“Something very strange has happened, and I think you ought to know it.”
Maggie spoke this indeed without extravagance, yet with the effect of making her guest measure anew the force of her appeal. It was their definite understanding: whatever Fanny knew Fanny’s faith would provide for. And she knew, accordingly, at the end of five minutes, what the extraordinary, in the late occurrence, had consisted of, and how it had all come of Maggie’s achieved hour, under Mr. Crichton’s protection, at the Museum. He had desired, Mr. Crichton, with characteristic kindness, after the wonderful show, after offered luncheon at his incorporated lodge hard by, to see her safely home; especially on his noting, in attending her to the great steps, that she had dismissed her carriage; which she had done, really, just for the harmless amusement of taking her way alone. She had known she should find herself, as the consequence of such an hour, in a sort of exalted state, under the influence of which a walk through the London streets would be exactly what would suit her best; an independent ramble, impressed, excited, contented, with nothing to mind and nobody to talk to, and shop-windows in plenty to look at if she liked: a low taste, of the essence, it was to be supposed, of her nature, that she had of late, for so many reasons, been unable to gratify. She had taken her leave, with her thanks — she knew her way quite enough; it being also sufficiently the case that she had even a shy hope of not going too straight. To wander a little wild was what would truly amuse her; so that, keeping clear of Oxford Street and cultivating an impression as of parts she didn’t know, she had ended with what she had more or less had been fancying, an encounter with three or four shops — an old bookseller’s, an old printmonger’s, a couple of places with dim antiquities in the window — that were not as so many of the other shops, those in Sloane Street, say; a hollow parade which had long since ceased to beguile. There had remained with her moreover an allusion of Charlotte’s, of some months before — seed dropped into her imagination in the form of a casual speech about there being in Bloomsbury such “funny little fascinating” places and even sometimes such unexpected finds. There could perhaps have been no stronger mark than this sense of well-nigh romantic opportunity — no livelier sign of the impression made on her, and always so long retained, so watchfully nursed, by any observation of Charlotte’s, however lightly thrown off. And then she had felt, somehow, more at her ease than for months and months before; she didn’t know why, but her time at the Museum, oddly, had done it; it was as if she hadn’t come into so many noble and beautiful associations, nor secured them also for her boy, secured them even for her father, only to see them turn to vanity and doubt, turn possibly to something still worse. “I believed in him again as much as ever, and I felt how I believed in him,” she said with bright, fixed eyes; “I felt it in the streets as I walked along, and it was as if that helped me and lifted me up, my being off by myself there, not having, for the moment, to wonder and watch; having, on the contrary, almost nothing on my mind.”
It was so much as if everything would come out right that she had fallen to thinking of her father’s birthday, had given herself this as a reason for trying what she could pick up for it. They would keep it at Fawns, where they had kept it before — since it would be the twenty-first of the month; and she mightn’t have another chance of making sure of something to offer him. There was always the impossibility, of course, of finding him anything, the least bit “good,” that he wouldn’t already, long ago, in his rummagings, have seen himself — and only not to think a quarter good enough; this, however, was an old story, and one could not have had any fun with him but for his sweet theory that the individual gift, the friendship’s offering, was, by a rigorous law of nature, a foredoomed aberration, and that the more it was so the more it showed, and the more one cherished it for showing, how friendly it had been. The infirmity of art was the candour of affection, the grossness of pedigree the refinement of sympathy; the ugliest objects, in fact, as a general thing, were the bravest, the tenderest mementos, and, as such, figured in glass cases apart, worthy doubtless of the home, but not worthy of the temple — dedicated to the grimacing, not to the clear-faced, gods. She herself, naturally, through the past years, had come to be much represented in those receptacles; against the thick, locked panes of which she still liked to flatten her nose, finding in its place, each time, everything she had on successive anniversaries tried to believe he might pretend, at her suggestion, to be put off with, or at least think curious. She was now ready to try it again: they had always, with his pleasure in her pretence and her pleasure in his, with the funny betrayal of the sacrifice to domestic manners on either side, played the game so happily. To this end, on her way home, she had loitered everywhere; quite too deludedly among the old books and the old prints, which had yielded nothing to her purpose, but with a strange inconsequence in one of the other shops, that of a small antiquarian, a queer little foreign man, who had shown her a number of things, shown her finally something that, struck with it as rather a rarity and thinking it would, compared to some of her ventures, quite superlatively do, she had bought — bought really, when it came to that, for a price. “It appears now it won’t do at all,” said Maggie, “something has happened since that puts it quite out of the question. I had only my day of satisfaction in it, but I feel, at the same time, as I keep it here before me, that I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”
She had talked, from the first of her friend’s entrances coherently enough, even with a small quaver that overstated her calm; but she held her breath every few seconds, as if for deliberation and to prove she didn’t pant — all of which marked for Fanny the depth of her commotion: her reference to her thought about her father, about her chance to pick up something that might divert him, her mention, in fine, of his fortitude under presents, having meanwhile, naturally, it should be said, much less an amplitude of insistence on the speaker’s lips than a power to produce on the part of the listener herself the prompt response and full comprehension of memory and sympathy, of old amused observation. The picture was filled out by the latter’s fond fancy. But Maggie was at any rate under arms; she knew what she was doing and had already her plan — a plan for making, for allowing, as yet, “no difference”; in accordance with which she would still dine out, and not with red eyes, nor convulsed features, nor neglected items of appearance, nor anything that would raise a question. Yet there was some knowledge that, exactly to this support of her not breaking down, she desired, she required, possession of; and, with the sinister rise and fall of lightning unaccompanied by thunder, it played before Mrs. Assingham’s eyes that she herself should have, at whatever risk or whatever cost, to supply her with the stuff of her need. All our friend’s instinct was to hold off from this till she should see what the ground would bear; she would take no step nearer unless INTELLIGIBLY to meet her, and, awkward though it might be to hover there only pale and distorted, with mere imbecilities of vagueness, there was a quality of bald help in the fact of not as yet guessing what such an ominous start could lead to. She caught, however, after a second’s thought, at the Princess’s allusion to her lost reassurance.
“You mean you were so at your ease on Monday — the night you dined with us?”
“I was very happy then,” said Maggie.
“Yes — we thought you so gay and so brilliant.” Fanny felt it feeble, but she went on. “We were so glad you were happy.”
Maggie stood a moment, at first only looking at her. “You thought me all right, eh?”
“Surely, dearest; we thought you all right.”
“Well, I daresay it was natural; but in point of fact I never was more wrong in my life. For, all the while, if you please, this was brewing.”
Mrs. Assingham indulged, as nearly as possible to luxury, her vagueness. “‘This’—?”
“THAT!” replied the Princess, whose eyes, her companion now saw, had turned to an object on the chimney-piece of the room, of which, among so many precious objects — the Ververs, wherever they might be, always revelled peculiarly in matchless old mantel ornaments — her visitor had not taken heed.
“Do you mean the gilt cup?”
“I mean the gilt cup.”
The piece now recognised by Fanny as new to her own vision was a capacious bowl, of old-looking, rather strikingly yellow gold, mounted, by a short stem, on an ample foot, which held a central position above the fire-place, where, to allow it the better to show, a clearance had been made of other objects, notably of the Louis–Seize clock that accompanied the candelabra. This latter trophy ticked at present on the marble slab of a commode that exactly matched it in splendour and style. Mrs. Assingham took it, the bowl, as a fine thing; but the question was obviously not of its intrinsic value, and she kept off from it, admiring it at a distance. “But what has that to do —?”
“It has everything. You’ll see.” With which again, however, for the moment, Maggie attached to her strange wide eyes. “He knew her before — before I had ever seen him.”
“‘He’ knew —?” But Fanny, while she cast about her for the links she missed, could only echo it.
“Amerigo knew Charlotte — more than I ever dreamed.”
Fanny felt then it was stare for stare. “But surely you always knew they had met.”
“I didn’t understand. I knew too little. Don’t you see what I mean?” the Princess asked.
Mrs. Assingham wondered, during these instants, how much she even now knew; it had taken a minute to perceive how gently she was speaking. With that perception of its being no challenge of wrath, no heat of the deceived soul, but only a free exposure of the completeness of past ignorance, inviting derision even if it must, the elder woman felt, first, a strange, barely credible relief: she drew in, as if it had been the warm summer scent of a flower, the sweet certainty of not meeting, any way she should turn, any consequence of judgment. She shouldn’t be judged — save by herself; which was her own wretched business. The next moment, however, at all events, she blushed, within, for her immediate cowardice: she had thought of herself, thought of “getting off,” before so much as thinking — that is of pitifully seeing — that she was in presence of an appeal that was ALL an appeal, that utterly accepted its necessity. “In a general way, dear child, yes. But not — a — in connexion with what you’ve been telling me.”
“They were intimate, you see. Intimate,” said the Princess.
Fanny continued to face her, taking from her excited eyes this history, so dim and faint for all her anxious emphasis, of the far-away other time. “There’s always the question of what one considers —!”
“What one considers intimate? Well, I know what I consider intimate now. Too intimate,” said Maggie, “to let me know anything about it.”
It was quiet — yes; but not too quiet for Fanny Assingham’s capacity to wince. “Only compatible with letting ME, you mean?” She had asked it after a pause, but turning again to the new ornament of the chimney and wondering, even while she took relief from it, at this gap in her experience. “But here are things, my dear, of which my ignorance is perfect.”
“They went about together — they’re known to have done it. And I don’t mean only before — I mean after.”
“After?” said Fanny Assingham.
“Before we were married — yes; but after we were engaged.”
“Ah, I’ve known nothing about that!” And she said it with a braver assurance — clutching, with comfort, at something that was apparently new to her.
“That bowl,” Maggie went on, “is, so strangely — too strangely, almost, to believe at this time of day — the proof. They were together all the while — up to the very eve of our marriage. Don’t you remember how just before that she came back, so unexpectedly, from America?”
The question had for Mrs. Assingham — and whether all consciously or not — the oddest pathos of simplicity. “Oh yes, dear, of course I remember how she came back from America — and how she stayed with US, and what view one had of it.”
Maggie’s eyes still, all the time, pressed and penetrated; so that, during a moment, just here, she might have given the little flare, have made the little pounce, of asking what then “one’s” view had been. To the small flash of this eruption Fanny stood, for her minute, wittingly exposed; but she saw it as quickly cease to threaten — quite saw the Princess, even though in all her pain, refuse, in the interest of their strange and exalted bargain, to take advantage of the opportunity for planting the stab of reproach, the opportunity thus coming all of itself. She saw her — or she believed she saw her — look at her chance for straight denunciation, look at it and then pass it by; and she felt herself, with this fact, hushed well-nigh to awe at the lucid higher intention that no distress could confound and that no discovery — since it was, however obscurely, a case of “discovery”— could make less needful. These seconds were brief — they rapidly passed; but they lasted long enough to renew our friend’s sense of her own extraordinary undertaking, the function again imposed on her, the answerability again drilled into her, by this intensity of intimation. She was reminded of the terms on which she was let off — her quantity of release having made its sufficient show in that recall of her relation to Charlotte’s old reappearance; and deep within the whole impression glowed — ah, so inspiringly when it came to that! her steady view, clear from the first, of the beauty of her companion’s motive. It was like a fresh sacrifice for a larger conquest “Only see me through now, do it in the face of this and in spite of it, and I leave you a hand of which the freedom isn’t to be said!” The aggravation of fear — or call it, apparently, of knowledge — had jumped straight into its place as an aggravation above all for her father; the effect of this being but to quicken to passion her reasons for making his protectedness, or in other words the forms of his ignorance, still the law of her attitude and the key to her solution. She kept as tight hold of these reasons and these forms, in her confirmed horror, as the rider of a plunging horse grasps his seat with his knees; and she might absolutely have been putting it to her guest that she believed she could stay on if they should only “meet” nothing more. Though ignorant still of what she had definitely met Fanny yearned, within, over her spirit; and so, no word about it said, passed, through mere pitying eyes, a vow to walk ahead and, at crossroads, with a lantern for the darkness and wavings away for unadvised traffic, look out for alarms. There was accordingly no wait in Maggie’s reply. “They spent together hours — spent at least a morning — the certainty of which has come back to me now, but that I didn’t dream of it at the time. That cup there has turned witness — by the most wonderful of chances. That’s why, since it has been here, I’ve stood it out for my husband to see; put it where it would meet him, almost immediately, if he should come into the room. I’ve wanted it to meet him,” she went on, “and I’ve wanted him to meet it, and to be myself present at the meeting. But that hasn’t taken place as yet; often as he has lately been in the way of coming to see me here — yes, in particular lately — he hasn’t showed today.” It was with her managed quietness, more and more, that she talked — an achieved coherence that helped her, evidently, to hear and to watch herself; there was support, and thereby an awful harmony, but which meant a further guidance, in the facts she could add together. “It’s quite as if he had an instinct — something that has warned him off or made him uneasy. He doesn’t quite know, naturally, what has happened, but guesses, with his beautiful cleverness, that something has, and isn’t in a hurry to be confronted with it. So, in his vague fear, he keeps off.”
“But being meanwhile in the house —?”
“I’ve no idea — not having seen him today, by exception, since before luncheon. He spoke to me then,” the Princess freely explained, “of a ballot, of great importance, at a club — for somebody, some personal friend, I think, who’s coming up and is supposed to be in danger. To make an effort for him he thought he had better lunch there. You see the efforts he can make”— for which Maggie found a smile that went to her friend’s heart. “He’s in so many ways the kindest of men. But it was hours ago.”
Mrs. Assingham thought. “The more danger then of his coming in and finding me here. I don’t know, you see, what you now consider that you’ve ascertained; nor anything of the connexion with it of that object that you declare so damning.” Her eyes rested on this odd acquisition and then quitted it, went back to it and again turned from it: it was inscrutable in its rather stupid elegance, and yet, from the moment one had thus appraised it, vivid and definite in its domination of the scene. Fanny could no more overlook it now than she could have overlooked a lighted Christmas-tree; but nervously and all in vain she dipped into her mind for some floating reminiscence of it. At the same time that this attempt left her blank she understood a good deal, she even not a little shared the Prince’s mystic apprehension. The golden bowl put on, under consideration, a sturdy, a conscious perversity; as a “document,” somehow, it was ugly, though it might have a decorative grace. “His finding me here in presence of it might be more flagrantly disagreeable — for all of us — than you intend or than would necessarily help us. And I must take time, truly, to understand what it means.”
“You’re safe, as far as that goes,” Maggie returned; “you may take it from me that he won’t come in; and that I shall only find him below, waiting for me, when I go down to the carriage.”
Fanny Assingham took it from her, took it and more. “We’re to sit together at the Ambassador’s then — or at least you two are — with this new complication thrust up before you, all unexplained; and to look at each other with faces that pretend, for the ghastly hour, not to be seeing it?”
Maggie looked at HER with a face that might have been the one she was preparing. “‘Unexplained,’ my dear? Quite the contrary — explained: fully, intensely, admirably explained, with nothing really to add. My own love”— she kept it up —“I don’t want anything more. I’ve plenty to go upon and to do with, as it is.”
Fanny Assingham stood there in her comparative darkness, with her links, verily, still missing; but the most acceptable effect of this was, singularly, as yet, a cold fear of getting nearer the fact. “But when you come home —? I mean he’ll come up with you again. Won’t he see it then?”
On which Maggie gave her, after an instant’s visible thought, the strangest of slow headshakes. “I don’t know. Perhaps he’ll never see it — if it only stands there waiting for him. He may never again,” said the Princess, “come into this room.”
Fanny more deeply wondered, “Never again? Oh —!”
“Yes, it may be. How do I know? With THIS!” she quietly went on. She had not looked again at the incriminating piece, but there was a marvel to her friend in the way the little word representing it seemed to express and include for her the whole of her situation. “Then you intend not to speak to him —?”
Maggie waited. “To ‘speak’—?”
“Well, about your having it and about what you consider that it represents.”
“Oh, I don’t know that I shall speak — if he doesn’t. But his keeping away from me because of that — what will that be but to speak? He can’t say or do more. It won’t be for me to speak,” Maggie added in a different tone, one of the tones that had already so penetrated her guest. “It will be for me to listen.”
Mrs. Assingham turned it over. “Then it all depends on that object that you regard, for your reasons, as evidence?”
“I think I may say that I depend on it. I can’t,” said Maggie, “treat it as nothing now.”
Mrs. Assingham, at this, went closer to the cup on the chimney — quite liking to feel that she did so, moreover, without going closer to her companion’s vision. She looked at the precious thing — if precious it was — found herself in fact eyeing it as if, by her dim solicitation, to draw its secret from it rather than suffer the imposition of Maggie’s knowledge. It was brave and rich and firm, with its bold deep hollow; and, without this queer torment about it, would, thanks to her love of plenty of yellow, figure to her as an enviable ornament, a possession really desirable. She didn’t touch it, but if after a minute she turned away from it the reason was, rather oddly and suddenly, in her fear of doing so. “Then it all depends on the bowl? I mean your future does? For that’s what it comes to, I judge.”
“What it comes to,” Maggie presently returned, “is what that thing has put me, so almost miraculously, in the way of learning: how far they had originally gone together. If there was so much between them before, there can’t — with all the other appearances — not be a great deal more now.” And she went on and on; she steadily made her points. “If such things were already then between them they make all the difference for possible doubt of what may have been between them since. If there had been nothing before there might be explanations. But it makes today too much to explain. I mean to explain away,” she said.
Fanny Assingham was there to explain away — of this she was duly conscious; for that at least had been true up to now. In the light, however, of Maggie’s demonstration the quantity, even without her taking as yet a more exact measure, might well seem larger than ever. Besides which, with or without exactness, the effect of each successive minute in the place was to put her more in presence of what Maggie herself saw. Maggie herself saw the truth, and that was really, while they remained there together, enough for Mrs. Assingham’s relation to it. There was a force in the Princess’s mere manner about it that made the detail of what she knew a matter of minor importance. Fanny had in fact something like a momentary shame over her own need of asking for this detail. “I don’t pretend to repudiate,” she said after a little, “my own impressions of the different times I suppose you speak of; any more,” she added, “than I can forget what difficulties and, as it constantly seemed to me, what dangers, every course of action — whatever I should decide upon — made for me. I tried, I tried hard, to act for the best. And, you know,” she next pursued, while, at the sound of her own statement, a slow courage and even a faint warmth of conviction came back to her —“and, you know, I believe it’s what I shall turn out to have done.”
This produced a minute during which their interchange, though quickened and deepened, was that of silence only, and the long, charged look; all of which found virtual consecration when Maggie at last spoke. “I’m sure you tried to act for the best.”
It kept Fanny Assingham again a minute in silence. “I never thought, dearest, you weren’t an angel.”
Not, however, that this alone was much help! “It was up to the very eve, you see,” the Princess went on —“up to within two or three days of our marriage. That, THAT, you know —!” And she broke down for strangely smiling.
“Yes, as I say, it was while she was with me. But I didn’t know it. That is,” said Fanny Assingham, “I didn’t know of anything in particular.” It sounded weak — that she felt; but she had really her point to make. “What I mean is that I don’t know, for knowledge, now, anything I didn’t then. That’s how I am.” She still, however, floundered. “I mean it’s how I WAS.”
“But don’t they, how you were and how you are,” Maggie asked, “come practically to the same thing?” The elder woman’s words had struck her own ear as in the tone, now mistimed, of their recent, but all too factitious understanding, arrived at in hours when, as there was nothing susceptible of proof, there was nothing definitely to disprove. The situation had changed by — well, by whatever there was, by the outbreak of the definite; and this could keep Maggie at least firm. She was firm enough as she pursued. “It was ON the whole thing that Amerigo married me.” With which her eyes had their turn again at her damnatory piece. “And it was on that — it was on that!” But they came back to her visitor. “And it was on it all that father married HER.”
Her visitor took it as might be. “They both married — ah, that you must believe! — with the highest intentions.”
“Father did certainly!” And then, at the renewal of this consciousness, it all rolled over her. “Ah, to thrust such things on us, to do them here between us and with us, day after day, and in return, in return —! To do it to HIM— to him, to him!”
Fanny hesitated. “You mean it’s for him you most suffer?” And then as the Princess, after a look, but turned away, moving about the room — which made the question somehow seem a blunder —“I ask,” she continued, “because I think everything, everything we now speak of, may be for him, really may be MADE for him, quite as if it hadn’t been.”
But Maggie had, the next moment faced about as if without hearing her. “Father did it for ME— did it all and only for me.”
Mrs. Assingham, with a certain promptness, threw up her head; but she faltered again before she spoke. “Well —!”
It was only an intended word, but Maggie showed after an instant that it had reached her. “Do you mean that that’s the reason, that that’s A reason —?”
Fanny at first, however, feeling the response in this, didn’t say all she meant; she said for the moment something else instead. “He did it for you — largely at least for you. And it was for you that I did, in my smaller, interested way — well, what I could do. For I could do something,” she continued; “I thought I saw your interest as he himself saw it. And I thought I saw Charlotte’s. I believed in her.”
“And I believed in her,” said Maggie.
Mrs. Assingham waited again; but she presently pushed on. “She believed then in herself.”
“Ah?” Maggie murmured.
Something exquisite, faintly eager, in the prompt simplicity of it, supported her friend further. “And the Prince believed. His belief was real. Just as he believed in himself.”
Maggie spent a minute in taking it from her. “He believed in himself?”
“Just as I too believed in him. For I absolutely did, Maggie.” To which Fanny then added: “And I believe in him yet. I mean,” she subjoined —“well, I mean I DO.”
Maggie again took it from her; after which she was again, restlessly, set afloat. Then when this had come to an end: “And do you believe in Charlotte yet?”
Mrs. Assingham had a demur that she felt she could now afford. “We’ll talk of Charlotte some other day. They both, at any rate, thought themselves safe at the time.”
“Then why did they keep from me everything I might have known?”
Her friend bent upon her the mildest eyes. “Why did I myself keep it from you?”
“Oh, you weren’t, for honour, obliged.”
“Dearest Maggie,” the poor woman broke out on this, “you ARE divine!”
“They pretended to love me,” the Princess went on. “And they pretended to love HIM.”
“And pray what was there that I didn’t pretend?”
“Not, at any rate, to care for me as you cared for Amerigo and for Charlotte. They were much more interesting — it was perfectly natural. How couldn’t you like Amerigo?” Maggie continued.
Mrs. Assingham gave it up. “How couldn’t I, how couldn’t I?” Then, with a fine freedom, she went all her way. “How CAN’T I, how can’t I?”
It fixed afresh Maggie’s wide eyes on her. “I see — I see. Well, it’s beautiful for you to be able to. And of course,” she added, “you wanted to help Charlotte.”
“Yes”— Fanny considered it —“I wanted to help Charlotte. But I wanted also, you see, to help you — by not digging up a past that I believed, with so much on top of it, solidly buried. I wanted, as I still want,” she richly declared, “to help every one.”
It set Maggie once more in movement — movement which, however, spent itself again with a quick emphasis. “Then it’s a good deal my fault — if everything really began so well?”
Fanny Assingham met it as she could. “You’ve been only too perfect. You’ve thought only too much.”
But the Princess had already caught at the words. “Yes — I’ve thought only too much!” Yet she appeared to continue, for the minute, full of that fault. She had it in fact, by this prompted thought, all before her. “Of him, dear man, of HIM—!”
Her friend, able to take in thus directly her vision of her father, watched her with a new suspense. THAT way might safety lie — it was like a wider chink of light. “He believed — with a beauty! — in Charlotte.”
“Yes, and it was I who had made him believe. I didn’t mean to, at the time, so much; for I had no idea then of what was coming. But I did it, I did it!” the Princess declared.
“With a beauty — ah, with a beauty, you too!” Mrs. Assingham insisted.
Maggie, however, was seeing for herself — it was another matter, “The thing was that he made her think it would be so possible.”
Fanny again hesitated. “The Prince made her think —?”
Maggie stared — she had meant her father. But her vision seemed to spread. “They both made her think. She wouldn’t have thought without them.”
“Yet Amerigo’s good faith,” Mrs. Assingham insisted, “was perfect. And there was nothing, all the more,” she added, “against your father’s.”
The remark, however, kept Maggie for a moment still. “Nothing perhaps but his knowing that she knew.”
“That he was doing it, so much, for me. To what extent,” she suddenly asked of her friend, “do you think he was aware that she knew?”
“Ah, who can say what passes between people in such a relation? The only thing one can be sure of is that he was generous.” And Mrs. Assingham conclusively smiled. “He doubtless knew as much as was right for himself.”
“As much, that is, as was right for her.”
“Yes then — as was right for her. The point is,” Fanny declared, “that, whatever his knowledge, it made, all the way it went, for his good faith.”
Maggie continued to gaze, and her friend now fairly waited on her successive movements. “Isn’t the point, very considerably, that his good faith must have been his faith in her taking almost as much interest in me as he himself took?”
Fanny Assingham thought. “He recognised, he adopted, your long friendship. But he founded on it no selfishness.”
“No,” said Maggie with still deeper consideration: “he counted her selfishness out almost as he counted his own.”
“So you may say.”
“Very well,” Maggie went on; “if he had none of his own, he invited her, may have expected her, on her side, to have as little. And she may only since have found that out.”
Mrs. Assingham looked blank. “Since —?”
“And he may have become aware,” Maggie pursued, “that she has found it out. That she has taken the measure, since their marriage,” she explained, “of how much he had asked of her — more, say, than she had understood at the time. He may have made out at last how such a demand was, in the long run, to affect her.”
“He may have done many things,” Mrs. Assingham responded; “but there’s one thing he certainly won’t have done. He’ll never have shown that he expected of her a quarter as much as she must have understood he was to give.”
“I’ve often wondered,” Maggie mused, “what Charlotte really understood. But it’s one of the things she has never told me.”
“Then as it’s one of the things she has never told me either, we shall probably never know it; and we may regard it as none of our business. There are many things,” said Mrs. Assingham, “that we shall never know.”
Maggie took it in with a long reflection. “Never.”
“But there are others,” her friend went on, “that stare us in the face and that — under whatever difficulty you may feel you labour — may now be enough for us. Your father has been extraordinary.”
It had been as if Maggie were feeling her way; but she rallied to this with a rush. “Extraordinary.”
“Magnificent,” said Fanny Assingham.
Her companion held tight to it. “Magnificent.”
“Then he’ll do for himself whatever there may be to do. What he undertook for you he’ll do to the end. He didn’t undertake it to break down; in what — quiet, patient, exquisite as he is — did he ever break down? He had never in his life proposed to himself to have failed, and he won’t have done it on this occasion.”
“Ah, this occasion!”— and Maggie’s wail showed her, of a sudden, thrown back on it. “Am I in the least sure that, with everything, he even knows what it is? And yet am I in the least sure he doesn’t?”
“If he doesn’t then, so much the better. Leave him alone.”
“Do you mean give him up?”
“Leave HER,” Fanny Assingham went on. “Leave her TO him.”
Maggie looked at her darkly. “Do you mean leave him to HER? After this?”
“After everything. Aren’t they, for that matter, intimately together now?”
“‘Intimately’—? How do I know?”
But Fanny kept it up. “Aren’t you and your husband — in spite of everything?”
Maggie’s eyes still further, if possible, dilated. “It remains to be seen!”
“If you’re not then, where’s your faith?”
“In my husband —?”
Mrs. Assingham but for an instant hesitated. “In your father. It all comes back to that. Rest on it.”
“On his ignorance?”
Fanny met it again. “On whatever he may offer you. TAKE that.”
“Take it —?” Maggie stared.
Mrs. Assingham held up her head. “And be grateful.” On which, for a minute, she let the Princess face her. “Do you see?”
“I see,” said Maggie at last.
“Then there you are.” But Maggie had turned away, moving to the window, as if still to keep something in her face from sight. She stood there with her eyes on the street while Mrs. Assingham’s reverted to that complicating object on the chimney as to which her condition, so oddly even to herself, was that both of recurrent wonder and recurrent protest. She went over it, looked at it afresh and yielded now to her impulse to feel it in her hands. She laid them on it, lifting it up, and was surprised, thus, with the weight of it — she had seldom handled so much massive gold. That effect itself somehow prompted her to further freedom and presently to saying: “I don’t believe in this, you know.”
It brought Maggie round to her. “Don’t believe in it? You will when I tell you.”
“Ah, tell me nothing! I won’t have it,” said Mrs. Assingham. She kept the cup in her hand, held it there in a manner that gave Maggie’s attention to her, she saw the next moment, a quality of excited suspense. This suggested to her, oddly, that she had, with the liberty she was taking, an air of intention, and the impression betrayed by her companion’s eyes grew more distinct in a word of warning. “It’s of value, but its value’s impaired, I’ve learned, by a crack.”
“A crack? — in the gold —?”
“It isn’t gold.” With which, somewhat strangely, Maggie smiled.
“That’s the point.”
“What is it then?”
“It’s glass — and cracked, under the gilt, as I say, at that.”
“Glass? — of this weight?”
“Well,” said Maggie, “it’s crystal — and was once, I suppose, precious. But what,” she then asked, “do you mean to do with it?”
She had come away from her window, one of the three by which the wide room, enjoying an advantageous “back,” commanded the western sky and caught a glimpse of the evening flush; while Mrs. Assingham, possessed of the bowl, and possessed too of this indication of a flaw, approached another for the benefit of the slowly-fading light. Here, thumbing the singular piece, weighing it, turning it over, and growing suddenly more conscious, above all, of an irresistible impulse, she presently spoke again. “A crack? Then your whole idea has a crack.”
Maggie, by this time at some distance from her, waited a moment. “If you mean by my idea the knowledge that has come to me THAT—”
But Fanny, with decision, had already taken her up. “There’s only one knowledge that concerns us — one fact with which we can have anything to do.”
“Which one, then?”
“The fact that your husband has never, never, never —!” But the very gravity of this statement, while she raised her eyes to her friend across the room, made her for an instant hang fire.
“Well, never what?”
“Never been half so interested in you as now. But don’t you, my dear, really feel it?”
Maggie considered. “Oh, I think what I’ve told you helps me to feel it. His having today given up even his forms; his keeping away from me; his not having come.” And she shook her head as against all easy glosses. “It is because of that, you know.”
“Well then, if it’s because of this —!” And Fanny Assingham, who had been casting about her and whose inspiration decidedly had come, raised the cup in her two hands, raised it positively above her head, and from under it, solemnly, smiled at the Princess as a signal of intention. So for an instant, full of her thought and of her act, she held the precious vessel, and then, with due note taken of the margin of the polished floor, bare, fine and hard in the embrasure of her window, she dashed it boldly to the ground, where she had the thrill of seeing it, with the violence of the crash, lie shattered. She had flushed with the force of her effort, as Maggie had flushed with wonder at the sight, and this high reflection in their faces was all that passed between them for a minute more. After which, “Whatever you meant by it — and I don’t want to know NOW— has ceased to exist,” Mrs. Assingham said.
“And what in the world, my dear, did you mean by it?”— that sound, as at the touch of a spring, rang out as the first effect of Fanny’s speech. It broke upon the two women’s absorption with a sharpness almost equal to the smash of the crystal, for the door of the room had been opened by the Prince without their taking heed. He had apparently had time, moreover, to catch the conclusion of Fanny’s act; his eyes attached themselves, through the large space allowing just there, as happened, a free view, to the shining fragments at this lady’s feet. His question had been addressed to his wife, but he moved his eyes immediately afterwards to those of her visitor, whose own then held them in a manner of which neither party had been capable, doubtless, for mute penetration, since the hour spent by him in Cadogan Place on the eve of his marriage and the afternoon of Charlotte’s reappearance. Something now again became possible for these communicants, under the intensity of their pressure, something that took up that tale and that might have been a redemption of pledges then exchanged. This rapid play of suppressed appeal and disguised response lasted indeed long enough for more results than one — long enough for Mrs. Assingham to measure the feat of quick self-recovery, possibly therefore of recognition still more immediate, accompanying Amerigo’s vision and estimate of the evidence with which she had been — so admirably, she felt as she looked at him — inspired to deal. She looked at him and looked at him — there were so many things she wanted, on the spot, to say. But Maggie was looking too — and was moreover looking at them both; so that these things, for the elder woman, quickly enough reduced themselves to one. She met his question — not too late, since, in their silence, it had remained in the air. Gathering herself to go, leaving the golden bowl split into three pieces on the ground, she simply referred him to his wife. She should see them later, they would all meet soon again; and meanwhile, as to what Maggie had meant — she said, in her turn, from the door — why, Maggie herself was doubtless by this time ready to tell him.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56