His eyes had followed her at this time quite long enough, before he overtook her, to make out more than ever in the poise of her head, the pride of her step--he didn't know what best to call it--a part at least of Mrs. Lowder's reasons. He consciously winced while he figured his presenting himself as a reason opposed to these; though at the same moment, with the source of Aunt Maud's inspiration thus before him, he was prepared to conform, by almost any abject attitude or profitable compromise, to his companion's easy injunction. He would do as SHE liked--his own liking might come off as it would. He would help her to the utmost of his power; for, all the rest of this day and the next, her easy injunction, tossed off that way as she turned her beautiful back, was like the crack of a great whip in the blue air, the high element in which Mrs. Lowder hung. He wouldn't grovel perhaps--he wasn't quite ready for that; but he would be patient, ridiculous, reasonable, unreasonable, and above all deeply diplomatic. He would be clever with all his cleverness--which he now shook hard, as he sometimes shook his poor dear shabby old watch, to start it up again. It wasn't, thank goodness, as if there weren't plenty of that "factor" (to use one of his great newspaper-words), and with what they could muster between them it would be little to the credit of their star, however pale, that defeat and surrender--surrender so early, so immediate--should have to ensue. It was not indeed that he thought of that disaster as at the worst a direct sacrifice of their possibilities: he imaged it--which was enough--as some proved vanity, some exposed fatuity in the idea of bringing Mrs. Lowder round. When shortly afterwards, in this lady's vast drawing-room--the apartments at Lancaster Gate had struck him from the first as of prodigious extent--he awaited her, at her request, conveyed in a "reply-paid" telegram, his theory was that of their still clinging to their idea, though with a sense of the difficulty of it really enlarged to the scale of the place.
He had the place for a long time--it seemed to him a quarter of an hour--to himself; and while Aunt Maud kept him and kept him, while observation and reflexion crowded on him, he asked himself what was to be expected of a person who could treat one like that. The visit, the hour were of her own proposing, so that her delay, no doubt, was but part of a general plan of putting him to inconvenience. As he walked to and fro, however, taking in the message of her massive florid furniture, the immense expression of her signs and symbols, he had as little doubt of the inconvenience he was prepared to suffer. He found himself even facing the thought that he had nothing to fall back on, and that that was as great an humiliation in a good cause as a proud man could desire. It hadn't yet been so distinct to him that he made no show--literally not the smallest; so complete a show seemed made there all about him; so almost abnormally affirmative, so aggressively erect, were the huge heavy objects that syllabled his hostess's story. "When all's said and done, you know, she's colossally vulgar"--he had once all but noted that of her to her niece; only just keeping it back at the last, keeping it to himself with all its danger about it. It mattered because it bore so directly, and he at all events quite felt it a thing that Kate herself would some day bring out to him. It bore directly at present, and really all the more that somehow, strangely, it didn't in the least characterise the poor woman as dull or stale. She was vulgar with freshness, almost with beauty, since there was beauty, to a degree, in the play of so big and bold a temperament. She was in fine quite the largest possible quantity to deal with; and he was in the cage of the lioness without his whip--the whip, in a word, of a supply of proper retorts. He had no retort but that he loved the girl--which in such a house as that was painfully cheap. Kate had mentioned to him more than once that her aunt was Passionate, speaking of it as a kind of offset and uttering it as with a capital P, marking it as something that he might, that he in fact ought to, turn about in some way to their advantage. He wondered at this hour to what advantage he could turn it; but the case grew less simple the longer he waited. Decidedly there was something he hadn't enough of.
His slow march to and fro seemed to give him the very measure; as he paced and paced the distance it became the desert of his poverty; at the sight of which expanse moreover he could pretend to himself as little as before that the desert looked redeemable. Lancaster Gate looked rich--that was all the effect; which it was unthinkable that any state of his own should ever remotely resemble. He read more vividly, more critically, as has been hinted, the appearances about him; and they did nothing so much as make him wonder at his aesthetic reaction. He hadn't known--and in spite of Kate's repeated reference to her own rebellions of taste--that he should "mind" so much how an independent lady might decorate her house. It was the language of the house itself that spoke to him, writing out for him with surpassing breadth and freedom the associations and conceptions, the ideals and possibilities of the mistress. Never, he felt sure, had he seen so many things so unanimously ugly--operatively, ominously so cruel. He was glad to have found this last name for the whole character; "cruel" somehow played into the subject for an article--an article that his impression put straight into his mind. He would write about the heavy horrors that could still flourish, that lifted their undiminished heads, in an age so proud of its short way with false gods; and it would be funny if what he should have got from Mrs. Lowder were to prove after all but a small amount of copy. Yet the great thing, really the dark thing, was that, even while he thought of the quick column he might add up, he felt it less easy to laugh at the heavy horrors than to quail before them. He couldn't describe and dismiss them collectively, call them either Mid-Victorian or Early--not being certain they were rangeable under one rubric. It was only manifest they were splendid and were furthermore conclusively British. They constituted an order and abounded in rare material--precious woods, metals, stuffs, stones. He had never dreamed of anything so fringed and scalloped, so buttoned and corded, drawn everywhere so tight and curled everywhere so thick. He had never dreamed of so much gilt and glass, so much satin and plush, so much rosewood and marble and malachite. But it was above all the solid forms, the wasted finish, the misguided cost, the general attestation of morality and money, a good conscience and a big balance. These things finally represented for him a portentous negation of his own world of thought--of which, for that matter, in presence of them, he became as for the first time hopelessly aware. They revealed it to him by their merciless difference.
His interview with Aunt Maud, none the less, took by no means the turn he had expected. Passionate though her nature, no doubt, Mrs. Lowder on this occasion neither threatened nor appealed. Her arms of aggression, her weapons of defence, were presumably close at hand, but she left them untouched and unmentioned, and was in fact so bland that he properly perceived only afterwards how adroit she had been. He properly perceived something else as well, which complicated his case; he shouldn't have known what to call it if he hadn't called it her really imprudent good nature. Her blandness, in other words, wasn't mere policy--he wasn't dangerous enough for policy: it was the result, he could see, of her fairly liking him a little. From the moment she did that she herself became more interesting, and who knew what might happen should he take to liking HER? Well, it was a risk he naturally must face. She fought him at any rate but with one hand, with a few loose grains of stray powder. He recognised at the end of ten minutes, and even without her explaining it, that if she had made him wait it hadn't been to wound him; they had by that time almost directly met on the fact of her intention. She had wanted him to think for himself of what she proposed to say to him--not having otherwise announced it; wanted to let it come home to him on the spot, as she had shrewdly believed it would. Her first question, on appearing, had practically been as to whether he hadn't taken her hint, and this enquiry assumed so many things that it immediately made discussion frank and large. He knew, with the question put, that the hint was just what he HAD taken; knew that she had made him quickly forgive her the display of her power; knew that if he didn't take care he should understand her, and the strength of her purpose, to say nothing of that of her imagination, nothing of the length of her purse, only too well. Yet he pulled himself up with the thought too that he wasn't going to be afraid of understanding her; he was just going to understand and understand without detriment to the feeblest, even, of his passions. The play of one's mind gave one away, at the best, dreadfully, in action, in the need for action, where simplicity was all; but when one couldn't prevent it the thing was to make it complete. There would never be mistakes but for the original fun of mistakes. What he must USE his fatal intelligence for was to resist. Mrs. Lowder meanwhile might use it for whatever she liked.
It was after she had begun her statement of her own idea about Kate that he began on his side to reflect that--with her manner of offering it as really sufficient if he would take the trouble to embrace it--she couldn't half hate him. That was all, positively, she seemed to show herself for the time as attempting; clearly, if she did her intention justice she would have nothing more disagreeable to do. "If I hadn't been ready to go very much further, you understand, I wouldn't have gone so far. I don't care what you repeat to her--the more you repeat to her perhaps the better; and at any rate there's nothing she doesn't already know. I don't say it for her; I say it for you--when I want to reach my niece I know how to do it straight." So Aunt Maud delivered herself--as with homely benevolence, in the simplest but the clearest terms; virtually conveying that, though a word to the wise was doubtless, in spite of the adage, NOT always enough, a word to the good could never fail to be. The sense our young man read into her words was that she liked him because he was good--was really by her measure good enough: good enough that is to give up her niece for her and go his way in peace. But WAS he good enough--by his own measure? He fairly wondered, while she more fully expressed herself, if it might be his doom to prove so. "She's the finest possible creature--of course you flatter yourself you know it. But I know it quite as well as you possibly can--by which I mean a good deal better yet; and the tune to which I'm ready to prove my faith compares favourably enough, I think, with anything you can do. I don't say it because she's my niece--that's nothing to me: I might have had fifty nieces, and I wouldn't have brought one of them to this place if I hadn't found her to my taste. I don't say I wouldn't have done something else, but I wouldn't have put up with her presence. Kate's presence, by good fortune, I marked early. Kate's presence--unluckily for YOU--is everything I could possibly wish. Kate's presence is, in short, as fine as you know, and I've been keeping it for the comfort of my declining years. I've watched it long; I've been saving it up and letting it, as you say of investments, appreciate; and you may judge whether, now it has begun to pay so, I'm likely to consent to treat for it with any but a high bidder. I can do the best with her, and I've my idea of the best."
"Oh I quite conceive," said Densher, "that your idea of the best isn't me."
It was an oddity of Mrs. Lowder's that her face in speech was like a lighted window at night, but that silence immediately drew the curtain. The occasion for reply allowed by her silence was never easy to take, yet she was still less easy to interrupt. The great glaze of her surface, at all events, gave her visitor no present help. "I didn't ask you to come to hear what it isn't--I asked you to come to hear what it IS."
"Of course," Densher laughed, "that's very great indeed."
His hostess went on as if his contribution to the subject were barely relevant. "I want to see her high, high up--high up and in the light."
"Ah you naturally want to marry her to a duke and are eager to smooth away any hitch."
She gave him so, on this, the mere effect of the drawn blind that it quite forced him at first into the sense, possibly just, of his having shown for flippant, perhaps even for low. He had been looked at so, in blighted moments of presumptuous youth, by big cold public men, but never, so far as he could recall, by any private lady. More than anything yet it gave him the measure of his companion's subtlety, and thereby of Kate's possible career. "Don't be TOO impossible!"--he feared from his friend, for a moment, some such answer as that; and then felt, as she spoke otherwise, as if she were letting him off easily. "I want her to marry a great man." That was all; but, more and more, it was enough; and if it hadn't been her next words would have made it so. "And I think of her what I think. There you are."
They sat for a little face to face upon it, and he was conscious of something deeper still, of something she wished him to understand if he only would. To that extent she did appeal--appealed to the intelligence she desired to show she believed him to possess. He was meanwhile, at all events, not the man wholly to fail of comprehension. "Of course I'm aware how little I can answer to any fond proud dream. You've a view--a grand one; into which I perfectly enter. I thoroughly understand what I'm not, and I'm much obliged to you for not reminding me of it in any rougher way." She said nothing--she kept that up; it might even have been to let him go further, if he was capable of it, in the way of poorness of spirit. It was one of those cases in which a man couldn't show, if he showed at all, save for poor; unless indeed he preferred to show for asinine. It was the plain truth: he WAS--on Mrs. Lowder's basis, the only one in question--a very small quantity, and he did know, damnably, what made quantities large. He desired to be perfectly simple, yet in the midst of that effort a deeper apprehension throbbed. Aunt Maud clearly conveyed it, though he couldn't later on have said how. "You don't really matter, I believe, so much as you think, and I'm not going to make you a martyr by banishing you. Your performances with Kate in the Park are ridiculous so far as they're meant as consideration for me; and I had much rather see you myself--since you're, in your way, my dear young man, delightful--and arrange with you, count with you, as I easily, as I perfectly should. Do you suppose me so stupid as to quarrel with you if it's not really necessary? It won't--it would be too absurd!--BE necessary. I can bite your head off any day, any day I really open my mouth; and I'm dealing with you now, see--and successfully judge--without opening it. I do things handsomely all round--I place you in the presence of the plan with which, from the moment it's a case of taking you seriously, you're incompatible. Come then as near it as you like, walk all round it--don't be afraid you'll hurt it!--and live on with it before you."
He afterwards felt that if she hadn't absolutely phrased all this it was because she so soon made him out as going with her far enough. He was so pleasantly affected by her asking no promise of him, her not proposing he should pay for her indulgence by his word of honour not to interfere, that he gave her a kind of general assurance of esteem. Immediately afterwards then he was to speak of these things to Kate, and what by that time came back to him first of all was the way he had said to her--he mentioned it to the girl--very much as one of a pair of lovers says in a rupture by mutual consent: "I hope immensely of course that you'll always regard me as a friend." This had perhaps been going far--he submitted it all to Kate; but really there had been so much in it that it was to be looked at, as they might say, wholly in its own light. Other things than those we have presented had come up before the close of his scene with Aunt Maud, but this matter of her not treating him as a peril of the first order easily predominated. There was moreover plenty to talk about on the occasion of his subsequent passage with our young woman, it having been put to him abruptly, the night before, that he might give himself a lift and do his newspaper a service--so flatteringly was the case expressed--by going for fifteen or twenty weeks to America. The idea of a series of letters from the United States from the strictly social point of view had for some time been nursed in the inner sanctuary at whose door he sat, and the moment was now deemed happy for letting it loose. The imprisoned thought had, in a word, on the opening of the door, flown straight out into Densher's face, or perched at least on his shoulder, making him look up in surprise from his mere inky office-table. His account of the matter to Kate was that he couldn't refuse--not being in a position as yet to refuse anything; but that his being chosen for such an errand confounded his sense of proportion. He was definite as to his scarce knowing how to measure the honour, which struck him as equivocal; he hadn't quite supposed himself the man for the class of job. This confused consciousness, he intimated, he had promptly enough betrayed to his manager; with the effect, however, of seeing the question surprisingly clear up. What it came to was that the sort of twaddle that wasn't in his chords was, unexpectedly, just what they happened this time not to want. They wanted his letters, for queer reasons, about as good as he could let them come; he was to play his own little tune and not be afraid: that was the whole point.
It would have been the whole, that is, had there not been a sharper one still in the circumstance that he was to start at once. His mission, as they called it at the office, would probably be over by the end of June, which was desirable; but to bring that about he must now not lose a week; his enquiries, he understood, were to cover the whole ground, and there were reasons of state--reasons operating at the seat of empire in Fleet Street--why the nail should be struck on the head. Densher made no secret to Kate of his having asked for a day to decide; and his account of that matter was that he felt he owed it to her to speak to her first. She assured him on this that nothing so much as that scruple had yet shown her how they were bound together: she was clearly proud of his letting a thing of such importance depend on her, but she was clearer still as to his instant duty. She rejoiced in his prospect and urged him to his task; she should miss him too dreadfully--of course she should miss him; but she made so little of it that she spoke with jubilation of what he would see and would do. She made so much of this last quantity that he laughed at her innocence, though also with scarce the heart to give her the real size of his drop in the daily bucket. He was struck at the same time with her happy grasp of what had really occurred in Fleet Street--all the more that it was his own final reading. He was to pull the subject up--that was just what they wanted; and it would take more than all the United States together, visit them each as he might, to let HIM down. It was just because he didn't nose about and babble, because he wasn't the usual gossip-monger, that they had picked him out. It was a branch of their correspondence with which they evidently wished a new tone associated, such a tone as, from now on, it would have always to take from his example.
"How you ought indeed, when you understand so well, to be a journalist's wife!" Densher exclaimed in admiration even while she struck him as fairly hurrying him off.
But she was almost impatient of the praise. "What do you expect one NOT to understand when one cares for you?"
"Ah then I'll put it otherwise and say 'How much you care for me!' "
"Yes," she assented; "it fairly redeems my stupidity. I SHALL, with a chance to show it," she added, "have some imagination for you."
She spoke of the future this time as so little contingent that he felt a queerness of conscience in making her the report that he presently arrived at on what had passed for him with the real arbiter of their destiny. The way for that had been blocked a little by his news from Fleet Street; but in the crucible of their happy discussion this element soon melted into the other, and in the mixture that ensued the parts were not to be distinguished. The young man moreover, before taking his leave, was to see why Kate had spoken with a wisdom indifferent to that, and was to come to the vision by a devious way that deepened the final cheer. Their faces were turned to the illumined quarter as soon as he had answered her question on the score of their being to appearance able to play patience, a prodigious game of patience, with success. It was for the possibility of the appearance that she had a few days before so earnestly pressed him to see her aunt; and if after his hour with that lady it had not struck Densher that he had seen her to the happiest purpose the poor facts flushed with a better meaning as Kate, one by one, took them up.
"If she consents to your coming why isn't that everything?"
"It IS everything; everything SHE thinks it. It's the probability--I mean as Mrs. Lowder measures probability--that I may be prevented from becoming a complication for her by some arrangement, ANY arrangement, through which you shall see me often and easily. She's sure of my want of money, and that gives her time. She believes in my having a certain amount of delicacy, in my wishing to better my state before I put the pistol to your head in respect to sharing it. The time this will take figures for her as the time that will help her if she doesn't spoil her chance by treating me badly. She doesn't at all wish moreover," Densher went on, "to treat me badly, for I believe, upon my honour, odd as it may sound to you, that she personally rather likes me and that if you weren't in question I might almost become her pet young man. She doesn't disparage intellect and culture--quite the contrary; she wants them to adorn her board and be associated with her name; and I'm sure it has sometimes cost her a real pang that I should be so desirable, at once, and so impossible." He paused a moment, and his companion then saw how strange a smile was in his face--a smile as strange even as the adjunct in her own of this informing vision. "I quite suspect her of believing that, if the truth were known, she likes me literally better than--deep down--you yourself do: wherefore she does me the honour to think I may be safely left to kill my own cause. There, as I say, comes in her margin. I'm not the sort of stuff of romance that wears, that washes, that survives use, that resists familiarity. Once in any degree admit that, and your pride and prejudice will take care of the rest!--the pride fed full, meanwhile, by the system she means to practise with you, and the prejudice excited by the comparisons she'll enable you to make, from which I shall come off badly. She likes me, but she'll never like me so much as when she has succeeded a little better in making me look wretched. For then YOU'LL like me less."
Kate showed for this evocation a due interest, but no alarm; and it was a little as if to pay his tender cynicism back in kind that she after an instant replied: "I see, I see--what an immense affair she must think me! One was aware, but you deepen the impression."
"I think you'll make no mistake," said Densher, "in letting it go as deep as it will."
He had given her indeed, she made no scruple of showing, plenty to amuse herself with. "Her facing the music, her making you boldly as welcome as you say--that's an awfully big theory, you know, and worthy of all the other big things that in one's acquaintance with people give her a place so apart."
"Oh she's grand," the young man allowed; "she's on the scale altogether of the car of Juggernaut--which was a kind of image that came to me yesterday while I waited for her at Lancaster Gate. The things in your drawing-room there were like the forms of the strange idols, the mystic excrescences, with which one may suppose the front of the car to bristle."
"Yes, aren't they?" the girl returned; and they had, over all that aspect of their wonderful lady, one of those deep and free interchanges that made everything but confidence a false note for them. There were complications, there were questions; but they were so much more together than they were anything else. Kate uttered for a while no word of refutation of Aunt Maud's "big" diplomacy, and they left it there, as they would have left any other fine product, for a monument to her powers. But, Densher related further, he had had in other respects too the car of Juggernaut to face; he omitted nothing from his account of his visit, least of all the way Aunt Maud had frankly at last--though indeed only under artful pressure--fallen foul of his very type, his want of the right marks, his foreign accidents, his queer antecedents. She had told him he was but half a Briton, which, he granted Kate, would have been dreadful if he hadn't so let himself in for it.
"I was really curious, you see," he explained, "to find out from her what sort of queer creature, what sort of social anomaly, in the light of such conventions as hers, such an education as mine makes one pass for."
Kate said nothing for a little; but then, "Why should you care?" she asked.
"Oh," he laughed, "I like her so much; and then, for a man of my trade, her views, her spirit, are essentially a thing to get hold of: they belong to the great public mind that we meet at every turn and that we must keep setting up 'codes' with. Besides," he added, "I want to please her personally."
"Ah yes, we must please her personally!" his companion echoed; and the words may represent all their definite recognition, at the time, of Densher's politic gain. They had in fact between this and his start for New York many matters to handle, and the question he now touched upon came up for Kate above all. She looked at him as if he had really told her aunt more of his immediate personal story than he had ever told herself. This, if it had been so, was an accident, and it perched him there with her for half an hour, like a cicerone and his victim on a tower-top, before as much of the bird's-eye view of his early years abroad, his migratory parents, his Swiss schools, his German university, as she had easy attention for. A man, he intimated, a man of their world, would have spotted him straight as to many of these points; a man of their world, so far as they had a world, would have been through the English mill. But it was none the less charming to make his confession to a woman; women had in fact for such differences blessedly more imagination and blessedly more sympathy. Kate showed at present as much of both as his case could require; when she had had it from beginning to end she declared that she now made out more than ever yet what she loved him for. She had herself, as a child, lived with some continuity in the world across the Channel, coming home again still a child; and had participated after that, in her teens, in her mother's brief but repeated retreats to Dresden, to Florence, to Biarritz, weak and expensive attempts at economy from which there stuck to her--though in general coldly expressed, through the instinctive avoidance of cheap raptures--the religion of foreign things. When it was revealed to her how many more foreign things were in Merton Densher than he had hitherto taken the trouble to catalogue, she almost faced him as if he were a map of the continent or a handsome present of a delightful new "Murray." He hadn't meant to swagger, he had rather meant to plead, though with Mrs. Lowder he had meant also a little to explain. His father had been, in strange countries, in twenty settlements of the English, British chaplain, resident or occasional, and had had for years the unusual luck of never wanting a billet. His career abroad had therefore been unbroken, and as his stipend had never been great he had educated his children, at the smallest cost, in the schools nearest, which was also a saving of railway-fares. Densher's mother, it further appeared, had practised on her side a distinguished industry, to the success of which--so far as success ever crowned it--this period of exile had much contributed: she copied, patient lady, famous pictures in great museums, having begun with a happy natural gift and taking in betimes the scale of her opportunity. Copyists abroad of course swarmed, but Mrs. Densher had had a sense and a hand of her own, had arrived at a perfection that persuaded, that even deceived, and that made the "placing" of her work blissfully usual. Her son, who had lost her, held her image sacred, and the effect of his telling Kate all about her, as well as about other matters until then mixed and dim, was to render his history rich, his sources full, his outline anything but common. He had come round, he had come back, he insisted abundantly, to being a Briton: his Cambridge years, his happy connexion, as it had proved, with his father's college, amply certified to that, to say nothing of his subsequent plunge into London, which filled up the measure. But brave enough though his descent to English earth, he had passed, by the way, through zones of air that had left their ruffle on his wings--he had been exposed to initiations indelible. Something had happened to him that could never be undone.
When Kate Croy said to him as much he besought her not to insist, declaring that this indeed was what was gravely the matter with him, that he had been but too probably spoiled for native, for insular use. On which, not unnaturally, she insisted the more, assuring him, without mitigation, that if he was various and complicated, complicated by wit and taste, she wouldn't for the world have had him more helpless; so that he was driven in the end to accuse her of putting the dreadful truth to him in the hollow guise of flattery. She was making him out as all abnormal in order that she might eventually find him impossible, and since she could make it out but with his aid she had to bribe him by feigned delight to help her. If her last word for him in the connexion was that the way he saw himself was just a precious proof the more of his having tasted of the tree and being thereby prepared to assist her to eat, this gives the happy tone of their whole talk, the measure of the flight of time in the near presence of his settled departure. Kate showed, however, that she was to be more literally taken when she spoke of the relief Aunt Maud would draw from the prospect of his absence.
"Yet one can scarcely see why," he replied, "when she fears me so little."
His friend weighed his objection. "Your idea is that she likes you so much that she'll even go so far as to regret losing you?"
Well, he saw it in their constant comprehensive way. "Since what she builds on is the gradual process of your alienation, she may take the view that the process constantly requires me. Mustn't I be there to keep it going? It's in my exile that it may languish."
He went on with that fantasy, but at this point Kate ceased to attend. He saw after a little that she had been following some thought of her own, and he had been feeling the growth of something determinant even through the extravagance of much of the pleasantry, the warm transparent irony, into which their livelier intimacy kept plunging like a confident swimmer. Suddenly she said to him with extraordinary beauty: "I engage myself to you for ever."
The beauty was in everything, and he could have separated nothing--couldn't have thought of her face as distinct from the whole joy. Yet her face had a new light. "And I pledge you--I call God to witness!--every spark of my faith; I give you every drop of my life." That was all, for the moment, but it was enough, and it was almost as quiet as if it were nothing. They were in the open air, in an alley of the Gardens; the great space, which seemed to arch just then higher and spread wider for them, threw them back into deep concentration. They moved by a common instinct to a spot, within sight, that struck them as fairly sequestered, and there, before their time together was spent, they had extorted from concentration every advance it could make them. They had exchanged vows and tokens, sealed their rich compact, solemnised, so far as breathed words and murmured sounds and lighted eyes and clasped hands could do it, their agreement to belong only, and to belong tremendously, to each other. They were to leave the place accordingly an affianced couple, but before they left it other things still had passed. Densher had declared his horror of bringing to a premature end her happy relation with her aunt; and they had worked round together to a high level of discretion. Kate's free profession was that she wished not to deprive HIM of Mrs. Lowder's countenance, which in the long run she was convinced he would continue to enjoy; and as by a blest turn Aunt Maud had demanded of him no promise that would tie his hands they should be able to propitiate their star in their own way and yet remain loyal. One difficulty alone stood out, which Densher named.
"Of course it will never do--we must remember that--from the moment you allow her to found hopes of you for any one else in particular. So long as her view is content to remain as general as at present appears I don't see that we deceive her. At a given hour, you see, she must be undeceived: the only thing therefore is to be ready for the hour and to face it. Only, after all, in that case," the young man observed, "one doesn't quite make out what we shall have got from her."
"What she'll have got from US?" Kate put it with a smile. "What she'll have got from us," the girl went on, "is her own affair--it's for HER to measure. I asked her for nothing," she added; "I never put myself upon her. She must take her risks, and she surely understands them. What we shall have got from her is what we've already spoken of," Kate further explained; "it's that we shall have gained time. And so, for that matter, will she."
Densher gazed a little at all this clearness; his gaze was not at the present hour into romantic obscurity. "Yes; no doubt, in our particular situation, time's everything. And then there's the joy of it."
She hesitated. "Of our secret?"
"Not so much perhaps of our secret in itself, but of what's represented and, as we must somehow feel, secured to us and made deeper and closer by it." And his fine face, relaxed into happiness, covered her with all his meaning. "Our being as we are."
It was as if for a moment she let the meaning sink into her. "So gone?"
"So gone. So extremely gone. However," he smiled, "we shall go a good deal further." Her answer to which was only the softness of her silence--a silence that looked out for them both at the far reach of their prospect. This was immense, and they thus took final possession of it. They were practically united and splendidly strong; but there were other things--things they were precisely strong enough to be able successfully to count with and safely to allow for; in consequence of which they would for the present, subject to some better reason, keep their understanding to themselves. It was not indeed however till after one more observation of Densher's that they felt the question completely straightened out. "The only thing of course is that she may any day absolutely put it to you."
Kate considered. "Ask me where, on my honour, we are? She may, naturally; but I doubt if in fact she will. While you're away she'll make the most of that drop of the tension. She'll leave me alone."
"But there'll be my letters."
The girl faced his letters. "Very, very many?"
"Very, very, very many--more than ever; and you know what that is! And then," Densher added, "there'll be yours."
"Oh I shan't leave mine on the hall-table. I shall post them myself."
He looked at her a moment. "Do you think then I had best address you elsewhere?" After which, before she could quite answer, he added with some emphasis: "I'd rather not, you know. It's straighter."
She might again have just waited. "Of course it's straighter. Don't be afraid I shan't be straight. Address me," she continued, "where you like. I shall be proud enough of its being known you write to me."
He turned it over for the last clearness. "Even at the risk of its really bringing down the inquisition?"
Well, the last clearness now filled her. "I'm not afraid of the inquisition. If she asks if there's anything definite between us I know perfectly what I shall say."
"That I AM of course 'gone' for you?"
"That I love you as I shall never in my life love any one else, and that she can make what she likes of that." She said it out so splendidly that it was like a new profession of faith, the fulness of a tide breaking through; and the effect of that in turn was to make her companion meet her with such eyes that she had time again before he could otherwise speak. "Besides, she's just as likely to ask YOU."
"Not while I'm away."
"Then when you come back."
"Well then," said Densher, "we shall have had our particular joy. But what I feel is," he candidly added, "that, by an idea of her own, her superior policy, she WON'T ask me. She'll let me off. I shan't have to lie to her."
"It will be left all to me?" asked Kate.
"All to you!" he tenderly laughed.
But it was oddly, the very next moment, as if he had perhaps been a shade too candid. His discrimination seemed to mark a possible, a natural reality, a reality not wholly disallowed by the account the girl had just given of her own intention. There WAS a difference in the air--even if none other than the supposedly usual difference in truth between man and woman; and it was almost as if the sense of this provoked her. She seemed to cast about an instant, and then she went back a little resentfully to something she had suffered to pass a minute before. She appeared to take up rather more seriously than she need the joke about her freedom to deceive. Yet she did this too in a beautiful way. "Men are too stupid--even you. You didn't understand just now why, if I post my letters myself, it won't be for anything so vulgar as to hide them."
"Oh you named it--for the pleasure."
"Yes; but you didn't, you don't, understand what the pleasure may be. There are refinements--!" she more patiently dropped. "I mean of consciousness, of sensation, of appreciation," she went on. "No," she sadly insisted--"men DON'T know. They know in such matters almost nothing but what women show them."
This was one of the speeches, frequent in her, that, liberally, joyfully, intensely adopted and, in itself, as might be, embraced, drew him again as close to her, and held him as long, as their conditions permitted. "Then that's exactly why we've such an abysmal need of you!"
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