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General Introduction


Notes to Introduction

Further Reading

The Ambassadors

Book First

Book Second

Book Third

Book Fourth

Book Fifth

Book Sixth

Book Seventh

Book Eighth

Book Ninth

Book Tenth

Book Eleventh

Book Twelfth

Notes to The Ambassadors

General Introduction

Wordsworth Classics are inexpensive editions designed to appeal to the general reader and students. We commissioned teachers and specialists to write broad-ranging, jargon-free Introductions and to provide Notes that would assist the understanding of our readers, rather than interpret the stories for them. In the same spirit, because the pleasures of reading are inseparable from the surprises, secrets and revelations that all narratives contain, we strongly advise you to enjoy this book before turning to the Introduction.

General Adviser

Keith Carabine

Rutherford College

University of Kent at Canterbury


‘Nothing is more easy than to state the subject of The Ambassadors, declared James in his Preface to the New York edition of 1908. What is it? International diplomacy, high life, state secrets? The title might suggest that. But this is a novel, not history. Can we expect romance? Dating from 1901, romance, perhaps, in a particular mode: adulterous, decadent; extravagant in style, but morally exhausted. Who are the characters? What is the story? Where does it happen, when and how? What is it like to read? Working through these questions, as James makes his readers work, leads us deep into the experience of The Ambassadors, and it turns out that experience itself, the urgency of turning mere time and space into life, is what the novel is really all about.

Life, love, even work, look on the surface rather remote from The Ambassadors. Lambert Strether makes a modest focal character. Middle aged, ‘marked and wan’, [1] the editor of a small journal in Woollett, Massachussetts, he has been sent by Mrs Newsome, the admirable widow who provides the funds, to rescue her son Chad from whatever is keeping him – obviously an unsuitable woman – in Paris. It is understood that Strether’s reward will be Mrs Newsome herself. Strether has been to Europe before, long ago, on a honeymoon voyage. He ought to know his way around. But what he finds is a revelation, not only about Chad and his astonishingly elegant companion, Marie de Vionnet, but about himself and his own sense of life. Instead of collecting Chad and taking the next boat home, Strether pauses long enough to assess the situation, long enough to be entangled, long enough to see what matters, and also what it costs. Mrs Newsome’s second deputation, her daughter’s family and Chad’s potential fiancée, are in no danger of seduction by European sophistication. They will retrieve the prodigal son. But what of his lady, and what of Strether himself?

A kind of holiday romance, then? The American in Paris; the older woman; the faithless lover; the adoring friend: the situation is replete with fictional clichés. Maria Gostrey, the semi-professional tour guide who takes Strether under her wing, ‘the mistress of a hundred cases or categories, receptacles of the mind, subdivisions for convenience, in which, from a full experience, she pigeonholed her fellow mortals’ (p. 7) would see no problems in this ‘world of types’ (p. 29). Indeed, the scenario comes pretty close to pulp fiction. James exploits the fancies and familiar manoeuvres of romance. And yet, The Ambassadors is not that old story, but a fresh process of discovery and surprise, where the reader, like Strether, is ‘turned’: a philosopher not an agent, with a new imperative, not to rectify but wonder at the complexities of the world.

We can trace this shift from tired stereotype towards dynamic engagement even in such an obvious aspect of the novel as the plot. E. M. Forster described it in the shape of an hourglass. [2] America and Europe, the two continents (comically unbalanced in the shape of nowheresville Woollett versus Paris, that ‘vast bright Babylon’ [p. 50] of urban sophistication), represent alternative cultural values, the New World and the Old Order. Between them, and through the text in a flotilla of actual and metaphorical steaming, sailing, drifting and rowing vessels, shuttle ‘the Ambassadors’ of James’s title. Not one, but a sequence of emissaries; for Strether, ‘changing places’ with Chad and adopting a sense of his emotional responsibilities, must himself be supplanted. And so the farcical symmetry of the hourglass tilts through pathos towards inevitable separation. Time is revealed not merely as a medium but an agent in the drama.

In Holbein’s painting of The Ambassadors, known to James from London’s National Gallery, [3] two Renaissance dignitaries confront the viewer: French Ambassadors standing amidst the symbols of culture and power; but in the foreground lies a curious shadow. Only from the designated perspective can this impediment be visually decoded: it is a skull, memento mori, which signifies the vanity of worldy sway. So in James’s work the promised spoils are the alliances of wealth and power, while defeat will jeopardise ‘life’. Attitudes of assertion and defence, manoeuvres of reconnaissance, report, negotiation, all the choreo-graphy of international relations, are transposed from international diplomacy to another politics of family, age and gender. The menace of power-play is equally acute. Telegrams briskly accelerate correspondence. Everyday language grows double-edged. Though disguised by coded expression and the rhetoric of implication, the formal encounters, conversations and speculative episodes of the novel resonate with the sterner politics of armed struggle, echoes of empire and revolution. Mrs Newsome is compared with Elizabeth I, the virgin queen, Maria Gostrey with Mary Stuart, Marie de Vionnet with Shakespeare’s Cleopatra and with Madame Roland, who was executed in the French Reign of Terror. Every social call is an embassage, each utterance measured, sometimes inflected in a foreign language, the deliberate disguise of colloquialism, or through the obstacle course of syntactic ambiguity. Communication is dysfunctional: but it is expressive of the social dynamics of this divided and competitive culture. Little Bilham relies on this fact when he deliberately mystifies Strether by describing the relationship between Chad and Madame de Vionnet as ‘a virtuous attachment’ (p. 99). This is a world of suspense, half-truths, and spin: one brilliantly evoked by the sophisticated style, the long sentences, the extravagant imagery of ‘late James’. [4] So, for example, as the scene is set for Strether’s first encounter with Chad’s mistress, the hypnotic rhythms of the text and the fabulous figurative language help to dramatise the complications of the scenario: ‘Far back from streets and unsuspected by crowds, reached by a long passage and a quiet court, it was as striking to the unprepared mind, he immediately saw, as a treasure dug up; giving him too, more than anything yet, the note of the range of the immeasurable town and sweeping away, as by a last brave brush, his usual landmarks and terms’ (p. 106).

For all this apparatus of formality, and despite the sumptuous title, it is not a state secret but, rather, a situation that lies at the heart of The Ambassadors. The critical focus, the ‘curious shadow’ in the central foreground, is signalled by a seemingly incidental conversation between James’s middle-aged New England protagonist (hero would be a misleading description) and a young American amateur artist abroad (not the antagonist: merely an acquaintance) at a garden party in Paris (p. 118). They talk, not about Chad whom Strether has been sent to retrieve, nor about the femme du monde whom Strether (nearly halfway through the novel) has only just been allowed to meet. What they speak about is Life. Their conversation gives an echo of real words from the novelist W. D. Howells to a young acquaintance of his. [5] ‘Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to,’ is the message James repeats in this crucial moment. But the whole ‘situation’, characterised by repetition, by indirection, by nostalgia, colours that urgent advice with irony. Is ‘life’ the subject of The Ambassadors, or a ‘mistake’? In this novel, ambiguity is more than a rhetorical device, and irony is the cost of life itself: a consciousness of loss.

‘Easy’ is not a term most critics would feel bold enough to apply to James, yet the way he unfolds his central situation guides readers masterfully into the complexity, the hesitancy and the urgency of experience. Indeed, James carefully advised the Duchess of Sutherland: ‘Take . . . the Ambassadors very easily and gently: read five pages a day – be even as deliberate as that – but don’t break the thread. The thread is really stretched quite scientifically tight.’ [6] The structure of the novel, divided into twelve books which pace the drama of discovery by delay and revelation; the careful use of point of view moderated by a kind of competition between Strether’s romantic focalisation and a cooler narrative eye; the richly allusive, sometimes comical use of setting, imagery and style, are all vital to The Ambassadors. Duality governs the whole work. So from the second paragraph James trails ‘the oddity of a double consciousness’ (p. 4), which may be a burden to Strether, but provides a useful model for readers: ‘There was detachment in his zeal and curiosity in his indifference.’ Maria Gostrey forewarns him that Chad may have become ‘brutalised’ or ‘refined’ (p. 39), but Strether finds that he is both. By the end, parting from Madame de Vionnet, Strether is fully ‘conscious of some vague inward irony in the presence of such a fine free range of bliss and bale’ (p. 318).

Two critical approaches offer responses to this duality: one technical, concentrating on James’s rhetorical control of style and form in presenting complex experience; the second ‘cultural’, paying attention to the historical circumstances of the production and reception of this text which generate such a conception of the world. So, for example, a ‘technical’ analysis might recognise the division and even competition, which James thought fundamental to all novels, between ‘picture’ and ‘drama’. [7] Both pictorial effects and dramatic scenes are rampant in the expressive organisation of The Ambassadors, and often ironically counterpointed. A ‘cultural’ critic, meanwhile, would notice the ‘international’ aspect of James’s own experience, with affiliations both to his native America and to Europe, where he later lived and wrote. This quasi-dual citizenship prompts a kind of comparativism in all James’s work, and clearly suggests two sets of terms for assessment and evaluation in this novel, but (as with picture and drama) declines to privilege one above the other. In practice, The Ambassadors invites both ‘aesthetic’ and ‘historicist’ readings, not as incompatible alternatives, but in the kind of interplay which reflects Strether’s advice and the Jamesian project to ‘Live all you can.’ This is not a matter of blurring distinctions or confusing things, but rather of sustaining multiple possibilities, because ‘it’s a mistake not to’.

This is borne out brilliantly by James’s use of location. The historical location is the late nineteenth century, an era replete with both cultural and political significance and the growth period of mass tourism: [8] recreational cultural quests, including trips by Americans ‘back’ to Europe; a century too of European struggles for nationhood – inspired by the two examples of the American War of Independence and the French Revolution – and of civil conflicts, including the American Civil War and a series of regimes in France veering from imperialism to the republic, all involving more or less bloody changes of power. This historical perspective reveals that the American and French worlds are not opposites, as supposed by disputants within the novel. Both may be seen as post-revolutionary societies in a century of civil upheaval, where all relationships turn fundamentally on the issue of power.

The historical setting of The Ambassadors is a time of cultural spectacle and social conflict, distance and involvement, dangerously, exhilaratingly close. Strether’s shuttle diplomacy between Mrs Newsome and her son is played out amidst mentions of ancient and more recent struggles, from those of the embattled Tudor monarchy in England, recalled in the reference to Queen Elizabeth and Mary Stuart (p. 28), to the fall of intellectual leaders in the French Revolution (p. 312). The American Civil War (1861–5) is briefly mentioned (p. 47), and Strether’s impermeably American friend Waymarsh is frivolously likened to Sitting Bull, the Native American who led the Sioux to victory over General Custer at Little Bighorn (p. 147). Further resonance comes from ancient empires, whether Babylon (p. 50), Jerusalem (p. 63), Rome (p. 105), Egypt (p. 149) or, from the Renaissance period, Venice (implicit in the Titian reference [p. 69]) or the Ottoman Empire (the context of Strether’s fancy for ‘Roumelian’ speakers at the garden party, [p. 125]). Historical periods and power bases may be interlinked, as when little Bilham calls Waymarsh ‘Michaelangelesque! . . . He is a success. Moses, on the ceiling, brought down to the floor; overwhelming, colossal, but somehow portable’ (p. 112), thus bringing together the Renaissance, the Hebrew and the Classical World with Waymarsh’s own peculiarly American qualities. Language itself may be politicised: the catch-phrases ‘Marchons, marchons!’ (p. 174) from the French national anthem and ‘a man and a brother’ (p. 57) from abolitionist pamphlets strike a republican and egalitarian note, while the French phrases of the ‘femmes du monde’ (p. 108) encode a ‘vieille sagesse’ (p. 230) of antique (coincidentally feminine) ‘wisdom’ in the ways of the world.

Geographical location is equally important. Not only the poise of America and Europe, with England pivoting the two, and England shifting from downmarket Liverpool via Chester’s gentility towards the cultural imperialism of London’s Burlington Arcade, where Waymarsh can exercise the ‘sacred rage’ of financial independence, ‘For nobody. For nothing. For freedom’ (p. 26). Within Paris, the novel constructs an ordnance-survey map of cultural, social, financial significance with every street name, monument or quarter of the city. The ancient embassy area of the Left Bank serves as a defining contour to the commercial elegance of the Right Bank; the Champs Elyssées lies beneath the artistic high ground of Montmartre; the parks and gardens, largely situated on the sites of former palaces, are now open to the people; the Cathedral of Notre Dame, secure on the Ile de la Cité in the middle of the Seine, provides a sanctuary where Strether comes upon Madame de Vionnet; the bars, cafés, theatres – the Variétés, the Odéon, principally the Comédie-Française, act both as landmarks, with all their touristic associative value, and as the formalised theatres of war in this Parisian drama.

Such points of reference provide more than a decorative backdrop to dress up a timeless romance. James makes them work – makes us work – in the interplay of picture and drama, of aesthetic and historical values. The sheer mass of cultural markers takes on shape and significance through patterns of repetition, development and contrast. Take theatre. Dramatic metaphors jostle with dramatic poses, dramatic irony, dramatic interruptions and with staged and witnessed scenes. There is a sequence of theatrical outings. So Strether’s trip to the theatre in London with Maria Gostrey (pp. 27–42) functions as a preliminary to their evening at the Français (pp. 71–80) which is interrupted by the dramatic belated entrance of Chad (p. 75), while both are upstaged by the climactic scene in the country [9] when Strether’s fanciful evocation of a landscape painting by Lambinet is turned into a crisis of betrayal and recognition as the perfectly pictorial couple in the boat are revealed by their actions to be none other than Chad and Madame de Vionnet – evidently, at last, even to Strether, lovers (pp. 302–3).

These theatrical scenes, in the London stalls, the Paris box, and before the great painted backdrop of France, all attune our readerly antennae to the dramatic possibilities of the final encounter between ‘our hero’ and the lady he must now consign to oblivion: a parting worthy of grand opera, but given here in the mode characteristic of the novel. This passage echoes and laments that key conversation in Gloriani’s garden between Strether and little Bilham, where the middle-aged man urged the younger to ‘Live all you can’ (p. 118). Here, in the approach to the moment, the setting, the words spoken and witheld between Strether and Madame de Vionnet, the novel can exploit all the apparent limitations of its diplomatic language, its coded expression, the rhetoric of implication and the choreography of decorum, to give precise, if sometimes indirect, utterance to the eloquence of the missed opportunity: the trailing ‘if only’ which adds such poignancy to the command, ‘Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to.’

Between the ‘Lambinet’ scene and this parting comes a period of waiting: only one day, not even so long, but long enough to shift the gravitational centre of the narrative back from the superficial flurry of action, the smokescreen of words (spoken, notably and volubly, in French, the language of romantic deception, by Madame de Vionnet), to the quiet space within Strether’s own consciousness where he himself is learning to ‘Live all you can’. In this interior world he can cultivate more possibilities than outright narrative could allow. On receiving Madame de Vionnet’s telegram, asking him to call, for example: ‘He mightn’t see her at all; that was one of the reflections he made after writing and before he dropped his closed card into the box; he mightn’t see any one at all any more at all; he might make an end as well now as ever, leaving things as they were, since he was doubtless not to leave them better, and taking his way home so far as should appear that a home remained to him’ (p. 309). This hypothetical conclusion, couched in the conditional and subjunctive moods of non-fact, sketches out an ‘alternative’ ending, giving the sense that Strether might, but also that he may not, recoil from the full potential of the novel. Having engaged to meet Madame de Vionnet at half-past nine in the evening (this novel is precise with times, for they act as social signals, of intimacy, of decorum), Strether has the day to linger, to taste an ‘ease’ he now discovers. But the hour of meeting, and of parting, will come.

Picture and scene, the formal and historical, come together to inform this important passage. Both aspects of the cultural context are required for the full and urgent expression of what is at stake here: the range of values which Strether has come to apprehend. These values are tested by the plot: what is Marie de Vionnet to do, now that her ‘virtuous attachment’ to Chad is revealed as a sexual liaison? What is Strether to do, for her, or for himself? Yet the answer to those questions is scarcely in doubt. Strether knows he cannot make things better. This is no longer a matter of plot, the old story, foredoomed, of the older woman and the younger man, which could not be redeemed by another lover. The ‘luxury’ for Strether now is not to change things, but simply to taste them to the full.

It is from Strether’s point of view – or rather, somewhere even more interiorised, within that part of his awareness which lies on the very edge of consciousness – that the narrative arrives on the threshold of this moment of parting. How does James convey this? Partly by long looping sentences, weaving to and fro through Strether’s mind, his memory and his muted vision of the future, and establishing a rhythm of awareness and appreciation: a kind of consciousness which is quite unlike the businesslike use of ‘pigeonholes’ to catalogue experience. Strether’s grammatical relation to these long sentences is largely oblique: the very syntax can act as a kind of expressive device, showing his precise relation to this drama, where he is neither a principal actor nor merely part of the audience, but something intermediate: a witness, perhaps. Presented with this picture, all Strether need draw is breath – as the long phrasing of this sentence makes us actually feel: ‘Between nine and ten, at last, in the high clear picture – he was moving in these days, as in a gallery, from clever canvas to clever canvas – he drew a long breath: it was so presented to him from the first that the spell of his luxury wouldn’t be broken’ (p. 311). A hypnotic use of repetition recreates that ‘spell’, while the picture takes shape and form itself is invested with values, not merely aesthetic but spiritual: ‘The light in her beautiful, formal room was dim, though it would do, as everything would always do; the hot night had kept out lamps, but there was a pair of clusters of candles that glimmered over the chimney-piece like the tall tapers of an altar’ (p. 312). The ‘vague voice of Paris’, heard in the distance outside, creates further reverberations: not aesthetic or spiritual, but rather, ‘as if excited and exciting’, political. Strether’s ‘historic sense’ brings in great parallels for what might otherwise have seemed no more than a boudoir scene, magnifying the scale, and the danger: ‘Thus and so, on the eve of the great recorded dates, the days and nights of revolution, the sounds had come in, the omens, the beginnings broken out. They were the smell of revolution, the smell of the public temper – or perhaps simply the smell of blood’ (p. 312).

In this theatre of war, Madame de Vionnet’s dress ‘of simplest coolest white’ (so different from the first time Strether saw her ‘dressed in black, but in black that struck him as light and transparent’ [p. 114] or the ‘silvery grey so artfully composed as to give an impression of warmth’ [p. 149] that she wore for her evening reception with Chad) – this white gown prompts Strether to think of a distinguished victim of the Revolution: ‘Madame Roland must on the scaffold have worn something like it’ (p. 312). This costume, this setting, even to the murmur of Paris heard beyond the courtyard, are the ‘facts’, the significant touches, which give to this scene the values which Strether will preserve when the symbols themselves, and the actors too, are gone. Before the conversation actually commences, the whole drama is anticipated, and appreciated, for more than a romantic episode:

He knew in advance he should look back on the perception actually sharpest with him as on the view of something old, old, old, the oldest thing he had ever personally touched; and he also knew, even while he took his companion in as the feature among features, that memory and fancy couldn’t help being enlisted for her. She might intend what she would, but this was beyond anything she could intend, with things from far back – tyrannies of history, facts of type, values, as the painters said, of expression – all working for her and giving her the supreme chance, the chance of the happy, the really luxurious few, the chance, on a great occasion, to be natural and simple. [p. 313]

In fact, Marie de Vionnet is neither simple nor, certainly, happy. She is reduced to incoherent emotion, while Strether ‘could think of nothing but the passion, mature, abysmal, pitiful, she represented, and the possibilities she betrayed’ (p. 318), herself betrayed by history: ‘She was older for him tonight, visibly less exempt from the touch of time’ (p. 318). When he leaves her, however, it is with the affirmation of what has taken place between them: ‘ "Ah but you’ve had me!" he declared, at the door, with an emphasis that made an end’ (p. 320).

The parting from Marie de Vionnet is not the last scene – there is an interview with Chad, a last conversation with Maria Gostrey, and the implication of an ending to come with Mrs Newsome back in New England. Has it all been in vain? Is Strether stripped of fortune and friends, and left to focus on the spectre of the final parting from life itself – the grinning skull of Holbein’s painting? Critics have debated the conclusion of James’s novel, but he has anticipated this with irony, poise, and flair, in the text itself, where Maria ‘sighed it at last all comically, all tragically, away’ (p. 340), while Strether sums it up: ‘Then there we are!’

Nicola Bradbury

Notes to Introduction

1. Henry James, The Ambassadors (1903), Wordsworth Classics, 1992, p. 7. Future references will be in parentheses in the text.

2. E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel (1927), Harmondsworth, 1970, p. 155

3. See Adeline Tintner, Henry James and the Lust of the Eyes, Baton Rouge and London 1993, pp. 88–94.

4. The Ambassadors falls into the final phase described by the hostile critic Maxwell Geismar in his tripartite division as ‘James the Old Pretender’, in Henry James and the Jacobites, Boston 1963.

5. Recorded in The Complete Notebooks of Henry James, ed. Leon Edel and Lyall H. Powers, London 1987, p. 141.

6. Henry James, Letters, ed. Leon Edel, Vol. 4, Cambridge, Mass. 1984, p. 302

7. See Henry James, Preface to The Wings of the Dove in The Art of the Novel, ed. R. P. Blackmur (1934), London and New York 1962, p. 298.

8. See James Buzard, The Beaten Track: European Tourism, Literature, and the Ways to ‘Culture’, 1800–1918, Oxford 1993.

9. This scene is much discussed by James critics. See, for example, Adeline Tintner, The Museum World of Henry James, Ann Arbor 1986; Marianna Torgovnick, The Visual Arts: Pictorialism and the Novel, Princeton 1985; Viola Hopkins Winner, Henry James and the Visual Arts, Charlottesville 1970.

Further Reading

Paul B. Armstrong, The Challenge of Bewilderment: Understanding and Representation in James, Conrad and Ford, Ithaca, NY 1987

Millicent Bell, Meaning in Henry James, Cambridge, Mass. 1991

Alwyn Berland, Culture and Conduct in the Novels of Henry James, Cambridge 1981

Harold Bloom (ed.), Henry James’s The Ambassadors: Modern Critical Interpretations, New York 1988

Frederick C. Crews, The Tragedy of Manners, New Haven 1957

Maud Ellmann, ‘Power and Representation in The Ambassadors’, in Henry James: Fiction as History, ed. I. F. A. Bell, London 1984

William R. Goetz, Henry James and the Darkest Abyss of Romance, Louisiana 1986

John Landau, ‘A Thing Divided’: Representation in the Late Novels of Henry James, AMS, 1996

David Lodge, ‘Strether by the River’, in Language of Fiction, pp. 189–213, London 1966

David McWhirter, Desire and Love in Henry James: A Study of the Late Novels, Cambridge 1989

Julie Rivkin, False Positions: The Representational Logics of Henry James’s Fiction, Stanford 1996

Richard Salmon, Henry James and the Culture of Publicity, Cambridge 1997

Sheila Teahan, The Rhetorical Logic of Henry James, Lousiana 1995

Priscilla L. Walton, The Disruption of the Feminine in Henry James, Toronto 1992

Merle A. Williams, Henry James and the Philosophical Novel: Being and Seeing, Cambridge 1993

The Ambassadors

Book First


Strether’s first question, when he reached the hotel, was about his friend; yet on his learning that Waymarsh was apparently not to arrive till evening he was not wholly disconcerted. A telegram from him bespeaking a room ‘only if not noisy,’ reply paid, was produced for the inquirer at the office, so that the understanding they should meet at Chester [1] rather than at Liverpool [2] remained to that extent sound. The same secret principle, however, that had prompted Strether not absolutely to desire Waymarsh’s presence at the dock, that had led him thus to postpone for a few hours his enjoyment of it, now operated to make him feel he could still wait without disappointment. They would dine together at the worst, and, with all respect to dear old Waymarsh – if not even, for that matter, to himself – there was little fear that in the sequel they shouldn’t see enough of each other. The principle I have just mentioned as operating had been, with the most newly disembarked of the two men, wholly instinctive – the fruit of a sharp sense that, delightful as it would be to find himself looking, after so much separation, into his comrade’s face, his business would be a trifle bungled should he simply arrange for this countenance to present itself to the nearing steamer as the first ‘note’ of Europe. Mixed with everything was the apprehension, already, on Strether’s part, that he would, at best, throughout, prove the note of Europe in quite a sufficient degree.

That note had been meanwhile – since the previous afternoon, thanks to this happier device – such a consciousness of personal freedom as he hadn’t known for years; such a deep taste of change and of having above all for the moment nobody and nothing to consider, as promised already, if headlong hope were not too foolish, to colour his adventure with cool success. There were people on the ship with whom he had easily consorted – so far as ease could up to now be imputed to him – and who for the most part plunged straight into the current that set from the landing-stage to London; there were others who had invited him to a tryst at the inn and had even invoked his aid for a ‘look round’ at the beauties of Liverpool; but he had stolen away from every one alike, had kept no appointment and renewed no acquaintance, had been indifferently aware of the number of persons who esteemed themselves fortunate in being, unlike himself, ‘met,’ and had even independently, unsociably, alone, without encounter or relapse and by mere quiet evasion, given his afternoon and evening to the immediate and the sensible. They formed a qualified draught of Europe, an afternoon and an evening on the banks of the Mersey, [3] but such as it was he took his potion at least undiluted. He winced a little, truly, at the thought that Waymarsh might be already at Chester; he reflected that, should he have to describe himself there as having ‘got in’ so early, it would be difficult to make the interval look particularly eager; but he was like a man who, elatedly finding in his pocket more money than usual, handles it a while and idly and pleasantly chinks it before addressing himself to the business of spending. That he was prepared to be vague to Waymarsh about the hour of the ship’s touching, and that he both wanted extremely to see him and enjoyed extremely the duration of delay – these things, it is to be conceived, were early signs in him that his relation to his actual errand might prove none of the simplest. He was burdened, poor Strether – it had better be confessed at the outset – with the oddity of a double consciousness. There was detachment in his zeal and curiosity in his indifference.

After the young woman in the glass cage had held up to him across her counter the pale-pink leaflet [4] bearing his friend’s name, which she neatly pronounced, he turned away to find himself, in the hall, facing a lady who met his eyes as with an intention suddenly determined, and whose features – not freshly young, not markedly fine, but on happy terms with each other – came back to him as from a recent vision. For a moment they stood confronted; then the moment placed her: he had noticed her the day before, noticed her at his previous inn, where – again in the hall – she had been briefly engaged with some people of his own ship’s company. Nothing had actually passed between them, and he would as little have been able to say what had been the sign of her face for him on the first occasion as to name the ground of his present recognition. Recognition at any rate appeared to prevail on her own side as well – which would only have added to the mystery. All she now began by saying to him nevertheless was that, having chanced to catch his inquiry, she was moved to ask, by his leave, if it were possibly a question of Mr Waymarsh of Milrose, Connecticut – Mr Waymarsh the American lawyer.

‘Oh yes,’ he replied, ‘my very well-known friend. He’s to meet me here, coming up from Malvern, [5] and I supposed he’d already have arrived. But he doesn’t come till later, and I’m relieved not to have kept him. Do you know him?’ Strether wound up.

It wasn’t till after he had spoken that he became aware of how much there had been in him of response; when the tone of her own rejoinder, as well as the play of something more in her face – something more, that is, than its apparently usual restless light – seemed to notify him. ‘I’ve met him at Milrose – where I used sometimes, a good while ago, to stay; I had friends there who were friends of his, and I’ve been at his house. I won’t answer for it that he would know me,’ Strether’s new acquaintance pursued; ‘but I should be delighted to see him. Perhaps,’ she added, ‘I shall – for I’m staying over.’ She paused while our friend took in these things, and it was as if a good deal of talk had already passed. They even vaguely smiled at it, and Strether presently observed that Mr Waymarsh would, no doubt, be easily to be seen. This, however, appeared to affect the lady as if she might have advanced too far. She appeared to have no reserves about anything. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘he won’t care!’ – and she immediately thereupon remarked that she believed Strether knew the Munsters; the Munsters being the people he had seen her with at Liverpool.

But he didn’t, as it happened, know the Munsters well enough to give the case much of a lift; so that they were left together as if over the mere laid table of conversation. Her qualification of the mentioned connection had rather removed than placed a dish, and there seemed nothing else to serve. Their attitude remained, none the less, that of not forsaking the board; and the effect of this in turn was to give them the appearance of having accepted each other with an absence of preliminaries practically complete. They moved along the hall together, and Strether’s companion threw off that the hotel had the advantage of a garden. He was aware by this time of his strange inconsequence: he had shirked the intimacies of the steamer and had muffled the shock of Waymarsh only to find himself forsaken, in this sudden case, both of avoidance and of caution. He passed, under this unsought protection and before he had so much as gone up to his room, into the garden of the hotel, and at the end of ten minutes had agreed to meet there again, as soon as he should have made himself tidy, the dispenser of such good assurances. He wanted to look at the town, and they would forthwith look together. It was almost as if she had been in possession and received him as a guest. Her acquaintance with the place presented her in a manner as a hostess, and Strether had a rueful glance for the lady in the glass cage. It was as if this personage had seen herself instantly superseded.

When in a quarter of an hour he came down, what his hostess saw, what she might have taken in with a vision kindly adjusted, was the lean, the slightly loose figure of a man of the middle height and something more perhaps than the middle age – a man of five-and-fifty, whose most immediate signs were a marked bloodless brownness of face, a thick dark moustache, of characteristically American cut, growing strong and falling low, a head of hair still abundant but irregularly streaked with grey, and a nose of bold free prominence, the even line, the high finish, as it might have been called, of which had a certain effect of mitigation. A perpetual pair of glasses astride of this fine ridge, and a line, unusually deep and drawn, the prolonged pen-stroke of time, accompanying the curve of the moustache from nostril to chin, did something to complete the facial furniture that an attentive observer would have seen catalogued, on the spot, in the vision of the other party to Strether’s appointment. She waited for him in the garden, the other party, drawing on a pair of singularly fresh soft and elastic light gloves and presenting herself with a superficial readiness which, as he approached her over the small smooth lawn and in the watery English sunshine, he might, with his rougher preparation, have marked as the model for such an occasion. She had, this lady, a perfect plain propriety, an expensive subdued suitability, that her companion was not free to analyse, but that struck him, so that his consciousness of it was instantly acute, as a quality quite new to him. Before reaching her he stopped on the grass and went through the form of feeling for something, possibly forgotten, in the light overcoat he carried on his arm; yet the essence of the act was no more than the impulse to gain time. Nothing could have been odder than Strether’s sense of himself as at that moment launched in something of which the sense would be quite disconnected from the sense of his past and which was literally beginning there and then. It had begun in fact already upstairs and before the dressing-glass that struck him as blocking further, so strangely, the dimness of the window of his dull bedroom; begun with a sharper survey of the elements of Appearance than he had for a long time been moved to make. He had during those moments felt these elements to be not so much to his hand as he should have liked, and then had fallen back on the thought that they were precisely a matter as to which help was supposed to come from what he was about to do. He was about to go up to London, so that hat and necktie might wait. What had come as straight to him as a ball in a well-played game – and caught, moreover, not less neatly – was just the air, in the person of his friend, of having seen and chosen, the air of achieved possession of those vague qualities and quantities that collectively figured to him as the advantage snatched from lucky chances. Without pomp or circumstance, certainly, as her original address to him, equally with his own response, had been, he would have sketched to himself his impression of her as: ‘Well, she’s more thoroughly civilised – !’ If ‘More thoroughly than whom?’ would not have been for him a sequel to this remark, that was just by reason of his deep consciousness of the bearing of his comparison.

The amusement, at all events, of a civilisation intenser was what – familiar compatriot as she was, with the full tone of the compatriot and the rattling link not with mystery but only with dear dyspeptic Waymarsh – she appeared distinctly to promise. His pause while he felt in his overcoat was positively the pause of confidence, and it enabled his eyes to make out as much of a case for her, in proportion, as her own made out for himself. She affected him as almost insolently young; but an easily carried five-and-thirty could still do that. She was, however, like himself, marked and wan; only it naturally couldn’t have been known to him how much a spectator looking from one to the other might have discerned that they had in common. It wouldn’t for such a spectator have been altogether insupposable that, each so finely brown and so sharply spare, each confessing so to dents of surface and aids to sight, to a disproportionate nose and a head delicately or grossly grizzled, they might have been brother and sister. On this ground indeed there would have been a residuum of difference; such a sister having surely known in respect to such a brother the extremity of separation, and such a brother now feeling in respect to such a sister the extremity of surprise. Surprise, it was true, was not on the other hand what the eyes of Strether’s friend most showed him while she gave him, stroking her gloves smoother, the time he appreciated. They had taken hold of him straightway, measuring him up and down as if they knew how; as if he were human material they had already in some sort handled. Their possessor was in truth, it may be communicated, the mistress of a hundred cases or categories, receptacles of the mind, subdivisions for convenience, in which, from a full experience, she pigeonholed her fellow mortals with a hand as free as that of a compositor scattering type. She was as equipped in this particular as Strether was the reverse, and it made an opposition between them which he might well have shrunk from submitting to if he had fully suspected it. So far as he did suspect it he was on the contrary, after a short shake of his consciousness, as pleasantly passive as might be. He really had a sort of sense of what she knew. He had quite the sense that she knew things he didn’t, and though this was a concession that in general he found not easy to make to women, he made it now as good-humouredly as if it lifted a burden. His eyes were so quiet behind his eternal nippers [6] that they might almost have been absent without changing his face, which took its expression mainly, and not least its stamp of sensibility, from other sources, surface and grain and form. He joined his guide in an instant, and then felt she had profited still better than he by his having been, for the moments just mentioned, so at the disposal of her intelligence. She knew even intimate things about him that he hadn’t yet told her and perhaps never would. He wasn’t unaware that he had told her rather remarkably many for the time, but these were not the real ones. Some of the real ones however, precisely, were what she knew.

They were to pass again through the hall of the inn to get into the street, and it was here she presently checked him with a question. ‘Have you looked up my name?’

He could only stop with a laugh. ‘Have you looked up mine?’

‘Oh dear, yes – as soon as you left me. I went to the office and asked. Hadn’t you better do the same?’

He wondered. ‘Find out who you are? – after the uplifted young woman there has seen us thus scrape acquaintance!’

She laughed on her side now at the shade of alarm in his amusement. ‘Isn’t it a reason the more? If what you’re afraid of is the injury for me – my being seen to walk off with a gentleman who has to ask who I am – I assure you I don’t in the least mind. Here, however,’ she continued, ‘is my card, and as I find there’s something else again I have to say at the office, you can just study it during the moment I leave you.’

She left him after he had taken from her the small pasteboard she had extracted from her pocket-book, and he had extracted another from his own, to exchange with it, before she came back. He read thus the simple designation ‘Maria Gostrey,’ to which was attached, in a corner of the card, with a number, the name of a street, presumably in Paris, without other appreciable identity than its foreignness. He put the card into his waistcoat pocket, keeping his own meanwhile in evidence; and as he leaned against the door-post he met with the smile of a straying thought what the expanse before the hotel offered to his view. It was positively droll to him that he should already have Maria Gostrey, whoever she was – of which he hadn’t really the least idea – in a place of safe keeping. He had somehow an assurance that he should carefully preserve the little token he had just tucked in. He gazed with unseeing lingering eyes as he followed some of the implications of his act, asking himself if he really felt admonished to qualify it as disloyal. It was prompt, it was possibly even premature, and there was little doubt of the expression of face the sight of it would have produced in a certain person. But if it were ‘wrong’ – why then he had better not have come out at all. At this, poor man, had he already – and even before meeting Waymarsh – arrived. He had believed he had a limit, but the limit had been transcended within thirty-six hours. By how long a space on the plane of manners, or even of morals, moreover, he felt still more sharply after Maria Gostrey had come back to him and with a gay decisive ‘So now – !’ led him forth into the world. This counted, it struck him as he walked beside her with his overcoat on an arm, his umbrella under another and his personal pasteboard a little stiffly retained between forefinger and thumb, this struck him as really, in comparison, his introduction to things. It hadn’t been ‘Europe’ at Liverpool, no – not even in the dreadful delightful impressive streets the night before – to the extent his present companion made it so. She hadn’t yet done that so much as when after their walk had lasted a few minutes and he had had time to wonder if a couple of sidelong glances from her meant that he had best have put on gloves, she almost pulled him up with an amused challenge. ‘But why – fondly as it’s so easy to imagine your clinging to it – don’t you put it away? Or if it’s an inconvenience to you to carry it, one’s often glad to have one’s card back. The fortune one spends in them!’

Then he saw both that his way of marching with his own prepared tribute had affected her as a deviation in one of those directions he couldn’t yet measure, and that she supposed this emblem to be still the one he had received from her. He accordingly handed her the card as if in restitution, but as soon as she had it she felt the difference and, with her eyes on it, stopped short for apology. ‘I like,’ she observed, ‘your name.’

‘Oh,’ he answered, ‘you won’t have heard of it!’ Yet he had his reasons for not being sure but that she perhaps might.

Ah it was but too visible! She read it over again as one who had never seen it. ‘Mr Lewis Lambert Strether’ – she sounded it almost as freely as for any stranger. She repeated, however, that she liked it – ‘particularly the Lewis Lambert. It’s the name of a novel [7] of Balzac’s.’

‘Oh I know that!’ said Strether.

‘But the novel’s an awfully bad one.’

‘I know that too,’ Strether smiled. To which he added with an irrelevance that was only superficial: ‘I come from Woollett, Massachusetts.’ It made her for some reason – the irrelevance or whatever – laugh. Balzac had described many cities, but hadn’t described Woollett, Massachusetts. ‘You say that,’ she returned, ‘as if you wanted one immediately to know the worst.’

‘Oh I think it’s a thing,’ he said, ‘that you must already have made out. I feel it so that I certainly must look it, speak it, and, as people say there, act it. It sticks out of me, and you knew surely for yourself as soon as you looked at me.’

‘The worst, you mean?’

‘Well, the fact of where I come from. There at any rate it is; so that you won’t be able, if anything happens, to say that I’ve not been straight with you.’

‘I see’ – and Miss Gostrey looked really interested in the point he had made. ‘But what do you think of as happening?’

Though he wasn’t shy – which was rather anomalous – Strether gazed about without meeting her eyes; a motion that was frequent with him in talk, yet of which his words often seemed not at all the effect. ‘Why that you should find me too hopeless.’ With which they walked on again together while she answered, as they went, that the most ‘hopeless’ of her countryfolk were in general precisely those she liked best. All sorts of other pleasant small things – small things that were yet large for him – flowered in the air of the occasion; but the bearing of the occasion itself on matters still remote concerns us too closely to permit us to multiply our illustrations. Two or three, however, in truth, we should perhaps regret to lose. The tortuous wall – girdle, long since snapped, of the little swollen city, half held in place by careful civic hands – wanders in narrow file between parapets smoothed by peaceful generations, pausing here and there for a dismantled gate or a bridged gap, with rises and drops, steps up and steps down, queer twists, queer contacts, peeps into homely streets and under the brows of gables, views of cathedral tower and waterside fields, of huddled English town and ordered English country. Too deep almost for words was the delight of these things to Strether; yet as deeply mixed with it were certain images of his inward picture. He had trod this walk in the far-off time, at twenty-five; but that, instead of spoiling it, only enriched it for present feeling and marked