The Beast in the Jungle/Chapter VI

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The Beast in the Jungle by Henry James
Chapter VI

He stayed away, after this, for a year; he visited the depths of Asia, spending himself on scenes of romantic interest, of superlative sanctity; but what was present to him everywhere was that for a man who had known what he had known the world was vulgar and vain.  The state of mind in which he had lived for so many years shone out to him, in reflexion, as a light that coloured and refined, a light beside which the glow of the East was garish cheap and thin.  The terrible truth was that he had lost—with everything else—a distinction as well the things he saw couldn’t help being common when he had become common to look at them.  He was simply now one of them himself—he was in the dust, without a peg for the sense of difference; and there were hours when, before the temples of gods and the sepulchres of kings, his spirit turned for nobleness of association to the barely discriminated slab in the London suburb.  That had become for him, and more intensely with time and distance, his one witness of a past glory.  It was all that was left to him for proof or pride, yet the past glories of Pharaohs were nothing to him as he thought of it.  Small wonder then that he came back to it on the morrow of his return.  He was drawn there this time as irresistibly as the other, yet with a confidence, almost, that was doubtless the effect of the many months that had elapsed.  He had lived, in spite of himself, into his change of feeling, and in wandering over the earth had wandered, as might be said, from the circumference to the centre of his desert.  He had settled to his safety and accepted perforce his extinction; figuring to himself, with some colour, in the likeness of certain little old men he remembered to have seen, of whom, all meagre and wizened as they might look, it was related that they had in their time fought twenty duels or been loved by ten princesses.  They indeed had been wondrous for others while he was but wondrous for himself; which, however, was exactly the cause of his haste to renew the wonder by getting back, as he might put it, into his own presence.  That had quickened his steps and checked his delay.  If his visit was prompt it was because he had been separated so long from the part of himself that alone he now valued.

It’s accordingly not false to say that he reached his goal with a certain elation and stood there again with a certain assurance.  The creature beneath the sod knew of his rare experience, so that, strangely now, the place had lost for him its mere blankness of expression.  It met him in mildness—not, as before, in mockery; it wore for him the air of conscious greeting that we find, after absence, in things that have closely belonged to us and which seem to confess of themselves to the connexion.  The plot of ground, the graven tablet, the tended flowers affected him so as belonging to him that he resembled for the hour a contented landlord reviewing a piece of property.  Whatever had happened—well, had happened.  He had not come back this time with the vanity of that question, his former worrying “What, what?” now practically so spent.  Yet he would none the less never again so cut himself off from the spot; he would come back to it every month, for if he did nothing else by its aid he at least held up his head.  It thus grew for him, in the oddest way, a positive resource; he carried out his idea of periodical returns, which took their place at last among the most inveterate of his habits.  What it all amounted to, oddly enough, was that in his finally so simplified world this garden of death gave him the few square feet of earth on which he could still most live.  It was as if, being nothing anywhere else for any one, nothing even for himself, he were just everything here, and if not for a crowd of witnesses or indeed for any witness but John Marcher, then by clear right of the register that he could scan like an open page.  The open page was the tomb of his friend, and there were the facts of the past, there the truth of his life, there the backward reaches in which he could lose himself.  He did this from time to time with such effect that he seemed to wander through the old years with his hand in the arm of a companion who was, in the most extraordinary manner, his other, his younger self; and to wander, which was more extraordinary yet, round and round a third presence—not wandering she, but stationary, still, whose eyes, turning with his revolution, never ceased to follow him, and whose seat was his point, so to speak, of orientation.  Thus in short he settled to live—feeding all on the sense that he once had lived, and dependent on it not alone for a support but for an identity.

It sufficed him in its way for months and the year elapsed; it would doubtless even have carried him further but for an accident, superficially slight, which moved him, quite in another direction, with a force beyond any of his impressions of Egypt or of India.  It was a thing of the merest chance—the turn, as he afterwards felt, of a hair, though he was indeed to live to believe that if light hadn’t come to him in this particular fashion it would still have come in another.  He was to live to believe this, I say, though he was not to live, I may not less definitely mention, to do much else.  We allow him at any rate the benefit of the conviction, struggling up for him at the end, that, whatever might have happened or not happened, he would have come round of himself to the light.  The incident of an autumn day had put the match to the train laid from of old by his misery.  With the light before him he knew that even of late his ache had only been smothered.  It was strangely drugged, but it throbbed; at the touch it began to bleed.  And the touch, in the event, was the face of a fellow-mortal.  This face, one grey afternoon when the leaves were thick in the alleys, looked into Marcher’s own, at the cemetery, with an expression like the cut of a blade.  He felt it, that is, so deep down that he winced at the steady thrust.  The person who so mutely assaulted him was a figure he had noticed, on reaching his own goal, absorbed by a grave a short distance away, a grave apparently fresh, so that the emotion of the visitor would probably match it for frankness.  This fact alone forbade further attention, though during the time he stayed he remained vaguely conscious of his neighbour, a middle-aged man apparently, in mourning, whose bowed back, among the clustered monuments and mortuary yews, was constantly presented.  Marcher’s theory that these were elements in contact with which he himself revived, had suffered, on this occasion, it may be granted, a marked, an excessive check.  The autumn day was dire for him as none had recently been, and he rested with a heaviness he had not yet known on the low stone table that bore May Bartram’s name.  He rested without power to move, as if some spring in him, some spell vouchsafed, had suddenly been broken for ever.  If he could have done that moment as he wanted he would simply have stretched himself on the slab that was ready to take him, treating it as a place prepared to receive his last sleep.  What in all the wide world had he now to keep awake for?  He stared before him with the question, and it was then that, as one of the cemetery walks passed near him, he caught the shock of the face.

His neighbour at the other grave had withdrawn, as he himself, with force enough in him, would have done by now, and was advancing along the path on his way to one of the gates.  This brought him close, and his pace, was slow, so that—and all the more as there was a kind of hunger in his look—the two men were for a minute directly confronted.  Marcher knew him at once for one of the deeply stricken—a perception so sharp that nothing else in the picture comparatively lived, neither his dress, his age, nor his presumable character and class; nothing lived but the deep ravage of the features that he showed.  He showed them—that was the point; he was moved, as he passed, by some impulse that was either a signal for sympathy or, more possibly, a challenge to an opposed sorrow.  He might already have been aware of our friend, might at some previous hour have noticed in him the smooth habit of the scene, with which the state of his own senses so scantly consorted, and might thereby have been stirred as by an overt discord.  What Marcher was at all events conscious of was in the first place that the image of scarred passion presented to him was conscious too—of something that profaned the air; and in the second that, roused, startled, shocked, he was yet the next moment looking after it, as it went, with envy.  The most extraordinary thing that had happened to him—though he had given that name to other matters as well—took place, after his immediate vague stare, as a consequence of this impression.  The stranger passed, but the raw glare of his grief remained, making our friend wonder in pity what wrong, what wound it expressed, what injury not to be healed.  What had the man had, to make him by the loss of it so bleed and yet live?

Something—and this reached him with a pang—that he, John Marcher, hadn’t; the proof of which was precisely John Marcher’s arid end.  No passion had ever touched him, for this was what passion meant; he had survived and maundered and pined, but where had been his deep ravage?  The extraordinary thing we speak of was the sudden rush of the result of this question.  The sight that had just met his eyes named to him, as in letters of quick flame, something he had utterly, insanely missed, and what he had missed made these things a train of fire, made them mark themselves in an anguish of inward throbs.  He had seen outside of his life, not learned it within, the way a woman was mourned when she had been loved for herself: such was the force of his conviction of the meaning of the stranger’s face, which still flared for him as a smoky torch.  It hadn’t come to him, the knowledge, on the wings of experience; it had brushed him, jostled him, upset him, with the disrespect of chance, the insolence of accident.  Now that the illumination had begun, however, it blazed to the zenith, and what he presently stood there gazing at was the sounded void of his life.  He gazed, he drew breath, in pain; he turned in his dismay, and, turning, he had before him in sharper incision than ever the open page of his story.  The name on the table smote him as the passage of his neighbour had done, and what it said to him, full in the face, was that she was what he had missed.  This was the awful thought, the answer to all the past, the vision at the dread clearness of which he turned as cold as the stone beneath him.  Everything fell together, confessed, explained, overwhelmed; leaving him most of all stupefied at the blindness he had cherished.  The fate he had been marked for he had met with a vengeance—he had emptied the cup to the lees; he had been the man of his time, the man, to whom nothing on earth was to have happened.  That was the rare stroke—that was his visitation.  So he saw it, as we say, in pale horror, while the pieces fitted and fitted.  So she had seen it while he didn’t, and so she served at this hour to drive the truth home.  It was the truth, vivid and monstrous, that all the while he had waited the wait was itself his portion.  This the companion of his vigil had at a given moment made out, and she had then offered him the chance to baffle his doom.  One’s doom, however, was never baffled, and on the day she told him his own had come down she had seen him but stupidly stare at the escape she offered him.

The escape would have been to love her; then, then he would have lived.  She had lived—who could say now with what passion?—since she had loved him for himself; whereas he had never thought of her (ah how it hugely glared at him!) but in the chill of his egotism and the light of her use.  Her spoken words came back to him—the chain stretched and stretched.  The Beast had lurked indeed, and the Beast, at its hour, had sprung; it had sprung in that twilight of the cold April when, pale, ill, wasted, but all beautiful, and perhaps even then recoverable, she had risen from her chair to stand before him and let him imaginably guess.  It had sprung as he didn’t guess; it had sprung as she hopelessly turned from him, and the mark, by the time he left her, had fallen where it was to fall.  He had justified his fear and achieved his fate; he had failed, with the last exactitude, of all he was to fail of; and a moan now rose to his lips as he remembered she had prayed he mightn’t know.  This horror of waking—this was knowledge, knowledge under the breath of which the very tears in his eyes seemed to freeze.  Through them, none the less, he tried to fix it and hold it; he kept it there before him so that he might feel the pain.  That at least, belated and bitter, had something of the taste of life.  But the bitterness suddenly sickened him, and it was as if, horribly, he saw, in the truth, in the cruelty of his image, what had been appointed and done.  He saw the Jungle of his life and saw the lurking Beast; then, while he looked, perceived it, as by a stir of the air, rise, huge and hideous, for the leap that was to settle him.  His eyes darkened—it was close; and, instinctively turning, in his hallucination, to avoid it, he flung himself, face down, on the tomb.