The Golden Bowl Chapter 6

He had taken it from her, as we have seen moreover, that Fanny Assingham didn’t now matter – the ‘now’ he had even himself supplied, as no more than fair to his sense of various earlier stages; and, though his assent remained scarce more than tacit, his behaviour, for the hour, so fell into line that for many days he kept postponing the visit he had promised his old friend on the occasion of their talk at the Foreign Office. With regret, none the less, would he have seen it quite extinguished, that theory of their relation as attached pupil and kind instructress in which they had from the first almost equally found a convenience. It had been he, no doubt, who had most put it forward, since his need of knowledge fairly exceeded her mild pretension; but he had again and again repeated to her that he should never, without her, have been where he was, and she hadn’t successfully concealed the pleasure it might give her to believe it, even after the question of where he was had begun to show itself as rather more closed than open to interpretation. It had never indeed, before that evening, come up as during the passage at the official party, and he had for the first time at those moments, a little disappointedly, got the impression of a certain failure, on the dear woman’s part, of something he was aware of having always rather freely taken for granted in her. Of what exactly the failure consisted he would still perhaps have felt it a little harsh to try to say; and if she had in fact, as by Charlotte’s observation, ‘broken down’, the details of the collapse would be comparatively unimportant. They came to the same thing, all such collapses – the failure of courage, the failure of friendship, or the failure just simply of tact; for didn’t any one of them by itself amount really to the failure of wit? – which was the last thing he had expected of her and which would be but another name for the triumph of stupidity. It had been Charlotte’s remark that they were at last ‘beyond’ her; whereas he had ever enjoyed believing that a certain easy imagination in her would keep up with him to the end. He shrank from affixing a label to Mrs Assingham’s want of faith; but when he thought at his ease of the way persons who were capable really entertained – or at least with any refinement – the passion of personal loyalty, he figured for them a play of fancy neither timorous nor scrupulous. So would his personal loyalty, if need be, have accepted the adventure for the good creature herself; to that definite degree that he had positively almost missed the luxury of some such call from her. That was what it all came back to again with these people among whom he had married – that one found one used one’s imagination mainly for wondering how they contrived so little to appeal to it. He felt at moments as if there were never anything to do for them that was worthy – to call worthy – of the personal relation; never any charming charge to take of any confidence deeply reposed. He might vulgarly have put it that one had never to plot or to lie for them; he might humorously have put it that one had never, as by the higher conformity, to lie in wait with the dagger or to prepare insidiously the cup. These were the services that by all romantic tradition were consecrated to affection quite as much as to hate. But he could amuse himself with saying – so far as the amusement went – that they were what he had once for all turned his back on.

Fanny was meanwhile frequent, it appeared, in Eaton Square; so much he gathered from the visitor who was not infrequent, least of all at tea-time, during the same period, in Portland Place; though they had little need to talk of her after practically agreeing that they had outlived her. To the scene of these conversations and suppressions Mrs Assingham herself made, actually, no approach; her latest view of her utility seeming to be that it had found in Eaton Square its most urgent field. It was finding there in fact every thing and every one but the Prince, who mostly, just now, kept away, or who at all events, on the interspaced occasions of his calling, happened not to encounter the only person from whom he was a little estranged. It would have been all prodigious if he hadn’t already, with Charlotte’s aid, so very considerably lived into it – it would have been all indescribably remarkable, this fact that, with wonderful causes for it so operating on the surface, nobody else, as yet, in the combination, seemed estranged from anybody. If Mrs Assingham delighted in Maggie she knew by this time how most easily to reach her, and if she was unhappy about Charlotte she knew by the same reasoning how most probably to miss that vision of her on which affliction would feed. It might feed of course on finding her so absent from her home – just as this particular phenomenon of her domestic detachment could be, by the anxious mind, best studied there. Fanny was, however, for her reasons, ‘shy’ of Portland Place itself – this was appreciable; so that she might well, after all, have no great light on the question of whether Charlotte’s appearances there were frequent or not, any more than on that of the account they might be keeping of the usual solitude (since it came to this) of the head of that house. There was always, to cover all ambiguities, to constitute a fund of explanation for the divisions of Mrs Verver’s day, the circumstance that, at the point they had all reached together, Mrs Verver was definitely and by general acclamation in charge of the ‘social relations’ of the family, literally of those of the two households; as to her genius for representing which in the great world and in the grand style vivid evidence had more and more accumulated. It had been established in the two households at an early stage and with the highest good humour that Charlotte was a, was the, ‘social success’, whereas the Princess, though kind, though punctilious, though charming, though in fact the dearest little creature in the world and the Princess into the bargain, was distinctly not, would distinctly never be, and might as well give it up altogether; whether through being above it or below it, too much outside of it or too much lost in it, too unequipped or too indisposed, didn’t especially matter. What sufficed was that the whole thing, call it appetite or call it patience, the act of representation at large and the daily business of intercourse, fell in with Charlotte’s tested facility and, not much less visibly, with her accommodating, her generous view of her domestic use. She had come, frankly, into the connexion, to do and to be what she could, ‘no questions asked’, and she had taken over accordingly as it stood, and in the finest practical spirit, the burden of a visiting-list that Maggie, originally, left to herself, and left even more to the Principino, had suffered to get inordinately out of hand.

She had in a word not only mounted cheerfully the London treadmill – she had handsomely professed herself, for the further comfort of the three others, sustained in the effort by a ‘frivolous side’, if that were not too harsh a name for a pleasant constitutional curiosity. There were possibilities of dulness, ponderosities of practice, arid social sands, the bad quarters of an hour that turned up like false pieces in a debased currency, of which she made, on principle, very nearly as light as if she hadn’t been clever enough to distinguish. The Prince had, on this score, paid her his compliment soon after her return from her wedding-tour in America, where, by all accounts, she had wondrously borne the brunt; facing brightly, at her husband’s side, everything that came up – and what had come, often, was beyond words: just as, precisely, with her own interest only at stake, she had thrown up the game during the visit paid before her marriage. The discussion of the American world, the comparison of notes, impressions and adventures, had been all at hand, as a ground of meeting for Mrs Verver and her husband’s son-in-law, from the hour of the reunion of the two couples. Thus it had been in short that Charlotte could, for her friend’s appreciation, so promptly make her point; even using expressions from which he let her see, at the hour, that he drew amusement of his own. ‘What could be more simple than one’s going through with everything,’ she had asked, ‘when it’s so plain a part of one’s contract? I’ve got so much, by my marriage’ – for she had never for a moment concealed from him how ‘much’ she had felt it and was finding it – ‘that I should deserve no charity if I stinted my return. Not to do that, to give back on the contrary all one can, are just one’s decency and one’s honour and one’s virtue. These things, henceforth, if you’re interested to know, are my rule of life, the absolute little gods of my worship, the holy images set up on the wall. Oh yes, since I’m not a brute,’ she had wound up, ‘you shall see me as I am!’ Which was therefore as he had seen her – dealing always, from month to month, from day to day and from one occasion to the other, with the duties of a remunerated office. Her perfect, her brilliant efficiency had doubtless all the while contributed immensely to the pleasant ease in which her husband and her husband’s daughter were lapped. It had in fact probably done something more than this – it had given them a finer and sweeter view of the possible scope of that ease. They had brought her in – on the crudest expression of it – to do the ‘worldly’ for them, and she had done it with such genius that they had themselves in consequence renounced it even more than they had originally intended. In proportion as she did it moreover was she to be relieved of other and humbler doings; which minor matters, by the properest logic, devolved therefore upon Maggie, in whose chords and whose province they more naturally lay. Not less naturally, by the same token, they included the repair, at the hands of the latter young woman, of every stitch conceivably dropped by Charlotte in Eaton Square. This was homely work, but that was just what made it Maggie’s. Bearing in mind dear Amerigo, who was so much of her own great mundane feather, and whom the homeliness in question didn’t, no doubt, quite equally provide for – that would be, to balance, just in a manner Charlotte’s very most charming function, from the moment Charlotte could be got adequately to recognise it.

Well, that Charlotte might be appraised as at last not ineffectually recognising it was a reflexion that, during the days with which we are actually engaged, completed in the Prince’s breast these others, these images and ruminations of his leisure, these gropings and fittings of his conscience and his experience, that we have attempted to set in order there. They bore him company, not insufficiently – considering in especial his fuller resources in that line – while he worked out to the last lucidity the principle on which he forbore either to follow up Fanny in Cadogan Place or to perpetrate the error of too marked an assiduity in Eaton Square. This error would be his not availing himself to the utmost of the convenience of any artless theory of his constitution, or of Charlotte’s, that might prevail there. That artless theories could and did prevail was a fact he had ended by accepting, under copious evidence, as definite and ultimate; and it consorted with common prudence, with the simplest economy of life, not to be wasteful of any odd gleaning. To haunt Eaton Square in fine would be to show that he hadn’t, like his brilliant associate, a sufficiency of work in the world. It was just his having that sufficiency, it was just their having it together, that, so strangely and so blessedly, made, as they put it to each other, everything possible. What further propped up the case moreover was that the ‘world’, by still another beautiful perversity of their chance, included Portland Place without including to anything like the same extent Eaton Square. The latter residence, at the same time, it must promptly be added, did on occasion wake up to opportunity and, as giving itself a frolic shake, send out a score of invitations – one of which fitful flights, precisely, had, before Easter, the effect of disturbing a little our young man’s measure of his margin. Maggie, with a proper spirit, held that her father ought from time to time to give a really considered dinner, and Mr Verver, who had as little idea as ever of not meeting expectation, was of the harmonious opinion that his wife ought. Charlotte’s own judgement was always that they were ideally free – the proof of which would always be, she maintained, that every one they feared they might most have alienated by neglect would arrive, wreathed in smiles, on the merest hint of a belated signal. Wreathed in smiles, all round, truly enough, these apologetic banquets struck Amerigo as being; they were frankly touching occasions to him, marked, in the great London bousculade,1 with a small still grace of their own, an investing amenity and humanity. Everybody came, everybody rushed; but all succumbed to the soft influence, and the brutality of mere multitude, of curiosity without tenderness, was put off, at the foot of the fine staircase, with the overcoats and shawls. The entertainment offered a few evenings before Easter, and at which Maggie and he were inevitably present as guests, was a discharge of obligations not insistently incurred, and had thus possibly all the more the note of this almost Arcadian2 optimism: a large bright dull murmurous mild-eyed middle-aged dinner, involving for the most part very bland, though very exalted, immensely announceable and hierarchically placeable couples, and followed, without the oppression of a later contingent, by a brief instrumental concert, over the preparation of which, the Prince knew, Maggie’s anxiety had conferred with Charlotte’s ingenuity and both had supremely revelled, as it were, in Mr Verver’s solvency.

The Assinghams were there, by prescription, though quite at the foot of the social ladder; and with the Colonel’s wife, in spite of her humility of position, the Prince was more inwardly occupied than with any other person except Charlotte. He was occupied with Charlotte because in the first place she looked so inordinately handsome and held so high, where so much else was mature and sedate, the torch of responsive youth and the standard of passive grace; and because of the fact that, in the second, the occasion, so far as it referred itself with any confidence of emphasis to a hostess, seemed to refer itself preferentially, well-meaningly and perversely, to Maggie. It wasn’t indistinguishable to him, when once they were all stationed, that his wife too had in perfection her own little character; but he wondered how it managed so visibly to simplify itself – and this, he knew, in spite of any desire she entertained – to the essential air of having overmuch on her mind the felicity, and indeed the very conduct and credit, of the feast. He knew as well the other things of which her appearance was at any time – and in Eaton Square especially – made up: her resemblance to her father, at times so vivid and coming out, in the delicate warmth of occasions, like the quickened fragrance of a flower; her resemblance, as he had hit it off for her once in Rome, during the first flushed days after their engagement, to a little dancing-girl at rest, ever so light of movement but most often panting gently, even a shade compunctiously, on a bench; her approximation, finally – for it was analogy somehow more than identity – to the transmitted images of rather neutral and negative propriety that made up, in his long line, the average of wifehood and motherhood. If the Roman matron had been, in sufficiency, first and last, the honour of that line, Maggie would no doubt, at fifty, have expanded, have solidified to some such dignity, even should she suggest a little but a Cornelia3 in miniature. A light however broke for him in season, and when once it had done so it made him more than ever aware of Mrs Verver’s vaguely yet quite exquisitely contingent participation – a mere hinted or tendered discretion; in short of Mrs Verver’s indescribable unfathomable relation to the scene. Her placed condition, her natural seat and neighbourhood, her intenser presence, her quieter smile, her fewer jewels, were inevitably all as nothing compared with the preoccupation that burned in Maggie like a small flame and that had in fact kindled in each of her cheeks a little attesting, but fortunately by no means unbecoming, spot. The party was her father’s party and its greater or smaller success was a question having for her all the importance of his importance; so that sympathy created for her a visible suspense, under pressure of which she bristled with filial reference, with little filial recalls of expression, movement, tone. It was all unmistakeable, and as pretty as possible, if one would, and even as funny; but it put the pair so together as undivided by the marriage of each that the Princess – il n’y avait pas à dire4 – might sit where she liked: she would still always in that house be irremediably Maggie Verver. The Prince found himself at this hour so beset with the perception we speak of that its natural complement for him would really have been to wonder if Mr Verver had produced on people something of the same impression in the recorded cases of his having dined with his daughter.

This backward speculation, had it begun to play, however, would have been easily arrested; for it was at present to come over Amerigo as never before that his remarkable father-in-law was the man in the world least equipped with different appearances for different times. He was simple, he was a revelation of simplicity, and that was the end of him so far as he consisted of an appearance at all – a question that might verily, for a weakness in it, have been argued. It amused our young man, who was taking his pleasure to-night, it will be seen, in sundry occult ways, it amused him to feel how everything else the master of the house consisted of – resources, possessions, facilities and amiabilities amplified by the social legend – depended, for conveying the effect of quantity, on no personal ‘equation’, no mere measurable medium. Quantity was in the air for these good people, and Mr Verver’s estimable quality was almost wholly in that pervasion. He was meagre and modest and clear-browed, and his eyes, if they wandered without fear, yet stayed without defiance; his shoulders were not broad, his chest was not high, his complexion was not fresh and the crown of his head was not covered; in spite of all of which he looked, at the top of his table, so nearly like a little boy shyly entertaining in virtue of some imposed rank, that he could only be one of the powers, the representative of a force – quite as an infant king is the representative of a dynasty. In this generalised view of his father-in-law, intensified to-night but always operative, Amerigo had now for some time taken refuge. The refuge, after the reunion of the two households in England, had more and more offered itself as the substitute for communities, from man to man, that, by his original calculation, might have become possible, but that had not really ripened and flowered. He met the decent family eyes across the table, met them afterwards in the music-room, but only to read in them still what he had learned to read during his first months, the time of over-anxious initiation, a kind of apprehension in which the terms and conditions were finally fixed and absolute. This directed regard rested at its ease, but it neither lingered nor penetrated, and was, to the Prince’s fancy, much of the same order as any glance directed, for due attention, from the same quarter, to the figure of a cheque received in the course of business and about to be enclosed to a banker. It made sure of the amount – and just so, from time to time, the amount of the Prince was certified. He was being thus, in renewed instalments, perpetually paid in; he already reposed in the bank as a value, but subject, in this comfortable way, to repeated, to infinite endorsement. The net result of all of which moreover was that the young man had no wish to see his value diminish. He himself decidedly hadn’t fixed it – the ‘figure’ was a conception all of Mr Verver’s own. Certainly however everything must be kept up to it; never so much as to-night had the Prince felt this. He would have been uncomfortable, as these quiet expressions passed, had the case not been guaranteed for him by the intensity of his accord with Charlotte. It was impossible that he shouldn’t now and again meet Charlotte’s eyes, as it was also visible that she now and again met her husband’s. For her as well, in all his pulses, he felt the conveyed impression. It put them, it kept them together, through the vain show of their separation; made the two other faces, made the whole lapse of the evening, the people, the lights, the flowers, the pretended talk, the exquisite music, a mystic golden bridge between them, strongly swaying and sometimes almost vertiginous, for that intimacy of which the sovereign law would be the vigilance of ‘care’, would be never rashly to forget and never consciously to wound.