"The real truth is, you know, that you sacrifice one without mercy to dear old Maria. She leaves no room in your life for anybody else. Do you know," she enquired of Mrs. Pocock, "about dear old Maria? The worst is that Miss Gostrey is really a wonderful woman."
"Oh yes indeed," Strether answered for her, "Mrs. Pocock knows about Miss Gostrey. Your mother, Sarah, must have told you about her; your mother knows everything," he sturdily pursued. "And I cordially admit," he added with his conscious gaiety of courage, "that she's as wonderful a woman as you like."
"Ah it isn't I who 'like,' dear Mr. Strether, anything to do with the matter!" Sarah Pocock promptly protested; "and I'm by no means sure I have — from my mother or from any one else — a notion of whom you're talking about."
"Well, he won't let you see her, you know," Madame de Vionnet sympathetically threw in. "He never lets me — old friends as we are: I mean as I am with Maria. He reserves her for his best hours; keeps her consummately to himself; only gives us others the crumbs of the feast."
"Well, Countess, I'VE had some of the crumbs," Waymarsh observed with weight and covering her with his large look; which led her to break in before he could go on.
"Comment donc, he shares her with YOU?" she exclaimed in droll stupefaction. "Take care you don't have, before you go much further, rather more of all ces dames than you may know what to do with!"
But he only continued in his massive way. "I can post you about the lady, Mrs. Pocock, so far as you may care to hear. I've seen her quite a number of times, and I was practically present when they made acquaintance. I've kept my eye on her right along, but I don't know as there's any real harm in her."
"'Harm'?" Madame de Vionnet quickly echoed. "Why she's the dearest and cleverest of all the clever and dear."
"Well, you run her pretty close, Countess," Waymarsh returned with spirit; "though there's no doubt she's pretty well up in things. She knows her way round Europe. Above all there's no doubt she does love Strether."
"Ah but we all do that — we all love Strether: it isn't a merit!" their fellow visitor laughed, keeping to her idea with a good conscience at which our friend was aware that he marvelled, though he trusted also for it, as he met her exquisitely expressive eyes, to some later light.
The prime effect of her tone, however — and it was a truth which his own eyes gave back to her in sad ironic play — could only be to make him feel that, to say such things to a man in public, a woman must practically think of him as ninety years old. He had turned awkwardly, responsively red, he knew, at her mention of Maria Gostrey; Sarah Pocock's presence — the particular quality of it — had made this inevitable; and then he had grown still redder in proportion as he hated to have shown anything at all. He felt indeed that he was showing much, as, uncomfortably and almost in pain, he offered up his redness to Waymarsh, who, strangely enough, seemed now to be looking at him with a certain explanatory yearning. Something deep — something built on their old old relation — passed, in this complexity, between them; he got the side-wind of a loyalty that stood behind all actual queer questions. Waymarsh's dry bare humour — as it gave itself to be taken — gloomed out to demand justice. "Well, if you talk of Miss Barrace I've MY chance too," it appeared stiffly to nod, and it granted that it was giving him away, but struggled to add that it did so only to save him. The sombre glow stared it at him till it fairly sounded out — "to save you, poor old man, to save you; to save you in spite of yourself." Yet it was somehow just this communication that showed him to himself as more than ever lost. Still another result of it was to put before him as never yet that between his comrade and the interest represented by Sarah there was already a basis. Beyond all question now, yes: Waymarsh had been in occult relation with Mrs. Newsome — out, out it all came in the very effort of his face. "Yes, you're feeling my hand" — he as good as proclaimed it; "but only because this at least I SHALL have got out of the damned Old World: that I shall have picked up the pieces into which it has caused you to crumble." It was as if in short, after an instant, Strether had not only had it from him, but had recognised that so far as this went the instant had cleared the air. Our friend understood and approved; he had the sense that they wouldn't otherwise speak of it. This would be all, and it would mark in himself a kind of intelligent generosity. It was with grim Sarah then — Sarah grim for all her grace — that Waymarsh had begun at ten o'clock in the morning to save him. Well — if he COULD, poor dear man, with his big bleak kindness! The upshot of which crowded perception was that Strether, on his own side, still showed no more than he absolutely had to. He showed the least possible by saying to Mrs. Pocock after an interval much briefer than our glance at the picture reflected in him: "Oh it's as true as they please! — There's no Miss Gostrey for any one but me — not the least little peep. I keep her to myself."
"Well, it's very good of you to notify me," Sarah replied without looking at him and thrown for a moment by this discrimination, as the direction of her eyes showed, upon a dimly desperate little community with Madame de Vionnet. "But I hope I shan't miss her too much."
Madame de Vionnet instantly rallied. "And you know — though it might occur to one — it isn't in the least that he's ashamed of her. She's really — in a way — extremely good-looking."
"Ah but extremely!" Strether laughed while he wondered at the odd part he found thus imposed on him.
It continued to be so by every touch from Madame de Vionnet. "Well, as I say, you know, I wish you would keep ME a little more to yourself. Couldn't you name some day for me, some hour — and better soon than late? I'll be at home whenever it best suits you. There — I can't say fairer."
Strether thought a moment while Waymarsh and Mrs. Pocock affected him as standing attentive. "I did lately call on you. Last week — while Chad was out of town."
"Yes — and I was away, as it happened, too. You choose your moments well. But don't wait for my next absence, for I shan't make another," Madame de Vionnet declared, "while Mrs. Pocock's here."
"That vow needn't keep you long, fortunately," Sarah observed with reasserted suavity. "I shall be at present but a short time in Paris. I have my plans for other countries. I meet a number of charming friends" — and her voice seemed to caress that description of these persons.
"Ah then," her visitor cheerfully replied, "all the more reason! To-morrow, for instance, or next day?" she continued to Strether. "Tuesday would do for me beautifully."
"Tuesday then with pleasure."
"And at half-past five? — or at six?"
It was ridiculous, but Mrs. Pocock and Waymarsh struck him as fairly waiting for his answer. It was indeed as if they were arranged, gathered for a performance, the performance of "Europe" by his confederate and himself. Well, the performance could only go on. "Say five forty-five."
"Five forty-five — good." And now at last Madame de Vionnet must leave them, though it carried, for herself, the performance a little further. "I DID hope so much also to see Miss Pocock. Mayn't I still?"
Sarah hesitated, but she rose equal. "She'll return your visit with me. She's at present out with Mr. Pocock and my brother."
"I see — of course Mr. Newsome has everything to show them. He has told me so much about her. My great desire's to give my daughter the opportunity of making her acquaintance. I'm always on the lookout for such chances for her. If I didn't bring her to-day it was only to make sure first that you'd let me." After which the charming woman risked a more intense appeal. "It wouldn't suit you also to mention some near time, so that we shall be sure not to lose you?" Strether on his side waited, for Sarah likewise had, after all, to perform; and it occupied him to have been thus reminded that she had stayed at home — and on her first morning of Paris — while Chad led the others forth. Oh she was up to her eyes; if she had stayed at home she had stayed by an understanding, arrived at the evening before, that Waymarsh would come and find her alone. This was beginning well — for a first day in Paris; and the thing might be amusing yet. But Madame de Vionnet's earnestness was meanwhile beautiful. "You may think me indiscreet, but I've SUCH a desire my Jeanne shall know an American girl of the really delightful kind. You see I throw myself for it on your charity."