Densher became aware, afresh, that he disliked his hotel — and all the more promptly that he had had occasion of old to make the same discrimination. The establishment, choked at that season with the polyglot herd, cockneys of all climes, mainly German, mainly American, mainly English, it appeared as the corresponding sensitive nerve was touched, sounded loud and not sweet, sounded anything and everything but Italian, but Venetian. The Venetian was all a dialect, he knew; yet it was pure Attic beside some of the dialects at the bustling inn. It made, “abroad,” both for his pleasure and his pain that he had to feel at almost any point how he had been through every thing before. He had been three or four times, in Venice, during other visits, through this pleasant irritation of paddling away — away from the concert of false notes in the vulgarised hall, away from the amiable American families and overfed German porters. He had in each case made terms for a lodging more private and not more costly, and he recalled with tenderness these shabby but friendly asylums, the windows of which he should easily know again in passing on canal or through campo. The shabbiest now failed of an appeal to him, but he found himself at the end of forty-eight hours forming views in respect to a small independent quartiere, far down the Grand Canal, which he had once occupied for a month with a sense of pomp and circumstance and yet also with a growth of initiation into the homelier Venetian mysteries. The humour of those days came back to him for an hour, and what further befell in this interval, to be brief, was that, emerging on a traghetto in sight of the recognised house, he made out on the green shutters of his old, of his young windows the strips of white pasted paper that figure in Venice as an invitation to tenants. This was in the course of his very first walk apart, a walk replete with impressions to which he responded with force. He had been almost without cessation, since his arrival, at Palazzo Leporelli, where, as happened, a turn of bad weather on the second day had kept the whole party continuously at home. The episode had passed for him like a series of hours in a museum, though without the fatigue of that; and it had also resembled something that he was still, with a stirred imagination, to find a name for. He might have been looking for the name while he gave himself up, subsequently, to the ramble — he saw that even after years he couldn’t lose his way — crowned with his stare across the water at the little white papers.
He was to dine at the palace in an hour or two, and he had lunched there, at an early luncheon, that morning. He had then been out with the three ladies, the three being Mrs. Lowder, Mrs. Stringham and Kate, and had kept afloat with them, under a sufficient Venetian spell, until Aunt Maud had directed him to leave them and return to Miss Theale. Of two circumstances connected with this disposition of his person he was even now not unmindful; the first being that the lady of Lancaster Gate had addressed him with high publicity and as if expressing equally the sense of her companions, who had not spoken, but who might have been taken — yes, Susan Shepherd quite equally with Kate — for inscrutable parties to her plan. What he could as little contrive to forget was that he had, before the two others, as it struck him — that was to say especially before Kate — done exactly as he was bidden; gathered himself up without a protest and retraced his way to the palace. Present with him still was the question of whether he looked a fool for it, of whether the awkwardness he felt as the gondola rocked with the business of his leaving it — they could but make, in submission, for a landing-place that was none of the best — had furnished his friends with such entertainment as was to cause them, behind his back, to exchange intelligent smiles. He had found Milly Theale twenty minutes later alone, and he had sat with her till the others returned to tea. The strange part of this was that it had been very easy, extraordinarily easy. He knew it for strange only when he was away from her, because when he was away from her he was in contact with particular things that made it so. At the time, in her presence, it was as simple as sitting with his sister might have been, and not, if the point were urged, very much more thrilling. He continued to see her as he had first seen her — that remained ineffaceably behind. Mrs. Lowder, Susan Shepherd, his own Kate, might, each in proportion, see her as a princess, as an angel, as a star, but for himself, luckily, she hadn’t as yet complications to any point of discomfort: the princess, the angel, the star, were muffled over, ever so lightly and brightly, with the little American girl who had been kind to him in New York and to whom certainly — though without making too much of it for either of them — he was perfectly willing to be kind in return. She appreciated his coming in on purpose, but there was nothing in that — from the moment she was always at home — that they couldn’t easily keep up. The only note the least bit high that had even yet sounded between them was this admission on her part that she found it best to remain within. She wouldn’t let him call it keeping quiet, for she insisted that her palace — with all its romance and art and history — had set up round her a whirlwind of suggestion that never dropped for an hour. It wasn’t therefore, within such walls, confinement, it was the freedom of all the centuries: in respect to which Densher granted good-humouredly that they were then blown together, she and he, as much as she liked, through space.
Kate had found on the present occasion a moment to say to him that he suggested a clever cousin calling on a cousin afflicted, and bored for his pains; and though he denied on the spot the “bored” he could so far see it as an impression he might make that he wondered if the same image wouldn’t have occurred to Milly. As soon as Kate appeared again the difference came up — the oddity, as he then instantly felt it, of his having sunk so deep. It was sinking because it was all doing what Kate had conceived for him; it wasn’t in the least doing — and that had been his notion of his life — anything he himself had conceived. The difference, accordingly, renewed, sharp, sore, was the irritant under which he had quitted the palace and under which he was to make the best of the business of again dining there. He said to himself that he must make the best of everything; that was in his mind, at the traghetto, even while, with his preoccupation about changing quarters, he studied, across the canal, the look of his former abode. It had done for the past, would it do for the present? would it play in any manner into the general necessity of which he was conscious? That necessity of making the best was the instinct — as he indeed himself knew — of a man somehow aware that if he let go at one place he should let go everywhere. If he took off his hand, the hand that at least helped to hold it together, the whole queer fabric that built him in would fall away in a minute and admit the light. It was really a matter of nerves; it was exactly because he was nervous that he could go straight; yet if that condition should increase he must surely go wild. He was walking in short on a high ridge, steep down on either side, where the proprieties — once he could face at all remaining there — reduced themselves to his keeping his head. It was Kate who had so perched him, and there came up for him at moments, as he found himself planting one foot exactly before another, a sensible sharpness of irony as to her management of him. It wasn’t that she had put him in danger — to be in real danger with her would have had another quality. There glowed for him in fact a kind of rage at what he wasn’t having; an exasperation, a resentment, begotten truly by the very impatience of desire, in respect to his postponed and relegated, his so extremely manipulated state. It was beautifully done of her, but what was the real meaning of it unless that he was perpetually bent to her will? His idea from the first, from the very first of his knowing her, had been to be, as the French called it, bon prince with her, mindful of the good humour and generosity, the contempt, in the matter of confidence, for small outlays and small savings, that belonged to the man who wasn’t generally afraid. There were things enough, goodness knew — for it was the moral of his plight — that he couldn’t afford; but what had had a charm for him if not the notion of living handsomely, to make up for it, in another way? of not at all events reading the romance of his existence in a cheap edition. All he had originally felt in her came back to him, was indeed actually as present as ever — how he had admired and envied what he called to himself her pure talent for life, as distinguished from his own, a poor weak thing of the occasion, amateurishly patched up; only it irritated him the more that this was exactly what was now, ever so characteristically, standing out in her.
It was thanks to her pure talent for life, verily, that he was just where he was and that he was above all just how he was. The proof of a decent reaction in him against so much passivity was, with no great richness, that he at least knew — knew, that is, how he was, and how little he liked it as a thing accepted in mere helplessness. He was, for the moment, wistful — that above all described it; that was so large a part of the force that, as the autumn afternoon closed in, kept him, on his traghetto, positively throbbing with his question. His question connected itself, even while he stood, with his special smothered soreness, his sense almost of shame; and the soreness and the shame were less as he let himself, with the help of the conditions about him, regard it as serious. It was born, for that matter, partly of the conditions, those conditions that Kate had so almost insolently braved, had been willing, without a pang, to see him ridiculously — ridiculously so far as just complacently — exposed to. How little it could be complacently he was to feel with the last thoroughness before he had moved from his point of vantage. His question, as we have called it, was the interesting question of whether he had really no will left. How could he know — that was the point — without putting the matter to the test? It had been right to be bon prince, and the joy, something of the pride, of having lived, in spirit, handsomely, was even now compatible with the impulse to look into their account; but he held his breath a little as it came home to him with supreme sharpness that, whereas he had done absolutely everything that Kate had wanted, she had done nothing whatever that he had. So it was in fine that his idea of the test by which he must try that possibility kept referring itself, in the warm early dusk, the approach of the Southern night —“conditions” these, such as we just spoke of — to the glimmer, more and more ghostly as the light failed, of the little white papers on his old green shutters. By the time he looked at his watch he had been for a quarter of an hour at this post of observation and reflexion; but by the time he walked away again he had found his answer to the idea that had grown so importunate. Since a proof of his will was wanted it was indeed very exactly in wait for him — it lurked there on the other side of the Canal. A ferryman at the little pier had from time to time accosted him; but it was a part of the play of his nervousness to turn his back on that facility. He would go over, but he walked, very quickly, round and round, crossing finally by the Rialto. The rooms, in the event, were unoccupied; the ancient padrona was there with her smile all a radiance but her recognition all a fable; the ancient rickety objects too, refined in their shabbiness, amiable in their decay, as to which, on his side, demonstrations were tenderly veracious; so that before he took his way again he had arranged to come in on the morrow.
He was amusing about it that evening at dinner — in spite of an odd first impulse, which at the palace quite melted away, to treat it merely as matter for his own satisfaction. This need, this propriety, he had taken for granted even up to the moment of suddenly perceiving, in the course of talk, that the incident would minister to innocent gaiety. Such was quite its effect, with the aid of his picture — an evocation of the quaint, of the humblest rococo, of a Venetian interior in the true old note. He made the point for his hostess that her own high chambers, though they were a thousand grand things, weren’t really this; made it in fact with such success that she presently declared it his plain duty to invite her on some near day to tea. She had expressed as yet — he could feel it as felt among them all — no such clear wish to go anywhere, not even to make an effort for a parish feast, or an autumn sunset, nor to descend her staircase for Titian or Gianbellini. It was constantly Densher’s view that, as between himself and Kate, things were understood without saying, so that he could catch in her, as she but too freely could in him, innumerable signs of it, the whole soft breath of consciousness meeting and promoting consciousness. This view was so far justified to-night as that Milly’s offer to him of her company was to his sense taken up by Kate in spite of her doing nothing to show it. It fell in so perfectly with what she had desired and foretold that she was — and this was what most struck him — sufficiently gratified and blinded by it not to know, from the false quality of his response, from his tone and his very look, which for an instant instinctively sought her own, that he had answered inevitably, almost shamelessly, in a mere time-gaining sense. It gave him on the spot, her failure of perception, almost a beginning of the advantage he had been planning for — that is at least if she too were not darkly dishonest. She might, he was not unaware, have made out, from some deep part of her, the bearing, in respect to herself, of the little fact he had announced; for she was after all capable of that, capable of guessing and yet of simultaneously hiding her guess. It wound him up a turn or two further, none the less, to impute to her now a weakness of vision by which he could himself feel the stronger. Whatever apprehension of his motive in shifting his abode might have brushed her with its wings, she at all events certainly didn’t guess that he was giving their friend a hollow promise. That was what she had herself imposed on him; there had been in the prospect from the first a definite particular point at which hollowness, to call it by its least compromising name, would have to begin. Therefore its hour had now charmingly sounded. Whatever in life he had recovered his old rooms for, he had not recovered them to receive Milly Theale: which made no more difference in his expression of happy readiness than if he had been — just what he was trying not to be-fully hardened and fully base. So rapid in fact was the rhythm of his inward drama that the quick vision of impossibility produced in him by his hostess’s direct and unexpected appeal had the effect, slightly sinister, of positively scaring him. It gave him a measure of the intensity, the reality of his now mature motive. It prompted in him certainly no quarrel with these things, but it made them as vivid as if they already flushed with success. It was before the flush of success that his heart beat almost to dread. The dread was but the dread of the happiness to be compassed; only that was in itself a symptom. That a visit from Milly should, in this projection of necessities, strike him as of the last incongruity, quite as a hateful idea, and above all as spoiling, should one put it grossly, his game — the adoption of such a view might of course have an identity with one of those numerous ways of being a fool that seemed so to abound for him. It would remain none the less the way to which he should be in advance most reconciled. His mature motive, as to which he allowed himself no grain of illusion, had thus in an hour taken imaginative possession of the place: that precisely was how he saw it seated there, already unpacked and settled, for Milly’s innocence, for Milly’s beauty, no matter how short a time, to be housed with. There were things she would never recognise, never feel, never catch in the air; but this made no difference in the fact that her brushing against them would do nobody any good. The discrimination and the scruple were for him. So he felt all the parts of the case together, while Kate showed admirably as feeling none of them. Of course, however — when hadn’t it to be his last word? — Kate was always sublime.
That came up in all connexions during the rest of these first days; came up in especial under pressure of the fact that each time our plighted pair snatched, in its passage, at the good fortune of half an hour together, they were doomed — though Densher felt it as all by his act — to spend a part of the rare occasion in wonder at their luck and in study of its queer character. This was the case after he might be supposed to have got, in a manner, used to it; it was the case after the girl — ready always, as we say, with the last word — had given him the benefit of her righting of every wrong appearance, a support familiar to him now in reference to other phases. It was still the case after he possibly might, with a little imagination, as she freely insisted, have made out, by the visible working of the crisis, what idea on Mrs. Lowder’s part had determined it. Such as the idea was — and that it suited Kate’s own book she openly professed — he had only to see how things were turning out to feel it strikingly justified. Densher’s reply to all this vividness was that of course Aunt Maud’s intervention hadn’t been occult, even for his vividness, from the moment she had written him, with characteristic concentration, that if he should see his way to come to Venice for a fortnight she should engage he would find it no blunder. It took Aunt Maud really to do such things in such ways; just as it took him, he was ready to confess, to do such others as he must now strike them all — didn’t he? — as committed to. Mrs. Lowder’s admonition had been of course a direct reference to what she had said to him at Lancaster Gate before his departure the night Milly had failed them through illness; only it had at least matched that remarkable outbreak in respect to the quantity of good nature it attributed to him. The young man’s discussions of his situation — which were confined to Kate; he had none with Aunt Maud herself — suffered a little, it may be divined, by the sense that he couldn’t put everything off, as he privately expressed it, on other people. His ears, in solitude, were apt to burn with the reflexion that Mrs. Lowder had simply tested him, seen him as he was and made out what could be done with him. She had had but to whistle for him and he had come. If she had taken for granted his good nature she was as justified as Kate declared. This awkwardness of his conscience, both in respect to his general plasticity, the fruit of his feeling plasticity, within limits, to be a mode of life like another — certainly better than some, and particularly in respect to such confusion as might reign about what he had really come for — this inward ache was not wholly dispelled by the style, charming as that was, of Kate’s poetic versions. Even the high wonder and delight of Kate couldn’t set him right with himself when there was something quite distinct from these things that kept him wrong.
In default of being right with himself he had meanwhile, for one thing, the interest of seeing — and quite for the first time in his life — whether, on a given occasion, that might be quite so necessary to happiness as was commonly assumed and as he had up to this moment never doubted. He was engaged distinctly in an adventure — he who had never thought himself cut out for them, and it fairly helped him that he was able at moments to say to himself that he mustn’t fall below it. At his hotel, alone, by night, or in the course of the few late strolls he was finding time to take through dusky labyrinthine alleys and empty campi, overhung with mouldering palaces, where he paused in disgust at his want of ease and where the sound of a rare footstep on the enclosed pavement was like that of a retarded dancer in a banquet-hall deserted — during these interludes he entertained cold views, even to the point, at moments, on the principle that the shortest follies are the best, of thinking of immediate departure as not only possible but as indicated. He had however only to cross again the threshold of Palazzo Leporelli to see all the elements of the business compose, as painters called it, differently. It began to strike him then that departure wouldn’t curtail, but would signally coarsen his folly, and that above all, as he hadn’t really “begun” anything, had only submitted, consented, but too generously indulged and condoned the beginnings of others, he had no call to treat himself with superstitious rigour. The single thing that was clear in complications was that, whatever happened, one was to behave as a gentleman — to which was added indeed the perhaps slightly less shining truth that complications might sometimes have their tedium beguiled by a study of the question of how a gentleman would behave. This question, I hasten to add, was not in the last resort Densher’s greatest worry. Three women were looking to him at once, and, though such a predicament could never be, from the point of view of facility, quite the ideal, it yet had, thank goodness, its immediate workable law. The law was not to be a brute — in return for amiabilities. He hadn’t come all the way out from England to be a brute. He hadn’t thought of what it might give him to have a fortnight, however handicapped, with Kate in Venice, to be a brute. He hadn’t treated Mrs. Lowder as if in responding to her suggestion he had understood her — he hadn’t done that either to be a brute. And what he had prepared least of all for such an anti-climax was the prompt and inevitable, the achieved surrender — as a gentleman, oh that indubitably! — to the unexpected impression made by poor pale exquisite Milly as the mistress of a grand old palace and the dispenser of an hospitality more irresistible, thanks to all the conditions, than any ever known to him.
This spectacle had for him an eloquence, an authority, a felicity — he scarce knew by what strange name to call it — for which he said to himself that he had not consciously bargained. Her welcome, her frankness, sweetness, sadness, brightness, her disconcerting poetry, as he made shift at moments to call it, helped as it was by the beauty of her whole setting and by the perception at the same time, on the observer’s part, that this element gained from her, in a manner, for effect and harmony, as much as it gave — her whole attitude had, to his imagination, meanings that hung about it, waiting upon her, hovering, dropping and quavering forth again, like vague faint snatches, mere ghosts of sound, of old-fashioned melancholy music. It was positively well for him, he had his times of reflecting, that he couldn’t put it off on Kate and Mrs. Lowder, as a gentleman so conspicuously wouldn’t, that — well, that he had been rather taken in by not having known in advance! There had been now five days of it all without his risking even to Kate alone any hint of what he ought to have known and of what in particular therefore had taken him in. The truth was doubtless that really, when it came to any free handling and naming of things, they were living together, the five of them, in an air in which an ugly effect of “blurting out” might easily be produced. He came back with his friend on each occasion to the blest miracle of renewed propinquity, which had a double virtue in that favouring air. He breathed on it as if he could scarcely believe it, yet the time had passed, in spite of this privilege, without his quite committing himself, for her ear, to any such comment on Milly’s high style and state as would have corresponded with the amount of recognition it had produced in him. Behind everything for him was his renewed remembrance, which had fairly become a habit, that he had been the first to know her. This was what they had all insisted on, in her absence, that day at Mrs. Lowder’s; and this was in especial what had made him feel its influence on his immediately paying her a second visit. Its influence had been all there, been in the high-hung, rumbling carriage with them, from the moment she took him to drive, covering them in together as if it had been a rug of softest silk. It had worked as a clear connexion with something lodged in the past, something already their own. He had more than once recalled how he had said to himself even at that moment, at some point in the drive, that he was not there, not just as he was in so doing it, through Kate and Kate’s idea, but through Milly and Milly’s own, and through himself and his own, unmistakeably — as well as through the little facts, whatever they had amounted to, of his time in New York.
There was at last, with everything that made for it, an occasion when he got from Kate, on what she now spoke of as his eternal refrain, an answer of which he was to measure afterwards the precipitating effect. His eternal refrain was the way he came back to the riddle of Mrs. Lowder’s view of her profit — a view so hard to reconcile with the chances she gave them to meet. Impatiently, at this, the girl denied the chances, wanting to know from him, with a fine irony that smote him rather straight, whether he felt their opportunities as anything so grand. He looked at her deep in the eyes when she had sounded this note; it was the least he could let her off with for having made him visibly flush. For some reason then, with it, the sharpness dropped out of her tone, which became sweet and sincere. “‘Meet,’ my dear man,” she expressively echoed; “does it strike you that we get, after all, so very much out of our meetings?”
“On the contrary — they’re starvation diet. All I mean is — and it’s all I’ve meant from the day I came — that we at least get more than Aunt Maud.”
“Ah but you see,” Kate replied, “you don’t understand what Aunt Maud gets.”
“Exactly so — and it’s what I don’t understand that keeps me so fascinated with the question. She gives me no light; she’s prodigious. She takes everything as of a natural —!”
“She takes it as ‘of a natural’ that at this rate I shall be making my reflexions about you. There’s every appearance for her,” Kate went on, “that what she had made her mind up to as possible is possible; that what she had thought more likely than not to happen is happening. The very essence of her, as you surely by this time have made out for yourself, is that when she adopts a view she — well, to her own sense, really brings the thing about, fairly terrorizes with her view any other, any opposite view, and those, not less, who represent that. I’ve often thought success comes to her”— Kate continued to study the phenomenon —“by the spirit in her that dares and defies her idea not to prove the right one. One has seen it so again and again, in the face of everything, become the right one.”
Densher had for this, as he listened, a smile of the largest response. “Ah my dear child, if you can explain I of course needn’t not ‘understand.’ I’m condemned to that,” he on his side presently explained, “only when understanding fails.” He took a moment; then he pursued: “Does she think she terrorises us?” To which he added while, without immediate speech, Kate but looked over the place: “Does she believe anything so stiff as that you’ve really changed about me?” He knew now that he was probing the girl deep — something told him so; but that was a reason the more. “Has she got it into her head that you dislike me?”
To this, of a sudden, Kate’s answer was strong. “You could yourself easily put it there!”
He wondered. “By telling her so?”
“No,” said Kate as with amusement at his simplicity; “I don’t ask that of you.”
“Oh my dear,” Densher laughed, “when you ask, you know, so little —!”
There was a full irony in this, on his own part, that he saw her resist the impulse to take up. “I’m perfectly justified in what I’ve asked,” she quietly returned. “It’s doing beautifully for you.” Their eyes again intimately met, and the effect was to make her proceed. “You’re not a bit unhappy.”
“Oh ain’t I?” he brought out very roundly.
“It doesn’t practically show — which is enough for Aunt Maud. You’re wonderful, you’re beautiful,” Kate said; “and if you really want to know whether I believe you’re doing it you may take from me perfectly that I see it coming.” With which, by a quick transition, as if she had settled the case, she asked him the hour.
“Oh only twelve-ten”— he had looked at his watch. “We’ve taken but thirteen minutes; we’ve time yet.”
“Then we must walk. We must go toward them.”
Densher, from where they had been standing, measured the long reach of the Square. “They’re still in their shop. They’re safe for half an hour.”
“That shows then, that shows!” said Kate.
This colloquy had taken place in the middle of Piazza San Marco, always, as a great social saloon, a smooth-floored, blue-roofed chamber of amenity, favourable to talk; or rather, to be exact, not in the middle, but at the point where our pair had paused by a common impulse after leaving the great mosque-like church. It rose now, domed and pinnacled, but a little way behind them, and they had in front the vast empty space, enclosed by its arcades, to which at that hour movement and traffic were mostly confined. Venice was at breakfast, the Venice of the visitor and the possible acquaintance, and, except for the parties of importunate pigeons picking up the crumbs of perpetual feasts, their prospect was clear and they could see their companions hadn’t yet been, and weren’t for a while longer likely to be, disgorged by the lace-shop, in one of the loggie, where, shortly before, they had left them for a look-in-the expression was artfully Densher’s — at Saint Mark’s. Their morning had happened to take such a turn as brought this chance to the surface; yet his allusion, just made to Kate, hadn’t been an overstatement of their general opportunity. The worst that could be said of their general opportunity was that it was essentially in presence — in presence of every one; every one consisting at this juncture, in a peopled world, of Susan Shepherd, Aunt Maud and Milly. But the proof how, even in presence, the opportunity could become special was furnished precisely by this view of the compatibility of their comfort with a certain amount of lingering. The others had assented to their not waiting in the shop; it was of course the least the others could do. What had really helped them this morning was the fact that, on his turning up, as he always called it, at the palace, Milly had not, as before, been able to present herself. Custom and use had hitherto seemed fairly established; on his coming round, day after day — eight days had been now so conveniently marked — their friends, Milly’s and his, conveniently dispersed and left him to sit with her till luncheon. Such was the perfect operation of the scheme on which he had been, as he phrased it to himself, had out; so that certainly there was that amount of justification for Kate’s vision of success. He had, for Mrs. Lowder — he couldn’t help it while sitting there — the air, which was the thing to be desired, of no absorption in Kate sufficiently deep to be alarming. He had failed their young hostess each morning as little as she had failed him; it was only today that she hadn’t been well enough to see him.
That had made a mark, all round; the mark was in the way in which, gathered in the room of state, with the place, from the right time, all bright and cool and beflowered, as always, to receive her descent, they — the rest of them — simply looked at each other. It was lurid — lurid, in all probability, for each of them privately — that they had uttered no common regrets. It was strange for our young man above all that, if the poor girl was indisposed to that degree, the hush of gravity, of apprehension, of significance of some sort, should be the most the case — that of the guests — could permit itself. The hush, for that matter, continued after the party of four had gone down to the gondola and taken their places in it. Milly had sent them word that she hoped they would go out and enjoy themselves, and this indeed had produced a second remarkable look, a look as of their knowing, one quite as well as the other, what such a message meant as provision for the alternative beguilement of Densher. She wished not to have spoiled his morning, and he had therefore, in civility, to take it as pleasantly patched up. Mrs. Stringham had helped the affair out, Mrs. Stringham who, when it came to that, knew their friend better than any of them. She knew her so well that she knew herself as acting in exquisite compliance with conditions comparatively obscure, approximately awful to them, by not thinking it necessary to stay at home. She had corrected that element of the perfunctory which was the slight fault, for all of them, of the occasion; she had invented a preference for Mrs. Lowder and herself; she had remembered the fond dreams of the visitation of lace that had hitherto always been brushed away by accidents, and it had come up as well for her that Kate had, the day before, spoken of the part played by fatality in her own failure of real acquaintance with the inside of Saint Mark’s. Densher’s sense of Susan Shepherd’s conscious intervention had by this time a corner of his mind all to itself; something that had begun for them at Lancaster Gate was now a sentiment clothed in a shape; her action, ineffably discreet, had at all events a way of affecting him as for the most part subtly, even when not superficially, in his own interest. They were not, as a pair, as a “team,” really united; there were too many persons, at least three, and too many things, between them; but meanwhile something was preparing that would draw them closer. He scarce knew what: probably nothing but his finding, at some hour when it would be a service to do so, that she had all the while understood him. He even had a presentiment of a juncture at which the understanding of every one else would fail and this deep little person’s alone survive.
Such was today, in its freshness, the moral air, as we may say, that hung about our young friends; these had been the small accidents and quiet forces to which they owed the advantage we have seen them in some sort enjoying. It seemed in fact fairly to deepen for them as they stayed their course again; the splendid Square, which had so notoriously, in all the years, witnessed more of the joy of life than any equal area in Europe, furnished them, in their remoteness from earshot, with solitude and security. It was as if, being in possession, they could say what they liked; and it was also as if, in consequence of that, each had an apprehension of what the other wanted to say. It was most of all for them, moreover, as if this very quantity, seated on their lips in the bright historic air, where the only sign for their ears was the flutter of the doves, begot in the heart of each a fear. There might have been a betrayal of that in the way Densher broke the silence resting on her last words. “What did you mean just now that I can do to make Mrs. Lowder believe? For myself, stupidly, if you will, I don’t see, from the moment I can’t lie to her, what else there is but lying.”
Well, she could tell him. “You can say something both handsome and sincere to her about Milly — whom you honestly like so much. That wouldn’t be lying; and, coming from you, it would have an effect. You don’t, you know, say much about her.”
And Kate put before him the fruit of observation. “You don’t, you know, speak of her at all.”
“And has Aunt Maud,” Densher asked, “told you so?” Then as the girl, for answer, only seemed to bethink herself, “You must have extraordinary conversations!” he exclaimed.
Yes, she had bethought herself. “We have extraordinary conversations.”
His look, while their eyes met, marked him as disposed to hear more about them; but there was something in her own, apparently, that defeated the opportunity. He questioned her in a moment on a different matter, which had been in his mind a week, yet in respect to which he had had no chance so good as this. “Do you happen to know then, as such wonderful things pass between you, what she makes of the incident, the other day, of Lord Mark’s so very superficial visit? — his having spent here, as I gather, but the two or three hours necessary for seeing our friend and yet taken no time at all, since he went off by the same night’s train, for seeing any one else. What can she make of his not having waited to see you, or to see herself — with all he owes her?”
“Oh of course,” said Kate, “she understands. He came to make Milly his offer of marriage — he came for nothing but that. As Milly wholly declined it his business was for the time at an end. He couldn’t quite on the spot turn round to make up to us.”
Kate had looked surprised that, as a matter of taste on such an adventurer’s part, Densher shouldn’t see it. But Densher was lost in another thought. “Do you mean that when, turning up myself, I found him leaving her, that was what had been taking place between them?”
“Didn’t you make it out, my dear?” Kate enquired.
“What sort of a blundering weathercock then is he?” the young man went on in his wonder.
“Oh don’t make too little of him!” Kate smiled. “Do you pretend that Milly didn’t tell you?”
“How great an ass he had made of himself?”
Kate continued to smile. “You are in love with her, you know.”
He gave her another long look. “Why, since she has refused him, should my opinion of Lord Mark show it? I’m not obliged, however, to think well of him for such treatment of the other persons I’ve mentioned, and I feel I don’t understand from you why Mrs. Lowder should.”
“She doesn’t — but she doesn’t care,” Kate explained. “You know perfectly the terms on which lots of London people live together even when they’re supposed to live very well. He’s not committed to us — he was having his try. Mayn’t an unsatisfied man,” she asked, “always have his try?”
“And come back afterwards, with confidence in a welcome, to the victim of his inconstancy?”
Kate consented, as for argument, to be thought of as a victim. “Oh but he has had his try at me. So it’s all right.”
“Through your also having, you mean, refused him?”
She balanced an instant during which Densher might have just wondered if pure historic truth were to suffer a slight strain. But she dropped on the right side. “I haven’t let it come to that. I’ve been too discouraging. Aunt Maud,” she went on — now as lucid as ever —“considers, no doubt, that she has a pledge from him in respect to me; a pledge that would have been broken if Milly had accepted him. As the case stands that makes no difference.”
Densher laughed out. “It isn’t his merit that he has failed.”
“It’s still his merit, my dear, that he’s Lord Mark. He’s just what he was, and what he knew he was. It’s not for me either to reflect on him after I’ve so treated him.”
“Oh,” said Densher impatiently, “you’ve treated him beautifully.”
“I’m glad,” she smiled, “that you can still be jealous.” But before he could take it up she had more to say. “I don’t see why it need puzzle you that Milly’s so marked line gratifies Aunt Maud more than anything else can displease her. What does she see but that Milly herself recognises her situation with you as too precious to be spoiled? Such a recognition as that can’t but seem to her to involve in some degree your own recognition. Out of which she therefore gets it that the more you have for Milly the less you have for me.”
There were moments again — we know that from the first they had been numerous — when he felt with a strange mixed passion the mastery of her mere way of putting things. There was something in it that bent him at once to conviction and to reaction. And this effect, however it be named, now broke into his tone. “Oh if she began to know what I have for you —!”
It wasn’t ambiguous, but Kate stood up to it. “Luckily for us we may really consider she doesn’t. So successful have we been.”
“Well,” he presently said, “I take from you what you give me, and I suppose that, to be consistent — to stand on my feet where I do stand at all — I ought to thank you. Only, you know, what you give me seems to me, more than anything else, the larger and larger size of my job. It seems to me more than anything else what you expect of me. It never seems to me somehow what I may expect of you. There’s so much you don’t give me.”
She appeared to wonder. “And pray what is it I don’t —?”
“I give you proof,” said Densher. “You give me none.”
“What then do you call proof?” she after a moment ventured to ask.
“Your doing something for me.”
She considered with surprise. “Am I not doing this for you? Do you call this nothing?”
“Nothing at all.”
“Ah I risk, my dear, everything for it.”
They had strolled slowly further, but he was brought up short. “I thought you exactly contend that, with your aunt so bamboozled, you risk nothing!”
It was the first time since the launching of her wonderful idea that he had seen her at a loss. He judged the next instant moreover that she didn’t like it — either the being so or the being seen, for she soon spoke with an impatience that showed her as wounded; an appearance that produced in himself, he no less quickly felt, a sharp pang of indulgence. “What then do you wish me to risk?”
The appeal from danger touched him, but all to make him, as he would have said, worse. “What I wish is to be loved. How can I feel at this rate that I am?” Oh she understood him, for all she might so bravely disguise it, and that made him feel straighter than if she hadn’t. Deep, always, was his sense of life with her — deep as it had been from the moment of those signs of life that in the dusky London of two winters ago they had originally exchanged. He had never taken her for unguarded, ignorant, weak; and if he put to her a claim for some intenser faith between them this was because he believed it could reach her and she could meet it. “I can go on perhaps,” he said, “with help. But I can’t go on without.”
She looked away from him now, and it showed him how she understood. “We ought to be there — I mean when they come out.”
“They won’t come out — not yet. And I don’t care if they do.” To which he straightway added, as if to deal with the charge of selfishness that his words, sounding for himself, struck him as enabling her to make: “Why not have done with it all and face the music as we are?” It broke from him in perfect sincerity. “Good God, if you’d only take me!”
It brought her eyes round to him again, and he could see how, after all, somewhere deep within, she felt his rebellion more sweet than bitter. Its effect on her spirit and her sense was visibly to hold her an instant. “We’ve gone too far,” she none the less pulled herself together to reply. “Do you want to kill her?”
He had an hesitation that wasn’t all candid. “Kill, you mean, Aunt Maud?”
“You know whom I mean. We’ve told too many lies.”
Oh at this his head went up. “I, my dear, have told none!”
He had brought it out with a sharpness that did him good, but he had naturally, none the less, to take the look it made her give him. “Thank you very much.”
Her expression, however, failed to check the words that had already risen to his lips. “Rather than lay myself open to the least appearance of it I’ll go this very night.”
“Then go,” said Kate Croy.
He knew after a little, while they walked on again together, that what was in the air for him, and disconcertingly, was not the violence, but much rather the cold quietness, of the way this had come from her. They walked on together, and it was for a minute as if their difference had become of a sudden, in all truth, a split — as if the basis of his departure had been settled. Then, incoherently and still more suddenly, recklessly moreover, since they now might easily, from under the arcades, be observed, he passed his hand into her arm with a force that produced for them another pause. “I’ll tell any lie you want, any your idea requires, if you’ll only come to me.”
“Come to you?”
“Come to me.”
She spoke low, but there was somehow, for his uncertainty, a wonder in her being so equal to him. “To my rooms, which are perfectly possible, and in taking which, the other day, I had you, as you must have felt, in view. We can arrange it — with two grains of courage. People in our case always arrange it.” She listened as for the good information, and there was support for him — since it was a question of his going step by step — in the way she took no refuge in showing herself shocked. He had in truth not expected of her that particular vulgarity, but the absence of it only added the thrill of a deeper reason to his sense of possibilities. For the knowledge of what she was he had absolutely to see her now, incapable of refuge, stand there for him in all the light of the day and of his admirable merciless meaning. Her mere listening in fact made him even understand himself as he hadn’t yet done. Idea for idea, his own was thus already, and in the germ, beautiful. “There’s nothing for me possible but to feel that I’m not a fool. It’s all I have to say, but you must know what it means. With you I can do it — I’ll go as far as you demand or as you will yourself. Without you — I’ll be hanged! And I must be sure.”
She listened so well that she was really listening after he had ceased to speak. He had kept his grasp of her, drawing her close, and though they had again, for the time, stopped walking, his talk — for others at a distance — might have been, in the matchless place, that of any impressed tourist to any slightly more detached companion. On possessing himself of her arm he had made her turn, so that they faced afresh to Saint Mark’s, over the great presence of which his eyes moved while she twiddled her parasol. She now, however, made a motion that confronted them finally with the opposite end. Then only she spoke —“Please take your hand out of my arm.” He understood at once: she had made out in the shade of the gallery the issue of the others from their place of purchase. So they went to them side by side, and it was all right. The others had seen them as well and waited for them, complacent enough, under one of the arches. They themselves too — he argued that Kate would argue — looked perfectly ready, decently patient, properly accommodating. They themselves suggested nothing worse — always by Kate’s system — than a pair of the children of a supercivilised age making the best of an awkwardness. They didn’t nevertheless hurry — that would overdo it; so he had time to feel, as it were, what he felt. He felt, ever so distinctly — it was with this he faced Mrs. Lowder — that he was already in a sense possessed of what he wanted. There was more to come — everything; he had by no means, with his companion, had it all out. Yet what he was possessed of was real — the fact that she hadn’t thrown over his lucidity the horrid shadow of cheap reprobation. Of this he had had so sore a fear that its being dispelled was in itself of the nature of bliss. The danger had dropped — it was behind him there in the great sunny space. So far she was good for what he wanted.
She was good enough, as it proved, for him to put to her that evening, and with further ground for it, the next sharpest question that had been on his lips in the morning — which his other preoccupation had then, to his consciousness, crowded out. His opportunity was again made, as befell, by his learning from Mrs. Stringham, on arriving, as usual, with the close of day, at the palace, that Milly must fail them again at dinner, but would to all appearance be able to come down later. He had found Susan Shepherd alone in the great saloon, where even more candles than their friend’s large common allowance — she grew daily more splendid; they were all struck with it and chaffed her about it — lighted up the pervasive mystery of Style. He had thus five minutes with the good lady before Mrs. Lowder and Kate appeared — minutes illumined indeed to a longer reach than by the number of Milly’s candles.
“May she come down — ought she if she isn’t really up to it?”
He had asked that in the wonderment always stirred in him by glimpses — rare as were these — of the inner truth about the girl. There was of course a question of health — it was in the air, it was in the ground he trod, in the food he tasted, in the sounds he heard, it was everywhere. But it was everywhere with the effect of a request to him — to his very delicacy, to the common discretion of others as well as his own — that no allusion to it should be made. There had practically been none, that morning, on her explained non-appearance — the absence of it, as we know, quite monstrous and awkward; and this passage with Mrs. Stringham offered him his first licence to open his eyes. He had gladly enough held them closed; all the more that his doing so performed for his own spirit a useful function. If he positively wanted not to be brought up with his nose against Milly’s facts, what better proof could he have that his conduct was marked by straightness? It was perhaps pathetic for her, and for himself was perhaps even ridiculous; but he hadn’t even the amount of curiosity that he would have had about an ordinary friend. He might have shaken himself at moments to try, for a sort of dry decency, to have it; but that too, it appeared, wouldn’t come. In what therefore was the duplicity? He was at least sure about his feelings — it being so established that he had none at all. They were all for Kate, without a feather’s weight to spare. He was acting for Kate — not, by the deviation of an inch, for her friend. He was accordingly not interested, for had he been interested he would have cared, and had he cared he would have wanted to know. Had he wanted to know he wouldn’t have been purely passive, and it was his pure passivity that had to represent his dignity and his honour. His dignity and his honour, at the same time, let us add, fortunately fell short to-night of spoiling his little talk with Susan Shepherd. One glimpse — it was as if she had wished to give him that; and it was as if, for himself, on current terms, he could oblige her by accepting it. She not only permitted, she fairly invited him to open his eyes. “I’m so glad you’re here.” It was no answer to his question, but it had for the moment to serve. And the rest was fully to come.
He smiled at her and presently found himself, as a kind of consequence of communion with her, talking her own language. “It’s a very wonderful experience.”
“Well”— and her raised face shone up at him —“that’s all I want you to feel about it. If I weren’t afraid,” she added, “there are things I should like to say to you.”
“And what are you afraid of, please?” he encouragingly asked.
“Of other things that I may possibly spoil. Besides, I don’t, you know, seem to have the chance. You’re always, you know, with her.”
He was strangely supported, it struck him, in his fixed smile; which was the more fixed as he felt in these last words an exact description of his course. It was an odd thing to have come to, but he was always with her. “Ah,” he none the less smiled, “I’m not with her now.”
“No — and I’m so glad, since I get this from it. She’s ever so much better.”
“Better? Then she has been worse?”
Mrs. Stringham waited. “She has been marvellous — that’s what she has been. She is marvellous. But she’s really better.”
“Oh then if she’s really better —!” But he checked himself, wanting only to be easy about it and above all not to appear engaged to the point of mystification. “We shall miss her the more at dinner.”
Susan Shepherd, however, was all there for him. “She’s keeping herself. You’ll see. You’ll not really need to miss anything. There’s to be a little party.”
“Ah I do see — by this aggravated grandeur.”
“Well, it is lovely, isn’t it? I want the whole thing. She’s lodged for the first time as she ought, from her type, to be; and doing it — I mean bringing out all the glory of the place — makes her really happy. It’s a Veronese picture, as near as can be-with me as the inevitable dwarf, the small blackamoor, put into a corner of the foreground for effect. If I only had a hawk or a hound or something of that sort I should do the scene more honour. The old housekeeper, the woman in charge here, has a big red cockatoo that I might borrow and perch on my thumb for the evening.” These explanations and sundry others Mrs. Stringham gave, though not all with the result of making him feel that the picture closed him in. What part was there for him, with his attitude that lacked the highest style, in a composition in which everything else would have it? “They won’t, however, be at dinner, the few people she expects — they come round afterwards from their respective hotels; and Sir Luke Strett and his niece, the principal ones, will have arrived from London but an hour or two ago. It’s for him she has wanted to do something — to let it begin at once. We shall see more of him, because she likes him; and I’m so glad — she’ll be glad too — that you’re to see him.” The good lady, in connexion with it, was urgent, was almost unnaturally bright. “So I greatly hope —!” But her hope fairly lost itself in the wide light of her cheer.
He considered a little this appearance, while she let him, he thought, into still more knowledge than she uttered. “What is it you hope?”
“Well, that you’ll stay on.”
“Do you mean after dinner?” She meant, he seemed to feel, so much that he could scarce tell where it ended or began.
“Oh that, of course. Why we’re to have music — beautiful instruments and songs; and not Tasso declaimed as in the guide-books either. She has arranged it — or at least I have. That is Eugenio has. Besides, you’re in the picture.”
“Oh — I!” said Densher almost with the gravity of a real protest.
“You’ll be the grand young man who surpasses the others and holds up his head and the wine-cup. What we hope,” Mrs. Stringham pursued, “is that you’ll be faithful to us — that you’ve not come for a mere foolish few days.”
Densher’s more private and particular shabby realities turned, without comfort, he was conscious, at this touch, in the artificial repose he had in his anxiety about them but half-managed to induce. The way smooth ladies, travelling for their pleasure and housed in Veronese pictures, talked to plain embarrassed working-men, engaged in an unprecedented sacrifice of time and of the opportunity for modest acquisition! The things they took for granted and the general misery of explaining! He couldn’t tell them how he had tried to work, how it was partly what he had moved into rooms for, only to find himself, almost for the first time in his life, stricken and sterile; because that would give them a false view of the source of his restlessness, if not of the degree of it. It would operate, indirectly perhaps, but infallibly, to add to that weight as of expected performance which these very moments with Mrs. Stringham caused more and more to settle on his heart. He had incurred it, the expectation of performance; the thing was done, and there was no use talking; again, again the cold breath of it was in the air. So there he was. And at best he floundered. “I’m afraid you won’t understand when I say I’ve very tiresome things to consider. Botherations, necessities at home. The pinch, the pressure in London.”
But she understood in perfection; she rose to the pinch and the pressure and showed how they had been her own very element. “Oh the daily task and the daily wage, the golden guerdon or reward? No one knows better than I how they haunt one in the flight of the precious deceiving days. Aren’t they just what I myself have given up? I’ve given up all to follow her. I wish you could feel as I do. And can’t you,” she asked, “write about Venice?”
He very nearly wished, for the minute, that he could feel as she did; and he smiled for her kindly. “Do you write about Venice?”
“No; but I would — oh wouldn’t I? — if I hadn’t so completely given up. She’s, you know, my princess, and to one’s princess —”
“One makes the whole sacrifice?”
“Precisely. There you are!”
It pressed on him with this that never had a man been in so many places at once. “I quite understand that she’s yours. Only you see she’s not mine.” He felt he could somehow, for honesty, risk that, as he had the moral certainty she wouldn’t repeat it and least of all to Mrs. Lowder, who would find in it a disturbing implication. This was part of what he liked in the good lady, that she didn’t repeat, and also that she gave him a delicate sense of her shyly wishing him to know it. That was in itself a hint of possibilities between them, of a relation, beneficent and elastic for him, which wouldn’t engage him further than he could see. Yet even as he afresh made this out he felt how strange it all was. She wanted, Susan Shepherd then, as appeared, the same thing Kate wanted, only wanted it, as still further appeared, in so different a way and from a motive so different, even though scarce less deep. Then Mrs. Lowder wanted, by so odd an evolution of her exuberance, exactly what each of the others did; and he was between them all, he was in the midst. Such perceptions made occasions — well, occasions for fairly wondering if it mightn’t be best just to consent, luxuriously, to be the ass the whole thing involved. Trying not to be and yet keeping in it was of the two things the more asinine. He was glad there was no male witness; it was a circle of petticoats; he shouldn’t have liked a man to see him. He only had for a moment a sharp thought of Sir Luke Strett, the great master of the knife whom Kate in London had spoken of Milly as in commerce with, and whose renewed intervention at such a distance, just announced to him, required some accounting for. He had a vision of great London surgeons — if this one was a surgeon — as incisive all round; so that he should perhaps after all not wholly escape the ironic attention of his own sex. The most he might be able to do was not to care; while he was trying not to he could take that in. It was a train, however, that brought up the vision of Lord Mark as well. Lord Mark had caught him twice in the fact — the fact of his absurd posture; and that made a second male. But it was comparatively easy not to mind Lord Mark.
His companion had before this taken him up, and in a tone to confirm her discretion, on the matter of Milly’s not being his princess. “Of course she’s not. You must do something first.”
Densher gave it his thought. “Wouldn’t it be rather she who must?”
It had more than he intended the effect of bringing her to a stand. “I see. No doubt, if one takes it so.” Her cheer was for the time in eclipse, and she looked over the place, avoiding his eyes, as in the wonder of what Milly could do. “And yet she has wanted to be kind.”
It made him on the spot feel a brute. “Of course she has. No one could be more charming. She has treated me as if I were somebody. Call her my hostess as I’ve never had nor imagined a hostess, and I’m with you altogether. Of course,” he added in the right spirit for her, “I do see that it’s quite court life.”
She promptly showed how this was almost all she wanted of him. “That’s all I mean, if you understand it of such a court as never was: one of the courts of heaven, the court of a reigning seraph, a sort of a vice-queen of an angel. That will do perfectly.”
“Oh well then I grant it. Only court life as a general thing, you know,” he observed, “isn’t supposed to pay.”
“Yes, one has read; but this is beyond any book. That’s just the beauty here; it’s why she’s the great and only princess. With her, at her court,” said Mrs. Stringham, “it does pay.” Then as if she had quite settled it for him: “You’ll see for yourself.”
He waited a moment, but said nothing to discourage her. “I think you were right just now. One must do something first.”
“Well, you’ve done something.”
“No — I don’t see that. I can do more.”
Oh well, she seemed to say, if he would have it so! “You can do everything, you know.”
“Everything” was rather too much for him to take up gravely, and he modestly let it alone, speaking the next moment, to avert fatuity, of a different but a related matter. “Why has she sent for Sir Luke Strett if, as you tell me, she’s so much better?”
“She hasn’t sent. He has come of himself,” Mrs. Stringham explained. “He has wanted to come.”
“Isn’t that rather worse then — if it means he mayn’t be easy?”
“He was coming, from the first, for his holiday. She has known that these several weeks.” After which Mrs. Stringham added: “You can make him easy.”
“I can?” he candidly wondered. It was truly the circle of petticoats. “What have I to do with it for a man like that?”
“How do you know,” said his friend, “what he’s like? He’s not like any one you’ve ever seen. He’s a great beneficent being.”
“Ah then he can do without me. I’ve no call, as an outsider, to meddle.”
“Tell him, all the same,” Mrs. Stringham urged, “what you think.”
“What I think of Miss Theale?” Densher stared. It was, as they said, a large order. But he found the right note. “It’s none of his business.”
It did seem a moment for Mrs. Stringham too the right note. She fixed him at least with an expression still bright, but searching, that showed almost to excess what she saw in it; though what this might be he was not to make out till afterwards. “Say that to him then. Anything will do for him as a means of getting at you.”
“And why should he get at me?”
“Give him a chance to. Let him talk to you. Then you’ll see.”
All of which, on Mrs. Stringham’s part, sharpened his sense of immersion in an element rather more strangely than agreeably warm — a sense that was moreover, during the next two or three hours, to be fed to satiety by several other impressions. Milly came down after dinner, half a dozen friends — objects of interest mainly, it appeared, to the ladies of Lancaster Gate — having by that time arrived; and with this call on her attention, the further call of her musicians ushered by Eugenio, but personally and separately welcomed, and the supreme opportunity offered in the arrival of the great doctor, who came last of all, he felt her diffuse in wide warm waves the spell of a general, a beatific mildness. There was a deeper depth of it, doubtless, for some than for others; what he in particular knew of it was that he seemed to stand in it up to his neck. He moved about in it and it made no plash; he floated, he noiselessly swam in it, and they were all together, for that matter, like fishes in a crystal pool. The effect of the place, the beauty of the scene, had probably much to do with it; the golden grace of the high rooms, chambers of art in themselves, took care, as an influence, of the general manner, and made people bland without making them solemn. They were only people, as Mrs. Stringham had said, staying for the week or two at the inns, people who during the day had fingered their Baedekers, gaped at their frescoes and differed, over fractions of francs, with their gondoliers. But Milly, let loose among them in a wonderful white dress, brought them somehow into relation with something that made them more finely genial; so that if the Veronese picture of which he had talked with Mrs. Stringham was not quite constituted, the comparative prose of the previous hours, the traces of insensibility qualified by “beating down,” were at last almost nobly disowned. There was perhaps something for him in the accident of his seeing her for the first time in white, but she hadn’t yet had occasion — circulating with a clearness intensified — to strike him as so happily pervasive. She was different, younger, fairer, with the colour of her braided hair more than ever a not altogether lucky challenge to attention; yet he was loth wholly to explain it by her having quitted this once, for some obscure yet doubtless charming reason, her almost monastic, her hitherto inveterate black. Much as the change did for the value of her presence, she had never yet, when all was said, made it for him; and he was not to fail of the further amusement of judging her determined in the matter by Sir Luke Strett’s visit. If he could in this connexion have felt jealous of Sir Luke Strett, whose strong face and type, less assimilated by the scene perhaps than any others, he was anon to study from the other side of the saloon, that would doubtless have been most amusing of all. But he couldn’t be invidious, even to profit by so high a tide; he felt himself too much “in” it, as he might have said: a moment’s reflexion put him more in than any one. The way Milly neglected him for other cares while Kate and Mrs. Lowder, without so much as the attenuation of a joke, introduced him to English ladies — that was itself a proof; for nothing really of so close a communion had up to this time passed between them as the single bright look and the three gay words (all ostensibly of the last lightness) with which her confessed consciousness brushed by him.
She was acquitting herself to-night as hostess, he could see, under some supreme idea, an inspiration which was half her nerves and half an inevitable harmony; but what he especially recognised was the character that had already several times broken out in her and that she so oddly appeared able, by choice or by instinctive affinity, to keep down or to display. She was the American girl as he had originally found her — found her at certain moments, it was true, in New York, more than at certain others; she was the American girl as, still more than then, he had seen her on the day of her meeting him in London and in Kate’s company. It affected him as a large though queer social resource in her — such as a man, for instance, to his diminution, would never in the world be able to command; and he wouldn’t have known whether to see it in an extension or a contraction of “personality,” taking it as he did most directly for a confounding extension of surface. Clearly too it was the right thing this evening all round: that came out for him in a word from Kate as she approached him to wreak on him a second introduction. He had under cover of the music melted away from the lady toward whom she had first pushed him; and there was something in her to affect him as telling evasively a tale of their talk in the Piazza. To what did she want to coerce him as a form of penalty for what he had done to her there? It was thus in contact uppermost for him that he had done something; not only caused her perfect intelligence to act in his interest, but left her unable to get away, by any mere private effort, from his inattackable logic. With him thus in presence, and near him — and it had been as unmistakeable through dinner — there was no getting away for her at all, there was less of it than ever: so she could only either deal with the question straight, either frankly yield or ineffectually struggle or insincerely argue, or else merely express herself by following up the advantage she did possess. It was part of that advantage for the hour — a brief fallacious makeweight to his pressure — that there were plenty of things left in which he must feel her will. They only told him, these indications, how much she was, in such close quarters, feeling his; and it was enough for him again that her very aspect, as great a variation in its way as Milly’s own, gave him back the sense of his action. It had never yet in life been granted him to know, almost materially to taste, as he could do in these minutes, the state of what was vulgarly called conquest. He had lived long enough to have been on occasion “liked,” but it had never begun to be allowed him to be liked to any such tune in any such quarter. It was a liking greater than Milly’s — or it would be: he felt it in him to answer for that. So at all events he read the case while he noted that Kate was somehow — for Kate — wanting in lustre. As a striking young presence she was practically superseded; of the mildness that Milly diffused she had assimilated all her share; she might fairly have been dressed to-night in the little black frock, superficially indistinguishable, that Milly had laid aside. This represented, he perceived, the opposite pole from such an effect as that of her wonderful entrance, under her aunt’s eyes — he had never forgotten it — the day of their younger friend’s failure at Lancaster Gate. She was, in her accepted effacement — it was actually her acceptance that made the beauty and repaired the damage — under her aunt’s eyes now; but whose eyes were not effectually preoccupied? It struck him none the less certainly that almost the first thing she said to him showed an exquisite attempt to appear if not unconvinced at least self-possessed.
“Don’t you think her good enough now?” Almost heedless of the danger of overt freedoms, she eyed Milly from where they stood, noted her in renewed talk, over her further wishes, with the members of her little orchestra, who had approached her with demonstrations of deference enlivened by native humours — things quite in the line of old Venetian comedy. The girl’s idea of music had been happy — a real solvent of shyness, yet not drastic; thanks to the intermissions, discretions, a general habit of mercy to gathered barbarians, that reflected the good manners of its interpreters, representatives though these might be but of the order in which taste was natural and melody rank. It was easy at all events to answer Kate. “Ah my dear, you know how good I think her!”
“But she’s too nice,” Kate returned with appreciation. “Everything suits her so — especially her pearls. They go so with her old lace. I’ll trouble you really to look at them.” Densher, though aware he had seen them before, had perhaps not “really” looked at them, and had thus not done justice to the embodied poetry — his mind, for Milly’s aspects, kept coming back to that — which owed them part of its style. Kate’s face, as she considered them, struck him: the long, priceless chain, wound twice round the neck, hung, heavy and pure, down the front of the wearer’s breast — so far down that Milly’s trick, evidently unconscious, of holding and vaguely fingering and entwining a part of it, conduced presumably to convenience. “She’s a dove,” Kate went on, “and one somehow doesn’t think of doves as bejewelled. Yet they suit her down to the ground.”
“Yes — down to the ground is the word.” Densher saw now how they suited her, but was perhaps still more aware of something intense in his companion’s feeling about them. Milly was indeed a dove; this was the figure, though it most applied to her spirit. Yet he knew in a moment that Kate was just now, for reasons hidden from him, exceptionally under the impression of that element of wealth in her which was a power, which was a great power, and which was dove-like only so far as one remembered that doves have wings and wondrous flights, have them as well as tender tints and soft sounds. It even came to him dimly that such wings could in a given case — had, truly, in the case with which he was concerned — spread themselves for protection. Hadn’t they, for that matter, lately taken an inordinate reach, and weren’t Kate and Mrs. Lowder, weren’t Susan Shepherd and he, wasn’t he in particular, nestling under them to a great increase of immediate ease? All this was a brighter blur in the general light, out of which he heard Kate presently going on.
“Pearls have such a magic that they suit every one.”
“They would uncommonly suit you,” he frankly returned.
“Oh yes, I see myself!”
As she saw herself, suddenly, he saw her — she would have been splendid; and with it he felt more what she was thinking of. Milly’s royal ornament had — under pressure now not wholly occult — taken on the character of a symbol of differences, differences of which the vision was actually in Kate’s face. It might have been in her face too that, well as she certainly would look in pearls, pearls were exactly what Merton Densher would never be able to give her. Wasn’t that the great difference that Milly to-night symbolised? She unconsciously represented to Kate, and Kate took it in at every pore, that there was nobody with whom she had less in common than a remarkably handsome girl married to a man unable to make her on any such lines as that the least little present. Of these absurdities, however, it was not till afterwards that Densher thought. He could think now, to any purpose, only of what Mrs. Stringham had said to him before dinner. He could but come back to his friend’s question of a minute ago. “She’s certainly good enough, as you call it, in the sense that I’m assured she’s better. Mrs. Stringham, an hour or two since, was in great feather to me about it. She evidently believes her better.”
“Well, if they choose to call it so —!”
“And what do you call it — as against them?”
“I don’t call it anything to any one but you. I’m not ‘against’ them!” Kate added as with just a fresh breath of impatience for all he had to be taught.
“That’s what I’m talking about,” he said. “What do you call it to me?”
It made her wait a little. “She isn’t better. She’s worse. But that has nothing to do with it.”
“Nothing to do?” He wondered.
But she was clear. “Nothing to do with us. Except of course that we’re doing our best for her. We’re making her want to live.” And Kate again watched her. “To-night she does want to live.” She spoke with a kindness that had the strange property of striking him as inconsequent — so much, and doubtless so unjustly, had all her clearness been an implication of the hard. “It’s wonderful. It’s beautiful.”
“It’s beautiful indeed.”
He hated somehow the helplessness of his own note; but she had given it no heed. “She’s doing it for him”— and she nodded in the direction of Milly’s medical visitor. “She wants to be for him at her best. But she can’t deceive him.”
Densher had been looking too; which made him say in a moment: “And do you think you can? I mean, if he’s to be with us here, about your sentiments. If Aunt Maud’s so thick with him —!”
Aunt Maud now occupied in fact a place at his side and was visibly doing her best to entertain him, though this failed to prevent such a direction of his own eyes — determined, in the way such things happen, precisely by the attention of the others — as Densher became aware of and as Kate promptly marked. “He’s looking at you. He wants to speak to you.”
“So Mrs. Stringham,” the young man laughed, “advised me he would.”
“Then let him. Be right with him. I don’t need,” Kate went on in answer to the previous question, “to deceive him. Aunt Maud, if it’s necessary, will do that. I mean that, knowing nothing about me, he can see me only as she sees me. She sees me now so well. He has nothing to do with me.”
“Except to reprobate you,” Densher suggested.
“For not caring for you? Perfectly. As a brilliant young man driven by it into your relation with Milly — as all that I leave you to him.”
“Well,” said Densher sincerely enough, “I think I can thank you for leaving me to some one easier perhaps with me than yourself.”
She had been looking about again meanwhile, the lady having changed her place, for the friend of Mrs. Lowder’s to whom she had spoken of introducing him. “All the more reason why I should commit you then to Lady Wells.”
“Oh but wait.” It was not only that he distinguished Lady Wells from afar, that she inspired him with no eagerness, and that, somewhere at the back of his head, he was fairly aware of the question, in germ, of whether this was the kind of person he should be involved with when they were married. It was furthermore that the consciousness of something he had not got from Kate in the morning, and that logically much concerned him, had been made more keen by these very moments — to say nothing of the consciousness that, with their general smallness of opportunity, he must squeeze each stray instant hard. If Aunt Maud, over there with Sir Luke, noted him as a little “attentive,” that might pass for a futile demonstration on the part of a gentleman who had to confess to having, not very gracefully, changed his mind. Besides, just now, he didn’t care for Aunt Maud except in so far as he was immediately to show. “How can Mrs. Lowder think me disposed of with any finality, if I’m disposed of only to a girl who’s dying? If you’re right about that, about the state of the case, you’re wrong about Mrs. Lowder’s being squared. If Milly, as you say,” he lucidly pursued, “can’t deceive a great surgeon, or whatever, the great surgeon won’t deceive other people — not those, that is, who are closely concerned. He won’t at any rate deceive Mrs. Stringham, who’s Milly’s greatest friend; and it will be very odd if Mrs. Stringham deceives Aunt Maud, who’s her own.”
Kate showed him at this the cold glow of an idea that really was worth his having kept her for. “Why will it be odd? I marvel at your seeing your way so little.”
Mere curiosity even, about his companion, had now for him its quick, its slightly quaking intensities. He had compared her once, we know, to a “new book,” an uncut volume of the highest, the rarest quality; and his emotion (to justify that) was again and again like the thrill of turning the page. “Well, you know how deeply I marvel at the way you see it!”
“It doesn’t in the least follow,” Kate went on, “that anything in the nature of what you call deception on Mrs. Stringham’s part will be what you call odd. Why shouldn’t she hide the truth?”
“From Mrs. Lowder?” Densher stared. “Why should she?”
“To please you.”
“And how in the world can it please me?”
Kate turned her head away as if really at last almost tired of his density. But she looked at him again as she spoke. “Well then to please Milly.” And before he could question: “Don’t you feel by this time that there’s nothing Susan Shepherd won’t do for you?”
He had verily after an instant to take it in, so sharply it corresponded with the good lady’s recent reception of him. It was queerer than anything again, the way they all came together round him. But that was an old story, and Kate’s multiplied lights led him on and on. It was with a reserve, however, that he confessed this. “She’s ever so kind. Only her view of the right thing may not be the same as yours.”
“How can it be anything different if it’s the view of serving you?”
Densher for an instant, but only for an instant, hung fire. “Oh the difficulty is that I don’t, upon my honour, even yet quite make out how yours does serve me.”
“It helps you — put it then,” said Kate very simply —“to serve me. It gains you time.”
“Time for what?”
“For everything!” She spoke at first, once more, with impatience; then as usual she qualified. “For anything that may happen.”
Densher had a smile, but he felt it himself as strained. “You’re cryptic, love!”
It made her keep her eyes on him, and he could thus see that, by one of those incalculable motions in her without which she wouldn’t have been a quarter so interesting, they half-filled with tears from some source he had too roughly touched. “I’m taking a trouble for you I never dreamed I should take for any human creature.”
Oh it went home, making him flush for it; yet he soon enough felt his reply on his lips. “Well, isn’t my whole insistence to you now that I can conjure trouble away?” And he let it, his insistence, come out again; it had so constantly had, all the week, but its step or two to make. “There need be none whatever between us. There need be nothing but our sense of each other.”
It had only the effect at first that her eyes grew dry while she took up again one of the so numerous links in her close chain. “You can tell her anything you like, anything whatever.”
“Mrs. Stringham? I have nothing to tell her.”
“You can tell her about us. I mean,” she wonderfully pursued, “that you do still like me.”
It was indeed so wonderful that it amused him. “Only not that you still like me.”
She let his amusement pass. “I’m absolutely certain she wouldn’t repeat it.”
“I see. To Aunt Maud.”
“You don’t quite see. Neither to Aunt Maud nor to any one else.” Kate then, he saw, was always seeing Milly much more, after all, than he was; and she showed it again as she went on. “There, accordingly, is your time.”
She did at last make him think, and it was fairly as if light broke, though not quite all at once. “You must let me say I do see. Time for something in particular that I understand you regard as possible. Time too that, I further understand, is time for you as well.”
“Time indeed for me as well.” And encouraged visibly by his glow of concentration, she looked at him as through the air she had painfully made clear. Yet she was still on her guard. “Don’t think, however, I’ll do all the work for you. If you want things named you must name them.”
He had quite, within the minute, been turning names over; and there was only one, which at last stared at him there dreadful, that properly fitted. “Since she’s to die I’m to marry her?”
It struck him even at the moment as fine in her that she met it with no wincing nor mincing. She might for the grace of silence, for favour to their conditions, have only answered him with her eyes. But her lips bravely moved. “To marry her.”
“So that when her death has taken place I shall in the natural course have money?”
It was before him enough now, and he had nothing more to ask; he had only to turn, on the spot, considerably cold with the thought that all along — to his stupidity, his timidity — it had been, it had been only, what she meant. Now that he was in possession moreover she couldn’t forbear, strangely enough, to pronounce the words she hadn’t pronounced: they broke through her controlled and colourless voice as if she should be ashamed, to the very end, to have flinched. “You’ll in the natural course have money. We shall in the natural course be free.”
“Oh, oh, oh!” Densher softly murmured.
“Yes, yes, yes.” But she broke off. “Come to Lady Wells.”
He never budged — there was too much else. “I’m to propose it then — marriage — on the spot?”
There was no ironic sound he needed to give it; the more simply he spoke the more he seemed ironic. But she remained consummately proof. “Oh I can’t go into that with you, and from the moment you don’t wash your hands of me I don’t think you ought to ask me. You must act as you like and as you can.”
He thought again. “I’m far — as I sufficiently showed you this morning — from washing my hands of you.”
“Then,” said Kate, “it’s all right.”
“All right?” His eagerness flamed. “You’ll come?”
But he had had to see in a moment that it wasn’t what she meant. “You’ll have a free hand, a clear field, a chance — well, quite ideal.”
“Your descriptions”— her “ideal” was such a touch! —“are prodigious. And what I don’t make out is how, caring for me, you can like it.”
“I don’t like it, but I’m a person, thank goodness, who can do what I don’t like.”
It wasn’t till afterwards that, going back to it, he was to read into this speech a kind of heroic ring, a note of character that belittled his own incapacity for action. Yet he saw indeed even at the time the greatness of knowing so well what one wanted. At the time too, moreover, he next reflected that he after all knew what he did. But something else on his lips was uppermost. “What I don’t make out then is how you can even bear it.”
“Well, when you know me better you’ll find out how much I can bear.” And she went on before he could take up, as it were, her too many implications. That it was left to him to know her, spiritually, “better” after his long sacrifice to knowledge — this for instance was a truth he hadn’t been ready to receive so full in the face. She had mystified him enough, heaven knew, but that was rather by his own generosity than by hers. And what, with it, did she seem to suggest she might incur at his hands? In spite of these questions she was carrying him on. “All you’ll have to do will be to stay.”
“And proceed to my business under your eyes?”
“Oh dear no — we shall go.”
“‘Go?’” he wondered. “Go when, go where?”
“In a day or two — straight home. Aunt Maud wishes it now.”
It gave him all he could take in to think of. “Then what becomes of Miss Theale?”
“What I tell you. She stays on, and you stay with her.”
He stared. “All alone?”
She had a smile that was apparently for his tone. “You’re old enough — with plenty of Mrs. Stringham.”
Nothing might have been so odd for him now, could he have measured it, as his being able to feel, quite while he drew from her these successive cues, that he was essentially “seeing what she would say”— an instinct compatible for him therefore with that absence of a need to know her better to which she had a moment before done injustice. If it hadn’t been appearing to him in gleams that she would somewhere break down, he probably couldn’t have gone on. Still, as she wasn’t breaking down there was nothing for him but to continue. “Is your going Mrs. Lowder’s idea?”
“Very much indeed. Of course again you see what it does for us. And I don’t,” she added, “refer only to our going, but to Aunt Maud’s view of the general propriety of it.”
“I see again, as you say,” Densher said after a moment. “It makes everything fit.”
The word, for a little, held the air, and he might have seemed the while to be looking, by no means dimly now, at all it stood for. But he had in fact been looking at something else. “You leave her here then to die?”
“Ah she believes she won’t die. Not if you stay. I mean,” Kate explained, “Aunt Maud believes.”
“And that’s all that’s necessary?”
Still indeed she didn’t break down. “Didn’t we long ago agree that what she believes is the principal thing for us?”
He recalled it, under her eyes, but it came as from long ago. “Oh yes. I can’t deny it.” Then he added: “So that if I stay —”
“It won’t”— she was prompt —“be our fault.”
“If Mrs. Lowder still, you mean, suspects us?”
“If she still suspects us. But she won’t.”
Kate gave it an emphasis that might have appeared to leave him nothing more; and he might in fact well have found nothing if he hadn’t presently found: “But what if she doesn’t accept me?”
It produced in her a look of weariness that made the patience of her tone the next moment touch him. “You can but try.”
“Naturally I can but try. Only, you see, one has to try a little hard to propose to a dying girl.”
“She isn’t for you as if she’s dying.” It had determined in Kate the flash of justesse he could perhaps most, on consideration, have admired, since her retort touched the truth. There before him was the fact of how Milly to-night impressed him, and his companion, with her eyes in his own and pursuing his impression to the depths of them, literally now perched on the fact in triumph. She turned her head to where their friend was again in range, and it made him turn his, so that they watched a minute in concert. Milly, from the other side, happened at the moment to notice them, and she sent across toward them in response all the candour of her smile, the lustre of her pearls, the value of her life, the essence of her wealth. It brought them together again with faces made fairly grave by the reality she put into their plan. Kate herself grew a little pale for it, and they had for a time only a silence. The music, however, gay and vociferous, had broken out afresh and protected more than interrupted them. When Densher at last spoke it was under cover.
“I might stay, you know, without trying.”
“Oh to stay is to try.”
“To have for herself, you mean, the appearance of it?”
“I don’t see how you can have the appearance more.”
Densher waited. “You think it then possible she may offer marriage?”
“I can’t think — if you really want to know — what she may not offer!”
“In the manner of princesses, who do such things?”
“In any manner you like. So be prepared.”
Well, he looked as if he almost were. “It will be for me then to accept. But that’s the way it must come.”
Kate’s silence, so far, let it pass; but she presently said: “You’ll, on your honour, stay then?”
His answer made her wait, but when it came it was distinct. “Without you, you mean?”
“And you yourselves go at latest —?”
“Not later than Thursday.”
It made three days. “Well,” he said, “I’ll stay, on my honour, if you’ll come to me. On your honour.”
Again, as before, this made her momentarily rigid, with a rigour out of which, at a loss, she vaguely cast about her. Her rigour was more to him, nevertheless, than all her readiness; for her readiness was the woman herself, and this other thing a mask, a stop-gap and a “dodge.” She cast about, however, as happened, and not for the instant in vain. Her eyes, turned over the room, caught at a pretext. “Lady Wells is tired of waiting: she’s coming — see — to us.”
Densher saw in fact, but there was a distance for their visitor to cross, and he still had time. “If you decline to understand me I wholly decline to understand you. I’ll do nothing.”
“Nothing?” It was as if she tried for the minute to plead.
“I’ll do nothing. I’ll go off before you. I’ll go tomorrow.”
He was to have afterwards the sense of her having then, as the phrase was — and for vulgar triumphs too — seen he meant it. She looked again at Lady Wells, who was nearer, but she quickly came back. “And if I do understand?”
“I’ll do everything.”
She found anew a pretext in her approaching friend: he was fairly playing with her pride. He had never, he then knew, tasted, in all his relation with her, of anything so sharp — too sharp for mere sweetness — as the vividness with which he saw himself master in the conflict. “Well, I understand.”
“On your honour?”
“On my honour.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56