The Golden Bowl Chapter 8

If Maggie hadn’t so firmly made up her mind never to say, either to her good friend or to any one else, more than she meant about her father, she might have found herself betrayed into some such overflow during the week spent in London with her husband after the others had adjourned to Fawns for the summer. This was because of the odd element of the unnatural imparted to the so simple fact of their brief separation by the assumptions resident in their course of life hitherto. She was used, herself, certainly, by this time, to dealing with odd elements; but she dropped instantly even from such peace as she had patched up, when it was a question of feeling that her unpenetrated parent might be alone with them. She thought of him as alone with them when she thought of him as alone with Charlotte – and this, strangely enough, even while fixing her sense to the full on his wife’s power of preserving, quite of enhancing, every felicitous appearance. Charlotte had done that – under immeasureably fewer difficulties indeed – during the numerous months of their hymeneal absence from England, the period prior to that wonderful reunion of the couples, in the interest of the larger play of all the virtues of each, which was now bearing, for Mrs Verver’s stepdaughter at least, such remarkable fruit. It was the present so much briefer interval in a situation, possibly in a relation, so changed – it was the new terms of her problem that would tax Charlotte’s art. The Princess could pull herself up repeatedly by remembering that the real ‘relation’ between her father and his wife was a thing she knew nothing about and that in strictness was not of her concern; but she none the less failed to keep quiet, as she would have called it, before the projected image of their ostensibly happy isolation. Nothing could have had less of the quality of quietude than a certain queer wish that fitfully flickered up in her, a wish that usurped perversely the place of a much more natural one. If Charlotte, while she was about it, could only have been worse! – that idea Maggie fell to invoking instead of the idea that she might desirably have been better. For, exceedingly odd as it was to feel in such ways, she believed she mightn’t have worried so much if she didn’t somehow make her stepmother out, under the beautiful trees and among the dear old gardens, as lavish of fifty kinds of confidence and twenty kinds, at least, of gentleness. Gentleness and confidence were certainly the right thing as from a charming woman to her husband, but the fine tissue of reassurance woven by this lady’s hands and flung over her companion as a light muffling veil, formed precisely a wrought transparency through which she felt her father’s eyes continually rest on herself. The reach of his gaze came to her straighter from a distance; it showed him as still more conscious, down there alone, of the suspected, the felt elaboration of the process of their not alarming nor hurting him. She had herself now, for weeks and weeks, and all unwinkingly, traced the extension of this pious effort; but her perfect success in giving no sign – she did herself that credit – would have been an achievement quite wasted if Mrs Verver should make with him those mistakes of proportion, one set of them too abruptly, too incoherently designed to correct another set, that she had made with his daughter. However, if she had been worse, poor woman, who should say that her husband would to a certainty have been better?

One groped noiselessly among such questions, and it was actually not even definite for the Princess that her own Amerigo, left alone with her in town, had arrived at the golden mean of non-precautionary gallantry which would tend by his calculation to brush private criticism from its last perching-place. The truth was, in this connexion, that she had different sorts of terrors, and there were hours when it came to her that these days were a prolonged repetition of that night-drive, of weeks before, from the other house to their own, when he had tried to charm her by his sovereign personal power into some collapse that would commit her to a repudiation of consistency. She was never alone with him, it was to be said, without her having sooner or later to ask herself what had already become of her consistency; yet at the same time so long as she breathed no charge she kept hold of a remnant of appearance that could save her from attack. Attack, real attack from him as he would conduct it, was what she above all dreaded; she was so far from sure that under that experience she mightn’t drop into some depth of weakness, mightn’t show him some shortest way with her that he would know how to use again. Therefore since she had given him as yet no moment’s pretext for pretending to her that she had either lost faith or suffered by a feather’s weight in happiness, she left him, it was easy to reason, with an immense advantage for all waiting and all tension. She wished him for the present to ‘make up’ to her for nothing. Who could say to what making-up might lead, into what consenting or pretending or destroying blindness it might plunge her? She loved him too helplessly still to dare to open the door by an inch to his treating her as if either of them had wronged the other. Something or somebody – and who, at this, which of them all? – would inevitably, would in the gust of momentary selfishness, be sacrificed to that; whereas what she intelligently needed was to know where she was going. Knowledge, knowledge, was a fascination as well as a fear; and a part precisely of the strangeness of this juncture was the way her apprehension that he would break out to her with some merely general profession was mixed with her dire need to forgive him, to reassure him, to respond to him, on no ground that she didn’t fully measure. To do these things it must be clear to her what they were for; but to act in that light was by the same effect to learn horribly what the other things had been. He might tell her only what he wanted, only what would work upon her by the beauty of his appeal; and the result of the direct appeal of any beauty in him would be her helpless submission to his terms. All her temporary safety, her hand-to-mouth success, accordingly, was in his neither perceiving nor divining this, thanks to such means as she could take to prevent him; take, literally from hour to hour, during these days of more unbroken exposure. From hour to hour she fairly expected some sign of his having decided on a jump. ‘Ah yes, it has been as you think; I’ve strayed away, I’ve fancied myself free, given myself in other quantities, with larger generosities, because I thought you were different – different from what I now see. But it was only, only, because I didn’t know – and you must admit that you gave me scarce reason enough. Reason enough, I mean, to keep clear of my mistake; to which I confess, for which I’ll do exquisite penance, which you can help me now, I too beautifully feel, to get completely over.’

That was what, while she watched herself, she potentially heard him bring out; and while she carried to an end another day, another sequence and yet another of their hours together, without his producing it, she felt herself occupied with him beyond even the intensity of surrender. She was keeping her head for a reason, for a cause; and the labour of this detachment, with the labour of her forcing the pitch of it down, held them together in the steel hoop of an intimacy compared with which artless passion would have been but a beating of the air. Her greatest danger, or at least her greatest motive for care, was the obsession of the thought that if he actually did suspect, the fruit of his attention to her couldn’t help being a sense of the growth of her importance. Taking the measure with him, as she had taken it with her father, of the prescribed reach of her hypocrisy, she saw how it would have to stretch even to her seeking to prove that she was not, all the same, important. A single touch from him – oh she should know it in case of its coming! – any brush of his hand, of his lips, of his voice, inspired by recognition of her probable interest as distinct from pity for her virtual gloom, would hand her over to him bound hand and foot. Therefore to be free, to be free to act other than abjectly for her father, she must conceal from him the validity that, like a microscopic insect pushing a grain of sand, she was taking on even for herself. She could keep it up with a change in sight, but she couldn’t keep it up for ever; so that one extraordinary effect of their week of untempered confrontation, which bristled with new marks, was to make her reach out in thought to their customary companions and calculate the kind of relief that rejoining them would bring. She was learning almost from minute to minute to be a mistress of shades – since always when there were possibilities enough of intimacy there were also by that fact, in intercourse, possibilities of iridescence; but she was working against an adversary who was a master of shades too and on whom if she didn’t look out she should presently have imposed a consciousness of the nature of their struggle. To feel him in fact, to think of his feeling himself, her adversary in things of this fineness – to see him at all in short brave a name that would represent him as in opposition – was already to be nearly reduced to a visible smothering of her cry of alarm. Should he guess they were having in their so occult manner a high fight, and that it was she, all the while, in her supposed stupidity, who had made it high and was keeping it high – in the event of his doing this before they could leave town she should verily be lost.

The possible respite for her at Fawns would come from the fact that observation in him there would inevitably find some of its directness diverted. This would be the case if only because the remarkable strain of her father’s placidity might be thought of as likely to claim some larger part of his attention. Besides which there would be always Charlotte herself to draw him off. Charlotte would help him again doubtless to study anything, right or left, that might be symptomatic; but Maggie could see that this very fact might perhaps contribute in its degree to protect the secret of her own fermentation. It isn’t even incredible that she may have discovered the gleam of a comfort that was to broaden in the conceivable effect on the Prince’s spirit, on his nerves, on his finer irritability, of some of the very airs and aspects, the light graces themselves, of Mrs Verver’s too perfect competence. What it would most come to after all, she said to herself, was a renewal for him of the privilege of watching that lady watch her. Very well then: with the elements really so mixed in him how long would he go on enjoying mere spectatorship of that act? For she had by this time made up her mind that in Charlotte’s company he deferred to Charlotte’s easier art of mounting guard. Wouldn’t he get tired – to put it only at that – of seeing her always on the rampart, erect and elegant, with her lace-flounced parasol now folded and now shouldered, march to and fro against a gold-coloured east or west? Maggie had truly gone far for a view of the question of this particular reaction, and she wasn’t incapable of pulling herself up with the rebuke that she counted her chickens before they were hatched. How sure she should have to be of so many things before she might thus find a weariness in Amerigo’s expression and a logic in his weariness!

One of her dissimulated arts for meeting their tension meanwhile was to interweave Mrs Assingham as plausibly as possible with the parts and parcels of their surface, to bring it about that she should join them of an afternoon when they drove together or if they went to look at things – looking at things being almost as much a feature of their life as if they were bazaar-opening royalties. Then there were such combinations, later in the day, as her attendance on them, and the Colonel’s as well, for such whimsical matters as visits to the opera no matter who was singing and sudden outbreaks of curiosity about the British drama. The good couple from Cadogan Place could always unprotestingly dine with them and ‘go on’ afterwards to such publicities as the Princess cultivated the boldness of now perversely preferring. It may be said of her that during these passages she plucked her sensations by the way, detached nervously the small wild blossoms of her dim forest, so that she could smile over them at least with the spacious appearance, for her companions, for her husband above all, of bravely, of altogether frivolously, going a-maying. She had her intense, her smothered excitements, some of which were almost inspirations; she had in particular the extravagant, positively at moments the amused, sense of using her friend to the topmost notch, accompanied with the high luxury of not having to explain. Never, no never should she have to explain to Fanny Assingham again – who, poor woman, on her own side, would be charged, it might be for ever, with that privilege of the higher ingenuity. She put it all off on Fanny, and the dear thing herself might henceforth appraise the quantity. More and more magnificent now in her blameless egoism, Maggie asked no questions of her, and thus only signified the greatness of the opportunity she gave her. She didn’t care for what devotions, what dinners of their own the Assinghams might have been ‘booked’; that was a detail, and she could think without wincing of the ruptures and rearrangements to which her service condemned them. It all fell in beautifully moreover; so that, as hard at this time, in spite of her fever, as a little pointed diamond, the Princess showed something of the glitter of consciously possessing the constructive, the creative hand. She had but to have the fancy of presenting herself, of presenting her husband, in a certain high and convenient manner, to make it natural they should go about with their gentleman and their lady. To what else but this exactly had Charlotte during so many weeks of the earlier season worked her up? – herself assuming and discharging, so far as might be, the character and office of one of those revolving subordinate presences that float in the wake of greatness.

The precedent was therefore established and the group normally constituted. Mrs Assingham meanwhile, at table, on the stairs, in the carriage or the opera-box, might – with her constant overflow of expression, for that matter, and its singularly resident character where men in especial were concerned – look across at Amerigo in whatever sense she liked: it wasn’t of that Maggie proposed to be afraid. She might warn him, she might rebuke him, she might reassure him, she might – if it were impossible not to – absolutely make love to him; even this was open to her, as a matter simply between them, if it would help her to answer for the impeccability she had guaranteed. And Maggie desired in fact only to strike her as acknowledging the efficacy of her aid when she mentioned to her one evening a small project for the morrow, privately entertained – the idea, irresistible, intense, of going to pay at the Museum a visit to Mr Crichton. Mr Crichton, as Mrs Assingham could easily remember, was the most accomplished and obliging of public functionaries, whom every one knew and who knew every one – who had from the first in particular lent himself freely, and for the love of art and history, to becoming one of the steadier lights of Mrs Verver’s adventurous path. The custodian of one of the richest departments of the great national collection of precious things, he could feel for the sincere private collector and urge him on his way even when condemned to be present at his capture of trophies sacrificed by the country to parliamentary thrift. He carried his amiability to the point of saying that since London, under pettifogging views, had to miss from time to time its rarest opportunities, he was almost consoled to see such lost causes invariably wander at last one by one, with the tormenting tinkle of their silver bells, into the wondrous, the already famous fold beyond the Mississippi. There was a charm in his ‘almosts’ that was not to be resisted, especially after Mr Verver and Maggie had grown sure – or almost again – of enjoying the monopoly of them; and on this basis of envy changed to sympathy by the more familiar view of the father and the daughter, Mr Crichton had at both houses, though especially in Eaton Square, learned to fill out the responsive and suggestive character. It was at his invitation, Fanny well recalled, that Maggie, one day, long before, and under her own attendance precisely, had, for the glory of the name she bore, paid a visit to one of the ampler shrines of the supreme exhibitory temple, an alcove of shelves charged with the gold-and-brown, gold-and-ivory, of old Italian bindings and consecrated to the records of the Prince’s race. It had been an impression that penetrated, that remained; yet Maggie had sighed ever so prettily at its having to be so superficial. She was to go back some day, to dive deeper, to linger and taste; in spite of which, however, Mrs Assingham couldn’t recollect perceiving that the visit had been repeated. This second occasion had given way, for a long time, in her happy life, to other occasions – all testifying in their degree to the quality of her husband’s blood, its rich mixture and its many remarkable references; after which, no doubt, the charming piety involved had grown, on still further grounds, bewildered and faint.

It now appeared none the less that some renewed conversation with Mr Crichton had breathed on the faintness revivingly, and Maggie mentioned her purpose as a conception of her very own, to the success of which she designed to devote her morning. Visits of gracious ladies, under his protection, lighted up rosily, for this perhaps most flower-loving and honey-sipping member of the great Bloomsbury hive, its packed passages and cells; and though not sworn of the province toward which his friend had found herself, according to her appeal to him, yearning again, nothing was easier for him than to put her in relation with the presiding urbanities. So it had been settled, Maggie said to Mrs Assingham, and she was to dispense with Amerigo’s company. Fanny was to remember later on that she had at first taken this last fact for one of the finer notes of her young woman’s detachment, imagined she must be going home because of the shade of irony that in these ambiguous days her husband’s personal presence might be felt to confer practically on any tribute to his transmitted significance. Then as the next moment she felt it clear that so much plotted freedom was virtually a refinement of reflexion, an impulse to commemorate afresh whatever might still survive of pride and hope, her sense of ambiguity happily fell and she congratulated her companion on having anything so exquisite to do and on being so exquisitely in the humour to do it. After the occasion had come and gone she was confirmed in her optimism; she made out in the evening that the hour spent among the projected lights, the annals and illustrations, the parchments and portraits, the emblazoned volumes and the murmured commentary, had been for the Princess enlarging and inspiring. Maggie had said to her some days before, very sweetly but very firmly, ‘Invite us to dine, please, for Friday, and have any one you like or you can – it doesn’t in the least matter whom’; and the pair in Cadogan Place had bent to this mandate with a docility not in the least ruffled by all that it took for granted.

It provided for an evening – this had been Maggie’s view; and she lived up to her view, in her friend’s eyes, by treating the occasion, more or less explicitly, as new and strange. The good Assinghams had feasted in fact at the two other boards on a scale so disproportionate to the scant solicitations of their own that it was easy to make a joke of seeing how they fed at home, how they met, themselves, the question of giving to eat. Maggie dined with them, in short, and arrived at making her husband appear to dine, much in the manner of a pair of young sovereigns who have, in the frolic humour of the golden years of reigns proposed themselves to a pair of faithfully-serving subjects. She showed an interest in their arrangements, an enquiring tenderness almost for their economies; so that her hostess not unnaturally, as they might have said, put it all down – the tone and the freedom of which she set the example – to the effect wrought in her afresh by one of the lessons learned in the morning at the altar of the past. Hadn’t she picked it up from an anecdote or two offered again to her attention that there were for princesses of such a line more ways than one of being a heroine? Maggie’s way to-night was to surprise them all, truly, by the extravagance of her affability. She was doubtless not positively boisterous; yet, though Mrs Assingham, as a bland critic, had never doubted her being graceful, she had never seen her put so much of it into being what might have been called assertive. It was all a tune to which Fanny’s heart could privately palpitate: her guest was happy, happy as a consequence of something that had occurred, but she was making the Prince not lose a ripple of her laugh, though not perhaps always enabling him to find it absolutely not foolish. Foolish in public beyond a certain point he was scarce the man to brook his wife’s being thought to be; so that there hovered before their friend the possibility of some subsequent scene between them, in the carriage or at home, of slightly sarcastic enquiry, of promptly invited explanation; a scene that according as Maggie should play her part in it might or mightn’t precipitate developments. What made these appearances practically thrilling meanwhile was this mystery – a mystery, it was clear, to Amerigo himself – of the incident or the influence that had so peculiarly determined them.

The lady of Cadogan Place was to read deeper, however, within three days, and the page was turned for her on the eve of her young confidant’s leaving London. The awaited migration to Fawns was to take place on the morrow, and it was known meanwhile to Mrs Assingham that their party of four were to dine that night, at the American Embassy, with another and a larger party; so that the elder woman had a sense of surprise on receiving from the younger, under date of six o’clock, a telegram requesting her immediate attendance. ‘Please come to me at once; dress early, if necessary, so that we shall have time: the carriage, ordered for us, will take you back first.’ Mrs Assingham, on quick deliberation, dressed, though not perhaps with full lucidity, and by seven o’clock was in Portland Place, where her friend, ‘upstairs’, and described to her on her arrival as herself engaged in dressing, instantly received her. She knew on the spot, poor Fanny, as she was afterwards to declare to the Colonel, that her feared crisis had popped up as at the touch of a spring, that her impossible hour was before her. Her impossible hour was the hour of its coming out that she had known of old so much more than she had ever said; and she had often put it to herself in apprehension, she tried to think even in preparation, that she should recognise the approach of her doom by a consciousness akin to that of the blowing open of a window on some night of the highest wind and the lowest thermometer. It would be all in vain to have crouched so long by the fire; the glass would have been smashed, the icy air would fill the place. If the air in Maggie’s room then, on her going up, wasn’t as yet quite the polar blast she had expected, it was none the less perceptibly such an atmosphere as they hadn’t hitherto breathed together. The Princess, she noted, was completely dressed – that business was over; it added indeed to the effect of her importantly awaiting the assistance she had summoned, of her showing a deck cleared, so to speak, for action. Her maid had already left her, and she presented herself, in the large clear room, where everything was admirable, but where nothing was out of place, as for the first time in her life rather ‘bedizened’. Was it that she had put on too many things, overcharged herself with jewels, wore in particular more of them than usual, and bigger ones, in her hair? – a question her visitor presently answered by attributing this appearance largely to the bright red spot, red as some monstrous ruby, that burned in either of her cheeks. These two items of her aspect had promptly enough their own light for Mrs Assingham, who made out by it that nothing more pathetic could be imagined than the refuge and disguise her agitation had instinctively asked of the arts of dress, multiplied to extravagance, almost to incoherence. She had had visibly her idea – that of not betraying herself by inattentions into which she had never yet fallen, and she stood there circled about and furnished forth, as always, in a manner that testified to her perfect little personal processes. It had ever been her sign that she was for all occasions found ready, without loose ends or exposed accessories or unremoved superfluities; a suggestion of the swept and garnished, in her whole splendid yet thereby more or less encumbered and embroidered setting, that reflected her small still passion for order and symmetry, for objects with their backs to the walls, and spoke even of some probable reference in her American blood to dusting and polishing New England grandmothers. If her apartment was ‘princely’, in the clearness of the lingering day, she looked as if she had been carried there prepared, all attired and decorated, like some holy image in a procession, and left precisely to show what wonder she could work under pressure. Her friend felt – how could she not? – as the truly pious priest might feel when confronted, behind the altar, before the festa, with his miraculous Madonna. Such an occasion would be grave, in general, with all the gravity of what he might look for. But the gravity of to-night would be of the rarest; what he might look for would depend so on what he could give.