The Ambassadors (London: Methuen & Co., 1903)/Part 1/Chapter 3
He had told Miss Gostrey that he should probably take, for departure with Waymarsh, some afternoon train, and it thereupon in the morning appeared that this lady had made her own plan for an earlier one. She had breakfasted when Strether came into the coffee-room; but, Waymarsh not having yet emerged, he was in time to recall her to the terms of their understanding and to pronounce her discretion overdone. She was not, surely, to break away at the very moment she had created a want. He had met her as she rose from her little table in a window, where, with the morning papers beside her, she reminded him, as he let her know, of Major Pendennis breakfasting at his club—a compliment of which she professed a deep appreciation; and he detained her as pleadingly as if he had already—and notably under pressure of the visions of the night—learned to be unable to do without her. She must teach him at all events, before she went, to order breakfast as breakfast was ordered in Europe, and she must especially sustain him in the problem of ordering for Waymarsh. The latter had laid upon his friend, by desperate sounds through the door of his room, dreadful divined responsibilities in respect to beefsteak and oranges—responsibilities which Miss Gostrey took over with an alertness of action that matched her quick intelligence. She had weaned the expatriated before from traditions compared with which the matutinal beefsteak was but the creature of an hour, and it was not for her, with some of her memories, to falter in the path; though she freely enough declared, on reflection, that there was always, in such cases, a choice of opposed policies. "There are times when to give them their head, you know———"
They had gone to wait together in the garden for the dressing of the meal, and Strether found her more suggestive than ever. "Well, what?"
"Is to bring about for them such a complexity of relations—unless indeed we call it a simplicity!—that the situation has to wind itself up. They want to go back."
"And you want them to go!" Strether gaily concluded.
"I always want them to go, and I send them as fast as I can."
"Oh, I know—you take them to Liverpool."
"Any port will serve in a storm. I'm—with all my other functions—an agent for repatriation. I want to repeople our stricken country. What will become of it else? I want to discourage others."
The ordered English garden, in the freshness of the day, was delightful to Strether, who liked the sound, under his feet, of the tight, fine gravel, packed with the chronic damp, and who had the idlest eye for the deep smoothness of turf and the clean curves of paths. "Other people?"
"Other countries. Other people—yes. I want to encourage our own."
Strether wondered. "Not to come? Why then do you 'meet' them?—since it doesn't appear to be to stop them?"
"Oh, that they shouldn't come is, as yet, too much to ask. What I attend to is that they come quickly and return still more so. I meet them to help it to be over as soon as possible, and though I don't stop them I've my way of putting them through. That's my little system; and, if you want to know," said Maria Gostrey, "it's my real secret, my innermost mission and use. I only seem, you see, to beguile and approve; but I've thought it all out and I'm working all the while underground. I can't perhaps quite give you my formula, but I think that practically I succeed. I send you back spent. So you stay back. Passed through my hands———"
"We don't turn up again?" The further she went, always, the further he seemed to see himself able to follow. "I don't want your formula—I feel quite enough, as I hinted yesterday, your abysses. Spent!" he echoed. "Thank you—if that's how you're arranging so subtly to send me—for the warning."
For a minute, in the pleasant place—poetry in tariffed items, but all the more, for guests already convicted, a challenge to consumption—they smiled at each other in confirmed fellowship. "Do you call it subtly? It's a plain, poor tale. Besides, you're a special case."
"Oh, special cases—that's weak!" She was weak enough, further still, to defer her journey and agree to accompany the gentlemen on their own, might a separate carriage mark her independence; though it was, in spite of this, to befall after luncheon that she went off alone and that, with a tryst taken for a day of her company in London, they lingered another night. She had, during the morning—spent in a way that he was to remember, later on, as the very climax of his foretaste, as warm with presentiments, with what he would have called collapses—had all sorts of things out with Strether; and among them the fact that though there was never a moment of her life when she wasn't "due" somewhere, there was yet scarce a perfidy to others of which she was not capable for his sake. She explained, moreover, that wherever she happened to be she found a dropped thread to pick up, a ragged edge to repair, some familiar appetite in ambush, jumping out as she approached, yet appeasable with a temporary biscuit. It became, on her taking the risk of the deviation imposed on him by her insidious arrangement of his morning meal, a point of honour for her not to fail with Waymarsh of the larger success too; and her boast later to Strether was that she had made their friend fare—and quite without his knowing what was the matter—as Major Pendennis would have fared at the Megatherium. She had made him breakfast like a gentleman, and it was nothing, she forcibly asserted, to what she would yet make him do. She made him participate in the slow reiterated ramble with which, for Strether, the new day amply filled itself; and it was by her art that he somehow had the air, on the ramparts and in the Rows, of carrying a point of his own.
The three strolled and stared and gossipped, or at least the two did; the case really yielding, for their comrade, if analysed, but the element of stricken silence. This element, indeed, affected Strether as charged with audible rumblings, but he was conscious of the care of taking it explicitly as a sign of pleasant peace. He wouldn't appeal too much, for that provoked stiffness; yet he wouldn't be too freely tacit, for that suggested giving up. Waymarsh himself adhered to an ambiguous dumbness that might have represented either the growth of a perception or the despair of one; and at times and in places—where the low-browed galleries were darkest, the opposite gables queerest, the solicitations of every kind densest—the others caught him fixing hard some object of minor interest, fixing even at moments nothing discernible, as if he were indulging it with a truce. When he met Strether's eye on such occasions he looked guilty and furtive, fell the next minute into some attitude of retractation. Our friend couldn't show him the right things for fear of provoking some total renouncement, and was tempted even to show him the wrong in order to make him differ with triumph. There were moments when he himself felt shy of professing the full sweetness of the taste of leisure, and there were others when he found himself feeling as if his passages of interchange with the lady at his side might fall upon the third member of their party very much as Mr. Burchell, at Dr. Primrose's fireside, was influenced by the high flights of the visitors from London. The smallest things so arrested and amused him that he repeatedly almost apologised—brought up afresh, in explanation, his plea of a previous grind. He was aware at the same time that his grind had been as nothing to Waymarsh's, and he repeatedly confessed that, to cover his frivolity, he was doing his best for his previous virtue.
Do what he might, however, his previous virtue was still there, and it seemed fairly to stare at him out of the windows of shops that were not as the shops of Woollett, fairly to make him want things that he shouldn't know what to do with. It was, by the oddest, the least admissible of laws, demoralising him now; and the way it boldly took was to make him want more wants. These first walks in Europe were in fact a kind of finely lurid intimation of what one might find at the end of that process. Had he come back, after long years, in something already so like the evening of life, only to be exposed to it? It was at any rate over the shop-windows that he made, with Waymarsh, most free; though it would have been easier had not the latter most sensibly yielded to the appeal of the merely useful trades. He pierced with his sombre detachment the plate-glass of ironmongers and saddlers, while Strether flaunted an affinity with the dealers in stamped letter-paper and in neckties. Strether was in fact recurrently shameless in the presence of the tailors, though it was just over the heads of the tailors that his countryman most loftily looked. This gave Miss Gostrey a grasped opportunity to back up Waymarsh at his expense. The weary lawyer—it was unmistakable—had a conception of dress, but that, in view of some of the features of the effect produced, was just what made the danger of insistence on it. Strether wondered if he by this time thought Miss Gostrey less fashionable or Lambert Strether more so; and it appeared probable that most of the remarks exchanged between this latter pair about passers, figures, faces, personal types exemplified in their degree the disposition to talk as "society" talked.
Was what was happening to himself then, was what already had happened, really that a woman of fashion was floating him into society, and that an old friend, deserted on the brink, was watching the force of the current? When the woman of fashion permitted Strether—as she permitted him at the most—the purchase of a pair of gloves, the terms she made about it, the prohibition of neckties and other items till she should be able to guide him through the Burlington Arcade, were such as to fall upon a sensitive ear as a challenge to unjust imputations. Miss Gostrey was such a woman of fashion as could make without a symptom of vulgar blinking an appointment for the Burlington Arcade. Mere discriminations about a pair of gloves could thus at all events represent—always for such sensitive ears as were in question—possibilities of something that Strether could make a mark against only as the peril of apparent wantonness. He had quite the consciousness of his new friend, for their companion, that he might have had of a Jesuit in petticoats, a representative of the recruiting interests of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church, for Waymarsh—that was to say the enemy, the monster of bulging eyes and far-reaching, quivering, groping tentacles—was exactly society, exactly the multiplication of shibboleths, exactly the discrimination of types and tones, exactly the wicked old Rows of Chester, rank with feudalism; exactly, in short, Europe.
There was light for observation, however, in an incident that occurred just before they turned back to luncheon. Waymarsh had been for a quarter of an hour exceptionally mute and distant, and something or other—Strether was never to make out exactly what—proved, as it were, too much for him after his comrades had stood for three minutes taking in, while they leaned on an old balustrade that guarded the edge of the Row, a particularly crooked and huddled street-view. "He thinks us sophisticated, he thinks us worldly, he thinks us wicked, he thinks us all sorts of queer things," Strether reflected; for it was wondrous, the vague quantities that our friend had, within a couple of short days, acquired the habit of conveniently and conclusively lumping together. There seemed, moreover, a direct connection between some such inference and a sudden grim dash taken by Waymarsh to the opposite side. This movement was startlingly sudden, and his companions at first supposed him to have espied, to be pursuing, the glimpse of an acquaintance. They next made out, however, that an open door had instantly received him, and they then recognised him as engulfed in the establishment of a jeweller, behind whose glittering front he was lost to view. The act had somehow the note of a demonstration, and it left each of the others to show a face almost of fear. But Miss Gostrey broke into a laugh. "What's the matter with him?"
"Well," said Strether, "he can't stand it."
"But can't stand what?"
"Then how will that jeweller help him?"
Strether seemed to make it out, from their standpoint, between the interstices of arrayed watches, of close-hung dangling gewgaws. "You'll see."
"Ah, that's just what—if he buys anything—I'm afraid of: that I shall see something rather dreadful."
Strether studied the finer appearances. "He may buy everything."
"Then don't you think we ought to follow him?"
"Not for worlds. Besides, we can't. We're paralysed. We exchange a long, scared look; we publicly tremble. The thing is, you see, we 'realise.' He has struck for freedom."
She wondered, but she laughed. "Ah, what a price to pay! And I was preparing some for him so cheap."
"No, no," Strether went on, frankly amused now; "don't call it that: the kind of freedom you deal in is dear." Then as to justify himself: "Am I not in my way trying it? It's this."
"Being here, you mean, with me?"
"Yes, and talking to you as I do. I've known you a few hours and I've known him all my life; so that if the ease I thus take with you about him isn't magnificent"—and the thought of it held him a moment—"why, it's rather base."
"It's magnificent!" said Miss Gostrey, to make an end of it. "And you should hear," she added, "the ease I take—and I above all intend to take—with Mr. Waymarsh."
Strether thought. "About me? Ah, that's no equivalent. The equivalent would be Waymarsh's serving me up—his remorseless analysis of me. And he'll never do that"—he was sadly clear. "He'll never remorselessly analyse me." He quite held her with the authority of this. "He'll never say a word to you about me."
She took it in; she did it justice; yet after an instant her reason, her restless irony, disposed of it. "Of course he won't. For what do you take people, that they're able to say words about anything, able remorselessly to analyse? There are not many like you and me. It will be only because he's too stupid."
It stirred in her friend a sceptical echo which was at the same time the protest of the faith of years. "Waymarsh stupid?"
"Compared with you."
Strether had still his eyes on the jeweller's front, and he waited a moment to answer. "He's a success of a kind that I haven't approached."
"Do you mean he has made money?"
"He makes it—to my belief. And I," said Strether, "though with a back quite as bent, have never made anything. I'm a perfectly equipped failure."
He was afraid, an instant, that she would ask him if he meant he was poor; and he was glad she didn't, for he really didn't know to what the truth on this unpleasant point mightn't have prompted her. She only, however, confirmed his assertion. "Thank goodness you're a failure—it's why I so distinguish you! Anything else to-day is too ignoble. Look about you—look at the successes. Would you be one, on your honour? Look, moreover," she continued, "at me."
For a little, accordingly, their eyes met. "I see," Strether returned. "You too are out of it."
"The superiority you discern in me," she concurred, "announces my futility. If you knew," she sighed, "the dreams of my youth! But our realities are what has brought us together. We're beaten brothers in arms."
He smiled at her kindly enough, but he shook his head. "It doesn't alter the fact that you're expensive. You've cost me already———!"
But he had hung fire. "Cost you what?"
"Well, my past—in one great lump. But no matter," he laughed; "I'll pay with my last penny."
Her attention, however, had now been engaged by their comrade's return, for Waymarsh met their view as he came out of his shop. "I hope he hasn't paid," she said, "with his last; though I'm convinced he has been splendid, and has been so for you."
"Ah no—not that!"
"Then for me?"
"Quite as little." Waymarsh was by this time near enough to show signs his friend could read, though he seemed to look almost carefully at nothing in particular.
"Then for himself?"
"For nobody. For nothing. For freedom."
"But what has freedom to do with it?"
Strether's answer was indirect. "To be as good as you and me. But different."
She had had time to take in their companion's face; and with it, as such things were easy for her, she took in all. "Different—yes. But better!"
If Waymarsh was sombre he was also, indeed, almost sublime. He told them nothing, left his absence unexplained, and though they were convinced he had made some extraordinary purchase they were never to learn its nature. He only glowered grandly at the tops of the old gables. "It's the sacred rage," Strether had had further time to say; and this sacred rage was to become between them, for convenient comprehension, the description of one of his periodical necessities. It was Strether who eventually contended that it did make him better than they. But by that time Miss Gostrey was convinced that she didn't want to be better than Strether.