The Golden Bowl Chapter 5

Mrs Assingham and the Colonel, quitting Fawns before the end of September, had come back later on; and now, a couple of weeks after, they were again interrupting their stay, but this time with the question of their return left to depend on matters that were rather hinted at than importunately named. The Lutches and Mrs Rance had also, by the action of Charlotte Stant’s arrival, ceased to linger, though with hopes and theories, as to some promptitude of renewal, of which the lively expression, awaking the echoes of the great stone-paved, oak-panelled, galleried hall that was not the least interesting feature of the place, seemed still a property of the air. It was on this admirable spot that, before her October afternoon had waned, Fanny Assingham spent with her easy host a few moments which led to her announcing her own and her husband’s final secession, at the same time as they tempted her to point the moral of all vain reverberations. The double door of the house stood open to an effect of hazy autumn sunshine, a wonderful windless waiting golden hour under the influence of which Adam Verver met his genial friend as she came to drop into the post-box with her own hand a thick sheaf of letters. They presently thereafter left the house together and drew out half an hour on the terrace in a manner they were to revert to in thought, later on, as that of persons who really had been taking leave of each other at a parting of the ways. He traced his impression, on coming to consider, back to a mere three words she had begun by using about Charlotte Stant. Charlotte simply ‘cleared them out’ – those had been the three words, thrown off in reference to the general golden peace that the Kentish October had gradually ushered in, the ‘halcyon’ days the full beauty of which had appeared to shine out for them after that young lady’s arrival. For it was during these days that Mrs Rance and the Miss Lutches had been observed to be gathering themselves for departure, and it was with that difference made that the sense of the whole situation showed most fair – the sense of how right they had been to engage for so ample a residence, and of all the pleasure so fruity an autumn there could hold in its lap. This was what had occurred, that their lesson had been learned; and what Mrs Assingham had dwelt upon was that without Charlotte it would have been learned but half. It would certainly not have been taught by Mrs Rance and the Miss Lutches if these ladies had remained with them as long as at one time seemed probable. Charlotte’s light intervention had thus become a cause, operating covertly but none the less actively, and Fanny Assingham’s speech, which she had followed up a little, echoed within him, fairly to startle him, as the indication of something irresistible. He could see now how this superior force had worked, and he fairly liked to recover the sight – little harm as he dreamed of doing, little ill as he dreamed of wishing, the three ladies, whom he had after all entertained for a stiffish series of days. She had been so vague and quiet about it, wonderful Charlotte, that he hadn’t known what was happening – happening, that is, as a result of her influence. ‘Their fires, as they felt her, turned to smoke,’ Mrs Assingham remarked; which he was to reflect on indeed even while they strolled. He had retained, since his long talk with Maggie – the talk that had settled the matter of his own direct invitation to her friend – an odd little taste, as he would have described it, for hearing things said about this young woman, hearing, so to speak, what could be said about her: almost as if her portrait, by some eminent hand, were going on, so that he watched it grow under the multiplication of touches. Mrs Assingham, it struck him, applied two or three of the finest in their discussion of their young friend – so different a figure now from that early playmate of Maggie’s as to whom he could almost recall from of old the definite occasions of his having paternally lumped the two children together in the recommendation that they shouldn’t make too much noise nor eat too much jam. His companion professed that in the light of Charlotte’s prompt influence she hadn’t been a stranger to a pang of pity for their recent visitors. ‘I felt in fact privately so sorry for them that I kept my impression to myself while they were here – wishing not to put the rest of you on the scent; neither Maggie, nor the Prince, nor yourself, nor even Charlotte herself, if you didn’t happen to notice. Since you didn’t, apparently, I perhaps now strike you as extravagant. But I’m not – I followed it all. One saw the consciousness I speak of come over the poor things, very much as I suppose people at the court of the Borgias1 may have watched each other begin to look queer after having had the honour of taking wine with the heads of the family. My comparison’s only a little awkward, for I don’t in the least mean that Charlotte was consciously dropping poison into their cup. She was just herself their poison, in the sense of mortally disagreeing with them – but she didn’t know it.’

‘Ah she didn’t know it?’ Mr Verver had asked with interest.

‘Well, I think she didn’t’ – Mrs Assingham had to admit that she hadn’t pressingly sounded her. ‘I don’t pretend to be sure in every connexion of what Charlotte knows. She doesn’t certainly like to make people suffer – not, in general, as is the case with so many of us, even other women: she likes much rather to put them at their ease with her. She likes, that is – as all pleasant people do – to be liked.’

‘Ah she likes to be liked?’ her companion had gone on.

‘She did at the same time, no doubt, want to help us – to put us at our ease. That is she wanted to put you – and to put Maggie about you. So far as that went she had a plan. But it was only after – it was not before, I really believe – that she saw how effectively she could work.’

Again, as Mr Verver felt, he must have taken it up. ‘Ah she wanted to help us? – wanted to help me?’

‘Why,’ Mrs Assingham asked after an instant, ‘should it surprise you?’

He just thought. ‘Oh it doesn’t!’

‘She saw of course as soon as she came, with her quickness, where we all were. She didn’t need each of us to go by appointment to her room at night, or to take her out into the fields, for our palpitating tale. No doubt even she was rather impatient.’

‘Of the poor things?’ Mr Verver had here enquired while he waited.

‘Well, of your not yourselves being so – and of your not in particular. I haven’t the least doubt in the world par exemple,2 that she thinks you too meek.’

‘Oh she thinks me too meek?’

‘And she had been sent for, on the very face of it, to work right in. All she had to do after all was to be nice to you.’

‘To – a – me?’ said Adam Verver.

He could remember now that his friend had positively had a laugh for his tone. ‘To you and to every one. She had only to be what she is – and to be it all round. If she’s charming, how can she help it? So it was, and so only, that she “acted” – as the Borgia wine used to act. One saw it come over them – the extent to which, in her particular way, a woman, a woman other, and so other, than themselves, could be charming. One saw them understand and exchange looks, then one saw them lose heart and decide to move. For what they had to take home was that it’s she who’s the real thing.’

‘Ah it’s she who’s the real thing?’ As he hadn’t hitherto taken it home as completely as the Miss Lutches and Mrs Rance, so doubtless he had now a little appeared to offer submission in his appeal. ‘I see, I see’ – he could at least simply take it home now; yet as not without wanting at the same time to be sure of what the real thing was. ‘And what would it be – a – definitely that you understand by that?’

She had only for an instant not found it easy to say. ‘Why exactly what those women themselves want to be, and what her effect on them is to make them recognise that they never will.’

‘Oh – of course never!’

It not only remained with them and hung about them, it positively developed and deepened, after this talk, that the luxurious side of his personal existence was now again furnished, socially speaking, with the thing classed and stamped as ‘real’ – just as he had been able to think of it as not otherwise enriched in consequence of his daughter’s marriage. The note of reality, in so much projected light, continued to have for him the charm and the importance of which the maximum had occasionally been reached in his great ‘finds’; it continued, beyond any other, to keep him attentive and gratified. Nothing perhaps might affect us as queerer, had we time to look into it, than this application of the same measure of value to such different pieces of property as old Persian carpets, say, and new human acquisitions; all the more indeed that the amiable man was not without an inkling on his own side that he was, as a taster of life, economically constructed. He put into his one little glass everything he raised to his lips, and it was as if he had always carried in his pocket, like a tool of his trade, this receptacle, a little glass cut with a fineness of which the art had long since been lost, and kept in an old morocco case stamped in uneffaceable gilt with the arms of a deposed dynasty. As it had served him to satisfy himself, so to speak, both about Amerigo and about the Bernardino Luini he had happened to come to knowledge of at the time he was consenting to the announcement of his daughter’s betrothal, so it served him at present to satisfy himself about Charlotte Stant and an extraordinary set of oriental tiles of which he had lately got wind, to which a provoking legend was attached, and as to which he had made out contentedly that further news was to be obtained from a certain Mr Gutermann-Seuss of Brighton. It was all at bottom in him, the √¶sthetic principle, planted where it could burn with a cold still flame; where it fed almost wholly on the material directly involved, on the idea (followed by appropriation) of plastic beauty, of the thing visibly perfect in its kind; where, in short, despite the general tendency of the ‘devouring element’ to spread, the rest of his spiritual furniture, modest scattered and tended with unconscious care, escaped the consumption that in so many cases proceeds from the undue keeping-up of profane altar-fires. Adam Verver had in other words learnt the lesson of the senses, to the end of his own little book, without having for a day raised the smallest scandal in his economy at large; being in this particular not unlike those fortunate bachelors or other gentlemen of pleasure who so manage their entertainment of compromising company that even the austerest housekeeper, occupied and competent below-stairs, never feels obliged to give warning.

That figure has however a freedom for us that the occasion doubtless scarce demands, though we may retain it for its rough negative value. It was to come to pass, by a pressure applied to the situation wholly from within, that before the first ten days of November had elapsed he found himself practically alone at Fawns with his young friend; Amerigo and Maggie having, with a certain abruptness, invited his assent to their going abroad for a month, since his amusement was now scarce less happily assured than his security. An impulse eminently natural had stirred within the Prince; his life, as for some time established, was deliciously dull, and thereby on the whole what he best liked; but a small gust of yearning had swept over him, and Maggie repeated to her father with infinite admiration the pretty terms in which, after it had lasted a little, he had described to her this experience. He called it a ‘serenade’, a low music that, outside one of the windows of the sleeping house, disturbed his rest at night. Timid as it was, and plaintive, he yet couldn’t close his eyes for it, and when finally, rising on tiptoe, he had looked out, he had recognised in the figure below with a mandolin, all duskily draped in her grace, the raised appealing eyes and the one irresistible voice of the ever-to-be-loved Italy. Sooner or later, that way, one had to listen; it was a hovering haunting ghost, as of a creature to whom one had done a wrong, a dim pathetic shade crying out to be comforted. For this there was obviously but one way – as these were doubtless also many words for the simple fact that so prime a Roman had a fancy for again seeing Rome. They would accordingly – hadn’t they better? – go for a little; Maggie meanwhile making the too-absurdly artful point with her father, so that he repeated it in his amusement to Charlotte Stant, to whom he was by this time conscious of addressing many remarks, that it was absolutely, when she came to think, the first thing Amerigo had ever asked of her. ‘She doesn’t count of course his having asked of her to marry him’ – this was Mr Verver’s indulgent criticism; but he found Charlotte, equally touched by the ingenuous Maggie, in easy agreement with him over the question. If the Prince had asked something of his wife every day in the year this would be still no reason why the poor dear man shouldn’t, in a beautiful fit of homesickness, revisit without reproach his native country.

What his father-in-law frankly counselled was that the reasonable, the really too reasonable pair should, while they were about it, take three or four weeks of Paris as well – Paris being always for Mr Verver in any stress of sympathy a suggestion that rose of itself to the lips. If they would only do that, on their way back or however they preferred it, Charlotte and he would go over to join them there for a small look – though even then, assuredly, as he had it at heart to add, not in the least because they should have found themselves bored at being left together. The fate of this last proposal indeed was that it reeled for the moment under an assault of destructive analysis from Maggie, who – having, as she granted, to choose between being an unnatural daughter or an unnatural mother, and ‘electing’ for the former – wanted to know what would become of the Principino if the house were cleared of every one but the servants. Her question had fairly resounded, but it had afterwards, like many of her questions, dropped still more effectively than it had risen: the highest moral of the matter being, before the couple took their departure, that Mrs Noble and Dr Brady must mount unchallenged guard over the august little crib. If she hadn’t supremely believed in the majestic value of the nurse, whose experience was in itself the amplest of pillows, just as her attention was a spreading canopy from which precedent and reminiscence dropped as thickly as parted curtains – if she hadn’t been able to rest in this confidence she would fairly have sent her husband on his journey without her. In the same manner, if the sweetest – for it was so she qualified him – of little country doctors hadn’t proved to her his wisdom by rendering irresistible, especially on rainy days and in direct proportion to the frequency of his calls, adapted to all weathers, that she should converse with him for hours over causes and consequences, over what he had found to answer with his little five at home, she would have drawn scant support from the presence of a mere grandfather and a mere brilliant friend. These persons, accordingly, her own predominance having thus for the time given way, could carry with a certain ease, and above all with mutual aid, their consciousness of a charge. So far as their office weighed they could help each other with it – which was in fact to become, as Mrs Noble herself loomed larger for them, not a little of a relief and a diversion.

Mr Verver met his young friend, at certain hours, in the day-nursery, very much as he had regularly met the child’s fond mother – Charlotte having, as she clearly considered, given Maggie equal pledges and desiring never to fail of the last word for the daily letter she had promised to write. She wrote with high fidelity, she let her companion know, and the effect of it was, remarkably enough, that he himself didn’t write. The reason of this was partly that Charlotte ‘told all about him’ – which she also let him know she did – and partly that he enjoyed feeling, as a consequence, that he was generally, quite systematically, eased and, as they said, ‘done’ for. Committed, as it were, to this charming and clever young woman, who, by becoming for him a domestic resource had become for him practically a new person – and committed especially in his own house, which somehow made his sense of it a deeper thing – he took an interest in seeing how far the connexion could carry him, could perhaps even lead him, and in thus putting to the test, for pleasant verification, what Fanny Assingham had said at the last about the difference such a girl could make. She was really making one now, in their simplified existence, and a very considerable one, though there was no one to compare her with, as there had been so usefully for Fanny – no Mrs Rance, no Kitty, no Dotty Lutch, to help her to be felt, according to Fanny’s diagnosis, as real. She was real, decidedly, from other causes, and Mr Verver grew in time even a little amused at the amount of machinery Mrs Assingham had seemed to see needed for pointing it. She was directly and immediately real, real on a pleasantly reduced and intimate scale, and at no moments more so than during those – at which we have just glanced – when Mrs Noble made them both together feel that she, she alone, in the absence of the queen-mother, was regent of the realm and governess of the heir. Treated on such occasions as at best a pair of dangling and merely nominal court-functionaries, picturesque hereditary triflers entitled to the petites entr√©es3 but quite external to the State, which began and ended with the Nursery, they could only retire, in quickened sociability, to what was left them of the Palace, there to digest their gilded insignificance and cultivate, in regard to the true Executive, such snuff-taking ironies as might belong to rococo chamberlains moving among china lap-dogs.

Every evening after dinner Charlotte Stant played to him; seated at the piano and requiring no music she went through his ‘favourite things’ – and he had many favourites – with a facility that never failed, or that failed but just enough to pick itself up at a touch from his fitful voice. She could play anything, she could play everything – always shockingly, she of course insisted, but always, by his own vague measure, very much as if she might, slim sinuous and strong, and with practised passion, have been playing lawn-tennis or endlessly and rhythmically waltzing. His love of music, unlike his other loves, owned to vaguenesses, but while, on his comparatively shaded sofa, and smoking, smoking, always smoking, in the great Fawns drawing-room as everywhere, the cigars of his youth, rank with associations – while, I say, he so listened to Charlotte’s piano, where the score was ever absent but, between the lighted candles, the picture distinct, the vagueness spread itself about him like some boundless carpet, a surface delightfully soft to the pressure of his interest. It was a manner of passing the time that rather replaced conversation, but the air at the end none the less, before they separated, had a way of seeming full of the echoes of talk. They separated, in the hushed house, not quite easily, yet not quite awkwardly either, with tapers that twinkled in the large dark spaces, and for the most part so late that the last solemn servant had been dismissed for the night.

Late as it was on a particular evening toward the end of October, there had been a full word or two dropped into the still-stirring sea of other voices – a word or two that affected our friend even at the moment, and rather oddly, as louder and rounder than any previous sound; and then he had lingered, under pretext of an opened window to be made secure, after taking leave of his companion in the hall and watching her glimmer away up the staircase. He had for himself another impulse than to go to bed; picking up a hat in the hall, slipping his arms into a sleeveless cape and lighting still another cigar, he turned out upon the terrace through one of the long drawing-room windows and moved to and fro there for an hour beneath the sharp autumn stars. It was where he had walked in the afternoon sun with Fanny Assingham, and the sense of that other hour, the sense of the suggestive woman herself, was before him again as, in spite of all the previous degustation we have hinted at, it hadn’t yet been. He thought, in a loose, an almost agitated order, of many things; the power that was in them to agitate having been part of his conviction that he shouldn’t soon sleep. He truly felt for a while that he should never sleep again till something had come to him; some light, some idea, some mere happy word perhaps, that he had begun to want, but had been till now, and especially the last day or two, vainly groping for. ‘Can you really then come if we start early?’ – that was practically all he had said to the girl as she took up her bedroom light. And ‘Why in the world not, when I’ve nothing else to do and should besides so immensely like it?’ – this had as definitely been, on her side, the limit of the little scene. There had in fact been nothing to call a scene, even of the littlest, at all – though he perhaps didn’t quite know why something like the menace of one hadn’t proceeded from her stopping halfway upstairs to turn and say, as she looked down on him, that she promised to content herself, for their journey, with a toothbrush and a sponge. There hovered about him at all events, while he walked, appearances already familiar, as well as two or three that were new, and not the least vivid of the former connected itself with that sense of being treated with consideration which had become for him, as we have noted, one of the minor, yet, so far as there were any such, quite one of the compensatory, incidents of being a father-in-law. It had struck him up to now that this particular balm was a mixture of which Amerigo, owing to some hereditary privilege, alone possessed the secret; so that he found himself wondering if it had come to Charlotte, who had unmistakeably acquired it, through the young man’s having amiably passed it on. She made use, for her so quietly grateful host, however this might be, of quite the same shades of attention and recognition, was mistress in an equal degree of the regulated, the developed art of placing him high in the scale of importance. That was even for his own thought a clumsy way of expressing the element of similarity in the agreeable effect they each produced on him, and it held him for a little only because this coincidence in their felicity caused him vaguely to connect or associate them in the matter of tradition, training, tact, or whatever else one might call it. It might almost have been – if such a link between them was to be imagined – that Amerigo had a little ‘coached’ or incited their young friend, or perhaps rather that she had simply, as one of the signs of the general perfection Fanny Assingham commended in her, profited by observing, during her short opportunity before the start of the travellers, the pleasant application by the Prince of his personal system. He might wonder what exactly it was that they so resembled each other in treating him like – from what noble and propagated convention, in cases in which the exquisite ‘importance’ was to be neither too grossly attributed nor too grossly denied, they had taken their specific lesson; but the difficulty was here of course that one could really never know – couldn’t know without having been one’s self a personage; whether a Pope, a King, a President, a Peer, a General, or just a beautiful Author.

Before such a question, as before several others when they recurred, he would come to a pause, leaning his arms on the old parapet and losing himself in a far excursion. He had as to so many of the matters in hand a divided view, and this was exactly what made him reach out, in his unrest, for some idea, lurking in the vast freshness of the night, at the breath of which disparities would submit to fusion and so, spreading beneath him, make him feel he floated. What he kept finding himself return to, disturbingly enough, was the reflexion, deeper than anything else, that in forming a new and intimate tie he should in a manner abandon, or at the best signally relegate, his daughter. He should reduce to definite form the idea that he had lost her – as was indeed inevitable – by her own marriage; he should reduce to definite form the idea of his having incurred an injury, or at the best an inconvenience, that required some makeweight and deserved some amends. And he should do this the more, which was the great point, that he should appear to adopt in doing it the sentiment, in fact the very conviction, entertained and quite sufficiently expressed by Maggie herself in her beautiful generosity, as to what he had suffered – putting it with extravagance – at her hands. If she put it with extravagance the extravagance was yet sincere, for it came – which she put with extravagance too – from her persistence always in thinking, feeling, talking about him as young. He had had glimpses of moments when to hear her thus, in her absolutely unforced compunction, one would have supposed the special edge of the wrong she had done him to consist in his having still before him years and years to groan under it. She had sacrificed a parent, the pearl of parents, no older than herself: it wouldn’t so much have mattered if he had been of common parental age. That he wasn’t, that he was just her extraordinary equal and contemporary, this was what added to her act the long train of its effect. Light broke for him at last, indeed, quite as a consequence of the fear of breathing a chill upon this luxuriance of her spiritual garden. As at a turn of his labyrinth he saw his issue, which opened out so wide, for the minute, that he held his breath with wonder. He was afterwards to recall how just then the autumn night seemed to clear to a view in which the whole place, everything round him, the wide terrace where he stood, the others, with their steps, below, the gardens, the park, the lake, the circling woods, lay there as under some strange midnight sun. It all met him during these instants as a vast expanse of discovery, a world that looked, so lighted, extraordinarily new, and in which familiar objects had taken on a distinctness that, as if it had been a loud, a spoken pretension to beauty, interest, importance, to he scarce knew what, gave them an inordinate quantity of character and verily an inordinate size. The hallucination, or whatever he might have called it, was brief, but it lasted long enough to leave him gasping. The gasp of admiration had by this time however lost itself in an intensity that quickly followed – the way the wonder of it, since wonder was in question, truly had been the strange delay of his vision. He had these several days groped and groped for an object that lay at his feet and as to which his blindness came from his stupidly looking beyond. It had sat all the while at his hearthstone, whence it now gazed up in his face.

Once he had recognised it there everything became coherent. The sharp point to which all his light converged was that the whole call of his future to him as a father would be in his so managing that Maggie would less and less appear to herself to have forsaken him. And it not only wouldn’t be decently humane, decently possible, not to make this relief easy to her – the idea shone upon him, more than that, as exciting, inspiring, uplifting. It fell in so beautifully with what might be otherwise possible; it stood there absolutely confronted with the material way in which it might be met. The way in which it might be met was by his putting his child at peace, and the way to put her at peace was to provide for his future – that is for hers – by marriage, by a marriage as good, speaking proportionately, as hers had been. As he fairly inhaled this measure of refreshment he tasted the meaning of recent agitations. He had seen that Charlotte could contribute – what he hadn’t seen was what she could contribute to. When it had all supremely cleared up and he had simply settled this service to his daughter well before him as the proper direction of his young friend’s leisure, the cool darkness had again closed round him, but his moral lucidity was constituted. It wasn’t only moreover that the word, with a click, so fitted the riddle, but that the riddle, in such perfection, fitted the word. He might have been equally in want and yet not have had his remedy. Oh if Charlotte didn’t accept him the remedy of course would fail; but, as everything had fallen together, it was at least there to be tried. And success would be great – that was his last throb – if the measure of relief effected for Maggie should at all prove to have been given by his own actual sense of felicity. He really didn’t know when in his life he had thought of anything happier. To think of it merely for himself would have been, even as he had just lately felt, even doing all justice to that condition – yes, impossible. But there was a grand difference in thinking of it for his child.