The Golden Bowl Chapter 3

It had been said as a joke, but as after this they awaited their friend in silence the effect of the silence was to turn the time to gravity – a gravity not dissipated even when the Prince next spoke. He had been thinking the case over and making up his mind. A handsome clever odd girl staying with one was a complication. Mrs Assingham so far was right. But there were the facts – the good relations, from schooldays, of the two young women, and the clear confidence with which one of them had arrived. ‘She can come, you know, at any time, to us.’

Mrs Assingham took it up with an irony beyond laughter. ‘You’d like her for your honeymoon?’

‘Oh no, you must keep her for that. But why not after?’

She had looked at him a minute; then at the sound of a voice in the corridor they had got up. ‘Why not? You’re splendid!’

Charlotte Stant, the next minute, was with them, ushered in as she had alighted from her cab and prepared for not finding Mrs Assingham alone – this would have been to be noticed – by the butler’s answer, on the stairs, to a question put to him. She could have looked at that lady with such straightness and brightness only from knowing that the Prince was also there – the discrimination of but a moment, yet which let him take her in still better than if she had instantly faced him. He availed himself of the chance thus given him, for he was conscious of all these things. What he accordingly saw for some seconds with intensity was a tall strong charming girl who wore for him at first exactly the air of her adventurous situation, a reference in all her person, in motion and gesture, in free vivid yet altogether happy indications of dress, from the becoming compactness of her hat to the shade of tan in her shoes, to winds and waves and custom-houses, to far countries and long journeys, the knowledge of how and where and the habit, founded on experience, of not being afraid. He was aware at the same time that of this combination the ‘strong-minded’ note was not, as might have been apprehended, the basis; he was now sufficiently familiar with English-speaking types, he had sounded attentively enough such possibilities, for a quick vision of differences. He had besides his own view of this young lady’s strength of mind. It was great, he had ground to believe, but it would never interfere with the play of her extremely personal, her always amusing taste. This last was the thing in her – for she threw it out positively on the spot like a light – that she might have reappeared, during these moments, just to cool his worried eyes with. He saw her in her light: that immediate exclusive address to their friend was like a lamp she was holding aloft for his benefit and for his pleasure. It showed him everything – above all her presence in the world, so closely, so irretrievably contemporaneous with his own: a sharp, sharp fact, sharper during these instants than any other at all, even than that of his marriage, but accompanied, in a subordinate and controlled way, with those others, facial, physiognomic, that Mrs Assingham had been speaking of as subject to appreciation. So they were, these others, as he met them again, and that was the connexion they instantly established with him. If they had to be interpreted this made at least for intimacy. There was but one way certainly for him – to interpret them in the sense of the already known.

Making use then of clumsy terms of excess, the face was too narrow and too long, the eyes not large, and the mouth on the other hand by no means small, with substance in its lips and a slight, the very slightest, tendency to protrusion in the solid teeth, otherwise indeed well arrayed and flashingly white. But it was, strangely, as a cluster of possessions of his own that these things in Charlotte Stant now affected him; items in a full list, items recognised, each of them, as if, for the long interval, they had been ‘stored’ – wrapped up, numbered, put away in a cabinet. While she faced Mrs Assingham the door of the cabinet had opened of itself; he took the relics out one by one, and it was more and more each instant as if she were giving him time. He saw again that her thick hair was, vulgarly speaking, brown, but that there was a shade of tawny autumn leaf in it for ‘appreciation’ – a colour indescribable and of which he had known no other case, something that gave her at moments the sylvan head of a huntress. He saw the sleeves of her jacket drawn to her wrists, but he again made out the free arms within them to be of the completely rounded, the polished slimness that Florentine sculptors in the great time had loved and of which the apparent firmness is expressed in their old silver and old bronze. He knew her narrow hands, he knew her long fingers and the shape and colour of her finger-nails, he knew her special beauty of movement and line when she turned her back, and the perfect working of all her main attachments, that of some wonderful finished instrument, something intently made for exhibition, for a prize. He knew above all the extraordinary fineness of her flexible waist, the stem of an expanded flower, which gave her a likeness also to some long loose silk purse, well filled with gold-pieces, but having been passed empty through a finger-ring that held it together. It was as if, before she turned to him, he had weighed the whole thing in his open palm and even heard a little the chink of the metal. When she did turn to him it was to recognise with her eyes what he might have been doing. She made no circumstance of thus coming upon him, save so far as the intelligence in her face could at any moment make a circumstance of almost anything. If when she moved off she looked like a huntress, she looked when she came nearer like his notion, perhaps not wholly correct, of a muse. But what she said was simply: ‘You see you’re not rid of me. How is dear Maggie?’

It was to come soon enough by the quite unforced operation of chance, the young man’s opportunity to ask her the question suggested by Mrs Assingham shortly before her entrance. The licence, had he chosen to embrace it, was within a few minutes all there – the licence given him literally to enquire of this young lady how long she was likely to be with them. For a matter of the mere domestic order had quickly determined on Mrs Assingham’s part a withdrawal, of a few moments, which had the effect of leaving her visitors free. ‘Mrs Betterman’s there?’ she had said to Charlotte in allusion to some member of the household who was to have received her and seen her belongings settled; to which Charlotte had replied that she had encountered only the butler, who had been quite charming. She had deprecated any action taken on behalf of her effects; but her hostess, rebounding from accumulated cushions, evidently saw more in Mrs Betterman’s non-appearance than could meet the casual eye. What she saw in short demanded her intervention, in spite of an earnest ‘Let me go!’ from the girl, and a prolonged smiling wail over the trouble she was giving. The Prince was quite aware at this moment that departure, for himself, was indicated; the question of Miss Stant’s installation didn’t demand his presence; it was a case for one to go away – if one hadn’t a reason for staying. He had a reason, however – of that he was equally aware; and he hadn’t for a good while done anything more conscious and intentional than not quickly to take leave. His visible insistence – for it came to that – even demanded of him a certain disagreeable effort, the sort of effort he had mostly associated with acting for an idea. His idea was there, his idea was to find out something, something he wanted much to know, and to find it out not to-morrow, not at some future time, not in short with waiting and wondering, but if possible before quitting the place. This particular curiosity moreover confounded itself a little with the occasion offered him to satisfy Mrs Assingham’s own; he wouldn’t have admitted that he was staying to ask a rude question – there was distinctly nothing rude in his having his reasons. It would be rude for that matter to turn one’s back without a word or two on an old friend.

Well, as it came to pass, he got the word or two, for Mrs Assingham’s preoccupation was practically simplifying. The little crisis was of shorter duration than our account of it; duration would naturally have forced him to take up his hat. He was somehow glad, on finding himself alone with Charlotte, that he hadn’t been guilty of that inconsequence. Not to be flurried was the kind of consistency he wanted, just as consistency was the kind of dignity. And why couldn’t he have dignity when he had so much of the good conscience, as it were, on which such advantages rested? He had done nothing he oughtn’t – he had in fact done nothing at all. Once more, as a man conscious of having known many women, he could assist, as he would have called it, at the recurrent, the predestined phenomenon, the thing always as certain as sunrise or the coming round of saints’ days, the doing by the woman of the thing that gave her away. She did it, ever, inevitably, infallibly – she couldn’t possibly not do it. It was her nature, it was her life, and the man could always expect it without lifting a finger. This was his, the man’s, any man’s, position and strength – that he had necessarily the advantage, that he only had to wait with a decent patience to be placed, in spite of himself, it might really be said, in the right. Just so the punctuality of performance on the part of the other creature was her weakness and her deep misfortune – not less, no doubt, than her beauty. It produced for the man that extraordinary mixture of pity and profit in which his relation with her, when he was not a mere brute, mainly consisted; and gave him in fact his most pertinent ground of being always nice to her, nice about her, nice for her. She always dressed her act up, of course, she muffled and disguised and arranged it, showing in fact in these dissimulations a cleverness equal to but one thing in the world, equal to her abjection: she would let it be known for anything, for everything, but the truth of which it was made. That was what, exactly, Charlotte Stant would be doing now; that was the present motive and support, to a certainty, of each of her looks and motions. She was the twentieth woman, she was possessed by her doom, but her doom was also to arrange appearances, and what now concerned him was to learn how she proposed. He would help her, would arrange with her – to any point in reason; the only thing was to know what appearance could best be produced and best be preserved. Produced and preserved on her part of course; since on his own there had been luckily no folly to cover up, nothing but a perfect accord between conduct and obligation.

They stood there together at all events, when the door had closed behind their friend, with a conscious strained smile and very much as if each waited for the other to strike the note or give the pitch. The young man held himself, in his silent suspense – only not more afraid because he felt her own fear. She was afraid of herself, however; whereas, to his gain of lucidity, he was afraid only of her. Would she throw herself into his arms or would she be otherwise wonderful? She would see what he would do – so their queer minute without words told him; and she would act accordingly. But what could he do but just let her see that he would make anything, everything, for her, as honourably easy as possible? Even if she should throw herself into his arms he would make that easy – easy, that is, to overlook, to ignore, not to remember, and not by the same token either to regret. This was not what in fact happened, though it was also not at a single touch, but by the finest gradations, that his tension subsided. ‘It’s too delightful to be back!’ she said at last; and it was all she definitely gave him – being moreover nothing but what any one else might have said. Yet with two or three other things that, on his response, followed it, it quite pointed the path, while the tone of it, and her whole attitude, were as far removed as need have been from the truth of her situation. The abjection that was present to him as of the essence quite failed to peep out, and he soon enough saw that if she was arranging she could be trusted to arrange. Good – it was all he asked; and all the more that he could admire and like her for it. The particular appearance she would, as they said, go in for was that of having no account whatever to give him – it would be in fact that of having none to give anybody – of reasons or of motives, of comings or of goings. She was a charming young woman who had met him before, but she was also a charming young woman with a life of her own. She would take it high – up, up, up, ever so high. Well then he would do the same; no height would be too great for them, not even the dizziest conceivable to a young person so subtle. The dizziest seemed indeed attained when after another moment she came as near as she was to come to an apology for her abruptness.

‘I’ve been thinking of Maggie, and at last I yearned for her. I wanted to see her happy – and it doesn’t strike me I find you too shy to tell me I shall.’

‘Of course she’s happy, thank God! Only it’s almost terrible, you know, the happiness of young good generous creatures. It rather frightens one. But the Blessed Virgin and all the Saints,’ said the Prince, ‘have her in their keeping.’

‘Certainly they have. She’s the dearest of the dear. But I needn’t tell you,’ the girl added.

‘Ah,’ he returned with gravity, ‘I feel that I’ve still much to learn about her.’ To which he subjoined: ‘She’ll rejoice awfully in your being with us.’

‘Oh you don’t need me!’ Charlotte smiled. ‘It’s her hour. It’s a great hour. One has seen often enough, with girls, what it is. But that,’ she said, ‘is exactly why. Why I’ve wanted, I mean, not to miss it.’

He bent on her a kind comprehending face. ‘You mustn’t miss anything.’ He had got it, the pitch, and he could keep it now, for all he had needed was to have it given him. The pitch was the happiness of his wife that was to be – the sight of that happiness as a joy for an old friend. It was, yes, magnificent, and not the less so for its coming to him suddenly as sincere, as nobly exalted. Something in Charlotte’s eyes seemed to tell him this, seemed to plead with him in advance as to what he was to find in it. He was eager – and he tried to show her that too – to find what she liked; mindful as he easily could be of what the friendship had been for Maggie. It had been armed with the wings of young imagination, young generosity; it had been, he believed – always counting out her intense devotion to her father – the liveliest emotion she had known before the dawn of the sentiment inspired by himself. She hadn’t, to his knowledge, invited the object of it to their wedding, hadn’t thought of proposing to her, for a matter of a couple of hours, an arduous and expensive journey. But she had kept her connected and informed, from week to week, in spite of preparations and absorptions. ‘Oh I’ve been writing to Charlotte – I wish you knew her better’; he could still hear, from recent weeks, this record of the fact, just as he could still be conscious, not otherwise than queerly, of the gratuitous element in Maggie’s wish, which he had failed as yet to indicate to her. Older and perhaps more intelligent, at any rate, why shouldn’t Charlotte respond – and be quite free to respond – to such fidelities with something more than mere formal good manners? The relations of women with each other were of the strangest, it was true, and he probably wouldn’t have trusted here a young person of his own race. He was proceeding throughout on the ground of the immense difference – difficult indeed as it might have been to disembroil in this young person her race-quality. Nothing in her definitely placed her; she was a rare, a special product. Her singleness, her solitude, her want of means, that is her want of ramifications and other advantages, contributed to enrich her somehow with an odd precious neutrality, to constitute for her, so detached yet so aware, a sort of small social capital. It was the only one she had – it was the only one a lonely gregarious girl could have, since few surely had in anything like the same degree arrived at it, and since this one indeed had compassed it but through the play of some gift of nature to which you could scarce give a definite name.

It wasn’t a question of her strange sense for tongues, with which she juggled as a conjuror at a show juggled with balls or hoops or lighted brands – it wasn’t at least entirely that, for he had known people almost as polyglot whom their accomplishment had quite failed to make interesting. He was polyglot himself, for that matter – as was the case too with so many of his friends and relations; for none of whom more than for himself was it anything but a common convenience. The point was that in this young woman it was a beauty in itself, and almost a mystery: so, certainly, he had more than once felt in noting on her lips that rarest, among the Barbarians,1 of all civil graces, a perfect felicity in the use of Italian. He had known strangers – a few, and mostly men – who spoke his own language agreeably; but he had known neither man nor woman who showed for it Charlotte’s almost mystifying instinct. He remembered how, from the first of their acquaintance, she had made no display of it, quite as if English, between them, his English so matching with hers, were their inevitable medium. He had perceived all by accident – by hearing her talk before him to somebody else – that they had an alternative as good; an alternative in fact as much better as the amusement for him was greater in watching her for the slips that never came. Her account of the mystery didn’t suffice: her recall of her birth in Florence and Florentine childhood; her parents, from the great country, but themselves already of a corrupt generation, demoralised falsified polyglot well before her, with the Tuscan balia2 who was her first remembrance; the servants of the villa, the dear contadini3 of the podere,4 the little girls and the other peasants of the next podere, all the rather shabby but still ever so pretty human furniture of her early time, including the good sisters of the poor convent of the Tuscan hills, the convent shabbier than almost anything else, but prettier too, in which she had been kept at school till the subsequent phase, the phase of the much grander institution in Paris at which Maggie was to arrive, terribly frightened and as a smaller girl, three years before her own ending of her period of five. Such reminiscences naturally gave a ground, but they hadn’t prevented him from insisting that some strictly civil ancestor – generations back, and from the Tuscan hills if she would – made himself felt ineffaceably in her blood and in her tone. She knew nothing of the ancestor, but she had taken his theory from him, gracefully enough, as one of the little presents that make friendship flourish. These matters, however, all melted together now, though a sense of them was doubtless concerned, not unnaturally, in the next thing, of the nature of a surmise, that his discretion let him articulate. ‘You haven’t, I rather gather, particularly liked your country?’ They would stick for the time to their English.

‘It doesn’t, I fear, seem particularly mine. And it doesn’t in the least matter over there whether one likes it or not – that is to any one but one’s self. But I didn’t like it,’ said Charlotte Stant.

‘That’s not encouraging then to me, is it?’ the Prince went on.

‘Do you mean because you’re going?’

‘Oh yes, of course we’re going. I’ve wanted immensely to go.’

She waited. ‘But now? – immediately?’

‘In a month or two – it seems to be the new idea.’ On which there was something in her face – as he imagined – that made him say: ‘Didn’t Maggie write to you?’

‘Not of your going at once. But of course you must go. And of course you must stay’ – Charlotte was easily clear – ‘as long as possible.’

‘Is that what you did?’ he laughed. ‘You stayed as long as possible?’

‘Well, it seemed to me so – but I hadn’t “interests”. You’ll have them – on a great scale. It’s the country for interests,’ said Charlotte. ‘If I had only had a few I doubtless wouldn’t have left it.’

He waited an instant; they were still on their feet. ‘Yours then are rather here?’

‘Oh mine!’ – the girl smiled. ‘They take up little room, wherever they are.’

It determined in him, the way this came from her and what it somehow did for her – it determined in him a speech that would have seemed a few minutes before precarious and in questionable taste. The lead she had given him made the difference, and he felt it as really a lift on finding an honest and natural word rise, by its licence, to his lips. Nothing surely could be, for both of them, more in the note of a high bravery. ‘I’ve been thinking it all the while so probable, you know, that you would have seen your way to marrying.’

She looked at him an instant, and during these seconds he feared for what he might have spoiled. ‘To marrying whom?’

‘Why some good kind clever rich American.’

Again his security hung in the balance – then she was, as he felt, admirable. ‘I tried every one I came across. I did my best. I showed I had come, quite publicly, for that. Perhaps I showed it too much. At any rate it was no use. I had to recognise it. No one would have me.’ Then she seemed to betray regret for his having to hear of her anything so disconcerting. She pitied his feeling about it; if he was disappointed she would cheer him up. ‘Existence, you know, all the same, doesn’t depend on that. I mean,’ she smiled, ‘on having caught a husband.’

‘Oh – existence!’ the Prince vaguely commented.

‘You think I ought to argue for more than mere existence?’ she asked. ‘I don’t see why my existence – even reduced as much as you like to being merely mine – should be so impossible. There are things of sorts I should be able to have – things I should be able to be. The position of a single woman to-day is very favourable, you know.’

‘Favourable to what?’

‘Why, just to existence – which may contain after all, in one way and another, so much. It may contain at the worst even affections; affections in fact quite particularly; fixed, that is, on one’s friends. I’m extremely fond of Maggie for instance – I quite adore her. How could I adore her more if I were married to one of the people you speak of?’

The Prince gave a laugh. ‘You might adore him more –!’

‘Ah but it isn’t, is it,’ she asked, ‘a question of that?’

‘My dear friend,’ he returned, ‘it’s always a question of doing the best for one’s self one can – without injury to others.’ He felt by this time that they were indeed on an excellent basis; so he went on again as if to show frankly his sense of its firmness. ‘I venture therefore to repeat my hope that you’ll marry some capital fellow; and also to repeat my belief that such a marriage will be more favourable to you, as you call it, than even the spirit of the age.’

She looked at him at first only for answer, and would have appeared to take it with meekness hadn’t she perhaps appeared a little more to take it with gaiety. ‘Thank you very much,’ she simply said; but at that moment their friend was with them again. It was undeniable that as she came in Mrs Assingham looked with a certain smiling sharpness from one of them to the other; the perception of which was perhaps what led Charlotte, for reassurance, to pass the question on. ‘The Prince hopes so much I shall still marry some good person.’

Whether it worked for Mrs Assingham or not the Prince was himself, at this, more than ever reassured. He was safe, in a word – that was what it all meant; and he had required to be safe. He was really safe enough for almost any joke. ‘It’s only,’ he explained to their hostess, ‘because of what Miss Stant has been telling me. Don’t we want to keep up her courage?’ If the joke was broad he hadn’t at least begun it – not, that is, as a joke; which was what his companion’s address to their friend made of it. ‘She has been trying in America, she says, but hasn’t brought it off.’

The tone was somehow not what Mrs Assingham had expected, but she made the best of it. ‘Well then,’ she replied to the young man, ‘if you take such an interest you must bring it off.’

‘And you must help, dear,’ Charlotte said unperturbed – ‘as you’ve helped, so beautifully, in such things before.’ With which, before Mrs Assingham could meet the appeal, she had addressed herself to the Prince on a matter much nearer to him. ‘Your marriage is on Friday?5 – on Saturday?’

‘Oh on Friday, no! For what do you take us? There’s not a vulgar omen we’re neglecting. On Saturday, please, at the Oratory,6 at three o’clock – before twelve assistants exactly.’

‘Twelve including me?’

It struck him – he laughed. ‘You’ll make the thirteenth. It won’t do!’

‘Not,’ said Charlotte, ‘if you’re going in for “omens”. Should you like me stay away?’

‘Dear no – we’ll manage. We’ll make the round number – we’ll have in some old woman. They must keep them there for that, don’t they?’ Mrs Assingham’s return had at last indicated for him his departure; he had possessed himself again of his hat and approached her to take leave. But he had another word for Charlotte. ‘I dine to-night with Mr Verver. Have you any message?’

The girl seemed to wonder a little. ‘For Mr Verver?’

‘For Maggie – about her seeing you early. That, I know, is what she’ll like.’

‘Then I’ll come early – thanks.’

‘I dare say,’ he went on, ‘she’ll send for you. I mean send a carriage.’

‘Oh I don’t require that, thanks. I can go, for a penny, can’t I?’ she asked of Mrs Assingham, ‘in an omnibus.’

‘Oh I say!’ said the Prince while Mrs Assingham looked at her blandly.

‘Yes, love – and I’ll give you the penny. She shall get there,’ the good lady added to their friend.

But Charlotte, as the latter took leave of her, thought of something else. ‘There’s a great favour, Prince, that I want to ask of you. I want, between this and Saturday, to make Maggie a marriage-present.’

‘Oh I say!’ the young man again soothingly exclaimed.

‘Ah but I must,’ she went on. ‘It’s really almost for that I came back. It was impossible to get in America what I wanted.’

Mrs Assingham showed anxiety. ‘What is it then, dear, you want?’

But the girl looked only at their companion. ‘That’s what the Prince, if he’ll be so good, must help me to decide.’

‘Can’t I,’ Mrs Assingham asked, ‘help you to decide?’

‘Certainly, darling, we must talk it well over.’ And she kept her eyes on the Prince. ‘But I want him, if he kindly will, to go with me to look. I want him to judge with me and choose. That, if you can spare the hour,’ she said, ‘is the great favour I mean.’

He raised his eyebrows at her – he wonderfully smiled. ‘What you came back from America to ask? Ah certainly then I must find the hour!’ He wonderfully smiled, but it was after all rather more than he had been reckoning with. It went somehow so little with the rest that, directly, for him, it wasn’t the note of safety; it preserved this character, at the best, but by being the note of publicity. Quickly, quickly, however, the note of publicity struck him as better than any other. In another moment even it seemed positively what he wanted; for what so much as publicity put their relation on the right footing? By this appeal to Mrs Assingham it was established as right, and she immediately showed that such was her own understanding.

‘Certainly, Prince,’ she laughed, ‘you must find the hour!’ And it was really so express a licence from her, as representing friendly judgement, public opinion, the moral law, the margin allowed a husband about to be, or whatever, that, after observing to Charlotte that should she come to Portland Place in the morning he would make a point of being there to see her and so arrange easily with her about a time, he took his departure with the absolutely confirmed impression of knowing, as he put it to himself, where he was. Which was what he had prolonged his visit for. He was where he could stay.