The Ambassadors (London: Methuen & Co., 1903)/Part 10/Chapter 27
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 so prosaic, so 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 rewalked 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 had not 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 Strether 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 had not yet so come home to him that she was nobly and appointedly officious. She was acting in an interest 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 uneasy 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 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 was not reaching her in turn, not making her to 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 to Paris," 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, is 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 Mme. 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 was not 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 is 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 funny ignorance, our funny misconceptions and confusions—from which, since then, an inexorable tide of light seems to have floated us into our perhaps still funnier 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 had not 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 had not 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 irritated 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, 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 to 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 forebore, 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 judgment 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 Mme. 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 reestablished 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 inquired, "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 placed a penalty on any active approach.
It kept her friend himself at a 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 ready. "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 judgment. 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-cochère, 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, reinforced that idea. Sarah passed out of sight in the sunny street, while, planted in the middle of his comparatively gray enclosure, he continued merely to look before him. It probably was all at an end.