The Golden Bowl Chapter 11

‘I can’t say more,’ this made his companion reply, ‘than that something in her face, her voice and her whole manner acted upon me as nothing in her had ever acted before; and just for the reason, above all, that I felt her trying her very best – and her very best, poor duck, is very good – to be quiet and natural. It’s when one sees people who always are natural making little pale pathetic blinking efforts for it – then it is that one knows something’s the matter. I can’t describe my impression – you’d have had it for yourself. And the only thing that ever can be the matter with Maggie is that. By “that” I mean her beginning to doubt. To doubt, for the first time,’ Mrs Assingham wound up, ‘of her wonderful little judgment of her wonderful little world.’

It was impressive, Fanny’s vision, and the Colonel, as if himself agitated by it, took another turn of prowling. ‘To doubt of fidelity – to doubt of friendship! Poor duck indeed! It will go hard with her. But she’ll put it all,’ he concluded, ‘on Charlotte.’

Mrs Assingham, still darkly contemplative, denied this with a headshake. ‘She won’t “put” it anywhere. She won’t do with it anything any one else would. She’ll take it all herself.’

‘You mean she’ll make it out her own fault?’

‘Yes – she’ll find means somehow to arrive at that.’

‘Ah then,’ the Colonel dutifully declared, ‘she’s indeed a little brick!’

‘Oh,’ his wife returned, ‘you’ll see in one way or another to what tune!’ And she spoke, of a sudden, with an approach to elation – so that, as if immediately feeling his surprise, she turned round to him. ‘She’ll see me somehow through!’

‘See you –?’

‘Yes, me. I’m the worst. For,’ said Fanny Assingham, now with a harder exaltation, ‘I did it all. I recognise that – I accept it. She won’t cast it up at me – she won’t cast up anything. So I throw myself upon her – she’ll bear me up.’ She spoke almost volubly – she held him with her sudden sharpness. ‘She’ll carry the whole weight of us.’

There was still nevertheless wonder in it. ‘You mean she won’t mind? I say, love –!’ And he not unkindly stared. ‘Then where’s the difficulty?’

‘There isn’t any!’ Fanny declared with the same rich emphasis.

It kept him indeed, as by the loss of the thread, looking at her longer. ‘Ah you mean there isn’t any for us!’

She met his look for a minute as if it perhaps a little too much imputed a selfishness, a concern for their own surface at any cost. Then she might have been deciding that their own surface was after all what they had most to consider. ‘Not,’ she said with dignity, ‘if we properly keep our heads.’ She appeared even to signify that they would begin by keeping them now. This was what it was to have at last a constituted basis. ‘Do you remember what you said to me that night of my first real anxiety – after the Foreign Office party?’

‘In the carriage – as we came home?’ Yes – he could recall it. ‘Leave them to pull through?’

‘Precisely. “Trust their own wit,” you practically said, “to save all appearances.” Well, I’ve trusted it. I have left them to pull through.’

He considered. ‘And your point is that they’re not doing so?’

‘I’ve left them,’ she went on, ‘but now I see how and where. I’ve been leaving them all the while, without knowing it, to her.’

‘To the Princess?’

‘And that’s what I mean,’ Mrs Assingham pensively pursued. ‘That’s what happened to me with her to-day,’ she continued to explain. ‘It came home to me that that’s what I’ve really been doing.’

‘Oh I see.’

‘I needn’t torment myself. She has taken them over.’

The Colonel declared that he ‘saw’; yet it was as if, at this, he a little sightlessly stared. ‘But what then has happened, from one day to the other, to her? What has opened her eyes?’

‘They were never really shut. She misses him.’

‘Then why hasn’t she missed him before?’

Well, facing him there, among their domestic glooms and glints, Fanny worked it out. ‘She did – but she wouldn’t let herself know it. She had her reason – she wore her blind. Now at last her situation has come to a head. To-day she does know it. And that’s illuminating. It has been,’ Mrs Assingham wound up, ‘illuminating to me.’

Her husband attended, but the momentary effect of his attention was vagueness again, and the refuge of his vagueness was a gasp. ‘Poor dear little girl!’

‘Ah no – don’t pity her!’

This nevertheless pulled him up. ‘We mayn’t even be sorry for her?’

‘Not now – or at least not yet. It’s too soon – that is if it isn’t very much too late. This will depend,’ Mrs Assingham went on; ‘at any rate we shall see. We might have pitied her before – for all the good it would then have done her; we might have begun some time ago. Now however she has begun to live. And the way it comes to me, the way it comes to me –’ But again she projected her vision.

‘The way it comes to you can scarcely be that she’ll like it!’

‘The way it comes to me is that she will live. The way it comes to me is that she’ll triumph.’

She said this with so sudden a prophetic flare that it fairly cheered her husband. ‘Ah then we must back her!’

‘No – we mustn’t touch her. We mayn’t touch any of them. We must keep our hands off; we must go on tiptoe. We must simply watch and wait. And meanwhile,’ said Mrs Assingham, ‘we must bear it as we can. That’s where we are – and it serves us right. We’re in presence.’

And so, moving about the room as in communion with shadowy portents, she left it till he questioned again. ‘In presence of what?’

‘Well, of something possibly beautiful. Beautiful as it may come off.’

She had paused there before him while he wondered. ‘You mean she’ll get the Prince back?’

She raised her hand in quick impatience: the suggestion might have been almost abject. ‘It isn’t a question of recovery. It won’t be a question of any vulgar struggle. To “get him back” she must have lost him, and to have lost him she must have had him.’ With which Fanny shook her head. ‘What I take her to be waking up to is the truth that all the while she really hasn’t had him. Never.’

‘Ah my dear –!’ the poor Colonel panted.

‘Never!’ his wife inexorably repeated. And she went on without pity. ‘Do you remember what I said to you long ago – that evening, just before their marriage, when Charlotte had so suddenly turned up?’

The smile with which he met this appeal wasn’t, it was to be feared, robust. ‘What haven’t you, love, said in your time?’

‘So many things, no doubt that they make a chance for my having once or twice spoken the truth. I never spoke it more, at all events, than when I declared, on that occasion, that Maggie was the creature in the world to whom a wrong thing could least be communicated. It was as if her imagination had been closed to it, her sense altogether sealed. That therefore,’ Fanny continued, ‘is what will now have to happen. Her sense will have to open.’

‘I see.’ He nodded. ‘To the wrong.’ He nodded again almost cheerfully – as if he had been keeping the peace with a baby or a lunatic. ‘To the very, very wrong.’

But his wife’s spirit, after its effort of wing, was able to remain higher. ‘To what’s called Evil – with a very big E: for the first time in her life. To the discovery of it, to the knowledge of it, to the crude experience of it.’ And she gave, for the possibility, the largest measure. ‘To the harsh bewildering brush, the daily chilling breath of it. Unless indeed’ – and here Mrs Assingham noted a limit – ‘unless indeed, as yet (so far as she has come, and if she comes no further), simply to the suspicion and the dread. What we shall see is whether that mere dose of alarm will prove enough.’

He considered. ‘But enough for what then, dear – if not enough to break her heart?’

‘Enough to give her a shaking!’ Mrs Assingham rather oddly replied. ‘To give her, I mean, the right one. The right one won’t break her heart. It will make her,’ she explained – ‘well, it will make her, by way of a change, understand one or two things in the world.’

‘But isn’t it a pity,’ the Colonel asked, ‘that they should happen to be the one or two that will be the most disagreeable to her?’

‘Oh “disagreeable” –? They’ll have had to be disagreeable – to show her a little where she is. They’ll have had to be disagreeable to make her sit up. They’ll have had to be disagreeable to make her decide to live.’

Bob Assingham was now at the window, while his companion slowly revolved; he had lighted a cigarette, for final patience, and he seemed vaguely to ‘time’ her as she moved to and fro. He had at the same time to do justice to the lucidity she had at last attained, and it was doubtless by way of expression of this teachability that he let his eyes roll, for a minute, as from the force of feeling, over the upper dusk of the room. He had thought of the response his wife’s words ideally implied. ‘Decide to live – ah yes! – for her child.’

‘Oh bother her child!’ – and he had never felt so snubbed, for an exemplary view, as when Fanny now stopped short. ‘To live, you poor dear, for her father – which is another pair of sleeves!’ And Mrs Assingham’s whole ample ornamented person irradiated, with this, the truth that had begun, under so much handling, to glow. ‘Any idiot can do things for her child. She’ll have a motive more original, and we shall see how it will work her. She’ll have to save him.’

‘To “save” him –?’

‘To keep her father from her own knowledge. That’ – and she seemed to see it, before her, in her husband’s very eyes – ‘will be work cut out!’ With which, as at the highest conceivable climax, she wound up their colloquy. ‘Good-night!’

There was something in her manner, however – or in the effect at least of this supreme demonstration – that had fairly, and by a single touch, lifted him to her side; so that, after she had turned her back to regain the landing and the staircase, he overtook her, before she had begun to mount, with the ring of excited perception. ‘Ah but, you know, that’s rather jolly!’

‘ “Jolly” –?’ She turned upon it again from the foot of the staircase.

‘I mean it’s rather charming.’

‘ “Charming” –?’ It had still to be their law, a little, that she was tragic when he was comic.

‘I mean it’s rather beautiful. You just said yourself it would be. Only,’ he pursued promptly, with the impetus of this idea, and as if it had suddenly touched with light for him connexions hitherto dim – ‘only I don’t quite see why that very care for him which has carried her to such other lengths, precisely, as affect one as so “rum”, hasn’t also by the same stroke made her notice a little more what has been going on.’

‘Ah there you are! It’s the question that I’ve all along been asking myself.’ She had rested her eyes on the carpet, but she raised them as she pursued – she let him have it straight. ‘And it’s the question of an idiot.’

‘An idiot –?’

‘Well, the idiot that I’ve been in all sorts of ways – so often of late have I asked it. You’re excuseable since you ask it but now. The answer I saw to-day has all the while been staring me in the face.’

‘Then what in the world is it?’

‘Why the very intensity of her conscience about him – the very passion of her brave little piety. That’s the way it has worked,’ Mrs Assingham explained – ‘and I admit it to have been as “rum” a way as possible. But it has been working from a “rum” start. From the moment the dear man married to ease his daughter off and it then happened by an extraordinary perversity that the very opposite effect was produced –!’ With the renewed vision of this fatality, however, she could give but a desperate shrug.

‘I see,’ the Colonel sympathetically mused. ‘That was a rum start.’

But his very response, as she again flung up her arms, seemed to make her sense for a moment intolerable. ‘Yes – there I am! I was really at the bottom of it,’ she declared; ‘I don’t know what possessed me – but I planned for him, I goaded him on.’ With which, however, the next moment, she took herself up. ‘Or rather I do know what possessed me – for wasn’t he beset with ravening women, right and left, and didn’t he quite pathetically appeal for protection, didn’t he quite charmingly show one how he needed and desired it? Maggie,’ she thus lucidly continued, ‘couldn’t, with a new life of her own, give herself up to doing for him in the future all she had done in the past – to fencing him in, to keeping him safe and keeping them off. One perceived this,’ she went on – ‘out of the abundance of one’s affection and one’s sympathy.’ It all blessedly came back to her – when it wasn’t all for the fiftieth time obscured, in face of the present facts, by anxiety and compunction. ‘One was no doubt a meddlesome fool; one always is, to think one sees people’s lives for them better than they see them for themselves. But one’s excuse here,’ she insisted, ‘was that these people clearly didn’t see them for themselves – didn’t see them at all. It struck one for very pity – that they were making a mess of such charming material; that they were but wasting it and letting it go. They didn’t know how to live – and somehow one couldn’t, if one took an interest in them at all, simply stand and see it. That’s what I pay for’ – and the poor woman, in straighter communion with her companion’s intelligence at this moment, she appeared to feel, than she had ever been before, let him have the whole of the burden of her consciousness. ‘I always pay for it, sooner or later, my sociable, my damnable, my unnecessary interest. Nothing of course would suit me but that it should fix itself also on Charlotte – Charlotte who was hovering there on the edge of our lives when not beautifully and a trifle mysteriously flitting across them, and who was a piece of waste and a piece of threatened failure just as, for any possible good to the world, Mr Verver and Maggie were. It began to come over me in the watches of the night that Charlotte was a person who could keep off ravening women – without being one herself, either, in the vulgar way of the others; and that this service to Mr Verver would be a sweet employment for her future. There was something of course that might have stopped me: you know, you know what I mean – it looks at me,’ she veritably moaned, ‘out of your face! But all I can say is that it didn’t; the reason largely being – once I had fallen in love with the beautiful symmetry of my plan – that I seemed to feel sure Maggie would accept Charlotte, whereas I didn’t quite make out either what other woman, or what other kind of woman, one could think of her accepting.’

‘I see – I see.’ She had paused, meeting all the while his listening look, and the fever of her retrospect had so risen with her talk that the desire was visibly strong in him to meet her, on his side, but with cooling breath. ‘One quite understands, my dear.’

Yet it only kept her there sombre. ‘I naturally see, love, what you understand; which sits again perfectly in your eyes. You see that I saw that Maggie would accept her in helpless ignorance. Yes, dearest’ – and the grimness of her lucidity suddenly once more possessed her: ‘you’ve only to tell me that that knowledge was my reason for what I did. How, when you do, can I stand up to you? You see,’ she said with an ineffable headshake, ‘that I don’t stand up! I’m down, down, down,’ she declared; ‘yet’ – she as quickly added – ‘there’s just one little thing that helps to save my life.’ And she kept him waiting but an instant. ‘They might easily – they would perhaps even certainly – have done something worse.’

He thought. ‘Worse than that Charlotte –?’

‘Ah don’t tell me,’ she cried, ‘that there could have been nothing worse. There might, as they were, have been many things. Charlotte, in her way, is extraordinary.’

He was almost simultaneous. ‘Extraordinary!’

‘She observes the forms,’ said Fanny Assingham.

‘With the Prince –?’

‘For the Prince. And with the others,’ she went on. ‘With Mr Verver – wonderfully. But above all with Maggie. And the forms’ – she had to do even them justice – ‘are two thirds of conduct. Say he had married a woman who would have made a hash of them.’

But he jerked back. ‘Ah my dear, I wouldn’t say it for the world!’

‘Say,’ she none the less pursued, ‘he had married a woman the Prince would really have cared for.’

‘You mean then he doesn’t care for Charlotte –?’

This was still a new view to jump to, and the Colonel, perceptibly, wished to make sure of the necessity of the effort. For that, while he stared, his wife allowed him time; at the end of which she simply said: ‘No!’

‘Then what on earth are they up to?’ Still however she only looked at him; so that, standing there before her with his hands in his pockets, he had time to risk soothingly another question. ‘Are the “forms” you speak of – that are two thirds of conduct – what will be keeping her now, by your hypothesis, from coming home with him till morning?’

‘Yes – absolutely. Their forms.’

‘ “Theirs” –?’

‘Maggie’s and Mr Verver’s – those they impose on Charlotte and the Prince. Those,’ she developed, ‘that so perversely, as I say, have succeeded in setting themselves up as the right ones.’

He considered – but only now at last really to relapse into woe. ‘Your “perversity”, my dear, is exactly what I don’t understand. The state of things existing hasn’t grown, like a field of mushrooms, in a night. Whatever they, all round, may be in for now is at least the consequence of what they’ve done. Are they mere helpless victims of fate?’

Well, Fanny at last had the courage of it. ‘Yes – they are. To be so abjectly innocent – that is to be victims of fate.’

‘And Charlotte and the Prince are abjectly innocent –?’

It took her another minute, but she rose to the full height. ‘Yes. That is they were – as much so in their way as the others. There were beautiful intentions all round. The Prince’s and Charlotte’s were beautiful – of that I had my faith. They were – I’d go to the stake. Otherwise,’ she added, ‘I should have been a wretch. And I’ve not been a wretch. I’ve only been a double-dyed donkey.’

‘Ah then,’ he asked, ‘what does our muddle make them to have been?’

‘Well, too much taken up with considering each other. You may call such a mistake as that by whatever name you please; it at any rate means, all round, their case. It illustrates the misfortune,’ said Mrs Assingham gravely, ‘of being too, too charming.’

This was another matter that took some following, but the Colonel again did his best. ‘Yes, but to whom? – doesn’t it rather depend on that? To whom have the Prince and Charlotte then been too charming?’

‘To each other in the first place – obviously. And then both of them together to Maggie.’

‘To Maggie?’ he wonderingly echoed.

‘To Maggie.’ She was now crystalline. ‘By having accepted, from the first, so guilelessly – yes, so guilelessly themselves – her guileless idea of still having her father, of keeping him fast, in her life.’

‘Then isn’t one supposed, in common humanity, and if one hasn’t quarrelled with him, and one has the means, and he, on his side, doesn’t drink or kick up rows – isn’t one supposed to keep one’s aged parent in one’s life?’

‘Certainly – when there aren’t particular reasons against it. That there may be others than his getting drunk is exactly the moral of what’s before us. In the first place Mr Verver isn’t aged.’

The Colonel just hung fire – but it came. ‘Then why the deuce does he – oh poor dear man! – behave as if he were?’

She took a moment to meet it. ‘How do you know how he behaves?’

‘Well, my own love, we see how Charlotte does!’

Again, at this, she faltered; but again she rose. ‘Ah isn’t my whole point that he’s charming to her?’

‘Doesn’t it depend a bit on what she regards as charming?’

She faced the question as if it were flippant, then with a headshake of dignity she brushed it away. ‘It’s Mr Verver who’s really young – it’s Charlotte who’s really old. And what I was saying,’ she added, ‘isn’t affected –!’

‘You were saying’ – he did her the justice – ‘that they’re all guileless.’

‘That they were. Guileless all at first – quite extraordinarily. It’s what I mean by their failure to see that the more they took for granted they could work together the more they were really working apart. For I repeat,’ Fanny went on, ‘that I really believe Charlotte and the Prince honestly to have made up their minds, originally, that their very esteem for Mr Verver – which was serious, as well it might be! – would save them.’

‘I see.’ The Colonel inclined himself. ‘And save him.’

‘It comes to the same thing!’

‘Then save Maggie.’

‘That comes,’ said Mrs Assingham, ‘to something a little different. For Maggie has done the most.’

He wondered. ‘What do you call the most?’

‘Well, she did it originally – she began the vicious circle. For that – though you make round eyes at my associating her with “vice” – is simply what it has been. It’s their mutual consideration, all round, that has made it the bottomless gulf; and they’re really so embroiled but because, in their way, they’ve been so improbably good.’

‘In their way – yes!’ the Colonel grinned.

‘Which was above all Maggie’s way.’ No flicker of his ribaldry was anything to her now. ‘Maggie had in the first place to make up to her father for her having suffered herself to become – poor little dear, as she believed – so intensely married. Then she had to make up to her husband for taking so much of the time they might otherwise have spent together to make this reparation to Mr Verver perfect. And her way to do this, precisely, was by allowing the Prince the use, the enjoyment, whatever you may call it, of Charlotte to cheer his path – by instalments, as it were – in proportion as she herself, making sure her father was all right, might be missed from his side. By so much, at the same time, however,’ Mrs Assingham further explained, ‘by so much as she took her young stepmother, for this purpose, away from Mr Verver, by just so much did this too strike her as something again to be made up for. It has saddled her, you’ll easily see, with a positively new obligation to her father, an obligation created and aggravated by her unfortunate even if quite heroic little sense of justice. She began with wanting to show him that his marriage could never, under whatever temptation of her own bliss with the Prince, become for her a pretext for deserting or neglecting him. Then that, in its order, entailed her wanting to show the Prince that she recognised how the other desire – this wish to remain, intensely, the same passionate little daughter she had always been – involved in some degree and just for the present, so to speak, her neglecting and deserting him. I quite hold,’ Fanny with characteristic amplitude parenthesised, ‘that a person can mostly feel but one passion – one tender passion, that is – at a time. Only that doesn’t hold good for our primary and instinctive attachments, the “voice of blood”, such as one’s feeling for a parent or a brother. Those may be intense and yet not prevent other intensities – as you’ll recognise, my dear, when you remember how I continued, tout bĂȘtement,1 to adore my mother, whom you didn’t adore, for years after I had begun to adore you. Well, Maggie’ – she kept it up – ‘is in the same situation as I was, plus complications from which I was, thank heaven; exempt: plus the complication above all of not having in the least begun with the sense for complications that I should have had. Before she knew it at any rate her little scruples and her little lucidities, which were really so divinely blind – her feverish little sense of justice, as I say – had brought the two others together as her grossest misconduct couldn’t have done. And now she knows something or other has happened – yet hasn’t heretofore known what. She has only piled up her remedy, poor child – something that she has earnestly but confusedly seen as her necessary policy; piled it on top of the policy, on top of the remedy, that she at first thought out for herself and that would really have needed since then so much modification. Her only modification has been the growth of her necessity to prevent her father’s wondering if all, in their life in common, may be so certainly for the best. She has now as never before to keep him unconscious that, peculiar, if he makes a point of it, as their situation is, there’s anything in it all uncomfortable or disagreeable, anything morally the least out of the way. She has to keep touching it up to make it, each day, each month, look natural and normal to him; so that – God forgive me the comparison! – she’s like an old woman who has taken to “painting”2 and who has to lay it on thicker, to carry it off with a greater audacity, with a greater impudence even, the older she grows.’ And Fanny stood a moment captivated with the image she had thrown off. ‘I like the idea of Maggie audacious and impudent – learning to be so to gloss things over. She could – she even will, yet, I believe – learn it, for that sacred purpose, consummately, diabolically. For from the moment the dear man should see it’s all rouge –!’ She paused, staring at the vision.

It imparted itself even to Bob. ‘Then the fun would begin?’ As it but made her look at him hard, however, he amended the form of his enquiry. ‘You mean that in that case she will, charming creature, be lost?’

She was silent a moment more. ‘As I’ve told you before, she won’t be lost if her father’s saved. She’ll see that as salvation enough.’

The Colonel took it in. ‘Then she’s a little heroine.’

‘Rather – she’s a little heroine. But it’s his innocence, above all,’ Mrs Assingham added, ‘that will pull them through.’

Her companion, at this, focussed again Mr Verver’s innocence. ‘It’s awfully quaint.’

‘Of course it’s awfully quaint! That it’s awfully quaint, that the pair are awfully quaint, quaint with all our dear old quaintness – by which I don’t mean yours and mine, but that of my own sweet country-people, from whom I’ve so deplorably degenerated – that,’ Mrs Assingham declared, ‘was originally the head and front of their appeal to me and of my interest in them. And of course I shall feel them quainter still,’ she rather ruefully subjoined, ‘before they’ve done with me!’

This might be, but it wasn’t what most stood in the Colonel’s way. ‘You believe so in Mr Verver’s innocence after two years of Charlotte?’

She stared. ‘But the whole point is just that two years of Charlotte are what he hasn’t really – or what you may call undividedly – had.’

‘Any more than Maggie by your theory, eh, has “really or undividedly”, had four of the Prince? It takes all she hasn’t had,’ the Colonel conceded, ‘to account for the innocence that in her too so leaves us in admiration.’

So far as it might be ribald again she let this pass. ‘It takes a great many things to account for Maggie. What’s definite at all events is that – strange though this be – her effort for her father has up to now sufficiently succeeded. She has made him, she makes him, accept the tolerably obvious oddity of their relation, all round, for part of the game. Behind her there, protected and amused and, as it were, exquisitely humbugged – the Principino, in whom he delights, always aiding – he has safely and serenely enough suffered the conditions of his life to pass for those he had sublimely projected. He hadn’t worked them out in detail – any more than I had, heaven pity me! – and the queerness has been exactly in the detail. This, for him, is what it was to have married Charlotte. And they both,’ she neatly wound up, ‘help.’

‘ “Both” –?’

‘I mean that if Maggie, always in the breach, makes it seem to him all so flourishingly to fit, Charlotte does her part not less. And her part is very large. Charlotte,’ Fanny declared, ‘works like a horse.’

So there it all was, and her husband looked at her a minute across it. ‘And what does the Prince work like?’

She fixed him in return. ‘Like a Prince!’ Whereupon, breaking short off to ascend to her room, she presented her highly-decorated back – in which, in odd places, controlling the complications of its aspect, the ruby or the garnet, the turquoise and the topaz, gleamed like faint symbols of the wit that pinned together the satin patches of her argument.

He watched her as if she left him positively under the impression of her mastery of her subject; yes, as if the real upshot of the drama before them was but that he had, when it came to the tight places of life – as life had shrunk for him now – the most luminous of wives. He turned off, in this view of her majestic retreat, the comparatively faint little electric lamp that had presided over their talk; then he went up as immediately behind her as the billows of her amber train allowed, making out how all the clearness they had conquered was even for herself a relief – how at last the sense of the amplitude of her exposition sustained and floated her. Joining her however on the landing above, where she had already touched a metallic point into light, he found she had done perhaps even more to create than to extinguish in him the germ of a curiosity. He held her a minute longer – there was another plum in the pie. ‘What did you mean some minutes ago by his not caring for Charlotte?’

‘The Prince’s? By his not “really” caring?’ She recalled, after a little, benevolently enough. ‘I mean that men don’t, when it has all been too easy. That’s how, in nine cases out of ten, a woman is treated who has risked her life. You asked me just now how he works,’ she added; ‘but you might better perhaps have asked me how he plays.’

Well, he made it up. ‘Like a Prince?’

‘Like a Prince. He is profoundly a Prince. For that,’ she said with expression, ‘he’s – beautifully – a case. They’re far rarer, even in the “highest circles”, than they pretend to be – and that’s what makes so much of his value. He’s perhaps one of the very last – the last of the real ones. So it is we must take him. We must take him all round.’

The Colonel considered. ‘And how must Charlotte – if anything happens – take him?’

The question held her a minute, and while she waited with her eyes on him she put out a grasping hand to his arm, in the flesh of which he felt her answer distinctly enough registered. Thus she gave him, standing off a little, the firmest longest deepest injunction he had ever received from her. ‘Nothing – in spite of everything – will happen. Nothing has happened. Nothing is happening.’

He looked a trifle disappointed. ‘I see. For us.’

‘For us. For whom else?’ And he was to feel indeed how she wished him to understand it. ‘We know nothing on earth –!’ It was an undertaking he must sign.

So he wrote, as it were, his name. ‘We know nothing on earth.’ It was like the soldiers’ watchword at night.

‘We’re as innocent,’ she went on in the same way, ‘as babes.’

‘Why not rather say,’ he asked, ‘as innocent as they themselves are?’

‘Ah for the best of reasons! Because we’re much more so.’

He wondered. ‘But how can we be more –?’

‘For them? Oh easily! We can be anything.’

‘Absolute idiots then?’

‘Absolute idiots. And oh,’ Fanny breathed, ‘the way it will rest us!’

Well, he looked as if there were something in that. ‘But won’t they know we’re not?’

She barely hesitated. ‘Charlotte and the Prince think we are – which is so much gained. Mr Verver believes in our intelligence – but he doesn’t matter.’

‘And Maggie? Doesn’t she know –?’

‘That we see before our noses?’ Yes, this indeed took longer. ‘Oh so far as she may guess it she’ll give no sign. So it comes to the same thing.’

He raised his eyebrows. ‘Comes to our not being able to help her?’

‘That’s the way we shall help her.’

‘By looking like fools?’

She threw up her hands. ‘She only wants, herself, to look like a bigger! So there we are!’ With which she brushed it away – his conformity was promised. Something nevertheless still held her; it broke, to her own vision, as a last wave of clearness. ‘Moreover now,’ she said, ‘I see! I mean,’ she added, ‘what you were asking me: how I knew to-day in Eaton Square that Maggie’s awake.’ And she had indeed visibly got it. ‘It was by seeing them together.’

‘Seeing her with her father?’ He fell behind again. ‘But you’ve seen her often enough before.’

‘Never with my present eyes. For nothing like such a test – that of this length of the others’ absence together – has hitherto occurred.’

‘Possibly! But if she and Mr Verver insisted upon it –?’

‘Why is it such a test? Because it has become one without their intending it. It has spoiled, so to speak, on their hands.’

‘It has soured, eh?’ the Colonel said.

‘The word’s horrible – say rather it has “changed”. Perhaps,’ Fanny went on, ‘she did wish to see how much she can bear. In that case she has seen. Only it was she alone who – about the visit – insisted. Her father insists on nothing. And she watches him do it.’

Her husband looked impressed. ‘Watches him?’

‘For the first faint sign. I mean of his noticing. It doesn’t, as I tell you, come. But she’s there for it – to see. And I felt,’ she continued, ‘how she’s there; I caught her, as it were, in the fact. She couldn’t keep it from me – though she left her post on purpose: came home with me to throw dust in my eyes. I took it all – her dust; but it was what showed me.’ With which supreme lucidity she reached the door of her room. ‘Luckily it showed me also how she has succeeded. Nothing – from him – has come.’

‘You’re so awfully sure?’

‘Sure. Nothing will. Good-night,’ she said. ‘She’ll die first.’