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The Ambassadors

Chapter VI.3
Madame 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 grey 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 to a
sea-nymph waist-high in the summer surge. Above all she suggested to him the
reflexion 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 Madame de Vionnet to-night as showy and uncovered, though
he felt the formula rough, because, thanks to 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 Madame 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 fellow guest had good-naturedly left them, he had been given something else
to think of. "Why has Maria so suddenly gone? Do you know?" That was the question
Madame 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."