When Kate and Densher abandoned her to Mrs. Stringham on the day of her meeting them together and bringing them to luncheon, Milly, face to face with that companion, had had one of those moments in which the warned, the anxious fighter of the battle of life, as if once again feeling for the sword at his side, carries his hand straight to the quarter of his courage. She laid hers firmly on her heart, and the two women stood there showing each other a strange front. Susan Shepherd had received their great doctor’s visit, which had been clearly no small affair for her; but Milly had since then, with insistence, kept in place, against communication and betrayal, as she now practically confessed, the barrier of their invited guests. “You’ve been too dear. With what I see you’re full of you treated them beautifully. Isn’t Kate charming when she wants to be?”
Poor Susie’s expression, contending at first, as in a high fine spasm, with different dangers, had now quite let itself go. She had to make an effort to reach a point in space already so remote. “Miss Croy? Oh she was pleasant and clever. She knew,” Mrs. Stringham added. “She knew.”
Milly braced herself — but conscious above all, at the moment, of a high compassion for her mate. She made her out as struggling — struggling in all her nature against the betrayal of pity, which in itself, given her nature, could only be a torment. Milly gathered from the struggle how much there was of the pity, and how therefore it was both in her tenderness and in her conscience that Mrs. Stringham suffered. Wonderful and beautiful it was that this impression instantly steadied the girl. Ruefully asking herself on what basis of ease, with the drop of their barrier, they were to find themselves together, she felt the question met with a relief that was almost joy. The basis, the inevitable basis, was that she was going to be sorry for Susie, who, to all appearance, had been condemned in so much more uncomfortable a manner to be sorry for her. Mrs. Stringham’s sorrow would hurt Mrs. Stringham, but how could her own ever hurt? She had, the poor girl, at all events, on the spot, five minutes of exaltation in which she turned the tables on her friend with a pass of the hand, a gesture of an energy that made a wind in the air. “Kate knew,” she asked, “that you were full of Sir Luke Strett?”
“She spoke of nothing, but she was gentle and nice; she seemed to want to help me through.” Which the good lady had no sooner said, however, than she almost tragically gasped at herself. She glared at Milly with a pretended pluck. “What I mean is that she saw one had been taken up with something. When I say she knows I should say she’s a person who guesses.” And her grimace was also, on its side, heroic. “But she doesn’t matter, Milly.”
The girl felt she by this time could face anything. “Nobody matters, Susie. Nobody.” Which her next words, however, rather contradicted. “Did he take it ill that I wasn’t here to see him? Wasn’t it really just what he wanted — to have it out, so much more simply, with you?”
“We didn’t have anything ‘out,’ Milly,” Mrs. Stringham delicately quavered.
“Didn’t he awfully like you,” Milly went on, “and didn’t he think you the most charming person I could possibly have referred him to for an account of me? Didn’t you hit it off tremendously together and in fact fall quite in love, so that it will really be a great advantage for you to have me as a common ground? You’re going to make, I can see, no end of a good thing of me.”
“My own child, my own child!” Mrs. Stringham pleadingly murmured; yet showing as she did so that she feared the effect even of deprecation.
“Isn’t he beautiful and good too himself? — altogether, whatever he may say, a lovely acquaintance to have made? You’re just the right people for me — I see it now; and do you know what, between you, you must do?” Then as Susie still but stared, wonderstruck and holding herself: “You must simply see me through. Any way you choose. Make it out together. I, on my side, will be beautiful too, and we’ll be-the three of us, with whatever others, oh as many as the case requires, any one you like! — a sight for the gods. I’ll be as easy for you as carrying a feather.” Susie took it for a moment in such silence that her young friend almost saw her — and scarcely withheld the observation — as taking it for “a part of the disease.” This accordingly helped Milly to be, as she judged, definite and wise. “He’s at any rate awfully interesting, isn’t he? — which is so much to the good. We haven’t at least — as we might have, with the way we tumbled into it — got hold of one of the dreary.”
“Interesting, dearest?”— Mrs. Stringham felt her feet firmer. “I don’t know if he’s interesting or not; but I do know, my own,” she continued to quaver, “that he’s just as much interested as you could possibly desire.”
“Certainly — that’s it. Like all the world.”
“No, my precious, not like all the world. Very much more deeply and intelligently.”
“Ah there you are!” Milly laughed. “That’s the way, Susie, I want you. So ‘buck’ up, my dear. We’ll have beautiful times with him. Don’t worry.”
“I’m not worrying, Milly.” And poor Susie’s face registered the sublimity of her lie.
It was at this that, too sharply penetrated, her companion went to her, met by her with an embrace in which things were said that exceeded speech. Each held and clasped the other as if to console her for this unnamed woe, the woe for Mrs. Stringham of learning the torment of helplessness, the woe for Milly of having her, at such a time, to think of. Milly’s assumption was immense, and the difficulty for her friend was that of not being able to gainsay it without bringing it more to the proof than tenderness and vagueness could permit. Nothing in fact came to the proof between them but that they could thus cling together — except indeed that, as we have indicated, the pledge of protection and support was all the younger woman’s own. “I don’t ask you,” she presently said, “what he told you for yourself, nor what he told you to tell me, nor how he took it, really, that I had left him to you, nor what passed between you about me in any way. It wasn’t to get that out of you that I took my means to make sure of your meeting freely — for there are things I don’t want to know. I shall see him again and again and shall know more than enough. All I do want is that you shall see me through on his basis, whatever it is; which it’s enough — for the purpose — that you yourself should know: that is with him to show you how. I’ll make it charming for you — that’s what I mean; I’ll keep you up to it in such a way that half the time you won’t know you’re doing it. And for that you’re to rest upon me. There. It’s understood. We keep each other going, and you may absolutely feel of me that I shan’t break down. So, with the way you haven’t so much as a dig of the elbow to fear, how could you be safer?”
“He told me I can help you — of course he told me that,” Susie, on her side, eagerly contended. “Why shouldn’t he, and for what else have I come out with you? But he told me nothing dreadful — nothing, nothing, nothing,” the poor lady passionately protested. “Only that you must do as you like and as he tells you — which is just simply to do as you like.”
“I must keep in sight of him. I must from time to time go to him. But that’s of course doing as I like. It’s lucky,” Milly smiled, “that I like going to him.”
Mrs. Stringham was here in agreement; she gave a clutch at the account of their situation that most showed it as workable. “That’s what will be charming for me, and what I’m sure he really wants of me — to help you to do as you like.”
“And also a little, won’t it be,” Milly laughed, “to save me from the consequences? Of course,” she added, “there must first be things I like.”
“Oh I think you’ll find some,” Mrs. Stringham more bravely said. “I think there are some — as for instance just this one. I mean,” she explained, “really having us so.”
Milly thought. “Just as if I wanted you comfortable about him, and him the same about you? Yes — I shall get the good of it.”
Susan Shepherd appeared to wander from this into a slight confusion. “Which of them are you talking of?”
Milly wondered an instant — then had a light. “I’m not talking of Mr. Densher.” With which moreover she showed amusement. “Though if you can be comfortable about Mr. Densher too so much the better.”
“Oh you meant Sir Luke Strett? Certainly he’s a fine type. Do you know,” Susie continued, “whom he reminds me of? Of our great man — Dr. Buttrick of Boston.”
Milly recognised Dr. Buttrick of Boston, but she dropped him after a tributary pause. “What do you think, now that you’ve seen him, of Mr. Densher?”
It was not till after consideration, with her eyes fixed on her friend’s, that Susie produced her answer. “I think he’s very handsome.”
Milly remained smiling at her, though putting on a little the manner of a teacher with a pupil. “Well, that will do for the first time. I have done,” she went on, “what I wanted.”
“Then that’s all we want. You see there are plenty of things.”
Milly shook her head for the “plenty.” “The best is not to know — that includes them all. I don’t — I don’t know. Nothing about anything — except that you’re with me. Remember that, please. There won’t be anything that, on my side, for you, I shall forget. So it’s all right.”
The effect of it by this time was fairly, as intended, to sustain Susie, who dropped in spite of herself into the reassuring. “Most certainly it’s all right. I think you ought to understand that he sees no reason —”
“Why I shouldn’t have a grand long life?” Milly had taken it straight up, as to understand it and for a moment consider it. But she disposed of it otherwise. “Oh of course I know that.” She spoke as if her friend’s point were small.
Mrs. Stringham tried to enlarge it. “Well, what I mean is that he didn’t say to me anything that he hasn’t said to yourself.”
“Really? — I would in his place!” She might have been disappointed, but she had her good humour. “He tells me to live”— and she oddly limited the word.
It left Susie a little at sea. “Then what do you want more?”
“My dear,” the girl presently said, “I don’t ‘want,’ as I assure you, anything. Still,” she added, “I am living. Oh yes, I’m living.”
It put them again face to face, but it had wound Mrs. Stringham up. “So am I then, you’ll see!”— she spoke with the note of her recovery. Yet it was her wisdom now — meaning by it as much as she did — not to say more than that. She had risen by Milly’s aid to a certain command of what was before them; the ten minutes of their talk had in fact made her more distinctly aware of the presence in her mind of a new idea. It was really perhaps an old idea with a new value; it had at all events begun during the last hour, though at first but feebly, to shine with a special light. That was because in the morning darkness had so suddenly descended — a sufficient shade of night to bring out the power of a star. The dusk might be thick yet, but the sky had comparatively cleared; and Susan Shepherd’s star from this time on continued to twinkle for her. It was for the moment, after her passage with Milly, the one spark left in the heavens. She recognised, as she continued to watch it, that it had really been set there by Sir Luke Strett’s visit and that the impressions immediately following had done no more than fix it. Milly’s reappearance with Mr. Densher at her heels — or, so oddly perhaps, at Miss Croy’s heels, Miss Croy being at Milly’s — had contributed to this effect, though it was only with the lapse of the greater obscurity that Susie made that out. The obscurity had reigned during the hour of their friends’ visit, faintly clearing indeed while, in one of the rooms, Kate Croy’s remarkable advance to her intensified the fact that Milly and the young man were conjoined in the other. If it hadn’t acquired on the spot all the intensity of which it was capable, this was because the poor lady still sat in her primary gloom, the gloom the great benignant doctor had practically left behind him.
The intensity the circumstance in question might wear to the informed imagination would have been sufficiently revealed for us, no doubt — and with other things to our purpose — in two or three of those confidential passages with Mrs. Lowder that she now permitted herself. She hadn’t yet been so glad that she believed in her old friend; for if she hadn’t had, at such a pass, somebody or other to believe in she should certainly have stumbled by the way. Discretion had ceased to consist of silence; silence was gross and thick, whereas wisdom should taper, however tremulously, to a point. She betook herself to Lancaster Gate the morning after the colloquy just noted; and there, in Maud Manningham’s own sanctum, she gradually found relief in giving an account of herself. An account of herself was one of the things that she had long been in the habit of expecting herself regularly to give — the regularity depending of course much on such tests of merit as might, by laws beyond her control, rise in her path. She never spared herself in short a proper sharpness of conception of how she had behaved, and it was a statement that she for the most part found herself able to make. What had happened at present was that nothing, as she felt, was left of her to report to; she was all too sunk in the inevitable and the abysmal. To give an account of herself she must give it to somebody else, and her first instalment of it to her hostess was that she must please let her cry. She couldn’t cry, with Milly in observation, at the hotel, which she had accordingly left for that purpose; and the power happily came to her with the good opportunity. She cried and cried at first — she confined herself to that; it was for the time the best statement of her business. Mrs. Lowder moreover intelligently took it as such, though knocking off a note or two more, as she said, while Susie sat near her table. She could resist the contagion of tears, but her patience did justice to her visitor’s most vivid plea for it. “I shall never be able, you know, to cry again — at least not ever with her; so I must take it out when I can. Even if she does herself it won’t be for me to give away; for what would that be but a confession of despair? I’m not with her for that — I’m with her to be regularly sublime. Besides, Milly won’t cry herself.”
“I’m sure I hope,” said Mrs. Lowder, “that she won’t have occasion to.”
“She won’t even if she does have occasion. She won’t shed a tear. There’s something that will prevent her.”
“Oh!” said Mrs. Lowder.
“Yes, her pride,” Mrs. Stringham explained in spite of her friend’s doubt, and it was with this that her communication took consistent form. It had never been pride, Maud Manningham had hinted, that kept her from crying when other things made for it; it had only been that these same things, at such times, made still more for business, arrangements, correspondence, the ringing of bells, the marshalling of servants, the taking of decisions. “I might be crying now,” she said, “if I weren’t writing letters”— and this quite without harshness for her anxious companion, to whom she allowed just the administrative margin for difference. She had interrupted her no more than she would have interrupted the piano-tuner. It gave poor Susie time; and when Mrs. Lowder, to save appearances and catch the post, had, with her addressed and stamped notes, met at the door of the room the footman summoned by the pressure of a knob, the facts of the case were sufficiently ready for her. It took but two or three, however, given their importance, to lay the ground for the great one — Mrs. Stringham’s interview of the day before with Sir Luke, who had wished to see her about Milly.
“He had wished it himself?”
“I think he was glad of it. Clearly indeed he was. He stayed a quarter of an hour. I could see that for him it was long. He’s interested,” said Mrs. Stringham.
“Do you mean in her case?”
“He says it isn’t a case.”
“What then is it?”
“It isn’t, at least,” Mrs. Stringham explained, “the case she believed it to be-thought it at any rate might be-when, without my knowledge, she went to see him. She went because there was something she was afraid of, and he examined her thoroughly — he has made sure. She’s wrong — she hasn’t what she thought.”
“And what did she think?” Mrs. Lowder demanded.
“He didn’t tell me.”
“And you didn’t ask?”
“I asked nothing,” said poor Susie —“I only took what he gave me. He gave me no more than he had to — he was beautiful,” she went on. “He is, thank God, interested.”
“He must have been interested in you, dear,” Maud Manningham observed with kindness.
Her visitor met it with candour. “Yes, love, I think he is. I mean that he sees what he can do with me.”
Mrs. Lowder took it rightly. “For her.”
“For her. Anything in the world he will or he must. He can use me to the last bone, and he likes at least that. He says the great thing for her is to be happy.”
“It’s surely the great thing for every one. Why, therefore,” Mrs. Lowder handsomely asked, “should we cry so hard about it?”
“Only,” poor Susie wailed, “that it’s so strange, so beyond us. I mean if she can’t be.”
“She must be.” Mrs. Lowder knew no impossibles. “She shall be.”
“Well — if you’ll help. He thinks, you know, we can help.”
Mrs. Lowder faced a moment, in her massive way, what Sir Luke Strett thought. She sat back there, her knees apart, not unlike a picturesque ear-ringed matron at a market-stall; while her friend, before her, dropped their items, tossed the separate truths of the matter one by one, into her capacious apron. “But is that all he came to you for — to tell you she must be happy?”
“That she must be made so — that’s the point. It seemed enough, as he told me,” Mrs. Stringham went on; “he makes it somehow such a grand possible affair.”
“Ah well, if he makes it possible!”
“I mean especially he makes it grand. He gave it to me, that is, as my part. The rest’s his own.”
“And what’s the rest?” Mrs. Lowder asked.
“I don’t know. His business. He means to keep hold of her.”
“Then why do you say it isn’t a ‘case’? It must be very much of one.”
Everything in Mrs. Stringham confessed to the extent of it. “It’s only that it isn’t the case she herself supposed.”
“Examining her for what she supposed he finds something else?”
“And what does he find?”
“Ah,” Mrs. Stringham cried, “God keep me from knowing!”
“He didn’t tell you that?”
But poor Susie had recovered herself. “What I mean is that if it’s there I shall know in time. He’s considering, but I can trust him for it — because he does, I feel, trust me. He’s considering,” she repeated.
“He’s in other words not sure?”
“Well, he’s watching. I think that’s what he means. She’s to get away now, but to come back to him in three months.”
“Then I think,” said Maud Lowder, “that he oughtn’t meanwhile to scare us.”
It roused Susie a little, Susie being already enrolled in the great doctor’s cause. This came out at least in her glimmer of reproach. “Does it scare us to enlist us for her happiness?”
Mrs. Lowder was rather stiff for it. “Yes; it scares me. I’m always scared — I may call it so — till I understand. What happiness is he talking about?”
Mrs. Stringham at this came straight. “Oh you know!”
She had really said it so that her friend had to take it; which the latter in fact after a moment showed herself as having done. A strange light humour in the matter even perhaps suddenly aiding, she met it with a certain accommodation. “Well, say one seems to see. The point is —!” But, fairly too full now of her question, she dropped.
“The point is will it cure?”
“Precisely. Is it absolutely a remedy — the specific?”
“Well, I should think we might know!” Mrs. Stringham delicately declared.
“Ah but we haven’t the complaint.”
“Have you never, dearest, been in love?” Susan Shepherd enquired.
“Yes, my child; but not by the doctor’s direction.”
Maud Manningham had spoken perforce with a break into momentary mirth, which operated — and happily too — as a challenge to her visitor’s spirit. “Oh of course we don’t ask his leave to fall. But it’s something to know he thinks it good for us.”
“My dear woman,” Mrs. Lowder cried, “it strikes me we know it without him. So that when that’s all he has to tell us —!”
“Ah,” Mrs. Stringham interposed, “it isn’t ‘all.’ I feel Sir Luke will have more; he won’t have put me off with anything inadequate. I’m to see him again; he as good as told me that he’ll wish it. So it won’t be for nothing.”
“Then what will it be for? Do you mean he has somebody of his own to propose? Do you mean you told him nothing?”
Mrs. Stringham dealt with these questions. “I showed him I understood him. That was all I could do. I didn’t feel at liberty to be explicit; but I felt, even though his visit so upset me, the comfort of what I had from you night before last.”
“What I spoke to you of in the carriage when we had left her with Kate?”
“You had seen, apparently, in three minutes. And now that he’s here, now that I’ve met him and had my impression of him, I feel,” said Mrs. Stringham, “that you’ve been magnificent.”
“Of course I’ve been magnificent. When,” asked Maud Manningham, “was I anything else? But Milly won’t be, you know, if she marries Merton Densher.”
“Oh it’s always magnificent to marry the man one loves. But we’re going fast!” Mrs. Stringham woefully smiled.
“The thing is to go fast if I see the case right. What had I after all but my instinct of that on coming back with you, night before last, to pick up Kate? I felt what I felt — I knew in my bones the man had returned.”
“That’s just where, as I say, you’re magnificent. But wait,” said Mrs. Stringham, “till you’ve seen him.”
“I shall see him immediately”— Mrs. Lowder took it up with decision. “What is then,” she asked, “your impression?”
Mrs. Stringham’s impression seemed lost in her doubts. “How can he ever care for her?”
Her companion, in her companion’s heavy manner, sat on it. “By being put in the way of it.”
“For God’s sake then,” Mrs. Stringham wailed, “put him in the way! You have him, one feels, in your hand.”
Maud Lowder’s eyes at this rested on her friend’s. “Is that your impression of him?”
“It’s my impression, dearest, of you. You handle every one.”
Mrs. Lowder’s eyes still rested, and Susan Shepherd now felt, for a wonder, not less sincere by seeing that she pleased her. But there was a great limitation. “I don’t handle Kate.”
It suggested something that her visitor hadn’t yet had from her — something the sense of which made Mrs. Stringham gasp. “Do you mean Kate cares for him?”
That fact the lady of Lancaster Gate had up to this moment, as we know, enshrouded, and her friend’s quick question had produced a change in her face. She blinked — then looked at the question hard; after which, whether she had inadvertently betrayed herself or had only reached a decision and then been affected by the quality of Mrs. Stringham’s surprise, she accepted all results. What took place in her for Susan Shepherd was not simply that she made the best of them, but that she suddenly saw more in them to her purpose than she could have imagined. A certain impatience in fact marked in her this transition: she had been keeping back, very hard, an important truth, and wouldn’t have liked to hear that she hadn’t concealed it cleverly. Susie nevertheless felt herself pass as not a little of a fool with her for not having thought of it. What Susie indeed, however, most thought of at present, in the quick, new light of it, was the wonder of Kate’s dissimulation. She had time for that view while she waited for an answer to her cry. “Kate thinks she cares. But she’s mistaken. And no one knows it.” These things, distinct and responsible, were Mrs. Lowder’s retort. Yet they weren’t all of it. “You don’t know it — that must be your line. Or rather your line must be that you deny it utterly.”
“Deny that she cares for him?”
“Deny that she so much as thinks that she does. Positively and absolutely. Deny that you’ve so much as heard of it.”
Susie faced this new duty. “To Milly, you mean — if she asks?”
“To Milly, naturally. No one else will ask.”
“Well,” said Mrs. Stringham after a moment, “Milly won’t.”
Mrs. Lowder wondered. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, the more I think of it. And luckily for me. I lie badly.”
“I lie well, thank God,” Mrs. Lowder almost snorted, “when, as sometimes will happen, there’s nothing else so good. One must always do the best. But without lies then,” she went on, “perhaps we can work it out.” Her interest had risen; her friend saw her, as within some minutes, more enrolled and inflamed — presently felt in her what had made the difference. Mrs. Stringham, it was true, descried this at the time but dimly; she only made out at first that Maud had found a reason for helping her. The reason was that, strangely, she might help Maud too, for which she now desired to profess herself ready even to lying. What really perhaps most came out for her was that her hostess was a little disappointed at her doubt of the social solidity of this appliance; and that in turn was to become a steadier light. The truth about Kate’s delusion, as her aunt presented it, the delusion about the state of her affections, which might be removed — this was apparently the ground on which they now might more intimately meet. Mrs. Stringham saw herself recruited for the removal of Kate’s delusion — by arts, however, in truth, that she as yet quite failed to compass. Or was it perhaps to be only for the removal of Mr. Densher’s? — success in which indeed might entail other successes. Before that job, unfortunately, her heart had already failed. She felt that she believed in her bones what Milly believed, and what would now make working for Milly such a dreadful upward tug. All this within her was confusedly present — a cloud of questions out of which Maud Manningham’s large seated self loomed, however, as a mass more and more definite, taking in fact for the consultative relation something of the form of an oracle. From the oracle the sound did come — or at any rate the sense did, a sense all accordant with the insufflation she had just seen working. “Yes,” the sense was, “I’ll help you for Milly, because if that comes off I shall be helped, by its doing so, for Kate”— a view into which Mrs. Stringham could now sufficiently enter. She found herself of a sudden, strange to say, quite willing to operate to Kate’s harm, or at least to Kate’s good as Mrs. Lowder with a noble anxiety measured it. She found herself in short not caring what became of Kate — only convinced at bottom of the predominance of Kate’s star. Kate wasn’t in danger, Kate wasn’t pathetic; Kate Croy, whatever happened, would take care of Kate Croy. She saw moreover by this time that her friend was travelling even beyond her own speed. Mrs. Lowder had already, in mind, drafted a rough plan of action, a plan vividly enough thrown off as she said: “You must stay on a few days, and you must immediately, both of you, meet him at dinner.” In addition to which Maud claimed the merit of having by an instinct of pity, of prescient wisdom, done much, two nights before, to prepare that ground. “The poor child, when I was with her there while you were getting your shawl, quite gave herself away to me.”
“Oh I remember how you afterwards put it to me. Though it was nothing more,” Susie did herself the justice to observe, “than what I too had quite felt.”
But Mrs. Lowder fronted her so on this that she wondered what she had said. “I suppose I ought to be edified at what you can so beautifully give up.”
“Give up?” Mrs. Stringham echoed. “Why, I give up nothing — I cling.”
Her hostess showed impatience, turning again with some stiffness to her great brass-bound cylinder-desk and giving a push to an object or two disposed there. “I give up then. You know how little such a person as Mr. Densher was to be my idea for her. You know what I’ve been thinking perfectly possible.”
“Oh you’ve been great”— Susie was perfectly fair. “A duke, a duchess, a princess, a palace: you’ve made me believe in them too. But where we break down is that she doesn’t believe in them. Luckily for her — as it seems to be turning out — she doesn’t want them. So what’s one to do? I assure you I’ve had many dreams. But I’ve only one dream now.”
Mrs. Stringham’s tone in these last words gave so fully her meaning that Mrs. Lowder could but show herself as taking it in. They sat a moment longer confronted on it. “Her having what she does want?”
“If it will do anything for her.”
Mrs. Lowder seemed to think what it might do; but she spoke for the instant of something else. “It does provoke me a bit, you know — for of course I’m a brute. And I had thought of all sorts of things. Yet it doesn’t prevent the fact that we must be decent.”
“We must take her”— Mrs. Stringham carried that out —“as she is.”
“And we must take Mr. Densher as he is.” With which Mrs. Lowder gave a sombre laugh. “It’s a pity he isn’t better!”
“Well, if he were better,” her friend rejoined, “you’d have liked him for your niece; and in that case Milly would interfere. I mean,” Susie added, “interfere with you.”
“She interferes with me as it is — not that it matters now. But I saw Kate and her — really as soon as you came to me — set up side by side. I saw your girl — I don’t mind telling — you helping my girl; and when I say that,” Mrs. Lowder continued, “you’ll probably put in for yourself that it was part of the reason of my welcome to you. So you see what I give up. I do give it up. But when I take that line,” she further set forth, “I take it handsomely. So good-bye to it all. Good-day to Mrs. Densher! Heavens!” she growled.
Susie held herself a minute. “Even as Mrs. Densher my girl will be somebody.”
“Yes, she won’t be nobody. Besides,” said Mrs. Lowder, “we’re talking in the air.”
Her companion sadly assented. “We’re leaving everything out.”
“It’s nevertheless interesting.” And Mrs. Lowder had another thought. “He’s not quite nobody either.” It brought her back to the question she had already put and which her friend hadn’t at the time dealt with. “What in fact do you make of him?”
Susan Shepherd, at this, for reasons not clear even to herself, was moved a little to caution. So she remained general. “He’s charming.”
She had met Mrs. Lowder’s eyes with that extreme pointedness in her own to which people resort when they are not quite candid — a circumstance that had its effect. “Yes; he’s charming.”
The effect of the words, however, was equally marked; they almost determined in Mrs. Stringham a return of amusement. “I thought you didn’t like him!”
“I don’t like him for Kate.”
“But you don’t like him for Milly either.”
Mrs. Stringham rose as she spoke, and her friend also got up. “I like him, my dear, for myself.”
“Then that’s the best way of all.”
“Well, it’s one way. He’s not good enough for my niece, and he’s not good enough for you. One’s an aunt, one’s a wretch and one’s a fool.”
“Oh I’m not — not either,” Susie declared.
But her companion kept on. “One lives for others. You do that. If I were living for myself I shouldn’t at all mind him.”
But Mrs. Stringham was sturdier. “Ah if I find him charming it’s however I’m living.”
Well, it broke Mrs. Lowder down. She hung fire but an instant, giving herself away with a laugh. “Of course he’s all right in himself.”
“That’s all I contend,” Susie said with more reserve; and the note in question — what Merton Densher was “in himself”— closed practically, with some inconsequence, this first of their councils.
It had at least made the difference for them, they could feel, of an informed state in respect to the great doctor, whom they were now to take as watching, waiting, studying, or at any rate as proposing to himself some such process before he should make up his mind. Mrs. Stringham understood him as considering the matter meanwhile in a spirit that, on this same occasion, at Lancaster Gate, she had come back to a rough notation of before retiring. She followed the course of his reckoning. If what they had talked of could happen — if Milly, that is, could have her thoughts taken off herself — it wouldn’t do any harm and might conceivably do much good. If it couldn’t happen — if, anxiously, though tactfully working, they themselves, conjoined, could do nothing to contribute to it — they would be in no worse a box than before. Only in this latter case the girl would have had her free range for the summer, for the autumn; she would have done her best in the sense enjoined on her, and, coming back at the end to her eminent man, would — besides having more to show him — find him more ready to go on with her. It was visible further to Susan Shepherd — as well as being ground for a second report to her old friend — that Milly did her part for a working view of the general case, inasmuch as she mentioned frankly and promptly that she meant to go and say good-bye to Sir Luke Strett and thank him. She even specified what she was to thank him for, his having been so easy about her behaviour.
“You see I didn’t know that — for the liberty I took — I shouldn’t afterwards get a stiff note from him.”
So much Milly had said to her, and it had made her a trifle rash. “Oh you’ll never get a stiff note from him in your life.”
She felt her rashness, the next moment, at her young friend’s question. “Why not, as well as any one else who has played him a trick?”
“Well, because he doesn’t regard it as a trick. He could understand your action. It’s all right, you see.”
“Yes — I do see. It is all right. He’s easier with me than with any one else, because that’s the way to let me down. He’s only making believe, and I’m not worth hauling up.”
Rueful at having provoked again this ominous flare, poor Susie grasped at her only advantage. “Do you really accuse a man like Sir Luke Strett of trifling with you?”
She couldn’t blind herself to the look her companion gave her — a strange half-amused perception of what she made of it. “Well, so far as it’s trifling with me to pity me so much.”
“He doesn’t pity you,” Susie earnestly reasoned. “He just — the same as any one else — likes you.”
“He has no business then to like me. He’s not the same as any one else.”
“Why not, if he wants to work for you?”
Milly gave her another look, but this time a wonderful smile. “Ah there you are!” Mrs. Stringham coloured, for there indeed she was again. But Milly let her off. “Work for me, all the same — work for me! It’s of course what I want.” Then as usual she embraced her friend. “I’m not going to be as nasty as this to him.”
“I’m sure I hope not!”— and Mrs. Stringham laughed for the kiss. “I’ve no doubt, however, he’d take it from you! It’s you, my dear, who are not the same as any one else.”
Milly’s assent to which, after an instant, gave her the last word. “No, so that people can take anything from me.” And what Mrs. Stringham did indeed resignedly take after this was the absence on her part of any account of the visit then paid. It was the beginning in fact between them of an odd independence — an independence positively of action and custom — on the subject of Milly’s future. They went their separate ways with the girl’s intense assent; this being really nothing but what she had so wonderfully put in her plea for after Mrs. Stringham’s first encounter with Sir Luke. She fairly favoured the idea that Susie had or was to have other encounters — private pointed personal; she favoured every idea, but most of all the idea that she herself was to go on as if nothing were the matter. Since she was to be worked for that would be her way; and though her companions learned from herself nothing of it this was in the event her way with her medical adviser. She put her visit to him on the simplest ground; she had come just to tell him how touched she had been by his good nature. That required little explaining, for, as Mrs. Stringham had said, he quite understood he could but reply that it was all right.
“I had a charming quarter of an hour with that clever lady. You’ve got good friends.”
“So each one of them thinks of all the others. But so I also think,” Milly went on, “of all of them together. You’re excellent for each other. And it’s in that way, I dare say, that you’re best for me.”
There came to her on this occasion one of the strangest of her impressions, which was at the same time one of the finest of her alarms — the glimmer of a vision that if she should go, as it were, too far, she might perhaps deprive their relation of facility if not of value. Going too far was failing to try at least to remain simple. He would be quite ready to hate her if she did, by heading him off at every point, embarrass his exercise of a kindness that, no doubt, rather constituted for him a high method. Susie wouldn’t hate her, since Susie positively wanted to suffer for her; Susie had a noble idea that she might somehow so do her good. Such, however, was not the way in which the greatest of London doctors was to be expected to wish to do it. He wouldn’t have time even should he wish; whereby, in a word, Milly felt herself intimately warned. Face to face there with her smooth strong director, she enjoyed at a given moment quite such another lift of feeling as she had known in her crucial talk with Susie. It came round to the same thing; him too she would help to help her if that could possibly be; but if it couldn’t possibly be she would assist also to make this right.
It wouldn’t have taken many minutes more, on the basis in question, almost to reverse for her their characters of patient and physician. What was he in fact but patient, what was she but physician, from the moment she embraced once for all the necessity, adopted once for all the policy, of saving him alarms about her subtlety? She would leave the subtlety to him: he would enjoy his use of it, and she herself, no doubt, would in time enjoy his enjoyment. She went so far as to imagine that the inward success of these reflexions flushed her for the minute, to his eyes, with a certain bloom, a comparative appearance of health; and what verily next occurred was that he gave colour to the presumption. “Every little helps, no doubt!”— he noticed good-humouredly her harmless sally. “But, help or no help, you’re looking, you know, remarkably well.”
“Oh I thought I was,” she answered; and it was as if already she saw his line. Only she wondered what he would have guessed. If he had guessed anything at all it would be rather remarkable of him. As for what there was to guess, he couldn’t — if this was present to him — have arrived at it save by his own acuteness. That acuteness was therefore immense; and if it supplied the subtlety she thought of leaving him to, his portion would be none so bad. Neither, for that matter, would hers be-which she was even actually enjoying. She wondered if really then there mightn’t be something for her. She hadn’t been sure in coming to him that she was “better,” and he hadn’t used, he would be awfully careful not to use, that compromising term about her; in spite of all of which she would have been ready to say, for the amiable sympathy of it, “Yes, I must be,” for he had this unaided sense of something that had happened to her. It was a sense unaided, because who could have told him of anything? Susie, she was certain, hadn’t yet seen him again, and there were things it was impossible she could have told him the first time. Since such was his penetration, therefore, why shouldn’t she gracefully, in recognition of it, accept the new circumstance, the one he was clearly wanting to congratulate her on, as a sufficient cause? If one nursed a cause tenderly enough it might produce an effect; and this, to begin with, would be a way of nursing. “You gave me the other day,” she went on, “plenty to think over, and I’ve been doing that — thinking it over — quite as you’ll have probably wished me. I think I must be pretty easy to treat,” she smiled, “since you’ve already done me so much good.”
The only obstacle to reciprocity with him was that he looked in advance so closely related to all one’s possibilities that one missed the pleasure of really improving it. “Oh no, you’re extremely difficult to treat. I’ve need with you, I assure you, of all my wit.”
“Well, I mean I do come up.” She hadn’t meanwhile a bit believed in his answer, convinced as she was that if she had been difficult it would be the last thing he would have told her. “I’m doing,” she said, “as I like.”
“Then it’s as I like. But you must really, though we’re having such a decent month, get straight away.” In pursuance of which, when she had replied with promptitude that her departure — for the Tyrol and then for Venice — was quite fixed for the fourteenth, he took her up with alacrity. “For Venice? That’s perfect, for we shall meet there. I’ve a dream of it for October, when I’m hoping for three weeks off; three weeks during which, if I can get them clear, my niece, a young person who has quite the whip hand of me, is to take me where she prefers. I heard from her only yesterday that she expects to prefer Venice.”
“That’s lovely then. I shall expect you there. And anything that, in advance or in any way, I can do for you —!”
“Oh thank you. My niece, I seem to feel, does for me. But it will be capital to find you there.”
“I think it ought to make you feel,” she said after a moment, “that I am easy to treat.”
But he shook his head again; he wouldn’t have it. “You’ve not come to that yet.”
“One has to be so bad for it?”
“Well, I don’t think I’ve ever come to it — to ‘ease’ of treatment. I doubt if it’s possible. I’ve not, if it is, found any one bad enough. The ease, you see, is for you.”
“I see — I see.”
They had an odd friendly, but perhaps the least bit awkward pause on it; after which Sir Luke asked: “And that clever lady — she goes with you?”
“Mrs. Stringham? Oh dear, yes. She’ll stay with me, I hope, to the end.”
He had a cheerful blankness. “To the end of what?”
“Well — of everything.”
“Ah then,” he laughed, “you’re in luck. The end of everything is far off. This, you know, I’m hoping,” said Sir Luke, “is only the beginning.” And the next question he risked might have been a part of his hope. “Just you and she together?”
“No, two other friends; two ladies of whom we’ve seen more here than of any one and who are just the right people for us.”
He thought a moment. “You’ll be four women together then?”
“Ah,” said Milly, “we’re widows and orphans. But I think,” she added as if to say what she saw would reassure him, “that we shall not be unattractive, as we move, to gentlemen. When you talk of ‘life’ I suppose you mean mainly gentlemen.”
“When I talk of ‘life,’” he made answer after a moment during which he might have been appreciating her raciness —“when I talk of life I think I mean more than anything else the beautiful show of it, in its freshness, made by young persons of your age. So go on as you are. I see more and more how you are. You can’t,” he went so far as to say for pleasantness, “better it.”
She took it from him with a great show of peace. “One of our companions will be Miss Croy, who came with me here first. It’s in her that life is splendid; and a part of that is even that she’s devoted to me. But she’s above all magnificent in herself. So that if you’d like,” she freely threw out, “to see her —”
“Oh I shall like to see any one who’s devoted to you, for clearly it will be jolly to be ‘in’ it. So that if she’s to be at Venice I shall see her?”
“We must arrange it — I shan’t fail. She moreover has a friend who may also be there”— Milly found herself going on to this. “He’s likely to come, I believe, for he always follows her.”
Sir Luke wondered. “You mean they’re lovers?”
“He is,” Milly smiled; “but not she. She doesn’t care for him.”
Sir Luke took an interest. “What’s the matter with him?”
“Nothing but that she doesn’t like him.”
Sir Luke kept it up. “Is he all right?”
“Oh he’s very nice. Indeed he’s remarkably so.”
“And he’s to be in Venice?”
“So she tells me she fears. For if he is there he’ll be constantly about with her.”
“And she’ll be constantly about with you?”
“As we’re great friends — yes.”
“Well then,” said Sir Luke, “you won’t be four women alone.”
“Oh no; I quite recognise the chance of gentlemen. But he won’t,” Milly pursued in the same wondrous way, “have come, you see, for me.”
“No — I see. But can’t you help him?”
“Can’t you?” Milly after a moment quaintly asked. Then for the joke of it she explained. “I’m putting you, you see, in relation with my entourage.”
It might have been for the joke of it too, by this time, that her eminent friend fell in. “But if this gentleman isn’t of your ‘entourage ‘? I mean if he’s of — what do you call her? — Miss Croy’s. Unless indeed you also take an interest in him.”
“Oh certainly I take an interest in him!”
“You think there may be then some chance for him?”
“I like him,” said Milly, “enough to hope so.”
“Then that’s all right. But what, pray,” Sir Luke next asked, “have I to do with him?”
“Nothing,” said Milly, “except that if you’re to be there, so may he be. And also that we shan’t in that case be simply four dreary women.”
He considered her as if at this point she a little tried his patience. “You’re the least ‘dreary’ woman I’ve ever, ever seen. Ever, do you know? There’s no reason why you shouldn’t have a really splendid life.”
“So every one tells me,” she promptly returned.
“The conviction — strong already when I had seen you once — is strengthened in me by having seen your friend. There’s no doubt about it. The world’s before you.”
“What did my friend tell you?” Milly asked.
“Nothing that wouldn’t have given you pleasure. We talked about you — and freely. I don’t deny that. But it shows me I don’t require of you the impossible.”
She was now on her feet. “I think I know what you require of me.”
“Nothing, for you,” he went on, “is impossible. So go on.” He repeated it again — wanting her so to feel that today he saw it. “You’re all right.”
“Well,” she smiled —“keep me so.”
“Oh you’ll get away from me.”
“Keep me, keep me,” she simply continued with her gentle eyes on him.
She had given him her hand for good-bye, and he thus for a moment did keep her. Something then, while he seemed to think if there were anything more, came back to him; though something of which there wasn’t too much to be made. “Of course if there’s anything I can do for your friend: I mean the gentleman you speak of —?” He gave out in short that he was ready.
“Oh Mr. Densher?” It was as if she had forgotten.
“Mr. Densher — is that his name?”
“Yes — but his case isn’t so dreadful.” She had within a minute got away from that.
“No doubt — if you take an interest.” She had got away, but it was as if he made out in her eyes — though they also had rather got away — a reason for calling her back. “Still, if there’s anything one can do —?”
She looked at him while she thought, while she smiled. “I’m afraid there’s really nothing one can do.”
Not yet so much as this morning had she felt herself sink into possession; gratefully glad that the warmth of the Southern summer was still in the high florid rooms, palatial chambers where hard cool pavements took reflexions in their lifelong polish, and where the sun on the stirred sea-water, flickering up through open windows, played over the painted “subjects” in the splendid ceilings — medallions of purple and brown, of brave old melancholy colour, medals as of old reddened gold, embossed and beribboned, all toned with time and all flourished and scolloped and gilded about, set in their great moulded and figured concavity (a nest of white cherubs, friendly creatures of the air) and appreciated by the aid of that second tier of smaller lights, straight openings to the front, which did everything, even with the Baedekers and photographs of Milly’s party dreadfully meeting the eye, to make of the place an apartment of state. This at last only, though she had enjoyed the palace for three weeks, seemed to count as effective occupation; perhaps because it was the first time she had been alone — really to call alone — since she had left London, it ministered to her first full and unembarrassed sense of what the great Eugenio had done for her. The great Eugenio, recommended by grand-dukes and Americans, had entered her service during the last hours of all — had crossed from Paris, after multiplied pourparlers with Mrs. Stringham, to whom she had allowed more than ever a free hand, on purpose to escort her to the Continent and encompass her there, and had dedicated to her, from the moment of their meeting, all the treasures of his experience. She had judged him in advance — polyglot and universal, very dear and very deep — as probably but a swindler finished to the finger-tips; for he was forever carrying one well-kept Italian hand to his heart and plunging the other straight into her pocket, which, as she had instantly observed him to recognise, fitted it like a glove. The remarkable thing was that these elements of their common consciousness had rapidly gathered into an indestructible link, formed the ground of a happy relation; being by this time, strangely, grotesquely, delightfully, what most kept up confidence between them and what most expressed it.
She had seen quickly enough what was happening — the usual thing again, yet once again. Eugenio had, in an interview of five minutes, understood her, had got hold, like all the world, of the idea not so much of the care with which she must be taken up as of the care with which she must be let down. All the world understood her, all the world had got hold; but for nobody yet, she felt, would the idea have been so close a tie or won from herself so patient a surrender. Gracefully, respectfully, consummately enough — always with hands in position and the look, in his thick neat white hair, smooth fat face and black professional, almost theatrical eyes, as of some famous tenor grown too old to make love, but with an art still to make money — did he on occasion convey to her that she was, of all the clients of his glorious career, the one in whom his interest was most personal and paternal. The others had come in the way of business, but for her his sentiment was special. Confidence rested thus on her completely believing that: there was nothing of which she felt more sure. It passed between them every time they conversed; he was abysmal, but this intimacy lived on the surface. He had taken his place already for her among those who were to see her through, and meditation ranked him, in the constant perspective, for the final function, side by side with poor Susie — whom she was now pitying more than ever for having to be herself so sorry and to say so little about it. Eugenio had the general tact of a residuary legatee — which was a character that could be definitely worn; whereas she could see Susie, in the event of her death, in no character at all, Susie being insistently, exclusively concerned in her mere makeshift duration. This principle, for that matter, Milly at present, with a renewed flare of fancy, felt she should herself have liked to believe in. Eugenio had really done for her more than he probably knew — he didn’t after all know everything — in having, for the wind-up of the autumn, on a weak word from her, so admirably, so perfectly established her. Her weak word, as a general hint, had been: “At Venice, please, if possible, no dreadful, no vulgar hotel; but, if it can be at all managed — you know what I mean — some fine old rooms, wholly independent, for a series of months. Plenty of them too, and the more interesting the better: part of a palace, historic and picturesque, but strictly inodorous, where we shall be to ourselves, with a cook, don’t you know? — with servants, frescoes, tapestries, antiquities, the thorough make-believe of a settlement.”
The proof of how he better and better understood her was in all the place; as to his masterly acquisition of which she had from the first asked no questions. She had shown him enough what she thought of it, and her forbearance pleased him; with the part of the transaction that mainly concerned her she would soon enough become acquainted, and his connexion with such values as she would then find noted could scarce help growing, as it were, still more residuary. Charming people, conscious Venice-lovers, evidently, had given up their house to her, and had fled to a distance, to other countries, to hide their blushes alike over what they had, however briefly, alienated, and over what they had, however durably, gained. They had preserved and consecrated, and she now — her part of it was shameless — appropriated and enjoyed. Palazzo Leporelli held its history still in its great lap, even like a painted idol, a solemn puppet hung about with decorations. Hung about with pictures and relics, the rich Venetian past, the ineffaceable character, was here the presence revered and served: which brings us back to our truth of a moment ago — the fact that, more than ever, this October morning, awkward novice though she might be, Milly moved slowly to and fro as the priestess of the worship. Certainly it came from the sweet taste of solitude, caught again and cherished for the hour; always a need of her nature, moreover, when things spoke to her with penetration. It was mostly in stillness they spoke to her best; amid voices she lost the sense. Voices had surrounded her for weeks, and she had tried to listen, had cultivated them and had answered back; these had been weeks in which there were other things they might well prevent her from hearing. More than the prospect had at first promised or threatened she had felt herself going on in a crowd and with a multiplied escort; the four ladies pictured by her to Sir Luke Strett as a phalanx comparatively closed and detached had in fact proved a rolling snowball, condemned from day to day to cover more ground. Susan Shepherd had compared this portion of the girl’s excursion to the Empress Catherine’s famous progress across the steppes of Russia; improvised settlements appeared at each turn of the road, villagers waiting with addresses drawn up in the language of London. Old friends in fine were in ambush, Mrs. Lowder’s, Kate Croy’s, her own; when the addresses weren’t in the language of London they were in the more insistent idioms of American centres. The current was swollen even by Susie’s social connexions; so that there were days, at hotels, at Dolomite picnics, on lake steamers, when she could almost repay to Aunt Maud and Kate with interest the debt contracted by the London “success” to which they had opened the door.
Mrs. Lowder’s success and Kate’s, amid the shock of Milly’s and Mrs. Stringham’s compatriots, failed but little, really, of the concert-pitch; it had gone almost as fast as the boom, over the sea, of the last great native novel. Those ladies were “so different”— different, observably enough, from the ladies so appraising them; it being throughout a case mainly of ladies, of a dozen at once sometimes, in Milly’s apartment, pointing, also at once, that moral and many others. Milly’s companions were acclaimed not only as perfectly fascinating in themselves, the nicest people yet known to the acclaimers, but as obvious helping hands, socially speaking, for the eccentric young woman, evident initiators and smoothers of her path, possible subduers of her eccentricity. Short intervals, to her own sense, stood now for great differences, and this renewed inhalation of her native air had somehow left her to feel that she already, that she mainly, struck the compatriot as queer and dissociated. She moved such a critic, it would appear, as to rather an odd suspicion, a benevolence induced by a want of complete trust: all of which showed her in the light of a person too plain and too ill-clothed for a thorough good time, and yet too rich and too befriended — an intuitive cunning within her managing this last — for a thorough bad one. The compatriots, in short, by what she made out, approved her friends for their expert wisdom with her; in spite of which judicial sagacity it was the compatriots who recorded themselves as the innocent parties. She saw things in these days that she had never seen before, and she couldn’t have said why save on a principle too terrible to name; whereby she saw that neither Lancaster Gate was what New York took it for, nor New York what Lancaster Gate fondly fancied it in coquetting with the plan of a series of American visits. The plan might have been, humorously, on Mrs. Lowder’s part, for the improvement of her social position — and it had verily in that direction lights that were perhaps but half a century too prompt; at all of which Kate Croy assisted with the cool controlled facility that went so well, as the others said, with her particular kind of good looks, the kind that led you to expect the person enjoying them would dispose of disputations, speculations, aspirations, in a few very neatly and brightly uttered words, so simplified in sense, however, that they sounded, even when guiltless, like rather aggravated slang. It wasn’t that Kate hadn’t pretended too that she should like to go to America; it was only that with this young woman Milly had constantly proceeded, and more than ever of late, on the theory of intimate confessions, private frank ironies that made up for their public grimaces and amid which, face to face, they wearily put off the mask.
These puttings-off of the mask had finally quite become the form taken by their moments together, moments indeed not increasingly frequent and not prolonged, thanks to the consciousness of fatigue on Milly’s side whenever, as she herself expressed it, she got out of harness. They flourished their masks, the independent pair, as they might have flourished Spanish fans; they smiled and sighed on removing them; but the gesture, the smiles, the sighs, strangely enough, might have been suspected the greatest reality in the business. Strangely enough, we say, for the volume of effusion in general would have been found by either on measurement to be scarce proportional to the paraphernalia of relief. It was when they called each other’s attention to their ceasing to pretend, it was then that what they were keeping back was most in the air. There was a difference, no doubt, and mainly to Kate’s advantage: Milly didn’t quite see what her friend could keep back, was possessed of, in fine, that would be so subject to retention; whereas it was comparatively plain sailing for Kate that poor Milly had a treasure to hide. This was not the treasure of a shy, an abject affection — concealment, on that head, belonging to quite another phase of such states; it was much rather a principle of pride relatively bold and hard, a principle that played up like a fine steel spring at the lightest pressure of too near a footfall. Thus insuperably guarded was the truth about the girl’s own conception of her validity; thus was a wondering pitying sister condemned wistfully to look at her from the far side of the moat she had dug round her tower. Certain aspects of the connexion of these young women show for us, such is the twilight that gathers about them, in the likeness of some dim scene in a Maeterlinck play; we have positively the image, in the delicate dusk, of the figures so associated and yet so opposed, so mutually watchful: that of the angular pale princess, ostrich-plumed, black-robed, hung about with amulets, reminders, relics, mainly seated, mainly still, and that of the upright restless slow-circling lady of her court who exchanges with her, across the black water streaked with evening gleams, fitful questions and answers. The upright lady, with thick dark braids down her back, drawing over the grass a more embroidered train, makes the whole circuit, and makes it again, and the broken talk, brief and sparingly allusive, seems more to cover than to free their sense. This is because, when it fairly comes to not having others to consider, they meet in an air that appears rather anxiously to wait for their words. Such an impression as that was in fact grave, and might be tragic; so that, plainly enough, systematically at last, they settled to a care of what they said.
There could be no gross phrasing to Milly, in particular, of the probability that if she wasn’t so proud she might be pitied with more comfort — more to the person pitying; there could be no spoken proof, no sharper demonstration than the consistently considerate attitude, that this marvellous mixture of her weakness and of her strength, her peril, if such it were, and her option, made her, kept her, irresistibly interesting. Kate’s predicament in the matter was, after all, very much Mrs. Stringham’s own, and Susan Shepherd herself indeed, in our Maeterlinck picture, might well have hovered in the gloaming by the moat. It may be declared for Kate, at all events, that her sincerity about her friend, through this time, was deep, her compassionate imagination strong; and that these things gave her a virtue, a good conscience, a credibility for herself, so to speak, that were later to be precious to her. She grasped with her keen intelligence the logic of their common duplicity, went unassisted through the same ordeal as Milly’s other hushed follower, easily saw that for the girl to be explicit was to betray divinations, gratitudes, glimpses of the felt contrast between her fortune and her fear — all of which would have contradicted her systematic bravado. That was it, Kate wonderingly saw: to recognise was to bring down the avalanche — the avalanche Milly lived so in watch for and that might be started by the lightest of breaths; though less possibly the breath of her own stifled plaint than that of the vain sympathy, the mere helpless gaping inference of others. With so many suppressions as these, therefore, between them, their withdrawal together to unmask had to fall back, as we have hinted, on a nominal motive — which was decently represented by a joy at the drop of chatter. Chatter had in truth all along attended their steps, but they took the despairing view of it on purpose to have ready, when face to face, some view or other of something. The relief of getting out of harness — that was the moral of their meetings; but the moral of this, in turn, was that they couldn’t so much as ask each other why harness need be worn. Milly wore it as a general armour.
She was out of it at present, for some reason, as she hadn’t been for weeks; she was always out of it, that is, when alone, and her companions had never yet so much as just now affected her as dispersed and suppressed. It was as if still again, still more tacitly and wonderfully, Eugenio had understood her, taking it from her without a word and just bravely and brilliantly in the name, for instance, of the beautiful day: “Yes, get me an hour alone; take them off — I don’t care where; absorb, amuse, detain them; drown them, kill them if you will: so that I may just a little, all by myself, see where I am.” She was conscious of the dire impatience of it, for she gave up Susie as well as the others to him — Susie who would have drowned her very self for her; gave her up to a mercenary monster through whom she thus purchased respites. Strange were the turns of life and the moods of weakness; strange the flickers of fancy and the cheats of hope; yet lawful, all the same — weren’t they? — those experiments tried with the truth that consisted, at the worst, but in practising on one’s self. She was now playing with the thought that Eugenio might inclusively assist her: he had brought home to her, and always by remarks that were really quite soundless, the conception, hitherto ungrasped, of some complete use of her wealth itself, some use of it as a counter-move to fate. It had passed between them as preposterous that with so much money she should just stupidly and awkwardly want — any more want a life, a career, a consciousness, than want a house, a carriage or a cook. It was as if she had had from him a kind of expert professional measure of what he was in a position, at a stretch, to undertake for her; the thoroughness of which, for that matter, she could closely compare with a looseness on Sir Luke Strett’s part that — at least in Palazzo Leporelli when mornings were fine — showed as almost amateurish. Sir Luke hadn’t said to her “Pay enough money and leave the rest to me”— which was distinctly what Eugenio did say. Sir Luke had appeared indeed to speak of purchase and payment, but in reference to a different sort of cash. Those were amounts not to be named nor reckoned, and such moreover as she wasn’t sure of having at her command. Eugenio — this was the difference — could name, could reckon, and prices of his kind were things she had never suffered to scare her. She had been willing, goodness knew, to pay enough for anything, for everything, and here was simply a new view of the sufficient quantity. She amused herself — for it came to that, since Eugenio was there to sign the receipt — with possibilities of meeting the bill. She was more prepared than ever to pay enough, and quite as much as ever to pay too much. What else — if such were points at which your most trusted servant failed — was the use of being, as the dear Susies of earth called you, a princess in a palace?
She made now, alone, the full circuit of the place, noble and peaceful while the summer sea, stirring here and there a curtain or an outer blind, breathed into its veiled spaces. She had a vision of clinging to it; that perhaps Eugenio could manage. She was in it, as in the ark of her deluge, and filled with such a tenderness for it that why shouldn’t this, in common mercy, be warrant enough? She would never, never leave it — she would engage to that; would ask nothing more than to sit tight in it and float on and on. The beauty and intensity, the real momentary relief of this conceit, reached their climax in the positive purpose to put the question to Eugenio on his return as she had not yet put it; though the design, it must be added, dropped a little when, coming back to the great saloon from which she had started on her pensive progress, she found Lord Mark, of whose arrival in Venice she had been unaware, and who had now — while a servant was following her through empty rooms — been asked, in her absence, to wait. He had waited then, Lord Mark, he was waiting — oh unmistakeably; never before had he so much struck her as the man to do that on occasion with patience, to do it indeed almost as with gratitude for the chance, though at the same time with a sort of notifying firmness. The odd thing, as she was afterwards to recall, was that her wonder for what had brought him was not immediate, but had come at the end of five minutes; and also, quite incoherently, that she felt almost as glad to see him, and almost as forgiving of his interruption of her solitude, as if he had already been in her thought or acting at her suggestion. He was some-how, at the best, the end of a respite; one might like him very much and yet feel that his presence tempered precious solitude more than any other known to one: in spite of all of which, as he was neither dear Susie, nor dear Kate, nor dear Aunt Maud, nor even, for the least, dear Eugenio in person, the sight of him did no damage to her sense of the dispersal of her friends. She hadn’t been so thoroughly alone with him since those moments of his showing her the great portrait at Matcham, the moments that had exactly made the high-water-mark of her security, the moments during which her tears themselves, those she had been ashamed of, were the sign of her consciously rounding her protective promontory, quitting the blue gulf of comparative ignorance and reaching her view of the troubled sea. His presence now referred itself to his presence then, reminding her how kind he had been, altogether, at Matcham, and telling her, unexpectedly, at a time when she could particularly feel it, that, for such kindness and for the beauty of what they remembered together, she hadn’t lost him — quite the contrary. To receive him handsomely, to receive him there, to see him interested and charmed, as well, clearly, as delighted to have found her without some other person to spoil it — these things were so pleasant for the first minutes that they might have represented on her part some happy foreknowledge. She gave an account of her companions while he on his side failed to press her about them, even though describing his appearance, so unheralded, as the result of an impulse obeyed on the spot. He had been shivering at Carlsbad, belated there and blue, when taken by it; so that, knowing where they all were, he had simply caught the first train. He explained how he had known where they were; he had heard — what more natural? — from their friends, Milly’s and his. He mentioned this betimes, but it was with his mention, singularly, that the girl became conscious of her inner question about his reason. She noticed his plural, which added to Mrs. Lowder or added to Kate; but she presently noticed also that it didn’t affect her as explaining. Aunt Maud had written to him, Kate apparently — and this was interesting — had written to him; but their design presumably hadn’t been that he should come and sit there as if rather relieved, so far as they were concerned, at postponements. He only said “Oh!” and again “Oh!” when she sketched their probable morning for him, under Eugenio’s care and Mrs. Stringham’s — sounding it quite as if any suggestion that he should overtake them at the Rialto or the Bridge of Sighs would leave him temporarily cold. This precisely it was that, after a little, operated for Milly as an obscure but still fairly direct check to confidence. He had known where they all were from the others, but it was not for the others that, in his actual dispositions, he had come. That, strange to say, was a pity; for, stranger still to say, she could have shown him more confidence if he himself had had less intention. His intention so chilled her, from the moment she found herself divining it, that, just for the pleasure of going on with him fairly, just for the pleasure of their remembrance together of Matcham and the Bronzino, the climax of her fortune, she could have fallen to pleading with him and to reasoning, to undeceiving him in time. There had been, for ten minutes, with the directness of her welcome to him and the way this clearly pleased him, something of the grace of amends made, even though he couldn’t know it — amends for her not having been originally sure, for instance at that first dinner of Aunt Maud’s, that he was adequately human. That first dinner of Aunt Maud’s added itself to the hour at Matcham, added itself to other things, to consolidate, for her present benevolence, the ease of their relation, making it suddenly delightful that he had thus turned up. He exclaimed, as he looked about, on the charm of the place: “What a temple to taste and an expression of the pride of life, yet, with all that, what a jolly home!”— so that, for his entertainment, she could offer to walk him about though she mentioned that she had just been, for her own purposes, in a general prowl, taking everything in more susceptibly than before. He embraced her offer without a scruple and seemed to rejoice that he was to find her susceptible.
She couldn’t have said what it was, in the conditions, that renewed the whole solemnity, but by the end of twenty minutes a kind of wistful hush had fallen upon them, as before something poignant in which her visitor also participated. That was nothing verily but the perfection of the charm — or nothing rather but their excluded disinherited state in the presence of it. The charm turned on them a face that was cold in its beauty, that was full of a poetry never to be theirs, that spoke with an ironic smile of a possible but forbidden life. It all rolled afresh over Milly: “Oh the impossible romance —!” The romance for her, yet once more, would be to sit there for ever, through all her time, as in a fortress; and the idea became an image of never going down, of remaining aloft in the divine dustless air, where she would hear but the plash of the water against stone. The great floor on which they moved was at an altitude, and this prompted the rueful fancy. “Ah not to go down — never, never to go down!” she strangely sighed to her friend.
“But why shouldn’t you,” he asked, “with that tremendous old staircase in your court? There ought of course always to be people at top and bottom, in Veronese costumes, to watch you do it.”
She shook her head both lightly and mournfully enough at his not understanding. “Not even for people in Veronese costumes. I mean that the positive beauty is that one needn’t go down. I don’t move in fact,” she added —“now. I’ve not been out, you know. I stay up. That’s how you happily found me.”
Lord Mark wondered — he was, oh yes, adequately human. “You don’t go about?”
She looked over the place, the storey above the apartments in which she had received him, the sala corresponding to the sala below and fronting the great canal with its gothic arches. The casements between the arches were open, the ledge of the balcony broad, the sweep of the canal, so overhung, admirable, and the flutter toward them of the loose white curtain an invitation to she scarce could have said what. But there was no mystery after a moment; she had never felt so invited to anything as to make that, and that only, just where she was, her adventure. It would be-to this it kept coming back — the adventure of not stirring. “I go about just here.”
“Do you mean,” Lord Mark presently asked, “that you’re really not well?”
They were at the window, pausing, lingering, with the fine old faded palaces opposite and the slow Adriatic tide beneath; but after a minute, and before she answered, she had closed her eyes to what she saw and unresistingly dropped her face into her arms, which rested on the coping. She had fallen to her knees on the cushion of the window-place, and she leaned there, in a long silence, with her forehead down. She knew that her silence was itself too straight an answer, but it was beyond her now to say that she saw her way. She would have made the question itself impossible to others — impossible for example to such a man as Merton Densher; and she could wonder even on the spot what it was a sign of in her feeling for Lord Mark that from his lips it almost tempted her to break down. This was doubtless really because she cared for him so little; to let herself go with him thus, suffer his touch to make her cup overflow, would be the relief — since it was actually, for her nerves, a question of relief — that would cost her least. If he had come to her moreover with the intention she believed, or even if this intention had but been determined in him by the spell of their situation, he mustn’t be mistaken about her value — for what value did she now have? It throbbed within her as she knelt there that she had none at all; though, holding herself, not yet speaking, she tried, even in the act, to recover what might be possible of it. With that there came to her a light: wouldn’t her value, for the man who should marry her, be precisely in the ravage of her disease? She mightn’t last, but her money would. For a man in whom the vision of her money should be intense, in whom it should be most of the ground for “making up” to her, any prospective failure on her part to be long for this world might easily count as a positive attraction. Such a man, proposing to please, persuade, secure her, appropriate her for such a time, shorter or longer, as nature and the doctors should allow, would make the best of her, ill, damaged, disagreeable though she might be, for the sake of eventual benefits: she being clearly a person of the sort esteemed likely to do the handsome thing by a stricken and sorrowing husband.
She had said to herself betimes, in a general way, that whatever habits her youth might form, that of seeing an interested suitor in every bush should certainly never grow to be one of them — an attitude she had early judged as ignoble, as poisonous. She had had accordingly in fact as little to do with it as possible and she scarce knew why at the present moment she should have had to catch herself in the act of imputing an ugly motive. It didn’t sit, the ugly motive, in Lord Mark’s cool English eyes; the darker side of it at any rate showed, to her imagination, but briefly. Suspicion moreover, with this, simplified itself: there was a beautiful reason — indeed there were two — why her companion’s motive shouldn’t matter. One was that even should he desire her without a penny she wouldn’t marry him for the world; the other was that she felt him, after all, perceptively, kindly, very pleasantly and humanly, concerned for her. They were also two things, his wishing to be well, to be very well, with her, and his beginning to feel her as threatened, haunted, blighted; but they were melting together for him, making him, by their combination, only the more sure that, as he probably called it to himself, he liked her. That was presently what remained with her — his really doing it; and with the natural and proper incident of being conciliated by her weakness. Would she really have had him — she could ask herself that — disconcerted or disgusted by it? If he could only be touched enough to do what she preferred, not to raise, not to press any question, he might render her a much better service than by merely enabling her to refuse him. Again, again it was strange, but he figured to her for the moment as the one safe sympathiser. It would have made her worse to talk to others, but she wasn’t afraid with him of how he might wince and look pale. She would keep him, that is, her one easy relation — in the sense of easy for himself. Their actual outlook had meanwhile such charm, what surrounded them within and without did so much toward making appreciative stillness as natural as at the opera, that she could consider she hadn’t made him hang on her lips when at last, instead of saying if she were well or ill, she repeated: “I go about here. I don’t get tired of it. I never should — it suits me so. I adore the place,” she went on, “and I don’t want in the least to give it up.”
“Neither should I if I had your luck. Still, with that luck, for one’s all —! Should you positively like to live here?”
“I think I should like,” said poor Milly after an instant, “to die here.”
Which made him, precisely, laugh. That was what she wanted — when a person did care: it was the pleasant human way, without depths of darkness. “Oh it’s not good enough for that! That requires picking. But can’t you keep it? It is, you know, the sort of place to see you in; you carry out the note, fill it, people it, quite by yourself, and you might do much worse — I mean for your friends — than show yourself here a while, three or four months, every year. But it’s not my notion for the rest of the time. One has quite other uses for you.”
“What sort of a use for me is it,” she smilingly enquired, “to kill me?”
“Do you mean we should kill you in England?”
“Well, I’ve seen you and I’m afraid. You’re too much for me — too many. England bristles with questions. This is more, as you say there, my form.”
“Oho, oho!”— he laughed again as if to humour her. “Can’t you then buy it — for a price? Depend upon it they’ll treat for money. That is for money enough.”
“I’ve exactly,” she said, “been wondering if they won’t. I think I shall try. But if I get it I shall cling to it.” They were talking sincerely. “It will be my life — paid for as that. It will become my great gilded shell; so that those who wish to find me must come and hunt me up.”
“Ah then you will be alive,” said Lord Mark.
“Well, not quite extinct perhaps, but shrunken, wasted, wizened; rattling about here like the dried kernel of a nut.”
“Oh,” Lord Mark returned, “we, much as you mistrust us, can do better for you than that.”
“In the sense that you’ll feel it better for me really to have it over?”
He let her see now that she worried him, and after a look at her, of some duration, without his glasses — which always altered the expression of his eyes — he re-settled the nippers on his nose and went back to the view. But the view, in turn, soon enough released him. “Do you remember something I said to you that day at Matcham — or at least fully meant to?”
“Oh yes, I remember everything at Matcham. It’s another life.”
“Certainly it will be-I mean the kind of thing: what I then wanted it to represent for you. Matcham, you know,” he continued, “is symbolic. I think I tried to rub that into you a little.”
She met him with the full memory of what he had tried — not an inch, not an ounce of which was lost to her. “What I meant is that it seems a hundred years ago.”
“Oh for me it comes in better. Perhaps a part of what makes me remember it,” he pursued, “is that I was quite aware of what might have been said about what I was doing. I wanted you to take it from me that I should perhaps be able to look after you — well, rather better. Rather better, of course, than certain other persons in particular.”
“Precisely — than Mrs. Lowder, than Miss Croy, even than Mrs. Stringham.”
“Oh Mrs. Stringham’s all right!” Lord Mark promptly amended.
It amused her even with what she had else to think of; and she could show him at all events how little, in spite of the hundred years, she had lost what he alluded to. The way he was with her at this moment made in fact the other moment so vivid as almost to start again the tears it had started at the time. “You could do so much for me, yes. I perfectly understood you.”
“I wanted, you see,” he despite this explained, “to fix your confidence. I mean, you know, in the right place.”
“Well, Lord Mark, you did — it’s just exactly now, my confidence, where you put it then. The only difference,” said Milly, “is that I seem now to have no use for it. Besides,” she then went on, “I do seem to feel you disposed to act in a way that would undermine it a little.”
He took no more notice of these last words than if she hadn’t said them, only watching her at present as with a gradual new light. “Are you really in any trouble?”
To this, on her side, she gave no heed. Making out his light was a little a light for herself. “Don’t say, don’t try to say, anything that’s impossible. There are much better things you can do.”
He looked straight at it and then straight over it. “It’s too monstrous that one can’t ask you as a friend what one wants so to know.”
“What is it you want to know?” She spoke, as by a sudden turn, with a slight hardness. “Do you want to know if I’m badly ill?”
The sound of it in truth, though from no raising of her voice, invested the idea with a kind of terror, but a terror all for others. Lord Mark winced and flushed — clearly couldn’t help it; but he kept his attitude together and spoke even with unwonted vivacity. “Do you imagine I can see you suffer and not say a word?”
“You won’t see me suffer — don’t be afraid. I shan’t be a public nuisance. That’s why I should have liked this: it’s so beautiful in itself and yet it’s out of the gangway. You won’t know anything about anything,” she added; and then as if to make with decision an end: “And you don’t! No, not even you.” He faced her through it with the remains of his expression, and she saw him as clearly — for him — bewildered; which made her wish to be sure not to have been unkind. She would be kind once for all; that would be the end. “I’m very badly ill.”
“And you don’t do anything?”
“I do everything. Everything’s this,” she smiled. “I’m doing it now. One can’t do more than live.”
“Ah than live in the right way, no. But is that what you do? Why haven’t you advice?”
He had looked about at the rococo elegance as if there were fifty things it didn’t give her, so that he suggested with urgency the most absent. But she met his remedy with a smile. “I’ve the best advice in the world. I’m acting under it now. I act upon it in receiving you, in talking with you thus. One can’t, as I tell you, do more than live.”
“Oh live!” Lord Mark ejaculated.
“Well, it’s immense for me.” She finally spoke as if for amusement; now that she had uttered her truth, that he had learnt it from herself as no one had yet done, her emotion had, by the fact, dried up. There she was; but it was as if she would never speak again. “I shan’t,” she added, “have missed everything.”
“Why should you have missed anything?” She felt, as he sounded this, to what, within the minute, he had made up his mind. “You’re the person in the world for whom that’s least necessary; for whom one would call it in fact most impossible; for whom ‘missing’ at all will surely require an extraordinary amount of misplaced good will. Since you believe in advice, for God’s sake take mine. I know what you want.”
Oh she knew he would know it. But she had brought it on herself — or almost. Yet she spoke with kindness. “I think I want not to be too much worried.”
“You want to be adored.” It came at last straight. “Nothing would worry you less. I mean as I shall do it. It is so”— he firmly kept it up. “You’re not loved enough.”
“Enough for what, Lord Mark?”
“Why to get the full good of it.”
Well, she didn’t after all mock at him. “I see what you mean. That full good of it which consists in finding one’s self forced to love in return.” She had grasped it, but she hesitated. “Your idea is that I might find myself forced to love you?”
“Oh ‘forced’—!” He was so fine and so expert, so awake to anything the least ridiculous, and of a type with which the preaching of passion somehow so ill consorted — he was so much all these things that he had absolutely to take account of them himself. And he did so, in a single intonation, beautifully. Milly liked him again, liked him for such shades as that, liked him so that it was woeful to see him spoiling it, and still more woeful to have to rank him among those minor charms of existence that she gasped at moments to remember she must give up. “Is it inconceivable to you that you might try?”
“To be so favourably affected by you —?”
“To believe in me. To believe in me,” Lord Mark repeated.
Again she hesitated. “To ‘try’ in return for your trying?”
“Oh I shouldn’t have to!” he quickly declared. The prompt neat accent, however, his manner of disposing of her question, failed of real expression, as he himself the next moment intelligently, helplessly, almost comically saw — a failure pointed moreover by the laugh into which Milly was immediately startled. As a suggestion to her of a healing and uplifting passion it was in truth deficient; it wouldn’t do as the communication of a force that should sweep them both away. And the beauty of him was that he too, even in the act of persuasion, of self-persuasion, could understand that, and could thereby show but the better as fitting into the pleasant commerce of prosperity. The way she let him see that she looked at him was a thing to shut him out, of itself, from services of danger, a thing that made a discrimination against him never yet made — made at least to any consciousness of his own. Born to float in a sustaining air, this would be his first encounter with a judgement formed in the sinister light of tragedy. The gathering dusk of her personal world presented itself to him, in her eyes, as an element in which it was vain for him to pretend he could find himself at home, since it was charged with depressions and with dooms, with the chill of the losing game. Almost without her needing to speak, and simply by the fact that there could be, in such a case, no decent substitute for a felt intensity, he had to take it from her that practically he was afraid — whether afraid to protest falsely enough, or only afraid of what might be eventually disagreeable in a compromised alliance, being a minor question. She believed she made out besides, wonderful girl, that he had never quite expected to have to protest about anything beyond his natural convenience — more, in fine, than his disposition and habits, his education as well, his personal moyens, in short, permitted. His predicament was therefore one he couldn’t like, and also one she willingly would have spared him hadn’t he brought it on himself. No man, she was quite aware, could enjoy thus having it from her that he wasn’t good for what she would have called her reality. It wouldn’t have taken much more to enable her positively to make out in him that he was virtually capable of hinting — had his innermost feeling spoken — at the propriety rather, in his interest, of some cutting down, some dressing up, of the offensive real. He would meet that halfway, but the real must also meet him. Milly’s sense of it for herself, which was so conspicuously, so financially supported, couldn’t, or wouldn’t, so accommodate him, and the perception of that fairly showed in his face after a moment like the smart of a blow. It had marked the one minute during which he could again be touching to her. By the time he had tried once more, after all, to insist, he had quite ceased to be so.
By this time she had turned from their window to make a diversion, had walked him through other rooms, appealing again to the inner charm of the place, going even so far for that purpose as to point afresh her independent moral, to repeat that if one only had such a house for one’s own and loved it and cherished it enough, it would pay one back in kind, would close one in from harm. He quite grasped for the quarter of an hour the perch she held out to him — grasped it with one hand, that is, while she felt him attached to his own clue with the other; he was by no means either so sore or so stupid, to do him all justice, as not to be able to behave more or less as if nothing had happened. It was one of his merits, to which she did justice too, that both his native and his acquired notion of behaviour rested on the general assumption that nothing — nothing to make a deadly difference for him — ever could happen. It was, socially, a working view like another, and it saw them easily enough through the greater part of the rest of their adventure. Downstairs again, however, with the limit of his stay in sight, the sign of his smarting, when all was said, reappeared for her — breaking out moreover, with an effect of strangeness, in another quite possibly sincere allusion to her state of health. He might for that matter have been seeing what he could do in the way of making it a grievance that she should snub him for a charity, on his own part, exquisitely roused. “It’s true, you know, all the same, and I don’t care a straw for your trying to freeze one up.” He seemed to show her, poor man, bravely, how little he cared. “Everybody knows affection often makes things out when indifference doesn’t notice. And that’s why I know that I notice.”
“Are you sure you’ve got it right?” the girl smiled. “I thought rather that affection was supposed to be blind.”
“Blind to faults, not to beauties,” Lord Mark promptly returned.
“And are my extremely private worries, my entirely domestic complications, which I’m ashamed to have given you a glimpse of — are they beauties?”
“Yes, for those who care for you — as every one does. Everything about you is a beauty. Besides which I don’t believe,” he declared, “in the seriousness of what you tell me. It’s too absurd you should have any trouble about which something can’t be done. If you can’t get the right thing, who can, in all the world, I should like to know? You’re the first young woman of your time. I mean what I say.” He looked, to do him justice, quite as if he did; not ardent, but clear — simply so competent, in such a position, to compare, that his quiet assertion had the force not so much perhaps of a tribute as of a warrant. “We’re all in love with you. I’ll put it that way, dropping any claim of my own, if you can bear it better. I speak as one of the lot. You weren’t born simply to torment us — you were born to make us happy. Therefore you must listen to us.”
She shook her head with her slowness, but this time with all her mildness. “No, I mustn’t listen to you — that’s just what I mustn’t do. The reason is, please, that it simply kills me. I must be as attached to you as you will, since you give that lovely account of yourselves. I give you in return the fullest possible belief of what it would be-” And she pulled up a little. “I give and give and give — there you are; stick to me as close as you like and see if I don’t. Only I can’t listen or receive or accept — I can’t agree. I can’t make a bargain. I can’t really. You must believe that from me. It’s all I’ve wanted to say to you, and why should it spoil anything?”
He let her question fall — though clearly, it might have seemed, because, for reasons or for none, there was so much that was spoiled. “You want somebody of your own.” He came back, whether in good faith or in bad, to that; and it made her repeat her headshake. He kept it up as if his faith were of the best. “You want somebody, you want somebody.”
She was to wonder afterwards if she hadn’t been at this juncture on the point of saying something emphatic and vulgar —“Well, I don’t at all events want you!” What somehow happened, nevertheless, the pity of it being greater than the irritation — the sadness, to her vivid sense, of his being so painfully astray, wandering in a desert in which there was nothing to nourish him — was that his error amounted to positive wrongdoing. She was moreover so acquainted with quite another sphere of usefulness for him that her having suffered him to insist almost convicted her of indelicacy. Why hadn’t she stopped him off with her first impression of his purpose? She could do so now only by the allusion she had been wishing not to make. “Do you know I don’t think you’re doing very right? — and as a thing quite apart, I mean, from my listening to you. That’s not right either — except that I’m not listening. You oughtn’t to have come to Venice to see me — and in fact you’ve not come, and you mustn’t behave as if you had. You’ve much older friends than I, and ever so much better. Really, if you’ve come at all, you can only have come — properly, and if I may say so honourably — for the best friend, as I believe her to be, that you have in the world.”
When once she had said it he took it, oddly enough, as if he had been more or less expecting it. Still, he looked at her very hard, and they had a moment of this during which neither pronounced a name, each apparently determined that the other should. It was Milly’s fine coercion, in the event, that was the stronger. “Miss Croy?” Lord Mark asked.
It might have been difficult to make out that she smiled. “Mrs. Lowder.” He did make out something, and then fairly coloured for its attestation of his comparative simplicity. “I call her on the whole the best. I can’t imagine a man’s having a better.”
Still with his eyes on her he turned it over. “Do you want me to marry Mrs. Lowder?”
At which it seemed to her that it was he who was almost vulgar! But she wouldn’t in any way have that. “You know, Lord Mark, what I mean. One isn’t in the least turning you out into the cold world. There’s no cold world for you at all, I think,” she went on; “nothing but a very warm and watchful and expectant world that’s waiting for you at any moment you choose to take it up.”
He never budged, but they were standing on the polished concrete and he had within a few minutes possessed himself again of his hat. “Do you want me to marry Kate Croy?”
“Mrs. Lowder wants it — I do no wrong, I think, in saying that; and she understands moreover that you know she does.”
Well, he showed how beautifully he could take it; and it wasn’t obscure to her, on her side, that it was a comfort to deal with a gentleman. “It’s ever so kind of you to see such opportunities for me. But what’s the use of my tackling Miss Croy?”
Milly rejoiced on the spot to be so able to point out. “Because she’s the handsomest and cleverest and most charming creature I ever saw, and because if I were a man I should simply adore her. In fact I do as it is.” It was a luxury of response.
“Oh, my dear lady, plenty of people adore her. But that can’t further the case of all.”
“Ah,” she went on, “I know about ‘people.’ If the case of one’s bad, the case of another’s good. I don’t see what you have to fear from any one else,” she said, “save through your being foolish, this way, about me.”
So she said, but she was aware the next moment of what he was making of what she didn’t see. “Is it your idea — since we’re talking of these things in these ways — that the young lady you describe in such superlative terms is to be had for the asking?”
“Well, Lord Mark, try. She is a great person. But don’t be humble.” She was almost gay.
It was this apparently, at last, that was too much for him. “But don’t you really know?”
As a challenge, practically, to the commonest intelligence she could pretend to, it made her of course wish to be fair. “I ‘know’ yes, that a particular person’s very much in love with her.”
“Then you must know by the same token that she’s very much in love with a particular person.”
“Ah I beg your pardon!”— and Milly quite flushed at having so crude a blunder imputed to her. “You’re wholly mistaken.”
“It’s not true?”
“It’s not true.”
His stare became a smile. “Are you very, very sure?”
“As sure as one can be”— and Milly’s manner could match it —“when one has every assurance. I speak on the best authority.”
He hesitated. “Mrs. Lowder’s?”
“No. I don’t call Mrs. Lowder’s the best.”
“Oh I thought you were just now saying,” he laughed, “that everything about her’s so good.”
“Good for you”— she was perfectly clear. “For you,” she went on, “let her authority be the best. She doesn’t believe what you mention, and you must know yourself how little she makes of it. So you can take it from her. I take it —” But Milly, with the positive tremor of her emphasis, pulled up.
“You take it from Kate?”
“From Kate herself.”
“That she’s thinking of no one at all?”
“Of no one at all.” Then, with her intensity, she went on. “She has given me her word for it.”
“Oh!” said Lord Mark. To which he next added: “And what do you call her word?”
It made Milly, on her side, stare — though perhaps partly but with the instinct of gaining time for the consciousness that she was already a little further “in” than she had designed. “Why, Lord Mark, what should you call her word?”
“Ah I’m not obliged to say. I’ve not asked her. You apparently have.”
Well, it threw her on her defence — a defence that she felt, however, especially as of Kate. “We’re very intimate,” she said in a moment; “so that, without prying into each other’s affairs, she naturally tells me things.”
Lord Mark smiled as at a lame conclusion. “You mean then she made you of her own movement the declaration you quote?”
Milly thought again, though with hindrance rather than help in her sense of the way their eyes now met — met as for their each seeing in the other more than either said. What she most felt that she herself saw was the strange disposition on her companion’s part to disparage Kate’s veracity. She could be only concerned to “stand up” for that.
“I mean what I say: that when she spoke of her having no private interest —”
“She took her oath to you?” Lord Mark interrupted.
Milly didn’t quite see why he should so catechise her; but she met it again for Kate. “She left me in no doubt whatever of her being free.”
At this Lord Mark did look at her, though he continued to smile. “And thereby in no doubt of your being too?” It was as if as soon as he had said it, however, he felt it as something of a mistake, and she couldn’t herself have told by what queer glare at him she had instantly signified that. He at any rate gave her glare no time to act further; he fell back on the spot, and with a light enough movement, within his rights. “That’s all very well, but why in the world, dear lady, should she be swearing to you?”
She had to take this “dear lady” as applying to herself; which disconcerted her when he might now so gracefully have used it for the aspersed Kate. Once more it came to her that she must claim her own part of the aspersion. “Because, as I’ve told you, we’re such tremendous friends.”
“Oh,” said Lord Mark, who for the moment looked as if that might have stood rather for an absence of such rigours. He was going, however, as if he had in a manner, at the last, got more or less what he wanted. Milly felt, while he addressed his next few words to leave-taking, that she had given rather more than she intended or than she should be able, when once more getting herself into hand, theoretically to defend. Strange enough in fact that he had had from her, about herself — and, under the searching spell of the place, infinitely straight — what no one else had had: neither Kate, nor Aunt Maud, nor Merton Densher, nor Susan Shepherd. He had made her within a minute, in particular, she was aware, lose her presence of mind, and she now wished he would take himself off, so that she might either recover it or bear the loss better in solitude. If he paused, however, she almost at the same time saw, it was because of his watching the approach, from the end of the sala, of one of the gondoliers, who, whatever excursions were appointed for the party with the attendance of the others, always, as the most decorative, most sashed and starched, remained at the palace on the theory that she might whimsically want him — which she never, in her caged freedom, had yet done. Brown Pasquale, slipping in white shoes over the marble and suggesting to her perpetually charmed vision she could scarce say what, either a mild Hindoo, too noiseless almost for her nerves, or simply a barefooted seaman on the deck of a ship — Pasquale offered to sight a small salver, which he obsequiously held out to her with its burden of a visiting-card. Lord Mark — and as if also for admiration of him — delayed his departure to let her receive it; on which she read it with the instant effect of another blow to her presence of mind. This precarious quantity was indeed now so gone that even for dealing with Pasquale she had to do her best to conceal its disappearance. The effort was made, none the less, by the time she had asked if the gentleman were below and had taken in the fact that he had come up. He had followed the gondolier and was waiting at the top of the staircase.
“I’ll see him with pleasure.” To which she added for her companion, while Pasquale went off: “Mr. Merton Densher.”
“Oh!” said Lord Mark — in a manner that, making it resound through the great cool hall, might have carried it even to Densher’s ear as a judgement of his identity heard and noted once before
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56