We went straight to the lake, as it was called at Bly, and I daresay rightly called, though I reflect that it may in fact have been a sheet of water less remarkable than it appeared to my untraveled eyes. My acquaintance with sheets of water was small, and the pool of Bly, at all events on the few occasions of my consenting, under the protection of my pupils, to affront its surface in the old flat-bottomed boat moored there for our use, had impressed me both with its extent and its agitation. The usual place of embarkation was half a mile from the house, but I had an intimate conviction that, wherever Flora might be, she was not near home. She had not given me the slip for any small adventure, and, since the day of the very great one that I had shared with her by the pond, I had been aware, in our walks, of the quarter to which she most inclined. This was why I had now given to Mrs. Grose’s steps so marked a direction—a direction that made her, when she perceived it, oppose a resistance that showed me she was freshly mystified. “You’re going to the water, Miss?—you think she’s in—?”
“She may be, though the depth is, I believe, nowhere very great. But what I judge most likely is that she’s on the spot from which, the other day, we saw together what I told you.”
“When she pretended not to see—?”
“With that astounding self-possession? I’ve always been sure she wanted to go back alone. And now her brother has managed it for her.”
Mrs. Grose still stood where she had stopped. “You suppose they really talk of them?”
“I could meet this with a confidence! They say things that, if we heard them, would simply appall us.”
“And if she is there—”
“Then Miss Jessel is?”
“Beyond a doubt. You shall see.”
“Oh, thank you!” my friend cried, planted so firm that, taking it in, I went straight on without her. By the time I reached the pool, however, she was close behind me, and I knew that, whatever, to her apprehension, might befall me, the exposure of my society struck her as her least danger. She exhaled a moan of relief as we at last came in sight of the greater part of the water without a sight of the child. There was no trace of Flora on that nearer side of the bank where my observation of her had been most startling, and none on the opposite edge, where, save for a margin of some twenty yards, a thick copse came down to the water. The pond, oblong in shape, had a width so scant compared to its length that, with its ends out of view, it might have been taken for a scant river. We looked at the empty expanse, and then I felt the suggestion of my friend’s eyes. I knew what she meant and I replied with a negative headshake.
“No, no; wait! She has taken the boat.”
My companion stared at the vacant mooring place and then again across the lake. “Then where is it?”
“Our not seeing it is the strongest of proofs. She has used it to go over, and then has managed to hide it.”
“All alone—that child?”
“She’s not alone, and at such times she’s not a child: she’s an old, old woman.” I scanned all the visible shore while Mrs. Grose took again, into the queer element I offered her, one of her plunges of submission; then I pointed out that the boat might perfectly be in a small refuge formed by one of the recesses of the pool, an indentation masked, for the hither side, by a projection of the bank and by a clump of trees growing close to the water.
“But if the boat’s there, where on earth’s she?” my colleague anxiously asked.
“That’s exactly what we must learn.” And I started to walk further.
“By going all the way round?”
“Certainly, far as it is. It will take us but ten minutes, but it’s far enough to have made the child prefer not to walk. She went straight over.”
“Laws!” cried my friend again; the chain of my logic was ever too much for her. It dragged her at my heels even now, and when we had got halfway round—a devious, tiresome process, on ground much broken and by a path choked with overgrowth—I paused to give her breath. I sustained her with a grateful arm, assuring her that she might hugely help me; and this started us afresh, so that in the course of but few minutes more we reached a point from which we found the boat to be where I had supposed it. It had been intentionally left as much as possible out of sight and was tied to one of the stakes of a fence that came, just there, down to the brink and that had been an assistance to disembarking. I recognized, as I looked at the pair of short, thick oars, quite safely drawn up, the prodigious character of the feat for a little girl; but I had lived, by this time, too long among wonders and had panted to too many livelier measures. There was a gate in the fence, through which we passed, and that brought us, after a trifling interval, more into the open. Then, “There she is!” we both exclaimed at once.
Flora, a short way off, stood before us on the grass and smiled as if her performance was now complete. The next thing she did, however, was to stoop straight down and pluck—quite as if it were all she was there for—a big, ugly spray of withered fern. I instantly became sure she had just come out of the copse. She waited for us, not herself taking a step, and I was conscious of the rare solemnity with which we presently approached her. She smiled and smiled, and we met; but it was all done in a silence by this time flagrantly ominous. Mrs. Grose was the first to break the spell: she threw herself on her knees and, drawing the child to her breast, clasped in a long embrace the little tender, yielding body. While this dumb convulsion lasted I could only watch it—which I did the more intently when I saw Flora’s face peep at me over our companion’s shoulder. It was serious now—the flicker had left it; but it strengthened the pang with which I at that moment envied Mrs. Grose the simplicity of her relation. Still, all this while, nothing more passed between us save that Flora had let her foolish fern again drop to the ground. What she and I had virtually said to each other was that pretexts were useless now. When Mrs. Grose finally got up she kept the child’s hand, so that the two were still before me; and the singular reticence of our communion was even more marked in the frank look she launched me. “I’ll be hanged,” it said, “if I’ll speak!”
It was Flora who, gazing all over me in candid wonder, was the first. She was struck with our bareheaded aspect. “Why, where are your things?”
“Where yours are, my dear!” I promptly returned.
She had already got back her gaiety, and appeared to take this as an answer quite sufficient. “And where’s Miles?” she went on.
There was something in the small valor of it that quite finished me: these three words from her were, in a flash like the glitter of a drawn blade, the jostle of the cup that my hand, for weeks and weeks, had held high and full to the brim that now, even before speaking, I felt overflow in a deluge. “I’ll tell you if you’ll tell me—” I heard myself say, then heard the tremor in which it broke.
Mrs. Grose’s suspense blazed at me, but it was too late now, and I brought the thing out handsomely. “Where, my pet, is Miss Jessel?”