The Ambassadors (London: Methuen & Co., 1903)/Part 6/Chapter 15
Mme. De Vionnet, having meanwhile come in, was at present close to them, and Miss Barrace hereupon, instead of risking a rejoinder, became again, with a look that measured her from top to toe, all mere long-handled appreciative tortoise-shell. She had struck our friend, from the first of her appearing, as dressed for a great occasion, and she met still more than on either of the others the conception reawakened in him at their garden-party, the idea of the femme du monde in her habit as she lived. Her bare shoulders and arms were white and beautiful; the materials of her dress, a mixture, as he supposed, of silk and crape, were of a silvery gray so artfully composed as to give an impression of warm splendour; and round her neck she wore a collar of large old emeralds, the green note of which was more dimly repeated, at other points of her apparel, in embroidery, in enamel, in satin, in substances and textures vaguely rich. Her head, extremely fair and exquisitely festal, was like a happy fancy, a notion of the antique, on an old, precious medal, some silver coin of the Renaissance; while her slim lightness and brightness, her gaiety, her expression, her decision, contributed to an effect that might have been felt by a poet as half mythological and half conventional. He could have compared her to a goddess still partly engaged in a morning cloud or a sea-nymph waist-high in the summer surge. Above all, she suggested to him the reflection that the femme du monde—in these finest developments of the type—was, like Cleopatra in the play, indeed various and multifold. She had aspects, characters, days, nights—or had them at least, showed them by a mysterious law of her own, when in addition to everything she happened also to be a woman of genius. She was an obscure person, a muffled person, one day; and a showy person, an uncovered person the next. He thought of Mme. de Vionnet to-night as showy and uncovered, though he felt the roughness of the formula, because, by one of the short-cuts of genius, she had taken all his categories by surprise. Twice during dinner he had met Chad's eyes in a longish look; but these communications had in truth only stirred up again old ambiguities—so little was it clear from them whether they were an appeal or an admonition. "You see how I'm fixed" was what they appeared to convey; yet how he was fixed was exactly what Strether didn't see. However, perhaps he should see now.
"Are you capable of the very great kindness of going to relieve Newsome, for a few minutes, of the rather crushing responsibility of Mme. Gloriani, while I say a word, if he'll allow me, to Mr. Strether, of whom I've a question to ask? Our host ought to talk a bit to those other ladies, and I'll come back in a minute to your rescue." She made this proposal to Miss Barrace as if her consciousness of a special duty had just flickered up, but that lady's recognition of Strether's little start at it—as at a betrayal on the speaker's part of a domesticated state—was as mute as his own comment; and after an instant, when their friend had good-naturedly complied by leaving them, he had been given something else to think of.
"Why has Maria so suddenly gone? Do you know?" That was the question Mme. de Vionnet had brought with her.
"I'm afraid I've no reason to give you but the simple reason I've had from her in a note—the sudden obligation to join, in the south, a sick friend who has got worse."
"Ah, then she has been writing you?"
"Not since she went—I had only a brief explanatory word before she started. I went to see her," Strether explained—"it was the day after I called on you—but she was already on her way, and her concierge told me that in case of my coming I was to be informed she had written to me. I found her note when I got home."
Mme. de Vionnet listened with interest and with her eyes on Strether's face; then her delicately decorated head had a small melancholy motion. "She didn't write to me. I went to see her," she added, "almost immediately after I had seen you, and as I assured her I would do when I met her at Gloriani's. She hadn't then told me she was to be absent, and I felt, at her door, as if understood. She's absent—with all respect to her sick friend, though I know indeed she has plenty—so that I may not see her. She doesn't want to meet me again. Well," she continued with a beautiful conscious mildness, "I liked and admired her beyond everyone in the old time, and she knew it—perhaps that's precisely what has made her go—and I daresay I haven't lost her for ever." Strether still said nothing; he had a horror, as he now thought of himself, of being in question between women—was in fact already quite enough on his way to that; and there was moreover, as it came to him, perceptibly, something behind these allusions and professions that, should he take it in, would square but ill with his present resolve to simplify. It was as if, for him, all the same, her softness and sadness were sincere. He felt that not less when she soon went on: "I'm extremely glad of her happiness." But it also left him mute—sharp and fine though the imputation it conveyed. What it conveyed was that he was Maria Gostrey's happiness, and for the least little instant he had the impulse to challenge the thought. He could have done so, however, only by saying, "What then do you suppose to be between us?" and he was wonderfully glad a moment later not to have spoken. He would rather seem stupid any day than fatuous, and he drew back, as well, with a smothered inward shudder, from the consideration of what women—of highly developed type in particular—might think of each other. Whatever he had come out for, he had not come to go into that; so that he absolutely took up nothing his interlocutress had now let drop. Yet, though he had kept away from her for days, had laid wholly on herself the burden of their meeting again, she had not a gleam of irritation to show him. "Well, about Jeanne now?" she smiled—it had the gaiety with which she had originally come in. He felt it, on the instant, to have been, for her, her real errand. But he had been schooling her, of a truth, to say much in proportion to his little. "Do you make out that she has a sentiment? I mean for Mr. Newsome."
Almost resentful, Strether could at last be prompt. "How can I make out such things?"
She remained perfectly good-natured. "Ah, but they're beautiful little things, and you make out—don't pretend—everything in the world.Haven't you," she asked, "been talking with her?"
"Yes, but not about Chad. At least not much."
"Oh, you don't require 'much'!" she reassuringly declared. But she immediately changed her ground. "I hope you remember your promise of the other day."
"To 'save' you, as you called it?"
"I call it so still. You will?" she insisted. "You haven't repented?"
He hesitated. "No—but I've been thinking what I meant."
She wondered. "And not, a little, what I did?"
"No—that's not necessary. It will be enough if I know what I meant myself."
"And don't you know," she asked, "by this time?"
Again he had a pause. "I think you ought to leave it to me. But how long," he added, "do you give me?"
"It seems to me much more a question of how long you give me. Doesn't our friend here himself, at any rate," she went on, "perpetually make me present to you?"
"Not," Strether replied, "by ever speaking of you to me."
"He never does that?"
She considered, and, if the fact was disconcerting to her, effectually concealed it. The next minute indeed she had recovered. "No, he wouldn't. But do you need that?"
Her emphasis was wonderful, and though his eyes had been wandering he looked at her longer now. "I see what you mean."
"Of course you see what I mean."
Her triumph was gentle, and she really had tones to make justice weep. " I've before me what he owes you."
"Admit, then, that that's something," she said, yet still with the same discretion in her pride.
He took in this note, but he went straight on. "You've made of him what I see, but what I don't see is how in the world you've done it."
"Ah, that's another question!" she smiled. "The point is of what use is it your declining to know me when to know Mr. Newsome—as you do me the honour to find him—is just to know me."
"I see," he mused, still with his eyes on her. "I shouldn't have met you to-night."
She raised and dropped her linked hands. "It doesn't matter. If I trust you, why can't you a little trust me too? And why can't you also," she asked in another tone, "trust yourself?" But she gave him no time to reply. "Oh, I shall be so easy for you! And I'm glad, at any rate, you've seen my child."
"I'm glad too," he said; "but she does you no good."
"No good?"—Mme. de Vionnet had a clear stare. "Why, she's an angel of light."
"That's precisely the reason. Leave her alone. Don't try to find out. I mean," he explained, "about what you spoke to me of—the way she feels."
His companion wondered. "Because one really won't?"
"Well, because I ask you, as a favour to myself, not to. She's the most charming young girl I've ever seen. Therefore don't touch her. Don't know—don't want to know. And moreover—yes—you won't."
It was an appeal, of a sudden, and she took it in. "As a favour to you?"
"Well—since you ask me."
"Anything, everything you ask," she smiled. "I shan't know them—never. Thank you," she added with peculiar gentleness as she turned away.
The sound of it lingered with him, making him fairly feel as if he had been tripped up and had a fall. In the very act of arranging with her for his independence he had, under pressure from a particular perception, inconsistently, quite stupidly, committed himself, and, with her subtlety sensitive, on the spot, to an advantage, she had driven in, by a single word, a little golden nail, the sharp intention of which he signally felt. He had not detached, he had more closely connected himself, and his eyes, as he considered, with some intensity, this circumstance, met another pair which had just come within their range and which struck him as reflecting his sense of what he had done. He recognised them at the same moment as those of little Bilham, who had apparently drawn near on purpose to speak to him, and little Bilham was not, in the conditions, the person to whom his heart would be most closed. They were seated together a minute later at the angle of the room obliquely opposite the corner in which Gloriani was still engaged with Jeanne de Vionnet, to whom, at first, and in silence, their attention had been benevolently given. "I can't see for my life," Strether had then observed, "how a young fellow of any spirit—such a one as you, for instance—can be admitted to the sight of that young lady without being hard hit. Why don't you go in, little Bilham?" He remembered the tone into which he had been betrayed on the garden-bench at the sculptor's reception, and this might make up for that by being much more the right sort of thing to say to a young man worthy of any advice at all. "There would be some reason."
"Some reason for what?"
"Why, for hanging on here."
"To offer my hand and fortune to Mile. de Vionnet?"
"Well," Strether asked, "to what lovelier apparition could you offer them? She's the sweetest little thing I've ever seen."
"She's certainly immense. I mean she's the real thing. I believe the pale pink petals are folded up there for some wondrous efflorescence in time—to open, that is, to some great golden sun. I'm unfortunately but a small farthing candle. What chance, in such a field, for a poor little artist-man?"
"Oh, you're good enough," Strether threw out.
"Certainly, I'm good enough. We're good enough, I consider, nous autres, for anything. But she's too good. There's the difference. They wouldn't look at me."
Strether, lounging on his divan and still charmed by the young girl, whose eyes had consciously strayed to him, he fancied, with a vague smile—Strether, enjoying the whole occasion as with dormant pulses at last awake and in spite of new material thrust upon him, thought over his companion's words. "Whom do you mean by 'they'? She and her mother?"
"She and her mother. And she has a father too, who, whatever else he may be, can't, certainly, be indifferent to the possibilities she represents. Besides, there's Chad."
Strether was silent a little. "Ah, but he doesn't care for her—not, I mean, it appears, after all, in the sense I'm speaking of. He's not in love with her."
"No—but he's her best friend; after her mother. He's very fond of her. He has his ideas about what can be done for her."
"Well, it's very strange!" Strether presently remarked with a sighing sense of fulness.
"Very strange indeed. That's just the beauty of it. Isn't it very much the kind of beauty you had in mind," little Bilham went on, "when you were so wonderful and so inspiring to me the other day? Didn't you adjure me—in accents I shall never forget—to see, while I've a chance, everything I can?—and really to see, for it must have been that only that you meant. Well, you did me no end of good, and I'm doing my best. I do make it out as a situation."
"So do I!" Strether went on after a moment. But he had the next minute an inconsequent question. "How comes Chad so mixed up, anyway?"
"Ah, ah, ah!" and little Bilham fell back on his cushions.
It reminded our friend of Miss Barrace, and he felt again the brush of his sense of moving in a maze of mystic, closed allusions. Yet he kept hold of his thread. "Of course I understand really; only the general transformation makes me occasionally gasp. Chad with such a voice in the settlement of the future of a little countess—no," he declared, "it takes more time! You say, moreover," he resumed, "that we're inevitably, people like you and me, out of the running. The curious fact remains that Chad himself isn't. The situation doesn't make for it, but in a different one he could have her if he would."
"Yes, but that's only because he's rich and because there's a possibility of his being richer. They won't think of anything but a great name or a great fortune."
"Well," said Strether, "he'll have no great fortune on these lines. He must stir his stumps."
"Is that," little Bilham inquired, "what you were saying to Mme. de Vionnet?"
"No—I don't say much to her. Of course, however," Strether continued, "he can make sacrifices if he likes."
Little Bilham had a pause. "Oh, he's not keen for sacrifices; or thinks, that is, possibly, that he has made enough."
"Well, it is virtuous," his companion observed with decision.
"That's exactly," the young man dropped after a moment, "what I mean."
It kept Strether himself silent a little, "I've made it out for myself," he then went on; "I've really, within the last half-hour, got hold of it. I understand it, in short, at last; which at first—when you originally spoke to me—I didn't. Nor when Chad originally spoke to me either."
"Oh," said little Bilham, "I don't think that at that time you believed me."
"Yes—I did; and I believed Chad too. It would have been odious and unmannerly—as well as quite perverse—if I hadn't. What interest have you in deceiving me?"
The young man hesitated. "What interest have I?"
"Yes. Chad might have. But you?"
"Ah, ah, ah!" little Bilham exclaimed.
It might, on repetition, as a mystification, have irritated our friend a little; but he knew, once more, as we have seen, where he was, and his being proof against everything was only another attestation that he meant to stay there. "I couldn't, without my own impression, realise. She's a tremendously clever, brilliant, capable woman, and with an extraordinary charm on top of it all—the charm we surely, all of us this evening, know what to think of. It isn't every clever, brilliant, capable woman that has it. In fact it's rare with any woman. So there you are," Strether proceeded as if not for little Bilham's benefit alone. "I understand what a relation with such a woman—what such a high, fine friendship—may be. It can't be vulgar or coarse, anyway—and that's the point."
"Yes, that's the point," said little Bilham. "It can't be vulgar or coarse. And, bless us and save us, it isn't! It's, upon my word, the very finest thing I ever saw in my life, and the most distinguished."
Strether, from beside him, and leaning back with him as he leaned, dropped on him a momentary look which filled a short interval and of which he took no notice. He only gazed before him with intent participation. "Of course what it has done for him," Strether, at all events, presently pursued, "of course what it has done for him—that is as to how it has so wonderfully worked—is not a thing I pretend to understand. I've to take it as I find it. There he is."
"There he is!" little Bilham echoed. "And it's really and truly she. I don't understand either, even with my longer and closer opportunity. But I'm like you," he added; "I can admire and rejoice even when I'm a little in the dark. You see I've watched it for some three years, and especially for this last. He wasn't so bad before it as I seem to have made out that you think———"
"Oh, I don't think anything now!" Strether impatiently broke in: "that is but what I do think! I mean that, originally, for her to have cared for him———"
"There must have been stuff in him. Oh yes, there was stuff indeed, and much more of it than ever showed, I dare say, at home. Still, you know," the young man in all fairness developed, "there was room for her, and that's where she came in. She saw her chance, and she took it. That's what strikes me as having been so fine. But of course he liked her first."
"Naturally," said Strether.
"I mean that they first met somehow and somewhere—I believe in some American house—and she, without in the least then intending it, made her impression. Then, with time and opportunity, he made his; and after that she was as bad as he."
Strether vaguely took it up. "As 'bad'?"
"She began, that is, to care—to care very much. Alone, and in her horrid position, she found it, when once she had started, an interest. It was, it is, an interest; and it did—it continues to do a lot for herself as well. So she still cares. She cares in fact," said little Bilham thoughtfully, "more."
Strether's theory that it was none of his business was somehow not damaged by the way he took it in. "More, you mean, than he?" On this his companion looked round at him, and now, for an instant, their eyes met. "More than he? " he repeated.
Little Bilham, for as long, hung fire. "Will you never tell anyone?"
Strether thought. "Whom should I tell?"
"Why, I supposed you reported regularly———"
"To people at home?"—Strether took him up. "Well, I won't tell them this."
The young man at last looked away. "Then she does now care more than he."
"Oh!" Strether oddly exclaimed.
But his companion immediately met it. "Haven't you, after all, had your impression of it? That's how you've got hold of him."
"Ah, but I haven't got hold of him!"
"Oh, I say!" But it was all little Bilham said.
"It's at any rate none of my business. I mean," Strether explained, "nothing else than getting hold of him is." It appeared, however, to strike him as his business to add: "The fact remains, nevertheless, that she has saved him."
Little Bilham just waited. "I thought that was what you were to do."
But Strether had his answer ready. "I'm speaking—in connection with her—of his manners and morals, his character and life. I'm speaking of him as a person to deal with and talk with and live with—speaking of him as a social animal."
"And isn't it as a social animal that you also want him?"
"Certainly; so that it's as if she had saved him for us."
"It strikes you accordingly then," the young man threw out, "as for you all to save her?"
"Oh, for us 'all'———!" Strether could but laugh at that. It brought him back, however, to the point he had really wished to make. "They've accepted their situation—hard as it is. They're not free—at least she's not; but they take what's left to them. It's a friendship, of a beautiful sort, and that's what makes them so strong. They're straight, they feel, and they keep each other up. It's doubtless she, however, who, as you yourself have hinted, feels it most."
Little Bilham appeared to wonder what he had hinted. "Feels most that they're straight?"
"Well, feels that she is, and the strength that comes from it. She keeps him up—she keeps the whole thing up. When people are able to, it's fine. She's wonderful, wonderful, as Miss Barrace says; and he is, in his way, too; however, as a mere man, he may sometimes rebel and not feel that he finds his account in it. She has simply given him an immense moral lift, and what that can explain is prodigious. That's why I speak of it as a situation. It is one, if there ever was." And Strether, with his head back and his eyes on the ceiling, seemed to lose himself in the vision of it.
His companion attended deeply. "You state it much better than I could."
"Oh, you see, it doesn't concern you."
Little Bilham considered. "I thought you said just now that it doesn't concern you either."
"Well, it doesn't a bit, as Mme. de Vionnet's affair. But, as we were saying just now, what did I come out for but to save him?"
"Yes—to remove him."
"To save him by removal; to win him over to himself thinking it best he shall take up business—thinking he must immediately do, therefore, what is necessary to that end."
"Well," said little Bilham after a moment, "you have won him over. He does think it best. He has within a day or two again said to me as much."
"And that," Strether asked, "is why you consider that he cares less than she?"
"Cares less for her than she for him? Yes, that's one of the reasons. But other things too have given me the impression. A man, don't you think?" little Bilham presently pursued, "can't, in such conditions, care so much as a woman. It takes different conditions to make him, and then perhaps he cares more. Chad," he wound up, "has his possible future before him."
"Are you speaking of his business future?"
"No—on the contrary; of the other, the future of what you so justly call their situation. M. de Vionnet may live forever."
"So that they can't marry?"
The young man just hesitated. "Not being able to marry is all they've with any confidence to look forward to. A woman—a particular woman—may stand that strain; but can a man?"
Strether's answer was as prompt as if he had already, for himself, worked it out "Not without a very high ideal of conduct. But that's just what we're attributing to Chad. And how, for that matter," he mused, "does his going to America diminish the particular strain? Wouldn't it seem rather to add to it?"
"Out of sight, out of mind!" his companion laughed. Then more bravely: "Wouldn't distance lessen the torment?" But before Strether could reply, "The thing is, you see, Chad ought to marry!" he exclaimed.
Strether, for a little, appeared to think of it. "If you talk of torments, you don't diminish mine!" he then broke out. The next moment he was on his feet with a question. "He ought to marry whom?"
Little Bilham rose more slowly. "Well, someone he can—some thoroughly nice girl."
Strether's eyes, as they stood together, turned again to Jeanne. "Do you mean her?"
His friend made a sudden strange face. "After being in love with her mother? No."
"But isn't it exactly your idea that he isn't in love with her mother?"
His friend once more had a pause. "Well, he isn't, at any rate, with Jeanne."
"I dare say not. How can he be with any other woman? "
"Oh, that I admit. But being in love isn't, you know, here"—little Bilham spoke in friendly reminder—"thought necessary, in strictness, for marriage."
"And what torment—to call a torment—can there ever possibly be with a woman like that?" As if from the interest of his own question, Strether had gone on without hearing. "Is it for her to have turned a man out so wonderfully, too, only for somebody else?" He appeared to make a point of this, and little Bilham looked at him now. "When it's for each other that people give things up they don't miss them." Then he threw off as with an extravagance of which he was conscious: "Let them face the future together!"
"You mean that, after all, he shouldn't go back?"
"I mean that if he gives her up———!"
"Well, he ought to be ashamed of himself." But Strether spoke with a sound that might have passed for a laugh.