The Golden Bowl, by Henry James

XXIII

Fanny, on her arrival in town, carried out her second idea, despatching the Colonel to his club for luncheon and packing her maid into a cab, for Cadogan Place, with the variety of their effects. The result of this for each of the pair was a state of occupation so unbroken that the day practically passed without fresh contact between them. They dined out together, but it was both in going to their dinner and in coming back that they appeared, on either side, to have least to communicate. Fanny was wrapped in her thoughts still more closely than in the lemon-coloured mantle that protected her bare shoulders, and her husband, with her silence to deal with, showed himself not less disposed than usual, when so challenged, to hold up, as he would have said, his end of it. They had, in general, in these days, longer pauses and more abrupt transitions; in one of which latter they found themselves, for a climax, launched at midnight. Mrs. Assingham, rather wearily housed again, ascended to the first floor, there to sink, overburdened, on the landing outside the drawing-room, into a great gilded Venetian chair — of which at first, however, she but made, with her brooding face, a sort of throne of meditation. She would thus have recalled a little, with her so free orientalism of type, the immemorially speechless Sphinx about at last to become articulate. The Colonel, not unlike, on his side, some old pilgrim of the desert camping at the foot of that monument, went, by way of reconnoissance, into the drawing-room. He visited, according to his wont, the windows and their fastenings; he cast round the place the eye, all at once, of the master and the manager, the commandant and the rate-payer; then he came back to his wife, before whom, for a moment, he stood waiting. But she herself, for a time, continued to wait, only looking up at him inscrutably. There was in these minor manoeuvres and conscious patiences something of a suspension of their old custom of divergent discussion, that intercourse by misunderstanding which had grown so clumsy now. This familiar pleasantry seemed to desire to show it could yield, on occasion, to any clear trouble; though it was also sensibly, and just incoherently, in the air that no trouble was at present to be vulgarly recognised as clear.

There might, for that matter, even have been in Mr. Assingham’s face a mild perception of some finer sense — a sense for his wife’s situation, and the very situation she was, oddly enough, about to repudiate — that she had fairly caused to grow in him. But it was a flower to breathe upon gently, and this was very much what she finally did. She knew he needed no telling that she had given herself, all the afternoon, to her friends in Eaton Square, and that her doing so would have been but the prompt result of impressions gathered, in quantities, in brimming baskets, like the purple grapes of the vintage, at Matcham; a process surrounded by him, while it so unmistakably went on, with abstentions and discretions that might almost have counted as solemnities. The solemnities, at the same time, had committed him to nothing — to nothing beyond this confession itself of a consciousness of deep waters. She had been out on these waters, for him, visibly; and his tribute to the fact had been his keeping her, even if without a word, well in sight. He had not quitted for an hour, during her adventure, the shore of the mystic lake; he had on the contrary stationed himself where she could signal to him at need. Her need would have arisen if the planks of her bark had parted — THEN some sort of plunge would have become his immediate duty. His present position, clearly, was that of seeing her in the centre of her sheet of dark water, and of wondering if her actual mute gaze at him didn’t perhaps mean that her planks WERE now parting. He held himself so ready that it was quite as if the inward man had pulled off coat and waistcoat. Before he had plunged, however — that is before he had uttered a question — he perceived, not without relief, that she was making for land. He watched her steadily paddle, always a little nearer, and at last he felt her boat bump. The bump was distinct, and in fact she stepped ashore. “We were all wrong. There’s nothing.”

“Nothing —?” It was like giving her his hand up the bank.

“Between Charlotte Verver and the Prince. I was uneasy — but I’m satisfied now. I was in fact quite mistaken. There’s nothing.”

“But I thought,” said Bob Assingham, “that that was just what you did persistently asseverate. You’ve guaranteed their straightness from the first.”

“No — I’ve never till now guaranteed anything but my own disposition to worry. I’ve never till now,” Fanny went on gravely from her chair, “had such a chance to see and to judge. I had it at that place — if I had, in my infatuation and my folly,” she added with expression, “nothing else. So I did see — I HAVE seen. And now I know.” Her emphasis, as she repeated the word, made her head, in her seat of infallibility, rise higher. “I know.”

The Colonel took it — but took it at first in silence. “Do you mean they’ve TOLD you —?”

“No — I mean nothing so absurd. For in the first place I haven’t asked them, and in the second their word in such a matter wouldn’t count.”

“Oh,” said the Colonel with all his oddity, “they’d tell US.”

It made her face him an instant as with her old impatience of his short cuts, always across her finest flower-beds; but she felt, none the less, that she kept her irony down. “Then when they’ve told you, you’ll be perhaps so good as to let me know.”

He jerked up his chin, testing the growth of his beard with the back of his hand while he fixed her with a single eye. “Ah, I don’t say that they’d necessarily tell me that they ARE over the traces.”

“They’ll necessarily, whatever happens, hold their tongues, I hope, and I’m talking of them now as I take them for myself only. THAT’S enough for me — it’s all I have to regard.” With which, after an instant, “They’re wonderful,” said Fanny Assingham.

“Indeed,” her husband concurred, “I really think they are.”

“You’d think it still more if you knew. But you don’t know — because you don’t see. Their situation”— this was what he didn’t see —“is too extraordinary.”

“‘Too’?” He was willing to try.

“Too extraordinary to be believed, I mean, if one didn’t see. But just that, in a way, is what saves them. They take it seriously.”

He followed at his own pace. “Their situation?”

“The incredible side of it. They make it credible.”

“Credible then — you do say — to YOU?”

She looked at him again for an interval. “They believe in it themselves. They take it for what it is. And that,” she said, “saves them.”

“But if what it ‘is’ is just their chance —?”

“It’s their chance for what I told you when Charlotte first turned up. It’s their chance for the idea that I was then sure she had.”

The Colonel showed his effort to recall. “Oh, your idea, at different moments, of any one of THEIR ideas!” This dim procession, visibly, mustered before him, and, with the best will in the world, he could but watch its immensity. “Are you speaking now of something to which you can comfortably settle down?”

Again, for a little, she only glowered at him. “I’ve come back to my belief, and that I have done so —”

“Well?” he asked as she paused.

“Well, shows that I’m right — for I assure you I had wandered far. Now I’m at home again, and I mean,” said Fanny Assingham, “to stay here. They’re beautiful,” she declared.

“The Prince and Charlotte?”

“The Prince and Charlotte. THAT’S how they’re so remarkable. And the beauty,” she explained, “is that they’re afraid for them. Afraid, I mean, for the others.”

“For Mr. Verver and Maggie?” It did take some following. “Afraid of what?”

“Afraid of themselves.”

The Colonel wondered. “Of THEMSELVES? Of Mr. Verver’s and Maggie’s selves?”

Mrs. Assingham remained patient as well as lucid. “Yes — of SUCH blindness too. But most of all of their own danger.”

He turned it over. “That danger BEING the blindness —?”

“That danger being their position. What their position contains — of all the elements — I needn’t at this time of day attempt to tell you. It contains, luckily — for that’s the mercy — everything BUT blindness: I mean on their part. The blindness,” said Fanny, “is primarily her husband’s.”

He stood for a moment; he WOULD have it straight. “Whose husband’s?”

“Mr. Verver’s,” she went on. “The blindness is most of all his. That they feel — that they see. But it’s also his wife’s.”

“Whose wife’s?” he asked as she continued to gloom at him in a manner at variance with the comparative cheer of her contention. And then as she only gloomed: “The Prince’s?”

“Maggie’s own — Maggie’s very own,” she pursued as for herself.

He had a pause. “Do you think Maggie so blind?”

“The question isn’t of what I think. The question’s of the conviction that guides the Prince and Charlotte — who have better opportunities than I for judging.”

The Colonel again wondered. “Are you so very sure their opportunities are better?”

“Well,” his wife asked, “what is their whole so extraordinary situation, their extraordinary relation, but an opportunity?”

“Ah, my dear, you have that opportunity — of their extraordinary situation and relation — as much as they.”

“With the difference, darling,” she returned with some spirit, “that neither of those matters are, if you please, mine. I see the boat they’re in, but I’m not, thank God, in it myself. To-day, however,” Mrs. Assingham added, “today in Eaton Square I did see.”

“Well then, what?”

But she mused over it still. “Oh, many things. More, somehow, than ever before. It was as if, God help me, I was seeing FOR them — I mean for the others. It was as if something had happened — I don’t know what, except some effect of these days with them at that place — that had either made things come out or had cleared my own eyes.” These eyes indeed of the poor lady’s rested on her companion’s, meanwhile, with the lustre not so much of intenser insight as of a particular portent that he had at various other times had occasion to recognise. She desired, obviously, to reassure him, but it apparently took a couple of large, candid, gathering, glittering tears to emphasise the fact. They had immediately, for him, their usual direct action: she must reassure him, he was made to feel, absolutely in her own way. He would adopt it and conform to it as soon as he should be able to make it out. The only thing was that it took such incalculable twists and turns. The twist seemed remarkable for instance as she developed her indication of what had come out in the afternoon. “It was as if I knew better than ever what makes them —”

“What makes them?”— he pressed her as she fitfully dropped.

“Well, makes the Prince and Charlotte take it all as they do. It might well have been difficult to know HOW to take it; and they may even say for themselves that they were a long time trying to see. As I say, today,” she went on, “it was as if I were suddenly, with a kind of horrible push, seeing through their eyes.” On which, as to shake off her perversity, Fanny Assingham sprang up. But she remained there, under the dim illumination, and while the Colonel, with his high, dry, spare look of “type,” to which a certain conformity to the whiteness of inaccessible snows in his necktie, shirt-front and waistcoat gave a rigour of accent, waited, watching her, they might, at the late hour and in the still house, have been a pair of specious worldly adventurers, driven for relief, under sudden stress, to some grim midnight reckoning in an odd corner. Her attention moved mechanically over the objects of ornament disposed too freely on the walls of staircase and landing, as to which recognition, for the time, had lost both fondness and compunction. “I can imagine the way it works,” she said; “it’s so easy to understand. Yet I don’t want to be wrong,” she the next moment broke out “I don’t, I don’t want to be wrong!”

“To make a mistake, you mean?”

Oh no, she meant nothing of the sort; she knew but too well what she meant. “I don’t make mistakes. But I perpetrate — in thought — crimes.” And she spoke with all intensity. “I’m a most dreadful person. There are times when I seem not to mind a bit what I’ve done, or what I think or imagine or fear or accept; when I feel that I’d do it again — feel that I’d do things myself.”

“Ah, my dear!” the Colonel remarked in the coolness of debate.

“Yes, if you had driven me back on my ‘nature.’ Luckily for you you never have. You’ve done every thing else, but you’ve never done that. But what I really don’t a bit want,” she declared, “is to abet them or to protect them.”

Her companion turned this over. “What is there to protect them from? — if, by your now so settled faith, they’ve done nothing that justly exposes them.”

And it in fact half pulled her up. “Well, from a sudden scare. From the alarm, I mean, of what Maggie MAY think.”

“Yet if your whole idea is that Maggie thinks nothing —?”

She waited again. “It isn’t my ‘whole’ idea. Nothing is my ‘whole’ idea — for I felt today, as I tell you, that there’s so much in the air.”

“Oh, in the air —!” the Colonel dryly breathed.

“Well, what’s in the air always HAS— hasn’t it? — to come down to the earth. And Maggie,” Mrs. Assingham continued, “is a very curious little person. Since I was ‘in,’ this afternoon, for seeing more than I had ever done — well, I felt THAT too, for some reason, as I hadn’t yet felt it.”

“For ‘some’ reason? For what reason?” And then, as his wife at first said nothing: “Did she give any sign? Was she in any way different?”

“She’s always so different from anyone else in the world that it’s hard to say when she’s different from herself. But she has made me,” said Fanny after an instant, “think of her differently. She drove me home.”

“Home here?”

“First to Portland Place — on her leaving her father: since she does, once in a while, leave him. That was to keep me with her a little longer. But she kept the carriage and, after tea there, came with me herself back here. This was also for the same purpose. Then she went home, though I had brought her a message from the Prince that arranged their movements otherwise. He and Charlotte must have arrived — if they have arrived — expecting to drive together to Eaton Square and keep Maggie on to dinner there. She has everything there, you know — she has clothes.”

The Colonel didn’t in fact know, but he gave it his apprehension. “Oh, you mean a change?”

“Twenty changes, if you like — all sorts of things. She dresses, really, Maggie does, as much for her father — and she always did — as for her husband or for herself. She has her room in his house very much as she had it before she was married — and just as the boy has quite a second nursery there, in which Mrs. Noble, when she comes with him, makes herself, I assure you, at home. Si bien that if Charlotte, in her own house, so to speak, should wish a friend or two to stay with her, she really would be scarce able to put them up.”

It was a picture into which, as a thrifty entertainer himself, Bob Assingham could more or less enter. “Maggie and the child spread so?”

“Maggie and the child spread so.”

Well, he considered. “It IS rather rum,”

“That’s all I claim”— she seemed thankful for the word. “I don’t say it’s anything more — but it IS, distinctly, rum.”

Which, after an instant, the Colonel took up. “‘More’? What more COULD it be?”

“It could be that she’s unhappy, and that she takes her funny little way of consoling herself. For if she were unhappy”— Mrs. Assingham had figured it out —“that’s just the way, I’m convinced, she would take. But how can she be unhappy, since — as I’m also convinced — she, in the midst of everything, adores her husband as much as ever?”

The Colonel at this brooded for a little at large. “Then if she’s so happy, please what’s the matter?”

It made his wife almost spring at him. “You think then she’s secretly wretched?”

But he threw up his arms in deprecation. “Ah, my dear, I give them up to YOU. I’ve nothing more to suggest.”

“Then it’s not sweet of you.” She spoke at present as if he were frequently sweet. “You admit that it is ‘rum.’”

And this indeed fixed again, for a moment, his intention. “Has Charlotte complained of the want of rooms for her friends?”

“Never, that I know of, a word. It isn’t the sort of thing she does. And whom has she, after all,” Mrs. Assingham added, “to complain to?”

“Hasn’t she always you?”

“Oh, ‘me’! Charlotte and I, nowadays —!” She spoke as of a chapter closed. “Yet see the justice I still do her. She strikes me, more and more, as extraordinary.”

A deeper shade, at the renewal of the word, had come into the Colonel’s face. “If they’re each and all so extraordinary then, isn’t that why one must just resign one’s self to wash one’s hands of them — to be lost?” Her face, however, so met the question as if it were but a flicker of the old tone that their trouble had now become too real for — her charged eyes so betrayed the condition of her nerves that he stepped back, alertly enough, to firmer ground. He had spoken before in this light of a plain man’s vision, but he must be something more than a plain man now. “Hasn’t she then, Charlotte, always her husband —?”

“To complain to? She’d rather die.”

“Oh!”— and Bob Assingham’s face, at the vision of such extremities, lengthened for very docility. “Hasn’t she the Prince then?”

“For such matters? Oh, he doesn’t count.”

“I thought that was just what — as the basis of our agitation — he does do!”

Mrs. Assingham, however, had her distinction ready. “Not a bit as a person to bore with complaints. The ground of MY agitation is, exactly, that she never on any pretext bores him. Not Charlotte!” And in the imagination of Mrs. Verver’s superiority to any such mistake she gave, characteristically, something like a toss of her head — as marked a tribute to that lady’s general grace, in all the conditions, as the personage referred to doubtless had ever received.

“Ah, only Maggie!” With which the Colonel gave a short low gurgle. But it found his wife again prepared.

“No — not only Maggie. A great many people in London — and small wonder! — bore him.”

“Maggie only worst then?” But it was a question that he had promptly dropped at the returning brush of another, of which she had shortly before sown the seed. “You said just now that he would by this time be back with Charlotte ‘if they HAVE arrived.’ You think it then possible that they really won’t have returned?”

His companion exhibited to view, for the idea, a sense of her responsibility; but this was insufficient, clearly, to keep her from entertaining it. “I think there’s nothing they’re not now capable of — in their so intense good faith.”

“Good faith?”— he echoed the words, which had in fact something of an odd ring, critically.

“Their false position. It comes to the same thing.” And she bore down, with her decision, the superficial lack of sequence. “They may very possibly, for a demonstration — as I see them — not have come back.”

He wondered, visibly, at this, how she did see them. “May have bolted somewhere together?”

“May have stayed over at Matcham itself till tomorrow. May have wired home, each of them, since Maggie left me. May have done,” Fanny Assingham continued, “God knows what!” She went on, suddenly, with more emotion — which, at the pressure of some spring of her inner vision, broke out in a wail of distress, imperfectly smothered. “Whatever they’ve done I shall never know. Never, never — because I don’t want to, and because nothing will induce me. So they may do as they like. But I’ve worked for them ALL” She uttered this last with another irrepressible quaver, and the next moment her tears had come, though she had, with the explosion, quitted her husband as if to hide it from him. She passed into the dusky drawing-room, where, during his own prowl, shortly previous, he had drawn up a blind, so that the light of the street-lamps came in a little at the window. She made for this window, against which she leaned her head, while the Colonel, with his lengthened face, looked after her for a minute and hesitated. He might have been wondering what she had really done, to what extent, beyond his knowledge or his conception, in the affairs of these people, she COULD have committed herself. But to hear her cry, and yet try not to, was, quickly enough, too much for him; he had known her at other times quite not try not to, and that had not been so bad. He went to her and put his arm round her; he drew her head to his breast, where, while she gasped, she let it stay a little — all with a patience that presently stilled her. Yet the effect of this small crisis, oddly enough, was not to close their colloquy, with the natural result of sending them to bed: what was between them had opened out further, had somehow, through the sharp show of her feeling, taken a positive stride, had entered, as it were, without more words, the region of the understood, shutting the door after it and bringing them so still more nearly face to face. They remained for some minutes looking at it through the dim window which opened upon the world of human trouble in general and which let the vague light play here and there upon gilt and crystal and colour, the florid features, looming dimly, of Fanny’s drawing-room. And the beauty of what thus passed between them, passed with her cry of pain, with her burst of tears, with his wonderment and his kindness and his comfort, with the moments of their silence, above all, which might have represented their sinking together, hand in hand, for a time, into the mystic lake where he had begun, as we have hinted, by seeing her paddle alone — the beauty of it was that they now could really talk better than before, because the basis had at last, once for all, defined itself. What was the basis, which Fanny absolutely exacted, but that Charlotte and the Prince must be saved — so far as consistently speaking of them as still safe might save them? It did save them, somehow, for Fanny’s troubled mind — for that was the nature of the mind of women. He conveyed to her now, at all events, by refusing her no gentleness, that he had sufficiently got the tip, and that the tip was all he had wanted. This remained quite clear even when he presently reverted to what she had told him of her recent passage with Maggie. “I don’t altogether see, you know, what you infer from it, or why you infer anything.” When he so expressed himself it was quite as if in possession of what they had brought up from the depths.

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