The Golden Bowl Chapter 1

It wasn’t till many days had passed that the Princess began to accept the idea of having done, a little, something she was not always doing, or indeed that of having listened to any inward voice that spoke in a new tone. Yet these instinctive postponements of reflexion were the fruit, positively, of recognitions and perceptions already active; of the sense above all that she had made at a particular hour, made by the mere touch of her hand, a difference in the situation so long present to her as practically unattackable. This situation had been occupying for months and months the very centre of the garden of her life, but it had reared itself there like some strange tall tower of ivory, or perhaps rather some wonderful beautiful but outlandish pagoda, a structure plated with hard bright porcelain, coloured and figured and adorned at the overhanging eaves with silver bells that tinkled ever so charmingly when stirred by chance airs. She had walked round and round it – that was what she felt; she had carried on her existence in the space left her for circulation, a space that sometimes seemed ample and sometimes narrow: looking up all the while at the fair structure that spread itself so amply and rose so high, but never quite making out as yet where she might have entered had she wished. She hadn’t wished till now – such was the odd case; and what was doubtless equally odd besides was that though her raised eyes seemed to distinguish places that must serve from within, and especially far aloft, as apertures and outlooks, no door appeared to give access from her convenient garden level. The great decorated surface had remained consistently impenetrable and inscrutable. At present however, to her considering mind, it was as if she had ceased merely to circle and to scan the elevation, ceased so vaguely, so quite helplessly to stare and wonder: she had caught herself distinctly in the act of pausing, then in that of lingering, and finally in that of stepping unprecedentedly near. The thing might have been, by the distance at which it kept her, a Mahometan mosque, with which no base heretic could take a liberty; there so hung about it the vision of one’s putting off one’s shoes to enter and even verily of one’s paying with one’s life if found there as an interloper. She hadn’t certainly arrived at the conception of paying with her life for anything she might do; but it was nevertheless quite as if she had sounded with a tap or two one of the rare porcelain plates. She had knocked in short – though she could scarce have said whether for admission or for what; she had applied her hand to a cool smooth spot and had waited to see what would happen. Something had happened; it was as if a sound, at her touch, after a little, had come back to her from within; a sound sufficiently suggesting that her approach had been noted.

If this image, however, may represent our young woman’s consciousness of a recent change in her life – a change now but a few days old – it must at the same time be observed that she both sought and found in renewed circulation, as I have called it, a measure of relief from the idea of having perhaps to answer for what she had done. The pagoda in her blooming garden figured the arrangement – how otherwise was it to be named? – by which, so strikingly, she had been able to marry without breaking, as she liked to put it, with her past. She had surrendered herself to her husband without the shadow of a reserve or a condition and yet hadn’t all the while given up her father by the least little inch. She had compassed the high felicity of seeing the two men beautifully take to each other, and nothing in her marriage had marked it as more happy than this fact of its having practically given the elder, the lonelier, a new friend. What had moreover all the while enriched the whole aspect of success was that the latter’s marriage had been no more measurably paid for than her own. His having taken the same great step in the same free way hadn’t in the least involved the relegation of his daughter. That it was remarkable they should have been able at once so to separate and so to keep together had never for a moment, from however far back, been equivocal to her; that it was remarkable had in fact quite counted, at first and always, and for each of them equally, as part of their inspiration and their support. There were plenty of singular things they were not enamoured of – flights of brilliancy, of audacity, of originality, that, speaking at least for the dear man and herself, were not at all in their line; but they liked to think they had given their life this unusual extension and this liberal form, which many families, many couples, and still more many pairs of couples, wouldn’t have found workable. That last truth had been distinctly brought home to them by the bright testimony, the quite explicit envy, of most of their friends, who had remarked to them again and again that they must, on all the showing, to keep such terms, be people of the highest amiability – equally including in the praise of course Amerigo and Charlotte. It had given them pleasure – as how shouldn’t it? – to find themselves shed such a glamour; it had certainly that is, given pleasure to her father and herself, both of them distinguishably of a nature so slow to presume that they would scarce have been sure of their triumph without this pretty reflexion of it. So it was that their felicity had fructified; so it was that the ivory tower, visible and admirable doubtless from any point of the social field, had risen stage by stage. Maggie’s actual reluctance to ask herself with proportionate sharpness why she had ceased to take comfort in the sight of it represented accordingly a lapse from that ideal consistency on which her moral comfort almost at any time depended. To remain consistent she had always been capable of cutting down more or less her prior term.

Moving for the first time in her life as in the darkening shadow of a false position, she reflected that she should either not have ceased to be right – that is to be confident – or have recognised that she was wrong; though she tried to deal with herself for a space only as a silken-coated spaniel who has scrambled out of a pond and who rattles the water from his ears. Her shake of her head, again and again, as she went, was much of that order, and she had the resource to which, save for the rude equivalent of his generalising bark, the spaniel would have been a stranger, of humming to herself hard as a sign that nothing had happened to her. She hadn’t, so to speak, fallen in; she had had no accident nor got wet; this at any rate was her pretension until after she began a little to wonder if she mightn’t, with or without exposure, have taken cold. She could at all events remember no time at which she had felt so excited, and certainly none – which was another special point – that so brought with it as well the necessity for concealing excitement. This birth of a new eagerness became a high pastime in her view precisely by reason of the ingenuity required for keeping the thing born out of sight. The ingenuity was thus a private and absorbing exercise, in the light of which, might I so far multiply my metaphors, I should compare her to the frightened but clinging young mother of an unlawful child. The idea that had possession of her would be, by our new analogy, the proof of her misadventure, but likewise all the while only another sign of a relation that was more to her than anything on earth. She had lived long enough to make out for herself that any deep-seated passion has its pangs as well as its joys, and that we are made by its aches and its anxieties most richly conscious of it. She had never doubted of the force of the feeling that bound her to her husband; but to become aware almost suddenly that it had begun to vibrate with a violence that had some of the effect of a strain would, rightly looked at, after all but show that she was, like thousands of women, every day, acting up to the full privilege of passion. Why in the world shouldn’t she, with every right – if on consideration she saw no good reason against it? The best reason against it would have been the possibility of some consequence disagreeable or inconvenient to others – especially to such others as had never incommoded her by the egotism of their passions; but if once that danger were duly guarded against the fulness of one’s measure amounted to no more than the equal use of one’s faculties or the proper playing of one’s part. It had come to the Princess, obscurely at first, but little by little more conceivably, that her faculties hadn’t for a good while been concomitantly used; the case resembled in a manner that of her once-loved dancing, a matter of remembered steps that had grown vague from her ceasing to go to balls. She would go to balls again – that seemed, freely, even crudely, stated, the remedy; she would take out of the deep receptacles in which she had laid them away the various ornaments congruous with the greater occasions and of which her store, she liked to think, was none of the smallest. She would have been easily to be figured for us at this occupation; dipping, at off moments and quiet hours, in snatched visits and by draughty candle-light, into her rich collections and seeing her jewels again a little shyly but all unmistakeably glow. That in fact may pass as the very picture of her semi-smothered agitation, of the diversion she to some extent successfully found in referring her crisis, so far as was possible, to the mere working of her own needs.

It must be added, however, that she would have been at a loss to determine – and certainly at first – to which order, that of self-control or that of large expression, the step she had taken the afternoon of her husband’s return from Matcham with his companion properly belonged. For it had been a step, distinctly, on Maggie’s part, her deciding to do something just then and there which would strike Amerigo as unusual, and this even though her departure from custom had merely consisted in her so arranging that he wouldn’t find her, as he would definitely expect to do, in Eaton Square. He would have, strangely enough, as might seem to him, to come back home for it, and there get the impression of her rather pointedly, or at least all impatiently and independently, awaiting him. These were small variations and mild manœuvres, but they went accompanied on Maggie’s part, as we have mentioned, with an infinite sense of intention. Her watching by his fireside for her husband’s return from an absence might superficially have presented itself as the most natural act in the world, and the only one, into the bargain, on which he would positively have reckoned. It fell by this circumstance into the order of plain matters, and yet the very aspect by which it was in the event handed over to her brooding fancy was the fact that she had done with it all she had designed. She had put her thought to the proof, and the proof had shown its edge; this was what was before her, that she was no longer playing with blunt and idle tools, with weapons that didn’t cut. There passed across her vision ten times a day the gleam of a bare blade, and at this it was that she most shut her eyes, most knew the impulse to cheat herself with motion and sound. She had merely driven on a certain Wednesday to Portland Place instead of remaining in Eaton Square, and – she privately repeated it again and again – there had appeared beforehand no reason why she should have seen the mantle of history flung by a single sharp sweep over so commonplace a deed. That, all the same, was what had happened; it had been bitten into her mind, just in an hour, that nothing she had ever done would hereafter, in some way yet to be determined, so count for her – perhaps not even what she had done in accepting, in their old golden Rome, Amerigo’s proposal of marriage. And yet by her little crouching posture there, that of a timid tigress, she had meant nothing recklessly ultimate, nothing clumsily fundamental; so that she called it names, the invidious, the grotesque attitude, holding it up to her own ridicule, reducing so far as she could the portée of what had followed it. She had but wanted to get nearer – nearer to something indeed that she couldn’t, that she wouldn’t, even to herself, describe; and the degree of this achieved nearness was what had been in advance incalculable. Her actual multiplication of distractions and suppressions, whatever it did for her, failed to prevent her living over again any chosen minute – for she could choose them, she could fix them – of the freshness of relation produced by her having administered to her husband the first surprise to which she had ever treated him. It had been a poor thing, but it had been all her own, and the whole passage was backwardly there, a great picture hung on the wall of her daily life for her to make what she would of.

It fell for retrospect into a succession of moments that were watchable still; almost in the manner of the different things done during a scene on the stage, some scene so acted as to have left a great impression on the tenant of one of the stalls. Several of these moments stood out beyond the others, and those she could feel again most, count again like the firm pearls on a string, had belonged more particularly to the lapse of time before dinner – dinner which had been so late, quite at nine o’clock, that evening, thanks to the final lateness of Amerigo’s own irruption. These were parts of the experience – though in fact there had been a good many of them – between which her impression could continue sharply to discriminate. Before the subsequent passages, much later on, it was to be said, the flame of memory turned to an equalising glow, that of a lamp in some side-chapel in which incense was thick. The great moment at any rate, for conscious repossession, was doubtless the first: the strange little timed silence which she had fully gauged, on the spot, as altogether beyond her own intention, but which – for just how long? should she ever really know for just how long? – she could do nothing to break. She was in the smaller drawing-room, in which she always ‘sat’, and she had, by calculation, dressed for dinner on finally coming in. It was a wonder how many things she had calculated in respect to this small incident – a matter for the importance of which she had so quite indefinite a measure. He would be late – he would be very late; that was the one certainty that seemed to look her in the face. There was still also the possibility that if he drove with Charlotte straight to Eaton Square he might think it best to remain there even on learning she had come away. She had left no message for him on any such chance; this was another of her small shades of decision, though the effect of it might be to keep him still longer absent. He might suppose she would already have dined; he might stay, with all he would have to tell, just on purpose to be nice to her father. She had known him to stretch the point, to these beautiful ends, far beyond that; he had more than once stretched it to the sacrifice of the opportunity for dressing.

If she herself had now avoided any such sacrifice, and had made herself, during the time at her disposal, quite inordinately fresh and quite positively smart, this had probably added, while she waited and waited, to that very tension of spirit in which she was afterwards to find the image of her having crouched. She did her best, quite intensely, by herself, to banish any such appearance; she couldn’t help it if she couldn’t read her pale novel – ah that, par exemple,1 was beyond her! – but she could at least sit by the lamp with the book, sit there with her newest frock, worn for the first time, sticking out, all round her, quite stiff and grand; even perhaps a little too stiff and too grand for a familiar and domestic frock, yet marked none the less this time, she ventured to hope, by incontestable intrinsic merit. She had glanced repeatedly at the clock, but had refused herself the weak indulgence of walking up and down, though the act of doing so, she knew, would make her feel, on the polished floor, with the rustle and the ‘hang’, still more beautifully bedecked. The difficulty was that it would also make her feel herself still more sharply in a state; which was exactly what she proposed not to do. The only drops of her anxiety had been when her thought strayed complacently, with her eyes, to the front of her gown, which was in a manner a refuge, a beguilement, especially when she was able to fix it long enough to wonder if it would at last really satisfy Charlotte. She had ever been, in respect to her clothes, rather timorous and uncertain; for the last year above all she had lived in the light of Charlotte’s possible and rather inscrutable judgment of them. Charlotte’s own were simply the most charming and interesting any woman had ever put on; there was a kind of poetic justice in her being at last able in this particular, thanks to means, thanks quite to omnipotence, freely to exercise her genius. But Maggie would have described herself as, in these connexions, constantly and intimately ‘torn’; conscious on one side of the impossibility of copying her companion and conscious on the other of the impossibility of sounding her, independently, to the bottom. Yes, it was one of the things she should go down to her grave without having known – how Charlotte, after all had been said, really thought her stepdaughter looked under any supposedly ingenious personal experiment. She had always been lovely about the stepdaughter’s material braveries – had done for her the very best with them; but there had ever fitfully danced at the back of Maggie’s head the suspicion that these expressions were mercies, not judgements, embodying no absolute but only a relative frankness. Hadn’t Charlotte, with so perfect a critical vision, if the truth were known, given her up as hopeless – hopeless by a serious standard, and thereby invented for her a different and inferior one, in which, as the only thing to be done, she patiently and soothingly abetted her? Hadn’t she in other words assented in secret despair, perhaps even in secret irritation, to her being ridiculous? – so that the best now possible was to wonder once in a great while whether one mightn’t give her the surprise of something a little less out of the true note than usual. Something of this kind was the question that Maggie, while the absentees still delayed, asked of the appearance she was endeavouring to present; but with the result repeatedly again that it only went and lost itself in the thick air that had begun more and more to hang, for our young woman, over her accumulations of the unanswered. They were there, these accumulations; they were like a roomful of confused objects, never as yet ‘sorted’, which for some time now she had been passing and re-passing, along the corridor of her life. She passed it when she could without opening the door; then, on occasion, she turned the key to throw in a fresh contribution. So it was that she had been getting things out of the way. They rejoined the rest of the confusion; it was as if they found their place, by some instinct of affinity, in the heap. They knew in short where to go, and when she at present by a mental act once more pushed the door open she had practically a sense of method and experience. What she should never know about Charlotte’s thought – she tossed that in. It would find itself in company, and she might at last have been standing there long enough to see it fall into its corner. The sight moreover would doubtless have made her stare, had her attention been more free – the sight of the mass of vain things, congruous, incongruous, that awaited every addition. It made her in fact, with a vague gasp, turn away, and what had further determined this was the final sharp extinction of the inward scene by the outward. The quite different door had opened and her husband was there.

It had been as strange as she could consent afterwards to think it; it had been essentially what had made the abrupt bend in her life: he had come back, had followed her from the other house, visibly uncertain – this was written in the face he for the first minute showed her. It had been written only for those seconds, and it had appeared to go, quickly, after they began to talk; but while it lasted it had been written large, and though she didn’t quite know what she had expected of him she felt she hadn’t expected the least shade of embarrassment. What had made the embarrassment – she called it embarrassment so as to be able to assure herself she put it at the very worst – what had made the particular look was his thus distinguishably wishing to see how he should find her. Why first? – that had later on kept coming to her; the question dangled there as if it were the key to everything. With the sense of it, on the spot, she had felt overwhelmingly that she was significant, that so she must instantly strike him, and that this had a kind of violence beyond what she had intended. It was in fact even at the moment not absent from her view that he might easily have made an abject fool of her – at least for the time. She had indeed for just ten seconds been afraid of some such turn: the uncertainty in his face had become so, the next thing, an uncertainty in the very air. Three words of impatience the least bit loud, some outbreak of ‘What in the world are you “up to”, and what do you mean?’ any note of that sort would instantly have brought her low – and this all the more that heaven knew she hadn’t in any manner designed to be high. It was such a trifle, her small breach with custom, or at any rate with his natural presumption, that all magnitude of wonder had already had, before one could deprecate the shadow of it, the effect of a complication. It had made for him some difference that she couldn’t measure, this meeting him at home and alone instead of elsewhere and with others, and back and back it kept coming to her that the blankness he showed her before he was able to see might, should she choose to insist on it, have a meaning – have, as who should say, an historic value – beyond the importance of momentary expressions in general. She had naturally had on the spot no ready notion of what he might want to see; it was enough for a ready notion, not to speak of a beating heart, that he did see, that he saw his wife in her own drawing-room at the hour when she would most properly be there.

He hadn’t in any way challenged her, it was true, and, after those instants during which she now believed him to have been harbouring the impression of something unusually prepared and pointed in her attitude and array, he had advanced upon her smiling and smiling, and thus, without hesitation at the last, had taken her into his arms. The hesitation had been at the first, and she at present saw that he had surmounted it without her help. She had given him no help; for if on the one hand she couldn’t speak for hesitation, so on the other – and especially as he didn’t ask her – she couldn’t explain why she was agitated. She had known it all the while down to her toes, known it in his presence with fresh intensity, and if he had uttered but a question it would have pressed in her the spring of recklessness. It had been strange that the most natural thing of all to say to him should have had that appearance; but she was more than ever conscious that any appearance she had would come round more or less straight to her father, whose life was now so quiet, on the basis accepted for it, that the least alteration of his consciousness, even in the possible sense of enlivenment, would make their precious equilibrium waver. That was at the bottom of her mind, that their equilibrium was everything, and that it was practically precarious, a matter of a hair’s breadth for the loss of the balance. It was the equilibrium, or at all events her conscious fear about it, that had brought her heart into her mouth; and the same fear was on either side in the silent look she and Amerigo had exchanged. The happy balance that demanded this amount of consideration was truly thus, as by its own confession, a delicate matter; but that her husband had also his habit of anxiety and his general caution only brought them after all more closely together. It would have been most beautifully therefore in the name of the equilibrium, and in that of her joy at their feeling so exactly the same about it, that she might have spoken if she had permitted the truth on the subject of her behaviour to ring out – on the subject of that poor little behaviour which was for the moment so very limited a case of eccentricity.

‘ “Why, why” have I made this evening such a point of our not all dining together? Well, because I’ve all day been so wanting you alone that I finally couldn’t bear it and that there didn’t seem any great reason why I should try to. That came to me – funny as it may at first sound, with all the things we’ve so wonderfully got into the way of bearing for each other. You’ve seemed these last days – I don’t know what: more absent than ever before, too absent for us merely to go on so. It’s all very well, and I perfectly see how beautiful it is, all round; but there comes a day when something snaps, when the full cup, filled to the very brim, begins to flow over. That’s what has happened to my need of you – the cup, all day, has been too full to carry. So here I am with it, spilling it over you – and just for the reason that’s the reason of my life. After all I’ve scarcely to explain that I’m as much in love with you now as the first hour; except that there are some hours – which I know when they come, because they almost frighten me – that show me I’m even more so. They come of themselves – and ah they’ve been coming! After all, after all –!’ Some such words as those were what didn’t ring out, yet it was as if even the unuttered sound had been quenched here in its own quaver. It was where utterance would have broken down by its very weight if he had let it get so far. Without that extremity, at the end of a moment, he had taken in what he needed to take – that his wife was testifying, that she adored and missed and desired him. ‘After all, after all’, since she put it so, she was right. That was what he had to respond to; that was what, from the moment that, as has been said, he ‘saw’, he had to treat as the most pertinent thing possible. He held her close and long, in expression of their personal reunion – this obviously was one way of doing so. He rubbed his cheek tenderly and with a deep vague murmur against her face, that side of her face she was not pressing to his breast. That was not less obviously another way, and there were ways enough in short for his extemporised ease, for the good humour she was afterwards to find herself thinking of as his infinite tact. This last was partly no doubt because the question of tact might be felt as having come up at the end of a quarter of an hour during which he had liberally talked and she had genially questioned. He had told her of his day, the happy thought of his roundabout journey with Charlotte, all their cathedral-hunting adventure, and how it had turned out rather more of an affair than they expected. The moral of it was at any rate that he was tired verily, and must have a bath and dress – to which end she would kindly excuse him for the shortest time possible. She was to remember afterwards something that had passed between them on this – how he had looked, for her, during an instant, at the door, before going out, how he had met her asking him, in hesitation first, then quickly in decision, whether she couldn’t help him by going up with him. He had perhaps also for a moment hesitated, but he had declined her offer, and she was to preserve, as I say, the memory of the smile with which he had opined that at that rate they wouldn’t dine till ten o’clock and that he should go straighter and faster alone. Such things, as I say, were to come back to her – they played through her full aftersense like lights on the whole impression; the subsequent parts of the experience were not to have blurred their distinctness. One of these subsequent parts, the first, had been the not inconsiderable length, to her later and more analytic consciousness, of this second wait for her husband’s reappearance. She might certainly, with the best will in the world, had she gone up with him, have been more in his way than not, since people could really almost always hurry better without help than with it. Still she could hardly have made him take more time than he struck her as actually taking, though it must indeed be added that there was now in this much-thinking little person’s state of mind no mere crudity of impatience. Something had happened, rapidly, with the beautiful sight of him and with the drop of her fear of having annoyed him by making him go to and fro. Subsidence of the fearsome, for Maggie’s spirit, was always at first positive emergence of the sweet, and it was long since anything had been so sweet to her as the particular quality suddenly given by her present emotion to the sense of possession.