The Golden Bowl Chapter 6

She had not again for weeks had Mrs Assingham so effectually in presence as on the afternoon of that lady’s return from the Easter party at Matcham; but the intermission was made up as soon as the date of the migration to Fawns – that of the more or less simultaneous adjournment of the two houses – began to be discussed. It had struck her promptly that this renewal with an old friend of the old terms she had talked of with her father was the one opening for her spirit that wouldn’t too much advertise or betray her. Even her father, who had always, as he would have said, ‘believed in’ their ancient ally, wouldn’t necessarily suspect her of invoking Fanny’s aid toward any special enquiry – and least of all if Fanny would only act as Fanny so easily might. Maggie’s measure of Fanny’s ease would have been agitating to Mrs Assingham had it been all at once revealed to her – as for that matter it was soon destined to become even on a comparatively graduated showing. Our young woman’s idea in particular was that her safety, her escape from being herself suspected of suspicion, would proceed from this friend’s power to cover, to protect and, as might be, even showily to represent her – represent, that is, her relation to the form of the life they were all actually leading. This would doubtless be, as people said, a large order; but that Mrs Assingham existed substantially or could somehow be made prevailingly to exist for her private benefit was the finest flower Maggie had plucked from among the suggestions sown, like abundant seed, on the occasion of the entertainment offered in Portland Place to the Matcham company. Mrs Assingham had that night, rebounding from dejection, bristled with bravery and sympathy; she had then absolutely, she had perhaps recklessly, for herself, betrayed the deeper and darker consciousness – an impression it would now be late for her inconsistently to attempt to undo. It was with a wonderful air of giving out all these truths that the Princess at present approached her again; making doubtless at first a sufficient scruple of letting her know what in especial she asked of her, yet not a bit ashamed, as she in fact quite expressly declared, of Fanny’s discerned foreboding of the strange uses she might perhaps have for her. Quite from the first really Maggie said extraordinary things to her, such as ‘You can help me, you know, my dear, when nobody else can’; such as ‘I almost wish, upon my word, that you had something the matter with you, that you had lost your health or your money or your reputation (forgive me, love!) so that I might be with you as much as I want, or keep you with me, without exciting comment, without exciting any other remark than that such kindnesses are “like” me.’ We have each our own way of making up for our unselfishness, and Maggie, who had no small self at all as against her husband or her father and only a weak and uncertain one as against her stepmother, would verily at this crisis have seen Mrs Assingham’s personal life or liberty sacrificed without a pang.

The attitude that the appetite in question maintained in her was to draw peculiar support moreover from the current aspects and agitations of her victim. This personage struck her in truth as ready for almost anything; as not perhaps effusively protesting, yet as wanting with a restlessness of her own to know what she wanted. And in the long run – which was none so long either – there was to be no difficulty, as happened, about that. It was as if, for all the world, Maggie had let her see that she held her, that she made her, fairly responsible for something; not, to begin with, dotting all the i’s nor hooking together all the links, but treating her, without insistence, rather with caressing confidence, as there to see and to know, to advise and to assist. The theory, visibly, had patched itself together for her that the dear woman had somehow from the early time had a hand in all their fortunes, so that there was no turn of their common relations and affairs that couldn’t be traced back in some degree to her original affectionate interest. On this affectionate interest the good lady’s young friend now built before her eyes – very much as a wise or even as a mischievous child, playing on the floor, might pile up blocks, skilfully and dizzily, with an eye on the face of a covertly-watching elder. When the blocks tumbled down they but acted after the nature of blocks; yet the hour would come for their rising so high that the structure would have to be noticed and admired. Mrs Assingham’s appearance of unreservedly giving herself involved meanwhile on her own side no separate recognitions: her face of almost anxious attention was directed altogether to her young friend’s so vivid felicity; it suggested that she took for granted at the most certain vague recent enhancements of that state. If the Princess now, more than before, was going and going, she was prompt to publish that she beheld her go, that she had always known she would, sooner or later, and that any appeal for participation must more or less contain and invite the note of triumph. There was a blankness in her blandness, assuredly, and very nearly an extravagance in her generalising gaiety; a precipitation of cheer particularly marked whenever they met again after short separations: meetings during the first flush of which Maggie sometimes felt reminded of other looks in other faces; of two strangely unobliterated impressions above all, the physiognomic light that had played out in her husband at the shock – she had come at last to talk to herself of the ‘shock’ – of his first vision of her on his return from Matcham and Gloucester, and the wonder of Charlotte’s beautiful bold wavering glance when, the next morning in Eaton Square, this old friend had turned from the window to begin to deal with her.

If she had dared to think of it so crudely she would have said that Fanny was afraid of her, afraid of something she might say or do, even as for their few brief seconds Amerigo and Charlotte had been – which made exactly an expressive element common to the three. The difference however was that this look had in the dear woman its oddity of a constant renewal, whereas it had never for the least little instant again peeped out of the others. Other looks, other lights, radiant and steady, with the others, had taken its place, reaching a climax so short a time ago, that morning of the appearance of the pair on the balcony of her house to overlook what she had been doing with her father; when their general interested brightness and beauty, attuned to the outbreak of summer, had seemed to shed down warmth and welcome and the promise of protection. They were conjoined not to do anything to startle her – and now at last so completely that, with experience and practice, they had almost ceased to fear their liability. Mrs Assingham on the other hand, deprecating such an accident not less, had yet less assurance through having less control. The high pitch of her cheer accordingly, the tentative adventurous expressions, of the would-be smiling order, that preceded her approach even like a squad of skirmishers, or whatever they were called, moving ahead of the baggage-train – these things had at the end of a fortnight brought a dozen times to our young woman’s lips a challenge that had the cunning to await its right occasion, but of the relief of which, as a demonstration, she meanwhile felt no little need. ‘You’ve such a dread of my possibly complaining to you that you keep pealing all the bells to drown my voice; but don’t cry out, my dear, till you’re hurt – and above all ask yourself how I can be so wicked as to complain. What in the name of all that’s fantastic can you dream that I have to complain of?’ Such enquiries the Princess temporarily succeeded in repressing, and she did so, in a measure, by the aid of her wondering if this ambiguity with which her friend affected her wouldn’t be at present a good deal like the ambiguity with which she herself must frequently affect her father. She wondered how she should enjoy on his part such a take-up as she but just succeeded from day to day in sparing Mrs Assingham, and that made for her trying to be as easy with this associate as Mr Verver, blessed man, all indulgent but all inscrutable, was with his daughter. She had none the less extracted from her a vow in respect to the time that if the Colonel might be depended on they would spend at Fawns; and nothing came home to her more in this connexion or inspired her with a more intimate interest than her sense of absolutely seeing her interlocutress forbear to observe that Charlotte’s view of a long visit even from such allies was there to be reckoned with.

Fanny stood off from that proposition as visibly to the Princess, and as consciously to herself, as she might have backed away from the edge of a chasm into which she feared to slip; a truth that contributed again to keep before our young woman her own constant danger of advertising subtle processes. That Charlotte should have begun to be restrictive about the Assinghams – which she had never, and for a hundred obviously good reasons, been before – this in itself was a fact of the highest value for Maggie, and of a value enhanced by the silence in which Fanny herself so much too unmistakeably dressed it. What gave it quite thrillingly its price was exactly the circumstance that it thus opposed her to her stepmother more actively – if she was to back up her friends for holding out – than she had ever yet been opposed; though of course with the involved result of the fine chance given Mrs Verver to ask her husband for explanations. Ah from the moment she should be definitely caught in opposition there would be naturally no saying how much Charlotte’s opportunities might multiply. What would become of her father, she hauntedly asked, if his wife, on the one side, should begin to press him to call his daughter to order, and the force of old habit – to put it only at that – should dispose him not less effectively to believe in this young person at any price? There she was, all round, imprisoned in the circle of the reasons it was impossible she should give – certainly give him. The house in the country was his house, and thereby was Charlotte’s; it was her own and Amerigo’s only so far as its proper master and mistress should profusely place it at their disposal. Maggie felt of course that she saw no limit to her father’s profusion, but this couldn’t be even at the best the case with Charlotte’s, whom it would never be decent, when all was said, to reduce to fighting for her preferences. There were hours truly when the Princess saw herself as not unarmed for battle if battle might only take place without spectators.

This last advantage for her was however too sadly out of the question; her sole strength lay in her being able to see that if Charlotte wouldn’t ‘want’ the Assinghams it would be because that sentiment too would have motives and grounds. She had all the while command of one way of meeting any objection, any complaint, on his wife’s part, reported to her by her father; it would be open to her to retort to his possible ‘What are your reasons, my dear?’ by a lucidly-produced ‘What are hers, love, please? – isn’t that what we had better know? Mayn’t her reasons be a dislike, beautifully founded, of the presence and thereby of the observation of persons who perhaps know about her things it’s inconvenient to her they should know?’ That hideous card she might in mere logic play – being at this time, at her still swifter private pace, intimately familiar with all the fingered pasteboard in her pack. But she could play it only on the forbidden issue of sacrificing him; the issue so forbidden that it involved even a horror of finding out if he would really have consented to be sacrificed. What she must do she must do by keeping her hands off him; and nothing meanwhile, as we see, had less in common with that scruple than such a merciless manipulation of their yielding beneficiaries as her spirit so boldly revelled in. She saw herself in this connexion without detachment – saw others alone with intensity; otherwise she might have been struck, fairly have been amused, by her free assignment of the pachydermatous quality. If she could face the awkwardness of the persistence of her friends at Fawns in spite of Charlotte, she somehow looked to them for an inspiration of courage that would improve upon her own. They were in short not only themselves to find a plausibility and an audacity, but were somehow by the way to pick up these forms for her, Maggie, as well. And she felt indeed that she was giving them scant time longer when one afternoon in Portland Place she broke out with an irrelevance that was merely superficial.

‘What awfulness, in heaven’s name, is there between them? What do you believe, what do you know?’

Oh if she went by faces her visitor’s sudden whiteness at this might have carried her far! Fanny Assingham turned pale for it, but there was something in such an appearance, in the look it put into the eyes, that renewed Maggie’s conviction of what this companion had been expecting. She had been watching it come, come from afar, and now that it was there, after all, and the first convulsion over, they would doubtless soon find themselves in a more real relation. It was there because of the Sunday luncheon they had partaken of alone together; it was there, as strangely as one would, because of the bad weather, the cold perverse June rain, that was making the day wrong; it was there because it stood for the whole sum of the perplexities and duplicities among which our young woman felt herself lately to have picked her steps; it was there because Amerigo and Charlotte were again paying together alone a ‘week-end’ visit which it had been Maggie’s plan infernally to promote – just to see if this time they really would; it was there because she had kept Fanny, on her side, from paying one she would manifestly have been glad to pay, and had made her come instead, stupidly, vacantly, boringly, to luncheon; all in the spirit of celebrating the fact that the Prince and Mrs Verver had thus put it into her own power to describe them exactly as they were. It had abruptly occurred in truth that Maggie required the preliminary help of determining how they were; though on the other hand before her guest had answered her question everything in the hour and the place, everything in all the conditions, affected her as crying it out. Her guest’s stare of ignorance above all – that of itself first cried it out. ‘ “Between them”? What do you mean?’

‘Anything there shouldn’t be, there shouldn’t have been – all this time. Do you believe there is – or what’s your idea?’

Fanny’s idea was clearly, to begin with, that her young friend had taken her breath away; but she looked at her very straight and very hard. ‘Do you speak from a suspicion of your own?’

‘I speak at last from a torment. Forgive me if it comes out. I’ve been thinking for months and months, and I’ve no one to turn to, no one to help me to make things out; no impression but my own, don’t you see? to go by.’

‘You’ve been thinking for months and months?’ – Mrs Assingham took it in. ‘But what then, dear Maggie, have you been thinking?’

‘Well, horrible things – like a little beast that I perhaps am. That there may be something – something wrong and dreadful, some thing they cover up.’

The elder woman’s colour had begun to come back; she was able, though with a visible effort, to face the question less amazedly. ‘You imagine, poor child, that the wretches are in love? Is that it?’

But Maggie for a minute only stared back at her. ‘Help me to find out what I imagine. I don’t know – I’ve nothing but my perpetual anxiety. Have you any? – do you see what I mean? If you’ll tell me truly, that at least, one way or the other, will do something for me.’

Fanny’s look had taken a peculiar gravity – a fulness with which it seemed to shine. ‘Is what it comes to that you’re jealous of Charlotte?’

‘Do you mean whether I hate her?’ – and Maggie thought. ‘No; not on account of father.’

‘Ah,’ Mrs Assingham returned, ‘that isn’t what one would suppose. What I ask is if you’re jealous on account of your husband.’

‘Well,’ said Maggie presently, ‘perhaps that may be all. If I’m unhappy I’m jealous; it must come to the same thing; and with you at least I’m not afraid of the word. If I’m jealous, don’t you see? I’m tormented,’ she went on – ‘and all the more if I’m helpless. And if I’m both helpless and tormented I stuff my pocket-handkerchief into my mouth, I keep it there, for the most part, night and day, so as not to be heard too indecently moaning. Only now, with you, at last, I can’t keep it longer; I’ve pulled it out and here I am fairly screaming at you. They’re away,’ she wound up, ‘so they can’t hear; and I’m by a miracle of arrangement not at luncheon with father at home. I live in the midst of miracles of arrangement, half of which I admit are my own; I go about on tiptoe, I watch for every sound, I feel every breath, and yet I try all the while to seem as smooth as old satin dyed rose-colour. Have you ever thought of me,’ she asked, ‘as really feeling as I do?’

Her companion, conspicuously, required to be clear. ‘Jealous, unhappy, tormented –? No,’ said Mrs Assingham; ‘but at the same time – and though you may laugh at me for it! – I’m bound to confess I’ve never been so awfully sure of what I may call knowing you. Here you are indeed, as you say – such a deep little person! I’ve never imagined your existence poisoned, and since you wish to know if I consider it need be I’ve not the least difficulty in speaking on the spot. Nothing decidedly strikes me as more unnecessary.’

For a minute after this they remained face to face; Maggie had sprung up while her friend sat enthroned, and, after moving to and fro in her intensity, now paused to receive the light she had invoked. It had accumulated, considerably, by this time, round Mrs Assingham’s ample presence, and it made, even to our young woman’s own sense, a medium in which she could at last take a deeper breath. ‘I’ve affected you, these months – and these last weeks in especial – as quiet and natural and easy?’

But it was a question that took, not imperceptibly, some answering. ‘You’ve never affected me, from the first hour I beheld you, as anything but – in a way all your own – absolutely good and sweet and beautiful. In a way, as I say,’ Mrs Assingham almost caressingly repeated, ‘just all your very own – nobody else’s at all. I’ve never thought of you but as outside of ugly things, so ignorant of any falsity or cruelty or vulgarity as never to have to be touched by them or to touch them. I’ve never mixed you up with them; there would have been time enough for that if they had seemed to be near you. But they haven’t – if that’s what you want to know.’

‘You’ve only believed me contented then because you’ve believed me stupid?’

Mrs Assingham had a free smile now for the length of this stride, dissimulated though it might be in a graceful little frisk. ‘If I had believed you stupid I shouldn’t have thought you interesting, and if I hadn’t thought you interesting I shouldn’t have noted whether I “knew” you, as I’ve called it, or not. What I’ve always been conscious of is your having concealed about you somewhere no small amount of character; quite as much in fact,’ Fanny smiled, ‘as one could suppose a person of your size able to carry. The only thing was,’ she explained, ‘that thanks to your never calling one’s attention to it, I hadn’t made out much more about it, and should have been vague above all as to where you carried it or kept it. Somewhere under, I should simply have said – like that little silver cross you once showed me, blest by the Holy Father, that you always wear, out of sight, next your skin. That relic I’ve had a glimpse of’ – with which she continued to invoke the privilege of humour. ‘But the precious little innermost, say this time little golden personal nature of you – blest by a greater power I think even than the Pope – that you’ve never consentingly shown me. I’m not sure you’ve ever consentingly shown it to any one. You’ve been in general too modest.’

Maggie, trying to follow, almost achieved a little fold of her forehead. ‘I strike you as modest to-day – modest when I stand here and scream at you?’

‘Oh your screaming, I’ve granted you, is something new. I must fit it on somewhere. The question is, however,’ Mrs Assingham further proceeded, ‘of what the deuce I can fit it on to. Do you mean,’ she asked, ‘to the fact of our friends’ being, from yesterday to to-morrow, at a place where they may more or less irresponsibly meet?’ She spoke with the air of putting it as badly for them as possible. ‘Are you thinking of their being there alone – of their having consented to be?’ And then as she had waited without result for her companion to say: ‘But isn’t it true that – after you had this time again, at the eleventh hour, said you wouldn’t – they would really much rather not have gone?’

‘Yes – they would certainly much rather not have gone. But I wanted them to go.’

‘Then, my dear child, what in the world is the matter?’

‘I wanted to see if they would. And they’ve had to,’ Maggie added. ‘It was the only thing.’

Her friend appeared to wonder. ‘From the moment you and your father backed out?’

‘Oh I don’t mean go for those people. I mean go for us. For father and me,’ Maggie went on. ‘Because now they know.’

‘They “know”?’ Fanny Assingham quavered.

‘That I’ve been for some time past taking more notice. Notice of the queer things in our life.’

Maggie saw her companion for an instant on the point of asking her what these queer things might be; but Mrs Assingham had the next minute brushed by that ambiguous opening and taken, as she evidently felt, a better one. ‘And is it for that you did it? I mean gave up the visit.’

‘It’s for that I did it. To leave them to themselves – as they less and less want, or at any rate less and less venture to appear to want, to be left. As they had for so long arranged things,’ the Princess went on, ‘you see they sometimes have to be.’ And then, as if baffled by the lucidity of this, Mrs Assingham for a little said nothing: ‘Now do you think I’m modest?’

With time however Fanny could brilliantly think anything that would serve. ‘I think you’re wrong. That, my dear, is my answer to your question. It demands assuredly the straightest I can make. I see no “awfulness” – I suspect none. I’m deeply distressed,’ she added, ‘that you should do anything else.’

It drew again from Maggie a long look. ‘You’ve never even imagined anything?’

‘Ah God forbid! – for it’s exactly as a woman of imagination that I speak. There’s no moment of my life at which I’m not imagining something; and it’s thanks to that, darling.’ Mrs Assingham pursued, ‘that I figure the sincerity with which your husband, whom you see as viciously occupied with your stepmother, is interested, is tenderly interested, in his admirable adorable wife.’ She paused a minute as to give her friend the full benefit of this – as to Maggie’s measure of which however no sign came; and then, poor woman, haplessly, she crowned her effort. ‘He wouldn’t hurt a hair of your head.’

It had produced in Maggie at once, and apparently in the intended form of a smile, the most extraordinary expression. ‘Ah there it is!’

But her guest had already gone on. ‘And I’m absolutely certain that Charlotte wouldn’t either.’

It kept the Princess, with her strange grimace, standing there. ‘No – Charlotte wouldn’t either. That’s how they’ve had again to go off together. They’ve been afraid not to – lest it should disturb me, aggravate me, somehow work upon me. As I insisted that they must, that we couldn’t all fail – though father and Charlotte hadn’t really accepted; as I did this they had to yield to the fear that their showing as afraid to move together would count for them as the greater danger: which would be the danger, you see, of my feeling myself wronged. Their least danger, they know, is in going on with all the things that I’ve seemed to accept and that I’ve given no indication at any moment of not accepting. Everything that has come up for them has come up, in an extraordinary manner, without my having by a sound or a sign given myself away – so that it’s all as wonderful as you may conceive. They move at any rate among the dangers I speak of – between that of their doing too much and that of their not having any longer the confidence or the nerve, or whatever you may call it, to do enough.’ Her tone might by this time have shown a strangeness to match her smile; which was still more marked as she wound up: ‘And that’s how I make them do what I like!’

It had an effect on Mrs Assingham, who rose with the deliberation that from point to point marked the widening of her grasp. ‘My dear child, you’re amazing.’

‘Amazing –?’

‘You’re terrible.’

Maggie thoughtfully shook her head. ‘No; I’m not terrible, and you don’t think me so. I do strike you as surprising, no doubt – but surprisingly mild. Because – don’t you see? – I am mild. I can bear anything.’

‘Oh “bear”!’ Mrs Assingham fluted.

‘For love,’ said the Princess.

Fanny hesitated. ‘Of your father?’

‘For love,’ Maggie repeated.

It kept her friend watching. ‘Of your husband?’

‘For love,’ Maggie said again.

It was for the moment as if the distinctness of this might have determined in her companion a choice between two or three highly different alternatives. Mrs Assingham’s rejoinder at all events – however much or however little it was a choice – was presently a triumph. ‘Speaking with this love of your own then, have you undertaken to convey to me that you believe your husband and your father’s wife to be in act and in fact lovers of each other?’ And then as the Princess didn’t at first answer: ‘Do you call such an allegation as that “mild”?’

‘Oh I’m not pretending to be mild to you. But I’ve told you, and moreover you must have seen for yourself, how much so I’ve been to them.’

Mrs Assingham, more brightly again, bridled. ‘Is that what you call it when you make them, for terror as you say, do as you like?’

‘Ah there wouldn’t be any terror for them if they had nothing to hide.’

Mrs Assingham faced her – quite steady now. ‘Are you really conscious, love, of what you’re saying?’

‘I’m saying that I’m bewildered and tormented, and that I’ve no one but you to speak to. I’ve thought, I’ve in fact been sure, that you’ve seen for yourself how much this is the case. It’s why I’ve believed you would meet me halfway.’

‘Halfway to what? To denouncing,’ Fanny asked, ‘two persons, friends of years, whom I’ve always immensely admired and liked, and against whom I haven’t the shadow of a charge to make?’

Maggie looked at her with wide eyes. ‘I had much rather you should denounce me than denounce them. Denounce me, denounce me,’ she said, ‘if you can see your way.’ It was exactly what she appeared to have argued out with herself. ‘If conscientiously you can denounce me; if conscientiously you can revile me; if conscientiously you can put me in my place for a low-minded little pig –!’

‘Well?’ said Mrs Assingham consideringly, as she paused for emphasis.

‘I think I shall be saved.’

Her friend took it for a minute however by carrying thoughtful eyes, eyes verily portentous, over her head. ‘You say you’ve no one to speak to, and you make a point of your having so disguised your feelings – not having, as you call it, given yourself away. Have you then never seen it not only as your right, but as your bounden duty, worked up to such a pitch, to speak to your husband?’

‘I’ve spoken to him,’ said Maggie.

Mrs Assingham stared. ‘Ah then it isn’t true that you’ve made no sign.’

Maggie had a silence. ‘I’ve made no trouble. I’ve made no scene. I’ve taken no stand. I’ve neither reproached nor accused him. You’ll say there’s a way in all that of being nasty enough.’

‘Oh!’ dropped from Fanny as if she couldn’t help it.

‘But I don’t think – strangely enough – that he regards me as nasty. I think that at bottom – for that is,’ said the Princess, ‘the strangeness – he’s sorry for me. Yes, I think that deep within he pities me.’

Her companion wondered. ‘For the state you’ve let yourself get into?’

‘For not being happy when I’ve so much to make me so.’

‘You’ve everything,’ said Mrs Assingham with alacrity. Yet she remained for an instant embarrassed as to a further advance. ‘Yet I don’t understand how, if you’ve done nothing –’

An impatience from Maggie had checked her. ‘I’ve not done absolutely “nothing”.’

‘But what then –?’

‘Well,’ she went on after a minute, ‘he knows what I’ve done.’

It produced on Mrs Assingham’s part, her whole tone and manner exquisitely aiding, a hush not less prolonged and the very duration of which inevitably gave it something of the character of an equal recognition. ‘And what then has he done?’

Maggie took again a minute. ‘He has been splendid.’

‘ “Splendid”? Then what more do you want?’

‘Ah what you see!’ said Maggie. ‘Not to be afraid.’

It made her guest again hang fire. ‘Not to be afraid really to speak?’

‘Not to be afraid not to speak.’

Mrs Assingham considered further. ‘You can’t even to Charlotte?’ But as, at this, after a look at her, Maggie turned off with a movement of suppressed despair, she checked herself and might have been watching her, for all the difficulty and the pity of it, vaguely move to the window and the view of the dull street. It was almost as if she had had to give up, from failure of responsive wit in her friend – the last failure she had feared – the hope of the particular relief she had been working for. Mrs Assingham resumed the next instant however in the very tone that seemed most to promise her she should have to give up nothing. ‘I see, I see; you’d have in that case too many things to consider.’ It brought the Princess round again, proving itself thus the note of comprehension she wished most to clutch at. ‘Don’t be afraid.’

Maggie took it where she stood – which she was soon able to signify. ‘Thank you.’

It very properly encouraged her counsellor. ‘What your idea imputes is a criminal intrigue carried on, from day to day, amid perfect trust and sympathy, not only under your eyes, but under your father’s. That’s an idea it’s impossible for me for a moment to entertain.’

‘Ah there you are then! It’s exactly what I wanted from you.’

‘You’re welcome to it!’ Mrs Assingham breathed.

‘You never have entertained it?’ Maggie pursued.

‘Never for an instant,’ said Fanny with her head very high.

Maggie took it again, yet again as wanting more. ‘Pardon my being so horrid. But by all you hold sacred?’

Mrs Assingham faced her. ‘Ah my dear, upon my positive word as an honest woman.’

‘Thank you then,’ said the Princess.

So they remained a little; after which, ‘But do you believe it, love?’ Fanny enquired.

‘I believe you.’

‘Well, as I’ve faith in them it comes to the same thing.’

Maggie, at this last, appeared for a moment to think again; but she embraced the proposition. ‘The same thing.’

‘Then you’re no longer unhappy?’ her guest urged, coming more gaily toward her.

‘I doubtless shan’t be a great while.’

But it was now Mrs Assingham’s turn to want more. ‘I’ve convinced you it’s impossible?’

She had held out her arms, and Maggie, after a moment meeting her, threw herself into them with a sound that had its oddity as a sign of relief. ‘Impossible, impossible,’ she emphatically, more than emphatically, replied; yet the next minute she had burst into tears over the impossibility, and a few seconds later, pressing, clinging, sobbing, had even caused them to flow, audibly, sympathetically and perversely, from her friend.