I had so perfectly expected that the return of my pupils would be marked by a demonstration that I was freshly upset at having to take into account that they were dumb about my absence. Instead of gaily denouncing and caressing me, they made no allusion to my having failed them, and I was left, for the time, on perceiving that she too said nothing, to study Mrs. Grose’s odd face. I did this to such purpose that I made sure they had in some way bribed her to silence; a silence that, however, I would engage to break down on the first private opportunity. This opportunity came before tea: I secured five minutes with her in the housekeeper’s room, where, in the twilight, amid a smell of lately baked bread, but with the place all swept and garnished, I found her sitting in pained placidity before the fire. So I see her still, so I see her best: facing the flame from her straight chair in the dusky, shining room, a large clean image of the “put away”—of drawers closed and locked and rest without a remedy.
“Oh, yes, they asked me to say nothing; and to please them—so long as they were there—of course I promised. But what had happened to you?”
“I only went with you for the walk,” I said. “I had then to come back to meet a friend.”
She showed her surprise. “A friend—you?”
“Oh, yes, I have a couple!” I laughed. “But did the children give you a reason?”
“For not alluding to your leaving us? Yes; they said you would like it better. Do you like it better?”
My face had made her rueful. “No, I like it worse!” But after an instant I added: “Did they say why I should like it better?”
“No; Master Miles only said, ‘We must do nothing but what she likes!’”
“I wish indeed he would. And what did Flora say?”
“Miss Flora was too sweet. She said, ‘Oh, of course, of course!’—and I said the same.”
I thought a moment. “You were too sweet, too—I can hear you all. But nonetheless, between Miles and me, it’s now all out.”
“All out?” My companion stared. “But what, miss?”
“Everything. It doesn’t matter. I’ve made up my mind. I came home, my dear,” I went on, “for a talk with Miss Jessel.”
I had by this time formed the habit of having Mrs. Grose literally well in hand in advance of my sounding that note; so that even now, as she bravely blinked under the signal of my word, I could keep her comparatively firm. “A talk! Do you mean she spoke?”
“It came to that. I found her, on my return, in the schoolroom.”
“And what did she say?” I can hear the good woman still, and the candor of her stupefaction.
“That she suffers the torments—!”
It was this, of a truth, that made her, as she filled out my picture, gape. “Do you mean,” she faltered, “—of the lost?”
“Of the lost. Of the damned. And that’s why, to share them—” I faltered myself with the horror of it.
But my companion, with less imagination, kept me up. “To share them—?”
“She wants Flora.” Mrs. Grose might, as I gave it to her, fairly have fallen away from me had I not been prepared. I still held her there, to show I was. “As I’ve told you, however, it doesn’t matter.”
“Because you’ve made up your mind? But to what?”
“And what do you call ‘everything’?”
“Why, sending for their uncle.”
“Oh, miss, in pity do,” my friend broke out. “ah, but I will, I will! I see it’s the only way. What’s ‘out,’ as I told you, with Miles is that if he thinks I’m afraid to—and has ideas of what he gains by that—he shall see he’s mistaken. Yes, yes; his uncle shall have it here from me on the spot (and before the boy himself, if necessary) that if I’m to be reproached with having done nothing again about more school—”
“Yes, miss—” my companion pressed me.
“Well, there’s that awful reason.”
There were now clearly so many of these for my poor colleague that she was excusable for being vague. “But—a—which?”
“Why, the letter from his old place.”
“You’ll show it to the master?”
“I ought to have done so on the instant.”
“Oh, no!” said Mrs. Grose with decision.
“I’ll put it before him,” I went on inexorably, “that I can’t undertake to work the question on behalf of a child who has been expelled—”
“For we’ve never in the least known what!” Mrs. Grose declared.
“For wickedness. For what else—when he’s so clever and beautiful and perfect? Is he stupid? Is he untidy? Is he infirm? Is he ill-natured? He’s exquisite—so it can be only that; and that would open up the whole thing. After all,” I said, “it’s their uncle’s fault. If he left here such people—!”
“He didn’t really in the least know them. The fault’s mine.” She had turned quite pale.
“Well, you shan’t suffer,” I answered.
“The children shan’t!” she emphatically returned.
I was silent awhile; we looked at each other. “Then what am I to tell him?”
“You needn’t tell him anything. I’ll tell him.”
I measured this. “Do you mean you’ll write—?” Remembering she couldn’t, I caught myself up. “How do you communicate?”
“I tell the bailiff. He writes.”
“And should you like him to write our story?”
My question had a sarcastic force that I had not fully intended, and it made her, after a moment, inconsequently break down. The tears were again in her eyes. “Ah, miss, you write!”
“Well—tonight,” I at last answered; and on this we separated.