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.