, shaken as a rat by a terrier. But
just that was what he showed by his silence. As he rejoined her by the
chimney-piece he was extravagantly nervous. "Oh Lord, Lord!" he at
last simply exclaimed.
"I believe you — I believe you," she replied. "But
really does too."
"Then why does she treat me so? — it's a refinement of perversity
and cruelty. She never gives me an inch but she takes back the next
day ten yards; never shows me a gleam of sincerity without making up
for it as soon as possible by something that leaves me in no doubt of
her absolute heartless coquetry. Of whom the deuce is she afraid?"
His companion hesitated. "You perhaps might remember once in a
while that she has a husband."
"Do I ever forget it for an instant? Isn't my life one long appeal
to her to get rid of him?"
"Ah," said his friend as if she knew all about it, "getting rid of
husbands isn't so easy!"
"I beg your pardon" — Reeve spoke with much more gravity and a
still greater competence — "there's every facility for it when the
man's a proved brute and the woman an angel whom, for three years, he
has not troubled himself so much as to look at."
"Do you think," Miss Hamer inquired, "that, even for an angel,
extreme intimacy with another angel — such another as you: angels of
a feather flock together! — positively adds to the facility?"
Barton could perfectly meet her. "It adds to the reason — that's
what it adds to; and the reason is the facility. I only know
one way," he went on, "of showing her I want to marry her. I can't
show it by never going near her."
"But need you also show Colonel Despard?"
"Colonel Despard doesn't care a rap!"
"He cares enough to have given her all this time nothing whatever
— for divorcing him, if you mean that — to take hold of."
"I do mean that," Barton Reeve declared; "and I must ask you to
believe that I know what I'm talking about. He hates her enough for
any perversity, but he has given her exactly what is necessary.
Enough's as good as a feast!"
Miss Hamer looked away — looked now at the clock; but it was none
the less apparent that she understood. "Well — she of course has a
horror of that. I mean of doing anything herself."
"Then why does she go so far?"
Margaret still looked at the clock. "So far—?"
"With me, month after month, in every sort of way!"
Moving away from the fire, she gave him an irrelevant smile.
"Though I am to be alone, my time's up."
He kept his eyes on her. "Women don't feed for themselves, but
they do dress, eh?"
"I must go to my room."
"But that isn't an answer to my question."
She thought a moment. "About poor Kate's going so far? I thought
your complaint was of her not going far enough."
"It all depends," said Reeve impatiently, "upon her having some
truth in her. She shouldn't do what she does if she doesn't care for
"She does care for you," said the girl.
"Well then, damn it, she should do much more!"
Miss Hamer put out her hand. "Good-bye. I'll speak to her."
Reeve held her fast. "She does care for me?"
She hesitated but an instant. "Far too much. It's excessively
He still detained her, pressing her with his sincerity, almost
with his crudity. "That's exactly why I've come to you." Then he
risked: "You know—!" But he faltered.
"I know what?"
"Why, what it is."
She threw back her head, releasing herself. "To be impertinent?
Never!" She fairly left him — the man was in the hall to let him out;
and he walked away with a sense not diminished, on the whole, of how
viciously fate had seasoned his draught. Yet he believed Margaret
Hamer would speak for him. She had a kind of nobleness.
At Pickenham, on the Saturday night, it came round somehow to
Philip Mackern that Barton Reeve was to have been of the party, and
that Mrs Despard's turning up without him — so it was expressed —
had somewhat disconcerted their hostess. This, in the smoking-room,
made him silent more to think than to listen — he knew whom he
had 'turned up' without. The next morning, among so many, there were
some who went to church; Mackern always went now because Miss Hamer
had told him she wished it. He liked it, moreover, for the time: it
was an agreeable symbol to him of the way his situation made him
'good'. Besides, he had a plan; he knew what Mrs Despard would do; her situation made her good too. The morning, late in May, was
bright, and the walk, though short, charming; they all straggled, in
vivid twos and threes, across the few fields — passing stiles and
gates, drawing out, scattering their colour over the green, as if they
had the 'tip' for some new sport. Mrs Despard, with two companions,
was one of the first; Mackern himself, as it happened, quitted the
house by the side of Lady Orville, who, before they had gone many
steps, completed the information given him the night before.
"That's just the sort of thing Kate Despard's always up to. I'm
too tired of her!"
Phil Mackern wondered. "But do you mean she prevented him—?"
"I asked her only to make him come — it was
him I wanted.
But she's a goose: she hasn't the courage—"
"Of her reckless passion?" Mackern asked as his companion's candour
rather comically dropped.
"Of her ridiculous flirtation. She doesn't know what she wants —
she's in and out of her hole like a frightened mouse. On knowing she's
invited he immediately accepts, and she encourages him in the fond
thought of the charming time they'll have. Then at the eleventh hour
she finds it will never do. It will be too 'marked'! Marked it would
certainly have been," Lady Orville pursued. "But there would have been
"For her to have stayed away?"
Her ladyship waited. "What horrors you make me say!"
"Well," Mackern replied, "I'm glad she came. I particularly want
"You? — what have
you to do with her? You're as bad as
she!" his hostess added; quitting him, however, for some other
attention, before he had need to answer.
He sought no second companion — he had matter for thought as he
went on; but he reached the door of the church before Mrs Despard had
gone in, and he observed that when, glancing back, she saw him pass
the gate, she immediately waited for him. She had turned off a little
into the churchyard, and as he came up he was struck with the
prettiness that, beneath the old grey tower and among the crooked
headstones, she presented to the summer morning.
"It's just to say, before any one else gets hold of you, that I
want you, when we come out, to walk home with me. I want most
particularly to speak to you."
" Comme cela se trouve!" Mackern laughed. "That's exactly
what I want to do to you!"
"Oh, I warn you that you won't like it; but you will have, all the
same, to take it!" Mrs Despard declared. "In fact, it's why I came,"
"To speak to
"Yes, and you needn't attempt to look innocent and interesting.
You know perfectly what it's about!" With which she passed into church.
It scarce prepared the young man for his devotions; he thought
more of what it might be about — whether he knew or not — than he
thought of what, ostensibly, he had come for. He was not seated near
Mrs Despard, but he appropriated her, after service, before they had
left the place; and then, on the walk back, took care they should be
quite by themselves. She opened fire with a promptitude clearly
intended to deprive him of every advantage.
"Don't you think it's about time, you know, to let Margaret Hamer
He found his laugh again a resource. "Is that what you came down
to say to me?"
"I suppose what you mean is that in that case I might as well have
stayed at home. But I can assure you," Mrs Despard continued, "that if
you don't care for her, I at least do. I'd do anything for her!"
"Would you?" Philip Mackern asked. "Then, for God's sake, try to
induce her to show me some frankness and reason. Knowing that you know
all about it and that I should find you here, that's what determined
me. And I find you talking to me," he went on, "about giving her up.
How can I give her up? What do you mean by my not caring for
her? Don't I quite sufficiently show — and to the point absolutely of
making a public fool of myself — that I don't care for anything else
Mrs Despard, slightly to his surprise and pacing beside him a
moment in silence, seemed arrested by this challenge. But she
presently found her answer. "That's not the way, you know, to get on
at the Treasury."
"I don't pretend it is; and it's just one of the things that I
thought of asking you to bring home to her better than any one else
can. She plays the very devil with my work. She makes me hope just
enough to be all upset, and yet never, for an hour, enough to be —
well, what you may call made strong; enough to know where I am."
"You're where you've no business to be — that's where you are,"
said Mrs Despard. "You've no right whatever to persecute a girl who,
to listen to you, will have to do something that she doesn't want, and
that would be most improper if she did."
"You mean break off—?"
"I mean break off — with Mr Grove-Stewart."
"And why shouldn't she?"
"Because they've been engaged three years."
"And could there be a better reason?" Philip Mackern asked with
heat. "A man who's engaged to a girl three years without marrying her
— what sort of a man is that, and what tie to him is she, or is any
one else, bound to recognise?"
"He's an extremely nice person," Mrs Despard somewhat
sententiously replied, "and he's to return from India — and not to go
back, you know — this autumn at latest."
"Then that's all the more reason for my acting successfully before
he comes — for my insisting on an understanding without the loss of
The young man, who was tall and straight, had squared his
shoulders and, throwing back his massive, fair head, appeared to
proclaim to earth and air the justice of his cause. Mrs Despard, for
an instant, answered nothing, but, as if to take account of his
manner, she presently stopped short. "I think I ought to express to
you my frank belief that for you, Mr Mackern, there can be nothing but
loss. I'm sorry for you, to a certain point; but you happen to have
got hold of a girl who's incapable of anything dishonourable." And
with this — as if that were settled — she resumed her walk.
Mackern, however, stood quite still — only too glad of the
opportunity for emphasis given him by their pause; so that after a few
steps she turned round. "Do you know that that's exactly on what I
wanted to appeal to you? Is she the woman to chuck me now?"
Mrs Despard, all face and figure in the mild brightness, looked at
him across the grass and appeared to give some extension to the
question of what, in general at least, a woman might be the woman to
"Now. After all she has done."
Mrs Despard, however, wouldn't hear of what Margaret Hamer had
done; she only walked straight off again, shaking everything away as
Mackern overtook her. "Leave her alone — leave her alone!"
He held his tongue for some minutes, but he swished the air with
his stick in a way that made her presently look at him. She found him
positively pale, and he looked away from her. "You should have given
me that advice," he remarked with dry derision, "a good many weeks
"Well, it's never too late to mend!" she retorted with some
"I beg your pardon. It's often too late — altogether too late.
And as for 'mending'," Mackern went on almost sternly, "you know as
well as I that if I had — in time, or anything of that sort —
tried to back out or pull up, you would have been the first to make
her out an injured innocent and declare I had shamefully used her."
This proposition took, as appeared, an instant or two to penetrate
Mrs Despard's consciousness; but when it had fairly done so it
produced, like a train of gunpowder, an audible report. "Why, you
strange, rude man!" — she fairly laughed for indignation. "Permit me
not to answer you: I can't discuss any subject with you in that key."
They had reached a neat white gate and paused for Mackern to open
it; but, with his hand on the top, he only held it a little, fixing
his companion with insistence and seemingly in full indifference to
her protest. "Upon my soul, the way women treat men—!"
"Well?" she demanded, while he gasped as if it were more than he
"It's too execrable! There's only one thing for her to do." He
clearly wished to show he was not to be humbugged.
"And what wonderful thing is that?"
"There's only one thing for
any woman to do," he pursued
with an air of conscious distinctness, "when she has drawn a man on to
believe there's nothing she's not ready for."
Mrs Despard waited; she watched, over the gate, the gambols, in the
next field, of a small white lamb. "Will you kindly let me pass?" she
But he went on as if he had not heard her. "It's to make up to him
for what she has cost him. It's simply to do everything."
Mrs Despard hesitated. "Everything?" she then vaguely asked.
"Everything," Mackern said as he opened the gate. "Won't
you help me?" he added more appealingly as they got into the next
"No." She was as distinct as himself. She followed with her eyes
the little white lamb. She dismissed the subject. "You're simply
Barton Reeve, of a Sunday, sometimes went for luncheon to his
sister, who lived in Great Cumberland Place, and this particular
Sunday was so fine that, from the Buckingham Palace Road, he walked
across the Park. There, in the eastern quarter, he encountered many
persons who appeared, on the return from church, to have assembled to
meet each other and who had either disposed themselves on penny chairs
or were passing to and fro near the Park Lane palings. The sitters
looked at the walkers, the walkers at the sitters, and Barton Reeve,
with his sharp eyes, at every one. Thus it was that he presently
perceived, under a spreading tree, Miss Hamer and her sister, who,
however, though in possession of chairs, were not otherwise engaged.
He went straight up to them, and, while he stood talking, they were
approached by another friend, an elderly intimate, as it seemed, of
Mrs Gorton's, whom he recognised as one of the persons so trying to
his patience the day of his long wait in her drawing-room. Barton Reeve
looked very hard at the younger lady, and was perfectly conscious of
the effect he produced of always reminding her that there was a
subject between them. He was, on the other hand, probably not aware of
the publicity that his manner struck his alert young friend as
conferring on this circumstance, nor of the degree in which, as an
illustration of his intensity about his own interests, his candour
appeared to her comic. What was comic, on his part, was the
excessive frankness — clever man though he was — of his assumption
that he finely, quite disinterestedly, extended their subject by this
very looking of volumes. She and her affairs figured in them all, and
there was a set of several in a row by the time that, laughing in
spite of herself, she now said to him: "Will you take me a little
walk?" He left her in no doubt of his alacrity, and in a moment
Mrs Gorton's visitor was in her chair and our couple away from the
company and out in the open.
"I want you to know," the girl immediately began, "that I've said
what I could for you — that I say it whenever I can. But I've asked
you to speak to me now just because you mustn't be under any illusion
or flatter yourself that I'm doing—" she hesitated, for his attention
had made her stop short — "well, what I'm not. I may as well tell
you, at any rate," she added, "that I do maturely consider she cares
for you. But what will you have? She's a woman of duty."
"Duty? What do you mean by duty?"
Barton Reeve's irritation at this name had pierced the air with
such a sound that Margaret Hamer looked about for a caution. But they
were in an empty circle — a wide circle of smutty sheep. She showed
a slight prevision of embarrassment — even of weariness: she had
hoped for an absence of that. "You know what I mean. What else is
there to mean? I mean Colonel Despard."
"Was it her duty to Colonel Despard to be as consciously charming
to me as if there had been no such person alive? Has she explained to
you that?" he demanded.
"She hasn't explained to me anything — I don't need it," said the
girl with some spirit. "I've only explained to her."
"Well?" — he was almost peremptory.
She didn't mind it. "Well, her excuse — for her false position, I
mean — is really a perfectly good one." Miss Hamer had been standing,
but with this she walked on. "She found she — what do you call it? —
"Then what's the matter?"
"Why, that she didn't know how much you'd like her, how far you'd
— what do you call it? — 'go'. It's odious to be talking of such
things, I think," she pursued; "and I assure you I wouldn't do it for
other people — for any one but you and her. It makes it all sound so
vulgar. She didn't think you cared — on the contrary. Then when she
began to see, she had got in too deep."
"She had made my life impossible to me without her? She certainly
has 'got in' to that extent," said Barton Reeve, "and it's precisely
my contention. Can you pretend for her that to have found out that
she has done this leaves open to her, in common decency, any but the
"I don't pretend anything!" his companion replied with some
confusion and still more impatience. "I'm bound to say I don't see
what responsibility you're trying to fix on me."
He just cast about him, making little wild jerks with his stick.
"I'm not trying anything and you're awfully good to me. I dare say my
predicament makes me a shocking bore — makes me in fact ridiculous.
But I don't speak to you only because you're her friend — her friend,
and therefore not indifferent to the benefit for her of what, take it
altogether, I have to offer. It's because I feel so sure of how, in
her place, you would generously, admirably take your own line."
"Heaven forbid I should ever be in her place!" Margaret exclaimed
with a laugh in which it pleased Reeve, at the moment, to discover a
world of dissimulation.
"You're already there — I say, come!" the young man had it on his
tongue's end to reply. But he stopped himself in time, and felt
extraordinarily delicate and discreet. "I don't say it's the easiest
one in the world; but here I stand, after all — and I'm not supposed
to be such an ass — ready to give her every conceivable assistance."
His friend, at this, replied nothing; but he presently spoke again.
"What has she invented, at Pickenham, to-day, but to keep me from
"Is Kate to-day at Pickenham?" Miss Hamer inquired.
Barton Reeve, in his acuteness, caught something in the question —
an energy of profession of ignorance — in which he again saw depths.
It presented Pickenham and whomsoever might be there as such a blank
that he felt quite forced to say: "I rather imagined — till I spied
you just now — that you would have gone."
"Well, you see I haven't." With which our young lady paused again,
turning on him more frankly. It struck him that, as from a conscious
effort, she had a heightened colour. "You must know far better than I
what she feels, but I repeat it to you, once for all, as, the last
time I saw her, she gave it me. I said just now she hadn't explained,
but she did explain that." The girl just faltered, but she brought it
out. "She can't divorce. And if she can't, you know, she can't!"
"I never heard such twaddle," Barton Reeve declared. "As if a
woman with a husband who hates her so he would like to kill her
couldn't obtain any freedom—!" And he gave such a passionate whirl of
his stick that it flew straight away from him.
His companion waited till he had picked it up. "Ah, but there's
freedom and freedom."
"She can do anything on all the wide earth she likes." He had gone
on as if not hearing her, and, lost in the vastness of his meaning, he
absolutely glared a while at the distance. "But she's afraid!"
Miss Hamer, in her turn, stared at the way he sounded it; then she
gave a vague laugh. "How you say that!"
Barton Reeve said it again — said it with rage and scorn. "She's
afraid, she's afraid!"
Margaret continued to look at him; then she turned away. "Yes —
"Well, who wouldn't be?" came to her, as a reply, across the grass.
Mrs Gorton, with two gentlemen now, rejoined them.
On hearing from Mrs Despard that she must see him, Philip Mackern's
action was immediate: she had named the morrow for his call, but he
knocked at her door, on the chance, an hour after reading her note.
The footman demurred, but at the same moment Barton Reeve, taking his
departure, appeared in the hall, and Mackern instantly appealed to him.
"She is at home, I judge — isn't she?" The young man was
so impatient that it was only afterwards he took into account a
queerness of look on Reeve's part — a queerness that seemed to speak
of a different crisis and that indeed something in his own face might,
to his friend's eyes, remarkably have matched. Like two uneasy
Englishmen, at any rate, they somehow passed each other, and when, a
minute later, in the drawing-room, Mrs Despard, who, with her back
presented, was at the window, turned about at the sound of his name,
she showed him an expression in which nothing corresponded to that of
her other visitor. It may promptly be mentioned that, even through
what followed, this visitor's presence was, to Mackern's sense, still
in the air; only it was also just one of the things ministering, for
our friend, to the interest of retrospect that such a fact — the fact
that Mrs Despard could be so 'wonderful' — conveyed a reminder of the
superior organisation of women. "I know you said to-morrow," he
quickly began; "but I'll come to-morrow too. Is it bad or good?" he
went on — "I mean what you have to tell me. Even if I just know it's
bad, I believe I can wait — if you haven't time now."
"I haven't time, at all, now," Mrs Despard replied very sweetly.
"I can only give you two minutes — my dressmaker's waiting. But it
isn't bad," she added.
"Then it's good?" he eagerly asked.
"Oh, I haven't the least idea you'll think it so! But it's because
it's exactly what I myself have been wanting and hoping that I wrote
to you. It strikes me that the sooner you know the better. I've just
heard from Bombay — from Amy Warden."
"Amy Warden?" Philip Mackern wondered.
"John Grove-Stewart's sister — the nice one. He comes home
immediately — doesn't wait till the autumn. So there you are!" said
Philip Mackern looked straight at the news, with which she now
presented herself as brilliantly illuminated. "I don't see that I'm
anywhere but where I've always been. I haven't expected anything of
his absence that I shan't expect of his presence."
Mrs Despard thought a moment, but with perfect serenity. "Have you
expected quite fatally to compromise her?"
He gave her question an equal consideration. "To compromise her?"
"That's what you are doing, you know — as deliberately as ever
Again the young man thought. They were in the middle of the room
— she had not asked him to sit down. "Quite fatally, you say?"
"Well, she has just one chance to save herself."
Mackern, whom Mrs Despard had already, more than once, seen turn
pale under the emotion of which she could touch the spring, gave her
again — and with it a smile that struck her as strange — this sign
of sensibility. "Yes — she may have only one chance. But it's such a
good one!" he laughed. "What is Mr Grove-Stewart coming home for?"
"Because it has reached him that the whole place is filled with
the wonder of her conduct. Amy Warden thinks that, as so intimate a
friend, I should hear what he has decided to do. She takes for
granted, I suppose — though she doesn't say it — that I'll let
Philip Mackern looked at the ceiling. "She doesn't know yet? "
Mrs Despard hesitated. "I suppose he means it as a surprise."
"So you won't tell her?"
"On the contrary — I shall tell her immediately. But I thought it
best to tell you first."
"I'm extremely obliged to you," said Philip Mackern.
"Of course you hate me — but I don't care!" Mrs Despard declared.
"You've made her talked about in India — you may be proud!"
Once more Philip Mackern considered. "I'm not at all proud — but
I think I'm very glad."
"I think you're very horrible then. But I've said what I wanted.
Good-bye." Mrs Despard had nodded at the footman, who, returning, had
announced her carriage. He had left, on retiring, the door open, and
as she followed him to go to her room her visitor went out with her.
She gave Mackern, on the landing, a last word. "Her one chance is to
marry him as soon as he arrives."
Mackern's strange smile, in his white face, was now fixed. "Her
one chance, dear lady, is to marry me."
His hostess, suddenly flushing on this, showed a passion that
startled him. " Stuff!" she crudely cried, and turned away with such
impatience that, quitting her, he passed half downstairs. But she more
quickly turned back to him; calling his name, she came to the top,
while, checked, he looked up at her. Then she spoke with a particular
solemnity. "To marry you, Mr Mackern" — it was quite portentous —
"will be the very worst thing for her good name."
The young man stood staring, then frankly emulated his friend.
"Rubbish!" he rang out as he swiftly descended.
"Mrs Gorton has come in?"
"No, miss; but Mrs Despard is here. She said she'd wait for you."
"Then I'm not at home to any one." Margaret Hamer went straight
upstairs and found her visitor in the smaller drawing-room, not
seated, erect before the fireplace and with the air of having for some
time restlessly paced and turned. Mrs Despard hailed her with an
"It has come at last!"
"Do you mean you've seen your husband?"
"He dropped on me to-day — out of the blue. He came in just
before luncheon. If the house is his own—!" And Mrs Despard, who, as
with the first relief to her impatience, had flung herself, to
emphasise her announcement on the sofa, gave a long, sombre sigh.
"If the house is his own he can come when he likes?" Standing
before her and looking grave and tired, Margaret Hamer showed
interest, but kept expression down. "And yet you were so splendidly
sure," she continued, "that he wouldn't come!"
"I wasn't sure — I see now I wasn't; I only tried to convince
myself. I knew — at the back of my head — that he probably was
in England; I felt in all my bones — six weeks ago, you know — that
he would really have returned and, in his own infamous, underhand way,
would be somewhere looking out. He told me to-day about ninety
distinct lies. I don't know how he has kept so dark, but he has been
at one of the kind of places he likes — some fourth-rate
Margaret waited a moment. "With any one?"
"I don't know. I don't care." This time, for emphasis, Mrs Despard
jumped up and, wandering, like a caged creature, to a distance,
stopped before a glass and gave a touch or two to the position of her
hat. "It makes no difference. Nothing makes any."
Her friend, across the room, looked at her with a certain
blankness. "Of what does he accuse you?"
"Of nothing whatever," said Mrs Despard, turning round. "Not of
the least little thing!" she sighed, coming back.
"Then he made no scene?"
"No — it was too awful."
Again the girl faltered. "Do you mean he was—?"
"I mean he was dreadful. I mean I can't bear it."
"Does he want to come back?"
"Immediately and for ever. 'Beginning afresh,' he calls it.
Fancy," the poor woman cried, rueful and wide-eyed as with a vision of
more things than she could name — "fancy beginning afresh!" Once
more, in her fidget, appalled, she sank into the nearest seat.
This image of a recommencement had just then, for both ladies, in
all the circumstances, a force that filled the room — that seemed for
a little fairly to make a hush. "But if he can't oblige you?" Margaret
Mrs Despard sat sombre. "He
can oblige me."
"Do you mean by law?"
"Oh," she wailed, "I mean by everything! By my having been the
fool—!" She dropped to her intolerable sense of it.
Margaret watched her an instant. "Oh, if you say it of yourself!"
Mrs Despard gave one of her springs. "And don't
you say it?"
Margaret met her eyes, but changed colour. "Say it of you?"
"Say it of
They fixed each other a while; it was deep — it was even hard.
"Yes," said the girl at last. But she turned away.
Her companion's eyes followed her as she moved; then Mrs Despard
broke out. "Do you mean you're not going to keep faith?"
"What faith do you
"You know perfectly what I call faith for
you, and in how
little doubt, from the first, I've left you about it!"
This reply had been sharp enough to jerk the speaker for a moment,
as by the toss of her head, out of her woe, but Margaret met it at
first only by showing her again a face that enjoined patience and
pity. They continued to look indeed, each out of her peculiar
distress, more things than they found words for. "I don't know,"
Margaret Hamer finally said. "I have time — I've a little; I've more
than you — that's what makes me so sorry for you. I've been very
possibly the direst idiot — I'll admit anything you like; though I
won't pretend I see now how it could have been different. It couldn't
— it couldn't. I don't know, I don't know," she wearily, mechanically
repeated. There was something in her that had surrendered by this time
all the importance of her personal question; she wished to keep it
back or to get rid of it. "Don't, at any rate, think one is selfish
and all taken up. I'm perfectly quiet — it's only about you I'm
nervous. You're worse than I, dear," she added with a dim smile.
But Mrs Despard took it more than gravely. "Worse?"
"I mean you've more to think of. And perhaps even
Mrs Despard thought again. "He's terrible."
Her companion hesitated — she had perhaps mistaken the allusion.
"I don't mean your husband."
had mistaken the allusion, but she carried it
off. "Barton Reeve is terrible. It's more than I deserve."
"Well, he really cares. There it is."
"Yes, there it is!" Mrs Despard echoed. "And much
They hovered about, but shifting their relation now and each
keeping something back. "When are you to see him again?" Margaret
This time Mrs Despard knew whom she meant. "Never — never again.
What I may feel for him — what I may feel for myself — has nothing
to do with it. Never as long as I live!" Margaret's visitor declared.
"You don't believe it?" she, however, the next moment demanded.
"I don't believe it. You know how I've always liked him. But what
has that to do with it either?" the girl almost incoherently
continued. "I don't believe it — no," she repeated. "I don't want to
make anything harder for you, but you won't find it so easy."
"I shan't find anything easy, and I must row my own boat. But not
seeing him will be the least impossibility."
Margaret looked away. "Well!" — she spoke at last vaguely and
Something in her tone so arrested her friend that she found
herself suddenly clutched by the arm. "Do you mean to say you'll see
"I don't know."
"Then I do!" Mrs Despard pronounced with energy. "You're
"Ah!" wailed Margaret with the same wan detachment.
"Yes, simply lost!" It rang out — would have rung out indeed too
loud had it not caught itself just in time. Mrs Gorton at that moment
opened the door.
Mrs Despard at last came down — he had been sure it would be but a
question of time. Barton Reeve had, to this end, presented himself, on
the Sunday morning, early: he had allowed a margin for difficulty. He
was armed with a note of three lines, which, on the butler's saying to
him that she was not at home, he simply, in a tone before which even a
butler prompted and primed must quail, requested him to carry straight
up. Then unannounced and unaccompanied, not knowing in the least whom
he should find, he had taken, for the hundredth time in four months,
his quick course to the drawing-room, where emptiness, as it proved,
reigned, but where, notwithstanding, he felt, at the end of an hour,
rather more than less in possession. To express it, to put it to her,
to put it to any one, would perhaps have been vain and vulgar; but the
whole assurance on which he had proceeded was his sense that, on the
spot, he had, to a certain point, an effect. He was enough on the spot
from the moment she knew he was, and she would know it — know it by
divination, as she had often before shown how extraordinarily she knew
things — even if that pompous ass had not sent up his note. To what
point his effect would prevail in the face of the biggest obstacle he
had yet had to deal with was exactly what he had come to find out. It
was enough, to begin with, that he did, after a weary wait, draw her
— draw her in spite of everything: he felt that as he at last heard
her hand on the door-knob. He heard it indeed pause as well as move —
pause while he himself kept perfectly still. During this minute, it
must be added, he looked straight at the ugliest of the whole mixed
row of possibilities. Something had yielded — yes; but what had
yielded was quite most probably not her softness. It might well be her
hardness. Her hardness was her love of the sight of her own effect.
Dressed for church, though it was now much too late, she was more
breathless than he had ever seen her; in spite of which, beginning
immediately, he gave her not a moment. "I make a scandal, your letter
tells me — I make it, you say, even before the servants, whom you
appear to have taken in the most extraordinary way into your
confidence. You greatly exaggerate — but even suppose I do: let me
assure you frankly that I care not one rap. What you've done you've
done, and I'm here in spite of your letter — and in spite of
anything, of everything, any one else may say — on the perfectly
solid ground of your having irretrievably done it. Don't talk to me,"
Reeve went on, "about your husband and new complications: to do that
now is horribly unworthy of you and quite the sort of thing that adds
— well, you know what — to injury. There isn't a single complication
that there hasn't always been and that we haven't, on the whole,
completely mastered and put in its place. There was nothing in your
husband that prevented, from the first hour we met, your showing
yourself, and every one else you chose, what you could do with me.
What you could do you did systematically and without a scruple —
without a pang of real compunction or a movement of real retreat."
Mrs Despard had not come down unprepared, and her impenetrable
face now announced it. She was even strong enough to speak softly —
not to meet anger with anger. Yet she was also clearly on her defence.
"If I was kind to you — if I had the frankness and confidence to let
it be seen I liked you — it's because I thought I was safe."
"Safe?" Barton Reeve echoed. "Yes, I've no doubt you did! And how
safe did you think I was? Can't you give me some account of the
attention you gave to that?" She looked at him without reply to
his challenge, but the full beauty of her silent face had only, as in
two or three still throbs, to come out, to affect him suddenly with
all the force of a check. The plea of her deep, pathetic eyes took the
place of the admission that his passion vainly desired to impose upon
her. They broke his resentment down; all his tenderness welled up with
the change; it came out in supplication. "I can't look at you and
believe any ill of you. I feel for you everything I ever felt, and
that we're committed to each other by a power that not even death can
break. How can you look at me and not know to what depths I'm
yours? You've the finest, sweetest chance that ever a woman had!"
She waited a little, and the firmness in her face, the intensity
of her effort to possess herself, settled into exaltation, at the same
time that she might have struck a spectator as staring at some object
of fear. "I see my chance — I see it; but I don't see it as you see
it. You must forgive me. My chance is not that chance. It has
come to me — God knows why! — but in the hardest way of all. I made
a great mistake — I recognise it."
"So I must pay for it?" Barton Reeve asked.
She continued to look at him with her protected dread. "We both
did — so we must both pay."
"Both? I beg your pardon," said the young man: "I utterly deny it
— I made no mistake whatever. I'm just where I was — and everything
else is. Everything but you!"
She looked away from him, but going on as if she had not heard
him. "We must do our duty — when once we see it. I didn't know — I
didn't understand. But now I do. It's when one's eyes are opened —
that the wrong is wrong." Not as a lesson got by heart, not as a trick
rehearsed in her room, but delicately, beautifully, step by step, she
made it out for herself — and for him so far as he would take it. "I
can only follow the highest line." Then, after faltering a moment, "We
must thank God," she said, "it isn't worse. My husband's here," she
added with a sufficient strangeness of effect.
But Barton Reeve accepted the mere fact as relevant. "Do you mean
he's in the house?"
"Not at this moment. He's on the river — for the day. But he
comes back to-morrow."
"And he has been here since Friday?" She was silent, on this, so
long that her visitor continued: "It's none of my business?"
Again she hesitated, but at last she replied. "Since Friday."
"And you hate him as much as ever?"
This time she spoke out. "More."
Reeve made, with a sound irrepressible and scarce articulate, a
motion that was a sort of dash at her. "Ah, my own own!"
But she retreated straight before him, checking him with a gesture
of horror, her first outbreak of emotion. "Don't touch me!" He turned,
after a minute, away; then, like a man dazed, looked, without sight,
about for something. It proved to be his hat, which he presently went
and took up. "Don't talk, don't talk — you're not in it!" she
continued. "You speak of 'paying', but it's I who pay." He reached
the door and, having opened it, stood with his hand on the knob and
his eyes on her face. She was far away, at the most distant of the
windows. "I shall never care for any one again," she kept on.
Reeve had dropped to something deeper than resentment; more
abysmal, even, it seemed to him, than renouncement or despair. But all
he did was slowly to shake his helpless head at her. "I've no words
"It doesn't matter. Don't think of me."
He was closing the door behind him, but, still hearing her voice,
kept it an instant. "I'm all right!" — that was the last that came to
him as he drew the door to.
"I only speak of the given case," Philip Mackern said; "that's the
only thing I have to do with, and on what I've expressed to you of the
situation it has made for me I don't yield an inch."
Mrs Gorton, to whom, in her own house, he had thus, in defence,
addressed himself, was in a flood of tears which rolled, however, in
their current not a few hard grains of asperity. "You're always
speaking of it, and it acts on my nerves, and I don't know what you
mean by it, and I don't care, and I think you're horrible. The case is
like any other case that can be mended if people will behave decently."
Philip Mackern moved slowly about the room; impatience and
suspense were in every step he took, but he evidently had himself well
in hand and he met his hostess with studied indulgence. She had made
her appearance, in advance, to prepare him for her sister, who had
agreed by letter to see him, but who, through a detention on the line,
which she had wired from Bath to explain, had been made late for the
appointment she was on her way back to town to keep. Margaret Hamer
had gone home precipitately — to Devonshire — five days before, the
day after her last interview with Mrs Despard; on which had ensued,
with the young man, whom she had left London without seeing, a
correspondence resulting in her present return. She had forbidden him,
in spite of his insistence, either to come down to her at her mother's
or to be at Paddington to meet her, and had finally, arriving from
these places, but just alighted in Manchester Square, where, while he
awaited her, Mackern's restless measurement of the empty drawing-room
had much in common with the agitation to which, in a similar place,
his friend Barton Reeve had already been condemned. Mrs Gorton,
emerging from a deeper retreat, had at last, though not out of
compassion, conferred on him her company; she left him from the first
instant in no doubt of the spirit in which she approached him.
Margaret was at last almost indecently there, Margaret was upstairs,
Margaret was coming down; but he would render the whole family an
inestimable service by quietly taking up his hat and departing without
further parley. Philip Mackern, whose interest in this young lady was
in no degree whatever an interest in other persons connected with her,
only transferred his hat from the piano to the window-seat and put it
kindly to Mrs Gorton that such a departure would be, if the girl had
come to take leave of him, a brutality, and if she had come to do
anything else an imbecility. His inward attitude was that his
interlocutress was an insufferable busybody: he took his stand, he
considered, upon admirable facts; Margaret Hamer's age and his own —
twenty-six and thirty-two — her independence, her intelligence, his
career, his prospects, his general and his particular situation, his
income, his extraordinary merit, and perhaps even his personal
appearance. He left his sentiments, in this private estimate, out of
account — he was almost too proud to mention them even to himself.
Yet he found, after the first moment, that he had to mention them to
"I don't know what you mean," he said, "by my 'always' speaking of
anything whatever that's between your sister and me; for I must remind
you that this is the third time, at most, that we've had any talk of
the matter. If I did, however, touch, to you, last month, on what I
hold that a woman is, in certain circumstances — circumstances that,
mind you, would never have existed without her encouragement, her
surrender — bound in honour to do, it was because you yourself,
though I dare say you didn't know with what realities you were
dealing, called my attention precisely to the fact of the 'given
case'. It isn't always, it isn't often, given, perhaps — but when it
is one knows it. And it's given now if it ever was in the world,"
Mackern still, with his suppression of violence, but with an emphasis
the more distinct for its peculiar amenity, asserted as he resumed his
Mrs Gorton watched him a moment through such traces of tears as
still resisted the extreme freedom of her pocket-handkerchief. "Admit
then as much as you like that you've been a pair of fools and
criminals" — the poor woman went far: "what business in the world
have you to put the whole responsibility on her?"
Mackern pulled up short; nothing could exceed the benevolence of
his surprise. "On 'her'? Why, don't I absolutely take an equal share
"Equal? Not a bit! You're not engaged to any one else."
"Oh, thank heaven, no!" said Philip Mackern with a laugh of
questionable discretion and instant effect.
His companion's cheek assumed a deeper hue and her eyes a drier
light. "You cause her to be outrageously talked about, and then have
the assurance to come and prate to us of 'honour'!"
Mackern turned away again — again he measured his cage. "What is
there I'm not ready to make good?" — and he gave, as he passed, a
hard, anxious smile.
Mrs Gorton said nothing for a moment; then she spoke with an
accumulation of dignity. "I think you both — if you want to know —
absolutely improper persons, and if I had had my wits about me I would
have declined, in time, to lend my house again to any traffic that
might take place between you. But you're hatefully here, to my shame,
and the wretched creature, whom I myself got off, has come up, and the
fat's on the fire, and it's too late to prevent it. It's not too late,
however, just to say this: that if you've come, and if you intend, to
bully and browbeat her—"
"Well?" Philip Mackern asked.
She had faltered and paused, and the next moment he saw why. The
door had opened without his hearing it — Margaret Hamer stood and
looked at them. He made no movement; he only, after a minute, held her
eyes long enough to fortify him, as it were, in his attempted
intensity of stillness. He felt already as if some process, something
complex and exquisite, were going on that a sound, that a gesture
might spoil. But his challenge to Mrs Gorton was still in the air, and
she apparently, on her vision of her sister, had seen something pass.
She fixed the girl and she fixed Mackern; then, highly flushed and
moving to the door, she answered him. "Why, you're a brute and a
coward!" With which she banged the door behind her.
The way the others met without speech or touch was extraordinary,
and still more singular perhaps the things that, in their silence,
Philip Mackern thought. There was no freedom of appeal for him — he
instantly felt that; there was neither burden nor need. He wondered
Margaret didn't notice in some way what Mrs Gorton had said; there was
a strangeness in her not, on one side or the other, taking that up.
There was a strangeness as well, he was perfectly aware, in his
finding himself surprised and even, for ten seconds, as it happened,
mercilessly disappointed, at her not looking quite so 'badly' as her
encounter with a grave crisis might have been entitled to present her.
She looked beautiful, perversely beautiful: he couldn't indeed have
said just how directly his presumption of visible ravage was to have
treated her handsome head. Meanwhile, as she carried this handsome
head — in a manner he had never quite seen her carry it before — to
the window and stood looking blindly out, there deepened in him almost
to quick anguish the fear even of breathing upon the hour they had
reached. That she had come back to him, to whatever end, was somehow
in itself so divine a thing that lips and hands were gross to deal
with it. What, moreover, in the extremity of a man's want, had he not
already said? They were simply shut up there with their moment, and
he, at least, felt it throb and throb in the hush.
At last she turned round. "He will never, never understand that I
can have been so base."
Mackern awkwardly demurred. "Base?"
"Letting you, from the first, make, to me, such a difference."
"I don't think you could help it." He was still awkward.
"How can he believe that? How can he admit it?"
She asked it too wofully to expect a reply, but the young man
thought a moment. "You can't look to me to speak for him" — he said
it as feeling his way and without a smile. "He should have looked out
"He trusted me. He trusted me," she repeated.
"So did I — so did I."
"Yes. Yes." She looked straight at him, as if tasting all her
bitterness. "But I pity him so that it kills me!"
"And only him?" — and Philip Mackern came nearer. "It's perfectly
simple," he went on. "I'll abide by that measure. It shall be the one
you pity most."
She kept her eyes on him till she burst into tears. "Pity
— pity me!"
He drew her to him and held her close and long, and even at that
high moment it was perhaps the deepest thing in his gratitude that he
did pity her.