Was what was happening to himself then, was what already HAD happened, really that a woman of fashion was floating him into society and that an old friend deserted on the brink was watching the force of the current? When the woman of fashion permitted Strether — as she permitted him at the most — the purchase of a pair of gloves, the terms she made about it, the prohibition of neckties and other items till she should be able to guide him through the Burlington Arcade, were such as to fall upon a sensitive ear as a challenge to just imputations. Miss Gostrey was such a woman of fashion as could make without a symptom of vulgar blinking an appointment for the Burlington Arcade. Mere discriminations about a pair of gloves could thus at any rate represent — always for such sensitive ears as were in question — possibilities of something that Strether could make a mark against only as the peril of apparent wantonness. He had quite the consciousness of his new friend, for their companion, that he might have had of a Jesuit in petticoats, a representative of the recruiting interests of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church, for Waymarsh-that was to say the enemy, the monster of bulging eyes and far-reaching quivering groping tentacles — was exactly society, exactly the multiplication of shibboleths, exactly the discrimination of types and tones, exactly the wicked old Rows of Chester, rank with feudalism; exactly in short Europe.
There was light for observation, however, in an incident that occurred just before they turned back to luncheon. Waymarsh had been for a quarter of an hour exceptionally mute and distant, and something, or other — Strether was never to make out exactly what — proved, as it were, too much for him after his comrades had stood for three minutes taking in, while they leaned on an old balustrade that guarded the edge of the Row, a particularly crooked and huddled street-view. "He thinks us sophisticated, he thinks us worldly, he thinks us wicked, he thinks us all sorts of queer things," Strether reflected; for wondrous were the vague quantities our friend had within a couple of short days acquired the habit of conveniently and conclusively lumping together. There seemed moreover a direct connexion between some such inference and a sudden grim dash taken by Waymarsh to the opposite side. This movement was startlingly sudden, and his companions at first supposed him to have espied, to be pursuing, the glimpse of an acquaintance. They next made out, however, that an open door had instantly received him, and they then recognised him as engulfed in the establishment of a jeweller, behind whose glittering front he was lost to view. The fact had somehow the note of a demonstration, and it left each of the others to show a face almost of fear. But Miss Gostrey broke into a laugh. "What's the matter with him?"
"Well," said Strether, "he can't stand it."
"But can't stand what?"
"Then how will that jeweller help him?"
Strether seemed to make it out, from their position, between the interstices of arrayed watches, of close-hung dangling gewgaws. "You'll see."
"Ah that's just what — if he buys anything — I'm afraid of: that I shall see something rather dreadful."
Strether studied the finer appearances. "He may buy everything."
"Then don't you think we ought to follow him?"
"Not for worlds. Besides we can't. We're paralysed. We exchange a long scared look, we publicly tremble. The thing is, you see, we 'realise.' He has struck for freedom."
She wondered but she laughed. "Ah what a price to pay! And I was preparing some for him so cheap."
"No, no," Strether went on, frankly amused now; "don't call it that: the kind of freedom you deal in is dear." Then as to justify himself: "Am I not in MY way trying it? It's this."
"Being here, you mean, with me?"
"Yes, and talking to you as I do. I've known you a few hours, and I've known HIM all my life; so that if the ease I thus take with you about him isn't magnificent" — and the thought of it held him a moment — "why it's rather base."
"It's magnificent!" said Miss Gostrey to make an end of it. "And you should hear," she added, "the ease I take — and I above all intend to take — with Mr. Waymarsh."
Strether thought. "About ME? Ah that's no equivalent. The equivalent would be Waymarsh's himself serving me up — his remorseless analysis of me. And he'll never do that" — he was sadly clear. "He'll never remorselessly analyse me." He quite held her with the authority of this. "He'll never say a word to you about me."
She took it in; she did it justice; yet after an instant her reason, her restless irony, disposed of it. "Of course he won't. For what do you take people, that they're able to say words about anything, able remorselessly to analyse? There are not many like you and me. It will be only because he's too stupid."
It stirred in her friend a sceptical echo which was at the same time the protest of the faith of years. "Waymarsh stupid?"
"Compared with you."
Strether had still his eyes on the jeweller's front, and he waited a moment to answer. "He's a success of a kind that I haven't approached."
"Do you mean he has made money?"
"He makes it — to my belief. And I," said Strether, "though with a back quite as bent, have never made anything. I'm a perfectly equipped failure."
He feared an instant she'd ask him if he meant he was poor; and he was glad she didn't, for he really didn't know to what the truth on this unpleasant point mightn't have prompted her. She only, however, confirmed his assertion. "Thank goodness you're a failure — it's why I so distinguish you! Anything else to-day is too hideous. Look about you — look at the successes. Would you BE one, on your honour? Look, moreover," she continued, "at me."
For a little accordingly their eyes met. "I see," Strether returned. "You too are out of it."