"What I see, what I saw," Maria returned, "is that you dressed up even the virtue. You were wonderful — you were beautiful, as I've had the honour of telling you before; but, if you wish really to know," she sadly confessed, "I never quite knew WHERE you were. There were moments," she explained, "when you struck me as grandly cynical; there were others when you struck me as grandly vague."
Her friend considered. "I had phases. I had flights."
"Yes, but things must have a basis."
"A basis seemed to me just what her beauty supplied."
"Her beauty of person?"
"Well, her beauty of everything. The impression she makes. She has such variety and yet such harmony."
She considered him with one of her deep returns of indulgence — returns out of all proportion to the irritations they flooded over. "You're complete."
"You're always too personal," he good-humouredly said; "but that's precisely how I wondered and wandered."
"If you mean," she went on, "that she was from the first for you the most charming woman in the world, nothing's more simple. Only that was an odd foundation."
"For what I reared on it?"
"For what you didn't!"
"Well, it was all not a fixed quantity. And it had for me — it has still — such elements of strangeness. Her greater age than his, her different world, traditions, association; her other opportunities, liabilities, standards."
His friend listened with respect to his enumeration of these disparities; then she disposed of them at a stroke. "Those things are nothing when a woman's hit. It's very awful. She was hit."
Strether, on his side, did justice to that plea. "Oh of course I saw she was hit. That she was hit was what we were busy with; that she was hit was our great affair. But somehow I couldn't think of her as down in the dust. And as put there by OUR little Chad!"
"Yet wasn't 'your' little Chad just your miracle?"
Strether admitted it. "Of course I moved among miracles. It was all phantasmagoric. But the great fact was that so much of it was none of my business — as I saw my business. It isn't even now."
His companion turned away on this, and it might well have been yet again with the sharpness of a fear of how little his philosophy could bring her personally. "I wish SHE could hear you!"
"No — not Mrs. Newsome; since I understand you that it doesn't matter now what Mrs. Newsome hears. Hasn't she heard everything?"
"Practically — yes." He had thought a moment, but he went on. "You wish Madame de Vionnet could hear me?"
"Madame de Vionnet." She had come back to him. "She thinks just the contrary of what you say. That you distinctly judge her."
He turned over the scene as the two women thus placed together for him seemed to give it. "She might have known — !"
"Might have known you don't?" Miss Gostrey asked as he let it drop. "She was sure of it at first," she pursued as he said nothing; "she took it for granted, at least, as any woman in her position would. But after that she changed her mind; she believed you believed — "
"Well?" — he was curious.
"Why in her sublimity. And that belief had remained with her, I make out, till the accident of the other day opened your eyes. For that it did," said Maria, "open them — "
"She can't help" — he had taken it up — "being aware? No," he mused; "I suppose she thinks of that even yet."
"Then they WERE closed? There you are! However, if you see her as the most charming woman in the world it comes to the same thing. And if you'd like me to tell her that you do still so see her — !" Miss Gostrey, in short, offered herself for service to the end.
It was an offer he could temporarily entertain; but he decided. "She knows perfectly how I see her."
"Not favourably enough, she mentioned to me, to wish ever to see her again. She told me you had taken a final leave of her. She says you've done with her."
"So I have."
Maria had a pause; then she spoke as if for conscience. "She wouldn't have done with YOU. She feels she has lost you — yet that she might have been better for you."
"Oh she has been quite good enough!" Strether laughed.
"She thinks you and she might at any rate have been friends."
"We might certainly. That's just" — he continued to laugh — "why I'm going."
It was as if Maria could feel with this then at last that she had done her best for each. But she had still an idea. "Shall I tell her that?"
"No. Tell her nothing."
"Very well then." To which in the next breath Miss Gostrey added: "Poor dear thing!"
Her friend wondered; then with raised eyebrows: "Me?"
"Oh no. Marie de Vionnet."
He accepted the correction, but he wondered still. "Are you so sorry for her as that?"
It made her think a moment — made her even speak with a smile. But she didn't really retract. "I'm sorry for us all!"