The Golden Bowl Chapter 5

This came out so straight that he saw at once how much truth it expressed; yet it was truth that still a little puzzled him. ‘But did you ever like knocking about in such discomfort?’

‘It seems to me now that I then liked everything. It’s the charm, at any rate,’ she said from her place at the fire, ‘of trying again the old feelings. They come back – they come back. Everything,’ she went on, ‘comes back. Besides,’ she wound up, ‘you know for yourself.’

He stood near her, his hands in his pockets; but not looking at her, looking hard at the tea-table. ‘Ah I haven’t your courage. Moreover,’ he laughed, ‘it seems to me that so far as that goes I do live in hansoms. But you must awfully want your tea,’ he quickly added; ‘so let me give you a good stiff cup.’

He busied himself with this care, and she sat down, on his pushing up a low seat, where she had been standing; so that while she talked he could bring her what she further desired. He moved to and fro before her, he helped himself; and her visit, as the moments passed, had more and more the effect of a signal communication that she had come, all responsibly and deliberately, as on the clear show of the clock-face of their situation, to make. The whole demonstration, none the less, presented itself as taking place at a very high level of debate – in the cool upper air of the finer discrimination, the deeper sincerity, the larger philosophy. No matter what were the facts invoked and arrayed, it was only a question as yet of their seeing their way together: to which indeed exactly the present occasion appeared to have so much to contribute. ‘It’s not that you haven’t my courage,’ Charlotte said, ‘but that you haven’t, I rather think, my imagination. Unless indeed it should turn out after all,’ she added, ‘that you haven’t even my intelligence. However, I shan’t be afraid of that till you’ve given me more proof.’ And she made again, but more clearly, her point of a moment before. ‘You knew besides, you knew to-day I’d come. And if you knew that you know everything.’ So she pursued, and if he didn’t meanwhile, if he didn’t even at this, take her up, it might be that she was so positively fitting him again with the fair face of temporising kindness that he had given her, to keep her eyes on, at the other important juncture, and the sense of which she might ever since had been carrying about with her like a precious medal – not exactly blessed by the Pope – suspended round her neck. She had come back, however this might be, to her immediate account of herself, and no mention of their great previous passage was to rise to the lips of either. ‘Above all,’ she said, ‘there has been the personal romance of it.’

‘Of tea with me over the fire? Ah so far as that goes. I don’t think even my intelligence fails me.’

‘Oh it’s further than that goes; and if I’ve had a better day than you it’s perhaps, when I come to think of it, that I am braver. You bore yourself, you see. But I don’t. I don’t, I don’t,’ she repeated.

‘It’s precisely boring one’s self without relief,’ he protested, ‘that takes courage.’

‘Passive then – not active. My romance is that, if you want to know, I’ve been all day on the town. Literally on the town – isn’t that what they call it? I know how it feels.’ After which, as if breaking off, ‘And you, have you never been out?’ she asked.

He still stood there with his hands in his pockets. ‘What should I have gone out for?’

‘Oh what should people in our case do anything for? But you’re wonderful, all of you – you know how to live. We’re clumsy brutes, we others, beside you – we must always be “doing” something. However,’ Charlotte pursued, ‘if you had gone out you might have missed the chance of me – which I’m sure, though you won’t confess it, was what you didn’t want; and might have missed above all the satisfaction that, look blank about it as you will, I’ve come to congratulate you on. That’s really what I can at last do. You can’t not know at least, on such a day as this – you can’t not know,’ she said, ‘where you are.’ She waited as for him either to grant he knew or pretend he didn’t; but he only drew a long deep breath which came out like a moan of impatience. It brushed aside the question of where he was or what he knew; it seemed to keep the ground clear for the question of his visitor herself, that of Charlotte Verver exactly as she sat there. So for some moments, with their long look, they but treated the matter in silence; with the effect indeed, by the end of the time, of having considerably brought it on. This was sufficiently marked in what Charlotte next said. ‘There it all is – extraordinary beyond words. It makes such a relation for us as, I verily believe, was never before in the world thrust upon two well-meaning creatures. Haven’t we therefore to take things as we find them?’ She put the question still more directly than that of a moment before, but to this one as well he returned no immediate answer. Noticing only that she had finished her tea he relieved her of her cup, carried it back to the table, asked her what more she would have; and then, on her ‘Nothing, thanks,’ returned to the fire and restored a displaced log to position by a small but almost too effectual kick. She had meanwhile got up again, and it was on her feet that she repeated the words she had first frankly spoken. ‘What else can we do, what in all the world else?’

He took them up however no more than at first. ‘Where then have you been?’ he asked as from mere interest in her adventure.

‘Everywhere I could think of – except to see people. I didn’t want people – I wanted too much to think. But I’ve been back at intervals – three times; and then come away again. My cabman must think me crazy – it’s very amusing; I shall owe him, when we come to settle, more money than he has ever seen. I’ve been, my dear,’ she went on, ‘to the British Museum – which you know I always adore. And I’ve been to the National Gallery and to a dozen old booksellers’, coming across treasures, and I’ve lunched, on some strange nastiness, at a cookshop in Holborn. I wanted to go to the Tower, but it was too far – my old man urged that; and I’d have gone to the Zoo if it hadn’t been too wet – which he also begged me to observe. But you wouldn’t believe – I did put in Saint Paul’s. Such days,’ she wound up, ‘are expensive; for, besides the cab, I’ve bought quantities of books.’ She immediately passed at any rate to another point. ‘I can’t help wondering when you must last have laid eyes on them.’ And then as it had apparently for her companion an effect of abruptness: ‘Maggie, I mean, and the child. For I suppose you know he’s with her.’

‘Oh yes, I know he’s with her. I saw them this morning.’

‘And did they then announce their programme?’

‘She told me she was taking him, as usual, da nonno.’1

‘And for the whole day?’

He hesitated, but it was as if his attitude had slowly shifted. ‘She didn’t say. And I didn’t ask.’

‘Well,’ she went on, ‘it can’t have been later than half-past ten – I mean when you saw them. They had got to Eaton Square before eleven. You know we don’t formally breakfast, Adam and I; we have tea in our rooms – at least I have; but luncheon’s early, and I saw my husband this morning by twelve; he was showing the child a picture-book. Maggie had been there with them, had left them settled together. Then she had gone out – taking the carriage for something he had been intending, but that she offered to do instead.’

The Prince appeared to confess, at this, to his interest. ‘Taking, you mean, your carriage?’

‘I don’t know which, and it doesn’t matter. It’s not a question,’ she smiled, ‘of a carriage the more or the less. It’s not a question even, if you come to that, of a cab. It’s so beautiful,’ she said, ‘that it’s not a question of anything vulgar or horrid.’ Which she gave him time to agree about; and though he was silent it was rather remarkably as if he fell in. ‘I went out – I wanted to. I had my idea. It seemed to me important. It has been – it is important. I know as I haven’t known before the way they feel. I couldn’t in any other way have made so sure of it.’

‘They feel a confidence,’ the Prince observed.

He had indeed said it for her. ‘They feel a confidence.’ And she proceeded with lucidity to the fuller illustration of it; speaking again of the three different moments that, in the course of her wild ramble, had witnessed her return – for curiosity and even really a little from anxiety – to Eaton Square. She was possessed of a latch-key rarely used: it had always irritated Adam – one of the few things that did – to find servants standing up so inhumanly straight when they came home in the small hours after parties. ‘So I had but to slip in each time with my cab at the door and make out for myself, without their knowing it, that Maggie was still there. I came, I went – without their so much as dreaming. What do they really suppose,’ she asked, ‘becomes of one? – not so much sentimentally or morally, so to call it, and since that doesn’t matter; but even just physically, materially, as a mere wandering woman: as a decent harmless wife, after all; as the best stepmother, after all, that really ever was; or at the least simply as a maĆ®tresse de maison2 not quite without a conscience. They must even in their odd way,’ she declared, ‘have some idea.’

‘Oh they’ve a great deal of idea,’ said the Prince. And nothing was easier than to mention the quantity. ‘They think so much of us. They think in particular so much of you.’

‘Ah don’t put it all on “me”!’ she smiled.

But he was putting it now where she had admirably prepared the place. ‘It’s a matter of your known character.’

‘Ah thank you for “known”!’ she still smiled.

‘It’s a matter of your wonderful cleverness and wonderful charm. It’s a matter of what those things have done for you in the world – I mean in this world and this place. You’re a Personage for them – and Personages do go and come.’

‘Oh no, my dear; there you’re quite wrong.’ And she laughed now in the happier light they had diffused. ‘That’s exactly what Personages don’t do: they live in state and under constant consideration; they haven’t latch-keys, but drums and trumpets announce them; and when they go out in “growlers” it makes a greater noise still. It’s you, caro mio,’ she said, ‘who, so far as that goes, are the Personage.’

‘Ah,’ he in turn protested, ‘don’t put it all on me! What, at any rate, when you get home,’ he added, ‘shall you say that you’ve been doing?’

‘I shall say, beautifully, that I’ve been here.’

‘All day?’

‘Yes – all day. Keeping you company in your solitude. How can we understand anything,’ she went on, ‘without really seeing that this is what they must like to think I do for you? – just as, quite as comfortably, you do it for me. The thing is for us to learn to take them as they are.’

He considered this a while, in his restless way, but with his eyes not turning from her; after which, rather disconnectedly, though very vehemently, he brought out: ‘How can I not feel more than anything else how they adore together my boy?’ And then, further, as if, slightly disconcerted, she had nothing to meet this and he quickly perceived the effect: ‘They’d have done the same for one of yours.’

‘Ah if I could have had one –! I hoped and I believed,’ said Charlotte, ‘that that would happen. It would have been better. It would have made perhaps some difference. He thought so too, poor duck – that it might have been. I’m sure he hoped and intended so. It’s not, at any rate,’ she went on, ‘my fault. There it is.’ She had uttered these statements, one by one, gravely, sadly and responsibly, owing it to her friend to be clear. She paused briefly, but, as if once for all, she made her clearness complete. ‘And now I’m too sure. It will never be.’

He waited for a moment. ‘Never?’

‘Never.’ They treated the matter not exactly with solemnity, but with a certain decency, even perhaps urgency, of distinctness. ‘It would probably have been better,’ Charlotte added. ‘But things turn out –! And it leaves us’ – she made the point – ‘more alone.’

He seemed to wonder. ‘It leaves you more alone.’

‘Oh,’ she again returned, ‘don’t put it all on me! Maggie would have given herself to his child, I’m sure, scarcely less than he gives himself to yours. It would have taken more than any child of mine,’ she explained – ‘it would have taken more than ten children of mine, could I have had them – to keep our sposi apart.’ She smiled as for the breadth of the image, but as he seemed to take it in spite of this for important she then spoke gravely enough. ‘It’s as strange as you like, but we’re immensely alone.’ He kept vaguely moving, but there were moments when again, with an awkward ease and his hands in his pockets, he was more directly before her. He stood there at these last words, which had the effect of making him for a little throw back his head and, as thinking something out, stare up at the ceiling. ‘What will you say,’ she meanwhile asked, ‘that you’ve been doing?’ This brought his consciousness and his eyes back to her, and she pointed her question. ‘I mean when she comes in – for I suppose she will, some time, come in. It seems to me we must say the same thing.’

Well, he thought again. ‘Yet I can scarce pretend to have had what I haven’t.’

‘Ah what haven’t you had? – what aren’t you having?’

Her question rang out as they lingered face to face, and he still took it, before he answered, from her eyes. ‘We must at least then, not to be absurd together, do the same thing. We must act, it would really seem, in concert.’

‘It would really seem!’ Her eyebrows, her shoulders went up, quite in gaiety, as for the relief this brought her. ‘It’s all in the world I pretend. We must act in concert. Heaven knows,’ she said, ‘they do!’

So it was that he evidently saw and that, by his admission, the case could fairly be put. But what he evidently saw appeared to come over him, at the same time, as too much for him, so that he fell back suddenly to ground where she wasn’t awaiting him. ‘The difficulty is, and will always be, that I don’t understand them. I didn’t at first, but I thought I should learn to. That was what I hoped, and it appeared then that Fanny Assingham might help me.’

‘Oh Fanny Assingham!’ said Charlotte Verver.

He stared a moment at her tone. ‘She would do anything for us.’

To which Charlotte at first said nothing – as if from the sense of too much. Then, indulgently enough, she shook her head. ‘We’re beyond her.’

He thought a moment – as of where this placed them. ‘She’d do anything then for them.’

‘Well, so would we – so that doesn’t help us. She has broken down. She doesn’t understand us. And really, my dear,’ Charlotte added, ‘Fanny Assingham doesn’t matter.’

He wondered again. ‘Unless as taking care of them.’

‘Ah,’ Charlotte instantly said, ‘isn’t it for us, only, to do that?’ She spoke as with a flare of pride for their privilege and their duty. ‘I think we want no one’s aid.’

She spoke indeed with a nobleness not the less effective for coming in so oddly; with a sincerity visible even through the complicated twist by which any effort to protect the father and the daughter seemed necessarily conditioned for them. It moved him, in any case, as if some spring of his own, a weaker one, had suddenly been broken by it. These things, all the while, the privilege, the duty, the opportunity, had been the substance of his own vision; they formed the note he had been keeping back to show her that he wasn’t, in their so special situation, without a responsible view. A conception he could name and could act on was something that now at last, not to be too eminent a fool, he was required by all the graces to produce, and the luminous idea she had herself uttered would have been his expression of it. She had anticipated him, but since her expression left, for positive beauty, nothing to be desired, he felt rather righted than wronged. A large response, as he looked at her, came into his face, a light of excited perception, all his own, in the glory of which – as it almost might be called – what he gave her back had the value of what she had given him. ‘They’re extraordinarily happy.’

Oh Charlotte’s measure of it was only too full. ‘Beatifically.’

‘That’s the great thing,’ he went on; ‘so that it doesn’t matter, really, that one doesn’t understand. Besides, you do – enough.’

‘I understand my husband perhaps,’ she after an instant conceded. ‘I don’t understand your wife.’

‘You’re of the same race, at any rate – more or less; of the same general tradition and education, of the same moral paste. There are things you have in common with them. But I, on my side, as I’ve gone on trying to see if I haven’t some of these things too – I, on my side, have more and more failed. There seem at last to be none worth mentioning. I can’t help seeing it – I’m decidedly too different.’

‘Yet you’re not’ – Charlotte made the important point – ‘too different from me.’

‘I don’t know – as we’re not married. That brings things out. Perhaps if we were,’ he said, ‘you would find some abyss of divergence.’

‘Since it depends on that then,’ she smiled, ‘I’m safe – as you are anyhow. Moreover, as one has so often had occasion to feel, and even to remark, they’re very, very simple. That makes,’ she added, ‘a difficulty for belief; but when once one has taken it in it makes less difficulty for action. I have at last, for myself, I think, taken it in. I’m not afraid.’

He wondered a moment. ‘Not afraid of what?’

‘Well, generally, of some beastly mistake. Especially of any mistake founded on one’s idea of their difference. For that idea,’ Charlotte developed, ‘positively makes one so tender.’

‘Ah but rather!’

‘Well then there it is. I can’t put myself into Maggie’s skin – I can’t, as I say. It’s not my fit – I shouldn’t be able, as I see it, to breathe in it. But I can feel that I’d do anything to shield it from a bruise. Tender as I am for her too,’ she went on, ‘I think I’m still more so for my husband. He’s in truth of a sweet simplicity –!’

The Prince turned over a while the sweet simplicity of Mr Verver. ‘Well, I don’t know that I can choose. At night all cats are grey. I only see how, for so many reasons, we ought to stand toward them – and how, to do ourselves justice, we do. It represents for us a conscious care –’

‘Of every hour, literally,’ said Charlotte. She could rise to the highest measure of the facts. ‘And for which we must trust each other –!’

‘Oh as we trust the saints in glory. Fortunately,’ the Prince hastened to add, ‘we can.’ With which, as for the full assurance and the pledge it involved, each hand instinctively found the other. ‘It’s all too wonderful.’

Firmly and gravely she kept his hand. ‘It’s too beautiful.’

And so for a minute they stood together as strongly held and as closely confronted as any hour of their easier past even had seen them. They were silent at first, only facing and faced, only grasping and grasped, only meeting and met. ‘It’s sacred,’ he said at last.

‘It’s sacred,’ she breathed back to him. They vowed it, gave it out and took it in, drawn, by their intensity, more closely together. Then of a sudden, through this tightened circle, as at the issue of a narrow strait into the sea beyond, everything broke up, broke down, gave way, melted and mingled. Their lips sought their lips, their pressure their response and their response their pressure; with a violence that had sighed itself the next moment to the longest and deepest of stillnesses they passionately sealed their pledge.