The Ambassadors Chapter II

In Chad’s lovely home, however, one evening ten days later, he felt himself present at the collapse of the question of Jeanne de Vionnet’s shy secret. He had been dining there in the company of that young lady and her mother, as well as of other persons, and he had gone into the petit salon, at Chad’s request, on purpose to talk with her. The young man had put this to him as a favour— “I should like so awfully to know what you think of her. It will really be a chance for you,” he had said, “to see the jeune fille — I mean the type — as she actually is, and I don’t think that, as an observer of manners, it’s a thing you ought to miss. It will be an impression that — whatever else you take — you can carry home with you, where you’ll find again so much to compare it with.”

Strether knew well enough with what Chad wished him to compare it, and though he entirely assented he hadn’t yet somehow been so deeply reminded that he was being, as he constantly though mutely expressed it, used. He was as far as ever from making out exactly to what end; but he was none the less constantly accompanied by a sense of the service he rendered. He conceived only that this service was highly agreeable to those who profited by it; and he was indeed still waiting for the moment at which he should catch it in the act of proving disagreeable, proving in some degree intolerable, to himself. He failed quite to see how his situation could clear up at all logically except by some turn of events that would give him the pretext of disgust. He was building from day to day on the possibility of disgust, but each day brought forth meanwhile a new and more engaging bend of the road. That possibility was now ever so much further from sight than on the eve of his arrival, and he perfectly felt that, should it come at all, it would have to be at best inconsequent and violent. He struck himself as a little nearer to it only when he asked himself what service, in such a life of utility, he was after all rendering Mrs. Newsome. When he wished to help himself to believe that he was still all right he reflected — and in fact with wonder — on the unimpaired frequency of their correspondence; in relation to which what was after all more natural than that it should become more frequent just in proportion as their problem became more complicated?

Certain it is at any rate that he now often brought himself balm by the question, with the rich consciousness of yesterday’s letter, “Well, what can I do more than that — what can I do more than tell her everything?” To persuade himself that he did tell her, had told her, everything, he used to try to think of particular things he hadn’t told her. When at rare moments and in the watches of the night he pounced on one it generally showed itself to be — to a deeper scrutiny — not quite truly of the essence. When anything new struck him as coming up, or anything already noted as reappearing, he always immediately wrote, as if for fear that if he didn’t he would miss something; and also that he might be able to say to himself from time to time “She knows it NOW — even while I worry.” It was a great comfort to him in general not to have left past things to be dragged to light and explained; not to have to produce at so late a stage anything not produced, or anything even veiled and attenuated, at the moment. She knew it now: that was what he said to himself tonight in relation to the fresh fact of Chad’s acquaintance with the two ladies — not to speak of the fresher one of his own. Mrs. Newsome knew in other words that very night at Woollett that he himself knew Madame de Vionnet and that he had conscientiously been to see her; also that he had found her remarkably attractive and that there would probably be a good deal more to tell. But she further knew, or would know very soon, that, again conscientiously, he hadn’t repeated his visit; and that when Chad had asked him on the Countess’s behalf — Strether made her out vividly, with a thought at the back of his head, a Countess — if he wouldn’t name a day for dining with her, he had replied lucidly: “Thank you very much — impossible.” He had begged the young man would present his excuses and had trusted him to understand that it couldn’t really strike one as quite the straight thing. He hadn’t reported to Mrs. Newsome that he had promised to “save” Madame de Vionnet; but, so far as he was concerned with that reminiscence, he hadn’t at any rate promised to haunt her house. What Chad had understood could only, in truth, be inferred from Chad’s behaviour, which had been in this connexion as easy as in every other. He was easy, always, when he understood; he was easier still, if possible, when he didn’t; he had replied that he would make it all right; and he had proceeded to do this by substituting the present occasion — as he was ready to substitute others — for any, for every occasion as to which his old friend should have a funny scruple.

“Oh but I’m not a little foreign girl; I’m just as English as I can be,” Jeanne de Vionnet had said to him as soon as, in the petit salon, he sank, shyly enough on his own side, into the place near her vacated by Madame Gloriani at his approach. Madame Gloriani, who was in black velvet, with white lace and powdered hair, and whose somewhat massive majesty melted, at any contact, into the graciousness of some incomprehensible tongue, moved away to make room for the vague gentleman, after benevolent greetings to him which embodied, as he believed, in baffling accents, some recognition of his face from a couple of Sundays before. Then he had remarked — making the most of the advantage of his years — that it frightened him quite enough to find himself dedicated to the entertainment of a little foreign girl. There were girls he wasn’t afraid of — he was quite bold with little Americans. Thus it was that she had defended herself to the end— “Oh but I’m almost American too. That’s what mamma has wanted me to be — I mean LIKE that; for she has wanted me to have lots of freedom. She has known such good results from it.”

She was fairly beautiful to him — a faint pastel in an oval frame: he thought of her already as of some lurking image in a long gallery, the portrait of a small oldtime princess of whom nothing was known but that she had died young. Little Jeanne wasn’t, doubtless, to die young, but one couldn’t, all the same, bear on her lightly enough. It was bearing hard, it was bearing as HE, in any case, wouldn’t bear, to concern himself, in relation to her, with the question of a young man. Odious really the question of a young man; one didn’t treat such a person as a maidservant suspected of a “follower.” And then young men, young men — well, the thing was their business simply, or was at all events hers. She was fluttered, fairly fevered — to the point of a little glitter that came and went in her eyes and a pair of pink spots that stayed in her cheeks — with the great adventure of dining out and with the greater one still, possibly, of finding a gentleman whom she must think of as very, very old, a gentleman with eyeglasses, wrinkles, a long grizzled moustache. She spoke the prettiest English, our friend thought, that he had ever heard spoken, just as he had believed her a few minutes before to be speaking the prettiest French. He wondered almost wistfully if such a sweep of the lyre didn’t react on the spirit itself; and his fancy had in fact, before he knew it, begun so to stray and embroider that he finally found himself, absent and extravagant, sitting with the child in a friendly silence. Only by this time he felt her flutter to have fortunately dropped and that she was more at her ease. She trusted him, liked him, and it was to come back to him afterwards that she had told him things. She had dipped into the waiting medium at last and found neither surge nor chill — nothing but the small splash she could herself make in the pleasant warmth, nothing but the safety of dipping and dipping again. At the end of the ten minutes he was to spend with her his impression — with all it had thrown off and all it had taken in — was complete. She had been free, as she knew freedom, partly to show him that, unlike other little persons she knew, she had imbibed that ideal. She was delightfully quaint about herself, but the vision of what she had imbibed was what most held him. It really consisted, he was soon enough to feel, in just one great little matter, the fact that, whatever her nature, she was thoroughly — he had to cast about for the word, but it came — bred. He couldn’t of course on so short an acquaintance speak for her nature, but the idea of breeding was what she had meanwhile dropped into his mind. He had never yet known it so sharply presented. Her mother gave it, no doubt; but her mother, to make that less sensible, gave so much else besides, and on neither of the two previous occasions, extraordinary woman, Strether felt, anything like what she was giving tonight. Little Jeanne was a case, an exquisite case of education; whereas the Countess, whom it so amused him to think of by that denomination, was a case, also exquisite, of — well, he didn’t know what.

“He has wonderful taste, notre jeune homme”: this was what Gloriani said to him on turning away from the inspection of a small picture suspended near the door of the room. The high celebrity in question had just come in, apparently in search of Mademoiselle de Vionnet, but while Strether had got up from beside her their fellow guest, with his eye sharply caught, had paused for a long look. The thing was a landscape, of no size, but of the French school, as our friend was glad to feel he knew, and also of a quality — which he liked to think he should also have guessed; its frame was large out of proportion to the canvas, and he had never seen a person look at anything, he thought, just as Gloriani, with his nose very near and quick movements of the head from side to side and bottom to top, examined this feature of Chad’s collection. The artist used that word the next moment, smiling courteously, wiping his nippers and looking round him further — paying the place in short by the very manner of his presence and by something Strether fancied he could make out in this particular glance, such a tribute as, to the latter’s sense, settled many things once for all. Strether was conscious at this instant, for that matter, as he hadn’t yet been, of how, round about him, quite without him, they WERE consistently settled. Gloriani’s smile, deeply Italian, he considered, and finely inscrutable, had had for him, during dinner, at which they were not neighbours, an indefinite greeting; but the quality in it was gone that had appeared on the other occasion to turn him inside out; it was as if even the momentary link supplied by the doubt between them had snapped. He was conscious now of the final reality, which was that there wasn’t so much a doubt as a difference altogether; all the more that over the difference the famous sculptor seemed to signal almost condolingly, yet oh how vacantly! as across some great flat sheet of water. He threw out the bridge of a charming hollow civility on which Strether wouldn’t have trusted his own full weight a moment. That idea, even though but transient and perhaps belated, had performed the office of putting Strether more at his ease, and the blurred picture had already dropped — dropped with the sound of something else said and with his becoming aware, by another quick turn, that Gloriani was now on the sofa talking with Jeanne, while he himself had in his ears again the familiar friendliness and the elusive meaning of the “Oh, oh, oh!” that had made him, a fortnight before, challenge Miss Barrace in vain. She had always the air, this picturesque and original lady, who struck him, so oddly, as both antique and modern — she had always the air of taking up some joke that one had already had out with her. The point itself, no doubt, was what was antique, and the use she made of it what was modern. He felt just now that her goodnatured irony did bear on something, and it troubled him a little that she wouldn’t be more explicit, only assuring him, with the pleasure of observation so visible in her, that she wouldn’t tell him more for the world. He could take refuge but in asking her what she had done with Waymarsh, though it must be added that he felt himself a little on the way to a clue after she had answered that this personage was, in the other room, engaged in conversation with Madame de Vionnet. He stared a moment at the image of such a conjunction; then, for Miss Barrace’s benefit, he wondered. “Is she too then under the charm — ?”

“No, not a bit” — Miss Barrace was prompt. “She makes nothing of him. She’s bored. She won’t help you with him.”

“Oh,” Strether laughed, “she can’t do everything.”

“Of course not — wonderful as she is. Besides, he makes nothing of HER. She won’t take him from me — though she wouldn’t, no doubt, having other affairs in hand, even if she could. I’ve never,” said Miss Barrace, “seen her fail with any one before. And tonight, when she’s so magnificent, it would seem to her strange — if she minded. So at any rate I have him all. Je suis tranquille!’’

Strether understood, so far as that went; but he was feeling for his clue. “She strikes you tonight as particularly magnificent?”

“Surely. Almost as I’ve never seen her. Doesn’t she you? Why it’s FOR you.”

He persisted in his candour. “‘For’ me — ?”

“Oh, oh, oh!” cried Miss Barrace, who persisted in the opposite of that quality.

“Well,” he acutely admitted, “she IS different. She’s gay.”

“She’s gay!” Miss Barrace laughed. “And she has beautiful shoulders — though there’s nothing different in that.”

“No,” said Strether, “one was sure of her shoulders. It isn’t her shoulders.”

His companion, with renewed mirth and the finest sense, between the puffs of her cigarette, of the drollery of things, appeared to find their conversation highly delightful. “Yes, it isn’t her shoulders .”

“What then is it?” Strether earnestly enquired.

“Why, it’s SHE — simply. It’s her mood. It’s her charm.”

“Of course it’s her charm, but we’re speaking of the difference.”

“Well,” Miss Barrace explained, “she’s just brilliant, as we used to say. That’s all. She’s various. She’s fifty women.”

“Ah but only one” — Strether kept it clear— “at a time.”

“Perhaps. But in fifty times — !”

“Oh we shan’t come to that,” our friend declared; and the next moment he had moved in another direction. “Will you answer me a plain question? Will she ever divorce?”

Miss Barrace looked at him through all her tortoise-shell. “Why should she?”

It wasn’t what he had asked for, he signified; but he met it well enough. “To marry Chad.”

“Why should she marry Chad?”

“Because I’m convinced she’s very fond of him. She has done wonders for him.”

“Well then, how could she do more? Marrying a man, or woman either,” Miss Barrace sagely went on, “is never the wonder, for any Jack and Jill can bring THAT off. The wonder is their doing such things without marrying.”

Strether considered a moment this proposition. “You mean it’s so beautiful for our friends simply to go on so?”

But whatever he said made her laugh. “Beautiful.”

He nevertheless insisted. “And THAT because it’s disinterested?”

She was now, however, suddenly tired of the question. “Yes, then — call it that. Besides, she’ll never divorce. Don’t, moreover,” she added, “believe everything you hear about her husband.”

“He’s not then,” Strether asked, “a wretch?”

“Oh yes. But charming.”

“Do you know him?”

“I’ve met him. He’s bien aimable.”

“To every one but his wife?”

“Oh for all I know, to her too — to any, to every woman. I hope you at any rate,” she pursued with a quick change, “appreciate the care I take of Mr. Waymarsh.”

“Oh immensely.” But Strether was not yet in line. “At all events,” he roundly brought out, “the attachment’s an innocent one.”

“Mine and his? Ah,” she laughed, “don’t rob it of ALL interest!”

“I mean our friend’s here — to the lady we’ve been speaking of.” That was what he had settled to as an indirect but none the less closely involved consequence of his impression of Jeanne. That was where he meant to stay. “It’s innocent,” he repeated— “I see the whole thing.”

Mystified by his abrupt declaration, she had glanced over at Gloriani as at the unnamed subject of his allusion, but the next moment she had understood; though indeed not before Strether had noticed her momentary mistake and wondered what might possibly be behind that too. He already knew that the sculptor admired Madame de Vionnet; but did this admiration also represent an attachment of which the innocence was discussable? He was moving verily in a strange air and on ground not of the firmest. He looked hard for an instant at Miss Barrace, but she had already gone on. “All right with Mr. Newsome? Why of course she is!” — and she got gaily back to the question of her own good friend. “I dare say you’re surprised that I’m not worn out with all I see — it being so much! — of Sitting Bull. But I’m not, you know — I don’t mind him; I bear up, and we get on beautifully. I’m very strange; I’m like that; and often I can’t explain. There are people who are supposed interesting or remarkable or whatever, and who bore me to death; and then there are others as to whom nobody can understand what anybody sees in them — in whom I see no end of things.” Then after she had smoked a moment, “He’s touching, you know,” she said.

“‘Know’?” Strether echoed— “don’t I, indeed? We must move you almost to tears.”

“Oh but I don’t mean YOU!” she laughed.

“You ought to then, for the worst sign of all — as I must have it for you — is that you can’t help me. That’s when a woman pities.”

“Ah but I do help you!” she cheerfully insisted.

Again he looked at her hard, and then after a pause: “No you don’t!”

Her tortoise-shell, on its long chain, rattled down. “I help you with Sitting Bull. That’s a good deal.”

“Oh that, yes.” But Strether hesitated. “Do you mean he talks of me?”

“So that I have to defend you? No, never.”

“I see,” Strether mused. “It’s too deep.”

“That’s his only fault,” she returned— “that everything, with him, is too deep. He has depths of silence — which he breaks only at the longest intervals by a remark. And when the remark comes it’s always something he has seen or felt for himself — never a bit banal. THAT would be what one might have feared and what would kill me. But never.” She smoked again as she thus, with amused complacency, appreciated her acquisition. “And never about you. We keep clear of you. We’re wonderful. But I’ll tell you what he does do,” she continued: “he tries to make me presents.”

“Presents?” poor Strether echoed, conscious with a pang that HE hadn’t yet tried that in any quarter.

“Why you see,” she explained, “he’s as fine as ever in the victoria; so that when I leave him, as I often do almost for hours — he likes it so — at the doors of shops, the sight of him there helps me, when I come out, to know my carriage away off in the rank. But sometimes, for a change, he goes with me into the shops, and then I’ve all I can do to prevent his buying me things.”

“He wants to ‘treat’ you?” Strether almost gasped at all he himself hadn’t thought of. He had a sense of admiration. “Oh he’s much more in the real tradition than I. Yes,” he mused; “it’s the sacred rage.”

“The sacred rage, exactly!” — and Miss Barrace, who hadn’t before heard this term applied, recognised its bearing with a clap of her gemmed hands. “Now I do know why he’s not banal. But I do prevent him all the same — and if you saw what he sometimes selects — from buying. I save him hundreds and hundreds. I only take flowers.”

“Flowers?” Strether echoed again with a rueful reflexion. How many nosegays had her present converser sent?

“Innocent flowers,” she pursued, “as much as he likes. And he sends me splendours; he knows all the best places — he has found them for himself; he’s wonderful.”

“He hasn’t told them to ME,” her friend smiled; “he has a life of his own.” But Strether had swung back to the consciousness that for himself after all it never would have done. Waymarsh hadn’t Mrs. Waymarsh in the least to consider, whereas Lambert Strether had constantly, in the inmost honour of his thoughts, to consider Mrs. Newsome. He liked moreover to feel how much his friend was in the real tradition. Yet he had his conclusion. “WHAT a rage it is!” He had worked it out. “It’s an opposition.”

She followed, but at a distance. “That’s what I feel. Yet to what?”

“Well, he thinks, you know, that I’VE a life of my own. And I haven’t!”

“You haven’t?” She showed doubt, and her laugh confirmed it. “Oh, oh, oh!”

“No — not for myself. I seem to have a life only for other people.”

“Ah for them and WITH them! Just now for instance with— “

“Well, with whom?” he asked before she had had time to say.

His tone had the effect of making her hesitate and even, as he guessed, speak with a difference. “Say with Miss Gostrey. What do you do for HER?”

It really made him wonder. “Nothing at all!”