Strether occupied beside little Bilham, three evenings after his interview with Mamie Pocock, the same deep divan they had enjoyed together on the first occasion of our friend’s meeting Madame de Vionnet and her daughter in the apartment of the Boulevard Malesherbes, where his position affirmed itself again as ministering to an easy exchange of impressions. The present evening had a different stamp; if the company was much more numerous, so, inevitably, were the ideas set in motion. It was on the other hand, however, now strongly marked that the talkers moved, in respect to such matters, round an inner, a protected circle. They knew at any rate what really concerned them to-night, and Strether had begun by keeping his companion close to it. Only a few of Chad’s guests had dined—that is fifteen or twenty, a few compared with the large concourse offered to sight by eleven o’clock; but number and mass, quantity and quality, light, fragrance, sound, the overflow of hospitality meeting the high tide of response, had all from the first pressed upon Strether’s consciousness, and he felt himself somehow part and parcel of the most festive scene, as the term was, in which he had ever in his life been engaged. He had perhaps seen, on Fourths of July and on dear old domestic Commencements, more people assembled, but he had never seen so many in proportion to the space, or had at all events never known so great a promiscuity to show so markedly as picked. Numerous as was the company, it had still been made so by selection, and what was above all rare for Strether was that, by no fault of his own, he was in the secret of the principle that had worked. He hadn’t enquired, he had averted his head, but Chad had put him a pair of questions that themselves smoothed the ground. He hadn’t answered the questions, he had replied that they were the young man’s own affair; and he had then seen perfectly that the latter’s direction was already settled.
Chad had applied for counsel only by way of intimating that he knew what to do; and he had clearly never known it better than in now presenting to his sister the whole circle of his society. This was all in the sense and the spirit of the note struck by him on that lady’s arrival; he had taken at the station itself a line that led him without a break, and that enabled him to lead the Pococks—though dazed a little, no doubt, breathless, no doubt, and bewildered—to the uttermost end of the passage accepted by them perforce as pleasant. He had made it for them violently pleasant and mercilessly full; the upshot of which was, to Strether’s vision, that they had come all the way without discovering it to be really no passage at all. It was a brave blind alley, where to pass was impossible and where, unless they stuck fast, they would have—which was always awkward—publicly to back out. They were touching bottom assuredly tonight; the whole scene represented the terminus of the cul-de-sac. So could things go when there was a hand to keep them consistent—a hand that pulled the wire with a skill at which the elder man more and more marvelled. The elder man felt responsible, but he also felt successful, since what had taken place was simply the issue of his own contention, six weeks before, that they properly should wait to see what their friends would have really to say. He had determined Chad to wait, he had determined him to see; he was therefore not to quarrel with the time given up to the business. As much as ever, accordingly, now that a fortnight had elapsed, the situation created for Sarah, and against which she had raised no protest, was that of her having accommodated herself to her adventure as to a pleasure-party surrendered perhaps even somewhat in excess to bustle and to “pace.” If her brother had been at any point the least bit open to criticism it might have been on the ground of his spicing the draught too highly and pouring the cup too full. Frankly treating the whole occasion of the presence of his relatives as an opportunity for amusement, he left it, no doubt, but scant margin as an opportunity for anything else. He suggested, invented, abounded—yet all the while with the loosest easiest rein. Strether, during his own weeks, had gained a sense of knowing Paris; but he saw it afresh, and with fresh emotion, in the form of the knowledge offered to his colleague.
A thousand unuttered thoughts hummed for him in the air of these observations; not the least frequent of which was that Sarah might well of a truth not quite know whither she was drifting. She was in no position not to appear to expect that Chad should treat her handsomely; yet she struck our friend as privately stiffening a little each time she missed the chance of marking the great nuance. The great nuance was in brief that of course her brother must treat her handsomely—she should like to see him not; but that treating her handsomely, none the less, wasn’t all in all—treating her handsomely buttered no parsnips; and that in fine there were moments when she felt the fixed eyes of their admirable absent mother fairly screw into the flat of her back. Strether, watching, after his habit, and overscoring with thought, positively had moments of his own in which he found himself sorry for her—occasions on which she affected him as a person seated in a runaway vehicle and turning over the question of a possible jump. WOULD she jump, could she, would THAT be a safe placed—this question, at such instants, sat for him in her lapse into pallor, her tight lips, her conscious eyes. It came back to the main point at issue: would she be, after all, to be squared? He believed on the whole she would jump; yet his alternations on this subject were the more especial stuff of his suspense. One thing remained well before him—a conviction that was in fact to gain sharpness from the impressions of this evening: that if she SHOULD gather in her skirts, close her eyes and quit the carriage while in motion, he would promptly enough become aware. She would alight from her headlong course more or less directly upon him; it would be appointed to him, unquestionably, to receive her entire weight. Signs and portents of the experience thus in reserve for him had as it happened, multiplied even through the dazzle of Chad’s party. It was partly under the nervous consciousness of such a prospect that, leaving almost every one in the two other rooms, leaving those of the guests already known to him as well as a mass of brilliant strangers of both sexes and of several varieties of speech, he had desired five quiet minutes with little Bilham, whom he always found soothing and even a little inspiring, and to whom he had actually moreover something distinct and important to say.
He had felt of old—for it already seemed long ago—rather humiliated at discovering he could learn in talk with a personage so much his junior the lesson of a certain moral ease; but he had now got used to that—whether or no the mixture of the fact with other humiliations had made it indistinct, whether or no directly from little Bilham’s example, the example of his being contentedly just the obscure and acute little Bilham he was. It worked so for him, Strether seemed to see; and our friend had at private hours a wan smile over the fact that he himself, after so many more years, was still in search of something that would work. However, as we have said, it worked just now for them equally to have found a corner a little apart. What particularly kept it apart was the circumstance that the music in the salon was admirable, with two or three such singers as it was a privilege to hear in private. Their presence gave a distinction to Chad’s entertainment, and the interest of calculating their effect on Sarah was actually so sharp as to be almost painful. Unmistakeably, in her single person, the motive of the composition and dressed in a splendour of crimson which affected Strether as the sound of a fall through a skylight, she would now be in the forefront of the listening circle and committed by it up to her eyes. Those eyes during the wonderful dinner itself he hadn’t once met; having confessedly—perhaps a little pusillanimously—arranged with Chad that he should be on the same side of the table. But there was no use in having arrived now with little Bilham at an unprecedented point of intimacy unless he could pitch everything into the pot. “You who sat where you could see her, what does she make of it all? By which I mean on what terms does she take it?”
“Oh she takes it, I judge, as proving that the claim of his family is more than ever justified.”
“She isn’t then pleased with what he has to show?”
“On the contrary; she’s pleased with it as with his capacity to do this kind of thing—more than she has been pleased with anything for a long time. But she wants him to show it THERE. He has no right to waste it on the likes of us.”
Strether wondered. “She wants him to move the whole thing over?”
“The whole thing—with an important exception. Everything he has ‘picked up’—and the way he knows how. She sees no difficulty in that. She’d run the show herself, and she’ll make the handsome concession that Woollett would be on the whole in some ways the better for it. Not that it wouldn’t be also in some ways the better for Woollett. The people there are just as good.”
“Just as good as you and these others? Ah that may be. But such an occasion as this, whether or no,” Strether said, “isn’t the people. It’s what has made the people possible.”
“Well then,” his friend replied, “there you are; I give you my impression for what it’s worth. Mrs. Pocock has SEEN, and that’s to-night how she sits there. If you were to have a glimpse of her face you’d understand me. She has made up her mind—to the sound of expensive music.”
Strether took it freely in. “Ah then I shall have news of her.”
“I don’t want to frighten you, but I think that likely. However,” little Bilham continued, “if I’m of the least use to you to hold on by—!”
“You’re not of the least!”—and Strether laid an appreciative hand on him to say it. “No one’s of the least.” With which, to mark how gaily he could take it, he patted his companion’s knee. “I must meet my fate alone, and I SHALL—oh you’ll see! And yet,” he pursued the next moment, “you CAN help me too. You once said to me”—he followed this further—”that you held Chad should marry. I didn’t see then so well as I know now that you meant he should marry Miss Pocock. Do you still consider that he should? Because if you do”—he kept it up—”I want you immediately to change your mind. You can help me that way.”
“Help you by thinking he should NOT marry?”
“Not marry at all events Mamie.”
“And who then?”
“Ah,” Strether returned, “that I’m not obliged to say. But Madame de Vionnet—I suggest—when he can.’
“Oh!” said little Bilham with some sharpness.
“Oh precisely! But he needn’t marry at all—I’m at any rate not obliged to provide for it. Whereas in your case I rather feel that I AM.”
Little Bilham was amused. “Obliged to provide for my marrying?”
“Yes—after all I’ve done to you!”
The young man weighed it. “Have you done as much as that?”
“Well,” said Strether, thus challenged, “of course I must remember what you’ve also done to ME. We may perhaps call it square. But all the same,” he went on, “I wish awfully you’d marry Mamie Pocock yourself.”
Little Bilham laughed out. “Why it was only the other night, in this very place, that you were proposing to me a different union altogether.”
“Mademoiselle de Vionnet?” Well, Strether easily confessed it. “That, I admit, was a vain image. THIS is practical politics. I want to do something good for both of you—I wish you each so well; and you can see in a moment the trouble it will save me to polish you off by the same stroke. She likes you, you know. You console her. And she’s splendid.”
Little Bilham stared as a delicate appetite stares at an overheaped plate. “What do I console her for?”
It just made his friend impatient. “Oh come, you knows”
“And what proves for you that she likes me?”
“Why the fact that I found her three days ago stopping at home alone all the golden afternoon on the mere chance that you’d come to her, and hanging over her balcony on that of seeing your cab drive up. I don’t know what you want more.”
Little Bilham after a moment found it. “Only just to know what proves to you that I like HER.”
“Oh if what I’ve just mentioned isn’t enough to make you do it, you’re a stony-hearted little fiend. Besides”—Strether encouraged his fancy’s flight—”you showed your inclination in the way you kept her waiting, kept her on purpose to see if she cared enough for you.”
His companion paid his ingenuity the deference of a pause. “I didn’t keep her waiting. I came at the hour. I wouldn’t have kept her waiting for the world,” the young man honourably declared.
“Better still—then there you are!” And Strether, charmed, held him the faster. “Even if you didn’t do her justice, moreover,” he continued, “I should insist on your immediately coming round to it. I want awfully to have worked it. I want”—and our friend spoke now with a yearning that was really earnest—”at least to have done THAT.”
“To have married me off—without a penny?”
“Well, I shan’t live long; and I give you my word, now and here, that I’ll leave you every penny of my own. I haven’t many, unfortunately, but you shall have them all. And Miss Pocock, I think, has a few. I want,” Strether went on, “to have been at least to that extent constructive even expiatory. I’ve been sacrificing so to strange gods that I feel I want to put on record, somehow, my fidelity—fundamentally unchanged after all—to our own. I feel as if my hands were embrued with the blood of monstrous alien altars—of another faith altogether. There it is—it’s done.” And then he further explained. “It took hold of me because the idea of getting her quite out of the way for Chad helps to clear my ground.”
The young man, at this, bounced about, and it brought them face to face in admitted amusement. “You want me to marry as a convenience to Chad?”
“No,” Strether debated—”HE doesn’t care whether you marry or not. It’s as a convenience simply to my own plan FOR him.”
“‘Simply’!”—and little Bilham’s concurrence was in itself a lively comment. “Thank you. But I thought,” he continued, “you had exactly NO plan ‘for’ him.”
“Well then call it my plan for myself—which may be well, as you say, to have none. His situation, don’t you see? is reduced now to the bare facts one has to recognise. Mamie doesn’t want him, and he doesn’t want Mamie: so much as that these days have made clear. It’s a thread we can wind up and tuck in.”
But little Bilham still questioned. “YOU can—since you seem so much to want to. But why should I?”
Poor Strether thought it over, but was obliged of course to admit that his demonstration did superficially fail. “Seriously, there is no reason. It’s my affair—I must do it alone. I’ve only my fantastic need of making my dose stiff.”
Little Bilham wondered. “What do you call your dose?”
“Why what I have to swallow. I want my conditions unmitigated.”
He had spoken in the tone of talk for talk’s sake, and yet with an obscure truth lurking in the loose folds; a circumstance presently not without its effect on his young friend. Little Bilham’s eyes rested on him a moment with some intensity; then suddenly, as if everything had cleared up, he gave a happy laugh. It seemed to say that if pretending, or even trying, or still even hoping, to be able to care for Mamie would be of use, he was all there for the job. “I’ll do anything in the world for you!”
“Well,” Strether smiled, “anything in the world is all I want. I don’t know anything that pleased me in her more,” he went on, “than the way that, on my finding her up there all alone, coming on her unawares and feeling greatly for her being so out of it, she knocked down my tall house of cards with her instant and cheerful allusion to the next young man. It was somehow so the note I needed—her staying at home to receive him.”
“It was Chad of course,” said little Bilham, “who asked the next young man—I like your name for me!—to call.”
“So I supposed—all of which, thank God, is in our innocent and natural manners. But do you know,” Strether asked, “if Chad knows—?” And then as this interlocutor seemed at a loss: “Why where she has come out.”
Little Bilham, at this, met his face with a conscious look—it was as if, more than anything yet, the allusion had penetrated. “Do you know yourself?”
Strether lightly shook his head. “There I stop. Oh, odd as it may appear to you, there ARE things I don’t know. I only got the sense from her of something very sharp, and yet very deep down, that she was keeping all to herself. That is I had begun with the belief that she HAD kept it to herself; but face to face with her there I soon made out that there was a person with whom she would have shared it. I had thought she possibly might with ME—but I saw then that I was only half in her confidence. When, turning to me to greet me—for she was on the balcony and I had come in without her knowing it—she showed me she had been expecting YOU and was proportionately disappointed, I got hold of the tail of my conviction. Half an hour later I was in possession of all the rest of it. You know what has happened.” He looked at his young friend hard—then he felt sure. “For all you say, you’re up to your eyes. So there you are.”
Little Bilham after an instant pulled half round. “I assure you she hasn’t told me anything.”
“Of course she hasn’t. For what do you suggest that I suppose her to take you? But you’ve been with her every day, you’ve seen her freely, you’ve liked her greatly—I stick to that—and you’ve made your profit of it. You know what she has been through as well as you know that she has dined here to-night—which must have put her, by the way, through a good deal more.”
The young man faced this blast; after which he pulled round the rest of the way. “I haven’t in the least said she hasn’t been nice to me. But she’s proud.”
“And quite properly. But not too proud for that.”
“It’s just her pride that has made her. Chad,” little Bilham loyally went on, “has really been as kind to her as possible. It’s awkward for a man when a girl’s in love with him.”
“Ah but she isn’t—now.”
Little Bilham sat staring before him; then he sprang up as if his friend’s penetration, recurrent and insistent, made him really after all too nervous. “No—she isn’t now. It isn’t in the least,” he went on, “Chad’s fault. He’s really all right. I mean he would have been willing. But she came over with ideas. Those she had got at home. They had been her motive and support in joining her brother and his wife. She was to SAVE our friend.”
“Ah like me, poor thing?” Strether also got to his feet.
“Exactly—she had a bad moment. It was very soon distinct to her, to pull her up, to let her down, that, alas, he was, he IS, saved. There’s nothing left for her to do.”
“Not even to love him?”
“She would have loved him better as she originally believed him.”
Strether wondered “Of course one asks one’s self what notion a little girl forms, where a young man’s in question, of such a history and such a state.”
“Well, this little girl saw them, no doubt, as obscure, but she saw them practically as wrong. The wrong for her WAS the obscure. Chad turns out at any rate right and good and disconcerting, while what she was all prepared for, primed and girded and wound up for, was to deal with him as the general opposite.”
“Yet wasn’t her whole point”—Strether weighed it—”that he was to be, that he COULD be, made better, redeemed?”
Little Bilham fixed it all a moment, and then with a small headshake that diffused a tenderness: “She’s too late. Too late for the miracle.”
“Yes”—his companion saw enough. “Still, if the worst fault of his condition is that it may be all there for her to profit by—?”
“Oh she doesn’t want to ‘profit,’ in that flat way. She doesn’t want to profit by another woman’s work—she wants the miracle to have been her own miracle. THAT’S what she’s too late for.”
Strether quite felt how it all fitted, yet there seemed one loose piece. “I’m bound to say, you know, that she strikes one, on these lines, as fastidious—what you call here difficile.”
Little Bilham tossed up his chin. “Of course she’s difficile—on any lines! What else in the world ARE our Mamies—the real, the right ones?”
“I see, I see,” our friend repeated, charmed by the responsive wisdom he had ended by so richly extracting. “Mamie is one of the real and the right.”
“The very thing itself.”
“And what it comes to then,” Strether went on, “is that poor awful Chad is simply too good for her.”
“Ah too good was what he was after all to be; but it was she herself, and she herself only, who was to have made him so.”
It hung beautifully together, but with still a loose end. “Wouldn’t he do for her even if he should after all break—”
“With his actual influence?” Oh little Bilham had for this enquiry the sharpest of all his controls. “How can he ‘do’—on any terms whatever—when he’s flagrantly spoiled?”
Strether could only meet the question with his passive, his receptive pleasure. “Well, thank goodness, YOU’RE not! You remain for her to save, and I come back, on so beautiful and full a demonstration, to my contention of just now—that of your showing distinct signs of her having already begun.”
The most he could further say to himself—as his young friend turned away—was that the charge encountered for the moment no renewed denial. Little Bilham, taking his course back to the music, only shook his good-natured ears an instant, in the manner of a terrier who has got wet; while Strether relapsed into the sense—which had for him in these days most of comfort—that he was free to believe in anything that from hour to hour kept him going. He had positively motions and flutters of this conscious hour-to-hour kind, temporary surrenders to irony, to fancy, frequent instinctive snatches at the growing rose of observation, constantly stronger for him, as he felt, in scent and colour, and in which he could bury his nose even to wantonness. This last resource was offered him, for that matter, in the very form of his next clear perception—the vision of a prompt meeting, in the doorway of the room, between little Bilham and brilliant Miss Barrace, who was entering as Bilham withdrew. She had apparently put him a question, to which he had replied by turning to indicate his late interlocutor; toward whom, after an interrogation further aided by a resort to that optical machinery which seemed, like her other ornaments, curious and archaic, the genial lady, suggesting more than ever for her fellow guest the old French print, the historic portrait, directed herself with an intention that Strether instantly met. He knew in advance the first note she would sound, and took in as she approached all her need of sounding it. Nothing yet had been so “wonderful” between them as the present occasion; and it was her special sense of this quality in occasions that she was there, as she was in most places, to feed. That sense had already been so well fed by the situation about them that she had quitted the other room, forsaken the music, dropped out of the play, abandoned, in a word, the stage itself, that she might stand a minute behind the scenes with Strether and so perhaps figure as one of the famous augurs replying, behind the oracle, to the wink of the other. Seated near him presently where little Bilham had sat, she replied in truth to many things; beginning as soon as he had said to her—what he hoped he said without fatuity—”All you ladies are extraordinarily kind to me.”
She played her long handle, which shifted her observation; she saw in an instant all the absences that left them free. “How can we be anything else? But isn’t that exactly your plight? ‘We ladies’—oh we’re nice, and you must be having enough of us! As one of us, you know, I don’t pretend I’m crazy about us. But Miss Gostrey at least to-night has left you alone, hasn’t she?” With which she again looked about as if Maria might still lurk.
“Oh yes,” said Strether; “she’s only sitting up for me at home.” And then as this elicited from his companion her gay “Oh, oh, oh!” he explained that he meant sitting up in suspense and prayer. “We thought it on the whole better she shouldn’t be present; and either way of course it’s a terrible worry for her.” He abounded in the sense of his appeal to the ladies, and they might take their choice of his doing so from humility or from pride. “Yet she inclines to believe I shall come out.”
“Oh I incline to believe too you’ll come out!”—Miss Barrace, with her laugh, was not to be behind. “Only the question’s about WHERE, isn’t it? However,” she happily continued, “if it’s anywhere at all it must be very far on, mustn’t it? To do us justice, I think, you know,” she laughed, “we do, among us all, want you rather far on. Yes, yes,” she repeated in her quick droll way; “we want you very, VERY far on!” After which she wished to know why he had thought it better Maria shouldn’t be present.
“Oh,” he replied, “it was really her own idea. I should have wished it. But she dreads responsibility.”
“And isn’t that a new thing for her?”
“To dread it? No doubt—no doubt. But her nerve has given way.”
Miss Barrace looked at him a moment. “She has too much at stake.” Then less gravely: “Mine, luckily for me, holds out.”
“Luckily for me too”—Strether came back to that. “My own isn’t so firm, MY appetite for responsibility isn’t so sharp, as that I haven’t felt the very principle of this occasion to be ‘the more the merrier.’ If we ARE so merry it’s because Chad has understood so well.”
“He has understood amazingly,” said Miss Barrace.
“It’s wonderful—Strether anticipated for her.
“It’s wonderful!” she, to meet it, intensified; so that, face to face over it, they largely and recklessly laughed. But she presently added: “Oh I see the principle. If one didn’t one would be lost. But when once one has got hold of it—”
“It’s as simple as twice two! From the moment he had to do something—”
“A crowd”—she took him straight up—”was the only thing? Rather, rather: a rumpus of sound,” she laughed, “or nothing. Mrs. Pocock’s built in, or built out—whichever you call it; she’s packed so tight she can’t move. She’s in splendid isolation”—Miss Barrace embroidered the theme.
Strether followed, but scrupulous of justice. “Yet with every one in the place successively introduced to her.”
“Wonderfully—but just so that it does build her out. She’s bricked up, she’s buried alive!”
Strether seemed for a moment to look at it; but it brought him to a sigh. “Oh but she’s not dead! It will take more than this to kill her.”
His companion had a pause that might have been for pity. “No, I can’t pretend I think she’s finished—or that it’s for more than to-night.” She remained pensive as if with the same compunction. “It’s only up to her chin.” Then again for the fun of it: “She can breathe.”
“She can breathe!”—he echoed it in the same spirit. “And do you know,” he went on, “what’s really all this time happening to me?—through the beauty of music, the gaiety of voices, the uproar in short of our revel and the felicity of your wit? The sound of Mrs. Pocock’s respiration drowns for me, I assure you, every other. It’s literally all I hear.”
She focussed him with her clink of chains. “Well—!” she breathed ever so kindly.
“She IS free from her chin up,” she mused; “and that WILL be enough for her.”
“It will be enough for me!” Strether ruefully laughed. “Waymarsh has really,” he then asked, “brought her to see you?”
“Yes—but that’s the worst of it. I could do you no good. And yet I tried hard.”
Strether wondered. “And how did you try?”
“Why I didn’t speak of you.”
“I see. That was better.”
“Then what would have been worse? For speaking or silent,” she lightly wailed, “I somehow ‘compromise.’ And it has never been any one but you.”
“That shows”—he was magnanimous—”that it’s something not in you, but in one’s self. It’s MY fault.”
She was silent a little. “No, it’s Mr. Waymarsh’s. It’s the fault of his having brought her.”
“Ah then,” said Strether good-naturedly, “why DID he bring her?”
“He couldn’t afford not to.”
“Oh you were a trophy—one of the spoils of conquest? But why in that case, since you do ‘compromise’—”
“Don’t I compromise HIM as well? I do compromise him as well,” Miss Barrace smiled. “I compromise him as hard as I can. But for Mr. Waymarsh it isn’t fatal. It’s—so far as his wonderful relation with Mrs. Pocock is concerned—favourable.” And then, as he still seemed slightly at sea: “The man who had succeeded with ME, don’t you see? For her to get him from me was such an added incentive.”
Strether saw, but as if his path was still strewn with surprises. “It’s ‘from’ you then that she has got him?”
She was amused at his momentary muddle. “You can fancy my fight! She believes in her triumph. I think it has been part of her joy.
“Oh her joy!” Strether sceptically murmured.
“Well, she thinks she has had her own way. And what’s to-night for her but a kind of apotheosis? Her frock’s really good.”
“Good enough to go to heaven in? For after a real apotheosis,” Strether went on, “there’s nothing BUT heaven. For Sarah there’s only to-morrow.”
“And you mean that she won’t find to-morrow heavenly?”
“Well, I mean that I somehow feel to-night—on her behalf—too good to be true. She has had her cake; that is she’s in the act now of having it, of swallowing the largest and sweetest piece. There won’t be another left for her. Certainly I haven’t one. It can only, at the best, be Chad.” He continued to make it out as for their common entertainment. “He may have one, as it were, up his sleeve; yet it’s borne in upon me that if he had—”
“He wouldn’t”—she quite understood—”have taken all THIS trouble? I dare say not, and, if I may be quite free and dreadful, I very much hope he won’t take any more. Of course I won’t pretend now,” she added, “not to know what it’s a question of.”
“Oh every one must know now,” poor Strether thoughtfully admitted; “and it’s strange enough and funny enough that one should feel everybody here at this very moment to be knowing and watching and waiting.”
“Yes—isn’t it indeed funny?” Miss Barrace quite rose to it. “That’s the way we ARE in Paris.” She was always pleased with a new contribution to that queerness. “It’s wonderful! But, you know,” she declared, “it all depends on you. I don’t want to turn the knife in your vitals, but that’s naturally what you just now meant by our all being on top of you. We know you as the hero of the drama, and we’re gathered to see what you’ll do.”
Strether looked at her a moment with a light perhaps slightly obscured. “I think that must be why the hero has taken refuge in this corner. He’s scared at his heroism—he shrinks from his part.”
“Ah but we nevertheless believe he’ll play it. That’s why,” Miss Barrace kindly went on, “we take such an interest in you. We feel you’ll come up to the scratch.” And then as he seemed perhaps not quite to take fire: “Don’t let him do it.”
“Don’t let Chad go?”
“Yes, keep hold of him. With all this”—and she indicated the general tribute—”he has done enough. We love him here—he’s charming.”
“It’s beautiful,” said Strether, “the way you all can simplify when you will.”
But she gave it to him back. “It’s nothing to the way you will when you must.”
He winced at it as at the very voice of prophecy, and it kept him a moment quiet. He detained her, however, on her appearing about to leave him alone in the rather cold clearance their talk had made. “There positively isn’t a sign of a hero to-night; the hero’s dodging and shirking, the hero’s ashamed. Therefore, you know, I think, what you must all REALLY be occupied with is the heroine.”
Miss Barrace took a minute. “The heroine?”
“The heroine. I’ve treated her,” said Strether, “not a bit like a hero. Oh,” he sighed, “I don’t do it well!”
She eased him off. “You do it as you can.” And then after another hesitation: “I think she’s satisfied.”
But he remained compunctious. “I haven’t been near her. I haven’t looked at her.”
“Ah then you’ve lost a good deal!”
He showed he knew it. “She’s more wonderful than ever?”
“Than ever. With Mr. Pocock.”
Strether wondered. “Madame de Vionnet—with Jim?”
“Madame de Vionnet—with ‘Jim.'” Miss Barrace was historic.
“And what’s she doing with him?”
“Ah you must ask HIM!”
Strether’s face lighted again at the prospect. “It WILL be amusing to do so.” Yet he continued to wonder. “But she must have some idea.”
“Of course she has—she has twenty ideas. She has in the first place,” said Miss Barrace, swinging a little her tortoise-shell, “that of doing her part. Her part is to help YOU.”
It came out as nothing had come yet; links were missing and connexions unnamed, but it was suddenly as if they were at the heart of their subject. “Yes; how much more she does it,” Strether gravely reflected, “than I help HER!” It all came over him as with the near presence of the beauty, the grace, the intense, dissimulated spirit with which he had, as he said, been putting off contact. “SHE has courage.”
“Ah she has courage!” Miss Barrace quite agreed; and it was as if for a moment they saw the quantity in each other’s face.
But indeed the whole thing was present. “How much she must care!”
“Ah there it is. She does care. But it isn’t, is it,” Miss Barrace considerately added, “as if you had ever had any doubt of that?”
Strether seemed suddenly to like to feel that he really never had. “Why of course it’s the whole point.”
“Voila!” Miss Barrace smiled.
“It’s why one came out,” Strether went on. “And it’s why one has stayed so long. And it’s also”—he abounded—”why one’s going home. It’s why, it’s why—”
“It’s why everything!” she concurred. “It’s why she might be to-night—for all she looks and shows, and for all your friend ‘Jim’ does—about twenty years old. That’s another of her ideas; to be for him, and to be quite easily and charmingly, as young as a little girl.”
Strether assisted at his distance. “‘For him’? For Chad—?”
“For Chad, in a manner, naturally, always. But in particular to-night for Mr. Pocock.” And then as her friend still stared: “Yes, it IS of a bravery But that’s what she has: her high sense of duty.” It was more than sufficiently before them. “When Mr. Newsome has his hands so embarrassed with his sister—”
“It’s quite the least”—Strether filled it out—”that she should take his sister’s husband? Certainly—quite the least. So she has taken him.”
“She has taken him.” It was all Miss Barrace had meant.
Still it remained enough. “It must be funny.”
“Oh it IS funny.” That of course essentially went with it.
But it brought them back. “How indeed then she must care!” In answer to which Strether’s entertainer dropped a comprehensive “Ah!” expressive perhaps of some impatience for the time he took to get used to it. She herself had got used to it long before.
When one morning within the week he perceived the whole thing to be really at last upon him Strether’s immediate feeling was all relief. He had known this morning that something was about to happen—known it, in a moment, by Waymarsh’s manner when Waymarsh appeared before him during his brief consumption of coffee and a roll in the small slippery salle-a-manger so associated with rich rumination. Strether had taken there of late various lonely and absent-minded meals; he communed there, even at the end of June, with a suspected chill, the air of old shivers mixed with old savours, the air in which so many of his impressions had perversely matured; the place meanwhile renewing its message to him by the very circumstance of his single state. He now sat there, for the most part, to sigh softly, while he vaguely tilted his carafe, over the vision of how much better Waymarsh was occupied. That was really his success by the common measure—to have led this companion so on and on. He remembered how at first there had been scarce a squatting-place he could beguile him into passing; the actual outcome of which at last was that there was scarce one that could arrest him in his rush. His rush—as Strether vividly and amusedly figured it—continued to be all with Sarah, and contained perhaps moreover the word of the whole enigma, whipping up in its fine full-flavoured froth the very principle, for good or for ill, of his own, of Strether’s destiny. It might after all, to the end, only be that they had united to save him, and indeed, so far as Waymarsh was concerned, that HAD to be the spring of action. Strether was glad at all events, in connexion with the case, that the saving he required was not more scant; so constituted a luxury was it in certain lights just to lurk there out of the full glare. He had moments of quite seriously wondering whether Waymarsh wouldn’t in fact, thanks to old friendship and a conceivable indulgence, make about as good terms for him as he might make for himself. They wouldn’t be the same terms of course; but they might have the advantage that he himself probably should be able to make none at all.
He was never in the morning very late, but Waymarsh had already been out, and, after a peep into the dim refectory, he presented himself with much less than usual of his large looseness. He had made sure, through the expanse of glass exposed to the court, that they would be alone; and there was now in fact that about him that pretty well took up the room. He was dressed in the garments of summer; and save that his white waistcoat was redundant and bulging these things favoured, they determined, his expression. He wore a straw hat such as his friend hadn’t yet seen in Paris, and he showed a buttonhole freshly adorned with a magnificent rose. Strether read on the instant his story—how, astir for the previous hour, the sprinkled newness of the day, so pleasant at that season in Paris, he was fairly panting with the pulse of adventure and had been with Mrs. Pocock, unmistakeably, to the Marche aux Fleurs. Strether really knew in this vision of him a joy that was akin to envy; so reversed as he stood there did their old positions seem; so comparatively doleful now showed, by the sharp turn of the wheel, the posture of the pilgrim from Woollett. He wondered, this pilgrim, if he had originally looked to Waymarsh so brave and well, so remarkably launched, as it was at present the latter’s privilege to appear. He recalled that his friend had remarked to him even at Chester that his aspect belied his plea of prostration; but there certainly couldn’t have been, for an issue, an aspect less concerned than Waymarsh’s with the menace of decay. Strether had at any rate never resembled a Southern planter of the great days—which was the image picturesquely suggested by the happy relation between the fuliginous face and the wide panama of his visitor. This type, it further amused him to guess, had been, on Waymarsh’s part, the object of Sarah’s care; he was convinced that her taste had not been a stranger to the conception and purchase of the hat, any more than her fine fingers had been guiltless of the bestowal of the rose. It came to him in the current of thought, as things so oddly did come, that HE had never risen with the lark to attend a brilliant woman to the Marche aux Fleurs; this could be fastened on him in connexion neither with Miss Gostrey nor with Madame de Vionnet; the practice of getting up early for adventures could indeed in no manner be fastened on him. It came to him in fact that just here was his usual case: he was for ever missing things through his general genius for missing them, while others were for ever picking them up through a contrary bent. And it was others who looked abstemious and he who looked greedy; it was he somehow who finally paid, and it was others who mainly partook. Yes, he should go to the scaffold yet for he wouldn’t know quite whom. He almost, for that matter, felt on the scaffold now and really quite enjoying it. It worked out as BECAUSE he was anxious there—it worked out as for this reason that Waymarsh was so blooming. It was HIS trip for health, for a change, that proved the success—which was just what Strether, planning and exerting himself, had desired it should be. That truth already sat full-blown on his companion’s lips; benevolence breathed from them as with the warmth of active exercise, and also a little as with the bustle of haste.
“Mrs. Pocock, whom I left a quarter of an hour ago at her hotel, has asked me to mention to you that she would like to find you at home here in about another hour. She wants to see you; she has something to say—or considers, I believe, that you may have: so that I asked her myself why she shouldn’t come right round. She hasn’t BEEN round yet—to see our place; and I took upon myself to say that I was sure you’d be glad to have her. The thing’s therefore, you see, to keep right here till she comes.”
The announcement was sociably, even though, after Waymarsh’s wont, somewhat solemnly made; but Strether quickly felt other things in it than these light features. It was the first approach, from that quarter, to admitted consciousness; it quickened his pulse; it simply meant at last that he should have but himself to thank if he didn’t know where he was. He had finished his breakfast; he pushed it away and was on his feet. There were plenty of elements of surprise, but only one of doubt. “The thing’s for YOU to keep here too?” Waymarsh had been slightly ambiguous.
He wasn’t ambiguous, however, after this enquiry; and Strether’s understanding had probably never before opened so wide and effective a mouth as it was to open during the next five minutes. It was no part of his friend’s wish, as appeared, to help to receive Mrs. Pocock; he quite understood the spirit in which she was to present herself, but his connexion with her visit was limited to his having—well, as he might say—perhaps a little promoted it. He had thought, and had let her know it, that Strether possibly would think she might have been round before. At any rate, as turned out, she had been wanting herself, quite a while, to come. “I told her,” said Waymarsh, “that it would have been a bright idea if she had only carried it out before.”
Strether pronounced it so bright as to be almost dazzling. “But why HASn’t she carried it out before? She has seen me every day—she had only to name her hour. I’ve been waiting and waiting.”
“Well, I told her you had. And she has been waiting too.” It was, in the oddest way in the world, on the showing of this tone, a genial new pressing coaxing Waymarsh; a Waymarsh conscious with a different consciousness from any he had yet betrayed, and actually rendered by it almost insinuating. He lacked only time for full persuasion, and Strether was to see in a moment why. Meantime, however, our friend perceived, he was announcing a step of some magnanimity on Mrs. Pocock’s part, so that he could deprecate a sharp question. It was his own high purpose in fact to have smoothed sharp questions to rest. He looked his old comrade very straight in the eyes, and he had never conveyed to him in so mute a manner so much kind confidence and so much good advice. Everything that was between them was again in his face, but matured and shelved and finally disposed of. “At any rate,” he added, “she’s coming now.”
Considering how many pieces had to fit themselves, it all fell, in Strether’s brain, into a close rapid order. He saw on the spot what had happened, and what probably would yet; and it was all funny enough. It was perhaps just this freedom of appreciation that wound him up to his flare of high spirits. “What is she coming FOR?—to kill me?”
“She’s coming to be very VERY kind to you, and you must let me say that I greatly hope you’ll not be less so to herself.”
This was spoken by Waymarsh with much gravity of admonition, and as Strether stood there he knew he had but to make a movement to take the attitude of a man gracefully receiving a present. The present was that of the opportunity dear old Waymarsh had flattered himself he had divined in him the slight soreness of not having yet thoroughly enjoyed; so he had brought it to him thus, as on a little silver breakfast-tray, familiarly though delicately—without oppressive pomp; and he was to bend and smile and acknowledge, was to take and use and be grateful. He was not—that was the beauty of it—to be asked to deflect too much from his dignity. No wonder the old boy bloomed in this bland air of his own distillation. Strether felt for a moment as if Sarah were actually walking up and down outside. Wasn’t she hanging about the porte-cochere while her friend thus summarily opened a way? Strether would meet her but to take it, and everything would be for the best in the best of possible worlds. He had never so much known what any one meant as, in the light of this demonstration, he knew what Mrs. Newsome did. It had reached Waymarsh from Sarah, but it had reached Sarah from her mother, and there was no break in the chain by which it reached HIM. “Has anything particular happened,” he asked after a minute—”so suddenly to determine her? Has she heard anything unexpected from home?”
Waymarsh, on this, it seemed to him, looked at him harder than ever. “‘Unexpected’?” He had a brief hesitation; then, however, he was firm. “We’re leaving Paris.”
“Leaving? That IS sudden.”
Waymarsh showed a different opinion. “Less so than it may seem. The purpose of Mrs. Pocock’s visit is to explain to you in fact that it’s NOT.”
Strether didn’t at all know if he had really an advantage—anything that would practically count as one; but he enjoyed for the moment—as for the first time in his life—the sense of so carrying it off. He wondered—it was amusing—if he felt as the impudent feel. “I shall take great pleasure, I assure you, in any explanation. I shall be delighted to receive Sarah.”
The sombre glow just darkened in his comrade’s eyes; but he was struck with the way it died out again. It was too mixed with another consciousness—it was too smothered, as might be said, in flowers. He really for the time regretted it—poor dear old sombre glow! Something straight and simple, something heavy and empty, had been eclipsed in its company; something by which he had best known his friend. Waymarsh wouldn’t BE his friend, somehow, without the occasional ornament of the sacred rage, and the right to the sacred rage—inestimably precious for Strether’s charity—he also seemed in a manner, and at Mrs. Pocock’s elbow, to have forfeited. Strether remembered the occasion early in their stay when on that very spot he had come out with his earnest, his ominous “Quit it!”—and, so remembering, felt it hang by a hair that he didn’t himself now utter the same note. Waymarsh was having a good time—this was the truth that was embarrassing for him, and he was having it then and there, he was having it in Europe, he was having it under the very protection of circumstances of which he didn’t in the least approve; all of which placed him in a false position, with no issue possible—none at least by the grand manner. It was practically in the manner of any one—it was all but in poor Strether’s own—that instead of taking anything up he merely made the most of having to be himself explanatory. “I’m not leaving for the United States direct. Mr. and Mrs. Pocock and Miss Mamie are thinking of a little trip before their own return, and we’ve been talking for some days past of our joining forces. We’ve settled it that we do join and that we sail together the end of next month. But we start to-morrow for Switzerland. Mrs. Pocock wants some scenery. She hasn’t had much yet.”
He was brave in his way too, keeping nothing back, confessing all there was, and only leaving Strether to make certain connexions. “Is what Mrs. Newsome had cabled her daughter an injunction to break off short?”
The grand manner indeed at this just raised its head a little. “I know nothing about Mrs. Newsome’s cables.”
Their eyes met on it with some intensity—during the few seconds of which something happened quite out of proportion to the time. It happened that Strether, looking thus at his friend, didn’t take his answer for truth—and that something more again occurred in consequence of THAT. Yes—Waymarsh just DID know about Mrs. Newsome’s cables: to what other end than that had they dined together at Bignon’s? Strether almost felt for the instant that it was to Mrs. Newsome herself the dinner had been given; and, for that matter, quite felt how she must have known about it and, as he might think, protected and consecrated it. He had a quick blurred view of daily cables, questions, answers, signals: clear enough was his vision of the expense that, when so wound up, the lady at home was prepared to incur. Vivid not less was his memory of what, during his long observation of her, some of her attainments of that high pitch had cost her. Distinctly she was at the highest now, and Waymarsh, who imagined himself an independent performer, was really, forcing his fine old natural voice, an overstrained accompanist. The whole reference of his errand seemed to mark her for Strether as by this time consentingly familiar to him, and nothing yet had so despoiled her of a special shade of consideration. “You don’t know,” he asked, “whether Sarah has been directed from home to try me on the matter of my also going to Switzerland?”
“I know,” said Waymarsh as manfully as possible, “nothing whatever about her private affairs; though I believe her to be acting in conformity with things that have my highest respect.” It was as manful as possible, but it was still the false note—as it had to be to convey so sorry a statement. He knew everything, Strether more and more felt, that he thus disclaimed, and his little punishment was just in this doom to a second fib. What falser position—given the man—could the most vindictive mind impose? He ended by squeezing through a passage in which three months before he would certainly have stuck fast. “Mrs Pocock will probably be ready herself to answer any enquiry you may put to her. But,” he continued, “BUT—!” He faltered on it.
“But what? Don’t put her too many?”
Waymarsh looked large, but the harm was done; he couldn’t, do what he would, help looking rosy. “Don’t do anything you’ll be sorry for.”
It was an attenuation, Strether guessed, of something else that had been on his lips; it was a sudden drop to directness, and was thereby the voice of sincerity. He had fallen to the supplicating note, and that immediately, for our friend, made a difference and reinstated him. They were in communication as they had been, that first morning, in Sarah’s salon and in her presence and Madame de Vionnet’s; and the same recognition of a great good will was again, after all, possible. Only the amount of response Waymarsh had then taken for granted was doubled, decupled now. This came out when he presently said: “Of course I needn’t assure you I hope you’ll come with us.” Then it was that his implications and expectations loomed up for Strether as almost pathetically gross.
The latter patted his shoulder while he thanked him, giving the go-by to the question of joining the Pococks; he expressed the joy he felt at seeing him go forth again so brave and free, and he in fact almost took leave of him on the spot. “I shall see you again of course before you go; but I’m meanwhile much obliged to you for arranging so conveniently for what you’ve told me. I shall walk up and down in the court there—dear little old court which we’ve each bepaced so, this last couple of months, to the tune of our flights and our drops, our hesitations and our plunges: I shall hang about there, all impatience and excitement, please let Sarah know, till she graciously presents herself. Leave me with her without fear,” he laughed; “I assure you I shan’t hurt her. I don’t think either she’ll hurt ME: I’m in a situation in which damage was some time ago discounted. Besides, THAT isn’t what worries you—but don’t, don’t explain! We’re all right as we are: which was the degree of success our adventure was pledged to for each of us. We weren’t, it seemed, all right as we were before; and we’ve got over the ground, all things considered, quickly. I hope you’ll have a lovely time in the Alps.”
Waymarsh fairly looked up at him as from the foot of them. “I don’t know as I OUGHT really to go.”
It was the conscience of Milrose in the very voice of Milrose, but, oh it was feeble and flat! Strether suddenly felt quite ashamed for him; he breathed a greater boldness. “LET yourself, on the contrary, go—in all agreeable directions. These are precious hours—at our age they mayn’t recur. Don’t have it to say to yourself at Milrose, next winter, that you hadn’t courage for them.” And then as his comrade queerly stared: “Live up to Mrs. Pocock.”
“Live up to her?”
“You’re a great help to her.”
Waymarsh looked at it as at one of the uncomfortable things that were certainly true and that it was yet ironical to say. “It’s more then than you are.”
“That’s exactly your own chance and advantage. Besides,” said Strether, “I do in my way contribute. I know what I’m about.”
Waymarsh had kept on his great panama, and, as he now stood nearer the door, his last look beneath the shade of it had turned again to darkness and warning. “So do I! See here, Strether.”
“I know what you’re going to say. ‘Quit this’?”
“Quit this!” But it lacked its old intensity; nothing of it remained; it went out of the room with him.
Almost the first thing, strangely enough, that, about an hour later, Strether found himself doing in Sarah’s presence was to remark articulately on this failure, in their friend, of what had been superficially his great distinction. It was as if—he alluded of course to the grand manner—the dear man had sacrificed it to some other advantage; which would be of course only for himself to measure. It might be simply that he was physically so much more sound than on his first coming out; this was all prosaic, comparatively cheerful and vulgar. And fortunately, if one came to that, his improvement in health was really itself grander than any manner it could be conceived as having cost him. “You yourself alone, dear Sarah”—Strether took the plunge—”have done him, it strikes me, in these three weeks, as much good as all the rest of his time together.”
It was a plunge because somehow the range of reference was, in the conditions, “funny,” and made funnier still by Sarah’s attitude, by the turn the occasion had, with her appearance, so sensibly taken. Her appearance was really indeed funnier than anything else—the spirit in which he felt her to be there as soon as she was there, the shade of obscurity that cleared up for him as soon as he was seated with her in the small salon de lecture that had, for the most part, in all the weeks, witnessed the wane of his early vivacity of discussion with Waymarsh. It was an immense thing, quite a tremendous thing, for her to have come: this truth opened out to him in spite of his having already arrived for himself at a fairly vivid view of it. He had done exactly what he had given Waymarsh his word for—had walked and re-walked the court while he awaited her advent; acquiring in this exercise an amount of light that affected him at the time as flooding the scene. She had decided upon the step in order to give him the benefit of a doubt, in order to be able to say to her mother that she had, even to abjectness, smoothed the way for him. The doubt had been as to whether he mightn’t take her as not having smoothed it—and the admonition had possibly come from Waymarsh’s more detached spirit. Waymarsh had at any rate, certainly, thrown his weight into the scale—he had pointed to the importance of depriving their friend of a grievance. She had done justice to the plea, and it was to set herself right with a high ideal that she actually sat there in her state. Her calculation was sharp in the immobility with which she held her tall parasol-stick upright and at arm’s length, quite as if she had struck the place to plant her flag; in the separate precautions she took not to show as nervous; in the aggressive repose in which she did quite nothing but wait for him. Doubt ceased to be possible from the moment he had taken in that she had arrived with no proposal whatever; that her concern was simply to show what she had come to receive. She had come to receive his submission, and Waymarsh was to have made it plain to him that she would expect nothing less. He saw fifty things, her host, at this convenient stage; but one of those he most saw was that their anxious friend hadn’t quite had the hand required of him. Waymarsh HAD, however, uttered the request that she might find him mild, and while hanging about the court before her arrival he had turned over with zeal the different ways in which he could be so. The difficulty was that if he was mild he wasn’t, for her purpose, conscious. If she wished him conscious—as everything about her cried aloud that she did—she must accordingly be at costs to make him so. Conscious he was, for himself—but only of too many things; so she must choose the one she required.
Practically, however, it at last got itself named, and when once that had happened they were quite at the centre of their situation. One thing had really done as well as another; when Strether had spoken of Waymarsh’s leaving him, and that had necessarily brought on a reference to Mrs. Pocock’s similar intention, the jump was but short to supreme lucidity. Light became indeed after that so intense that Strether would doubtless have but half made out, in the prodigious glare, by which of the two the issue had been in fact precipitated. It was, in their contracted quarters, as much there between them as if it had been something suddenly spilled with a crash and a splash on the floor. The form of his submission was to be an engagement to acquit himself within the twenty-four hours. “He’ll go in a moment if you give him the word—he assures me on his honour he’ll do that”: this came in its order, out of its order, in respect to Chad, after the crash had occurred. It came repeatedly during the time taken by Strether to feel that he was even more fixed in his rigour than he had supposed—the time he was not above adding to a little by telling her that such a way of putting it on her brother’s part left him sufficiently surprised. She wasn’t at all funny at last—she was really fine; and he felt easily where she was strong—strong for herself. It hadn’t yet so come home to him that she was nobly and appointedly officious. She was acting in interests grander and clearer than that of her poor little personal, poor little Parisian equilibrium, and all his consciousness of her mother’s moral pressure profited by this proof of its sustaining force. She would be held up; she would be strengthened; he needn’t in the least be anxious for her. What would once more have been distinct to him had he tried to make it so was that, as Mrs. Newsome was essentially all moral pressure, the presence of this element was almost identical with her own presence. It wasn’t perhaps that he felt he was dealing with her straight, but it was certainly as if she had been dealing straight with HIM. She was reaching him somehow by the lengthened arm of the spirit, and he was having to that extent to take her into account; but he wasn’t reaching her in turn, not making her take HIM; he was only reaching Sarah, who appeared to take so little of him. “Something has clearly passed between you and Chad,” he presently said, “that I think I ought to know something more about. Does he put it all,” he smiled, “on me?”
“Did you come out,” she asked, “to put it all on HIM?”
But he replied to this no further than, after an instant, by saying: “Oh it’s all right. Chad I mean’s all right in having said to you—well anything he may have said. I’ll TAKE it all—what he does put on me. Only I must see him before I see you again.”
She hesitated, but she brought it out. “Is it absolutely necessary you should see me again?”
“Certainly, if I’m to give you any definite word about anything.”
“Is it your idea then,” she returned, “that I shall keep on meeting you only to be exposed to fresh humiliation?”
He fixed her a longer time. “Are your instructions from Mrs. Newsome that you shall, even at the worst, absolutely and irretrievably break with me?”
“My instructions from Mrs. Newsome are, if you please, my affair. You know perfectly what your own were, and you can judge for yourself of what it can do for you to have made what you have of them. You can perfectly see, at any rate, I’ll go so far as to say, that if I wish not to expose myself I must wish still less to expose HER.” She had already said more than she had quite expected; but, though she had also pulled up, the colour in her face showed him he should from one moment to the other have it all. He now indeed felt the high importance of his having it. “What is your conduct,” she broke out as if to explain—”what is your conduct but an outrage to women like US? I mean your acting as if there can be a doubt—as between us and such another—of his duty?”
He thought a moment. It was rather much to deal with at once; not only the question itself, but the sore abysses it revealed. “Of course they’re totally different kinds of duty.”
“And do you pretend that he has any at all—to such another?”
“Do you mean to Madame de Vionnet?” He uttered the name not to affront her, but yet again to gain time—time that he needed for taking in something still other and larger than her demand of a moment before. It wasn’t at once that he could see all that was in her actual challenge; but when he did he found himself just checking a low vague sound, a sound which was perhaps the nearest approach his vocal chords had ever known to a growl. Everything Mrs. Pocock had failed to give a sign of recognising in Chad as a particular part of a transformation—everything that had lent intention to this particular failure—affected him as gathered into a large loose bundle and thrown, in her words, into his face. The missile made him to that extent catch his breath; which however he presently recovered. “Why when a woman’s at once so charming and so beneficent—”
“You can sacrifice mothers and sisters to her without a blush and can make them cross the ocean on purpose to feel the more and take from you the straighter, HOW you do it?”
Yes, she had taken him up as short and as sharply as that, but he tried not to flounder in her grasp. “I don’t think there’s anything I’ve done in any such calculated way as you describe. Everything has come as a sort of indistinguishable part of everything else. Your coming out belonged closely to my having come before you, and my having come was a result of our general state of mind. Our general state of mind had proceeded, on its side, from our queer ignorance, our queer misconceptions and confusions—from which, since then, an inexorable tide of light seems to have floated us into our perhaps still queerer knowledge. Don’t you LIKE your brother as he is,” he went on, “and haven’t you given your mother an intelligible account of all that that comes to?”
It put to her also, doubtless, his own tone, too many things, this at least would have been the case hadn’t his final challenge directly helped her. Everything, at the stage they had reached, directly helped her, because everything betrayed in him such a basis of intention. He saw—the odd way things came out!—that he would have been held less monstrous had he only been a little wilder. What exposed him was just his poor old trick of quiet inwardness, what exposed him was his THINKING such offence. He hadn’t in the least however the desire to irritate that Sarah imputed to him, and he could only at last temporise, for the moment, with her indignant view. She was altogether more inflamed than he had expected, and he would probably understand this better when he should learn what had occurred for her with Chad. Till then her view of his particular blackness, her clear surprise at his not clutching the pole she held out, must pass as extravagant. “I leave you to flatter yourself,” she returned, “that what you speak of is what YOU’VE beautifully done. When a thing has been already described in such a lovely way—!” But she caught herself up, and her comment on his description rang out sufficiently loud. “Do you consider her even an apology for a decent woman?”
Ah there it was at last! She put the matter more crudely than, for his own mixed purposes, he had yet had to do; but essentially it was all one matter. It was so much—so much; and she treated it, poor lady, as so little. He grew conscious, as he was now apt to do, of a strange smile, and the next moment he found himself talking like Miss Barrace. “She has struck me from the first as wonderful. I’ve been thinking too moreover that, after all, she would probably have represented even for yourself something rather new and rather good.”
He was to have given Mrs. Pocock with this, however, but her best opportunity for a sound of derision. “Rather new? I hope so with all my heart!”
“I mean,” he explained, “that she might have affected you by her exquisite amiability—a real revelation, it has seemed to myself; her high rarity, her distinction of every sort.”
He had been, with these words, consciously a little “precious”; but he had had to be—he couldn’t give her the truth of the case without them; and it seemed to him moreover now that he didn’t care. He had at all events not served his cause, for she sprang at its exposed side. “A ‘revelation’—to ME: I’ve come to such a woman for a revelation? You talk to me about ‘distinction’—YOU, you who’ve had your privilege?—when the most distinguished woman we shall either of us have seen in this world sits there insulted, in her loneliness, by your incredible comparison!”
Strether forbore, with an effort, from straying; but he looked all about him. “Does your mother herself make the point that she sits insulted?”
Sarah’s answer came so straight, so “pat,” as might have been said, that he felt on the instant its origin. “She has confided to my judgement and my tenderness the expression of her personal sense of everything, and the assertion of her personal dignity.”
They were the very words of the lady of Woollett—he would have known them in a thousand; her parting charge to her child. Mrs. Pocock accordingly spoke to this extent by book, and the fact immensely moved him. “If she does really feel as you say it’s of course very very dreadful. I’ve given sufficient proof, one would have thought,” he added, “of my deep admiration for Mrs. Newsome.”
“And pray what proof would one have thought you’d CALL sufficient? That of thinking this person here so far superior to her?”
He wondered again; he waited. “Ah dear Sarah, you must LEAVE me this person here!”
In his desire to avoid all vulgar retorts, to show how, even perversely, he clung to his rag of reason, he had softly almost wailed this plea. Yet he knew it to be perhaps the most positive declaration he had ever made in his life, and his visitor’s reception of it virtually gave it that importance. “That’s exactly what I’m delighted to do. God knows WE don’t want her! You take good care not to meet,” she observed in a still higher key, “my question about their life. If you do consider it a thing one can even SPEAK of, I congratulate you on your taste!”
The life she alluded to was of course Chad’s and Madame de Vionnet’s, which she thus bracketed together in a way that made him wince a little; there being nothing for him but to take home her full intention. It was none the less his inconsequence that while he had himself been enjoying for weeks the view of the brilliant woman’s specific action, he just suffered from any characterisation of it by other lips. “I think tremendously well of her, at the same time that I seem to feel her ‘life’ to be really none of my business. It’s my business, that is, only so far as Chad’s own life is affected by it; and what has happened, don’t you see? is that Chad’s has been affected so beautifully. The proof of the pudding’s in the eating”—he tried, with no great success, to help it out with a touch of pleasantry, while she let him go on as if to sink and sink. He went on however well enough, as well as he could do without fresh counsel; he indeed shouldn’t stand quite firm, he felt, till he should have re-established his communications with Chad. Still, he could always speak for the woman he had so definitely promised to “save.” This wasn’t quite for her the air of salvation; but as that chill fairly deepened what did it become but a reminder that one might at the worst perish WITH her? And it was simple enough—it was rudimentary: not, not to give her away. “I find in her more merits than you would probably have patience with my counting over. And do you know,” he enquired, “the effect you produce on me by alluding to her in such terms? It’s as if you had some motive in not recognising all she has done for your brother, and so shut your eyes to each side of the matter, in order, whichever side comes up, to get rid of the other. I don’t, you must allow me to say, see how you can with any pretence to candour get rid of the side nearest you.”
“Near me—THAT sort of thing?” And Sarah gave a jerk back of her head that well might have nullified any active proximity.
It kept her friend himself at his distance, and he respected for a moment the interval. Then with a last persuasive effort he bridged it. “You don’t, on your honour, appreciate Chad’s fortunate development?”
“Fortunate?” she echoed again. And indeed she was prepared. “I call it hideous.”
Her departure had been for some minutes marked as imminent, and she was already at the door that stood open to the court, from the threshold of which she delivered herself of this judgement. It rang out so loud as to produce for the time the hush of everything else. Strether quite, as an effect of it, breathed less bravely; he could acknowledge it, but simply enough. “Oh if you think THAT—!”
“Then all’s at an end? So much the better. I do think that!” She passed out as she spoke and took her way straight across the court, beyond which, separated from them by the deep arch of the porte-cochere the low victoria that had conveyed her from her own hotel was drawn up. She made for it with decision, and the manner of her break, the sharp shaft of her rejoinder, had an intensity by which Strether was at first kept in arrest. She had let fly at him as from a stretched cord, and it took him a minute to recover from the sense of being pierced. It was not the penetration of surprise; it was that, much more, of certainty; his case being put for him as he had as yet only put it to himself. She was away at any rate; she had distanced him—with rather a grand spring, an effect of pride and ease, after all; she had got into her carriage before he could overtake her, and the vehicle was already in motion. He stopped halfway; he stood there in the court only seeing her go and noting that she gave him no other look. The way he had put it to himself was that all quite MIGHT be at an end. Each of her movements, in this resolute rupture, reaffirmed, re-enforced that idea. Sarah passed out of sight in the sunny street while, planted there in the centre of the comparatively grey court, he continued merely to look before him. It probably WAS all at an end.