One April afternoon Marcher visits May. It is clear that she is very ill, although there is a serenity about her appearance. Marcher feels that a vast gulf has opened up between them simply because her work is now over and there is nothing more for her to do except, it is implied, wait for death. Marcher has a feeling of abandonment. Still feeling that she may know something about his fate that she has not divulged to him, he asks her what she thinks is the worst thing that might happen to him. It is a question he has asked her many times before. They agree that sometimes they have thought that the “beast in the jungle” might be something dreadful. It seems that at some point or other, they have considered almost every possibility. But at last Marcher comes out with what he has known for some time. He tells her directly that she knows something he does not. He reminds her that she had in fact told him that several months ago. He appeals to her to tell him, saying that he does not fear knowledge, only ignorance. If she does not tell him more, he says, she is abandoning him. She denies this, saying she has not forsaken him. When he asks her if he is to suffer (when the “beast” finally comes), she says emphatically no, he will never suffer. He asks her whether perhaps the whole thing has been a mistake, and she says it is nothing of the kind. He still seeks reassurance that he has not lived his whole life focused on an illusion. Again she says no, the awaited “beast” is a reality, and that it is never too late. She steps closer to him, and he feels that she has something more to give him; he senses that she is in possession of the truth. But she says nothing, and they spend a few minutes gazing at each other in silence. Then she retreats again to her chair, saying that she is too ill. Using her bell, she summons her maid, who arrives quickly. May asks Marcher whether he now “knows”; but he says he still knows nothing. “What then has happened?” he asks. As he is about to leave her to rest, she replies “What was to.” She offers no further explanation of what she means.
Marcher is a classic case of a man who does not, as the modern expression goes, “get it.” He is still, as his friend is dying, obsessed with himself and what may happen when the “beast” finally strikes. He wants to know whether he is to suffer, but shows no feeling for what she might have to endure as she dies. For her part, May Bartram knows exactly what will happen, but she is unwilling to divulge it to him. Perhaps she hopes that he will see for himself, and do something to avert it. The reader is kept guessing, although Henry James does provide some clues. When May gets up and moves toward Marcher, having just said that it is never too late, it is a highly significant moment, although the significance of it only becomes clear in retrospect, when the end of the story is known. It is a moment “charged with the unspoken.” He thinks that she has something more to give to him, regarding the awaited moment; it never occurs to him that perhaps he might have something to give to her, if for once he could focus on her needs rather than his own. The long paragraph in which this moment is described is fraught with irony. He sees the beauty in her face, which shines in spite of the advanced state of her illness, and knows that in that face is the truth. But he fails to see what that truth is. His mind is going in completely the wrong direction.