The Golden Bowl Chapter 4

Maggie’s new uneasiness might have had time to drop, inasmuch as she not only was conscious, during several days that followed, of no fresh indication for it to feed on, but was even struck, in quite another way, with an augmentation of the symptoms of that difference she had taken it into her head to work for. She recognised by the end of a week that if she had been in a manner caught up her father had been not less so – with the effect of her husband’s and his wife’s closing in together round them and of their all having suddenly begun, as a party of four, to lead a life gregarious, and from that reason almost hilarious, so far as the easy sound of it went, as never before. It might have been an accident and a mere coincidence – so at least she said to herself at first; but a dozen chances that furthered the whole appearance had risen to the surface, pleasant pretexts, oh certainly pleasant, as pleasant as Amerigo in particular could make them, for associated undertakings, quite for shared adventures, for its always turning out amusingly that they wanted to do very much the same thing at the same time and in the same way. Funny all this was, to some extent, in the light of the fact that the father and daughter, for so long, had expressed so few positive desires; yet it would be sufficiently natural that if Amerigo and Charlotte had at last got a little tired of each other’s company they should find their relief not so much in sinking to the rather low level of their companions as in wishing to pull the latter into the train in which they so constantly moved. ‘We’re in the train,’ Maggie mutely reflected after the dinner in Eaton Square with Lady Castledean; ‘we’ve suddenly waked up in it and found ourselves rushing along very much as if we had been put in during sleep – shoved like a pair of labelled boxes into the van. And since I wanted to “go” I’m certainly going,’ she might have added; ‘I’m moving without trouble – they’re doing it all for us: it’s wonderful how they understand and how perfectly it succeeds.’ For that was the thing she had most immediately to acknowledge: it seemed as easy for them to make a quartette as it had formerly so long appeared for them to make a pair of couples – this latter being thus a discovery too absurdly belated. The only point at which day after day the success appeared at all qualified was represented, as might have been said, by her irresistible impulse to give her father a clutch when the train indulged in one of its occasional lurches. Then – there was no denying it – his eyes and her own met; so that they were themselves doing active violence, as against the others, to that very spirit of union, or at least to that very achievement of change, which she had taken the field to invoke.

The maximum of change was reached no doubt the day the Matcham party dined in Portland Place; the day really perhaps of Maggie’s maximum of social glory, in the sense of its showing for her own occasion, her very own, with every one else extravagantly rallying and falling in, absolutely conspiring to make her its heroine. It was as if her father himself, always with more initiative as a guest than as a host, had dabbled too in the conspiracy; and the impression was not the more vague for the presence of the Assinghams, likewise very much caught-up now, after something of a lull, by the side-wind of all the rest of the motion, and giving our young woman, so far at least as Fanny was concerned, the sense of some special intention of encouragement and applause. Fanny, who hadn’t been present at the other dinner, thanks to a preference entertained and expressed by Charlotte, made a splendid show at this one in new orange-coloured velvet with multiplied turquoises, not less than with a confidence as different as possible, her hostess inferred, from her too-marked betrayal of a belittled state at Matcham. Maggie was not indifferent to her own opportunity to redress this balance – which seemed for the hour part of a general rectification; she liked making out for herself that on the high level of Portland Place, a spot exempt on all sorts of grounds from jealous jurisdictions, her friend could feel as ‘good’ as any one and could in fact at moments almost appear to take the lead in recognition and celebration, so far as the evening might conduce to intensify the lustre of the little Princess. Mrs Assingham produced on her the impression of giving her constantly her cue for this; and it was in truth partly by her help, intelligently, quite gratefully accepted, that the little Princess in Maggie was drawn out and emphasised. She couldn’t definitely have said how it happened, but she felt herself for the first time in her career living up to the public and popular notion of such a personage, as it pressed upon her from all round; rather wondering inwardly too while she did so at that strange mixture in things through which the popular notion could be evidenced for her by such supposedly great ones of the earth as the Castledeans and their kind. Fanny Assingham might really have been there at all events, like one of the assistants in the ring at the circus, to keep up the pace of the sleek revolving animal on whose back the lady in short spangled skirts should brilliantly caper and posture. That was all, doubtless: Maggie had forgotten, had neglected, had declined, to be the little Princess on anything like the scale open to her; but now that the collective hand had been held out to her with such alacrity, so that she might skip up into the light even, as seemed to her modest mind, with such a show of pink stocking and such an abbreviation of white petticoat, she could strike herself as perceiving, under arched eyebrows, where her mistake had been. She had invited for the later hours after her dinner a fresh contingent, the whole list of her apparent London acquaintance – which was again a thing in the manner of little princesses for whom the princely art was a matter of course. That was what she was learning to do, to fill out as a matter of course her appointed, her expected, her imposed character; and, though there were latent considerations that somewhat interfered with the lesson, she was having to-night an inordinate quantity of practice, none of it so successful as when, quite wittingly, she directed it at Lady Castledean, who was reduced by it at last to an unprecedented state of passivity. The perception of this high result caused Mrs Assingham fairly to flush with responsive joy; she glittered at her young friend from moment to moment quite feverishly; it was positively as if her young friend had in some marvellous sudden supersubtle way become a source of succour to herself, become beautifully divinely retributive. The intensity of the taste of these registered phenomena was in fact that somehow, by a process and through a connexion not again to be traced, she so practised at the same time on Amerigo and Charlotte – with only the drawback, her constant check and second-thought, that she concomitantly practised perhaps still more on her father.

This last was a danger indeed that for much of the ensuing time had its hours of strange beguilement – those at which her sense for precautions so suffered itself to lapse that she felt her communion with him more intimate than any other. It couldn’t but pass between them that something singular was happening – so much as this she again and again said to herself; whereby the comfort of it was there after all to be noted just as much as the possible peril, and she could think of the couple they formed together as groping, with sealed lips but with mutual looks that had never been so tender, for some freedom, some fiction, some figured bravery, under which they might safely talk of it. The moment was to come – and it finally came with an effect as penetrating as the sound that follows the pressure of an electric button – when she read the least helpful of meanings into the agitation she had created. The merely specious description of their case would have been that, after being for a long time, as a family, delightfully, uninterruptedly happy, they had still had a new felicity to discover; a felicity for which, blessedly, her father’s appetite and her own in particular had been kept fresh and grateful. This livelier march of their intercourse as a whole was the thing that occasionally determined in him the clutching instinct we have glanced at; very much as if he had said to her in default of her breaking silence first: ‘Everything’s remarkably pleasant, isn’t it? – but where for it after all are we? up in a balloon and whirling through space or down in the depths of the earth, in the glimmering passages of a gold-mine?’ The equilibrium, the precious condition, lasted in spite of rearrangement; there had been a fresh distribution of the different weights, but the balance persisted and triumphed: all of which was just the reason why she was forbidden, face to face with the companion of her adventure, the experiment of a test. If they balanced they balanced – she had to take that; it deprived her of every pretext for arriving, by however covert a process, at what he thought.

But she had her hours thus of feeling supremely linked to him by the rigour of their law, and when it came over her that all the while the wish on his side to spare her might be what most worked with him, this very fact of their seeming to have nothing ‘inward’ really to talk about wrapped him up for her in a kind of sweetness that was wanting, as a consecration, even in her yearning for her husband. She was powerless however, was only more utterly hushed, when the interrupting flash came, when she would have been all ready to say to him: ‘Yes, this is by every appearance the best time we’ve had yet; but don’t you see all the same how they must be working together for it and how my very success, my success in shifting our beautiful harmony to a new basis, comes round to being their success, above all; their cleverness, their amiability, their power to hold out, their complete possession in short of our life?’ For how could she say as much as that without saying a great deal more? without saying ‘They’ll do everything in the world that suits us, save only one thing – prescribe a line for us that will make them separate.’ How could she so much as imagine herself even faintly murmuring that without putting into his mouth the very words that would have made her quail? ‘Separate, my dear? Do you want them to separate? Then you want us to – you and me? For how can the one separation take place without the other?’ That was the question that in spirit she had heard him ask – with its dread train moreover of involved and connected enquiries. Their own separation, his and hers, was of course perfectly thinkable, but only on the basis of the sharpest of reasons. Well, the sharpest, the very sharpest would be that they could no longer afford, as it were, he to let his wife, she to let her husband, ‘run’ them in such compact formation. And say they accepted this account of their situation as a practical finality, acting upon it and proceeding to a division, would no sombre ghosts of the smothered past on either side show across the widening strait pale unappeased faces, or raise in the very passage deprecating denouncing hands?

Meanwhile, however such things might be, she was to have occasion to say to herself that a deeper treachery would perhaps lurk in recoveries and reassurances. She was to feel alone again, as she had felt at the issue of her high tension with her husband during their return from meeting the Castledeans in Eaton Square. The evening in question had left her with a larger alarm, but then a lull had come – the alarm after all was yet to be confirmed. There came an hour inevitably when she knew with a chill what she had feared and why; it had taken, this hour, a month to arrive, but to find it before her was thoroughly to recognise it, for it showed her sharply what Amerigo had meant in alluding to a particular use that they might make of Charlotte for their reaffirmed harmony and prosperity. The more she thought, at present, of the tone he had employed to express their enjoyment of this resource, the more it came back to her as the product of a conscious art of dealing with her. He had been conscious at the moment of many things – conscious even not a little of desiring and thereby of needing to see what she would do in a given case. The given case would be that of her being to a certain extent, as she might fairly make it out, menaced – horrible as it was to impute to him any intention represented by such a word. Why it was that to speak of making her stepmother intervene, as they might call it, in a question that seemed just then and there quite peculiarly their own business – why it was that a turn so familiar and so easy should at the worst strike her as charged with the spirit of a threat, was an oddity disconnected for her temporarily from its grounds, the adventure of an imagination within her that possibly had lost its way. That precisely was doubtless why she had learned to wait, as the weeks passed by, with a fair, or rather indeed with an excessive, imitation of resumed serenity. There had been no prompt sequel to the Prince’s equivocal light, and that made for patience; yet she was none the less to have to admit after many days that the bread he had cast on the waters had come home and that she should thus be justified of her old apprehension. The consequence of this in turn was a renewed pang in presence of his remembered ingenuity. To be ingenious with her – what didn’t, what mightn’t that mean when she had so absolutely never at any point of contact with him put him by as much as the value of a penny to the expense of sparing, doubting, fearing her, of having in any way whatever to reckon with her? The ingenuity had been in his simply speaking of their use of Charlotte as if it were common to them in an equal degree, and his triumph on the occasion had been just in the simplicity. She couldn’t – and he knew it – say what was true: ‘Oh you “use” her, and I use her, if you will, yes; but we use her ever so differently and separately – not at all in the same way or degree. There’s nobody we really use together but ourselves, don’t you see? – by which I mean that where our interests are the same I can so beautifully, so exquisitely serve you for everything, and you can so beautifully, so exquisitely serve me. The only person either of us needs is the other of us; so why as a matter of course in such a case as this drag in Charlotte?’

She couldn’t so challenge him because it would have been – and there she was paralysed – the note. It would have translated itself on the spot for his ear into jealousy, and from reverberation to repercussion would have reached her father’s exactly in the form of a cry piercing the stillness of peaceful sleep. It had been for many days almost as difficult for her to catch a quiet twenty minutes with her father as it had formerly been easy; there had been in fact of old – the time, so strangely, seemed already far away – an inevitability in her longer passages with him, a sort of domesticated beauty in the calculability round about them of everything. But at present Charlotte was almost always there when Amerigo brought her to Eaton Square, where Amerigo was constantly bringing her; and Amerigo was almost always there when Charlotte brought her husband to Portland Place, where Charlotte was constantly bringing him. The fractions of occasions, the chance minutes that put them face to face, had as yet of late contrived to count but little between them either for the sense of opportunity or for that of exposure, inasmuch as the lifelong rhythm of their intercourse made against all cursory handling of deep things. They had never availed themselves of any given quarter of an hour to gossip about fundamentals; they moved slowly through large still space; they could be silent together, at any time, beautifully, with much more comfort than hurriedly expressive. It appeared indeed to have become true that their common appeal measured itself for vividness just by this economy of sound; they might have been talking ‘at’ each other when they talked with their companions, but these latter were assuredly not in any directer way to gain light on the current phase of their relation. Such were some of the reasons for which Maggie suspected fundamentals, as I have called them, to be rising, by a new movement, to the surface – suspected it one morning late in May, when her father presented himself in Portland Place alone. He had his pretext – of that she was fully aware: the Principino, two days before, had shown signs, happily not persistent, of a feverish cold and had notoriously been obliged to spend the interval at home. This was ground, ample ground, for punctual enquiry; but what it wasn’t ground for, she quickly found herself reflecting, was his having managed in the interest of his visit to dispense so unwontedly – as their life had recently come to be arranged – with his wife’s attendance. It had so happened that she herself was for the hour exempt from her husband’s, and it will at once be seen that the hour had a quality all its own when I note that, remembering how the Prince had looked in to say he was going out, the Princess whimsically wondered if their respective sposi mightn’t frankly be meeting, whimsically hoped indeed they were temporarily so disposed of. Strange was her need at moments to think of them as not attaching an excessive importance to their repudiation of the general practice that had rested only a few weeks before on such a consecrated rightness. Repudiations surely were not in the air – they had none of them come to that; for wasn’t she at this minute testifying directly against them by her own behaviour? When she should confess to fear of being alone with her father, to fear of what he might then – ah with such a slow painful motion as she had a horror of! – say to her, then would be time enough for Amerigo and Charlotte to confess to not liking to appear to foregather.

She had this morning a wonderful consciousness both of dreading a particular question from him and of being able to check, yes even to disconcert magnificently by her apparent manner of receiving it, any restless imagination he might have about its importance. The day, bright and soft, had the breath of summer; it made them talk, to begin with, of Fawns, of the way Fawns invited – Maggie aware the while that in thus regarding with him the sweetness of its invitation to one couple just as much as to another her humbugging smile grew very nearly convulsive. That was it, and there was truly relief of a sort in taking it in: she was humbugging him already, by absolute necessity, as she had never never done in her life – doing it up to the full height of what she had allowed for. The necessity, in the great dimly-shining room where, declining for his reasons to sit down, he moved about in Amerigo’s very footsteps, the necessity affected her as pressing upon her with the very force of the charm itself; of the old pleasantness between them so candidly playing up there again; of the positive flatness of their tenderness, a surface all for familiar use, quite as if generalised from the long succession of tapestried sofas, sweetly faded, on which his theory of contentment had sat, through unmeasured pauses, beside her own. She knew from this instant, knew in advance and as well as anything would ever teach her, that she must never intermit for a solitary second her so highly undertaking to prove there was nothing the matter with her. She of a sudden saw everything she might say or do in the light of that undertaking, established connexions from it with any number of remote matters, struck herself for instance as acting all in its interest when she proposed their going out, in the exercise of their freedom and in homage to the season, for a turn in the Regent’s Park. This resort was close at hand, at the top of Portland Place, and the Principino, beautifully better, had already proceeded there under high attendance: all of which considerations were defensive for Maggie, all of which became to her mind part of the business of cultivating continuity.

Upstairs, while she left him to put on something to go out in, the thought of his waiting below for her, in possession of the empty house, brought with it, sharply if briefly, one of her abrupt arrests of consistency, the brush of a vain imagination almost paralysing her often for the minute before her glass – the vivid look, in other words, of the particular difference his marriage had made. The particular difference seemed at such instants the loss, more than anything else, of their old freedom, their never having had to think, where they were together concerned, of any one, of anything but each other. It hadn’t been her marriage that did it; that had never, for three seconds, suggested to either of them that they must act diplomatically, must reckon with another presence – no, not even with her husband’s. She groaned to herself while the vain imagination lasted, ‘Why did he marry? ah why did he?’ and then it came up to her more than ever that nothing could have been more beautiful than the way in which, till Charlotte came so much more closely into their life, Amerigo hadn’t interfered. What she had gone on owing him for this mounted up again to her eyes like a column of figures – or call it even if one would a house of cards: it was her father’s wonderful act that had tipped the house down and made the sum wrong. With all of which, immediately after her question, her ‘Why did he, why did he?’ rushed back inevitably the confounding, the overwhelming wave of the knowledge of his reason. ‘He did it for me, he did it for me,’ she moaned, ‘he did it exactly that our freedom – meaning, beloved man, simply and solely mine – should be greater instead of less; he did it, divinely, to liberate me so far as possible from caring what became of him.’ She found time upstairs, even in her haste, as she had repeatedly found time before, to let the wonderments involved in these recognitions flash at her with their customary effect of making her blink: the question in especial of whether she might find her solution in acting, herself, in the spirit of what he had done, in forcing her ‘care’ really to grow as much less as he had tried to make it. Thus she felt the whole weight of their case drop afresh upon her shoulders, was confronted unmistakeably with the prime source of her haunted state. It all came from her not having been able not to mind – not to mind what became of him; not having been able, without anxiety, to let him go his way and take his risk and lead his life. She had made anxiety her stupid little idol; and absolutely now, while she stuck a long pin a trifle fallaciously into her hat – she had, with an approach to irritation, told her maid, a new woman whom she had lately found herself thinking of as abysmal, that she didn’t want her – she tried to focus the possibility of some understanding between them in consequence of which he should cut loose.

Very near indeed it looked, any such possibility! – that consciousness too had taken its turn by the time she was ready; all the vibration, all the emotion of this present passage being precisely in the very sweetness of their lapse back into the conditions of the simpler time, into a queer resemblance between the aspect and the feeling of the moment and those of numberless other moments that were sufficiently far away. She had been quick in her preparation, in spite of the flow of the tide that sometimes took away her breath; but a pause once more was still left for her to make, a pause, at the top of the stairs, before she came down to him, in the span of which she asked herself if it weren’t thinkable, from the perfectly practical point of view, that she should simply sacrifice him. She didn’t go into the detail of what sacrificing him would mean – she didn’t need to; so distinct was it, in one of her restless lights, that there he was awaiting her, that she should find him walking up and down the drawing-room in the warm fragrant air to which the open windows and the abundant flowers contributed; slowly and vaguely moving there and looking very slight and young and superficially manageable, almost as much like her child, putting it a little freely, as like her parent; with the appearance about him above all of having perhaps arrived just on purpose to say it to her himself in so many words: ‘Sacrifice me, my own love; do sacrifice me, do sacrifice me!’ Should she want to, should she insist on it, she might verily hear him bleating it at her, all conscious and all accommodating, like some precious spotless exceptionally intelligent lamb. The positive effect of the intensity of this figure however was to make her shake it away in her resumed descent; and after she had rejoined him, after she had picked him up, she was to know the full pang of the thought that her impossibility was made, absolutely, by his consciousness, by the lucidity of his intention: this she felt while she smiled there for him again all hypocritically; while she drew on fair fresh gloves; while she interrupted the process first to give his necktie a slightly smarter twist and then to make up to him for her hidden madness by rubbing her nose into his cheek according to the tradition of their frankest levity. From the instant she should be able to convict him of intending, every issue would be closed and her hypocrisy would have to redouble. The only way to sacrifice him would be to do so without his dreaming what it might be for. She kissed him, she arranged his cravat, she dropped remarks, she guided him out, she held his arm, not to be led, but to lead him, and taking it to her by much the same intimate pressure she had always used, when a little girl, to mark the inseparability of her doll – she did all these things so that he should sufficiently fail to dream of what they might be for.