The Wings of the Dove —I—

When Kate and Densher abandoned her to Mrs. Stringham on the day of her meeting them together and bringing them to luncheon, Milly, face to face with that companion, had had one of those moments in which the warned, the anxious fighter of the battle of life, as if once again feeling for the sword at his side, carries his hand straight to the quarter of his courage. She laid hers firmly on her heart, and the two women stood there showing each other a strange front. Susan Shepherd had received their great doctor’s visit, which had been clearly no small affair for her; but Milly had since then, with insistence, kept in place, against communication and betrayal, as she now practically confessed, the barrier of their invited guests. “You’ve been too dear. With what I see you’re full of you treated them beautifully. Isn’t Kate charming when she wants to be?”

Poor Susie’s expression, contending at first, as in a high fine spasm, with different dangers, had now quite let itself go. She had to make an effort to reach a point in space already so remote. “Miss Croy? Oh she was pleasant and clever. She knew,” Mrs. Stringham added. “She knew.”

Milly braced herself—but conscious above all, at the moment, of a high compassion for her mate. She made her out as struggling—struggling in all her nature against the betrayal of pity, which in itself, given her nature, could only be a torment. Milly gathered from the struggle how much there was of the pity, and how therefore it was both in her tenderness and in her conscience that Mrs. Stringham suffered. Wonderful and beautiful it was that this impression instantly steadied the girl. Ruefully asking herself on what basis of ease, with the drop of their barrier, they were to find themselves together, she felt the question met with a relief that was almost joy. The basis, the inevitable basis, was that she was going to be sorry for Susie, who, to all appearance, had been condemned in so much more uncomfortable a manner to be sorry for her. Mrs. Stringham’s sorrow would hurt Mrs. Stringham, but how could her own ever hurt? She had, the poor girl, at all events, on the spot, five minutes of exaltation in which she turned the tables on her friend with a pass of the hand, a gesture of an energy that made a wind in the air. “Kate knew,” she asked, “that you were full of Sir Luke Strett?”

“She spoke of nothing, but she was gentle and nice; she seemed to want to help me through.” Which the good lady had no sooner said, however, than she almost tragically gasped at herself. She glared at Milly with a pretended pluck. “What I mean is that she saw one had been taken up with something. When I say she knows I should say she’s a person who guesses.” And her grimace was also, on its side, heroic. “But she doesn’t matter, Milly.”

The girl felt she by this time could face anything. “Nobody matters, Susie. Nobody.” Which her next words, however, rather contradicted. “Did he take it ill that I wasn’t here to see him? Wasn’t it really just what he wanted—to have it out, so much more simply, with you?”

“We didn’t have anything ‘out,’ Milly,” Mrs. Stringham delicately quavered.

“Didn’t he awfully like you,” Milly went on, “and didn’t he think you the most charming person I could possibly have referred him to for an account of me? Didn’t you hit it off tremendously together and in fact fall quite in love, so that it will really be a great advantage for you to have me as a common ground? You’re going to make, I can see, no end of a good thing of me.”

“My own child, my own child!” Mrs. Stringham pleadingly murmured; yet showing as she did so that she feared the effect even of deprecation.

“Isn’t he beautiful and good too himself?—altogether, whatever he may say, a lovely acquaintance to have made? You’re just the right people for me—I see it now; and do you know what, between you, you must do?” Then as Susie still but stared, wonderstruck and holding herself: “You must simply see me through. Any way you choose. Make it out together. I, on my side, will be beautiful too, and we’ll be—the three of us, with whatever others, oh as many as the case requires, any one you like!—a sight for the gods. I’ll be as easy for you as carrying a feather.” Susie took it for a moment in such silence that her young friend almost saw her—and scarcely withheld the observation—as taking it for “a part of the disease.” This accordingly helped Milly to be, as she judged, definite and wise. “He’s at any rate awfully interesting, isn’t he?—which is so much to the good. We haven’t at least—as we might have, with the way we tumbled into it—got hold of one of the dreary.”

“Interesting, dearest?”—Mrs. Stringham felt her feet firmer. “I don’t know if he’s interesting or not; but I do know, my own,” she continued to quaver, “that he’s just as much interested as you could possibly desire.”

“Certainly—that’s it. Like all the world.”

“No, my precious, not like all the world. Very much more deeply and intelligently.”

“Ah there you are!” Milly laughed. “That’s the way, Susie, I want you. So ‘buck’ up, my dear. We’ll have beautiful times with him. Don’t worry.”

“I’m not worrying, Milly.” And poor Susie’s face registered the sublimity of her lie.

It was at this that, too sharply penetrated, her companion went to her, met by her with an embrace in which things were said that exceeded speech. Each held and clasped the other as if to console her for this unnamed woe, the woe for Mrs. Stringham of learning the torment of helplessness, the woe for Milly of having her, at such a time, to think of. Milly’s assumption was immense, and the difficulty for her friend was that of not being able to gainsay it without bringing it more to the proof than tenderness and vagueness could permit. Nothing in fact came to the proof between them but that they could thus cling together—except indeed that, as we have indicated, the pledge of protection and support was all the younger woman’s own. “I don’t ask you,” she presently said, “what he told you for yourself, nor what he told you to tell me, nor how he took it, really, that I had left him to you, nor what passed between you about me in any way. It wasn’t to get that out of you that I took my means to make sure of your meeting freely—for there are things I don’t want to know. I shall see him again and again and shall know more than enough. All I do want is that you shall see me through on his basis, whatever it is; which it’s enough—for the purpose—that you yourself should know: that is with him to show you how. I’ll make it charming for you—that’s what I mean; I’ll keep you up to it in such a way that half the time you won’t know you’re doing it. And for that you’re to rest upon me. There. It’s understood. We keep each other going, and you may absolutely feel of me that I shan’t break down. So, with the way you haven’t so much as a dig of the elbow to fear, how could you be safer?”

“He told me I can help you—of course he told me that,” Susie, on her side, eagerly contended. “Why shouldn’t he, and for what else have I come out with you? But he told me nothing dreadful-nothing, nothing, nothing,” the poor lady passionately protested. “Only that you must do as you like and as he tells you—which is just simply to do as you like.”

“I must keep in sight of him. I must from time to time go to him. But that’s of course doing as I like. It’s lucky,” Milly smiled, “that I like going to him.”

Mrs. Stringham was here in agreement; she gave a clutch at the account of their situation that most showed it was workable. “That’s what will be charming for me, and what I’m sure he really wants of me—to help you do as you like.”

“And also a little, won’t it be,” Milly laughed, “to save me from the consequences? Of course,” she added, “there must first be things I like.”

“Oh I think you’ll find some,” Mrs. Stringham more bravely said. “I think there are some—as for instance just this one. I mean,” she explained, “really having us so.”

Milly thought. “Just as if I wanted you comfortable about him, and him the same about you? Yes—I shall get the good of it.”

Susan Shepherd appeared to wander from this into a slight confusion. “Which of them are you talking of?”

Milly wondered an instant—then had a light. “I’m not talking of Mr. Densher.” With which moreover she showed amusement. “Though if you can be comfortable about Mr. Densher too so much the better.”

“Oh you meant Sir Luke Strett? Certainly he’s a fine type. Do you know,” Susie continued, “whom he reminds me of? Of our great man—Dr. Buttrick of Boston.”

Milly recognized Dr. Buttrick of Boston, but she dropped him after a tributary pause. “What do you think, now that you’ve seen him, of Mr. Densher?”

It was not till after consideration, with her eyes fixed on her friend’s, that Susie produced her answer. “I think he’s very handsome.”

Milly remained smiling at her, though putting on a little the manner of a teacher with a pupil. “Well, that will do for the first time. I have done,” she went on, “what I wanted.”

“Then that’s all we want. You see there are plenty of things.”

Milly shook her head for the “plenty.” “The best is not to know—that includes them all. I don’t—I don’t know. Nothing about anything—except that you’re with me. Remember that, please. There won’t be anything that, on my side, for you, I shall forget. So it’s all right.”

The effect of it by this time was fairly, as intended, to sustain Susie, who dropped in spite of herself into the reassuring. “Most certainly it’s all right. I think you ought to understand that he sees no reason—”

“Why I shouldn’t have a grand long life?” Milly had taken it straight up, as to understand it and for a moment consider it. But she disposed of it otherwise. “Oh of course I know that.” She spoke as if her friend’s point were small.

Mrs. Stringham tried to enlarge it. “Well, what I mean is that he didn’t say to me anything that he hasn’t said to yourself.”

“Really?—I would in his place!” She might have been disappointed, but she had her good humour. “He tells me to live”—and she oddly limited the word.

It left Susie a little at sea. “Then what do you want more?”

“My dear,” the girl presently said, “I don’t ‘want,’ as I assure you, anything. Still,” she added, “I am living. Oh yes, I’m living.”

It put them again face to face, but it had wound Mrs. Stringham up. “So am I then, you’ll see!”—she spoke with the note of her recovery. Yet it was her wisdom now—meaning by it as much as she did—not to say more than that. She had risen by Milly’s aid to a certain command of what was before them; the ten minutes of their talk had in fact made her more distinctly aware of the presence in her mind of a new idea. It was really perhaps an old idea with a new value; it had at all events begun during the last hour, though at first but feebly, to shine with a special light. That was because in the morning darkness had so suddenly descended—a sufficient shade of night to bring out the power of a star. The dusk might be thick yet, but the sky had comparatively cleared; and Susan Shepherd’s star from this time on continued to twinkle for her. It was for the moment, after her passage with Milly, the one spark left in the heavens. She recognized, as she continued to watch it, that it had really been set there by Sir Luke Strett’s visit and that the impressions immediately following had done no more than fix it. Milly’s reappearance with Mr. Densher at her heels—or, so oddly perhaps, at Miss Croy’s heels, Miss Croy being at Milly’s—had contributed to this effect, though it was only with the lapse of the greater obscurity that Susie made that out. The obscurity had reigned during the hour of their friends’ visit, faintly clearing indeed while, in one of the rooms, Kate Croy’s remarkable advance to her intensified the fact that Milly and the young man were conjoined in the other. If it hadn’t acquired on the spot all the intensity of which it was capable, this was because the poor lady still sat in her primary gloom, the gloom the great benignant doctor had practically left behind him.

The intensity the circumstance in question might wear to the informed imagination would have been sufficiently revealed for us, no doubt—and with other things to our purpose—in two or three of those confidential passages with Mrs. Lowder that she now permitted herself. She hadn’t yet been so glad that she believed in her old friend; for if she hadn’t had, at such a pass, somebody or other to believe in she should certainly have stumbled by the way. Discretion had ceased to consist of silence; silence was gross and thick, whereas wisdom should taper, however tremulously, to a point. She betook herself to Lancaster Gate the morning after the colloquy just noted; and there, in Maud Manningham’s own sanctum, she gradually found relief in giving an account of herself. An account of herself was one of the things that she had long been in the habit of expecting herself regularly to give—the regularity depending of course much on such tests of merit as might, by laws beyond her control, rise in her path. She never spared herself in short a proper sharpness of conception of how she had behaved, and it was a statement that she for the most part found herself able to make. What had happened at present was that nothing, as she felt, was left of her to report to; she was all too sunk in the inevitable and the abysmal. To give an account of herself she must give it to somebody else, and her first installment of it to her hostess was that she must please let her cry. She couldn’t cry, with Milly in observation, at the hotel, which she had accordingly left for that purpose; and the power happily came to her with the good opportunity. She cried and cried at first—she confined herself to that; it was for the time the best statement of her business. Mrs. Lowder moreover intelligently took it as such, though knocking off a note or two more, as she said, while Susie sat near her table. She could resist the contagion of tears, but her patience did justice to her visitor’s most vivid plea for it. “I shall never be able, you know, to cry again—at least not ever with her; so I must take it out when I can. Even if she does herself it won’t be for me to give away; for what would that be but a confession of despair? I’m not with her for that—I’m with her to be regularly sublime. Besides, Milly won’t cry herself.”

“I’m sure I hope,” said Mrs. Lowder, “that she won’t have occasion to.”

“She won’t even if she does have occasion. She won’t shed a tear. There’s something that will prevent her.”

“Oh!” said Mrs. Lowder.

“Yes, her pride,” Mrs. Stringham explained in spite of her friend’s doubt, and it was with this that her communication took consistent form. It had never been pride, Maud Manningham had hinted, that kept her from crying when other things made for it; it had only been that these same things, at such times, made still more for business, arrangements, correspondence, the ringing of bells, the marshalling of servants, the taking of decisions. “I might be crying now,” she said, “if I weren’t writing letters”—and this quite without harshness for her anxious companion, to whom she allowed just the administrative margin for difference. She had interrupted her no more than she would have interrupted the piano-tuner. It gave poor Susie time; and when Mrs. Lowder, to save appearances and catch the post, had, with her addressed and stamped notes, met at the door of the room the footman summoned by the pressure of a knob, the facts of the case were sufficiently ready for her. It took but two or three, however, given their importance, to lay the ground for the great one—Mrs. Stringham’s interview of the day before with Sir Luke, who had wished to see her about Milly.

“He had wished it himself?”

“I think he was glad of it. Clearly indeed he was. He stayed a quarter of an hour. I could see that for him it was long. He’s interested,” said Mrs. Stringham.

“Do you mean in her case?”

“He says it isn’t a case.”

“What then is it?”

“It isn’t, at least,” Mrs. Stringham explained, “the case she believed it to be—though it at any rate might be—when, without my knowledge, she went to see him. She went because there was something she was afraid of, and he examined her thoroughly—he has made sure. She’s wrong—she hasn’t what she thought.”

“And what did she think?” Mrs. Lowder demanded.

“He didn’t tell me.”

“And you didn’t ask?”

“I asked nothing,” said poor Susie—“I only took what he gave me. He gave me no more than he had to—he was beautiful,” she went on. “He is, thank God, interested.”

“He must have been interested in you, dear,” Maud Manningham observed with kindness.

Her visitor met it with candor. “Yes, love, I think he is. I mean that he sees what he can do with me.”

Mrs. Lowder took it rightly. “For her.”

“For her. Anything in the world he will or he must. He can use me to the last bone, and he likes at least that. He says the great thing for her is to be happy.”

“It’s surely the great thing for every one. Why, therefore,” Mrs. Lowder handsomely asked, “should we cry so hard about it?”

“Only,” poor Susie wailed, “that it’s so strange, so beyond us. I mean if she can’t be.”

“She must be.” Mrs. Lowder knew no impossibles. “She shall be.”

“Well—if you’ll help. He thinks, you know, we can help.”

Mrs. Lowder faced a moment, in her massive way, what Sir Luke Strett thought. She sat back there, her knees apart, not unlike a picturesque ear-ringed matron at a market-stall; while her friend, before her, dropped their items, tossed the separate truths of the matter one by one, into her capacious apron. “But is that all he came to you for—to tell you she must be happy?”

“That she must be made so—that’s the point. It seemed enough, as he told me,” Mrs. Stringham went on; “he makes it somehow such a grand possible affair.”

“Ah well, if he makes it possible!”

“I mean especially he makes it grand. He gave it to me, that is, as my part. The rest’s his own.”

“And what’s the rest?” Mrs. Lowder asked.

“I don’t know. His business. He means to keep hold of her.”

“Then why do you say it isn’t a ‘case’? It must be very much of one.”

Everything in Mrs. Stringham confessed to the extent of it. “It’s only that it isn’t the case she herself supposed.”

“It’s another?”

“It’s another.”

“Examining her for what she supposed he finds something else?”

“Something else.”

“And what does he find?”

“Ah,” Mrs. Stringham cried, “God keep me from knowing!”

“He didn’t tell you that?”

But poor Susie had recovered herself. “What I mean is that if it’s there I shall know in time. He’s considering, but I can trust him for it—because he does, I feel, trust me. He’s considering,” she repeated.

“He’s in other words not sure?”

“Well, he’s watching. I think that’s what he means. She’s to get away now, but to come back to him in three months.”

“Then I think,” said Maud Lowder, “that he oughtn’t meanwhile to scare us.”

It roused Susie a little, Susie, being already enrolled in the great doctor’s cause. This came out at least in her glimmer of reproach. “Does it scare us to enlist us for her happiness?”

Mrs. Lowder was rather stiff for it. “Yes; it scares me. I’m always scared—I may call it so—till I understand. What happiness is he talking about?”

Mrs. Stringham at this came straight. “Oh you know!”

She had really said it so that her friend had to take it; which the latter in fact after a moment showed herself as having done. A strange light humour in the matter even perhaps suddenly aiding, she met it with a certain accommodation. “Well, say one seems to see. The point is—!” But, fairly too full now of her question, she dropped.

“The point is will it cure?”

“Precisely. Is it absolutely a remedy—the specific?”

“Well, I should think we might know!” Mrs. Stringham delicately declared.

“Ah but we haven’t the complaint.”

“Have you never, dearest, been in love?” Susan Shepherd inquired.

“Yes, my child; but not by the doctor’s direction.”

Maud Manningham had spoken perforce with a break into momentary mirth, which operated—and happily too—as a challenge to her visitor’s spirit. “Oh of course we don’t ask his leave to fall. But it’s something to know he thinks it good for us.”

“My dear woman,” Mrs. Lowder cried, “it strikes me we know it without him. So that when that’s all he has to tell us—!”

“Ah,” Mrs. Stringham interposed, “it isn’t ‘all.’ I feel Sir Luke will have more; he won’t have put me off with anything inadequate. I’m to see him again; he as good as told me that he’ll wish it. So it won’t be for nothing.”

“Then what will it be for? Do you mean he has somebody of his own to propose? Do you mean you told him nothing?”

Mrs. Stringham dealt with these questions. “I showed him I understood him. That was all I could do. I didn’t feel at liberty to be explicit; but I felt, even though his visit so upset me, the comfort of what I had from you night before last.”

“What I spoke to you of in the carriage when we had left her with Kate?”

“You had seen, apparently, in three minutes. And now that he’s here, now that I’ve met him and had my impression of him, I feel,” said Mrs. Stringham, “that you’ve been magnificent.”

“Of course I’ve been magnificent. When,” asked Maud Manningham, “was I anything else? But Milly won’t be, you know, if she marries Merton Densher.”

“Oh it’s always magnificent to marry the man one loves. But we’re going fast!” Mrs. Stringham woefully smiled.

“The thing is to go fast if I see the case right. What had I after all but my instinct of that on coming back with you, night before last, to pick up Kate? I felt what I felt—I knew in my bones the man had returned.”

“That’s just where, as I say, you’re magnificent. But wait,” said Mrs. Stringham, “till you’ve seen him.”

“I shall see him immediately”—Mrs. Lowder took it up with decision. “What is then,” she asked, “your impression?”

Mrs. Stringham’s impression seemed lost in her doubts. “How can he ever care for her?”

Her companion, in her companion’s heavy manner, sat on it. “By being put in the way of it.”

“For God’s sake then,” Mrs. Stringham wailed, “put him in the way! You have him, one feels, in your hand.”

Maud Lowder’s eyes at this rested on her friend’s. “Is that your impression of him?”

“It’s my impression, dearest, of you. You handle every one.”

Mrs. Lowder’s eyes still rested, and Susan Shepherd now felt, for a wonder, not less sincere by seeing that she pleased her. But there was a great limitation. “I don’t handle Kate.”

It suggested something that her visitor hadn’t yet had from her—something the sense of which made Mrs. Stringham gasp. “Do you mean Kate cares for him?”

That fact the lady of Lancaster Gate had up to this moment, as we know, enshrouded, and her friend’s quick question had produced a change in her face. She blinked—then looked at the question hard; after which, whether she had inadvertently betrayed herself or had only reached a decision and then been affected by the quality of Mrs. Stringham’s surprise, she accepted all results. What took place in her for Susan Shepherd was not simply that she made the best of them, but that she suddenly saw more in them to her purpose than she could have imagined. A certain impatience in fact marked in her this transition: she had been keeping back, very hard, an important truth, and wouldn’t have liked to hear that she hadn’t concealed it cleverly. Susie nevertheless felt herself pass as not a little of a fool with her for not having thought of it. What Susie indeed, however, most thought of at present, in the quick, new light of it, was the wonder of Kate’s dissimulation. She had time for that view while she waited for an answer to her cry. “Kate thinks she cares. But she’s mistaken. And no one knows it.” These things, distinct and responsible, were Mrs. Lowder’s retort. Yet they weren’t all of it. “You don’t know it—that must be your line. Or rather your line must be that you deny it utterly.”

“Deny that she cares for him?”

“Deny that she so much as thinks that she does. Positively and absolutely. Deny that you’ve so much as heard of it.”

Susie faced this new duty. “To Milly, you mean—if she asks?”

“To Milly, naturally. No one else will ask.”

“Well,” said Mrs. Stringham after a moment, “Milly won’t.”

Mrs. Lowder wondered. “Are you sure?”

“Yes, the more I think of it. And luckily for me. I lie badly.”

“I lie well, thank God,” Mrs. Lowder almost snorted, “when, as sometimes will happen, there’s nothing else so good. One must always do the best. But without lies then,” she went on, “perhaps we can work it out.” Her interest had risen; her friend saw her, as within some minutes, more enrolled and inflamed—presently felt in her what had made the difference. Mrs. Stringham, it was true, descried this at the time but dimly; she only made out at first that Maud had found a reason for helping her. The reason was that, strangely, she might help Maud too, for which she now desired to profess herself ready even to lying. What really perhaps most came out for her was that her hostess was a little disappointed at her doubt of the social solidity of this appliance; and that in turn was to become a steadier light. The truth about Kate’s delusion, as her aunt presented it, the delusion about the state of her affections, which might be removed-this was apparently the ground on which they now might more intimately meet. Mrs. Stringham saw herself recruited for the removal of Kate’s delusion—by arts, however, in truth, that she as yet quite failed to compass. Or was it perhaps to be only for the removal of Mr. Densher’s?—success in which indeed might entail other successes. Before that job, unfortunately, her heart had already failed. She felt that she believed in her bones what Milly believed, and what would now make working for Milly such a dreadful upward tug. All this within her was confusedly present—a cloud of questions out of which Maud Manningham’s large seated self loomed, however, as a mass more and more definite, taking in fact for the consultative relation something of the form of an oracle. From the oracle the sound did come—or at any rate the sense did, a sense all accordant with the insufflation she had just seen working. “Yes,” the sense was, “I’ll help you for Milly, because if that comes off I shall be helped, by its doing so, for Kate”—a view into which Mrs. Stringham could now sufficiently enter. She found herself of a sudden, strange to say, quite willing to operate to Kate’s harm, or at least to Kate’s good as Mrs. Lowder with a noble anxiety measured it. She found herself in short not caring what became of Kate—only convinced at bottom of the predominance of Kate’s star. Kate wasn’t in danger, Kate wasn’t pathetic; Kate Croy, whatever happened, would take care of Kate Croy. She saw moreover by this time that her friend was traveling even beyond her own speed. Mrs. Lowder had already, in mind, drafted a rough plan of action, a plan vividly enough thrown off as she said: “You must stay on a few days, and you must immediately, both of you, meet him at dinner.” In addition to which Maud claimed the merit of having by an instinct of pity, of prescient wisdom, done much, two nights before, to prepare that ground. “The poor child, when I was with her there while you were getting your shawl, quite gave herself away to me.”

“Oh I remember how you afterwards put it to me. Though it was nothing more,” Susie did herself the justice to observe, “than what I too had quite felt.”

But Mrs. Lowder fronted her so on this that she wondered what she had said. “I suppose I ought to be edified at what you can so beautifully give up.”

“Give up?” Mrs. Stringham echoed. “Why, I give up nothing—I cling.”

Her hostess showed impatience, turning again with some stiffness to her great brass-bound cylinder-desk and giving a push to an object or two disposed there. “I give up then. You know how little such a person as Mr. Densher was to be my idea for her. You know what I’ve been thinking perfectly possible.”

“Oh you’ve been great”—Susie was perfectly fair. “A duke, a duchess, a princess, a palace: you’ve made me believe in them too. But where we break down is that she doesn’t believe in them. Luckily for her—as it seems to be turning out—she doesn’t want them. So what’s one to do? I assure you I’ve had many dreams. But I’ve only one dream now.”

Mrs. Stringham’s tone in these last words gave so fully her meaning that Mrs. Lowder could but show herself as taking it in. They sat a moment longer confronted on it. “Her having what she does want?”

“If it will do anything for her.”

Mrs. Lowder seemed to think what it might do; but she spoke for the instant of something else. “It does provoke me a bit, you know—for of course I’m a brute. And I had thought of all sorts of things. Yet it doesn’t prevent the fact that we must be decent.”

“We must take her”—Mrs. Stringham carried that out—“as she is.”

“And we must take Mr. Densher as he is.” With which Mrs. Lowder gave a sombre laugh. “It’s a pity he isn’t better!”

“Well, if he were better,” her friend rejoined, “you’d have liked him for your niece; and in that case Milly would interfere. I mean,” Susie added, “interfere with you.”

“She interferes with me as it is—not that it matters now. But I saw Kate and her—really as soon as you came to me—set up side by side. I saw your girl—I don’t mind telling you—helping my girl; and when I say that,” Mrs. Lowder continued, “you’ll probably put in for yourself that it was part of the reason of my welcome to you. So you see what I give up. I do give it up. But when I take that line,” she further set forth, “I take it handsomely. So good-bye to it all. Good-day to Mrs. Densher! Heavens!” she growled.

Susie held herself a minute. “Even as Mrs. Densher my girl will be somebody.”

“Yes, she won’t be nobody. Besides,” said Mrs. Lowder, “we’re talking in the air.”

Her companion sadly assented. “We’re leaving everything out.”

“It’s nevertheless interesting.” And Mrs. Lowder had another thought. “He’s not quite nobody either.” It brought her back to the question she had already put and which her friend hadn’t at the time dealt with. “What in fact do you make of him?”

Susan Shepherd, at this, for reasons not clear even to herself, was moved a little to caution. So she remained general. “He’s charming.”

She had met Mrs. Lowder’s eyes with that extreme pointedness in her own to which people resort when they are not quite candid—a circumstance that had its effect. “Yes; he’s charming.”

The effect of the words, however, was equally marked; they almost determined in Mrs. Stringham a return of amusement. “I thought you didn’t like him!”

“I don’t like him for Kate.”

“But you don’t like him for Milly either.”

Mrs. Stringham rose as she spoke, and her friend also got up. “I like him, my dear, for myself.”

“Then that’s the best way of all.”

“Well, it’s one way. He’s not good enough for my niece, and he’s not good enough for you. One’s an aunt, one’s a wretch and one’s a fool.”

“Oh I’m not—not either,” Susie declared.

But her companion kept on. “One lives for others. You do that. If I were living for myself I shouldn’t at all mind him.”

But Mrs. Stringham was sturdier. “Ah if I find him charming it’s however I’m living.”

Well, it broke Mrs. Lowder down. She hung fire but an instant, giving herself away with a laugh. “Of course he’s all right in himself.”

“That’s all I contend,” Susie said with more reserve; and the note in question—what Merton Densher was “in himself”—closed practically, with some inconsequence, this first of their councils.