The Golden Bowl Chapter 1

‘I’ll do anything you like,’ she said to her husband on one of the last days of the month, ‘if our being here this way at this time seems to you too absurd or too uncomfortable or too impossible. We’ll either take leave of them now, without waiting – or we’ll come back in time, three days before they start. I’ll go abroad with you if you but say the word; to Switzerland, the Tyrol, the Italian Alps, to whichever of your old high places you would like most to see again – those beautiful ones that used to do you good after Rome and that you so often told me about.’

Where they were, in the conditions that prompted this offer, and where it might indeed appear ridiculous that, with the stale London September close at hand, they should content themselves with remaining, was where the desert of Portland Place looked blank as it had never looked, and where a drowsy cabman, scanning the horizon for a fare, could sink to oblivion of the risks of immobility. But Amerigo was of the odd opinion, day after day, that their situation couldn’t be bettered; and he even went at no moment through the form of replying that, should their ordeal strike her as exceeding their patience, any step they might take would be for her own relief. This was, no doubt, partly because he stood out so wonderfully, to the end, against admitting, by a weak word at least, that any element of their existence was or ever had been an ordeal; no trap of circumstance, no lapse of ‘form’, no accident of irritation, had landed him in that inconsequence. His wife might verily have suggested that he was consequent – consequent with the admirable appearance he had from the first so undertaken and so continued to present – rather too rigidly at her expense; only, as it happened, she wasn’t the little person to do anything of the sort, and the strange tacit compact actually in operation between them might have been founded on an intelligent comparison, a definite collation positively, of the kinds of patience proper to each. She was seeing him through – he had engaged to come out at the right end if she would see him: this understanding, tacitly renewed from week to week, had fairly received, with the procession of the weeks, the consecration of time; but it scarce needed to be emphasised that she was seeing him on his terms, not at all on hers, or that, in a word, she must allow him his unexplained and uncharted, his one practicably workable way. If that way, by one of the intimate felicities the liability to which was so far from having even yet completely fallen from him, happened handsomely to show him as more bored than boring – with advantages of his own freely to surrender, but none to be persuadedly indebted to others for – what did such a false face of the matter represent but the fact itself that she was pledged? If she had questioned or challenged or interfered – if she had reserved herself that right – she wouldn’t have been pledged; whereas there were still, and evidently would be yet a while, long tense stretches during which their case might have been hanging for every eye on her possible, her impossible defection. She must keep it up to the last, mustn’t absent herself for three minutes from her post: only on those lines assuredly would she show herself as with him and not against him.

It was extraordinary how scant a series of signs she had invited him to make of being, of truly having been at any time, ‘with’ his wife: that reflexion she was not exempt from as they now, in their suspense, supremely waited – a reflexion under the brush of which she recognised her having had, in respect to him as well, to ‘do all’, to go the whole way over, to move indefatigably while he stood as fixed in his place as some statue of one of his forefathers. The meaning of it would seem to be, she reasoned in sequestered hours, that he had a place, and that this was an attribute somehow indefeasible, unquenchable, which laid upon others – from the moment they definitely wanted anything of him – the necessity of taking more of the steps than he could, of circling round him, of remembering for his benefit the famous relation of the mountain to Mahomet.1 It was strange, if one had gone into it, but such a place as Amerigo’s was like something made for him beforehand by innumerable facts, facts largely of the sort known as historical, made by ancestors, examples, traditions, habits; while Maggie’s own had come to show simply as that improvised ‘post’ – a post of the kind spoken of as advanced – with which she was to have found herself connected in the fashion of a settler or a trader in a new country; in the likeness even of some Indian squaw with a papoose on her back and barbarous beadwork to sell. Maggie’s own, in short, would have been sought in vain in the most rudimentary map of the social relations as such. The only geography marking it would be doubtless that of the fundamental passions. The ‘end’ that the Prince was at all events holding out for was represented to expectation by his father-in-law’s announced departure for America with Mrs Verver; just as that prospective event had originally figured as advising, for discretion, the flight of the younger couple, to say nothing of the withdrawal of whatever other importunate company, before the great upheaval of Fawns. This residence was to be peopled for a month by porters, packers and hammerers, at whose operations it had become peculiarly public – public that is for Portland Place – that Charlotte was to preside in force; operations the quite awful appointed scale and style of which had at no moment loomed so large to Maggie’s mind as one day when the dear Assinghams swam back into her ken besprinkled with sawdust and looking as pale as if they had seen Samson2 pull down the temple. They had seen at least what she wasn’t seeing, rich dim things under the impression of which they had retired; she having eyes at present but for the clock by which she timed her husband, or for the glass – the image perhaps would be truer – in which he was reflected to her as he timed the pair in the country. The accession of their friends from Cadogan Place contributed to all their intermissions, at any rate, a certain effect of resonance; an effect especially marked by the upshot of a prompt exchange of enquiries between Mrs Assingham and the Princess. It was noted on the occasion of that anxious lady’s last approach to her young friend at Fawns that her sympathy had ventured, after much accepted privation, again to become inquisitive, and this principle had perhaps never so yielded to that need as on the question of the present odd ‘line’ of the distinguished eccentrics.

‘You mean to say really that you’re going to stick here?’ And then before Maggie could answer: ‘What on earth will you do with your evenings?’

Maggie waited a moment – Maggie could still tentatively smile. ‘When people learn we’re here – and of course the papers will be full of it! – they’ll flock back in their hundreds, from wherever they are, to catch us. You see you and the Colonel have yourselves done it. As for our evenings, they won’t, I dare say, be particularly different from anything else that’s ours. They won’t be different from our mornings or our afternoons – except perhaps that you two dears will sometimes help us to get through them. I’ve offered to go anywhere,’ she added; ‘to take a house if he will. But this – just this and nothing else – is Amerigo’s idea. He gave it yesterday,’ she went on, ‘a name that as he said described and fitted it. So you see’ – and the Princess indulged again her smile that didn’t play, but that only, as might have been said, worked – ‘so you see there’s a method in our madness.’

It drew Mrs Assingham’s wonder. ‘And what then is the name?’

‘ “The reduction to its simplest expression of what we are doing” – that’s what he called it. Therefore as we’re doing nothing, we’re doing it in the most aggravated way – which is the way he desires.’ With which Maggie further said: ‘Of course I understand.’

‘So do I!’ her visitor after a moment breathed. ‘You’ve had to vacate the house – that was inevitable. But at least here he doesn’t funk.’

Our young woman accepted the expression. ‘He doesn’t funk.’

It only however half-contented Fanny, who thoughtfully raised her eyebrows. ‘He’s prodigious; but what is there – as you’ve “fixed” it – to dodge? Unless,’ she pursued, ‘it’s her getting near him; it’s – if you’ll pardon my vulgarity – her getting at him. That,’ she suggested, ‘may count with him.’

But it found the Princess prepared. ‘She can get near him here. She can get “at” him. She can come up.’

‘Can she?’ Fanny Assingham questioned.

‘Can’t she?’ Maggie returned.

Their eyes for a minute intimately met on it; after which the elder woman said: ‘I mean for seeing him alone.’

‘So do I,’ said the Princess.

At which Fanny, for her reasons couldn’t help smiling. ‘Oh if it’s for that he’s staying –!’

‘He’s staying – I’ve made it out – to take anything that comes or calls upon him. To take,’ Maggie went on, ‘even that.’ Then she put it as she had at last put it to herself. ‘He’s staying for high decency.’

‘Decency?’ Mrs Assingham gravely echoed.

‘Decency. If she should try –!’

‘Well –?’ Mrs Assingham urged.

‘Well, I hope –!’

‘Hope he’ll see her?’

Maggie hesitated, however; she made no direct reply. ‘It’s useless hoping,’ she presently said. ‘She won’t. But he ought to.’ Her friend’s expression of a moment before, which had been apologised for as vulgar, prolonged its sharpness to her ear – that of an electric bell under continued pressure. Stated so simply, what was it but dreadful, truly, that the feasibility of Charlotte’s ‘getting at’ the man who for so long had loved her should now be in question? Strangest of all things doubtless this care of Maggie’s as to what might make for it or make against it; stranger still her fairly lapsing at moments into a vague calculation of the conceivability, on her own part, with her husband, of some direct sounding of the subject. Would it be too monstrous, her suddenly breaking out to him as in alarm at the lapse of the weeks: ‘Wouldn’t it really seem that you’re bound in honour to do something for her privately before they go?’ Maggie was capable of weighing the risk of this adventure for her own spirit, capable of sinking to intense little absences, even while conversing as now with the person who had most of her confidence, during which she followed up the possibilities. It was true that Mrs Assingham could at such times somewhat restore the balance by not wholly failing to guess her thought. Her thought however just at present had more than one face – had a series that it successively presented. These were indeed the possibilities involved in the adventure of her concerning herself for the quantity of compensation Mrs Verver might still look to. There was always the possibility that she was after all sufficiently to get at him – there was in fact that of her having again and again done so. Against this stood nothing but Fanny Assingham’s apparent belief in her privation – more mercilessly imposed or more hopelessly felt in the actual relation of the parties; over and beyond everything that from more than three months back of course had fostered in the Princess a like conviction. These assumptions might certainly be baseless – inasmuch as there were hours and hours of Amerigo’s time that there was no habit, no pretence of his accounting for; inasmuch too as Charlotte, inevitably, had had more than once, to the undisguised knowledge of the pair in Portland Place, been obliged to come up to Eaton Square, whence so many of her personal possessions were in course of removal. She didn’t come to Portland Place – didn’t even come to ask for luncheon on two separate occasions when it reached the consciousness of the household there that she was spending the day in London. Maggie hated, she scorned, to compare hours and appearances, to weigh the idea of whether there hadn’t been moments during these days when an assignation in easy conditions, a snatched interview in an air the season had so cleared of prying eyes, mightn’t perfectly work. But the very reason of this was partly that, haunted with the vision of the poor woman carrying off with such bravery as she found to her hand the secret of her not being appeased, she was conscious of scant room for any alternative image. The alternative image would have been that the secret covered up was the secret of appeasement somehow obtained, somehow extorted and cherished; and the difference between the two kinds of hiding was too great to permit of a mistake. Charlotte was hiding neither pride nor joy – she was hiding humiliation; and here it was that the Princess’s passion, so powerless for vindictive flights, most inveterately bruised its tenderness against the hard glass of her question.

Behind the glass lurked the whole history of the relation she had so fairly flattened her nose against it to penetrate – the glass Mrs Verver might at this stage have been frantically tapping from within by way of supreme irrepressible entreaty. Maggie had said to herself complacently after that last passage with her stepmother in the garden of Fawns that there was nothing left for her to do and that she could thereupon fold her hands. But why wasn’t it still left to push further and, from the point of view of personal pride, grovel lower? – why wasn’t it still left to offer herself as the bearer of a message reporting to him their friend’s anguish and convincing him of her need? She could thus have translated Mrs Verver’s tap against the glass, as I have called it, into fifty forms; could perhaps have translated it most into the form of a reminder that would pierce deep. ‘You don’t know what it is to have been loved and broken with. You haven’t been broken with, because in your relation what can there have been worth speaking of to break? Ours was everything a relation could be, filled to the brim with the wine of consciousness; and if it was to have no meaning, no better meaning than that such a creature as you could breathe upon it, at your hour, for blight, why was I myself dealt with all for deception? why condemned after a couple of short years to find the golden flame – oh the golden flame! – a mere handful of black ashes?’ Our young woman so yielded at moments to what was insidious in these foredoomed ingenuities of her pity that for minutes together sometimes the weight of a new duty seemed to rest upon her – the duty of speaking before separation should constitute its chasm, of pleading for some benefit that might be carried away into exile like the last saved object of price of the √©migr√©,3 the jewel wrapped in a piece of old silk and negotiable some day in the market of misery.

This imagined service to the woman who could no longer help herself was one of the traps set for Maggie’s spirit at every turn of the road; the click of which, catching and holding the divine faculty fast, was followed inevitably by a flutter, by a struggle of wings and even, as we may say, by a scattering of fine feathers. For they promptly enough felt, these yearnings of thought and excursions of sympathy, the concussion that couldn’t bring them down – the arrest produced by the so remarkably distinct figure that, at Fawns, for the previous weeks, was constantly crossing, in its regular revolution, the further end of any watched perspective. Whoever knew, or whoever didn’t, whether or to what extent Charlotte, with natural business in Eaton Square, had shuffled other opportunities under that cloak, it was all matter for the kind of quiet ponderation the little man who so kept his wandering way had made his own. It was part of the very inveteracy of his straw hat and his white waistcoat, of the trick of his hands in his pockets, of the detachment of the attention he fixed on his slow steps from behind his secure pince-nez. The thing that never failed now as an item in the picture was that gleam of the silken noose, his wife’s immaterial tether, so marked to Maggie’s sense during her last month in the country. Mrs Verver’s straight neck had certainly not slipped it; nor had the other end of the long cord – oh quite conveniently long! – disengaged its smaller loop from the hooked thumb that, with his fingers closed upon it, her husband kept out of sight. To have recognised, for all its tenuity, the play of this gathered lasso might inevitably be to wonder with what magic it was twisted, to what tension subjected, but could never be to doubt either of its adequacy to its office or of its perfect durability. These reminded states for the Princess were in fact states of renewed gaping. So many things her father knew that she even yet didn’t!

All this at present with Mrs Assingham passed through her in quick vibrations. She had expressed while the revolution of her thought was incomplete the idea of what Amerigo ‘ought’ on his side, in the premises, to be capable of, and then had felt her companion’s answering stare. But she insisted on what she had meant. ‘He ought to wish to see her – and I mean in some protected and independent way, as he used to – in case of her being herself able to manage it. That,’ said Maggie with the courage of her conviction, ‘he ought to be ready, he ought to be happy, he ought to feel himself sworn – little as it is for the end of such a history! – to take from her. It’s as if he wished to get off without taking anything.’

Mrs Assingham deferentially mused. ‘But for what purpose is it your idea that they should again so intimately meet?’

‘For any purpose they like. That’s their affair.’

Fanny Assingham sharply laughed, then irrepressibly fell back to her constant position. ‘You’re splendid – perfectly splendid.’ To which, as the Princess, shaking an impatient head, wouldn’t have it again at all, she subjoined: ‘Or if you’re not it’s because you’re so sure. I mean sure of him.’

‘Ah I’m exactly not sure of him. If I were sure of him I shouldn’t doubt –!’ But Maggie cast about her.

‘Doubt what?’ Fanny pressed as she waited.

‘Well, that he must feel how much less than she he pays – and how that ought to keep her present to him.’

This in its turn after an instant Mrs Assingham could meet with a smile. ‘Trust him, my dear, to keep her present! But trust him also to keep himself absent. Leave him his own way.’

‘I’ll leave him everything,’ said Maggie. ‘Only – you know it’s my nature – I think.’

‘It’s your nature to think too much,’ Fanny Assingham a trifle coarsely risked.

This but quickened however in the Princess the act she reprobated. ‘That may be. But if I hadn’t thought –!’

‘You wouldn’t, you mean, have been where you are?’

‘Yes, because they on their side thought of everything but that. They thought of everything but that I might think.’

‘Or even,’ her friend too superficially concurred, ‘that your father might!’

As to this, at all events, Maggie discriminated. ‘No, that wouldn’t have prevented them; for they knew his first care would be not to make me do so. As it is,’ Maggie added, ‘that has had to become his last.’

Fanny Assingham took it in deeper – for what it immediately made her give out louder. ‘He’s splendid then.’ She sounded it almost aggressively; it was what she was reduced to – she had positively to place it.

‘Ah that as much as you please!’

Maggie said this and left it, but the tone of it had the next moment determined in her friend a fresh reaction. ‘You think, both of you, so abysmally and yet so quietly. But it’s what will have saved you.’

‘Oh,’ Maggie returned, ‘it’s what – from the moment they discovered we could think at all – will have saved them. For they’re the ones who are saved,’ she went on. ‘We’re the ones who are lost.’

‘Lost –?’

‘Lost to each other – father and I.’ And then as her friend appeared to demur, ‘Oh yes,’ Maggie quite lucidly declared, ‘lost to each other really much more than Amerigo and Charlotte are; since for them it’s just, it’s right, it’s deserved, while for us it’s only sad and strange and not caused by our fault. But I don’t know,’ she went on, ‘why I talk about myself, for it’s on father it really comes. I let him go,’ said Maggie.

‘You let him, but you don’t make him.’

‘I take it from him,’ she answered.

‘But what else can you do?’

‘I take it from him,’ the Princess repeated. ‘I do what I knew from the first I should do. I get off by giving him up.’

‘But if he gives you?’ Mrs Assingham presumed to object. ‘Doesn’t it moreover then,’ she asked, ‘complete the very purpose with which he married – that of making you and leaving you more free?’

Maggie looked at her long. ‘Yes – I help him to do that.’

Mrs Assingham hesitated, but at last her bravery flared. ‘Why not call it then frankly his complete success?’

‘Well,’ said Maggie, ‘that’s all that’s left me to do.’

‘It’s a success,’ her friend ingeniously developed, ‘with which you’ve simply not interfered.’ And as if to show that she spoke without levity Mrs Assingham went further. ‘He has made it a success for them –!’

‘Ah there you are!’ Maggie responsively mused. ‘Yes,’ she said the next moment, ‘that’s why Amerigo stays.’

‘Let alone that it’s why Charlotte goes.’ And Mrs Assingham, emboldened, smiled. ‘So he knows –?’

But Maggie hung back. ‘Amerigo –?’ After which, however, she blushed – to her companion’s recognition.

‘Your father. He knows what you know? I mean,’ Fanny faltered – ‘well, how much does he know?’ Maggie’s silence and Maggie’s eyes had in fact arrested the push of the question – which for a decent consistency she couldn’t yet quite abandon. ‘What I should rather say is does he know how much?’ She found it still awkward. ‘How much, I mean, they did. How far’ – she touched it up – ‘they went.’

Maggie had waited, but only with a question. ‘Do you think he does?’

‘Know at least something? Oh about him I can’t think. He’s beyond me,’ said Fanny Assingham.

‘Then do you yourself know?’

‘How much –?’

‘How much.’

‘How far –?’

‘How far.’

Fanny had appeared to wish to make sure, but there was something she remembered – remembered in time and even with a smile. ‘I’ve told you before that I know absolutely nothing.’

‘Well – that’s what I know,’ said the Princess.

Her friend again hesitated. ‘Then nobody knows –? I mean,’ Mrs Assingham explained, ‘how much your father does.’

Oh Maggie showed she understood. ‘Nobody.’

‘Not – a little – Charlotte?’

‘A little?’ the Princess echoed. ‘To know anything would be, for her, to know enough.’

‘And she doesn’t know anything?’

‘If she did,’ Maggie answered, ‘Amerigo would.’

‘And that’s just it – that he doesn’t?’

‘That’s just it,’ said the Princess profoundly.

On which Mrs Assingham reflected. ‘Then how is Charlotte so held?’

‘Just by that.’

‘By her ignorance?’

‘By her ignorance.’

Fanny wondered. ‘A torment –?’

‘A torment,’ said Maggie with tears in her eyes.

Her companion a moment watched them. ‘But the Prince then –?’

‘How he’s held?’ Maggie asked.

‘How he’s held.’

‘Oh I can’t tell you that!’ And the Princess again broke off.