It had at least made the difference for them, they could feel, of an informed state in respect to the great doctor, whom they were now to take as watching, waiting, studying, or at any rate as proposing to himself some such process before he should make up his mind. Mrs. Stringham understood him as considering the matter meanwhile in a spirit that, on this same occasion, at Lancaster Gate, she had come back to a rough notation of before retiring. She followed the course of his reckoning. If what they had talked of could happen—if Milly, that is, could have her thoughts taken off herself—it wouldn't do any harm and might conceivably do much good. If it couldn't happen—if, anxiously, though tactfully working, they themselves, conjoined, could do nothing to contribute to it—they would be in no worse a box than before. Only in this latter case the girl would have had her free range for the summer, for the autumn; she would have done her best in the sense enjoined on her, and, coming back at the end to her eminent man, would—besides having more to show him—find him more ready to go on with her. It was visible further to Susan Shepherd—as well as being ground for a second report to her old friend—that Milly did her part for a working view of the general case, inasmuch as she mentioned frankly and promptly that she meant to go and say good-bye to Sir Luke Strett and thank him. She even specified what she was to thank him for, his having been so easy about her behaviour.
"You see I didn't know that—for the liberty I took—I shouldn't afterwards get a stiff note from him."
So much Milly had said to her, and it had made her a trifle rash. "Oh, you'll never get a stiff note from him in your life."
She felt her rashness, the next moment, at her young friend's question. "Why not, as well as any one else who has played him a trick?"
"Well, because he doesn't regard it as a trick. He could understand your action. It's all right, you see."
"Yes—I do see. It is all right. He's easier with me than with any one else, because that's the way to let me down. He's only making believe, and I'm not worth hauling up."
Rueful at having provoked again this ominous flare, poor Susie grasped at her only advantage. "Do you really accuse a man like Sir Luke Strett of trifling with you?"
She couldn't blind herself to the look her companion gave her—a strange, half-amused perception of what she made of it. "Well, so far as it's trifling with me to pity me so much."
"He doesn't pity you," Susie earnestly reasoned. "He just—the same as any one else—likes you."
"He has no business then to like me. He's not the same as any one else."
"Why not, if he wants to work for you?"
Milly gave her another look, but this time a wonderful smile. "Ah, there you are!" Mrs. Stringham coloured, for there indeed she was again. But Milly let her off. "Work for me, all the same—work for me! It is of course what I want." Then, as usual, she embraced her friend. "I'm not going to be as nasty as this to him."
"I'm sure I hope not!"—and Mrs. Stringham laughed for the kiss. "I've no doubt, however, he'd take it from you! It's you, my dear, who are not the same as any one else."
Milly's assent to which, after an instant, gave her the last word. "No, so that people can take anything from me." And what Mrs. Stringham did indeed resignedly take after this was the absence, on her part, of any account of the visit then paid. It was the beginning in fact, between them, of an odd independence—an independence positively of action and custom—on the subject of Milly's future. They went their separate ways, with the girl's intense assent; this being really nothing but what she had so wonderfully put in her plea for after Mrs. Stringham's first encounter with Sir Luke. She fairly favoured the idea that Susie had or was to have other encounters—private, pointed, personal; she favoured every idea, but most of all the idea that she herself was to go on as if nothing were the matter. Since she was to be worked for, that would be her way; and though her companion learned from herself nothing of it, that was in the event her way with her medical adviser. She put her visit to him on the simplest ground; she had just come to tell him how touched she had been by his goodnature. This required little explaining, for, as Mrs. Stringham had said, he quite understood, he could but reply that it was all right.
"I had a charming quarter of an hour with that clever lady. You've got good friends."
"So each one of them thinks—of all the others. But so I also think," Milly went on, "of all of them together. You're excellent for each other. And it's in that way, I dare say, that you're best for me."
There came to her on this occasion one of the strangest of her impressions, which was at the same time one of the finest of her alarms—the glimmer of a vision that if she should go, as it were, too far, she might perhaps deprive their relation of facility if not of value. Going too far was failing to try at least to remain simple. He would be quite ready to hate her if she did, by heading him off at every point, embarrass his exercise of a kindness that, no doubt, in a way, constituted for him a high method. Susie wouldn't hate her because Susie positively wanted to suffer for her; Susie had a noble idea that she might somehow so do her good. Such, however, was not the way in which the greatest of London doctors was to be expected to wish to do it. He wouldn't have time even if he should wish; whereby, in a word, Milly felt herself intimately warned. Face to face there with her smooth, strong director, she enjoyed at a given moment quite such another lift of feeling as she had known in her crucial talk with Susie. It came round to the same thing; him too she would help to help her if that could possibly be; but if it couldn't possibly be she would assist also to make this right. It wouldn't have taken many minutes more, on the basis in question, almost to reverse for her their characters of patient and physician. What was he, in fact, but patient, what was she but physician, from the moment she embraced once for all the necessity, adopted once for all the policy, of saving him alarms about her subtlety? She would leave the subtlety to him; he would enjoy his use of it; and she herself, no doubt, would in time enjoy his enjoyment. She went so far as to imagine that the inward success of these reflections flushed her for the minute, to his eyes, with a certain bloom, a comparative appearance of health; and what verily next occurred was that he gave colour to the presumption. "Every little helps, no doubt!"—he noticed good-humouredly her harmless sally. "But, help or no help, you're looking, you know, remarkably well."
"Oh, I thought I was," she answered; and it was as if already she saw his line. Only she wondered what he would have guessed. If he had guessed anything at all it would be rather remarkable of him. As for what there was to guess, he couldn't—if this was present to him—have arrived at it save by his own acuteness. This acuteness was therefore immense; and if it supplied the subtlety she thought of leaving him to, his portion would be none so bad. Neither, for that matter, would hers be—which she was even actually enjoying. She wondered if really then there mightn't be something for her. She hadn't been sure in coming to him that she was "better," and he hadn't used, he would be awfully careful not to use, that compromising term about her; in spite of all of which she would have been ready to say, for the amiable sympathy of it, "Yes, I must be," for he had this unaided sense of something that had happened to her. It was a sense unaided, because who could have told him of anything? Susie, she was certain, had not yet seen him again, and there were things it was impossible she could have told him the first time. Since such was his penetration, therefore, why shouldn't she gracefully, in recognition of it, accept the new circumstance, the one he was clearly wanting to congratulate her on, as a sufficient cause? If one nursed a cause tenderly enough it might produce an effect; and this, to begin with, would be a way of nursing. "You gave me the other day," she went on, "plenty to think over, and I've been doing that—thinking it over—quite as you'll have probably wished me. I think I must be pretty easy to treat," she smiled, "since you've already done me so much good."
The only obstacle to reciprocity with him was that he looked in advance so closely related to all one's possibilities that one missed the pleasure of really improving it. "Oh no, you're extremely difficult to treat. I've need with you, I assure you, of all my wit."
"Well, I mean, I do come up." She hadn't meanwhile a bit believed in his answer, convinced as she was that if she had been difficult it would be the last thing he would have told her. "I'm doing," she said, "as I like."
"Then it's as I like. But you must really, though we're having such a decent month, get straight away." In pursuance of which, when she had replied with promptitude that her departure for the Tyrol and then for Venice was quite fixed for the fourteenth, he took her up with alacrity. "For Venice? That's perfect, for we shall meet there. I've a dream of it for October, when I'm hoping for three weeks off; three weeks during which, if I can get them clear, my niece, a young person who has quite the whip hand of me, is to take me where she prefers. I heard from her only yesterday that she expects to prefer Venice."
"That's lovely then. I shall expect you there. And anything that, in advance or in any way, I can do for you———!"
"Oh, thank you. My niece, I seem to feel, does for me. But it will be capital to find you there."
"I think it ought to make you feel," she said after a moment, "that I am easy to treat."
But he shook his head again; he wouldn't have it. "You've not come to that yet."
"One has to be so bad for it?"
"Well, I don't think I've ever come to it—to 'ease' of treatment. I doubt if it's possible. I've not, if it is, found any one bad enough. The ease, you see, is for you."
"I see—I see."
They had an odd, friendly but perhaps the least bit awkward pause on it; after which Sir Luke asked: "And that clever lady—she goes with you?"
"Mrs. Stringham? Oh dear, yes. She'll stay with me, I hope, to the end."
He had a cheerful blankness. "To the end of what?"
"Ah then," he laughed, "you're in luck. The end of everything is far off. This, you know, I'm hoping," said Sir Luke, "is only the beginning." And the next question he risked might have been a part of his hope. "Just you and she together?"
"No, two other friends; two ladies of whom we've seen more here than of any one and who are just the right people for us."
He thought a moment. "You'll be four women together then?"
"Ah," said Milly, "we're widows and orphans. But I think," she added as if to say what she saw would reassure him, "that we shall not be unattractive, as we move, to gentlemen. When you talk of 'life' I suppose you mean, mainly, gentlemen."
"When I talk of 'life,'" he made answer after a moment during which he might have been appreciating her raciness—"when I talk of life I think I mean more than anything else the beautiful show of it, in its freshness, made by young persons of your age. So go on as you are. I see more and more how you are. You can't," he went so far as to say for pleasantness, "better it."
She took it from him with a great show of peace. "One of our companions will be Miss Croy, who came with me here first. It's in her that life is splendid; and a part of that is even that she's devoted to me. But she's, above all, magnificent in herself. So that if you'd like," she freely threw out, "to see her———"
"Oh, I shall like to see any one who's devoted to you, for, clearly, it will be jolly to be 'in' it. So that if she's to be at Venice I shall see her?"
"We must arrange it—I shan't fail. She more over has a friend who may also be there"—Milly found herself going on to this. "He's likely to come, I believe, for he always follows her."
Sir Luke wondered. "You mean they're lovers?"
"He is," Milly smiled; "but not she. She doesn't care for him."
Sir Luke took an interest. "What's the matter with him?"
"Nothing but that she doesn't like him."
Sir Luke kept it up. "Is he all right?"
"Oh, he's very nice. Indeed he's remarkably so."
"And he's to be in Venice?"
"So she tells me she fears. For if he is there he'll be constantly about with her."
"And she'll be constantly about with you?"
"As we're great friends—yes."
"Well, then," said Sir Luke, "you won't be four women alone."
"Oh, no; I recognise the chance of gentlemen. But he won't," Milly pursued in the same wondrous way, "have come, you see, for me."
"No—I see. But can't you help him?"
"Can't you?" Milly after a moment quaintly asked. Then for the joke of it she explained. "I'm putting you, you see, in relation with my entourage."
It might have been for the joke of it too, by this time, that her eminent friend fell in. "But if this gentleman isn't of your entourage? I mean if he's of—what do you call her?—Miss Croy's. Unless indeed you also take an interest in him."
"Oh, certainly I take an interest in him!"
"You think there may be then some chance for him?"
"I like him," said Milly, "enough to hope so."
"Then that's all right. But what, pray," Sir Luke next asked, "have I to do with him?"
"Nothing," said Milly, "except that if you're to be there, so may he be. And also that we shan't in that case be simply four dreary women."
He considered her as if at this point she a little tried his patience. "You're the least 'dreary' woman I've ever, ever seen. Ever, do you know? There's no reason why you shouldn't have a really splendid life."
"So everyone tells me," she promptly returned.
"The conviction—strong already when I had seen you once—is strengthened in me by having seen your friend. There's no doubt about it. The world's before you."
"What did my friend tell you?" Milly asked.
"Nothing that wouldn't have given you pleasure. We talked about you—and freely. I don't deny that. But it shows me I don't require of you the impossible."
She was now on her feet. "I think I know what you require of me."
"Nothing, for you," he went on, "is impossible. So go on." He repeated it again—wanting her so to feel that to-day he saw it. "You're all right."
"Well," she smiled—"keep me so."
"Oh, you'll get away from me."
"Keep me, keep me," she simply continued with her gentle eyes on him.
She had given him her hand for good-bye, and he thus for a moment did keep her. Something then, while he seemed to think if there were anything more, came back to him; though something of which there was not too much to be made. "Of course if there's anything I can do for your friend: I mean the gentleman you speak of———" He gave out in short that he was ready.
"Oh, Mr. Densher?" It was as if she had forgotten.
"Mr. Densher—is that his name?"
"Yes—but his case isn't so dreadful." She had within a minute got away from that.
"No doubt—if you take an interest." She had got away, but it was as if he made out in her eyes—though they also had rather got away—a reason for calling her back. "Still, if there's anything one can do———?"
She looked at him while she thought, while she smiled. "I'm afraid there's really nothing one can do."