"Let us then hope for it." But she came after this nearer to the question. "If the girl's of the right age of course the mother can't be. I mean for the virtuous attachment. If the girl's twenty — and she can't be less — the mother must be at least forty. So it puts the mother out. SHE'S too old for him."
Strether, arrested again, considered and demurred. "Do you think so? Do you think any one would be too old for him? I'M eighty, and I'm too young. But perhaps the girl," he continued, "ISn't twenty. Perhaps she's only ten — but such a little dear that Chad finds himself counting her in as an attraction of the acquaintance. Perhaps she's only five. Perhaps the mother's but five-and-twenty — a charming young widow."
Miss Gostrey entertained the suggestion. "She IS a widow then?"
"I haven't the least idea!" They once more, in spite of this vagueness, exchanged a look — a look that was perhaps the longest yet. It seemed in fact, the next thing, to require to explain itself; which it did as it could. "I only feel what I've told you — that he has some reason."
Miss Gostrey's imagination had taken its own flight. "Perhaps she's NOT a widow."
Strether seemed to accept the possibility with reserve. Still he accepted it. "Then that's why the attachment — if it's to her — is virtuous."
But she looked as if she scarce followed. "Why is it virtuous if — since she's free — there's nothing to impose on it any condition?"
He laughed at her question. "Oh I perhaps don't mean as virtuous as THAT! Your idea is that it can be virtuous — in any sense worthy of the name — only if she's NOT free? But what does it become then," he asked, "for HER?"
"Ah that's another matter." He said nothing for a moment, and she soon went on. "I dare say you're right, at any rate, about Mr. Newsome's little plan. He HAS been trying you — has been reporting on you to these friends."
Strether meanwhile had had time to think more. "Then where's his straightness?"
"Well, as we say, it's struggling up, breaking out, asserting itself as it can. We can be on the side, you see, of his straightness. We can help him. But he has made out," said Miss Gostrey, "that you'll do."
"Do for what?"
"Why, for THEM — for ces dames. He has watched you, studied you, liked you — and recognised that THEY must. It's a great compliment to you, my dear man; for I'm sure they're particular. You came out for a success. Well," she gaily declared, "you're having it!"
He took it from her with momentary patience and then turned abruptly away. It was always convenient to him that there were so many fine things in her room to look at. But the examination of two or three of them appeared soon to have determined a speech that had little to do with them. "You don't believe in it!"
"In the character of the attachment. In its innocence."
But she defended herself. "I don't pretend to know anything about it. Everything's possible. We must see."
"See?" he echoed with a groan. "Haven't we seen enough?"
"I haven't," she smiled.
"But do you suppose then little Bilham has lied?"
"You must find out."
It made him almost turn pale. "Find out any MORE?"
He had dropped on a sofa for dismay; but she seemed, as she stood over him, to have the last word. "Wasn't what you came out for to find out ALL?"