The Ambassadors (London: Methuen & Co., 1903)/Part 9/Chapter 24
There they were yet again, accordingly, for two days more; when Strether, on being, at Mrs. Pocock's hotel, ushered into that lady's salon, found himself at first assuming a mistake on the part of the servant who had introduced him and retired. The occupants had not come in, for the room looked empty as only a room can look in Paris, of a fine afternoon, when the faint murmur of the huge collective life, carried on out of doors, strays among scattered objects even as a summer air idles in a lonely garden. Our friend looked about and hesitated; observed, on the evidence of a table charged with purchases and other matters, that Sarah had become possessed—by no aid from him—of the last number of the salmon-coloured Revue; noted further that Mamie appeared to have received a present of Fromentin's Maîtres d'Autrefois from Chad, who had written her name on the cover; and pulled up at the sight of a heavy letter addressed in a hand he knew. This letter, forwarded by a banker and arriving in Mrs. Pocock's absence, had been placed in evidence, and it drew from the fact of its being unopened a sudden queer power to intensify the reach of its author. It brought home to him the scale on which Mrs. Newsome—for she had been copious indeed this time—was writing to her daughter while she kept him in durance; and it had altogether such an effect upon him as made him for a few minutes stand still and breathe low. In his own room, at his own hotel, he had dozens of well-filled envelopes superscribed in that character; and there was actually something in the renewal of his interrupted vision of the character that played straight into the so frequent question of whether he were not already disinherited beyond appeal. It was such an assurance as the sharp downstrokes of her pen had not yet had occasion to give him; but they somehow, at the present crisis, hinted at a probable absoluteness in any decree of the writer. He looked at Sarah's name and address, in short, as if he had been looking hard into her mother's face, and then turned from it as if the face had declined to relax. But as it was, in a manner, as if Mrs. Newsome were thereby all the more, instead of the less, in the room, and were conscious, sharply and solely conscious, of himself, so he felt both held and hushed, summoned to stay at least and take his punishment. By staying, accordingly, he took it—creeping softly and vaguely about and waiting for Sarah to come in. She would come in if he stayed long enough, and he had now more than ever the sense of her success in leaving him a prey to anxiety. It was not to be denied that she had had a happy instinct, from the point of view of Woollett, in placing him thus at the mercy of her own initiative. It was very well to try to say he didn't care—that she might break ground when she would, might never break it at all if she wouldn't, and that he had no confession whatever to wait upon her with: he breathed from day to day an air that damnably required clearing, and there were moments when he quite ached to precipitate that process. He couldn't doubt that, should she only oblige him by surprising him just as he was then, a clarifying scene of some sort would result from the concussion.
He humbly circulated, in this spirit, till he suddenly had a fresh arrest. Both the windows of the room stood open to the balcony, but it was only now that, in the glass of the leaf of one of them, folded back, he caught a reflection quickly recognised as the colour of a lady's dress. Somebody had been then, all the while, on the balcony, and the person, whoever it might be, was so placed, between the windows, as to be hidden from him: while, on the other hand, the many sounds of the street had covered his own entrance and movements. If the person were Sarah he might on the spot therefore be served to his taste. He might lead her, by a move or two, up to the remedy for his vain tension; as to which, should he get nothing else from it, he would at least have the relief of pulling down the roof on their heads. There was fortunately no one at hand to observe—in respect to his valour—that even on this completed reasoning he still hung fire. He had been waiting for Mrs. Pocock and the sound of the oracle; but he had to gird himself afresh—which he did in the embrasure of the window, neither advancing nor retreating—before provoking the revelation. It was apparently for Sarah to come more into view; he was at her service when the sense of it should move her. She did, however, as meanwhile happened, come more into view: only she came, luckily, at the last minute, not in the form he had conceived. The occupant of the balcony was after all quite another person, a person presented, on a second look, by a charming back and a slight shift of her position, as beautiful, brilliant, unconscious Mamie—Mamie alone at home, Mamie passing her time in her own innocent way, Mamie in short, rather shabbily used, but Mamie absorbed, interested and interesting. With her arms on the balustrade and her attention dropped to the street, she allowed Strether to watch her, to consider several things, without turning round.
But the oddity was, that when he had so watched and considered he simply stepped back into the room without following up his advantage. He revolved there again for several minutes, quite as with something new to think of and as if the bearings of the possibility of Sarah had been superseded. For frankly, yes, it had bearings thus to find the girl in solitary possession. There was something in it that touched him to a point not to have been reckoned beforehand, something that softly, but quite pressingly, spoke to him, and that spoke the more each time he paused again at the edge of the balcony and saw her still unaware. Her companions were, plainly, scattered; Sarah would be off somewhere with Waymarsh and Chad off somewhere with Jim. Strether didn't at all mentally impute to Chad that he was with his "good friend"; he gave him the benefit of supposing him involved in appearances that, had he had to describe them—for instance to Maria—he would have conveniently qualified as more subtle. It came to him indeed the next thing that there was perhaps almost an excess of refinement in having left Mamie, in such weather, up there alone, however she might in fact have extemporised, under the charm of the Rue de Rivoli, a little makeshift Paris of wonder and fancy. Our friend, at any rate, now recognised—and it was as if, at the recognition, Mrs. Newsome's fixed intensity had suddenly, with a deep, audible gasp, grown thin and vague—that, day after day, he had been conscious, in respect to his young lady, of something odd and ambiguous, but a matter into which he could at last read a meaning. It had been, at the most, this mystery, an obsession—oh, an obsession agreeable; and it had just now fallen into its place as at the touch of a spring. It had represented the possibility between them of some communication baffled by accident and delay—the possibility even of some relation as yet unacknowledged.
There was always their old relation, the fruit of the Woollett years; but that—and it was what was strangest—had nothing whatever in common with what was now in the air. As a child, as a "bud," and then again as a flower of expansion, Mamie had bloomed for him, freely, in the almost incessantly open doorways of home; where he remembered her as first very forward, as then very backward—for he had carried on at one period, in Mrs. Newsome's parlours (oh, Mrs. Newsome's phases, and his own!) a course of English literature reinforced by exams and teas—and once more, finally, as very much in advance. But he had kept no great sense of points of contact; it not being in the nature of things at Woollett that the freshest of the buds should find herself in the same basket with the most withered of the winter apples. The child had given sharpness, above all, to his sense of the flight of time: it was but the day before yesterday that he had tripped up on her hoop, yet his experience of remarkable women—destined, it would seem, remarkably to grow—felt itself ready, this afternoon, quite braced itself, to include her. She had, in fine, more to say to him than he had ever dreamed the pretty girl of the moment could have; and the proof of the circumstance was that, visibly, unmistakably, she had been able to say it to no one else. It was something she could mention neither to her brother, to her sister-in-law, nor to Chad; though he could just imagine that, had she still been at home, she might have brought it out, as a supreme tribute to age, authority and attitude, for Mrs. Newsome. It was moreover something in which they all took an interest; the strength of their interest was in truth just the reason of her prudence. All this then, for five minutes, was vivid to Strether, and it put before him that, poor child, she had now but her prudence to amuse her. That, for a pretty girl in Paris, struck him with a rush as a sorry state; so that, under the impression, he went out to her with a step as hypocritically alert, he was well aware, as if he had just come into the room. She turned, with a start, at his voice; preoccupied with him though she might be, she was just a scrap disappointed. "Oh, I thought you were Mr. Bilham!"
The remark had been at first surprising and our friend's private thought, under the influence of it, temporarily blighted; yet we are able to add that he presently recovered his inward tone, and that many a fresh flower of fancy was to bloom in the same air. Little Bilham—since little Bilham was, somewhat incongruously, expected—appeared behindhand; a circumstance by which Strether was to profit. They came back into the room together, after a little, the couple on the balcony, and amid its crimson-and-gold elegance, with the others still absent, Strether passed forty minutes that he appraised even at the time as far, in the whole queer connection, from his idlest. Yes indeed, since he had the other day so agreed with Maria about the inspiration of the lurid, here was something for his problem that surely didn't make it shrink and that was floated in upon him as part of a sudden flood. He was doubtless not to know till afterwards, on turning them over in thought, of how many elements his impression was composed; but he none the less felt, as he sat with the charming girl, the signal growth of a confidence. For she was charming, when all was said—and none the less so for the visible habit and practice of freedom and fluency. She was charming, he was aware, in spite of the fact that if he hadn't found her so he would have found her something he should have been in peril of expressing as "funny." Yes, she was funny, wonderful Mamie, and without dreaming it; she was bland, she was bridal—with never, that he could make out as yet, a bridegroom to support it; she was handsome and portly and easy and chatty, soft and sweet and almost disconcertingly reassuring. She was dressed, if we might so far discriminate, less as a young lady than as an old one—had an old one been supposable to Strether as so committed to vanity; the complexities of her hair missed moreover also the looseness of youth; and she had a mature manner of bending a little, as to encourage and reward, while she held neatly together in front of her a pair of strikingly polished hands: the combination of all of which kept up about her the glamour of her "receiving," placed her again perpetually between the windows and within sound of the ice-cream plates, suggested the enumeration of all the names, all the Mr. Coxes and Mr. Coleses, gregarious specimens of a single type, she was happy to "meet."
But if all this was where she was funny, and if what was funnier than the rest was the contrast between her beautiful benevolent patronage—such a hint of the polysyllabic as might make her something of a bore toward middle age—and her rather flat little voice, the voice, naturally, unaffectedly yet, of a girl of fifteen; so Strether, none the less, at the end of ten minutes, felt in her a quiet dignity that pulled things bravely together. If quiet dignity, almost more than matronly, with voluminous, too voluminous clothes, was the effect she proposed to produce, that was an ideal one could like in her when once one had got into relation. The great thing now, for her visitor, was that this was exactly what he had done; it made so extraordinary a mixture of the brief and crowded hour. It was the mark of a relation that he had begun so quickly to find himself sure she was, of all people, as might have been said, on the side and of the party of Mrs. Newsome's original ambassador. She was in his interest, and not in Sarah's; and some sign of that was precisely what he had been feeling in her, these last days, as imminent. Finally placed, in Paris, in immediate presence of the situation and of the hero of it—by whom Strether was incapable of meaning anyone but Chad—she had accomplished, and really in a manner all unexpected to herself, a change of base; deep, still things had come to pass within her, and by the time she had grown sure of them Strether had become aware of the little drama. When she knew where she was, in short, he had made it out; and he made it out at present still better, though with never a direct word passing between them all the while on the subject of his own predicament. There had been at first, as he sat there with her, a moment during which he wondered if she meant to break ground in respect to his prime undertaking. That door stood so strangely ajar that he was half prepared to be conscious, at any juncture, of her having, of someone's having, quite bounced in. But, friendly, familiar, light of touch and happy of tact, she exquisitely stayed out; so that it was, for all the world, as if to show she could deal with him without being reduced to—well, to scarcely anything.
It fully came up for them then, by means of their talking of everything but Chad, that Mamie, unlike Sarah, unlike Jim, knew perfectly what had become of him. It fully came up that she had taken to the last fraction of an inch the measure of the change in him, and that she wanted Strether to know what a secret she proposed to make of it. They talked most conveniently—as if they had had no chance yet—about Woollett, and that had virtually the effect of their keeping the secret more close. The hour took on for Strether, little by little, an odd, sad sweetness of savour; he had such a revulsion in Mamie's favour and on behalf of her social value as might have come from remorse at some early injustice. She made him, as under the breath of some vague western whiff, homesick and freshly restless; he could really, for the time, have fancied himself stranded with her, on a far shore, during an ominous calm, in a quaint community of shipwreck. Their little interview was like a picnic on a coral strand; they passed each other, with melancholy smiles and looks sufficiently allusive, such cupfuls of water as they had saved. Especially sharp in Strether, meanwhile, was the conviction that his companion really knew, as we have hinted, where she had come out. It was at a very particular place—only that she would never tell him; it would be above all what he should have to puzzle for himself. This was what he hoped for, because his interest in the girl wouldn't be complete without it. No more would the appreciation to which she was entitled—so assured was he that the more he saw of her process the more he should see of her pride. She saw, herself, everything; but she knew what she didn't want, and this it was that had helped her. What didn't she want?—there was a pleasure lost for her old friend in not yet knowing, as there would doubtless be a thrill in getting a glimpse. Gently and sociably she kept that dark to him, and it was as if she soothed and beguiled him in other ways to compensate him. She aired for him her impression of Mme. de Vionnet—of whom she had "heard so much "; she threw off her impression of Jeanne, whom she had been "dying to see"; she produced it with a blandness by which her auditor was really stirred that she had been with Sarah early that very afternoon, and after dreadful delays caused by all sorts of things, mainly, eternally, by the purchase of clothes—clothes that unfortunately wouldn't be themselves eternal—to call in the Rue de Bellechasse.
At the sound of these names Strether almost blushed to feel that he couldn't have sounded them first and yet couldn't either have justified his squeamishness. Mamie made them easy as he couldn't have begun to do, and yet it could only have cost her more than he should ever have had to spend. It was as friends of Chad's—friends special, distinguished, desirable, enviable—that she spoke of them, and she beautifully carried it off that, much as she had heard of them, though she didn't say how or where, which was a touch of her own, she had found them beyond her supposition. She abounded in their praise, and after the manner of Woollett—which made the manner of Woollett a lovable thing again to Strether. He had never so felt the true inwardness of it as when his blooming companion pronounced the elder of the ladies of the Rue de Bellechasse too fascinating for words, and declared of the younger that she was perfectly ideal—a real little miracle of charm. "Nothing," she said of Jeanne, "ought ever to happen to her—she's so awfully right as she is. Another touch will spoil her—so she oughtn't to be touched."
"Ah, but things here in Paris," Strether observed, "do happen to little girls." And then for the joke's and the occasion's sake, "Haven't you found that yourself?"
"That things happen———? Oh, I'm not a little girl. I'm a big, battered, blowsy one. I don't care," Mamie laughed, "what happens."
Strether had a pause while he wondered if it mightn't happen that he should give her the pleasure of hearing from him that he found her nicer than he had really dreamed—a pause that ended when he had said to himself that, so far as it at all mattered for her, she had in fact perhaps already made this out. He risked accordingly a different question, though conscious, as soon as he had spoken, that he seemed to place it in relation to her last speech. "But that Mlle. de Vionnet is to be married—I suppose you've heard of that."
For all, he then found, he need fear! "Dear, yes; the gentleman was there—M. de Montbron, whom Mme. de Vionnet presented to us."
"And was he nice?"
Mamie bloomed and bridled with her best reception manner. "Any man's nice when he's in love."
It made Strether laugh. "But is M. de Montbron in love—already—with you?"
"Oh, that's not necessary—it's so much better he should be so with her: which, thank goodness, I lost no time in discovering for myself. He's perfectly gone—and I couldn't have borne it for her if he hadn't been. She's just too sweet."
Strether hesitated. "And through being in love too?"
On which, with a smile that struck him as wonderful, Mamie had a wonderful answer. "She doesn't know if she is or not."
It made him again laugh out. "Oh, but you do?"
She was willing to take it that way. "Oh yes, I know everything." And as she sat there rubbing her polished hands and making the best of it—only holding her elbows perhaps a little too much out—the momentary effect for Strether was that everyone else, in all their affair, seemed stupid.
"Know that poor little Jeanne doesn't know what's the matter with her?"
It was as near as they came to saying that she was probably in love with Chad; but it was quite near enough for what Strether wanted, which was to be confirmed in his certitude that, whether in love or not, she appealed to something large and easy in the girl before him. Mamie would be fat, too fat, at thirty; but she would always be the person who, at the present sharp hour, had been disinterestedly tender. "If I see a little more of her—as I hope I shall—I think she'll like me enough (for she seemed to like me to-day), to want me to tell her."
"And shall you?"
"Perfectly. I shall tell her the matter with her is that she wants only too much to do right. To do right, for her, naturally," said Mamie, "is to please."
"Her mother, do you mean?"
"Her mother first."
Strether waited. "And then?"
"Well, 'then'—Mr. Newsome."
There was something really grand for him in the serenity of this reference. "And last only M. de Montbron?"
"Last only"—she good-humouredly kept it up.
Strether considered. "So that everyone, after all then, will be suited?"
She had one of her few hesitations, but it was a question only of a moment; and it was her nearest approach to being explicit with him about what was between them. "I think I can speak for myself. I shall be."
It said indeed so much, told such a story of her being ready to help him, so committed to him that truth, in short, for such use as he might make of it toward those ends of his own with which, patiently and trustfully, she had nothing to do—it so fully achieved all this that he appeared to himself simply to meet it in its own spirit by the last frankness of admiration. Admiration was of itself almost accusatory, but nothing less would serve to show her how nearly he understood. He put out his hand for good-bye with a "Splendid, splendid, splendid!" And he left her, with her splendour, still waiting for little Bilham.