The Golden Bowl Chapter 2

A telegram in Charlotte’s name arrived early – ‘We shall come and ask you for tea at five if convenient to you. Am wiring for the Assinghams to lunch.’ This document, into which meanings were to be read, Maggie promptly placed before her husband, adding the remark that her father and his wife, who would have come up the previous night or that morning, had evidently gone to an hotel.

The Prince was in his ‘own’ room, where he often sat now alone; half a dozen open newspapers, the Figaro1 notably, as well as the Times, were scattered about him; but with a cigar in his teeth and a visible cloud on his brow he appeared actually to be engaged in walking to and fro. Never yet on thus approaching him – for she had done it of late, under one necessity or another, several times – had a particular impression so greeted her; supremely strong, for some reason, as he turned quickly round on her entrance. The reason was partly the look in his face – a suffusion like the flush of fever, which brought back to her Fanny Assingham’s charge, recently uttered under that roof, of her ‘thinking’ too impenetrably. The word had remained with her and made her think still more; so that at first as she stood there she felt responsible for provoking on his part an irritation of suspense at which she hadn’t aimed. She had been going about him these three months, she perfectly knew, with a maintained idea – of which she had never spoken to him; but what had at last happened was that his way of looking at her on occasion seemed a perception of the presence not of one idea but of fifty, variously prepared for uses with which he somehow must reckon. She knew herself suddenly, almost strangely glad to be coming to him at this hour with nothing more abstract than a telegram; but even after she had stepped into his prison under her pretext, while her eyes took in his face and then embraced the four walls that enclosed his restlessness, she recognised the virtual identity of his condition with that aspect of Charlotte’s situation for which, early in the summer and in all the amplitude of a great residence, she had found with so little seeking the similitude of the locked cage. He struck her as caged, the man who couldn’t now without an instant effect on her sensibility give an instinctive push to the door she hadn’t completely closed behind her. He had been turning twenty ways, for impatiences all his own, and when she was once shut in with him it was yet again as if she had come to him in his more than monastic cell to offer him light or food. There was a difference none the less between his captivity and Charlotte’s – the difference, as it might be, of his lurking there by his own act and his own choice; the admission of which had indeed virtually been in his starting at her entrance as if even this were in its degree an interference. That was what betrayed for her practically his fear of her fifty ideas, and what had begun after a minute to make her wish to repudiate or explain. It was more wonderful than she could have told; it was for all the world as if she was succeeding with him beyond her intention. She had for these instants the sense that he exaggerated, that the imputation of purpose had fairly risen too high in him. She had begun, a year ago, by asking herself how she could make him think more of her; but what was it after all he was thinking now? He kept his eyes on her telegram; he read it more than once, easy as it was, in spite of its conveyed deprecation, to understand; during which she found herself almost awestruck with yearning, almost on the point of marking somehow what she had marked in the garden at Fawns with Charlotte – that she had truly come unarmed. She didn’t bristle with intentions – she scarce knew, as he at this juncture affected her, what had happened to the only intention she had come with. She had nothing but her old idea, the old one he knew; she hadn’t the ghost of another. Presently in fact, when four or five minutes had elapsed, it was as if she positively hadn’t so much even as that one. He gave her back her paper, asking with it if there were anything in particular she wished him to do.

She stood there with her eyes on him, doubling the telegram together as if it had been a precious thing and yet all the while holding her breath. Of a sudden somehow, and quite as by the action of their merely having between them these few written words, an extraordinary fact came up. He was with her as if he were hers, hers in a degree and on a scale, with an intensity and an intimacy, that were a new and a strange quantity, that were like the irruption of a tide loosening them where they had stuck and making them feel they floated. What was it that, with the rush of this, just kept her from putting out her hands to him, from catching at him as in the other time, with the superficial impetus he and Charlotte had privately conspired to impart, she had so often, her breath failing her, known the impulse to catch at her father? She did however just yet nothing inconsequent – though she couldn’t immediately have said what saved her; and by the time she had neatly folded her telegram she was doing something merely needful. ‘I wanted you simply to know – so that you mayn’t by accident miss them. For it’s the last,’ said Maggie.

‘The last?’

‘I take it as their good-bye.’ And she smiled as she could always smile. ‘They come in state – to take formal leave. They do everything that’s proper. To-morrow,’ she said, ‘they go to Southampton.’

‘If they do everything that’s proper,’ the Prince presently asked, ‘why don’t they at least come to dine?’

She hesitated, yet she lightly enough provided her answer. ‘That we must certainly ask them. It will be easy for you. But of course they’re immensely taken –!’

He wondered. ‘So immensely taken that they can’t – that your father can’t – give you his last evening in England?’

This was for Maggie more difficult to meet; yet she was still not without her stop-gap. ‘That may be what they’ll propose – that we shall go somewhere together, the four of us, for a celebration – except that to round it thoroughly off we ought also to have Fanny and the Colonel. They don’t want them at tea, she quite sufficiently expresses; they polish them off, poor dears, they get rid of them beforehand. They want only us together; and if they cut us down to tea,’ she continued, ‘as they cut Fanny and the Colonel down to luncheon, perhaps it’s after all for the fancy of their keeping their last night in London for each other.’

She said these things as they came to her; she was unable to keep them back even though as she heard herself she might have been throwing everything to the winds. But wasn’t that the right way – for sharing his last day of captivity with the man one adored? It was every moment more and more for her as if she were waiting with him in his prison – waiting with some gleam of remembrance of how noble captives in the French Revolution, in the darkness of the Terror, used to make a feast or a high discourse of their last poor resources. If she had broken with everything now, every observance of all the past months, she must simply then take it so – take it that what she had worked for was too near at last to let her keep her head. She might have been losing her head verily in her husband’s eyes – since he didn’t know all the while that the sudden freedom of her words was but the diverted intensity of her disposition personally to seize him. He knew as little that this was her manner – now she was with him – of beguiling audaciously the supremacy of suspense. For the people of the French Revolution assuredly there wasn’t suspense; the scaffold, for those she was thinking of, was certain – whereas what Charlotte’s telegram announced was, short of some incalculable error, clear liberation. Just the point however was in its being clearer to herself than to him; her clearnesses, clearances – those she had so all but abjectly laboured for – threatened to crowd upon her in the form of one of the clusters of angelic heads, the peopled shafts of light beating down through iron bars, that regale on occasion precisely the fevered vision of those who are in chains. She was going to know, she felt, later on – was going to know with compunction doubtless on the very morrow, how thumpingly her heart had beaten at this foretaste of their being left together: she should judge at leisure the surrender she was making to the consciousness of complications about to be bodily lifted. She should judge at leisure even that avidity for an issue which was making so little of any complication but the unextinguished presence of the others; and indeed that she was already simplifying so much more than her husband came out for her next in the face with which he listened. He might certainly well be puzzled, in respect to his father-in-law and Mrs Verver, by her glance at their possible preference for a concentrated evening. ‘But it isn’t – is it?’ he asked – ‘as if they were leaving each other?’

‘Oh no; it isn’t as if they were leaving each other. They’re only bringing to a close – without knowing when it may open again – a time that has been, naturally, awfully interesting to them.’ Yes, she could talk so of their ‘time’ – she was somehow sustained; she was sustained even to affirm more intensely her present possession of her ground. ‘They have their reasons – many things to think of; how can one tell? But there’s always also the chance of his proposing to me that we shall have our last hours together; I mean that he and I shall. He may wish to take me off to dine with him somewhere alone – and to do it in memory of old days. I mean,’ the Princess went on, ‘the real old days before my grand husband was invented and, much more, before his grand wife was: the wonderful times of his first great interest in what he has since done, his first great plans and opportunities, discoveries and bargains. The way we’ve sat together late, ever so late, in foreign restaurants, which he used to like; the way that, in every city in Europe, we’ve stayed on and on, with our elbows on the table and most of the lights put out, to talk over things he had that day seen or heard of or made his offer for, the things he had secured or refused or lost! There were places he took me to – you wouldn’t believe! – for often he could only have left me with servants. If he should carry me off with him to-night for old sake’s sake to the Earl’s Court Exhibition it will be a little – just a very, very little – like our young adventures.’ After which while Amerigo watched her, and in fact quite because of it, she had an inspiration to which she presently yielded. If he was wondering what she would say next she had found exactly the thing. ‘In that case he’ll leave you Charlotte to take care of in our absence. You’ll have to carry her off somewhere for your last evening; unless you may prefer to spend it with her here. I shall then see that you dine, that you have everything, quite beautifully. You’ll be able to do as you like.’

She couldn’t have been sure beforehand and really hadn’t been; but the most immediate result of this speech was his letting her see that he took it for no cheap extravagance either of irony or of oblivion. Nothing in the world of a truth had ever been so sweet to her as his look of trying to be serious enough to make no mistake about it. She troubled him – which hadn’t been at all her purpose; she mystified him – which she couldn’t help and comparatively didn’t mind; then it came over her that he had after all a simplicity, very considerable, on which she had never dared to presume. It was a discovery – not like the other discovery she had once made, but giving out a freshness; and she recognised again in the light of it the number of the ideas of which he thought her capable. They were all apparently queer for him, but she had at least with the lapse of the months created the perception that there might be something in them; whereby he stared there, beautiful and sombre, at what she was at present providing him with. There was something of his own in his mind to which she was sure he referred everything for a measure and a meaning; he had never let go of it from the evening, weeks before, when, in her room after his encounter with the Bloomsbury cup, she had planted it there by flinging at him, on the question of her father’s view of him, her determined ‘Find out for yourself!’ She had been aware, during the months, that he had been trying to find out and had been seeking above all to avoid the appearance of any evasions of such a form of knowledge as might reach him with violence, or with a penetration more insidious, from any other source. Nothing however had reached him; nothing he could at all conveniently reckon with had disengaged itself for him even from the announcement, sufficiently sudden, of the final secession of their companions. Charlotte was in pain, Charlotte was in torment, but he himself had given her reason enough for that; and, in respect to the rest of the whole matter of her obligation to follow her husband, that personage and she, Maggie, had so shuffled away every link between consequence and cause that the intention remained, like some famous poetic line in a dead language subject to varieties of interpretation. What renewed the obscurity was her strange image of their common offer to him, her father’s and her own, of an opportunity to separate from Mrs Verver with the due amount of form – and all the more that he was in so pathetic a way unable to treat himself to a quarrel with it on the score of taste. Taste in him as a touchstone was now all at sea; for who could say but that one of her fifty ideas, or perhaps forty-nine of them wouldn’t be exactly that taste by itself, the taste he had always conformed to, had no importance whatever? If meanwhile at all events he felt her as serious, this made the greater reason for her profiting by it as she perhaps might never be able to profit again. She was invoking that reflexion at the very moment he brought out, in reply to her last words, a remark which, though perfectly relevant and perfectly just, affected her at first as a high oddity. ‘They’re doing the wisest thing, you know. For if they were ever to go – !’ And he looked down at her over his cigar.

If they were ever to go in short it was high time, with her father’s age, Charlotte’s need of initiation, and the general magnitude of the job of their getting settled and seasoned, their learning to ‘live into’ their queer future, it was high time they should take up their courage. This was eminent sense, but it didn’t arrest the Princess, who the next moment had found a form for her challenge. ‘But shan’t you then so much as miss her a little? She’s wonderful and beautiful, and I feel somehow as if she were dying. Not really, not physically,’ Maggie went on – ‘she’s naturally so far, splendid as she is, from having done with life. But dying for us – for you and me; and making us feel it by the very fact of there being so much of her left.’

The Prince smoked hard a minute. ‘As you say, she’s splendid, but there is – there always will be – much of her left. Only, as you also say, for others.’

‘And yet I think,’ the Princess returned, ‘that it isn’t as if we had wholly done with her. How can we not always think of her? It’s as if her unhappiness had been necessary to us – as if we had needed her, at her own cost, to build us up and start us.’

He took it in with consideration, but he met it with a lucid enquiry. ‘Why do you speak of the unhappiness of your father’s wife?’

They exchanged a long look – the time that it took her to find her reply. ‘Because not to –!’

‘Well, not to –?’

‘Would make me have to speak of him. And I can’t,’ said Maggie, ‘speak of him.’

‘You “can’t” –?’

‘I can’t.’ She said it as for definite notice, not to be repeated. ‘There are too many things,’ she nevertheless added. ‘He’s too great.’

The Prince looked at his cigar-tip, and then as he put back the weed: ‘Too great for whom?’ Upon which as she hesitated, ‘Not, my dear, too great for you,’ he declared. ‘For me – oh as much as you like.’

‘Too great for me is what I mean. I know why I think it,’ Maggie said. ‘That’s enough.’

He looked at her yet again as if she but fanned his wonder; he was on the very point, she judged, of asking her why she thought it. But her own eyes maintained their warning, and at the end of a minute he had uttered other words. ‘What’s of importance is that you’re his daughter. That at least we’ve got. And I suppose that if I may say nothing else I may say at least that I value it.’

‘Oh yes, you may say that you value it. I myself make the most of it.’

This again he took in, letting it presently put forth for him a striking connexion. ‘She ought to have known you. That’s what’s present to me. She ought to have understood you better.’

‘Better than you did?’

‘Yes,’ he gravely maintained, ‘better than I did. And she didn’t really know you at all. She doesn’t know you now.’

‘Ah yes she does!’ said Maggie.

But he shook his head – he knew what he meant. ‘She not only doesn’t understand you more than I, she understands you ever so much less. Though even I –!’

‘Well, even you?’ Maggie pressed as he paused.

‘Even I, even I even yet –!’ Again he paused and the silence held them.

But Maggie at last broke it. ‘If Charlotte doesn’t understand me it’s because I’ve prevented her. I’ve chosen to deceive her and to lie to her.’

The Prince kept his eyes on her. ‘I know what you’ve chosen to do. But I’ve chosen to do the same.’

‘Yes,’ said Maggie after an instant – ‘my choice was made when I had guessed yours. But you mean,’ she asked, ‘that she understands you?’

‘It presents small difficulty!’

‘Are you so sure?’ Maggie went on.

‘Sure enough. But it doesn’t matter.’ He waited an instant; then looking up through the fumes of his smoke, ‘She’s stupid,’ he abruptly opined.

‘O-oh!’ Maggie protested in a long wail.

It had made him in fact quickly change colour. ‘What I mean is that she’s not, as you pronounce her, unhappy.’ And he recovered with this all his logic. ‘Why is she unhappy if she doesn’t know?’

‘Doesn’t know –?’ She tried to make his logic difficult.

‘Doesn’t know that you know.’

It came from him in such a way that she was conscious instantly of three or four things to answer. But what she said first was: ‘Do you think that’s all it need take?’ And before he could reply, ‘She knows, she knows!’ Maggie proclaimed.

‘Well then what?’

But she threw back her head, she turned impatiently away from him. ‘Oh I needn’t tell you! She knows enough. Besides,’ she went on, ‘she doesn’t believe us.’

It made the Prince stare a little. ‘Ah she asks too much!’ That drew however from his wife another moan of objection, which determined in him a judgement. ‘She won’t let you take her for unhappy.’

‘Oh I know better than any one else what she won’t let me take her for!’

‘Very well,’ said Amerigo, ‘you’ll see.’

‘I shall see wonders, I know. I’ve already seen them and am prepared for them.’ Maggie recalled – she had memories enough. ‘It’s terrible’ – her memories prompted her to speak. ‘I see it’s always terrible for women.’

The Prince looked down in his gravity. ‘Everything’s terrible, cara – in the heart of man. She’s making her life,’ he said. ‘She’ll make it.’

His wife turned back upon him; she had wandered to a table, vaguely setting objects straight. ‘A little by the way then too, while she’s about it, she’s making ours.’ At this he raised his eyes, which met her own, and she held him while she delivered herself of something that had been with her these last minutes. ‘You spoke just now of Charlotte’s not having learned from you that I “know”. Am I to take from you then that you accept and recognise my knowledge?’

He did the enquiry all the honours – visibly weighed its importance and weighed his response. ‘You think I might have been showing you that a little more handsomely?’

‘It isn’t a question of any beauty,’ said Maggie; ‘it’s only a question of the quantity of truth.’

‘Oh the quantity of truth!’ the Prince richly though ambiguously murmured.

‘That’s a thing by itself, yes. But there are also such things all the same as questions of good faith.’

‘Of course there are!’ the Prince hastened to reply. After which he brought up more slowly: ‘If ever a man since the beginning of time acted in good faith –!’ But he dropped it, offering it simply for that.

For that then when it had had time somewhat to settle like some handful of gold-dust thrown into the air, for that then Maggie showed herself as deeply and strangely taking it. ‘I see.’ And she even wished this form to be as complete as she could make it. ‘I see.’

The completeness had clearly after an instant struck him as divine. ‘Ah my dear, my dear, my dear –!’ It was all he could say.

She wasn’t talking however at large. ‘You’ve kept up for so long a silence –!’

‘Yes, yes, I know what I’ve kept up. But will you do,’ he asked, ‘still one thing more for me?’

It was as if for an instant it had with her new exposure made her turn pale. ‘Is there even one thing left?’

‘Ah my dear, my dear, my dear!’ – it had pressed again in him the fine spring of the unspeakable.

There was nothing however that the Princess herself couldn’t say. ‘I’ll do anything if you’ll tell me what.’

‘Then wait.’ And his raised Italian hand, with its play of admonitory fingers, had never made gesture more expressive. His voice dropped to a tone –! ‘Wait,’ he repeated. ‘Wait.’

She understood, but it was as if she wished to have it from him. ‘Till they’ve been here, you mean?’

‘Yes, till they’ve gone. Till they’re away.’

She kept it up. ‘Till they’ve left the country?’

She had her eyes on him for clearness; these were the conditions of a promise – so that he put the promise practically into his response. ‘Till we’ve ceased to see them – for as long as God may grant! Till we’re really alone.’

‘Oh if it’s only that –!’ When she had drawn from him thus then, as she could feel, the thick breath of the definite – which was the intimate, the immediate, the familiar as she hadn’t had them for so long – she turned away again, she put her hand on the knob of the door. But her hand rested at first without a grasp; she had another effort to make, the effort of leaving him, of which everything that had just passed between them, his presence, irresistible, overcharged with it, doubled the difficulty. There was something – she couldn’t have told what; it was as if, shut in together, they had come too far – too far for where they were; so that the mere act of her quitting him was like the attempt to recover the lost and gone. She had taken in with her something that within the ten minutes, and especially within the last three or four, had slipped away from her – which it was vain now, wasn’t it? to try to appear to clutch or to pick up. That consciousness in fact had a pang, and she balanced intensely for the lingering moment and almost with a terror of her endless power of surrender. He had only to press, really, for her to yield inch by inch, and she fairly knew at present, while she looked at him through her cloud, that the confession of this precious secret sat there for him to pluck. The sensation was for the few seconds extraordinary; her weakness, her desire, so long as she was yet not saving herself, flowered in her face like a light or a darkness. She sought for some word that would cover this up; she reverted to the question of tea, speaking as if they shouldn’t meet sooner. ‘Then about five. I count on you.’

On him too however something had descended; as to which that exactly gave him his chance. ‘Ah but I shall see you –! No?’ he said, coming nearer.

She had, with her hand still on the knob, her back against the door, so that her retreat under his approach must be less than a step, and yet she couldn’t for her life with the other hand have pushed him away. He was so near now that she could touch him, taste him, smell him, kiss him, hold him; he almost pressed upon her, and the warmth of his face – frowning, smiling, she mightn’t know which; only beautiful and strange – was bent upon her with the largeness with which objects loom in dreams. She closed her eyes to it, and so the next instant, against her purpose, had put out her hand, which had met his own and which he held. Then it was that from behind her closed eyes the right word came. ‘Wait!’ It was the word of his own distress and entreaty, the word for both of them, all they had left, their plank now on the great sea. Their hands were locked, and thus she said it again. ‘Wait. Wait.’ She kept her eyes shut, but her hand, she knew, helped her meaning – which after a minute she was aware his own had absorbed. He let her go – he turned away with this message, and when she saw him again his back was presented, as he had left her, and his face staring out of the window. She had saved herself and she got off.