She couldn't have said what it was, in the conditions, that renewed the whole solemnity, but by the end of twenty minutes a kind of wistful hush had fallen upon them, as if before something poignant in which her visitor also participated. That was nothing, verily, but the perfection of the charm—or nothing, rather, but their excluded, disinherited state in the presence of it. The charm turned on them a face that was cold in its beauty, that was full of a poetry never to be theirs, that spoke, with an ironic smile, of a possible but forbidden life. It all rolled afresh over Milly: "Oh, the impossible romance———!" The romance for her, yet once more, would be to sit there for ever, through all her time, as in a fortress; and the idea became an image of never going down, of remaining aloft in the divine, dustless air, where she would hear but the plash of the water against stone. The great floor on which they moved was at an altitude, and this prompted the rueful fancy. "Ah, not to go down—never, never to go down!" she strangely sighed to her friend.
"But why shouldn't you," he asked, "with that tremendous old staircase in your court? There ought of course always to be people at top and bottom, in Veronese costumes, to watch you do it."
She shook her head both lightly and mournfully enough at his not understanding. "Not even for people in Veronese costumes. I mean that the positive beauty is that one needn't go down. I don't move in fact," she added—"now. I've not been out, you know. I stay up. That's how you happily found me."
Lord Mark wondered—he was, oh yes, adequately human. "You don't go about?"
She looked over the place, the storey above the apartments in which she had received him, the sala corresponding to the sala below and fronting the great canal with its gothic arches. The casements between the arches were open, the ledge of the balcony broad, the sweep of the canal, so overhung, admirable, and the flutter toward them of the loose white curtain an invitation to she scarce could have said what. But there was no mystery, after a moment; she had never felt so invited to anything as to make that, and that only, just where she was, her adventure. It would be—to this it kept coming back—the adventure of not stirring. "I go about just here."
"Do you mean," Lord Mark presently asked, "that you're really not well?"
They were at the window, pausing, lingering, with the fine old faded palaces opposite and the slow Adriatic tide beneath; but after a minute, and before she answered, she had closed her eyes to what she saw and, unresistingly, dropped her face into her arms, which rested on the coping. She had fallen to her knees on the cushion of the window-place, and she leaned there, in a long silence, with her forehead down. She knew that her silence was itself too straight an answer, but it was beyond her now to say that she saw her way. She would have made the question itself impossible to others—impossible, for example, to such a man as Merton Densher; and she could wonder even on the spot what it was a sign of in her feeling for Lord Mark that, from his lips, it almost tempted her to break down. This was doubtless really because she cared for him so little; to let herself go with him thus, suffer his touch to make her cup overflow, would be the relief—since it was actually, for her nerves, a question of relief—that would cost her least. If he had come to her moreover with the intention she believed, or even if this intention had but been determined in him by the spell of their situation, he mustn't be mistaken about her value—for what value did she now have? It throbbed within her as she knelt there that she had none at all; though, holding herself, not yet speaking, she tried, even in the act, to recover what might be possible of it. With that there came to her a light: wouldn't her value, for the man who should marry her, be precisely in the ravage of her disease? She mightn't last, but her money would. For a man in whom the vision of her money should be intense, in whom it should be most of the ground for "making up" to her, any prospective failure on her part to be long for this world might easily count as a positive attraction. Such a man, proposing to please, persuade, secure her, appropriate her for such a time, shorter or longer, as nature and the doctors should allow, would make the best of her, ill, damaged, disagreeable though she might be, for the sake of eventual benefits: she being clearly a person of the sort esteemed likely to do the handsome thing by a stricken and sorrowing husband.
She had said to herself betimes, in a general way, that whatever habits her youth might form, that of seeing an interested suitor in every bush should certainly never grow to be one of them—an attitude she had early judged as ignoble, as poisonous. She had had accordingly, in fact, as little to do with it as possible, and she scarce knew why, at the present moment, she should have had to catch herself in the act of imputing an ugly motive. It didn't sit, the ugly motive, in Lord Mark's cool English eyes; the darker side of it, at any rate, showed, to her imagination, but briefly. Suspicion moreover, with this, simplified itself: there was a beautiful reason—indeed there were two—why her companion's motive shouldn't matter. One was that even should he desire her without a penny she wouldn't marry him for the world; the other was that she felt him, after all, perceptively, kindly, very pleasantly and humanly, concerned for her. They were also two things, his wishing to be well, to be very well, with her, and his beginning to feel her as threatened, haunted, blighted; but they were melting together for him, making him, by their combination, only the more sure that, as he probably called it to himself, he liked her. That was presently what remained with her—his really doing it; and with the natural and proper incident of being conciliated by her weakness. Would she really have had him—she could ask herself that—disconcerted or disgusted by it? If he could only be touched enough to do what she preferred, not to raise, not to press any question, he might render her a much better service than by merely enabling her to refuse him. Again, again it was strange, but he figured to her for the moment as the one safe sympathiser. It would have made her worse to talk to others, but she wasn't afraid with him of how he might wince and look pale. She would keep him, that is, her one easy relation—in the sense of easy for himself. Their actual outlook had meanwhile such charm, what surrounded them within and without did so much toward making appreciative stillness as natural as at the opera, that she could consider she had not made him hang on her lips when at last, instead of saying if she were well or ill, she repeated: "I go about here. I don't get tired of it. I never should—it suits me so. I adore the place," she went on, "and I don't want in the least to give it up."
"Neither should I, if I had your luck. Still, with that luck, for one's all—! Should you positively like to live here?"
"I think I should like," said poor Milly after an instant, "to die here."
Which made him, precisely, laugh. That was what she wanted—when a person did care: it was the pleasant human way, without depths of darkness. "Oh, it's not good enough for that! That requires picking. But can't you keep it? It is, you know, the sort of place to see you in; you carry out the note, fill it, people it, quite by yourself, and you might do much worse—I mean for your friends—than show yourself here a while, three or four months, every year. But it's not my notion for the rest of the time. One has quite other uses for you."
"What sort of a use for me is it," she smilingly inquired, "to kill me?"
"Do you mean we should kill you in England?"
"Well, I've seen you, and I'm afraid. You're too much for me—too many. England bristles with questions. This is more, as you say there, my form."
"Oho, oho!"—he laughed again as if to humour her. "Can't you then buy it—for a price? Depend upon it that they'll treat, for money. That is, for money enough."
"I've exactly," she said, "been wondering if they won't. I think I shall try. But if I get it I shall cling to it." They were talking sincerely. "It will be my life—paid for as that. It will become my great gilded shell; so that those who wish to find me must come and hunt me up."
"Ah then, you will be alive," said Lord Mark.
"Well, not quite extinct perhaps, but shrunken, wasted, wizened; rattling about here like the dried kernel of a nut."
"Oh," Lord Mark returned, "we, much as you mistrust us, can do better for you than that."
"In the sense that you'll feel it better for me really to have it over?"
He let her see now that she worried him, and after a look at her, of some duration, without his glasses—which always altered the expression of his eyes—he re-settled the nippers on his nose and went back to the view. But the view, in turn, soon enough released him. "Do you remember something I said to you that day at Matcham—or at least fully meant to?"
"Oh yes, I remember everything at Matcham. It's another life."
"Certainly it will be—I mean the kind of thing: what I then wanted it to represent for you. Matcham, you know," he continued, "is symbolic. I think I tried to rub that into you a little."
She met him with the full memory of what he had tried—not an inch, not an ounce of which was lost to her. "What I meant is that it seems a hundred years ago."
"Oh, for me it comes in better. Perhaps a part of what makes me remember it," he pursued, "is that I was quite aware of what might have been said about what I was doing. I wanted you to take it from me that I should perhaps be able to look after you—well, rather better. Rather better, of course, than certain other persons in particular."
"Precisely—than Mrs. Lowder, than Miss Croy, even than Mrs. Stringham."
"Oh, Mrs. Stringham's all right!" Lord Mark promptly amended.
It amused her, even with what she had else to think of; and she could show him, at all events, how little, in spite of the hundred years, she had lost what he alluded to. The way he was with her at this moment made in fact the other moment so vivid as almost to start again the tears it had started at the time. "You could do so much for me, yes. I perfectly understood you."
"I wanted, you see," he all the same explained, "to fix your confidence; I mean, you know, in the right place."
"Well, Lord Mark, you did—it's just exactly now, my confidence, where you put it then. The only difference," said Milly, "is that I seem now to have no use for it. Besides," she then went on, "I do seem to feel you disposed to act in a way that would undermine it a little."
He took no more notice of these last words than if she had not said them, only watching her at present as with a gradual new light. "Are you really in any trouble?"
To this, on her side, she gave no heed. Making out his light was a little a light for herself. "Don't say, don't try to say, anything that's impossible. There are much better things you can do."
He looked straight at it and then straight over it. "It's too monstrous that one can't ask you as a friend what one wants so to know."
"What is it you want to know?" She spoke, as by a sudden turn, with a slight hardness. "Do you want to know if I'm badly ill?"
The sound of it in truth, though from no raising of her voice, invested the idea with a kind of terror, but a terror all for others. Lord Mark winced and flushed—clearly couldn't help it; but he kept his attitude together and spoke with even unwonted vivacity. "Do you imagine I can see you suffer and not say a word?"
"You won't see me suffer—don't be afraid. I shan't be a public nuisance. That's why I should have liked this: it's so beautiful in itself, and yet it's out of the gangway. You won't know anything about anything," she added; and then, as if to make with decision an end, "And you don't! No, not even you." He faced her through it with the remains of his expression, and she saw him as clearly—for him—bewildered; which made her wish to be sure not to have been unkind. She would be kind once for all; that would be the end. "I'm very badly ill."
"And you don't do anything?"
"I do everything. Everything's this," she smiled; "I'm doing it now. One can't do more than live."
"Ah, than live in the right way, no. But is that what you do? Why haven't you advice?"
He had looked about at the rococo elegance as if there were fifty things it didn't give her, so that he suggested with urgency the most absent. But she met his remedy with a smile. "I've the best advice in the world. I'm acting under it now. I act upon it in receiving you, in talking with you thus. One can't, as I tell you, do more than live."
"Oh, live!" Lord Mark ejaculated.
"Well, it's immense for me." She finally spoke as if for amusement; now that she had uttered her truth, that he had learnt it from herself as no one had yet done, her emotion had, by the fact, dried up. There she was; but it was as if she would never speak again. "I shan't," she added, "have missed everything."
"Why should you have missed anything?" She felt, as he sounded this, to what, within the minute, he had made up his mind. "You're the person in the world for whom that's least necessary; for whom one would call it in fact most impossible; for whom 'missing' at all will surely require an extraordinary amount of misplaced goodwill. Since you believe in advice, for God's sake take mine. I know what you want."
Oh, she knew he would know it. But she had brought it on herself—or almost. Yet she spoke with kindness. "I think I want not to be too much worried."
"You want to be adored." It came at last straight. "Nothing would worry you less. I mean as I shall do it. It is so"—he firmly kept it up. "You're not loved enough."
"Enough for what, Lord Mark?"
"Why, to get the full good of it."
Well, she didn't after all moek at him. "I see what you mean. That full good of it which consists in finding one's self forced to love in return." She had grasped it, but she hesitated. "Your idea is that I might find myself forced to love you?"
"Oh, 'forced'———!" He was so fine and so expert, so awake to anything the least ridiculous, and of a type with which the preaching of passion somehow so ill consorted—he was so much all these things that he had absolutely to take account of them himself. And he did so, in a single intonation, beautifully. Milly liked him again, liked him for such shades as that, liked him so that it was woeful to see him spoiling it, and still more woeful to have to rank him among those minor charms of existence that she gasped, at moments, to remember she must give up. "Is it inconceivable to you that you might try?"
"To be so favourably affected by you———?"
"To believe in me. To believe in me," Lord Mark repeated.
Again she hesitated. "To 'try' in return for your trying?"
"Oh, I shouldn't have to!" he quickly declared. The prompt, neat accent, however, his manner of disposing of her question, failed of real expression, as he himself, the next moment, intelligently, helplessly, almost comically saw—a failure pointed moreover by the laugh into which Milly was immediately startled. As a suggestion to her of a healing and uplifting passion it was in truth deficient; it wouldn't do as the communication of a force that should sweep them both away. And the beauty of him was that he too, even in the act of persuasion, of self-persuasion, could understand that, and could thereby show but the better as fitting into the pleasant commerce of prosperity. The way she let him see that she looked at him was a thing to shut him out, of itself, from services of danger, a thing that made a discrimination against him never yet made—made at least to any consciousness of his own. Born to float in a sustaining air, this would be his first encounter with a judgment formed in the sinister light of tragedy. The gathering dusk of her personal world presented itself to him, in her eyes, as an element in which it was vain for him to pretend he could find himself at home, since it was charged with depressions and with dooms, with the chill of the losing game. Almost without her needing to speak, and simply by the fact that there could be, in such a case, no decent substitute for a felt intensity, he had to take it from her that practically he was afraid—whether afraid to protest falsely enough, or only afraid of what might be eventually disagreeable in a compromised alliance, being a minor question. She believed she made out besides, wonderful girl, that he had never quite expected to have to protest, about anything, beyond his natural convenience—more, in fine, than his disposition and habits, his education as well, his personal moyens in short, permitted. His predicament was therefore one he couldn't like, and also one she willingly would have spared him had he not brought it on himself. No man, she was quite aware, could enjoy thus having it from her that he was not good for what she would have called her reality. It wouldn't have taken much more to enable her positively to make out in him that he was virtually capable of hinting—had his innermost feeling spoken—at the propriety rather, in his interest, of some cutting down, some dressing up, of the offensive real. He would meet that half-way, but the real must also meet him. Milly's sense of it for herself, which was so conspicuously, so financially supported, couldn't, or wouldn't, so accommodate him, and the perception of that fairly showed in his face, after a moment, like the smart of a blow. It had marked the one minute during which he could again be touching to her. By the time he had tried once more, after all, to insist, he had quite ceased to be so.
By this time she had turned from their window to make a diversion, had walked him through other rooms, appealing again to the inner charm of the place, going even so far for that purpose as to point afresh her independent moral, to repeat that if one only had such a house for one's own and loved it and cherished it enough, it would pay one back in kind, would close one in from harm. He quite grasped for the quarter of an hour the perch she held out to him—grasped it with one hand, that is, while she felt him attached to his own clue with the other; he was by no means either so sore or so stupid, to do him all justice, as not to be able to behave more or less as if nothing had happened. It was one of his merits, to which she did justice too, that both his native and his acquired notion of behaviour rested on the general assumption that nothing—nothing to make a deadly difference for him—ever could happen. It was, socially, a working view like another, and it saw them easily enough through the greater part of the rest of their adventure. Downstairs, again, however, with the limit of his stay in sight, the sign of his smarting, when all was said, reappeared for her, breaking out moreover, with an effect of strangeness, in another quite possibly sincere allusion to her state of health. He might, for that matter, have been seeing what he could do in the way of making it a grievance that she should snub him for a charity, on his own part, exquisitely roused. "It's true, you know, all the same, and I don't care a straw for your trying to freeze one up." He seemed to show her, poor man, bravely, how little he cared. "Everybody knows affection often makes things out when indifference doesn't notice. And that's why I know that I notice."
"Are you sure you've got it right?" the girl smiled. "I thought rather that affection was supposed to be blind."
"Blind to faults, not to beauties," Lord Mark promptly rejoined.
"And are my extremely private worries, my entirely domestic complications, which I'm ashamed to have given you a glimpse of—are they beauties?"
"Yes, for those who care for you—as everyone does. Everything about you is a beauty. Besides which I don't believe," he declared, "in the seriousness of what you tell me. It's too absurd you should have any trouble about which something can't be done. If you can't get the right thing, who can, in all the world, I should like to know? You're the first young woman of your time. I mean what I say." He looked, to do him justice, quite as if he did; not ardent, but clear—simply so competent, in such a position, to compare, that his quiet assertion had the force not so much perhaps of a tribute as of a warrant. "We're all in love with you. I'll put it that way, dropping any claim of my own, if you can bear it better. I speak as one of the lot. You weren't born simply to torment us—you were born to make us happy. Therefore you must listen to us."
She shook her head with her slowness, but this time with all her mildness. "No, I mustn't listen to you—that's just what I mustn't do. The reason is, please, that it simply kills me. I must be as attached to you as you will, since you give that lovely account of yourselves. I give you in return the fullest possible belief of what it would be———" And she pulled up a little. "I give and give and give—there you are; stick to me as close as you like, and see if I don't. Only I can't listen or receive or accept—I can't agree. I can't make a bargain. I can't really. You must believe that from me. It's all I've wanted to say to you, and why should it spoil anything?"
He let her question fall—though clearly, it might have seemed, because, for reasons or for none, there was so much that was spoiled. "You want some body of your own." He came back, whether in good faith or in bad, to that; and it made her repeat her headshake. He kept it up as if his faith were of the best. "You want somebody, you want somebody."
She was to wonder afterwards if she had not been, at this juncture, on the point of saying something emphatic and vulgar—"Well, I don't at all events want you!" What somehow happened, however, the pity of it being greater than the irritation—the sadness, to her vivid sense, of his being so painfully astray, wandering in a desert in which there was nothing to nourish him—was that his error amounted to positive wrongdoing. She was moreover so acquainted with quite another sphere of usefulness for him that her having suffered him to insist almost convicted her of indelicacy. Why hadn't she stopped him off with her first impression of his purpose? She could do so now only by the allusion she had been wishing not to make. "Do you know I don't think that you're doing very right?—and as a thing quite apart, I mean, from my listening to you. That's not right either—except that I'm not listening. You oughtn't to have come to Venice to see me—and in fact you've not come, and you mustn't behave as if you had. You've much older friends than I, and ever so much better. Really, if you've come at all, you can only have come—properly, and if I may say so honourably—for the best one, as I believe her to be, that you have in the world."
When once she had said it he took it, oddly enough, as if he had been more or less expecting it. Still, he looked at her very hard, and they had a moment of this during which neither pronounced a name, each apparently determined that the other should. It was Milly's fine coercion, in the event, that was the stronger. "Miss Croy?" Lord Mark asked.
It might have been difficult to make out that she smiled. "Mrs. Lowder." He did make out something, and then fairly coloured for its attestation of his comparative simplicity. "I call her on the whole the best. I can't imagine a man's having a better."
Still with his eyes on her he turned it over. "Do you want me to marry Mrs. Lowder?"
At which it seemed to her that it was he who was almost vulgar! But she wouldn't in any way have that. "You know, Lord Mark, what I mean. One isn't in the least turning you out into the cold world. There's no cold world for you at all, I think," she went on; "nothing but a very warm and watchful and expectant world that's waiting for you at any moment you choose to take it up."
He never budged, but they were standing on the polished concrete and he had within a few minutes possessed himself again of his hat. "Do you want me to marry Kate Croy?"
"Mrs. Lowder wants it—I do no wrong, I think, in saying that; and she understands moreover that you know she does."
Well, he showed how beautifully he could take it; and it was not obscure to her, on her side, that it was a comfort to deal with a gentleman. "It's ever so kind of you to see such opportunities for me. But what's the use of my tackling Miss Croy?"
Milly rejoiced on the spot to be so able to demonstrate. "Because she's the handsomest and cleverest and most charming creature I ever saw, and because if I were a man I should simply adore her. In fact I do as it is." It was a luxury of response.
"Oh, my dear lady, plenty of people adore her. But that can't further the case of all."
"Ah," she went on, "I know about 'people'. If the case of one's bad, the case of another's good. I don't see what you have to fear from any one else," she said, "save through your being foolish, this way, about me."
So she said, but she was aware the next moment of what he was making of what she didn't see. "Is it your idea—since we're talking of these things in these ways—that the young lady you describe in such superlative terms is to be had for the asking?"
"Well, Lord Mark, try. She is a great person. But don't be humble." She was almost gay.
It was this apparently, at last, that was too much for him. "But don't you really know?"
As a challenge, practically, to the commonest intelligence she could pretend to, it made her of course wish to be fair. "I 'know,' yes, that a particular person is very much in love with her."
"Then you must know, by the same token, that she's very much in love with a particular person."
"Ah, I beg your pardon!"—and Milly quite flushed at having so crude a blunder imputed to her. "You're wholly mistaken."
"It's not true?"
"It's not true."
His stare became a smile. "Are you very, very sure?"
"As sure as one can be"—and Milly's manner could match it—"when one has every assurance. I speak on the best authority."
He hesitated. "Mrs. Lowder's?"
"No. I don't call Mrs. Lowder's the best."
"Oh, I thought you were just now saying," he laughed, "that everything about her is so good."
"Good for you"—she was perfectly clear. "For you," she went on, "let her authority be the best. She doesn't believe what you mention, and you must know yourself how little she makes of it. So you can take it from her. I take it———" But Milly, with the positive tremor of her emphasis, pulled up.
"You take it from Kate?"
"From Kate herself."
"That she's thinking of no one at all?"
"Of no one at all." Then, with her intensity, she went on. "She has given me her word for it."
"Oh!" said Lord Mark. To which he next added: "And what do you call her word?"
It made Milly, on her side, stare—though perhaps partly but with the instinct of gaining time for the consciousness that she was already a little further "in" than she had designed. "Why, Lord Mark, what should you call her word?"
"Ah, I'm not obliged to say. I've not asked her. You apparently have."
Well, it threw her on her defence—a defence that she felt, however, as especially of Kate. "We're very intimate," she said in a moment; "so that, without prying into each other's affairs, she naturally tells me things."
Lord Mark smiled as at a lame conclusion. "You mean then she made you of her own movement the declaration you quote?"
Milly thought again, though with hindrance rather than help in her sense of the way their eyes now met—met as for their each seeing in the other more than either said. What she most felt that she herself saw was the strange disposition on her companion's part to disparage Kate's veracity. She could be only concerned to "stand up" for that.
"I mean what I say: that when she spoke of her having no private interest———"
"She took her oath to you?" Lord Mark interrupted.
Milly didn't quite see why he should so catechise her; but she met it again for Kate. "She left me in no doubt whatever of her being free."
At this Lord Mark did look at her, though he continued to smile. "And thereby in no doubt of your being too?" It was as if as soon as he had said it, however, he felt it as something of a mistake, and she couldn't herself have told by what queer glare at him she had instantly signified that. He at any rate gave her glare no time to act further; he fell back on the spot and with a light enough movement, within his rights. "That's all very well, but why in the world, dear lady, should she be swearing to you?"
She had to take this "dear lady" as applying to herself; which disconcerted her when he might now, so gracefully, have used it for the aspersed Kate. Once more it came to her that she must claim her own part of the aspersion. "Because, as I've told you, we're such tremendous friends."
"Oh," said Lord Mark, who for the moment looked as if that might have stood rather for an absence of such rigours. He was going, however, as if he had, in a manner, at the last, got more or less what he wanted. Milly felt, while he addressed his next few words to leavetaking, that she had given rather more than she intended or than she should be able, when once more getting herself into hand, theoretically to defend. Strange enough in fact that he had had from her, about herself—and, under the searching spell of the place, infinitely straight—what no one else had had: neither Kate, nor Aunt Maud, nor Merton Densher, nor Susan Shepherd. He had made her within a minute, in particular, she was aware, lose her presence of mind, and she now wished that he would get off quickly, so that she might either recover it or bear the loss better in solitude. If he paused, however, she almost at the same time saw, it was because of his watching the approach, from the end of the sala, of one of the gondoliers, who, whatever excursions were appointed for the party with the attendance of the others, always, as the most decorative, most besashed and bestarched, remained at the palace on the theory that she might whimsically want him—which she never, in her caged freedom, had yet done. Brown Pasquale, slipping in white shoes over the marble and suggesting to her perpetually charmed vision she could scarce say what, either a mild Hindoo, too noiseless almost for her nerves, or simply a barefooted seaman on the deck of a ship—Pasquale offered to sight a small salver, which he obsequiously held out to her with its burden of a visiting-card. Lord Mark—and as if also for admiration of him—delayed his departure to let her receive it; on which she read it with the instant effect of another blow to her presence of mind. This precarious quantity was indeed now so gone that even for dealing with Pasquale she had to do her best to conceal its disappearance. The effort was made, none the less, by the time she had asked if the gentleman were below and had taken in the fact that he had come up. He had followed the gondolier and was waiting at the top of the staircase.
"I'll see him with pleasure." To which she added for her companion, while Pasquale went off: "Mr. Merton Densher."
"Oh!" said Lord Mark—in a manner that, making it resound through the great, cool hall, might have carried it even to Densher's ear as a judgment of his identity heard and noted once before.