There was nothing to show that her effort in any degree fell short till they got well into the Park and he struck her as giving, unexpectedly, the go-by to any serious search for the Principino. The way they sat down awhile in the sun was a sign of that; his dropping with her into the first pair of sequestered chairs they came across and waiting a little, after they were placed, as if now at last she might bring out, as between them, something more specific. It made her but feel the more sharply how the specific, in almost any direction, was utterly forbidden her — how the use of it would be, for all the world, like undoing the leash of a dog eager to follow up a scent. It would come out, the specific, where the dog would come out; would run to earth, somehow, the truth — for she was believing herself in relation to the truth! — at which she mustn’t so much as indirectly point. Such, at any rate, was the fashion in which her passionate prudence played over possibilities of danger, reading symptoms and betrayals into everything she looked at, and yet having to make it evident, while she recognised them, that she didn’t wince. There were moments between them, in their chairs, when he might have been watching her guard herself and trying to think of something new that would trip her up. There were pauses during which, with her affection as sweet and still as the sunshine, she might yet, as at some hard game, over a table, for money, have been defying him to fasten upon her the least little complication of consciousness. She was positively proud, afterwards, of the great style in which she had kept this up; later on, at the hour’s end, when they had retraced their steps to find Amerigo and Charlotte awaiting them at the house, she was able to say to herself that, truly, she had put her plan through; even though once more setting herself the difficult task of making their relation, every minute of the time, not fall below the standard of that other hour, in the treasured past, which hung there behind them like a framed picture in a museum, a high watermark for the history of their old fortune; the summer evening, in the park at Fawns, when, side by side under the trees just as now, they had let their happy confidence lull them with its most golden tone. There had been the possibility of a trap for her, at present, in the very question of their taking up anew that residence; wherefore she had not been the first to sound it, in spite of the impression from him of his holding off to see what she would do. She was saying to herself in secret: “CAN we again, in this form, migrate there? Can I, for myself, undertake it? face all the intenser keeping-up and stretching-out, indefinitely, impossibly, that our conditions in the country, as we’ve established and accepted them, would stand for?” She had positively lost herself in this inward doubt — so much she was subsequently to remember; but remembering then too that her companion, though perceptibly perhaps as if not to be eager, had broken the ice very much as he had broken it in Eaton Square after the banquet to the Castledeans.
Her mind had taken a long excursion, wandered far into the vision of what a summer at Fawns, with Amerigo and Charlotte still more eminently in presence against that higher sky, would bring forth. Wasn’t her father meanwhile only pretending to talk of it? just as she was, in a manner, pretending to listen? He got off it, finally, at all events, for the transition it couldn’t well help thrusting out at him; it had amounted exactly to an arrest of her private excursion by the sense that he had begun to IMITATE— oh, as never yet! — the ancient tone of gold. It had verily come from him at last, the question of whether she thought it would be very good — but very good indeed — that he should leave England for a series of weeks, on some pretext, with the Prince. Then it had been that she was to know her husband’s “menace” hadn’t really dropped, since she was face to face with the effect of it. Ah, the effect of it had occupied all the rest of their walk, had stayed out with them and come home with them, besides making it impossible that they shouldn’t presently feign to recollect how rejoining the child had been their original purpose. Maggie’s uneffaced note was that it had, at the end of five minutes more, driven them to that endeavour as to a refuge, and caused them afterwards to rejoice, as well, that the boy’s irrepressibly importunate company, in due course secured and enjoyed, with the extension imparted by his governess, a person expectant of consideration, constituted a cover for any awkwardness. For that was what it had all come to, that the dear man had spoken to her to TRY her — quite as he had been spoken to himself by Charlotte, with the same fine idea. The Princess took it in, on the spot, firmly grasping it; she heard them together, her father and his wife, dealing with the queer case. “The Prince tells me that Maggie has a plan for your taking some foreign journey with him, and, as he likes to do everything she wants, he has suggested my speaking to you for it as the thing most likely to make you consent. So I do speak — see? — being always so eager myself, as you know, to meet Maggie’s wishes. I speak, but without quite understanding, this time, what she has in her head. Why SHOULD she, of a sudden, at this particular moment, desire to ship you off together and to remain here alone with me? The compliment’s all to me, I admit, and you must decide quite as you like. The Prince is quite ready, evidently, to do his part — but you’ll have it out with him. That is you’ll have it out with HER.” Something of that kind was what, in her mind’s ear, Maggie heard — and this, after his waiting for her to appeal to him directly, was her father’s invitation to her to have it out. Well, as she could say to herself all the rest of the day, that was what they did while they continued to sit there in their penny chairs, that was what they HAD done as much as they would now ever, ever, have out anything. The measure of this, at least, had been given, that each would fight to the last for the protection, for the perversion, of any real anxiety. She had confessed, instantly, with her humbugging grin, not flinching by a hair, meeting his eyes as mildly as he met hers, she had confessed to her fancy that they might both, he and his son-inlaw, have welcomed such an escapade, since they had both been so long so furiously domestic. She had almost cocked her hat under the inspiration of this opportunity to hint how a couple of spirited young men, reacting from confinement and sallying forth arm-inarm, might encounter the agreeable in forms that would strike them for the time at least as novel. She had felt for fifty seconds, with her eyes, all so sweetly and falsely, in her companion’s, horribly vulgar; yet without minding it either — such luck should she have if to be nothing worse than vulgar would see her through. “And I thought Amerigo might like it better,” she had said, “than wandering off alone.”
“Do you mean that he won’t go unless I take him?”
She had considered here, and never in her life had she considered so promptly and so intently. If she really put it that way, her husband, challenged, might belie the statement; so that what would that do but make her father wonder, make him perhaps ask straight out, why she was exerting pressure? She couldn’t of course afford to be suspected for an instant of exerting pressure; which was why she was obliged only to make answer: “Wouldn’t that be just what you must have out with HIM?”
“Decidedly — if he makes me the proposal. But he hasn’t made it yet.”
Oh, once more, how she was to feel she had smirked! “Perhaps he’s too shy!”
“Because you’re so sure he so really wants my company?”
“I think he has thought you might like it.”
“Well, I should —!” But with this he looked away from her, and she held her breath to hear him either ask if she wished him to address the question to Amerigo straight, or inquire if she should be greatly disappointed by his letting it drop. What had “settled” her, as she was privately to call it, was that he had done neither of these things, and had thereby markedly stood off from the risk involved in trying to draw out her reason. To attenuate, on the other hand, this appearance, and quite as if to fill out the too large receptacle made, so musingly, by his abstention, he had himself presently given her a reason — had positively spared her the effort of asking whether he judged Charlotte not to have approved. He had taken everything on himself — THAT was what had settled her. She had had to wait very little more to feel, with this, how much he was taking. The point he made was his lack of any eagerness to put time and space, on any such scale, between himself and his wife. He wasn’t so unhappy with her — far from it, and Maggie was to hold that he had grinned back, paternally, through his rather shielding glasses, in easy emphasis of this — as to be able to hint that he required the relief of absence. Therefore, unless it was for the Prince himself —!
“Oh, I don’t think it would have been for Amerigo himself. Amerigo and I,” Maggie had said, “perfectly rub on together.”
“Well then, there we are.”
“I see”— and she had again, with sublime blandness, assented. “There we are.”
“Charlotte and I too,” her father had gaily proceeded, “perfectly rub on together.” And then he had appeared for a little to be making time. “To put it only so,” he had mildly and happily added —“to put it only so!” He had spoken as if he might easily put it much better, yet as if the humour of contented understatement fairly sufficed for the occasion. He had played then, either all consciously or all unconsciously, into Charlotte’s hands; and the effect of this was to render trebly oppressive Maggie’s conviction of Charlotte’s plan. She had done what she wanted, his wife had — which was also what Amerigo had made her do. She had kept her test, Maggie’s test, from becoming possible, and had applied instead a test of her own. It was exactly as if she had known that her stepdaughter would be afraid to be summoned to say, under the least approach to cross-examination, why any change was desirable; and it was, for our young woman herself, still more prodigiously, as if her father had been capable of calculations to match, of judging it important he shouldn’t be brought to demand of her what was the matter with her. Why otherwise, with such an opportunity, hadn’t he demanded it? Always from calculation — that was why, that was why. He was terrified of the retort he might have invoked: “What, my dear, if you come to that, is the matter with YOU?” When, a minute later on, he had followed up his last note by a touch or two designed still further to conjure away the ghost of the anomalous, at that climax verily she would have had to be dumb to the question. “There seems a kind of charm, doesn’t there? on our life — and quite as if, just lately, it had got itself somehow renewed, had waked up refreshed. A kind of wicked selfish prosperity perhaps, as if we had grabbed everything, fixed everything, down to the last lovely object for the last glass case of the last corner, left over, of my old show. That’s the only take-off, that it has made us perhaps lazy, a wee bit languid — lying like gods together, all careless of mankind.”
“Do you consider that we’re languid?”— that form of rejoinder she had jumped at for the sake of its pretty lightness. “Do you consider that we are careless of mankind? — living as we do in the biggest crowd in the world, and running about always pursued and pursuing.”
It had made him think indeed a little longer than she had meant; but he came up again, as she might have said, smiling. “Well, I don’t know. We get nothing but the fun, do we?”
“No,” she had hastened to declare; “we certainly get nothing but the fun.”
“We do it all,” he had remarked, “so beautifully.”
“We do it all so beautifully.” She hadn’t denied this for a moment. “I see what you mean.”
“Well, I mean too,” he had gone on, “that we haven’t, no doubt, enough, the sense of difficulty.”
“Enough? Enough for what?”
“Enough not to be selfish.”
“I don’t think YOU are selfish,” she had returned — and had managed not to wail it.
“I don’t say that it’s me particularly — or that it’s you or Charlotte or Amerigo. But we’re selfish together — we move as a selfish mass. You see we want always the same thing,” he had gone on —“and that holds us, that binds us, together. We want each other,” he had further explained; “only wanting it, each time, FOR each other. That’s what I call the happy spell; but it’s also, a little, possibly, the immorality.”
“‘The immorality’?” she had pleasantly echoed.
“Well, we’re tremendously moral for ourselves — that is for each other; and I won’t pretend that I know exactly at whose particular personal expense you and I, for instance, are happy. What it comes to, I daresay, is that there’s something haunting — as if it were a bit uncanny — in such a consciousness of our general comfort and privilege. Unless indeed,” he had rambled on, “it’s only I to whom, fantastically, it says so much. That’s all I mean, at any rate — that it’s sort of soothing; as if we were sitting about on divans, with pigtails, smoking opium and seeing visions. ‘Let us then be up and doing’— what is it Longfellow says? That seems sometimes to ring out; like the police breaking in-into our opium den — to give us a shake. But the beauty of it is, at the same time, that we ARE doing; we’re doing, that is, after all, what we went in for. We’re working it, our life, our chance, whatever you may call it, as we saw it, as we felt it, from the first. We HAVE worked it, and what more can you do than that? It’s a good deal for me,” he had wound up, “to have made Charlotte so happy — to have so perfectly contented her. YOU, from a good way back, were a matter of course — I mean your being all right; so that I needn’t mind your knowing that my great interest, since then, has rather inevitably been in making sure of the same success, very much to your advantage as well, for Charlotte. If we’ve worked our life, our idea really, as I say — if at any rate I can sit here and say that I’ve worked my share of it — it has not been what you may call least by our having put Charlotte so at her ease. THAT has been soothing, all round; that has curled up as the biggest of the blue fumes, or whatever they are, of the opium. Don’t you see what a cropper we would have come if she hadn’t settled down as she has?” And he had concluded by turning to Maggie as for something she mightn’t really have thought of. “You, darling, in that case, I verily believe, would have been the one to hate it most.”
“To hate it —?” Maggie had wondered.
“To hate our having, with our tremendous intentions, not brought it off. And I daresay I should have hated it for you even more than for myself.”
“That’s not unlikely perhaps when it was for me, after all, that you did it.”
He had hesitated, but only a moment. “I never told you so.”
“Well, Charlotte herself soon enough told me.”
“But I never told HER,” her father had answered.
“Are you very sure?” she had presently asked.
“Well, I like to think how thoroughly I was taken with her, and how right I was, and how fortunate, to have that for my basis. I told her all the good I thought of her.”
“Then that,” Maggie had returned, “was precisely part of the good. I mean it was precisely part of it that she could so beautifully understand.”
“Yes — understand everything.”
“Everything — and in particular your reasons. Her telling me — that showed me how she had understood.”
They were face to face again now, and she saw she had made his colour rise; it was as if he were still finding in her eyes the concrete image, the enacted scene, of her passage with Charlotte, which he was now hearing of for the first time and as to which it would have been natural he should question her further. His forbearance to do so would but mark, precisely, the complication of his fears. “What she does like,” he finally said, “is the way it has succeeded.”
“Yes — my whole idea. The way I’ve been justified. That’s the joy I give her. If for HER, either, it had failed —!” That, however, was not worth talking about; he had broken off. “You think then you could now risk Fawns?”
“Well, morally — from the point of view I was talking of; that of our sinking deeper into sloth. Our selfishness, somehow, seems at its biggest down there.”
Maggie had allowed him the amusement of her not taking this up. “Is Charlotte,” she had simply asked, “really ready?”
“Oh, if you and I and Amerigo are. Whenever one corners Charlotte,” he had developed more at his ease, “one finds that she only wants to know what we want. Which is what we got her for!”
“What we got her for — exactly!” And so, for a little, even though with a certain effect of oddity in their more or less successful ease, they left it; left it till Maggie made the remark that it was all the same wonderful her stepmother should be willing, before the season was out, to exchange so much company for so much comparative solitude.
“Ah,” he had then made answer, “that’s because her idea, I think, this time, is that we shall have more people, more than we’ve hitherto had, in the country. Don’t you remember that THAT, originally, was what we were to get her for?”
“Oh yes — to give us a life.” Maggie had gone through the form of recalling this, and the light of their ancient candour, shining from so far back, had seemed to bring out some things so strangely that, with the sharpness of the vision, she had risen to her feet. “Well, with a ‘life’ Fawns will certainly do.” He had remained in his place while she looked over his head; the picture, in her vision, had suddenly swarmed. The vibration was that of one of the lurches of the mystic train in which, with her companion, she was travelling; but she was having to steady herself, this time, before meeting his eyes. She had measured indeed the full difference between the move to Fawns because each of them now knew the others wanted it and the pairing-off, for a journey, of her husband and her father, which nobody knew that either wanted. “More company” at Fawns would be effectually enough the key in which her husband and her stepmother were at work; there was truly no question but that she and her father must accept any array of visitors. No one could try to marry him now. What he had just said was a direct plea for that, and what was the plea itself but an act of submission to Charlotte? He had, from his chair, been noting her look, but he had, the next minute, also risen, and then it was they had reminded each other of their having come out for the boy. Their junction with him and with his companion successfully effected, the four had moved home more slowly, and still more vaguely; yet with a vagueness that permitted of Maggie’s reverting an instant to the larger issue.
“If we have people in the country then, as you were saying, do you know for whom my first fancy would be? You may be amused, but it would be for the Castledeans.”
“I see. But why should I be amused?”
“Well, I mean I am myself. I don’t think I like her — and yet I like to see her: which, as Amerigo says, is ‘rum.’”
“But don’t you feel she’s very handsome?” her father inquired.
“Yes, but it isn’t for that.”
“Then what is it for?”
“Simply that she may be THERE— just there before us. It’s as if she may have a value — as if something may come of her. I don’t in the least know what, and she rather irritates me meanwhile. I don’t even know, I admit, why — but if we see her often enough I may find out.”
“Does it matter so very much?” her companion had asked while they moved together.
She had hesitated. “You mean because you do rather like her?”
He on his side too had waited a little, but then he had taken it from her. “Yes, I guess I do rather like her.”
Which she accepted for the first case she could recall of their not being affected by a person in the same way. It came back therefore to his pretending; but she had gone far enough, and to add to her appearance of levity she further observed that, though they were so far from a novelty, she should also immediately desire, at Fawns, the presence of the Assinghams. That put everything on a basis independent of explanations; yet it was extraordinary, at the same time, how much, once in the country again with the others, she was going, as they used to say at home, to need the presence of the good Fanny. It was the strangest thing in the world, but it was as if Mrs. Assingham might in a manner mitigate the intensity of her consciousness of Charlotte. It was as if the two would balance, one against the other; as if it came round again in that fashion to her idea of the equilibrium. It would be like putting this friend into her scale to make weight — into the scale with her father and herself. Amerigo and Charlotte would be in the other; therefore it would take the three of them to keep that one straight. And as this played, all duskily, in her mind it had received from her father, with a sound of suddenness, a luminous contribution. “Ah, rather! DO let’s have the Assinghams.”
“It would be to have them,” she had said, “as we used so much to have them. For a good long stay, in the old way and on the old terms: ‘as regular boarders’ Fanny used to call it. That is if they’ll come.”
“As regular boarders, on the old terms — that’s what I should like too. But I guess they’ll come,” her companion had added in a tone into which she had read meanings. The main meaning was that he felt he was going to require them quite as much as she was. His recognition of the new terms as different from the old, what was that, practically, but a confession that something had happened, and a perception that, interested in the situation she had helped to create, Mrs. Assingham would be, by so much as this, concerned in its inevitable development? It amounted to an intimation, off his guard, that he should be thankful for some one to turn to. If she had wished covertly to sound him he had now, in short, quite given himself away, and if she had, even at the start, needed anything MORE to settle her, here assuredly was enough. He had hold of his small grandchild as they retraced their steps, swinging the boy’s hand and not bored, as he never was, by his always bristling, like a fat little porcupine, with shrill interrogation-points — so that, secretly, while they went, she had wondered again if the equilibrium mightn’t have been more real, mightn’t above all have demanded less strange a study, had it only been on the books that Charlotte should give him a Principino of his own. She had repossessed herself now of his other arm, only this time she was drawing him back, gently, helplessly back, to what they had tried, for the hour, to get away from — just as he was consciously drawing the child, and as high Miss Bogle on her left, representing the duties of home, was complacently drawing HER. The duties of home, when the house in Portland Place reappeared, showed, even from a distance, as vividly there before them. Amerigo and Charlotte had come in- that is Amerigo had, Charlotte, rather, having come out — and the pair were perched together in the balcony, he bare-headed, she divested of her jacket, her mantle, or whatever, but crowned with a brilliant brave hat, responsive to the balmy day, which Maggie immediately “spotted” as new, as insuperably original, as worn, in characteristic generous harmony, for the first time; all, evidently, to watch for the return of the absent, to be there to take them over again as punctually as possible. They were gay, they were amused, in the pleasant morning; they leaned across the rail and called down their greeting, lighting up the front of the great black house with an expression that quite broke the monotony, that might almost have shocked the decency, of Portland Place. The group on the pavement stared up as at the peopled battlements of a castle; even Miss Bogle, who carried her head most aloft, gaped a little, through the interval of space, as toward truly superior beings. There could scarce have been so much of the open mouth since the dingy waits, on Christmas Eve, had so lamentably chanted for pennies — the time when Amerigo, insatiable for English customs, had come out, with a gasped “Santissima Vergine!” to marvel at the depositaries of this tradition and purchase a reprieve. Maggie’s individual gape was inevitably again for the thought of how the pair would be at work.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10