The Golden Bowl Chapter 4

‘I don’t quite see, my dear,’ Colonel Assingham said to his wife the night of Charlotte’s arrival – ‘I don’t quite see, I’m bound to say, why you take it, even at the worst, so ferociously hard. It isn’t your fault, after all, is it? I’ll be hanged at any rate if it’s mine.’

The hour was late, and the young lady who had disembarked at Southampton that morning to come up by the ‘steamer special’, and who had then settled herself at an hotel only to re-settle herself a couple of hours later at a private house, was by this time, they might hope, peacefully resting from her exploits. There had been two men at dinner, rather battered brothers-in-arms, of his own period, casually picked up by her host the day before, and when the gentlemen, after the meal, rejoined the ladies in the drawing-room, Charlotte, pleading fatigue, had already excused herself. The beguiled warriors however had stayed till after eleven – Mrs Assingham, though finally quite without illusions, as she said, about the military character, was always mistress of a spell to old soldiers; and as the Colonel had come in before dinner only in time to dress he hadn’t till this moment really been summoned to meet his companion over the situation that, as he was now to learn, their visitor’s advent had created for them. It was actually more than midnight, the servants had been sent to bed, the rattle of the wheels had ceased to come in through a window sill open to the August air, and Robert Assingham had been steadily learning all the while what it thus behoved him to know. But the words just quoted from him presented themselves for the moment as the essence of his spirit and his attitude. He disengaged, he would be damned if he didn’t – they were both phrases he repeatedly used – his responsibility. The simplest, the sanest, the most obliging of men, he habitually indulged in extravagant language. His wife had once told him, in relation to his violence of speech, that such excesses on his part made her think of a retired General whom she had once seen playing with toy soldiers, fighting and winning battles, carrying on sieges and annihilating enemies with little fortresses of wood and little armies of tin. Her husband’s exaggerated emphasis was his box of toy soldiers, his military game. It harmlessly gratified in him, for his declining years, the military instinct; bad words, when sufficiently numerous and arrayed in their might, could represent battalions, squadrons, tremendous cannonades and glorious charges of cavalry. It was natural, it was delightful – the romance, and for her as well, of camp life and of the perpetual booming of guns. It was fighting to the end, to the death, but no one was ever killed.

Less fortunate than she, nevertheless, in spite of his wealth of expression, he hadn’t yet found the image that described her favourite game; all he could do was practically to leave it to her, emulating her own philosophy. He had again and again sat up late to discuss those situations in which her finer consciousness abounded, but he had never failed to deny that anything in life, anything of hers, could be a situation for himself. She might be in fifty at once if she liked – and it was what women did like, at their ease, after all; there always being, when they had too much of any, some man, as they were well aware, to get them out. He wouldn’t at any price have one, of any sort whatever, of his own, or even be in one along with her. He watched her accordingly in her favourite element very much as he had sometimes watched at the Aquarium the celebrated lady who, in a slight, though tight, bathing-suit, turned somersaults and did tricks in the tank of water which looked so cold and uncomfortable to the non-amphibious. He listened to his companion to-night, while he smoked his last pipe, he watched her through her demonstration, quite as if he had paid a shilling. But it was true that, this being the case, he desired the value of his money. What was it, in the name of wonder, that she was so bent on being responsible for? What did she pretend was going to happen, and what, at the worst, could the poor girl do, even granting she wanted to do anything? What at the worst for that matter could she be conceived to have in her head?

‘If she had told me the moment she got here,’ Mrs Assingham replied, ‘I shouldn’t have my difficulty in finding out. But she wasn’t so obliging, and I see no sign at all of her becoming so. What’s certain is that she didn’t come for nothing. She wants’ – she worked it out at her leisure – ‘to see the Prince again. That isn’t what troubles me. I mean that such a fact, as a fact, isn’t. But what I ask myself is What does she want it for?’

‘What’s the good of asking yourself if you know you don’t know?’ The Colonel sat back at his own ease, an ankle resting on the other knee and his eyes attentive to the good appearance of an extremely slender foot which he kept jerking in its neat integument of fine-spun black silk and patent leather. It seemed to confess, this member, to consciousness of military discipline, everything about it being as polished and perfect, as straight and tight and trim, as a soldier on parade. It went so far as to imply that some one or other would have ‘got’ something or other, confinement to barracks or suppression of pay, if it hadn’t been just as it was. Bob Assingham was distinguished altogether by a leanness of person, a leanness quite distinct from physical laxity, which might have been determined on the part of superior powers by views of transport and accommodation, and which in fact verged on the abnormal. He ‘did’ himself as well as his friends mostly knew, yet remained hungrily thin, with facial, with abdominal cavities quite grim in their effect, and with a consequent looseness of apparel that, combined with a choice of queer light shades and of strange straw-like textures, of the aspect of Chinese mats, provocative of wonder at his sources of supply, suggested the habit of tropic islands, a continual cane-bottomed chair, a governorship exercised on wide verandahs.1 His smooth round head, with the particular shade of its white hair, was like a silver pot reversed; his cheekbones and the bristle of his moustache were worthy of Attila the Hun.2 The hollows of his eyes were deep and darksome, but the eyes within them were like little blue flowers plucked that morning. He knew everything that could be known about life, which he regarded as, for far the greater part, a matter of pecuniary arrangement. His wife accused him of a want alike of moral and of intellectual reaction, or rather indeed of a complete incapacity for either. He never went even so far as to understand what she meant, and it didn’t at all matter, since he could be in spite of the limitation a perfectly social creature. The infirmities, the predicaments of men neither surprised nor shocked him, and indeed – which was perhaps his only real loss in a thrifty career – scarce even amused; he took them for granted without horror, classifying them after their kind and calculating results and chances. He might in old bewildering climates, in old campaigns of cruelty and licence, have had such revelations and known such amazements that he had nothing more to learn. But he was wholly content, despite his fondness, in domestic discussion, for the superlative degree; and his kindness, in the oddest way, seemed to have nothing to do with his experience. He could deal with things perfectly, for all his needs, without getting near them.

This was the way he dealt with his wife, a large proportion of whose meanings he knew he could neglect. He edited for their general economy the play of her mind, just as he edited, savingly, with the stump of a pencil, her redundant telegrams. The thing in the world that was least of a mystery to him was his Club, which he was accepted as perhaps too completely managing, and which he managed on lines of perfect penetration. His connexion with it was really a masterpiece of editing. This was in fact, to come back, very much the process he might have been proposing to apply to Mrs Assingham’s view of what was now before them; that is to their connexion with Charlotte Stant’s possibilities. They wouldn’t lavish on them all their little fortune of curiosity and alarm; certainly they wouldn’t spend their cherished savings so early in the day. He liked Charlotte, moreover, who was a smooth and compact inmate and whom he felt as, with her instincts that made against waste, much more of his own sort than his wife. He could talk with her about Fanny almost better than he could talk with Fanny about Charlotte. However, he made at present the best of the latter necessity, even to the pressing of the question he has been noted as having last uttered. ‘If you can’t think what to be afraid of, wait till you can think. Then you’ll do it much better. Or otherwise, if that’s waiting too long, find out from her. Don’t try to find out from me. Ask her herself.’

Mrs Assingham denied, as we know, that her husband had a play of mind; so that she could, on her side, treat these remarks only as if they had been senseless physical gestures or nervous facial movements. She overlooked them as from habit and kindness; yet there was no one to whom she talked so persistently of such intimate things. ‘It’s her friendship with Maggie that’s the immense complication. Because that,’ she audibly mused, ‘is so natural.’

‘Then why can’t she have come out for it?’

‘She came out,’ Mrs Assingham continued to meditate, ‘because she hates America. There was no place for her there – she didn’t fit in. She wasn’t in sympathy – no more were the people she saw. Then it’s hideously dear; she can’t, on her means, begin to live there. Not at all she can, in a way, here.’

‘In the way, you mean, of living with us?’

‘Of living with any one. She can’t live by visits alone – and she doesn’t want to. She’s too good for it even if she could. But she will – she must, sooner or later – stay with them. Maggie will want her – Maggie will make her. Besides, she’ll want to herself.’

‘Then why won’t that do,’ the Colonel asked, ‘for you to think it’s what she has come for?’

‘How will it do, how?’ – she went on as without hearing him. ‘That’s what one keeps feeling.’

‘Why shouldn’t it do beautifully?’

‘That anything of the past,’ she brooded, ‘should come back now? How will it do, how will it do?’

‘It will do, I dare say, without your wringing your hands over it. When, my dear,’ the Colonel pursued as he smoked, ‘have you ever seen anything of yours – anything that you’ve done – not do?’

‘Ah I didn’t do this!’ It brought her answer straight. ‘I didn’t bring her back.’

‘Did you expect her to stay over there all her days to oblige you?’

‘Not a bit – for I shouldn’t have minded her coming after their marriage. It’s her coming this way before.’ To which she added with inconsequence: ‘I’m too sorry for her – of course she can’t enjoy it. But I don’t see what perversity rides her. She needn’t have looked it all so in the face – as she doesn’t do it, I suppose, simply for discipline. It’s almost – that’s the bore of it – discipline to me.’

‘Perhaps then,’ said Bob Assingham, ‘that’s what has been her idea. Take it, for God’s sake, as discipline to you and have done with it. It will do,’ he added, ‘for discipline to me as well.’

She was far, however, from having done with it; it was a situation with such different sides, as she said, and to none of which one could, in justice, be blind. ‘It isn’t in the least, you know, for instance, that I believe she’s bad. Never, never,’ Mrs Assingham declared. ‘I don’t think that of her.’

‘Then why isn’t that enough?’

Nothing was enough, Mrs Assingham signified, but that she should develop her thought. ‘She doesn’t deliberately intend, she doesn’t consciously wish, the least complication. It’s perfectly true that she thinks Maggie a dear – as who doesn’t? She’s incapable of any plan to hurt a hair of her head. Yet here she is – and there they are,’ she wound up.

Her husband again for a little smoked in silence. ‘What in the world, between them, ever took place?’

‘Between Charlotte and the Prince? Why nothing – except their having to recognise that nothing could. That was their little romance – it was even their little tragedy.’

‘But what the deuce did they do?’

‘Do? They fell in love with each other – but, seeing it wasn’t possible, gave each other up.’

‘Then where was the romance?’

‘Why in their frustration, in their having the courage to look the facts in the face.’

‘What facts?’ the Colonel went on.

‘Well, to begin with, that of their neither of them having the means to marry. If she had had even a little – a little, I mean, for two – I believe he would bravely have done it.’ After which, as her husband but emitted an odd vague sound, she corrected herself. ‘I mean if he himself had had only a little – or a little more than a little, a little for a prince. They would have done what they could’ – she did them justice – ‘if there had been a way. But there wasn’t a way, and Charlotte, quite to her honour, I consider, understood it. He had to have money – it was a question of life and death. It wouldn’t have been a bit amusing, either, to marry him as a pauper – I mean leaving him one. That was what she had – as he had – the reason to see.’

‘And their reason is what you call their romance?’

She looked at him a moment. ‘What do you want more?’

‘Didn’t he,’ the Colonel enquired, ‘want anything more? Or didn’t, for that matter, poor Charlotte herself?’

She kept her eyes on him; there was a manner in it that half answered. ‘They were thoroughly in love. She might have been his –’ She checked herself; she even for a minute lost herself. ‘She might have been anything she liked – except his wife.’

‘But she wasn’t,’ said the Colonel very smokingly.

‘She wasn’t,’ Mrs Assingham echoed.

The echo, not loud but deep, filled for a little the room. He seemed to listen to it die away; then he began again. ‘How are you sure?’

She waited before saying, but when she spoke it was definite. ‘There wasn’t time.’

He had a small laugh for her reason; he might have expected some other. ‘Does it take so much time?’

She herself, however, remained serious. ‘It takes more than they had.’

He was detached, but he wondered. ‘What was the matter with their time?’ After which, as, remembering it all, living it over and piecing it together, she only considered, ‘You mean that you came in with your idea?’ he demanded.

It brought her quickly to the point, and as if also in a measure to answer herself. ‘Not a bit of it – then. But you surely recall,’ she went on, ‘the way, a year ago, everything took place. They had parted before he had ever heard of Maggie.’

‘Why hadn’t he heard of her from Charlotte herself?’

‘Because she had never spoken of her.’

‘Is that also,’ the Colonel enquired, ‘what she has told you?’

‘I’m not speaking,’ his wife returned, ‘of what she has told me. That’s one thing. I’m speaking of what I know by myself. That’s another.’

‘You feel in other words that she lies to you?’ Bob Assingham more sociably asked.

She neglected the question, treating it as gross. ‘She never so much, at the time, as named Maggie.’

It was so positive that it appeared to strike him. ‘It’s he then who has told you?’

She after a moment admitted it. ‘It’s he.’

‘And he doesn’t lie?’

‘No – to do him justice. I believe he absolutely doesn’t. If I hadn’t believed it,’ Mrs Assingham declared for her general justification, ‘I’d have had nothing to do with him – that is in this connexion. He’s a gentleman – I mean all as much of one as he ought to be. And he had nothing to gain. That helps,’ she added, ‘even a gentleman. It was I who named Maggie to him – a year from last May. He had never heard of her before.’

‘Then it’s grave,’ said the Colonel.

She briefly weighed it. ‘Do you mean grave for me?’

‘Oh that everything’s grave for “you” is what we take for granted and are fundamentally talking about. It’s grave – it was – for Charlotte. And it’s grave for Maggie. That is it was – when he did see her. Or when she did see him.’

‘You don’t torment me as much as you would like,’ she presently went on, ‘because you think of nothing that I haven’t a thousand times thought of, and because I think of everything that you never will. It would all,’ she recognised, ‘have been grave if it hadn’t all been right. You can’t make out,’ she contended, ‘that we got to Rome before the end of February.’

He more than agreed. ‘There’s nothing in life, my dear, that I can make out.’

Well, there was apparently nothing in life that she at real need couldn’t. ‘Charlotte, who had been there that year from early, early in November, left suddenly, you’ll quite remember, about the tenth of April. She was to have stayed on – she was to have stayed, naturally, more or less, for us; and she was to have stayed all the more that the Ververs, due all winter, but delayed, week after week, in Paris, were at last really coming. They were coming – that is Maggie was – largely to see her, and above all to be with her there. It was all altered – by Charlotte’s going to Florence. She went from one day to the other – you forget everything. She gave her reasons, but I thought it odd at the time; I had a sense that something must have happened. The difficulty was that though I knew a little I didn’t know enough. I didn’t know her relation with him had been, as you say, a “near” thing – that is I didn’t know how near. The poor girl’s departure was a flight – she went to save herself.’

He had listened more than he showed – as came out in his tone. ‘To save herself?’

‘Well, also really I think to save him too. I saw it afterwards – I see it all now. He’d have been sorry – he didn’t want to hurt her.’

‘Oh I dare say,’ the Colonel laughed. ‘They generally don’t!’

‘At all events,’ his wife pursued, ‘she escaped – they both did; for they had had simply to face it. Their marriage couldn’t be, and, if that was so, the sooner they put the Apennines3 between them the better. It had taken them, it’s true, some time to feel this and to find it out. They had met constantly, and not always publicly, all that winter; they had met more than was known – though it was a good deal known. More, certainly,’ she said, ‘than I then imagined – though I don’t know what difference it would after all have made with me. I liked him, I thought him charming, from the first of our knowing him; and now, after more than a year, he has done nothing to spoil it. And there are things he might have done – things that many men easily would. Therefore I believe in him, and I was right, at first, in knowing I was going to. So I haven’t’ – and she stated it as she might have quoted from a slate, after adding up the items, the sum of a column of figures – ‘so I haven’t, I say to myself, been a fool.’

‘Well, are you trying to make out that I’ve said you have? All their case wants, at any rate,’ Bob Assingham declared, ‘is that you should leave it well alone. It’s theirs now; they’ve bought it, over the counter, and paid for it. It has ceased to be yours.’

‘Of which case,’ she asked, ‘are you speaking?’

He smoked a minute: then with a groan: ‘Lord, are there so many?’

‘There’s Maggie’s and the Prince’s, and there’s the Prince’s and Charlotte’s.’

‘Oh yes; and then,’ the Colonel scoffed, ‘there’s Charlotte’s and the Prince’s.’

‘There’s Maggie’s and Charlotte’s,’ she went on – ‘and there’s also Maggie’s and mine. I think too that there’s Charlotte’s and mine. Yes,’ she mused, ‘Charlotte’s and mine is certainly a case. In short, you see, there are plenty. But I mean,’ she said, ‘to keep my head.’

‘Are we to settle them all,’ he enquired, ‘to-night?’

‘I should lose it if things had happened otherwise – if I had acted with any folly.’ She had gone on in her earnestness, unheeding of his question. ‘I shouldn’t be able to bear that now. But my good conscience is my strength; no one can accuse me. The Ververs came on to Rome alone – Charlotte, after their days with her in Florence, had decided about America. Maggie, I dare say, had helped her; she must have made her a present, and a handsome one, so that many things were easy. Charlotte left them, came to England, “joined” somebody or other, sailed for New York. I have still her letter from Milan, telling me; I didn’t know at the moment all that was behind it, but I felt in it nevertheless the undertaking of a new life. Certainly, in any case, it cleared that air – I mean the dear old Roman, in which we were steeped. It left the field free – it gave me a free hand. There was no question for me of anybody else when I brought the two others together. More than that, there was no question for them. So you see,’ she concluded, ‘where that puts me.’

She got up, on the words, very much as if they were the blue daylight towards which, through a darksome tunnel, she had been pushing her way, and the elation in her voice, combined with her recovered alertness, might have signified the sharp whistle of the train that shoots at last into the open. She turned about the room; she looked out a moment into the August night; she stopped here and there before the flowers in bowls and vases. Yes, it was distinctly as if she had proved what was needing proof, as if the issue of her operation had been almost unexpectedly a success. Old arithmetic had perhaps been fallacious, but the new settled the question. Her husband oddly, however, kept his place without apparently measuring these results. As he had been amused at her intensity, so he wasn’t uplifted by her relief; his interest might in fact have been more enlisted than he allowed. ‘Do you mean,’ he presently asked, ‘that he had already forgot about Charlotte?’

She faced round as if he had touched a spring. ‘He wanted to, naturally – and it was much the best thing he could do.’ She was in possession of the main case, as it truly seemed; she had it all now. ‘He was capable of the effort, and he took the best way. Remember too what Maggie then seemed to us.’

‘She’s very nice, but she always seems to me more than anything else the young woman who has a million a year. If you mean that that’s what she especially seemed to him you of course place the thing in your light. The effort to forget Charlotte couldn’t, I grant you, have been so difficult.’

This pulled her up but for an instant. ‘I never said he didn’t from the first – I never said that he doesn’t more and more – like Maggie’s money.’

‘I never said I shouldn’t have liked it myself,’ Bob Assingham returned. He made no movement; he smoked another minute. ‘How much did Maggie know?’

‘How much?’ She seemed to consider – as if it were between quarts and gallons – how best to express the quantity. ‘She knew what Charlotte, in Florence, had told her.’

‘And what had Charlotte told her?’

‘Very little.’

‘What makes you so sure?’

‘Why this – that she couldn’t tell her.’ And she explained a little what she meant. ‘There are things, my dear – haven’t you felt it yourself, coarse as you are? – that no one could tell Maggie. There are things that, upon my word, I shouldn’t care to attempt to tell her now.’

The Colonel smoked on it. ‘She’d be so scandalised?’

‘She’d be so frightened. She’d be, in her strange little way, so hurt. She wasn’t born to know evil. She must never know it.’

Bob Assingham had a queer grim laugh; the sound of which in fact fixed his wife before him. ‘We’re taking grand ways to prevent it.’

But she stood there to protest. ‘We’re not taking any ways. The ways are all taken; they were taken from the moment he came up to our carriage that day in Villa Borghese – the second or third of her days in Rome, when, as you remember, you went off somewhere with Mr Verver, and the Prince, who had got into the carriage with us, came home with us to tea. They had met; they had seen each other well; they were in relation: the rest was to come of itself and as it could. It began, practically, I recollect, in our drive. Maggie happened to learn, by some other man’s greeting of him, in the bright Roman way, from a street-corner as we passed, that one of the Prince’s baptismal names, the one always used for him among his relations, was Amerigo:4 which – as you probably don’t know, however, even after a lifetime of me – was the name, four hundred years ago, or whenever, of the pushing man who followed, across the sea, in the wake of Columbus and succeeded, where Columbus had failed, in becoming godfather, or name-father, to the new Continent; so that the thought of any connexion with him can even now thrill our artless breasts.’

The Colonel’s grim placidity could always quite adequately meet his wife’s not infrequent imputation of ignorances, on the score of the land of her birth, unperturbed and unashamed; and these dark depths were even at the present moment not directly lighted by an enquiry that managed to be curious without being apologetic. ‘But where does the connexion come in?’

She had it ready. ‘By the women – that is by some obliging woman, of old, who was a descendant of the pushing man, the make-believe discoverer, and whom the Prince is therefore luckily able to refer to as an ancestress. A branch of the other family had become great – great enough, at least, to marry into his; and the name of the navigator, crowned with glory, was, very naturally, to become so the fashion among them that some son, of every generation, was appointed to wear it. My point is at any rate that I recall noticing at the time how the Prince was from the start helped with the dear Ververs by his wearing it. The connexion became romantic for Maggie the moment she took it in; she filled out, in a flash, every link that might be vague. “By that sign,” I quite said to myself, “he’ll conquer”5 – with his good fortune, of course, of having the other necessary signs too. It really,’ said Mrs Assingham, ‘was, practically, the fine side of the wedge. Which struck me as also,’ she wound up, ‘a lovely note for the candour of the Ververs.’

The Colonel had followed, but his comment was prosaic. ‘He knew, Amerigo, what he was about. And I don’t mean the old one.’

‘I know what you mean!’ his wife bravely threw off.

‘The old one’ – he pointed his effect – ‘isn’t the only discoverer in the family.’

‘Oh as much as you like! If he discovered America – or got himself honoured as if he had – his successors were in due time to discover the Americans. And it was one of them in particular, doubtless, who was to discover how patriotic we are.’

‘Wouldn’t this be the same one,’ the Colonel asked, ‘who really discovered what you call the connexion?’

She gave him a look. ‘The connexion’s a true thing – the connexion’s perfectly historic. Your insinuations recoil upon your cynical mind. Don’t you understand,’ she asked, ‘that the history of such people is known, root and branch, at every moment of its course?’

‘Oh it’s all right,’ said Bob Assingham.

‘Go to the British Museum,’ his companion continued with spirit.

‘And what am I to do there?’

‘There’s a whole immense room, or recess, or department, or whatever, filled with books written about his family alone. You can see for yourself?’

‘Have you seen for your self?’

She faltered but an instant. ‘Certainly – I went one day with Maggie. We looked him up, so to say. They were most civil.’ And she fell again into the current her husband had slightly ruffled. ‘The effect was produced, the charm began to work at all events, in Rome, from that hour of the Prince’s drive with us. My only course afterwards had to be to make the best of it. It was certainly good enough for that,’ Mrs Assingham hastened to add, ‘and I didn’t in the least see my duty in making the worst. In the same situation to-day I wouldn’t act differently. I entered into the case as it then appeared to me – and as for the matter of that it still does. I liked it, I thought all sorts of good of it, and nothing can even now,’ she said with some intensity, ‘make me think anything else.’

‘Nothing can ever make you think anything you don’t want to,’ the Colonel, still in his chair, remarked over his pipe. ‘You’ve got a precious power of thinking whatever you do want. You want also, from moment to moment, to think such desperately different things. What happened,’ he went on, ‘was that you fell violently in love with the Prince yourself, and that as you couldn’t get me out of the way you had to take some roundabout course. You couldn’t marry him, any more than Charlotte could – that is not to yourself. But you could to somebody else – it was always the Prince, it was always marriage. You could to your little friend, to whom there were no objections.’

‘Not only there were no objections, but there were reasons, positive ones – and all excellent, all charming.’ She spoke with an absence of all repudiation of his exposure of the spring of her conduct; and this abstention, clearly and effectively conscious, evidently cost her nothing. ‘It is always the Prince, and it is always, thank heaven, marriage. And these are the things, God grant, that it will always be. That I could help, a year ago, most assuredly made me happy, and it continues to make me happy.’

‘Then why aren’t you quiet?’

‘I am quiet,’ said Fanny Assingham.

He looked at her, with his colourless candour, still in his place; she moved about again a little, emphasising by her unrest her declaration of her tranquillity. He was as silent at first as if he had taken her answer, but he wasn’t to keep it long. ‘What do you make of it that, by your own show, Charlotte couldn’t tell her all? What do you make of it that the Prince didn’t tell her anything? Say one understands that there are things she can’t be told – since, as you put it, she is so easily scared and shocked.’ He produced these objections slowly, giving her time, by his pauses, to stop roaming and come back to him. But she was roaming still when he concluded his enquiry. ‘If there hadn’t been anything there shouldn’t have been between the pair before Charlotte bolted – in order, precisely, as you say, that there shouldn’t be: why in the world was what there had been too bad to be spoken of?’

Mrs Assingham, after this question, continued still to circulate – not directly meeting it even when at last she stopped. ‘I thought you wanted me to be quiet.’

‘So I do – and I’m trying to make you so much so that you won’t worry more. Can’t you be quiet on that?’

She thought a moment – then seemed to try. ‘To relate that she had to “bolt” for the reasons we speak of, even though the bolting had done for her what she wished – that I can perfectly feel Charlotte’s not wanting to do.’

‘Ah then if it has done for her what she wished – !’ But the Colonel’s conclusion hung by the ‘if’ which his wife didn’t take up. So it hung but the longer when he presently spoke again. ‘All one wonders, in that case, is why then she has come back to him.’

‘Say she hasn’t come back to him. Not really to him.’

‘I’ll say anything you like. But that won’t do me the same good as your saying it.’

‘Nothing, my dear, will do you good,’ Mrs Assingham returned. ‘You don’t care for anything in itself; you care for nothing but to be grossly amused because I don’t keep washing my hands – !’

‘I thought your whole argument was that everything is so right that this is precisely what you do.’

But his wife, as it was a point she had often made, could go on as she had gone on before. ‘You’re perfectly indifferent, really; you’re perfectly immoral. You’ve taken part in the sack of cities,6 and I’m sure you’ve done dreadful things yourself. But I don’t trouble my head, if you like. “So now there!” ’ she laughed.

He accepted her laugh, but he kept his way. ‘Well, I back poor Charlotte.’

‘ “Back” her?’

‘To know what she wants.’

‘Ah then, so do I. She does know what she wants.’ And Mrs Assingham produced this quantity, at last, on the girl’s behalf, as the ripe result of her late wanderings and musings. She had groped through their talk for the thread and now had got it. ‘She wants to be magnificent.’

‘She is,’ said the Colonel almost cynically.

‘She wants’ – his wife now had it fast – ‘to be thoroughly superior, and she’s capable of that.’

‘Of wanting to?’

‘Of carrying out her idea.’

‘And what is her idea?’

‘To see Maggie through.’

Bob Assingham wondered. ‘Through what?’

‘Through everything. She knows the Prince. And Maggie doesn’t. No, dear thing’ – Mrs Assingham had to recognise it – ‘she doesn’t.’

‘So that Charlotte has come out to give her lessons?’

She continued, Fanny Assingham, to work out her thought. ‘She has done this great thing for him. That is a year ago she practically did it. She practically, at any rate, helped him to do it himself – and helped me to help him. She kept off, she stayed away, she left him free; and what, moreover, were her silences to Maggie but a direct aid to him? If she had spoken in Florence; if she had told her own poor story; if she had come back at any time – till within a few weeks ago; if she hadn’t gone to New York and hadn’t held out there: if she hadn’t done these things all that has happened since would certainly have been different. Therefore she’s in a position to be consistent now. She knows the Prince,’ Mrs Assingham repeated. It involved even again her former recognition. ‘And Maggie, dear thing, doesn’t.’

She was high, she was lucid, she was almost inspired; and it was but the deeper drop therefore to her husband’s flat common sense. ‘In other words Maggie is, by her ignorance, in danger? Then if she’s in danger, there is danger.’

‘There won’t be – with Charlotte’s understanding of it. That’s where she has had her conception of being able to be heroic, of being able in fact to be sublime. She is, she will be’ – the good lady by this time glowed. ‘So she sees it – to become, for her best friend, an element of positive safety.’

Bob Assingham looked at it hard. ‘Which of them do you call her best friend?’

She gave a toss of impatience. ‘I’ll leave you to discover!’ But the grand truth thus made out she had now completely adopted. ‘It’s for us therefore to be hers.’

‘ “Hers”?’

‘You and I. It’s for us to be Charlotte’s. It’s for us on our side to see her through.’

‘Through her sublimity?’

‘Through her noble lonely life. Only – that’s essential – it mustn’t be lonely. It will be all right if she marries.’

‘So we’re to marry her?’

‘We’re to marry her. It will be,’ Mrs Assingham continued, ‘the great thing I can do.’ She made it out more and more. ‘It will make up.’

‘Make up for what?’ As she said nothing, however, his desire for lucidity renewed itself. ‘If everything’s so all right what is there to make up for?’

‘Why if I did do either of them by any chance a wrong. If I made a mistake.’

‘You’ll make up for it by making another?’ And then as she again took her time: ‘I thought your whole point is just that you’re sure.’

‘One can never be ideally sure of anything. There are always possibilities.’

‘Then if we can but strike so wild why keep meddling?’

It made her again look at him. ‘Where would you have been, my dear, if I hadn’t meddled with you?’

‘Ah that wasn’t meddling – I was your own. I was your own,’ said the Colonel, ‘from the moment I didn’t object.’

‘Well, these people won’t object. They are my own too – in the sense that I’m awfully fond of them. Also in the sense,’ she continued, ‘that I think they’re not so very much less fond of me. Our relation, all round, exists – it’s a reality, and a very good one; we’re mixed up, so to speak, and it’s too late to change it. We must live in it and with it. Therefore to see that Charlotte gets a good husband as soon as possible – that, as I say, will be one of my ways of living. It will cover,’ she said with conviction, ‘all the ground.’ And then as his own conviction appeared to continue as little to match: ‘The ground, I mean, of any nervousness I may ever feel. It will be in fact my duty – and I shan’t rest till my duty’s performed.’ She had arrived by this time at something like exaltation. ‘I shall give, for the next year or two if necessary, my life to it. I shall have done in that case what I can.’

He took it at last as it came. ‘You hold there’s no limit to what you “can”?’

‘I don’t say there’s no limit, or anything of the sort. I say there are good chances – enough of them for hope. Why shouldn’t there be when a girl is after all what she is?’

‘By after “all” you mean after she’s in love with somebody else?’

The Colonel put his question with a quietude doubtless designed to be fatal; but it scarcely pulled her up. ‘She’s not too much in love not herself to want to marry. She would now particularly like to.’

‘Has she told you so?’

‘Not yet. It’s too soon. But she will. Meanwhile however I don’t require the information. Her marrying will prove the truth.’

‘And what truth?’

‘The truth of everything I say.’

‘Prove it to whom?’

‘Well, to myself, to begin with. That will be enough for me – to work for her. What it will prove,’ Mrs Assingham presently went on, ‘will be that she’s cured. That she accepts the situation.’

He paid this the tribute of a long pull at his pipe. ‘The situation of doing the one thing she can that will really seem to cover her tracks?’

His wife looked at him, the good dry man, as if now at last he was merely vulgar. ‘The one thing she can do that will really make new tracks altogether. The thing that, before any other, will be wise and right. The thing that will best give her the chance to be magnificent.’

He slowly emitted his smoke. ‘And best give you, by the same token, yours to be magnificent with her?’

‘I shall be as magnificent at least as I can.’

Bob Assingham got up. ‘And you call me immoral?’

It made her hesitate a moment. ‘I’ll call you stupid if you prefer. But stupidity pushed to a certain point is, you know, immorality. Just so what is morality but high intelligence?’ This he was unable to tell her; which left her more definitely to conclude. ‘Besides, it’s all, at the worst, great fun.’

‘Oh if you simply put it at that – !’

His implication was that in this case they had a common ground; yet even thus he couldn’t catch her by it. ‘Oh I don’t mean,’ she said from the threshold, ‘the fun that you mean. Good-night.’ In answer to which, as he turned out the electric light, he gave an odd short groan, almost a grunt. He had apparently meant some particular kind.