Strether told Waymarsh all about it that very evening, on their dining together at the hotel; which needn’t have happened, he was all the while aware, hadn’t he chosen to sacrifice to this occasion a rarer opportunity. The mention to his companion of the sacrifice was moreover exactly what introduced his recital—or, as he would have called it with more confidence in his interlocutor, his confession. His confession was that he had been captured and that one of the features of the affair had just failed to be his engaging himself on the spot to dinner. As by such a freedom Waymarsh would have lost him he had obeyed his scruple; and he had likewise obeyed another scruple—which bore on the question of his himself bringing a guest.
Waymarsh looked gravely ardent, over the finished soup, at this array of scruples; Strether hadn’t yet got quite used to being so unprepared for the consequences of the impression he produced. It was comparatively easy to explain, however, that he hadn’t felt sure his guest would please. The person was a young man whose acquaintance he had made but that afternoon in the course of rather a hindered enquiry for another person—an enquiry his new friend had just prevented in fact from being vain. “Oh,” said Strether, “I’ve all sorts of things to tell you!”—and he put it in a way that was a virtual hint to Waymarsh to help him to enjoy the telling. He waited for his fish, he drank of his wine, he wiped his long moustache, he leaned back in his chair, he took in the two English ladies who had just creaked past them and whom he would even have articulately greeted if they hadn’t rather chilled the impulse; so that all he could do was—by way of doing something—to say “Merci, Francois!” out quite loud when his fish was brought. Everything was there that he wanted, everything that could make the moment an occasion, that would do beautifully—everything but what Waymarsh might give. The little waxed salle-a-manger was sallow and sociable; Francois, dancing over it, all smiles, was a man and a brother; the high-shouldered patronne, with her high-held, much-rubbed hands, seemed always assenting exuberantly to something unsaid; the Paris evening in short was, for Strether, in the very taste of the soup, in the goodness, as he was innocently pleased to think it, of the wine, in the pleasant coarse texture of the napkin and the crunch of the thick-crusted bread. These all were things congruous with his confession, and his confession was that he HAD—it would come out properly just there if Waymarsh would only take it properly—agreed to breakfast out, at twelve literally, the next day. He didn’t quite know where; the delicacy of the case came straight up in the remembrance of his new friend’s “We’ll see; I’ll take you somewhere!”—for it had required little more than that, after all, to let him right in. He was affected after a minute, face to face with his actual comrade, by the impulse to overcolour. There had already been things in respect to which he knew himself tempted by this perversity. If Waymarsh thought them bad he should at least have his reason for his discomfort; so Strether showed them as worse. Still, he was now, in his way, sincerely perplexed.
Chad had been absent from the Boulevard Malesherbes—was absent from Paris altogether; he had learned that from the concierge, but had nevertheless gone up, and gone up—there were no two ways about it—from an uncontrollable, a really, if one would, depraved curiosity. The concierge had mentioned to him that a friend of the tenant of the troisieme was for the time in possession; and this had been Strether’s pretext for a further enquiry, an experiment carried on, under Chad’s roof, without his knowledge. “I found his friend in fact there keeping the place warm, as he called it, for him; Chad himself being, as appears, in the south. He went a month ago to Cannes and though his return begins to be looked for it can’t be for some days. I might, you see, perfectly have waited a week; might have beaten a retreat as soon as I got this essential knowledge. But I beat no retreat; I did the opposite; I stayed, I dawdled, I trifled; above all I looked round. I saw, in fine; and—I don’t know what to call it—I sniffed. It’s a detail, but it’s as if there were something—something very good—TO sniff.”
Waymarsh’s face had shown his friend an attention apparently so remote that the latter was slightly surprised to find it at this point abreast with him. “Do you mean a smell? What of?”
“A charming scent. But I don’t know.”
Waymarsh gave an inferential grunt. “Does he live there with a woman?”
“I don’t know.”
Waymarsh waited an instant for more, then resumed. “Has he taken her off with him?”
“And will he bring her back?”—Strether fell into the enquiry. But he wound it up as before. “I don’t know.”
The way he wound it up, accompanied as this was with another drop back, another degustation of the Leoville, another wipe of his moustache and another good word for Francois, seemed to produce in his companion a slight irritation. “Then what the devil DO you know?”
“Well,” said Strether almost gaily, “I guess I don’t know anything!” His gaiety might have been a tribute to the fact that the state he had been reduced to did for him again what had been done by his talk of the matter with Miss Gostrey at the London theatre. It was somehow enlarging; and the air of that amplitude was now doubtless more or less—and all for Waymarsh to feel—in his further response. “That’s what I found out from the young man.”
“But I thought you said you found out nothing.”
“Nothing but that—that I don’t know anything.”
“And what good does that do you?”
“It’s just,” said Strether, “what I’ve come to you to help me to discover. I mean anything about anything over here. I FELT that, up there. It regularly rose before me in its might. The young man moreover—Chad’s friend—as good as told me so.”
“As good as told you you know nothing about anything?” Waymarsh appeared to look at some one who might have as good as told HIM. “How old is he?”
“Well, I guess not thirty.”
“Yet you had to take that from him?”
“Oh I took a good deal more—since, as I tell you, I took an invitation to dejeuner.”
“And are you GOING to that unholy meal?”
“If you’ll come with me. He wants you too, you know. I told him about you. He gave me his card,” Strether pursued, “and his name’s rather funny. It’s John Little Bilham, and he says his two surnames are, on account of his being small, inevitably used together.”
“Well,” Waymarsh asked with due detachment from these details, “what’s he doing up there?”
“His account of himself is that he’s ‘only a little artist-man.’ That seemed to me perfectly to describe him. But he’s yet in the phase of study; this, you know, is the great art-school—to pass a certain number of years in which he came over. And he’s a great friend of Chad’s, and occupying Chad’s rooms just now because they’re so pleasant. HE’S very pleasant and curious too,” Strether added—”though he’s not from Boston.”
Waymarsh looked already rather sick of him. “Where is he from?”
Strether thought. “I don’t know that, either. But he’s ‘notoriously,’ as he put it himself, not from Boston.”
“Well,” Waymarsh moralised from dry depths, “every one can’t notoriously be from Boston. Why,” he continued, “is he curious?”
“Perhaps just for THAT—for one thing! But really,” Strether added, “for everything. When you meet him you’ll see.”
“Oh I don’t want to meet him,” Waymarsh impatiently growled. “Why don’t he go home?”
Strether hesitated. “Well, because he likes it over here.”
This appeared in particular more than Waymarsh could bear. “He ought then to be ashamed of himself, and, as you admit that you think so too, why drag him in?”
Strether’s reply again took time. “Perhaps I do think so myself—though I don’t quite yet admit it. I’m not a bit sure—it’s again one of the things I want to find out. I liked him, and CAN you like people—? But no matter.” He pulled himself up. “There’s no doubt I want you to come down on me and squash me.”
Waymarsh helped himself to the next course, which, however proving not the dish he had just noted as supplied to the English ladies, had the effect of causing his imagination temporarily to wander. But it presently broke out at a softer spot. “Have they got a handsome place up there?”
“Oh a charming place; full of beautiful and valuable things. I never saw such a place”—and Strether’s thought went back to it. “For a little artist-man—!” He could in fact scarce express it.
But his companion, who appeared now to have a view, insisted. “Well?”
“Well, life can hold nothing better. Besides, they’re things of which he’s in charge.”
“So that he does doorkeeper for your precious pair? Can life,” Waymarsh enquired, “hold nothing better than THAT?” Then as Strether, silent, seemed even yet to wonder, “Doesn’t he know what SHE is?” he went on.
“I don’t know. I didn’t ask him. I couldn’t. It was impossible. You wouldn’t either. Besides I didn’t want to. No more would you.” Strether in short explained it at a stroke. “You can’t make out over here what people do know.”
“Then what did you come over for?”
“Well, I suppose exactly to see for myself—without their aid.”
“Then what do you want mine for?”
“Oh,” Strether laughed, “you’re not one of THEM! I do know what you know.”
As, however, this last assertion caused Waymarsh again to look at him hard—such being the latter’s doubt of its implications—he felt his justification lame. Which was still more the case when Waymarsh presently said: “Look here, Strether. Quit this.”
Our friend smiled with a doubt of his own. “Do you mean my tone?”
“No—damn your tone. I mean your nosing round. Quit the whole job. Let them stew in their juice. You’re being used for a thing you ain’t fit for. People don’t take a fine-tooth comb to groom a horse.”
“Am I a fine-tooth comb?” Strether laughed. “It’s something I never called myself!”
“It’s what you are, all the same. You ain’t so young as you were, but you’ve kept your teeth.”
He acknowledged his friend’s humour. “Take care I don’t get them into YOU! You’d like them, my friends at home, Waymarsh,” he declared; “you’d really particularly like them. And I know”—it was slightly irrelevant, but he gave it sudden and singular force—”I know they’d like you!”
“Oh don’t work them off on ME!” Waymarsh groaned.
Yet Strether still lingered with his hands in his pockets. “It’s really quite as indispensable as I say that Chad should be got back.”
“Indispensable to whom? To you?”
“Yes,” Strether presently said.
“Because if you get him you also get Mrs. Newsome?”
Strether faced it. “Yes.”
“And if you don’t get him you don’t get her?”
It might be merciless, but he continued not to flinch. “I think it might have some effect on our personal understanding. Chad’s of real importance—or can easily become so if he will—to the business.”
“And the business is of real importance to his mother’s husband?”
“Well, I naturally want what my future wife wants. And the thing will be much better if we have our own man in it.”
“If you have your own man in it, in other words,” Waymarsh said, “you’ll marry—you personally—more money. She’s already rich, as I understand you, but she’ll be richer still if the business can be made to boom on certain lines that you’ve laid down.”
“I haven’t laid them down,” Strether promptly returned. “Mr. Newsome—who knew extraordinarily well what he was about—laid them down ten years ago.”
Oh well, Waymarsh seemed to indicate with a shake of his mane, THAT didn’t matter! “You’re fierce for the boom anyway.”
His friend weighed a moment in silence the justice of the charge. “I can scarcely be called fierce, I think, when I so freely take my chance of the possibility, the danger, of being influenced in a sense counter to Mrs. Newsome’s own feelings.”
Waymarsh gave this proposition a long hard look. “I see. You’re afraid yourself of being squared. But you’re a humbug,” he added, “all the same.”
“Oh!” Strether quickly protested.
“Yes, you ask me for protection—which makes you very interesting; and then you won’t take it. You say you want to be squashed—”
“Ah but not so easily! Don’t you see,” Strether demanded “where my interest, as already shown you, lies? It lies in my not being squared. If I’m squared where’s my marriage? If I miss my errand I miss that; and if I miss that I miss everything—I’m nowhere.”
Waymarsh—but all relentlessly—took this in. “What do I care where you are if you’re spoiled?”
Their eyes met on it an instant. “Thank you awfully,” Strether at last said. “But don’t you think HER judgement of that—?”
“Ought to content me? No.”
It kept them again face to face, and the end of this was that Strether again laughed. “You do her injustice. You really MUST know her. Good-night.”
He breakfasted with Mr. Bilham on the morrow, and, as inconsequently befell, with Waymarsh massively of the party. The latter announced, at the eleventh hour and much to his friend’s surprise, that, damn it, he would as soon join him as do anything else; on which they proceeded together, strolling in a state of detachment practically luxurious for them to the Boulevard Malesherbes, a couple engaged that day with the sharp spell of Paris as confessedly, it might have been seen, as any couple among the daily thousands so compromised. They walked, wandered, wondered and, a little, lost themselves; Strether hadn’t had for years so rich a consciousness of time—a bag of gold into which he constantly dipped for a handful. It was present to him that when the little business with Mr. Bilham should be over he would still have shining hours to use absolutely as he liked. There was no great pulse of haste yet in this process of saving Chad; nor was that effect a bit more marked as he sat, half an hour later, with his legs under Chad’s mahogany, with Mr. Bilham on one side, with a friend of Mr. Bilham’s on the other, with Waymarsh stupendously opposite, and with the great hum of Paris coming up in softness, vagueness-for Strether himself indeed already positive sweetness—through the sunny windows toward which, the day before, his curiosity had raised its wings from below. The feeling strongest with him at that moment had borne fruit almost faster than he could taste it, and Strether literally felt at the present hour that there was a precipitation in his fate. He had known nothing and nobody as he stood in the street; but hadn’t his view now taken a bound in the direction of every one and of every thing?
“What’s he up to, what’s he up to?”—something like that was at the back of his head all the while in respect to little Bilham; but meanwhile, till he should make out, every one and every thing were as good as represented for him by the combination of his host and the lady on his left. The lady on his left, the lady thus promptly and ingeniously invited to “meet” Mr. Strether and Mr. Waymarsh—it was the way she herself expressed her case—was a very marked person, a person who had much to do with our friend’s asking himself if the occasion weren’t in its essence the most baited, the most gilded of traps. Baited it could properly be called when the repast was of so wise a savour, and gilded surrounding objects seemed inevitably to need to be when Miss Barrace—which was the lady’s name—looked at them with convex Parisian eyes and through a glass with a remarkably long tortoise-shell handle. Why Miss Barrace, mature meagre erect and eminently gay, highly adorned, perfectly familiar, freely contradictions and reminding him of some last-century portrait of a clever head without powder—why Miss Barrace should have been in particular the note of a “trap” Strether couldn’t on the spot have explained; he blinked in the light of a conviction that he should know later on, and know well—as it came over him, for that matter, with force, that he should need to. He wondered what he was to think exactly of either of his new friends; since the young man, Chad’s intimate and deputy, had, in thus constituting the scene, practised so much more subtly than he had been prepared for, and since in especial Miss Barrace, surrounded clearly by every consideration, hadn’t scrupled to figure as a familiar object. It was interesting to him to feel that he was in the presence of new measures, other standards, a different scale of relations, and that evidently here were a happy pair who didn’t think of things at all as he and Waymarsh thought. Nothing was less to have been calculated in the business than that it should now be for him as if he and Waymarsh were comparatively quite at one.
The latter was magnificent—this at least was an assurance privately given him by Miss Barrace. “Oh your friend’s a type, the grand old American—what shall one call it? The Hebrew prophet, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, who used when I was a little girl in the Rue Montaigne to come to see my father and who was usually the American Minister to the Tuileries or some other court. I haven’t seen one these ever so many years; the sight of it warms my poor old chilled heart; this specimen is wonderful; in the right quarter, you know, he’ll have a succes fou.” Strether hadn’t failed to ask what the right quarter might be, much as he required his presence of mind to meet such a change in their scheme. “Oh the artist-quarter and that kind of thing; HERE already, for instance, as you see.” He had been on the point of echoing “‘Here’?—is THIS the artist-quarter?” but she had already disposed of the question with a wave of all her tortoise-shell and an easy “Bring him to ME!” He knew on the spot how little he should be able to bring him, for the very air was by this time, to his sense, thick and hot with poor Waymarsh’s judgement of it. He was in the trap still more than his companion and, unlike his companion, not making the best of it; which was precisely what doubtless gave him his admirable sombre glow. Little did Miss Barrace know that what was behind it was his grave estimate of her own laxity. The general assumption with which our two friends had arrived had been that of finding Mr. Bilham ready to conduct them to one or other of those resorts of the earnest, the aesthetic fraternity which were shown among the sights of Paris. In this character it would have justified them in a proper insistence on discharging their score. Waymarsh’s only proviso at the last had been that nobody should pay for him; but he found himself, as the occasion developed, paid for on a scale as to which Strether privately made out that he already nursed retribution. Strether was conscious across the table of what worked in him, conscious when they passed back to the small salon to which, the previous evening, he himself had made so rich a reference; conscious most of all as they stepped out to the balcony in which one would have had to be an ogre not to recognise the perfect place for easy aftertastes. These things were enhanced for Miss Barrace by a succession of excellent cigarettes—acknowledged, acclaimed, as a part of the wonderful supply left behind him by Chad—in an almost equal absorption of which Strether found himself blindly, almost wildly pushing forward. He might perish by the sword as well as by famine, and he knew that his having abetted the lady by an excess that was rare with him would count for little in the sum—as Waymarsh might so easily add it up—of her licence. Waymarsh had smoked of old, smoked hugely; but Waymarsh did nothing now, and that gave him his advantage over people who took things up lightly just when others had laid them heavily down. Strether had never smoked, and he felt as if he flaunted at his friend that this had been only because of a reason. The reason, it now began to appear even to himself, was that he had never had a lady to smoke with.
It was this lady’s being there at all, however, that was the strange free thing; perhaps, since she WAS there, her smoking was the least of her freedoms. If Strether had been sure at each juncture of what—with Bilham in especial—she talked about, he might have traced others and winced at them and felt Waymarsh wince; but he was in fact so often at sea that his sense of the range of reference was merely general and that he on several different occasions guessed and interpreted only to doubt. He wondered what they meant, but there were things he scarce thought they could be supposed to mean, and “Oh no—not THAT!” was at the end of most of his ventures. This was the very beginning with him of a condition as to which, later on, it will be seen, he found cause to pull himself up; and he was to remember the moment duly as the first step in a process. The central fact of the place was neither more nor less, when analysed—and a pressure superficial sufficed—than the fundamental impropriety of Chad’s situation, round about which they thus seemed cynically clustered. Accordingly, since they took it for granted, they took for granted all that was in connexion with it taken for granted at Woollett—matters as to which, verily, he had been reduced with Mrs. Newsome to the last intensity of silence. That was the consequence of their being too bad to be talked about, and was the accompaniment, by the same token, of a deep conception of their badness. It befell therefore that when poor Strether put it to himself that their badness was ultimately, or perhaps even insolently, what such a scene as the one before him was, so to speak, built upon, he could scarce shirk the dilemma of reading a roundabout echo of them into almost anything that came up. This, he was well aware, was a dreadful necessity; but such was the stern logic, he could only gather, of a relation to the irregular life.
It was the way the irregular life sat upon Bilham and Miss Barrace that was the insidious, the delicate marvel. He was eager to concede that their relation to it was all indirect, for anything else in him would have shown the grossness of bad manners; but the indirectness was none the less consonant—THAT was striking-with a grateful enjoyment of everything that was Chad’s. They spoke of him repeatedly, invoking his good name and good nature, and the worst confusion of mind for Strether was that all their mention of him was of a kind to do him honour. They commended his munificence and approved his taste, and in doing so sat down, as it seemed to Strether, in the very soil out of which these things flowered. Our friend’s final predicament was that he himself was sitting down, for the time, WITH them, and there was a supreme moment at which, compared with his collapse, Waymarsh’s erectness affected him as really high. One thing was certain—he saw he must make up his mind. He must approach Chad, must wait for him, deal with him, master him, but he mustn’t dispossess himself of the faculty of seeing things as they were. He must bring him to HIM—not go himself, as it were, so much of the way. He must at any rate be clearer as to what—should he continue to do that for convenience—he was still condoning. It was on the detail of this quantity—and what could the fact be but mystifying?-that Bilham and Miss Barrace threw so little light. So there they were.
When Miss Gostrey arrived, at the end of a week, she made him a sign; he went immediately to see her, and it wasn’t till then that he could again close his grasp on the idea of a corrective. This idea however was luckily all before him again from the moment he crossed the threshold of the little entresol of the Quartier Marboeuf into which she had gathered, as she said, picking them up in a thousand flights and funny little passionate pounces, the makings of a final nest. He recognised in an instant that there really, there only, he should find the boon with the vision of which he had first mounted Chad’s stairs. He might have been a little scared at the picture of how much more, in this place, he should know himself “in” hadn’t his friend been on the spot to measure the amount to his appetite. Her compact and crowded little chambers, almost dusky, as they at first struck him, with accumulations, represented a supreme general adjustment to opportunities and conditions. Wherever he looked he saw an old ivory or an old brocade, and he scarce knew where to sit for fear of a misappliance. The life of the occupant struck him of a sudden as more charged with possession even than Chad’s or than Miss Barrace’s; wide as his glimpse had lately become of the empire of “things,” what was before him still enlarged it; the lust of the eyes and the pride of life had indeed thus their temple. It was the innermost nook of the shrine—as brown as a pirate’s cave. In the brownness were glints of gold; patches of purple were in the gloom; objects all that caught, through the muslin, with their high rarity, the light of the low windows. Nothing was clear about them but that they were precious, and they brushed his ignorance with their contempt as a flower, in a liberty taken with him, might have been whisked under his nose. But after a full look at his hostess he knew none the less what most concerned him. The circle in which they stood together was warm with life, and every question between them would live there as nowhere else. A question came up as soon as they had spoken, for his answer, with a laugh, was quickly: “Well, they’ve got hold of me!” Much of their talk on this first occasion was his development of that truth. He was extraordinarily glad to see her, expressing to her frankly what she most showed him, that one might live for years without a blessing unsuspected, but that to know it at last for no more than three days was to need it or miss it for ever. She was the blessing that had now become his need, and what could prove it better than that without her he had lost himself?
“What do you mean?” she asked with an absence of alarm that, correcting him as if he had mistaken the “period” of one of her pieces, gave him afresh a sense of her easy movement through the maze he had but begun to tread. “What in the name of all the Pococks have you managed to do?”
“Why exactly the wrong thing. I’ve made a frantic friend of little Bilham.”
“Ah that sort of thing was of the essence of your case and to have been allowed for from the first.” And it was only after this that, quite as a minor matter, she asked who in the world little Bilham might be. When she learned that he was a friend of Chad’s and living for the time in Chad’s rooms in Chad’s absence, quite as if acting in Chad’s spirit and serving Chad’s cause, she showed, however, more interest. “Should you mind my seeing him? Only once, you know,” she added.
“Oh the oftener the better: he’s amusing—he’s original.”
“He doesn’t shock you?” Miss Gostrey threw out.
“Never in the world! We escape that with a perfection—! I feel it to be largely, no doubt, because I don’t half-understand him; but our modus vivendi isn’t spoiled even by that. You must dine with me to meet him,” Strether went on. “Then you’ll see.’
“Are you giving dinners?”
“Yes—there I am. That’s what I mean.”
All her kindness wondered. “That you’re spending too much money?”
“Dear no—they seem to cost so little. But that I do it to THEM. I ought to hold off.”
She thought again—she laughed. “The money you must be spending to think it cheap! But I must be out of it—to the naked eye.”
He looked for a moment as if she were really failing him. “Then you won’t meet them?” It was almost as if she had developed an unexpected personal prudence.
She hesitated. “Who are they—first?”
“Why little Bilham to begin with.” He kept back for the moment Miss Barrace. “And Chad—when he comes—you must absolutely see.”
“When then does he come?”
“When Bilham has had time to write him, and hear from him about me. Bilham, however,” he pursued, “will report favourably—favourably for Chad. That will make him not afraid to come. I want you the more therefore, you see, for my bluff.”
“Oh you’ll do yourself for your bluff.” She was perfectly easy. “At the rate you’ve gone I’m quiet.”
“Ah but I haven’t,” said Strether, “made one protest.”
She turned it over. “Haven’t you been seeing what there’s to protest about?”
He let her, with this, however ruefully, have the whole truth. “I haven’t yet found a single thing.”
“Isn’t there any one WITH him then?”
“Of the sort I came out about?” Strether took a moment. “How do I know? And what do I care?”
“Oh oh!”—and her laughter spread. He was struck in fact by the effect on her of his joke. He saw now how he meant it as a joke. SHE saw, however, still other things, though in an instant she had hidden them. “You’ve got at no facts at all?”
He tried to muster them. “Well, he has a lovely home.”
“Ah that, in Paris,” she quickly returned, “proves nothing. That is rather it DISproves nothing. They may very well, you see, the people your mission is concerned with, have done it FOR him.”
“Exactly. And it was on the scene of their doings then that Waymarsh and I sat guzzling.”
“Oh if you forbore to guzzle here on scenes of doings,” she replied, “you might easily die of starvation.” With which she smiled at him. “You’ve worse before you.”
“Ah I’ve EVERYTHING before me. But on our hypothesis, you know, they must be wonderful.”
“They ARE!” said Miss Gostrey. “You’re not therefore, you see,” she added, “wholly without facts. They’ve BEEN, in effect, wonderful.”
To have got at something comparatively definite appeared at last a little to help—a wave by which moreover, the next moment, recollection was washed. “My young man does admit furthermore that they’re our friend’s great interest.”
“Is that the expression he uses?”
Strether more exactly recalled. “No—not quite.”
“Something more vivid? Less?”
He had bent, with neared glasses, over a group of articles on a small stand; and at this he came up. “It was a mere allusion, but, on the lookout as I was, it struck me. ‘Awful, you know, as Chad is’—those were Bilham’s words.”
“‘Awful, you know’—? Oh!”—and Miss Gostrey turned them over. She seemed, however, satisfied. “Well, what more do you want?”
He glanced once more at a bibelot or two, and everything sent him back. “But it is all the same as if they wished to let me have it between the eyes.”
She wondered. “Quoi donc?”
“Why what I speak of. The amenity. They can stun you with that as well as with anything else.”
“Oh,” she answered, “you’ll come round! I must see them each,” she went on, “for myself. I mean Mr. Bilham and Mr. Newsome—Mr. Bilham naturally first. Once only—once for each; that will do. But face to face—for half an hour. What’s Mr. Chad,” she immediately pursued, “doing at Cannes? Decent men don’t go to Cannes with the—well, with the kind of ladies you mean.”
“Don’t they?” Strether asked with an interest in decent men that amused her.
“No, elsewhere, but not to Cannes. Cannes is different. Cannes is better. Cannes is best. I mean it’s all people you know—when you do know them. And if HE does, why that’s different too. He must have gone alone. She can’t be with him.”
“I haven’t,” Strether confessed in his weakness, “the least idea.” There seemed much in what she said, but he was able after a little to help her to a nearer impression. The meeting with little Bilham took place, by easy arrangement, in the great gallery of the Louvre; and when, standing with his fellow visitor before one of the splendid Titians—the overwhelming portrait of the young man with the strangely-shaped glove and the blue-grey eyes—he turned to see the third member of their party advance from the end of the waxed and gilded vista, he had a sense of having at last taken hold. He had agreed with Miss Gostrey—it dated even from Chester—for a morning at the Louvre, and he had embraced independently the same idea as thrown out by little Bilham, whom he had already accompanied to the museum of the Luxembourg. The fusion of these schemes presented no difficulty, and it was to strike him again that in little Bilham’s company contrarieties in general dropped.
“Oh he’s all right—he’s one of US!” Miss Gostrey, after the first exchange, soon found a chance to murmur to her companion; and Strether, as they proceeded and paused and while a quick unanimity between the two appeared to have phrased itself in half a dozen remarks—Strether knew that he knew almost immediately what she meant, and took it as still another sign that he had got his job in hand. This was the more grateful to him that he could think of the intelligence now serving him as an acquisition positively new. He wouldn’t have known even the day before what she meant—that is if she meant, what he assumed, that they were intense Americans together. He had just worked round—and with a sharper turn of the screw than any yet—to the conception of an American intense as little Bilham was intense. The young man was his first specimen; the specimen had profoundly perplexed him; at present however there was light. It was by little Bilham’s amazing serenity that he had at first been affected, but he had inevitably, in his circumspection, felt it as the trail of the serpent, the corruption, as he might conveniently have said, of Europe; whereas the promptness with which it came up for Miss Gostrey but as a special little form of the oldest thing they knew justified it at once to his own vision as well. He wanted to be able to like his specimen with a clear good conscience, and this fully permitted it. What had muddled him was precisely the small artist-man’s way—it was so complete—of being more American than anybody. But it now for the time put Strether vastly at his ease to have this view of a new way.
The amiable youth then looked out, as it had first struck Strether, at a world in respect to which he hadn’t a prejudice. The one our friend most instantly missed was the usual one in favour of an occupation accepted. Little Bilham had an occupation, but it was only an occupation declined; and it was by his general exemption from alarm, anxiety or remorse on this score that the impression of his serenity was made. He had come out to Paris to paint—to fathom, that is, at large, that mystery; but study had been fatal to him so far as anything COULD be fatal, and his productive power faltered in proportion as his knowledge grew. Strether had gathered from him that at the moment of his finding him in Chad’s rooms he hadn’t saved from his shipwreck a scrap of anything but his beautiful intelligence and his confirmed habit of Paris. He referred to these things with an equal fond familiarity, and it was sufficiently clear that, as an outfit, they still served him. They were charming to Strether through the hour spent at the Louvre, where indeed they figured for him as an unseparated part of the charged iridescent air, the glamour of the name, the splendour of the space, the colour of the masters. Yet they were present too wherever the young man led, and the day after the visit to the Louvre they hung, in a different walk, about the steps of our party. He had invited his companions to cross the river with him, offering to show them his own poor place; and his own poor place, which was very poor, gave to his idiosyncrasies, for Strether—the small sublime indifference and independences that had struck the latter as fresh—an odd and engaging dignity. He lived at the end of an alley that went out of an old short cobbled street, a street that went in turn out of a new long smooth avenue—street and avenue and alley having, however, in common a sort of social shabbiness; and he introduced them to the rather cold and blank little studio which he had lent to a comrade for the term of his elegant absence. The comrade was another ingenuous compatriot, to whom he had wired that tea was to await them “regardless,” and this reckless repast, and the second ingenuous compatriot, and the faraway makeshift life, with its jokes and its gaps, its delicate daubs and its three or four chairs, its overflow of taste and conviction and its lack of nearly all else—these things wove round the occasion a spell to which our hero unreservedly surrendered.
He liked the ingenuous compatriots—for two or three others soon gathered; he liked the delicate daubs and the free discriminations—involving references indeed, involving enthusiasms and execrations that made him, as they said, sit up; he liked above all the legend of good-humoured poverty, of mutual accommodation fairly raised to the romantic, that he soon read into the scene. The ingenuous compatriots showed a candour, he thought, surpassing even the candour of Woollett; they were red-haired and long-legged, they were quaint and queer and dear and droll; they made the place resound with the vernacular, which he had never known so marked as when figuring for the chosen language, he must suppose, of contemporary art. They twanged with a vengeance the aesthetic lyre—they drew from it wonderful airs. This aspect of their life had an admirable innocence; and he looked on occasion at Maria Gostrey to see to what extent that element reached her. She gave him however for the hour, as she had given him the previous day, no further sign than to show how she dealt with boys; meeting them with the air of old Parisian practice that she had for every one, for everything, in turn. Wonderful about the delicate daubs, masterful about the way to make tea, trustful about the legs of chairs and familiarly reminiscent of those, in the other time, the named, the numbered or the caricatured, who had flourished or failed, disappeared or arrived, she had accepted with the best grace her second course of little Bilham, and had said to Strether, the previous afternoon on his leaving them, that, since her impression was to be renewed, she would reserve judgement till after the new evidence.
The new evidence was to come, as it proved, in a day or two. He soon had from Maria a message to the effect that an excellent box at the Francais had been lent her for the following night; it seeming on such occasions not the least of her merits that she was subject to such approaches. The sense of how she was always paying for something in advance was equalled on Strether’s part only by the sense of how she was always being paid; all of which made for his consciousness, in the larger air, of a lively bustling traffic, the exchange of such values as were not for him to handle. She hated, he knew, at the French play, anything but a box—just as she hated at the English anything but a stall; and a box was what he was already in this phase girding himself to press upon her. But she had for that matter her community with little Bilham: she too always, on the great issues, showed as having known in time. It made her constantly beforehand with him and gave him mainly the chance to ask himself how on the day of their settlement their account would stand. He endeavoured even now to keep it a little straight by arranging that if he accepted her invitation she should dine with him first; but the upshot of this scruple was that at eight o’clock on the morrow he awaited her with Waymarsh under the pillared portico. She hadn’t dined with him, and it was characteristic of their relation that she had made him embrace her refusal without in the least understanding it. She ever caused her rearrangements to affect him as her tenderest touches. It was on that principle for instance that, giving him the opportunity to be amiable again to little Bilham, she had suggested his offering the young man a seat in their box. Strether had dispatched for this purpose a small blue missive to the Boulevard Malesherbes, but up to the moment of their passing into the theatre he had received no response to his message. He held, however, even after they had been for some time conveniently seated, that their friend, who knew his way about, would come in at his own right moment. His temporary absence moreover seemed, as never yet, to make the right moment for Miss Gostrey. Strether had been waiting till tonight to get back from her in some mirrored form her impressions and conclusions. She had elected, as they said, to see little Bilham once; but now she had seen him twice and had nevertheless not said more than a word.
Waymarsh meanwhile sat opposite him with their hostess between; and Miss Gostrey spoke of herself as an instructor of youth introducing her little charges to a work that was one of the glories of literature. The glory was happily unobjectionable, and the little charges were candid; for herself she had travelled that road and she merely waited on their innocence. But she referred in due time to their absent friend, whom it was clear they should have to give up. “He either won’t have got your note,” she said, “or you won’t have got his: he has had some kind of hindrance, and, of course, for that matter, you know, a man never writes about coming to a box.” She spoke as if, with her look, it might have been Waymarsh who had written to the youth, and the latter’s face showed a mixture of austerity and anguish. She went on however as if to meet this. “He’s far and away, you know, the best of them.”
“The best of whom, ma’am?”
“Why of all the long procession—the boys, the girls, or the old men and old women as they sometimes really are; the hope, as one may say, of our country. They’ve all passed, year after year; but there has been no one in particular I’ve ever wanted to stop. I feel—don’t YOU?—that I want to stop little Bilham; he’s so exactly right as he is.” She continued to talk to Waymarsh. “He’s too delightful. If he’ll only not spoil it! But they always WILL; they always do; they always have.”
“I don’t think Waymarsh knows,” Strether said after a moment, “quite what it’s open to Bilham to spoil.”
“It can’t be a good American,” Waymarsh lucidly enough replied; “for it didn’t strike me the young man had developed much in THAT shape.”
“Ah,” Miss Gostrey sighed, “the name of the good American is as easily given as taken away! What IS it, to begin with, to BE one, and what’s the extraordinary hurry? Surely nothing that’s so pressing was ever so little defined. It’s such an order, really, that before we cook you the dish we must at least have your receipt. Besides the poor chicks have time! What I’ve seen so often spoiled,” she pursued, “is the happy attitude itself, the state of faith and—what shall I call it?—the sense of beauty. You’re right about him”—she now took in Strether; “little Bilham has them to a charm, we must keep little Bilham along.” Then she was all again for Waymarsh. “The others have all wanted so dreadfully to do something, and they’ve gone and done it in too many cases indeed. It leaves them never the same afterwards; the charm’s always somehow broken. Now HE, I think, you know, really won’t. He won’t do the least dreadful little thing. We shall continue to enjoy him just as he is. No—he’s quite beautiful. He sees everything. He isn’t a bit ashamed. He has every scrap of the courage of it that one could ask. Only think what he MIGHT do. One wants really—for fear of some accident—to keep him in view. At this very moment perhaps what mayn’t he be up to? I’ve had my disappointments—the poor things are never really safe; or only at least when you have them under your eye. One can never completely trust them. One’s uneasy, and I think that’s why I most miss him now.”
She had wound up with a laugh of enjoyment over her embroidery of her idea—an enjoyment that her face communicated to Strether, who almost wished none the less at this moment that she would let poor Waymarsh alone. HE knew more or less what she meant; but the fact wasn’t a reason for her not pretending to Waymarsh that he didn’t. It was craven of him perhaps, but he would, for the high amenity of the occasion, have liked Waymarsh not to be so sure of his wit. Her recognition of it gave him away and, before she had done with him or with that article, would give him worse. What was he, all the same, to do? He looked across the box at his friend; their eyes met; something queer and stiff, something that bore on the situation but that it was better not to touch, passed in silence between them. Well, the effect of it for Strether was an abrupt reaction, a final impatience of his own tendency to temporise. Where was that taking him anyway? It was one of the quiet instants that sometimes settle more matters than the outbreaks dear to the historic muse. The only qualification of the quietness was the synthetic “Oh hang it!” into which Strether’s share of the silence soundlessly flowered. It represented, this mute ejaculation, a final impulse to burn his ships. These ships, to the historic muse, may seem of course mere cockles, but when he presently spoke to Miss Gostrey it was with the sense at least of applying the torch. “Is it then a conspiracy?”
“Between the two young men? Well, I don’t pretend to be a seer or a prophetess,” she presently replied; “but if I’m simply a woman of sense he’s working for you to-night. I don’t quite know how—but it’s in my bones.” And she looked at him at last as if, little material as she yet gave him, he’d really understand. “For an opinion THAT’S my opinion. He makes you out too well not to.”
“Not to work for me to-night?” Strether wondered. “Then I hope he isn’t doing anything very bad.”
“They’ve got you,” she portentously answered.
“Do you mean he IS—?”
“They’ve got you,” she merely repeated. Though she disclaimed the prophetic vision she was at this instant the nearest approach he had ever met to the priestess of the oracle. The light was in her eyes. “You must face it now.”
He faced it on the spot. “They HAD arranged—?”
“Every move in the game. And they’ve been arranging ever since. He has had every day his little telegram from Cannes.”
It made Strether open his eyes. “Do you KNOW that?”
“I do better. I see it. This was, before I met him, what I wondered whether I WAS to see. But as soon as I met him I ceased to wonder, and our second meeting made me sure. I took him all in. He was acting—he is still—on his daily instructions.”
“So that Chad has done the whole thing?”
“Oh no—not the whole. WE’VE done some of it. You and I and ‘Europe.'”
“Europe—yes,” Strether mused.
“Dear old Paris,” she seemed to explain. But there was more, and, with one of her turns, she risked it. “And dear old Waymarsh. You,” she declared, “have been a good bit of it.”
He sat massive. “A good bit of what, ma’am?”
“Why of the wonderful consciousness of our friend here. You’ve helped too in your way to float him to where he is.”
“And where the devil IS he?”
She passed it on with a laugh. “Where the devil, Strether, are you?”
He spoke as if he had just been thinking it out. “Well, quite already in Chad’s hands, it would seem.” And he had had with this another thought. “Will that be—just all through Bilham—the way he’s going to work it? It would be, for him, you know, an idea. And Chad with an idea—!”
“Well?” she asked while the image held him.
“Well, is Chad—what shall I say?—monstrous?”
“Oh as much as you like! But the idea you speak of,” she said, “won’t have been his best. He’ll have a better. It won’t be all through little Bilham that he’ll work it.”
This already sounded almost like a hope destroyed. “Through whom else then?”
“That’s what we shall see!” But quite as she spoke she turned, and Strether turned; for the door of the box had opened, with the click of the ouvreuse, from the lobby, and a gentleman, a stranger to them, had come in with a quick step. The door closed behind him, and, though their faces showed him his mistake, his air, which was striking, was all good confidence. The curtain had just again arisen, and, in the hush of the general attention, Strether’s challenge was tacit, as was also the greeting, with a quickly deprecating hand and smile, of the unannounced visitor. He discreetly signed that he would wait, would stand, and these things and his face, one look from which she had caught, had suddenly worked for Miss Gostrey. She fitted to them all an answer for Strether’s last question. The solid stranger was simply the answer—as she now, turning to her friend, indicated. She brought it straight out for him—it presented the intruder. “Why, through this gentleman!” The gentleman indeed, at the same time, though sounding for Strether a very short name, did practically as much to explain. Strether gasped the name back—then only had he seen Miss Gostrey had said more than she knew. They were in presence of Chad himself.
Our friend was to go over it afterwards again and again—he was going over it much of the time that they were together, and they were together constantly for three or four days: the note had been so strongly struck during that first half-hour that everything happening since was comparatively a minor development. The fact was that his perception of the young man’s identity—so absolutely checked for a minute—had been quite one of the sensations that count in life; he certainly had never known one that had acted, as he might have said, with more of a crowded rush. And the rush though both vague and multitudinous, had lasted a long time, protected, as it were, yet at the same time aggravated, by the circumstance of its coinciding with a stretch of decorous silence. They couldn’t talk without disturbing the spectators in the part of the balcony just below them; and it, for that matter, came to Strether—being a thing of the sort that did come to him—that these were the accidents of a high civilisation; the imposed tribute to propriety, the frequent exposure to conditions, usually brilliant, in which relief has to await its time. Relief was never quite near at hand for kings, queens, comedians and other such people, and though you might be yourself not exactly one of those, you could yet, in leading the life of high pressure, guess a little how they sometimes felt. It was truly the life of high pressure that Strether had seemed to feel himself lead while he sat there, close to Chad, during the long tension of the act. He was in presence of a fact that occupied his whole mind, that occupied for the half-hour his senses themselves all together; but he couldn’t without inconvenience show anything—which moreover might count really as luck. What he might have shown, had he shown at all, was exactly the kind of emotion—the emotion of bewilderment—that he had proposed to himself from the first, whatever should occur, to show least. The phenomenon that had suddenly sat down there with him was a phenomenon of change so complete that his imagination, which had worked so beforehand, felt itself, in the connexion, without margin or allowance. It had faced every contingency but that Chad should not BE Chad, and this was what it now had to face with a mere strained smile and an uncomfortable flush.
He asked himself if, by any chance, before he should have in some way to commit himself, he might feel his mind settled to the new vision, might habituate it, so to speak, to the remarkable truth. But oh it was too remarkable, the truth; for what could be more remarkable than this sharp rupture of an identity? You could deal with a man as himself—you couldn’t deal with him as somebody else. It was a small source of peace moreover to be reduced to wondering how little he might know in such an event what a sum he was setting you. He couldn’t absolutely not know, for you couldn’t absolutely not let him. It was a CASE then simply, a strong case, as people nowadays called such things,’ a case of transformation unsurpassed, and the hope was but in the general law that strong cases were liable to control from without. Perhaps he, Strether himself, was the only person after all aware of it. Even Miss Gostrey, with all her science, wouldn’t be, would she?—and he had never seen any one less aware of anything than Waymarsh as he glowered at Chad. The social sightlessness of his old friend’s survey marked for him afresh, and almost in an humiliating way, the inevitable limits of direct aid from this source. He was not certain, however, of not drawing a shade of compensation from the privilege, as yet untasted, of knowing more about something in particular than Miss Gostrey did. His situation too was a case, for that matter, and he was now so interested, quite so privately agog, about it, that he had already an eye to the fun it would be to open up to her afterwards. He derived during his half-hour no assistance from her, and just this fact of her not meeting his eyes played a little, it must be confessed, into his predicament.
He had introduced Chad, in the first minutes, under his breath, and there was never the primness in her of the person unacquainted; but she had none the less betrayed at first no vision but of the stage, where she occasionally found a pretext for an appreciative moment that she invited Waymarsh to share. The latter’s faculty of participation had never had, all round, such an assault to meet; the pressure on him being the sharper for this chosen attitude in her, as Strether judged it, of isolating, for their natural intercourse, Chad and himself. This intercourse was meanwhile restricted to a frank friendly look from the young man, something markedly like a smile, but falling far short of a grin, and to the vivacity of Strether’s private speculation as to whether HE carried himself like a fool. He didn’t quite see how he could so feel as one without somehow showing as one. The worst of that question moreover was that he knew it as a symptom the sense of which annoyed him. “If I’m going to be odiously conscious of how I may strike the fellow,” he reflected, “it was so little what I came out for that I may as well stop before I begin.” This sage consideration too, distinctly, seemed to leave untouched the fact that he WAS going to be conscious. He was conscious of everything but of what would have served him.
He was to know afterwards, in the watches of the night, that nothing would have been more open to him than after a minute or two to propose to Chad to seek with him the refuge of the lobby. He hadn’t only not proposed it, but had lacked even the presence of mind to see it as possible. He had stuck there like a schoolboy wishing not to miss a minute of the show; though for that portion of the show then presented he hadn’t had an instant’s real attention. He couldn’t when the curtain fell have given the slightest account of what had happened. He had therefore, further, not at that moment acknowledged the amenity added by this acceptance of his awkwardness to Chad’s general patience. Hadn’t he none the less known at the very time—known it stupidly and without reaction—that the boy was accepting something? He was modestly benevolent, the boy—that was at least what he had been capable of the superiority of making out his chance to be; and one had one’s self literally not had the gumption to get in ahead of him. If we should go into all that occupied our friend in the watches of the night we should have to mend our pen; but an instance or two may mark for us the vividness with which he could remember. He remembered the two absurdities that, if his presence of mind HAD failed, were the things that had had most to do with it. He had never in his life seen a young man come into a box at ten o’clock at night, and would, if challenged on the question in advance, have scarce been ready to pronounce as to different ways of doing so. But it was in spite of this definite to him that Chad had had a way that was wonderful: a fact carrying with it an implication that, as one might imagine it, he knew, he had learned, how.
Here already then were abounding results; he had on the spot and without the least trouble of intention taught Strether that even in so small a thing as that there were different ways. He had done in the same line still more than this; had by a mere shake or two of the head made his old friend observe that the change in him was perhaps more than anything else, for the eye, a matter of the marked streaks of grey, extraordinary at his age, in his thick black hair; as well as that this new feature was curiously becoming to him, did something for him, as characterisation, also even—of all things in the world—as refinement, that had been a good deal wanted. Strether felt, however, he would have had to confess, that it wouldn’t have been easy just now, on this and other counts, in the presence of what had been supplied, to be quite clear as to what had been missed. A reflexion a candid critic might have made of old, for instance, was that it would have been happier for the son to look more like the mother; but this was a reflexion that at present would never occur. The ground had quite fallen away from it, yet no resemblance whatever to the mother had supervened. It would have been hard for a young man’s face and air to disconnect themselves more completely than Chad’s at this juncture from any discerned, from any imaginable aspect of a New England female parent. That of course was no more than had been on the cards; but it produced in Strether none the less one of those frequent phenomena of mental reference with which all judgement in him was actually beset.
Again and again as the days passed he had had a sense of the pertinence of communicating quickly with Woollett—communicating with a quickness with which telegraphy alone would rhyme; the fruit really of a fine fancy in him for keeping things straight, for the happy forestalment of error. No one could explain better when needful, nor put more conscience into an account or a report; which burden of conscience is perhaps exactly the reason why his heart always sank when the clouds of explanation gathered. His highest ingenuity was in keeping the sky of life clear of them. Whether or no he had a grand idea of the lucid, he held that nothing ever was in fact—for any one else—explained. One went through the vain motions, but it was mostly a waste of life. A personal relation was a relation only so long as people either perfectly understood or, better still, didn’t care if they didn’t. From the moment they cared if they didn’t it was living by the sweat of one’s brow; and the sweat of one’s brow was just what one might buy one’s self off from by keeping the ground free of the wild weed of delusion. It easily grew too fast, and the Atlantic cable now alone could race with it. That agency would each day have testified for him to something that was not what Woollett had argued. He was not at this moment absolutely sure that the effect of the morrow’s—or rather of the night’s—appreciation of the crisis wouldn’t be to determine some brief missive. “Have at last seen him, but oh dear!”—some temporary relief of that sort seemed to hover before him. It hovered somehow as preparing them all—yet preparing them for what? If he might do so more luminously and cheaply he would tick out in four words: “Awfully old—grey hair.” To this particular item in Chad’s appearance he constantly, during their mute half-hour, reverted; as if so very much more than he could have said had been involved in it. The most he could have said would have been: “If he’s going to make me feel young—!” which indeed, however, carried with it quite enough. If Strether was to feel young, that is, it would be because Chad was to feel old; and an aged and hoary sinner had been no part of the scheme.
The question of Chadwick’s true time of life was, doubtless, what came up quickest after the adjournment of the two, when the play was over, to a cafe in the Avenue de l’Opera. Miss Gostrey had in due course been perfect for such a step; she had known exactly what they wanted—to go straight somewhere and talk; and Strether had even felt she had known what he wished to say and that he was arranging immediately to begin. She hadn’t pretended this, as she HAD pretended on the other hand, to have divined Waymarsh’s wish to extend to her an independent protection homeward; but Strether nevertheless found how, after he had Chad opposite to him at a small table in the brilliant halls that his companion straightway selected, sharply and easily discriminated from others, it was quite, to his mind, as if she heard him speak; as if, sitting up, a mile away, in the little apartment he knew, she would listen hard enough to catch. He found too that he liked that idea, and he wished that, by the same token, Mrs. Newsome might have caught as well. For what had above all been determined in him as a necessity of the first order was not to lose another hour, nor a fraction of one; was to advance, to overwhelm, with a rush. This was how he would anticipate—by a night-attack, as might be—any forced maturity that a crammed consciousness of Paris was likely to take upon itself to assert on behalf of the boy. He knew to the full, on what he had just extracted from Miss Gostrey, Chad’s marks of alertness; but they were a reason the more for not dawdling. If he was himself moreover to be treated as young he wouldn’t at all events be so treated before he should have struck out at least once. His arms might be pinioned afterwards, but it would have been left on record that he was fifty. The importance of this he had indeed begun to feel before they left the theatre; it had become a wild unrest, urging him to seize his chance. He could scarcely wait for it as they went; he was on the verge of the indecency of bringing up the question in the street; he fairly caught himself going on—so he afterwards invidiously named it—as if there would be for him no second chance should the present be lost. Not till, on the purple divan before the perfunctory bock, he had brought out the words themselves, was he sure, for that matter, that the present would be saved.