"'Simply'!" — and little Bilham's concurrence was in itself a lively comment. "Thank you. But I thought," he continued, "you had exactly NO plan 'for' him."
"Well then call it my plan for myself — which may be well, as you say, to have none. His situation, don't you see? is reduced now to the bare facts one has to recognise. Mamie doesn't want him, and he doesn't want Mamie: so much as that these days have made clear. It's a thread we can wind up and tuck in."
But little Bilham still questioned. "YOU can — since you seem so much to want to. But why should I?"
Poor Strether thought it over, but was obliged of course to admit that his demonstration did superficially fail. "Seriously, there is no reason. It's my affair — I must do it alone. I've only my fantastic need of making my dose stiff."
Little Bilham wondered. "What do you call your dose?"
"Why what I have to swallow. I want my conditions unmitigated."
He had spoken in the tone of talk for talk's sake, and yet with an obscure truth lurking in the loose folds; a circumstance presently not without its effect on his young friend. Little Bilham's eyes rested on him a moment with some intensity; then suddenly, as if everything had cleared up, he gave a happy laugh. It seemed to say that if pretending, or even trying, or still even hoping, to be able to care for Mamie would be of use, he was all there for the job. "I'll do anything in the world for you!"
"Well," Strether smiled, "anything in the world is all I want. I don't know anything that pleased me in her more," he went on, "than the way that, on my finding her up there all alone, coming on her unawares and feeling greatly for her being so out of it, she knocked down my tall house of cards with her instant and cheerful allusion to the next young man. It was somehow so the note I needed — her staying at home to receive him."
"It was Chad of course," said little Bilham, "who asked the next young man — I like your name for me! — to call."
"So I supposed — all of which, thank God, is in our innocent and natural manners. But do you know," Strether asked, "if Chad knows — ?" And then as this interlocutor seemed at a loss: "Why where she has come out."
Little Bilham, at this, met his face with a conscious look — it was as if, more than anything yet, the allusion had penetrated. "Do you know yourself?"
Strether lightly shook his head. "There I stop. Oh, odd as it may appear to you, there ARE things I don't know. I only got the sense from her of something very sharp, and yet very deep down, that she was keeping all to herself. That is I had begun with the belief that she HAD kept it to herself; but face to face with her there I soon made out that there was a person with whom she would have shared it. I had thought she possibly might with ME — but I saw then that I was only half in her confidence. When, turning to me to greet me — for she was on the balcony and I had come in without her knowing it — she showed me she had been expecting YOU and was proportionately disappointed, I got hold of the tail of my conviction. Half an hour later I was in possession of all the rest of it. You know what has happened." He looked at his young friend hard — then he felt sure. "For all you say, you're up to your eyes. So there you are."
Little Bilham after an instant pulled half round. "I assure you she hasn't told me anything."
"Of course she hasn't. For what do you suggest that I suppose her to take you? But you've been with her every day, you've seen her freely, you've liked her greatly — I stick to that — and you've made your profit of it. You know what she has been through as well as you know that she has dined here to-night — which must have put her, by the way, through a good deal more."
The young man faced this blast; after which he pulled round the rest of the way. "I haven't in the least said she hasn't been nice to me. But she's proud."
"And quite properly. But not too proud for that."
"It's just her pride that has made her. Chad," little Bilham loyally went on, "has really been as kind to her as possible. It's awkward for a man when a girl's in love with him."
"Ah but she isn't — now."
Little Bilham sat staring before him; then he sprang up as if his friend's penetration, recurrent and insistent, made him really after all too nervous. "No — she isn't now. It isn't in the least," he went on, "Chad's fault. He's really all right. I mean he would have been willing. But she came over with ideas. Those she had got at home. They had been her motive and support in joining her brother and his wife. She was to SAVE our friend."
"Ah like me, poor thing?" Strether also got to his feet.
"Exactly — she had a bad moment. It was very soon distinct to her, to pull her up, to let her down, that, alas, he was, he IS, saved. There's nothing left for her to do."
"Not even to love him?"
"She would have loved him better as she originally believed him."
Strether wondered "Of course one asks one's self what notion a little girl forms, where a young man's in question, of such a history and such a state."
"Well, this little girl saw them, no doubt, as obscure, but she saw them practically as wrong. The wrong for her WAS the obscure. Chad turns out at any rate right and good and disconcerting, while what she was all prepared for, primed and girded and wound up for, was to deal with him as the general opposite."
"Yet wasn't her whole point" — Strether weighed it — "that he was to be, that he COULD be, made better, redeemed?"
Little Bilham fixed it all a moment, and then with a small headshake that diffused a tenderness: "She's too late. Too late for the miracle."
"Yes" — his companion saw enough. "Still, if the worst fault of his condition is that it may be all there for her to profit by — ?"
"Oh she doesn't want to 'profit,' in that flat way. She doesn't want to profit by another woman's work — she wants the miracle to have been her own miracle. THAT'S what she's too late for."