The Golden Bowl, by Henry James

VI

The man in the little shop in which, well after this, they lingered longest, the small but interesting dealer in the Bloomsbury street who was remarkable for an insistence not importunate, inasmuch as it was mainly mute, but singularly, intensely coercive — this personage fixed on his visitors an extraordinary pair of eyes and looked from one to the other while they considered the object with which he appeared mainly to hope to tempt them. They had come to him last, for their time was nearly up; an hour of it at least, from the moment of their getting into a hansom at the Marble Arch, having yielded no better result than the amusement invoked from the first. The amusement, of course, was to have consisted in seeking, but it had also involved the idea of finding; which latter necessity would have been obtrusive only if they had found too soon. The question at present was if they were finding, and they put it to each other, in the Bloomsbury shop, while they enjoyed the undiverted attention of the shopman. He was clearly the master, and devoted to his business — the essence of which, in his conception, might precisely have been this particular secret that he possessed for worrying the customer so little that it fairly made for their relations a sort of solemnity. He had not many things, none of the redundancy of “rot” they had elsewhere seen, and our friends had, on entering, even had the sense of a muster so scant that, as high values obviously wouldn’t reign, the effect might be almost pitiful. Then their impression had changed; for, though the show was of small pieces, several taken from the little window and others extracted from a cupboard behind the counter — dusky, in the rather low-browed place, despite its glass doors — each bid for their attention spoke, however modestly, for itself, and the pitch of their entertainer’s pretensions was promptly enough given. His array was heterogeneous and not at all imposing; still, it differed agreeably from what they had hitherto seen.

Charlotte, after the incident, was to be full of impressions, of several of which, later on, she gave her companion — always in the interest of their amusement — the benefit; and one of the impressions had been that the man himself was the greatest curiosity they had looked at. The Prince was to reply to this that he himself hadn’t looked at him; as, precisely, in the general connection, Charlotte had more than once, from other days, noted, for his advantage, her consciousness of how, below a certain social plane, he never SAW. One kind of shopman was just like another to him — which was oddly inconsequent on the part of a mind that, where it did notice, noticed so much. He took throughout, always, the meaner sort for granted — the night of their meanness, or whatever name one might give it for him, made all his cats grey. He didn’t, no doubt, want to hurt them, but he imaged them no more than if his eyes acted only for the level of his own high head. Her own vision acted for every relation — this he had seen for himself: she remarked beggars, she remembered servants, she recognised cabmen; she had often distinguished beauty, when out with him, in dirty children; she had admired “type” in faces at hucksters’ stalls. Therefore, on this occasion, she had found their antiquario interesting; partly because he cared so for his things, and partly because he cared — well, so for them. “He likes his things — he loves them,” she was to say; “and it isn’t only — it isn’t perhaps even at all — that he loves to sell them. I think he would love to keep them if he could; and he prefers, at any rate, to sell them to right people. We, clearly, were right people — he knows them when he sees them; and that’s why, as I say, you could make out, or at least I could, that he cared for us. Didn’t you see”— she was to ask it with an insistence —“the way he looked at us and took us in? I doubt if either of us have ever been so well looked at before. Yes, he’ll remember us”— she was to profess herself convinced of that almost to uneasiness. “But it was after all”— this was perhaps reassuring —“because, given his taste, since he HAS taste, he was pleased with us, he was struck — he had ideas about us. Well, I should think people might; we’re beautiful — aren’t we? — and he knows. Then, also, he has his way; for that way of saying nothing with his lips when he’s all the while pressing you so with his face, which shows how he knows you feel it — that is a regular way.”

Of decent old gold, old silver, old bronze, of old chased and jewelled artistry, were the objects that, successively produced, had ended by numerously dotting the counter, where the shopman’s slim, light fingers, with neat nails, touched them at moments, briefly, nervously, tenderly, as those of a chess-player rest, a few seconds, over the board, on a figure he thinks he may move and then may not: small florid ancientries, ornaments, pendants, lockets, brooches, buckles, pretexts for dim brilliants, bloodless rubies, pearls either too large or too opaque for value; miniatures mounted with diamonds that had ceased to dazzle; snuffboxes presented to — or by — the too-questionable great; cups, trays, taper-stands, suggestive of pawn-tickets, archaic and brown, that would themselves, if preserved, have been prized curiosities. A few commemorative medals, of neat outline but dull reference; a classic monument or two, things of the first years of the century; things consular, Napoleonic, temples, obelisks, arches, tinily re-embodied, completed the discreet cluster; in which, however, even after tentative reinforcement from several quaint rings, intaglios, amethysts, carbuncles, each of which had found a home in the ancient sallow satin of some weakly-snapping little box, there was, in spite of the due proportion of faint poetry, no great force of persuasion. They looked, the visitors, they touched, they vaguely pretended to consider, but with scepticism, so far as courtesy permitted, in the quality of their attention. It was impossible they shouldn’t, after a little, tacitly agree as to the absurdity of carrying to Maggie a token from such a stock. It would be-that was the difficulty — pretentious without being “good”; too usual, as a treasure, to have been an inspiration of the giver, and yet too primitive to be taken as tribute welcome on any terms. They had been out more than two hours and, evidently, had found nothing. It forced from Charlotte a kind of admission.

“It ought, really, if it should be a thing of this sort, to take its little value from having belonged to one’s self.”

“Ecco!” said the Prince — just triumphantly enough. “There you are.”

Behind the dealer were sundry small cupboards in the wall. Two or three of these Charlotte had seen him open, so that her eyes found themselves resting on those he had not visited. But she completed her admission. “There’s nothing here she could wear.”

It was only after a moment that her companion rejoined. “Is there anything — do you think — that you could?”

It made her just start. She didn’t, at all events, look at the objects; she but looked for an instant very directly at him. “No.”

“Ah!” the Prince quietly exclaimed.

“Would it be,” Charlotte asked, “your idea to offer me something?”

“Well, why not — as a small ricordo.”

“But a ricordo of what?”

“Why, of ‘this’— as you yourself say. Of this little hunt.”

“Oh, I say it — but hasn’t my whole point been that I don’t ask you to. Therefore,” she demanded — but smiling at him now — “where’s the logic?”

“Oh, the logic —!” he laughed.

“But logic’s everything. That, at least, is how I feel it. A ricordo from you — from you to me — is a ricordo of nothing. It has no reference.”

“Ah, my dear!” he vaguely protested. Their entertainer, meanwhile, stood there with his eyes on them, and the girl, though at this minute more interested in her passage with her friend than in anything else, again met his gaze. It was a comfort to her that their foreign tongue covered what they said — and they might have appeared of course, as the Prince now had one of the snuffboxes in his hand, to be discussing a purchase.

“You don’t refer,” she went on to her companion. “I refer.”

He had lifted the lid of his little box and he looked into it hard. “Do you mean by that then that you would be free —?”

“‘Free’—?”

“To offer me something?”

This gave her a longer pause, and when she spoke again she might have seemed, oddly, to be addressing the dealer. “Would you allow me —?”

“No,” said the Prince into his little box.

“You wouldn’t accept it from me?”

“No,” he repeated in the same way.

She exhaled a long breath that was like a guarded sigh. “But you’ve touched an idea that HAS been mine. It’s what I’ve wanted.” Then she added: “It was what I hoped.”

He put down his box — this had drawn his eyes. He made nothing, clearly, of the little man’s attention. “It’s what you brought me out for?”

“Well, that’s, at any rate,” she returned, “my own affair. But it won’t do?”

“It won’t do, cara mia.”

“It’s impossible?”

“It’s impossible.” And he took up one of the brooches.

She had another pause, while the shopman only waited. “If I were to accept from you one of these charming little ornaments as you suggest, what should I do with it?”

He was perhaps at last a little irritated; he even — as if HE might understand — looked vaguely across at their host. “Wear it, per Bacco!”

“Where then, please? Under my clothes?”

“Wherever you like. But it isn’t then, if you will,” he added, “worth talking about.”

“It’s only worth talking about, mio caro,” she smiled, “from your having begun it. My question is only reasonable — so that your idea may stand or fall by your answer to it. If I should pin one of these things on for you would it be, to your mind, that I might go home and show it to Maggie as your present?”

They had had between them often in talk the refrain, jocosely, descriptively applied, of “old Roman.” It had been, as a pleasantry, in the other time, his explanation to her of everything; but nothing, truly, had even seemed so old-Roman as the shrug in which he now indulged. “Why in the world not?”

“Because — on our basis — it would be impossible to give her an account of the pretext.”

“The pretext —?” He wondered.

“The occasion. This ramble that we shall have had together and that we’re not to speak of.”

“Oh yes,” he said after a moment “I remember we’re not to speak of it.”

“That of course you’re pledged to. And the one thing, you see, goes with the other. So you don’t insist.”

He had again, at random, laid back his trinket; with which he quite turned to her, a little wearily at last — even a little impatiently. “I don’t insist.”

It disposed for the time of the question, but what was next apparent was that it had seen them no further. The shopman, who had not stirred, stood there in his patience — which, his mute intensity helping, had almost the effect of an ironic comment. The Prince moved to the glass door and, his back to the others, as with nothing more to contribute, looked — though not less patiently — into the street. Then the shopman, for Charlotte, momentously broke silence. “You’ve seen, disgraziatamente, signora principessa,” he sadly said, “too much”— and it made the Prince face about. For the effect of the momentous came, if not from the sense, from the sound of his words; which was that of the suddenest, sharpest Italian. Charlotte exchanged with her friend a glance that matched it, and just for the minute they were held in check. But their glance had, after all, by that time, said more than one thing; had both exclaimed on the apprehension, by the wretch, of their intimate conversation, let alone of her possible, her impossible, title, and remarked, for mutual reassurance, that it didn’t, all the same, matter. The Prince remained by the door, but immediately addressing the speaker from where he stood.

“You’re Italian then, are you?”

But the reply came in English. “Oh dear no.”

“You’re English?”

To which the answer was this time, with a smile, in briefest Italian. “Che!” The dealer waived the question — he practically disposed of it by turning straightway toward a receptacle to which he had not yet resorted and from which, after unlocking it, he extracted a square box, of some twenty inches in height, covered with worn-looking leather. He placed the box on the counter, pushed back a pair of small hooks, lifted the lid and removed from its nest a drinking-vessel larger than a common cup, yet not of exorbitant size, and formed, to appearance, either of old fine gold or of some material once richly gilt. He handled it with tenderness, with ceremony, making a place for it on a small satin mat. “My Golden Bowl,” he observed — and it sounded, on his lips, as if it said everything. He left the important object — for as “important” it did somehow present itself — to produce its certain effect. Simple, but singularly elegant, it stood on a circular foot, a short pedestal with a slightly spreading base, and, though not of signal depth, justified its title by the charm of its shape as well as by the tone of its surface. It might have been a large goblet diminished, to the enhancement of its happy curve, by half its original height. As formed of solid gold it was impressive; it seemed indeed to warn off the prudent admirer. Charlotte, with care, immediately took it up, while the Prince, who had after a minute shifted his position again, regarded it from a distance.

It was heavier than Charlotte had thought. “Gold, really gold?” she asked of their companion.

He hesitated. “Look a little, and perhaps you’ll make out.”

She looked, holding it up in both her fine hands, turning it to the light. “It may be cheap for what it is, but it will be dear, I’m afraid, for me.”

“Well,” said the man, “I can part with it for less than its value. I got it, you see, for less.”

“For how much then?”

Again he waited, always with his serene stare. “Do you like it then?”

Charlotte turned to her friend. “Do YOU like it?” He came no nearer; he looked at their companion. “cos’e?”

“Well, signori miei, if you must know, it’s just a perfect crystal.”

“Of course we must know, per Dio!” said the Prince. But he turned away again — he went back to his glass door.

Charlotte set down the bowl; she was evidently taken. “Do you mean it’s cut out of a single crystal?”

“If it isn’t I think I can promise you that you’ll never find any joint or any piecing.”

She wondered. “Even if I were to scrape off the gold?”

He showed, though with due respect, that she amused him. “You couldn’t scrape it off — it has been too well put on; put on I don’t know when and I don’t know how. But by some very fine old worker and by some beautiful old process.”

Charlotte, frankly charmed with the cup, smiled back at him now. “A lost art?”

“Call it a lost art,”

“But of what time then is the whole thing?”

“Well, say also of a lost time.”

The girl considered. “Then if it’s so precious, how comes it to be cheap?”

Her interlocutor once more hung fire, but by this time the Prince had lost patience. “I’ll wait for you out in the air,” he said to his companion, and, though he spoke without irritation, he pointed his remark by passing immediately into the street, where, during the next minutes, the others saw him, his back to the shopwindow, philosophically enough hover and light a fresh cigarette. Charlotte even took, a little, her time; she was aware of his funny Italian taste for London street-life.

Her host meanwhile, at any rate, answered her question. “Ah, I’ve had it a long time without selling it. I think I must have been keeping it, madam, for you.”

“You’ve kept it for me because you’ve thought I mightn’t see what’s the matter with it?”

He only continued to face her — he only continued to appear to follow the play of her mind. “What IS the matter with it?”

“Oh, it’s not for me to say; it’s for you honestly to tell me. Of course I know something must be.”

“But if it’s something you can’t find out, isn’t it as good as if it were nothing?”

“I probably SHOULD find out as soon as I had paid for it.”

“Not,” her host lucidly insisted, “if you hadn’t paid too much.”

“What do you call,” she asked, “little enough?”

“Well, what should you say to fifteen pounds?”

“I should say,” said Charlotte with the utmost promptitude, “that it’s altogether too much.”

The dealer shook his head slowly and sadly, but firmly. “It’s my price, madam — and if you admire the thing I think it really might be yours. It’s not too much. It’s too little. It’s almost nothing. I can’t go lower.”

Charlotte, wondering, but resisting, bent over the bowl again. “Then it’s impossible. It’s more than I can afford.”

“Ah,” the man returned, “one can sometimes afford for a present more than one can afford for one’s self.” He said it so coaxingly that she found herself going on without, as might be said, putting him in his place. “Oh, of course it would be only for a present —!”

“Then it would be a lovely one.”

“Does one make a present,” she asked, “of an object that contains, to one’s knowledge, a flaw?”

“Well, if one knows of it one has only to mention it. The good faith,” the man smiled, “is always there.”

“And leave the person to whom one gives the thing, you mean, to discover it?”

“He wouldn’t discover it — if you’re speaking of a gentleman.”

“I’m not speaking of anyone in particular,” Charlotte said.

“Well, whoever it might be. He might know — and he might try. But he wouldn’t find.”

She kept her eyes on him as if, though unsatisfied, mystified, she yet had a fancy for the bowl. “Not even if the thing should come to pieces?” And then as he was silent: “Not even if he should have to say to me ‘The Golden Bowl is broken’?”

He was still silent; after which he had his strangest smile. “Ah, if anyone should WANT to smash it —!”

She laughed; she almost admired the little man’s expression. “You mean one could smash it with a hammer?”

“Yes; if nothing else would do. Or perhaps even by dashing it with violence — say upon a marble floor.”

“Oh, marble floors!” But she might have been thinking — for they were a connection, marble floors; a connection with many things: with her old Rome, and with his; with the palaces of his past, and, a little, of hers; with the possibilities of his future, with the sumptuosities of his marriage, with the wealth of the Ververs. All the same, however, there were other things; and they all together held for a moment her fancy. “Does crystal then break — when it IS crystal? I thought its beauty was its hardness.”

Her friend, in his way, discriminated. “Its beauty is its BEING crystal. But its hardness is certainly, its safety. It doesn’t break,” he went on, “like vile glass. It splits — if there is a split.”

“Ah!”— Charlotte breathed with interest. “If there is a split.” And she looked down again at the bowl. “There IS a split, eh? Crystal does split, eh?”

“On lines and by laws of its own.”

“You mean if there’s a weak place?”

For all answer, after an hesitation, he took the bowl up again, holding it aloft and tapping it with a key. It rang with the finest, sweetest sound. “Where is the weak place?”

She then did the question justice. “Well, for ME, only the price. I’m poor, you see — very poor. But I thank you and I’ll think.” The Prince, on the other side of the shop-window, had finally faced about and, as to see if she hadn’t done, was trying to reach, with his eyes, the comparatively dim interior. “I like it,” she said —“I want it. But I must decide what I can do.”

The man, not ungraciously, resigned himself. “Well, I’ll keep it for you.”

The small quarter-of-an-hour had had its marked oddity — this she felt even by the time the open air and the Bloomsbury aspects had again, in their protest against the truth of her gathered impression, made her more or less their own. Yet the oddity might have been registered as small as compared to the other effect that, before they had gone much further, she had, with her companion, to take account of. This latter was simply the effect of their having, by some tacit logic, some queer inevitability, quite dropped the idea of a continued pursuit. They didn’t say so, but it was on the line of giving up Maggie’s present that they practically proceeded — the line of giving it up without more reference to it. The Prince’s first reference was in fact quite independently made. “I hope you satisfied yourself, before you had done, of what was the matter with that bowl.”

“No indeed, I satisfied myself of nothing. Of nothing at least but that the more I looked at it the more I liked it, and that if you weren’t so unaccommodating this would be just the occasion for your giving me the pleasure of accepting it.”

He looked graver for her, at this, than he had looked all the morning. “Do you propose it seriously — without wishing to play me a trick?”

She wondered. “What trick would it be?”

He looked at her harder. “You mean you really don’t know?”

“But know what?”

“Why, what’s the matter with it. You didn’t see, all the while?”

She only continued, however, to stare. “How could you see — out in the street?”

“I saw before I went out. It was because I saw that I did go out. I didn’t want to have another scene with you, before that rascal, and I judged you would presently guess for yourself.”

“Is he a rascal?” Charlotte asked. “His price is so moderate. She waited but a moment. “Five pounds. Really so little.”

“Five pounds?”

He continued to look at her. “Five pounds.”

He might have been doubting her word, but he was only, it appeared, gathering emphasis. “It would be dear — to make a gift of — at five shillings. If it had cost you even but five pence I wouldn’t take it from you.”

“Then,” she asked, “what IS the matter?”

“Why, it has a crack.”

It sounded, on his lips, so sharp, it had such an authority, that she almost started, while her colour, at the word, rose. It was as if he had been right, though his assurance was wonderful. “You answer for it without having looked?”

“I did look. I saw the object itself. It told its story. No wonder it’s cheap.”

“But it’s exquisite,” Charlotte, as if with an interest in it now made even tenderer and stranger, found herself moved to insist.

“Of course it’s exquisite. That’s the danger.” Then a light visibly came to her — a light in which her friend suddenly and intensely showed. The reflection of it, as she smiled at him, was in her own face. “The danger — I see — is because you’re superstitious.”

“Per Dio, I’m superstitious! A crack is a crack — and an omen’s an omen.”

“You’d be afraid —?”

“Per Bacco!”

“For your happiness?”

“For my happiness.”

“For your safety?”

“For my safety.”

She just paused. “For your marriage?”

“For my marriage. For everything.”

She thought again. “Thank goodness then that if there BE a crack we know it! But if we may perish by cracks in things that we don’t know —!” And she smiled with the sadness of it. “We can never then give each other anything.”

He considered, but he met it. “Ah, but one does know. I do, at least — and by instinct. I don’t fail. That will always protect me.”

It was funny, the way he said such things; yet she liked him, really, the more for it. They fell in for her with a general, or rather with a special, vision. But she spoke with a mild despair.

“What then will protect ME?”

“Where I’m concerned I will. From me at least you’ve nothing to fear,” he now quite amiably responded. “Anything you consent to accept from me —” But he paused.

“Well?”

“Well, shall be perfect.”

“That’s very fine,” she presently answered. “It’s vain, after all, for you to talk of my accepting things when you’ll accept nothing from me.”

Ah, THERE, better still, he could meet her. “You attach an impossible condition. That, I mean, of my keeping your gift so to myself.”

Well, she looked, before him there, at the condition — then, abruptly, with a gesture, she gave it up. She had a headshake of disenchantment — so far as the idea had appealed to her. It all appeared too difficult. “Oh, my ‘condition’— I don’t hold to it. You may cry it on the housetops — anything I ever do.”

“Ah well, then —!” This made, he laughed, all the difference.

But it was too late. “Oh, I don’t care now! I SHOULD have liked the Bowl. But if that won’t do there’s nothing.”

He considered this; he took it in, looking graver again; but after a moment he qualified. “Yet I shall want some day to give you something.”

She wondered at him. “What day?”

“The day you marry. For you WILL marry. You must — SERIOUSLY— marry.”

She took it from him, but it determined in her the only words she was to have uttered, all the morning, that came out as if a spring had been pressed. “To make you feel better?”

“Well,” he replied frankly, wonderfully —“it will. But here,” he added, “is your hansom.”

He had signalled — the cab was charging. She put out no hand for their separation, but she prepared to get in. Before she did so, however, she said what had been gathering while she waited. “Well, I would marry, I think, to have something from you in all freedom.”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38