"Oh I don't think anything now!" Strether impatiently broke in: "that is but what I DO think! I mean that originally, for her to have cared for him — "
"There must have been stuff in him? Oh yes, there was stuff indeed, and much more of it than ever showed, I dare say, at home. Still, you know," the young man in all fairness developed, "there was room for her, and that's where she came in. She saw her chance and took it. That's what strikes me as having been so fine. But of course," he wound up, "he liked her first."
"Naturally," said Strether.
"I mean that they first met somehow and somewhere — I believe in some American house — and she, without in the least then intending it, made her impression. Then with time and opportunity he made his; and after THAT she was as bad as he."
Strether vaguely took it up. "As 'bad'?"
"She began, that is, to care — to care very much. Alone, and in her horrid position, she found it, when once she had started, an interest. It was, it is, an interest, and it did — it continues to do — a lot for herself as well. So she still cares. She cares in fact," said little Bilham thoughtfully "more."
Strether's theory that it was none of his business was somehow not damaged by the way he took this. "More, you mean, than he?" On which his companion looked round at him, and now for an instant their eyes met. "More than he?" he repeated.
Little Bilham, for as long, hung fire. "Will you never tell any one?"
Strether thought. "Whom should I tell?"
"Why I supposed you reported regularly — "
"To people at home?" — Strether took him up. "Well, I won't tell them this."
The young man at last looked away. "Then she does now care more than he."
"Oh!" Strether oddly exclaimed.
But his companion immediately met it. "Haven't you after all had your impression of it? That's how you've got hold of him."
"Ah but I haven't got hold of him!"
"Oh I say!" But it was all little Bilham said.
"It's at any rate none of my business. I mean," Strether explained, "nothing else than getting hold of him is." It appeared, however, to strike him as his business to add: "The fact remains nevertheless that she has saved him."
Little Bilham just waited. "I thought that was what you were to do."
But Strether had his answer ready. "I'm speaking — in connexion with her — of his manners and morals, his character and life. I'm speaking of him as a person to deal with and talk with and live with — speaking of him as a social animal."
"And isn't it as a social animal that you also want him?"
"Certainly; so that it's as if she had saved him FOR us."
"It strikes you accordingly then," the young man threw out, "as for you all to save HER?"
"Oh for us 'all' — !" Strether could but laugh at that. It brought him back, however, to the point he had really wished to make. "They've accepted their situation — hard as it is. They're not free — at least she's not; but they take what's left to them. It's a friendship, of a beautiful sort; and that's what makes them so strong. They're straight, they feel; and they keep each other up. It's doubtless she, however, who, as you yourself have hinted, feels it most."
Little Bilham appeared to wonder what he had hinted. "Feels most that they're straight?"
"Well, feels that SHE is, and the strength that comes from it. She keeps HIM up — she keeps the whole thing up. When people are able to it's fine. She's wonderful, wonderful, as Miss Barrace says; and he is, in his way, too; however, as a mere man, he may sometimes rebel and not feel that he finds his account in it. She has simply given him an immense moral lift, and what that can explain is prodigious. That's why I speak of it as a situation. It IS one, if there ever was." And Strether, with his head back and his eyes on the ceiling, seemed to lose himself in the vision of it.
His companion attended deeply. "You state it much better than I could." "Oh you see it doesn't concern you."
Little Bilham considered. "I thought you said just now that it doesn't concern you either."
"Well, it doesn't a bit as Madame de Vionnet's affair. But as we were again saying just now, what did I come out for but to save him?"
"Yes — to remove him."
"To save him by removal; to win him over to HIMSELF thinking it best he shall take up business — thinking he must immediately do therefore what's necessary to that end."
"Well," said little Bilham after a moment, "you HAVE won him over. He does think it best. He has within a day or two again said to me as much."
"And that," Strether asked, "is why you consider that he cares less than she?"
"Cares less for her than she for him? Yes, that's one of the reasons. But other things too have given me the impression. A man, don't you think?" little Bilham presently pursued, "CAN'T, in such conditions, care so much as a woman. It takes different conditions to make him, and then perhaps he cares more. Chad," he wound up, "has his possible future before him."
"Are you speaking of his business future?"
"No — on the contrary; of the other, the future of what you so justly call their situation. M. de Vionnet may live for ever."