It had all gone so fast after this that Milly uttered but the truth nearest to hand in saying to the gentleman on her right — who was, by the same token, the gentleman on her hostess’s left — that she scarce even then knew where she was: the words marking her first full sense of a situation really romantic. They were already dining, she and her friend, at Lancaster Gate, and surrounded, as it seemed to her, with every English accessory; though her consciousness of Mrs. Lowder’s existence, and still more of her remarkable identity, had been of so recent and so sudden a birth. Susie, as she was apt to call her companion for a lighter change, had only had to wave a neat little wand for the fairy-tale to begin at once; in consequence of which Susie now glittered — for, with Mrs. Stringham’s new sense of success, it came to that — in the character of a fairy godmother. Milly had almost insisted on dressing her, for the present occasion, as one; and it was no fault of the girl’s if the good lady had not now appeared in a peaked hat, a short petticoat and diamond shoe-buckles, brandishing the magic crutch. The good lady, in truth, bore herself not less contentedly than if these insignia had marked her work; and Milly’s observation to Lord Mark had just been, doubtless, the result of such a light exchange of looks with her as even the great length of the table had not baffled. There were twenty persons between them, but this sustained passage was the sharpest sequel yet to that other comparison of views during the pause on the Swiss pass. It almost appeared to Milly that their fortune had been unduly precipitated — as if, properly, they were in the position of having ventured on a small joke and found the answer out of proportion grave. She could not at this moment, for instance, have said whether, with her quickened perceptions, she were more enlivened or oppressed; and the case might in fact have been serious had she not, by good fortune, from the moment the picture loomed, quickly made up her mind that what finally most concerned her was neither to seek nor to shirk, was not even to wonder too much, but was to let things come as they would, since there was little enough doubt of how they would go.
Lord Mark had been brought to her before dinner — not by Mrs. Lowder, but by the handsome girl, that lady’s niece, who was now at the other end and on the same side as Susie; he had taken her in, and she meant presently to ask him about Miss Croy, the handsome girl, actually offered to her sight — though now in a splendid way — but for the second time. The first time had been the occasion — only three days before — of her calling at their hotel with her aunt and then making, for our other two heroines, a great impression of beauty and eminence. This impression had remained so with Milly that, at present, and although her attention was aware at the same time of everything else, her eyes were mainly engaged with Kate Croy when not engaged with Susie. That wonderful creature’s eyes moreover readily met them — she ranked now as a wonderful creature; and it seemed a part of the swift prosperity of the American visitors that, so little in the original reckoning, she should yet appear conscious, charmingly, frankly conscious, of possibilities of friendship for them. Milly had easily and, as a guest, gracefully generalised: English girls had a special, strong beauty, and it particularly showed in evening dress — above all when, as was strikingly the case with this one, the dress itself was what it should be. That observation she had all ready for Lord Mark when they should, after a little, get round to it. She seemed even now to see that there might be a good deal they would get round to; the indication being that, taken up once for all with her other neighbour, their hostess would leave them much to themselves. Mrs. Lowder’s other neighbour was the Bishop of Murrum — a real bishop, such as Milly had never seen, with a complicated costume, a voice like an old-fashioned wind instrument, and a face all the portrait of a prelate; while the gentleman on our young lady’s left, a gentleman thick-necked, large and literal, who looked straight before him and as if he were not to be diverted by vain words from that pursuit, clearly counted as an offset to the possession of Lord Mark. As Milly made out these things — with a shade of exhilaration at the way she already fell in-she saw how she was justified of her plea for people and her love of life. It wasn’t then, as the prospect seemed to show, so difficult to get into the current, or to stand, at any rate, on the bank. It was easy to get near — if they were near; and yet the elements were different enough from any of her old elements, and positively rich and strange.
She asked herself if her right-hand neighbour would understand what she meant by such a description of them, should she throw it off; but another of the things to which, precisely, her sense was awakened was that no, decidedly, he wouldn’t. It was nevertheless by this time open to her that his line would be to be clever; and indeed, evidently, no little of the interest was going to be in the fresh reference and fresh effect both of people’s cleverness and of their simplicity. She thrilled, she consciously flushed, and turned pale with the certitude — it had never been so present — that she should find herself completely involved: the very air of the place, the pitch of the occasion, had for her so positive a taste and so deep an undertone. The smallest things, the faces, the hands, the jewels of the women, the sound of words, especially of names, across the table, the shape of the forks, the arrangement of the flowers, the attitude of the servants, the walls of the room, were all touches in a picture and denotements in a play; and they marked for her, moreover, her alertness of vision. She had never, she might well believe, been in such a state of vibration; her sensibility was almost too sharp for her comfort: there were, for example, more indications than she could reduce to order in the manner of the friendly niece, who struck her as distinguished and interesting, as in fact surprisingly genial. This young woman’s type had, visibly, other possibilities; yet here, of its own free movement, it had already sketched a relation. Were they, Miss Croy and she, to take up the tale where their two elders had left it off so many years before? — were they to find they liked each other and to try for themselves if a scheme of constancy on more modern lines could be worked? She had doubted, as they came to England, of Maud Manningham, had believed her a broken reed and a vague resource, had seen their dependence on her as a state of mind that would have been shamefully silly — so far as it was dependence — had they wished to do any thing so inane as “get into society.” To have made their pilgrimage all for the sake of such society as Mrs. Lowder might have in reserve for them — that didn’t bear thinking of at all, and she herself had quite chosen her course for curiosity about other matters. She would have described this curiosity as a desire to see the places she had read about, and that description of her motive she was prepared to give her neighbour — even though, as a consequence of it, he should find how little she had read. It was almost at present as if her poor prevision had been rebuked by the majesty — she could scarcely call it less — of the event, or at all events by the commanding character of the two figures — she could scarcely call that less either — mainly presented. Mrs. Lowder and her niece, however dissimilar, had at least in common that each was a great reality. That was true, primarily, of the aunt — so true that Milly wondered how her own companion had arrived, in other days, at so odd an alliance; yet she none the less felt Mrs. Lowder as a person of whom the mind might in two or three days roughly make the circuit. She would sit there massive, at least, while one attempted it; whereas Miss Croy, the handsome girl, would indulge in incalculable movements that might interfere with one’s tour. She was real, none the less, and everything and everybody were real; and it served them right, no doubt, the pair of them, for having rushed into their adventure.
Lord Mark’s intelligence meanwhile, however, had met her own quite sufficiently to enable him to tell her how little he could clear up her situation. He explained, for that matter — or at least he hinted — that there was no such thing, today in London, as saying where any one was. Every one was everywhere — nobody was anywhere. He should be put to it — yes, frankly — to give a name of any sort or kind to their hostess’s “set.” Was it a set at all, or wasn’t it, and were there not really no such things as sets, in the place, any more? — was there any thing but the senseless shifting tumble, like that of some great greasy sea in mid-Channel, of an overwhelming melted mixture? He threw out the question, which seemed large; Milly felt that at the end of five minutes he had thrown out a great many, though he followed none more than a step or two; perhaps he would prove suggestive, but he helped her as yet to no discriminations: he spoke as if he had given them up from too much knowledge. He was thus at the opposite extreme from herself, but, as a consequence of it, also wandering and lost; and he was furthermore, for all his temporary incoherence, to which she guessed there would be some key, as great a reality as either Mrs. Lowder or Kate. The only light in which he placed the former of these ladies was that of an extraordinary woman — a most extraordinary woman, and “the more extraordinary the more one knows her,” while of the latter he said nothing, for the moment, but that she was tremendously, yes, quite tremendously, good-looking. It was some time, she thought, before his talk showed his cleverness, and yet each minute she believed in it more, quite apart from what her hostess had told her on first naming him. Perhaps he was one of the cases she had heard of at home — those characteristic cases of people in England who concealed their play of mind so much more than they showed it. Even Mr. Densher a little did that. And what made Lord Mark, at any rate, so real either, when this was a thing he so definitely insisted on? His type some how, as by a life, a need, an intention of its own, insisted for him; but that was all. It was difficult to guess his age — whether he were a young man who looked old or an old man who looked young; it seemed to prove nothing, as against other things, that he was bald and, as might have been said, slightly stale, or, more delicately perhaps, dry: there was such a fine little fidget of preoccupied life in him, and his eyes, at moments — though it was an appearance they could suddenly lose — were as candid and clear as those of a pleasant boy. Very neat, very light, and so fair that there was little other indication of his moustache than his constantly feeling it — which was again boyish — he would have affected her as the most intellectual person present if he had not affected her as the most frivolous. The latter quality was rather in his look than in anything else, though he constantly wore his double eyeglass, which was, much more, Bostonian and thoughtful.
The idea of his frivolity had, no doubt, to do with his personal designation, which represented — as yet, for our young woman, a little confusedly — a connection with an historic patriciate, a class that, in turn, also confusedly, represented an affinity with a social element that she had never heard otherwise described than as “fashion.” The supreme social element in New York had never known itself but as reduced to that category, and though Milly was aware that, as applied to a territorial and political aristocracy, the label was probably too simple, she had for the time none other at hand. She presently, it is true, enriched her idea with the perception that her interlocutor was indifferent; yet this, indifferent as aristocracies notoriously were, saw her but little further, inasmuch as she felt that, in the first place, he would much rather get on with her than not, and in the second was only thinking of too many matters of his own. If he kept her in view on the one hand and kept so much else on the other — the way he crumbed up his bread was a proof — why did he hover before her as a potentially insolent noble? She couldn’t have answered the question, and it was precisely one of those that swarmed. They were complicated, she might fairly have said, by his visibly knowing, having known from afar off, that she was a stranger and an American, and by his none the less making no more of it than if she and her like were the chief of his diet. He took her, kindly enough, but imperturbably, irreclaimably, for granted, and it wouldn’t in the least help that she herself knew him, as quickly, for having been in her country and threshed it out. There would be nothing for her to explain or attenuate or brag about; she could neither escape nor prevail by her strangeness; he would have, for that matter, on such a subject, more to tell her than to learn from her. She might learn from him why she was so different from the handsome girl — which she didn’t know, being merely able to feel it; or at any rate might learn from him why the handsome girl was so different from her.
On these lines, however, they would move later; the lines immediately laid down were, in spite of his vagueness for his own convenience, definite enough. She was already, he observed to her, thinking what she should say on her other side — which was what Americans were always doing. She needn’t in conscience say anything at all; but Americans never knew that, nor ever, poor creatures, yes (she had interposed the “poor creatures!”) what not to do. The burdens they took on — the things, positively, they made an affair of! This easy and, after all, friendly jibe at her race was really for her, on her new friend’s part, the note of personal recognition so far as she required it; and she gave him a prompt and conscious example of morbid anxiety by insisting that her desire to be, herself, “lovely” all round was justly founded on the lovely way Mrs. Lowder had met her. He was directly interested in that, and it was not till afterwards that she fully knew how much more information about their friend he had taken than given. Here again, for instance, was a pertinent note for her: she had, on the spot, with her first plunge into the obscure depths of a society constituted from far back, encountered the interesting phenomenon of complicated, of possibly sinister motive. However, Maud Manningham (her name, even in her presence, somehow still fed the fancy) had, all the same, been lovely, and one was going to meet her now quite as far on as one had one’s self been met. She had been with them at their hotel — they were a pair — before even they had supposed she could have got their letter. Of course indeed they had written in advance, but they had followed that up very fast. She had thus engaged them to dine but two days later, and on the morrow again, without waiting for a return visit, waiting for anything, she had called with her niece. It was as if she really cared for them, and it was magnificent fidelity — fidelity to Mrs. Stringham, her own companion and Mrs. Lowder’s former schoolmate, the lady with the charming face and the rather high dress down there at the end.
Lord Mark took in through his nippers these balanced attributes of Susie. “But isn’t Mrs. Stringham’s fidelity then equally magnificent?”
“Well, it’s a beautiful sentiment; but it isn’t as if she had anything to give.“
“Hasn’t she got you?” Lord Mark presently asked.
“Me — to give Mrs. Lowder?” Milly had clearly not yet seen herself in the light of such an offering. “Oh, I’m rather a poor present; and I don’t feel as if, even at that, I’ve as yet quite been given.”
“You’ve been shown, and if our friend has jumped at you it comes to the same thing.” He made his jokes, Lord Mark, without amusement for himself; yet it wasn’t that he was grim. “To be seen you must recognise, is, for you, to be jumped at; and, if it’s a question of being shown, here you are again. Only it has now been taken out of your friend’s hands; it’s Mrs. Lowder, already, who’s getting the benefit. Look round the table and you’ll make out, I think, that you’re being, from top to bottom, jumped at.”
“Well, then,” said Milly, “I seem also to feel that I like it better than being made fun of.”
It was one of the things she afterwards saw — Milly was for ever seeing things afterwards — that her companion had here had some way of his own, quite unlike any one’s else, of assuring her of his consideration. She wondered how he had done it, for he had neither apologised nor protested. She said to herself, at any rate, that he had led her on; and what was most odd was the question by which he had done so. “Does she know much about you?”
“No, she just likes us.”
Even for this his travelled lordship, seasoned and saturated, had no laugh. “I mean you particularly. Has that lady with the charming face, which is charming, told her?”
Milly hesitated. “Told her what?”
This, with the way he dropped it, again considerably moved her — made her feel for a moment that, as a matter of course, she was a subject for disclosures. But she quickly found her answer. “Oh, as for that, you must ask her.“
“Your clever companion?”
He replied to this that their hostess was a person with whom there were certain liberties one never took, but that he was none the less fairly upheld, inasmuch as she was for the most part kind to him and as, should he be very good for a while, she would probably herself tell him. “And I shall have, at any rate, in the meantime, the interest of seeing what she does with you. That will teach me more or less, you see, how much she knows.”
Milly followed this — it was lucid; but it suggested something apart. “How much does she know about you?“
“Nothing,” said Lord Mark serenely. “But that doesn’t matter — for what she does with me.” And then, as to anticipate Milly’s question about the nature of such doing: “This, for instance — turning me straight on for you.“
The girl thought. “And you mean she wouldn’t if she did know ——?”
He met it as if it were really a point. “No. I believe, to do her justice, she still would. So you can be easy.”
Milly had the next instant, then, acted on the permission. “Because you’re even at the worst the best thing she has?”
With this he was at last amused. “I was till you came. You’re the best now.”
It was strange his words should have given her the sense of his knowing, but it was positive that they did so, and to the extent of making her believe them, though still with wonder. That, really, from this first of their meetings, was what was most to abide with her: she accepted almost helplessly, she surrendered to the inevitability of being the sort of thing, as he might have said, that he at least thoroughly believed he had, in going about, seen here enough of for all practical purposes. Her submission was naturally, moreover, not to be impaired by her learning later on that he had paid at short intervals, though at a time apparently just previous to her own emergence from the obscurity of extreme youth, three separate visits to New York, where his nameable friends and his contrasted contacts had been numerous. His impression, his recollection of the whole mixed quantity, was still visibly rich. It had helped him to place her, and she was more and more sharply conscious of having — as with the door sharply slammed upon her and the guard’s hand raised in signal to the train — been popped into the compartment in which she was to travel for him. It was a use of her that many a girl would have been doubtless quick to resent; and the kind of mind that thus, in our young lady, made all for mere seeing and taking is precisely one of the charms of our subject. Milly had practically just learned from him, had made out, as it were, from her rumbling compartment, that he gave her the highest place among their friend’s actual properties. She was a success, that was what it came to, he presently assured her, and that was what it was to be a success: it always happened before one could know it. One’s ignorance was in fact often the greatest part of it. “You haven’t had time yet,” he said; “this is nothing. But you’ll see. You’ll see everything. You can, you know — everything you dream of.”
He made her more and more wonder; she almost felt as if he were showing her visions while he spoke; and strangely enough, though it was visions that had drawn her on, she hadn’t seen them in connection — that is in such preliminary and necessary connection — with such a face as Lord Mark’s, such eyes and such a voice, such a tone and such a manner. He had for an instant the effect of making her ask herself if she were after all going to be afraid; so distinct was it for fifty seconds that a fear passed over her. There they were again — yes, certainly: Susie’s overture to Mrs. Lowder had been their joke, but they had pressed in that gaiety an electric bell that continued to sound. Positively, while she sat there, she had the loud rattle in her ears, and she wondered, during these moments, why the others didn’t hear it. They didn’t stare, they didn’t smile, and the fear in her that I speak of was but her own desire to stop it. That dropped, however, as if the alarm itself had ceased; she seemed to have seen in a quick, though tempered glare that there were two courses for her, one to leave London again the first thing in the morning, the other to do nothing at all. Well, she would do nothing at all; she was already doing it; more than that, she had already done it, and her chance was gone. She gave herself up — she had the strangest sense, on the spot, of so deciding; for she had turned a corner before she went on again with Lord Mark. Inexpressive, but intensely significant, he met as no one else could have done the very question she had suddenly put to Mrs. Stringham on the Brünig. Should she have it, whatever she did have, that question had been, for long? “Ah, so possibly not,” her neighbour appeared to reply; “therefore, don’t you see? I’m the way.” It was vivid that he might be, in spite of his absence of flourish; the way being doubtless just in that absence. The handsome girl, whom she didn’t lose sight of and who, she felt, kept her also in view — Mrs. Lowder’s striking niece would, perhaps, be the way as well, for in her too was the absence of flourish, though she had little else, so far as one could tell, in common with Lord Mark. Yet how indeed could one tell, what did one understand, and of what was one, for that matter, provisionally conscious but of their being somehow together in what they represented? Kate Croy, fine but friendly, looked over at her as really with a guess at Lord Mark’s effect on her. If she could guess this effect what then did she know about it and in what degree had she felt it herself? Did that represent, as between them, anything particular, and should she have to count with them as duplicating, as intensifying by a mutual intelligence, the relation into which she was sinking? Nothing was so odd as that she should have to recognise so quickly in each of these glimpses of an instant the various signs of a relation; and this anomaly itself, had she had more time to give to it, might well, might almost terribly have suggested to her that her doom was to live fast. It was queerly a question of the short run and the consciousness proportionately crowded.
These were immense excursions for the spirit of a young person at Mrs. Lowder’s mere dinner-party; but what was so significant and so admonitory as the fact of their being possible? What could they have been but just a part, already, of the crowded consciousness? And it was just a part, likewise, that while plates were changed and dishes presented and periods in the banquet marked; while appearances insisted and phenomena multiplied and words reached her from here and there like plashes of a slow, thick tide; while Mrs. Lowder grew somehow more stout and more instituted and Susie, at her distance and in comparison, more thinly improvised and more different — different, that is, from every one and everything: it was just a part that while this process went forward our young lady alighted, came back, taking up her destiny again as if she had been able by a wave or two of her wings to place herself briefly in sight of an alternative to it. Whatever it was it had showed in this brief interval as better than the alternative; and it now presented itself altogether in the image and in the place in which she had left it. The image was that of her being, as Lord Mark had declared, a success. This depended more or less of course on his idea of the thing — into which at present, however, she wouldn’t go. But, renewing soon, she had asked him what he meant then that Mrs. Lowder would do with her, and he had replied that this might safely be left. “She’ll get back,” he pleasantly said, “her money.” He could say it too — which was singular — without affecting her either as vulgar or as “nasty “; and he had soon explained himself by adding: “Nobody here, you know, does anything for nothing.”
“Ah, if you mean that we shall reward her as hard as ever we can, nothing is more certain. But she’s an idealist,” Milly continued, “and idealists, in the long run, I think, don’t feel that they lose.”
Lord Mark seemed, within the limits of his enthusiasm, to find this charming. “Ah, she strikes you as an idealist?”
“She idealises us, my friend and me, absolutely. She sees us in a light,” said Milly. “That’s all I’ve got to hold on by. So don’t deprive me of it.”
“I wouldn’t for the world. But do you think,” he continued as if it were suddenly important for him —“do you think she sees me in a light?”
She neglected his question for a little, partly because her attention attached itself more and more to the handsome girl, partly because, placed so near their hostess, she wished not to show as discussing her too freely. Mrs. Lowder, it was true, steering in the other quarter a course in which she called at subjects as if they were islets in an archipelago, continued to allow them their ease, and Kate Croy, at the same time, steadily revealed herself as interesting. Milly in fact found, of a sudden, her ease — found it all — as she bethought herself that what Mrs. Lowder was really arranging for was a report on her quality and, as perhaps might be said, her value from Lord Mark. She wished him, the wonderful lady, to have no pretext for not knowing what he thought of Miss Theale. Why his judgment so mattered remained to be seen; but it was this divination, in any case, that now determined Milly’s rejoinder. “No. She knows you. She has probably reason to. And you all, here, know each other — I see that — so far as you know anything. You know what you’re used to, and it’s your being used to it — that, and that only — that makes you. But there are things you don’t know.”
He took it in as if it might fairly, to do him justice, be a point. “Things that I don’t — with all the pains I take and the way I’ve run about the world to leave nothing unlearned?”
Milly thought, and it was perhaps the very truth of his claim — its not being negligible — that sharpened her impatience and thereby her wit. “You’re blasé, but you’re not enlightened. You’re familiar with everything, but conscious, really of nothing. What I mean is that you’ve no imagination.”
Lord Mark, at this, threw back his head, ranging with his eyes the opposite side of the room and showing himself at last so much more completely as diverted that it fairly attracted their hostess’s notice. Mrs. Lowder, however, only smiled on Milly for a sign that something racy was what she had expected, and resumed, with a splash of her screw, her cruise among the islands. “Oh, I’ve heard that,” the young man replied, “before!”
“There it is then. You’ve heard everything before. You’ve heard me of course before, in my country, often enough.”
“Oh, never too often,” he protested; “I’m sure I hope I shall still hear you again and again.”
“But what good then has it done you?” the girl went on as if now frankly to amuse him.
“Oh, you’ll see when you know me.”
“But, most assuredly, I shall never know you.”
“Then that will be exactly,” he laughed, “the good!”
If it established thus that they couldn’t, or Wouldn’t, mix, why, none the less, did Milly feel, through it, a perverse quickening of the relation to which she had been, in spite of herself, appointed?
What queerer consequence of their not mixing than their talking — for it was what they had arrived at — almost intimately? She wished to get away from him, or indeed, much rather, away from herself so far as she was present to him. She saw already — wonderful creature, after all, herself too — that there would be a good deal more of him to come for her, and that the special sign of their intercourse would be to keep herself out of the question. Everything else might come in-only never that; and with such an arrangement they might even go far. This in fact might quite have begun, on the spot, with her returning again to the topic of the handsome girl. If she was to keep herself out she could naturally best do so by putting in somebody else. She accordingly put in Kate Croy, being ready to that extent — as she was not at all afraid for her — to sacrifice her if necessary. Lord Mark himself, for that matter, had made it easy by saying a little while before that no one among them did anything for nothing. “What then”— she was aware of being abrupt —“does Miss Croy, if she’s so interested, do it for? What has she to gain by her lovely welcome? Look at her now!“ Milly broke out with characteristic freedom of praise, though pulling herself up also with a compunctious “Oh!” as the direction thus given to their eyes happened to coincide with a turn of Kate’s face to them. All she had meant to do was to insist that this face was fine; but what she had in fact done was to renew again her effect of showing herself to its possessor as conjoined with Lord Mark for some interested view of it. He had, however, promptly met her question.
“To gain? Why, your acquaintance.”
“Well, what’s my acquaintance to her? She can care for me — she must feel that — only by being sorry for me; and that’s why she’s lovely: to be already willing to take the trouble to be. It’s the height of the disinterested.”
There were more things in this than one that Lord Mark might have taken up; but in a minute he had made his choice. “Ah then, I’m nowhere, for I’m afraid I’m not sorry for you in the least. What do you make then,” he asked, “of your success?”
“Why, just the great reason of all. It’s just because our friend there sees it that she pities me. She understands,” Milly said; “she’s better than any of you. She’s beautiful.”
He appeared struck with this at last — with the point the girl made of it; to which she came back even after a diversion created by a dish presented between them. “Beautiful in character, I see. Is she so? You must tell me about her.”
Milly wondered. “But haven’t you known her longer than I? Haven’t you seen her for yourself?”
“No — I’ve failed with her. It’s no use. I don’t make her out. And I assure you I really should like to.” His assurance had in fact for his companion a positive suggestion of sincerity; he affected her as now saying something that he felt; and she was the more struck with it as she was still conscious of the failure even of curiosity he had just shown in respect to herself. She had meant something — though indeed for herself almost only — in speaking of their friend’s natural pity; it had been a note, doubtless, of questionable taste, but it had quavered out in spite of her; and he had not so much as cared to inquire “Why ‘natural’?” Not that it wasn’t really much better for her that he shouldn’t: explanations would in truth have taken her much too far. Only she now perceived that, in comparison, her word about this other person really “drew” him; and there were things in that, probably, many things, as to which she would learn more and which glimmered there already as part and parcel of that larger “real” with which, in her new situation, she was to be beguiled. It was in fact at the very moment, this element, not absent from what Lord Mark was further saying. “So you’re wrong, you see, as to our knowing all about each other. There are cases where we break down. I at any rate give her up — up, that is, to you. You must do her for me — tell me, I mean, when you know more. You’ll notice,” he pleasantly wound up, “that I’ve confidence in you.”
“Why shouldn’t you have?” Milly asked, observing in this, as she thought, a fine, though, for such a man, a surprisingly artless, fatuity. It was as if there might have been a question of her falsifying for the sake of her own show — that is of her honesty not being proof against her desire to keep well with him herself. She didn’t, none the less, otherwise protest against his remark; there was something else she was occupied in seeing. It was the handsome girl alone, one of his own species and his own society, who had made him feel uncertain; of his certainties about a mere little American, a cheap exotic, imported almost wholesale, and whose habitat, with its conditions of climate, growth, and cultivation, its immense profusion, but its few varieties and thin development, he was perfectly satisfied. The marvel was, too, that Milly understood his satisfaction — feeling that she expressed the truth in presently saying: “Of course; I make out that she must be difficult; just as I see that I myself must be easy.” And that was what, for all the rest of this occasion, remained with her — as the most interesting thing that could remain. She was more and more content herself to be easy; she would have been resigned, even had it been brought straighter home to her, to passing for a cheap exotic. Provisionally, at any rate, that protected her wish to keep herself, with Lord Mark, in abeyance. They had all affected her as inevitably knowing each other, and if the handsome girl’s place among them was something even their initiation couldn’t deal with — why, then, she would indeed be a quantity.
That sense of quantities, separate or mixed, was indeed doubtless what most prevailed at first for our slightly gasping American pair; it found utterance for them in their frequent remark to each other that they had no one but themselves to thank. It dropped from Milly more than once that if she had ever known it was so easy —! though her exclamation mostly ended without completing her idea. This, however, was a trifle to Mrs. Stringham, who cared little whether she meant that in this case she would have come sooner. She couldn’t have come sooner, and she perhaps, on the contrary, meant — for it would have been like her — that she wouldn’t have come at all; why it was so easy being at any rate a matter as to which her companion had begun quickly to pick up views. Susie kept some of these lights for the present to herself, since, freely communicated, they might have been a little disturbing; with which, moreover, the quantities that we speak of as surrounding the two ladies were, in many cases, quantities of things — and of other things — to talk about. Their immediate lesson, accordingly, was that they just had been caught up by the incalculable strength of a wave that was actually holding them aloft and that would naturally dash them wherever it liked. They meanwhile, we hasten to add, make the best of their precarious position, and if Milly had had no other help for it she would have found not a little in the sight of Susan Shepherd’s state. The girl had had nothing to say to her, for three days, about the “success” announced by Lord Mark — which they saw, besides, otherwise established; she was too taken up, too touched, by Susie’s own exaltation. Susie glowed in the light of her justified faith; everything had happened that she had been acute enough to think least probable; she had appealed to a possible delicacy in Maud Manningham — a delicacy, mind you, but barely possible — and her appeal had been met in a way that was an honour to human nature. This proved sensibility of the lady of Lancaster Gate performed verily, for both our friends, during these first days, the office of a fine floating gold-dust, something that threw over the prospect a harmonising blur. The forms, the colours behind it were strong and deep — we have seen how they already stood out for Milly; but nothing, comparatively, had had so much of the dignity of truth as the fact of Maud’s fidelity to a sentiment. That was what Susie was proud of, much more than of her great place in the world, which she was moreover conscious of not as yet wholly measuring. That was what was more vivid even than her being — in senses more worldly and in fact almost in the degree of a revelation — English and distinct and positive, with almost no inward, but with the finest outward resonance.
Susan Shepherd’s word for her, again and again, was that she was “large”; yet it was not exactly a case, as to the soul, of echoing chambers: she might have been likened rather to a capacious receptacle, originally perhaps loose, but now drawn as tightly as possible over its accumulated contents — a packed mass, for her American admirer, of curious detail. When the latter good lady, at home, had handsomely figured her friends as not small — which was the way she mostly figured them — there was a certain implication that they were spacious because they were empty. Mrs. Lowder, by a different law, was spacious because she was full, because she had something in common, even in repose, with a projectile, of great size, loaded and ready for use. That indeed, to Susie’s romantic mind, announced itself as half the charm of their renewal — a charm as of sitting in springtime, during a long peace, on the daisied, grassy bank of some great slumbering fortress. True to her psychological instincts, certainly, Mrs. Stringham had noted that the “sentiment” she rejoiced in on her old schoolmate’s part was all a matter of action and movement, was not, save for the interweaving of a more frequent plump “dearest” than she would herself perhaps have used, a matter of much other embroidery. She brooded, with interest, on this further remark of race, feeling in her own spirit a different economy. The joy, for her, was to know why she acted — the reason was half the business; whereas with Mrs. Lowder there might have been no reason: “why” was the trivial seasoning-substance, the vanilla or the nutmeg, omittable from the nutritive pudding without spoiling it. Mrs. Lowder’s desire was clearly sharp that their young companions should also prosper together; and Mrs. Stringham’s account of it all to Milly, during the first days, was that when, at Lancaster Gate, she was not occupied in telling, as it were, about her, she was occupied in hearing much of the history of her hostess’s brilliant niece.
They had plenty, on these lines, the two elder women, to give and to take, and it was even not quite clear to the pilgrim from Boston that what she should mainly have arranged for in London was not a series of thrills for herself. She had a bad conscience, indeed almost a sense of immorality, in having to recognise that she was, as she said, carried away. She laughed to Milly when she also said that she didn’t know where it would end; and the principal of her uneasiness was that Mrs. Lowder’s life bristled for her with elements that she was really having to look at for the first time. They represented, she believed, the world, the world that, as a consequence of the cold shoulder turned to it by the Pilgrim Fathers, had never yet boldly crossed to Boston — it would surely have sunk the stoutest Cunarder — and she couldn’t pretend that she faced the prospect simply because Milly had had a caprice. She was in the act herself of having one, directed precisely to their present spectacle. She could but seek strength in the thought that she had never had one — or had never yielded to one, which came to the same thing — before. The sustaining sense of it all, moreover, as literary material — that quite dropped from her. She must wait, at any rate, she should see: it struck her, so far as she had got, as vast, obscure, lurid. She reflected in the watches of the night that she was probably just going to love it for itself — that is for itself and Milly. The odd thing was that she could think of Milly’s loving it without dread — or with dread, at least not on the score of conscience, only on the score of peace. It was a mercy, at all events, for the hour, that their fancies jumped together.
While, for this first week that followed their dinner, she drank deep at Lancaster Gate, her companion was no less happily, appeared to be indeed on the whole quite as romantically, provided for. The handsome English girl from the heavy English house had been as a figure in a picture stepping by magic out of its frame: it was a case, in truth, for which Mrs. Stringham presently found the perfect image. She had lost none of her grasp, but quite the contrary, of that other conceit in virtue of which Milly was the wandering princess: so what could be more in harmony now than to see the princess waited upon at the city gate by the worthiest maiden, the chosen daughter of the burgesses? It was the real again, evidently, the amusement of the meeting for the princess too; princesses living for the most part, in such an appeased way, on the plane of mere elegant representation. That was why they pounced, at city gates, on deputed flower-strewing damsels; that was why, after effigies, processions, and other stately games, frank human company was pleasant to them. Kate Croy really presented herself to Milly — the latter abounded for Mrs. Stringham in accounts of it — as the wondrous London girl in person, by what she had conceived, from far back, of the London girl; conceived from the tales of travellers and the anecdotes of New York, from old porings over Punch and a liberal acquaintance with the fiction of the day. The only thing was that she was nicer, for the creature in question had rather been, to our young woman, an image of dread. She had thought of her, at her best, as handsome just as Kate was, with turns of head and tones of voice, felicities of stature and attitude, things “put on” and, for that matter, put off, all the marks of the product of a packed society who should be at the same time the heroine of a strong story. She placed this striking young person from the first in a story, saw her, by a necessity of the imagination, for a heroine, felt it the only character in which she wouldn’t be wasted; and this in spite of the heroine’s pleasant abruptness, her forbearance from gush, her umbrellas and jackets and shoes — as these things sketched themselves to Milly — and something rather of a breezy boy in the carriage of her arms and the occasional freedom of her slang.
When Milly had settled that the extent of her goodwill itself made her shy, she had found for the moment quite a sufficient key, and they were by that time thoroughly afloat together. This might well have been the happiest hour they were to know, attacking in friendly independence their great London — the London of shops and streets and suburbs oddly interesting to Milly, as well as of museums, monuments, “sights” oddly unfamiliar to Kate, while their elders pursued a separate course, both rejoicing in their intimacy and each thinking the other’s young woman a great acquisition for her own. Milly expressed to Susan Shepherd more than once that Kate had some secret, some smothered trouble, besides all the rest of her history; and that if she had so good-naturedly helped Mrs. Lowder to meet them this was exactly to create a diversion, to give herself something else to think about. But on the case thus postulated our young American had as yet had no light: she only felt that when the light should come it would greatly deepen the colour; and she liked to think she was prepared for anything. What she already knew, moreover, was full to her vision, of English, of eccentric, of Thackerayan character, Kate Croy having gradually become not a little explicit on the subject of her situation, her past, her present, her general predicament, her small success, up to the present hour, in contenting at the same time her father, her sister, her aunt and herself. It was Milly’s subtle guess, imparted to her Susie, that the girl had somebody else as well, as yet unnamed, to content, it being manifest that such a creature couldn’t help having; a creature not perhaps, if one would, exactly formed to inspire passions, since that always implied a certain silliness, but essentially seen, by the admiring eye of friendship, under the clear shadow of some probably eminent male interest. The clear shadow, from whatever source projected, hung, at any rate, over Milly’s companion the whole week, and Kate Croy’s handsome face smiled out of it, under bland skylights, in the presence alike of old masters passive in their glory and of thoroughly new ones, the newest, who bristled restlessly with pins and brandished snipping shears.
It was meanwhile a pretty part of the intercourse of these young ladies that each thought the other more remarkable than herself — that each thought herself, or assured the other she did, a comparatively dusty object and the other a favourite of nature and of fortune. Kate was amused, amazed at the way her friend insisted on “taking” her, and Milly wondered if Kate were sincere in finding her the most extraordinary — quite apart from her being the most charming — person she had come across. They had talked, in long drives, and quantities of history had not been wanting — in the light of which Mrs. Lowder’s niece might superficially seem to have had the best of the argument. Her visitor’s American references, with their bewildering immensities, their confounding moneyed New York, their excitements of high pressure, their opportunities of wild freedom, their record of used-up relatives, parents, clever, eager, fair, slim brothers — these the most loved — all engaged, as well as successive superseded guardians, in a high extravagance of speculation and dissipation that had left this exquisite being her black dress, her white face and her vivid hair as the mere last broken link: such a picture quite threw into the shade the brief biography, however sketchily amplified, of a mere middle-class nobody in Bayswater. And though that indeed might be but a Bayswater way of putting it, in addition to which Milly was in the stage of interest in Bayswater ways, this critic so far prevailed that, like Mrs. Stringham herself, she fairly got her companion to accept from her that she was quite the nearest approach to a practical princess Bayswater could hope ever to know. It was a fact — it became one at the end of three days — that Milly actually began to borrow from the handsome girl a sort of view of her state; the handsome girl’s impression of it was clearly so sincere. This impression was a tribute, a tribute positively to power, power the source of which was the last thing Kate treated as a mystery. There were passages, under all their skylights, the succession of their shops being large, in which the latter’s easy, yet the least bit dry manner sufficiently gave out that if she had had so deep a pocket ——!
It was not moreover by any means with not having the imagination of expenditure that she appeared to charge her friend, but with not having the imagination of terror, of thrift, the imagination or in any degree the habit of a conscious dependence on others. Such moments, when all Wigmore Street, for instance, seemed to rustle about and the pale girl herself to be facing the different rustlers, usually so undiscriminated, as individual Britons too, Britons personal, parties to a relation and perhaps even intrinsically remarkable — such moments in especial determined in Kate a perception of the high happiness of her companion’s liberty. Milly’s range was thus immense; she had to ask nobody for anything, to refer nothing to any one; her freedom, her fortune and her fancy were her law; an obsequious world surrounded her, she could sniff up at every step its fumes. And Kate, in these days, was altogether in the phase of forgiving her so much bliss; in the phase moreover of believing that, should they continue to go on together, she would abide in that generosity. She had, at such a point as this, no suspicion of a rift within the lute — by which we mean not only none of anything’s coming between them, but none of any definite flaw in so much clearness of quality. Yet, all the same, if Milly, at Mrs. Lowder’s banquet, had described herself to Lord Mark as kindly used by the young woman on the other side because of some faintly-felt special propriety in it, so there really did match with this, privately, on the young woman’s part, a feeling not analysed but divided, a latent impression that Mildred Theale was not, after all, a person to change places, to change even chances with. Kate, verily, would perhaps not quite have known what she meant by this reservation, and she came near naming it only when she said to herself that, rich as Milly was, one probably wouldn’t — which was singular — ever hate her for it. The handsome girl had, with herself, these felicities and crudities: it wasn’t obscure to her that, without some very particular reason to help, it might have proved a test of one’s philosophy not to be irritated by a mistress of millions, or whatever they were, who, as a girl, so easily might have been, like herself, only vague and fatally female. She was by no means sure of liking Aunt Maud as much as she deserved, and Aunt Maud’s command of funds was obviously inferior to Milly’s. There was thus clearly, as pleading for the latter, some influence that would later on become distinct; and meanwhile, decidedly, it was enough that she was as charming as she was queer and as queer as she was charming — all of which was a rare amusement; as well, for that matter, as further sufficient that there were objects of value she had already pressed on Kate’s acceptance. A week of her society in these conditions — conditions that Milly chose to sum up as ministering immensely, for a blind, vague pilgrim, to aid and comfort — announced itself from an early hour as likely to become a week of presents, acknowledgments, mementos, pledges of gratitude and admiration that were all on one side. Kate as promptly embraced the propriety of making it clear that she must forswear shops till she should receive some guarantee that the contents of each one she entered as a humble companion should not be placed at her feet; yet that was in truth not before she had found herself in possession, under whatever protests, of several precious ornaments and other minor conveniences.
Great was the absurdity, too, that there should have come a day, by the end of the week, when it appeared that all Milly would have asked in definite “return,” as might be said, was to be told a little about Lord Mark and to be promised the privilege of a visit to Mrs. Condrip. Far other amusements had been offered her, but her eagerness was shamelessly human, and she seemed really to count more on the revelation of the anxious lady of Chelsea than on the best nights of the opera. Kate admired, and showed it, such an absence of fear: to the fear of being bored, in such a connection, she would have been so obviously entitled. Milly’s answer to this was the plea of her curiosities — which left her friend wondering as to their odd direction. Some among them, no doubt, were rather more intelligible, and Kate had heard without wonder that she was blank about Lord Mark. This young lady’s account of him, at the same time, professed itself as frankly imperfect; for what they best knew him by at Lancaster Gate was a thing difficult to explain. One knew people in general by something they had to show, something that, either for them or against, could be touched or named or proved; and she could think of no other case of a value taken as so great and yet flourishing untested. His value was his future, which had somehow got itself as accepted by Aunt Maud as if it had been his good cook or his steam-launch. She, Kate, didn’t mean she thought him a humbug; he might do great things — but they were all, as yet, so to speak, he had done. On the other hand it was of course something of an achievement, and not open to every one, to have got one’s self taken so seriously by Aunt Maud. The best thing about him, doubtless, on the whole, was that Aunt Maud believed in him. She was often fantastic, but she knew a humbug, and — no, Lord Mark wasn’t that. He had been a short time in the House, on the Tory side, but had lost his seat on the first opportunity, and this was all he had to point to. However, he pointed to nothing; which was very possibly just a sign of his real cleverness, one of those that the really clever had in common with the really void. Even Aunt Maud frequently admitted that there was a good deal, for her view of him, to come up in the rear. And he wasn’t meanwhile himself indifferent — indifferent to himself — for he was working Lancaster Gate for all it was worth: just as it was, no doubt, working him, and just as the working and the worked were in London, as one might explain, the parties to every relation.
Kate did explain, for her listening friend: every one who had anything to give — it was true they were the fewest — made the sharpest possible bargain for it, got at least its value in return. The strangest thing, furthermore, was that this might be, in cases, a happy understanding. The worker in one connection was the worked in another; it was as broad as it was long — with the wheels of the system, as might be seen, wonderfully oiled. People could quite like each other in the midst of it, as Aunt Maud, by every appearance, quite liked Lord Mark, and as Lord Mark, it was to be hoped, liked Mrs. Lowder, since if he didn’t he was a greater brute than one could believe. She, Kate, had not yet, it was true, made out what he was doing for her — besides which the dear woman needed him, even at the most he could do, much less than she imagined; so far as all of which went, moreover, there were plenty of things on every side she had not yet made out. She believed, on the whole, in any one Aunt Maud took up; and she gave it to Milly as worth thinking of that, whatever wonderful people this young lady might meet in the land, she would meet no more extraordinary woman. There were greater celebrities by the million, and of course greater swells, but a bigger person, by Kate’s view, and a larger natural handful every way, would really be far to seek. When Milly inquired with interest if Kate’s belief in her was primarily on the lines of what Mrs. Lowder “took up,” her interlocutress could handsomely say yes, since by the same principle she believed in herself. Whom but Aunt Maud’s niece, preeminently, had Aunt Maud taken up, and who was thus more in the current, with her, of working and of being worked? “You may ask,” Kate said, “what in the world I have to give; and that indeed is just what I’m trying to learn. There must be something, for her to think she can get it out of me. She will get it — trust her; and then I shall see what it is; which I beg you to believe I should never have found out for myself.” She declined to treat any question of Milly’s own “paying” power as discussable; that Milly would pay a hundred per cent. — and even to the end, doubtless, through the nose — was just the beautiful basis on which they found themselves.
These were fine facilities, pleasantries, ironies, all these luxuries of gossip and philosophies of London and of life, and they became quickly, between the pair, the common form of talk, Milly professing herself delighted to know that something was to be done with her. If the most remarkable woman in England was to do it, so much the better, and if the most remarkable woman in England had them both in hand together, why, what could be jollier for each? When she reflected indeed a little on the oddity of her wanting two at once, Kate had the natural reply that it was exactly what showed her sincerity. She invariably gave way to feeling, and feeling had distinctly popped up in her on the advent of her girlhood’s friend. The way the cat would jump was always, in presence of anything that moved her, interesting to see; visibly enough, moreover, for a long time, it hadn’t jumped anything like so far. This, in fact, as we already know, remained the marvel for Milly Theale, who, on sight of Mrs. Lowder, found fifty links in respect to Susie absent from the chain of association. She knew so herself what she thought of Susie that she would have expected the lady of Lancaster Gate to think something quite different; the failure of which endlessly mystified her. But her mystification was the cause for her of another fine impression, inasmuch as when she went so far as to observe to Kate that Susan Shepherd — and especially Susan Shepherd emerging so uninvited from an irrelevant past — ought, by all the proprieties, simply to have bored Aunt Maud, her confidant agreed with her without a protest and abounded in the sense of her wonder. Susan Shepherd at least bored the niece — that was plain; this young woman saw nothing in her — nothing to account for anything, not even for Milly’s own indulgence: which little fact became in turn to the latter’s mind a fact of significance. It was a light on the handsome girl — representing more than merely showed — that poor Susie was simply as nought to her. This was, in a manner too, a general admonition to poor Susie’s companion, who seemed to see marked by it the direction in which she had best most look out.
It just faintly rankled in her that a person who was good enough and to spare for Milly Theale shouldn’t be good enough for another girl; though, oddly enough, she could easily have forgiven Mrs. Lowder herself the impatience. Mrs. Lowder didn’t feel it, and Kate Croy felt it with ease; yet in the end, be it added, she grasped the reason, and the reason enriched her mind. Wasn’t it sufficiently the reason that the handsome girl was, with twenty other splendid qualities, the least bit brutal too, and didn’t she suggest, as no one yet had ever done for her new friend, that there might be a wild beauty in that, and even a strange grace? Kate wasn’t brutally brutal — which Milly had hitherto benightedly supposed the only way; she wasn’t even aggressively so, but rather indifferently, defensively and, as might be said, by the habit of anticipation. She simplified in advance, was beforehand with her doubts, and knew with singular quickness what she wasn’t, as they said in New York, going to like. In that way at least people were clearly quicker in England than at home; and Milly could quite see, after a little, how such instincts might become usual in a world in which dangers abounded. There were more dangers, clearly, round about Lancaster Gate than one suspected in New York or could dream of in Boston. At all events, with more sense of them, there were more precautions, and it was a remarkable world altogether in which there could be precautions, on whatever ground, against Susie.
She certainly made up with Susie directly, however, for any allowance she might have had privately to extend to tepid appreciation; since the late and long talks of these two embraced not only everything offered and suggested by the hours they spent apart, but a good deal more besides. She might be as detached as the occasion required at four o’clock in the afternoon, but she used no such freedom to any one about anything as she habitually used about everything to Susan Shepherd at midnight. All the same, it should with much less delay than this have been mentioned, she had not yet — had not, that is, at the end of six days — produced any news for her comrade to compare with an announcement made her by the latter as a result of a drive with Mrs. Lowder, for a change, in the remarkable Battersea Park. The elder friends had sociably revolved there while the younger ones followed bolder fancies in the admirable equipage appointed to Milly at the hotel — a heavier, more emblazoned, more amusing chariot than she had ever, with “stables” notoriously mismanaged, known at home; whereby, in the course of the circuit, more than once repeated, it had “come out,” as Mrs. Stringham said, that the couple at Lancaster Gate were, of all people, acquainted with Mildred’s other English friend — the gentleman, the one connected with the English newspaper (Susie hung fire a little over his name) who had been with her in New York so shortly previous to present adventures. He had been named of course in Battersea Park — else he couldn’t have been identified; and Susie had naturally, before she could produce her own share in the matter as a kind of confession, to make it plain that her allusion was to Mr. Merton Densher. This was because Milly had at first a little air of not knowing whom she meant; and the girl really kept, as well, a certain control of herself while she remarked that the case was surprising, the chance one in a thousand. They knew him, both Maud and Miss Croy knew him, she gathered too, rather well, though indeed it was not on any show of intimacy that he had happened to be mentioned. It had not been — Susie made the point — she herself who brought him in: he had in fact not been brought in at all, but only referred to as a young journalist known to Mrs. Lowder and who had lately gone to their wonderful country — Mrs. Lowder always said “your wonderful country”— on behalf of his journal. But Mrs. Stringham had taken it up — with the tips of her fingers indeed; and that was the confession: she had, without meaning any harm, recognised Mr. Densher as an acquaintance of Milly’s, though she had also pulled herself up before getting in too far. Mrs. Lowder had been struck, clearly — it wasn’t too much to say; then she also, it had rather seemed, had pulled herself up; and there had been a little moment during which each might have been keeping something from the other. “Only,” said Milly’s mate, “I luckily remembered in time that I had nothing whatever to keep — which was much simpler and nicer. I don’t know what Maud has, but there it is. She was interested, distinctly, in your knowing him — in his having met you over there with so little loss of time. But I ventured to tell her it hadn’t been so long as to make you as yet great friends. I don’t know if I was right.”
Whatever time this explanation might have taken, there had been moments enough in the matter now — before the elder woman’s conscience had done itself justice — to enable Milly to reply that although the fact in question doubtless had its importance she imagined they wouldn’t find the importance overwhelming. It was odd that their one Englishman should so instantly fit; it wasn’t, however, miraculous — they surely all had often seen that, as every one said, the world was extraordinarily “small.” Undoubtedly, too, Susie had done just the plain thing in not letting his name pass. Why in the world should there be a mystery? — and what an immense one they would appear to have made if he should come back and find they had concealed their knowledge of him! “I don’t know, Susie dear,” the girl observed, “what you think I have to conceal.”
“It doesn’t matter, at a given moment,” Mrs. Stringham returned, “what you know or don’t know as to what I think; for you always find out the very next moment, and when you do find out, dearest, you never really care. Only,” she presently asked, “have you heard of him from Miss Croy?”
“Heard of Mr. Densher? Never a word. We haven’t mentioned him. Why should we?”
“That you haven’t, I understand; but that she hasn’t,” Susie opined, “may mean something.”
“May mean what?”
“Well,” Mrs. Stringham presently brought out, “I tell you all when I tell you that Maud asks me to suggest to you that it may perhaps be better for the present not to speak of him: not to speak of him to her niece, that is, unless she herself speaks to you first. But Maud thinks she won’t.”
Milly was ready to engage for anything; but in respect to the facts — as they so far possessed them — it all sounded a little complicated. “Is it because there’s anything between them?”
“No — I gather not; but Maud’s state of mind is precautionary. She’s afraid of something. Or perhaps it would be more correct to say she’s afraid of everything.”
“She’s afraid, you mean,” Milly asked, “of their — a — liking each other?”
Susie had an intense thought and then an effusion. “My dear child, we move in a labyrinth.”
“Of course we do. That’s just the fun of it!” said Milly with a strange gaiety. Then she added: “Don’t tell me that — in this for instance — there are not abysses. I want abysses.”
Her friend looked at her — it was not unfrequently the case — a little harder than the surface of the occasion seemed to require; and another person present at such times might have wondered to what inner thought of her own the good lady was trying to fit the speech. It was too much her disposition, no doubt, to treat her young companion’s words as symptoms of an imputed malady. It was none the less, however, her highest law to be light when the girl was light. She knew how to be quaint with the new quaintness — the great Boston gift; it had been, happily, her note in the magazines; and Maud Lowder, to whom it was new indeed and who had never heard anything remotely like it, quite cherished her, as a social resource, for it. It should not therefore fail her now; with it in fact one might face most things. “Ah, then let us hope we shall sound the depths — I’m prepared for the worst — of sorrow and sin! But she would like her niece — we’re not ignorant of that, are we? — to marry Lord Mark. Hasn’t she told you so?”
“Hasn’t Mrs. Lowder told me?”
“No; hasn’t Kate? It isn’t, you know, that she doesn’t know it.”
Milly had, under her comrade’s eyes, a minute of mute detachment. She had lived with Kate Croy for several days in a state of intimacy as deep as it had been sudden, and they had clearly, in talk, in many directions, proceeded to various extremities. Yet it now came over her as in a clear cold way that there was a possible account of their relations in which the quantity her new friend had told her might have figured as small, as smallest, beside the quantity she hadn’t. She couldn’t say, at any rate, whether or no she had made the point that her aunt designed her for Lord Mark: it had only sufficiently come out — which had been, moreover, eminently guessable — that she was involved in her aunt’s designs. Somehow, for Milly, brush it over nervously as she might and with whatever simplifying hand, this abrupt extrusion of Mr. Densher altered all proportions, had an effect on all values. It was fantastic of her to let it make a difference that she couldn’t in the least have defined — and she was at least, even during these instants, rather proud of being able to hide, on the spot, the difference it did make. Yet, all the same, the effect for her was, almost violently, of Mr. Densher’s having been there — having been where she had stood till now in her simplicity — before her. It would have taken but another free moment to make her see abysses — since abysses were what she wanted — in the mere circumstance of his own silence, in New York, about his English friends. There had really been in New York little time for anything; but, had she liked, Milly could have made it out for herself that he had avoided the subject of Miss Croy, and that Miss Croy was yet a subject it could never be natural to avoid. It was to be added at the same time that even if his silence had been labyrinthe — which was absurd in view of all the other things too he couldn’t possibly have spoken of — this was exactly what must suit her, since it fell under the head of the plea she had just uttered to Susie. These things, however, came and went, and it set itself up between the companions, for the occasion, in the oddest way, both that their happening all to know Mr. Densher — except indeed that Susie didn’t, but probably would — was a fact belonging, in a world of rushing about, to one of the common orders of chance; and yet further that it was amusing — oh, awfully amusing! — to be able fondly to hope that there was “something in” its having been left to crop up with such suddenness. There seemed somehow a possibility that the ground or, as it were, the air might, in a manner, have undergone some pleasing preparation; though the question of this possibility would probably, after all, have taken some threshing out. The truth, moreover — and there they were, already, our pair, talking about it, the “truth!”— had not in fact quite cropped out. This, obviously, in view of Mrs. Lowder’s request to her old friend.
It was accordingly on Mrs. Lowder’s recommendation that nothing should be said to Kate — it was on this rich attitude of Aunt Maud’s that the idea of an interesting complication might best hope to perch; and when, in fact, after the colloquy we have reported Milly saw Kate again without mentioning any name, her silence succeeded in passing muster with her as the beginning of a new sort of fun. The sort was all the newer by reason of its containing a small element of anxiety: when she had gone in for fun before it had been with her hands a little more free. Yet it was, none the less, rather exciting to be conscious of a still sharper reason for interest in the handsome girl, as Kate continued, even now, preeminently to remain for her; and a reason — this was the great point — of which the young woman herself could have no suspicion. Twice over, thus, for two or three hours together, Milly found herself seeing Kate, quite fixing her in the light of the knowledge that it was a face on which Mr. Densher’s eyes had more or less familiarly rested and which, by the same token, had looked, rather more beautifully than less, into his own. She pulled herself up indeed with the thought that it had inevitably looked, as beautifully as one would, into thousands of faces in which one might one’s self never trace it; but just the odd result of the thought was to intensify for the girl that side of her friend which she had doubtless already been more prepared than she quite knew to think of as the “other,” the not wholly calculable. It was fantastic, and Milly was aware of this; but the other side was what had, of a sudden, been turned straight towards her by the show of Mr. Densher’s propinquity. She hadn’t the excuse of knowing it for Kate’s own, since nothing whatever as yet proved it particularly to be such. Never mind; it was with this other side now fully presented that Kate came and went, kissed her for greeting and for parting, talked, as usual, of everything but — as it had so abruptly become for Milly — the thing. Our young woman, it is true, would doubtless not have tasted so sharply a difference in this pair of occasions had she not been tasting so peculiarly her own possible betrayals. What happened was that afterwards, on separation, she wondered if the matter had not mainly been that she herself was so “other,” so taken up with the unspoken; the strangest thing of all being, still subsequently, that when she asked herself how Kate could have failed to feel it she became conscious of being here on the edge of a great darkness. She should never know how Kate truly felt about anything such a one as Milly Theale should give her to feel. Kate would never — and not from ill-will, nor from duplicity, but from a sort of failure of common terms — reduce it to such a one’s comprehension or put it within her convenience.
It was as such a one, therefore, that, for three or four days more, Milly watched Kate as just such another; and it was presently as such a one that she threw herself into their promised visit, at last achieved, to Chelsea, the quarter of the famous Carlyle, the field of exercise of his ghost, his votaries, and the residence of “poor Marian,” so often referred to and actually a somewhat incongruous spirit there. With our young woman’s first view of poor Marian everything gave way but the sense of how, in England, apparently, the social situation of sisters could be opposed, how common ground, for a place in the world, could quite fail them: a state of things sagely perceived to be involved in an hierarchical, an aristocratic order. Just whereabouts in the order Mrs. Lowder had established her niece was a question not wholly void, as yet, no doubt, of ambiguity — though Milly was withal sure Lord Mark could exactly have fixed the point if he would, fixing it at the same time for Aunt Maud herself; but it was clear that Mrs. Condrip was, as might have been said, in quite another geography. She would not, in short, have been to be found on the same social map, and it was as if her visitors had turned over page after page together before the final relief of their benevolent “Here!” The interval was bridged, of course, but the bridge, verily, was needed, and the impression left Milly to wonder whether, in the general connection, it were of bridges or of intervals that the spirit not locally disciplined would find itself most conscious. It was as if at home, by contrast, there were neither — neither the difference itself, from position to position, nor, on either side, and particularly on one, the awfully good manner, the conscious sinking of a consciousness, that made up for it. The conscious sinking, at all events, and the awfully good manner, the difference, the bridge, the interval, the skipped leaves of the social atlas — these, it was to be confessed, had a little, for our young lady, in default of stouter stuff, to work themselves into the light literary legend — a mixed, wandering echo of Trollope, of Thackeray, perhaps mostly of Dickens — under favour of which her pilgrimage had so much appealed. She could relate to Susie later on, late the same evening, that the legend, before she had done with it, had run clear, that the adored author of The Newcomes, in fine, had been on the whole the note: the picture lacking thus more than she had hoped, or rather perhaps showing less than she had feared, a certain possibility of Pickwickian outline. She explained how she meant by this that Mrs. Condrip had not altogether proved another Mrs. Nickleby, nor even — for she might have proved almost anything, from the way poor worried Kate had spoken — a widowed and aggravated Mrs. Micawber.
Mrs. Stringham, in the midnight conference, intimated rather yearningly that, however the event might have turned, the side of English life such experiences opened to Milly were just those she herself seemed “booked”— as they were all, roundabout her now, always saying — to miss: she had begun to have a little, for her fellow-observer, these moments of fanciful reaction — reaction in which she was once more all Susan Shepherd — against the high sphere of colder conventions into which her overwhelming connection with Maud Manningham had rapt her. Milly never lost sight, for long, of the Susan Shepherd side of her, and was always there to meet it when it came up and vaguely, tenderly, impatiently to pat it, abounding in the assurance that they would still provide for it. They had, however, to-night, another matter in hand; which proved to be presently, on the girl’s part, in respect to her hour of Chelsea, the revelation that Mrs. Condrip, taking a few minutes when Kate was away with one of the children, in bed upstairs for some small complaint, had suddenly, without its being in the least “led up to,” broken ground on the subject of Mr. Densher, mentioned him with impatience as a person in love with her sister. “She wished me, if I cared for Kate, to know,” Milly said —“for it would be quite too dreadful, and one might do something.”
Susie wondered. “Prevent anything coming of it? That’s easily said. Do what?”
Milly had a dim smile. “I think that what she would like is that I should come a good deal to see her about it.”
“And doesn’t she suppose you’ve anything else to do?”
The girl had by this time clearly made it out. “Nothing but to admire and make much of her sister — whom she doesn’t, however, herself in the least understand — and give up one’s time, and everything else, to it.” It struck the elder friend that she spoke with an almost unprecedented approach to sharpness; as if Mrs. Condrip had been rather specially disconcerting. Never yet so much as just of late had Mrs. Stringham seen her companion as exalted, and by the very play of something within, into a vague golden air that left irritation below. That was the great thing with Milly — it was her characteristic poetry; or at least it was Susan Shepherd’s. “But she made a point,” the former continued, “of my keeping what she says from Kate. I’m not to mention that she has spoken.”
“And why,” Mrs. Stringham presently asked, “is Mr. Densher so dreadful?”
Milly had, she thought, an hesitation — something that suggested a fuller talk with Mrs. Condrip than she inclined perhaps to report. “It isn’t so much he himself.” Then the girl spoke a little as for the romance of it; one could never tell, with her, where romance would come in. “It’s the state of his fortunes.”
“And is that very bad?”
“He has no ‘private means,’ and no prospect of any. He has no income, and no ability, according to Mrs. Condrip, to make one. He’s as poor, she calls it, as ‘poverty,’ and she says she knows what that is.”
Again Mrs. Stringham considered, and it presently produced something. “But isn’t he brilliantly clever?”
Milly had also then an instant that was not quite fruitless. “I haven’t the least idea.”
To which, for the time, Susie only answered “Oh!”— though by the end of a minute she had followed it with a slightly musing “I see”; and that in turn with: “It’s quite what Maud Lowder thinks.”
“That he’ll never do anything?”
“No — quite the contrary: that he’s exceptionally able.”
“Oh yes; I know”— Milly had again, in reference to what her friend had already told her of this, her little tone of a moment before. “But Mrs. Condrip’s own great point is that Aunt Maud herself won’t hear of any such person. Mr. Densher, she holds that’s the way, at any rate, it was explained to me — won’t ever be either a public man or a rich man. If he were public she’d be willing, as I understand, to help him; if he were rich — without being anything else — she’d do her best to swallow him. As it is, she taboos him.”
“In short,” said Mrs. Stringham as with a private purpose, “she told you, the sister, all about it. But Mrs. Lowder likes him,” she added.
“Mrs. Condrip didn’t tell me that.”
“Well, she does, all the same, my dear, extremely.”
“Then there it is!” On which, with a drop and one of those sudden, slightly sighing surrenders to a vague reflux and a general fatigue that had recently more than once marked themselves for her companion, Milly turned away. Yet the matter was not left so, that night, between them, albeit neither perhaps could afterwards have said which had first come back to it. Milly’s own nearest approach, at least, for a little, to doing so, was to remark that they appeared all — every one they saw — to think tremendously of money. This prompted in Susie a laugh, not untender, the innocent meaning of which was that it came, as a subject for indifference, money did, easier to some people than to others: she made the point in fairness, however, that you couldn’t have told, by any too crude transparency of air, what place it held for Maud Manningham. She did her worldliness with grand proper silences — if it mightn’t better be put perhaps that she did her detachment with grand occasional pushes. However Susie put it, in truth, she was really, in justice to herself, thinking of the difference, as favourites of fortune, between her old friend and her new. Aunt Maud sat somehow in the midst of her money, founded on it and surrounded by it, even if with a clever high manner about it, her manner of looking, hard and bright, as if it weren’t there. Milly, about hers, had no manner at all — which was possibly, from a point of view, a fault: she was at any rate far away on the edge of it, and you hadn’t, as might be said, in order to get at her nature, to traverse, by whatever avenue, any piece of her property. It was clear, on the other hand, that Mrs. Lowder was keeping her wealth as for purposes, imaginations, ambitions, that would figure as large, as honourably unselfish, on the day they should take effect. She would impose her will, but her will would be only that a person or two shouldn’t lose a benefit by not submitting if they could be made to submit. To Milly, as so much younger, such far views couldn’t be imputed: there was nobody she was supposable as interested for. It was too soon, since she wasn’t interested for herself. Even the richest woman, at her age, lacked motive, and Milly’s motive doubtless had plenty of time to arrive. She was meanwhile beautiful, simple, sublime without it — whether missing it and vaguely reaching out for it or not; and with it, for that matter, in the event, would really be these things just as much. Only then she might very well have, like Aunt Maud, a manner. Such were the connections, at all events, in which the colloquy of our two ladies freshly flickered up — in which it came round that the elder asked the younger if she had herself, in the afternoon, named Mr. Densher as an acquaintance.
“Oh no — I said nothing of having seen him. I remembered,” the girl explained, “Mrs. Lowder’s wish.”
“But that,” her friend observed after a moment, “was for silence to Kate.”
“Yes — but Mrs. Condrip would immediately have told Kate.”
“Why so? — since she must dislike to talk about him.”
“Mrs. Condrip must?” Milly thought. “What she would like most is that her sister should be brought to think ill of him; and if anything she can tell her will help that —” But Milly dropped suddenly here, as if her companion would see.
Her companion’s interest, however, was all for what she herself saw. “You mean she’ll immediately speak?” Mrs. Stringham gathered that this was what Milly meant, but it left still a question. “How will it be against him that you know him?”
“Oh, I don’t know. It won’t be so much one’s knowing him as one’s having kept it out of sight.”
“Ah,” said Mrs. Stringham, as if for comfort, “you haven’t kept it out of sight. Isn’t it much rather Miss Croy herself who has?”
“It isn’t my acquaintance with him,” Milly smiled, “that she has dissimulated.”
“She has dissimulated only her own? Well then, the responsibility’s hers.”
“Ah but,” said the girl, not perhaps with marked consequence, “she has a right to do as she likes.”
“Then so, my dear, have you!” smiled Susan Shepherd.
Milly looked at her as if she were almost venerably simple, but also as if this were what one loved her for. “We’re not quarrelling about it, Kate and I, yet.“
“I only meant,” Mrs. Stringham explained, “that I don’t see what Mrs. Condrip would gain.”
“By her being able to tell Kate?” Milly thought. “I only meant that I don’t see what I myself should gain.”
“But it will have to come out — that he knows you both — some time.”
Milly scarce assented. “Do you mean when he comes back?”
“He’ll find you both here, and he can hardly be looked to, I take it, to ‘cut’ either of you for the sake of the other.”
This placed the question at last on a basis more distinctly cheerful. “I might get at him somehow beforehand,” the girl suggested; “I might give him what they call here the tip — that he’s not to know me when we meet. Or, better still, I mightn’t be here at all.”
“Do you want to run away from him?”
It was, oddly enough, an idea Milly seemed half to accept. “I don’t know what I want to run away from!”
It dispelled, on the spot — something, to the elder woman’s ear, in the sad, sweet sound of it — any ghost of any need of explaining. The sense was constant for her that their relation was as if afloat, like some island of the south, in a great warm sea that made, for every conceivable chance, a margin, an outer sphere of general emotion; and the effect of the occurrence of anything in particular was to make the sea submerge the island, the margin flood the text. The great wave now for a moment swept over. “I’ll go anywhere else in the world you like.”
But Milly came up through it. “Dear old Susie — how I do work you!”
“Oh, this is nothing yet.”
“No indeed — to what it will be.”
“You’re not — and it’s vain to pretend,” said dear old Susie, who had been taking her in, “as sound and strong as I insist on having you.”
“Insist, insist — the more the better. But the day I look as sound and strong as that, you know,” Milly went on —“on that day I shall be just sound and strong enough to take leave of you sweetly for ever. That’s where one is,” she continued thus agreeably to embroider, “when even one’s most ‘beaux moments’ aren’t such as to qualify, so far as appearance goes, for anything gayer than a handsome cemetery. Since I’ve lived all these years as if I were dead, I shall die, no doubt, as if I were alive — which will happen to be as you want me. So, you see,” she wound up, “you’ll never really know where I am. Except indeed when I’m gone; and then you’ll only know where I’m not.”
“I’d die for you,” said Susan Shepherd after a moment.
“‘Thanks awfully’! Then stay here for me.”
“But we can’t be in London for August, nor for many of all these next weeks.”
“Then we’ll go back.”
Susie blenched. “Back to America?”
“No, abroad — to Switzerland, Italy, anywhere. I mean by your staying here for me,” Milly pursued, “your staying with me wherever I may be, even though we may neither of us know at the time where it is. No,” she insisted, “I don’t know where I am, and you never will, and it doesn’t matter — and I dare say it’s quite true,” she broke off, “that everything will have to come out.” Her friend would have felt of her that she joked about it now, had not her scale from grave to gay been a thing of such unnamable shades that her contrasts were never sharp. She made up for failures of gravity by failures of mirth; if she hadn’t, that is, been at times as earnest as might have been liked, so she was certain not to be at other times as easy as she would like herself. “I must face the music. It isn’t, at any rate, its ‘coming out,’” she added; “it’s that Mrs. Condrip would put the fact before her to his injury.”
Her companion wondered. “But how to his?“
“Why, if he pretends to love her ——!”
“And does he only ‘pretend’?”
“I mean if, trusted by her in strange countries, he forgets her so far as to make up to other people.”
The amendment, however, brought Susie in, as if with gaiety, for a comfortable end. “Did he make up, the false creature, to you?“
“No — but the question isn’t of that. It’s of what Kate might be made to believe.”
“That, given the fact that he evidently more or less followed up his acquaintance with you, to say nothing of your obvious weird charm, he must have been all ready if you had at all led him on?”
Milly neither accepted nor qualified this; she only said, after a moment, as with a conscious excess of the pensive: “No, I don’t think she’d quite wish to suggest that I made up to him; for that I should have had to do so would only bring out his constancy. All I mean is,” she added — and now at last, as with a supreme impatience “that her being able to make him out a little a person who could give cause for jealousy would evidently help her, since she’s afraid of him, to do him in her sister’s mind a useful ill turn.”
Susan Shepherd perceived in this explanation such signs of an appetite for motive as would have sat gracefully even on one of her own New England heroines. It was seeing round several corners; but that was what New England heroines did, and it was moreover interesting for the moment to make out how many really her young friend had undertaken to see round. Finally, too, weren’t they braving the deeps? They got their amusement where they could. “Isn’t it only,” she asked, “rather probable she’d see that Kate’s knowing him as (what’s the pretty old word?) volage ——?”
“Well?” She hadn’t filled out her idea, but neither, it seemed, could Milly.
“Well, might but do what that often does — by all our blessed little laws and arrangements at least; excite Kate’s own sentiment instead of depressing it.”
The idea was bright, yet the girl but beautifully stared. “Kate’s own sentiment? Oh, she didn’t speak of that. I don’t think,” she added as if she had been unconsciously giving a wrong impression, “I don’t think Mrs. Condrip imagines she’s in love.”
It made Mrs. Stringham stare in turn. “Then what’s her fear?”
“Well, only the fact of Mr. Densher’s possibly himself keeping it up — the fear of some final result from that.
“Oh,” said Susie, intellectually a little disconcerted —“she looks far ahead!”
At this, however, Milly threw off another of her sudden vague “sports.” “No — it’s only we who do.”
“Well, don’t let us be more interested for them than they are for themselves!”
“Certainly not”— the girl promptly assented. A certain interest nevertheless remained; she appeared to wish to be clear. “It wasn’t of anything on Kate’s own part she spoke.”
“You mean she thinks her sister does not care for him?”
It was still as if, for an instant, Milly had to be sure of what she meant; but there it presently was. “If she did care Mrs. Condrip would have told me.”
What Susan Shepherd seemed hereupon for a little to wonder was why then they had been talking so. “But did you ask her?”
“Oh!” said Susan Shepherd.
Milly, however, easily explained that she wouldn’t have asked her for the world.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:51