It was quite by half-past five—after the two men had been together in Madame de Vionnet’s drawing-room not more than a dozen minutes—that Chad, with a look at his watch and then another at their hostess, said genially, gaily: “I’ve an engagement, and I know you won’t complain if I leave him with you. He’ll interest you immensely; and as for her,” he declared to Strether, “I assure you, if you’re at all nervous, she’s perfectly safe.”
He had left them to be embarrassed or not by this guarantee, as they could best manage, and embarrassment was a thing that Strether wasn’t at first sure Madame de Vionnet escaped. He escaped it himself, to his surprise; but he had grown used by this time to thinking of himself as brazen. She occupied, his hostess, in the Rue de Bellechasse, the first floor of an old house to which our visitors had had access from an old clean court. The court was large and open, full of revelations, for our friend, of the habit of privacy, the peace of intervals, the dignity of distances and approaches; the house, to his restless sense, was in the high homely style of an elder day, and the ancient Paris that he was always looking for—sometimes intensely felt, sometimes more acutely missed—was in the immemorial polish of the wide waxed staircase and in the fine boiseries, the medallions, mouldings, mirrors, great clear spaces, of the greyish-white salon into which he had been shown. He seemed at the very outset to see her in the midst of possessions not vulgarly numerous, but hereditary cherished charming. While his eyes turned after a little from those of his hostess and Chad freely talked—not in the least about HIM, but about other people, people he didn’t know, and quite as if he did know them—he found himself making out, as a background of the occupant, some glory, some prosperity of the First Empire, some Napoleonic glamour, some dim lustre of the great legend; elements clinging still to all the consular chairs and mythological brasses and sphinxes’ heads and faded surfaces of satin striped with alternate silk.
The place itself went further back—that he guessed, and how old Paris continued in a manner to echo there; but the post-revolutionary period, the world he vaguely thought of as the world of Chateaubriand, of Madame de Stael, even of the young Lamartine, had left its stamp of harps and urns and torches, a stamp impressed on sundry small objects, ornaments and relics. He had never before, to his knowledge, had present to him relics, of any special dignity, of a private order—little old miniatures, medallions, pictures, books; books in leather bindings, pinkish and greenish, with gilt garlands on the back, ranged, together with other promiscuous properties, under the glass of brass-mounted cabinets. His attention took them all tenderly into account. They were among the matters that marked Madame de Vionnet’s apartment as something quite different from Miss Gostrey’s little museum of bargains and from Chad’s lovely home; he recognised it as founded much more on old accumulations that had possibly from time to time shrunken than on any contemporary method of acquisition or form of curiosity. Chad and Miss Gostrey had rummaged and purchased and picked up and exchanged, sifting, selecting, comparing; whereas the mistress of the scene before him, beautifully passive under the spell of transmission—transmission from her father’s line, he quite made up his mind—had only received, accepted and been quiet. When she hadn’t been quiet she had been moved at the most to some occult charity for some fallen fortune. There had been objects she or her predecessors might even conceivably have parted with under need, but Strether couldn’t suspect them of having sold old pieces to get “better” ones. They would have felt no difference as to better or worse. He could but imagine their having felt—perhaps in emigration, in proscription, for his sketch was slight and confused—the pressure of want or the obligation of sacrifice.
The pressure of want—whatever might be the case with the other force—was, however, presumably not active now, for the tokens of a chastened ease still abounded after all, many marks of a taste whose discriminations might perhaps have been called eccentric. He guessed at intense little preferences and sharp little exclusions, a deep suspicion of the vulgar and a personal view of the right. The general result of this was something for which he had no name on the spot quite ready, but something he would have come nearest to naming in speaking of it as the air of supreme respectability, the consciousness, small, still, reserved, but none the less distinct and diffused, of private honour. The air of supreme respectability—that was a strange blank wall for his adventure to have brought him to break his nose against. It had in fact, as he was now aware, filled all the approaches, hovered in the court as he passed, hung on the staircase as he mounted, sounded in the grave rumble of the old bell, as little electric as possible, of which Chad, at the door, had pulled the ancient but neatly-kept tassel; it formed in short the clearest medium of its particular kind that he had ever breathed. He would have answered for it at the end of a quarter of an hour that some of the glass cases contained swords and epaulettes of ancient colonels and generals; medals and orders once pinned over hearts that had long since ceased to beat; snuff-boxes bestowed on ministers and envoys; copies of works presented, with inscriptions, by authors now classic. At bottom of it all for him was the sense of her rare unlikeness to the women he had known. This sense had grown, since the day before, the more he recalled her, and had been above all singularly fed by his talk with Chad in the morning. Everything in fine made her immeasurably new, and nothing so new as the old house and the old objects. There were books, two or three, on a small table near his chair, but they hadn’t the lemon-coloured covers with which his eye had begun to dally from the hour of his arrival and to the opportunity of a further acquaintance with which he had for a fortnight now altogether succumbed. On another table, across the room, he made out the great Revue; but even that familiar face, conspicuous in Mrs. Newsome’s parlours, scarce counted here as a modern note. He was sure on the spot—and he afterwards knew he was right—that this was a touch of Chad’s own hand. What would Mrs. Newsome say to the circumstance that Chad’s interested “influence” kept her paper-knife in the Revue? The interested influence at any rate had, as we say, gone straight to the point—had in fact soon left it quite behind.
She was seated, near the fire, on a small stuffed and fringed chair one of the few modern articles in the room, and she leaned back in it with her hands clasped in her lap and no movement, in all her person, but the fine prompt play of her deep young face. The fire, under the low white marble, undraped and academic, had burnt down to the silver ashes of light wood, one of the windows, at a distance, stood open to the mildness and stillness, out of which, in the short pauses, came the faint sound, pleasant and homely, almost rustic, of a plash and a clatter of sabots from some coach-house on the other side of the court. Madame de Vionnet, while Strether sat there, wasn’t to shift her posture by an inch. “I don’t think you seriously believe in what you’re doing,” she said; “but all the same, you know, I’m going to treat you quite as if I did.”
“By which you mean,” Strether directly replied, “quite as if you didn’t! I assure you it won’t make the least difference with me how you treat me.”
“Well,” she said, taking that menace bravely and philosophically enough, “the only thing that really matters is that you shall get on with me.”
“Ah but I don’t!” he immediately returned.
It gave her another pause; which, however, she happily enough shook off. “Will you consent to go on with me a little—provisionally—as if you did?”
Then it was that he saw how she had decidedly come all the way; and there accompanied it an extraordinary sense of her raising from somewhere below him her beautiful suppliant eyes. He might have been perched at his door-step or at his window and she standing in the road. For a moment he let her stand and couldn’t moreover have spoken. It had been sad, of a sudden, with a sadness that was like a cold breath in his face. “What can I do,” he finally asked, “but listen to you as I promised Chadwick?”
“Ah but what I’m asking you,” she quickly said, “isn’t what Mr. Newsome had in mind.” She spoke at present, he saw, as if to take courageously ALL her risk. “This is my own idea and a different thing.”
It gave poor Strether in truth—uneasy as it made him too—something of the thrill of a bold perception justified. “Well,” he answered kindly enough, “I was sure a moment since that some idea of your own had come to you.”
She seemed still to look up at him, but now more serenely. “I made out you were sure—and that helped it to come. So you see,” she continued, “we do get on.”
“Oh but it appears to me I don’t at all meet your request. How can I when I don’t understand it?”
“It isn’t at all necessary you should understand; it will do quite well enough if you simply remember it. Only feel I trust you—and for nothing so tremendous after all. Just,” she said with a wonderful smile, “for common civility.”
Strether had a long pause while they sat again face to face, as they had sat, scarce less conscious, before the poor lady had crossed the stream. She was the poor lady for Strether now because clearly she had some trouble, and her appeal to him could only mean that her trouble was deep. He couldn’t help it; it wasn’t his fault; he had done nothing; but by a turn of the hand she had somehow made their encounter a relation. And the relation profited by a mass of things that were not strictly in it or of it; by the very air in which they sat, by the high cold delicate room, by the world outside and the little plash in the court, by the First Empire and the relics in the stiff cabinets, by matters as far off as those and by others as near as the unbroken clasp of her hands in her lap and the look her expression had of being most natural when her eyes were most fixed. “You count upon me of course for something really much greater than it sounds.”
“Oh it sounds great enough too!” she laughed at this.
He found himself in time on the point of telling her that she was, as Miss Barrace called it, wonderful; but, catching himself up, he said something else instead. “What was it Chad’s idea then that you should say to me?”
“Ah his idea was simply what a man’s idea always is—to put every effort off on the woman.”
“The ‘woman’—?” Strether slowly echoed.
“The woman he likes—and just in proportion as he likes her. In proportion too—for shifting the trouble—as she likes HIM.”
Strether followed it; then with an abruptness of his own: “How much do you like Chad?”
“Just as much as THAT—to take all, with you, on myself.” But she got at once again away from this. “I’ve been trembling as if we were to stand or fall by what you may think of me; and I’m even now,” she went on wonderfully, “drawing a long breath—and, yes, truly taking a great courage—from the hope that I don’t in fact strike you as impossible.”
“That’s at all events, clearly,” he observed after an instant, “the way I don’t strike YOU.”
“Well,” she so far assented, “as you haven’t yet said you WON’T have the little patience with me I ask for—”
“You draw splendid conclusions? Perfectly. But I don’t understand them,” Strether pursued. “You seem to me to ask for much more than you need. What, at the worst for you, what at the best for myself, can I after all do? I can use no pressure that I haven’t used. You come really late with your request. I’ve already done all that for myself the case admits of. I’ve said my say, and here I am.”
“Yes, here you are, fortunately!” Madame de Vionnet laughed. “Mrs. Newsome,” she added in another tone, “didn’t think you can do so little.”
He had an hesitation, but he brought the words out. “Well, she thinks so now.”
“Do you mean by that—?” But she also hung fire.
“Do I mean what?”
She still rather faltered. “Pardon me if I touch on it, but if I’m saying extraordinary things, why, perhaps, mayn’t I? Besides, doesn’t it properly concern us to know?”
“To know what?” he insisted as after thus beating about the bush she had again dropped.
She made the effort. “Has she given you up?”
He was amazed afterwards to think how simply and quietly he had met it. “Not yet.” It was almost as if he were a trifle disappointed—had expected still more of her freedom. But he went straight on. “Is that what Chad has told you will happen to me?”
She was evidently charmed with the way he took it. “If you mean if we’ve talked of it—most certainly. And the question’s not what has had least to do with my wishing to see you.”
“To judge if I’m the sort of man a woman CAN—?”
“Precisely,” she exclaimed—”you wonderful gentleman! I do judge—I HAVE judged. A woman can’t. You’re safe—with every right to be. You’d be much happier if you’d only believe it.”
Strether was silent a little; then he found himself speaking with a cynicism of confidence of which even at the moment the sources were strange to him. “I try to believe it. But it’s a marvel,” he exclaimed, “how YOU already get at it!”
Oh she was able to say. “Remember how much I was on the way to it through Mr. Newsome—before I saw you. He thinks everything of your strength.”
“Well, I can bear almost anything!” our friend briskly interrupted. Deep and beautiful on this her smile came back, and with the effect of making him hear what he had said just as she had heard it. He easily enough felt that it gave him away, but what in truth had everything done but that? It had been all very well to think at moments that he was holding her nose down and that he had coerced her: what had he by this time done but let her practically see that he accepted their relation? What was their relation moreover—though light and brief enough in form as yet—but whatever she might choose to make it? Nothing could prevent her—certainly he couldn’t—from making it pleasant. At the back of his head, behind everything, was the sense that she was—there, before him, close to him, in vivid imperative form—one of the rare women he had so often heard of, read of, thought of, but never met, whose very presence, look, voice, the mere contemporaneous FACT of whom, from the moment it was at all presented, made a relation of mere recognition. That was not the kind of woman he had ever found Mrs. Newsome, a contemporaneous fact who had been distinctly slow to establish herself; and at present, confronted with Madame de Vionnet, he felt the simplicity of his original impression of Miss Gostrey. She certainly had been a fact of rapid growth; but the world was wide, each day was more and more a new lesson. There were at any rate even among the stranger ones relations and relations. “Of course I suit Chad’s grand way,” he quickly added. “He hasn’t had much difficulty in working me in.”
She seemed to deny a little, on the young man’s behalf, by the rise of her eyebrows, an intention of any process at all inconsiderate. “You must know how grieved he’d be if you were to lose anything. He believes you can keep his mother patient.”
Strether wondered with his eyes on her. “I see. THAT’S then what you really want of me. And how am I to do it? Perhaps you’ll tell me that.”
“Simply tell her the truth.”
“And what do you call the truth?”
“Well, any truth—about us all—that you see yourself. I leave it to you.”
“Thank you very much. I like,” Strether laughed with a slight harshness, “the way you leave things!”
But she insisted kindly, gently, as if it wasn’t so bad. “Be perfectly honest. Tell her all.”
“All?” he oddly echoed.
“Tell her the simple truth,” Madame de Vionnet again pleaded.
“But what is the simple truth? The simple truth is exactly what I’m trying to discover.”
She looked about a while, but presently she came back to him. “Tell her, fully and clearly, about US.”
Strether meanwhile had been staring. “You and your daughter?”
“Yes—little Jeanne and me. Tell her,” she just slightly quavered, “you like us.”
“And what good will that do me? Or rather”—he caught himself up—”what good will it do YOU?”
She looked graver. “None, you believe, really?”
Strether debated. “She didn’t send me out to ‘like’ you.”
“Oh,” she charmingly contended, “she sent you out to face the facts.”
He admitted after an instant that there was something in that. “But how can I face them till I know what they are? Do you want him,” he then braced himself to ask, “to marry your daughter?”
She gave a headshake as noble as it was prompt. “No—not that.”
“And he really doesn’t want to himself?”
She repeated the movement, but now with a strange light in her face. “He likes her too much.”
Strether wondered. “To be willing to consider, you mean, the question of taking her to America?”
“To be willing to do anything with her but be immensely kind and nice—really tender of her. We watch over her, and you must help us. You must see her again.”
Strether felt awkward. “Ah with pleasure—she’s so remarkably attractive.”
The mother’s eagerness with which Madame de Vionnet jumped at this was to come back to him later as beautiful in its grace. “The dear thing DID please you?” Then as he met it with the largest “Oh!” of enthusiasm: “She’s perfect. She’s my joy.”
“Well, I’m sure that—if one were near her and saw more of her—she’d be mine.”
“Then,” said Madame de Vionnet, “tell Mrs. Newsome that!”
He wondered the more. “What good will that do you?” As she appeared unable at once to say, however, he brought out something else. “Is your daughter in love with our friend?”
“Ah,” she rather startlingly answered, “I wish you’d find out!”
He showed his surprise. “I? A stranger?”
“Oh you won’t be a stranger—presently. You shall see her quite, I assure you, as if you weren’t.”
It remained for him none the less an extraordinary notion. “It seems to me surely that if her mother can’t—”
“Ah little girls and their mothers to-day!” she rather inconsequently broke in. But she checked herself with something she seemed to give out as after all more to the point. “Tell her I’ve been good for him. Don’t you think I have?”
It had its effect on him—more than at the moment he quite measured. Yet he was consciously enough touched. “Oh if it’s all you—!”
“Well, it may not be ‘all,'” she interrupted, “but it’s to a great extent. Really and truly,” she added in a tone that was to take its place with him among things remembered.
“Then it’s very wonderful.” He smiled at her from a face that he felt as strained, and her own face for a moment kept him so. At last she also got up. “Well, don’t you think that for that—”
“I ought to save you?” So it was that the way to meet her—and the way, as well, in a manner, to get off—came over him. He heard himself use the exorbitant word, the very sound of which helped to determine his flight. “I’ll save you if I can.”
In Chad’s lovely home, however, one evening ten days later, he felt himself present at the collapse of the question of Jeanne de Vionnet’s shy secret. He had been dining there in the company of that young lady and her mother, as well as of other persons, and he had gone into the petit salon, at Chad’s request, on purpose to talk with her. The young man had put this to him as a favour—”I should like so awfully to know what you think of her. It will really be a chance for you,” he had said, “to see the jeune fille—I mean the type—as she actually is, and I don’t think that, as an observer of manners, it’s a thing you ought to miss. It will be an impression that—whatever else you take—you can carry home with you, where you’ll find again so much to compare it with.”
Strether knew well enough with what Chad wished him to compare it, and though he entirely assented he hadn’t yet somehow been so deeply reminded that he was being, as he constantly though mutely expressed it, used. He was as far as ever from making out exactly to what end; but he was none the less constantly accompanied by a sense of the service he rendered. He conceived only that this service was highly agreeable to those who profited by it; and he was indeed still waiting for the moment at which he should catch it in the act of proving disagreeable, proving in some degree intolerable, to himself. He failed quite to see how his situation could clear up at all logically except by some turn of events that would give him the pretext of disgust. He was building from day to day on the possibility of disgust, but each day brought forth meanwhile a new and more engaging bend of the road. That possibility was now ever so much further from sight than on the eve of his arrival, and he perfectly felt that, should it come at all, it would have to be at best inconsequent and violent. He struck himself as a little nearer to it only when he asked himself what service, in such a life of utility, he was after all rendering Mrs. Newsome. When he wished to help himself to believe that he was still all right he reflected—and in fact with wonder—on the unimpaired frequency of their correspondence; in relation to which what was after all more natural than that it should become more frequent just in proportion as their problem became more complicated?
Certain it is at any rate that he now often brought himself balm by the question, with the rich consciousness of yesterday’s letter, “Well, what can I do more than that—what can I do more than tell her everything?” To persuade himself that he did tell her, had told her, everything, he used to try to think of particular things he hadn’t told her. When at rare moments and in the watches of the night he pounced on one it generally showed itself to be—to a deeper scrutiny—not quite truly of the essence. When anything new struck him as coming up, or anything already noted as reappearing, he always immediately wrote, as if for fear that if he didn’t he would miss something; and also that he might be able to say to himself from time to time “She knows it NOW—even while I worry.” It was a great comfort to him in general not to have left past things to be dragged to light and explained; not to have to produce at so late a stage anything not produced, or anything even veiled and attenuated, at the moment. She knew it now: that was what he said to himself to-night in relation to the fresh fact of Chad’s acquaintance with the two ladies—not to speak of the fresher one of his own. Mrs. Newsome knew in other words that very night at Woollett that he himself knew Madame de Vionnet and that he had conscientiously been to see her; also that he had found her remarkably attractive and that there would probably be a good deal more to tell. But she further knew, or would know very soon, that, again conscientiously, he hadn’t repeated his visit; and that when Chad had asked him on the Countess’s behalf—Strether made her out vividly, with a thought at the back of his head, a Countess—if he wouldn’t name a day for dining with her, he had replied lucidly: “Thank you very much—impossible.” He had begged the young man would present his excuses and had trusted him to understand that it couldn’t really strike one as quite the straight thing. He hadn’t reported to Mrs. Newsome that he had promised to “save” Madame de Vionnet; but, so far as he was concerned with that reminiscence, he hadn’t at any rate promised to haunt her house. What Chad had understood could only, in truth, be inferred from Chad’s behaviour, which had been in this connexion as easy as in every other. He was easy, always, when he understood; he was easier still, if possible, when he didn’t; he had replied that he would make it all right; and he had proceeded to do this by substituting the present occasion—as he was ready to substitute others—for any, for every occasion as to which his old friend should have a funny scruple.
“Oh but I’m not a little foreign girl; I’m just as English as I can be,” Jeanne de Vionnet had said to him as soon as, in the petit salon, he sank, shyly enough on his own side, into the place near her vacated by Madame Gloriani at his approach. Madame Gloriani, who was in black velvet, with white lace and powdered hair, and whose somewhat massive majesty melted, at any contact, into the graciousness of some incomprehensible tongue, moved away to make room for the vague gentleman, after benevolent greetings to him which embodied, as he believed, in baffling accents, some recognition of his face from a couple of Sundays before. Then he had remarked—making the most of the advantage of his years—that it frightened him quite enough to find himself dedicated to the entertainment of a little foreign girl. There were girls he wasn’t afraid of—he was quite bold with little Americans. Thus it was that she had defended herself to the end—”Oh but I’m almost American too. That’s what mamma has wanted me to be—I mean LIKE that; for she has wanted me to have lots of freedom. She has known such good results from it.”
She was fairly beautiful to him—a faint pastel in an oval frame: he thought of her already as of some lurking image in a long gallery, the portrait of a small old-time princess of whom nothing was known but that she had died young. Little Jeanne wasn’t, doubtless, to die young, but one couldn’t, all the same, bear on her lightly enough. It was bearing hard, it was bearing as HE, in any case, wouldn’t bear, to concern himself, in relation to her, with the question of a young man. Odious really the question of a young man; one didn’t treat such a person as a maid-servant suspected of a “follower.” And then young men, young men—well, the thing was their business simply, or was at all events hers. She was fluttered, fairly fevered—to the point of a little glitter that came and went in her eyes and a pair of pink spots that stayed in her cheeks—with the great adventure of dining out and with the greater one still, possibly, of finding a gentleman whom she must think of as very, very old, a gentleman with eye-glasses, wrinkles, a long grizzled moustache. She spoke the prettiest English, our friend thought, that he had ever heard spoken, just as he had believed her a few minutes before to be speaking the prettiest French. He wondered almost wistfully if such a sweep of the lyre didn’t react on the spirit itself; and his fancy had in fact, before he knew it, begun so to stray and embroider that he finally found himself, absent and extravagant, sitting with the child in a friendly silence. Only by this time he felt her flutter to have fortunately dropped and that she was more at her ease. She trusted him, liked him, and it was to come back to him afterwards that she had told him things. She had dipped into the waiting medium at last and found neither surge nor chill—nothing but the small splash she could herself make in the pleasant warmth, nothing but the safety of dipping and dipping again. At the end of the ten minutes he was to spend with her his impression—with all it had thrown off and all it had taken in—was complete. She had been free, as she knew freedom, partly to show him that, unlike other little persons she knew, she had imbibed that ideal. She was delightfully quaint about herself, but the vision of what she had imbibed was what most held him. It really consisted, he was soon enough to feel, in just one great little matter, the fact that, whatever her nature, she was thoroughly—he had to cast about for the word, but it came—bred. He couldn’t of course on so short an acquaintance speak for her nature, but the idea of breeding was what she had meanwhile dropped into his mind. He had never yet known it so sharply presented. Her mother gave it, no doubt; but her mother, to make that less sensible, gave so much else besides, and on neither of the two previous occasions, extraordinary woman, Strether felt, anything like what she was giving tonight. Little Jeanne was a case, an exquisite case of education; whereas the Countess, whom it so amused him to think of by that denomination, was a case, also exquisite, of—well, he didn’t know what.
“He has wonderful taste, notre jeune homme”: this was what Gloriani said to him on turning away from the inspection of a small picture suspended near the door of the room. The high celebrity in question had just come in, apparently in search of Mademoiselle de Vionnet, but while Strether had got up from beside her their fellow guest, with his eye sharply caught, had paused for a long look. The thing was a landscape, of no size, but of the French school, as our friend was glad to feel he knew, and also of a quality—which he liked to think he should also have guessed; its frame was large out of proportion to the canvas, and he had never seen a person look at anything, he thought, just as Gloriani, with his nose very near and quick movements of the head from side to side and bottom to top, examined this feature of Chad’s collection. The artist used that word the next moment smiling courteously, wiping his nippers and looking round him further—paying the place in short by the very manner of his presence and by something Strether fancied he could make out in this particular glance, such a tribute as, to the latter’s sense, settled many things once for all. Strether was conscious at this instant, for that matter, as he hadn’t yet been, of how, round about him, quite without him, they WERE consistently settled. Gloriani’s smile, deeply Italian, he considered, and finely inscrutable, had had for him, during dinner, at which they were not neighbours, an indefinite greeting; but the quality in it was gone that had appeared on the other occasion to turn him inside out; it was as if even the momentary link supplied by the doubt between them had snapped. He was conscious now of the final reality, which was that there wasn’t so much a doubt as a difference altogether; all the more that over the difference the famous sculptor seemed to signal almost condolingly, yet oh how vacantly! as across some great flat sheet of water. He threw out the bridge of a charming hollow civility on which Strether wouldn’t have trusted his own full weight a moment. That idea, even though but transient and perhaps belated, had performed the office of putting Strether more at his ease, and the blurred picture had already dropped—dropped with the sound of something else said and with his becoming aware, by another quick turn, that Gloriani was now on the sofa talking with Jeanne, while he himself had in his ears again the familiar friendliness and the elusive meaning of the “Oh, oh, oh!” that had made him, a fortnight before, challenge Miss Barrace in vain. She had always the air, this picturesque and original lady, who struck him, so oddly, as both antique and modern—she had always the air of taking up some joke that one had already had out with her. The point itself, no doubt, was what was antique, and the use she made of it what was modern. He felt just now that her good-natured irony did bear on something, and it troubled him a little that she wouldn’t be more explicit only assuring him, with the pleasure of observation so visible in her, that she wouldn’t tell him more for the world. He could take refuge but in asking her what she had done with Waymarsh, though it must be added that he felt himself a little on the way to a clue after she had answered that this personage was, in the other room, engaged in conversation with Madame de Vionnet. He stared a moment at the image of such a conjunction; then, for Miss Barrace’s benefit, he wondered. “Is she too then under the charm—?”
“No, not a bit”—Miss Barrace was prompt. “She makes nothing of him. She’s bored. She won’t help you with him.”
“Oh,” Strether laughed, “she can’t do everything.
“Of course not—wonderful as she is. Besides, he makes nothing of HER. She won’t take him from me—though she wouldn’t, no doubt, having other affairs in hand, even if she could. I’ve never,” said Miss Barrace, “seen her fail with any one before. And to-night, when she’s so magnificent, it would seem to her strange—if she minded. So at any rate I have him all. Je suis tranquille!”
Strether understood, so far as that went; but he was feeling for his clue. “She strikes you to-night as particularly magnificent?”
“Surely. Almost as I’ve never seen her. Doesn’t she you? Why it’s FOR you.”
He persisted in his candour. “‘For’ me—?”
“Oh, oh, oh!” cried Miss Barrace, who persisted in the opposite of that quality.
“Well,” he acutely admitted, “she IS different. She’s gay.”
“She’s gay!” Miss Barrace laughed. “And she has beautiful shoulders—though there’s nothing different in that.”
“No,” said Strether, “one was sure of her shoulders. It isn’t her shoulders.”
His companion, with renewed mirth and the finest sense, between the puffs of her cigarette, of the drollery of things, appeared to find their conversation highly delightful. “Yes, it isn’t her shoulders .”
“What then is it?” Strether earnestly enquired.
“Why, it’s SHE—simply. It’s her mood. It’s her charm.”
“Of course it’s her charm, but we’re speaking of the difference.” “Well,” Miss Barrace explained, “she’s just brilliant, as we used to say. That’s all. She’s various. She’s fifty women.”
“Ah but only one”—Strether kept it clear—”at a time.”
“Perhaps. But in fifty times—!”
“Oh we shan’t come to that,” our friend declared; and the next moment he had moved in another direction. “Will you answer me a plain question? Will she ever divorce?”
Miss Barrace looked at him through all her tortoise-shell. “Why should she?”
It wasn’t what he had asked for, he signified; but he met it well enough. “To marry Chad.”
“Why should she marry Chad?”
“Because I’m convinced she’s very fond of him. She has done wonders for him.”
“Well then, how could she do more? Marrying a man, or woman either,” Miss Barrace sagely went on, “is never the wonder for any Jack and Jill can bring THAT off. The wonder is their doing such things without marrying.”
Strether considered a moment this proposition. “You mean it’s so beautiful for our friends simply to go on so?”
But whatever he said made her laugh. “Beautiful.”
He nevertheless insisted. “And THAT because it’s disinterested?”
She was now, however, suddenly tired of the question. “Yes then—call it that. Besides, she’ll never divorce. Don’t, moreover,” she added, “believe everything you hear about her husband.”
“He’s not then,” Strether asked, “a wretch?”
“Oh yes. But charming.”
“Do you know him?”
“I’ve met him. He’s bien aimable.”
“To every one but his wife?”
“Oh for all I know, to her too—to any, to every woman. I hope you at any rate,” she pursued with a quick change, “appreciate the care I take of Mr. Waymarsh.”
“Oh immensely.” But Strether was not yet in line. “At all events,” he roundly brought out, “the attachment’s an innocent one.”
“Mine and his? Ah,” she laughed, “don’t rob it of ALL interest!”
“I mean our friend’s here—to the lady we’ve been speaking of.” That was what he had settled to as an indirect but none the less closely involved consequence of his impression of Jeanne. That was where he meant to stay. “It’s innocent,” he repeated—”I see the whole thing.”
Mystified by his abrupt declaration, she had glanced over at Gloriani as at the unnamed subject of his allusion, but the next moment she had understood; though indeed not before Strether had noticed her momentary mistake and wondered what might possibly be behind that too. He already knew that the sculptor admired Madame de Vionnet; but did this admiration also represent an attachment of which the innocence was discussable? He was moving verily in a strange air and on ground not of the firmest. He looked hard for an instant at Miss Barrace, but she had already gone on. “All right with Mr. Newsome? Why of course she is!”—and she got gaily back to the question of her own good friend. “I dare say you’re surprised that I’m not worn out with all I see—it being so much!—of Sitting Bull. But I’m not, you know—I don’t mind him; I bear up, and we get on beautifully. I’m very strange; I’m like that; and often I can’t explain. There are people who are supposed interesting or remarkable or whatever, and who bore me to death; and then there are others as to whom nobody can understand what anybody sees in them—in whom I see no end of things.” Then after she had smoked a moment, “He’s touching, you know,” she said.
“‘Know’?” Strether echoed—”don’t I, indeed? We must move you almost to tears.”
“Oh but I don’t mean YOU!” she laughed.
“You ought to then, for the worst sign of all—as I must have it for you—is that you can’t help me. That’s when a woman pities.”
“Ah but I do help you!” she cheerfully insisted.
Again he looked at her hard, and then after a pause: “No you don’t!”
Her tortoise-shell, on its long chain, rattled down. “I help you with Sitting Bull. That’s a good deal.”
“Oh that, yes.” But Strether hesitated. “Do you mean he talks of me?”
“So that I have to defend you? No, never.’
“I see,” Strether mused. “It’s too deep.”
“That’s his only fault,” she returned—”that everything, with him, is too deep. He has depths of silence—which he breaks only at the longest intervals by a remark. And when the remark comes it’s always something he has seen or felt for himself—never a bit banal THAT would be what one might have feared and what would kill me But never.” She smoked again as she thus, with amused complacency, appreciated her acquisition. “And never about you. We keep clear of you. We’re wonderful. But I’ll tell you what he does do,” she continued: “he tries to make me presents.”
“Presents?” poor Strether echoed, conscious with a pang that HE hadn’t yet tried that in any quarter.
“Why you see,” she explained, “he’s as fine as ever in the victoria; so that when I leave him, as I often do almost for hours—he likes it so—at the doors of shops, the sight of him there helps me, when I come out, to know my carriage away off in the rank. But sometimes, for a change, he goes with me into the shops, and then I’ve all I can do to prevent his buying me things.”
“He wants to ‘treat’ you?” Strether almost gasped at all he himself hadn’t thought of. He had a sense of admiration. “Oh he’s much more in the real tradition than I. Yes,” he mused, “it’s the sacred rage.”
“The sacred rage, exactly!”—and Miss Barrace, who hadn’t before heard this term applied, recognised its bearing with a clap of her gemmed hands. “Now I do know why he’s not banal. But I do prevent him all the same—and if you saw what he sometimes selects—from buying. I save him hundreds and hundreds. I only take flowers.”
“Flowers?” Strether echoed again with a rueful reflexion. How many nosegays had her present converser sent?
“Innocent flowers,” she pursued, “as much as he likes. And he sends me splendours; he knows all the best places—he has found them for himself; he’s wonderful.”
“He hasn’t told them to me,” her friend smiled, “he has a life of his own.” But Strether had swung back to the consciousness that for himself after all it never would have done. Waymarsh hadn’t Mrs. Waymarsh in the least to consider, whereas Lambert Strether had constantly, in the inmost honour of his thoughts, to consider Mrs. Newsome. He liked moreover to feel how much his friend was in the real tradition. Yet he had his conclusion. “WHAT a rage it is!” He had worked it out. “It’s an opposition.”
She followed, but at a distance. “That’s what I feel. Yet to what?”
“Well, he thinks, you know, that I’VE a life of my own. And I haven’t!”
“You haven’t?” She showed doubt, and her laugh confirmed it. “Oh, oh, oh!”
“No—not for myself. I seem to have a life only for other people.”
“Ah for them and WITH them! Just now for instance with—”
“Well, with whom?” he asked before she had had time to say.
His tone had the effect of making her hesitate and even, as he guessed, speak with a difference. “Say with Miss Gostrey. What do you do for HER?” It really made him wonder. “Nothing at all!”
Madame de Vionnet, having meanwhile come in, was at present close to them, and Miss Barrace hereupon, instead of risking a rejoinder, became again with a look that measured her from top to toe all mere long-handled appreciative tortoise-shell. She had struck our friend, from the first of her appearing, as dressed for a great occasion, and she met still more than on either of the others the conception reawakened in him at their garden-party, the idea of the femme du monde in her habit as she lived. Her bare shoulders and arms were white and beautiful; the materials of her dress, a mixture, as he supposed, of silk and crape, were of a silvery grey so artfully composed as to give an impression of warm splendour; and round her neck she wore a collar of large old emeralds, the green note of which was more dimly repeated, at other points of her apparel, in embroidery, in enamel, in satin, in substances and textures vaguely rich. Her head, extremely fair and exquisitely festal, was like a happy fancy, a notion of the antique, on an old precious medal, some silver coin of the Renaissance; while her slim lightness and brightness, her gaiety, her expression, her decision, contributed to an effect that might have been felt by a poet as half mythological and half conventional. He could have compared her to a goddess still partly engaged in a morning cloud, or to a sea-nymph waist-high in the summer surge. Above all she suggested to him the reflexion that the femme du monde—in these finest developments of the type—was, like Cleopatra in the play, indeed various and multifold. She had aspects, characters, days, nights—or had them at least, showed them by a mysterious law of her own, when in addition to everything she happened also to be a woman of genius. She was an obscure person, a muffled person one day, and a showy person, an uncovered person the next. He thought of Madame de Vionnet to-night as showy and uncovered, though he felt the formula rough, because, thanks to one of the short-cuts of genius she had taken all his categories by surprise. Twice during dinner he had met Chad’s eyes in a longish look; but these communications had in truth only stirred up again old ambiguities—so little was it clear from them whether they were an appeal or an admonition. “You see how I’m fixed,” was what they appeared to convey; yet how he was fixed was exactly what Strether didn’t see. However, perhaps he should see now.
“Are you capable of the very great kindness of going to relieve Newsome, for a few minutes, of the rather crushing responsibility of Madame Gloriani, while I say a word, if he’ll allow me, to Mr. Strether, of whom I’ve a question to ask? Our host ought to talk a bit to those other ladies, and I’ll come back in a minute to your rescue.” She made this proposal to Miss Barrace as if her consciousness of a special duty had just flickered-up, but that lady’s recognition of Strether’s little start at it—as at a betrayal on the speaker’s part of a domesticated state—was as mute as his own comment; and after an instant, when their fellow guest had good-naturedly left them, he had been given something else to think of. “Why has Maria so suddenly gone? Do you know?” That was the question Madame de Vionnet had brought with her.
“I’m afraid I’ve no reason to give you but the simple reason I’ve had from her in a note—the sudden obligation to join in the south a sick friend who has got worse.”
“Ah then she has been writing you?”
“Not since she went—I had only a brief explanatory word before she started. I went to see her,” Strether explained—”it was the day after I called on you—but she was already on her way, and her concierge told me that in case of my coming I was to be informed she had written to me. I found her note when I got home.”
Madame de Vionnet listened with interest and with her eyes on Strether’s face; then her delicately decorated head had a small melancholy motion. “She didn’t write to ME. I went to see her,” she added, “almost immediately after I had seen you, and as I assured her I would do when I met her at Gloriani’s. She hadn’t then told me she was to be absent, and I felt at her door as if I understood. She’s absent—with all respect to her sick friend, though I know indeed she has plenty—so that I may not see her. She doesn’t want to meet me again. Well,” she continued with a beautiful conscious mildness, “I liked and admired her beyond every one in the old time, and she knew it—perhaps that’s precisely what has made her go—and I dare say I haven’t lost her for ever.” Strether still said nothing; he had a horror, as he now thought of himself, of being in question between women—was in fact already quite enough on his way to that, and there was moreover, as it came to him, perceptibly, something behind these allusions and professions that, should he take it in, would square but ill with his present resolve to simplify. It was as if, for him, all the same, her softness and sadness were sincere. He felt that not less when she soon went on: “I’m extremely glad of her happiness.” But it also left him mute—sharp and fine though the imputation it conveyed. What it conveyed was that HE was Maria Gostrey’s happiness, and for the least little instant he had the impulse to challenge the thought. He could have done so however only by saying “What then do you suppose to be between us?” and he was wonderfully glad a moment later not to have spoken. He would rather seem stupid any day than fatuous, and he drew back as well, with a smothered inward shudder, from the consideration of what women—of highly-developed type in particular—might think of each other. Whatever he had come out for he hadn’t come to go into that; so that he absolutely took up nothing his interlocutress had now let drop. Yet, though he had kept away from her for days, had laid wholly on herself the burden of their meeting again, she hadn’t a gleam of irritation to show him. “Well, about Jeanne now?” she smiled—it had the gaiety with which she had originally come in. He felt it on the instant to represent her motive and real errand. But he had been schooling her of a truth to say much in proportion to his little. “Do you make out that she has a sentiment? I mean for Mr. Newsome.”
Almost resentful, Strether could at last be prompt. “How can I make out such things?”
She remained perfectly good-natured. “Ah but they’re beautiful little things, and you make out—don’t pretend—everything in the world. Haven’t you,” she asked, “been talking with her?”
“Yes, but not about Chad. At least not much.”
“Oh you don’t require ‘much’!” she reassuringly declared. But she immediately changed her ground. “I hope you remember your promise of the other day.”
“To ‘save’ you, as you called it?”
“I call it so still. You WILL?” she insisted. “You haven’t repented?”
He wondered. “No—but I’ve been thinking what I meant.”
She kept it up. “And not, a little, what I did?”
“No—that’s not necessary. It will be enough if I know what I meant myself.”
“And don’t you know,” she asked, “by this time?”
Again he had a pause. “I think you ought to leave it to me. But how long,” he added, “do you give me?”
“It seems to me much more a question of how long you give ME. Doesn’t our friend here himself, at any rate,” she went on, “perpetually make me present to you?”
“Not,” Strether replied, “by ever speaking of you to me.”
“He never does that?”
She considered, and, if the fact was disconcerting to her, effectually concealed it. The next minute indeed she had recovered. “No, he wouldn’t. But do you NEED that?”
Her emphasis was wonderful, and though his eyes had been wandering he looked at her longer now. “I see what you mean.”
“Of course you see what I mean.”
Her triumph was gentle, and she really had tones to make justice weep. “I’ve before me what he owes you.”
“Admit then that that’s something,” she said, yet still with the same discretion in her pride.
He took in this note but went straight on. “You’ve made of him what I see, but what I don’t see is how in the world you’ve done it.”
“Ah that’s another question!” she smiled. “The point is of what use is your declining to know me when to know Mr. Newsome—as you do me the honour to find him—IS just to know me.”
“I see,” he mused, still with his eyes on her. “I shouldn’t have met you to-night.”
She raised and dropped her linked hands. “It doesn’t matter. If I trust you why can’t you a little trust me too? And why can’t you also,” she asked in another tone, “trust yourself?” But she gave him no time to reply. “Oh I shall be so easy for you! And I’m glad at any rate you’ve seen my child.”
“I’m glad too,” he said; “but she does you no good.”
“No good?”—Madame de Vionnet had a clear stare. “Why she’s an angel of light.”
“That’s precisely the reason. Leave her alone. Don’t try to find out. I mean,” he explained, “about what you spoke to me of—the way she feels.”
His companion wondered. “Because one really won’t?”
“Well, because I ask you, as a favour to myself, not to. She’s the most charming creature I’ve ever seen. Therefore don’t touch her. Don’t know—don’t want to know. And moreover—yes—you won’t.”
It was an appeal, of a sudden, and she took it in. “As a favour to you?”
“Well—since you ask me.”
“Anything, everything you ask,” she smiled. “I shan’t know then—never. Thank you,” she added with peculiar gentleness as she turned away.
The sound of it lingered with him, making him fairly feel as if he had been tripped up and had a fall. In the very act of arranging with her for his independence he had, under pressure from a particular perception, inconsistently, quite stupidly, committed himself, and, with her subtlety sensitive on the spot to an advantage, she had driven in by a single word a little golden nail, the sharp intention of which he signally felt. He hadn’t detached, he had more closely connected himself, and his eyes, as he considered with some intensity this circumstance, met another pair which had just come within their range and which struck him as reflecting his sense of what he had done. He recognised them at the same moment as those of little Bilham, who had apparently drawn near on purpose to speak to him, and little Bilham wasn’t, in the conditions, the person to whom his heart would be most closed. They were seated together a minute later at the angle of the room obliquely opposite the corner in which Gloriani was still engaged with Jeanne de Vionnet, to whom at first and in silence their attention had been benevolently given. “I can’t see for my life,” Strether had then observed, “how a young fellow of any spirit—such a one as you for instance—can be admitted to the sight of that young lady without being hard hit. Why don’t you go in, little Bilham?” He remembered the tone into which he had been betrayed on the garden-bench at the sculptor’s reception, and this might make up for that by being much more the right sort of thing to say to a young man worthy of any advice at all. “There WOULD be some reason.”
“Some reason for what?”
“Why for hanging on here.”
“To offer my hand and fortune to Mademoiselle de Vionnet?”
“Well,” Strether asked, “to what lovelier apparition COULD you offer them? She’s the sweetest little thing I’ve ever seen.”
“She’s certainly immense. I mean she’s the real thing. I believe the pale pink petals are folded up there for some wondrous efflorescence in time; to open, that is, to some great golden sun. I’M unfortunately but a small farthing candle. What chance in such a field for a poor little painter-man?”
“Oh you’re good enough,” Strether threw out.
“Certainly I’m good enough. We’re good enough, I consider, nous autres, for anything. But she’s TOO good. There’s the difference. They wouldn’t look at me.”
Strether, lounging on his divan and still charmed by the young girl, whose eyes had consciously strayed to him, he fancied, with a vague smile—Strether, enjoying the whole occasion as with dormant pulses at last awake and in spite of new material thrust upon him, thought over his companion’s words. “Whom do you mean by ‘they’? She and her mother?”
“She and her mother. And she has a father too, who, whatever else he may be, certainly can’t be indifferent to the possibilities she represents. Besides, there’s Chad.”
Strether was silent a little. “Ah but he doesn’t care for her—not, I mean, it appears, after all, in the sense I’m speaking of. He’s NOT in love with her.”
“No—but he’s her best friend; after her mother. He’s very fond of her. He has his ideas about what can be done for her.”
“Well, it’s very strange!” Strether presently remarked with a sighing sense of fulness.
“Very strange indeed. That’s just the beauty of it. Isn’t it very much the kind of beauty you had in mind,” little Bilham went on, “when you were so wonderful and so inspiring to me the other day? Didn’t you adjure me, in accents I shall never forget, to see, while I’ve a chance, everything I can?—and REALLY to see, for it must have been that only you meant. Well, you did me no end of good, and I’m doing my best. I DO make it out a situation.”
“So do I!” Strether went on after a moment. But he had the next minute an inconsequent question. “How comes Chad so mixed up, anyway?”
“Ah, ah, ah!”—and little Bilham fell back on his cushions.
It reminded our friend of Miss Barrace, and he felt again the brush of his sense of moving in a maze of mystic closed allusions. Yet he kept hold of his thread. “Of course I understand really; only the general transformation makes me occasionally gasp. Chad with such a voice in the settlement of the future of a little countess—no,” he declared, “it takes more time! You say moreover,” he resumed, “that we’re inevitably, people like you and me, out of the running. The curious fact remains that Chad himself isn’t. The situation doesn’t make for it, but in a different one he could have her if he would.”
“Yes, but that’s only because he’s rich and because there’s a possibility of his being richer. They won’t think of anything but a great name or a great fortune.”
“Well,” said Strether, “he’ll have no great fortune on THESE lines. He must stir his stumps.”
“Is that,” little Bilham enquired, “what you were saying to Madame de Vionnet?”
“No—I don’t say much to her. Of course, however,” Strether continued, “he can make sacrifices if he likes.”
Little Bilham had a pause. “Oh he’s not keen for sacrifices; or thinks, that is, possibly, that he has made enough.”
“Well, it IS virtuous,” his companion observed with some decision.
“That’s exactly,” the young man dropped after a moment, “what I mean.”
It kept Strether himself silent a little. “I’ve made it out for myself,” he then went on; “I’ve really, within the last half-hour, got hold of it. I understand it in short at last; which at first—when you originally spoke to me—I didn’t. Nor when Chad originally spoke to me either.”
“Oh,” said little Bilham, “I don’t think that at that time you believed me.”
“Yes—I did; and I believed Chad too. It would have been odious and unmannerly—as well as quite perverse—if I hadn’t. What interest have you in deceiving me?”
The young man cast about. “What interest have I?”
“Yes. Chad MIGHT have. But you?”
“Ah, ah, ah!” little Bilham exclaimed.
It might, on repetition, as a mystification, have irritated our friend a little, but he knew, once more, as we have seen, where he was, and his being proof against everything was only another attestation that he meant to stay there. “I couldn’t, without my own impression, realise. She’s a tremendously clever brilliant capable woman, and with an extraordinary charm on top of it all—the charm we surely all of us this evening know what to think of. It isn’t every clever brilliant capable woman that has it. In fact it’s rare with any woman. So there you are,” Strether proceeded as if not for little Bilham’s benefit alone. “I understand what a relation with such a woman—what such a high fine friendship—may be. It can’t be vulgar or coarse, anyway—and that’s the point.”
“Yes, that’s the point,” said little Bilham. “It can’t be vulgar or coarse. And, bless us and save us, it ISn’t! It’s, upon my word, the very finest thing I ever saw in my life, and the most distinguished.”
Strether, from beside him and leaning back with him as he leaned, dropped on him a momentary look which filled a short interval and of which he took no notice. He only gazed before him with intent participation. “Of course what it has done for him,” Strether at all events presently pursued, “of course what it has done for him—that is as to HOW it has so wonderfully worked—isn’t a thing I pretend to understand. I’ve to take it as I find it. There he is.”
“There he is!” little Bilham echoed. “And it’s really and truly she. I don’t understand either, even with my longer and closer opportunity. But I’m like you,” he added; “I can admire and rejoice even when I’m a little in the dark. You see I’ve watched it for some three years, and especially for this last. He wasn’t so bad before it as I seem to have made out that you think—”
“Oh I don’t think anything now!” Strether impatiently broke in: “that is but what I DO think! I mean that originally, for her to have cared for him—”
“There must have been stuff in him? Oh yes, there was stuff indeed, and much more of it than ever showed, I dare say, at home. Still, you know,” the young man in all fairness developed, “there was room for her, and that’s where she came in. She saw her chance and took it. That’s what strikes me as having been so fine. But of course,” he wound up, “he liked her first.”
“Naturally,” said Strether.
“I mean that they first met somehow and somewhere—I believe in some American house—and she, without in the least then intending it, made her impression. Then with time and opportunity he made his; and after THAT she was as bad as he.”
Strether vaguely took it up. “As ‘bad’?”
“She began, that is, to care—to care very much. Alone, and in her horrid position, she found it, when once she had started, an interest. It was, it is, an interest, and it did—it continues to do—a lot for herself as well. So she still cares. She cares in fact,” said little Bilham thoughtfully “more.”
Strether’s theory that it was none of his business was somehow not damaged by the way he took this. “More, you mean, than he?” On which his companion looked round at him, and now for an instant their eyes met. “More than he?” he repeated.
Little Bilham, for as long, hung fire. “Will you never tell any one?”
Strether thought. “Whom should I tell?”
“Why I supposed you reported regularly—”
“To people at home?”—Strether took him up. “Well, I won’t tell them this.”
The young man at last looked away. “Then she does now care more than he.”
“Oh!” Strether oddly exclaimed.
But his companion immediately met it. “Haven’t you after all had your impression of it? That’s how you’ve got hold of him.”
“Ah but I haven’t got hold of him!”
“Oh I say!” But it was all little Bilham said.
“It’s at any rate none of my business. I mean,” Strether explained, “nothing else than getting hold of him is.” It appeared, however, to strike him as his business to add: “The fact remains nevertheless that she has saved him.”
Little Bilham just waited. “I thought that was what you were to do.”
But Strether had his answer ready. “I’m speaking—in connexion with her—of his manners and morals, his character and life. I’m speaking of him as a person to deal with and talk with and live with—speaking of him as a social animal.”
“And isn’t it as a social animal that you also want him?”
“Certainly; so that it’s as if she had saved him FOR us.”
“It strikes you accordingly then,” the young man threw out, “as for you all to save HER?”
“Oh for us ‘all’—!” Strether could but laugh at that. It brought him back, however, to the point he had really wished to make. “They’ve accepted their situation—hard as it is. They’re not free—at least she’s not; but they take what’s left to them. It’s a friendship, of a beautiful sort; and that’s what makes them so strong. They’re straight, they feel; and they keep each other up. It’s doubtless she, however, who, as you yourself have hinted, feels it most.”
Little Bilham appeared to wonder what he had hinted. “Feels most that they’re straight?”
“Well, feels that SHE is, and the strength that comes from it. She keeps HIM up—she keeps the whole thing up. When people are able to it’s fine. She’s wonderful, wonderful, as Miss Barrace says; and he is, in his way, too; however, as a mere man, he may sometimes rebel and not feel that he finds his account in it. She has simply given him an immense moral lift, and what that can explain is prodigious. That’s why I speak of it as a situation. It IS one, if there ever was.” And Strether, with his head back and his eyes on the ceiling, seemed to lose himself in the vision of it.
His companion attended deeply. “You state it much better than I could.” “Oh you see it doesn’t concern you.”
Little Bilham considered. “I thought you said just now that it doesn’t concern you either.”
“Well, it doesn’t a bit as Madame de Vionnet’s affair. But as we were again saying just now, what did I come out for but to save him?”
“Yes—to remove him.”
“To save him by removal; to win him over to HIMSELF thinking it best he shall take up business—thinking he must immediately do therefore what’s necessary to that end.”
“Well,” said little Bilham after a moment, “you HAVE won him over. He does think it best. He has within a day or two again said to me as much.”
“And that,” Strether asked, “is why you consider that he cares less than she?”
“Cares less for her than she for him? Yes, that’s one of the reasons. But other things too have given me the impression. A man, don’t you think?” little Bilham presently pursued, “CAN’T, in such conditions, care so much as a woman. It takes different conditions to make him, and then perhaps he cares more. Chad,” he wound up, “has his possible future before him.”
“Are you speaking of his business future?”
“No—on the contrary; of the other, the future of what you so justly call their situation. M. de Vionnet may live for ever.”
“So that they can’t marry?”
The young man waited a moment. “Not being able to marry is all they’ve with any confidence to look forward to. A woman—a particular woman—may stand that strain. But can a man?” he propounded.
Strether’s answer was as prompt as if he had already, for himself, worked it out. “Not without a very high ideal of conduct. But that’s just what we’re attributing to Chad. And how, for that matter,” he mused, “does his going to America diminish the particular strain? Wouldn’t it seem rather to add to it?”
“Out of sight out of mind!” his companion laughed. Then more bravely: “Wouldn’t distance lessen the torment?” But before Strether could reply, “The thing is, you see, Chad ought to marry!” he wound up.
Strether, for a little, appeared to think of it. “If you talk of torments you don’t diminish mine!” he then broke out. The next moment he was on his feet with a question. “He ought to marry whom?”
Little Bilham rose more slowly. “Well, some one he CAN—some thoroughly nice girl.”
Strether’s eyes, as they stood together, turned again to Jeanne. “Do you mean HER?”
His friend made a sudden strange face. “After being in love with her mother? No.”
“But isn’t it exactly your idea that he ISn’t in love with her mother?”
His friend once more had a pause. “Well, he isn’t at any rate in love with Jeanne.”
“I dare say not.”
“How CAN he be with any other woman?”
“Oh that I admit. But being in love isn’t, you know, here”—little Bilham spoke in friendly reminder—”thought necessary, in strictness, for marriage.”
“And what torment—to call a torment—can there ever possibly be with a woman like that?” As if from the interest of his own question Strether had gone on without hearing. “Is it for her to have turned a man out so wonderfully, too, only for somebody else?” He appeared to make a point of this, and little Bilham looked at him now. “When it’s for each other that people give things up they don’t miss them.” Then he threw off as with an extravagance of which he was conscious: “Let them face the future together!”
Little Bilham looked at him indeed. “You mean that after all he shouldn’t go back?”
“I mean that if he gives her up—!”
“Well, he ought to be ashamed of himself.” But Strether spoke with a sound that might have passed for a laugh.