Lord Mark looked at her today in particular as if to wring from her a confession that she had originally done him injustice; and he was entitled to whatever there might be in it of advantage or merit that his intention really in a manner took effect: he cared about something, that is, after all, sufficiently to make her feel absurdly as if she were confessing — all the while it was quite the case that neither justice nor injustice was what had been in question between them. He had presented himself at the hotel, had found her and had found Susan Shepherd at home, had been “civil” to Susan — it was just that shade, and Susan’s fancy had fondly caught it; and then had come again and missed them, and then had come and found them once more: besides letting them easily see that if it hadn’t by this time been the end of everything — which they could feel in the exhausted air, that of the season at its last gasp — the places they might have liked to go to were such as they would have had only to mention. Their feeling was — or at any rate their modest general plea — that there was no place they would have liked to go to; there was only the sense of finding they liked, wherever they were, the place to which they had been brought. Such was highly the case as to their current consciousness — which could be indeed, in an equally eminent degree, but a matter of course; impressions this afternoon having by a happy turn of their wheel been gathered for them into a splendid cluster, an offering like an armful of the rarest flowers. They were in presence of the offering — they had been led up to it; and if it had been still their habit to look at each other across distances for increase of unanimity his hand would have been silently named between them as the hand applied to the wheel. He had administered the touch that, under light analysis, made the difference — the difference of their not having lost, as Susie on the spot and at the hour phrased it again and again, both for herself and for such others as the question might concern, so beautiful and interesting an experience; the difference also, in fact, of Mrs. Lowder’s not having lost it either, though it was with Mrs. Lowder, superficially, they had come, and though it was further with that lady that our young woman was directly engaged during the half-hour or so of her most agreeably inward response to the scene.
The great historic house had, for Milly, beyond terrace and garden, as the centre of an almost extravagantly grand Watteau-composition, a tone as of old gold kept “down” by the quality of the air, summer full-flushed, but attuned to the general perfect taste. Much, by her measure, for the previous hour, appeared, in connection with this revelation of it, to have happened to her — a quantity expressed in introductions of charming new people, in walks through halls of armour, of pictures, of cabinets, of tapestry, of tea-tables, in an assault of reminders that this largeness of style was the sign of appointed felicity. The largeness of style was the great containing vessel, while everything else, the pleasant personal affluence, the easy, murmurous welcome, the honoured age of illustrious host and hostess, all at once so distinguished and so plain, so public and so shy, became but this or that element of the infusion. The elements melted together and seasoned the draught, the essence of which might have struck the girl as distilled into the small cup of iced coffee she had vaguely accepted from somebody, while a fuller flood, somehow, kept bearing her up — all the freshness of response of her young life the freshness of the first and only prime. What had perhaps brought on just now a kind of climax was the fact of her appearing to make out, through Aunt Maud, what was really the matter. It couldn’t be less than a climax for a poor shaky maiden to find it put to her of a sudden that she herself was the matter — for that was positively what, on Mrs. Lowder’s part, it came to. Everything was great, of course, in great pictures, and it was doubtless precisely a part of the brilliant life — since the brilliant life, as one had faintly figured it, clearly was humanly led — that all impressions within its area partook of its brilliancy; still, letting that pass, it fairly stamped an hour as with the official seal for one to be able to take in so comfortably one’s companion’s broad blandness. “You must stay among us — you must stay; anything else is impossible and ridiculous; you don’t know yet, no doubt — you can’t; but you will soon enough: you can stay in any position.” It had been as the murmurous consecration to follow the murmurous welcome; and even if it were but part of Aunt Maud’s own spiritual ebriety — for the dear woman, one could see, was spiritually “keeping” the day — it served to Milly, then and afterwards, as a high-water mark of the imagination.
It was to be the end of the short parenthesis which had begun but the other day at Lancaster Gate with Lord Mark’s informing her that she was a “success”— the key thus again struck; and though no distinct, no numbered revelations had crowded in, there had, as we have seen, been plenty of incident for the space and the time. There had been thrice as much, and all gratuitous and genial — if, in portions, not exactly hitherto the revelation — as three unprepared weeks could have been expected to produce. Mrs. Lowder had improvised a “rush” for them, but out of elements, as Milly was now a little more freely aware, somewhat roughly combined. Therefore if at this very instant she had her reasons for thinking of the parenthesis as about to close — reasons completely personal — she had on behalf of her companion a divination almost as deep. The parenthesis would close with this admirable picture, but the admirable picture still would show Aunt Maud as not absolutely sure either if she herself were destined to remain in it. What she was doing, Milly might even not have escaped seeming to see, was to talk herself into a sublimer serenity while she ostensibly talked Milly. It was fine, the girl fully felt, the way she did talk her, little as, at bottom, our young woman needed it or found other persuasions at fault. It was in particular during the minutes of her grateful absorption of iced coffee — qualified by a sharp doubt of her wisdom — that she most had in view Lord Mark’s relation to her being there, or at least to the question of her being amused at it. It wouldn’t have taken much by the end of five minutes quite to make her feel that this relation was charming. It might, once more, simply have been that everything, anything, was charming when one was so justly and completely charmed; but, frankly, she had not supposed anything so serenely sociable could define itself between them as the friendly understanding that was at present somehow in the air. They were, many of them together, near the marquee that had been erected on a stretch of sward as a temple of refreshment and that happened to have the property — which was all to the good of making Milly think of a “durbar”; her iced coffee had been a consequence of this connection, in which, further, the bright company scattered about fell thoroughly into place. Certain of its members might have represented the contingent of “native princes”— familiar, but scarce the less grandly gregarious term! — and Lord Mark would have done for one of these even though for choice he but presented himself as a supervisory friend of the family. The Lancaster Gate family, he clearly intended, in which he included its American recruits, and included above all Kate Croy — a young person blessedly easy to take care of. She knew people, and people knew her, and she was the handsomest thing there — this last a declaration made by Milly, in a sort of soft mid-summer madness, a straight skylark-flight of charity, to Aunt Maud.
Kate had, for her new friend’s eyes, the extraordinary and attaching property of appearing at a given moment to show as a beautiful stranger, to cut her connections and lose her identity, letting the imagination for the time make what it would of them — make her merely a person striking from afar, more and more pleasing as one watched, but who was above all a subject for curiosity. Nothing could have given her, as a party to a relation, a greater freshness than this sense — which sprang up at its own hours — of being as curious about her as if one hadn’t known her. It had sprung up, we have gathered, as soon as Milly had seen her after hearing from Mrs. Stringham of her knowledge of Merton Densher; she had looked then other and, as Milly knew the real critical mind would call it, more objective; and our young woman had foreseen it of her, on the spot, that she would often look so again. It was exactly what she was doing this afternoon; and Milly, who had amusements of thought that were like the secrecies of a little girl playing with dolls when conventionally “too big,” could almost settle to the game of what one would suppose her, how one would place her, if one didn’t know her. She became thus, intermittently, a figure conditioned only by the great facts of aspect, a figure to be waited for, named and fitted. This was doubtless but a way of feeling that it was of her essence to be peculiarly what the occasion, whatever it might be, demanded when its demand was highest. There were probably ways enough, on these lines, for such a consciousness; another of them would be, for instance, to say that she was made for great social uses. Milly was not wholly sure that she herself knew what great social uses might be-unless, as a good example, exerting just that sort of glamour in just that sort of frame were one of them: she would have fallen back on knowing sufficiently that they existed at all events for her friend. It imputed a primness, all round, to be reduced but to saying, by way of a translation of one’s amusement, that she was always so right — since that, too often, was what the insupportables themselves were; yet it was, in overflow to Aunt Maud, what she had to content herself withal — save for the lame enhancement of saying she was lovely. It served, all the same, the purpose, strengthened the bond that for the time held the two ladies together, distilled in short its drop of rose-colour for Mrs. Lowder’s own view. That was really the view Milly had, for most of the rest of the occasion, to give herself to immediately taking in; but it didn’t prevent the continued play of those swift cross-lights, odd beguilements of the mind, at which we have already glanced.
Mrs. Lowder herself found it enough simply to reply, in respect to Kate, that she was indeed a luxury to take about the world: she expressed no more surprise than that at her “rightness” today. Wasn’t it by this time sufficiently manifest that it was precisely as the very luxury she was proving that she had, from far back, been appraised and waited for? Crude elation, however, might be kept at bay, and the circumstance none the less demonstrated that they were all swimming together in the blue. It came back to Lord Mark again, as he seemed slowly to pass and repass and conveniently to linger before them; he was personally the note of the blue — like a suspended skein of silk within reach of the broiderer’s hand. Aunt Maud’s free-moving shuttle took a length of him at rhythmic intervals; and one of the intermixed truths that flickered across to Milly was that he ever so consentingly knew he was being worked in. This was almost like an understanding with her at Mrs. Lowder’s expense, which she would have none of; she wouldn’t for the world have had him make any such point as that he wouldn’t have launched them at Matcham — or whatever it was he had done — only for Aunt Maud’s beaux yeux. What he had done, it would have been guessable, was something he had for some time been desired in vain to do; and what they were all now profiting by was a change comparatively sudden, the cessation of hope delayed. What had caused the cessation easily showed itself as none of Milly’s business; and she was luckily, for that matter, in no real danger of hearing from him directly that her individual weight had been felt in the scale. Why then indeed was it an effect of his diffused but subdued participation that he might absolutely have been saying to her “Yes, let the dear woman take her own tone? Since she’s here she may stay,” he might have been adding —“for whatever she can make of it. But you and I are different.” Milly knew she was different in truth — his own difference was his own affair; but also she knew that, after all, even at their distinctest, Lord Mark’s “tips” in this line would be tacit. He practically placed her — it came round again to that — under no obligation whatever. It was a matter of equal ease, moreover, her letting Mrs. Lowder take a tone. She might have taken twenty — they would have spoiled nothing.
“You must stay on with us; you can, you know, in any position you like; any, any, any, my dear child”— and her emphasis went deep. “You must make your home with us; and it’s really open to you to make the most beautiful one in the world. You mustn’t be under a mistake — under any of any sort; and you must let us all think for you a little, take care of you and watch over you. Above all you must help me with Kate, and you must stay a little for her; nothing for a long time has happened to me so good as that you and she should have become friends. It’s beautiful; it’s great; it’s everything. What makes it perfect is that it should have come about through our dear delightful Susie, restored to me, after so many years, by such a miracle. No — that’s more charming to me than even your hitting it off with Kate. God has been good to one — positively; for I couldn’t, at my age, have made a new friend — undertaken, I mean, out of whole cloth, the real thing. It’s like changing one’s bankers — after fifty: one doesn’t do that. That’s why Susie has been kept for me, as you seem to keep people in your wonderful country, in lavender and pink paper — coming back at last as straight as out of a fairy-tale and with you as an attendant fairy.” Milly hereupon replied appreciatively that such a description of herself made her feel as if pink paper were her dress and lavender its trimming; but Aunt Maud was not to be deterred by a weak joke from keeping it up. Her interlocutress could feel besides that she kept it up in perfect sincerity. She was somehow at this hour a very happy woman, and a part of her happiness might precisely have been that her affections and her views were moving as never before in concert. Unquestionably she loved Susie; but she also loved Kate and loved Lord Mark, loved their funny old host and hostess, loved every one within range, down to the very servant who came to receive Milly’s empty iceplate — down, for that matter, to Milly herself, who was, while she talked, really conscious of the enveloping flap of a protective mantle, a shelter with the weight of an eastern carpet. An eastern carpet, for wishing-purposes of one’s own, was a thing to be on rather than under; still, however, if the girl should fail of breath it wouldn’t be, she could feel, by Mrs. Lowder’s fault. One of the last things she was afterwards to recall of this was Aunt Maud’s going on to say that she and Kate must stand together because together they could do anything. It was for Kate of course she was essentially planning; but the plan, enlarged and uplifted now, somehow required Milly’s prosperity too for its full operation, just as Milly’s prosperity at the same time involved Kate’s. It was nebulous yet, it was slightly confused, but it was unmistakably free and genial, and it made our young woman understand things Kate had said of her aunt’s possibilities as well as characterisations that had fallen from Susan Shepherd. One of the most frequent on the lips of the latter had been that dear Maud was a natural force.
A prime reason, we must add, why sundry impressions were not to be fully present to the girl till later on was that they yielded at this stage, with an effect of sharp supersession, to a detached quarter of an hour — her only one — with Lord Mark. “Have you seen the picture in the house, the beautiful one that’s so like you?”— he was asking that as he stood before her; having come up at last with his smooth intimation that any wire he had pulled and yet wanted not to remind her of wasn’t quite a reason for his having no joy at all.
“I’ve been through rooms and I’ve seen pictures. But if I’m ‘like’ anything so beautiful as most of them seemed to me ——!” It needed in short for Milly some evidence, which he only wanted to supply. She was the image of the wonderful Bronzino, which she must have a look at on every ground. He had thus called her off and led her away; the more easily that the house within was above all what had already drawn round her its mystic circle. Their progress, meanwhile, was not of the straightest; it was an advance, without haste, through innumerable natural pauses and soft concussions, determined for the most part by the appearance before them of ladies and gentlemen, singly, in couples, in groups, who brought them to a stand with an inveterate “I say, Mark.” What they said she never quite made out; it was their all so domestically knowing him, and his knowing them, that mainly struck her, while her impression, for the rest, was but of fellow-strollers more vaguely afloat than themselves, supernumeraries mostly a little battered, whether as jaunty males or as ostensibly elegant women. They might have been moving a good deal by a momentum that had begun far back, but they were still brave and personable, still warranted for continuance as long again, and they gave her, in especial collectively, a sense of pleasant voices, pleasanter than those of actors, of friendly, empty words and kind, lingering eyes. The lingering eyes looked her over, the lingering eyes were what went, in almost confessed simplicity, with the pointless “I say, Mark “; and what was really most sensible of all was that, as a pleasant matter of course, if she didn’t mind, he seemed to suggest their letting people, poor dear things, have the benefit of her.
The odd part was that he made her herself believe, for amusement, in the benefit, measured by him in mere manner — for wonderful, of a truth, was, as a means of expression, his slightness of emphasis — that her present good-nature conferred. It was, as she could easily see, a mild common carnival of good-nature — a mass of London people together, of sorts and sorts, but who mainly knew each other and who, in their way, did, no doubt, confess to curiosity. It had gone round that she was there; questions about her would be passing; the easiest thing was to run the gauntlet with him — just as the easiest thing was in fact to trust him generally. Couldn’t she know for herself, passively, how little harm they meant her? — to that extent that it made no difference whether or not he introduced them. The strangest thing of all for Milly was perhaps the uplifted assurance and indifference with which she could simply give back the particular bland stare that appeared in such cases to mark civilisation at its highest. It was so little her fault, this oddity of what had “gone round” about her, that to accept it without question might be as good a way as another of feeling life. It was inevitable to supply the probable description — that of the awfully rich young American who was so queer to behold, but nice, by all accounts, to know; and she had really but one instant of speculation as to fables or fantasies perchance originally launched. She asked herself once only if Susie could, inconceivably, have been blatant about her; for the question, on the spot, was really blown away for ever. She knew in fact on the spot and with sharpness just why she had “elected” Susan Shepherd: she had had from the first hour the conviction of her being precisely the person in the world least possibly a trumpeter. So it wasn’t their fault, it wasn’t their fault, and anything might happen that would, and everything now again melted together, and kind eyes were always kind eyes — if it were never to be worse than that! She got with her companion into the house; they brushed, beneficently, past all their accidents. The Bronzino was, it appeared, deep within, and the long afternoon light lingered for them on patches of old colour and waylaid them, as they went, in nooks and opening vistas.
It was all the while for Milly as if Lord Mark had really had something other than this spoken pretext in view; as if there were something he wanted to say to her and were only — consciously yet not awkwardly, just delicately — hanging fire. At the same time it was as if the thing had practically been said by the moment they came in sight of the picture; since what it appeared to amount to was “Do let a fellow who isn’t a fool take care of you a little.” The thing somehow, with the aid of the Bronzino, was done; it hadn’t seemed to matter to her before if he were a fool or no; but now, just where they were, she liked his not being; and it was all moreover none the worse for coming back to something of the same sound as Mrs. Lowder’s so recent reminder. She too wished to take care of her — and wasn’t it, à peu près what all the people with the kind eyes were wishing? Once more things melted together — the beauty and the history and the facility and the splendid midsummer glow: it was a sort of magnificent maximum, the pink dawn of an apotheosis, coming so curiously soon. What in fact befell was that, as she afterwards made out, it was Lord Mark who said nothing in particular — it was she herself who said all. She couldn’t help that — it came; and the reason it came was that she found herself, for the first moment, looking at the mysterious portrait through tears. Perhaps it was her tears that made it just then so strange and fair — as wonderful as he had said: the face of a young woman, all magnificently drawn, down to the hands, and magnificently dressed; a face almost livid in hue, yet handsome in sadness and crowned with a mass of hair rolled back and high, that must, before fading with time, have had a family resemblance to her own. The lady in question, at all events, with her slightly Michaelangelesque squareness, her eyes of other days, her full lips, her long neck, her recorded jewels, her brocaded and wasted reds, was a very great personage — only unaccompanied by a joy. And she was dead, dead, dead. Milly recognised her exactly in words that had nothing to do with her. “I shall never be better than this.”
He smiled for her at the portrait. “Than she? You’d scarce need to be better, for surely that’s well enough. But you are, one feels, as it happens, better; because, splendid as she is, one doubts if she was good.”
He hadn’t understood. She was before the picture, but she had turned to him, and she didn’t care if, for the minute, he noticed her tears. It was probably as good a moment as she should ever have with him. It was perhaps as good a moment as she should have with any one, or have in any connection whatever. “I mean that everything this afternoon has been too beautiful, and that perhaps everything together will never be so right again. I’m very glad therefore you’ve been a part of it.”
Though he still didn’t understand her he was as nice as if he had; he didn’t ask for insistence, and that was just a part of his looking after her. He simply protected her now from herself, and there was a world of practice in it. “Oh, we must talk about these things!”
Ah, they had already done that, she knew, as much as she ever would; and she was shaking her head at her pale sister the next moment with a world, on her side, of slowness. “I wish I could see the resemblance. Of course her complexion’s green,” she laughed; “but mine’s several shades greener.”
“It’s down to the very hands,” said Lord Mark.
“Her hands are large,” Milly went on, “but mine are larger. Mine are huge.”
“Oh, you go her, all round, ‘one better’— which is just what I said. But you’re a pair. You must surely catch it,” he added as if it were important to his character as a serious man not to appear to have invented his plea.
“I don’t know one never knows one’s self. It’s a funny fancy, and I don’t imagine it would have occurred ——”
“I see it has occurred”— he has already taken her up. She had her back, as she faced the picture, to one of the doors of the room, which was open, and on her turning, as he spoke, she saw that they were in the presence of three other persons, also, as appeared, interested inquirers. Kate Croy was one of these; Lord Mark had just become aware of her, and she, all arrested, had immediately seen, and made the best of it, that she was far from being first in the field. She had brought a lady and a gentleman to whom she wished to show what Lord Mark was showing Milly, and he took her straightway as a reinforcement. Kate herself had spoken, however, before he had had time to tell her so.
“You had noticed too?”— she smiled at him without looking at Milly. “Then I’m not original — which one always hopes one has been. But the likeness is so great.” And now she looked at Milly — for whom again it was, all round indeed, kind, kind eyes. “Yes, there you are, my dear, if you want to know. And you’re superb.” She took now but a glance at the picture, though it was enough to make her question to her friends not too straight. “Isn’t she superb?”
“I brought Miss Theale,” Lord Mark explained to the latter, “quite off my own bat.”
“I wanted Lady Aldershaw,” Kate continued to Milly, “to see for herself.”
“Les grands esprits se rencontrent!“ laughed her attendant gentleman, a high, but slightly stooping, shambling and wavering person, who represented urbanity by the liberal aid of certain prominent front teeth and whom Milly vaguely took for some sort of great man.
Lady Aldershaw meanwhile looked at Milly quite as if Milly had been the Bronzino and the Bronzino only Milly. “Superb, superb. Of course I had noticed you. It is wonderful,” she went on with her back to the picture, but with some other eagerness which Milly felt gathering, directing her motions now. It was enough — they were introduced, and she was saying “I wonder if you could give us the pleasure of coming ——” She was not fresh, for she was not young, even though she denied at every pore that she was old; but she was vivid and much bejewelled for the midsummer daylight; and she was all in the palest pinks and blues. She didn’t think, at this pass, that she could “come” anywhere — Milly didn’t; and she already knew that somehow Lord Mark was saving her from the question. He had interposed, taking the words out of the lady’s mouth and not caring at all if the lady minded. That was clearly the right way to treat her — at least for him; as she had only dropped, smiling, and then turned away with him. She had been dealt with — it would have done an enemy good. The gentleman still stood, a little helpless, addressing himself to the intention of urbanity as if it were a large loud whistle; he had been signing sympathy, in his way, while the lady made her overture; and Milly had, in this light, soon arrived at their identity. They were Lord and Lady Aldershaw, and the wife was the clever one. A minute or two later the situation had changed, and she knew it afterwards to have been by the subtle operation of Kate. She was herself saying that she was afraid she must go now if Susie could be found; but she was sitting down on the nearest seat to say it. The prospect, through opened doors, stretched before her into other rooms, down the vista of which Lord Mark was strolling with Lady Aldershaw, who, close to him and much intent, seemed to show from behind as peculiarly expert. Lord Aldershaw, for his part, had been left in the middle of the room, while Kate, with her back to him, was standing before her with much sweetness of manner. The sweetness was all for her; she had the sense of the poor gentleman’s having somehow been handled as Lord Mark had handled his wife. He dangled there, he shambled a little; then he bethought himself of the Bronzino, before which, with his eyeglass, he hovered. It drew from him an odd, vague sound, not wholly distinct from a grunt, and a “Humph — most remarkable!” which lighted Kate’s face with amusement. The next moment he had creaked away, over polished floors, after the others, and Milly was feeling as if she had been rude. But Lord Aldershaw was in every way a detail, and Kate was saying to her that she hoped she wasn’t ill.
Thus it was that, aloft there in the great gilded historic chamber and the presence of the pale personage on the wall, whose eyes all the while seemed engaged with her own, she found herself suddenly sunk in something quite intimate and humble and to which these grandeurs were strange enough witnesses. It had come up, in the form in which she had had to accept it, all suddenly, and nothing about it, at the same time, was more marked than that she had in a manner plunged into it to escape from something else. Something else, from her first vision of her friend’s appearance three minutes before, had been present to her even through the call made by the others on her attention; something that was perversely there, she was more and more uncomfortably finding, at least for the first moments and by some spring of its own, with every renewal of their meeting. “Is it the way she looks to him?“ she asked herself — the perversity being that she kept in remembrance that Kate was known to him. It wasn’t a fault in Kate — nor in him assuredly; and she had a horror, being generous and tender, of treating either of them as if it had been. To Densher himself she couldn’t make it up — he was too far away; but her secondary impulse was to make it up to Kate. She did so now with a strange soft energy — the impulse immediately acting. “Will you render me tomorrow a great service?”
“Any service, dear child, in the world.”
“But it’s a secret one — nobody must know. I must be wicked and false about it.”
“Then I’m your woman,” Kate smiled, “for that’s the kind of thing I love. Do let us do something bad. You’re impossibly without sin, you know.”
Milly’s eyes, on this, remained a little with their companion’s. “Ah, I shan’t perhaps come up to your idea. It’s only to deceive Susan Shepherd.”
“Oh!” said Kate as if this were indeed mild.
“But thoroughly — as thoroughly as I can.”
“And for cheating,” Kate asked, “my powers will contribute? Well, I’ll do my best for you.” In accordance with which it was presently settled between them that Milly should have the aid and comfort of her presence for a visit to Sir Luke Strett. Kate had needed a minute for enlightenment, and it was quite grand for her comrade that this name should have said nothing to her. To Milly herself it had for some days been secretly saying much. The personage in question was, as she explained, the greatest of medical lights if she had got hold, as she believed (and she had used to this end the wisdom of the serpent) of the right, the special man. She had written to him three days before, and he had named her an hour, eleven-twenty; only it had come to her, on the eve, that she couldn’t go alone. Her maid, on the other hand, wasn’t good enough, and Susie was too good. Kate had listened, above all, with high indulgence. “And I’m betwixt and between, happy thought! Too good for what?”
Milly thought. “Why, to be worried if it’s nothing. And to be still more worried — I mean before she need be-if it isn’t.”
Kate fixed her with deep eyes. “What in the world is the matter with you?” It had inevitably a sound of impatience, as if it had been a challenge really to produce something; so that Milly felt her for the moment only as a much older person, standing above her a little, doubting the imagined ailments, suspecting the easy complaints, of ignorant youth. It somewhat checked her, further, that the matter with her was what exactly as yet she wanted knowledge about; and she immediately declared, for conciliation, that if she were merely fanciful Kate would see her put to shame. Kate vividly uttered, in return, the hope that, since she could come out and be so charming, could so universally dazzle and interest, she wasn’t all the while in distress or in anxiety — didn’t believe herself, in short, to be in any degree seriously menaced. “Well, I want to make out — to make out!” was all that this consistently produced. To which Kate made clear answer: “Ah then, let us by all means!”
“I thought,” Milly said, “you would like to help me. But I must ask you, please, for the promise of absolute silence.”
“And how, if you are ill, can your friends remain in ignorance?”
“Well, if I am, it must of course finally come out. But I can go for a long time.” Milly spoke with her eyes again on her painted sister’s — almost as if under their suggestion. She still sat there before Kate, yet not without a light in her face. “That will be one of my advantages. I think I could die without its being noticed.”
“You’re an extraordinary young woman,” her friend, visibly held by her, declared at last. “What a remarkable time to talk of such things!”
“Well, we won’t talk, precisely”— Milly got herself together again. “I only wanted to make sure of you.”
“Here in the midst of ——!” But Kate could only sigh for wonder — almost visibly too for pity.
It made a moment during which her companion waited on her word; partly as if from a yearning, shy but deep, to have her case put to her just as Kate was struck by it; partly as if the hint of pity were already giving a sense to her whimsical “shot,” with Lord Mark, at Mrs. Lowder’s first dinner. Exactly this — the handsome girl’s compassionate manner, her friendly descent from her own strength — was what she had then foretold. She took Kate up as if positively for the deeper taste of it. “Here in the midst of what?”
“Of everything. There’s nothing you can’t have. There’s nothing you can’t do.”
“So Mrs. Lowder tells me.”
It just kept Kate’s eyes fixed as possibly for more of that; then, however, without waiting, she went on. “We all adore you.”
“You’re wonderful — you dear things!” Milly laughed.
“No, it’s you.“ And Kate seemed struck with the real interest of it. “In three weeks!”
Milly kept it up. “Never were people on such terms! All the more reason,” she added, “that I shouldn’t needlessly torment you.”
“But me? what becomes of me?“ said Kate.
“Well, you —” Milly thought —“if there’s anything to bear, you’ll bear it.”
“But I won’t bear it!” said Kate Croy.
“Oh yes, you will: all the same! You’ll pity me awfully, but you’ll help me very much. And I absolutely trust you. So there we are.” There they were, then, since Kate had so to take it; but there, Milly felt, she herself in particular was; for it was just the point at which she had wished to arrive. She had wanted to prove to herself that she didn’t horribly blame her friend for any reserve; and what better proof could there be than this quite special confidence? If she desired to show Kate that she really believed the latter liked her, how could she show it more than by asking her for help?
What it really came to, on the morrow, this first time — the time Kate went with her — was that the great man had, a little, to excuse himself; had, by a rare accident — for he kept his consulting-hours in general rigorously free — but ten minutes to give her; ten mere minutes which he yet placed at her service in a manner that she admired even more than she could meet it: so crystal-clean the great empty cup of attention that he set between them on the table. He was presently to jump into his carriage, but he promptly made the point that he must see her again, see her within a day or two; and he named for her at once another hour — easing her off beautifully too even then in respect to her possibly failing of justice to her errand. The minutes affected her in fact as ebbing more swiftly than her little army of items could muster, and they would probably have gone without her doing much more than secure another hearing, had it not been for her sense, at the last, that she had gained above all an impression. The impression — all the sharp growth of the final few moments — was neither more nor less than that she might make, of a sudden, in quite another world, another straight friend, and a friend who would moreover be, wonderfully, the most appointed, the most thoroughly adjusted of the whole collection, inasmuch as he would somehow wear the character scientifically, ponderably, proveably — not just loosely and sociably. Literally, furthermore, it wouldn’t really depend on herself, Sir Luke Strett’s friendship, in the least; perhaps what made her most stammer and pant was its thus queerly coming over her that she might find she had interested him even beyond her intention, find she was in fact launched in some current that would lose itself in the sea of science. At the same time that she struggled, however, she also surrendered; there was a moment at which she almost dropped the form of stating, of explaining, and threw herself, without violence, only with a supreme pointless quaver that had turned, the next instant, to an intensity of interrogative stillness, upon his general goodwill. His large, settled face, though firm, was not, as she had thought at first, hard; he looked, in the oddest manner, to her fancy, half like a general and half like a bishop, and she was soon sure that, within some such handsome range, what it would show her would be what was good, what was best for her. She had established, in other words, in this time-saving way, a relation with it; and the relation was the special trophy that, for the hour, she bore off. It was like an absolute possession, a new resource altogether, something done up in the softest silk and tucked away under the arm of memory. She hadn’t had it when she went in, and she had it when she came out; she had it there under her cloak, but dissimulated, invisibly carried, when smiling, smiling, she again faced Kate Croy. That young lady had of course awaited her in another room, where, as the great man was to absent himself, no one else was in attendance; and she rose for her with such a face of sympathy as might have graced the vestibule of a dentist. “Is it out?” she seemed to ask as if it had been a question of a tooth; and Milly indeed kept her in no suspense at all.
“He’s a dear. I’m to come again.”
“But what does he say?”
Milly was almost gay. “That I’m not to worry about anything in the world, and that if I’ll be a good girl and do exactly what he tells me, he’ll take care of me for ever and ever.”
Kate wondered as if things scarce fitted. “But does he allow then that you’re ill?”
“I don’t know what he allows, and I don’t care. I shall know, and whatever it is it will be enough. He knows all about me, and I like it. I don’t hate it a bit.”
Still, however, Kate stared. “But could he, in so few minutes, ask you enough ——?”
“He asked me scarcely anything — he doesn’t need to do anything so stupid,” Milly said. “He can tell. He knows,” she repeated; “and when I go back — for he’ll have thought me over a little — it will be all right.”
Kate, after a moment, made the best of this. “Then when are we to come?”
It just pulled her friend up, for even while they talked — at least it was one of the reasons — she stood there suddenly, irrelevantly, in the light of her other identity, the identity she would have for Mr. Densher. This was always, from one instant to another, an incalculable light, which, though it might go off faster than it came on, necessarily disturbed. It sprang, with a perversity all its own, from the fact that, with the lapse of hours and days, the chances themselves that made for his being named continued so oddly to fail. There were twenty, there were fifty, but none of them turned up. This, in particular, was of course not a juncture at which the least of them would naturally be present; but it would make, none the less, Milly saw, another day practically all stamped with avoidance. She saw in a quick glimmer, and with it all Kate’s unconsciousness; and then she shook off the obsession. But it had lasted long enough to qualify her response. No, she had shown Kate how she trusted her; and that, for loyalty, would somehow do. “Oh, dear thing, now that the ice is broken I shan’t trouble you again.”
“You’ll come alone?”
“Without a scruple. Only I shall ask you, please, for your absolute discretion still.”
Outside, before the door, on the wide pavement of the great square, they had to wait again while their carriage, which Milly had kept, completed a further turn of exercise, engaged in by the coachman for reasons of his own. The footman was there, and had indicated that he was making the circuit; so Kate went on while they stood. “But don’t you ask a good deal, darling, in proportion to what you give?”
This pulled Milly up still shorter — so short in fact that she yielded as soon as she had taken it in. But she continued to smile. “I see. Then you can tell.”
“I don’t want to ‘tell,’” said Kate. “I’ll be as silent as the tomb if I can only have the truth from you. All I want is that you shouldn’t keep from me how you find out that you really are.”
“Well then, I won’t, ever. But you see for yourself,” Milly went on, “how I really am. I’m satisfied. I’m happy.”
Kate looked at her long. “I believe you like it. The way things turn out for you ——!”
Milly met her look now without a thought of anything but the spoken. She had ceased to be Mr. Densher’s image; she was all her own memento and she was none the less fine. Still, still, what had passed was a fair bargain, and it would do. “Of course I like it. I feel — I can’t otherwise describe it — as if I had been, on my knees, to the priest. I’ve confessed and I’ve been absolved. It has been lifted off.”
Kate’s eyes never quitted her. “He must have liked you.“
“Oh — doctors!” Milly said. “But I hope,” she added, “he didn’t like me too much.” Then as if to escape a little from her friend’s deeper sounding, or as impatient for the carriage, not yet in sight, her eyes, turning away, took in the great stale square. As its staleness, however, was but that of London fairly fatigued, the late hot London with its dance all danced and its story all told, the air seemed a thing of blurred pictures and mixed echoes, and an impression met the sense — an impression that broke, the next moment, through the girl’s tightened lips. “Oh, it’s a beautiful big world, and everyone, yes, everyone ——!” It presently brought her back to Kate, and she hoped she didn’t actually look as much as if she were crying as she must have looked to Lord Mark among the portraits at Matcham.
Kate at all events understood. “Everyone wants to be so nice?”
“So nice,” said the grateful Milly.
“Oh,” Kate laughed, “we’ll pull you through! And won’t you now bring Mrs. Stringham?”
But Milly after an instant was again clear about that. “Not till I’ve seen him once more.”
She was to have found this preference, two days later, abundantly justified; and yet when, in prompt accordance with what had passed between them, she reappeared before her distinguished friend — that character having, for him, in the interval, built itself up still higher — the first thing he asked her was whether she had been accompanied. She told him, on this, straightway, everything; completely free at present from her first embarrassment, disposed even — as she felt she might become — to undue volubility, and conscious moreover of no alarm from his thus perhaps wishing that she had not come alone. It was exactly as if, in the forty-eight hours that had passed, her acquaintance with him had somehow increased, and his own knowledge in particular received mysterious additions. They had been together, before, scarce ten minutes; but the relation, the one the ten minutes had so beautifully created, was there to take straight up: and this not, on his own part, from mere professional heartiness, mere bedside manner, which she would have disliked — much rather from a quiet, pleasant air in him of having positively asked about her, asked here and there and found out. Of course he couldn’t in the least have asked, or have wanted to; there was no source of information to his hand, and he had really needed none: he had found out simply by his genius — and found out, she meant, literally everything. Now she knew not only that she didn’t dislike this — the state of being found out about; but that, on the contrary, it was truly what she had come for, and that, for the time at least, it would give her something firm to stand on. She struck herself as aware, aware as she had never been, of really not having had from the beginning anything firm. It would be strange for the firmness to come, after all, from her learning in these agreeable conditions that she was in some way doomed; but above all it would prove how little she had hitherto had to hold her up. If she was now to be held up by the mere process — since that was perhaps on the cards — of being let down, this would only testify in turn to her queer little history. That sense of loosely rattling had been no process at all; and it was ridiculously true that her thus sitting there to see her life put into the scales represented her first approach to the taste of orderly living. Such was Milly’s romantic version — that her life, especially by the fact of this second interview, was put into the scales; and just the best part of the relation established might have been, for that matter, that the great grave charming man knew, had known at once, that it was romantic, and in that measure allowed for it. Her only doubt, her only fear, was whether he perhaps wouldn’t even take advantage of her being a little romantic to treat her as romantic altogether. This doubtless was her danger with him; but she should see, and dangers in general meanwhile dropped and dropped.
The very place, at the end of a few minutes, the commodious, “handsome” room, far back in the fine old house, soundless from position, somewhat sallow with years of celebrity, somewhat sombre even at midsummer — the very place put on for her a look of custom and use, squared itself solidly round her as with promises and certainties. She had come forth to see the world, and this then was to be the world’s light, the rich dusk of a London “back,” these the world’s walls, those the world’s curtains and carpet. She should be intimate with the great bronze clock and mantel-ornaments, conspicuously presented in gratitude and long ago; she should be as one of the circle of eminent contemporaries, photographed, engraved, signatured, and in particular framed and glazed, who made up the rest of the decoration, and made up as well so much of the human comfort; and while she thought of all the clean truths, unfringed, unfingered, that the listening stillness, strained into pauses and waits, would again and again, for years, have kept distinct, she also wondered what she would eventually decide upon to present in gratitude. She would give something better at least than the brawny Victorian bronzes. This was precisely an instance of what she felt he knew of her before he had done with her: that she was secretly romancing at that rate, in the midst of so much else that was more urgent, all over the place. So much for her secrets with him, none of which really required to be phrased. It would have been, for example, a secret for her from any one else that without a dear lady she had picked up just before coming over she wouldn’t have a decently near connection, of any sort, for such an appeal as she was making, to put forward: no one in the least, as it were, to produce for respectability. But his seeing it she didn’t mind a scrap, and not a scrap either his knowing how she had left the dear lady in the dark. She had come alone, putting her friend off with a fraud: giving a pretext of shops, of a whim, of she didn’t know what — the amusement of being for once in the streets by herself. The streets by herself were new to her — she had always had in them a companion, or a maid; and he was never to believe, moreover, that she couldn’t take full in the face anything he might have to say. He was softly amused at her account of her courage; though he yet showed it somehow without soothing her too grossly. Still, he did want to know whom she had. Hadn’t there been a lady with her on Wednesday?
“Yes — a different one. Not the one who’s travelling with me. I’ve told her.“
Distinctly he was amused, and it added to his air — the greatest charm of all — of giving her lots of time. “You’ve told her what?”
“Well,” said Milly, “that I visit you in secret.”
“And how many persons will she tell?”
“Oh, she’s devoted. Not one.”
“Well, if she’s devoted doesn’t that make another friend for you?”
It didn’t take much computation, but she nevertheless had to think a moment, conscious as she was that he distinctly would want to fill out his notion of her — even a little, as it were, to warm the air for her. That, however — and better early than late — he must accept as of no use; and she herself felt for an instant quite a competent certainty on the subject of any such warming. The air, for Milly Theale, was, from the very nature of the case, destined never to rid itself of a considerable chill. This she could tell him with authority, if she could tell him nothing else; and she seemed to see now, in short, that it would importantly simplify. “Yes, it makes another; but they all together wouldn’t make — well, I don’t know what to call it but the difference. I mean when one is — really alone. I’ve never seen anything like the kindness.” She pulled up a minute while he waited — waited again as if with his reasons for letting her, for almost making her, talk. What she herself wanted was not, for the third time, to cry, as it were, in public. She had never seen anything like the kindness, and she wished to do it justice; but she knew what she was about, and justice was not wronged by her being able presently to stick to her point. “Only one’s situation is what it is. It’s me it concerns. The rest is delightful and useless. Nobody can really help. That’s why I’m by myself today. I want to be-in spite of Miss Croy, who came with me last. If you can help, so much the better and also of course if one can, a little, one’s self. Except for that — you and me doing our best — I like you to see me just as I am. Yes, I like it — and I don’t exaggerate. Shouldn’t one, at the start, show the worst — so that anything after that may be better? It wouldn’t make any real difference — it won’t make any, anything that may happen won’t — to any one. Therefore I feel myself, this way, with you, just as I am; and — if you do in the least care to know — it quite positively bears me up.” She put it as to his caring to know, because his manner seemed to give her all her chance, and the impression was there for her to take. It was strange and deep for her, this impression, and she did, accordingly, take it straight home. It showed him — showed him in spite of himself — as allowing, somewhere far within, things comparatively remote, things in fact quite, as she would have said, outside, delicately to weigh with him; showed him as interested, on her behalf, in other questions beside the question of what was the matter with her. She accepted such an interest as regular in the highest type of scientific mind — his being the even highest, magnificently because otherwise, obviously, it wouldn’t be there; but she could at the same time take it as a direct source of light upon herself, even though that might present her a little as pretending to equal him. Wanting to know more about a patient than how a patient was constructed or deranged couldn’t be, even on the part of the greatest of doctors, anything but some form or other of the desire to let the patient down easily. When that was the case the reason, in turn, could only be, too manifestly, pity; and when pity held up its tell-tale face like a head on a pike, in a French revolution, bobbing before a window, what was the inference but that the patient was bad? He might say what he would now — she would always have seen the head at the window; and in fact from this moment she only wanted him to say what he would. He might say it too with the greater ease to himself as there wasn’t one of her divinations that — as her own — he would in any way put himself out for. Finally, if he was making her talk she was talking; and what it could, at any rate, come to for him was that she wasn’t afraid. If he wanted to do the dearest thing in the world for her he would show her he believed she wasn’t; which undertaking of hers — not to have misled him — was what she counted at the moment as her presumptuous little hint to him that she was as good as himself. It put forward the bold idea that he could really be misled; and there actually passed between them for some seconds a sign, a sign of the eyes only, that they knew together where they were. This made, in their brown old temple of truth, its momentary flicker; then what followed it was that he had her, all the same, in his pocket; and the whole thing wound up, for that consummation, with its kind dim smile. Such kindness was wonderful with such dimness; but brightness — that even of sharp steel — was of course for the other side of the business, and it would all come in for her in one way or another. “Do you mean,” he asked, “that you’ve no relations at all? — not a parent, not a sister, not even a cousin nor an aunt?”
She shook her head as with the easy habit of an interviewed heroine or a freak of nature at a show. “Nobody whatever.” But the last thing she had come for was to be dreary about it. “I’m a survivor — a survivor of a general wreck. You see,” she added, “how that’s to be taken into account — that everyone else has gone. When I was ten years old there were, with my father and my mother, six of us. I’m all that’s left. But they died,” she went on, to be fair all round, “of different things. Still, there it is. And, as I told you before, I’m American. Not that I mean that makes me worse. However, you’ll probably know what it makes me.”
“Yes,” he discreetly indulged her; “I know perfectly what it makes you. It makes you, to begin with, a capital case.”
She sighed, though gratefully, as if again before the social scene. “Ah, there you are!”
“Oh, no; there ‘we’ aren’t at all. There I am only — but as much as you like. I’ve no end of American friends: there they are, if you please, and it’s a fact that you couldn’t very well be in a better place than in their company. It puts you with plenty of others — and that isn’t pure solitude.” Then he pursued: “I’m sure you’ve an excellent spirit; but don’t try to bear more things than you need.” Which after an instant he further explained. “Hard things have come to you in youth, but you mustn’t think life will be for you all hard things. You’ve the right to be happy. You must make up your mind to it. You must accept any form in which happiness may come.”
“Oh, I’ll accept any whatever!” she almost gaily returned. “And it seems to me, for that matter, that I’m accepting a new one every day. Now this!“ she smiled.
“This is very well so far as it goes. You can depend on me,” the great man said, “for unlimited interest. But I’m only, after all, one element in fifty. We must gather in plenty of others. Don’t mind who knows. Knows, I mean, that you and I are friends.”
“Ah, you do want to see some one!” she broke out. “You want to get at some one who cares for me.” With which, however, as he simply met this spontaneity in a manner to show that he had often had it from young persons of her race, and that he was familiar even with the possibilities of their familiarity, she felt her freedom rendered vain by his silence, and she immediately tried to think of the most reasonable thing she could say. This would be, precisely, on the subject of that freedom, which she now quickly spoke of as complete. “That’s of course by itself a great boon; so please don’t think I don’t know it. I can do exactly what I like — anything in all the wide world. I haven’t a creature to ask — there’s not a finger to stop me. I can shake about till I’m black and blue. That perhaps isn’t all joy; but lots of people, I know, would like to try it.” He had appeared about to put a question, but then had let her go on, which she promptly did, for she understood him the next moment as having thus taken it from her that her means were as great as might be. She had simply given it to him so, and this was all that would ever pass between them on the odious head. Yet she couldn’t help also knowing that an important effect, for his judgment, or at least for his amusement — which was his feeling, since, marvellously, he did have feeling — was produced by it. All her little pieces had now then fallen together for him like the morsels of coloured glass that used to make combinations, under the hand, in the depths of one of the polygonal peepshows of childhood. “So that if it’s a question of my doing anything under the sun that will help ——!”
“You’ll do anything under the sun? Good.” He took that beautifully, ever so pleasantly, for what it was worth; but time was needed — ten minutes or so were needed on the spot — to deal even provisionally, with the substantive question. It was convenient, in its degree, that there was nothing she wouldn’t do; but it seemed also highly and agreeably vague that she should have to do anything. They thus appeared to be taking her, together, for the moment, and almost for sociability, as prepared to proceed to gratuitous extremities; the upshot of which was in turn, that after much interrogation, auscultation, exploration, much noting of his own sequences and neglecting of hers, had duly kept up the vagueness, they might have struck themselves, or may at least strike us, as coming back from an undeterred but useless voyage to the north pole. Milly was ready, under orders, for the north pole; which fact was doubtless what made a blinding anticlimax of her friend’s actual abstention from orders. “No,” she heard him again distinctly repeat it, “I don’t want you for the present to do anything at all; anything, that is, but obey a small prescription or two that will be made clear to you, and let me within a few days come to see you at home.”
It was at first heavenly. “Then you’ll see Mrs. Stringham.” But she didn’t mind a bit now.
“Well, I shan’t be afraid of Mrs. Stringham.” And he said it once more as she asked once more: “Absolutely not; I ‘send’ you nowhere. England’s all right — anywhere that’s pleasant, convenient, decent, will be all right. You say you can do exactly as you like. Oblige me therefore by being so good as to do it. There’s only one thing: you ought of course, now, as soon as I’ve seen you again, to get out of London.”
Milly thought. “May I then go back to the continent?”
“By all means back to the continent. Do go back to the continent.”
“Then how will you keep seeing me? But perhaps,” she quickly added, “you won’t want to keep seeing me.”
He had it all ready; he had really everything all ready. “I shall follow you up; though if you mean that I don’t want you to keep seeing me ——”
“Well?” she asked.
It was only just here that he struck her the least bit as stumbling. “Well, see all you can. That’s what it comes to. Worry about nothing. You have at least no worries. It’s a great, rare chance.”
She had got up, for she had had from him both that he would send her something and would advise her promptly of the date of his coming to her, by which she was virtually dismissed. Yet, for herself, one or two things kept her. “May I come back to England too?”
“Rather! Whenever you like. But always, when you do come, immediately let me know.”
“Ah,” said Milly, “it won’t be a great going to and fro.”
“Then if you’ll stay with us, so much the better.”
It touched her, the way he controlled his impatience of her; and the fact itself affected her as so precious that she yielded to the wish to get more from it. “So you don’t think I’m out of my mind?”
“Perhaps that is,“ he smiled, “all that’s the matter.”
She looked at him longer. “No, that’s too good. Shall I, at any rate, suffer?”
“Not a bit.”
“And yet then live?”
“My dear young lady,” said her distinguished friend, “isn’t to ‘live’ exactly what I’m trying to persuade you to take the trouble to do?”
She had gone out with these last words so in her ears that when once she was well away — back this time in the great square alone — it was as if some instant application of them had opened out there before her. It was positively, this effect, an excitement that carried her on; she went forward into space under the sense of an impulse received — an impulse simple and direct, easy above all to act upon. She was borne up for the hour, and now she knew why she had wanted to come by herself. No one in the world could have sufficiently entered into her state; no tie would have been close enough to enable a companion to walk beside her without some disparity. She literally felt, in this first flush, that her only company must be the human race at large, present all round her, but inspiringly impersonal, and that her only field must be, then and there, the grey immensity of London. Grey immensity had somehow of a sudden become her element; grey immensity was what her distinguished friend had, for the moment, furnished her world with and what the question of “living,” as he put it to her, living by option, by volition, inevitably took on for its immediate face. She went straight before her, without weakness, altogether with strength; and still as she went she was more glad to be alone, for nobody — not Kate Croy, not Susan Shepherd either — would have wished to rush with her as she rushed. She had asked him at the last whether, being on foot, she might go home so, or elsewhere, and he had replied as if almost amused again at her extravagance: “You’re active, luckily, by nature — it’s beautiful: therefore rejoice in it. Be active, without folly — for you’re not foolish: be as active as you can and as you like.” That had been in fact the final push, as well as the touch that most made a mixture of her consciousness — a strange mixture that tasted at one and the same time of what she had lost and what had been given her. It was wonderful to her, while she took her random course, that these quantities felt so equal: she had been treated — hadn’t she? — as if it were in her power to live; and yet one wasn’t treated so — was one? — unless it came up, quite as much, that one might die. The beauty of the bloom had gone from the small old sense of safety — that was distinct: she had left it behind her there forever. But the beauty of the idea of a great adventure, a big dim experiment or struggle in which she might, more responsibly than ever before, take a hand, had been offered her instead. It was as if she had had to pluck off her breast, to throw away, some friendly ornament, a familiar flower, a little old jewel, that was part of her daily dress; and to take up and shoulder as a substitute some queer defensive weapon, a musket, a spear, a battle-axe conducive possibly in a higher degree to a striking appearance, but demanding all the effort of the military posture. She felt this instrument, for that matter, already on her back, so that she proceeded now in very truth as a soldier on a march — proceeded as if, for her initiation, the first charge had been sounded. She passed along unknown streets, over dusty littery ways, between long rows of fronts not enhanced by the August light; she felt good for miles and only wanted to get lost; there were moments at corners, where she stopped and chose her direction, in which she quite lived up to his injunction to rejoice that she was active. It was like a new pleasure to have so new a reason; she would affirm, without delay, her option, her volition; taking this personal possession of what surrounded her was a fair affirmation to start with; and she really didn’t care if she made it at the cost of alarms for Susie. Susie would wonder in due course “whatever,” as they said at the hotel, had become of her; yet this would be nothing either, probably, to wonderments still in store. Wonderments in truth, Milly felt, even now attended her steps: it was quite as if she saw in people’s eyes the reflection of her appearance and pace. She found herself moving at times in regions visibly not haunted by odd-looking girls from New York, duskily draped, sable-plumed, all but incongruously shod and gazing about them with extravagance; she might, from the curiosity she clearly excited in byways, in side-streets peopled with grimy children and costermongers carts, which she hoped were slums, literally have had her musket on her shoulder, have announced herself as freshly on the warpath. But for the fear of overdoing this character she would here and there have begun conversation, have asked her way; in spite of the fact that, as that would help the requirements of adventure, her way was exactly what she wanted not to know. The difficulty was that she at last accidentally found it; she had come out, she presently saw, at the Regent’s Park, round which, on two or three occasions with Kate Croy, her public chariot had solemnly rolled. But she went into it further now; this was the real thing; the real thing was to be quite away from the pompous roads, well within the centre and on the stretches of shabby grass. Here were benches and smutty sheep; here were idle lads at games of ball, with their cries mild in the thick air; here were wanderers, anxious and tired like herself; here doubtless were hundreds of others just in the same box. Their box, their great common anxiety, what was it, in this grim breathing-space, but the practical question of life? They could live if they would; that is, like herself, they had been told so; she saw them all about her, on seats, digesting the information, feeling it altered, assimilated, recognising it again as something, in a slightly different shape, familiar enough, the blessed old truth that they would live if they could. All she thus shared with them made her wish to sit in their company; which she so far did that she looked for a bench that was empty, eschewing a still emptier chair that she saw hard by and for which she would have paid, with superiority, a fee.
The last scrap of superiority had soon enough left her, if only because she before long knew herself for more tired than she had proposed. This and the charm, after a fashion, of the situation in itself made her linger and rest; there was a sort of spell in the sense that nobody in the world knew where she was. It was the first time in her life that this had happened; somebody, everybody appeared to have known before, at every instant of it, where she was; so that she was now suddenly able to put it to herself that that hadn’t been a life. This present kind of thing therefore might be-which was where precisely her distinguished friend seemed to be wishing her to come out. He wished her also, it was true, not to make, as she was perhaps doing now, too much of her isolation; at the same time however as he clearly desired to deny her no decent source of interest. He was interested — she arrived at that — in her appealing to as many sources as possible; and it fairly filtered into her, as she sat and sat, that he was essentially propping her up. Had she been doing it herself she would have called it bolstering — the bolstering that was simply for the weak; and she thought and thought as she put together the proofs that it was as one of the weak he was treating her. It was of course as one of the weak that she had gone to him — but, oh, with how sneaking a hope that he might pronounce her, as to all indispensables, a veritable young lioness! What indeed she was really confronted with was the consciousness that he had not, after all, pronounced her anything: she nursed herself into the sense that he had beautifully got out of it. Did he think, however, she wondered, that he could keep out of it to the end? — though, as she weighed the question, she yet felt it a little unjust. Milly weighed, in this extraordinary hour, questions numerous and strange; but she had, happily, before she moved, worked round to a simplification. Stranger than anything, for instance, was the effect of its rolling over her that, when one considered it, he might perhaps have “got out” by one door but to come in with a beautiful, beneficent dishonesty by another. It kept her more intensely motionless there that what he might fundamentally be “up to” was some disguised intention of standing by her as a friend. Wasn’t that what women always said they wanted to do when they deprecated the addresses of gentlemen they couldn’t more intimately go on with? It was what they, no doubt, sincerely fancied they could make of men of whom they couldn’t make husbands. And she didn’t even reason that it was, by a similar law, the expedient of doctors in general for the invalids of whom they couldn’t make patients: she was somehow so sufficiently aware that her doctor was — however fatuous it might sound — exceptionally moved. This was the damning little fact — if she could talk of damnation: that she could believe herself to have caught him in the act of irrelevantly liking her. She hadn’t gone to him to be liked, she had gone to him to be judged; and he was quite a great enough man to be in the habit, as a rule, of observing the difference. She could like him, as she distinctly did — that was another matter; all the more that her doing so was now, so obviously for herself, compatible with judgment. Yet it would have been all portentously mixed had not, as we say, a final, merciful wave, chilling rather, but washing clear, come to her assistance.
It came, of a sudden, when all other thought was spent. She had been asking herself why, if her case was grave — and she knew what she meant by that — he should have talked to her at all about what she might with futility “do”; or why on the other hand, if it were light, he should attach an importance to the office of friendship. She had him, with her little lonely acuteness — as acuteness went during the dog-days in the Regent’s Park — in a cleft stick: she either mattered, and then she was ill; or she didn’t matter, and then she was well enough. Now he was “acting,” as they said at home, as if she did matter — until he should prove the contrary. It was too evident that a person at his high pressure must keep his inconsistencies, which were probably his highest amusements, only for the very greatest occasions. Her prevision, in fine, of just where she should catch him furnished the light of that judgment in which we describe her as daring to indulge. And the judgment it was that made her sensation simple. He had distinguished her — that was the chill. He hadn’t known — how could he? — that she was devilishly subtle, subtle exactly in the manner of the suspected, the suspicious, the condemned. He in fact confessed to it, in his way, as to an interest in her combinations, her funny race, her funny losses, her funny gains, her funny freedom, and, no doubt, above all, her funny manners — funny, like those of Americans at their best, without being vulgar, legitimating amiability and helping to pass it off. In his appreciation of these redundancies he dressed out for her the compassion he so signally permitted himself to waste; but its operation for herself was as directly divesting, denuding, exposing. It reduced her to her ultimate state, which was that of a poor girl with her rent to pay for example — staring before her in a great city. Milly had her rent to pay, her rent for her future; everything else but how to meet it fell away from her in pieces, in tatters. This was the sensation the great man had doubtless not purposed. Well, she must go home, like the poor girl, and see. There might after all be ways; the poor girl too would be thinking. It came back for that matter perhaps to views already presented. She looked about her again, on her feet, at her scattered, melancholy comrades — some of them so melancholy as to be down on their stomachs in the grass, turned away, ignoring, burrowing; she saw once more, with them, those two faces of the question between which there was so little to choose for inspiration. It was perhaps superficially more striking that one could live if one would; but it was more appealing, insinuating, irresistible, in short, that one would live if one could.
She found after this, for the day or two, more amusement than she had ventured to count on in the fact, if it were not a mere fancy, of deceiving Susie; and she presently felt that what made the difference was the mere fancy — as this was one — of a countermove to her great man. His taking on himself — should he do so — to get at her companion made her suddenly, she held, irresponsible, made any notion of her own all right for her; though indeed at the very moment she invited herself to enjoy this impunity she became aware of new matter for surprise, or at least for speculation. Her idea would rather have been that Mrs. Stringham would have looked at her hard — her sketch of the grounds of her long, independent excursion showing, she could feel, as almost cynically superficial. Yet the dear woman so failed, in the event, to avail herself of any right of criticism that it was sensibly tempting, for an hour, to wonder if Kate Croy had been playing perfectly fair. Hadn’t she possibly, from motives of the highest benevolence, promptings of the finest anxiety, just given poor Susie what she would have called the straight tip? It must immediately be mentioned, however, that, quite apart from a remembrance of the distinctness of Kate’s promise, Milly, the next thing, found her explanation in a truth that had the merit of being general. If Susie, at this crisis, suspiciously spared her, it was really that Susie was always suspiciously sparing her — yet occasionally, too, with portentous and exceptional mercies. The girl was conscious of how she dropped at times into inscrutable, impenetrable deferences — attitudes that, though without at all intending it, made a difference for familiarity, for the ease of intimacy. It was as if she recalled herself to manners, to the law of court-etiquette — which last note above all helped our young woman to a just appreciation. It was definite for her, even if not quite solid, that to treat her as a princess was a positive need of her companion’s mind; wherefore she couldn’t help it if this lady had her transcendent view of the way the class in question were treated. Susan had read history, had read Gibbon and Froude and Saint–Simon; she had high-lights as to the special allowances made for the class, and, since she saw them, when young, as effete and overtutored, inevitably ironic and infinitely refined, one must take it for amusing if she inclined to an indulgence verily Byzantine. If one could only be Byzantine! — wasn’t that what she insidiously led one on to sigh? Milly tried to oblige her — for it really placed Susan herself so handsomely to be Byzantine now. The great ladies of that race — it would be somewhere in Gibbon — weren’t, apparently, questioned about their mysteries. But oh, poor Milly and hers! Susan at all events proved scarce more inquisitive than if she had been a mosaic at Ravenna. Susan was a porcelain monument to the odd moral that consideration might, like cynicism, have abysses. Besides, the Puritan finally disencumbered ——! What starved generations wasn’t Mrs. Stringham, in fancy, going to make up for?
Kate Croy came straight to the hotel — came that evening shortly before dinner; specifically and publicly moreover, in a hansom that, driven apparently very fast, pulled up beneath their windows almost with the clatter of an accident, a “smash.” Milly, alone, as happened, in the great garnished void of their sitting-room, where, a little, really, like a caged Byzantine, she had been pacing through the queer, long-drawn, almost sinister delay of night, an effect she yet liked — Milly, at the sound, one of the French windows standing open, passed out to the balcony that overhung, with pretensions, the general entrance, and so was in time for the look that Kate, alighting, paying her cabman, happened to send up to the front. The visitor moreover had a shilling back to wait for, during which Milly, from the balcony, looked down at her, and a mute exchange, but with smiles and nods, took place between them on what had occurred in the morning. It was what Kate had called for, and the tone was thus, almost by accident, determined for Milly before her friend came up. What was also, however, determined for her was, again, yet irrepressibly again, that the image presented to her, the splendid young woman who looked so particularly handsome in impatience, with the fine freedom of her signal, was the peculiar property of somebody else’s vision, that this fine freedom in short was the fine freedom she showed Mr. Densher. Just so was how she looked to him, and just so was how Milly was held by her — held as by the strange sense of seeing through that distant person’s eyes. It lasted, as usual, the strange sense, but fifty seconds; yet in so lasting it produced an effect. It produced in fact more than one, and we take them in their order. The first was that it struck our young woman as absurd to say that a girl’s looking so to a man could possibly be without connections; and the second was that by the time Kate had got into the room Milly was in mental possession of the main connection it must have for herself.
She produced this commodity on the spot — produced it, that is, in straight response to Kate’s frank “Well, what?” The inquiry bore of course, with Kate’s eagerness, on the issue of the morning’s scene, the great man’s latest wisdom, and it doubtless affected Milly a little as the cheerful demand for news is apt to affect troubled spirits when news is not, in one of the neater forms, prepared for delivery. She couldn’t have said what it was exactly that, on the instant, determined her; the nearest description of it would perhaps have been as the more vivid impression of all her friend took for granted. The contrast between this free quantity and the maze of possibilities through which, for hours, she had herself been picking her way, put on, in short, for the moment, a grossness that even friendly forms scarce lightened: it helped forward in fact the revelation to herself that she absolutely had nothing to tell. Besides which, certainly, there was something else — an influence, at the particular juncture, still more obscure. Kate had lost, on the way upstairs, the look — the look — that made her young hostess so subtly think and one of the signs of which was that she never kept it for many moments at once; yet she stood there, none the less, so in her bloom and in her strength, so completely again the “handsome girl” beyond all others, the “handsome girl” for whom Milly had at first gratefully taken her, that to meet her now with the note of the plaintive would amount somehow to a surrender, to a confession. She would never in her life be ill; the greatest doctor would keep her, at the worst, the fewest minutes; and it was as if she had asked just with all this practical impeccability for all that was most mortal in her friend. These things, for Milly, inwardly danced their dance; but the vibration produced and the dust kicked up had lasted less than our account of them. Almost before she knew it she was answering, and answering, beautifully, with no consciousness of fraud, only as with a sudden flare of the famous “will-power” she had heard about, read about, and which was what her medical adviser had mainly thrown her back on. “Oh, it’s all right. He’s lovely.”
Kate was splendid, and it would have been clear for Milly now, had the further presumption been needed, that she had said no word to Mrs. Stringham. “You mean you’ve been absurd?”
“Absurd.” It was a simple word to say, but the consequence of it, for our young woman, was that she felt it, as soon as spoken, to have done something for her safety.
And Kate really hung on her lips. “There’s nothing at all the matter?”
“Nothing to worry about. I shall take a little watching, but I shan’t have to do anything dreadful, or even, in the least, inconvenient. I can do in fact as I like.” It was wonderful for Milly how just to put it so made all its pieces fall at present quite properly into places.
Yet even before the full effect came Kate had seized, kissed, blessed her. “My love, you’re too sweet! It’s too dear! But it’s as I was sure.” Then she grasped the full beauty. “You can do as you like?”
“Quite. Isn’t it charming?”
“Ah, but catch you,” Kate triumphed with gaiety, “not doing ——! And what shall you do?”
“For the moment simply enjoy it. Enjoy”— Milly was completely luminous —“having got out of my scrape.”
“Learning, you mean, so easily, that you are well.”
It was as if Kate had but too conveniently put the words into her mouth. “Learning, I mean, so easily, that I am well.”
“Only, no one’s of course well enough to stay in London now. He can’t,” Kate went on, “want this of you.”
“Mercy, no — I’m to knock about. I’m to go to places.”
“But not beastly ‘climates’— Engadines, Rivieras, boredoms?”
“No; just, as I say, where I prefer. I’m to go in for pleasure.”
“Oh, the duck!”— Kate, with her own shades of familiarity, abounded. “But what kind of pleasure?”
“The highest,” Milly smiled.
Her friend met it as nobly. “Which is the highest?”
“Well, it’s just our chance to find out. You must help me.”
“What have I wanted to do but help you,” Kate asked, “from the moment I first laid eyes on you?” Yet with this too Kate had her wonder. “I like your talking, though, about that. What help, with your luck all round, do you want?”
Milly indeed at last couldn’t say; so that she had really for the time brought it along to the point so oddly marked for her by her visitor’s arrival, the truth that she was enviably strong. She carried this out, from that evening, for each hour still left her, and the more easily perhaps that the hours were now narrowly numbered. All she actually waited for was Sir Luke Strett’s promised visit; as to her proceeding on which, however, her mind was quite made up. Since he wanted to get at Susie he should have the freest access, and then perhaps he would see how he liked it. What was between them they might settle as between them, and any pressure it should lift from her own spirit they were at liberty to convert to their use. If the dear man wished to fire Susan Shepherd with a still higher ideal, he would only after all, at the worst, have Susan on his hands. If devotion, in a word, was what it would come up for the interested pair to organise, she was herself ready to consume it as the dressed and served dish. He had talked to her of her “appetite” her account of which, she felt, must have been vague. But for devotion, she could now see, this appetite would be of the best. Gross, greedy, ravenous — these were doubtless the proper names for her: she was at all events resigned in advance to the machinations of sympathy. The day that followed her lonely excursion was to be the last but two or three of their stay in London; and the evening of that day practically ranked for them as, in the matter of outside relations, the last of all. People were by this time quite scattered, and many of those who had so liberally manifested in calls, in cards, in evident sincerity about visits, later on, over the land, had positively passed in music out of sight; whether as members, these latter, more especially, of Mrs. Lowder’s immediate circle or as members of Lord Mark’s — our friends being by this time able to make the distinction. The general pitch had thus, decidedly, dropped, and the occasions still to be dealt with were special and few. One of these, for Milly, announced itself as the doctor’s call already mentioned, as to which she had now had a note from him: the single other, of importance, was their appointed leave-taking — for the shortest separation — in respect to Mrs. Lowder and Kate. The aunt and the niece were to dine with them alone, intimately and easily — as easily as should be consistent with the question of their afterwards going on together to some absurdly belated party, at which they had had it from Aunt Maud that they would do well to show. Sir Luke was to make his appearance on the morrow of this, and in respect to that complication Milly had already her plan.
The night was, at all events, hot and stale, and it was late enough by the time the four ladies had been gathered in, for their small session, at the hotel, where the windows were still open to the high balconies and the flames of the candles, behind the pink shades — disposed as for the vigil of watchers — were motionless in the air in which the season lay dead. What was presently settled among them was that Milly, who betrayed on this occasion a preference more marked than usual, should not hold herself obliged to climb that evening the social stair, however it might stretch to meet her, and that, Mrs. Lowder and Mrs. Stringham facing the ordeal together, Kate Croy should remain with her and await their return. It was a pleasure to Milly, ever, to send Susan Shepherd forth; she saw her go with complacency, liked, as it were, to put people off with her, and noted with satisfaction, when she so moved to the carriage, the further denudation — a markedly ebbing tide — of her little benevolent back. If it wasn’t quite Aunt Maud’s ideal, moreover, to take out the new American girl’s funny friend instead of the new American girl herself, nothing could better indicate the range of that lady’s merit than the spirit in which — as at the present hour for instance — she made the best of the minor advantage. And she did this with a broad, cheerful absence of illusion; she did it — confessing even as much to poor Susie — because, frankly, she was good-natured. When Mrs. Stringham observed that her own light was too abjectly borrowed and that it was as a link alone, fortunately not missing, that she was valued, Aunt Maud concurred to the extent of the remark: “Well, my dear, you’re better than nothing.” To-night, furthermore, it came up for Milly that Aunt Maud had something particular in mind. Mrs. Stringham, before adjourning with her, had gone off for some shawl or other accessory, and Kate, as if a little impatient for their withdrawal, had wandered out to the balcony, where she hovered, for the time, unseen, though with scarce more to look at than the dim London stars and the cruder glow, up the street, on a corner, of a small public-house, in front of which a fagged cab-horse was thrown into relief. Mrs. Lowder made use of the moment: Milly felt as soon as she had spoken that what she was doing was somehow for use.
“Dear Susan tells me that you saw, in America, Mr. Densher — whom I’ve never till now, as you may have noticed, asked you about. But do you mind at last, in connection with him, doing something for me?” She had lowered her fine voice to a depth, though speaking with all her rich glibness; and Milly, after a small sharpness of surprise, was already guessing the sense of her appeal. “Will you name him, in any way you like, to her“ — and Aunt Maud gave a nod at the window; “so that you may perhaps find out whether he’s back?”
Ever so many things, for Milly, fell into line at this; it was a wonder, she afterwards thought, that she could be conscious of so many at once. She smiled hard, however, for them all. “But I don’t know that it’s important to me to ‘find out.’” The array of things was further swollen, however, even as she said this, by its striking her as too much to say. She therefore tried as quickly to say less. “Except you mean, of course, that it’s important to you.“ She fancied Aunt Maud was looking at her almost as hard as she was herself smiling, and that gave her another impulse. “You know I never have yet named him to her; so that if I should break out now ——”
“Well?”— Mrs. Lowder waited.
“Why, she may wonder what I’ve been making a mystery of. She hasn’t mentioned him, you know,” Milly went on, “herself.”
“No”— her friend a little heavily weighed it —“she wouldn’t. So it’s she, you see then, who has made the mystery.”
Yes, Milly but wanted to see; only there was so much. “There has been of course no particular reason.” Yet that indeed was neither here nor there. “Do you think,” she asked, “he is back?”
“It will be about his time, I gather, and rather a comfort to me definitely to know.”
“Then can’t you ask her yourself?”
“Ah, we never speak of him!”
It helped Milly for the moment to the convenience of a puzzled pause. “Do you mean he’s an acquaintance of whom you disapprove for her?”
Aunt Maud, as well, just hung fire. “I disapprove of her for the poor young man. She doesn’t care for him.”
“And he cares so much ——?”
“Too much, too much. And my fear is,” said Mrs. Lowder, “that he privately besets her. She keeps it to herself, but I don’t want her worried. Neither, in truth,” she both generously and confidentially concluded, “do I want him.“
Milly showed all her own effort to meet the case. “But what can I do?”
“You can find out where they are. If I myself try,” Mrs. Lowder explained, “I shall appear to treat them as if I supposed them deceiving me.”
“And you don’t. You don’t,” Milly mused for her, “suppose them deceiving you.”
“Well,” said Aunt Maud, whose fine onyx eyes failed to blink, even though Milly’s questions might have been taken as drawing her rather further than she had originally meant to go —“well, Kate is thoroughly aware of my views for her, and that I take her being with me, at present, in the way she is with me, if you know what I mean, as a loyal assent to them. Therefore as my views don’t happen to provide a place, at all, for Mr. Densher, much, in a manner, as I like him”— therefore, therefore in short she had been prompted to this step, though she completed her sense, but sketchily, with the rattle of her large fan.
It assisted them perhaps, however, for the moment, that Milly was able to pick out of her sense what might serve as the clearest part of it. “You do like him then?”
“Oh dear, yes. Don’t you?”
Milly hesitated, for the question was somehow as the sudden point of something sharp on a nerve that winced. She just caught her breath, but she had ground for joy afterwards, she felt, in not really having failed to choose with quickness sufficient, out of fifteen possible answers, the one that would best serve her. She was then almost proud, as well, that she had cheerfully smiled. “I did — three times — in New York.” So came and went for her, in these simple words, the speech that was to figure for her, later on, that night, as the one she had ever uttered that cost her most. She was to lie awake, at all events, half the night, for the gladness of not having taken any line so really inferior as the denial of a happy impression.
For Mrs. Lowder also, moreover, her simple words were the right ones; they were at any rate, that lady’s laugh showed, in the natural note of the racy. “You dear American thing! But people may be very good, and yet not good for what one wants.”
“Yes,” the girl assented, “even I suppose when what one wants is something very good.”
“Oh, my child, it would take too long just now to tell you all I want! I want everything at once and together — and ever so much for you too, you know. But you’ve seen us,” Aunt Maud continued; “you’ll have made out.”
“Ah,” said Milly, “I don’t make out”; for again — it came that way in rushes — she felt an obscurity in things. “Why, if our friend here doesn’t like him ——”
“Should I conceive her interested in keeping things from me?” Mrs. Lowder did justice to the question. “My dear, how can you ask? Put yourself in her place. She meets me, but on her terms. Proud young women are proud young women. And proud old ones are — well, what I am. Fond of you as we both are, you can help us.”
Milly tried to be inspired. “Does it come back then to my asking her straight?”
At this, however, finally, Aunt Maud threw her up. “Oh, if you’ve so many reasons not ——!”
“I’ve not so many,” Milly smiled “but I’ve one. If I break out so suddenly as knowing him, what will she make of my not having spoken before?”
Mrs. Lowder looked blank at it. “Why should you care what she makes? You may have only been decently discreet.”
“Ah, I have been,” the girl made haste to say.
“Besides,” her friend went on, “I suggested to you, through Susan, your line.”
“Yes, that reason’s a reason for me.“
“And for me,“ Mrs. Lowder insisted. “She’s not therefore so stupid as not to do justice to grounds so marked. You can tell her perfectly that I had asked you to say nothing.”
“And may I tell her that you’ve asked me now to speak?”
Mrs. Lowder might well have thought, yet, oddly, this pulled her up. “You can’t do it without ——?”
Milly was almost ashamed to be raising so many difficulties. “I’ll do what I can if you’ll kindly tell me one thing more.” She faltered a little — it was so prying; but she brought it out. “Will he have been writing to her?”
“It’s exactly, my dear, what I should like to know.” Mrs. Lowder was at last impatient. “Push in for yourself, and I dare say she’ll tell you.”
Even now, all the same, Milly had not quite fallen back. “It will be pushing in,” she continued to smile, “for you“ She allowed her companion, however, no time to take this up. “The point will be that if he has been writing she may have answered.”
“But what point, you subtle thing, is that?”
“It isn’t subtle, it seems to me, but quite simple,” Milly said, “that if she has answered she has very possibly spoken of me.”
“Very certainly indeed. But what difference will it make?”
The girl had a moment, at this, of thinking it natural that her interlocutress herself should so fail of subtlety. “It will make the difference that he will have written to her in answer that he knows me. And that, in turn,” our young woman explained, “will give an oddity to my own silence.”
“How so, if she’s perfectly aware of having given you no opening? The only oddity,” Aunt Maud lucidly professed, “is for yourself. It’s in her not having spoken.”
“Ah, there we are!” said Milly.
And she had uttered it, evidently, in a tone that struck her friend. “Then it has troubled you?”
But ah, the inquiry had only to be made to bring the rare colour with fine inconsequence, to her face. “Not, really, the least little bit!” And, quickly feeling the need to abound in this sense, she was on the point, to cut short, of declaring that she cared, after all, no scrap how much she obliged. Only she felt at this instant too the intervention of still other things. Mrs. Lowder was, in the first place, already beforehand, already affected as by the sudden vision of her having herself pushed too far. Milly could never judge from her face of her uppermost motive — it was so little, in its hard, smooth sheen, that kind of human countenance. She looked hard when she spoke fair; the only thing was that when she spoke hard she likewise didn’t look soft. Something, none the less, had arisen in her now — a full appreciable tide, entering by the rupture of some bar. She announced that if what she had asked was to prove in the least a bore her young friend was not to dream of it; making her young friend at the same time, by the change in her tone, dream on the spot more profusely. She spoke with a belated light, Milly could apprehend — she could always apprehend — from pity; and the result of that perception, for the girl, was singular: it proved to her as quickly that Kate, keeping her secret, had been straight with her. From Kate distinctly then, as to why she was to be pitied, Aunt Maud knew nothing, and was thereby simply putting in evidence the fine side of her own character. This fine side was that she could almost at any hour, by a kindled preference or a diverted energy, glow for another interest than her own. She exclaimed as well, at this moment, that Milly must have been thinking, round the case, much more than she had supposed; and this remark could, at once, affect the girl as sharply as any other form of the charge of weakness. It was what everyone, if she didn’t look out, would soon be saying —“There’s something the matter with you!” What one was therefore one’s self concerned immediately to establish was that there was nothing at all. “I shall like to help you; I shall like, so far as that goes, to help Kate herself,” she made such haste as she could to declare; her eyes wandering meanwhile across the width of the room to that dusk of the balcony in which their companion perhaps a little unaccountably lingered. She suggested hereby her impatience to begin; she almost overtly wondered at the length of the opportunity this friend was giving them — referring it, however, so far as words went, to the other friend, breaking off with an amused: “How tremendously Susie must be beautifying!”
It only marked Aunt Maud, none the less, as too preoccupied for her allusion. The onyx eyes were fixed upon her with a polished pressure that must signify some enriched benevolence. “Let it go, my dear. We shall, after all, soon enough see.”
“If he has come back we shall certainly see,” Milly after a moment replied; “for he’ll probably feel that he can’t quite civilly not come to see me. Then there,“ she remarked, “we shall be. It wouldn’t then, you see, come through Kate at all — it would come through him. Except,” she wound up with a smile, “that he won’t find me.”
She had the most extraordinary sense of interesting her interlocutress, in spite of herself, more than she wanted; it was as if her doom so floated her on that she couldn’t stop — by very much the same trick it had played her with her doctor. “Shall you run away from him?”
She neglected the question, wanting only now to get off. “Then,” she went on, “you’ll deal with Kate directly.”
“Shall you run away from her?“ Mrs. Lowder profoundly inquired, while they became aware of Susie’s return through the room, opening out behind them, in which they had dined.
This affected Milly as giving her but an instant; and suddenly, with it, everything she felt in the connection rose to her lips in a question that, even as she put it, she knew she was failing to keep colourless. “Is it your own belief that he is with her?”
Aunt Maud took it in-took in, that is, everything of the tone that she just wanted her not to; and the result for some seconds, was but to make their eyes meet in silence. Mrs. Stringham had rejoined them and was asking if Kate had gone — an inquiry at once answered by this young lady’s reappearance. They saw her again in the open window, where, looking at them, she had paused — producing thus, on Aunt Maud’s part, almost too impressive a “Hush!” Mrs. Lowder indeed, without loss of time, smothered any danger in a sweeping retreat with Susie; but Milly’s words to her, just uttered, about dealing with her niece directly, struck our young woman as already recoiling on herself. Directness, however evaded, would be, fully, for her; nothing in fact would ever have been for her so direct as the evasion. Kate had remained in the window, very handsome and upright, the outer dark framing in a highly favourable way her summery simplicities and lightnesses of dress. Milly had, given the relation of space, no real fear she had heard their talk; only she hovered there as with conscious eyes and some added advantage. Then indeed, with small delay, her friend sufficiently saw. The conscious eyes, the added advantage were but those she had now always at command — those proper to the person Milly knew as known to Merton Densher. It was for several seconds again as if the total of her identity had been that of the person known to him — a determination having for result another sharpness of its own. Kate had positively but to be there just as she was to tell her he had come back. It seemed to pass between them, in fine, without a word, that he was in London, that he was perhaps only round the corner; and surely therefore no dealing of Milly’s with her would yet have been so direct.
It was doubtless because this queer form of directness had in itself, for the hour, seemed so sufficient that Milly was afterwards aware of having really, all the while — during the strange, indescribable session before the return of their companions — done nothing to intensify it. If she was most aware only afterwards, under the long, discurtained ordeal of the morrow’s dawn, that was because she had really, till their evening’s end came, ceased, after a little, to miss anything from their ostensible comfort. What was behind showed but in gleams and glimpses; what was in front never at all confessed to not holding the stage. Three minutes had not passed before Milly quite knew she should have done nothing Aunt Maud had just asked her. She knew it moreover by much the same light that had acted for her with that lady and with Sir Luke Strett. It pressed upon her then and there that she was still in a current determined, through her indifference, timidity, bravery, generosity — she scarce could say which — by others; that not she but the current acted, and that somebody else, always, was the keeper of the lock or the dam. Kate for example had but to open the flood-gate: the current moved in its mass — the current, as it had been, of her doing as Kate wanted. What, somehow, in the most extraordinary way in the world, had Kate wanted but to be, of a sudden, more interesting than she had ever been? Milly, for their evening then, quite held her breath with the appreciation of it. If she hadn’t been sure her companion would have had nothing, from her moments with Mrs. Lowder, to go by, she would almost have seen the admirable creature “cutting in” to anticipate a danger. This fantasy indeed, while they sat together, dropped after a little; even if only because other fantasies multiplied and clustered, making fairly, for our young woman, the buoyant medium in which her friend talked and moved. They sat together, I say, but Kate moved as much as she talked; she figured there, restless and charming, just perhaps a shade perfunctory, repeatedly quitting her place, taking slowly, to and fro, in the trailing folds of her light dress, the length of the room, and almost avowedly performing for the pleasure of her hostess.
Mrs. Lowder had said to Milly at Matcham that she and her niece, as allies, could practically conquer the world; but though it was a speech about which there had even then been a vague, grand glamour, the girl read into it at present more of an approach to a meaning. Kate, for that matter, by herself, could conquer anything, and she, Milly Theale, was probably concerned with the “world” only as the small scrap of it that most impinged on her and that was therefore first to be dealt with. On this basis of being dealt with she would doubtless herself do her share of the conquering: she would have something to supply, Kate something to take — each of them thus, to that tune, something for squaring with Aunt Maud’s ideal. This in short was what it came to now — that the occasion, in the quiet late lamplight, had the quality of a rough rehearsal of the possible big drama. Milly knew herself dealt with — handsomely, completely: she surrendered to the knowledge, for so it was, she felt, that she supplied her helpful force. And what Kate had to take Kate took as freely and, to all appearance, as gratefully; accepting afresh, with each of her long, slow walks, the relation between them so established and consecrating her companion’s surrender simply by the interest she gave it. The interest to Milly herself we naturally mean; the interest to Kate Milly felt as probably inferior. It easily and largely came for their present talk, for the quick flight of the hour before the breach of the spell — it all came, when considered, from the circumstance, not in the least abnormal, that the handsome girl was in extraordinary “form.” Milly remembered her having said that she was at her best late at night; remembered it by its having, with its fine assurance, made her wonder when she was at her best and how happy people must be who had such a fixed time. She had no time at all; she was never at her best — unless indeed it were exactly, as now, in listening, watching, admiring, collapsing. If Kate moreover, quite mercilessly, had never been so good, the beauty and the marvel of it was that she had never really been so frank; being a person of such a calibre, as Milly would have said, that, even while “dealing” with you and thereby, as it were, picking her steps, she could let herself go, could, in irony, in confidence, in extravagance, tell you things she had never told before. That was the impression — that she was telling things, and quite conceivably for her own relief as well; almost as if the errors of vision, the mistakes of proportion, the residuary innocence of spirit still to be remedied on the part of her auditor had their moments of proving too much for her nerves. She went at them just now, these sources of irritation, with an amused energy that it would have been open to Milly to regard as cynical and that was nevertheless called for — as to this the other was distinct — by the way that in certain connections the American mind broke down. It seemed at least — the American mind as sitting there thrilled and dazzled in Milly — not to understand English society without a separate confrontation with all the cases. It couldn’t proceed by — there was some technical term she lacked until Milly suggested both analogy and induction, and then, differently, instinct, none of which were right: it had to be led up and introduced to each aspect of the monster, enabled to walk all round it, whether for the consequent exaggerated ecstasy or for the still more as appeared to this critic disproportionate shock. It might, the monster, Kate conceded, loom large for those born amid forms less developed and therefore no doubt less amusing; it might on some sides be a strange and dreadful monster, calculated to devour the unwary, to abase the proud, to scandalize the good; but if one had to live with it one must, not to be for ever sitting up, learn how: which was virtually in short to-night what the handsome girl showed herself as teaching.
She gave away publicly, in this process, Lancaster Gate and everything it contained; she gave away, hand over hand, Milly’s thrill continued to note, Aunt Maud and Aunt Maud’s glories and Aunt Maud’s complacencies; she gave herself away most of all, and it was naturally what most contributed to her candour. She didn’t speak to her friend once more, in Aunt Maud’s strain, of how they could scale the skies; she spoke, by her bright, perverse preference on this occasion, of the need, in the first place, of being neither stupid nor vulgar. It might have been a lesson, for our young American, in the art of seeing things as they were — a lesson so various and so sustained that the pupil had, as we have shown, but receptively to gape. The odd thing furthermore was that it could serve its purpose while explicitly disavowing every personal bias. It wasn’t that she disliked Aunt Maud, who was everything she had on other occasions declared; but the dear woman, ineffaceably stamped by inscrutable nature and a dreadful art, wasn’t — how could she be? — what she wasn’t. She wasn’t any one. She wasn’t anything. She wasn’t anywhere. Milly mustn’t think it — one couldn’t, as a good friend, let her. Those hours at Matcham were inespérées, were pure manna from heaven; or if not wholly that perhaps, with humbugging old Lord Mark as a backer, were vain as a ground for hopes and calculations. Lord Mark was very well, but he wasn’t the cleverest creature in England, and even if he had been he still wouldn’t have been the most obliging. He weighed it out in ounces, and indeed each of the pair was really waiting for what the other would put down.
“She has put down you.“ said Milly, attached to the subject still; “and I think what you mean is that, on the counter, she still keeps hold of you.”
“Lest”— Kate took it up —“he should suddenly grab me and run? Oh, as he isn’t ready to run, he’s much less ready, naturally, to grab. I am — you’re so far right as that — on the counter, when I’m not in the shop-window; in and out of which I’m thus conveniently, commercially whisked: the essence, all of it, of my position, and the price, as properly, of my aunt’s protection.” Lord Mark was substantially what she had begun with as soon as they were alone; the impression was even yet with Milly of her having sounded his name, having imposed it, as a topic, in direct opposition to the other name that Mrs. Lowder had left in the air and that all her own look, as we have seen, kept there at first for her companion. The immediate strange effect had been that of her consciously needing, as it were, an alibi — which, successfully, she so found. She had worked it to the end, ridden it to and fro across the course marked for Milly by Aunt Maud, and now she had quite, so to speak, broken it in. “The bore is that if she wants him so much — wants him, heaven forgive her! for me — he has put us all out, since your arrival, by wanting somebody else. I don’t mean somebody else than you.”
Milly threw off the charm sufficiently to shake her head. “Then I haven’t made out who it is. If I’m any part of his alternative he had better stop where he is.”
“Truly, truly? — always, always?”
Milly tried to insist with an equal gaiety. “Would you like me to swear?”
Kate appeared for a moment — though that was doubtless but gaiety too — to think. “Haven’t we been swearing enough?”
“You have perhaps, but I haven’t, and I ought to give you the equivalent. At any rate there it is. Truly, truly as you say —‘always, always.’ So I’m not in the way.”
“Thanks,” said Kate —“but that doesn’t help me.”
“Oh, it’s as simplifying for him that I speak of it.”
“The difficulty really is that he’s a person with so many ideas that it’s particularly hard to simplify for him. That’s exactly of course what Aunt Maud has been trying. He won’t,” Kate firmly continued, “make up his mind about me.”
“Well,” Milly smiled, “give him time.”
Her friend met it in perfection. “One is doing that — one is. But one remains, all the same, but one of his ideas.”
“There’s no harm in that,” Milly returned, “if you come out in the end as the best of them. What’s a man,” she pursued, “especially an ambitious one, without a variety of ideas?”
“No doubt. The more the merrier.” And Kate looked at her grandly. “One can but hope to come out, and do nothing to prevent it.”
All of which made for the impression, fantastic or not, of the alibi. The splendour, the grandeur were, for Milly, the bold ironic spirit behind it, so interesting too in itself. What, moreover, was not less interesting was the fact, as our young woman noted it, that Kate confined her point to the difficulties, so far as she was concerned, raised only by Lord Mark. She referred now to none that her own taste might present; which circumstance again played its little part. She was doing what she liked in respect to another person, but she was in no way committed to the other person, and her furthermore talking of Lord Mark as not young and not true were only the signs of her clear self-consciousness, were all in the line of her slightly hard, but scarce the less graceful extravagance. She didn’t wish to show too much her consent to be arranged for, but that was a different thing from not wishing sufficiently to give it. There was something moreover, on it all, that Milly still found occasion to say, “If your aunt has been, as you tell me, put out by me, I feel that she has remained remarkably kind.”
“Oh, but she has — whatever might have happened in that respect — plenty of use for you! You put her in, my dear, more than you put her out. You don’t half see it, but she has clutched your petticoat. You can do anything — you can do, I mean, lots that we can’t. You’re an outsider, independent and standing by yourself; you’re not hideously relative to tiers and tiers of others.” And Kate, facing in that direction, went further and further; wound up, while Milly gaped, with extraordinary words. “We’re of no use to you — it’s decent to tell you. You’d be of use to us, but that’s a different matter. My honest advice to you would be-” she went indeed all lengths —“to drop us while you can. It would be funny if you didn’t soon see how awfully better you can do. We’ve not really done for you the least thing worth speaking of — nothing you mightn’t easily have had in some other way. Therefore you’re under no obligation. You won’t want us next year; we shall only continue to want you. But that’s no reason for you, and you mustn’t pay too dreadfully for poor Mrs. Stringham’s having let you in. She has the best conscience in the world; she’s enchanted with what she has done; but you shouldn’t take your people from her. It has been quite awful to see you do it.”
Milly tried to be amused, so as not — it was too absurd — to be fairly frightened. Strange enough indeed — if not natural enough — that, late at night thus, in a mere mercenary house, with Susie away, a want of confidence should possess her. She recalled, with all the rest of it, the next day, piecing things together in the dawn, that she had felt herself alone with a creature who paced like a panther. That was a violent image, but it made her a little less ashamed of having been scared. For all her scare, none the less, she had now the sense to find words. “And yet without Susie I shouldn’t have had you.”
It had been at this point, however, that Kate flickered highest. “Oh, you may very well loathe me yet!”
Really at last, thus, it had been too much; as, with her own least feeble flare, after a wondering watch, Milly had shown. She hadn’t cared; she had too much wanted to know; and, though a small solemnity of reproach, a sombre strain, had broken into her tone, it was to figure as her nearest approach to serving Mrs. Lowder. “Why do you say such things to me?”
This unexpectedly had acted, by a sudden turn of Kate’s attitude, as a happy speech. She had risen as she spoke, and Kate had stopped before her, shining at her instantly with a softer brightness. Poor Milly hereby enjoyed one of her views of how people, wincing oddly, were often touched by her. “Because you’re a dove.” With which she felt herself ever so delicately, so considerately, embraced; not with familiarity or as a liberty taken, but almost ceremonially and in the manner of an accolade; partly as if, though a dove who could perch on a finger, one were also a princess with whom forms were to be observed. It even came to her, through the touch of her companion’s lips, that this form, this cool pressure, fairly sealed the sense of what Kate had just said. It was moreover, for the girl, like an inspiration: she found herself accepting as the right one, while she caught her breath with relief, the name so given her. She met it on the instant as she would have met the revealed truth; it lighted up the strange dusk in which she lately had walked. That was what was the matter with her. She was a dove. Oh, wasn’t she? — it echoed within her as she became aware of the sound, outside, of the return of their friends. There was, the next thing, little enough doubt about it after Aunt Maud had been two minutes in the room. She had come up, Mrs. Lowder, with Susan — which she needn’t have done, at that hour, instead of letting Kate come down to her; so that Milly could be quite sure it was to catch hold, in some way, of the loose end they had left. Well, the way she did catch was simply to make the point that it didn’t now in the least matter. She had mounted the stairs for this, and she had her moment again with her younger hostess while Kate, on the spot, as the latter at the time noted, gave Susan Shepherd unwonted opportunities. Kate was in other words, as Aunt Maud engaged her friend, listening with the handsomest response to Mrs. Stringham’s impression of the scene they had just quitted. It was in the tone of the fondest indulgence — almost, really, that of dove cooing to dove — that Mrs. Lowder expressed to Milly the hope that it had all gone beautifully. Her “all” had an ample benevolence; it soothed and simplified; she spoke as if it were the two young women, not she and her comrade, who had been facing the town together. But Milly’s answer had prepared itself while Aunt Maud was on the stair; she had felt in a rush all the reasons that would make it the most dovelike; and she gave it, while she was about it, as earnest, as candid. “I don’t think, dear lady, he’s here.”
It gave her straightway the measure of the success she could have as a dove: that was recorded in the long look of deep criticism, a look without a word, that Mrs. Lowder poured forth. And the word, presently, bettered it still. “Oh, you exquisite thing!” The luscious innuendo of it, almost startling, lingered in the room, after the visitors had gone, like an oversweet fragrance. But left alone with Mrs. Stringham Milly continued to breathe it: she studied again the dovelike and so set her companion to mere rich reporting that she averted all inquiry into her own case.
That, with the new day, was once more her law — though she saw before her, of course, as something of a complication, her need, each time, to decide. She should have to be clear as to how a dove would act. She settled it, she thought, well enough this morning by quite readopting her plan in respect to Sir Luke Strett. That, she was pleased to reflect, had originally been pitched in the key of a merely iridescent drab; and although Mrs. Stringham, after breakfast, began by staring at it as if it had been a priceless Persian carpet suddenly unrolled at her feet, she had no scruple, at the end of five minutes, in leaving her to make the best of it. “Sir Luke Strett comes, by appointment, to see me at eleven, but I’m going out on purpose. He’s to be told, please, deceptively, that I’m at home, and, you, as my representative, when he comes up, are to see him instead. He will like that, this time, better. So do be nice to him.” It had taken, naturally, more explanation, and the mention, above all, of the fact that the visitor was the greatest of doctors; yet when once the key had been offered Susie slipped it on her bunch, and her young friend could again feel her lovely imagination operate. It operated in truth very much as Mrs. Lowder’s, at the last, had done the night before: it made the air heavy once more with the extravagance of assent. It might, afresh, almost have frightened our young woman to see how people rushed to meet her: had she then so little time to live that the road must always be spared her? It was as if they were helping her to take it out on the spot. Susie — she couldn’t deny, and didn’t pretend to — might, of a truth, on her side, have treated such news as a flash merely lurid; as to which, to do Susie justice, the pain of it was all there. But, none the less, the margin always allowed her young friend was all there as well; and the proposal now made her what was it in short but Byzantine? The vision of Milly’s perception of the propriety of the matter had, at any rate, quickly engulfed, so far as her attitude was concerned, any surprise and any shock; so that she only desired, the next thing, perfectly to possess the facts. Milly could easily speak, on this, as if there were only one: she made nothing of such another as that she had felt herself menaced. The great fact, in fine, was that she knew him to desire just now, more than anything else, to meet, quite apart, some one interested in her. Who therefore so interested as her faithful Susan? The only other circumstance that, by the time she had quitted her friend, she had treated as worth mentioning was the circumstance of her having at first intended to keep quiet. She had originally best seen herself as sweetly secretive. As to that she had changed, and her present request was the result. She didn’t say why she had changed, but she trusted her faithful Susan. Their visitor would trust her not less, and she herself would adore their visitor. Moreover he wouldn’t — the girl felt sure — tell her anything dreadful. The worst would be that he was in love and that he needed a confidant to work it. And now she was going to the National Gallery.
The idea of the National Gallery had been with her from the moment of her hearing from Sir Luke Strett about his hour of coming. It had been in her mind as a place so meagrely visited, as one of the places that had seemed at home one of the attractions of Europe and one of its highest aids to culture, but that — the old story — the typical frivolous always ended by sacrificing to vulgar pleasures. She had had perfectly, at those whimsical moments on the Brünig, the half-shamed sense of turning her back on such opportunities for real improvement as had figured to her, from of old, in connection with the continental tour, under the general head of “pictures and things”; and now she knew for what she had done so. The plea had been explicit — she had done so for life, as opposed to learning; the upshot of which had been that life was now beautifully provided for. In spite of those few dips and dashes into the many-coloured stream of history for which of late Kate Croy had helped her to find time, there were possible great chances she had neglected, possible great moments she should, save for today, have all but missed. She might still, she had felt, overtake one or two of them among the Titians and the Turners; she had been honestly nursing the hour, and, once she was in the benignant halls, her faith knew itself justified. It was the air she wanted and the world she would now exclusively choose; the quiet chambers, nobly overwhelming, rich but slightly veiled, opened out round her and made her presently say “If I could lose myself here!“ There were people, people in plenty, but, admirably, no personal question. It was immense, outside, the personal question; but she had blissfully left it outside, and the nearest it came, for a quarter of an hour, to glimmering again into sight was when she watched for a little one of the more earnest of the lady-copyists. Two or three in particular, spectacled, aproned, absorbed, engaged her sympathy to an absurd extent, seemed to show her for the time the right way to live. She should have been a lady copyist — it met so the case. The case was the case of escape, of living under water, of being at once impersonal and firm. There it was before one — one had only to stick and stick.
Milly yielded to this charm till she was almost ashamed; she watched the lady-copyists till she found herself wondering what would be thought by others of a young woman, of adequate aspect, who should appear to regard them as the pride of the place. She would have liked to talk to them, to get, as it figured to her, into their lives, and was deterred but by the fact that she didn’t quite see herself as purchasing imitations and yet feared she might excite the expectation of purchase. She really knew before long that what held her was the mere refuge, that something within her was after all too weak for the Turners and Titians. They joined hands about her in a circle too vast, though a circle that a year before she would only have desired to trace. They were truly for the larger, not for the smaller life, the life of which the actual pitch, for example, was an interest, the interest of compassion, in misguided efforts. She marked absurdly her little stations, blinking, in her shrinkage of curiosity, at the glorious walls, yet keeping an eye on vistas and approaches, so that she shouldn’t be flagrantly caught. The vistas and approaches drew her in this way from room to room, and she had been through many parts of the show, as she supposed, when she sat down to rest. There were chairs in scant clusters, places from which one could gaze. Milly indeed at present fixed her eyes more than elsewhere on the appearance, first, that she couldn’t quite, after all, have accounted to an examiner for the order of her “schools,” and then on that of her being more tired than she had meant, in spite of her having been so much less intelligent. They found, her eyes, it should be added, other occupation as well, which she let them freely follow: they rested largely, in her vagueness, on the vagueness of other visitors; they attached themselves in especial, with mixed results, to the surprising stream of her compatriots. She was struck with the circumstance that the great museum, early in August, was haunted with these pilgrims, as also with that of her knowing them from afar, marking them easily, each and all, and recognising not less promptly that they had ever new lights for her — new lights on their own darkness. She gave herself up at last, and it was a consummation like another: what she should have come to the National Gallery for today would be to watch the copyists and reckon the Baedekers. That perhaps was the moral of a menaced state of health — that one would sit in public places and count the Americans. It passed the time in a manner; but it seemed already the second line of defence, and this notwithstanding the pattern, so unmistakable, of her country-folk. They were cut out as by scissors, coloured, labelled, mounted; but their relation to her failed to act — they somehow did nothing for her. Partly, no doubt, they didn’t so much as notice or know her, didn’t even recognise their community of collapse with her, the sign on her, as she sat there, that for her too Europe was “tough.” It came to her idly thus — for her humour could still play — that she didn’t seem then the same success with them as with the inhabitants of London, who had taken her up on scarce more of an acquaintance. She could wonder if they would be different should she go back with that glamour attached; and she could also wonder, if it came to that, whether she should ever go back. Her friends straggled past, at any rate, in all the vividness of their absent criticism, and she had even at last the sense of taking a mean advantage. There was a finer instant, however, at which three ladies, clearly a mother and daughters, had paused before her under compulsion of a comment apparently just uttered by one of them and referring to some object on the other side of the room. Milly had her back to the object, but her face very much to her young compatriot, the one who had spoken and in whose look she perceived a certain gloom of recognition. Recognition, for that matter, sat confessedly in her own eyes: she knew the three, generically, as easily as a schoolboy with a crib in his lap would know the answer in class; she felt, like the schoolboy, guilty enough — questioned, as honour went, as to her right so to possess, to dispossess, people who hadn’t consciously provoked her. She would have been able to say where they lived, and how, had the place and the way been but amenable to the positive; she bent tenderly, in imagination, over marital, paternal Mr. Whatever-he-was, at home, eternally named, with all the honours and placidities, but eternally unseen and existing only as some one who could be financially heard from. The mother, the puffed and composed whiteness of whose hair had no relation to her apparent age, showed a countenance almost chemically clean and dry; her companions wore an air of vague resentment humanised by fatigue; and the three were equally adorned with short cloaks of coloured cloth surmounted by little tartan hoods. The tartans were doubtless conceivable as different, but the cloaks, curiously, only thinkable as one. “Handsome? Well, if you choose to say so.” It was the mother who had spoken, who herself added, after a pause during which Milly took the reference as to a picture: “In the English style.” The three pair of eyes had converged, and their possessors had for an instant rested, with the effect of a drop of the subject, on this last characterisation — with that, too, of a gloom not less mute in one of the daughters than murmured in the other. Milly’s heart went out to them while they turned their backs; she said to herself that they ought to have known her, that there was something between them they might have beautifully put together. But she had lost them also — they were cold; they left her in her weak wonder as to what they had been looking at. The “handsome” disposed her to turn — all the more that the “English style” would be the English school, which she liked; only she saw, before moving, by the array on the side facing her, that she was in fact among small Dutch pictures. The action of this was again appreciable — the dim surmise that it wouldn’t then be by a picture that the spring in the three ladies had been pressed. It was at all events time she should go, and she turned as she got on her feet. She had had behind her one of the entrances and various visitors who had come in while she sat, visitors single and in pairs — by one of the former of whom she felt her eyes suddenly held.
This was a gentleman in the middle of the place, a gentleman who had removed his hat and was for a moment, while he glanced, absently, as she could see, at the top tier of the collection, tapping his forehead with his pocket-handkerchief. The occupation held him long enough to give Milly time to take for granted — and a few seconds sufficed — that his face was the object just observed by her friends. This could only have been because she concurred in their tribute, even qualified, and indeed “the English style” of the gentleman — perhaps by instant contrast to the American — was what had had the arresting power. This arresting power, at the same time — and that was the marvel — had already sharpened almost to pain, for in the very act of judging the bared head with detachment she felt herself shaken by a knowledge of it. It was Merton Densher’s own, and he was standing there, standing long enough unconscious for her to fix him and then hesitate. These successions were swift, so that she could still ask herself in freedom if she had best let him see her. She could still reply to that that she shouldn’t like him to catch her in the effort to prevent this; and she might further have decided that he was too preoccupied to see anything had not a perception intervened that surpassed the first in violence. She was unable to think afterwards how long she had looked at him before knowing herself as otherwise looked at; all she was coherently to put together was that she had had a second recognition without his having noticed her. The source of this latter shock was nobody less than Kate Croy — Kate Croy who was suddenly also in the line of vision and whose eyes met her eyes at their next movement. Kate was but two yards off — Mr. Densher wasn’t alone. Kate’s face specifically said so, for after a stare as blank at first as Milly’s it broke into a far smile. That was what, wonderfully — in addition to the marvel of their meeting — passed from her for Milly; the instant reduction to easy terms of the fact of their being there, the two young women, together. It was perhaps only afterwards that the girl fully felt the connection between this touch and her already established conviction that Kate was a prodigious person; yet on the spot she none the less, in a degree, knew herself handled and again, as she had been the night before, dealt with — absolutely even dealt with for her greater pleasure. A minute in fine hadn’t elapsed before Kate had somehow made her provisionally take everything as natural. The provisional was just the charm — acquiring that character from one moment to the other; it represented happily so much that Kate would explain on the very first chance. This left moreover — and that was the greatest wonder — all due margin for amusement at the way things happened, the monstrous oddity of their turning up in such a place on the very heels of their having separated without allusion to it. The handsome girl was thus literally in control of the scene by the time Merton Densher was ready to exclaim with a high flush, or a vivid blush — one didn’t distinguish the embarrassment from the joy —“Why, Miss Theale: fancy!” and “Why, Miss Theale: what luck!”
Miss Theale had meanwhile the sense that for him too, on Kate’s part, something wonderful and unspoken was determinant; and this although, distinctly, his companion had no more looked at him with a hint than he had looked at her with a question. He had looked and he was looking only at Milly herself, ever so pleasantly and considerately — she scarce knew what to call it; but without prejudice to her consciousness, all the same, that women got out of predicaments better than men. The predicament of course wasn’t definite or phraseable — and the way they let all phrasing pass was presently to recur to our young woman as a characteristic triumph of the civilised state; but she took it for granted, insistently, with a small private flare of passion, because the one thing she could think of to do for him was to show him how she eased him off. She would really, tired and nervous, have been much disconcerted, were it not that the opportunity in question had saved her. It was what had saved her most, what had made her, after the first few seconds, almost as brave for Kate as Kate was for her, had made her only ask herself what their friend would like of her. That he was at the end of three minutes, without the least complicated reference, so smoothly “their” friend was just the effect of their all being sublimely civilised. The flash in which he saw this was, for Milly, fairly inspiring — to that degree in fact that she was even now, on such a plane, yearning to be supreme. It took, no doubt, a big dose of inspiration to treat as not funny — or at least as not unpleasant — the anomaly, for Kate, that she knew their gentleman, and for herself, that Kate was spending the morning with him; but everything continued to make for this after Milly had tasted of her draught. She was to wonder in subsequent reflection what in the world they had actually said, since they had made such a success of what they didn’t say; the sweetness of the draught for the time, at any rate, was to feel success assured. What depended on this for Mr. Densher was all obscurity to her, and she perhaps but invented the image of his need as a short cut to service. Whatever were the facts, their perfect manners, all round, saw them through. The finest part of Milly’s own inspiration, it may further be mentioned, was the quick perception that what would be of most service was, so to speak, her own native wood-note. She had long been conscious with shame for her thin blood, or at least for her poor economy, of her unused margin as an American girl — closely indeed as, in English air, the text might appear to cover the page. She still had reserves of spontaneity, if not of comicality; so that all this cash in hand could now find employment. She became as spontaneous as possible and as American as it might conveniently appeal to Mr. Densher, after his travels, to find her. She said things in the air, and yet flattered herself that she struck him as saying them not in the tone of agitation but in the tone of New York. In the tone of New York agitation was beautifully discounted, and she had now a sufficient view of how much it might accordingly help her.
The help was fairly rendered before they left the place; when her friends presently accepted her invitation to adjourn with her to luncheon at her hotel, it was in the Fifth Avenue that the meal might have waited. Kate had never been there so straight, but Milly was at present taking her; and if Mr. Densher had been he had at least never had to come so fast. She proposed it as the natural thing — proposed it as the American girl; and she saw herself quickly justified by the pace at which she was followed. The beauty of the case was that to do it all she had only to appear to take Kate’s hint. This had said, in its fine first smile, “Oh yes, our look is queer — but give me time;” and the American girl could give time as nobody else could. What Milly thus gave she therefore made them take — even if, as they might surmise, it was rather more than they wanted. In the porch of the museum she expressed her preference for a four-wheeler; they would take their course in that guise precisely to multiply the minutes. She was more than ever justified by the positive charm that her spirit imparted even to their use of this conveyance; and she touched her highest point — that is, certainly, for herself — as she ushered her companions into the presence of Susie. Susie was there with luncheon, with her return, in prospect; and nothing could now have filled her own consciousness more to the brim than to see this good friend take in how little she was abjectly anxious. The cup itself actually offered to this good friend might in truth well be startling, for it was composed beyond question of ingredients oddly mixed. She caught Susie fairly looking at her as if to know whether she had brought in guests to hear Sir Luke Strett’s report. Well, it was better her companion should have too much than too little to wonder about; she had come out “anyway,” as they said at home, for the interest of the thing; and interest truly sat in her eyes. Milly was none the less, at the sharpest crisis, a little sorry for her; she could of necessity extract from the odd scene so comparatively little of a soothing secret. She saw Mr. Densher suddenly popping up, but she saw nothing else that had happened. She saw in the same way her young friend indifferent to her young friend’s doom, and she lacked what would explain it. The only thing to keep her in patience was the way, after luncheon, Kate almost, as might be said, made up to her. This was actually perhaps as well what most kept Milly herself in patience. It had in fact for our young woman a positive beauty — was so marked as a deviation from the handsome girl’s previous courses. Susie had been a bore to the handsome girl, and the change was now suggestive. The two sat together, after they had risen from table, in the apartment in which they had lunched, making it thus easy for the other guest and his entertainer to sit in the room adjacent. This, for the latter personage, was the beauty; it was almost, on Kate’s part, like a prayer to be relieved. If she honestly liked better to be “thrown with” Susan Shepherd than with their other friend, why that said practically everything. It didn’t perhaps altogether say why she had gone out with him for the morning, but it said, as one thought, about as much as she could say to his face.
Little by little indeed, under the vividness of Kate’s behaviour, the probabilities fell back into their order. Merton Densher was in love, and Kate couldn’t help it — could only be sorry and kind: wouldn’t that, without wild flurries, cover everything? Milly at all events tried it as a cover, tried it hard, for the time; pulled it over her, in the front, the larger room, drew it up to her chin with energy. If it didn’t, so treated, do everything for her, it did so much that she could herself supply the rest. She made that up by the interest of her great question, the question of whether, seeing him once more, with all that, as she called it to herself, had come and gone, her impression of him would be different from the impression received in New York. That had held her from the moment of their leaving the museum; it kept her company through their drive and during luncheon; and now that she was a quarter of an hour alone with him it became acute. She was to feel at this crisis that no clear, no common answer, no direct satisfaction on this point, was to reach her; she was to see her question itself simply go to pieces. She couldn’t tell if he were different or not, and she didn’t know nor care if she were: these things had ceased to matter in the light of the only thing she did know. This was that she liked him, as she put it to herself, as much as ever; and if that were to amount to liking a new person the amusement would be but the greater. She had thought him at first very quiet, in spite of recovery from his original confusion; though even the shade of bewilderment, she yet perceived, had not been due to such vagueness on the subject of her reintensified identity as the probable sight, over there, of many thousands of her kind would sufficiently have justified. No, he was quiet, inevitably, for the first half of the time, because Milly’s own lively line — the line of spontaneity — made everything else relative; and because too, so far as Kate was spontaneous, it was ever so finely in the air among them that the normal pitch must be kept. Afterwards, when they had got a little more used, as it were, to each other’s separate felicity, he had begun to talk more, clearly bethought himself, at a given moment, of what his natural lively line would be. It would be to take for granted she must wish to hear of the States, and to give her, in its order, everything he had seen and done there. He abounded, of a sudden he almost insisted; he returned, after breaks, to the charge; and the effect was perhaps the more odd as he gave no clue whatever to what he had admired, as he went, or to what he hadn’t. He simply drenched her with his sociable story — especially during the time they were away from the others. She had stopped then being American — all to let him be English; a permission of which he took, she could feel, both immense and unconscious advantage. She had really never cared less for the “States” than at this moment; but that had nothing to do with the matter. It would have been the occasion of her life to learn about them, for nothing could put him off, and he ventured on no reference to what had happened for herself. It might have been almost as if he had known that the greatest of all these adventures was her doing just what she did then.
It was at this point that she saw the smash of her great question as complete, saw that all she had to do with was the sense of being there with him. And there was no chill for this in what she also presently saw — that, however he had begun, he was now acting from a particular desire, determined either by new facts or new fancies, to be like everyone else, simplifyingly “kind” to her. He had caught on already as to manner — fallen into line with everyone else; and if his spirits verily had gone up it might well be that he had thus felt himself lighting on the remedy for all awkwardness. Whatever he did or he didn’t, Milly knew she should still like him — there was no alternative to that; but her heart could none the less sink a little on feeling how much his view of her was destined to have in common with — as she now sighed over it — the view. She could have dreamed of his not having the view, of his having something or other, if need be quite viewless, of his own; but he might have what he could with least trouble, and the view wouldn’t be, after all, a positive bar to her seeing him. The defect of it in general — if she might so ungraciously criticise — was that, by its sweet universality, it made relations rather prosaically a matter of course. It anticipated and superseded the — likewise sweet — operation of real affinities. It was this that was doubtless marked in her power to keep him now — this and her glassy lustre of attention to his pleasantness about the scenery in the Rockies. She was in truth a little measuring her success in detaining him by Kate’s success in “standing” Susan. It would not be, if she could help it, Mr. Densher who should first break down. Such at least was one of the forms of the girl’s inward tension; but beneath even this deep reason was a motive still finer. What she had left at home on going out to give it a chance was meanwhile still, was more sharply and actively, there. What had been at the top of her mind about it and then been violently pushed down — this quantity was again working up. As soon as their friends should go Susie would break out, and what she would break out upon wouldn’t be-interested in that gentleman as she had more than once shown herself — the personal fact of Mr. Densher. Milly had found in her face at luncheon a feverish glitter, and it told what she was full of. She didn’t care now for Mr. Densher’s personal fact. Mr. Densher had risen before her only to find his proper place in her imagination already, of a sudden, occupied. His personal fact failed, so far as she was concerned, to be personal, and her companion noted the failure. This could only mean that she was full to the brim, of Sir Luke Strett, and of what she had had from him. What had she had from him? It was indeed now working upward again that Milly would do well to know, though knowledge looked stiff in the light of Susie’s glitter. It was therefore, on the whole, because Densher’s young hostess was divided from it by so thin a partition that she continued to cling to the Rockies.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10