The Golden Bowl Chapter 3

Later on, when their hired brougham1 had, with the long vociferation that tormented her impatience, been extricated from the endless rank, she rolled into the London night, beside her husband, as into a sheltering darkness where she could muffle herself and draw breath. She had stood for the previous hour in a merciless glare, beaten upon, stared out of countenance, it fairly seemed to her, by intimations of her mistake. For what she was most immediately feeling was that she had in the past been active for these people to ends that were now bearing fruit and that might yet bear a larger crop. She but brooded at first in her corner of the carriage: it was like burying her exposed face, a face too helplessly exposed, in the cool lap of the common indifference, of the dispeopled streets, of the closed shops and darkened houses seen through the window of the brougham, a world mercifully unconscious and unreproachful. It wouldn’t, like the world she had just left, know sooner or later what she had done, or would know it only if the final consequence should be some quite overwhelming publicity. She fixed this possibility itself so hard, however, for a few moments, that the misery of her fear produced the next minute a reaction; and when the carriage happened, while it grazed a turn, to catch the straight shaft from the lamp of a policeman in the act of playing his inquisitive flash over an opposite house-front, she let herself wince at being thus incriminated only that she might protest, not less quickly, against mere blind terror. It had become, for the occasion preposterously terror – of which she must shake herself free before she could properly measure her ground. The perception of this necessity had in truth soon aided her; since she found on trying that, lurid as her prospect might hover there, she could none the less give it no name. The sense of seeing was strong in her, but she clutched at the comfort of not being sure of what she saw. Not to know what it would represent on a longer view was a help, in turn, to not making out that her hands were embrued; since if she had stood in the position of a producing cause she should surely be less vague about what she had produced. This, further, in its way, was a step toward reflecting that when one’s connexion with any matter was too indirect to be traced it might be described also as too slight to be deplored. By the time they were nearing Cadogan Place she had in fact recognised that she couldn’t be so curious as she desired without arriving at some conviction of her being as innocent. But there had been a moment in the dim desert of Eaton Square when she broke into speech.

‘It’s only their defending themselves so much more than they need – it’s only that that makes me wonder. It’s their having so remarkably much to say for themselves.’

Her husband had as usual lighted his cigar, remaining apparently as busy with it as she with her agitation. ‘You mean it makes you feel that you have nothing?’ To which, as she failed to answer, the Colonel added: ‘What in the world did you ever suppose was going to happen? The man’s in a position in which he has nothing in life to do.’

Her silence seemed to characterise this statement as superficial, and her thoughts, as always in her husband’s company, pursued an independent course. He made her, when they were together, talk, but as if for some other person; who was in fact for the most part herself. Yet she addressed herself with him as she could never have done without him. ‘He has behaved beautifully – he did from the first. I’ve thought it all along wonderful of him; and I’ve more than once when I’ve had a chance told him so. Therefore, therefore –!’ But it died away as she mused.

‘Therefore he has a right, for a change, to kick up his heels?’

‘It isn’t a question of course however,’ she undivertedly went on, ‘of their behaving beautifully apart. It’s a question of their doing as they should when together – which is another matter.’

‘And how do you think then,’ the Colonel asked with interest, ‘that when together they should do? The less they do, one would say, the better – if you see so much in it.’

His wife appeared at this to hear him. ‘I don’t see in it what you’d see. And don’t, my dear,’ she further answered, ‘think it necessary to be horrid or low about them. They’re the last people really to make anything of that sort come in right.’

‘I’m surely never horrid or low,’ he returned, ‘about any one but my extravagant wife. I can do with all our friends – as I see them myself: what I can’t do with is the figures you make of them. And when you take to adding your figures up –!’ But he exhaled it again in smoke.

‘My additions don’t matter when you’ve not to pay the bill.’ With which her meditation again bore her through the air. ‘The great thing was that when it so suddenly came up for her he wasn’t afraid. If he had been afraid he could perfectly have prevented it. And if I had seen he was – if I hadn’t seen he wasn’t – so,’ said Mrs Assingham, ‘could I. So,’ she declared, ‘would I. It’s perfectly true,’ she went on – ‘it was too good a thing for her, such a chance in life, not to be accepted. And I liked his not keeping her out of it merely from a fear of his own nature. It was so wonderful it should come to her. The only thing would have been if Charlotte herself couldn’t have faced it. Then – if she hadn’t had confidence – we might have talked. But she had it to any amount.’

‘Did you ask her how much?’ Bob Assingham patiently growled.

He had put the question with no more than his usual modest hope of reward, but he had pressed this time the sharpest spring of response. ‘Never, never – it wasn’t a time to “ask”. Asking is suggesting – and it wasn’t a time to suggest. One had to make up one’s mind, as quietly as possible, by what one could judge. And I judge, as I say, that Charlotte felt she could face it. For which she struck me at the time as – for so proud a creature – almost touchingly grateful. The thing I should never forgive her for would be her forgetting to whom it is her thanks have remained most due.’

‘That is to Mrs Assingham?’

She said nothing for a little – there were after all alternatives. ‘Maggie herself of course – astonishing little Maggie.’

‘Is Maggie then astonishing too?’ – and he gloomed out of his window.

His wife, on her side now, as they rolled, projected the same look. ‘I’m not sure I don’t begin to see more in her than – dear little person as I’ve always thought – I ever supposed there was. I’m not sure that, putting a good many things together, I’m not beginning to make her out rather extraordinary.’

‘You certainly will if you can,’ the Colonel resignedly remarked.

Again his companion said nothing; then again she broke out. ‘In fact – I do begin to feel it – Maggie’s the great comfort. I’m getting hold of it. It will be she who’ll see us through. In fact she’ll have to. And she’ll be able.’

Touch by touch her meditation had completed it, but with a cumulative effect for her husband’s general sense of her method that caused him to overflow, whimsically enough, in his corner, into an ejaculation now frequent on his lips for the relief that, especially in communion like the present, it gave him, and that Fanny had critically traced to the quaint example, the aboriginal homeliness, still so delightful, of Mr Verver. ‘Oh Lordy, Lordy!’

‘If she is, however,’ Mrs Assingham continued, ‘she’ll be extraordinary enough – and that’s what I’m thinking of. But I’m not indeed so very sure,’ she added, ‘of the person to whom Charlotte ought in decency to be most grateful. I mean I’m not sure if that person is even almost the incredible little idealist who has made her his wife.’

‘I shouldn’t think you would be, love,’ the Colonel with some promptness responded. ‘Charlotte as the wife of an incredible little idealist –!’ His cigar in short once more could alone express it.

‘Yet what is that, when one thinks, but just what she struck one as more or less persuaded that she herself was really going to be?’ – this memory, for the full view, Fanny found herself also invoking.

It made her companion in truth slightly gape. ‘An incredible little idealist – Charlotte herself?’

‘And she was sincere,’ his wife simply proceeded – ‘she was unmistakeably sincere. The question is only how much is left of it.’

‘And that – I see – happens to be another of the questions you can’t ask her. You have to do it all,’ said Bob Assingham, ‘as if you were playing some game with its rules drawn up – though who’s to come down on you if you break them I don’t quite see. Or must you do it in three guesses – like forfeits on Christmas Eve?’ To which, as his ribaldry but dropped from her he further added: ‘How much of anything will have to be left for you to be able to go on with it?’

‘I shall go on,’ Fanny Assingham a trifle grimly declared, ‘while there’s a scrap as big as your nail. But we’re not yet, luckily, reduced only to that.’ She had another pause, holding the while the thread of that larger perception into which her view of Mrs Verver’s obligation to Maggie had suddenly expanded. ‘Even if her debt wasn’t to the others – even then it ought to be quite sufficiently to the Prince himself to keep her straight. For what really did the Prince do,’ she asked herself, ‘but generously trust her? What did he do but take it from her that if she felt herself willing it was because she felt herself strong? That creates for her, upon my word,’ Mrs Assingham pursued, ‘a duty of considering him, of honourably repaying his trust, which – well, which she’ll be really a fiend if she doesn’t make the law of her conduct. I mean of course his trust that she wouldn’t interfere with him – expressed by his holding himself quiet at the critical time.’

The brougham was nearing home, and it was perhaps this sense of ebbing opportunity that caused the Colonel’s next meditation to flower in a fashion almost surprising to his wife. They were united for the most part but by his exhausted patience; so that indulgent despair was generally at the best his note. He at present however actually compromised with his despair to the extent of practically admitting that he had followed her steps. He literally asked in short an intelligent, well-nigh a sympathising, question. ‘Gratitude to the Prince for not having put a spoke in her wheel – that, you mean, should, taking it in the right way, be precisely the ballast of her boat?’

‘Taking it in the right way.’ Fanny, catching at this gleam, emphasised the proviso.

‘But doesn’t it rather depend on what she may most feel to be the right way?’

‘No – it depends on nothing. Because there’s only one way – for duty or delicacy.’

‘Oh – delicacy!’ Bob Assingham rather crudely murmured.

‘I mean the highest kind – moral. Charlotte’s perfectly capable of appreciating that. By every dictate of moral delicacy she must let him alone.’

‘Then you’ve made up your mind it’s all poor Charlotte?’ he asked with an effect of abruptness.

The effect, whether intended or not, reached her – brought her face short round. It was a touch at which she again lost her balance, at which the bottom somehow dropped out of her recovered comfort. ‘Then you’ve made up yours differently? It really struck you that there is something?’

The movement itself apparently made him once more stand off. He had felt on his nearer approach the high temperature of the question. ‘Perhaps that’s just what she’s doing: showing him how much she’s letting him alone – pointing it out to him from day to day.’

‘Did she point it out by waiting for him to-night on the staircase in the manner you described to me?’

‘I really, my dear, described to you a manner?’ – the Colonel clearly, from want of habit, scarce recognised himself in the imputation.

‘Yes – for once in a way; in those few words we had after you had watched them come up you told me something of what you had seen. You didn’t tell me very much – that you couldn’t for your life; but I saw for myself that, strange to say, you had received your impression, and I felt therefore that there must indeed have been something out of the way for you so to betray it.’ She was fully upon him now, and she confronted him with his proved sensibility to the occasion – confronted him because of her own uneasy need to profit by it. It came over her still more than at the time, it came over her that he had been struck with something, even he, poor dear man; and that for this to have occurred there must have been much to be struck with. She tried in fact to corner him, to pack him insistently down, in the truth of his plain vision, the very plainness of which was its value; for so recorded, she felt, none of it would escape – she should have it at hand for reference. ‘Come, my dear – you thought what you thought: in the presence of what you saw you couldn’t resist thinking. I don’t ask more of it than that. And your idea is worth, this time, quite as much as any of mine – so that you can’t pretend as usual that mine has run away with me. I haven’t caught up with you. I stay where I am. But I see,’ she concluded, ‘where you are, and I’m much obliged to you for letting me. You give me a point de repère2 outside myself – which is where I like it. Now I can work round you.’

Their conveyance, as she spoke, stopped at their door, and it was on the spot another fact of value for her that her husband, though seated on the side by which they must alight, made no movement. They were in a high degree votaries of the latch-key, so that their household had gone to bed; and as they were unaccompanied by a footman the coachman waited in peace. It was so indeed that for a minute Bob Assingham waited – conscious of a reason for replying to this address otherwise than by the so obvious method of turning his back. He didn’t turn his face, but stared straight before him, and his wife had already gathered from the fact of his not moving all the proof she could desire – proof, that is, of her own contention. She knew he never cared what she said, and his neglect of his chance to show it was thereby the more eloquent. ‘Leave it,’ he at last remarked, ‘to them.’

‘ “Leave it”–?’ She wondered.

‘Let them alone. They’ll manage.’

‘They’ll manage, you mean, to do everything they want? Ah there then you are!’

‘They’ll manage in their own way,’ the Colonel almost cryptically repeated.

It had its effect for her: quite apart from its light on the familiar phenomenon of her husband’s indurated conscience, it gave her full in her face the particular evocation of which she had made him guilty. It was wonderful, truly then, the evocation. ‘So cleverly – that’s your idea? – that no one will be the wiser? It’s your idea that we shall have done all that’s required of us if we simply protect them?’

The Colonel, still in his place, declined however to be drawn into a statement of his idea. Statements were too much like theories, in which one lost one’s way; he only knew what he said, and what he said represented the limited vibration of which his confirmed old toughness had been capable. Still, none the less, he had his point to make – for which he took another instant. But he made it for the third time in the same fashion. ‘They’ll manage in their own way.’ With which he got out.

Oh yes, at this, for his companion, it had indeed its effect, and while he mounted their steps she but stared, without following him, at his opening of their door. Their hall was lighted, and as he stood in the aperture looking back at her, his tall lean figure outlined in darkness and with his crush-hat, according to his wont, worn cavalierly, rather diabolically, askew, he seemed to prolong the sinister emphasis of his meaning. In general, on these returns, he came back for her when he had prepared their entrance; so that it was now as if he were ashamed to face her in closer quarters. He looked at her across the interval, and, still in her seat, weighing his charge, she felt her whole view of everything flare up. Wasn’t it simply what had been written in the Prince’s own face beneath what he was saying? – didn’t it correspond with the mocking presence there that she had had her troubled glimpse of? Wasn’t, in fine, the pledge that they would ‘manage in their own way’ the thing he had been feeling for his chance to invite her to take from him? Her husband’s tone somehow fitted Amerigo’s look – the one that had for her so strangely peeped from behind over the shoulder of the one in front. She hadn’t then read it – but wasn’t she reading it when she now saw in it his surmise that she was perhaps to be squared? She wasn’t to be squared, and while she heard her companion call across to her ‘Well, what’s the matter?’ she also took time to remind herself that she had decided she couldn’t be frightened. The ‘matter’? – why it was sufficiently the matter, on all this, that she felt a little sick. For it wasn’t the Prince she had been prepared to regard as primarily the shaky one. Shakiness in Charlotte she had at the most perhaps postulated – it would be, she somehow felt, more easy to deal with. Therefore if he had come so far it was a different pair of sleeves. There was nothing to choose between them. It made her so helpless that, as the time passed without her alighting, the Colonel came back and fairly drew her forth; after which, on the pavement, under the street-lamp, their very silence might have been the mark of something grave – their silence eked out for her by his giving her his arm and their then crawling up their steps quite mildly and unitedly together, like some old Darby and Joan who have had a disappointment. It almost resembled a return from a funeral – unless indeed it resembled more the hushed approach to a house of mourning. What indeed had she come home for but to inter, as decently as possible, her mistake?