After the little party was again constituted at Fawns — which had taken, for completeness, some ten days — Maggie naturally felt herself still more possessed, in spirit, of everything that had last happened in London. There was a phrase that came back to her from old American years: she was having, by that idiom, the time of her life — she knew it by the perpetual throb of this sense of possession, which was almost too violent either to recognise or to hide. It was as if she had come out — that was her most general consciousness; out of a dark tunnel, a dense wood, or even simply a smoky room, and had thereby, at least, for going on, the advantage of air in her lungs. It was as if she were somehow at last gathering in the fruits of patience; she had either been really more patient than she had known at the time, or had been so for longer: the change brought about by itself as great a difference of view as the shift of an inch in the position of a telescope. It was her telescope in fact that had gained in range — just as her danger lay in her exposing herself to the observation by the more charmed, and therefore the more reckless, use of this optical resource. Not under any provocation to produce it in public was her unremitted rule; but the difficulties of duplicity had not shrunk, while the need of it had doubled. Humbugging, which she had so practised with her father, had been a comparatively simple matter on the basis of mere doubt; but the ground to be covered was now greatly larger, and she felt not unlike some young woman of the theatre who, engaged for a minor part in the play and having mastered her cues with anxious effort, should find herself suddenly promoted to leading lady and expected to appear in every act of the five. She had made much to her husband, that last night, of her “knowing”; but it was exactly this quantity she now knew that, from the moment she could only dissimulate it, added to her responsibility and made of the latter all a mere question of having something precious and precarious in charge. There was no one to help her with it — not even Fanny Assingham now; this good friend’s presence having become, inevitably, with that climax of their last interview in Portland Place, a severely simplified function. She had her use, oh yes, a thousand times; but it could only consist henceforth in her quite conspicuously touching at no point whatever — assuredly, at least with Maggie — the matter they had discussed. She was there, inordinately, as a value, but as a value only for the clear negation of everything. She was their general sign, precisely, of unimpaired beatitude — and she was to live up to that somewhat arduous character, poor thing, as she might. She might privately lapse from it, if she must, with Amerigo or with Charlotte — only not, of course, ever, so much as for the wink of an eye, with the master of the house. Such lapses would be her own affair, which Maggie at present could take no thought of. She treated her young friend meanwhile, it was to be said, to no betrayal of such wavering; so that from the moment of her alighting at the door with the Colonel everything went on between them at concert pitch. What had she done, that last evening in Maggie’s room, but bring the husband and wife more together than, as would seem, they had ever been? Therefore what indiscretion should she not show by attempting to go behind the grand appearance of her success? — which would be to court a doubt of her beneficent work. She knew accordingly nothing but harmony and diffused, restlessly, nothing but peace — an extravagant, expressive, aggressive peace, not incongruous, after all, with the solid calm of the place; a kind of helmetted, trident-shaking pax Britannica.
The peace, it must be added, had become, as the days elapsed, a peace quite generally animated and peopled — thanks to that fact of the presence of “company” in which Maggie’s ability to preserve an appearance had learned, from so far back, to find its best resource. It was not inconspicuous, it was in fact striking, that this resource, just now, seemed to meet in the highest degree every one’s need: quite as if every one were, by the multiplication of human objects in the scene, by the creation, by the confusion, of fictive issues, hopeful of escaping somebody else’s notice. It had reached the point, in truth, that the collective bosom might have been taken to heave with the knowledge of the descent upon adjacent shores, for a short period, of Mrs. Rance and the Lutches, still united, and still so divided, for conquest: the sense of the party showed at least, oddly enough, as favourable to the fancy of the quaint turn that some near “week-end” might derive from their reappearance. This measured for Maggie the ground they had all travelled together since that unforgotten afternoon of the none so distant year, that determinant September Sunday when, sitting with her father in the park, as in commemoration of the climax both of their old order and of their old danger, she had proposed to him that they should “call in” Charlotte — call her in as a specialist might be summoned to an invalid’s chair. Wasn’t it a sign of something rather portentous, their being ready to be beholden, as for a diversion, to the once despised Kitty and Dotty? That had already had its application, in truth, to her invocation of the Castledeans and several other members, again, of the historic Matcham week, made before she left town, and made, always consistently, with an idea — since she was never henceforth to approach these people without an idea, and since that lurid element of their intercourse grew and grew for her with each occasion. The flame with which it burned afresh during these particular days, the way it held up the torch to anything, to everything, that MIGHT have occurred as the climax of revels springing from traditions so vivified — this by itself justified her private motive and reconsecrated her diplomacy. She had already produced by the aid of these people something of the effect she sought — that of being “good” for whatever her companions were good for, and of not asking either of them to give up anyone or anything for her sake. There was moreover, frankly, a sharpness of point in it that she enjoyed; it gave an accent to the truth she wished to illustrate — the truth that the surface of her recent life, thick-sown with the flower of earnest endeavour, with every form of the unruffled and the undoubting, suffered no symptom anywhere to peep out. It was as if, under her pressure, neither party could get rid of the complicity, as it might be figured, of the other; as if, in a word, she saw Amerigo and Charlotte committed, for fear of betrayals on their own side, to a kind of wan consistency on the subject of Lady Castledean’s “set,” and this latter group, by the same stroke, compelled to assist at attestations the extent and bearing of which they rather failed to grasp and which left them indeed, in spite of hereditary high spirits, a trifle bewildered and even a trifle scared.
They made, none the less, at Fawns, for number, for movement, for sound — they played their parts during a crisis that must have hovered for them, in the long passages of the old house, after the fashion of the established ghost, felt, through the dark hours as a constant possibility, rather than have menaced them in the form of a daylight bore, one of the perceived outsiders who are liable to be met in the drawing-room or to be sat next to at dinner. If the Princess, moreover, had failed of her occult use for so much of the machinery of diversion, she would still have had a sense not other than sympathetic for the advantage now extracted from it by Fanny Assingham’s bruised philosophy. This good friend’s relation to it was actually the revanche, she sufficiently indicated, of her obscured lustre at Matcham, where she had known her way about so much less than most of the others. She knew it at Fawns, through the pathless wild of the right tone, positively better than any one, Maggie could note for her; and her revenge had the magnanimity of a brave pointing out of it to every one else, a wonderful irresistible, conscious, almost compassionate patronage. Here was a house, she triumphantly caused it to be noted, in which she so bristled with values that some of them might serve, by her amused willingness to share, for such of the temporarily vague, among her fellow-guests, such of the dimly disconcerted, as had lost the key to their own. It may have been partly through the effect of this especial strain of community with her old friend that Maggie found herself, one evening, moved to take up again their dropped directness of reference. They had remained downstairs together late; the other women of the party had filed, singly or in couples, up the “grand” staircase on which, from the equally grand hall, these retreats and advances could always be pleasantly observed; the men had apparently taken their way to the smoking-room; while the Princess, in possession thus of a rare reach of view, had lingered as if to enjoy it. Then she saw that Mrs. Assingham was remaining a little — and as for the appreciation of her enjoyment; upon which they stood looking at each other across the cleared prospect until the elder woman, only vaguely expressive and tentative now, came nearer. It was like the act of asking if there were anything she could yet do, and that question was answered by her immediately feeling, on this closer view, as she had felt when presenting herself in Portland Place after Maggie’s last sharp summons. Their understanding was taken up by these new snatched moments where that occasion had left it.
“He has never told her that I know. Of that I’m at last satisfied.” And then as Mrs. Assingham opened wide eyes: “I’ve been in the dark since we came down, not understanding what he has been doing or intending — not making out what can have passed between them. But within a day or two I’ve begun to suspect, and this evening, for reasons — oh, too many to tell you! — I’ve been sure, since it explains. NOTHING has passed between them — that’s what has happened. It explains,” the Princess repeated with energy; “it explains, it explains!” She spoke in a manner that her auditor was afterwards to describe to the Colonel, oddly enough, as that of the quietest excitement; she had turned back to the chimney-place, where, in honour of a damp day and a chill night, the piled logs had turned to flame and sunk to embers; and the evident intensity of her vision for the fact she imparted made Fanny Assingham wait upon her words. It explained, this striking fact, more indeed than her companion, though conscious of fairly gaping with good-will, could swallow at once. The Princess, however, as for indulgence and confidence, quickly filled up the measure. “He hasn’t let her know that I know — and, clearly, doesn’t mean to. He has made up his mind; he’ll say nothing about it. Therefore, as she’s quite unable to arrive at the knowledge by herself, she has no idea how much I’m really in possession. She believes,” said Maggie, “and, so far as her own conviction goes, she knows, that I’m not in possession of anything. And that, somehow, for my own help seems to me immense.”
“Immense, my dear!” Mrs. Assingham applausively murmured, though not quite, even as yet, seeing all the way. “He’s keeping quiet then on purpose?”
“On purpose.” Maggie’s lighted eyes, at least, looked further than they had ever looked. “He’ll NEVER tell her now.”
Fanny wondered; she cast about her; most of all she admired her little friend, in whom this announcement was evidently animated by an heroic lucidity. She stood there, in her full uniform, like some small erect commander of a siege, an anxious captain who has suddenly got news, replete with importance for him, of agitation, of division within the place. This importance breathed upon her comrade. “So you’re all right?”
“Oh, ALL right’s a good deal to say. But I seem at least to see, as I haven’t before, where I am with it.”
Fanny bountifully brooded; there was a point left vague. “And you have it from him? — your husband himself has told you?”
“‘Told’ me —?”
“Why, what you speak of. It isn’t of an assurance received from him then that you do speak?”
At which Maggie had continued to stare. “Dear me, no. Do you suppose I’ve asked him for an assurance?”
“Ah, you haven’t?” Her companion smiled. “That’s what I supposed you MIGHT mean. Then, darling, what HAVE you —?”
“Asked him for? I’ve asked him for nothing.”
But this, in turn, made Fanny stare. “Then nothing, that evening of the Embassy dinner, passed between you?”
“On the contrary, everything passed.”
“Everything. I told him what I knew — and I told him how I knew it.”
Mrs. Assingham waited. “And that was all?”
“Wasn’t it quite enough?”
“Oh, love,” she bridled, “that’s for you to have judged!”
“Then I HAVE judged,” said Maggie —“I did judge. I made sure he understood — then I let him alone.”
Mrs. Assingham wondered. “But he didn’t explain —?”
“Explain? Thank God, no!” Maggie threw back her head as with horror at the thought, then the next moment added: “And I didn’t, either.”
The decency of pride in it shed a cold little light — yet as from heights at the base of which her companion rather panted. “But if he neither denies nor confesses —?”
“He does what’s a thousand times better — he lets it alone. He does,” Maggie went on, “as he would do; as I see now that I was sure he would. He lets me alone.”
Fanny Assingham turned it over. “Then how do you know so where, as you say, you ‘are’?”
“Why, just BY that. I put him in possession of the difference; the difference made, about me, by the fact that I hadn’t been, after all — though with a wonderful chance, I admitted, helping me — too stupid to have arrived at knowledge. He had to see that I’m changed for him — quite changed from the idea of me that he had so long been going on with. It became a question then of his really taking in the change — and what I now see is that he is doing so.”
Fanny followed as she could. “Which he shows by letting you, as you say, alone?”
Maggie looked at her a minute. “And by letting her.”
Mrs. Assingham did what she might to embrace it — checked a little, however, by a thought that was the nearest approach she could have, in this almost too large air, to an inspiration. “Ah, but does Charlotte let HIM?”
“Oh, that’s another affair — with which I’ve practically nothing to do. I dare say, however, she doesn’t.” And the Princess had a more distant gaze for the image evoked by the question. “I don’t in fact well see how she CAN. But the point for me is that he understands.”
“Yes,” Fanny Assingham cooed, “understands —?”
“Well, what I want. I want a happiness without a hole in it big enough for you to poke in your finger.”
“A brilliant, perfect surface — to begin with at least. I see.”
“The golden bowl — as it WAS to have been.” And Maggie dwelt musingly on this obscured figure. “The bowl with all our happiness in it. The bowl without the crack.”
For Mrs. Assingham too the image had its force, and the precious object shone before her again, reconstituted, plausible, presentable. But wasn’t there still a piece missing? “Yet if he lets you alone and you only let him —?”
“Mayn’t our doing so, you mean, be noticed? — mayn’t it give us away? Well, we hope not — we try not — we take such care. We alone know what’s between us — we and you; and haven’t you precisely been struck, since you’ve been here,” Maggie asked, “with our making so good a show?”
Her friend hesitated. “To your father?”
But it made her hesitate too; she wouldn’t speak of her father directly. “To everyone. To her — now that you understand.”
It held poor Fanny again in wonder. “To Charlotte — yes: if there’s so much beneath it, for you, and if it’s all such a plan. That makes it hang together it makes YOU hang together.” She fairly exhaled her admiration. “You’re like nobody else — you’re extraordinary.”
Maggie met it with appreciation, but with a reserve. “No, I’m not extraordinary — but I AM, for every one, quiet.”
“Well, that’s just what is extraordinary. ‘Quiet’ is more than I am, and you leave me far behind.” With which, again, for an instant, Mrs. Assingham frankly brooded. “‘Now that I understand,’ you say — but there’s one thing I don’t understand.” And the next minute, while her companion waited, she had mentioned it. “How can Charlotte, after all, not have pressed him, not have attacked him about it? How can she not have asked him — asked him on his honour, I mean — if you know?”
“How can she ‘not’? Why, of course,” said the Princess limpidly, “she MUST!”
“Well then —?”
“Well then, you think, he must have told her? Why, exactly what I mean,” said Maggie, “is that he will have done nothing of the sort; will, as I say, have maintained the contrary.”
Fanny Assingham weighed it. “Under her direct appeal for the truth?”
“Under her direct appeal for the truth.”
“Her appeal to his honour?”
“Her appeal to his honour. That’s my point.”
Fanny Assingham braved it. “For the truth as from him to her?”
“From him to any one.”
Mrs. Assingham’s face lighted. “He’ll simply, he’ll insistently have lied?”
Maggie brought it out roundly. “He’ll simply, he’ll insistently have lied.”
It held again her companion, who next, however, with a single movement, throwing herself on her neck, overflowed. “Oh, if you knew how you help me!”
Maggie had liked her to understand, so far as this was possible; but had not been slow to see afterwards how the possibility was limited, when one came to think, by mysteries she was not to sound. This inability in her was indeed not remarkable, inasmuch as the Princess herself, as we have seen, was only now in a position to boast of touching bottom. Maggie lived, inwardly, in a consciousness that she could but partly open even to so good a friend, and her own visitation of the fuller expanse of which was, for that matter, still going on. They had been duskier still, however, these recesses of her imagination — that, no doubt, was what might at present be said for them. She had looked into them, on the eve of her leaving town, almost without penetration: she had made out in those hours, and also, of a truth, during the days which immediately followed, little more than the strangeness of a relation having for its chief mark — whether to be prolonged or not — the absence of any “intimate” result of the crisis she had invited her husband to recognise. They had dealt with this crisis again, face to face, very briefly, the morning after the scene in her room — but with the odd consequence of her having appeared merely to leave it on his hands. He had received it from her as he might have received a bunch of keys or a list of commissions — attentive to her instructions about them, but only putting them, for the time, very carefully and safely, into his pocket. The instructions had seemed, from day to day, to make so little difference for his behaviour — that is for his speech or his silence; to produce, as yet, so little of the fruit of action. He had taken from her, on the spot, in a word, before going to dress for dinner, all she then had to give — after which, on the morrow, he had asked her for more, a good deal as if she might have renewed her supply during the night; but he had had at his command for this latter purpose an air of extraordinary detachment and discretion, an air amounting really to an appeal which, if she could have brought herself to describe it vulgarly, she would have described as cool, just as he himself would have described it in any one else as “cheeky”; a suggestion that she should trust him on the particular ground since she didn’t on the general. Neither his speech nor his silence struck her as signifying more, or less, under this pressure, than they had seemed to signify for weeks past; yet if her sense hadn’t been absolutely closed to the possibility in him of any thought of wounding her, she might have taken his undisturbed manner, the perfection of his appearance of having recovered himself, for one of those intentions of high impertinence by the aid of which great people, les grands seigneurs, persons of her husband’s class and type, always know how to re-establish a violated order.
It was her one purely good fortune that she could feel thus sure impertinence — to HER at any rate — was not among the arts on which he proposed to throw himself; for though he had, in so almost mystifying a manner, replied to nothing, denied nothing, explained nothing, apologised for nothing, he had somehow conveyed to her that this was not because of any determination to treat her case as not “worth” it. There had been consideration, on both occasions, in the way he had listened to her — even though at the same time there had been extreme reserve; a reserve indeed, it was also to be remembered, qualified by the fact that, on their second and shorter interview, in Portland Place, and quite at the end of this passage, she had imagined him positively proposing to her a temporary accommodation. It had been but the matter of something in the depths of the eyes he finally fixed upon her, and she had found in it, the more she kept it before her, the tacitly-offered sketch of a working arrangement. “Leave me my reserve; don’t question it — it’s all I have, just now, don’t you see? so that, if you’ll make me the concession of letting me alone with it for as long a time as I require, I promise you something or other, grown under cover of it, even though I don’t yet quite make out what, as a return for your patience.” She had turned away from him with some such unspoken words as that in her ear, and indeed she had to represent to herself that she had spiritually heard them, had to listen to them still again, to explain her particular patience in face of his particular failure. He hadn’t so much as pretended to meet for an instant the question raised by her of her accepted ignorance of the point in time, the period before their own marriage, from which his intimacy with Charlotte dated. As an ignorance in which he and Charlotte had been personally interested — and to the pitch of consummately protecting, for years, each other’s interest — as a condition so imposed upon her the fact of its having ceased might have made it, on the spot, the first article of his defence. He had vouchsafed it, however, nothing better than his longest stare of postponed consideration. That tribute he had coldly paid it, and Maggie might herself have been stupefied, truly, had she not had something to hold on by, at her own present ability, even provisional, to make terms with a chapter of history into which she could but a week before not have dipped without a mortal chill. At the rate at which she was living she was getting used hour by hour to these extensions of view; and when she asked herself, at Fawns, to what single observation of her own, in London, the Prince had had an affirmation to oppose, she but just failed to focus the small strained wife of the moments in question as some panting dancer of a difficult step who had capered, before the footlights of an empty theatre, to a spectator lounging in a box.
Her best comprehension of Amerigo’s success in not committing himself was in her recall, meanwhile, of the inquiries he had made of her on their only return to the subject, and which he had in fact explicitly provoked their return in order to make. He had had it over with her again, the so distinctly remarkable incident of her interview at home with the little Bloomsbury shopman. This anecdote, for him, had, not altogether surprisingly, required some straighter telling, and the Prince’s attitude in presence of it had represented once more his nearest approach to a cross-examination. The difficulty in respect to the little man had been for the question of his motive — his motive in writing, first, in the spirit of retraction, to a lady with whom he had made a most advantageous bargain, and in then coming to see her so that his apology should be personal. Maggie had felt her explanation weak; but there were the facts, and she could give no other. Left alone, after the transaction, with the knowledge that his visitor designed the object bought of him as a birthday-gift to her father — for Maggie confessed freely to having chattered to him almost as to a friend — the vendor of the golden bowl had acted on a scruple rare enough in vendors of any class, and almost unprecedented in the thrifty children of Israel. He hadn’t liked what he had done, and what he had above all made such a “good thing” of having done; at the thought of his purchaser’s good faith and charming presence, opposed to that flaw in her acquestion which would make it, verily, as an offering to a loved parent, a thing of sinister meaning and evil effect, he had known conscientious, he had known superstitious visitings, had given way to a whim all the more remarkable to his own commercial mind, no doubt, from its never having troubled him in other connexions. She had recognised the oddity of her adventure and left it to show for what it was. She had not been unconscious, on the other hand, that if it hadn’t touched Amerigo so nearly he would have found in it matter for some amused reflection. He had uttered an extraordinary sound, something between a laugh and a howl, on her saying, as she had made a point of doing: “Oh, most certainly, he TOLD me his reason was because he ‘liked’ me”— though she remained in doubt of whether that inarticulate comment had been provoked most by the familiarities she had offered or by those that, so pictured, she had had to endure. That the partner of her bargain had yearned to see her again, that he had plainly jumped at a pretext for it, this also she had frankly expressed herself to the Prince as having, in no snubbing, no scandalised, but rather in a positively appreciative and indebted spirit, not delayed to make out. He had wished, ever so seriously, to return her a part of her money, and she had wholly declined to receive it; and then he had uttered his hope that she had not, at all events, already devoted the crystal cup to the beautiful purpose she had, so kindly and so fortunately, named to him. It wasn’t a thing for a present to a person she was fond of, for she wouldn’t wish to give a present that would bring ill luck. That had come to him — so that he couldn’t rest, and he should feel better now that he had told her. His having led her to act in ignorance was what he should have been ashamed of; and, if she would pardon, gracious lady as she was, all the liberties he had taken, she might make of the bowl any use in life but that one.
It was after this that the most extraordinary incident of all, of course, had occurred — his pointing to the two photographs with the remark that those were persons he knew, and that, more wonderful still, he had made acquaintance with them, years before, precisely over the same article. The lady, on that occasion, had taken up the fancy of presenting it to the gentleman, and the gentleman, guessing and dodging ever so cleverly, had declared that he wouldn’t for the world receive an object under such suspicion. He himself, the little man had confessed, wouldn’t have minded — about THEM; but he had never forgotten either their talk or their faces, the impression altogether made by them, and, if she really wished to know, now, what had perhaps most moved him, it was the thought that she should ignorantly have gone in for a thing not good enough for other buyers. He had been immensely struck — that was another point — with this accident of their turning out, after so long, friends of hers too: they had disappeared, and this was the only light he had ever had upon them. He had flushed up, quite red, with his recognition, with all his responsibility — had declared that the connexion must have had, mysteriously, something to do with the impulse he had obeyed. And Maggie had made, to her husband, while he again stood before her, no secret of the shock, for herself, so suddenly and violently received. She had done her best, even while taking it full in the face, not to give herself away; but she wouldn’t answer — no, she wouldn’t — for what she might, in her agitation, have made her informant think. He might think what he would — there had been three or four minutes during which, while she asked him question upon question, she had doubtless too little cared. And he had spoken, for his remembrance, as fully as she could have wished; he had spoken, oh, delightedly, for the “terms” on which his other visitors had appeared to be with each other, and in fact for that conviction of the nature and degree of their intimacy under which, in spite of precautions, they hadn’t been able to help leaving him. He had observed and judged and not forgotten; he had been sure they were great people, but no, ah no, distinctly, hadn’t “liked” them as he liked the Signora Principessa. Certainly — she had created no vagueness about that — he had been in possession of her name and address, for sending her both her cup and her account. But the others he had only, always, wondered about — he had been sure they would never come back. And as to the time of their visit, he could place it, positively, to a day — by reason of a transaction of importance, recorded in his books, that had occurred but a few hours later. He had left her, in short, definitely rejoicing that he had been able to make up to her for not having been quite “square” over their little business by rendering her, so unexpectedly, the service of this information. His joy, moreover, was — as much as Amerigo would! — a matter of the personal interest with which her kindness, gentleness, grace, her charming presence and easy humanity and familiarity, had inspired him. All of which, while, in thought, Maggie went over it again and again — oh, over any imputable rashness of her own immediate passion and pain, as well as over the rest of the straight little story she had, after all, to tell — might very conceivably make a long sum for the Prince to puzzle out.
There were meanwhile, after the Castledeans and those invited to meet them had gone, and before Mrs. Rance and the Lutches had come, three or four days during which she was to learn the full extent of her need not to be penetrable; and then it was indeed that she felt all the force, and threw herself upon all the help, of the truth she had confided, several nights earlier, to Fanny Assingham. She had known it in advance, had warned herself of it while the house was full: Charlotte had designs upon her of a nature best known to herself, and was only waiting for the better opportunity of their finding themselves less companioned. This consciousness had been exactly at the bottom of Maggie’s wish to multiply their spectators; there were moments for her, positively, moments of planned postponement, of evasion scarcely less disguised than studied, during which she turned over with anxiety the different ways — there being two or three possible ones — in which her young stepmother might, at need, seek to work upon her. Amerigo’s not having “told” her of his passage with his wife gave, for Maggie, altogether a new aspect to Charlotte’s consciousness and condition — an aspect with which, for apprehension, for wonder, and even, at moments, inconsequently enough, for something like compassion, the Princess had now to reckon. She asked herself — for she was capable of that — what he had MEANT by keeping the sharer of his guilt in the dark about a matter touching her otherwise so nearly; what he had meant, that is, for this unmistakably mystified personage herself. Maggie could imagine what he had meant for her — all sorts of thinkable things, whether things of mere “form” or things of sincerity, things of pity or things of prudence: he had meant, for instance, in all probability, primarily, to conjure away any such appearance of a changed relation between the two women as his father-inlaw might notice and follow up. It would have been open to him however, given the pitch of their intimacy, to avert this danger by some more conceivable course with Charlotte; since an earnest warning, in fact, the full freedom of alarm, that of his insisting to her on the peril of suspicion incurred, and on the importance accordingly of outward peace at any price, would have been the course really most conceivable. Instead of warning and advising he had reassured and deceived her; so that our young woman, who had been, from far back, by the habit, if her nature, as much on her guard against sacrificing others as if she felt the great trap of life mainly to be set for one’s doing so, now found herself attaching her fancy to that side of the situation of the exposed pair which involved, for themselves at least, the sacrifice of the least fortunate.
She never, at present, thought of what Amerigo might be intending, without the reflection, by the same stroke, that, whatever this quantity, he was leaving still more to her own ingenuity. He was helping her, when the thing came to the test, only by the polished, possibly almost too polished surface his manner to his wife wore for an admiring world; and that, surely, was entitled to scarcely more than the praise of negative diplomacy. He was keeping his manner right, as she had related to Mrs. Assingham; the case would have been beyond calculation, truly, if, on top of everything, he had allowed it to go wrong. She had hours of exaltation indeed when the meaning of all this pressed in upon her as a tacit vow from him to abide without question by whatever she should be able to achieve or think fit to prescribe. Then it was that, even while holding her breath for the awe of it, she truly felt almost able enough for anything. It was as if she had passed, in a time incredibly short, from being nothing for him to being all; it was as if, rightly noted, every turn of his head, every tone of his voice, in these days, might mean that there was but one way in which a proud man reduced to abjection could hold himself. During those of Maggie’s vigils in which that view loomed largest, the image of her husband that it thus presented to her gave out a beauty for the revelation of which she struck herself as paying, if anything, all too little. To make sure of it — to make sure of the beauty shining out of the humility, and of the humility lurking in all the pride of his presence — she would have gone the length of paying more yet, of paying with difficulties and anxieties compared to which those actually before her might have been as superficial as headaches or rainy days.
The point at which these exaltations dropped, however, was the point at which it was apt to come over her that if her complications had been greater the question of paying would have been limited still less to the liabilities of her own pocket. The complications were verily great enough, whether for ingenuities or sublimities, so long as she had to come back to it so often that Charlotte, all the while, could only be struggling with secrets sharper than her own. It was odd how that certainty again and again determined and coloured her wonderments of detail; the question, for instance, of HOW Amerigo, in snatched opportunities of conference, put the haunted creature off with false explanations, met her particular challenges and evaded — if that was what he did do! — her particular demands. Even the conviction that Charlotte was but awaiting some chance really to test her trouble upon her lover’s wife left Maggie’s sense meanwhile open as to the sight of gilt wires and bruised wings, the spacious but suspended cage, the home of eternal unrest, of pacings, beatings, shakings, all so vain, into which the baffled consciousness helplessly resolved itself. The cage was the deluded condition, and Maggie, as having known delusion — rather! — understood the nature of cages. She walked round Charlotte’s — cautiously and in a very wide circle; and when, inevitably, they had to communicate she felt herself, comparatively, outside, on the breast of nature, and saw her companion’s face as that of a prisoner looking through bars. So it was that through bars, bars richly gilt, but firmly, though discreetly, planted, Charlotte finally struck her as making a grim attempt; from which, at first, the Princess drew back as instinctively as if the door of the cage had suddenly been opened from within.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10