Tale by Henry James, collected in Embarrassments (1896).
Considered to be a self-revelation of the author, this is the narrative of an earnest young critic's study of the works of the brilliant novelist Hugh Vereker—his search for “the figure in the carpet,” which Vereker tells him cryptically is the key to an appreciation of his books, although no one has yet understood it. The young man repeats this to his friend Corvick, an experienced critic, who dedicates himself to discovering the secret figure, and claims to have done so when he marries Gwendolyn Erme, who has been equally anxious to know the solution. Corvick is accidentally killed before writing his projected essay, and the young critic can elicit from Gwendolyn only the assertion that her husband told her the secret. Later she marries another critic, Drayton Deane. After both Gwendolyn and Vereker have died, the young man meets Deane and implores him to divulge the secret. The astonished Deane knows nothing of it, and the disappointment of the young man is mitigated by the torment of the second husband, who thinks his wife may have considered him unworthy of sharing the sacred confidence.