In life she'd been a modest girl, a sensible and sane young woman whose father was a poor country parson across the moors in Glyngden. How painful then to conceive of herself in this astonishing new guise, an object of horror, still less an object of disgust. Physical disgust if you saw her. Spiritual disgust as the thought of her. Condemned to the eternal motions of washing the mud-muck of the Sea of Azof off her body, in particular the private parts of her marmoreal body, with fanatic fastidiousness picking iridescent-shelled beetles out of her "Scots curl" to flatter her--for the truth, too, can be flattery, uttered with design. And not only he, her lover, Master's valet, but Master himself had flattered her, so craftily: "I would trust you, ah! with any responsibility!"
She, twenty-year-old Miss Jessel, interviewed by Master in Harley Street, wearing her single really good dark cotton-serge dress, how hot her face, how brimming with moisture her eyes, how stricken with shyness at the rush of love, its impact scarcely less palpable than a slap in the buttocks would have been. And, later, in the House of Bly, so stricken-shy of love, or love's antics, Master's valet Peter Quint burst into laughter (not rude exactly, indeed affectionate, but indeed laughter) at the cringing nakedness of her, the shivers that rippled across her skin, the lovely smoky-dark eyes downcast, blind in maidenly shame. Oh, ridiculous! Now Jessel, as she bluntly calls herself, has to bite her lips to keep from howling with laughter like a beast at such memories; has to stop herself short imagining the sharp tug of a chain fixed to a collar tight around her neck, for otherwise she might drop to all fours to scramble after prey (terrified mice, judging from the sound of their tiny squeals and scurrying feet) here in the catacombs. The catacombs--as, bemusedly, bitterly, they call this damp, chill, lightless place with its smell of ancient stone and sweetly-sour decay to which crossing over has brought them: in fact, unromantically, their place of refuge is a corner, an abandoned storage area, in the cellar of the great ugly House of Bly.
By night, of course, they are free to roam. If compulsion over comes them (she, passionate Jessel, being more susceptible than he, the coolly appalled Quint), they venture forth in stealthy forays even during the day. But nights, ah! nights! lawless, extravagant! by wind-ravaged moonlight Quint pursues Jessel naked across the very front lawn of Bly, lewd laughter issuing from his throat, he, too, near-naked, crouched like an ape. Jessel is likely to be in a blood-trance when at last he catches her on the shore of the marshy pond, he has to pry her delicate-boned but devilishly strong jaws open to extricate a limp, bloody, still-quivering furry creature (a baby rabbit?--Jessel dreads to know) caught between her teeth.
Are the children watching, from the house? Are their small, pale, eager faces pressed to the glass? What do little Flora and little Miles see, that the accursed lovers themselves cannot see?
In interludes of sanity Jessel considers: how is it possible that, as a girl, in the dour old stone parsonage on the Scots border, she'd been incapable of eating bread dipped in suet, gravy was repugnant to her as a thinly disguised form of blood, she'd eaten only vegetables, fruits, and grains with what might be called a healthy appetite; yet, now, scarcely a year later, in the catacombs of the House of Bly, she experiences an ecstatic shudder at the crunch of delicate bones, nothing tastes so sweet to her as the warm, rich, still-pulsing blood, her soul cries Yes! yes! like this! only let it never end! in a swoon of realization that her infinite hunger might be, if not satisfied, held at bay.
In life, a good pious scared-giggly Christian girl, virgin to the tips of her toes. In death, for why mince words?--a ghoul.
Because, in a fury of self-disgust and abnegation, she'd dared to take her own life, is that the reason for the curse?-or is it that in taking her own life, in that marshy-mucky pond the children call the Sea of Azof, she'd taken also the life of the ghostly being in her womb? Quint's seed, planted hot and deep. Searing flame at the conception and sorrow, pain, rage, defiance, soul-nausea to follow.
Yet there had seemed to Jessel no other way. An unwed mother, a despoiled virgin, a figure of ignominy, pity, shame--no other way.
Indeed, in that decent Christian world of which the great ugly House of Bly was the emblem, there was no other way.
Little Flora, seven years old at the time of her governess's death, was wild with grief, and mourns her still. Her Miss Jessel!
And I love you too, dear Flora, Jessel wills her words to fly, in silence, into the child's sleep--please forgive me that there was no other way.
Do children forgive?--of course, always. Being children, and innocent.
Orphaned children, like little Flora, and little Miles, above all.
More strangely altered than Jessel, in a sense, by the rude shock of crossing over, is Master's flamey-haired and -whiskered valet Peter Quint--"That hound!" as Mrs. Grose calls him still, with a shiver of her righteous jowls.
In the old, rough, careless days, the bachelor days of a dissolute and protracted youth, Quint had cared not a tuppence for conscience; tall, supple-muscled, handsome in a redhead's luminous pale-skinned way, irresistible to weakly female eyes in certain purloined vests, tweeds, riding breeches and gleaming leather boots of Master's, he'd had his way, indeed his myriad-wallowing ways, with half the household staff at Bly. (Even Mrs. Grose, some believed.
Yes, even Mrs. Grose, who now hates him with a fury hardly mitigated by the man's death.) It was rumored, or crudely boasted, that babes born to one or another of the married women below stairs at Bly were in fact Quint's bastards, whether accursed by tell-tale red hair, or not; yes, and in the Village as well, and scattered through the county.
Hadn't Master, himself livened by drink, been in the habit of regaling Quint, one fellow vto another, "Quint, my man, you must do my living for me, eh?"--all but nudging his valet in the ribs. At which times the shrewd Quint, knowing how aristocrats may play at forgetting their station in life, as if to tempt another to forget, fatally, his own, maintained a servile propriety, commensurate with his erect posture and high-held head, saying, quietly, "Yes, sir. If you will explain how. I am at your command, sir."
But Master had only laughed, a sound as of wet gravel being roughly shoveled.
And now, how unexpected, in a way how perverse: Quint finds himself considerably sobered by his change of fortune. His death, unlike poor Jessel's, was not deliberate; yet, a drunken misstep, a fall down a rocky slope midway between The Black Ox (a pub in the Village of Bly) and the House of Bly in the eerie pre-dawn of a morning shortly after Jessel's funeral, it was perhaps not accidental, either.
In the catacombs, where time, seemingly, has stopped, the fact of Quint's death is frequently discussed. Jessel muses, "You need not have done it, you know. No one would have expected it of you," and Quint says, with a shrug of irritation, 'I don't do what is expected of me, only what I expect of myself."
"Then you do love me?" --the question, though reiterated often, is quaveringly posed.
"We are both accursed by love, it seems," Quint says, in a flat, hollow tone, stroking his bearded chin (and how unevenly trimmed his beard, once the pride of his manly bearing), "--for each other, and, you know, damn them--little Flora, and little Miles."
"Oh! don't speak so harshly. They are all we have."
"But we don't, you know, precisely 'have' them. They are still--" (Quint hesitates, with a fastidious frown), "--they have not yet crossed"
Jessel's luminous, mad eyes glare up at him, out of the sepulchral gloom. "Yes, as you say--not yet."
Little Flora, and little Miles!--the living children, not of the lovers' union, but of their desire.
Quint would not wish to name it thus, but his attachment to them, as to Jessel, is that of a man blessed (some might say, accursed) by his love of his family. Jessel, passionate and reckless now, as, in life, she'd been stricken by shyness as by a scarlet rash of the skin (a "nerve" rash, which had indeed afflicted her occasionally), spoke openly-- "Flora is my soul, and I will not give her up. No, nor dear little Miles, either!"
Since crossing over, since the deaths, and alarms, and funerals, and hushed conversations from which the children were banned, Flora and Miles have grieved inwardly; forbidden to so much as speak of the "depraved, degenerate sinners"--as all in the vicinity of Bly call the dead couple--they have had to contemplate Miss Jessel and Peter Quint, if at all, only at distances, and in their dreams.
The unhappy children, now eight and ten years old, were, years ago, tragically orphaned when their parents died of mysterious tropical diseases in India. Their uncle-guardian, Master of the House of Bly, resident of sumptuous bachelor's digs in Harley Street, London, always professes to be very, very fond of his niece and nephew, indeed devoted to them--their well-being, their educations, their "moral, Christian selves"; even as, when he speaks of them, his red, veined eyes glaze over.
Tremulous twenty-year-old Miss Jessel with the staring eyes, interviewed by the Master of Bly in his Harley Street townhouse, clasped her fingers so tightly in her cotton-serge lap, the bony knuckles glared white. She, a poor parson's daughter, educated at a governess's school in Norfolk, had never in her life been in such a Presence!--gentlemanly, yet manly; of the landed aristocracy in bearing, if not in actual lineage, yet capable, a bit teasingly, of plain talk. It is a measure of the young governess's trust in her social superiors that she did not think it strange that the Master glided swiftly, indeed cursorily, over her duties as a governess, and over the bereaved children themselves, but reiterated several times, with an inscrutable smile that left her breathless, that the "prime responsibility" of her employment would be that she must never, under circumstances, trouble him with problems. Not any In a sort of giddy daze Miss Jessel heard herself giggle, and inquire, almost inaudibly, "--any circumstances, sir?" and Master loftily and smilingly replied, "I would trust you, ah! with any responsibility!"
And so the interview, which required scarcely half an hour, came to an end.
Little Flora was Miss Jessel's delight. Miss .Jessel's angel. Quite simply--so the ecstatic young woman wrote home, to Glyngden--the most beautiful, the most charming child she'd ever seen, with pale blond curls like silk, and thick-lashed blue eyes clear as washed glass, and a sweet melodic voice. Shy, initially--ah, tragically shy! --as if seemingly abandoned by her parents, and only barely tolerated by her uncle, Flora had no sense of her human worth. When first Miss Jessel set eyes upon her, introduced to her by the house keeper Mrs. Grose, the child visibly shrank from the young woman's warm scrutiny. "Why, hello, Flora! I'm Miss Jessel: I am to be your friend," Miss Jessel said. She, too, was afflicted by shyness, but in this case gazed upon the perfect child with such a look of rapture that Flora must have seen, yes, here was her lost young mother restored to her, at last!
Within the space of a few blissful days, Miss Jessel and little Flora became inseparable companions. Together they picnicked on the grassy bank of the pond--the "Sea of Azof," as Flora so charmingly called it. Together they walked white-gloved hand in hand to church a mile away. Together they ate every meal. Flora's organdy-ruffled little bed was established in a corner of Miss Jessel's room. On bare Presbyterian knees, beside her own bed, in the dark, Miss Jessel fiercely prayed: Dear God, I vow to devote my life to this child! --1 will do far, far more than he has so much as hinted of my doing.
No need, between Miss Jessel and an omniscient God, to identify this Olympian he.
Days and weeks passed in an oblivion of happiness. For what is happiness, save oblivion.
The young governess from Glyngden with the pale, rather narrow, plain-pretty face and intense dark eyes, who had long forbade herself fantasy as a heathen sort of indulgence, now gave herself up in daydreams of little Flora, and Master, and, yes, she herself. (For, at this time, little Miles was away at school.) A new family, the most natural of families, why not? Like every other young governess in England, Miss Jessel had avidly read her Jane Eyre.
These were the oblivious days before Peter Quint.
Little Miles, as comely and angelic a boy as his sister was perfection as a girl, was under the guidance, when at Bly, of Peter Quint, his uncle's trusted valet. The more censorious among the servants, in particular Mrs. Grose, thought this an unfortunate situation: cunning Quint played the gentleman at Bly and environs, a dashing figure (if you liked the type) in purloined clothes belonging to the Master, but, born of coarse country folk in the Midlands, without education or breeding, he was a "base menial--a hound" as Mrs. Grose sniffed. He had a certain reputation as a ladies' man. Excepting of course, as the clumsy riposte went. Quint's ladies were hardly ladies.
Infrequently, on unpredictable weekends, Master came by train to Bly--"To my country retreat"--with a flushed, sullen look of, indeed, a gentleman in retreat. (From amorous mishaps?--gambling debacles? Not even his valet knew.) He paid scant attention to the quivering Miss Jessel, whom, to her chagrin, he persisted in calling by the wrong name; he paid virtually no attention at all to poor little Flora, beaming with hope like an angel and dressed in her prettiest pink flock. He did make it a point to speak with Peter Quint in private, bringing up the unexpected subject of his little nephew Miles, enrolled at Eton--"l want, you know, Quint, this boy of my poor dear fool of a brother to be a boy; and not, you know," here he paused, frowning, "--not a boy. D'you see?"
Master's face flushed brick-red with discomfort and a sort of choked anger. Politic Quint murmured a polite, "Yes sir. Indeed."
"These boys' schools--notorious! All sorts of--" Another pause, a look of distaste. A nervous stroking of his moustache-- "Antics. Best not spoken aloud. But you know what I mean."
Quint, who had not had the privilege of attending any public boys' school, let alone the distinguished one in which little Miles was enrolled, was not sure that he did know; but could guess. Still, the gentleman's man hesitated, now stroking his own whiskery chin.
Seeing Quint's hesitation, and interpreting it as a subtle refinement of his own distaste, Master continued, hurriedly, "Let me phrase it thus, Quint: I require that those for whom I am responsible subscribe to decent standards of Christian behavior, that's to say normal standards of human behavior. D'you see? That is not much to ask, but it is everything."
"A nephew of mine, blood of my blood, bred to inherit my name, the bearer of a great English lineage--he' must, he will, marry, and sire children to continue the line to--" Another pause, and here a rather ghastly slackening of the mouth, as if the very prospect sickened, "--perpetuity. D'you see?" Quint mumbled. a vague assent.
"Degenerates will be the death of England, if we do not stop them in the cradle."
"In the cradle, sir?"
"For, y'know, Quint, just between us two, man to man: I would rather see the poor little bugger dead, than unmanly."
At this Quint started, and so forgot himself as to look the Master of Bly searchingly in the face; but the gentleman's eyes were red veined, with a flat, opaque cast that yielded little light.
The interview was over, abruptly. Quint bowed to Master, and took his leave. Thinking, My God! the upper classes are more savage than I had guessed.
Yet little Miles, though blood of Master's blood, and bred to the inheritance not merely of a revered English lineage but a good deal of wealth, was a child starved for affection--a sweet-natured, sometimes a bit mischievous, yet always sunnily charming boy; fair-skinned like his sister, but with honey-brown hair and eyes, and, though small-flamed, with an inclination toward heart palpitations and breathlessness, indefatigably high-spirited when others were around. (Alone, Miles was apt to be moody and secretive; no doubt he mourned his parents, whom, unlike Flora, he could recall, if confusedly. He had been five at the time of their deaths.)
However quick and intelligent he was, Miles did not like school, or, in any case, his more robust classmates at Eton. Yet he rarely complained, and, in Peter Quint's presence, as in the presence of any adult male of authority, it seemed resolute in the child that he not complain.
From the start, to Quint's astonishment, Miles attached himself to him with childish affection, hugging and kissing him, even, if he was able, clambering onto Quint's lap. Such unguarded demonstrations of feeling both embarrassed the valet, and flattered him. Quint tried to fend off Miles, laughingly, rather red-faced, protesting, "Your uncle would not approve of such behavior, Miles--indeed, your uncle would call this 'unmanly.'" But Miles persisted; Miles was adamant; Miles wept if pushed forcibly away. It was a habit of his to rush at Quint if he had not seen him in a while and seize him around the hips, burrowing his flushed little face into the eider man as a kitten or puppy might, blindly seeking its mother is teats. Miles would plead, "But, you know, Quint, Uncle doesn't love me. I only want to be loved. Taking pity on the child, Quint would caress him, awkwardly, bend over to kiss the top of his head, then push him away, in a nervous reflex. "Miles, dear chap, this is really not what we want!" he laughed.
But Miles held tight, laughing too, breathless and defiant, pleading, "Oh, but isn't it, Quint?--isn't it?--isn't it?"
As Miss Jesse/and little Flora were inseparable companions, so too were Peter Quint and little Miles, when Miles was home from school. And, as the children were intensely, one might almost say desperately, attached to each other, the shy, plain-pretty governess from Glyngden and the coarser valet from the Midlands were very often in each other's company.
Damned hard to pride oneself on one's feral good looks when a man is forced to shave with a dull razor in a cracked looking glass, and when his clothes, regardless of how "smart," are covered with a patina of grime; when, drifting into a thin, ragged sleep as the moon seems on windy nights to be sailing through a scrim of cloud, he wakes with a start of terror. As if, thinks Quint, I am not even dead yet: and the worst is yet to come.
Poor Jessel--whom crossing over has humbled yet more egregiously!
In puddles of dirty water the once-chaste young governess with the lustrous "Scots curl" tries repeatedly, compulsively, to cleanse herself. The brackish mud-muck of Flora's Sea of Azof clings to her underarms, the pit of her belly, the hot dark crevice between her legs with its own brackish odor; a particular sort of spiny iridescent beetle that breeds copiously in the earthy damp of the cellar is attracted to hair, and sticks tight as snarls. Her single good dress, which, out of defiance, she'd worn as she waded into the water, is stiff with filth, and her petticoats, once white, are striated with mud, and not yet fully dry. She rages, she weeps, she claws at her cheeks With her broken nails, she turns against her lover, demanding why, if he'd known she was hysterically inclined, he'd made love to her at all.
Quint protests. Guiltily. A man is a man, a pronged creature destined to impregnate: how, given their attraction to each other, in the romantically sequestered countryside of Bly, could he, lusty Peter Quint, not have made love to her? How could he have known she was "hysterically inclined" and would take her own, dear life, in an excess of shame?
Not that Miss Jessel's desperate act was solely a consequence of shame: it was pragmatic, practical. Word had come from Harley Street (fed, of course, by tales told by Mrs. Grose and others) that Miss Jessel was dismissed from Bly, commanded at once to vacate her room, disappear.
Where, then, could she have gone?--back to the Glyngden parsonage? A ruined woman, a despoiled woman, a humiliated woman, a fallen woman, a woman made incontrovertibly a woman.
Jessel says tartly that all virgins of this time and place are "hysterically inclined"--little Presbyterian governesses above all. If, in life, she'd had the luck to have been born a man, she'd have avoided such pathetic creatures like the plague.
Quint laughs irritably. "Yes, but, dear Jessel, you know--I love you."
The statement hovers in the air, forlorn and accusing.
Here is perversity in this twilit realm to which crossing over has brought the accursed lovers, Jessel seems, in Quint's eyes, far more beautiful than she'd been in life; Quint, to Jessel, despite her anger, quite the most attractive man she has ever seen--touching in his vanity even now, in grimy and tattered vests, shirts, and breeches, his rooster's-crest of brick-red hair threaded with gray, his jaws covered in wiry stubble. The most and a bit cursorily performed, indeed); we hear them, upstairs, speak of us less and less frequently, where once the damned prigs spoke of nothing else. Miles has been away at school and will, I think, shortly be home again for Easter recess. Flora's eighth birthday was last week."
"And we dared not be with her, but had to watch through the window, like lepers," Jessel says hotly.
"And there is this new governess expected tomorrow, I've heard--your replacement."
Jessel laughs. Harsh, scratchy-throated, brief laughter, without mirth. "My replacement! Never."
"Dun-colored, and so plain! Skin the color of curdled milk! And the eyes so squinty and small!--the forehead so bony!"
Jessel is incensed. Jessel is quivering-with. rage. Quint would admonish her, but that would only make things worse.
From the summit of the square tower to the east, that overlooks the drive, the accursed lovers regard the newly hired governess as she steps down, not very gracefully, with a scared smile, from the carriage. Mrs. Grose has little Flora by the hand, urging the child forward to be introduced.
How eager she is, fattish Grose!--who'd once been Miss Jessel's friend, and had then so cruelly rejected her. The new governess (as Quint overheard, from Ottery St. Mary, Devonshire--a rural village as obscure and provincial as Glyngden) is a skinny broomstick of a girl, in a gray bonnet that does not flatter her, and a badly wrinkled gray traveling cloak; her small-, pale, homely face is lit from within by a hope, a prayer, of "succeeding"--Jessel recoils, recalling such, in herself. Jessel mutters, half-sobbing, "Quint, how could he! Another! To take my place with Floral How dare he?"
Quint assures her, "No one will take your place with Flora, dear girl. You know that."
As the new governess stoops over Flora, all smiles and delight, Jessel sees, with a trip of her heart, how the child glances over her shoulder, stealthily, to ascertain that Miss Jessel is somewhere near. Yes, dear Flora. Your Jessel is always somewhere near.
So it begins, the bitter contest.
The struggle for little Flora, and little Miles.
"That woman is one of them," Jessel says, her fist jammed against her mouth, "--the very worst of them." Quint, who would like to stay clear of his mistress's fanatic plots, that turn, and turn, and turn upon the hope, to his skeptical mind not very likely, of reuniting the four of them someday, says, with a frown, "The very worst of--?" Jessel replies, her eyes brimming with tears, "A vicious little--Christian! A Puritan! You know the sort: one who hates and fears life in others. Hates and fears joy, passion, love. All that we've had."
There is a moment's silence. Quint is thinking of certain slumberous summer afternoons, heat lightning flashing in the sweetly bruised sky, a weeping Miss Jessel cradled in his arms, the smell of tall grasses and the calls of rooks and little Flora and little Miles approaching through the grove of acacia trees calling softly, slyly, happily, Oh, Miss Jessel! Oh, Mr. Quint! Where are you hiding? May we see?
Quint shivers, recalling. He understands that Jessel, too, is thinking of those lovely lost afternoons.
Of course, it has also irked Quint that Master has hired a new governess for little Flora, yet, to be reasonable, would there not have to be a new governess, soon? So far as the world knows, Miss Jessel is dead, and has departed to where all the dead go. Master would have hired a new governess within twenty-four hours of the death of the old, had decorum not forbade it. Yes, and there is a new valet, too: but this gentleman's man, Quint has heard, will live in Harley Street, and will never meet little Miles. Quint has wondered, Did Master know?--not just of Jessel and me, but of the children, too?
Quint asks Jessel, "You see all that, darling? In the poor pinched thing's face?"
"Of course! Can't you?"
Jessel's mad beautiful eyes, her skin gleaming with the ferocity of moonlight. Her mouth is a wound. To gaze upon it, Quint thinks, succumbing, is to be aroused.
Quint appears to the new governess first. He must confess, there is Something in the young woman's very bearing, the thin, stiff little body inside the' clothes, the nervously high-held head, the quick-darting steely gray eyes, that both repels and attracts him. Unlike Flora, who is capable of staring in a trance of mystic contentment at her Miss Jessel (who will appear to Flora, for instance, across the pond, as the new governess, her back to the pond, chatters to her little charge in complete ignorance), and occasionally at Peter Quint as well (for Quint sometimes appears with Jessel, arms entwined), the new governess reacts with a shock, an astonishment, a naked terror, that is immensely gratifying to a man.
A man of still-youthful vigor and lusts, deprived by this damnable crossing over of his manhood. Quint ascends the square tower to the west, dashing up the spiral stairs to the crenelated top, bodiless, thus weightless, and feeling quite good. The "battlements" of the House of Bly are architectural fancies not unlike manufactured fossils, for they were added to the house in a short-lived romantic-medieval revival of a decade or so ago, touchingly quaint, yet, who can deny it?--wonderfully atmospheric. Quint sees that the governess is approaching below on the path, she is alone, meditative, exciting in her maiden vulnerability, he preens his feathers glancing down the lean length of himself liking what he sees, he is a damned fine figure of a man. The vagrant late-afternoon wind dies down; the rooks cease their fretful, ubiquitous cries; there is an unnatural "hush"--and Quint feels with a shudder of delight the governess's shock as she lifts her eyes to the top of the tower, to the machicolated ledge, to him. Ah, bliss!
For some dramatic seconds, protracted as minutes, Quint and the governess stare at each other: Quint coolly and severely, with his "piercing" eyes (which few women, inexperienced young virgins or no, would be likely to forget); the governess with an expression of alarm, incredulity, terror. The poor thing takes an involuntary step backward. She presses a tremulous hand to her throat. Quint gives her the full, full impact of his gaze--he holds her fast there below on the path, he wills her to stand as if paralyzed. For this performance, Quint has pieced together an attractive costume that does not altogether embarrass him. Trousers still holding their crease, a white silk shirt kept in readiness for just such an occasion, that elegant coat of Master's, and the checked vest--another's things, but put to superior use on Quint's manly body. His beam is freshly trimmed, which gives him a sinister-romantic dash; he's hatless, of course--that virile-red rooster's crest of hair must be displayed.
"The Devil, "as Quint remarked to Jessel, "--who is, you know, as you women prefer it, also a Dandy." So indeed the governess stands rooted to the spot, her small pale face disguising nothing of the turbulent emotions she feels. With the studied nonchalance of a professional actor, though such a "visitation," so calibrated, is entirely new to him, Quint walks slowly along the ledge, continuing 'to stare at the governess: You do not know me, my dear girl, but you can guess who I am. You have been forewarned.
Cunning Quint, as the governess stares up at him like a transfixed child, strolls to the farther curve of the tower, disappears.
Thinking afterward, in the golden-erotic glow of a wholly satisfactory experience, How otherwise to know what power we wield, except to see it in another's eyes? Excitedly, extravagantly, Jessel predicts that her "replacement" will flee Bly immediately--"I should do so, under such circumstances"
"Seeing a ghost, do you mean?" Quint asks, bemused, "--or seeing me?"
Yet, to Jessel's surprise, and extreme disappointment, the governess from Ottery St. Mary, Devonshire, does not flee Bly; but seems to be digging in, as for a siege. She is intimidated, surely, but also wary, and alert. She exudes an air of-what? A Puritan's prim, punitive zeal?--a Christian martyr's stubborn resolve? The second time Quint appears to her, the two of them, alone, no more than fifteen feet apart, separated by a pane of glass, the young woman draws herself up to her full height (she lacks Jessel's stature, is no more than five feet two inches tall) and stares unwaveringly at Quint for a long tense moment.
Quint frowns severely. You know who I am/You have been forewarned!
The governess is so frightened that the blood drains from her face, turning it a ghastly waxen color; her fists are clenched, white knuckled, against her flat bosom. Yet, staring at Quint, she seems to challenge him. Yes, I know who you are. But, no, I will not give in. When Quint releases her, she does not run to hide in her room, but, again most unexpectedly, bounds out of the house, and rushes around to the terrace, where, if Quint were a flesh-and-blood man, a "real" man, he would have stood to peer through the window. Of course, no one is there. A scattering of bruised forsythia blossoms on the terrace beneath the window lies undisturbed. The governess, white-faced, yet arrogant, peers about with the nervous intensity of a small terrier.
Clearly, she is frightened; yet, it seems, fear alone is not enough to deter her. (Her behavior is the more courageous in that it is Sunday, and most of the household, including the ever-vigilant Mrs. Grose, are at church in the Village of Bly.) Quint has retreated to a hedgerow a short distance away, where, joined by a somber Jessel, he contemplates the governess in her plain, prim, chaste Sunday bonnet and provincial costume: how defiant the gawky little thing is! Jessel gnaws at a thumbnail, murmuring, "How can it be, Quint! A normal woman, thinking she'd seen a ghost--or, indeed, thinking she'd seen, in such circumstances, an actual man--would have run away screaming for help."
Quint says, annoyed, "Maybe, love, I'm not so formidable as we think."
Jessel says, worriedly, "Or she is not a normal woman."
Afterward, Quint recalls the episode with, beyond annoyance and chagrin, a stir of sexual arousal. It excites him that there is a new, young, willful woman at Bly; homely as a pudding, and with a body flat, bosom and buttocks, as a board. Certainly she lacks Jessel's passion, as she lacks Jessel's desperation. Yet she is alive, and poor dear Jessel is dead.
Quint makes himself snake-slender, incorporeal: yet gifted with a prodigious red-skinned erection an incubus: insinuating himself into the governess's bedroom, and into her bed, and, despite her faint flailing protests, into her very body.
When he groans aloud, shuddering, Jessel pokes him with a sharp little fist.
"Are you having a nightmare, Quint?" she asks ironically.
And then, an unexpected development: poor little Miles has been expelled from Eton!
Quint and Jessel contrive to overhear the governess and Mrs. Grose as they discuss the subject, and the mystery embedded in it, repeatedly; obsessively. The governess, quite shocked, and puzzled, reads the headmaster's letter of dismissal to Mrs. Grose; together, the women dissect the chill, blunt, insultingly formal sentences, which present the expulsion as a fait accompli, about which there can be no negotiations. It seems, simply, that Eton "declines" to keep little Miles as a student. That is all.
Jessel, crouched beside Quint, murmurs in a low, sensuous voice, "Delightful for you, Quint, to have your boy back again, eh? The four of us will be reunited soon!--/know it."
But Quint, who has a notion that he knows why Miles has been expelled, says, gravely, "But, poor Miles! He must go to school, after all; he can't hang about here like his sister. His uncle will be furious when he learns. The old bugger wants nothing but that Miles grow up to be a 'manly man' like himself."
"Oh, what do we care for him?" Jessel asks. "He is the worst of the enemy, after all."
A day later, Miles appears. He is much the same as Quint recalls, perhaps an inch or so taller, a few pounds heavier; fair-skinned, clear eyed, with that slightly feverish flush to his cheeks and that air of startled breathlessness that Quint found so appealing--finds appealing still.
A sweet, clever, circumspect lad of ten, but far, far older than his years, Miles wins the heart of the new governess at their first meeting; forestalls, by his very innocence, any awkward questions about Eton; and, that night, when he should have been in bed, slips past the door of the governess's ,room (which little Flora shares) and wanders out into the deep, shifting shadows of the park, seeking--who, or what?
Moonlight cascades over the slated roofs of the great ugly House of Bly. The cries of nocturnal birds sound in a rhythmic, staccato pulse.
Quint observes dear little Miles, in pajamas, barefoot, making his way across the slope of the lawn, and back beyond the stables, to one of their old trysting places: there the child throws himself, with an air of abandon, on the dewy grass, as if to declare I am here, where are you?
When Quint died, little Miles was said to have been "stony-cold"--not a tear shed. So Quint overheard the servants talking. When Miss Jessel drowned, little Flora was said to have been "heartbroken"--inconsolable for days. Quint approves of Miles's stoicism.
Hidden close by the restive child (Miles is looking impatiently about, pulling at blades of grass), Quint observes him with fond, guilty eyes. In life, Quint's passion was for women; his affection for little Miles was in reaction to little Miles's affection for him, thus not a true passion, perhaps. Quint wonders is it fair to the child, the secret bond between them?--the attachment, of such tender, wordless intimacy, even Quint's abrupt crossing over seems not to have weakened it?
In the moonlit silence the child's voice is low, fearful, quavering with hope. "Quint?
Damn you, Quint, are you here?"
Quint, choked with emotion suddenly, does not reply. He sees the child's beautiful eyes, glittering as with a fever. What a tragedy, to be orphaned at the age of five!--no wonder the child grasped Quint's knee as a drowning person a lifeboat.
It had been Miles's habit, charming, and touching, perhaps a bit pitiful, to seek out the ldrowning person a lifeboat.
It had been Miles's habit, charming, and touching, perhaps a bit pitiful, to seek out the lovers Quint and Miss Jessel in just such trysting places, if he could find them; then, silky hair disheveled and eyes dilated as with an opiate, he would hug, burrow, twist, groan with yearning and delight--who could resist him, who could send him away? And little Flora, too.
"Quint?" Miles whisnd him away? And little Flora, too.
"Quint?" Miles whispers, glancing nervously about, his rapt, eager face luminous as a lily, "--I know you're here, you couldn't, could you, not be here! It has been so .damnably long." Those happiest of times. Because most unexpected, uncalculated of times.
And what a dreamy infinity of time, at Bly: the Bly of lush rural England: unimaginable, indeed, in the bustle of London and the stern verticality of Harley Street.
Miles continues, more desperate, and demanding, "Quint, damn you! I know you're here--somewhere." Indeed, the boy-is staring, with a frown that creases his perfect little forehead like crumpled paper, at Quint--without seeming to see him. "Not 'dead'--" Miles's perfect mouth twists in distaste, "--not you. She has seen you, eh?--the new, the supremely awful governess?
'St. Ottery,' I call her--aren't I clever? Quint? Has she seen you? She doesn't let on, of course, she's far too cunning, but Flora has guessed. There's been such a tedious prattle of the 'purity' of childhood, and the need to 'be good, starting with clean hands.'" Miles laughs shrilly.
"Quint? They've sacked me, you know--sent me down--as you'd worried--warned. I'm to blame, I suppose--what a fool- telling only two or three boys about it--boys I liked, oh! ever so much--and who liked me, I know--they vowed never to tell, and yet--somehow--it all came out--there was a nasty hue and cry- Quint, how I hate them all!--they are the enemy, and they are so many! Quint? I love only you."
And I love only you, dear Miles.
Quint appears before Miles, a tall, glimmering shape, taller than he had been in life.
Miles gapes up at him, astonished; then, on hams and knees he crawls to Quint, now weeping, '"Quint! Quint?" groaning in a delirium of joy as he tries to hug the phantom flesh --legs, thighs.
The porousness of Quint's being does not deter him, perhaps in his excitement he does not comprehend, "I knew! I knew! I knew!--you would not abandon me, Quint!" Never, dear boy: you have my word." Then, horribly, there comes an abrupt call, nasal, reedy, scolding-- "Miles? You naughty boy, where are you?"
It is the governess from Ottery St. Mary: a diminutive, stubborn figure, just rounding the corner of the stable some thirty feet away, holding aloft a lighted candle: groping, yet persistent, bravely undaunted by the night and by the feeble, flickering radius of the candle-flame: her "--Miles? Miles--?"
So the tryst ends, rudely interrupted. Quint, swearing, retreats. Miles in his pajamas, so charmingly barefoot, rises, rueful, brushing at himself, composing a face, a child's angelic face, untwisting his mouth, with no recourse but to say, "Here I am."
But who is guiding us, Quint, if not ourselves?--is there Another whose face. we cannot see and whose voice we cannot hear, except as it echoes in our own thoughts?
Jessel fairly spits the words, her lovely mouth turned ugly-- "I despise her! She is the ghoul. If only we could destroy her outright!"
As rarely in the past she'd done, coaxed by the child's urgent need, Jessel appears to little Flora in emboldened daylight, daring to "materialize" on the farther shore of the placid Sea of Azof. A, cloudless afternoon in early summer, a vertigo of honeysuckle in the air, and, so suddenly, out of nowhere, there appears, on the grassy bank, a somber yet beautiful figure, hair shockingly undone, darkly lustrous, falling past her shoulders, her face alabaster pale: an heraldic figure, one might think, out of an ancient legend, or a curse. And the child's doll-like figure in the foreground, blond curls, an angel's profile, pinafore brightly yellow as the buttercups that grow in happy profusion in the surrounding grass--is not little Flora in her innocence, as in her need, necessary to the vision? And, on a stone bench close by the child, busily knitting, yet keeping a watchful and jealous eye on her--"St. Ottery, "as Miles has wittily dubbed her. So like a Fate, indeed! A common jailer. Eyes like ditch-water, scanty fair lashes, brows; the small brave chin, sparrow body, skin stretched tight as the skin of a drum. The narrow face is too small for the head, and the head is too small for the body, the body too small for such long, angular feet. The shoulder blades are painfully prominent beneath the dark cotton of her governess's dress, like folded wings.
Flora is playing, quite absorbedly it seems, on the bank of the pond, humming a nonsensical little tune as she cradles her newest doll in her arms, and an exquisitely beautiful, life-like doll it is, from France, Flora's guardian-uncle's gift to her on the occasion of her eighth birthday (which, to Uncle's regret, he could not attend), her head is lowered, yet she is gazing, staring fixedly, through her eyelashes, at beloved Miss Jessel on the other bank. How the child's heart beats, in yearning! Take me with you, Miss Jessel, oh please/I am so lonely here the child mutely begs, I am so unhappy, dear Miss Jessel, since you went away/and Jessel's heart too beats in yearning, in love, for Flora is her own little girl, the babe cruelly drowned in her womb, hers and Quint's, in this very pond.
Jessel fixes her gaze upon Flora, across the pond: Jessel would comfort the child, as a hypnotist might. Dear Flora, dear child, you know I love you: you know we will be together soon, and never again apart. My darling-- But, then, the rude interruption, in a most shrill, reedy voice: "Flora, is something wrong?--what is it?"
The terrier "St. Ottery" leaps to her feet and hurries to Flora, glancing level, myopic eyes narrowed, to the opposite bank--seeing the figure of her predecessor, whom perhaps she recognizes; an apparition of the most sorrowful beauty; yet more frightful, in its very solemnity, than the other, the man. (For the man, in his sexually aggressive, self-conscious posture, might have been interpreted as, simply, a man; this creature, "St. Ottery" shrewdly sees, can be nothing but a ghoul.)
The governess grips little Flora by the arm, with unconscious force, crying, appalled, "My God, what a--horror! Hide your eyes, child! Shield yourself" Flora protests, in tears. Dazed and blinking as if slapped, insists she sees nothing, there is nothing.
Even as Jessel stares in impotent rage, the governess swiftly, indeed rather brutally, leads the whimpering child away, pulling her by both arms, murmuring words of reproachful comfort: "Don't look at her, Floral The horrid, obscene thing! You're safe now."
Horrid, obscene thing. When, in life, she'd been so sweetly modest a girl, impeccably groomed in ways spiritual no less than material; yes, and a Christian, of course; and a virgin--of course.
That ticklish scuttling in her hair?--a hard-shelled beetle falls to the ground.
Fanatic Jessel, stung to the core of her being, begins to lose control. Ever more carelessly by day she prowls the House of Bly seeking her darling girl alone, if only for a few snatched moments. "It seems I am haunted," Jessel laughs despairingly, "but what's to be done? Flora is my soul." Yet the jealous and vindictive "St. Ottery" hovers over the child every waking hour; she has pulled Flora's pretty little bed up snug beside her own, for safekeeping at night. (Since the upset on the bank of the pond, neither the governess nor her agitated, feverish charge is capable of sleeping for more than a few minutes at a time.)
Flora pleads: Miss Jessel, help me! Come to me! Hurry! And Jessel: Flora, my darling, I will come. Soon.
But the vigilant young woman from Ottery St. Mary refuses to allow the shutters in her and Flora's room to be opened! Nor the shutters in the adjoining nursery. In Miss Jessel's reign, when she and the red-bearded Quint were lovers, how these rooms were flooded with sunshine!--yes, and with moonlight, tool The very air pulsed with their love, humid and languorous; the baroque silver sconces on the walls trembled with their love-cries. Now the air is stale and sour, fresh linen laid upon the beds turns soiled within minutes.
Pushing her authority, as there is no one here at Bly to oppose it, "St. Ottery" tries to insist that the windows in poor Miles's bedroom be permanently shuttered as well; but, being a boy, and a most willful boy, whose angelic face belies his precocious soul, little Miles resists.
"What are windows for, pray, you silly old thing--" for so Miles has affected a gay, jocose, just slightly taunting flirtatious tone with the terrible woman, "--if not, you know, to look out of?"
To which the reply is a grim-jawed, "Miles, I will put that question to you."
As if shutters, of mere wood, can keep at bay love's most violent yearnings.
Poor damned soul: by now, all of the household .staff has seen her.
Drifting through the house, now upstairs, now down, now at the French windows opened upon a profusion of sticky-petaled glaring-white clematis . . . that wailing sound is hers, a sigh torn from her ... woman sighing for her lost child, or her own soul as it nears extinction. How is it "St. Ottery" is always between her and Flora--always! Most recently, the New Testament in her hand. This morning, Jessel finds herself exhausted at her old desk in the schoolroom. A soft moan escapes her. Her arms slumped on the desk and head heavy with sorrow resting on her arms, her face hidden, eyes brimming hot with tears of hurt, bewilderment, rage, How am 1, who is love, evil? and a footfall behind her, a sharp intake of breath, rouse her to wakefulness, and she stands, swaying, and turns, to see her enemy confronting her hardly six feet away: "St. Ottery" bent at the waist like a crippled woman, her arms upraised as if to ward off the devil, but the colorless eyes narrowed in loathing, and the certitude of that loathing, the pale, prominent forehead, the thin lips-- "Go away, out of here! This is no place for you!--vile, unspeakable horror!"
Where once Jessel would have stood her ground, now, seeing the revulsion in the other's eyes, she is sickened, defenseless. She cannot protest, she feels herself dissolving, surrendering the field to her enemy, who calls after her, in ecstatic triumph, a shrill reedy voice wholly without pity-- "And never return! Never, never dare return!"
Now, with more concentrated zeal, the fierce "St. Ottery" interrogates poor Flora, mercilessly.
"Flora, dear, is there something you would like to tell me?" and, "Flora, dear, you can tell me, you know: I've seen the dreadful thing, I'm aware." And, most cruelly: "My child, you may as well confess! I've spoken with your 'Miss Jessel,' and she has told me."
Jessel is a witness, albeit an invisible and powerless witness, when a bubble bursts at last in Flora's brain. Her sobs might be those of countless children, reverberating horribly in the catacombs beneath the great ugly House of Bly. Flora screams, "No no no no! I didn't! I don't! I don't know what you mean! I hate you!"
Jessel is powerless to interfere even as she sees the hysterical child caught up in Mrs. Grose's arms.
What more bitter irony, that Jessel should find herself grateful for, of all people, her old enemy Mrs. Grose.
I will be extinct by daylight: it's time. I have been only a memory of night.
The old house rings, down to the very catacombs, with the mad child's howls, her guttural little barks of profanity, obscenity. Mrs. Grose and another woman servant, accompanying Flora on the journey to London, where she will be put under the supervision of a noted child physician, are obliged numerous times to clap their hands over their ears, for shame.
Mrs. Grose asks tearfully, "Where did that angel pick up such language?"
"St. Ottery" remains behind, of course, to care for little Miles. She is shaken--saddened-baffled--infuriated--by the loss of little Flora, but she is determined not to lose Miles.
She, too, the virgin daughter of a country parson, a Methodist. On her knees, praying to Our Father for strength against the Devil. She reads the New Testament for solace, and for a girding of the loins. Did not Our Savior cast out evil demons from the afflicted? --did not He, when He chose, have the power of raising the dead? In such a universe, of fiercely contending spirits, all things are possible.
"Miles, dear! Where are you? Come, it's time for your lessons!" Far below, in the dank-dripping catacombs, heartsick with mourning his beloved Jessel (Quint was no husband, but feels a husband's loss: half his soul torn from him), Peter Quint hears the governess hurrying from room to room, surprisingly heavy on her heels. Her call is like a rook's, shrill, persistent. "Miles? Miles--"
Quint, with trembling fingers, readies himself for the final confrontation. He perceives himself as a figure in a drama, or it may be an equation, there is Good, there is Evil, there is deception, there is must be deception, for otherwise there would be no direction in which to move .... Squinting at his sallow reflection in a shard of mirror, plucking at his graying beard to restore, or to suggest, its old virility; recalling, with a swoon in the loins, poor Miles hugging him about the knees, mashing his heated face against him.
How is it evil, to give, as to receive, love's comforts?
Jessel has vanished. Dissolved, faded: as the morning mist, milkily opaque at dawn, fades in the gathering light. His beloved Jessel!--the girl with the "Scots curl," and the hymen so damnably hard to break! A mere cloud of dispersing molecules, atoms?
For that dispersal is Death. To which crossing over is but an overture. It was desire that held them at Bly, the reluctance of love to surrender the beloved. Desire holds Quint here, still.
The fact stuns him. Mere molecules, atoms? When we love so passionately? He sees Miles's yearning face, feels Miles's shyly-bold groping caress.
Readying himself for the enemy.
Panting like a beast, feet damp with dew, Quint peers through the dusty windowpane.
Inside, poor Miles has been tracked down at last, discovered by "St. Ottery" hidden away, suspiciously, and cozily, in a wingback chair turned to face a corner in the library--a vault-like room on the first floor of the house, into which no one (including Master on one of his rare visits) has stepped foot for some time. It is a gentleman's place, a mausoleum of a kind, its dark grained oak panelings hung with portraits of patriarchs long since dissolved to dust, and forgotten; twelve-foot bookshelves rear to the ceiling, crammed with aged and mildewed books, great leather-bound and gilt-etched tomes that look as if they have not been opened in centuries. How incongruous, in such gloom, the fresh faced ten-year-old Miles with the quick, seemingly carefree smile! White-lipped "St. Ottery" asks, hands on her hips, why Miles has "crept away" here, why, hidden in a chair, legs drawn up beneath him, so still?--"When, you know, I've been calling and calling you?"
Miles glances toward the window, the merest flicker of a glance, even as he says, gaily,, "I was just so lost in this, you see--!" showing the governess an absurdly heavy, antique tome on his knees--the Directorium Inquisitorum. "St. Ottery" says dryly, "And since when, my boy, do you read Latin for pleasure?" and Miles giggles charmingly, "My dear, I read Latin as everyone does--for pain."
"St. Ottery" would remove the Directorium Inquisitorurn from Miles's knees but, prankishly, the boy spreads them, and the heavy book crashes to the floor in a cloud of dust.
Miles murmurs "Oh! Sorry."
Again, Miles glances toward the window. Quint, are you here? Quint strains forward, hoping to lock eyes with the boy, but the damnable governess moves between them. How he wishes he could strangle her, with his bare hands! She falls to interrogating Miles at once, sternly, yet with an air of pleading, "Tell me, Miles: your sister did commune with that ghastly woman, didn't she? My predecessor here? That is why Flora is so terribly, tragically ill, isn't it?"
But cunning Miles denies this at once, denies even knowing what "St. Ottery" is talking about.
He reverts to the behavior of a much younger child, grimacing and wriggling about, eluding "St. Ottery" as she reaches for him. Again, his eyes snatch at the window. Quint, damn you, where are you? Help "St. Ottery," snake-quick, seizes his arm. Her no-color myopic eyes shine with a missionary's good intentions. "Miles, dear, only tell the truth, you know, and don't lie: you will break Jesus's heart, and my heart, if you lie. Poor Flora was seduced by 'Miss Jessel,' is that it?--and you, what of you and 'Peter Quint'? There is nothing to fear from him, you know, if you tell me."
Miles's laughter is wild and skittering. He simply denies all, everything: "I don't know a thing of what you say. Flora isn't ill, Flora has gone to visit our uncle in London. I know nothing of Miss Jessel, who died when I was away at school. And Peter Quint--why," his flushed face creasing in distaste, "--the man is--"
"Dead, yes! But here with us, at Bly, constantly" the governess cries, with the aggrieved air of a betrayed lover, "--as, Miles, I think, you know." "'Here with us'? 'Constantly'? What do you mean? Where?" The boy's face, struck blank, is so dazzling an image of innocence Quint stares in wonder. "Damn you, where?"
In triumph "St. Ottery" turns, and points to the windowpane against which Quint presses his yearning face. Surely, the woman cannot have known Quint is there, yet with fanatic certainty she whirls about, points her accusatory finger, directing Miles's terrified gaze.
"There!--as you've known all along, you wicked, wicked boy!"
Yet, it seems, Miles, though staring straight at Quint, cannot see him. "What?" he cries. "'Peter Quint'--where?"
"There, I say--there!" In a fury, the governess taps against the glass, as if to break it.
Quint shrinks away.
Miles gives an anguished cry. His face has gone dead-white, he appears on the verge of a collapse, yet, when "St. Ottery" tries to secure him in her arms, he shoves her away. "Don't touch me, leave me alone!" he shouts. "1 hate you."
He runs from the room, leaving "St. Ottery" behind.
Leaving "St. Ottery" and Peter Quint to regard each other through the window, passionless now, spent as lovers who have been tortured to ecstasy in each other's arms.
We must have imagined that, if Evil could be made to exist, Good might exist as rightfully.
Into the balmy-humid night the child Miles runs, runs for his life, damp hair sticking to his forehead, and his heart, that slithery fish, thumping against his ribs. Though guessing it is futile, for the madwoman was pointing at nothing, Miles cries, in a hopeful, dreading voice, "Quint?--Quint?"
The wind in the high trees, a night sky pierced with stars. No answer of course.
Miles hears, with a smile, bullfrogs in the pond. Every year at this time. Those deep guttural urgent rhythmic croaks. Comical, yet with dignity. And so many! The night air is warmly moist as the interior of a lover's mouth. The bullfrogs have appropriated it. Their season has begun.