"I know that too," Strether smiled. To which he added with an irrelevance that was only superficial: "I come from Woollett Massachusetts." It made her for some reason — the irrelevance or whatever — laugh. Balzac had described many cities, but hadn't described Woollett Massachusetts. "You say that," she returned, "as if you wanted one immediately to know the worst."
"Oh I think it's a thing," he said, "that you must already have made out. I feel it so that I certainly must look it, speak it, and, as people say there, 'act' it. It sticks out of me, and you knew surely for yourself as soon as you looked at me."
"The worst, you mean?"
"Well, the fact of where I come from. There at any rate it IS; so that you won't be able, if anything happens, to say I've not been straight with you."
"I see" — and Miss Gostrey looked really interested in the point he had made. "But what do you think of as happening?"
Though he wasn't shy — which was rather anomalous — Strether gazed about without meeting her eyes; a motion that was frequent with him in talk, yet of which his words often seemed not at all the effect. "Why that you should find me too hopeless." With which they walked on again together while she answered, as they went, that the most "hopeless" of her countryfolk were in general precisely those she liked best. All sorts of other pleasant small things-small things that were yet large for him — flowered in the air of the occasion, but the bearing of the occasion itself on matters still remote concerns us too closely to permit us to multiply our illustrations. Two or three, however, in truth, we should perhaps regret to lose. The tortuous wall — girdle, long since snapped, of the little swollen city, half held in place by careful civic hands — wanders in narrow file between parapets smoothed by peaceful generations, pausing here and there for a dismantled gate or a bridged gap, with rises and drops, steps up and steps down, queer twists, queer contacts, peeps into homely streets and under the brows of gables, views of cathedral tower and waterside fields, of huddled English town and ordered English country. Too deep almost for words was the delight of these things to Strether; yet as deeply mixed with it were certain images of his inward picture. He had trod this walks in the far-off time, at twenty-five; but that, instead of spoiling it, only enriched it for present feeling and marked his renewal as a thing substantial enough to share. It was with Waymarsh he should have shared it, and he was now accordingly taking from him something that was his due. He looked repeatedly at his watch, and when he had done so for the fifth time Miss Gostrey took him up.
"You're doing something that you think not right."
It so touched the place that he quite changed colour and his laugh grew almost awkward. "Am I enjoying it as much as THAT?"
"You're not enjoying it, I think, so much as you ought."
"I see" — he appeared thoughtfully to agree. "Great is my privilege."
"Oh it's not your privilege! It has nothing to do with me. It has to do with yourself. Your failure's general."
"Ah there you are!" he laughed. "It's the failure of Woollett. THAT'S general."
"The failure to enjoy," Miss Gostrey explained, "is what I mean."
"Precisely. Woollett isn't sure it ought to enjoy. If it were it would. But it hasn't, poor thing," Strether continued, "any one to show it how. It's not like me. I have somebody."
They had stopped, in the afternoon sunshine — constantly pausing, in their stroll, for the sharper sense of what they saw — and Strether rested on one of the high sides of the old stony groove of the little rampart. He leaned back on this support with his face to the tower of the cathedral, now admirably commanded by their station, the high red-brown mass, square and subordinately spired and crocketed, retouched and restored, but charming to his long-sealed eyes and with the first swallows of the year weaving their flight all round it. Miss Gostrey lingered near him, full of an air, to which she more and more justified her right, of understanding the effect of things. She quite concurred. "You've indeed somebody." And she added: "I wish you WOULD let me show you how!"
"Oh I'm afraid of you!" he cheerfully pleaded.
She kept on him a moment, through her glasses and through his own, a certain pleasant pointedness. "Ah no, you're not! You're not in the least, thank goodness! If you had been we shouldn't so soon have found ourselves here together. I think," she comfortably concluded, "you trust me."
"I think I do! — but that's exactly what I'm afraid of. I shouldn't mind if I didn't. It's falling thus in twenty minutes so utterly into your hands. I dare say," Strether continued, "it's a sort of thing you're thoroughly familiar with; but nothing more extraordinary has ever happened to me."
She watched him with all her kindness. "That means simply that you've recognised me — which IS rather beautiful and rare. You see what I am." As on this, however, he protested, with a good-humoured headshake, a resignation of any such claim, she had a moment of explanation. "If you'll only come on further as you HAVE come you'll at any rate make out. My own fate has been too many for me, and I've succumbed to it. I'm a general guide — to 'Europe,' don't you know? I wait for people — I put them through. I pick them up — I set them down. I'm a sort of superior 'courier-maid.' I'm a companion at large. I take people, as I've told you, about. I never sought it — it has come to me. It has been my fate, and one's fate one accepts. It's a dreadful thing to have to say, in so wicked a world, but I verily believe that, such as you see me, there's nothing I don't know. I know all the shops and the prices — but I know worse things still. I bear on my back the huge load of our national consciousness, or, in other words — for it comes to that — of our nation itself. Of what is our nation composed but of the men and women individually on my shoulders? I don't do it, you know, for any particular advantage. I don't do it, for instance — some people do, you know — for money."