The Golden Bowl Chapter 1

Adam Verver, at Fawns, that autumn Sunday, might have been observed to open the door of the billiard-room with a certain freedom – might have been observed, that is, had there been a spectator in the field. The justification of the push he had applied, however, and of the push equally sharp that, to shut himself in, he again applied – the ground of this energy was precisely that he might here, however briefly, find himself alone, alone with the handful of letters, newspapers and other unopened missives, to which, during and since breakfast, he had lacked opportunity to give an eye. The vast square clean apartment was empty, and its large clear windows looked out into spaces of terrace and garden, of park and woodland and shining artificial lake, of richly-condensed horizon, all dark blue upland and church-towered village and strong cloud-shadow, which were, together, a thing to create the sense, with every one else at church, of one’s having the world to one’s self. We share this world, none the less, for the hour, with Mr Verver; the very fact of his striking, as he would have said, for solitude, the fact of his quiet flight, almost on tiptoe, through tortuous corridors, investing him with an interest that makes our attention – tender indeed almost to compassion – qualify his achieved isolation. For it may immediately be mentioned that this amiable man bethought himself of his personal advantage, in general, only when it might appear to him that other advantages, those of other persons, had successfully put in their claim. It may be mentioned also that he always figured other persons – such was the law of his nature – as a numerous array, and that, though conscious of but a single near tie, one affection, one duty deepest-rooted in his life, it had never for many minutes together been his portion not to feel himself surrounded and committed, never quite been his refreshment to make out where the many-coloured human appeal, represented by gradations of tint, diminishing concentric zones of intensity, of importunity, really faded to the impersonal whiteness1 for which his vision sometimes ached. It shaded off, the appeal – he would have admitted that; but he had as yet noted no point at which it positively stopped.

Thus had grown in him a little habit – his innermost secret, not confided even to Maggie, though he felt she understood it, as she understood, to his view, everything – thus had shaped itself the innocent trick of occasionally making-believe that he had no conscience, or at least that blankness, in the field of duty, did reign for an hour; a small game to which the few persons near enough to have caught him playing it, and of whom Mrs Assingham, for instance, was one, attached indulgently that idea of quaintness, quite in fact that charm of the pathetic, involved in the preservation by an adult of one of childhood’s toys. When he took a rare moment ‘off’ he did so with the touching, confessing eyes of a man of forty-seven caught in the act of handling a relic of infancy – sticking on the head of a broken soldier or trying the lock of a wooden gun. It was essentially in him the imitation of depravity – which for amusement, as might have been, he practised ‘keeping up’. In spite of practice he was still imperfect, for these so artlessly-artful interludes were condemned, by the nature of the case, to brevity. He had fatally stamped himself – it was his own fault – a man who could be interrupted with impunity. The greatest of wonders moreover was exactly in this, that so interrupted a man should ever have got, as the phrase was, should above all have got so early, to where he was. It argued a special genius; he was clearly a case of that. The spark of fire, the point of light, sat somewhere in his inward vagueness as a lamp before a shrine twinkles in the dark perspective of a church; and while youth and early middle-age, while the stiff American breeze of example and opportunity were blowing upon it hard, had made of the chamber of his brain a strange workshop of fortune. This establishment, mysterious and almost anonymous, the windows of which, at hours of highest pressure, never seemed, for starers and wonderers, perceptibly to glow, must in fact have been during certain years the scene of an unprecedented, a miraculous white-heat, the receipt2 for producing which it was practically felt that the master of the forge couldn’t have communicated even with the best intentions.

The essential pulse of the flame, the very action of the cerebral temperature, brought to the highest point, yet extraordinarily contained – these facts themselves were the immensity of the result; they were one with perfection of machinery, they had constituted the kind of acquisitive power engendered and applied, the necessary triumph of all operations. A dim explanation of phenomena once vivid must at all events for the moment suffice us; it being obviously no account of the matter to throw on our friend’s amiability alone the weight of the demonstration of his economic history. Amiability, of a truth, is an aid to success; it has even been known to be the principle of large accumulations; but the link, for the mind, is none the less fatally missing between proof, on such a scale, of continuity, if of nothing more insolent, in one field, and accessibility to distraction in every other. Variety of imagination – what is that but fatal in the world of affairs unless so disciplined as not to be distinguished from monotony? Mr Verver then, for a fresh full period, a period betraying, extraordinarily, no wasted year, had been inscrutably monotonous behind an iridescent cloud. The cloud was his native envelope – the soft looseness, so to say, of his temper and tone, not directly expressive enough, no doubt, to figure an amplitude of folds, but of a quality unmistakeable for sensitive feelers. He was still reduced in fine to getting his rare moments with himself by feigning a cynicism. His real inability to maintain the pretence, however, had perhaps not often been better instanced than by his acceptance of the inevitable to-day – his acceptance of it on the arrival, at the end of a quarter of an hour, of that element of obligation with which he had all the while known he must reckon. A quarter of an hour of egoism was about as much as he, taking one situation with another, usually got. Mrs Rance opened the door – more tentatively indeed than he himself had just done; but on the other hand, as if to make up for this, she pushed forward even more briskly on seeing him than he had been moved to do on seeing nobody. Then with force it came home to him that he had a week before definitely established a precedent. He did her at least that justice – it was a kind of justice he was always doing somebody. He had on the previous Sunday liked to stop at home and had exposed himself thereby to be caught in the act. To make this possible, that is, Mrs Rance had only had to like to do the same – the trick was so easily played. It hadn’t occurred to him to plan in any way for her absence – which would have destroyed somehow in principle the propriety of his own presence. If persons under his roof hadn’t a right not to go to church what became, for a fair mind, of his own right? His subtlest manœuvre had been simply to change from the library to the billiard-room, it being in the library that his guest, or his daughter’s, or the guest of the Miss Lutches – he scarce knew in which light to regard her – had then, and not unnaturally of course, joined him. It was urged on him by his memory of the duration of the visit she had that time, as it were, paid him, that the law of recurrence would already have got itself enacted. She had spent the whole morning with him, was still there, in the library, when the others came back – thanks to her having been tepid about their taking, Mr Verver and she, a turn outside. It had been as if she looked on that as a kind of subterfuge – almost as a form of disloyalty. Yet what was it she had in mind, what did she wish to make of him beyond what she had already made, a patient punctilious host, mindful that she had originally arrived much as a stranger, arrived not at all deliberately or yearningly invited? – so that one positively had her possible susceptibilities the more on one’s conscience. The Miss Lutches, the sisters from the Middle West, were there as friends of Maggie’s, friends of the earlier time; but Mrs Rance was there – or at least had primarily appeared – only as a friend of the Miss Lutches.

This lady herself was not of the Middle West – she rather insisted on it – but of New Jersey, Rhode Island or Delaware, one of the smallest and most intimate States: he couldn’t remember which, though she insisted too on that. It wasn’t in him – we may say it for him – to go so far as to wonder if their group were next to be recruited by some friend of her own; and this partly because she had struck him verily rather as wanting to get the Miss Lutches themselves away than to extend the actual circle, and partly, as well as more essentially, because such connexion as he enjoyed with the ironic question in general resided substantially less in a personal use of it than in the habit of seeing it as easy to others. He was so framed by nature as to be able to keep his inconveniences separate from his resentments; though indeed if the sum of these latter had at the most always been small, that was doubtless in some degree a consequence of the fewness of the former. His greatest inconvenience, he would have admitted had he analysed, was in finding it so taken for granted that as he had money he had force. It pressed upon him hard and all round assuredly, this attribution of power. Every one had need of one’s power, whereas one’s own need, at the best, would have seemed to be but some trick for not communicating it. The effect of a reserve so merely, so meanly defensive would in most cases, beyond question, sufficiently discredit the cause; wherefore, though it was complicating to be perpetually treated as an infinite agent, the outrage was not the greatest of which a brave man might complain. Complaint, besides, was a luxury, and he dreaded the imputation of greed. The other, the constant imputation, that of being able to ‘do’, would have no ground if he hadn’t been, to start with – this was the point – proveably luxurious. His lips somehow were closed – and by a spring connected moreover with the action of his eyes themselves. The latter showed him what he had done, showed him where he had come out; quite at the top of his hill of difficulty,3 the tall sharp spiral round which he had begun to wind his ascent at the age of twenty, and the apex of which was a platform looking down, if one would, on the kingdoms of the earth and with standing-room for but half a dozen others.

His eyes, in any case, now saw Mrs Rance approach with an instant failure to attach to the fact any grossness of avidity of Mrs Rance’s own – or at least to descry any triumphant use even for the luridest impression of her intensity. What was virtually supreme would be her vision of his having attempted, by his desertion of the library, to mislead her – which in point of fact barely escaped being what he had designed. It wasn’t easy for him, in spite of accumulations fondly and funnily regarded as of systematic practice, not now to be ashamed; the one thing comparatively easy would be to gloss over his course. The billiard-room was not, at the particular crisis, either a natural or a graceful place for the nominally main occupant of so large a house to retire to – and this without prejudice, either, to the fact that his visitor wouldn’t, as he apprehended, explicitly make him a scene. Should she frankly denounce him for a sneak he would simply go to pieces; but he was after an instant not afraid of that. Wouldn’t she rather, as emphasising their communion, accept and in a manner exploit the anomaly, treat it perhaps as romantic or possibly even as comic? – show at least that they needn’t mind even though the vast table, draped in brown holland,4 thrust itself between them as an expanse of desert sand. She couldn’t cross the desert, but she could, and did, beautifully get round it; so that for him to change it into an obstacle he would have had to cause himself, as in some childish game or unbecoming romp, to be pursued, to be genially hunted. This last was a turn he was well aware the occasion should on no account take; and there loomed before him – for the mere moment – the prospect of her fairly proposing that they should knock about the balls. That danger certainly, it struck him, he should manage in some way to deal with. Why too for that matter had he need of defences, material or other? – how was it a question of dangers really to be called such? The deep danger, the only one that made him, as an idea, positively turn cold, would have been the possibility of her seeking him in marriage, of her bringing up between them that terrible issue. Here fortunately she was powerless, it being apparently so proveable against her that she had a husband in undiminished existence.

She had him, it was true, only in America, only in Texas, in Nebraska, in Arizona or somewhere – somewhere that, at old Fawns House in the county of Kent, scarcely figured as a definite place at all; it showed somehow from afar as so lost, so indistinct and illusory, in the great alkali desert of cheap Divorce. She had him even in bondage, poor man, had him in contempt, had him in remembrance so imperfect as barely to assert itself, but she had him, none the less, in existence unimpeached: the Miss Lutches had seen him in the flesh – as they had appeared eager to mention; though when they were separately questioned their descriptions failed to tally. He would be at the worst, should it come to the worst, Mrs Rance’s difficulty, and he served therefore quite enough as the stout bulwark of any one else. This was in truth logic without a flaw, yet it gave Mr Verver less comfort than it ought. He feared not only danger – he feared the idea of danger, or in other words feared, hauntedly, himself. It was above all as a symbol that Mrs Rance actually rose before him – a symbol of the supreme effort that he should have sooner or later, as he felt, to make. This effort would be to say No – he lived in terror of having to. He should be proposed to at a given moment – it was only a question of time – and then he should have to do a thing that would be extremely disagreeable. He almost wished on occasion that he wasn’t so sure he would do it. He knew himself, however, well enough not to doubt: he knew coldly, quite bleakly, where he would, at the crisis, draw the line. It was Maggie’s marriage and Maggie’s finer happiness – happy as he had supposed her before – that had made the difference; he hadn’t in the other time, it now seemed to him, had to think of such things. They hadn’t come up for him, and it was positively as if she had herself kept them down. She had only been his child – which she was indeed as much as ever; but there were sides on which she had protected him as if she were more than a daughter. She had done for him more than he knew – much, and blissfully, as he always had known. If she did at present more than ever, through having what she called the change in his life to make up to him for, his situation still, all the same, kept pace with her activity – his situation being simply that there was more than ever to be done.

There hadn’t yet been quite so much, on all the showing, as since their return from their twenty months in America, as since their settlement again in England, experimental though it was, and the consequent sense, now quite established for him, of a domestic air that had cleared and lightened, producing the effect, for their common personal life, of wider perspectives and large waiting spaces. It was as if his son-in-law’s presence, even from before his becoming his son-in-law, had somehow filled the scene and blocked the future – very richly and handsomely, when all was said, not at all inconveniently or in ways not to have been desired: inasmuch as though the Prince, his measure now practically taken, was still pretty much the same ‘big fact’, the sky had lifted, the horizon receded, the very foreground itself expanded, quite to match him, quite to keep everything in comfortable scale. At first, certainly, their decent little old-time union, Maggie’s and his own, had resembled a good deal some pleasant public square, in the heart of an old city, into which a great Palladian church, say – something with a grand architectural front – had suddenly been dropped; so that the rest of the place, the space in front, the way round, outside, to the east end, the margin of street and passage, the quantity of overarching heaven, had been temporarily compromised. Not even then, of a truth, in a manner disconcerting – given, that is, for the critical, or at least the intelligent eye, the great style of the façade and its high place in its class. The phenomenon that had since occurred, whether originally to have been pronounced calculable or not, hadn’t, naturally, been the miracle of a night, but had taken place so gradually, quietly, easily, that from this vantage of wide wooded Fawns, with its eighty rooms, as they said, with its spreading park, with its acres and acres of garden and its majesty of artificial lake – though that, for a person so familiar with the ‘great’ ones, might be rather ridiculous – no visibility of transition showed, no violence of accommodation, in retrospect, emerged. The Palladian church was always there, but the piazza5 took care of itself. The sun stared down in his fulness, the air circulated, and the public not less; the limit stood off, the way round was easy, the east end was as fine, in its fashion, as the west, and there were also side doors of entrance between the two – large, monumental, ornamental, in their style – as for all proper great churches. By some such process in fine had the Prince, for his father-in-law, while remaining solidly a feature, ceased to be at all ominously a block.

Mr Verver, it may further be mentioned, had taken at no moment sufficient alarm to have kept in detail the record of his reassurance; but he would none the less not have been unable, not really have been indisposed, to impart in confidence to the right person his notion of the history of the matter. The right person – it is equally distinct – had not, for this illumination, been wanting, but had been encountered in the form of Fanny Assingham, not for the first time indeed admitted to his counsels, and who would have doubtless at present, in any case, from plenitude of interest and with equal guarantees, repeated his secret. It all came then, the great clearance, from the one prime fact that the Prince, by good fortune, hadn’t proved angular. He clung to that description of his daughter’s husband as he often did to terms and phrases, in the human, the social connexion, that he had found for himself: it was his way to have times of using these constantly, as if they just then lighted the world, or his own path in it, for him – even when for some of his interlocutors they covered less ground. It was true that with Mrs Assingham he never felt quite sure of the ground anything covered; she disputed with him so little, agreed with him so much, surrounded him with such systematic consideration, such predetermined tenderness, that it was almost – which he had once told her in irritation – as if she were nursing a sick baby. He had accused her of not taking him seriously, and she had replied – as from her it couldn’t frighten him – that she took him religiously, adoringly. She had laughed again, as she had laughed before, on his producing for her that good right word about the happy issue of his connexion with the Prince – with an effect the more odd perhaps as she hadn’t contested its value. She couldn’t of course however be at the best as much in love with his discovery as he himself. He was so much so that he fairly worked it – to his own comfort; came in fact sometimes near publicly pointing the moral of what might have occurred if friction, so to speak, had occurred. He pointed it frankly one day to the personage in question, mentioned to the Prince the particular justice he did him, was even explicit as to the danger that in their remarkable relation they had thus escaped. Oh if he had been angular! – who could say what might then have happened? He spoke – and it was the way he had spoken to Mrs Assingham too – as if he grasped the facts, without exception, for which angularity stood.

It figured for him clearly as a final idea, a conception of the last vividness. He might have been signifying by it the sharp corners and hard edges, all the stony pointedness, the grand right geometry of his spreading Palladian church. Just so he was insensible to no feature of the felicity of a contact that, beguilingly, almost confoundingly, was a contact but with practically yielding lines and curved surfaces. ‘You’re round, my boy,’ he had said – ‘you’re all, you’re variously and inexhaustibly round, when you might, by all the chances, have been abominably square. I’m not sure, for that matter,’ he had added, ‘that you’re not square in the general mass – whether abominably or not. The abomination isn’t a question, for you’re inveterately round – that’s what I mean – in the detail. It’s the sort of thing in you that one feels – or at least I do – with one’s hand. Say you had been formed all over in a lot of little pyramidal lozenges like that wonderful side of the Ducal Palace in Venice – so lovely in a building, but so damnable, for rubbing against, in a man, and especially in a near relation. I can see them all from here – each of them sticking out by itself – all the architectural cut diamonds that would have scratched one’s softer sides. One would have been scratched by diamonds – doubtless the neatest way if one was to be scratched at all – but one would have been more or less reduced to a hash. As it is, for living with, you’re a pure and perfect crystal. I give you my idea – I think you ought to have it – just as it has come to me.’ The Prince had taken the idea, in his way, for he was well accustomed by this time to taking; and nothing perhaps even could more have confirmed Mr Verver’s account of his surface than the manner in which these golden drops evenly flowed over it. They caught in no interstice, they gathered in no concavity; the uniform smoothness betrayed the dew but by showing for the moment a richer tone. The young man, in other words, unconfusedly smiled – though indeed as if assenting, from principle and habit, to more than he understood. He liked all signs that things were well, but he cared rather less why they were.

In regard to the people among whom he had since his marriage been living, the reasons they so frequently gave – so much oftener than he had ever heard reasons given before – remained on the whole the element by which he most differed from them; and his father-in-law and his wife were after all only first among the people among whom he had been living. He was never even yet sure of how, at this, that or the other point, he would strike them; they felt remarkably, so often, things he hadn’t meant, and missed not less remarkably, and not less often, things he had. He had fallen back on his general explanation – ‘We haven’t the same values’; by which he understood the same measure of importance. His ‘curves’ apparently were important because they had been unexpected, or, still more, unconceived; whereas when one had always, as in his relegated old world, taken curves, and in much greater quantities too, for granted, one was no more surprised at the resulting feasibility of intercourse than one was surprised at being upstairs in a house that had a staircase. He had in fact on this occasion disposed alertly enough of the subject of Mr Verver’s approbation. The promptitude of his answer, we may in fact well surmise, had sprung not a little from a particular kindled remembrance; this had given his acknowledgement its easiest turn. ‘Oh if I’m a crystal I’m delighted that I’m a perfect one, for I believe they sometimes have cracks and flaws – in which case they’re to be had very cheap!’ He had stopped short of the emphasis it would have given his joke to add that there had been certainly no having him cheap; and it was doubtless a mark of the good taste practically reigning between them that Mr Verver hadn’t on his side either taken up the opportunity. It is the latter’s relation to such aspects, however, that now most concerns us, and the bearing of his pleased view of this absence of friction upon Amerigo’s character as a representative precious object. Representative precious objects, great ancient pictures and other works of art, fine eminent ‘pieces’ in gold, in silver, in enamel, majolica, ivory, bronze, had for a number of years so multiplied themselves round him and, as a general challenge to acquisition and appreciation, so engaged all the faculties of his mind, that the instinct, the particular sharpened appetite of the collector, had fairly served as a basis for his acceptance of the Prince’s suit.

Over and above the signal fact of the impression made on Maggie herself, the aspirant to his daughter’s hand showed somehow the great marks and signs, stood before him with the high authenticities, he had learnt to look for in pieces of the first order. Adam Verver knew by this time, knew thoroughly; no man in Europe or in America, he privately believed, was for such estimates less capable of vulgar mistakes. He had never spoken of himself as infallible – it wasn’t his way; but apart from the natural affections he had acquainted himself with no greater joy of the intimately personal type than the joy of his originally coming to feel, and all so unexpectedly, that he had in him the spirit of the connoisseur. He had, like many other persons, in the course of his reading, been struck with Keats’s sonnet6 about stout Cortez in the presence of the Pacific; but it was probable that few persons had so devoutly fitted the poet’s grand image to a fact of experience. It consorted so with Mr Verver’s consciousness of the way in which at a given moment he had stared at his Pacific that a couple of perusals of the immortal lines had sufficed to stamp them in his memory. His ‘peak in Darien’ was the sudden hour that had transformed his life, the hour of his perceiving with a mute inward gasp akin to the low moan of apprehensive passion that a world was left him to conquer and that he might conquer it if he tried. It had been a turning of the page of the book of life – as if a leaf long inert had moved at a touch and, eagerly reversed, had made such a stir of the air as sent up into his face the very breath of the Golden Isles. To rifle the Golden Isles had become on the spot the business of his future, and with the sweetness of it – what was most wondrous of all – still more even in the thought than in the act. The thought was that of the affinity of Genius, or at least of Taste, with something in himself – with the dormant intelligence of which he had thus almost violently become aware and that affected him as changing by a mere revolution of the screw his whole intellectual plane. He was equal somehow with the great seers, the invokers and encouragers of beauty – and he didn’t after all perhaps dangle so far below the great producers and creators. He had been nothing of that kind before – too decidedly, too dreadfully not; but now he saw why he had been what he had, why he had failed and fallen short even in huge success; now he read into his career, in one single magnificent night, the immense meaning it had waited for.

It was during his first visit to Europe after the death of his wife, when his daughter was ten years old, that the light, in his mind, had so broken – and he had even made out at that time why on an earlier occasion, the journey of his honeymoon year, it had still been closely covered. He had ‘bought’ then, so far as he had been able, but he had bought almost wholly for the frail fluttered creature at his side, who had had her fancies, decidedly, but all for the art, then wonderful to both of them, of the Rue de la Paix, the costly authenticities of dressmakers and jewellers. Her flutter – pale disconcerted ghost as she actually was, a broken white flower tied round, almost grotesquely for his present sense, with a huge satin ‘bow’ of the Boulevard – her flutter had been mainly that of ribbons, frills and fine fabrics; all funny pathetic evidence, for memory, of the bewilderments overtaking them as a bridal pair confronted with opportunity. He could wince fairly still as he remembered the sense in which the poor girl’s pressure had, under his fond encouragement indeed, been exerted in favour of purchase and curiosity. These were wandering images, out of the earlier dusk, that threw her back for his pity into a past more remote than he liked their common past, their young affection, to appear. It would have had to be admitted, to an insistent criticism, that Maggie’s mother, all too strangely, hadn’t so much failed of faith as of the right application of it; since she had exercised it eagerly and restlessly, made it a pretext for innocent perversities in respect to which philosophic time was at last to reduce all groans to gentleness. And they had loved each other so that his own intelligence, on the higher line, had temporarily paid for it. The futilities, the enormities, the depravities of decoration and ingenuity that before his sense was unsealed she had made him think lovely! Musing, reconsidering little man that he was, and addicted to silent pleasures – as he was accessible to silent pains – he even sometimes wondered what would have become of his intelligence, in the sphere in which it was to learn more and more exclusively to play, if his wife’s influence on it hadn’t been, in the strange scheme of things, so promptly removed. Would she have led him altogether, attached as he was to her, into the wilderness of mere mistakes? Would she have prevented him from ever scaling his vertiginous Peak? – or would she otherwise have been able to accompany him to that eminence, where he might have pointed out to her, as Cortez to his companions, the revelation vouchsafed? No companion of Cortez had presumably been a real lady: Mr Verver allowed that historic fact to determine his inference.