Strether quite felt how it all fitted, yet there seemed one loose piece. "I'm bound to say, you know, that she strikes one, on these lines, as fastidious — what you call here difficile."
Little Bilham tossed up his chin. "Of course she's difficile — on any lines! What else in the world ARE our Mamies — the real, the right ones?"
"I see, I see," our friend repeated, charmed by the responsive wisdom he had ended by so richly extracting. "Mamie is one of the real and the right."
"The very thing itself."
"And what it comes to then," Strether went on, "is that poor awful Chad is simply too good for her."
"Ah too good was what he was after all to be; but it was she herself, and she herself only, who was to have made him so."
It hung beautifully together, but with still a loose end. "Wouldn't he do for her even if he should after all break — "
"With his actual influence?" Oh little Bilham had for this enquiry the sharpest of all his controls. "How can he 'do' — on any terms whatever — when he's flagrantly spoiled?"
Strether could only meet the question with his passive, his receptive pleasure. "Well, thank goodness, YOU'RE not! You remain for her to save, and I come back, on so beautiful and full a demonstration, to my contention of just now — that of your showing distinct signs of her having already begun."
The most he could further say to himself — as his young friend turned away — was that the charge encountered for the moment no renewed denial. Little Bilham, taking his course back to the music, only shook his good-natured ears an instant, in the manner of a terrier who has got wet; while Strether relapsed into the sense — which had for him in these days most of comfort — that he was free to believe in anything that from hour to hour kept him going. He had positively motions and flutters of this conscious hour-to-hour kind, temporary surrenders to irony, to fancy, frequent instinctive snatches at the growing rose of observation, constantly stronger for him, as he felt, in scent and colour, and in which he could bury his nose even to wantonness. This last resource was offered him, for that matter, in the very form of his next clear perception — the vision of a prompt meeting, in the doorway of the room, between little Bilham and brilliant Miss Barrace, who was entering as Bilham withdrew. She had apparently put him a question, to which he had replied by turning to indicate his late interlocutor; toward whom, after an interrogation further aided by a resort to that optical machinery which seemed, like her other ornaments, curious and archaic, the genial lady, suggesting more than ever for her fellow guest the old French print, the historic portrait, directed herself with an intention that Strether instantly met. He knew in advance the first note she would sound, and took in as she approached all her need of sounding it. Nothing yet had been so "wonderful" between them as the present occasion; and it was her special sense of this quality in occasions that she was there, as she was in most places, to feed. That sense had already been so well fed by the situation about them that she had quitted the other room, forsaken the music, dropped out of the play, abandoned, in a word, the stage itself, that she might stand a minute behind the scenes with Strether and so perhaps figure as one of the famous augurs replying, behind the oracle, to the wink of the other. Seated near him presently where little Bilham had sat, she replied in truth to many things; beginning as soon as he had said to her — what he hoped he said without fatuity — "All you ladies are extraordinarily kind to me."
She played her long handle, which shifted her observation; she saw in an instant all the absences that left them free. "How can we be anything else? But isn't that exactly your plight? 'We ladies' — oh we're nice, and you must be having enough of us! As one of us, you know, I don't pretend I'm crazy about us. But Miss Gostrey at least to-night has left you alone, hasn't she?" With which she again looked about as if Maria might still lurk.
"Oh yes," said Strether; "she's only sitting up for me at home." And then as this elicited from his companion her gay "Oh, oh, oh!" he explained that he meant sitting up in suspense and prayer. "We thought it on the whole better she shouldn't be present; and either way of course it's a terrible worry for her." He abounded in the sense of his appeal to the ladies, and they might take their choice of his doing so from humility or from pride. "Yet she inclines to believe I shall come out."
"Oh I incline to believe too you'll come out!" — Miss Barrace, with her laugh, was not to be behind. "Only the question's about WHERE, isn't it? However," she happily continued, "if it's anywhere at all it must be very far on, mustn't it? To do us justice, I think, you know," she laughed, "we do, among us all, want you rather far on. Yes, yes," she repeated in her quick droll way; "we want you very, VERY far on!" After which she wished to know why he had thought it better Maria shouldn't be present.
"Oh," he replied, "it was really her own idea. I should have wished it. But she dreads responsibility."
"And isn't that a new thing for her?"
"To dread it? No doubt — no doubt. But her nerve has given way."
Miss Barrace looked at him a moment. "She has too much at stake." Then less gravely: "Mine, luckily for me, holds out."
"Luckily for me too" — Strether came back to that. "My own isn't so firm, MY appetite for responsibility isn't so sharp, as that I haven't felt the very principle of this occasion to be 'the more the merrier.' If we ARE so merry it's because Chad has understood so well."
"He has understood amazingly," said Miss Barrace.
"It's wonderful — Strether anticipated for her.
"It's wonderful!" she, to meet it, intensified; so that, face to face over it, they largely and recklessly laughed. But she presently added: "Oh I see the principle. If one didn't one would be lost. But when once one has got hold of it — "
"It's as simple as twice two! From the moment he had to do something — "
"A crowd" — she took him straight up — "was the only thing? Rather, rather: a rumpus of sound," she laughed, "or nothing. Mrs. Pocock's built in, or built out — whichever you call it; she's packed so tight she can't move. She's in splendid isolation" — Miss Barrace embroidered the theme.
Strether followed, but scrupulous of justice. "Yet with every one in the place successively introduced to her."
"Wonderfully — but just so that it does build her out. She's bricked up, she's buried alive!"