The Sunday of the next week was a wonderful day, and Chad Newsome had let his friend know in advance that he had provided for it. There had already been a question of his taking him to see the great Gloriani, who was at home on Sunday afternoons and at whose house, for the most part, fewer bores were to be met than elsewhere; but the project, through some accident, had not had instant effect, and now revived in happier conditions. Chad had made the point that the celebrated sculptor had a queer old garden, for which the weather--spring at last frank and fair--was propitious; and two or three of his other allusions had confirmed for Strether the expectation of something special. He had by this time, for all introductions and adventures, let himself recklessly go, cherishing the sense that whatever the young man showed him he was showing at least himself. He could have wished indeed, so far as this went, that Chad were less of a mere cicerone; for he was not without the impression--now that the vision of his game, his plan, his deep diplomacy, did recurrently assert itself--of his taking refuge from the realities of their intercourse in profusely dispensing, as our friend mentally phrased et panem et circenses. Our friend continued to feel rather smothered in flowers, though he made in his other moments the almost angry inference that this was only because of his odious ascetic suspicion of any form of beauty. He periodically assured himself--for his reactions were sharp--that he shouldn't reach the truth of anything till he had at least got rid of that.
He had known beforehand that Madame de Vionnet and her daughter would probably be on view, an intimation to that effect having constituted the only reference again made by Chad to his good friends from the south. The effect of Strether's talk about them with Miss Gostrey had been quite to consecrate his reluctance to pry; something in the very air of Chad's silence--judged in the light of that talk--offered it to him as a reserve he could markedly match. It shrouded them about with he scarce knew what, a consideration, a distinction; he was in presence at any rate--so far as it placed him there--of ladies; and the one thing that was definite for him was that they themselves should be, to the extent of his responsibility, in presence of a gentleman. Was it because they were very beautiful, very clever, or even very good--was it for one of these reasons that Chad was, so to speak, nursing his effect? Did he wish to spring them, in the Woollett phrase, with a fuller force--to confound his critic, slight though as yet the criticism, with some form of merit exquisitely incalculable? The most the critic had at all events asked was whether the persons in question were French; and that enquiry had been but a proper comment on the sound of their name. "Yes. That is no!" had been Chad's reply; but he had immediately added that their English was the most charming in the world, so that if Strether were wanting an excuse for not getting on with them he wouldn't in the least find one. Never in fact had Strether--in the mood into which the place had quickly launched him--felt, for himself, less the need of an excuse. Those he might have found would have been, at the worst, all for the others, the people before him, in whose liberty to be as they were he was aware that he positively rejoiced. His fellow guests were multiplying, and these things, their liberty, their intensity, their variety, their conditions at large, were in fusion in the admirable medium of the scene.
The place itself was a great impression--a small pavilion, clear-faced and sequestered, an effect of polished parquet, of fine white panel and spare sallow gilt, of decoration delicate and rare, in the heart of the Faubourg Saint-Germain and on the edge of a cluster of gardens attached to old noble houses. Far back from streets and unsuspected by crowds, reached by a long passage and a quiet court, it was as striking to the unprepared mind, he immediately saw, as a treasure dug up; giving him too, more than anything yet, the note of the range of the immeasurable town and sweeping away, as by a last brave brush, his usual landmarks and terms. It was in the garden, a spacious cherished remnant, out of which a dozen persons had already passed, that Chad's host presently met them while the tall bird-haunted trees, all of a twitter with the spring and the weather, and the high party-walls, on the other side of which grave hotels stood off for privacy, spoke of survival, transmission, association, a strong indifferent persistent order. The day was so soft that the little party had practically adjourned to the open air but the open air was in such conditions all a chamber of state. Strether had presently the sense of a great convent, a convent of missions, famous for he scarce knew what, a nursery of young priests, of scattered shade, of straight alleys and chapel-bells, that spread its mass in one quarter; he had the sense of names in the air, of ghosts at the windows, of signs and tokens, a whole range of expression, all about him, too thick for prompt discrimination.
This assault of images became for a moment, in the address of the distinguished sculptor, almost formidable: Gloriani showed him, in such perfect confidence, on Chad's introduction of him, a fine worn handsome face, a face that was like an open letter in a foreign tongue. With his genius in his eyes, his manners on his lips, his long career behind him and his honours and rewards all round, the great artist, in the course of a single sustained look and a few words of delight at receiving him, affected our friend as a dazzling prodigy of type. Strether had seen in museums--in the Luxembourg as well as, more reverently, later on, in the New York of the billionaires--the work of his hand; knowing too that after an earlier time in his native Rome he had migrated, in mid-career, to Paris, where, with a personal lustre almost violent, he shone in a constellation: all of which was more than enough to crown him, for his guest, with the light, with the romance, of glory. Strether, in contact with that element as he had never yet so intimately been, had the consciousness of opening to it, for the happy instant, all the windows of his mind, of letting this rather grey interior drink in for once the sun of a clime not marked in his old geography. He was to remember again repeatedly the medal-like Italian face, in which every line was an artist's own, in which time told only as tone and consecration; and he was to recall in especial, as the penetrating radiance, as the communication of the illustrious spirit itself, the manner in which, while they stood briefly, in welcome and response, face to face, he was held by the sculptor's eyes. He wasn't soon to forget them, was to think of them, all unconscious, unintending, preoccupied though they were, as the source of the deepest intellectual sounding to which he had ever been exposed. He was in fact quite to cherish his vision of it, to play with it in idle hours; only speaking of it to no one and quite aware he couldn't have spoken without appearing to talk nonsense. Was what it had told him or what it had asked him the greater of the mysteries? Was it the most special flare, unequalled, supreme, of the aesthetic torch, lighting that wondrous world for ever, or was it above all the long straight shaft sunk by a personal acuteness that life had seasoned to steel? Nothing on earth could have been stranger and no one doubtless more surprised than the artist himself, but it was for all the world to Strether just then as if in the matter of his accepted duty he had positively been on trial. The deep human expertness in Gloriani's charming smile--oh the terrible life behind it!--was flashed upon him as a test of his stuff.
Chad meanwhile, after having easily named his companion, had still more easily turned away and was already greeting other persons present. He was as easy, clever Chad, with the great artist as with his obscure compatriot, and as easy with every one else as with either: this fell into its place for Strether and made almost a new light, giving him, as a concatenation, something more he could enjoy. He liked Gloriani, but should never see him again; of that he was sufficiently sure. Chad accordingly, who was wonderful with both of them, was a kind of link for hopeless fancy, an implication of possibilities--oh if everything had been different! Strether noted at all events that he was thus on terms with illustrious spirits, and also that--yes, distinctly--he hadn't in the least swaggered about it. Our friend hadn't come there only for this figure of Abel Newsome's son, but that presence threatened to affect the observant mind as positively central. Gloriani indeed, remembering something and excusing himself, pursued Chad to speak to him, and Strether was left musing on many things. One of them was the question of whether, since he had been tested, he had passed. Did the artist drop him from having made out that he wouldn't do? He really felt just to-day that he might do better than usual. Hadn't he done well enough, so far as that went, in being exactly so dazzled? and in not having too, as he almost believed, wholly hidden from his host that he felt the latter's plummet? Suddenly, across the garden, he saw little Bilham approach, and it was a part of the fit that was on him that as their eyes met he guessed also HIS knowledge. If he had said to him on the instant what was uppermost he would have said: "HAVE I passed?--for of course I know one has to pass here." Little Bilham would have reassured him, have told him that he exaggerated, and have adduced happily enough the argument of little Bilham's own very presence; which, in truth, he could see, was as easy a one as Gloriani's own or as Chad's. He himself would perhaps then after a while cease to be frightened, would get the point of view for some of the faces--types tremendously alien, alien to Woollett--that he had already begun to take in. Who were they all, the dispersed groups and couples, the ladies even more unlike those of Woollett than the gentlemen?--this was the enquiry that, when his young friend had greeted him, he did find himself making.
"Oh they're every one--all sorts and sizes; of course I mean within limits, though limits down perhaps rather more than limits up. There are always artists--he's beautiful and inimitable to the cher confrere; and then gros bonnets of many kinds--ambassadors, cabinet ministers, bankers, generals, what do I know? even Jews. Above all always some awfully nice women--and not too many; sometimes an actress, an artist, a great performer--but only when they're not monsters; and in particular the right femmes du monde. You can fancy his history on that side--I believe it's fabulous: they NEVER give him up. Yet he keeps them down: no one knows how he manages; it's too beautiful and bland. Never too many--and a mighty good thing too; just a perfect choice. But there are not in any way many bores; it has always been so; he has some secret. It's extraordinary. And you don't find it out. He's the same to every one. He doesn't ask questions.'
"Ah doesn't he?" Strether laughed.
Bilham met it with all his candour. "How then should I be here?
"Oh for what you tell me. You're part of the perfect choice."
Well, the young man took in the scene. "It seems rather good to-day."
Strether followed the direction of his eyes. "Are they all, this time, femmes du monde?"
Little Bilham showed his competence. "Pretty well."
This was a category our friend had a feeling for; a light, romantic and mysterious, on the feminine element, in which he enjoyed for a little watching it. "Are there any Poles?"
His companion considered. "I think I make out a 'Portuguee.' But I've seen Turks."
Strether wondered, desiring justice. "They seem--all the women-- very harmonious."
"Oh in closer quarters they come out!" And then, while Strether was aware of fearing closer quarters, though giving himself again to the harmonies, "Well," little Bilham went on, "it IS at the worst rather good, you know. If you like it, you feel it, this way, that shows you're not in the least out But you always know things," he handsomely added, "immediately."
Strether liked it and felt it only too much; so "I say, don't lay traps for me!" he rather helplessly murmured.
"Well," his companion returned, "he's wonderfully kind to us."
"To us Americans you mean?"
"Oh no--he doesn't know anything about THAT. That's half the battle here--that you can never hear politics. We don't talk them. I mean to poor young wretches of all sorts. And yet it's always as charming as this; it's as if, by something in the air, our squalor didn't show. It puts us all back--into the last century."
"I'm afraid," Strether said, amused, "that it puts me rather forward: oh ever so far!"
"Into the next? But isn't that only," little Bilham asked, "because you're really of the century before?"
"The century before the last? Thank you!" Strether laughed. "If I ask you about some of the ladies it can't be then that I may hope, as such a specimen of the rococo, to please them."
"On the contrary they adore--we all adore here--the rococo, and where is there a better setting for it than the whole thing, the pavilion and the garden, together? There are lots of people with collections," little Bilham smiled as he glanced round. "You'll be secured!"
It made Strether for a moment give himself again to contemplation. There were faces he scarce knew what to make of. Were they charming or were they only strange? He mightn't talk politics, yet he suspected a Pole or two. The upshot was the question at the back of his head from the moment his friend had joined him. "Have Madame de Vionnet and her daughter arrived?"
"I haven't seen them yet, but Miss Gostrey has come. She's in the pavilion looking at objects. One can see SHE'S a collector," little Bilham added without offence.
"Oh yes, she's a collector, and I knew she was to come. Is Madame de Vionnet a collector?" Strether went on.
"Rather, I believe; almost celebrated." The young man met, on it, a little, his friend's eyes. "I happen to know--from Chad, whom I saw last night--that they've come back; but only yesterday. He wasn't sure--up to the last. This, accordingly," little Bilham went on, "will be--if they ARE here--their first appearance after their return."
Strether, very quickly, turned these things over. "Chad told you last night? To me, on our way here, he said nothing about it."
"But did you ask him?"
Strether did him the justice. "I dare say not."
"Well," said little Bilham, "you're not a person to whom it's easy to tell things you don't want to know. Though it is easy, I admit-- it's quite beautiful," he benevolently added, "when you do want to."
Strether looked at him with an indulgence that matched his intelligence. "Is that the deep reasoning on which--about these ladies--you've been yourself so silent?"
Little Bilham considered the depth of his reasoning. "I haven't been silent. I spoke of them to you the other day, the day we sat together after Chad's tea-party."
Strether came round to it. "They then are the virtuous attachment?"
"I can only tell you that it's what they pass for. But isn't that enough? What more than a vain appearance does the wisest of us know? I commend you," the young man declared with a pleasant emphasis, "the vain appearance."
Strether looked more widely round, and what he saw, from face to face, deepened the effect of his young friend's words. "Is it so good?"
Strether had a pause. "The husband's dead?"
"Dear no. Alive."
"Oh!" said Strether. After which, as his companion laughed: "How then can it be so good?"
"You'll see for yourself. One does see."
"Chad's in love with the daughter?"
"That's what I mean."
Strether wondered. "Then where's the difficulty?"
"Why, aren't you and I--with our grander bolder ideas?"
"Oh mine--!" Strether said rather strangely. But then as if to attenuate: "You mean they won't hear of Woollett?"
Little Bilham smiled. "Isn't that just what you must see about?"
It had brought them, as she caught the last words, into relation with Miss Barrace, whom Strether had already observed--as he had never before seen a lady at a party--moving about alone. Coming within sound of them she had already spoken, and she took again, through her long-handled glass, all her amused and amusing possession. "How much, poor Mr. Strether, you seem to have to see about! But you can't say," she gaily declared, "that I don't do what I can to help you. Mr. Waymarsh is placed. I've left him in the house with Miss Gostrey."
"The way," little Bilham exclaimed, "Mr. Strether gets the ladies to work for him! He's just preparing to draw in another; to pounce--don't you see him?--on Madame de Vionnet."
"Madame de Vionnet? Oh, oh, oh!" Miss Barrace cried in a wonderful crescendo. There was more in it, our friend made out, than met the ear. Was it after all a joke that he should be serious about anything? He envied Miss Barrace at any rate her power of not being. She seemed, with little cries and protests and quick recognitions, movements like the darts of some fine high-feathered free-pecking bird, to stand before life as before some full shop-window. You could fairly hear, as she selected and pointed, the tap of her tortoise-shell against the glass. "It's certain that we do need seeing about; only I'm glad it's not I who have to do it. One does, no doubt, begin that way; then suddenly one finds that one has given it up. It's too much, it's too difficult. You're wonderful, you people," she continued to Strether, "for not feeling those things--by which I mean impossibilities. You never feel them. You face them with a fortitude that makes it a lesson to watch you."
"Ah but"--little Bilham put it with discouragement--"what do we achieve after all? We see about you and report--when we even go so far as reporting. But nothing's done."
"Oh you, Mr. Bilham," she replied as with an impatient rap on the glass, "you're not worth sixpence! You come over to convert the savages--for I know you verily did, I remember you--and the savages simply convert YOU."
"Not even!" the young man woefully confessed: "they haven't gone through that form. They've simply--the cannibals!--eaten me; converted me if you like, but converted me into food. I'm but the bleached bones of a Christian."
"Well then there we are! Only"--and Miss Barrace appealed again to Strether--"don't let it discourage you. You'll break down soon enough, but you'll meanwhile have had your moments. Il faut en avoir. I always like to see you while you last. And I'll tell you who WILL last."
"Waymarsh?"--he had already taken her up.
She laughed out as at the alarm of it. "He'll resist even Miss Gostrey: so grand is it not to understand. He's wonderful."
"He is indeed," Strether conceded. "He wouldn't tell me of this affair--only said he had an engagement; but with such a gloom, you must let me insist, as if it had been an engagement to be hanged. Then silently and secretly he turns up here with you. Do you call THAT 'lasting'?"
"Oh I hope it's lasting!" Miss Barrace said. "But he only, at the best, bears with me. He doesn't understand--not one little scrap. He's delightful. He's wonderful," she repeated.
"Michelangelesque!"--little Bilham completed her meaning. "He IS a success. Moses, on the ceiling, brought down to the floor; overwhelming, colossal, but somehow portable."
"Certainly, if you mean by portable," she returned, "looking so well in one's carriage. He's too funny beside me in his comer; he looks like somebody, somebody foreign and famous, en exil; so that people wonder--it's very amusing--whom I'm taking about. I show him Paris, show him everything, and he never turns a hair. He's like the Indian chief one reads about, who, when he comes up to Washington to see the Great Father, stands wrapt in his blanket and gives no sign. I might be the Great Father--from the way he takes everything." She was delighted at this hit of her identity with that personage--it fitted so her character; she declared it was the title she meant henceforth to adopt. "And the way he sits, too, in the corner of my room, only looking at my visitors very hard and as if he wanted to start something! They wonder what he does want to start. But he's wonderful," Miss Barrace once more insisted. "He has never started anything yet."
It presented him none the less, in truth, to her actual friends, who looked at each other in intelligence, with frank amusement on Bilham's part and a shade of sadness on Strether's. Strether's sadness sprang--for the image had its grandeur--from his thinking how little he himself was wrapt in his blanket, how little, in marble halls, all too oblivious of the Great Father, he resembled a really majestic aboriginal. But he had also another reflexion. "You've all of you here so much visual sense that you've somehow all 'run' to it. There are moments when it strikes one that you haven't any other."
"Any moral," little Bilham explained, watching serenely, across the garden, the several femmes du monde. "But Miss Barrace has a moral distinction," he kindly continued; speaking as if for Strether's benefit not less than for her own.
"HAVE you?" Strether, scarce knowing what he was about, asked of her almost eagerly.
"Oh not a distinction"--she was mightily amused at his tone--"Mr. Bilham's too good. But I think I may say a sufficiency. Yes, a sufficiency. Have you supposed strange things of me?"--and she fixed him again, through all her tortoise-shell, with the droll interest of it. "You ARE all indeed wonderful. I should awfully disappoint you. I do take my stand on my sufficiency. But I know, I confess," she went on, "strange people. I don't know how it happens; I don't do it on purpose; it seems to be my doom--as if I were always one of their habits: it's wonderful! I dare say moreover," she pursued with an interested gravity, "that I do, that we all do here, run too much to mere eye. But how can it be helped? We're all looking at each other--and in the light of Paris one sees what things resemble. That's what the light of Paris seems always to show. It's the fault of the light of Paris--dear old light!"
"Dear old Paris!" little Bilham echoed.
"Everything, every one shows," Miss Barrace went on.
"But for what they really are?" Strether asked.
"Oh I like your Boston 'reallys'! But sometimes--yes."
"Dear old Paris then!" Strether resignedly sighed while for a moment they looked at each other. Then he broke out: "Does Madame de Vionnet do that? I mean really show for what she is?"
Her answer was prompt. "She's charming. She's perfect."
"Then why did you a minute ago say 'Oh, oh, oh!' at her name?"
She easily remembered. "Why just because--! She's wonderful."
"Ah she too?"--Strether had almost a groan.
But Miss Barrace had meanwhile perceived relief. "Why not put your question straight to the person who can answer it best?"
"No," said little Bilham; "don't put any question; wait, rather-- it will be much more fun--to judge for yourself. He has come to take you to her."
On which Strether saw that Chad was again at hand, and he afterwards scarce knew, absurd as it may seem, what had then quickly occurred. The moment concerned him, he felt, more deeply than he could have explained, and he had a subsequent passage of speculation as to whether, on walking off with Chad, he hadn't looked either pale or red. The only thing he was clear about was that, luckily, nothing indiscreet had in fact been said and that Chad himself was more than ever, in Miss Barrace's great sense, wonderful. It was one of the connexions--though really why it should be, after all, was none so apparent--in which the whole change in him came out as most striking. Strether recalled as they approached the house that he had impressed him that first night as knowing how to enter a box. Well, he impressed him scarce less now as knowing how to make a presentation. It did something for Strether's own quality--marked it as estimated; so that our poor friend, conscious and passive, really seemed to feel himself quite handed over and delivered; absolutely, as he would have said, made a present of, given away. As they reached the house a young woman, about to come forth, appeared, unaccompanied, on the steps; at the exchange with whom of a word on Chad's part Strether immediately perceived that, obligingly, kindly, she was there to meet them. Chad had left her in the house, but she had afterwards come halfway and then the next moment had joined them in the garden. Her air of youth, for Strether, was at first almost disconcerting, while his second impression was, not less sharply, a degree of relief at there not having just been, with the others, any freedom used about her. It was upon him at a touch that she was no subject for that, and meanwhile, on Chad's introducing him, she had spoken to him, very simply and gently, in an English clearly of the easiest to her, yet unlike any other he had ever heard. It wasn't as if she tried; nothing, he could see after they had been a few minutes together, was as if she tried; but her speech, charming correct and odd, was like a precaution against her passing for a Pole. There were precautions, he seemed indeed to see, only when there were really dangers.
Later on he was to feel many more of them, but by that time he was to feel other things besides. She was dressed in black, but in black that struck him as light and transparent; she was exceedingly fair, and, though she was as markedly slim, her face had a roundness, with eyes far apart and a little strange. Her smile was natural and dim; her hat not extravagant; he had only perhaps a sense of the clink, beneath her fine black sleeves, of more gold bracelets and bangles than he had ever seen a lady wear. Chad was excellently free and light about their encounter; it was one of the occasions on which Strether most wished he himself might have arrived at such ease and such humour: "Here you are then, face to face at last; you're made for each other--vous allez voir; and I bless your union." It was indeed, after he had gone off, as if he had been partly serious too. This latter motion had been determined by an enquiry from him about "Jeanne"; to which her mother had replied that she was probably still in the house with Miss Gostrey, to whom she had lately committed her. "Ah but you know," the young man had rejoined, "he must see her"; with which, while Strether pricked up his ears, he had started as if to bring her, leaving the other objects of his interest together. Strether wondered to find Miss Gostrey already involved, feeling that he missed a link; but feeling also, with small delay, how much he should like to talk with her of Madame de Vionnet on this basis of evidence.
The evidence as yet in truth was meagre; which, for that matter, was perhaps a little why his expectation had had a drop. There was somehow not quite a wealth in her; and a wealth was all that, in his simplicity, he had definitely prefigured. Still, it was too much to be sure already that there was but a poverty. They moved away from the house, and, with eyes on a bench at some distance, he proposed that they should sit down. "I've heard a great deal about you," she said as they went; but he had an answer to it that made her stop short. "Well, about YOU, Madame de Vionnet, I've heard, I'm bound to say, almost nothing"--those struck him as the only words he himself could utter with any lucidity; conscious as he was, and as with more reason, of the determination to be in respect to the rest of his business perfectly plain and go perfectly straight. It hadn't at any rate been in the least his idea to spy on Chad's proper freedom. It was possibly, however, at this very instant and under the impression of Madame de Vionnet's pause, that going straight began to announce itself as a matter for care. She had only after all to smile at him ever so gently in order to make him ask himself if he weren't already going crooked. It might be going crooked to find it of a sudden just only clear that she intended very definitely to be what he would have called nice to him. This was what passed between them while, for another instant, they stood still; he couldn't at least remember afterwards what else it might have been. The thing indeed really unmistakeable was its rolling over him as a wave that he had been, in conditions incalculable and unimaginable, a subject of discussion. He had been, on some ground that concerned her, answered for; which gave her an advantage he should never be able to match.
"Hasn't Miss Gostrey," she asked, "said a good word for me?"
What had struck him first was the way he was bracketed with that lady; and he wondered what account Chad would have given of their acquaintance. Something not as yet traceable, at all events. had obviously happened. "I didn't even know of her knowing you."
"Well, now she'll tell you all. I'm so glad you're in relation with her."
This was one of the things--the "all" Miss Gostrey would now tell him--that, with every deference to present preoccupation, was uppermost for Strether after they had taken their seat. One of the others was, at the end of five minutes, that she--oh incontestably, yes--DIFFERED less; differed, that is, scarcely at all--well, superficially speaking, from Mrs. Newsome or even from Mrs. Pocock. She was ever so much younger than the one and not so young as the other; but what WAS there in her, if anything, that would have made it impossible he should meet her at Woollett? And wherein was her talk during their moments on the bench together not the same as would have been found adequate for a Woollett garden-party?--unless perhaps truly in not being quite so bright. She observed to him that Mr. Newsome had, to her knowledge, taken extraordinary pleasure in his visit; but there was no good lady at Woollett who wouldn't have been at least up to that. Was there in Chad, by chance, after all, deep down, a principle of aboriginal loyalty that had made him, for sentimental ends, attach himself to elements, happily encountered, that would remind him most of the old air and the old soil? Why accordingly be in a flutter-- Strether could even put it that way--about this unfamiliar phenomenon of the femme du monde? On these terms Mrs. Newsome herself was as much of one. Little Bilham verily had testified that they came out, the ladies of the type, in close quarters; but it was just in these quarters--now comparatively close--that he felt Madame de Vionnet's common humanity. She did come out, and certainly to his relief, but she came out as the usual thing. There might be motives behind, but so could there often be even at Woollett. The only thing was that if she showed him she wished to like him--as the motives behind might conceivably prompt--it would possibly have been more thrilling for him that she should have shown as more vividly alien. Ah she was neither Turk nor Pole!--which would be indeed flat once more for Mrs. Newsome and Mrs. Pocock. A lady and two gentlemen had meanwhile, however, approached their bench, and this accident stayed for the time further developments.
They presently addressed his companion, the brilliant strangers; she rose to speak to them, and Strether noted how the escorted lady, though mature and by no means beautiful, had more of the bold high look, the range of expensive reference, that he had, as might have been said, made his plans for. Madame de Vionnet greeted her as "Duchesse" and was greeted in turn, while talk started in French, as "Ma toute-belle"; little facts that had their due, their vivid interest for Strether. Madame de Vionnet didn't, none the less, introduce him--a note he was conscious of as false to the Woollett scale and the Woollett humanity; though it didn't prevent the Duchess, who struck him as confident and free, very much what he had obscurely supposed duchesses, from looking at him as straight and as hard--for it WAS hard--as if she would have liked, all the same, to know him. "Oh yes, my dear, it's all right, it's ME; and who are YOU, with your interesting wrinkles and your most effective (is it the handsomest, is it the ugliest?) of noses?"--some such loose handful of bright flowers she seemed, fragrantly enough, to fling at him. Strether almost wondered--at such a pace was he going--if some divination of the influence of either party were what determined Madame de Vionnet's abstention. One of the gentlemen, in any case, succeeded in placing himself in close relation with our friend's companion; a gentleman rather stout and importantly short, in a hat with a wonderful wide curl to its brim and a frock coat buttoned with an effect of superlative decision. His French had quickly turned to equal English, and it occurred to Strether that he might well be one of the ambassadors. His design was evidently to assert a claim to Madame de Vionnet's undivided countenance, and he made it good in the course of a minute--led her away with a trick of three words; a trick played with a social art of which Strether, looking after them as the four, whose backs were now all turned, moved off, felt himself no master.
He sank again upon his bench and, while his eyes followed the party, reflected, as he had done before, on Chad's strange communities. He sat there alone for five minutes, with plenty to think of; above all with his sense of having suddenly been dropped by a charming woman overlaid now by other impressions and in fact quite cleared and indifferent. He hadn't yet had so quiet a surrender; he didn't in the least care if nobody spoke to him more. He might have been, by his attitude, in for something of a march so broad that the want of ceremony with which he had just been used could fall into its place as but a minor incident of the procession. Besides, there would be incidents enough, as he felt when this term of contemplation was closed by the reappearance of little Bilham, who stood before him a moment with a suggestive "Well?" in which he saw himself reflected as disorganised, as possibly floored. He replied with a "Well!" intended to show that he wasn't floored in the least. No indeed; he gave it out, as the young man sat down beside him, that if, at the worst, he had been overturned at all, he had been overturned into the upper air, the sublimer element with which he had an affinity and in which he might be trusted a while to float. It wasn't a descent to earth to say after an instant and in sustained response to the reference: "You're quite sure her husband's living?"
"Oh dear, yes."
"Ah then what?"
Strether had after all to think. "Well, I'm sorry for them." But it didn't for the moment matter more than that. He assured his young friend he was quite content. They wouldn't stir; were all right as they were. He didn't want to be introduced; had been introduced already about as far as he could go. He had seen moreover an immensity; liked Gloriani, who, as Miss Barrace kept saying, was wonderful; had made out, he was sure, the half-dozen other 'men who were distinguished, the artists, the critics and oh the great dramatist--HIM it was easy to spot; but wanted--no, thanks, really--to talk with none of them; having nothing at all to say and finding it would do beautifully as it was; do beautifully because what it was--well, was just simply too late. And when after this little Bilham, submissive and responsive, but with an eye to the consolation nearest, easily threw off some "Better late than never!" all he got in return for it was a sharp "Better early than late!" This note indeed the next thing overflowed for Strether into a quiet stream of demonstration that as soon as he had let himself go he felt as the real relief. It had consciously gathered to a head, but the reservoir had filled sooner than he knew, and his companion's touch was to make the waters spread. There were some things that had to come in time if they were to come at all. If they didn't come in time they were lost for ever. It was the general sense of them that had overwhelmed him with its long slow rush.
"It's not too late for YOU, on any side, and you don't strike me as in danger of missing the train; besides which people can be in general pretty well trusted, of course--with the clock of their freedom ticking as loud as it seems to do here--to keep an eye on the fleeting hour. All the same don't forget that you're young-- blessedly young; be glad of it on the contrary and live up to it. Live all you can; it's a mistake not to. It doesn't so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven't had that what HAVE you had? This place and these impressions--mild as you may find them to wind a man up so; all my impressions of Chad and of people I've seen at HIS place--well, have had their abundant message for me, have just dropped THAT into my mind. I see it now. I haven't done so enough before-- and now I'm old; too old at any rate for what I see. Oh I DO see, at least; and more than you'd believe or I can express. It's too late. And it's as if the train had fairly waited at the station for me without my having had the gumption to know it was there. Now I hear its faint receding whistle miles and miles down the line. What one loses one loses; make no mistake about that. The affair-- I mean the affair of life--couldn't, no doubt, have been different for me; for it's at the best a tin mould, either fluted and embossed, with ornamental excrescences, or else smooth and dreadfully plain, into which, a helpless jelly, one's consciousness is poured-- so that one 'takes' the form as the great cook says, and is more or less compactly held by it: one lives in fine as one can. Still, one has the illusion of freedom; therefore don't be, like me, without the memory of that illusion. I was either, at the right time, too stupid or too intelligent to have it; I don't quite know which. Of course at present I'm a case of reaction against the mistake; and the voice of reaction should, no doubt, always be taken with an allowance. But that doesn't affect the point that the right time is now yours. The right time is ANY time that one is still so lucky as to have. You've plenty; that's the great thing; you're, as I say, damn you, so happily and hatefully young. Don't at any rate miss things out of stupidity. Of course I don't take you for a fool, or I shouldn't be addressing you thus awfully. Do what you like so long as you don't make MY mistake. For it was a mistake. Live!" . . . Slowly and sociably, with full pauses and straight dashes, Strether had so delivered himself; holding little Bilham from step to step deeply and gravely attentive. The end of all was that the young man had turned quite solemn, and that this was a contradiction of the innocent gaiety the speaker had wished to promote. He watched for a moment the consequence of his words, and then, laying a hand on his listener's knee and as if to end with the proper joke: "And now for the eye I shall keep on you!"
"Oh but I don't know that I want to be, at your age, too different from you!"
"Ah prepare while you're about it," said Strether, "to be more amusing."
Little Bilham continued to think, but at last had a smile. "Well, you ARE amusing--to ME."
"Impayable, as you say, no doubt. But what am I to myself?" Strether had risen with this, giving his attention now to an encounter that, in the middle of the garden, was in the act of taking place between their host and the lady at whose side Madame de Vionnet had quitted him. This lady, who appeared within a few minutes to have left her friends, awaited Gloriani's eager approach with words on her lips that Strether couldn't catch, but of which her interesting witty face seemed to give him the echo. He was sure she was prompt and fine, but also that she had met her match, and he liked--in the light of what he was quite sure was the Duchess's latent insolence--the good humour with which the great artist asserted equal resources. Were they, this pair, of the "great world"?--and was he himself, for the moment and thus related to them by his observation, IN it? Then there was something in the great world covertly tigerish, which came to him across the lawn and in the charming air as a waft from the jungle. Yet it made him admire most of the two, made him envy, the glossy male tiger, magnificently marked. These absurdities of the stirred sense, fruits of suggestion ripening on the instant, were all reflected in his next words to little Bilham. "I know--if we talk of that--whom I should enjoy being like!"
Little Bilham followed his eyes; but then as with a shade of knowing surprise: "Gloriani?"
Our friend had in fact already hesitated, though not on the hint of his companion's doubt, in which there were depths of critical reserve. He had just made out, in the now full picture, something and somebody else; another impression had been superimposed. A young girl in a white dress and a softly plumed white hat had suddenly come into view, and what was presently clear was that her course was toward them. What was clearer still was that the handsome young man at her side was Chad Newsome, and what was clearest of all was that she was therefore Mademoiselle de Vionnet, that she was unmistakeably pretty--bright gentle shy happy wonderful--and that Chad now, with a consummate calculation of effect, was about to present her to his old friend's vision. What was clearest of all indeed was something much more than this, something at the single stroke of which--and wasn't it simply juxtaposition?--all vagueness vanished. It was the click of a spring--he saw the truth. He had by this time also met Chad's look; there was more of it in that; and the truth, accordingly, so far as Bilham's enquiry was concerned, had thrust in the answer. "Oh Chad!"--it was that rare youth he should have enjoyed being "like." The virtuous attachment would be all there before him; the virtuous attachment would be in the very act of appeal for his blessing; Jeanne de Vionnet, this charming creature, would be exquisitely, intensely now--the object of it. Chad brought her straight up to him, and Chad was, oh yes, at this moment--for the glory of Woollett or whatever--better still even than Gloriani. He had plucked this blossom; he had kept it over-night in water; and at last as he held it up to wonder he did enjoy his effect. That was why Strether had felt at first the breath of calculation--and why moreover, as he now knew, his look at the girl would be, for the young man, a sign of the latter's success. What young man had ever paraded about that way, without a reason, a maiden in her flower? And there was nothing in his reason at present obscure. Her type sufficiently told of it--they wouldn't, they couldn't, want her to go to Woollett. Poor Woollett, and what it might miss!--though brave Chad indeed too, and what it might gain! Brave Chad however had just excellently spoken. "This is a good little friend of mine who knows all about you and has moreover a message for you. And this, my dear"--he had turned to the child herself--"is the best man in the world, who has it in his power to do a great deal for us and whom I want you to like and revere as nearly as possible as much as I do."
She stood there quite pink, a little frightened, prettier and prettier and not a bit like her mother. There was in this last particular no resemblance but that of youth to youth; and here was in fact suddenly Strether's sharpest impression. It went wondering, dazed, embarrassed, back to the woman he had just been talking with; it was a revelation in the light of which he already saw she would become more interesting. So slim and fresh and fair, she had yet put forth this perfection; so that for really believing it of her, for seeing her to any such developed degree as a mother, comparison would be urgent. Well, what was it now but fairly thrust upon him? "Mamma wishes me to tell you before we go," the girl said, "that she hopes very much you'll come to see us very soon. She has something important to say to you."
"She quite reproaches herself," Chad helpfully explained: "you were interesting her so much when she accidentally suffered you to be interrupted."
"Ah don't mention it!" Strether murmured, looking kindly from one to the other and wondering at many things.
"And I'm to ask you for myself," Jeanne continued with her hands clasped together as if in some small learnt prayer--"I'm to ask you for myself if you won't positively come."
"Leave it to me, dear--I'll take care of it!" Chad genially declared in answer to this, while Strether himself almost held his breath. What was in the girl was indeed too soft, too unknown for direct dealing; so that one could only gaze at it as at a picture, quite staying one's own hand. But with Chad he was now on ground-- Chad he could meet; so pleasant a confidence in that and in everything did the young man freely exhale. There was the whole of a story in his tone to his companion, and he spoke indeed as if already of the family. It made Strether guess the more quickly what it might be about which Madame de Vionnet was so urgent. Having seen him then she had found him easy; she wished to have it out with him that some way for the young people must be discovered, some way that would not impose as a condition the transplantation of her daughter. He already saw himself discussing with this lady the attractions of Woollett as a residence for Chad's companion. Was that youth going now to trust her with the affair--so that it would be after all with one of his "lady-friends" that his mother's missionary should be condemned to deal? It was quite as if for an instant the two men looked at each other on this question. But there was no mistaking at last Chad's pride in the display of such a connexion. This was what had made him so carry himself while, three minutes before, he was bringing it into view; what had caused his friend, first catching sight of him, to be so struck with his air. It was, in a word, just when he thus finally felt Chad putting things straight off on him that he envied him, as he had mentioned to little Bilham, most. The whole exhibition however was but a matter of three or four minutes, and the author of it had soon explained that, as Madame de Vionnet was immediately going "on," this could be for Jeanne but a snatch. They would all meet again soon, and Strether was meanwhile to stay and amuse himself--"I'll pick you up again in plenty of time." He took the girl off as he had brought her, and Strether, with the faint sweet foreignness of her "Au revoir, monsieur!" in his ears as a note almost unprecedented, watched them recede side by side and felt how, once more, her companion's relation to her got an accent from it. They disappeared among the others and apparently into the house; whereupon our friend turned round to give out to little Bilham the conviction of which he was full. But there was no little Bilham any more; little Bilham had within the few moments, for reasons of his own, proceeded further: a circumstance by which, in its order, Strether was also sensibly affected.
Chad was not in fact on this occasion to keep his promise of coming back; but Miss Gostrey had soon presented herself with an explanation of his failure. There had been reasons at the last for his going off with ces dames; and he had asked her with much instance to come out and take charge of their friend. She did so, Strether felt as she took her place beside him, in a manner that left nothing to desire. He had dropped back on his bench, alone again for a time, and the more conscious for little Bilham's defection of his unexpressed thought; in respect to which however this next converser was a still more capacious vessel. "It's the child!" he had exclaimed to her almost as soon as she appeared; and though her direct response was for some time delayed he could feel in her meanwhile the working of this truth. It might have been simply, as she waited, that they were now in presence altogether of truth spreading like a flood and not for the moment to be offered her in the mere cupful; inasmuch as who should ces dames prove to be but persons about whom--once thus face to face with them--she found she might from the first have told him almost everything? This would have freely come had he taken the simple precaution of giving her their name. There could be no better example--and she appeared to note it with high amusement--than the way, making things out already so much for himself, he was at last throwing precautions to the winds. They were neither more nor less, she and the child's mother, than old school-friends--friends who had scarcely met for years but whom this unlooked-for chance had brought together with a rush. It was a relief, Miss Gostrey hinted, to feel herself no longer groping; she was unaccustomed to grope and as a general thing, he might well have seen, made straight enough for her clue. With the one she had now picked up in her hands there need be at least no waste of wonder. "She's coming to see me--that's for YOU," Strether's counsellor continued; "but I don't require it to know where I am."
The waste of wonder might be proscribed; but Strether, characteristically, was even by this time in the immensity of space. "By which you mean that you know where SHE is?"
She just hesitated. "I mean that if she comes to see me I shall-- now that I've pulled myself round a bit after the shock--not be at home."
Strether hung poised. "You call it--your recognition--a shock?"
She gave one of her rare flickers of impatience. "It was a surprise, an emotion. Don't be so literal. I wash my hands of her."
Poor Strether's face lengthened. "She's impossible--?"
"She's even more charming than I remembered her."
"Then what's the matter?"
She had to think how to put it. "Well, I'M impossible. It's impossible. Everything's impossible."
He looked at her an instant. "I see where you're coming out. Everything's possible." Their eyes had on it in fact an exchange of some duration; after which he pursued: "Isn't it that beautiful child?" Then as she still said nothing: "Why don't you mean to receive her?"
Her answer in an instant rang clear. "Because I wish to keep out of the business."
It provoked in him a weak wail. "You're going to abandon me NOW?"
"No, I'm only going to abandon HER. She'll want me to help her with you. And I won't."
"You'll only help me with her? Well then--!" Most of the persons previously gathered had, in the interest of tea, passed into the house, and they had the gardens mainly to themselves. The shadows were long, the last call of the birds, who had made a home of their own in the noble interspaced quarter, sounded from the high trees in the other gardens as well, those of the old convent and of the old hotels; it was as if our friends had waited for the full charm to come out. Strether's impressions were still present; it was as if something had happened that "nailed" them, made them more intense; but he was to ask himself soon afterwards, that evening, what really HAD happened--conscious as he could after all remain that for a gentleman taken, and taken the first time, into the "great world," the world of ambassadors and duchesses, the items made a meagre total. It was nothing new to him, however, as we know, that a man might have--at all events such a man as he--an amount of experience out of any proportion to his adventures; so that, though it was doubtless no great adventure to sit on there with Miss Gostrey and hear about Madame de Vionnet, the hour, the picture, the immediate, the recent, the possible--as well as the communication itself, not a note of which failed to reverberate-- only gave the moments more of the taste of history.
It was history, to begin with, that Jeanne's mother had been three-and-twenty years before, at Geneva, schoolmate and good girlfriend to Maria Gostrey, who had moreover enjoyed since then, though interruptedly and above all with a long recent drop, other glimpses of her. Twenty-three years put them both on, no doubt; and Madame de Vionnet--though she had married straight after school--couldn't be today an hour less than thirty-eight. This made her ten years older than Chad--though ten years, also, if Strether liked, older than she looked; the least, at any rate, that a prospective mother-in-law could be expected to do with. She would be of all mothers-in-law the most charming; unless indeed, through some perversity as yet insupposeable, she should utterly belie herself in that relation. There was none surely in which, as Maria remembered her, she mustn't be charming; and this frankly in spite of the stigma of failure in the tie where failure always most showed. It was no test there--when indeed WAS it a test there?--for Monsieur de Vionnet had been a brute. She had lived for years apart from him--which was of course always a horrid position; but Miss Gostrey's impression of the matter had been that she could scarce have made a better thing of it had she done it on purpose to show she was amiable. She was so amiable that nobody had had a word to say; which was luckily not the case for her husband. He was so impossible that she had the advantage of all her merits.
It was still history for Strether that the Comte de Vionnet--it being also history that the lady in question was a Countess--should now, under Miss Gostrey's sharp touch, rise before him as a high distinguished polished impertinent reprobate, the product of a mysterious order; it was history, further, that the charming girl so freely sketched by his companion should have been married out of hand by a mother, another figure of striking outline, full of dark personal motive; it was perhaps history most of all that this company was, as a matter of course, governed by such considerations as put divorce out of the question. "Ces gens-la don't divorce, you know, any more than they emigrate or abjure--they think it impious and vulgar"; a fact in the light of which they seemed but the more richly special. It was all special; it was all, for Strether's imagination, more or less rich. The girl at the Genevese school, an isolated interesting attaching creature, then both sensitive and violent, audacious but always forgiven, was the daughter of a French father and an English mother who, early left a widow, had married again--tried afresh with a foreigner; in her career with whom she had apparently given her child no example of comfort. All these people--the people of the English mother's side--had been of condition more or less eminent; yet with oddities and disparities that had often since made Maria, thinking them over, wonder what they really quite rhymed to. It was in any case her belief that the mother, interested and prone to adventure, had been without conscience, had only thought of ridding herself most quickly of a possible, an actual encumbrance. The father, by her impression, a Frenchman with a name one knew, had been a different matter, leaving his child, she clearly recalled, a memory all fondness, as well as an assured little fortune which was unluckily to make her more or less of a prey later on. She had been in particular, at school, dazzlingly, though quite booklessly, clever; as polyglot as a little Jewess (which she wasn't, oh no!) and chattering French, English, German, Italian, anything one would, in a way that made a clean sweep, if not of prizes and parchments, at least of every "part," whether memorised or improvised, in the curtained costumed school repertory, and in especial of all mysteries of race and vagueness of reference, all swagger about "home," among their variegated mates.
It would doubtless be difficult to-day, as between French and English, to name her and place her; she would certainly show, on knowledge, Miss Gostrey felt, as one of those convenient types who don't keep you explaining--minds with doors as numerous as the many-tongued cluster of confessionals at Saint Peter's. You might confess to her with confidence in Roumelian, and even Roumelian sins. Therefore--! But Strether's narrator covered her implication with a laugh; a laugh by which his betrayal of a sense of the lurid in the picture was also perhaps sufficiently protected. He had a moment of wondering, while his friend went on, what sins might be especially Roumelian. She went on at all events to the mention of her having met the young thing--again by some Swiss lake--in her first married state, which had appeared for the few intermediate years not at least violently disturbed. She had been lovely at that moment, delightful to HER, full of responsive emotion, of amused recognitions and amusing reminders, and then once more, much later, after a long interval, equally but differently charming--touching and rather mystifying for the five minutes of an encounter at a railway-station en province, during which it had come out that her life was all changed. Miss Gostrey had understood enough to see, essentially, what had happened, and yet had beautifully dreamed that she was herself faultless. There were doubtless depths in her, but she was all right; Strether would see if she wasn't. She was another person however--that had been promptly marked--from the small child of nature at the Geneva school, a little person quite made over (as foreign women WERE, compared with American) by marriage. Her situation too had evidently cleared itself up; there would have been--all that was possible--a judicial separation. She had settled in Paris, brought up her daughter, steered her boat. It was no very pleasant boat--especially there--to be in; but Marie de Vionnet would have headed straight. She would have friends, certainly--and very good ones. There she was at all events--and it was very interesting. Her knowing Mr. Chad didn't in the least prove she hadn't friends; what it proved was what good ones HE had. "I saw that," said Miss Gostrey, "that night at the Francais; it came out for me in three minutes. I saw HER--or somebody like her. And so," she immediately added, "did you."
"Oh no--not anybody like her!" Strether laughed. "But you mean," he as promptly went on, "that she has had such an influence on him?"
Miss Gostrey was on her feet; it was time for them to go. "She has brought him up for her daughter."
Their eyes, as so often, in candid conference, through their settled glasses, met over it long; after which Strether's again took in the whole place. They were quite alone there now. "Mustn't she rather--in the time then--have rushed it?"
"Ah she won't of course have lost an hour. But that's just the good mother--the good French one. You must remember that of her--that as a mother she's French, and that for them there's a special providence. It precisely however--that she mayn't have been able to begin as far back as she'd have liked--makes her grateful for aid."
Strether took this in as they slowly moved to the house on their way out. "She counts on me then to put the thing through?"
"Yes--she counts on you. Oh and first of all of course," Miss Gostrey added, "on her--well, convincing you."
"Ah," her friend returned, "she caught Chad young!"
"Yes, but there are women who are for all your 'times of life.' They're the most wonderful sort."
She had laughed the words out, but they brought her companion, the next thing, to a stand. "Is what you mean that she'll try to make a fool of me?"
"Well, I'm wondering what she WILL--with an opportunity--make."
"What do you call," Strether asked, "an opportunity? My going to see her?"
"Ah you must go to see her"--Miss Gostrey was a trifle evasive. "You can't not do that. You'd have gone to see the other woman. I mean if there had been one--a different sort. It's what you came out for."
It might be; but Strether distinguished. "I didn't come out to see THIS sort."
She had a wonderful look at him now. "Are you disappointed she isn't worse?"
He for a moment entertained the question, then found for it the frankest of answers. "Yes. If she were worse she'd be better for our purpose. It would be simpler."
"Perhaps," she admitted. "But won't this be pleasanter?"
"Ah you know," he promptly replied, "I didn't come out--wasn't that just what you originally reproached me with?--for the pleasant."
"Precisely. Therefore I say again what I said at first. You must take things as they come. Besides," Miss Gostrey added, "I'm not afraid for myself."
"Of your seeing her. I trust her. There's nothing she'll say about me. In fact there's nothing she CAN."
Strether wondered--little as he had thought of this. Then he broke out. "Oh you women!"
There was something in it at which she flushed. "Yes--there we are. We're abysses." At last she smiled. "But I risk her!"
He gave himself a shake. "Well then so do I!" But he added as they passed into the house that he would see Chad the first thing in the morning.
This was the next day the more easily effected that the young man, as it happened, even before he was down, turned up at his hotel. Strether took his coffee, by habit, in the public room; but on his descending for this purpose Chad instantly proposed an adjournment to what he called greater privacy. He had himself as yet had nothing--they would sit down somewhere together; and when after a few steps and a turn into the Boulevard they had, for their greater privacy, sat down among twenty others, our friend saw in his companion's move a fear of the advent of Waymarsh. It was the first time Chad had to that extent given this personage "away"; and Strether found himself wondering of what it was symptomatic. He made out in a moment that the youth was in earnest as he hadn't yet seen him; which in its turn threw a ray perhaps a trifle startling on what they had each up to that time been treating as earnestness. It was sufficiently flattering however that the real thing--if this WAS at last the real thing--should have been determined, as appeared, precisely by an accretion of Strether's importance. For this was what it quickly enough came to--that Chad, rising with the lark, had rushed down to let him know while his morning consciousness was yet young that he had literally made the afternoon before a tremendous impression. Madame de Vionnet wouldn't, couldn't rest till she should have some assurance from him that he WOULD consent again to see her. The announcement was made, across their marble-topped table, while the foam of the hot milk was in their cups and its plash still in the air, with the smile of Chad's easiest urbanity; and this expression of his face caused our friend's doubts to gather on the spot into a challenge of the lips. "See here"--that was all; he only for the moment said again "See here." Chad met it with all his air of straight intelligence, while Strether remembered again that fancy of the first impression of him, the happy young Pagan, handsome and hard but oddly indulgent, whose mysterious measure he had under the street-lamp tried mentally to take. The young Pagan, while a long look passed between them, sufficiently understood. Strether scarce needed at last to say the rest--"I want to know where I am." But he said it, adding before any answer something more. "Are you engaged to be married--is that your secret?--to the young lady?"
Chad shook his head with the slow amenity that was one of his ways of conveying that there was time for everything. "I have no secret-- though I may have secrets! I haven't at any rate that one. We're not engaged. No."
"Then where's the hitch?"
"Do you mean why I haven't already started with you?" Chad, beginning his coffee and buttering his roll, was quite ready to explain. "Nothing would have induced me--nothing will still induce me--not to try to keep you here as long as you can be made to stay. It's too visibly good for you." Strether had himself plenty to say about this, but it was amusing also to measure the march of Chad's tone. He had never been more a man of the world, and it was always in his company present to our friend that one was seeing how in successive connexions a man of the world acquitted himself. Chad kept it up beautifully. "My idea--voyons!--is simply that you should let Madame de Vionnet know you, simply that you should consent to know HER. I don't in the least mind telling you that, clever and charming as she is, she's ever so much in my confidence. All I ask of you is to let her talk to you. You've asked me about what you call my hitch, and so far as it goes she'll explain it to you. She's herself my hitch, hang it--if you must really have it all out. But in a sense," he hastened in the most wonderful manner to add, "that you'll quite make out for yourself. She's too good a friend, confound her. Too good, I mean, for me to leave without-- without--" It was his first hesitation.
"Well, without my arranging somehow or other the damnable terms of my sacrifice."
"It WILL be a sacrifice then?"
"It will be the greatest loss I ever suffered. I owe her so much."
It was beautiful, the way Chad said these things, and his plea was now confessedly--oh quite flagrantly and publicly--interesting. The moment really took on for Strether an intensity. Chad owed Madame de Vionnet so much? What DID that do then but clear up the whole mystery? He was indebted for alterations, and she was thereby in a position to have sent in her bill for expenses incurred in reconstruction. What was this at bottom but what had been to be arrived at? Strether sat there arriving at it while he munched toast and stirred his second cup. To do this with the aid of Chad's pleasant earnest face was also to do more besides. No, never before had he been so ready to take him as he was. What was it that had suddenly so cleared up? It was just everybody's character; that is everybody's but--in a measure--his own. Strether felt HIS character receive for the instant a smutch from all the wrong things he had suspected or believed. The person to whom Chad owed it that he could positively turn out such a comfort to other persons--such a person was sufficiently raised above any "breath" by the nature of her work and the young man's steady light. All of which was vivid enough to come and go quickly; though indeed in the midst of it Strether could utter a question. "Have I your word of honour that if I surrender myself to Madame de Vionnet you'll surrender yourself to me?"
Chad laid his hand firmly on his friend's. "My dear man, you have it."
There was finally something in his felicity almost embarrassing and oppressive--Strether had begun to fidget under it for the open air and the erect posture. He had signed to the waiter that he wished to pay, and this transaction took some moments, during which he thoroughly felt, while he put down money and pretended--it was quite hollow--to estimate change, that Chad's higher spirit, his youth, his practice, his paganism, his felicity, his assurance, his impudence, whatever it might be, had consciously scored a success. Well, that was all right so far as it went; his sense of the thing in question covered our friend for a minute like a veil through which--as if he had been muffled--he heard his interlocutor ask him if he mightn't take him over about five. "Over" was over the river, and over the river was where Madame de Vionnet lived, and five was that very afternoon. They got at last out of the place--got out before he answered. He lighted, in the street, a cigarette, which again gave him more time. But it was already sharp for him that there was no use in time. "What does she propose to do to me?" he had presently demanded.
Chad had no delays. "Are you afraid of her?"
"Oh immensely. Don't you see it?"
"Well," said Chad, "she won't do anything worse to you than make you like her."
"It's just of that I'm afraid."
"Then it's not fair to me."
Strether cast about. "It's fair to your mother."
"Oh," said Chad, "are you afraid of HER?"
"Scarcely less. Or perhaps even more. But is this lady against your interests at home?" Strether went on.
"Not directly, no doubt; but she's greatly in favour of them here."
"And what--'here'--does she consider them to be?"
"Well, good relations!"
"And what is it that makes them so good?"
"What? Well, that's exactly what you'll make out if you'll only go, as I'm supplicating you, to see her."
Strether stared at him with a little of the wanness, no doubt, that the vision of more to "make out" could scarce help producing. "I mean HOW good are they?"
"Oh awfully good."
Again Strether had faltered, but it was brief. It was all very well, but there was nothing now he wouldn't risk. "Excuse me, but I must really--as I began by telling you--know where I am. Is she bad?"
"'Bad'?"--Chad echoed it, but without a shock. "Is that what's implied--?"
"When relations are good?" Strether felt a little silly, and was even conscious of a foolish laugh, at having it imposed on him to have appeared to speak so. What indeed was he talking about? His stare had relaxed; he looked now all round him. But something in him brought him back, though he still didn't know quite how to turn it. The two or three ways he thought of, and one of them in particular, were, even with scruples dismissed, too ugly. He none the less at last found something. "Is her life without reproach?"
It struck him, directly he had found it, as pompous and priggish; so much so that he was thankful to Chad for taking it only in the right spirit. The young man spoke so immensely to the point that the effect was practically of positive blandness. "Absolutely without reproach. A beautiful life. Allez donc voir!"
These last words were, in the liberality of their confidence, so imperative that Strether went through no form of assent; but before they separated it had been confirmed that he should be picked up at a quarter to five.
It was quite by half-past five--after the two men had been together in Madame de Vionnet's drawing-room not more than a dozen minutes-- that Chad, with a look at his watch and then another at their hostess, said genially, gaily: "I've an engagement, and I know you won't complain if I leave him with you. He'll interest you immensely; and as for her," he declared to Strether, "I assure you, if you're at all nervous, she's perfectly safe."
He had left them to be embarrassed or not by this guarantee, as they could best manage, and embarrassment was a thing that Strether wasn't at first sure Madame de Vionnet escaped. He escaped it himself, to his surprise; but he had grown used by this time to thinking of himself as brazen. She occupied, his hostess, in the Rue de Bellechasse, the first floor of an old house to which our visitors had had access from an old clean court. The court was large and open, full of revelations, for our friend, of the habit of privacy, the peace of intervals, the dignity of distances and approaches; the house, to his restless sense, was in the high homely style of an elder day, and the ancient Paris that he was always looking for--sometimes intensely felt, sometimes more acutely missed--was in the immemorial polish of the wide waxed staircase and in the fine boiseries, the medallions, mouldings, mirrors, great clear spaces, of the greyish-white salon into which he had been shown. He seemed at the very outset to see her in the midst of possessions not vulgarly numerous, but hereditary cherished charming. While his eyes turned after a little from those of his hostess and Chad freely talked--not in the least about HIM, but about other people, people he didn't know, and quite as if he did know them--he found himself making out, as a background of the occupant, some glory, some prosperity of the First Empire, some Napoleonic glamour, some dim lustre of the great legend; elements clinging still to all the consular chairs and mythological brasses and sphinxes' heads and faded surfaces of satin striped with alternate silk.
The place itself went further back--that he guessed, and how old Paris continued in a manner to echo there; but the post-revolutionary period, the world he vaguely thought of as the world of Chateaubriand, of Madame de Stael, even of the young Lamartine, had left its stamp of harps and urns and torches, a stamp impressed on sundry small objects, ornaments and relics. He had never before, to his knowledge, had present to him relics, of any special dignity, of a private order-- little old miniatures, medallions, pictures, books; books in leather bindings, pinkish and greenish, with gilt garlands on the back, ranged, together with other promiscuous properties, under the glass of brass-mounted cabinets. His attention took them all tenderly into account. They were among the matters that marked Madame de Vionnet's apartment as something quite different from Miss Gostrey's little museum of bargains and from Chad's lovely home; he recognised it as founded much more on old accumulations that had possibly from time to time shrunken than on any contemporary method of acquisition or form of curiosity. Chad and Miss Gostrey had rummaged and purchased and picked up and exchanged, sifting, selecting, comparing; whereas the mistress of the scene before him, beautifully passive under the spell of transmission--transmission from her father's line, he quite made up his mind--had only received, accepted and been quiet. When she hadn't been quiet she had been moved at the most to some occult charity for some fallen fortune. There had been objects she or her predecessors might even conceivably have parted with under need, but Strether couldn't suspect them of having sold old pieces to get "better" ones. They would have felt no difference as to better or worse. He could but imagine their having felt--perhaps in emigration, in proscription, for his sketch was slight and confused--the pressure of want or the obligation of sacrifice.
The pressure of want--whatever might be the case with the other force--was, however, presumably not active now, for the tokens of a chastened ease still abounded after all, many marks of a taste whose discriminations might perhaps have been called eccentric. He guessed at intense little preferences and sharp little exclusions, a deep suspicion of the vulgar and a personal view of the right. The general result of this was something for which he had no name on the spot quite ready, but something he would have come nearest to naming in speaking of it as the air of supreme respectability, the consciousness, small, still, reserved, but none the less distinct and diffused, of private honour. The air of supreme respectability--that was a strange blank wall for his adventure to have brought him to break his nose against. It had in fact, as he was now aware, filled all the approaches, hovered in the court as he passed, hung on the staircase as he mounted, sounded in the grave rumble of the old bell, as little electric as possible, of which Chad, at the door, had pulled the ancient but neatly-kept tassel; it formed in short the clearest medium of its particular kind that he had ever breathed. He would have answered for it at the end of a quarter of an hour that some of the glass cases contained swords and epaulettes of ancient colonels and generals; medals and orders once pinned over hearts that had long since ceased to beat; snuff-boxes bestowed on ministers and envoys; copies of works presented, with inscriptions, by authors now classic. At bottom of it all for him was the sense of her rare unlikeness to the women he had known. This sense had grown, since the day before, the more he recalled her, and had been above all singularly fed by his talk with Chad in the morning. Everything in fine made her immeasurably new, and nothing so new as the old house and the old objects. There were books, two or three, on a small table near his chair, but they hadn't the lemon-coloured covers with which his eye had begun to dally from the hour of his arrival and to the opportunity of a further acquaintance with which he had for a fortnight now altogether succumbed. On another table, across the room, he made out the great _Revue_; but even that familiar face, conspicuous in Mrs. Newsome's parlours, scarce counted here as a modern note. He was sure on the spot--and he afterwards knew he was right--that this was a touch of Chad's own hand. What would Mrs. Newsome say to the circumstance that Chad's interested "influence" kept her paper-knife in the _Revue_? The interested influence at any rate had, as we say, gone straight to the point--had in fact soon left it quite behind.
She was seated, near the fire, on a small stuffed and fringed chair one of the few modern articles in the room, and she leaned back in it with her hands clasped in her lap and no movement, in all her person, but the fine prompt play of her deep young face. The fire, under the low white marble, undraped and academic, had burnt down to the silver ashes of light wood, one of the windows, at a distance, stood open to the mildness and stillness, out of which, in the short pauses, came the faint sound, pleasant and homely, almost rustic, of a plash and a clatter of sabots from some coach-house on the other side of the court. Madame de Vionnet, while Strether sat there, wasn't to shift her posture by an inch. "I don't think you seriously believe in what you're doing," she said; "but all the same, you know, I'm going to treat you quite as if I did."
"By which you mean," Strether directly replied, "quite as if you didn't! I assure you it won't make the least difference with me how you treat me."
"Well," she said, taking that menace bravely and philosophically enough, "the only thing that really matters is that you shall get on with me."
"Ah but I don't!" he immediately returned.
It gave her another pause; which, however, she happily enough shook off. "Will you consent to go on with me a little--provisionally-- as if you did?"
Then it was that he saw how she had decidedly come all the way; and there accompanied it an extraordinary sense of her raising from somewhere below him her beautiful suppliant eyes. He might have been perched at his door-step or at his window and she standing in the road. For a moment he let her stand and couldn't moreover have spoken. It had been sad, of a sudden, with a sadness that was like a cold breath in his face. "What can I do," he finally asked, "but listen to you as I promised Chadwick?"
"Ah but what I'm asking you," she quickly said, "isn't what Mr. Newsome had in mind." She spoke at present, he saw, as if to take courageously ALL her risk. "This is my own idea and a different thing."
It gave poor Strether in truth--uneasy as it made him too-- something of the thrill of a bold perception justified. "Well," he answered kindly enough, "I was sure a moment since that some idea of your own had come to you."
She seemed still to look up at him, but now more serenely. "I made out you were sure--and that helped it to come. So you see," she continued, "we do get on."
"Oh but it appears to me I don't at all meet your request. How can I when I don't understand it?"
"It isn't at all necessary you should understand; it will do quite well enough if you simply remember it. Only feel I trust you--and for nothing so tremendous after all. Just," she said with a wonderful smile, "for common civility."
Strether had a long pause while they sat again face to face, as they had sat, scarce less conscious, before the poor lady had crossed the stream. She was the poor lady for Strether now because clearly she had some trouble, and her appeal to him could only mean that her trouble was deep. He couldn't help it; it wasn't his fault; he had done nothing; but by a turn of the hand she had somehow made their encounter a relation. And the relation profited by a mass of things that were not strictly in it or of it; by the very air in which they sat, by the high cold delicate room, by the world outside and the little plash in the court, by the First Empire and the relics in the stiff cabinets, by matters as far off as those and by others as near as the unbroken clasp of her hands in her lap and the look her expression had of being most natural when her eyes were most fixed. "You count upon me of course for something really much greater than it sounds."
"Oh it sounds great enough too!" she laughed at this.
He found himself in time on the point of telling her that she was, as Miss Barrace called it, wonderful; but, catching himself up, he said something else instead. "What was it Chad's idea then that you should say to me?"
"Ah his idea was simply what a man's idea always is--to put every effort off on the woman."
"The 'woman'--?" Strether slowly echoed.
"The woman he likes--and just in proportion as he likes her. In proportion too--for shifting the trouble--as she likes HIM."
Strether followed it; then with an abruptness of his own: "How much do you like Chad?"
"Just as much as THAT--to take all, with you, on myself." But she got at once again away from this. "I've been trembling as if we were to stand or fall by what you may think of me; and I'm even now," she went on wonderfully, "drawing a long breath--and, yes, truly taking a great courage--from the hope that I don't in fact strike you as impossible."
"That's at all events, clearly," he observed after an instant, "the way I don't strike YOU."
"Well," she so far assented, "as you haven't yet said you WON'T have the little patience with me I ask for--"
"You draw splendid conclusions? Perfectly. But I don't understand them," Strether pursued. "You seem to me to ask for much more than you need. What, at the worst for you, what at the best for myself, can I after all do? I can use no pressure that I haven't used. You come really late with your request. I've already done all that for myself the case admits of. I've said my say, and here I am."
"Yes, here you are, fortunately!" Madame de Vionnet laughed. "Mrs. Newsome," she added in another tone, "didn't think you can do so little."
He had an hesitation, but he brought the words out. "Well, she thinks so now."
"Do you mean by that--?" But she also hung fire.
"Do I mean what?"
She still rather faltered. "Pardon me if I touch on it, but if I'm saying extraordinary things, why, perhaps, mayn't I? Besides, doesn't it properly concern us to know?"
"To know what?" he insisted as after thus beating about the bush she had again dropped.
She made the effort. "Has she given you up?"
He was amazed afterwards to think how simply and quietly he had met it. "Not yet." It was almost as if he were a trifle disappointed-- had expected still more of her freedom. But he went straight on. "Is that what Chad has told you will happen to me?"
She was evidently charmed with the way he took it. "If you mean if we've talked of it--most certainly. And the question's not what has had least to do with my wishing to see you."
"To judge if I'm the sort of man a woman CAN--?"
"Precisely," she exclaimed--"you wonderful gentleman! I do judge--I HAVE judged. A woman can't. You're safe--with every right to be. You'd be much happier if you'd only believe it."
Strether was silent a little; then he found himself speaking with a cynicism of confidence of which even at the moment the sources were strange to him. "I try to believe it. But it's a marvel," he exclaimed, "how YOU already get at it!"
Oh she was able to say. "Remember how much I was on the way to it through Mr. Newsome--before I saw you. He thinks everything of your strength."
"Well, I can bear almost anything!" our friend briskly interrupted. Deep and beautiful on this her smile came back, and with the effect of making him hear what he had said just as she had heard it. He easily enough felt that it gave him away, but what in truth had everything done but that? It had been all very well to think at moments that he was holding her nose down and that he had coerced her: what had he by this time done but let her practically see that he accepted their relation? What was their relation moreover-- though light and brief enough in form as yet--but whatever she might choose to make it? Nothing could prevent her--certainly he couldn't--from making it pleasant. At the back of his head, behind everything, was the sense that she was--there, before him, close to him, in vivid imperative form--one of the rare women he had so often heard of, read of, thought of, but never met, whose very presence, look, voice, the mere contemporaneous FACT of whom, from the moment it was at all presented, made a relation of mere recognition. That was not the kind of woman he had ever found Mrs. Newsome, a contemporaneous fact who had been distinctly slow to establish herself; and at present, confronted with Madame de Vionnet, he felt the simplicity of his original impression of Miss Gostrey. She certainly had been a fact of rapid growth; but the world was wide, each day was more and more a new lesson. There were at any rate even among the stranger ones relations and relations. "Of course I suit Chad's grand way," he quickly added. "He hasn't had much difficulty in working me in."
She seemed to deny a little, on the young man's behalf, by the rise of her eyebrows, an intention of any process at all inconsiderate. "You must know how grieved he'd be if you were to lose anything. He believes you can keep his mother patient."
Strether wondered with his eyes on her. "I see. THAT'S then what you really want of me. And how am I to do it? Perhaps you'll tell me that."
"Simply tell her the truth."
"And what do you call the truth?"
"Well, any truth--about us all--that you see yourself. I leave it to you."
"Thank you very much. I like," Strether laughed with a slight harshness, "the way you leave things!"
But she insisted kindly, gently, as if it wasn't so bad. "Be perfectly honest. Tell her all."
"All?" he oddly echoed.
"Tell her the simple truth," Madame de Vionnet again pleaded.
"But what is the simple truth? The simple truth is exactly what I'm trying to discover."
She looked about a while, but presently she came back to him. "Tell her, fully and clearly, about US."
Strether meanwhile had been staring. "You and your daughter?"
"Yes--little Jeanne and me. Tell her," she just slightly quavered, "you like us."
"And what good will that do me? Or rather"--he caught himself up-- "what good will it do YOU?"
She looked graver. "None, you believe, really?"
Strether debated. "She didn't send me out to 'like' you."
"Oh," she charmingly contended, "she sent you out to face the facts."
He admitted after an instant that there was something in that. "But how can I face them till I know what they are? Do you want him," he then braced himself to ask, "to marry your daughter?"
She gave a headshake as noble as it was prompt. "No--not that."
"And he really doesn't want to himself?"
She repeated the movement, but now with a strange light in her face. "He likes her too much."
Strether wondered. "To be willing to consider, you mean, the question of taking her to America?"
"To be willing to do anything with her but be immensely kind and nice--really tender of her. We watch over her, and you must help us. You must see her again."
Strether felt awkward. "Ah with pleasure--she's so remarkably attractive."
The mother's eagerness with which Madame de Vionnet jumped at this was to come back to him later as beautiful in its grace. "The dear thing DID please you?" Then as he met it with the largest "Oh!" of enthusiasm: "She's perfect. She's my joy."
"Well, I'm sure that--if one were near her and saw more of her-- she'd be mine."
"Then," said Madame de Vionnet, "tell Mrs. Newsome that!"
He wondered the more. "What good will that do you?" As she appeared unable at once to say, however, he brought out something else. "Is your daughter in love with our friend?"
"Ah," she rather startlingly answered, "I wish you'd find out!"
He showed his surprise. "I? A stranger?"
"Oh you won't be a stranger--presently. You shall see her quite, I assure you, as if you weren't."
It remained for him none the less an extraordinary notion. "It seems to me surely that if her mother can't--"
"Ah little girls and their mothers to-day!" she rather inconsequently broke in. But she checked herself with something she seemed to give out as after all more to the point. "Tell her I've been good for him. Don't you think I have?"
It had its effect on him--more than at the moment he quite measured. Yet he was consciously enough touched. "Oh if it's all you--!"
"Well, it may not be 'all,'" she interrupted, "but it's to a great extent. Really and truly," she added in a tone that was to take its place with him among things remembered.
"Then it's very wonderful." He smiled at her from a face that he felt as strained, and her own face for a moment kept him so. At last she also got up. "Well, don't you think that for that--"
"I ought to save you?" So it was that the way to meet her--and the way, as well, in a manner, to get off--came over him. He heard himself use the exorbitant word, the very sound of which helped to determine his flight. "I'll save you if I can."
In Chad's lovely home, however, one evening ten days later, he felt himself present at the collapse of the question of Jeanne de Vionnet's shy secret. He had been dining there in the company of that young lady and her mother, as well as of other persons, and he had gone into the petit salon, at Chad's request, on purpose to talk with her. The young man had put this to him as a favour--"I should like so awfully to know what you think of her. It will really be a chance for you," he had said, "to see the jeune fille--I mean the type--as she actually is, and I don't think that, as an observer of manners, it's a thing you ought to miss. It will be an impression that-- whatever else you take--you can carry home with you, where you'll find again so much to compare it with."
Strether knew well enough with what Chad wished him to compare it, and though he entirely assented he hadn't yet somehow been so deeply reminded that he was being, as he constantly though mutely expressed it, used. He was as far as ever from making out exactly to what end; but he was none the less constantly accompanied by a sense of the service he rendered. He conceived only that this service was highly agreeable to those who profited by it; and he was indeed still waiting for the moment at which he should catch it in the act of proving disagreeable, proving in some degree intolerable, to himself. He failed quite to see how his situation could clear up at all logically except by some turn of events that would give him the pretext of disgust. He was building from day to day on the possibility of disgust, but each day brought forth meanwhile a new and more engaging bend of the road. That possibility was now ever so much further from sight than on the eve of his arrival, and he perfectly felt that, should it come at all, it would have to be at best inconsequent and violent. He struck himself as a little nearer to it only when he asked himself what service, in such a life of utility, he was after all rendering Mrs. Newsome. When he wished to help himself to believe that he was still all right he reflected--and in fact with wonder--on the unimpaired frequency of their correspondence; in relation to which what was after all more natural than that it should become more frequent just in proportion as their problem became more complicated?
Certain it is at any rate that he now often brought himself balm by the question, with the rich consciousness of yesterday's letter, "Well, what can I do more than that--what can I do more than tell her everything?" To persuade himself that he did tell her, had told her, everything, he used to try to think of particular things he hadn't told her. When at rare moments and in the watches of the night he pounced on one it generally showed itself to be--to a deeper scrutiny--not quite truly of the essence. When anything new struck him as coming up, or anything already noted as reappearing, he always immediately wrote, as if for fear that if he didn't he would miss something; and also that he might be able to say to himself from time to time "She knows it NOW--even while I worry." It was a great comfort to him in general not to have left past things to be dragged to light and explained; not to have to produce at so late a stage anything not produced, or anything even veiled and attenuated, at the moment. She knew it now: that was what he said to himself to-night in relation to the fresh fact of Chad's acquaintance with the two ladies--not to speak of the fresher one of his own. Mrs. Newsome knew in other words that very night at Woollett that he himself knew Madame de Vionnet and that he had conscientiously been to see her; also that he had found her remarkably attractive and that there would probably be a good deal more to tell. But she further knew, or would know very soon, that, again conscientiously, he hadn't repeated his visit; and that when Chad had asked him on the Countess's behalf--Strether made her out vividly, with a thought at the back of his head, a Countess--if he wouldn't name a day for dining with her, he had replied lucidly: "Thank you very much--impossible." He had begged the young man would present his excuses and had trusted him to understand that it couldn't really strike one as quite the straight thing. He hadn't reported to Mrs. Newsome that he had promised to "save" Madame de Vionnet; but, so far as he was concerned with that reminiscence, he hadn't at any rate promised to haunt her house. What Chad had understood could only, in truth, be inferred from Chad's behaviour, which had been in this connexion as easy as in every other. He was easy, always, when he understood; he was easier still, if possible, when he didn't; he had replied that he would make it all right; and he had proceeded to do this by substituting the present occasion-- as he was ready to substitute others--for any, for every occasion as to which his old friend should have a funny scruple.
"Oh but I'm not a little foreign girl; I'm just as English as I can be," Jeanne de Vionnet had said to him as soon as, in the petit salon, he sank, shyly enough on his own side, into the place near her vacated by Madame Gloriani at his approach. Madame Gloriani, who was in black velvet, with white lace and powdered hair, and whose somewhat massive majesty melted, at any contact, into the graciousness of some incomprehensible tongue, moved away to make room for the vague gentleman, after benevolent greetings to him which embodied, as he believed, in baffling accents, some recognition of his face from a couple of Sundays before. Then he had remarked--making the most of the advantage of his years--that it frightened him quite enough to find himself dedicated to the entertainment of a little foreign girl. There were girls he wasn't afraid of--he was quite bold with little Americans. Thus it was that she had defended herself to the end--"Oh but I'm almost American too. That's what mamma has wanted me to be--I mean LIKE that; for she has wanted me to have lots of freedom. She has known such good results from it."
She was fairly beautiful to him--a faint pastel in an oval frame: he thought of her already as of some lurking image in a long gallery, the portrait of a small old-time princess of whom nothing was known but that she had died young. Little Jeanne wasn't, doubtless, to die young, but one couldn't, all the same, bear on her lightly enough. It was bearing hard, it was bearing as HE, in any case, wouldn't bear, to concern himself, in relation to her, with the question of a young man. Odious really the question of a young man; one didn't treat such a person as a maid-servant suspected of a "follower." And then young men, young men--well, the thing was their business simply, or was at all events hers. She was fluttered, fairly fevered--to the point of a little glitter that came and went in her eyes and a pair of pink spots that stayed in her cheeks--with the great adventure of dining out and with the greater one still, possibly, of finding a gentleman whom she must think of as very, very old, a gentleman with eye-glasses, wrinkles, a long grizzled moustache. She spoke the prettiest English, our friend thought, that he had ever heard spoken, just as he had believed her a few minutes before to be speaking the prettiest French. He wondered almost wistfully if such a sweep of the lyre didn't react on the spirit itself; and his fancy had in fact, before he knew it, begun so to stray and embroider that he finally found himself, absent and extravagant, sitting with the child in a friendly silence. Only by this time he felt her flutter to have fortunately dropped and that she was more at her ease. She trusted him, liked him, and it was to come back to him afterwards that she had told him things. She had dipped into the waiting medium at last and found neither surge nor chill--nothing but the small splash she could herself make in the pleasant warmth, nothing but the safety of dipping and dipping again. At the end of the ten minutes he was to spend with her his impression--with all it had thrown off and all it had taken in--was complete. She had been free, as she knew freedom, partly to show him that, unlike other little persons she knew, she had imbibed that ideal. She was delightfully quaint about herself, but the vision of what she had imbibed was what most held him. It really consisted, he was soon enough to feel, in just one great little matter, the fact that, whatever her nature, she was thoroughly--he had to cast about for the word, but it came--bred. He couldn't of course on so short an acquaintance speak for her nature, but the idea of breeding was what she had meanwhile dropped into his mind. He had never yet known it so sharply presented. Her mother gave it, no doubt; but her mother, to make that less sensible, gave so much else besides, and on neither of the two previous occasions, extraordinary woman, Strether felt, anything like what she was giving tonight. Little Jeanne was a case, an exquisite case of education; whereas the Countess, whom it so amused him to think of by that denomination, was a case, also exquisite, of--well, he didn't know what.
"He has wonderful taste, notre jeune homme": this was what Gloriani said to him on turning away from the inspection of a small picture suspended near the door of the room. The high celebrity in question had just come in, apparently in search of Mademoiselle de Vionnet, but while Strether had got up from beside her their fellow guest, with his eye sharply caught, had paused for a long look. The thing was a landscape, of no size, but of the French school, as our friend was glad to feel he knew, and also of a quality--which he liked to think he should also have guessed; its frame was large out of proportion to the canvas, and he had never seen a person look at anything, he thought, just as Gloriani, with his nose very near and quick movements of the head from side to side and bottom to top, examined this feature of Chad's collection. The artist used that word the next moment smiling courteously, wiping his nippers and looking round him further--paying the place in short by the very manner of his presence and by something Strether fancied he could make out in this particular glance, such a tribute as, to the latter's sense, settled many things once for all. Strether was conscious at this instant, for that matter, as he hadn't yet been, of how, round about him, quite without him, they WERE consistently settled. Gloriani's smile, deeply Italian, he considered, and finely inscrutable, had had for him, during dinner, at which they were not neighbours, an indefinite greeting; but the quality in it was gone that had appeared on the other occasion to turn him inside out; it was as if even the momentary link supplied by the doubt between them had snapped. He was conscious now of the final reality, which was that there wasn't so much a doubt as a difference altogether; all the more that over the difference the famous sculptor seemed to signal almost condolingly, yet oh how vacantly! as across some great flat sheet of water. He threw out the bridge of a charming hollow civility on which Strether wouldn't have trusted his own full weight a moment. That idea, even though but transient and perhaps belated, had performed the office of putting Strether more at his ease, and the blurred picture had already dropped--dropped with the sound of something else said and with his becoming aware, by another quick turn, that Gloriani was now on the sofa talking with Jeanne, while he himself had in his ears again the familiar friendliness and the elusive meaning of the "Oh, oh, oh!" that had made him, a fortnight before, challenge Miss Barrace in vain. She had always the air, this picturesque and original lady, who struck him, so oddly, as both antique and modern--she had always the air of taking up some joke that one had already had out with her. The point itself, no doubt, was what was antique, and the use she made of it what was modern. He felt just now that her good-natured irony did bear on something, and it troubled him a little that she wouldn't be more explicit only assuring him, with the pleasure of observation so visible in her, that she wouldn't tell him more for the world. He could take refuge but in asking her what she had done with Waymarsh, though it must be added that he felt himself a little on the way to a clue after she had answered that this personage was, in the other room, engaged in conversation with Madame de Vionnet. He stared a moment at the image of such a conjunction; then, for Miss Barrace's benefit, he wondered. "Is she too then under the charm--?"
"No, not a bit"--Miss Barrace was prompt. "She makes nothing of him. She's bored. She won't help you with him."
"Oh," Strether laughed, "she can't do everything.
"Of course not--wonderful as she is. Besides, he makes nothing of HER. She won't take him from me--though she wouldn't, no doubt, having other affairs in hand, even if she could. I've never," said Miss Barrace, "seen her fail with any one before. And to-night, when she's so magnificent, it would seem to her strange--if she minded. So at any rate I have him all. Je suis tranquille!''
Strether understood, so far as that went; but he was feeling for his clue. "She strikes you to-night as particularly magnificent?"
"Surely. Almost as I've never seen her. Doesn't she you? Why it's FOR you."
He persisted in his candour. "'For' me--?"
"Oh, oh, oh!" cried Miss Barrace, who persisted in the opposite of that quality.
"Well," he acutely admitted, "she IS different. She's gay. "
"She's gay!" Miss Barrace laughed. "And she has beautiful shoulders--though there's nothing different in that."
"No," said Strether, "one was sure of her shoulders. It isn't her shoulders."
His companion, with renewed mirth and the finest sense, between the puffs of her cigarette, of the drollery of things, appeared to find their conversation highly delightful. "Yes, it isn't her shoulders ."
"What then is it?" Strether earnestly enquired.
"Why, it's SHE--simply. It's her mood. It's her charm."
"Of course it's her charm, but we're speaking of the difference." "Well," Miss Barrace explained, "she's just brilliant, as we used to say. That's all. She's various. She's fifty women."
"Ah but only one"--Strether kept it clear--"at a time."
"Perhaps. But in fifty times--!"
"Oh we shan't come to that," our friend declared; and the next moment he had moved in another direction. "Will you answer me a plain question? Will she ever divorce?"
Miss Barrace looked at him through all her tortoise-shell. "Why should she?"
It wasn't what he had asked for, he signified; but he met it well enough. "To marry Chad."
"Why should she marry Chad?"
"Because I'm convinced she's very fond of him. She has done wonders for him."
"Well then, how could she do more? Marrying a man, or woman either," Miss Barrace sagely went on, "is never the wonder for any Jack and Jill can bring THAT off. The wonder is their doing such things without marrying."
Strether considered a moment this proposition. "You mean it's so beautiful for our friends simply to go on so?"
But whatever he said made her laugh. "Beautiful."
He nevertheless insisted. "And THAT because it's disinterested?"
She was now, however, suddenly tired of the question. "Yes then-- call it that. Besides, she'll never divorce. Don't, moreover," she added, "believe everything you hear about her husband."
He's not then," Strether asked, "a wretch?"
"Oh yes. But charming."
"Do you know him?"
"I've met him. He's bien aimable."
"To every one but his wife?"
"Oh for all I know, to her too--to any, to every woman. I hope you at any rate," she pursued with a quick change, "appreciate the care I take of Mr. Waymarsh."
"Oh immensely." But Strether was not yet in line. "At all events," he roundly brought out, "the attachment's an innocent one."
"Mine and his? Ah," she laughed, "don't rob it of ALL interest!"
"I mean our friend's here--to the lady we've been speaking of." That was what he had settled to as an indirect but none the less closely involved consequence of his impression of Jeanne. That was where he meant to stay. "It's innocent," he repeated--"I see the whole thing."
Mystified by his abrupt declaration, she had glanced over at Gloriani as at the unnamed subject of his allusion, but the next moment she had understood; though indeed not before Strether had noticed her momentary mistake and wondered what might possibly be behind that too. He already knew that the sculptor admired Madame de Vionnet; but did this admiration also represent an attachment of which the innocence was discussable? He was moving verily in a strange air and on ground not of the firmest. He looked hard for an instant at Miss Barrace, but she had already gone on. "All right with Mr. Newsome? Why of course she is!"--and she got gaily back to the question of her own good friend. "I dare say you're surprised that I'm not worn out with all I see--it being so much!-- of Sitting Bull. But I'm not, you know--I don't mind him; I bear up, and we get on beautifully. I'm very strange; I'm like that; and often I can't explain. There are people who are supposed interesting or remarkable or whatever, and who bore me to death; and then there are others as to whom nobody can understand what anybody sees in them--in whom I see no end of things." Then after she had smoked a moment, "He's touching, you know," she said.
"'Know'?" Strether echoed--"don't I, indeed? We must move you almost to tears."
"Oh but I don't mean YOU!" she laughed.
"You ought to then, for the worst sign of all--as I must have it for you--is that you can't help me. That's when a woman pities."
"Ah but I do help you!" she cheerfully insisted.
Again he looked at her hard, and then after a pause: "No you don't!"
Her tortoise-shell, on its long chain, rattled down. "I help you with Sitting Bull. That's a good deal."
"Oh that, yes." But Strether hesitated. "Do you mean he talks of me?"
"So that I have to defend you? No, never.'
"I see," Strether mused. "It's too deep."
"That's his only fault," she returned--"that everything, with him, is too deep. He has depths of silence--which he breaks only at the longest intervals by a remark. And when the remark comes it's always something he has seen or felt for himself--never a bit banal THAT would be what one might have feared and what would kill me But never." She smoked again as she thus, with amused complacency, appreciated her acquisition. "And never about you. We keep clear of you. We're wonderful. But I'll tell you what he does do," she continued: "he tries to make me presents."
"Presents?" poor Strether echoed, conscious with a pang that HE hadn't yet tried that in any quarter.
"Why you see," she explained, "he's as fine as ever in the victoria; so that when I leave him, as I often do almost for hours --he likes it so--at the doors of shops, the sight of him there helps me, when I come out, to know my carriage away off in the rank. But sometimes, for a change, he goes with me into the shops, and then I've all I can do to prevent his buying me things."
"He wants to 'treat' you?" Strether almost gasped at all he himself hadn't thought of. He had a sense of admiration. "Oh he's much more in the real tradition than I. Yes," he mused, "it's the sacred rage."
"The sacred rage, exactly!"--and Miss Barrace, who hadn't before heard this term applied, recognised its bearing with a clap of her gemmed hands. "Now I do know why he's not banal. But I do prevent him all the same--and if you saw what he sometimes selects--from buying. I save him hundreds and hundreds. I only take flowers."
"Flowers?" Strether echoed again with a rueful reflexion. How many nosegays had her present converser sent?
"Innocent flowers," she pursued, "as much as he likes. And he sends me splendours; he knows all the best places--he has found them for himself; he's wonderful."
"He hasn't told them to me," her friend smiled, "he has a life of his own." But Strether had swung back to the consciousness that for himself after all it never would have done. Waymarsh hadn't Mrs. Waymarsh in the least to consider, whereas Lambert Strether had constantly, in the inmost honour of his thoughts, to consider Mrs. Newsome. He liked moreover to feel how much his friend was in the real tradition. Yet he had his conclusion. "WHAT a rage it is!" He had worked it out. "It's an opposition."
She followed, but at a distance. "That's what I feel. Yet to what?"
"Well, he thinks, you know, that I'VE a life of my own. And I haven't!"
"You haven't?" She showed doubt, and her laugh confirmed it. "Oh, oh, oh!"
"No--not for myself. I seem to have a life only for other people."
"Ah for them and WITH them! Just now for instance with--"
"Well, with whom?" he asked before she had had time to say.
His tone had the effect of making her hesitate and even, as he guessed, speak with a difference. "Say with Miss Gostrey. What do you do for HER?" It really made him wonder. "Nothing at all!"
Madame de Vionnet, having meanwhile come in, was at present close to them, and Miss Barrace hereupon, instead of risking a rejoinder, became again with a look that measured her from top to toe all mere long-handled appreciative tortoise-shell. She had struck our friend, from the first of her appearing, as dressed for a great occasion, and she met still more than on either of the others the conception reawakened in him at their garden-party, the idea of the femme du monde in her habit as she lived. Her bare shoulders and arms were white and beautiful; the materials of her dress, a mixture, as he supposed, of silk and crape, were of a silvery grey so artfully composed as to give an impression of warm splendour; and round her neck she wore a collar of large old emeralds, the green note of which was more dimly repeated, at other points of her apparel, in embroidery, in enamel, in satin, in substances and textures vaguely rich. Her head, extremely fair and exquisitely festal, was like a happy fancy, a notion of the antique, on an old precious medal, some silver coin of the Renaissance; while her slim lightness and brightness, her gaiety, her expression, her decision, contributed to an effect that might have been felt by a poet as half mythological and half conventional. He could have compared her to a goddess still partly engaged in a morning cloud, or to a sea-nymph waist-high in the summer surge. Above all she suggested to him the reflexion that the femme du monde-- in these finest developments of the type--was, like Cleopatra in the play, indeed various and multifold. She had aspects, characters, days, nights--or had them at least, showed them by a mysterious law of her own, when in addition to everything she happened also to be a woman of genius. She was an obscure person, a muffled person one day, and a showy person, an uncovered person the next. He thought of Madame de Vionnet to-night as showy and uncovered, though he felt the formula rough, because, thanks to one of the short-cuts of genius she had taken all his categories by surprise. Twice during dinner he had met Chad's eyes in a longish look; but these communications had in truth only stirred up again old ambiguities--so little was it clear from them whether they were an appeal or an admonition. "You see how I'm fixed," was what they appeared to convey; yet how he was fixed was exactly what Strether didn't see. However, perhaps he should see now.
"Are you capable of the very great kindness of going to relieve Newsome, for a few minutes, of the rather crushing responsibility of Madame Gloriani, while I say a word, if he'll allow me, to Mr. Strether, of whom I've a question to ask? Our host ought to talk a bit to those other ladies, and I'll come back in a minute to your rescue." She made this proposal to Miss Barrace as if her consciousness of a special duty had just flickered-up, but that lady's recognition of Strether's little start at it--as at a betrayal on the speaker's part of a domesticated state--was as mute as his own comment; and after an instant, when their fellow guest had good-naturedly left them, he had been given something else to think of. "Why has Maria so suddenly gone? Do you know?" That was the question Madame de Vionnet had brought with her.
"I'm afraid I've no reason to give you but the simple reason I've had from her in a note--the sudden obligation to join in the south a sick friend who has got worse."
"Ah then she has been writing you?"
"Not since she went--I had only a brief explanatory word before she started. I went to see her," Strether explained--"it was the day after I called on you--but she was already on her way, and her concierge told me that in case of my coming I was to be informed she had written to me. I found her note when I got home."
Madame de Vionnet listened with interest and with her eyes on Strether's face; then her delicately decorated head had a small melancholy motion. "She didn't write to ME. I went to see her," she added, "almost immediately after I had seen you, and as I assured her I would do when I met her at Gloriani's. She hadn't then told me she was to be absent, and I felt at her door as if I understood. She's absent--with all respect to her sick friend, though I know indeed she has plenty--so that I may not see her. She doesn't want to meet me again. Well," she continued with a beautiful conscious mildness, "I liked and admired her beyond every one in the old time, and she knew it--perhaps that's precisely what has made her go-- and I dare say I haven't lost her for ever." Strether still said nothing; he had a horror, as he now thought of himself, of being in question between women--was in fact already quite enough on his way to that, and there was moreover, as it came to him, perceptibly, something behind these allusions and professions that, should he take it in, would square but ill with his present resolve to simplify. It was as if, for him, all the same, her softness and sadness were sincere. He felt that not less when she soon went on: "I'm extremely glad of her happiness." But it also left him mute-- sharp and fine though the imputation it conveyed. What it conveyed was that HE was Maria Gostrey's happiness, and for the least little instant he had the impulse to challenge the thought. He could have done so however only by saying "What then do you suppose to be between us?" and he was wonderfully glad a moment later not to have spoken. He would rather seem stupid any day than fatuous, and he drew back as well, with a smothered inward shudder, from the consideration of what women--of highly-developed type in particular-- might think of each other. Whatever he had come out for he hadn't come to go into that; so that he absolutely took up nothing his interlocutress had now let drop. Yet, though he had kept away from her for days, had laid wholly on herself the burden of their meeting again, she hadn't a gleam of irritation to show him. "Well, about Jeanne now?" she smiled--it had the gaiety with which she had originally come in. He felt it on the instant to represent her motive and real errand. But he had been schooling her of a truth to say much in proportion to his little. "Do you make out that she has a sentiment? I mean for Mr. Newsome."
Almost resentful, Strether could at last be prompt. "How can I make out such things?"
She remained perfectly good-natured. "Ah but they're beautiful little things, and you make out--don't pretend--everything in the world. Haven't you," she asked, "been talking with her?"
"Yes, but not about Chad. At least not much."
"Oh you don't require 'much'!" she reassuringly declared. But she immediately changed her ground. "I hope you remember your promise of the other day."
"To 'save' you, as you called it?"
"I call it so still. You WILL?" she insisted. "You haven't repented?"
He wondered. "No--but I've been thinking what I meant."
She kept it up. "And not, a little, what I did?"
"No--that's not necessary. It will be enough if I know what I meant myself."
"And don't you know," she asked, "by this time?"
Again he had a pause. "I think you ought to leave it to me. But how long," he added, "do you give me?"
"It seems to me much more a question of how long you give ME. Doesn't our friend here himself, at any rate," she went on, "perpetually make me present to you?"
"Not," Strether replied, "by ever speaking of you to me."
"He never does that?"
She considered, and, if the fact was disconcerting to her, effectually concealed it. The next minute indeed she had recovered. "No, he wouldn't. But do you NEED that?"
Her emphasis was wonderful, and though his eyes had been wandering he looked at her longer now. "I see what you mean."
"Of course you see what I mean."
Her triumph was gentle, and she really had tones to make justice weep. "I've before me what he owes you."
"Admit then that that's something," she said, yet still with the same discretion in her pride.
He took in this note but went straight on. "You've made of him what I see, but what I don't see is how in the world you've done it."
"Ah that's another question!" she smiled. "The point is of what use is your declining to know me when to know Mr. Newsome--as you do me the honour to find him--IS just to know me."
"I see," he mused, still with his eyes on her. "I shouldn't have met you to-night."
She raised and dropped her linked hands. "It doesn't matter. If I trust you why can't you a little trust me too? And why can't you also," she asked in another tone, "trust yourself?" But she gave him no time to reply. "Oh I shall be so easy for you! And I'm glad at any rate you've seen my child."
"I'm glad too," he said; "but she does you no good."
"No good?"--Madame de Vionnet had a clear stare. "Why she's an angel of light."
"That's precisely the reason. Leave her alone. Don't try to find out. I mean," he explained, "about what you spoke to me of-- the way she feels."
His companion wondered. "Because one really won't?"
"Well, because I ask you, as a favour to myself, not to. She's the most charming creature I've ever seen. Therefore don't touch her. Don't know--don't want to know. And moreover--yes--you won't."
It was an appeal, of a sudden, and she took it in. "As a favour to you?"
"Well--since you ask me."
"Anything, everything you ask," she smiled. "I shan't know then--never. Thank you," she added with peculiar gentleness as she turned away.
The sound of it lingered with him, making him fairly feel as if he had been tripped up and had a fall. In the very act of arranging with her for his independence he had, under pressure from a particular perception, inconsistently, quite stupidly, committed himself, and, with her subtlety sensitive on the spot to an advantage, she had driven in by a single word a little golden nail, the sharp intention of which he signally felt. He hadn't detached, he had more closely connected himself, and his eyes, as he considered with some intensity this circumstance, met another pair which had just come within their range and which struck him as reflecting his sense of what he had done. He recognised them at the same moment as those of little Bilham, who had apparently drawn near on purpose to speak to him, and little Bilham wasn't, in the conditions, the person to whom his heart would be most closed. They were seated together a minute later at the angle of the room obliquely opposite the corner in which Gloriani was still engaged with Jeanne de Vionnet, to whom at first and in silence their attention had been benevolently given. "I can't see for my life," Strether had then observed, "how a young fellow of any spirit--such a one as you for instance--can be admitted to the sight of that young lady without being hard hit. Why don't you go in, little Bilham?" He remembered the tone into which he had been betrayed on the garden-bench at the sculptor's reception, and this might make up for that by being much more the right sort of thing to say to a young man worthy of any advice at all. "There WOULD be some reason."
"Some reason for what?"
"Why for hanging on here."
"To offer my hand and fortune to Mademoiselle de Vionnet?"
"Well," Strether asked, "to what lovelier apparition COULD you offer them? She's the sweetest little thing I've ever seen."
"She's certainly immense. I mean she's the real thing. I believe the pale pink petals are folded up there for some wondrous efflorescence in time; to open, that is, to some great golden sun. I'M unfortunately but a small farthing candle. What chance in such a field for a poor little painter-man?"
"Oh you're good enough," Strether threw out.
"Certainly I'm good enough. We're good enough, I consider, nous autres, for anything. But she's TOO good. There's the difference. They wouldn't look at me."
Strether, lounging on his divan and still charmed by the young girl, whose eyes had consciously strayed to him, he fancied, with a vague smile--Strether, enjoying the whole occasion as with dormant pulses at last awake and in spite of new material thrust upon him, thought over his companion's words. "Whom do you mean by 'they'? She and her mother?"
"She and her mother. And she has a father too, who, whatever else he may be, certainly can't be indifferent to the possibilities she represents. Besides, there's Chad."
Strether was silent a little. "Ah but he doesn't care for her--not, I mean, it appears, after all, in the sense I'm speaking of. He's NOT in love with her."
"No--but he's her best friend; after her mother. He's very fond of her. He has his ideas about what can be done for her."
"Well, it's very strange!" Strether presently remarked with a sighing sense of fulness.
"Very strange indeed. That's just the beauty of it. Isn't it very much the kind of beauty you had in mind," little Bilham went on, "when you were so wonderful and so inspiring to me the other day? Didn't you adjure me, in accents I shall never forget, to see, while I've a chance, everything I can?--and REALLY to see, for it must have been that only you meant. Well, you did me no end of good, and I'm doing my best. I DO make it out a situation."
"So do I!" Strether went on after a moment. But he had the next minute an inconsequent question. "How comes Chad so mixed up, anyway?"
"Ah, ah, ah!"--and little Bilham fell back on his cushions.
It reminded our friend of Miss Barrace, and he felt again the brush of his sense of moving in a maze of mystic closed allusions. Yet he kept hold of his thread. "Of course I understand really; only the general transformation makes me occasionally gasp. Chad with such a voice in the settlement of the future of a little countess--no," he declared, "it takes more time! You say moreover," he resumed, "that we're inevitably, people like you and me, out of the running. The curious fact remains that Chad himself isn't. The situation doesn't make for it, but in a different one he could have her if he would."
"Yes, but that's only because he's rich and because there's a possibility of his being richer. They won't think of anything but a great name or a great fortune."
"Well," said Strether, "he'll have no great fortune on THESE lines. He must stir his stumps."
"Is that," little Bilham enquired, "what you were saying to Madame de Vionnet?"
"No--I don't say much to her. Of course, however," Strether continued, "he can make sacrifices if he likes."
Little Bilham had a pause. "Oh he's not keen for sacrifices; or thinks, that is, possibly, that he has made enough."
"Well, it IS virtuous," his companion observed with some decision.
"That's exactly," the young man dropped after a moment, "what I mean."
It kept Strether himself silent a little. "I've made it out for myself," he then went on; "I've really, within the last half-hour, got hold of it. I understand it in short at last; which at first-- when you originally spoke to me--I didn't. Nor when Chad originally spoke to me either."
"Oh," said little Bilham, "I don't think that at that time you believed me."
"Yes--I did; and I believed Chad too. It would have been odious and unmannerly--as well as quite perverse--if I hadn't. What interest have you in deceiving me?"
The young man cast about. "What interest have I?"
"Yes. Chad MIGHT have. But you?"
"Ah, ah, ah!" little Bilham exclaimed.
It might, on repetition, as a mystification, have irritated our friend a little, but he knew, once more, as we have seen, where he was, and his being proof against everything was only another attestation that he meant to stay there. "I couldn't, without my own impression, realise. She's a tremendously clever brilliant capable woman, and with an extraordinary charm on top of it all-- the charm we surely all of us this evening know what to think of. It isn't every clever brilliant capable woman that has it. In fact it's rare with any woman. So there you are," Strether proceeded as if not for little Bilham's benefit alone. "I understand what a relation with such a woman--what such a high fine friendship-- may be. It can't be vulgar or coarse, anyway--and that's the point."
"Yes, that's the point," said little Bilham. "It can't be vulgar or coarse. And, bless us and save us, it ISn't! It's, upon my word, the very finest thing I ever saw in my life, and the most distinguished."
Strether, from beside him and leaning back with him as he leaned, dropped on him a momentary look which filled a short interval and of which he took no notice. He only gazed before him with intent participation. "Of course what it has done for him," Strether at all events presently pursued, "of course what it has done for him-- that is as to HOW it has so wonderfully worked--isn't a thing I pretend to understand. I've to take it as I find it. There he is."
"There he is!" little Bilham echoed. "And it's really and truly she. I don't understand either, even with my longer and closer opportunity. But I'm like you," he added; "I can admire and rejoice even when I'm a little in the dark. You see I've watched it for some three years, and especially for this last. He wasn't so bad before it as I seem to have made out that you think--"
"Oh I don't think anything now!" Strether impatiently broke in: "that is but what I DO think! I mean that originally, for her to have cared for him--"
"There must have been stuff in him? Oh yes, there was stuff indeed, and much more of it than ever showed, I dare say, at home. Still, you know," the young man in all fairness developed, "there was room for her, and that's where she came in. She saw her chance and took it. That's what strikes me as having been so fine. But of course," he wound up, "he liked her first."
"Naturally," said Strether.
"I mean that they first met somehow and somewhere--I believe in some American house--and she, without in the least then intending it, made her impression. Then with time and opportunity he made his; and after THAT she was as bad as he."
Strether vaguely took it up. "As 'bad'?"
"She began, that is, to care--to care very much. Alone, and in her horrid position, she found it, when once she had started, an interest. It was, it is, an interest, and it did--it continues to do--a lot for herself as well. So she still cares. She cares in fact," said little Bilham thoughtfully "more."
Strether's theory that it was none of his business was somehow not damaged by the way he took this. "More, you mean, than he?" On which his companion looked round at him, and now for an instant their eyes met. "More than he?" he repeated.
Little Bilham, for as long, hung fire. "Will you never tell any one?"
Strether thought. "Whom should I tell?"
"Why I supposed you reported regularly--"
"To people at home?"--Strether took him up. "Well, I won't tell them this."
The young man at last looked away. "Then she does now care more than he."
"Oh!" Strether oddly exclaimed.
But his companion immediately met it. "Haven't you after all had your impression of it? That's how you've got hold of him."
"Ah but I haven't got hold of him!"
"Oh I say!" But it was all little Bilham said.
"It's at any rate none of my business. I mean," Strether explained, "nothing else than getting hold of him is." It appeared, however, to strike him as his business to add: "The fact remains nevertheless that she has saved him."
Little Bilham just waited. "I thought that was what you were to do."
But Strether had his answer ready. "I'm speaking--in connexion with her--of his manners and morals, his character and life. I'm speaking of him as a person to deal with and talk with and live with--speaking of him as a social animal."
"And isn't it as a social animal that you also want him?"
"Certainly; so that it's as if she had saved him FOR us."
"It strikes you accordingly then," the young man threw out, "as for you all to save HER?"
"Oh for us 'all'--!" Strether could but laugh at that. It brought him back, however, to the point he had really wished to make. "They've accepted their situation--hard as it is. They're not free --at least she's not; but they take what's left to them. It's a friendship, of a beautiful sort; and that's what makes them so strong. They're straight, they feel; and they keep each other up. It's doubtless she, however, who, as you yourself have hinted, feels it most."
Little Bilham appeared to wonder what he had hinted. "Feels most that they're straight?"
"Well, feels that SHE is, and the strength that comes from it. She keeps HIM up--she keeps the whole thing up. When people are able to it's fine. She's wonderful, wonderful, as Miss Barrace says; and he is, in his way, too; however, as a mere man, he may sometimes rebel and not feel that he finds his account in it. She has simply given him an immense moral lift, and what that can explain is prodigious. That's why I speak of it as a situation. It IS one, if there ever was." And Strether, with his head back and his eyes on the ceiling, seemed to lose himself in the vision of it.
His companion attended deeply. "You state it much better than I could." "Oh you see it doesn't concern you."
Little Bilham considered. "I thought you said just now that it doesn't concern you either."
"Well, it doesn't a bit as Madame de Vionnet's affair. But as we were again saying just now, what did I come out for but to save him?"
"Yes--to remove him."
"To save him by removal; to win him over to HIMSELF thinking it best he shall take up business--thinking he must immediately do therefore what's necessary to that end."
"Well," said little Bilham after a moment, "you HAVE won him over. He does think it best. He has within a day or two again said to me as much."
"And that," Strether asked, "is why you consider that he cares less than she?"
"Cares less for her than she for him? Yes, that's one of the reasons. But other things too have given me the impression. A man, don't you think?" little Bilham presently pursued, "CAN'T, in such conditions, care so much as a woman. It takes different conditions to make him, and then perhaps he cares more. Chad," he wound up, "has his possible future before him."
"Are you speaking of his business future?"
"No--on the contrary; of the other, the future of what you so justly call their situation. M. de Vionnet may live for ever."
"So that they can't marry?"
The young man waited a moment. "Not being able to marry is all they've with any confidence to look forward to. A woman--a particular woman--may stand that strain. But can a man?" he propounded.
Strether's answer was as prompt as if he had already, for himself, worked it out. "Not without a very high ideal of conduct. But that's just what we're attributing to Chad. And how, for that matter," he mused, "does his going to America diminish the particular strain? Wouldn't it seem rather to add to it?"
"Out of sight out of mind!" his companion laughed. Then more bravely: "Wouldn't distance lessen the torment?" But before Strether could reply, "The thing is, you see, Chad ought to marry!" he wound up.
Strether, for a little, appeared to think of it. "If you talk of torments you don't diminish mine!" he then broke out. The next moment he was on his feet with a question. "He ought to marry whom?"
Little Bilham rose more slowly. "Well, some one he CAN--some thoroughly nice girl "
Strether's eyes, as they stood together, turned again to Jeanne. "Do you mean HER?"
His friend made a sudden strange face. "After being in love with her mother? No."
"But isn't it exactly your idea that he ISn't in love with her mother?"
His friend once more had a pause. "Well, he isn't at any rate in love with Jeanne."
"I dare say not."
"How CAN he be with any other woman?"
"Oh that I admit. But being in love isn't, you know, here"--little Bilham spoke in friendly reminder--"thought necessary, in strictness, for marriage."
"And what torment--to call a torment--can there ever possibly be with a woman like that?" As if from the interest of his own question Strether had gone on without hearing. "Is it for her to have turned a man out so wonderfully, too, only for somebody else?" He appeared to make a point of this, and little Bilham looked at him now. "When it's for each other that people give things up they don't miss them." Then he threw off as with an extravagance of which he was conscious: "Let them face the future together!"
Little Bilham looked at him indeed. "You mean that after all he shouldn't go back?"
"I mean that if he gives her up--!"
"Well, he ought to be ashamed of himself." But Strether spoke with a sound that might have passed for a laugh.