The Golden Bowl Chapter 2

It may be recorded none the less that the Prince was the next moment to see how little any such assumption was founded. Alone with him now Mrs Assingham was incorruptible. ‘They send for Charlotte through you?’

‘No, my dear; as you see, through the Ambassador.’

‘Ah but the Ambassador and you, for the last quarter of an hour, have been for them as one. He’s your ambassador.’ It may indeed be further mentioned that the more Fanny looked at it the more she saw in it. ‘They’ve connected her with you – she’s treated as your appendage.’

‘Oh my “appendage”,’ the Prince amusedly exclaimed – ‘cara mia, what a name! She’s treated rather say as my ornament and my glory. And it’s so remarkable a case for a mother-in-law that you surely can’t find fault with it.’

‘You’ve ornaments enough, it seems to me – as you’ve certainly glories enough – without her. And she’s not the least little bit,’ Mrs Assingham observed, ‘your mother-in-law. In such a matter a shade of difference is enormous. She’s no relation to you whatever, and if she’s known in high quarters but as going about with you, then – then –!’ She failed, however, as from positive intensity of vision.

‘Then, then what?’ he asked with perfect good nature.

‘She had better in such a case not be known at all.’

‘But I assure you I never, just now, so much as mentioned her. Do you suppose I asked them,’ said the young man, still amused, ‘if they didn’t want to see her? You surely don’t need to be shown that Charlotte speaks for herself – that she does so above all on such an occasion as this and looking as she does to-night. How, so looking, can she pass unnoticed? How can she not have “success”? Besides,’ he added while she watched his face, letting him say what he would, as if but wanting to see how he would say it, ‘besides, there is always the fact that we’re of the same connexion, of – what is your word? – the same “concern”. We’re certainly not, with the relation of our respective sposi, simply formal acquaintances. We’re in the same boat’ – and the Prince smiled with a candour that added an accent to his emphasis.

Fanny Assingham was full of the special sense of his manner; it caused her to turn for a moment’s refuge to a corner of her general consciousness in which she could say to herself that she was glad she wasn’t in love with such a man. As with Charlotte, just before, she was embarrassed by the difference between what she took in and what she could say, what she felt and what she could show. ‘It only appears to me of great importance that – now that you all seem more settled here – Charlotte should be known, for any presentation, any further circulation or introduction, as in particular her husband’s wife; known in the least possible degree as anything else. I don’t know what you mean by the “same” boat. Charlotte is naturally in Mr Verver’s boat.’

‘And pray am I not in Mr Verver’s boat too? Why but for Mr Verver’s boat I should have been by this time’ – and his quick Italian gesture, an expressive direction and motion of his forefinger, pointed to deepest depths – ‘away down, down, down.’ She knew of course what he meant – how it had taken his father-in-law’s great fortune, and taken no small slice, to surround him with an element in which, all too fatally weighted as he had originally been, he could pecuniarily float; and with this reminder other things came to her – how strange it was that, with all allowance for their merit, it should befall some people to be so inordinately valued, quoted, as they said in the stock-market, so high, and how still stranger perhaps that there should be cases in which, for some reason, one didn’t mind the so frequently marked absence in them of the purpose really to represent their price. She was thinking, feeling, at any rate, for herself; she was thinking that the pleasure she could take in this specimen of the class didn’t suffer from his consent to be merely made buoyant: partly because it was one of those pleasures (he inspired them) that, by their nature, couldn’t suffer, to whatever proof they were put; and partly because, besides, he after all visibly had on his conscience some sort of return for services rendered. He was a huge expense assuredly – but it had been up to now her conviction that his idea was to behave beautifully enough to make the beauty well-nigh an equivalent. And that he had carried out his idea, carried it out by continuing to lead the life, to breathe the air, very nearly to think the thoughts, that best suited his wife and her father – this she had till lately enjoyed the comfort of so distinctly perceiving as to have even been moved more than once to express to him the happiness it gave her. He had that in his favour as against other matters; yet it discouraged her too, and rather oddly, that he should so keep moving, and be able to show her that he moved, on the firm ground of the truth. His acknowledgement of obligation was far from unimportant, but she could find in his grasp of the real itself a kind of ominous intimation. The intimation appeared to peep at her even out of his next word, lightly as he produced it.

‘Isn’t it rather as if we had, Charlotte and I, for bringing us together, a benefactor in common?’ And the effect for his good friend was still further to be deepened. ‘I somehow feel half the time as if he were her father-in-law too. It’s as if he had saved us both – which is a fact in our lives, or at any rate in our hearts, to make of itself a link. Don’t you remember’ – he kept it up – ‘how, the day she suddenly turned up for you, just before my wedding, we so frankly and funnily talked, in her presence, of the advisability for her of some good marriage?’ And then as his friend’s face, in her extremity, quite again as with Charlotte, but continued to fly the black flag of general repudiation: ‘Well, we really began then, as it seems to me, the work of placing her where she is. We were wholly right – and so was she. That it was exactly the thing is shown by its success. We recommended a good marriage at almost any price, so to speak, and, taking us at our word, she has made the very best. That was really what we meant, wasn’t it? Only – what she has got – something thoroughly good. It would be difficult, it seems to me, for her to have anything better – once you allow her the way it’s to be taken. Of course if you don’t allow her that the case is different. Her offset is a certain decent freedom – which I judge she’ll be quite contented with. You may say that will be very good of her, but she strikes me as perfectly humble about it. She proposes neither to claim it nor to use it with any sort of retentissement.1 She would enjoy it, I think, quite as quietly as it might be given. The “boat”, you see’ – the Prince explained it no less considerately and lucidly – ‘is a good deal tied up at the dock, or anchored, if you like, out in the stream. I have to jump out from time to time to stretch my legs, and you’ll probably perceive, if you give it your attention, that Charlotte really can’t help occasionally doing the same. It isn’t even a question, sometimes, of one’s getting to the dock – one has to take a header and splash about in the water. Call our having remained here together to-night, call the accident of my having put them, put our illustrious friends there, on my companion’s track – for I grant you this as a practical result of our combination – call the whole thing one of the harmless little plunges, off the deck, inevitable for each of us. Why not take them, when they occur, as inevitable – and above all as not endangering life or limb? We shan’t drown, we shan’t sink – at least I can answer for myself. Mrs Verver too moreover – do her the justice – visibly knows how to swim.’

He could easily go on, for she didn’t interrupt him; Fanny felt now that she wouldn’t have interrupted him for the world. She found his eloquence precious; there wasn’t a drop of it that she didn’t in a manner catch, as it came, for immediate bottling, for future preservation. The crystal flash of her innermost attention really received it on the spot, and she had even already the vision of how, in the snug laboratory of her afterthought, she should be able chemically to analyse it. There were moments positively, still beyond this, when, with the meeting of their eyes, something as yet unnameable came out for her in his look, when something strange and subtle and at variance with his words, something that gave them away, glimmered deep down, as an appeal, almost an incredible one, to her finer comprehension. What, inconceivably, was it like? Wasn’t it, however gross such a rendering of anything so occult, fairly like a quintessential wink, a hint of the possibility of their really treating their subject – of course on some better occasion – and thereby, as well, finding it much more interesting? If this far red spark, which might have been figured by her mind as the headlight of an approaching train seen through the length of a tunnel, was not, on her side, an ignis fatuus,2 a mere subjective phenomenon, it twinkled there at the direct expense of what the Prince was inviting her to understand. Meanwhile too, however, and unmistakeably, the real treatment of their subject did, at a given moment, sound. This was when he proceeded, with just the same perfect possession of his thought – on the manner of which he couldn’t have improved – to complete his successful simile by another, in fact by just the supreme, touch, the touch for which it had till now been waiting. ‘For Mrs Verver to be known to people so intensely and exclusively as her husband’s wife something is wanted that, you know, they haven’t exactly got. He should manage to be known – or at least to be seen – a little more as his wife’s husband. You surely must by this time have seen for yourself that he has his own habits and his own ways, and that he makes, more and more – as of course he has a perfect right to do – his own discriminations. He’s so perfect, so ideal a father, and, doubtless largely by that very fact, so generous, so comfortable, so admirable a father-in-law, that I should really feel it base to avail myself of any standpoint whatever to criticise him. To you nevertheless I may make just one remark; for you’re not stupid – you always understand so blessedly what one means.’

He paused an instant, as if even this one remark might be difficult for him should she give no sign of encouraging him to produce it. Nothing would have induced her, however, to encourage him; she was now conscious of having never in her life stood so still or sat, inwardly, as it were, so tight; she felt like the horse of the adage, brought – and brought by her own fault – to the water, but strong, for the occasion, in the one fact that she couldn’t be forced to drink. Invited, in other words, to understand, she held her breath for fear of showing she did, and this for the excellent reason that she was at last fairly afraid to. It was sharp for her, at the same time, that she was certain, in advance, of his remark; that she heard it before it had sounded, that she already tasted in fine the bitterness it would have for her special sensibility. But her companion, from an inward and different need of his own, was presently not deterred by her silence. ‘What I really don’t see is why, from his own point of view – given, that is, his conditions, so fortunate as they stood – he should have wished to marry at all.’ There it was then – exactly what she knew would come, and exactly, for reasons that seemed now to thump at her heart, as distressing to her. Yet she was resolved meanwhile not to suffer, as they used to say of the martyrs, then and there; not to suffer, odiously, helplessly, in public – which could be prevented but by her breaking off with whatever inconsequence; by her treating their discussion as ended and getting away. She suddenly wanted to go home – much as she had wanted, an hour or two before, to come. She wanted to leave well behind her both her question and the couple in whom it had abruptly taken such vivid form – but it was dreadful to have the appearance of disconcerted flight. Discussion had of itself, to her sense, become danger – such light, as from open crevices, it let in; and the overt recognition of danger was worse than anything else. The worst in fact came while she was thinking how she could retreat and still not overtly recognise. Her face had betrayed her trouble, and with that she was lost. ‘I’m afraid, however,’ the Prince said, ‘that I, for some reason, distress you – for which I beg your pardon. We’ve always talked so well together – it has been, from the beginning, the greatest pull for me.’ Nothing so much as such a tone could have quickened her collapse; she felt he had her now at his mercy, and he showed, as he went on, that he knew it. ‘We shall talk again, all the same, better than ever – I depend on it too much. Don’t you remember what I told you so definitely one day before my marriage? – that, moving as I did in so many ways among new things, mysteries, conditions, expectations, assumptions different from any I had known, I looked to you, as my original sponsor, my fairy godmother, to see me through. I beg you to believe,’ he added, ‘that I look to you yet.’

His very insistence had fortunately the next moment affected her as bringing her help; with which at least she could hold up her head to speak. ‘Ah, you are through – you were through long ago. Or if you aren’t you ought to be.’

‘Well then if I ought to be it’s all the more reason why you should continue to help me. Because very distinctly I assure you I’m not. The new things – or ever so many of them – are still for me new things; the mysteries and expectations and assumptions still contain an immense element that I’ve failed to puzzle out. As we’ve happened so luckily to find ourselves again really taking hold together, you must let me, as soon as possible, come to see you; you must give me a good kind hour. If you refuse it me’ – and he addressed himself to her continued reserve – ‘I shall feel that you deny, with a stony stare, your responsibility.’

At this, as from a sudden shake, her reserve proved a weak vessel. She could bear her own, her private reference to the weight on her mind, but the touch of another hand made it too horribly press. ‘Oh I deny responsibility – to you. So far as I ever had it I’ve done with it.’

He had been all the while beautifully smiling; but she made his look now penetrate her again more. ‘As to whom then do you confess it?’

‘Ah mio caro, that’s – if to any one – my own business!’

He continued to look at her hard. ‘You give me up then?’

It was what Charlotte had asked her ten minutes before, and its coming from him so much in the same way shook her in her place. She was on the point of replying ‘Do you and she agree together for what you’ll say to me?’ – but she was glad afterwards to have checked herself in time, little as her actual answer had perhaps bettered it. ‘I think I don’t know what to make of you.’

‘You must receive me at least,’ he said.

‘Oh please not till I’m ready for you!’ – and though she found a laugh for it she had to turn away. She had never turned away from him before, and it was quite positively for her as if she were altogether afraid of him.