The Golden Bowl Chapter 7

The understanding appeared to have come to be that the Colonel and his wife were to present themselves toward the middle of July for the ‘good long visit’ at Fawns on which Maggie had obtained from her father that he should genially insist; as well as that the couple from Eaton Square should welcome there earlier in the month, and less than a week after their own arrival, the advent of the couple from Portland Place. ‘Oh we shall give you time to breathe!’ Fanny remarked, in reference to the general prospect, with a gaiety that announced itself as heedless of criticism, to each member of the party in turn; sustaining and bracing herself by her emphasis, pushed even to an amiable cynicism, of the confident view of these punctualities of the Assinghams. The ground she could best occupy, to her sense, was that of her being moved, as in this connexion she had always been moved, by the admitted grossness of her avidity, the way the hospitality of the Ververs met her convenience and ministered to her ease, destitute as the Colonel had kept her, from the first, of any rustic retreat, any leafy bower of her own, any fixed base for the stale season now at hand. She had explained at home, she had repeatedly reexplained, the terms of her dilemma, the real difficulty of her, or – as she now put it – of their, position. When the pair could do nothing else, in Cadogan Place, they could still talk of marvellous little Maggie, and of the charm, the sinister charm, of their having to hold their breath to watch her; a topic the momentous midnight discussion at which we have been present was so far from having exhausted. It came up, irrepressibly, at all private hours; they had planted it there between them, and it grew, from day to day, in a manner to make their sense of responsibility almost yield to their sense of fascination. Mrs Assingham declared at such moments that in the interest of this admirable young thing – to whom, she also declared, she had quite ‘come over’ – she was ready to pass with all the world else, even with the Prince himself, the object, inconsequently, as well, of her continued, her explicitly shameless appreciation, for a vulgar indelicate pestilential woman, showing her true character in an abandoned old age. The Colonel’s confessed attention had been enlisted, we have seen, as never yet, under pressure from his wife, by any guaranteed imbroglio; but this, she could assure him she perfectly knew, was not a bit because he was sorry for her, was touched by what she had let herself in for, but because when once they had been opened he couldn’t keep his eyes from resting complacently, resting almost intelligently, on the Princess. If he was in love with her now, however, so much the better; it would help them both not to wince at what they would have to do for her. Mrs Assingham had come back to that whenever he groaned or grunted; she had at no beguiled moment – since Maggie’s little march was positively beguiling – let him lose sight of the grim necessity awaiting them. ‘We shall have, as I’ve again and again told you, to lie for her – to lie till we’re black in the face.’

‘To lie “for” her?’ The Colonel often, at these hours, as from a vague vision of old chivalry in a new form, wandered into apparent lapses from lucidity.

‘To lie to her, up and down, and in and out – it comes to the same thing. It will consist just as much of lying to the others too: to the Prince about one’s belief in him; to Charlotte about one’s belief in her; to Mr Verver, dear sweet man, about one’s belief in every one. So we’ve work cut out – with the biggest lie, on top of all, being that we like to be there for such a purpose. We hate it unspeakably – I’m more ready to be a coward before it, to let the whole thing, to let every one, selfishly and pusillanimously slide, than before any social duty, any felt human call, that has ever forced me to be decent. I speak at least for myself. For you,’ she had added, ‘as I’ve given you so perfect an opportunity to fall in love with Maggie, you’ll doubtless find your account in being so much nearer to her.’

‘And what do you make,’ the Colonel could, at this, always imperturbably enough ask, ‘of the account you yourself will find in being so much nearer to the Prince; of your confirmed, if not exasperated, infatuation with whom – to say nothing of my weak good nature about it – you give such a pretty picture?’

To the picture in question she had in fact been always able contemplatively to return. ‘The difficulty of my enjoyment of that is, don’t you see? that I’m making, in my loyalty to Maggie, a sad hash of his affection for me.’

‘You find means to call it then, this whitewashing of his crime, being “loyal” to Maggie?’

‘Oh about that particular crime there’s always much to say. It’s always more interesting to us than any other crime – it has at least that for it. But of course I call everything I have in mind at all being loyal to Maggie. Being loyal to her is more than anything else helping her with her father – which is what she most wants and needs.’

The Colonel had had it before, but he could apparently never have too much of it. ‘Helping her “with” him –?’

‘Helping her against him then. Against what we’ve already so fully talked of – its having to be recognised between them that he doubts. That’s where my part is so plain – to see her through, to see her through to the end.’ Exaltation, for the moment, always lighted Mrs Assingham’s reference to this plainness; yet she at the same time seldom failed, the next instant, to qualify her view of it. ‘When I talk of my obligation as clear I mean that it’s absolute; for just how, from day to day and through thick and thin, to keep the thing up is, I grant you, another matter. There’s one way, luckily, nevertheless, in which I’m strong. I can so perfectly count on her.’

The Colonel seldom failed here, as from the insidious growth of an excitement, to wonder, to encourage. ‘Not to see you’re lying?’

‘To stick to me fast, whatever she sees. If I stick to her – that is to my own poor struggling way, under providence, of watching over them all – she’ll stand by me to the death. She won’t give me away. For you know she easily can.’

This, regularly, was the most lurid turn of their road; but Bob Assingham, with each journey, met it as for the first time. ‘Easily?’

‘She can utterly dishonour me with her father. She can let him know that I was aware at the time of his marriage – as I had been aware at the time of her own – of the relations that had pre-existed between his wife and her husband.’

‘And how can she do so if, up to this minute, by your own statement, she’s herself in ignorance of your knowledge?’

It was a question that Mrs Assingham had ever, for dealing with, a manner to which repeated practice had given almost a grand effect; very much as if she was invited by it to say that about this exactly she proposed to do her best lying. But she said, and with full lucidity, something quite other: it could give itself a little the air still of a triumph over his coarseness. ‘By acting immediately with the blind resentment with which, in her place, ninety-nine women out of a hundred would act; and by so making Mr Verver in turn act with the same natural passion, the passion of ninety-nine men out of a hundred. They’ve only to agree about me,’ the poor lady said; ‘they’ve only to feel at one over it, feel bitterly practised upon, cheated and injured; they’ve only to denounce me to each other as false and infamous, for me to be quite irretrievably dished. Of course it’s I who have been, and who continue to be cheated – cheated by the Prince and Charlotte; but they’re not obliged to give me the benefit of that, or to give either of us the benefit of anything. They’ll be within their rights to lump us all together as a false cruel conspiring crew and, if they can find the right facts to support them, get rid of us root and branch.’

This on each occasion put the matter so at the worst that repetition even scarce controlled the hot flush with which she was compelled to see the parts of the whole history, all its ugly consistency and its temporary gloss, hang together. She enjoyed invariably the sense of making her danger present, of making it real, to her husband, and of his almost turning pale when their eyes met at this possibility of their compromised state and their shared discredit. The beauty was that, as under a touch of one of the ivory notes at the left of the keyboard, he sounded out with the short sharpness of the dear fond stupid uneasy man. ‘Conspiring – so far as you were concerned – to what end?’

‘Why to the obvious end of getting the Prince a wife – at Maggie’s expense. And then to that of getting Charlotte a husband at Mr Verver’s.’

‘Of rendering friendly services, yes – which have produced, as it turns out, complications. But from the moment you didn’t do it for the complications, why shouldn’t you have rendered them?’

It was extraordinary for her always, in this connexion, how, with time given him, he fell to speaking better for her than she could, in the presence of her clear-cut image of the ‘worst’, speak for herself. Troubled as she was she thus never wholly failed of her amusement by the way. ‘Oh isn’t what I may have meddled “for” – so far as it can be proved I did meddle – open to interpretation; by which I mean to Mr Verver’s and Maggie’s? Mayn’t they see my motive, in the light of that appreciation, as the wish to be decidedly more friendly to the others than to the victimised father and daughter?’ She positively liked to keep it up. ‘Mayn’t they see my motive as the determination to serve the Prince, in any case and at any price, first; to “place” him comfortably; in other words to find him his fill of money? Mayn’t it have all the air for them of a really equivocal sinister bargain between us – something quite unholy and louche?’

It infallibly produced in the poor Colonel the echo. ‘ “Louche”, love –?’

‘Why, haven’t you said as much yourself? – haven’t you put your finger on that awful possibility?’

She had a way now with his felicities that made him enjoy being reminded of them. ‘In speaking of your having always had such a “Mash”1 –?’

‘Such a mash, precisely, for the man I was to help to put so splendidly at his ease. A motherly mash an impartial look at it would show it only as likely to have been – but we’re not talking of course about impartial looks. We’re talking of good innocent people deeply worked upon by a horrid discovery and going much further in their view of the lurid, as such people almost always do, than those who have been wider awake all round from the first. What I was to have got from my friend, in such a view, in exchange for what I had been able to do for him – well, that would have been an equivalent, of a kind best known to myself, for me shrewdly to consider.’ And she easily lost herself each time in the anxious satisfaction of filling out the picture. ‘It would have been seen, it would have been heard of before, the case of the woman a man doesn’t want, or of whom he’s tired, or for whom he has no use but such uses, and who’s capable, in her infatuation, in her passion, of promoting his interests with other women rather than lose sight of him, lose touch of him, cease to have to do with him at all. Cela s’est vu,2 my dear; and stranger things still – as I needn’t tell you! Very good then,’ she wound up; ‘there’s a perfectly possible conception of the behaviour of your sweet wife; since, as I say, no imagination’s so lively, once it’s started, as that of really agitated lambs. Lions are nothing to them, for lions are sophisticated, are blasés,3 are brought up from the first to prowling and mauling. It does give us, you’ll admit, something to think about. My relief is luckily, however, in what I finally do think.’

He was well enough aware by this time of what she finally did think, but he wasn’t without a sense again also for his amusement by the way. It would have made him, for a spectator of these passages between the pair, resemble not a little the artless child who hears his favourite story told for the twentieth time and enjoys it exactly because he knows what is next to happen. ‘What of course will pull them up if they turn out to have less imagination than you assume is the profit you can have found in furthering Mrs Verver’s marriage. You weren’t at least in love with Charlotte.’

‘Oh,’ Mrs Assingham, at this, always brought out, ‘my hand in that is easily accounted for by my desire to be agreeable to him.’

‘To Mr Verver?’

‘To the Prince – by preventing her in that way from taking, as he was in danger of seeing her do, some husband with whom he wouldn’t be able to open, to keep open, so large an account as with his father-in-law. I’ve brought her near him, kept her within his reach, as she could never have remained either as a single woman or as the wife of a different man.’

‘Kept her, on that sweet construction, to be his mistress?’

‘Kept her, on that sweet construction, to be his mistress.’ She brought it out grandly – it had always so, for her own ear as well as, visibly, for her husband’s, its effect. ‘The facilities in the case, thanks to the particular conditions, being so quite ideal.’

‘Down even to the facility of your minding everything so little – from your own point of view – as to have supplied him with the enjoyment of two beautiful women.’

‘Down even to that – to the monstrosity of my folly. But not,’ Mrs Assingham added, ‘ “two” of anything. One beautiful woman – and one beautiful fortune. That’s what a creature of pure virtue exposes herself to when she suffers her pure virtue, suffers her sympathy, her disinterestedness, her exquisite sense for the lives of others, to carry her too far. Voilà.’4

‘I see. It’s the way the Ververs have you.’

‘It’s the way the Ververs “have” me. It’s in other words the way they would be able to make such a show to each other of having me – if Maggie weren’t so divine.’

‘She lets you off?’ He never failed to insist on all this to the very end; which was how he had become so versed in what she finally thought.

‘She lets me off. So that now, horrified and contrite at what I’ve done, I may work to help her out. And Mr Verver,’ she was fond of adding, ‘lets me off too.’

‘Then you do believe he knows?’

It determined in her always there, with a significant pause, a deep immersion in her thought. ‘I believe he’d let me off if he did know – so that I might work to help him out. Or rather, really,’ she went on, ‘that I might work to help Maggie. That would be his motive, that would be his condition, in forgiving me; just as hers for me in fact, her motive and her condition, are my acting to spare her father. But it’s with Maggie only that I’m directly concerned; nothing ever – not a breath, not a look, I’ll guarantee – shall I have, whatever happens, from Mr Verver himself. So it is therefore that I shall probably by the closest possible shave escape the penalty of my crimes.’

‘You mean being held responsible.’

‘I mean being held responsible. My advantage will be that Maggie’s such a trump.’

‘Such a trump that, as you say, she’ll stick to you.’

‘Stick to me, on our understanding – stick to me. For our understanding’s signed and sealed.’ And to brood over it again was ever for Mrs Assingham to break out again with exaltation. ‘It’s a grand high compact. She has solemnly promised.’

‘But in words –?’

‘Oh yes, in words enough – since it’s a matter of words. To keep up her lie so long as I keep up mine.’

‘And what do you call “her” lie?’

‘Why the pretence that she believes me. Believes they’re innocent.’

‘She positively believes then they’re guilty? She has arrived at that, she’s really content with it, in the absence of proof?’

It was here each time that Fanny Assingham most faltered; but always at last to get the matter for her own sense and with a long sigh sufficiently straight. ‘It isn’t a question of belief or of proof, absent or present; it’s inevitably with her a question of natural perception, of insurmountable feeling. She irresistibly knows that there’s something between them. But she hasn’t “arrived” at it, as you say, at all; that’s exactly what she hasn’t done, what she so steadily and intensely refuses to do. She stands off and off, so as not to arrive; she keeps out to sea and away from the rocks, and what she most wants of me is to keep at a safe distance with her – as I, for my own skin, only ask not to come nearer.’ After which, invariably, she let him have it all. ‘So far from wanting proof – which she must get, in a manner, by my siding with her – she wants disproof, as against herself, and has appealed to me, so extraordinarily, to side against her. It’s really magnificent when you come to think of it, the spirit of her appeal. If I’ll but cover them up brazenly enough, the others, so as to show, round and about them, as happy as a bird, she on her side will do what she can. If I’ll keep them quiet, in a word, it will enable her to gain time – time as against any idea of her father’s – and so somehow come out. If I’ll take care of Charlotte in particular she’ll take care of the Prince; and it’s beautiful and wonderful, really pathetic and exquisite, to see what she feels time may do for her.’

‘Ah but what does she call, poor little thing, “time”?’

‘Well, this summer at Fawns to begin with. She can live as yet of course but from hand to mouth; but she has worked it out for herself, I think, that the very danger of Fawns, superficially looked at, may practically amount to a greater protection. There the lovers – if they are lovers! – will have to mind. They’ll feel it for themselves, unless things are too utterly far gone with them.’

‘And things are not too utterly far gone with them?’

She had inevitably, poor woman, her hesitation for this, but she put down her answer as for the purchase of some absolutely indispensable article she would have put down her last shilling. ‘No.’

It made him always grin at her. ‘Is that a lie?’

‘Do you think you’re worth lying to? If it weren’t the truth for me,’ she added, ‘I wouldn’t have accepted for Fawns. I can, I believe, keep the wretches quiet.’

‘But how – at the worst?’

‘Oh “the worst” – don’t talk about the worst! I can keep them quiet at the best, I seem to feel, simply by our being there. It will work from week to week of itself. You’ll see.’

He was willing enough to see, but he desired to provide –! ‘Yet if it doesn’t work?’

‘Ah that’s talking about the worst!’

Well, it might be; but what were they doing from morning to night at this crisis but talk? ‘Who’ll keep the others?’

‘The others –?’

‘Who’ll keep them quiet? If your couple have had a life together they can’t have had it completely without witnesses, without the help of persons, however few, who must have some knowledge, some idea about them. They’ve had to meet, secretly, protectedly, they’ve had to arrange; for if they haven’t met and haven’t arranged and haven’t thereby in some quarter or other had to give themselves away, why are we piling it up so? Therefore if there’s evidence up and down London –’

‘There must be people in possession of it? Ah it isn’t all,’ she always remembered, ‘up and down London. Some of it must connect them – I mean,’ she musingly added, ‘it naturally would – with other places; with who knows what strange adventures, opportunities, dissimulations? But whatever there may have been it will also all have been buried on the spot. Oh they’ve known how – too beautifully! But nothing all the same is likely to find its way to Maggie of itself.’

‘Because every one who may have anything to tell, you hold, will have been so squared?’ And then inveterately, before she could say – he enjoyed so much coming to this: ‘What will have squared Lady Castledean?’

‘The consciousness’ – she had never lost her promptness – ‘of having no stones to throw at any one else’s windows. She has enough to do to guard her own glass. That was what she was doing,’ Fanny said, ‘that last morning at Matcham when all of us went off and she kept the Prince and Charlotte over. She helped them simply that she might herself be helped – if it wasn’t perhaps rather, with her ridiculous Mr Blint, that he might be. They put in together therefore of course that day; they got it clear – and quite under her eyes; inasmuch as they didn’t become traceable again, as we know, till late in the evening.’ On this historic circumstance Mrs Assingham was always ready afresh to brood; but she was no less ready, after her brooding, devoutly to add: ‘Only we know nothing whatever else – for which all our stars be thanked!’

The Colonel’s gratitude was apt to be less marked. ‘What did they do for themselves, anyway, from the moment they got that free hand to the moment (long after dinner-time, haven’t you told me?) of their turning up at their respective homes?’

‘Well, it’s none of your business!’

‘I don’t speak of it as mine, but it’s only too much theirs. People are always traceable, in England, when tracings are required. Something sooner or later happens: somebody sooner or later breaks the holy calm. Murder will out.’

‘Murder will – but this isn’t murder. Quite the contrary perhaps! I verily believe,’ she had her moments of adding, ‘that for the amusement of the row you’d prefer an explosion.’

This however was a remark he seldom noticed; he wound up for the most part, after a long contemplative smoke, with a transition from which no exposed futility in it had succeeded in weaning him. ‘What I can’t for my life make out is your idea of the old boy.’

‘Charlotte’s too inconceivably funny husband? I have no idea.’

‘I beg your pardon – you’ve just shown it. You never speak of him but as too inconceivably funny.’

‘Well, he is,’ she always confessed. ‘That is he may be, for all I know, too inconceivably great. But that’s not an idea. It represents only my weak necessity of feeling that he’s beyond me – which isn’t an idea either. You see he may be stupid too.’

‘Precisely – there you are.’

‘Yet on the other hand,’ she always went on, ‘he may be sublime: sublimer even than Maggie herself. He may in fact have already been. But we shall never know.’ With which her tone betrayed perhaps a shade of soreness for the single exemption she didn’t yearningly welcome. ‘That I can see.’

‘Oh I say –!’ It came to affect the Colonel himself with a sense of privation.

‘I’m not sure even that Charlotte will.’

‘Oh my dear, what Charlotte doesn’t know –!’

But she brooded and brooded. ‘I’m not sure even that the Prince will.’ It seemed privation in short for them all. ‘They’ll be mystified, confounded, tormented. But they won’t know – and all their possible putting their heads together won’t make them. That,’ said Fanny Assingham, ‘will be their punishment.’ And she ended, ever, when she had come so far, at the same pitch. ‘It will probably also – if I get off with so little – be mine.’

‘And what,’ her husband liked to ask, ‘will be mine?’

‘Nothing – you’re not worthy of any. One’s punishment is in what one feels, and what will make ours effective is that we shall feel.’ She was splendid with her ‘ours’; she flared up with this prophecy. ‘It will be Maggie herself who will mete it out.’

‘Maggie –?’

‘She’ll know – about her father; everything. Everything,’ she repeated. On the vision of which each time Mrs Assingham, as with the presentiment of an odd despair, turned away from it. ‘But she’ll never tell us.’