The Golden Bowl Chapter 8

He found himself therefore saying with gaiety even to Fanny Assingham, for their common concerned glance at Eaton Square, the glance that was so markedly never, as it might have been, a glance at Portland Place: ‘What would our cari sposi1 have made of it here? what would they, you know, really?’ – which overflow would have been reckless if already, and surprisingly perhaps even to himself, he hadn’t got used to thinking of this friend as a person in whom the element of protest had of late been unmistakeably allayed. He exposed himself of course to her replying: ‘Ah if it would have been so bad for them how can it be so good for you?’ – but, quite apart from the small sense the question would have had at the best, she appeared already to unite with him in confidence and cheer. He had as well his view – or at least a partial one – of the inner spring of this present comparative humility, which was all consistent with the retractation he had practically seen her make after Mr Verver’s last dinner. Without diplomatising to do so, with no effort to square her, none to bribe her to an attitude for which he would have had no use in her if it weren’t sincere, he yet felt how he both held her and moved her by the felicity of his taking pity, all instinctively, on her just discernible depression. By just so much as he guessed that she felt herself, as the slang was, out of it, out of the crystal current and the expensive picture, by just so much had his friendship charmingly made up to her from hour to hour for the penalties, as they might have been grossly called, of her mistake. Her mistake had only been, after all, in her wanting to seem to him straight; she had let herself in for being – as she had made haste, for that matter, during the very first half-hour at tea to proclaim herself – the sole and single frump of the party. The scale of everything was so different that all her minor values, her quainter graces, her little local authority, her humour and her wardrobe alike, for which it was enough elsewhere, among her bons amis,2 that they were hers, dear Fanny Assingham’s – these matters and others would be all now as nought: five minutes had sufficed to give her the fatal pitch. In Cadogan Place she could always at the worst be picturesque – for she habitually spoke of herself as ‘local’ to Sloane Street: whereas at Matcham she should never be anything but horrible. And it all would have come, the disaster, from the real refinement in her of the spirit of friendship. To prove to him that she wasn’t really watching him – ground for which would have been too terribly grave – she had followed him in his pursuit of pleasure: so she might, precisely, mark her detachment. This was handsome trouble for her to take – the Prince could see it all: it wasn’t a shade of interference that a good-natured man would visit on her. So he didn’t even say, when she told him how frumpy she knew herself, how frumpy her very maid, odiously going back on her, rubbed it into her, night and morning, with unsealed eyes and lips, that she now knew her – he didn’t then say ‘Ah see what you’ve done: isn’t it rather your own fault?’ He behaved differently altogether: eminently distinguished himself – for she told him she had never seen him so universally distinguished – he yet distinguished her in her obscurity or in what was worse, her objective absurdity, and frankly invested her with her absolute value, surrounded her with all the importance of her wit. That wit, as discriminated from stature and complexion, a sense for ‘bridge’ and a credit for pearls, could have importance was meanwhile but dimly perceived at Matcham; so that his ‘niceness’ to her – she called it only niceness, but it brought tears into her eyes – had the greatness of a general as well as of a special demonstration.

‘She understands,’ he said as a comment on all this to Mrs Verver – ‘she understands all she needs to understand. She has taken her time, but she has at last made it out for herself: she sees how all we can desire is to give them the life they prefer, to surround them with the peace and quiet, and above all with the sense of security, most favourable to it. She can’t of course very well put it to us that we have, so far as she is concerned, but to make the best of our circumstances; she can’t say in so many words “Don’t think of me, for I too must make the best of mine: arrange as you can, only, and live as you must.” I don’t get quite that from her, any more than I ask for it. But her tone and her whole manner mean nothing at all unless they mean that she trusts us to take as watchful, to take as artful, to take as tender care, in our way, as she so anxiously takes in hers. So that she’s – well,’ the Prince wound up, ‘what you may call practically all right.’ Charlotte in fact however, to help out his confidence, didn’t call it anything; return as he might to the lucidity, the importance, or whatever it was, of this lesson, she gave him no aid toward reading it aloud. She let him two or three times over spell it out for himself; only on the eve of their visit’s end was she for once clear or direct in response. They had found a minute together in the great hall of the house during the half-hour before dinner; this easiest of chances they had already a couple of times arrived at by waiting persistently till the last other loiterers had gone to dress and by being prepared themselves to dress so expeditiously that they might a little later on be among the first to appear in festal array. The hall then was empty, before the army of rearranging cushion-patting housemaids were marshalled in, and there was a place by the forsaken fire, at one end, where they might imitate with art the unpremeditated. Above all here, for the snatched instants, they could breathe so near to each other that the interval was almost engulfed in it and the intensity both of the union and the caution became a workable substitute for contact. They had prolongations of instants that counted as visions of bliss; they had slow approximations that counted as long caresses. The quality of these passages in truth made the spoken word, and especially the spoken word about other people, fall below them; so that our young woman’s tone had even now a certain dryness. ‘It’s very good of her, my dear, to trust us. But what else can she do?’

‘Why whatever people do when they don’t trust. Let one see they don’t.’

‘But let whom see?’

‘Well, let me, say, to begin with.’

‘And should you mind that?’

He had a slight show of surprise. ‘Shouldn’t you?’

‘Her letting you see –? No,’ said Charlotte; ‘the only thing I can imagine myself minding is what you yourself, if you don’t look out, may let her see.’ To which she added: ‘You may let her see, you know, that you’re afraid.’

‘I’m only afraid of you, a little, at moments,’ he presently returned. ‘But I shan’t let Fanny see that.’

It was clear however that neither the limits nor the extent of Mrs Assingham’s vision were now a real concern to her, and she gave expression to this as she hadn’t even yet done. ‘What in the world can she do against us? There’s not a word that she can breathe. She’s helpless; she can’t speak; she’d be herself the first to be dished by it.’ And then as he seemed slow to follow: ‘It all comes back to her. It all began with her. Everything from the first. She introduced you to Maggie. She made your marriage.’

The Prince might have had his moment of demur, but at this, after a little, as with a smile dim but deep, he came on. ‘Mayn’t she also be said a good deal to have made yours? That was intended, I think, wasn’t it? for a kind of rectification.’

Charlotte, on her side, for an instant, hesitated; then she was prompter still. ‘I don’t mean there was anything to rectify; everything was as it had to be, and I’m not speaking of how she may have been concerned for you and me. I’m speaking of how she took, in her way, each time, their lives in hand, and how therefore that ties her up to-day. She can’t go to them and say “It’s very awkward of course, you poor dear things, but I was frivolously mistaken.” ’

He took it in still, with his long look at her. ‘All the more that she wasn’t. She was right. Everything’s right,’ he went on, ‘and everything will stay so.’

‘Then that’s all I say.’

But he worked it out, for the deeper satisfaction, even to superfluous lucidity. ‘We’re happy – and they’re happy. What more does the position admit of? What more need Fanny Assingham want?’

‘Ah my dear,’ said Charlotte, ‘it’s not I who say that she need want anything. I only say that she’s fixed, that she must stand exactly where everything has, by her own act, placed her. It’s you who have seemed haunted with the possibility for her of some injurious alternative, something or other we must be prepared for.’ And she had with her high reasoning a strange cold smile. ‘We are prepared – for anything, for everything; and as we are, practically, so she must take us. She’s condemned to consistency; she’s doomed, poor thing, to a genial optimism. That, luckily for her however, is very much the law of her nature. She was born to soothe and to smooth. Now then therefore,’ Mrs Verver gently laughed, ‘she has the chance of her life!’

‘So that her present professions may even at the best not be sincere? – may be but a mask for doubts and fears and for gaining time?’

The Prince had looked, with the question, as if this again could trouble him, and it determined in his companion a slight impatience. ‘You keep talking about such things as if they were our affair at all. I feel at any rate that I’ve nothing to do with her doubts and fears or with anything she may feel. She must arrange all that for herself. It’s enough for me that she’ll always be of necessity much more afraid for herself, really, either to see or to speak, than we should be to have her do it even if we were the idiots and cowards we aren’t.’ And Charlotte’s face, with these words – to the mitigation of the slightly hard ring there might otherwise have been in them – fairly lightened, softened, shone out. It reflected as really never yet the rare felicity of their luck. It made her look for the moment as if she had actually pronounced that word of unpermitted presumption – so apt is the countenance, as with a finer consciousness than the tongue, to betray a sense of this particular lapse. She might indeed the next instant have seen her friend wince, in advance, at her use of a word that was already on her lips; for it was still unmistakeable with him that there were things he could prize, forms of fortune he could cherish, without at all proportionately liking their names. Had all this, however, been even completely present to his companion, what other term could she have applied to the strongest and simplest of her ideas but the one that exactly fitted it? She applied it then, though her own instinct moved her at the same time to pay her tribute to the good taste from which they hadn’t heretofore by a hair’s breadth deviated. ‘If it didn’t sound so vulgar I should say that we’re – fatally, as it were – safe. Pardon the low expression – since it’s what we happen to be. We’re so because they are. And they’re so because they can’t be anything else from the moment that, having originally intervened for them, she wouldn’t now be able to bear herself if she didn’t keep them so. That’s the way she’s inevitably with us,’ said Charlotte over her smile. ‘We hang essentially together.’

Well, the Prince candidly allowed she did bring it home to him. Every way it worked out. ‘Yes, I see. We hang essentially together.’

His friend had a shrug – a shrug that had a grace. ‘Cosa volete?’3 The effect, beautifully, nobly, was more than Roman. ‘Ah beyond doubt it’s a case.’

He stood looking at her. ‘It’s a case. There can’t,’ he said, ‘have been many.’

‘Perhaps never, never, never any other. That,’ she smiled, ‘I confess I should like to think. Only ours.’

‘Only ours – most probably. Speriamo.’4 To which, as after hushed connexions, he presently added: ‘Poor Fanny!’ But Charlotte had already with a start and a warning hand turned from a glance at the clock. She sailed away to dress, while he watched her reach the staircase. His eyes followed her till, with a simple swift look round at him, she vanished. Something in the sight however appeared to have renewed the spring of his last exclamation, which he breathed again upon the air. ‘Poor, poor Fanny!’

It was to prove on the morrow quite consistent with the spirit of these words that, the party at Matcham breaking up and multitudinously dispersing, he should be able to meet the question of the social side of the process of returning to whence he had come with due presence of mind. It was impossible, for reasons, that he should travel to town with the Assinghams; it was impossible for the same reasons that he should travel to town save in the conditions that he had for the last twenty-four hours been privately, and it might have been said profoundly, thinking out. The result of his thought was already precious to him, and this put at his service, he sufficiently believed, the right tone for disposing of his elder friend’s suggestion, as assumption in fact equally full and mild, that he and Charlotte would conveniently take the same train and occupy the same compartment as the Colonel and herself. The extension of the idea to Mrs Verver had been precisely a part of Mrs Assingham’s mildness, and nothing could better have characterised her sense for social shades than her easy perception that the gentleman from Portland Place and the lady from Eaton Square might now confess, quite without indiscretion, to simultaneity of movement. She had made, for the four days, no direct appeal to the latter personage, but the Prince was accidental witness of her taking a fresh start at the moment the company were about to scatter for the last night of their stay. There had been, at this climax, the usual preparatory talk about hours and combinations, in the midst of which poor Fanny gently approached Mrs Verver. She said ‘You and the Prince, love’ – quite, apparently, without blinking; she took for granted their public withdrawal together; she remarked that she and Bob were alike ready, in the interest of sociability, to take any train that would make them all one part. ‘I feel really as if all this time I had seen nothing of you’ – that gave an added grace to the candour of the dear thing’s approach. But just then it was on the other hand that the young man found himself borrow most effectively the secret of the right tone for doing as he preferred. His preference had during the evening not failed of occasion to press him with mute insistences; practically without words, without any sort of straight telegraphy, it had arrived at a felt identity with Charlotte’s own. She spoke all for their friend while she answered their friend’s question, but she none the less signalled to him as definitely as if she had fluttered a white handkerchief from a window. ‘It’s awfully sweet of you, darling – our going together would be charming. But you mustn’t mind us – you must suit yourselves: we’ve settled, Amerigo and I, to stay over till after luncheon.’

Amerigo, with the chink of this gold in his ear, turned straight away, so as not to be instantly appealed to; and for the very emotion of the wonder, furthermore, of what divination may achieve when winged by a community of passion. Charlotte had uttered the exact plea that he had been keeping ready for the same foreseen necessity, and had uttered it simply as a consequence of their deepening unexpressed need of each other and without the passing between them of a word. He hadn’t, God knew, to take it from her – he was too conscious of what he wanted; but the lesson for him was in the straight clear tone that Charlotte could thus distil, in the perfect felicity of her adding no explanation, no touch for plausibility, that she wasn’t strictly obliged to add, and in the truly superior way in which women so situated express and distinguish themselves. She had answered Mrs Assingham quite adequately; she hadn’t spoiled it by a reason a scrap larger than the smallest that would serve, and she had, above all, thrown off, for his stretched but covered attention, an image that flashed like a mirror played at the face of the sun. The measure of everything, to all his sense at these moments, was in it – the measure especially of the thought that had been growing with him a positive obsession and that began to throb as never yet under this brush of her having, by perfect parity of imagination, the match for it. His whole consciousness had by this time begun almost to ache with a truth of an exquisite order, at the glow of which she too had so unmistakeably then been warming herself – the truth that the occasion constituted by the last few days couldn’t possibly, save by some poverty of their own, refuse them some still other and still greater beauty. It had already told them, with an hourly voice, that it had a meaning – a meaning that their associated sense was to drain even as thirsty lips, after the plough through the sands and the sight, afar, of the palm-cluster, might drink in at last the promised well in the desert. There had been beauty day after day, and there had been for the spiritual lips something of the pervasive taste of it; yet it was all nevertheless as if their response had remained below their fortune. How to bring it by some brave free lift up to the same height was the idea with which, behind and beneath everything, he was restlessly occupied, and in the exploration of which, as in that of the sun-chequered greenwood of romance, his spirit thus, at the opening of a vista, met hers. They were already from that moment so hand-in-hand in the place that he found himself making use five minutes later of exactly the same tone as Charlotte’s for telling Mrs Assingham that he was likewise in the matter of the return to London sorry for what mightn’t be.

This had become of a sudden the simplest thing in the world – the sense of which moreover seemed really to amount to a portent that he should feel for evermore, on the general head, conveniently at his ease with her. He went in fact a step further than Charlotte – put the latter forward as creating his necessity. She was staying over luncheon to oblige their hostess – as a consequence of which he must also stay to see her decently home. He must deliver her safe and sound, he felt, in Eaton Square. Regret as he might too the difference made by this obligation, he frankly didn’t mind, inasmuch as, over and above the pleasure itself, his scruple would certainly gratify both Mr Verver and Maggie. They never yet had absolutely and entirely learned, he even found deliberation to intimate, how little he really neglected the first – as it seemed nowadays quite to have become – of his domestic duties: therefore he still constantly felt how little he must remit his effort to make them remark it. To which he added with equal lucidity that they would return in time for dinner, and if he didn’t, as a last word, subjoin that it would be ‘lovely’ of Fanny to find, on her own return, a moment to go to Eaton Square and report them as struggling bravely on, this wasn’t because the impulse, down to the very name for the amiable act, altogether failed to rise. His inward assurance, his general plan, had at moments, where she was concerned, its drops of continuity, and nothing would less have pleased him than that she should suspect in him, however tempted, any element of conscious ‘cheek’. But he was always – that was really the upshot – cultivating thanklessly the considerate and the delicate: it was a long lesson, this unlearning, with people of English race, all the little superstitions that accompany friendship. Mrs Assingham herself was the first to say that she would unfailingly ‘report’; she brought it out in fact, he thought, quite wonderfully – having attained the summit of the wonderful during the brief interval that had separated her appeal to Charlotte from this passage with himself. She had taken the five minutes, obviously, amid the rest of the talk and the movement, to retire into her tent for meditation – which showed, among several things, the impression Charlotte had made on her. It was from the tent she emerged as with arms refurbished; though who indeed could say if the manner in which she now met him spoke most, really, of the glitter of battle or of the white waver of the flag of truce? The parley was short either way; the gallantry of her offer was all sufficient.

‘I’ll go to our friends then – I’ll ask for luncheon. I’ll tell them when to expect you.’

‘That will be charming. Say we’re all right.’

‘All right – precisely. I can’t say more,’ Mrs Assingham smiled.

‘No doubt.’ But he considered as for the possible importance of it. ‘Neither can you, by what I seem to feel, say less.’

‘Oh, I won’t say less!’ Fanny laughed; with which the next moment she had turned away. But they had it again, not less bravely, on the morrow, after breakfast, in the thick of the advancing carriages and the exchange of farewells. ‘I think I’ll send home my maid from Euston,’ she was then prepared to amend, ‘and go to Eaton Square straight. So you can be easy.’

‘Oh I think we’re easy,’ the Prince returned. ‘Be sure to say, at any rate, that we’re bearing up.’

‘You’re bearing up – good. And Charlotte returns to dinner?’

‘To dinner. We’re not likely, I think, to make another night away.’

‘Well then I wish you at least a pleasant day.’

‘Oh,’ he laughed as they separated, ‘we shall do our best for it!’ – after which, in due course, with the announcement of their conveyance, the Assinghams rolled off.