The Ambassadors by Henry James - HTML preview

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Chapter V.3


Chad was not in fact on this occasion to keep his promise of coming back; but Miss Gostrey had soon presented herself with an explanation of his failure. There had been reasons at the last for his going off with ces dames; and he had asked her with much instance to come out and take charge of their friend. She did so, Strether felt as she took her place beside him, in a manner that left nothing to desire. He had dropped back on his bench, alone again for a time, and the more conscious for little Bilham's defection of his unexpressed thought; in respect to which however this next converser was a still more capacious vessel. "It's the child!" he had exclaimed to her almost as soon as she appeared; and though her direct response was for some time delayed he could feel in her meanwhile the working of this truth. It might have been simply, as she waited, that they were now in presence altogether of truth spreading like a flood and not for the moment to be offered her in the mere cupful; inasmuch as who should ces dames prove to be but persons about whom--once thus face to face with them--she found she might from the first have told him almost everything? This would have freely come had he taken the simple precaution of giving her their name. There could be no better example  -and she appeared to note it with high amusement--than the way, making things out already so much for himself, he was at last throwing precautions to the winds. They were neither more nor less, she and the child's mother, than old school-friends--friends who had scarcely met for years but whom this unlooked-for chance had brought together with a rush. It was a relief, Miss Gostrey hinted, to feel herself no longer groping; she was unaccustomed to grope and as a general thing, he might well have seen, made straight enough for her clue. With the one she had now picked up in her hands there need be at least no waste of wonder. "She's coming to see me--that's for YOU," Strether's counsellor continued; "but I don't require it to know where I am."

 The waste of wonder might be proscribed; but Strether, characteristically, was even by this time in the immensity of space. "By which you mean that you know where SHE is?"

 She just hesitated. "I mean that if she comes to see me I shall-- now that I've pulled myself round a bit after the shock--not be at home."

 Strether hung poised. "You call it--your recognition--a shock?"

 She gave one of her rare flickers of impatience. "It was a surprise, an emotion. Don't be so literal. I wash my hands of her."

 Poor Strether's face lengthened. "She's impossible--?"

 "She's even more charming than I remembered her."

"Then what's the matter?" She had to think how to put it. "Well, I'M impossible. It's impossible. Everything's impossible."

He looked at her an instant. "I see where you're coming out. Everything's possible." Their eyes had on it in fact an exchange of some duration; after which he pursued: "Isn't it that beautiful child?" Then as she still said nothing: "Why don't you mean to receive her?"

 Her answer in an instant rang clear. "Because I wish to keep out of the business."

 It provoked in him a weak wail. "You're going to abandon me NOW?"

 "No, I'm only going to abandon HER. She'll want me to help her with you. And I won't."

"You'll only help me with her? Well then--!" Most of the persons previously gathered had, in the interest of tea, passed into the house, and they had the gardens mainly to themselves. The shadows were long, the last call of the birds, who had made a home of their own in the noble interspaced quarter, sounded from the high trees in the other gardens as well, those of the old convent and of the old hotels; it was as if our friends had waited for the full charm to come out. Strether's impressions were still present; it was as if something had happened that "nailed" them, made them more intense; but he was to ask himself soon afterwards, that evening, what really HAD happened-conscious as he could after all remain that for a gentleman taken, and taken the first time, into the "great world," the world of ambassadors and duchesses, the items made a meagre total. It was nothing new to him, however, as we know, that a man might have-at all events such a man as he--an amount of experience out of any proportion to his adventures; so that, though it was doubtless no great adventure to sit on there with Miss Gostrey and hear about Madame de Vionnet, the hour, the picture, the immediate, the recent, the possible--as well as the communication itself, not a note of which failed to reverberate-- only gave the moments more of the taste of history.

It was history, to begin with, that Jeanne's mother had been three-and-twenty years before, at Geneva, schoolmate and good girlfriend to Maria Gostrey, who had moreover enjoyed since then, though interruptedly and above all with a long recent drop, other glimpses of her. Twenty-three years put them both on, no doubt; and Madame de Vionnet--though she had married straight after school--couldn't be today an hour less than thirty-eight. This made her ten years older than Chad--though ten years, also, if Strether liked, older than she looked; the least, at any rate, that a prospective mother-inlaw could be expected to do with. She would be of all mothers-in-law the most charming; unless indeed, through some perversity as yet insupposeable, she should utterly belie herself in that relation. There was none surely in which, as Maria remembered her, she mustn't be charming; and this frankly in spite of the stigma of failure in the tie where failure always most showed. It was no test there--when indeed WAS it a test there?--for Monsieur de Vionnet had been a brute. She had lived for years apart from him--which was of course always a horrid position; but Miss Gostrey's impression of the matter had been that she could scarce have made a better thing of it had she done it on purpose to show she was amiable. She was so amiable that nobody had had a word to say; which was luckily not the case for her husband. He was so impossible that she had the advantage of all her merits.

It was still history for Strether that the Comte de Vionnet--it being also history that the lady in question was a Countess--should now, under Miss Gostrey's sharp touch, rise before him as a high distinguished polished impertinent reprobate, the product of a mysterious order; it was history, further, that the charming girl so freely sketched by his companion should have been married out of hand by a mother, another figure of striking outline, full of dark personal motive; it was perhaps history most of all that this company was, as a matter of course, governed by such considerations as put divorce out of the question. "Ces gens-la don't divorce, you know, any more than they emigrate or abjure-they think it impious and vulgar"; a fact in the light of which they seemed but the more richly special. It was all special; it was all, for Strether's imagination, more or less rich. The girl at the Genevese school, an isolated interesting attaching creature, then both sensitive and violent, audacious but always forgiven, was the daughter of a French father and an English mother who, early left a widow, had married again--tried afresh with a foreigner; in her career with whom she had apparently given her child no example of comfort. All these people--the people of the English mother's side--had been of condition more or less eminent; yet with oddities and disparities that had often since made Maria, thinking them over, wonder what they really quite rhymed to. It was in any case her belief that the mother, interested and prone to adventure, had been without conscience, had only thought of ridding herself most quickly of a possible, an actual encumbrance. The father, by her impression, a Frenchman with a name one knew, had been a different matter, leaving his child, she clearly recalled, a memory all fondness, as well as an assured little fortune which was unluckily to make her more or less of a prey later on. She had been in particular, at school, dazzlingly, though quite booklessly, clever; as polyglot as a little Jewess (which she wasn't, oh no!) and chattering French, English, German, Italian, anything one would, in a way that made a clean sweep, if not of prizes and parchments, at least of every "part," whether memorised or improvised, in the curtained costumed school repertory, and in especial of all mysteries of race and vagueness of reference, all swagger about "home," among their variegated mates.

It would doubtless be difficult to-day, as between French and English, to name her and place her; she would certainly show, on knowledge, Miss Gostrey felt, as one of those convenient types who don't keep you explaining--minds with doors as numerous as the many-tongued cluster of confessionals at Saint Peter's. You might confess to her with confidence in Roumelian, and even Roumelian sins. Therefore--! But Strether's narrator covered her implication with a laugh; a laugh by which his betrayal of a sense of the lurid in the picture was also perhaps sufficiently protected. He had a moment of wondering, while his friend went on, what sins might be especially Roumelian. She went on at all events to the mention of her having met the young thing--again by some Swiss lake--in her first married state, which had appeared for the few intermediate years not at least violently disturbed. She had been lovely at that moment, delightful to HER, full of responsive emotion, of amused recognitions and amusing reminders, and then once more, much later, after a long interval, equally but differently charming--touching and rather mystifying for the five minutes of an encounter at a railway-station en province, during which it had come out that her life was all changed. Miss Gostrey had understood enough to see, essentially, what had happened, and yet had beautifully dreamed that she was herself faultless. There were doubtless depths in her, but she was all right; Strether would see if she wasn't. She was another person however--that had been promptly marked--from the small child of nature at the Geneva school, a little person quite made over (as foreign women WERE, compared with American) by marriage. Her situation too had evidently cleared itself up; there would have been--all that was possible--a judicial separation. She had settled in Paris, brought up her daughter, steered her boat. It was no very pleasant boat--especially there--to be in; but Marie de Vionnet would have headed straight. She would have friends, certainly--and very good ones. There she was at all events--and it was very interesting. Her knowing Mr. Chad didn't in the least prove she hadn't friends; what it proved was what good ones HE had. "I saw that," said Miss Gostrey, "that night at the Francais; it came out for me in three minutes. I saw HER--or somebody like her. And so," she immediately added, "did you."

 "Oh no--not anybody like her!" Strether laughed. "But you mean," he as promptly went on, "that she has had such an influence on him?"

 Miss Gostrey was on her feet; it was time for them to go. "She has brought him up for her daughter."

Their eyes, as so often, in candid conference, through their settled glasses, met over it long; after which Strether's again took in the whole place. They were quite alone there now. "Mustn't she rather--in the time then--have rushed it?"

"Ah she won't of course have lost an hour. But that's just the good mother--the good French one. You must remember that of her--that as a mother she's French, and that for them there's a special providence. It precisely however--that she mayn't have been able to begin as far back as she'd have liked--makes her grateful for aid."

 Strether took this in as they slowly moved to the house on their way out. "She counts on me then to put the thing through?"

 "Yes--she counts on you. Oh and first of all of course," Miss Gostrey added, "on her-well, convincing you."

 "Ah," her friend returned, "she caught Chad young!"

 "Yes, but there are women who are for all your 'times of life.' They're the most wonderful sort."

 She had laughed the words out, but they brought her companion, the next thing, to a stand. "Is what you mean that she'll try to make a fool of me?"

 "Well, I'm wondering what she WILL--with an opportunity--make."

 "What do you call," Strether asked, "an opportunity? My going to see her?"

"Ah you must go to see her"--Miss Gostrey was a trifle evasive. "You can't not do that. You'd have gone to see the other woman. I mean if there had been one--a different sort. It's what you came out for."

 It might be; but Strether distinguished. "I didn't come out to see THIS sort."

 She had a wonderful look at him now. "Are you disappointed she isn't worse?"

 He for a moment entertained the question, then found for it the frankest of answers. "Yes. If she were worse she'd be better for our purpose. It would be simpler."

 "Perhaps," she admitted. "But won't this be pleasanter?"

 "Ah you know," he promptly replied, "I didn't come out--wasn't that just what you originally reproached me with?--for the pleasant."

 "Precisely. Therefore I say again what I said at first. You must take things as they come. Besides," Miss Gostrey added, "I'm not afraid for myself."

 "For yourself--?"

 "Of your seeing her. I trust her. There's nothing she'll say about me. In fact there's nothing she CAN."

 Strether wondered--little as he had thought of this. Then he broke out. "Oh you women!"

 There was something in it at which she flushed. "Yes--there we are. We're abysses." At last she smiled. "But I risk her!"

 He gave himself a shake. "Well then so do I!" But he added as they passed into the house that he would see Chad the first thing in the morning.

This was the next day the more easily effected that the young man, as it happened, even before he was down, turned up at his hotel. Strether took his coffee, by habit, in the public room; but on his descending for this purpose Chad instantly proposed an adjournment to what he called greater privacy. He had himself as yet had nothing--they would sit down somewhere together; and when after a few steps and a turn into the Boulevard they had, for their greater privacy, sat down among twenty others, our friend saw in his companion's move a fear of the advent of Waymarsh. It was the first time Chad had to that extent given this personage "away"; and Strether found himself wondering of what it was symptomatic. He made out in a moment that the youth was in earnest as he hadn't yet seen him; which in its turn threw a ray perhaps a trifle startling on what they had each up to that time been treating as earnestness. It was sufficiently flattering however that the real thing--if this WAS at last the real thing--should have been determined, as appeared, precisely by an accretion of Strether's importance. For this was what it quickly enough came to--that Chad, rising with the lark, had rushed down to let him know while his morning consciousness was yet young that he had literally made the afternoon before a tremendous impression. Madame de Vionnet wouldn't, couldn't rest till she should have some assurance from him that he WOULD consent again to see her. The announcement was made, across their marble-topped table, while the foam of the hot milk was in their cups and its plash still in the air, with the smile of Chad's easiest urbanity; and this expression of his face caused our friend's doubts to gather on the spot into a challenge of the lips. "See here"--that was all; he only for the moment said again "See here." Chad met it with all his air of straight intelligence, while Strether remembered again that fancy of the first impression of him, the happy young Pagan, handsome and hard but oddly indulgent, whose mysterious measure he had under the street-lamp tried mentally to take. The young Pagan, while a long look passed between them, sufficiently understood. Strether scarce needed at last to say the rest--"I want to know where I am." But he said it, adding before any answer something more. "Are you engaged to be married--is that your secret?--to the young lady?"

Chad shook his head with the slow amenity that was one of his ways of conveying that there was time for everything. "I have no secret-- though I may have secrets! I haven't at any rate that one. We're not engaged. No."

 "Then where's the hitch?"

"Do you mean why I haven't already started with you?" Chad, beginning his coffee and buttering his roll, was quite ready to explain. "Nothing would have induced me--nothing will still induce me--not to try to keep you here as long as you can be made to stay. It's too visibly good for you." Strether had himself plenty to say about this, but it was amusing also to measure the march of Chad's tone. He had never been more a man of the world, and it was always in his company present to our friend that one was seeing how in successive connexions a man of the world acquitted himself. Chad kept it up beautifully. "My idea--voyons!--is simply that you should let Madame de Vionnet know you, simply that you should consent to know HER. I don't in the least mind telling you that, clever and charming as she is, she's ever so much in my confidence. All I ask of you is to let her talk to you. You've asked me about what you call my hitch, and so far as it goes she'll explain it to you. She's herself my hitch, hang it--if you must really have it all out. But in a sense," he hastened in the most wonderful manner to add, "that you'll quite make out for yourself. She's too good a friend, confound her. Too good, I mean, for me to leave without-- without--" It was his first hesitation.

 "Without what?"

 "Well, without my arranging somehow or other the damnable terms of my sacrifice." "It WILL be a sacrifice then?"

 "It will be the greatest loss I ever suffered. I owe her so much."

It was beautiful, the way Chad said these things, and his plea was now confessedly--oh quite flagrantly and publicly--interesting. The moment really took on for Strether an intensity. Chad owed Madame de Vionnet so much? What DID that do then but clear up the whole mystery? He was indebted for alterations, and she was thereby in a position to have sent in her bill for expenses incurred in reconstruction. What was this at bottom but what had been to be arrived at? Strether sat there arriving at it while he munched toast and stirred his second cup. To do this with the aid of Chad's pleasant earnest face was also to do more besides. No, never before had he been so ready to take him as he was. What was it that had suddenly so cleared up? It was just everybody's character; that is everybody's but--in a measure--his own. Strether felt HIS character receive for the instant a smutch from all the wrong things he had suspected or believed. The person to whom Chad owed it that he could positively turn out such a comfort to other persons--such a person was sufficiently raised above any "breath" by the nature of her work and the young man's steady light. All of which was vivid enough to come and go quickly; though indeed in the midst of it Strether could utter a question. "Have I your word of honour that if I surrender myself to Madame de Vionnet you'll surrender yourself to me?"

 Chad laid his hand firmly on his friend's. "My dear man, you have it."

There was finally something in his felicity almost embarrassing and oppressive--Strether had begun to fidget under it for the open air and the erect posture. He had signed to the waiter that he wished to pay, and this transaction took some moments, during which he thoroughly felt, while he put down money and pretended--it was quite hollow--to estimate change, that Chad's higher spirit, his youth, his practice, his paganism, his felicity, his assurance, his impudence, whatever it might be, had consciously scored a success. Well, that was all right so far as it went; his sense of the thing in question covered our friend for a minute like a veil through which--as if he had been muffled--he heard his interlocutor ask him if he mightn't take him over about five. "Over" was over the river, and over the river was where Madame de Vionnet lived, and five was that very afternoon. They got at last out of the place--got out before he answered. He lighted, in the street, a cigarette, which again gave him more time. But it was already sharp for him that there was no use in time. "What does she propose to do to me?" he had presently demanded.

 Chad had no delays. "Are you afraid of her?"

 "Oh immensely. Don't you see it?"

 "Well," said Chad, "she won't do anything worse to you than make you like her."

 "It's just of that I'm afraid." "Then it's not fair to me."

 Strether cast about. "It's fair to your mother."

 "Oh," said Chad, "are you afraid of HER?"

 "Scarcely less. Or perhaps even more. But is this lady against your interests at home?" Strether went on.

 "Not directly, no doubt; but she's greatly in favour of them here."

 "And what--'here'--does she consider them to be?"

 "Well, good relations!"

 "With herself?"

 "With herself."

 "And what is it that makes them so good?"

 "What? Well, that's exactly what you'll make out if you'll only go, as I'm supplicating you, to see her."

 Strether stared at him with a little of the wanness, no doubt, that the vision of more to "make out" could scarce help producing. "I mean HOW good are they?"

 "Oh awfully good."

Again Strether had faltered, but it was brief. It was all very well, but there was nothing now he wouldn't risk. "Excuse me, but I must really--as I began by telling you--know where I am. Is she bad?"

 "'Bad'?"--Chad echoed it, but without a shock. "Is that what's implied--?"

"When relations are good?" Strether felt a little silly, and was even conscious of a foolish laugh, at having it imposed on him to have appeared to speak so. What indeed was he talking about? His stare had relaxed; he looked now all round him. But something in him brought him back, though he still didn't know quite how to turn it. The two or three ways he thought of, and one of them in particular, were, even with scruples dismissed, too ugly. He none the less at last found something. "Is her life without reproach?"

It struck him, directly he had found it, as pompous and priggish; so much so that he was thankful to Chad for taking it only in the right spirit. The young man spoke so immensely to the point that the effect was practically of positive blandness. "Absolutely without reproach. A beautiful life. Allez donc voir!"

These last words were, in the liberality of their confidence, so imperative that Strether went through no form of assent; but before they separated it had been confirmed that he should be picked up at a quarter to five.