The Golden Bowl Chapter 5

‘Well, now I must tell you, for I want to be absolutely honest.’ So Charlotte spoke, a little ominously, after they had got into the Park. ‘I don’t want to pretend, and I can’t pretend a moment longer. You may think of me what you will, but I don’t care. I knew I shouldn’t and I find now how little. I came back for this. Not really for anything else. For this,’ she repeated as under the influence of her tone the Prince had already come to a pause.

‘For “this”?’ He spoke as if the particular thing she indicated were vague to him – or were, rather, a quantity that couldn’t at the most be much.

It would be as much however as she should be able to make it. ‘To have one hour alone with you.’

It had rained heavily in the night, and though the pavements were now dry, thanks to a cleansing breeze, the August morning, with its hovering thick-drifting clouds and freshened air, was cool and grey. The multitudinous green of the Park had been deepened, and a wholesome smell of irrigation, purging the place of dust and of odours less acceptable, rose from the earth. Charlotte had looked about her with expression from the first of their coming in, quite as if for a deep greeting, for general recognition: the day was, even in the heart of London, of a rich low-browed weather-washed English type. It was as if it had been waiting for her, as if she knew it, placed it, loved it, as if it were in fact a part of what she had come back for. So far as this was the case the impression of course could only be lost on a mere vague Italian; it was one of those for which you had to be blessedly an American – as indeed you had to be blessedly an American for all sorts of things: so long as you hadn’t, blessedly or not, to remain in America. The Prince had by half-past ten – as also by definite appointment – called in Cadogan Place for Mrs Assingham’s visitor, and then after brief delay the two had walked together up Sloane Street and got straight into the Park from Knightsbridge. The understanding to this end had taken its place, after a couple of days, as inevitably consequent on the appeal made by the girl during those first moments in Mrs Assingham’s drawing-room. It was an appeal the couple of days had done nothing to invalidate – everything much rather to place in a light, and as to which it obviously wouldn’t have fitted that any one should raise an objection. Who was there for that matter to raise one from the moment Mrs Assingham, informed and apparently not disapproving, didn’t intervene? This the young man had asked himself – with a very sufficient sense of what would have made him ridiculous. He wasn’t going to begin – that at least was certain – by showing a fear. Even had fear at first been sharp in him, moreover, it would already, not a little, have dropped; so happy, all round, so propitious, he quite might have called it, had been the effect of this rapid interval.

The time had been taken up largely by his active reception of his own wedding-guests and by Maggie’s scarce less absorbed entertainment of her friend, whom she had kept for hours together in Portland Place; whom she hadn’t, as wouldn’t have been convenient, invited altogether as yet to migrate, but who had been present with other persons, his contingent, at luncheon, at tea, at dinner, at perpetual repasts – he had never in his life, it struck him, had to reckon with so much eating – whenever he had looked in. If he hadn’t again till this hour, save for a minute, seen Charlotte alone, so, positively, all the while, he hadn’t seen even Maggie; and if therefore he hadn’t seen even Maggie nothing was more natural than that he shouldn’t have seen Charlotte. The exceptional minute, a mere snatch, at the tail of the others, on the huge Portland Place staircase,1 had sufficiently enabled the girl to remind him – so ready she assumed him to be – of what they were to do. Time pressed if they were to do it at all. Every one had brought gifts; his relations had brought wonders – how did they still have, where did they still find, such treasures? She only had brought nothing, and she was ashamed; yet even by the sight of the rest of the tribute she wouldn’t be put off. She would do what she could, and he was, unknown to Maggie, he must remember, to give his aid. He had prolonged the minute so far as to take time to hesitate for a reason, and then to risk bringing his reason out. The risk was because he might hurt her – hurt her pride, if she had that particular sort. But she might as well be hurt one way as another; and, besides, that particular sort of pride was just what she hadn’t. So his slight resistance while they lingered had been just easy enough not to be impossible.

‘I hate to encourage you – and for such a purpose, after all – to spend your money.’

She had stood a stair or two below him; where, while she looked up at him beneath the high domed light of the hall, she rubbed with her palm the polished mahogany of the balustrade, which was mounted on fine ironwork, eighteenth-century English. ‘Because you think I must have so little? I’ve enough, at any rate – enough for us to take our hour. Enough,’ she had smiled, ‘is as good as a feast! And then,’ she had said, ‘it isn’t of course a question of anything expensive, gorged with treasure as Maggie is; it isn’t a question of competing or outshining. What, naturally, in the way of the priceless, hasn’t she got? Mine is to be the offering of the poor – something precisely that no rich person could ever give her, and that, being herself too rich ever to buy it, she would therefore never have.’ Charlotte had spoken as if after so much thought. ‘Only as it can’t be fine it ought to be funny – and that’s the sort of thing to hunt for. Hunting in London, besides, is amusing in itself.’

He recalled even how he had been struck with her word. ‘ “Funny”?’

‘Oh I don’t mean a comic toy – I mean some little thing with a charm. But absolutely right, in its comparative cheapness. That’s what I call funny,’ she had explained. ‘You used,’ she had also added, ‘to help me to get things cheap in Rome. You were splendid for beating down. I have them all still, I needn’t say – the little bargains I there owed you. There are bargains in London in August.’

‘Ah but I don’t understand your English buying, and I confess I find it dull.’ So much as that, while they turned to go up together, he had objected. ‘I understood my poor dear Romans.’

‘It was they who understood you – that was your pull,’ she had laughed. ‘Our amusement here is just that they don’t understand us. We can make it amusing. You’ll see.’

If he had hesitated again it was because the point permitted. ‘The amusement surely will be to find our present.’

‘Certainly – as I say.’

‘Well, if they don’t come down –?’

‘Then we’ll come up. There’s always something to be done. Besides, Prince,’ she had gone on, ‘I’m not, if you come to that, absolutely a pauper. I’m too poor for some things,’ she had said – yet, strange as she was, lightly enough; ‘but I’m not too poor for others.’ And she had paused again at the top. ‘I’ve been saving up.’

He had really challenged it. ‘In America?’

‘Yes, even there – with my motive. And we oughtn’t, you know,’ she had wound up, ‘to leave it beyond to-morrow.’

That, definitely, with ten words more, was what had passed – he feeling all the while how any sort of begging-off would only magnify it. He might get on with things as they were, but he must do anything rather than magnify. Beyond which it was pitiful to make her beg of him. He was making her – she had begged; and this, for a special sensibility in him, didn’t at all do. That was accordingly in fine how they had come to where they were: he was engaged as hard as possible in the policy of not magnifying. He had kept this up even on her making the point, and as if it were almost the whole point, that Maggie of course wasn’t to have an idea. Half the interest of the thing at least would be that she shouldn’t suspect; therefore he was completely to keep it from her – as Charlotte on her side would – that they had been anywhere at all together or had so much as seen each other for five minutes alone. The absolute secrecy of their little excursion was in short of the essence; she appealed to his kindness to let her feel that he didn’t betray her. There had been something, frankly, a little disconcerting in such an appeal at such an hour, on the very eve of his nuptials: it was one thing to have met the girl casually at Mrs Assingham’s and another to arrange with her thus for a morning practically as private as their old mornings in Rome and practically not less intimate. He had immediately told Maggie, the same evening, of the minutes that had passed between them in Cadogan Place – though not mentioning those of Mrs Assingham’s absence any more than he mentioned the fact of what their friend had then, with such small delay, proposed. But what had briefly checked his assent to any present, to any positive making of mystery – what had made him, while they stood at the top of the stairs, demur just long enough for her to notice it – was the sense of the resemblance of the little plan before him to occasions, of the past, from which he was quite disconnected, from which he could only desire to be. This was like beginning something over, which was the last thing he wanted. The strength, the beauty of his actual position was in its being wholly a fresh start, was that what it began would be new altogether. These items of his consciousness had clustered so quickly that by the time Charlotte read them in his face he was in presence of what they amounted to. She had challenged them as soon as read them, had met them with a ‘Do you want then to go and tell her?’ that had somehow made them ridiculous. It had made him promptly fall back on minimising it – that is on minimising ‘fuss’. Apparent scruples were obviously fuss, and he had on the spot clutched, in the light of this truth, at the happy principle that would meet every case.

This principle was simply to be, with the girl, always simple – and with the very last simplicity. That would cover everything. It had covered then and there certainly his immediate submission to the sight of what was clearest. This was really that what she asked was little compared to what she gave. What she gave touched him, as she faced him, for it was the full tune of her renouncing. She really renounced – renounced everything, and without even insisting now on what it had all been for her. Her only insistence was her insistence on the small matter of their keeping their appointment to themselves. That, in exchange for ‘everything’, everything she gave up, was verily but a trifle. He let himself accordingly be guided; he so soon assented, for enlightened indulgence, to any particular turn she might wish the occasion to take, that the stamp of her preference had been well applied to it even while they were still in the Park. The application in fact presently required that they should sit down a little, really to see where they were; in obedience to which propriety they had some ten minutes, of a quality quite distinct, in a couple of penny-chairs under one of the larger trees. They had taken, for their walk, to the cropped rain-freshened grass, after finding it already dry; and the chairs, turned away from the broad alley, the main drive and the aspect of Park Lane, looked across the wide reaches of green which seemed in a manner to refine upon their freedom. They helped Charlotte thus to make her position – her temporary position – still more clear, and it for this purpose could have been but that, abruptly, on seeing her opportunity, she sat down. He stood for a little before her as if to mark the importance of not wasting time, the importance she herself had previously insisted on; but after she had said a few words it was impossible for him not to resort again to good nature. He marked as he could, by this concession, that if he had finally met her first proposal for what would be ‘amusing’ in it, so any idea she might have would contribute to that effect. He had as a consequence – in all consistency – to take it for amusing that she reaffirmed, and reaffirmed again, the truth that was her truth.

‘I don’t care what you make of it, and I don’t ask anything whatever of you – anything but this. I want to have said it – that’s all; I want not to have failed to say it. To see you once and be with you, to be as we are now and as we used to be, for one small hour – or say for two – that’s what I’ve had for weeks in my head. I mean, of course, to get it before – before what you’re going to do. So, all the while, you see,’ she went on with her eyes on him, ‘it was a question for me if I should be able to manage it in time. If I couldn’t have come now I probably shouldn’t have come at all – perhaps even ever. Now that I’m here I shall stay, but there were moments over there when I despaired. It wasn’t easy – there were reasons; but it was either this or nothing. So I didn’t struggle, you see, in vain. After – oh I didn’t want that! I don’t mean,’ she smiled, ‘that it wouldn’t have been delightful to see you even then – to see you at any time; but I would never have come for it. This is different. This is what I wanted. This is what I’ve got. This is what I shall always have. This is what I should have missed, of course,’ she pursued, ‘if you had chosen to make me miss it. If you had thought me horrid, had refused to come, I should, naturally, have been immensely “sold”. I had to take the risk. Well, you’re all I could have hoped. That’s what I was to have said. I didn’t want simply to get my time with you, but I wanted you to know. I wanted you’ – she kept it up, slowly, softly, with a small tremor of voice but without the least failure of sense or sequence – ‘I wanted you to understand. I wanted you, that is, to hear. I don’t care, I think, whether you understand or not. If I ask nothing of you I don’t – I mayn’t – ask even so much as that. What you may think of me – that doesn’t in the least matter. What I want is that it shall always be with you – so that you’ll never be able quite to get rid of it – that I did. I won’t say that you did – you may make as little of that as you like. But that I was here with you where we are and as we are – I just saying this. Giving myself, in other words, away – and perfectly willing to do it for nothing. That’s all.’

She paused as if her demonstration was complete – yet for the moment without moving; as if in fact to give it a few minutes to sink in; into the listening air, into the watching space, into the conscious hospitality of nature, so far as nature was, all Londonised, all vulgarised, with them there; or even for that matter into her own open ears rather than into the attention of her passive and prudent friend. His attention had done all that attention could do; his handsome slightly anxious, yet still more definitely ‘amused’ face sufficiently played its part. He clutched, however, at what he could best clutch at – the fact that she let him off, definitely let him off. She let him off, it seemed, even from so much as answering; so that while he smiled back at her in return for her information he felt his lips remain closed to the successive vaguenesses of rejoinder, of objection, that rose for him from within. Charlotte herself spoke again at last – ‘You may want to know what I get by it. But that’s my own affair.’ He really didn’t want to know even this – or continued, for the safest plan, quite to behave as if he didn’t; which prolonged the mere dumbness of diversion in which he had taken refuge. He was glad when finally – the point she had wished to make seeming established to her satisfaction – they brought to what might pass for a close the moment of his life at which he had had least to say. Movement and progress, after this, with more impersonal talk, were naturally a relief; so that he wasn’t again during their excursion at a loss for the right word. The air had been, as it were, cleared; they had their errand itself to discuss, and the opportunities of London, the sense of the wonderful place, the pleasures of prowling there, the question of shops, of possibilities, of particular objects, noticed by each in previous prowls. Each professed surprise at the extent of the other’s knowledge; the Prince in especial wondered at his friend’s possession of her London. He had rather prized his own possession, the guidance he could really often give a cabman; it was a whim of his own, a part of his Anglomania and congruous with that feature, which had after all so much more surface than depth. When his companion, with the memory of other visits and other rambles, spoke of places he hadn’t seen and things he didn’t know, he actually felt again – as half the effect – just a shade humiliated. He might even have felt a trifle annoyed – if it hadn’t been, on this spot, for his being even more interested. It was a fresh light on Charlotte and on her curious world-quality, of which in Rome he had had his due sense, but which clearly would show larger on the big London stage. Rome was in comparison a village, a family-party, a little old-world spinnet for the fingers of one hand. By the time they reached the Marble Arch it was almost as if she were showing him a new side, and that in fact gave amusement a new and a firmer basis. The right tone would be easy for putting himself in her hands. Should they disagree a little – frankly and fairly – about directions and chances, values and authenticities, the situation would be quite gloriously saved. They were none the less, as happened, much of one mind on the article of their keeping clear of resorts with which Maggie would be acquainted. Charlotte recalled it as a matter of course, named it in time as a condition – they would keep away from any place to which he had already been with Maggie.

This made indeed a scant difference, for though he had during the last month done few things so much as attend his future wife on her making of purchases, the antiquarii,2 as he called them with Charlotte, hadn’t been the great affair. Except in Bond Street, really, Maggie had had no use for them: her situation indeed in connexion with that order of traffic was full of consequences produced by her father’s. Mr Verver, one of the great collectors of the world, hadn’t left his daughter to prowl for herself; he had little to do with shops and was mostly, as a purchaser, approached privately and from afar. Great people, all over Europe, sought introductions to him; high personages, incredibly high, and more of them than would ever be known, solemnly sworn as every one was, in such cases, to discretion, high personages made up to him as the one man on the short authentic list likely to give the price. It had therefore been easy to settle, as they walked, that the tracks of the Ververs, daughter’s as well as father’s, were to be avoided; the importance only was that their talk about it led for a moment to the first words they had as yet exchanged on the subject of Maggie. Charlotte, still in the Park, proceeded to them – for it was she who began – with a serenity of appreciation that was odd, certainly, as a sequel to her words of ten minutes before. This was another note on her – what he would have called another light – to her companion, who, though without giving a sign, admired, for what it was, the simplicity of her transition, a transition that took no trouble either to trace or to explain itself. She paused again an instant on the grass to make it; she stopped before him with a sudden ‘Anything of course, dear as she is, will do for her. I mean if I were to give her a pin-cushion from the Baker-Street Bazaar.’

‘That’s exactly what I mean’ – the Prince laughed out this allusion to their snatch of talk in Portland Place. ‘It’s just what I suggested.’

She took, however, no notice of the reminder; she went on in her own way. ‘But it isn’t a reason. In that case one would never do anything for her. I mean,’ Charlotte explained, ‘if one took advantage of her character.’

‘Of her character?’

‘We mustn’t take advantage of her character,’ the girl, again unheeding, pursued. ‘One mustn’t, if not for her, at least for one’s self. She saves one such trouble.’

She had spoken thoughtfully, her eyes on her friend’s; she might have been talking, preoccupied and practical, of some one with whom he was comparatively unconnected. ‘She certainly gives one no trouble,’ said the Prince. And then as if this were perhaps ambiguous or inadequate: ‘She’s not selfish – God forgive her! – enough.’

‘That’s what I mean,’ Charlotte instantly said. ‘She’s not selfish enough. There’s nothing, absolutely, that one need do for her. She’s so modest,’ she developed – ‘she doesn’t miss things. I mean if you love her – or rather, I should say, if she loves you. She lets it go.’

The Prince frowned a little – as a tribute after all to seriousness. ‘She lets what –?’

‘Anything – anything that you might do and that you don’t. She lets everything go but her own disposition to be kind to you. It’s of herself that she asks efforts – so far as she ever has to ask them. She hasn’t, much. She does everything herself. And that’s terrible.’

The Prince had listened; but, always with propriety, didn’t commit himself. ‘Terrible?’

‘Well, unless one’s almost as good as she. It makes too easy terms for one. It takes stuff within one, so far as one’s decency is concerned, to stand it. And nobody,’ Charlotte continued in the same manner, ‘is decent enough, good enough, to stand it – not without help from religion or something of that kind. Not without prayer and fasting – that is without taking great care. Certainly,’ she said, ‘such people as you and I are not.’

The Prince, obligingly, thought an instant. ‘Not good enough to stand it?’

‘Well, not good enough not rather to feel the strain. We happen each, I think, to be of the kind that are easily spoiled.’

Her friend again, for propriety, followed the argument. ‘Oh I don’t know. May not one’s affection for her do something more for one’s decency, as you call it, than her own generosity – her own affection, her “decency” – has the unfortunate virtue to undo?’

‘Ah of course it must be all in that.’

But she had made her question, all the same, interesting to him. ‘What it comes to – one can see what you mean – is the way she believes in one. That is if she believes at all.’

‘Yes, that’s what it comes to,’ said Charlotte Stant.

‘And why,’ he asked almost soothingly, ‘should it be terrible?’ He couldn’t at the worst see that.

‘Because it’s always so – the idea of having to pity people.’

‘Not when there’s also with it the idea of helping them.’

‘Yes, but if we can’t help them?’

‘We can – we always can. That is,’ he competently added, ‘if we care for them. And that’s what we’re talking about.’

‘Yes’ – she on the whole assented. ‘It comes back then to our absolutely refusing to be spoiled.’

‘Certainly. But everything,’ the Prince laughed as they went on – ‘all your “decency”, I mean – comes back to that.’

She walked beside him a moment. ‘It’s just what I meant,’ she then reasonably said.