The Middle Years
by Henry James
The April day was soft and bright, and poor Dencombe, happy in the
conceit of reasserted strength, stood in the garden of the hotel,
comparing, with a deliberation in which however there was still
something of languor, the attractions of easy strolls. He liked the
feeling of the south so far as you could have it in the north, he liked
the sandy cliffs and the clustered pines, he liked even the colourless
sea. "Bournemouth as a health-resort" had sounded like a mere
advertisement, but he was thankful now for the commonest conveniences.
The sociable country postman, passing through the garden, had just
given him a small parcel which he took out with him, leaving the hotel
to the right and creeping to a bench he had already haunted, a safe
recess in the cliff. It looked to the south, to the tinted walls of the
Island, and was protected behind by the sloping shoulder of the down.
He was tired enough when he reached it, and for a moment was
disappointed; he was better of course, but better, after all, than
what? He should never again, as at one or two great moments of the
past, be better than himself. The infinite of life was gone, and what
remained of the dose a small glass scored like a thermometer by the
apothecary. He sat and stared at the sea, which appeared all surface
and twinkle, far shallower than the spirit of man. It was the abyss of
human illusion that was the real, the tideless deep. He held his
packet, which had come by book-post, unopened on his knee, liking, in
the lapse of so many joys—his illness had made him feel his age—to
know it was there, but taking for granted there could be no complete
renewal of the pleasure, dear to young experience, of seeing one's self
"just out." Dencombe, who had a reputation, had come out too often and
knew too well in advance how he should look.
His postponement associated itself vaguely, after a little, with a
group of three persons, two ladies and a young man, whom, beneath him,
straggling and seemingly silent, he could see move slowly together
along the sands. The gentleman had his head bent over a book and was
occasionally brought to a stop by the charm of this volume, which, as
Dencombe could perceive even at a distance, had a cover alluringly red.
Then his companions, going a little further, waited for him to come up,
poking their parasols into the beach, looking around them at the sea
and sky and clearly sensible of the beauty of the day. To these things
the young man with the book was still more clearly indifferent;
lingering, credulous, absorbed, he was an object of envy to an observer
from whose connexion with literature all such artlessness had faded.
One of the ladies was large and mature; the other had the spareness of
comparative youth and of a social situation possibly inferior. The
large lady carried back Dencombe's imagination to the age of crinoline;
she wore a hat of the shape of a mushroom, decorated with a blue veil,
and had the air, in her aggressive amplitude, of clinging to a vanished
fashion or even a lost cause. Presently her companion produced from
under the folds of a mantle a limp portable chair which she stiffened
out and of which the large lady took possession. This act, and
something in the movement of either party, at once characterised the
performers—they performed for Dencombe's recreation—as opulent matron
and humble dependent. Where moreover was the virtue of an approved
novelist if one couldn't establish a relation between such figures? the
clever theory for instance that the young man was the son of the
opulent matron and that the humble dependent, the daughter of a
clergyman or an officer, nourished a secret passion for him. Was that
not visible from the way she stole behind her protectress to look back
at him?—back to where he had let himself come to a full stop when his
mother sat down to rest. His book was a novel, it had the catchpenny
binding; so that while the romance of life stood neglected at his side
he lost himself in that of the circulating library. He moved
mechanically to where the sand was softer and ended by plumping down in
it to finish his chapter at his ease. The humble dependent, discouraged
by his remoteness, wandered with a martyred droop of the head in
another direction, and the exorbitant lady, watching the waves, offered
a confused resemblance to a flying-machine that had broken down.
When his drama began to fail Dencombe remembered that he had after
all another pastime. Though such promptitude on the part of the
publisher was rare he was already able to draw from its wrapper his
"latest," perhaps his last. The cover of "The Middle Years" was duly
meretricious, the smell of the fresh pages the very odour of sanctity;
but for the moment he went no further—he had become conscious of a
strange alienation. He had forgotten what his book was about. Had the
assault of his old ailment, which he had so fallaciously come to
Bournemouth to ward off, interposed utter blankness as to what had
preceded it? He had finished the revision of proof before quitting
London, but his subsequent fortnight in bed had passed the sponge over
colour. He couldn't have chanted to himself a single sentence, couldn't
have turned with curiosity or confidence to any particular page. His
subject had already gone from him, leaving scarce a superstition
behind. He uttered a low moan as he breathed the chill of this dark
void, so desperately it seemed to represent the completion of a
sinister process. The tears filled his mild eyes; something precious
had passed away. This was the pang that had been sharpest during the
last few years—the sense of ebbing time, of shrinking opportunity; and
now he felt not so much that his last chance was going as that it was
gone indeed. He had done all he should ever do, and yet hadn't done
what he wanted. This was the laceration—that practically his career
was over: it was as violent as a grip at his throat. He rose from his
seat nervously—a creature hunted by a dread; then he fell back in his
weakness and nervously opened his book. It was a single volume; he
preferred single volumes and aimed at a rare compression. He began to
read and, little by little, in this occupation, was pacified and
reassured. Everything came back to him, but came back with a wonder,
came back above all with a high and magnificent beauty. He read his own
prose, he turned his own leaves, and had as he sat there with the
spring sunshine on the page an emotion peculiar and intense. His career
was over, no doubt, but it was over, when all was said, with THAT.
He had forgotten during his illness the work of the previous year;
but what he had chiefly forgotten was that it was extraordinarily good.
He dived once more into his story and was drawn down, as by a siren's
hand, to where, in the dim underworld of fiction, the great glazed tank
of art, strange silent subjects float. He recognised his motive and
surrendered to his talent. Never probably had that talent, such as it
was, been so fine. His difficulties were still there, but what was also
there, to his perception, though probably, alas! to nobody's else, was
the art that in most cases had surmounted them. In his surprised
enjoyment of this ability he had a glimpse of a possible reprieve.
Surely its force wasn't spent—there was life and service in it yet. It
hadn't come to him easily, it had been backward and roundabout. It was
the child of time, the nursling of delay; he had struggled and suffered
for it, making sacrifices not to be counted, and now that it was really
mature was it to cease to yield, to confess itself brutally beaten?
There was an infinite charm for Dencombe in feeling as he had never
felt before that diligence vincit omnia. The result produced in
his little book was somehow a result beyond his conscious intention: it
was as if he had planted his genius, had trusted his method, and they
had grown up and flowered with this sweetness. If the achievement had
been real, however, the process had been painful enough. What he saw so
intensely to-day, what he felt as a nail driven in, was that only now,
at the very last, had he come into possession. His development had been
abnormally slow, almost grotesquely gradual. He had been hindered and
retarded by experience, he had for long periods only groped his way. It
had taken too much of his life to produce too little of his art. The
art had come, but it had come after everything else. At such a rate a
first existence was too short—long enough only to collect material; so
that to fructify, to use the material, one should have a second age, an
extension. This extension was what poor Dencombe sighed for. As he
turned the last leaves of his volume he murmured "Ah for another go, ah
for a better chance!"
The three persons drawing his attention to the sands had vanished
and then reappeared; they had now wandered up a path, an artificial and
easy ascent, which led to the top of the cliff. Dencombe's bench was
halfway down, on a sheltered ledge, and the large lady, a massive
heterogeneous person with bold black eyes and kind red cheeks, now took
a few moments to rest. She wore dirty gauntlets and immense diamond
ear-rings; at first she looked vulgar, but she contradicted this
announcement in an agreeable off-hand tone. While her companions stood
waiting for her she spread her skirts on the end of Dencombe's seat.
The young man had gold spectacles, through which, with his finger still
in his red-covered book, he glanced at the volume, bound in the same
shade of the same colour, lying on the lap of the original occupant of
the bench. After an instant Dencombe felt him struck with a
resemblance; he had recognised the gilt stamp on the crimson cloth, was
reading "The Middle Years" and now noted that somebody else had kept
pace with him. The stranger was startled, possibly even a little
ruffled, to find himself not the only person favoured with an early
copy. The eyes of the two proprietors met a moment, and Dencombe
borrowed amusement from the expression of those of his competitor,
those, it might even be inferred, of his admirer. They confessed to
some resentment—they seemed to say: "Hang it, has he got it ALREADY?
Of course he's a brute of a reviewer!" Dencombe shuffled his copy out
of sight while the opulent matron, rising from her repose, broke out:
"I feel already the good of this air!"
"I can't say I do," said the angular lady. "I find myself quite let
"I find myself horribly hungry. At what time did you order
luncheon?" her protectress pursued.
The young person put the question by. "Doctor Hugh always orders
"I ordered nothing to-day—I'm going to make you diet," said their
"Then I shall go home and sleep. Qui dort dine!"
"Can I trust you to Miss Vernham?" asked Doctor Hugh of his elder
"Don't I trust YOU?" she archly enquired.
"Not too much!" Miss Vernham, with her eyes on the ground,
permitted herself to declare. "You must come with us at least to the
house," she went on while the personage on whom they appeared to be in
attendance began to mount higher. She had got a little out of ear-shot;
nevertheless Miss Vernham became, so far as Dencombe was concerned,
less distinctly audible to murmur to the young man: "I don't think you
realise all you owe the Countess!"
Absently, a moment, Doctor Hugh caused his gold-rimmed spectacles
to shine at her. "Is that the way I strike you? I see—I see!"
"She's awfully good to us," continued Miss Vernham, compelled by
the lapse of the other's motion to stand there in spite of his
discussion of private matters. Of what use would it have been that
Dencombe should be sensitive to shades hadn't he detected in that
arrest a strange influence from the quiet old convalescent in the great
tweed cape? Miss Vernham appeared suddenly to become aware of some such
connexion, for she added in a moment: "If you want to sun yourself here
you can come back after you've seen us home."
Doctor Hugh, at this, hesitated, and Dencombe, in spite of a desire
to pass for unconscious, risked a covert glance at him. What his eyes
met this time, as happened, was, on the part of the young lady, a queer
stare, naturally vitreous, which made her remind him of some figure—he
couldn't name it—in a play or a novel, some sinister governess or
tragic old maid. She seemed to scan him, to challenge him, to say out
of general spite: "What have you got to do with us?" At the same
instant the rich humour of the Countess reached them from above:
"Come, come, my little lambs; you should follow your old bergere
!" Miss Vernham turned away for it, pursuing the ascent, and Doctor
Hugh, after another mute appeal to Dencombe and a minute's evident
demur, deposited his book on the bench as if to keep his place, or even
as a gage of earnest return, and bounded without difficulty up the
rougher part of the cliff.
Equally innocent and infinite are the pleasures of observation and
the resources engendered by the trick of analysing life. It amused poor
Dencombe, as he dawdled in his tepid air-bath, to believe himself
awaiting a revelation of something at the back of a fine young mind. He
looked hard at the book on the end of the bench, but wouldn't have
touched it for the world. It served his purpose to have a theory that
shouldn't be exposed to refutation. He already felt better of his
melancholy; he had, according to his old formula, put his head at the
window. A passing Countess could draw off the fancy when, like the
elder of the ladies who had just retreated, she was as obvious as the
giantess of a caravan. It was indeed general views that were terrible;
short ones, contrary to an opinion sometimes expressed, were the
refuge, were the remedy. Doctor Hugh couldn't possibly be anything but
a reviewer who had understandings for early copies with publishers or
with newspapers. He reappeared in a quarter of an hour with visible
relief at finding Dencombe on the spot and the gleam of white teeth in
an embarrassed but generous smile. He was perceptibly disappointed at
the eclipse of the other copy of the book; it made a pretext the less
for speaking to the quiet gentleman. But he spoke notwithstanding; he
held up his own copy and broke out pleadingly: "DO say, if you have
occasion to speak of it, that it's the best thing he has done yet!"
Dencombe responded with a laugh: "Done yet" was so amusing to him,
made such a grand avenue of the future. Better still, the young man
took HIM for a reviewer. He pulled out "The Middle Years" from under
his cape, but instinctively concealed any telltale look of fatherhood.
This was partly because a person was always a fool for insisting to
others on his work. "Is that what you're going to say yourself?" he put
to his visitor.
"I'm not quite sure I shall write anything. I don't, as a regular
thing—I enjoy in peace. But it's awfully fine."
Dencombe just debated. If the young man had begun to abuse him he
would have confessed on the spot to his identity, but there was no harm
in drawing out any impulse to praise. He drew it out with such success
that in a few moments his new acquaintance, seated by his side, was
confessing candidly that the works of the author of the volumes before
them were the only ones he could read a second time. He had come the
day before from London, where a friend of his, a journalist, had lent
him his copy of the last, the copy sent to the office of the journal
and already the subject of a "notice" which, as was pretended
there—but one had to allow for "swagger"—it had taken a full quarter
of an hour to prepare. He intimated that he was ashamed for his
friend, and in the case of a work demanding and repaying study, of such
inferior manners; and, with his fresh appreciation and his so irregular
wish to express it, he speedily became for poor Dencombe a remarkable,
a delightful apparition. Chance had brought the weary man of letters
face to face with the greatest admirer in the new generation of whom it
was supposable he might boast. The admirer in truth was mystifying, so
rare a case was it to find a bristling young doctor—he looked like a
German physiologist—enamoured of literary form. It was an accident,
but happier than most accidents, so that Dencombe, exhilarated as well
as confounded, spent half an hour in making his visitor talk while he
kept himself quiet. He explained his premature possession of "The
Middle Years" by an allusion to the friendship of the publisher, who,
knowing he was at Bournemouth for his health, had paid him this
graceful attention. He allowed he had been ill, for Doctor Hugh would
infallibly have guessed it; he even went so far as to wonder if he
mightn't look for some hygienic "tip" from a personage combining so
bright an enthusiasm with a presumable knowledge of the remedies now in
vogue. It would shake his faith a little perhaps to have to take a
doctor seriously who could take HIM so seriously, but he enjoyed this
gushing modern youth and felt with an acute pang that there would still
be work to do in a world in which such odd combinations were presented.
It wasn't true, what he had tried for renunciation's sake to believe,
that all the combinations were exhausted. They weren't by any means
—they were infinite: the exhaustion was in the miserable artist.
Doctor Hugh, an ardent physiologist, was saturated with the spirit
of the age—in other words he had just taken his degree; but he was
independent and various, he talked like a man who would have preferred
to love literature best. He would fain have made fine phrases, but
nature had denied him the trick. Some of the finest in "The Middle
Years" had struck him inordinately, and he took the liberty of reading
them to Dencombe in support of his plea. He grew vivid, in the balmy
air, to his companion, for whose deep refreshment he seemed to have
been sent; and was particularly ingenuous in describing how recently he
had become acquainted, and how instantly infatuated, with the only man
who had put flesh between the ribs of an art that was starving on
superstitions. He hadn't yet written to him—he was deterred by a
strain of respect. Dencombe at this moment rejoiced more inwardly than
ever that he had never answered the photographers. His visitor's
attitude promised him a luxury of intercourse, though he was sure a due
freedom for Doctor Hugh would depend not a little on the Countess. He
learned without delay what type of Countess was involved, mastering as
well the nature of the tie that united the curious trio. The large
lady, an Englishwoman by birth and the daughter of a celebrated
baritone, whose taste minus his talent she had inherited, was
the widow of a French nobleman and mistress of all that remained of the
handsome fortune, the fruit of her father's earnings, that had
constituted her dower. Miss Vernham, an odd creature but an
accomplished pianist, was attached to her person at a salary. The
Countess was generous, independent, eccentric; she travelled with her
minstrel and her medical man. Ignorant and passionate she had
nevertheless moments in which she was almost irresistible. Dencombe saw
her sit for her portrait in Doctor Hugh's free sketch, and felt the
picture of his young friend's relation to her frame itself in his mind.
This young friend, for a representative of the new psychology, was
himself easily hypnotised, and if he became abnormally communicative it
was only a sign of his real subjection. Dencombe did accordingly what
he wanted with him, even without being known as Dencombe.
Taken ill on a journey in Switzerland the Countess had picked him
up at an hotel, and the accident of his happening to please her had
made her offer him, with her imperious liberality, terms that couldn't
fail to dazzle a practitioner without patients and whose resources had
been drained dry by his studies. It wasn't the way he would have
proposed to spend his time, but it was time that would pass quickly,
and meanwhile she was wonderfully kind. She exacted perpetual
attention, but it was impossible not to like her. He gave details about
his queer patient, a "type" if there ever was one, who had in connexion
with her flushed obesity, and in addition to the morbid strain of a
violent and aimless will, a grave organic disorder; but he came back to
his loved novelist, whom he was so good as to pronounce more
essentially a poet than many of those who went in for verse, with a
zeal excited, as all his indiscretion had been excited, by the happy
chance of Dencombe's sympathy and the coincidence of their occupation.
Dencombe had confessed to a slight personal acquaintance with the
author of "The Middle Years," but had not felt himself as ready as he
could have wished when his companion, who had never yet encountered a
being so privileged, began to be eager for particulars. He even divined
in Doctor Hugh's eye at that moment a glimmer of suspicion. But the
young man was too inflamed to be shrewd and repeatedly caught up the
book to exclaim: "Did you notice this?" or "Weren't you immensely
struck with that?" "There's a beautiful passage toward the end," he
broke out; and again he laid his hand on the volume. As he turned the
pages he came upon something else, while Dencombe saw him suddenly
change colour. He had taken up as it lay on the bench Dencombe's copy
instead of his own, and his neighbour at once guessed the reason of his
start. Doctor Hugh looked grave an instant; then he said: "I see you've
been altering the text!" Dencombe was a passionate corrector, a
fingerer of style; the last thing he ever arrived at was a form final
for himself. His ideal would have been to publish secretly, and then,
on the published text, treat himself to the terrified revise,
sacrificing always a first edition and beginning for posterity and even
for the collectors, poor dears, with a second. This morning, in "The
Middle Years," his pencil had pricked a dozen lights. He was amused at
the effect of the young man's reproach; for an instant it made him
change colour. He stammered at any rate ambiguously, then through a
blur of ebbing consciousness saw Doctor Hugh's mystified eyes. He only
had time to feel he was about to be ill again—that emotion,
excitement, fatigue, the heat of the sun, the solicitation of the air,
had combined to play him a trick, before, stretching out a hand to his
visitor with a plaintive cry, he lost his senses altogether.
Later he knew he had fainted and that Doctor Hugh had got him home
in a Bath-chair, the conductor of which, prowling within hail for
custom, had happened to remember seeing him in the garden of the hotel.
He had recovered his perception on the way, and had, in bed that
afternoon, a vague recollection of Doctor Hugh's young face, as they
went together, bent over him in a comforting laugh and expressive of
something more than a suspicion of his identity. That identity was
ineffaceable now, and all the more that he was rueful and sore. He had
been rash, been stupid, had gone out too soon, stayed out too long. He
oughtn't to have exposed himself to strangers, he ought to have taken
his servant. He felt as if he had fallen into a hole too deep to descry
any little patch of heaven. He was confused about the time that had
passed—he pieced the fragments together. He had seen his doctor, the
real one, the one who had treated him from the first and who had again
been very kind. His servant was in and out on tiptoe, looking very wise
after the fact. He said more than once something about the sharp young
gentleman. The rest was vagueness in so far as it wasn't despair. The
vagueness, however, justified itself by dreams, dozing anxieties from
which he finally emerged to the consciousness of a dark room and a
"You'll be all right again—I know all about you now," said a voice
near him that he felt to be young. Then his meeting with Doctor Hugh
came back. He was too discouraged to joke about it yet, but made out
after a little that the interest was intense for his visitor. "Of
course I can't attend you professionally—you've got your own man, with
whom I've talked and who's excellent," Doctor Hugh went on. "But you
must let me come to see you as a good friend. I've just looked in
before going to bed. You're doing beautifully, but it's a good job I
was with you on the cliff. I shall come in early to-morrow. I want to
do something for you. I want to do everything. You've done a tremendous
lot for me." The young man held his hand, hanging over him, and poor
Dencombe, weakly aware of this living pressure, simply lay there and
accepted his devotion. He couldn't do anything less—he needed help too
The idea of the help he needed was very present to him that night,
which he spent in a lucid stillness, an intensity of thought that
constituted a reaction from his hours of stupor. He was lost, he was
lost—he was lost if he couldn't be saved. He wasn't afraid of
suffering, of death, wasn't even in love with life; but he had had a
deep demonstration of desire. It came over him in the long quiet hours
that only with "The Middle Years" had he taken his flight; only on that
day, visited by soundless processions, had he recognised his kingdom.
He had had a revelation of his range. What he dreaded was the idea
that his reputation should stand on the unfinished. It wasn't with his
past but with his future that it should properly be concerned. Illness
and age rose before him like spectres with pitiless eyes: how was he to
bribe such fates to give him the second chance? He had had the one
chance that all men have—he had had the chance of life. He went to
sleep again very late, and when he awoke Doctor Hugh was sitting at
hand. There was already by this time something beautifully familiar in
"Don't think I've turned out your physician," he said; "I'm acting
with his consent. He has been here and seen you. Somehow he seems to
trust me. I told him how we happened to come together yesterday, and he
recognises that I've a peculiar right."
Dencombe felt his own face pressing. "How have you squared the
The young man blushed a little, but turned it off. "Oh never mind
"You told me she was very exacting."
Doctor Hugh had a wait. "So she is."
"And Miss Vernham's an intrigante."
"How do you know that?"
"I know everything. One HAS to, to write decently!"
"I think she's mad," said limpid Doctor Hugh.
"Well, don't quarrel with the Countess—she's a present help to
"I don't quarrel," Doctor Hugh returned. "But I don't get on with
silly women." Presently he added: "You seem very much alone."
"That often happens at my age. I've outlived, I've lost by the way."
Doctor Hugh faltered; then surmounting a soft scruple: "Whom have
"Ah no," the young man breathed, laying a hand on his arm.
"I once had a wife—I once had a son. My wife died when my child
was born, and my boy, at school, was carried off by typhoid."
"I wish I'd been there!" cried Doctor Hugh.
"Well—if you're here!" Dencombe answered with a smile that, in
spite of dimness, showed how he valued being sure of his companions's
"You talk strangely of your age. You're not old."
"I speak physiologically."
"That's the way I've been speaking for the last five years, and
it's exactly what I've been saying to myself. It isn't till we ARE old
that we begin to tell ourselves we're not."
"Yet I know I myself am young," Doctor Hugh returned.
"Not so well as I!" laughed his patient, whose visitor indeed would
have established the truth in question by the honesty with which he
changed the point of view, remarking that it must be one of the charms
of age—at any rate in the case of high distinction—to feel that one
has laboured and achieved. Doctor Hugh employed the common phrase about
earning one's rest, and it made poor Dencombe for an instant almost
angry. He recovered himself, however, to explain, lucidly enough, that
if, ungraciously, he knew nothing of such a balm, it was doubtless
because he had wasted inestimable years. He had followed literature
from the first, but he had taken a lifetime to get abreast of her. Only
to-day at last had he begun to SEE, so that all he had hitherto shown
was a movement without a direction. He had ripened too late and was so
clumsily constituted that he had had to teach himself by mistakes.
"I prefer your flowers then to other people's fruit, and your
mistakes to other people's successes," said gallant Doctor Hugh. "It's
for your mistakes I admire you."
"You're happy—you don't know," Dencombe answered.
Looking at his watch the young man had got up; he named the hour of
the afternoon at which he would return. Dencombe warned him against
committing himself too deeply, and expressed again all his dread of
making him neglect the Countess—perhaps incur her displeasure.
"I want to be like you—I want to learn by mistakes!" Doctor Hugh
"Take care you don't make too grave a one! But do come back,"
Dencombe added with the glimmer of a new idea.
"You should have had more vanity!" His friend spoke as if he knew
the exact amount required to make a man of letters normal.
"No, no—I only should have had more time. I want another go."
"I want an extension."
"An extension?" Again Doctor Hugh repeated Dencombe's words, with
which he seemed to have been struck.
"Don't you know?—I want to what they call 'live.' "
The young man, for good-bye, had taken his hand, which closed with
a certain force. They looked at each other hard. "You WILL live," said
"Don't be superficial. It's too serious!"
"You SHALL live!" Dencombe's visitor declared, turning pale.
"Ah that's better!" And as he retired the invalid, with a troubled
laugh, sank gratefully back.
All that day and all the following night he wondered if it mightn't
be arranged. His doctor came again, his servant was attentive, but it
was to his confident young friend that he felt himself mentally appeal.
His collapse on the cliff was plausibly explained and his liberation,
on a better basis, promised for the morrow; meanwhile, however, the
intensity of his meditations kept him tranquil and made him
indifferent. The idea that occupied him was none the less absorbing
because it was a morbid fancy. Here was a clever son of the age,
ingenious and ardent, who happened to have set him up for connoisseurs
to worship. This servant of his altar had all the new learning in
science and all the old reverence in faith; wouldn't he therefore put
his knowledge at the disposal of his sympathy, his craft at the
disposal of his love? Couldn't he be trusted to invent a remedy for a
poor artist to whose art he had paid a tribute? If he couldn't the
alternative was hard: Dencombe would have to surrender to silence
unvindicated and undivined. The rest of the day and all the next he
toyed in secret with this sweet futility. Who would work the miracle
for him but the young man who could combine such lucidity with such
passion? He thought of the fairy-tales of science and charmed himself
into forgetting that he looked for a magic that was not of this world.
Doctor Hugh was an apparition, and that placed him above the law. He
came and went while his patient, who now sat up, followed him with
supplicating eyes. The interest of knowing the great author had made
the young man begin "The Middle Years" afresh and would help him to
find a richer sense between its covers. Dencombe had told him what he
"tried for"; with all his intelligence, on a first perusal, Doctor Hugh
had failed to guess it. The baffled celebrity wondered then who in the
world WOULD guess it: he was amused once more at the diffused massive
weight that could be thrown into the missing of an intention. Yet he
wouldn't rail at the general mind to-day—consoling as that ever had
been: the revelation of his own slowness had seemed to make all
Doctor Hugh, after a little, was visibly worried, confessing, on
enquiry, to a source of embarrassment at home. "Stick to the
Countess—don't mind me," Dencombe said repeatedly; for his companion
was frank enough about the large lady's attitude. She was so jealous
that she had fallen ill—she resented such a breach of allegiance. She
paid so much for his fidelity that she must have it all: she refused
him the right to other sympathies, charged him with scheming to make
her die alone, for it was needless to point out how little Miss Vernham
was a resource in trouble. When Doctor Hugh mentioned that the Countess
would already have left Bournemouth if he hadn't kept her in bed, poor
Dencombe held his arm tighter and said with decision: "Take her
straight away." They had gone out together, walking back to the
sheltered nook in which, the other day, they had met. The young man,
who had given his companion a personal support, declared with emphasis
that his conscience was clear—he could ride two horses at once. Didn't
he dream for his future of a time when he should have to ride five
hundred? Longing equally for virtue, Dencombe replied that in that
golden age no patient would pretend to have contracted with him for his
whole attention. On the part of the Countess wasn't such an avidity
lawful? Doctor Hugh denied it, said there was no contract, but only a
free understanding, and that a sordid servitude was impossible to a
generous spirit; he liked moreover to talk about art, and that was the
subject on which, this time, as they sat together on the sunny bench,
he tried most to engage the author of "The Middle Years." Dencombe,
soaring again a little on the weak wings of convalescence and still
haunted by that happy notion of an organised rescue, found another
strain of eloquence to plead the cause of a certain splendid "last
manner," the very citadel, as it would prove, of his reputation, the
stronghold into which his real treasure would be gathered. While his
listener gave up the morning and the great still sea ostensibly waited
he had a wondrous explanatory hour. Even for himself he was inspired as
he told what his treasure would consist of; the precious metals he
would dig from the mine, the jewels rare, strings of pearls, he would
hang between the columns of his temple. He was wondrous for himself, so
thick his convictions crowded, but still more wondrous for Doctor Hugh,
who assured him none the less that the very pages he had just published
were already encrusted with gems. This admirer, however, panted for the
combinations to come and, before the face of the beautiful day, renewed
to Dencombe his guarantee that his profession would hold itself
responsible for such a life. Then he suddenly clapped his hand upon his
watch-pocket and asked leave to absent himself for half an hour.
Dencombe waited there for his return, but was at last recalled to the
actual by the fall of a shadow across the ground. The shadow darkened
into that of Miss Vernham, the young lady in attendance on the
Countess; whom Dencombe, recognising her, perceived so clearly to have
come to speak to him that he rose from his bench to acknowledge the
civility. Miss Vernham indeed proved not particularly civil; she looked
strangely agitated, and her type was now unmistakeable.
"Excuse me if I do ask," she said, "whether it's too much to hope
that you may be induced to leave Doctor Hugh alone." Then before our
poor friend, greatly disconcerted, could protest: "You ought to be
informed that you stand in his light—that you may do him a terrible
"Do you mean by causing the Countess to dispense with his services?"
"By causing her to disinherit him." Dencombe stared at this, and
Miss Vernham pursued, in the gratification of seeing she could produce
an impression: "It has depended on himself to come into something very
handsome. He has had a grand prospect, but I think you've succeeded in
"Not intentionally, I assure you. Is there no hope the accident may
be repaired?" Dencombe asked.
"She was ready to do anything for him. She takes great fancies, she
lets herself go—it's her way. She has no relations, she's free to
dispose of her money, and she's very ill," said Miss Vernham for a
"I'm very sorry to hear it," Dencombe stammered.
"Wouldn't it be possible for you to leave Bournemouth? That's what
I've come to see about."
He sank to his bench. "I'm very ill myself, but I'll try!"
Miss Vernham still stood there with her colourless eyes and the
brutality of her good conscience. "Before it's too late, please!" she
said; and with this she turned her back, in order, quickly, as if it
had been a business to which she could spare but a precious moment, to
pass out of his sight.
Oh yes, after this Dencombe was certainly very ill. Miss Vernham
had upset him with her rough fierce news; it was the sharpest shock to
him to discover what was at stake for a penniless young man of fine
parts. He sat trembling on his bench, staring at the waste of waters,
feeling sick with the directness of the blow. He was indeed too weak,
too unsteady, too alarmed; but he would make the effort to get away,
for he couldn't accept the guilt of interference and his honour was
really involved. He would hobble home, at any rate, and then think what
was to be done. He made his way back to the hotel and, as he went, had
a characteristic vision of Miss Vernham's great motive. The Countess
hated women of course—Dencombe was lucid about that; so the hungry
pianist had no personal hopes and could only console herself with the
bold conception of helping Doctor Hugh in order to marry him after he
should get his money or else induce him to recognise her claim for
compensation and buy her off. If she had befriended him at a fruitful
crisis he would really, as a man of delicacy—and she knew what to
think of that point—have to reckon with her.
At the hotel Dencombe's servant insisted on his going back to bed.
The invalid had talked about catching a train and had begun with orders
to pack; after which his racked nerves had yielded to a sense of
sickness. He consented to see his physician, who immediately was sent
for, but he wished it to be understood that his door was irrevocably
closed to Doctor Hugh. He had his plan, which was so fine that he
rejoiced in it after getting back to bed. Doctor Hugh, suddenly finding
himself snubbed without mercy, would, in natural disgust and to the joy
of Miss Vernham, renew his allegiance to the Countess. When his
physician arrived Dencombe learned that he was feverish and that this
was very wrong: he was to cultivate calmness and try, if possible, not
to think. For the rest of the day he wooed stupidity; but there was an
ache that kept him sentient, the probable sacrifice of his "extension,"
the limit of his course. His medical adviser was anything but pleased;
his successive relapses were ominous. He charged this personage to put
out a strong hand and take Doctor Hugh off his mind—it would
contribute so much to his being quiet. The agitating name, in his room,
was not mentioned again, but his security was a smothered fear, and it
was not confirmed by the receipt, at ten o'clock that evening, of a
telegram which his servant opened and read him and to which, with an
address in London, the signature of Miss Vernham was attached. "Beseech
you to use all influence to make our friend join us here in the
morning. Countess much the worse for dreadful journey, but everything
may still be saved." The two ladies had gathered themselves up and had
been capable in the afternoon of a spiteful revolution. They had
started for the capital, and if the elder one, as Miss Vernham had
announced, was very ill, she had wished to make it clear that she was
proportionately reckless. Poor Dencombe, who was not reckless and who
only desired that everything should indeed be "saved," sent this
missive straight off to the young man's lodging and had on the morrow
the pleasure of knowing that he had quitted Bournemouth by an early
Two days later he pressed in with a copy of a literary journal in
his hand. He had returned because he was anxious and for the pleasure
of flourishing the great review of "The Middle Years." Here at least
was something adequate—it rose to the occasion; it was an acclamation,
a reparation, a critical attempt to place the author in the niche he
had fairly won. Dencombe accepted and submitted; he made neither
objection nor enquiry, for old complications had returned and he had
had two dismal days. He was convinced not only that he should never
again leave his bed, so that his young friend might pardonably remain,
but that the demand he should make on the patience of beholders would
be of the most moderate. Doctor Hugh had been to town, and he tried to
find in his eyes some confession that the Countess was pacified and his
legacy clinched; but all he could see there was the light of his
juvenile joy in two or three of the phrases of the newspaper. Dencombe
couldn't read them, but when his visitor had insisted on repeating them
more than once he was able to shake an unintoxicated head. "Ah no—but
they would have been true of what I COULD have done!"
"What people 'could have done' is mainly what they've in fact
done," Doctor Hugh contended.
"Mainly, yes; but I've been an idiot!" Dencombe said.
Doctor Hugh did remain; the end was coming fast. Two days later his
patient observed to him, by way of the feeblest of jokes, that there
would now be no question whatever of a second chance. At this the young
man stared; then he exclaimed: "Why it has come to pass—it has come to
pass! The second chance has been the public's—the chance to find the
point of view, to pick up the pearl!"
"Oh the pearl!" poor Dencombe uneasily sighed. A smile as cold as a
winter sunset flickered on his drawn lips as he added: "The pearl is
the unwritten—the pearl is the unalloyed, the REST, the lost!"
From that hour he was less and less present, heedless to all
appearance of what went on round him. His disease was definitely
mortal, of an action as relentless, after the short arrest that had
enabled him to fall in with Doctor Hugh, as a leak in a great ship.
Sinking steadily, though this visitor, a man of rare resources, now
cordially approved by his physician, showed endless art in guarding him
from pain, poor Dencombe kept no reckoning of favour or neglect,
betrayed no symptom of regret or speculation. Yet toward the last he
gave a sign of having noticed how for two days Doctor Hugh hadn't been
in his room, a sign that consisted of his suddenly opening his eyes to
put a question. Had he spent those days with the Countess?
"The Countess is dead," said Doctor Hugh. "I knew that in a
particular contingency she wouldn't resist. I went to her grave."
Dencombe's eyes opened wider. "She left you 'something handsome'?"
The young man gave a laugh almost too light for a chamber of woe.
"Never a penny. She roundly cursed me."
"Cursed you?" Dencombe wailed.
"For giving her up. I gave her up for YOU. I had to choose," his
"You chose to let a fortune go?"
"I chose to accept, whatever they might be, the consequences of my
infatuation," smiled Doctor Hugh. Then as a larger pleasantry: "The
fortune be hanged! It's your own fault if I can't get your things out
of my head."
The immediate tribute to his humour was a long bewildered moan;
after which, for many hours, many days, Dencombe lay motionless and
absent. A response so absolute, such a glimpse of a definite result and
such a sense of credit, worked together in his mind and, producing a
strange commotion, slowly altered and transfigured his despair. The
sense of cold submersion left him—he seemed to float without an
effort. The incident was extraordinary as evidence, and it shed an
intenser light. At the last he signed to Doctor Hugh to listen and,
when he was down on his knees by the pillow, brought him very near.
"You've made me think it all a delusion."
"Not your glory, my dear friend," stammered the young man.
"Not my glory—what there is of it! It IS glory—to have been
tested, to have had our little quality and cast our little spell. The
thing is to have made somebody care. You happen to be crazy of course,
but that doesn't affect the law."
"You're a great success!" said Doctor Hugh, putting into his young
voice the ring of a marriage-bell.
Dencombe lay taking this in; then he gathered strength to speak
once more. "A second chance—THAT'S the delusion. There never was to be
but one. We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have.
Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the
madness of art."
"If you've doubted, if you've despaired, you've always 'done' it,"
his visitor subtly argued.
"We've done something or other," Dencombe conceded.
"Something or other is everything. It's the feasible. It's YOU!"
"Comforter!" poor Dencombe ironically sighed.
"But it's true," insisted his friend.
"It's true. It's frustration that doesn't count."
"Frustration's only life," said Doctor Hugh.
"Yes, it's what passes." Poor Dencombe was barely audible, but he
had marked with the words the virtual end of his first and only chance.