Sunday, 22 December 2013

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but
except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve
in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no
comment uttered till somebody happened to say that it was the only case
he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child. The case, I
may mention, was that of an apparition in just such an old house as had
gathered us for the occasion--an appearance, of a dreadful kind, to a
little boy sleeping in the room with his mother and waking her up in the
terror of it; waking her not to dissipate his dread and soothe him to
sleep again, but to encounter also, herself, before she had succeeded
in doing so, the same sight that had shaken him. It was this observation
that drew from Douglas--not immediately, but later in the evening--a
reply that had the interesting consequence to which I call attention.
Someone else told a story not particularly effective, which I saw he was
not following. This I took for a sign that he had himself something to
produce and that we should only have to wait. We waited in fact till two
nights later; but that same evening, before we scattered, he brought out
what was in his mind.

 "I quite agree--in regard to Griffin's ghost, or whatever it was--that
its appearing first to the little boy, at so tender an age, adds a
particular touch. But it's not the first occurrence of its charming
kind that I know to have involved a child. If the child gives the effect
another turn of the screw, what do you say to TWO children--?"


"We say, of course," somebody exclaimed, "that they give two turns! Also
that we want to hear about them."


I can see Douglas there before the fire, to which he had got up to
present his back, looking down at his interlocutor with his hands in
his pockets. "Nobody but me, till now, has ever heard. It's quite too
horrible." This, naturally, was declared by several voices to give the
thing the utmost price, and our friend, with quiet art, prepared his
triumph by turning his eyes over the rest of us and going on: "It's
beyond everything. Nothing at all that I know touches it."

 "For sheer terror?" I remember asking.
 He seemed to say it was not so simple as that; to be really at a loss
how to qualify it. He passed his hand over his eyes, made a little
wincing grimace. "For dreadful--dreadfulness!"

 "Oh, how delicious!" cried one of the women.

 He took no notice of her; he looked at me, but as if, instead of me,
he saw what he spoke of. "For general uncanny ugliness and horror and
pain."

 "Well then," I said, "just sit right down and begin."

 He turned round to the fire, gave a kick to a log, watched it an
instant. Then as he faced us again: "I can't begin. I shall have to send
to town." There was a unanimous groan at this, and much reproach; after
which, in his preoccupied way, he explained. "The story's written. It's
in a locked drawer--it has not been out for years. I could write to my
man and enclose the key; he could send down the packet as he finds it."
It was to me in particular that he appeared to propound this--appeared
almost to appeal for aid not to hesitate. He had broken a thickness
of ice, the formation of many a winter; had had his reasons for a long
silence. The others resented postponement, but it was just his scruples
that charmed me. I adjured him to write by the first post and to agree
with us for an early hearing; then I asked him if the experience in
question had been his own. To this his answer was prompt. "Oh, thank
God, no!"

 "And is the record yours? You took the thing down?"

 "Nothing but the impression. I took that HERE"--he tapped his heart.
"I've never lost it."

 "Then your manuscript--?"

 "Is in old, faded ink, and in the most beautiful hand." He hung fire
again. "A woman's. She has been dead these twenty years. She sent me the
pages in question before she died." They were all listening now, and
of course there was somebody to be arch, or at any rate to draw the
inference. But if he put the inference by without a smile it was also
without irritation. "She was a most charming person, but she was ten
years older than I. She was my sister's governess," he quietly said.
"She was the most agreeable woman I've ever known in her position;
she would have been worthy of any whatever. It was long ago, and this
episode was long before. I was at Trinity, and I found her at home on
my coming down the second summer. I was much there that year--it was a
beautiful one; and we had, in her off-hours, some strolls and talks in
the garden--talks in which she struck me as awfully clever and nice. Oh
yes; don't grin: I liked her extremely and am glad to this day to think
she liked me, too. If she hadn't she wouldn't have told me. She had
never told anyone. It wasn't simply that she said so, but that I knew
she hadn't. I was sure; I could see. You'll easily judge why when you
hear."


"Because the thing had been such a scare?"


He continued to fix me. "You'll easily judge," he repeated: "YOU will."


I fixed him, too. "I see. She was in love."
 He laughed for the first time. "You ARE acute. Yes, she was in love.
That is, she had been. That came out--she couldn't tell her story
without its coming out. I saw it, and she saw I saw it; but neither of
us spoke of it. I remember the time and the place--the corner of the
lawn, the shade of the great beeches and the long, hot summer afternoon.
It wasn't a scene for a shudder; but oh--!" He quitted the fire and
dropped back into his chair.


"You'll receive the packet Thursday morning?" I inquired.


"Probably not till the second post."
 "Well then; after dinner--"


"You'll all meet me here?" He looked us round again. "Isn't anybody
going?" It was almost the tone of hope.
 "Everybody will stay!"
 "_I_ will"--and "_I_ will!" cried the ladies whose departure had been
fixed. Mrs. Griffin, however, expressed the need for a little more
light. "Who was it she was in love with?"
 "The story will tell," I took upon myself to reply.
 "Oh, I can't wait for the story!"


"The story WON'T tell," said Douglas; "not in any literal, vulgar way."


"More's the pity, then. That's the only way I ever understand."


"Won't YOU tell, Douglas?" somebody else inquired.


He sprang to his feet again. "Yes--tomorrow. Now I must go to bed.
Good night." And quickly catching up a candlestick, he left us slightly
bewildered. From our end of the great brown hall we heard his step on
the stair; whereupon Mrs. Griffin spoke. "Well, if I don't know who she
was in love with, I know who HE was."


"She was ten years older," said her husband.


"Raison de plus--at that age! But it's rather nice, his long reticence."


"Forty years!" Griffin put in.


"With this outbreak at last."

 "The outbreak," I returned, "will make a tremendous occasion of Thursday
night;" and everyone so agreed with me that, in the light of it, we lost
all attention for everything else. The last story, however incomplete
and like the mere opening of a serial, had been told; we handshook and
"candlestuck," as somebody said, and went to bed.

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