The Ambassadors (London: Methuen & Co., 1903)/Part 4/Chapter 9
It really looked true, moreover, from the way Chad, after this, behaved. He was full of attentions to his mother's ambassador; in spite of which, remarkably however, the latter's other relations still contrived to assert themselves. Strether's sittings, pen in hand, with Mrs. Newsome up in his own room were broken, but they were richer; and they were more than ever interspersed with the hours in which he reported himself, in a different fashion, but with scarce less earnestness and fulness, to Maria Gostrey. Now that, as he would have expressed it, he had really something to talk about, he found himself, in respect to any oddity that might reside for him in the double connection, at once more aware and more indifferent. He had been fine to Mrs. Newsome about his useful friend, but it had begun to haunt his imagination that Chad, taking up again for her benefit a pen too long disused, might possibly be finer. It wouldn't at all do, he saw, that anything should come up for him at Chad's hands but what specifically was to have come; the greatest divergence from which would be precisely the element of any lubrication of their intercourse by levity. It was accordingly to forestall such an accident that he frankly put before the young man the several facts, just as they had occurred, of his funny alliance. He spoke of these facts, pleasantly and obligingly, as "the whole story," and felt that he might qualify the alliance as funny if he remained sufficiently grave about it. He flattered himself that he even exaggerated the wild freedom of his original encounter with the wonderful lady; he was scrupulously definite about the absurd conditions in which they had made acquaintance—their having picked each other up almost in the street; and he had—finest inspiration of all!—a conception of carrying the war into the enemy's country by showing surprise at the enemy's ignorance.
He had always had a notion that this last was the grand style of fighting; the greater therefore the reason for it, as he couldn't remember that he had ever before fought in the grand style. Everyone, according to this, knew Miss Gostrey: how came it Chad didn't know her? The difficulty, the impossibility, was really to escape it; Strether put on him, by what he took for granted, the burden of proof of the contrary. This tone was so far successful as that Chad quite appeared to recognise her as a person whose fame had reached him, but against his acquaintance with whom much mischance had worked. He made the point, at the same time, that his social relations, such as they were, were perhaps not to the extent Strether supposed with the rising flood of their compatriots. He hinted at his having more and more given way to a different principle of selection; so that the moral of it seemed to be that he went about little in the "colony." For the moment, certainly, he had quite another interest. It was deep, what he understood; and Strether, for himself, could only so observe it. He couldn't see as yet how deep. Might he not all too soon! For there was really too much of their question that Chad had already committed himself to liking. He liked, to begin with, his prospective stepfather; which was distinctly what had not been on the cards. His hating him was the untowardness for which Strether had been best prepared; he had not expected the boy's actual form to give him more to do than his supposed. It gave him more through suggesting that he must somehow make up to himself for not being sure he was sufficiently disagreeable. That had really been present to him as his only way to be sure he was sufficiently thorough. The point was that if Chad's tolerance of his thoroughness were insincere, were but the best of devices for gaining time, it none the less did treat everything as tacitly concluded.
That seemed, at the end of ten days, the upshot of the abundant, recurrent talk through which Strether poured into him all it concerned him to know, put him in full possession of facts and figures. Never cutting these colloquies short by a minute, Chad behaved, looked, and spoke as if he were rather heavily, perhaps even a trifle gloomily, but none the less fundamentally and comfortably, free. He made no crude profession of eagerness to yield, but he asked the most intelligent questions, probed, at moments, abruptly, even deeper than his friend's layer of information, justified by these touches the native estimate of his latent stuff, and had in every way the air of trying to live, reflectively, into the square, bright picture. He walked up and down in front of this production, sociably took Strether's arm at the points at which he stopped, surveyed it repeatedly from the right and from the left, inclined a critical head to either quarter, and, while he puffed a still more critical cigarette, animadverted to his companion on this passage and that. Strether sought relief—there were hours when he required it—in repeating himself; it was in truth not to be blinked that Chad had a way. The main question as yet was of what it was a way to. It made vulgar questions no more easy; but that was unimportant when all questions save those of his own asking had dropped. That he was free was answer enough, and it was not quite ridiculous that this freedom should itself prove what was difficult to move. His changed state, his lovely home, his beautiful things, his easy talk, his very appetite for Strether, insatiable and, when all was said, flattering—what were such marked matters all but the notes of his freedom? He had the effect of making a present of it, in these handsome forms, to his visitor; which was mainly the reason the visitor was privately, for the time, a little out of countenance. Strether was at this period again and again thrown back on a felt need to remodel somehow his plan. He fairly caught himself shooting rueful glances, shy looks of pursuit, toward the embodied influence, the definite adversary, who had, by a stroke of her own, failed him, and on a fond theory of whose palpable presence he had, under Mrs. Newsome's inspiration, altogether proceeded. He had once or twice, in secret, literally expressed the irritated wish that she would come out and find her.
He couldn't quite yet force it upon Woollett that such a career, such a perverted young life, showed after all a certain plausible side, did in the case before them flaunt something like an impunity for the social man; but he could at least treat himself to the statement that would prepare him for the sharpest echo. This echo—as distinct over there, in the dry, thin air, as some shrill "heading" above a column of print—seemed to reach him even as he wrote. "He says there's no woman," he could hear Mrs. Newsome report, in capitals almost of newspaper size, to Mrs. Pocock; and he could focus in Mrs. Pocock the response of the reader of the journal. He could see in the younger lady's face the earnestness of her attention and catch the full scepticism of her but slightly delayed "What is there then?" Just so he could again as little miss the mother's clear decision: "There's plenty of disposition, no doubt, to pretend there isn't." Strether had, after posting his letter, the whole scene out; and it was a scene during which, coming and going, as befell, he kept his eye not least upon the daughter. He had his fine sense of the conviction Mrs. Pocock would take occasion to reaffirm—a conviction bearing, as he had from the first deeply divined it to bear, on Mr. Strether's essential inaptitude. She had looked him in his conscious eye even before he sailed, and that she didn't believe he would find the woman had been written in her look. Hadn't she, at the best, but a scant faith in his ability to find women? It wasn't even as if he had found her mother—so much more, to her fearless sense, had her mother performed the finding. Her mother had, in a case her private judgment of which remained educative of Mrs. Pocock's critical sense, found the man. The man owed his unchallenged state in general to the fact that Mrs. Newsome's discoveries were accepted at Woollett; but he knew in his bones, our friend did, how almost irresistibly Mrs. Pocock would now be moved to show what she thought of his own. Give her a free hand, would be the moral, and the woman would soon be found.
His impression of Miss Gostrey after her introduction to Chad was meanwhile the impression of a person almost unnaturally on her guard, He struck himself as at first unable to extract from her what he wished; though indeed of what he wished at this special juncture he would doubtless have contrived to make but a crude statement. It sifted and settled nothing to put to her tout bêtement, as she often said, "Do you like him, eh?"—thanks to his feeling it actually the least of his needs to heap up the evidence in the young man's favour. He repeatedly knocked at her door to let her have it afresh that Chad's case—whatever else of minor interest it might yield—was, first and foremost, a miracle almost monstrous. It was the alteration of the entire man, and was so signal an instance that nothing else, for the intelligent observer, could—could it?—signify. "It's a plot," he declared—"there's more in it than meets the eye." He gave the rein to his fancy. "It's a plant!"
His fancy seemed to please her. "Whose then?"
"Well, the party responsible is, I suppose, the fate that waits for one, the dark doom that rides. What I mean is that with such elements one can't count. I've but my poor individual, my modest, human means. It isn't playing the game to turn on the abnormal. All one's energy goes to facing it, to tracking it. One wants, confound it, don't you see?" he confessed with a queer face—"one wants to enjoy anything so rare. Call it then life"—he puzzled it out—"call it poor dear old life simply that springs the surprise. Nothing alters the fact that the surprise is paralysing, or at any rate engrossing—all, practically, hang it, that one sees, that one can see."
Her silences were never dull. "Is that what you've written home?"
He tossed it off. "Oh dear, yes!"
She had another pause while, over her carpets, he had another walk. "If you don't look out you'll have them straight over."
"Oh, but I've said he'll go back."
"And will he?" Miss Gostrey asked.
The special tone of it made him, pulling up, look at her long. "What's that but just the question I've spent treasures of patience and ingenuity in giving you, by the sight of him—after everything had led up—every facility to answer? What is it but just the thing I came here to-day to get out of you? Will he?"
"No—he won't," she said at last. "He's not free."
The air of it held him. "Then you've all the while known?"
"I've known nothing but what I've seen; and I wonder," she declared with some impatience, "that you didn't see as much. It was enough to be with him there———"
"In the box? Yes?" he rather blankly urged.
"Well—to feel sure."
"Sure of what?"
She got up from her chair, at this, with a nearer approach than she had ever yet shown to dismay at his dimness. She even, fairly pausing for it, spoke with a shade of pity. "Guess!"
It was a shade, fairly, that brought a flush into his face; so that, for a moment as they stood there, their difference was between them. "You mean that just your hour with him told you so much of his story? Very good; I'm not such a fool, on my side, as that I don't understand you, or as that I didn't in some degree understand him. That he has done what he liked most isn't, among any of us, a matter the least in dispute. There's equally little question at this time of day of what it is he does like most. But I'm not talking," he reasonably explained, "of any mere brute he may still pick up. I'm talking of some person who, in his present situation, may have held her own, may really have counted."
"That's exactly what I am!" said Miss Gostrey. But she as quickly made her point. "I thought you thought—or that they think at Woollett—that that's what mere brutes necessarily do. Mere brutes necessarily don't!" she declared with spirit. "There must, behind every appearance to the contrary, still be somebody—somebody who's not a mere brute, since we accept the miracle. What else but such a somebody can such a miracle be?"
He took it in. "Because the fact itself is the woman?"
"A woman. Some woman or other. It's one of the things that have to be."
"But you mean then at least a good one."
"A good woman?" She threw up her arms with a laugh. "I should call her excellent!"
"Then why does he deny her?"
Miss Gostrey thought a moment. "Because she's too good to admit! Don't you see," she went on, "how she accounts for him?"
Strether clearly, more and more, did see; yet it made him also see other things. "But isn't what we want that he shall account for her?"
"Well, he does. What you have before you is his way. You must forgive him if it isn't quite outspoken. In Paris such debts are tacit."
Strether could imagine; but still! "Even when the woman's good?"
Again she laughed out. "Yes, and even when the man is! There's always a caution in such cases," she more seriously explained, "for what it may seem to show. There's nothing that's taken as showing so much here as sudden unnatural goodness."
"Ah, you're speaking then now," Strether said, "of people who are not nice."
"I delight," she replied, "in your classifications. But do you want me," she asked, "to give you in the matter, on this ground, the wisest advice I'm capable of? Don't consider her, don't judge her at all in herself. Consider her and judge her only in him."
He had the courage at least of his companion's logic. "Because then I shall like her?" He almost looked, with his quick imagination, as if he already did, though seeing at once also the full extent of how little it would suit his book. "But is that what I came out for?"
She had to confess indeed that it wasn't. But there was something else. "Don't make up your mind. There are all sorts of things. It may really become extraordinary. You haven't seen him all."
This, on his side, Strether recognised; but his acuteness none the less showed him the danger. "Yes, but if the more I see the better he seems?"
Well, she found something. "That may be—but his disavowal of her isn't, all the same, pure consideration. There's a hitch." She made it out. "It's the effort to sink her."
Strether winced at the image. "To 'sink'———?"
"Well, I mean there's a struggle, and a part of it is just what he hides. Take time—that's the only way not to make some mistake that you'll regret; then you'll see. He does really want to shake her off."
Our friend had by this time so got into the vision that he almost gasped. "After all she has done for him?"
Miss Gostrey gave him a look which broke the next moment into a wonderful smile. "He's not so good as you think!"
They remained with him, these words, promising him, in their character of warning, considerable help; but the support he tried to draw from them found itself, on each renewal of contact with Chad, defeated by something else. What could it be, this disconcerting force, he asked himself, but the sense, constantly renewed, that Chad was—quite, in fact, insisted on being—as good as he thought? It seemed somehow as if he couldn't but be as good from the moment he wasn't as bad. There was a succession of days, at all events, when contact with him—and in its immediate effect, as if it could produce no other—elbowed out of Strether's consciousness everything but itself. Little Bilham once more pervaded the scene, but little Bilham became, even in a higher degree than he had originally been, one of the numerous forms of the inclusive relation; a consequence promoted, to our friend's sense, by two or three incidents with which we have yet to make acquaintance. Waymarsh himself, for the occasion, was drawn into the eddy; it absolutely, though but temporarily, swallowed him down, and there were days when Strether seemed to bump against him as a sinking swimmer might brush a submarine object. The fathomless medium held them—Chad's manner was the fathomless medium; and our friend felt as if they passed each other, in their deep immersion, with the round, impersonal eye of silent fish. It was practically produced between them that Waymarsh was giving him then his chance; and the shade of discomfort that Strether drew from the allowance resembled not a little the embarrassment he had known, at school, as a boy, when members of his family had been present at exhibitions. He could perform before strangers, but relatives were fatal, and it was now as if comparatively Waymarsh were a relative. He seemed to hear him say, "Strike up then!" and to enjoy a foretaste of conscientious domestic criticism. He had struck up, so far as he actually could; Chad knew by this time in profusion what he wanted; and what vulgar violence did his fellow-pilgrim expect of him when he had really emptied his mind? It went somehow to and fro that what poor Waymarsh meant was "I told you—so that you'd lose your immortal soul!" But it was also fairly explicit that Strether had his own challenge and that, since they must go to the bottom of things, he wasted no more virtue in watching Chad than Chad wasted in watching him. His dip for duty's sake—where was it worse than Waymarsh's own? For he needn't have stopped resisting and refusing, needn't have parleyed, at that rate, with the foe.
The strolls, in Paris, to see something or call somewhere, were, accordingly, inevitable and natural, and the late sessions in the wondrous troisième, the lovely home, when men dropped in and the picture composed more suggestively through the haze of tobacco, of music more or less good and of talk more or less polyglot, were on a principle not to be distinguished from that of the mornings and the afternoons. Nothing, Strether had to recognise as he leaned back and smoked, could well less resemble a scene of violence than even the liveliest of these occasions. They were occasions of discussion, none the less, and Strether had never in his life heard so many opinions on so many subjects. There were opinions at Woollett, but only on three or four. The differences were there to match; if they were doubtless deep, though few, they were quiet—they were, as might be said, almost as shy as if people had been ashamed of them. People showed little diffidence about such things, on the other hand, in the Boulevard Malesherbes, and were so far from being ashamed of them—as indeed of anything else—that they often seemed to have invented them to avert those agreements that destroy the taste of talk. No one had ever done that at Woollett, though Strether could remember times when he himself had been tempted to it without quite knowing why. He saw why at present—he had but wanted to promote intercourse.
These, however, were but parenthetic memories; and the turn his affair had, on the whole, taken was positively that, if his nerves were on the stretch, it was because he missed violence. When he asked himself if none would then, in connection with it, ever come at all, he might almost have passed as wondering how to provoke it. It would be too absurd if such a vision as that should have to be invoked for relief; it was already marked enough as absurd that he should actually have begun with flutters and dignities on the score of a single accepted meal. What sort of a wretch had he expected Chad to be, anyway?—Strether had occasion to make the inquiry, but he was careful to make it in private. He could himself, comparatively recent as it was—it was truly but the fact of a few days since—focus his primal crudity; but he would, on the approach of an observer, as if handling an illicit possession, have slipped the reminiscence out of sight. There were echoes of it still in Mrs. Newsome's letters, and there were moments when these echoes made him exclaim on her want of tact. He blushed of course, at once, still more for the explanation than for the ground of it: it came to him in time to save his manners that she couldn't at the best become tactful as quickly as he. Her tact had to reckon with the Atlantic Ocean, the General Post Office and the extravagant curve of the globe.
Chad had one day offered tea, in the Boulevard Malesherbes, to a chosen few, a group again including the unobscured Miss Barrace; and Strether had, on coming out, walked away with the acquaintance whom, in his letters to Mrs. Newsome, he always spoke of as the little artist-man. He had had full occasion to mention him as the other party, so oddly, to the only close personal alliance observation had as yet detected in Chad's existence. Little Bilham's way this afternoon was not Strether's, but he had none the less kindly come with him, and it was somehow a part of his kindness that, as, deplorably, it had begun to rain, they suddenly found themselves seated for conversation at a café in which they had taken refuge. He had passed no more crowded hour in Chad's society than the one just ended; he had talked with Miss Barrace, who had reproached him with not having come to see her, and he had above all hit on a happy thought for causing Waymarsh's tension to relax. Something might possibly be done, for the latter, with the idea of his success with that lady, whose quick apprehension of what might amuse her had given Strether a free hand. What had she meant if not to ask whether she couldn't help him with his splendid encumbrance, and mightn't the sacred rage at any rate be kept a little in abeyance by thus creating in his comrade's mind, even in a world of irrelevance, the possibility of a relation? What was it but a relation to be regarded as so decorative, and, in especial, on the strength of it, to be whirled away, amid flounces and feathers, in a coupé lined, by what Strether could make out, with dark blue brocade? He himself had never been whirled away—never, at least, in a coupé and behind a footman. He had driven with Miss Gostrey in cabs, with Mrs. Pocock a few times in an open buggy, with Mrs. Newsome in a four-seated cart, and occasionally, in the mountains, on a buckboard; but his friend's actual adventure transcended his personal experience. He now showed his companion soon enough, indeed, how inadequate, as a general monitor, this last queer quantity could once more feel itself.
"What game under the sun is he playing?" He signified the next moment that his allusion was not to the fat gentleman immersed in dominoes, on whom his eyes had begun by resting, but to their host of the previous hour, as to whom, there on the velvet bench, with a final collapse of all consistency, he treated himself to the comfort of indiscretion. "When shall I really catch him?"
Little Bilham, in meditation, regarded him with a kindness almost paternal. "Don't you like it over here?"
Strether laughed out, for the tone was indeed droll. He let himself go. "What has that to do with it? The only thing I've any business to like is to feel that I'm moving him. That's why I ask you whether you believe I am. Is the creature"—and he did his best to show that he simply wished to ascertain—"honest?"
His companion looked responsible, but looked it through a small, dim smile. "What creature do you mean?"
It was on this that they did have for a little a mute interchange. "Is it untrue that he's free? How, then," Strether asked, wondering, "does he arrange his life?"
"Is the creature you mean Chad himself?" little Bilham said.
Strether here, with a rising hope, just thought. "We must take one of them at a time." But his coherence lapsed. "Is there some woman—of whom he's really afraid, of course, I mean, or who does with him what she likes?"
"It's awfully charming of you," Bilham presently remarked, "not to have asked me that before?"
"Oh, I'm not fit for my job!"
The exclamation had escaped our friend, but it made little Bilham more deliberate. "Chad's a rare case," he luminously observed. "He's awfully changed," he added.
"Then you see it too?"
"The way he has improved? Oh, yes, I think every one must see it. But I'm not sure," said little Bilham, "that I didn't like him about as well in his other state."
"Then this is really a new state altogether?"
"Well," the young man after a moment returned, "I'm not sure he was really meant by nature to be quite so good. It's like the new edition of an old book that one has been fond of, revised and amended, brought up to date, but not quite the thing that one knew and loved. However that may be, at all events," he pursued, "I don't think, you know, that he's really playing, as you call it, any game. He really wants, I believe, to go back and take up a career. He's capable of one, you know, that will improve and enlarge him still more. He won't then," little Bilham continued to remark, "be my pleasant, well-rubbed, old-fashioned volume at all. But of course I'm beastly immoral. I'm afraid it would be a funny world altogether—a world with things the way I like them. I ought, I dare say, to go home and go into business myself. Only I'd simply rather die—simply. And I've not the least difficulty in making up my mind not to, and in knowing exactly why, and in defending my ground against all comers. All the same," he wound up, "I assure you I don't say a word against it, for himself, I mean—to Chad. I seem to see it as much the best thing for him. You see, he's not happy."
"Do I?" Strether stared. "I've been supposing I see just the opposite—an extraordinary case of the equilibrium arrived at and preserved."
"Oh, there's a lot behind it."
"Ah, there you are!" Strether exclaimed. "That's just want I want to get at. You speak of your familiar volume altered out of recognition. Well, who's the editor?"
Little Bilham, for a minute, looked before him in silence. "He ought to get married. That would do it. And he wants to."
"Wants to marry her?"
Again, for a moment, Bilham waited, and, with his sense that he had information, Strether scarce knew what was coming. "He wants to be free. He isn't used, you see," the young man explained in his lucid way, "to being so good."
Strether hesitated. "Then I may take it from you that he is good?"
Bilham had, on his own side, a pause; but there was a quiet fulness in the way he made it up. "Do take it from me."
"Well then, why isn't he free? He swears to me he is, but meanwhile does nothing—except of course that he's so kind to me—to prove it; and couldn't really act much otherwise if he weren't. My question to you just now was exactly on this queer impression of his diplomacy; as if, instead of really giving ground, his line were to keep me on here and set me a bad example."
As the half-hour meanwhile had ebbed, Strether had paid his score, and the waiter was now in the act of counting out change. Our friend pushed back to him a fraction of it, with which, after an emphatic recognition, the personage in question retreated.
"You give too much," little Bilham permitted himself benevolently to observe.
"Oh, I always give too much!" Strether helplessly sighed. "But you don't," he went on, as if to get quickly away from the contemplation of that doom, "answer my question. Why isn't he free?"
Little Bilham had got up as if the transaction with the waiter had been a signal, and had already edged out between the table and the divan. The effect of this was that a minute later they had quitted the place, the gratified waiter alert again at the open door. Strether had found himself deferring to his companion's abruptness as to a hint that he should be answered as soon as they were more isolated. This happened when, after a few steps in the outer air, they had turned the next corner. There our friend had kept it up. "Why isn't he free if he's good?"
Little Bilham looked him full in the face. "Because it's a virtuous attachment."
This had settled the question so effectually for the time—that is for the next few days—that it had given Strether almost a new lease of life. It must be added, however, that, thanks to his constant habit of shaking the bottle in which life handed him the wine of experience, he presently found the taste of the lees rising, as usual, into his draught. His imagination had in other words already dealt with his young friend's assertion; of which it had made something that sufficiently came out on the very next occasion of his seeing Maria Gostrey. This occasion, moreover, had been determined promptly by a new circumstance—a circumstance he was the last man to leave her for a day in ignorance of. "When I said to him last night," he immediately began, "that without some definite word from him now that will enable me to speak to them over there of our sailing—or at least of mine, giving them some sort of date—my responsibility becomes uncomfortable and my situation awkward; when I said that to him, what do you think was his reply?" And then as, this time, she gave it up: "Why, that he has two particular friends, two ladies, mother and daughter, about to arrive in Paris—coming back from an absence; and that he wants me so furiously to meet them, know them, and like them, that I shall oblige him by kindly not bringing our business to a crisis till he has had a chance to see them again himself. Is that," Strether inquired, "the way he's going to try to get off? These are the people," he explained, "that he must have gone down to see before I arrived. They're the best friends he has in the world, and they take more interest than any one else in what concerns him. As I'm his next best, he sees a thousand reasons why we should comfortably meet. He hasn't broached the question sooner because their return was uncertain—seemed, in fact, for the present, impossible. But he more than intimates that—if you can believe it—their desire to make my acquaintance has had to do with their surmounting difficulties."
"They're dying to see you?" Miss Gostrey asked.
"Dying. Of course," said Strether, "they're the virtuous attachment." He had already told her about that—had seen her the day after his talk with little Bilham; and they had then threshed out together the bearing of the revelation. She had helped him to put into it the logic in which little Bilham had left it slightly deficient. Strether had not pressed him as to the object of the preference so unexpectedly described; feeling in the presence of it, with one of his irrepressible scruples, a delicacy from which he had, in the quest of the quite other article, worked himself sufficiently free. He had held off, as on a small principle of pride, from permitting his young friend to mention a name; desiring to make the great point, with this, that Chad's virtuous attachments were none of his business. He had not wanted, from the first, to think too much of his dignity; but that was not a reason for not allowing it any little benefit that might turn up. He had often enough wondered to what degree his interference might pass for interested; so that there was no want of luxury in letting it be seen whenever he could that he didn't interfere. That had of course, at the same time, not deprived him of the further luxury of much private astonishment; which, however, he had reduced to some order before communicating his knowledge. When he had done this at last, it was with the remark that, surprised as Miss Gostrey might, like himself, at first be, she would probably agree with him on reflection that such an account of the matter did, after all, fit the confirmed appearances. Nothing, certainly, on all the indications, could have been a greater change for him than a virtuous attachment, and since they had been in search of the "word," as the French called it, of that change, little Bilham's announcement—though so long and so oddly delayed—would serve as well as another. She had assured Strether in fact, after a pause, that the more she thought of it the more it did serve; and yet her assurance had not so weighed with him as that, before they parted, he had not ventured to challenge her sincerity. Didn't she believe the attachment was virtuous?—he had made sure of her again with the aid of that question. The tidings he brought her on this second occasion were, moreover, such as would help him to make surer still. She showed at first, none the less, as only amused.
"You say there are two? An attachment to them both then would, I suppose, almost necessarily be innocent."
Our friend took the point, but he had his clue. "Mayn't he be still in the stage of not quite knowing which of them, mother or daughter, he likes best?"
She gave it more thought. "Oh, it must be the daughter—at his age."
"Possibly. Yet what do we know," Strether asked, "about her? She may be old enough."
"Old enough for what?"
"Why, to marry Chad. That may be, you know, what they want. And if Chad wants it too, and little Bilham wants it, and even we, at a pinch, could do with it—that is if she doesn't prevent repatriation—why, it may be plain sailing yet."
It was always the case for him in these councils that each of her remarks, as it came, seemed to drop into a deeper well. He had at all events to wait a moment to hear the slight splash of this one. "I don't see why, if Mr. Newsome wants to marry the young lady, he hasn't already done it, or hasn't been prepared with some statement to you about it. And if he wants both to marry her and is on good terms with them, why isn't he 'free'?"
Strether, responsively, wondered indeed. "Perhaps the girl doesn't like him."
"Then why does he speak of them to you as he does?"
Strether's mind echoed the question, but also again met it. "Perhaps it's with the mother that he's on good terms."
"As against the daughter?"
"Well, if she's trying to persuade the daughter to consent to him, what could make him like the mother more? Only," Strether threw out, "why shouldn't the daughter consent to him?"
"Oh," said Miss Gostrey, "mayn't it be that everyone else isn't quite so struck with him as you?"
"Doesn't regard him, you mean, as such an 'eligible' young man? Is that what I've come to?" he audibly and rather gravely wondered. "However," he went on, "his marriage is what his mother most desires—that is if it will help. And oughtn't any marriage to help? They must want him"—he had already worked it out—"to be better off. Almost any girl he may marry will have a direct interest in his taking up his chances. It won't suit her at least that he shall miss them."
Miss Gostrey debated. "No—you reason well! But of course, on the other hand, there's always dear old Woollett itself."
"Oh yes," he mused, "there's always dear old Woollett itself."
She waited a moment. "The young lady mayn't find herself able to swallow that quantity. She may think it's paying too much. She may weigh one thing against another."
Strether, ever restless in these councils, took a turn about. "It will all depend on who she is. That of course—the proved ability to deal with dear old Woollett, since I'm sure she does deal with it!—is what makes so strongly for Mamie."
He stopped short, at her tone, before her; then, though seeing that it represented not vagueness, but a momentary embarrassed fulness, he let his exclamation come. "You surely haven't forgotten about Mamie!"
"No, I haven't forgotten about Mamie," she smiled. "There's no doubt whatever that there's ever so much to be said for her. Mamie's my girl!" she roundly declared.
Strether resumed for a minute his walk. "She's really perfectly lovely, you know; far prettier than any girl I've seen over here yet."
"That's precisely on what I perhaps most build." And she mused a moment in her friend's way. "I should positively like to take her in hand!"
He humoured the fancy, though indeed finally to deprecate it. "Oh, but don't, in your zeal, go over to her! I need you most and can't, you know, be left."
But she kept it up. "If only, for the excellent use I could make of her, they would send her out to me!"
"If they knew you," he returned, "they would."
"Ah, but don't they?—after all that, as I've understood you, you've told them about me?"
He had paused before her again, but he continued his course, "They will—before, as you say, I've done." Then he came out with the point he had wished, after all, most to make. "It seems to give away, now, his game. This is what he has been doing—keeping me along for. He has been waiting for them."
Miss Gostrey drew in her lips. "You see a good deal in it!"
"I doubt if I see as much as you. Do you pretend," he went on, "that you don't see———?"
"Well, what?"—she pressed him as he paused.
"Why, that there must be a lot between them—and that it has been going on from the first, even from before I came."
She took a minute to answer. "Who are they then if it's so grave?"
"It may not be grave—it may be gay. But at any rate it's marked. Only I don't know," Strether had to confess, "anything about them. Their name, for instance, was a thing that, after little Bilham's information, I found it a kind of refreshment not to feel obliged to follow up."
"Oh," she returned, "if you think you've got off———!"
Her laugh produced in him a momentary gloom. "I don't think I've got off. I only think I'm breathing for about five minutes. I daresay I shall have, at the best, still to get on." A look, over it all, passed between them, and the next minute he had come back to good-humour. "I don't, meanwhile, take the smallest interest in their name."
"Nor in their nationality?—American, French, English, Polish?"
"I don't care the least little 'hang,'" he smiled, "for their nationality. It would be nice if they're Polish!" he almost immediately added.
"Very nice indeed." The transition kept up her spirits. "So you see you do care."
He did this contention a modified justice. "I think I should if they were Polish. Yes," he thought, "there might be joy in that."
"Let us then hope for it." But she came, after this, nearer to the question. "If the girl's of the right age, of course the mother can't be. I mean for the virtuous attachment. If the girl's twenty—and she can't be less—the mother must be at least forty. So it puts the mother out. She's too old for him."
Strether, arrested again, considered and demurred. "Do you think so? Do you think anyone would be too old for him? I'm eighty and I'm too young. But perhaps the girl," he continued, "isn't twenty. Perhaps she's only ten—but such a little dear that Chad finds himself counting her in as an attraction of the acquaintance. Perhaps she's only five. Perhaps the mother's but five-and-twenty—a charming young widow."
Miss Gostrey entertained the suggestion. "She is a widow then?"
"I haven't the least idea." They once more, in spite of this vagueness, exchanged a look—a look that was perhaps the longest yet. It seemed in fact, the next thing, to require to explain itself; which it did as it could. "I only feel what I've told you—that he has some reason."
Miss Gostrey's imagination had taken its own flight. "Perhaps she's not a widow."
Strether seemed to accept the possibility with reserve. Still, he accepted it. "Then that's why the attachment—if it's to her—is virtuous."
But she looked as if she scarce followed. "Why is it virtuous if—since she's free—there's nothing to impose on it any condition?"
He laughed at her question. "Oh, I perhaps don't mean as virtuous as that! Your idea is that it can be virtuous—in any sense worthy of the name—only if she's not free? But what does it become then," he asked, "for her?"
"Ah, that's another matter." He said nothing for a moment, and she soon went on. "I dare say you're right, at any rate, about Mr. Newsome's little plan. He has been trying you—has been reporting on you to these friends."
Strether, meanwhile, had had time to think more. "Then where's his straightness?"
"Well, as we say, it's struggling up, breaking out, asserting itself as it can. We can be on the side, you see, of his straightness. We can help him. But he has made out," said Miss Gostrey, "that you'll do."
"Do for what?"
"Why, for them—for ces dames. He has watched you, studied you, liked you—and recognised that they must. It's a great compliment to you, my dear man; for I'm sure they're particular. You came out for a success. Well," she gaily declared, "you're having a success!"
He took it from her with momentary patience and then turned abruptly away. It was always convenient to him that there were so many fine things in her room to look at. But the examination of two or three of them appeared soon to have determined a speech that had little to do with them. "You don't believe in it!"
"In the character of the attachment. In its innocence."
But she defended herself. "I don't pretend to know anything about it. Everything's possible. We must see."
"See?" he echoed with a groan. "Haven't we seen enough?"
"I haven't," she smiled.
"But do you suppose then little Bilham has lied?"
"You must find out."
It made him almost turn pale. "Find out any more?"
He had dropped on a sofa for dismay; but she seemed, as she stood over him, to have the last word. "Wasn't what you came out for to find out all?"