The Ambassadors (London: Methuen & Co., 1903)/Part 6/Chapter 13

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It was quite by half-past five—after the two men had been together in Mme. de Vionnet's drawing-room not more than a dozen minutes—that Chad, with a look at his watch and then another at their hostess, said genially, gaily, "I've an engagement, and I know you won't complain if I leave him with you. He'll interest you immensely; and as for her," he declared to Strether, "I assure you, if you're at all nervous, she's perfectly safe."

He had left them to be embarrassed or not by this guarantee, as they could best manage, and embarrassment was a thing that Strether was at first not sure Mme. de Vionnet escaped. He escaped it himself, to his surprise; but he had grown used by this time to thinking of himself as brazen. She occupied, his hostess, in the Rue de Bellechasse, the first floor of an old house to which our visitors had had access from an old clean court. The court was large and open, full of revelations, for our friend, of the habit of privacy, the peace of intervals, the dignity of distances and approaches; the house, to his restless sense, was in the high, homely style of an elder day, and the ancient Paris that he was always looking for—sometimes intensely felt, sometimes more acutely missed—was in the immemorial polish of the wide waxed staircase and in the fine boiseries, the medallions, mouldings, mirrors, great clear spaces, of the grayish-white salon into which he had been shown. He seemed to see her, at the outset, in the midst of possessions not vulgarly numerous, but hereditary, cherished, charming. While his eyes, after a little, turned from those of his hostess and Chad freely talked—not in the least about him, but about other people, people he didn't know, and quite as if he did know them—he found himself making out, as a background of the occupant, some glory, some prosperity of the first Empire, some Napoleonic glamour, some dim lustre of the great legend; elements clinging still to all the consular chairs and mythological brasses and sphinxes' heads and faded surfaces of satin striped with alternate silk.

The place itself went further back—that he guessed, and how old Paris continued, in a manner, to echo there; but the post-revolutionary period, the world he vaguely thought of as the world of Chateaubriand, of Mme. de Staël, of the young Lamartine, had left its stamp of harps and urns and torches, a stamp impressed on sundry small objects, ornaments and relics. He had never before, to his knowledge, been in the presence of relics, of any special dignity, of a private order—little old miniatures, medallions, pictures, books; books in leather bindings, pinkish and greenish, with gilt garlands on the back, ranged, together with other promiscuous properties, under the glass of brass-mounted cabinets. His attention took them all tenderly into account. They were among the matters that marked Mme. de Vionnet's apartment as something quite different from Miss Gostrey's little museum of bargains and from Chad's lovely home; he recognised it as founded much more on old accumulations that had possibly from time to time shrunken than on any contemporary method of acquisition or form of curiosity. Chad and Miss Gostrey had rummaged and purchased and picked up and exchanged, sifting, selecting, comparing; whereas the mistress of the scene before him, beautifully passive under the spell of transmission—transmission from her father's line, he quite made up his mind—had only received, accepted and been quiet. When she had not been quiet, at least, she had been moved, at the most, to some occult charity for some fallen fortune. There had been objects she or her predecessors might even conceivably, on occasion, needfully have parted with; but Strether couldn't suspect them of having sold old pieces to get "better" ones. They would have felt no difference as to better or worse. He could but imagine their having felt—perhaps in emigration, in proscription, for his sketch was slight and confused—the pressure of want or the obligation of sacrifice.

The pressure of want—whatever might be the case with the other force—was, however, presumably not active now, for the tokens of a chastened ease, after all, still abounded, many marks of a taste whose discriminations might perhaps have been called eccentric. He guessed at intense little preferences and sharp little exclusions, a deep suspicion of the vulgar and a personal view of the right. The general result of this was something for which he had no name, on the spot, quite ready, but something he would have come nearest to naming in speaking of it as the air of supreme respectability, the consciousness, small, still, reserved, but none the less distinct and diffused, of private honour. The air of supreme respectability—that was a strange blank wall for his adventure to have brought him to break his nose against. It had in fact, as he was now aware, filled all the approaches, hovered in the court as he passed, hung on the staircase as he mounted, sounded in the grave rumble of the old bell, as little electric as possible, of which Chad, at the door, had pulled the ancient but neatly kept tassel; it formed, in short, the clearest medium of its particular kind that he had ever breathed. He would have answered for it at the end of a quarter of an hour that some of the glass cases contained swords and epaulettes of ancient colonels and generals; medals and orders once pinned over hearts that had long since ceased to beat; snuff-boxes bestowed on ministers and envoys; copies of works presented, with inscriptions, by authors now classic. At bottom of it all, for him, was the sense of her rare unlikeness to the women he had known. This sense had grown, since the day before, the more he recalled her, and had been above all singularly fed by his talk with Chad in the morning. Everything, in fine, made her immeasurably new, and nothing so new as the old house and the old objects. There were books, two or three on a small table near his chair, but they had not the lemon-coloured covers with which his eye had begun to dally from the hour of his arrival and to the opportunity of a further acquaintance with which he had, for a fortnight now, altogether succumbed. On another table, across the room, he made out the great Revue; but even that familiar face, conspicuous in Mrs. Newsome's parlours, scarce counted here as a modern note. He was sure, on the spot—and he afterwards knew he was right—that this was a touch of Chad's own hand. What would Mrs. Newsome say to the circumstance that Chad's interested "influence" kept her paper-knife in the Revue? The interested influence, at any rate, had, as we say, gone straight to the point—had in fact soon left it quite behind. She was seated, near the fire, on a small stuffed and fringed chair, one of the few modern articles in the room; and she leaned back in it with her hands clasped in her lap and no movement, in all her person, but the fine, prompt play of her deep young face. The fire, under the low white marble, undraped and academic, had burnt down to the silver ashes of light wood; one of the windows, at a distance, stood open to the mildness and stillness, out of which, in the short pauses, came the faint sound, pleasant and homely, almost rustic, of a plash and a clatter of sabots from some coach-house on the other side of the court. Mme. de Vionnet, while Strether was there, was not to shift her posture by an inch. "I don't think you seriously believe in what you're doing," she said; "but all the same, you know, I'm going to treat you quite as if I did."

"By which you mean," Strether directly replied, "quite as if you didn't! I assure you it won't make the least difference with me how you treat me."

"Well," she said, taking that menace bravely and philosophically enough, "the only thing that really matters is that you shall get on with me."

"Ah, but I don't!" he immediately returned.

It gave her another pause; which, however, she happily enough shook off. "Will you consent to go on with me a little—provisionally—as if you did?"

Then it was that he saw how she had decidedly come all the way; and there accompanied it an extraordinary sense of her raising from somewhere below him her beautiful suppliant eyes. He might have been perched at his doorstep or at his window, and she standing in the road. For a moment he let her stand, and he couldn't, moreover, have spoken. It had been sad, of a sudden, with a sadness that was like a cold breath in his face. "What can I do," he finally asked,"but listen to you as I promised Chadwick?"

"Ah, but what I'm asking you," she quickly said, "is not what Mr. Newsome had in mind." She spoke now, he saw, as if to take courageously all her risk. "This is my own idea and a different thing."

It gave poor Strether, in truth—uneasy as it made him too—something of the thrill of a bold perception justified. "Well," he answered kindly enough, "I was sure just now that some idea of your own had come to you."

She seemed still to look up at him, but now more serenely. "I made out you were sure—and that helped it to come. So, you see," she continued, "we do get on."

"Oh, but it appears to me I don't at all meet your request. How can I when I don't understand it?"

"It isn't at all necessary you should understand it; it will do quite well enough if you simply remember him. Only feel I trust you—and for nothing so tremendous after all. Just," she said with a wonderful smile, "for common civility."

Strether had a long pause, while they sat again face to face, as they had sat, scarce less conscious, before the poor lady had crossed the stream. She was the poor lady for Strether now because, clearly, she had some trouble, and her appeal to him could only mean that her trouble was deep. He couldn't help it; it was not his fault; he had done nothing; but by a turn of the hand she had somehow made their encounter a relation. And the relation profited by a mass of things that were not, strictly, in it or of it; by the very air in which they sat, by the high, cold, delicate room, by the world outside and the little plash in the court, by the first Empire and the relics in the stiff cabinets, by matters as far off as those, and by others as near as the unbroken clasp of her hands in her lap and the look her expression had of being most natural when her eyes were most fixed. "You count upon me, of course, for something really much greater than it sounds."

"Oh, it sounds great enough too!" she laughed at this.

He found himself, in time, on the point of telling her that she was, as Miss Barrace called it, wonderful; but, catching himself up, he said something else instead. "What was it, Chad's idea, then, that you should say to me?"

"Ah, his idea was simply what a man's idea always is—to put every effort off on the woman."

"The woman———?" Strether slowly echoed.

"The woman he likes—and just in proportion as he likes her. In proportion too—for shifting the trouble—as she likes him."

Strether followed it; then with an abruptness of his own: "How much do you like Chad?"

"Just as much as that—to take all, with you, on myself." But she got, more quickly, away from this. "I've been trembling as if we were to stand or fall by what you may think of me; and I'm even now," she went on wonderfully, "drawing a long breath—and, yes, truly, taking a great courage—from the hope that I don't, in fact, strike you as impossible."

"That's at all events, clearly," he observed after an instant, "the way I don't strike you."

"Well," she so far assented, "as you haven't yet said you won't have, with me, the little patience I ask for———"

"You draw splendid conclusions? Perfectly. But I don't understand them," Strether pursued. "You seem to me to ask for much more than you need. What at the worst for you, what at the best for myself, can I, after all, do? I can use no pressure that I haven't used. You come, really, late with your request. I've already done all that, for myself, the case admits of. I've said my say, and here I am."

"Yes, here you are, fortunately!" Mme. de Vionnet laughed. "Mrs. Newsome," she added in another tone, "didn't think you can do so little."

He had a hesitation, but he brought the words out. "Well, she thinks so now."

"Do you mean by that———?" But she also hung fire.

"Do I mean what?"

She still rather faltered. "Pardon me if I touch on it, but if I am saying extraordinary things, why perhaps mayn't I? Besides, doesn't it properly concern us to know?"

"To know what?" he insisted, as, after thus beating about the bush, she had again dropped.

She made the effort. "Has she given you up?"

He was amazed afterwards to think how simply and quietly he had met it. "Not yet." It was almost as if he were a trifle disappointed—had expected still more of her freedom. But he went straight on. "Is that what Chad has told you will happen to me?"

She was evidently charmed with the way he took it, "If you mean if we've talked of it—most certainly. And the question is not what has had least to do with my wishing to see you."

"To judge if I'm the sort of man a woman can———?"

"Precisely," she exclaimed—"you wonderful gentleman! I do judge—I have judged. A woman can't. You're safe—with every right to be. You'd be much happier if you'd only believe it."

Strether was silent a little; then he found himself speaking with a cynicism of confidence of which, even at the moment, the sources were strange to him. "I try to believe it. But it's a marvel," he exclaimed, "how you already get at it!"

"Oh," she was able to say, "remember how much I was, through Mr. Newsome—before I saw you—on the way to it. He thinks everything of your strength."

"Well, I can bear almost anything!" our friend briskly interrupted. Deep and beautiful, on this, her smile came back, and with the effect of making him hear what he had said just as she had heard it. He easily enough felt that it gave him away, but what, in truth, had everything done but that? It had been all very well to think at moments that he was holding her nose down and that he had coerced her; what had he, by this time, done but let her see, practically, that he accepted their relation? What was their relation, moreover—though light and brief enough in form as yet—but whatever she might choose to make it? Nothing could prevent her—certainly he couldn't—from making it pleasant. At the back of his head, behind everything, was the sense that she was—there, before him, close to him, in vivid, imperative form—one of the rare women he had so often heard of, read of, thought of, but never met, whose very presence, look, voice, the mere contemporaneous fact of whom, from the moment it was at all presented, made a relation of mere recognition. That was not the kind of woman he had ever found Mrs. Newsome, a contemporaneous fact who had been distinctly slow to establish herself; and at present, confronted with Mme. de Vionnet, he felt the simplicity of his original impression of Miss Gostrey. She, certainly, had been a fact of rapid growth; but the world was wide, each day was more and more a new lesson. There were, at any rate, even among the stranger ones, relations and relations. "Of course I suit Chad's grand way," he quickly added. "He hasn't had much difficulty in working me in."

She seemed to deny a little, on the young man's behalf, by the rise of her eyebrows, an intention of any process at all inconsiderate. "You must know how grieved he would be if you were to lose anything. He believes you can keep his mother patient."

Strether wondered, with his eyes on her. "I see. That's then what you really want of me. And how am I to do it? Perhaps you'll tell me that."

"Simply tell her the truth."

"And what do you call the truth?"

"Well, any truth—about us all—that you see yourself. I leave it to you."

"Thank you very much. I like," Strether laughed with a slight harshness, "the way you leave things!"

But she insisted kindly, gently, as if it wasn't so bad. "Be perfectly honest. Tell her all."

"All?" he oddly echoed.

"Tell her the simple truth," Mme. de Vionnet developed in the same tone.

"But what is the simple truth? The simple truth is exactly what I'm trying to discover."

Mme. de Vionnet looked about awhile, but presently she came back to him. "Tell her, fully and clearly, about us."

Strether meanwhile had been staring. "You and your daughter?"

"Yes—little Jeanne and me. Tell her," she just slightly quavered, "you like us."

"And what good will that do me? Or rather"—he caught himself up—"what good will it do you?"

She looked graver. "None, you believe, really?"

Strether hesitated. "She didn't send me out to 'like' you."

"Oh," she charmingly remonstrated, "she sent you out to face the facts."

He admitted after an instant that there was something in that. "But how can I face them till I know what they are? Do you want him," he then braced himself to ask, "to marry your daughter?"

She gave a head-shake as noble as it was prompt. "No—not that."

"And he really doesn't want to himself?"

She repeated the movement, but now with a strange light in her face. "He likes her too much."

Strether wondered. "To be willing to consider, you mean, the question of taking her to America?"

"To be willing to do anything with her but be immensely kind and nice—really tender of her. We watch over her, and you must help us. You must see her again."

Strether felt awkward. "Ah, with pleasure—she's so remarkably attractive."

The mother's eagerness with which Mme. de Vionnet jumped at this was to come back to him later as beautiful in its grace. "The dear thing did please you?" Then as he met it with the largest "Oh!" of enthusiasm: "She's perfect. She's my joy."

"Well, I'm sure that—if one were near her and saw more of her—she would be mine."

"Then," said Mme. de Vionnet, "tell Mrs. Newsome that!"

He wondered the more. "What good will that do you?" As she only hesitated, however, he brought out something else. "Is your daughter in love with our friend?"

"Ah," she rather startlingly answered, "I wish you'd find out!"

He showed his surprise. "I? A stranger?"

"Oh, you won't be a stranger—presently. You shall see her quite, I assure you, as if you weren't."

It remained for him, none the less, an extraordinary notion. "It seems to me, surely, that if her mother can't———"

"Ah, little girls and their mothers to-day!" she rather inconsequently broke in. But she checked herself with something that she seemed to give out as, after all, more to the point. "Tell her I've been good for him. Don't you think I have?"

It had its effect on him more than, at the moment, he quite measured. Yet he was consciously enough touched. "Oh, if it's all you———!"

"Well, it may not be 'all,' she interrupted, "but it's to a great extent. Really and truly," she added in a tone that was to take its place with him among things remembered.

"Then it's very wonderful." He smiled at her from a face that he felt as strained, and her own face for a moment kept him so.

At last she also got up. "Well, don't you think that for that———"

"I ought to save you?" So it was that the way to meet her—and the way, as well, in a manner, to get off—came over him. He heard himself use the exorbitant word, the very sound of which helped to determine his flight. "I'll save you if I can."