The Ambassadors (London: Methuen & Co., 1903)/Part 1/Chapter 2
He had none the less to confess to this friend that evening that he knew almost nothing about her, and it was a deficiency that Waymarsh, even with his memory refreshed by contact, by her own prompt and lucid allusions and inquiries, by their having partaken of dinner in the public room in her company, and by another stroll, to which she was not a stranger, out into the town to look at the cathedral by moonlight—it was a blank that the resident of Milrose, though admitting acquaintance with the Munsters, professed himself unable to fill. He had no recollection of Miss Gostrey, and two or three questions that she put to him about those members of his circle had, to Strether's observation, the same effect he himself had already more directly felt—the effect of appearing to place all knowledge, for the time, on this original woman's side. It interested him indeed to mark the limits of any such relation for her with his friend as there could possibly be a question of, and it particularly struck him that they were to be marked altogether in Waymarsh's quarter. This added to his own sense of having gone far with her—gave him an early illustration of a much shorter course. There was a certitude he immediately grasped—a conviction that Waymarsh would quite fail, as it were, and on whatever degree of acquaintance, to profit by her.
There had been, after the first interchange among the three, a talk of some five minutes in the hall, and then the two men had adjourned to the garden, Miss Gostrey for the time disappearing. Strether, in due course, accompanied his friend to the room he had bespoken and had, before going out, scrupulously visited; where, at the end of another half-hour, he had no less discreetly left him. On leaving him he repaired straight to his own room, but with the effect, very soon, of feeling the compass of that chamber resented by his condition. There he had, on the spot, the first consequence of their union. A place was too small for him after it that had seemed large enough before. He had awaited it with something that he would have been sorry, have been almost ashamed, not to recognise as emotion, yet with a tacit assumption, at the same time, that emotion would in the event find itself relieved. The actual oddity was that he was only more excited; and his excitement—to which, indeed, he would have found it difficult instantly to give a name—brought him once more downstairs and caused him for some minutes vaguely to wander. He went once more to the garden; he looked into the public room, found Miss Gostrey writing letters and backed out; he roamed, fidgeted and wasted time; but he was to have his more intimate session with his friend before the evening closed.
It was late—it was not till Strether had spent an hour upstairs with him—that this subject consented to betake himself to doubtful rest. Dinner and the subsequent stroll by moonlight—a dream, on Strether's part, of romantic effects rather prosaically merged in a mere missing of thicker coats—had measurably intervened, and this midnight conference was the result of Waymarsh's having—when they were free, as he put it, of their fashionable friend—found the smoking-room not quite what he wanted, and yet bed what he wanted still less. His most frequent form of words was that he knew himself, and they were applied on this occasion to his certainty of not sleeping. He knew himself well enough to know that he should have a night of prowling unless he should succeed, as a preliminary, in getting as tired as he wanted. If the effort directed to this end involved, till a late hour, the presence of Strether—consisted, that is, in the detention of the latter for full discourse—there was yet an impression of minor discipline involved, for our friend, in the picture Waymarsh made as he sat, in trousers and shirt, on the edge of his couch. With his long legs extended and his large back much bent, he nursed alternately, for an almost incredible time, his elbows and his beard. He struck his visitor as extremely, as almost wilfully uncomfortable; yet what had this been for Strether, from that first glimpse of him disconcerted in the porch of the hotel, but the predominant note? It was a discomfort that was in a manner contagious, as well as also, in a manner, inconsequent and unfounded; the visitor felt that unless he should get used to it—or unless Waymarsh himself should—it would constitute a menace for his own prepared, his own already confirmed, consciousness of the agreeable. On their first going up together to the room that Strether had selected for him Waymarsh had looked it over, in silence, with a sigh that represented for his companion, if not the habit of disapprobation, at least the despair of felicity; and this look had recurred to Strether as the key of much that he had since observed. "Europe," he had begun to gather from these things, had as yet, then, for him, rather failed of its message; he had not got into tune with it, and had almost, at the end of three months, renounced any such expectation.
He really appeared at present to insist on that by just perching there with the gas in his eyes. This of itself somehow conveyed the futility of single rectification in a multiform failure. He had a large, handsome head and a large, sallow, seamed face—a striking, significant physiognomic total, the upper range of which, the great political brow, the thick, loose hair, the dark, fuliginous eyes, recalled even to a generation whose standard had dreadfully deviated the impressive image, familiar by engravings and busts, of some great national worthy of the earlier part of the mid-century. He was of the personal type—and it was an element in the power and promise that in their earlier time Strether had found in him—of the American statesman, the statesman of "Congressional halls," of an elder day. The legend had been in later years that, as the lower part of his face, which was weak and slightly crooked, spoiled the likeness, this was the real reason for the growth of his beard, which might have seemed to spoil it for those not in the secret. He shook his mane; he fixed, with his admirable eyes, his auditor or his observer; he wore no glasses and had a way, partly formidable, yet also partly encouraging, as from a representative to a constituent, of looking very hard at those who approached him. He met you as if you had knocked and he had bidden you enter. Strether, who had not seen him for a long interval, apprehended him now with a freshness of taste, and had perhaps never done him such ideal justice as on this occasion. The head was bigger, the eyes finer, than they need have been for the career; but that only meant, after all, that the career was itself expressive. What it expressed at midnight in the gas-glaring bedroom at Chester was that the subject of it had, at the end of years, barely escaped, by flight in time, a general nervous collapse. But this very proof of the full life, as the full life was understood at Milrose, would have made, to Strether's imagination, an element in which Waymarsh could have floated easily had he only consented to float. Alas, nothing so little resembled floating as the rigour with which, on the edge of his bed, he hugged his posture of prolonged impermanence. It suggested to his comrade something that always, when kept up, worried him—a person established in a railway-coach with a forward inclination. It represented the angle at which poor Waymarsh was to sit through the ordeal of Europe.
Thanks to the stress of occupation, the strain of professions, the absorption and embarrassment of each, they had not, for some five years before this sudden breach and almost bewildering reign of comparative ease, found, at home, so much as a day for a meeting; a fact that was in some degree an explanation of the sharpness with which, for Strether, most of his friend's features stood out. Those he had lost sight of since the early time came back to him; others that it was never possible to forget struck him now as sitting, clustered and expectant, like a somewhat defiant family group, on the doorstep of their residence. The room was narrow for its length, and Strether's friend on the bed thrust so far a pair of slippered feet that he had almost to step over them in his recurrent rebounds from his chair to fidget back and forth. There were marks they made on things to talk about and on things not to, and one of the latter, in particular, fell like the tap of chalk on the blackboard. Married at thirty, Waymarsh had not lived with his wife for fifteen years, and it came up vividly between them in the glare of the gas that Strether was not to ask about her. He knew they were still separate and that she lived at hotels, travelled in Europe, painted her face and wrote her husband abusive letters, of not one of which, to a certainty, that sufferer spared himself the perusal; but he respected without difficulty the cold twilight that had settled on this side of his companion's life. It was a province in which mystery reigned, and as to which Waymarsh had never spoken the informing word. Strether, who wanted to do him the highest justice wherever he could do it, singularly admired him for the dignity of his reserve, and even counted it as one of the grounds—grounds all handled and numbered—for ranking him, in the range of their acquaintance, as a success. He was a success, Waymarsh, in spite of overwork, of prostration, of sensible shrinkage, of his wife's letters and of his not liking Europe. Strether would have reckoned his own career less futile had he been able to put into it anything so handsome as so much fine silence. One might oneself easily have left Mrs. Waymarsh; and one would assuredly have paid one's tribute to the ideal in covering with that attitude the derision of having been left by her. Her husband had held his tongue and had made a large income; and these were the achievements, in especial, as to which Strether envied him. Our friend had had indeed, for his part too, a subject for silence, which he fully appreciated; but it was a matter of a different sort, and the figure of the income he had arrived at had never been high enough to look anyone in the face.
"I don't know as I quite see what you require it for. You don't appear sick to speak of." It was of Europe that Waymarsh thus finally spoke.
"Well," said Strether, falling as much as possible into step, "I guess I don't feel sick now that I've started. But I had pretty well run down before I did start."
Waymarsh raised his melancholy look. "Ain't you about up to your usual average?"
It was not quite pointedly sceptical, but it seemed somehow a plea for the purest veracity, and affected our friend, proportionately, as the very voice of Milrose. He had long since made a mental distinction—though never, in truth, daring to betray it—between the voice of Milrose and the voice, even, of Woollett. It was the former, he felt, that was most in the real tradition. There had been occasions in his past when the sound of it had reduced him to temporary confusion, and the present, for some reason, suddenly became such another. It was no light matter, none the less, that the very effect of his confusion should be to make him again prevaricate. "That description hardly does justice to a man to whom it has done such a lot of good to see you."
Waymarsh fixed on his washing-stand the silent, detached stare with which Milrose in person, as it were, might have marked the unexpectedness of a compliment from Woollett; and Strether, on his side, felt once more like Woollett in person. "I mean," his friend presently continued, "that your appearance isn't as bad as I've seen it; it compares favourably with what it was when I last noticed it." On this appearance Waymarsh's eyes yet failed to rest; it was almost as if they obeyed an instinct of propriety, and the effect was still stronger when, always considering the basin and jug, he added, "You've filled out some since then."
"I'm afraid I have," Strether laughed; "one does fill some with all one takes in, and I've taken in, I daresay, more than I've natural room for. I was dog-tired when I sailed." It had the oddest sound of cheerfulness.
"I was dog-tired," his companion returned, "when I arrived, and it's this wild hunt for rest that takes all the life out of me. The fact is, Strether—and it's a comfort to have you here at last to say it to; though I don't know, after all, that I've really waited; I've told it to people I've met in the cars—the fact is, such a country as this ain't my kind of country, any way. There ain't a country I've seen over here that does seem my kind. Oh, I don't say but what there are plenty of pretty places and remarkable old things; but the trouble is that I don't seem to feel anywhere in tune. That's one of the reasons, I suppose, I've gained so little. I haven't had the first sign of that lift I was led to expect." With this he broke out more earnestly. "Look here—I want to go back."
His eyes were all attached to Strether's now, for he was one of the men who fully face you when they talk of themselves. This enabled his friend to look at him hard and immediately to appear in his own eyes, by doing so, to the highest advantage. "That's a genial thing to say to a fellow who has come out on purpose to meet you."
Nothing could have been finer than, on this, Waymarsh's sombre glow, "Have you come out on purpose?"
"I thought, from the way you wrote, there was some thing back of it."
Strether hesitated. "Back of my desire to be with you?"
"Back of your prostration."
Strether, with a smile made more dim by a certain consciousness, shook his head. "There are all the causes of it!"
"And no particular cause that seemed most to drive you?"
Our friend could at last conscientiously answer. "Yes. One. There is a matter that has had much to do with my coming out."
Waymarsh waited a little. "Too private to mention?"
"No, not too private—for you. Only rather complicated."
"Well," said Waymarsh, who had waited again. "I may lose my mind over here, but I don't know as I've done so yet."
"Oh, you shall have the whole thing. But not to-night."
Waymarsh seemed to sit stiffer and to hold his elbows tighter. "Why not—if I can't sleep?"
"Because, my dear man, I can!"
"Then where's your prostration?"
"Just in that—that I can put in eight hours"; and Strether brought it out that if Waymarsh didn't "gain" it was because he didn't go to bed: the result of which was, in its order, that, to do the latter justice, he permitted his friend to insist upon his really getting settled. Strether, with a kind of coercive hand for it, assisted him to this consummation, and again found his own part in their relation auspiciously enlarged by the smaller touches of lowering the lamp and seeing to a sufficiency of blanket. It somehow ministered for him to indulgence to feel Waymarsh, who looked unnaturally big and black in bed, as much tucked in as a patient in a hospital and, with his covering up to his chin, as much simplified by it. He hovered for vague pity, in fine, while his companion challenged him out of the bedclothes. "Is she really after you? Is that what's behind?"
Strether felt an uneasiness at the direction taken by his companion's vision, but he played a little at uncertainty. "Behind my coming out?"
"Behind your prostration, or whatever. It's generally felt, you know, that she follows you up pretty close."
Strether's candour was never very far off. "Oh, it has occurred to you that I'm literally running away from Mrs. Newsome?"
"Well, I haven't known but what you are. You're a very attractive man, Strether. You've seen for yourself," said Waymarsh, "what that lady downstairs makes of it. Unless indeed," he rambled on with an effect between the ironic and the anxious, "it's you that are after her. Is Mrs. Newsome over here?" He spoke as with a droll dread of her.
It made his friend—though rather dimly—smile. "Dear no; she's safe, thank goodness, as I think I more and more feel, at home. She thought of coming, but she gave it up. I've come in a manner instead of her; and come, to that extent—for you're right in your inference—on her business. So you see there is plenty of connection."
Waymarsh continued to see at least all there was. "Involving accordingly the particular connection I've referred to?"
Strether took another turn about the room, giving a twitch to his companion's blanket and finally gaining the door. His feeling was that of a nurse who had earned personal rest by having made everything straight. "Involving more things than I can think of breaking ground on now. But don't be afraid—you shall have them from me; you'll probably find yourself having quite as much of them as you can do with. I shall—if we keep together—very much depend on your impression of some of them."
Waymarsh's acknowledgment of this tribute was characteristically indirect. "You mean to say you don't believe we will keep together?"
"I only glance at the danger," Strether paternally said, "because when I hear you wail to go back I seem to see you open up such possibilities of folly."
Waymarsh took it—silent a little—like a large snubbed child. "What are you going to do with me?"
It was the very question Strether himself had put to Miss Gostrey, and he wondered if he had sounded like that. But he at least could be more definite. "I'm going to take you right down to London."
"Oh, I've been down to London!" Waymarsh more softly moaned. "I've no use, Strether, for anything down there."
"Well," said Strether good-humouredly, "I guess you've some use for me."
"So I've got to go?"
"Oh, you've got to go further yet."
"Well," Waymarsh sighed, "do your damnedest! Only you will tell me before you lead me on all the way———?"
Our friend had again so lost himself, both for amusement and for contrition, in the wonder of whether he had made, in his own challenge that afternoon, such another figure, that he for an instant missed the thread. "Tell you———?"
"Why, what you've got on hand."
Strether hesitated. "Why, it's such a matter as that, even if I positively wanted, I shouldn't be able to keep it from you."
Waymarsh gloomily gazed. "What does that mean, then, but that your trip is just for her?"
"For Mrs. Newsome? Oh, it certainly is, as I say. Very much."
"Then why do you also say it's for me?"
Strether, in impatience, violently played with his latch. "It's simple enough. It's for both of you."
Waymarsh at last turned over with a groan. "Well, I won't marry you!"
"Neither, when it comes to that———!" But Strether had already laughed and escaped.