This etext was produced by Eve Sobol, South Bend, Indiana, USA
THE GOLDEN BOWL, VOLUME I
BOOK FIRST: THE PRINCE
The Prince had always liked his London, when it had come to him; he was one of the modern Romans who find by the Thames a more convincing image of the truth of the ancient state than any they have left by the Tiber. Brought up on the legend of the City to which the world paid tribute, he recognised in the present London much more than in contemporary Rome the real dimensions of such a case. If it was a question of an Imperium, he said to himself, and if one wished, as a Roman, to recover a little the sense of that, the place to do so was on London Bridge, or even, on a fine afternoon in May, at Hyde Park Corner. It was not indeed to either of those places that these grounds of his predilection, after all sufficiently vague, had, at the moment we are concerned with him, guided his steps; he had strayed, simply enough, into Bond Street, where his imagination, working at comparatively short range, caused him now and then to stop before a window in which objects massive and lumpish, in silver and gold, in the forms to which precious stones contribute, or in leather, steel, brass, applied to a hundred uses and abuses, were as tumbled together as if, in the insolence of the Empire, they had been the loot of far-off victories. The young man’s movements, however, betrayed no consistency of attention–not even, for that matter, when one of his arrests had proceeded from possibilities in faces shaded, as they passed him on the pavement, by huge beribboned hats, or more delicately tinted still under the tense silk of parasols held at perverse angles in waiting victorias. And the Prince’s undirected thought was not a little symptomatic, since, though the turn of the season had come and the flush of the streets begun to fade, the possibilities of faces, on the August afternoon, were still one of the notes of the scene. He was too restless–that was the fact–for any concentration, and the last idea that would just now have occurred to him in any connection was the idea of pursuit.
He had been pursuing for six months as never in his life before, and what had actually unsteadied him, as we join him, was the sense of how he had been justified. Capture had crowned the pursuit–or success, as he would otherwise have put it, had rewarded virtue; whereby the consciousness of these things made him, for the hour, rather serious than gay. A sobriety that might have consorted with failure sat in his handsome face, constructively regular and grave, yet at the same time oddly and, as might be, functionally almost radiant, with its dark blue eyes, its dark brown moustache and its expression no more sharply “foreign” to an English view than to have caused it sometimes to be observed of him with a shallow felicity that he looked like a “refined” Irishman. What had happened was that shortly before, at three o’clock, his fate had practically been sealed, and that even when one pretended to no quarrel with it the moment had something of the grimness of a crunched key in the strongest lock that could be made. There was nothing to do as yet, further, but feel what one had done, and our personage felt it while he aimlessly wandered. It was already as if he were married, so definitely had the solicitors, at three o’clock, enabled the date to be fixed, and by so few days was that date now distant. He was to dine at half-past eight o’clock with the young lady on whose behalf, and on whose father’s, the London lawyers had reached an inspired harmony with his own man of business, poor Calderoni, fresh from Rome and now apparently in the wondrous situation of being “shown London,” before promptly leaving it again, by Mr. Verver himself, Mr. Verver whose easy way with his millions had taxed to such small purpose, in the arrangements, the principle of reciprocity. The reciprocity with which the Prince was during these minutes most struck was that of Calderoni’s bestowal of his company for a view of the lions. If there was one thing in the world the young man, at this juncture, clearly intended, it was to be much more decent as a son-in-law than lots of fellows he could think of had shown themselves in that character. He thought of these fellows, from whom he was so to differ, in English; he used, mentally, the English term to describe his difference, for, familiar with the tongue from his earliest years, so that no note of strangeness remained with him either for lip or for ear, he found it convenient, in life, for the greatest number of relations. He found it convenient, oddly, even for his relation with himself–though not unmindful that there might still, as time went on, be others, including a more intimate degree of that one, that would seek, possibly with violence, the larger or the finer issue–which was it?–of the vernacular. Miss Verver had told him he spoke English too well– it was his only fault, and he had not been able to speak worse even to oblige her. “When I speak worse, you see, I speak French,” he had said; intimating thus that there were discriminations, doubtless of the invidious kind, for which that language was the most apt. The girl had taken this, she let him know, as a reflection on her own French, which she had always so dreamed of making good, of making better; to say nothing of his evident feeling that the idiom supposed a cleverness she was not a person to rise to. The Prince’s answer to such remarks–genial, charming, like every answer the parties to his new arrangement had yet had from him–was that he was practising his American in order to converse properly, on equal terms as it were, with Mr. Verver. His prospective father-in-law had a command of it, he said, that put him at a disadvantage in any discussion; besides which–well, besides which he had made to the girl the observation that positively, of all his observations yet, had most finely touched her.
“You know I think he’s a REAL galantuomo–‘and no mistake.’ There are plenty of sham ones about. He seems to me simply the best man I’ve ever seen in my life.”
“Well, my dear, why shouldn’t he be?” the girl had gaily inquired.
It was this, precisely, that had set the Prince to think. The things, or many of them, that had made Mr. Verver what he was seemed practically to bring a charge of waste against the other things that, with the other people known to the young man, had failed of such a result. “Why, his ‘form,'” he had returned, “might have made one doubt.”
“Father’s form?” She hadn’t seen it. It strikes me he hasn’t got any.”
“He hasn’t got mine–he hasn’t even got yours.”
“Thank you for ‘even’!” the girl had laughed at him. “Oh, yours, my dear, is tremendous. But your father has his own. I’ve made that out. So don’t doubt it. It’s where it has brought him out– that’s the point.”
“It’s his goodness that has brought him out,” our young woman had, at this, objected.
“Ah, darling, goodness, I think, never brought anyone out. Goodness, when it’s real, precisely, rather keeps people in.” He had been interested in his discrimination, which amused him. “No, it’s his WAY. It belongs to him.”
But she had wondered still. “It’s the American way. That’s all.”
“Exactly–it’s all. It’s all, I say! It fits him–so it must be good for something.”
“Do you think it would be good for you?” Maggie Verver had smilingly asked.
To which his reply had been just of the happiest. “I don’t feel, my dear, if you really want to know, that anything much can now either hurt me or help me. Such as I am–but you’ll see for yourself. Say, however, I am a galantuomo–which I devoutly hope: I’m like a chicken, at best, chopped up and smothered in sauce; cooked down as a creme de volaille, with half the parts left out. Your father’s the natural fowl running about the bassecour. His feathers, movements, his sounds–those are the parts that, with me, are left out.”
“All, as a matter of course–since you can’t eat a chicken alive!”
The Prince had not been annoyed at this, but he had been positive. “Well, I’m eating your father alive–which is the only way to taste him. I want to continue, and as it’s when he talks American that he is most alive, so I must also cultivate it, to get my pleasure. He couldn’t make one like him so much in any other language.”
It mattered little that the girl had continued to demur–it was the mere play of her joy. “I think he could make you like him in Chinese.”
“It would be an unnecessary trouble. What I mean is that he’s a kind of result of his inevitable tone. My liking is accordingly FOR the tone–which has made him possible.”
“Oh, you’ll hear enough of it,” she laughed, “before you’ve done with us.”
Only this, in truth, had made him frown a little.
“What do you mean, please, by my having ‘done’ with you?”
“Why, found out about us all there is to find.”
He had been able to take it indeed easily as a joke. “Ah, love, I began with that. I know enough, I feel, never to be surprised. It’s you yourselves meanwhile,” he continued, “who really know nothing. There are two parts of me”–yes, he had been moved to go on. “One is made up of the history, the doings, the marriages, the crimes, the follies, the boundless betises of other people– especially of their infamous waste of money that might have come to me. Those things are written–literally in rows of volumes, in libraries; are as public as they’re abominable. Everybody can get at them, and you’ve, both of you, wonderfully, looked them in the face. But there’s another part, very much smaller doubtless, which, such as it is, represents my single self, the unknown, unimportant, unimportant–unimportant save to YOU–personal quantity. About this you’ve found out nothing.”
“Luckily, my dear,” the girl had bravely said; “for what then would become, please, of the promised occupation of my future?”
The young man remembered even now how extraordinarily CLEAR–he couldn’t call it anything else–she had looked, in her prettiness, as she had said it. He also remembered what he had been moved to reply. “The happiest reigns, we are taught, you know, are the reigns without any history.”
“Oh, I’m not afraid of history!” She had been sure of that. “Call it the bad part, if you like–yours certainly sticks out of you. What was it else,” Maggie Verver had also said, “that made me originally think of you? It wasn’t–as I should suppose you must have seen–what you call your unknown quantity, your particular self. It was the generations behind you, the follies and the crimes, the plunder and the waste–the wicked Pope, the monster most of all, whom so many of the volumes in your family library are all about. If I’ve read but two or three yet, I shall give myself up but the more–as soon as I have time–to the rest. Where, therefore”–she had put it to him again–“without your archives, annals, infamies, would you have been?”
He recalled what, to this, he had gravely returned. “I might have been in a somewhat better pecuniary situation.” But his actual situation under the head in question positively so little mattered to them that, having by that time lived deep into the sense of his advantage, he had kept no impression of the girl’s rejoinder. It had but sweetened the waters in which he now floated, tinted them as by the action of some essence, poured from a gold-topped phial, for making one’s bath aromatic. No one before him, never–not even the infamous Pope–had so sat up to his neck in such a bath. It showed, for that matter, how little one of his race could escape, after all, from history. What was it but history, and of THEIR kind very much, to have the assurance of the enjoyment of more money than the palace-builder himself could have dreamed of? This was the element that bore him up and into which Maggie scattered, on occasion, her exquisite colouring drops. They were of the colour–of what on earth? of what but the extraordinary American good faith? They were of the colour of her innocence, and yet at the same time of her imagination, with which their relation, his and these people’s, was all suffused. What he had further said on the occasion of which we thus represent him as catching the echoes from his own thoughts while he loitered–what he had further said came back to him, for it had been the voice itself of his luck, the soothing sound that was always with him. “You Americans are almost incredibly romantic.”
“Of course we are. That’s just what makes everything so nice for us.”
“Everything?” He had wondered.
“Well, everything that’s nice at all. The world, the beautiful, world–or everything in it that is beautiful. I mean we see so much.”
He had looked at her a moment–and he well knew how she had struck him, in respect to the beautiful world, as one of the beautiful, the most beautiful things. But what he had answered was: “You see too much–that’s what may sometimes make you difficulties. When you don’t, at least,” he had amended with a further thought, “see too little.” But he had quite granted that he knew what she meant, and his warning perhaps was needless.
He had seen the follies of the romantic disposition, but there seemed somehow no follies in theirs–nothing, one was obliged to recognise, but innocent pleasures, pleasures without penalties. Their enjoyment was a tribute to others without being a loss to themselves. Only the funny thing, he had respectfully submitted, was that her father, though older and wiser, and a man into the bargain, was as bad–that is as good–as herself.
“Oh, he’s better,” the girl had freely declared “that is he’s worse. His relation to the things he cares for–and I think it beautiful–is absolutely romantic. So is his whole life over here–it’s the most romantic thing I know.”
“You mean his idea for his native place?”
“Yes–the collection, the Museum with which he wishes to endow it, and of which he thinks more, as you know, than of anything in the world. It’s the work of his life and the motive of everything he does.”
The young man, in his actual mood, could have smiled again– smiled delicately, as he had then smiled at her. “Has it been his motive in letting me have you?”
“Yes, my dear, positively–or in a manner,” she had said.
“American City isn’t, by the way, his native town, for, though he’s not old, it’s a young thing compared with him–a younger one. He started there, he has a feeling about it, and the place has grown, as he says, like the programme of a charity performance. You’re at any rate a part of his collection,” she had explained–“one of the things that can only be got over here. You’re a rarity, an object of beauty, an object of price. You’re not perhaps absolutely unique, but you’re so curious and eminent that there are very few others like you–you belong to a class about which everything is known. You’re what they call a morceau de musee.”
“I see. I have the great sign of it,” he had risked–“that I cost a lot of money.”
“I haven’t the least idea,” she had gravely answered, “what you cost”–and he had quite adored, for the moment, her way of saying it. He had felt even, for the moment, vulgar. But he had made the best of that. “Wouldn’t you find out if it were a question of parting with me? My value would in that case be estimated.”
She had looked at him with her charming eyes, as if his value were well before her. “Yes, if you mean that I’d pay rather than lose you.”
And then there came again what this had made him say. “Don’t talk about ME–it’s you who are not of this age. You’re a creature of a braver and finer one, and the cinquecento, at its most golden hour, wouldn’t have been ashamed of you. It would of me, and if I didn’t know some of the pieces your father has acquired, I should rather fear, for American City, the criticism of experts. Would it at all events be your idea,” he had then just ruefully asked, “to send me there for safety?”
“Well, we may have to come to it.”
“I’ll go anywhere you want.”
“We must see first–it will be only if we have to come to it. There are things,” she had gone on, “that father puts away–the bigger and more cumbrous of course, which he stores, has already stored in masses, here and in Paris, in Italy, in Spain, in warehouses, vaults, banks, safes, wonderful secret places. We’ve been like a pair of pirates–positively stage pirates, the sort who wink at each other and say ‘Ha-ha!’ when they come to where their treasure is buried. Ours is buried pretty well everywhere– except what we like to see, what we travel with and have about us. These, the smaller pieces, are the things we take out and arrange as we can, to make the hotels we stay at and the houses we hire a little less ugly. Of course it’s a danger, and we have to keep watch. But father loves a fine piece, loves, as he says, the good of it, and it’s for the company of some of his things that he’s willing to run his risks. And we’ve had extraordinary luck”–Maggie had made that point; “we’ve never lost anything yet. And the finest objects are often the smallest. Values, in lots of cases, you must know, have nothing to do with size. But there’s nothing, however tiny,” she had wound up, “that we’ve missed.”
“I like the class,” he had laughed for this, “in which you place me! I shall be one of the little pieces that you unpack at the hotels, or at the worst in the hired houses, like this wonderful one, and put out with the family photographs and the new magazines. But it’s something not to be so big that I have to be buried.”
“Oh,” she had returned, “you shall not be buried, my dear, till you’re dead. Unless indeed you call it burial to go to American City.”
“Before I pronounce I should like to see my tomb.” So he had had, after his fashion, the last word in their interchange, save for the result of an observation that had risen to his lips at the beginning, which he had then checked, and which now came back to him. “Good, bad or indifferent, I hope there’s one thing you believe about me.”
He had sounded solemn, even to himself, but she had taken it gaily. “Ah, don’t fix me down to ‘one’! I believe things enough about you, my dear, to have a few left if most of them, even, go to smash. I’ve taken care of THAT. I’ve divided my faith into water-tight compartments. We must manage not to sink.”
“You do believe I’m not a hypocrite? You recognise that I don’t lie or dissemble or deceive? Is THAT water-tight?”
The question, to which he had given a certain intensity, had made her, he remembered, stare an instant, her colour rising as if it had sounded to her still stranger than he had intended. He had perceived on the spot that any SERIOUS discussion of veracity, of loyalty, or rather of the want of them, practically took her unprepared, as if it were quite new to her. He had noticed it before: it was the English, the American sign that duplicity, like “love,” had to be joked about. It couldn’t be “gone into.” So the note of his inquiry was–well, to call it nothing else– premature; a mistake worth making, however, for the almost overdone drollery in which her answer instinctively sought refuge.
“Water-tight–the biggest compartment of all? Why, it’s the best cabin and the main deck and the engine-room and the steward’s pantry! It’s the ship itself–it’s the whole line. It’s the captain’s table and all one’s luggage–one’s reading for the trip.” She had images, like that, that were drawn from steamers and trains, from a familiarity with “lines,” a command of “own” cars, from an experience of continents and seas, that he was unable as yet to emulate; from vast modern machineries and facilities whose acquaintance he had still to make, but as to which it was part of the interest of his situation as it stood that he could, quite without wincing, feel his future likely to bristle with them.
It was in fact, content as he was with his engagement and charming as he thought his affianced bride, his view of THAT furniture that mainly constituted our young man’s “romance”–and to an extent that made of his inward state a contrast that he was intelligent enough to feel. He was intelligent enough to feel quite humble, to wish not to be in the least hard or voracious, not to insist on his own side of the bargain, to warn himself in short against arrogance and greed. Odd enough, of a truth, was his sense of this last danger–which may illustrate moreover his general attitude toward dangers from within. Personally, he considered, he hadn’t the vices in question–and that was so much to the good. His race, on the other hand, had had them handsomely enough, and he was somehow full of his race. Its presence in him was like the consciousness of some inexpugnable scent in which his clothes, his whole person, his hands and the hair of his head, might have been steeped as in some chemical bath: the effect was nowhere in particular, yet he constantly felt himself at the mercy of the cause. He knew his antenatal history, knew it in every detail, and it was a thing to keep causes well before him. What was his frank judgment of so much of its ugliness, he asked himself, but a part of the cultivation of humility? What was this so important step he had just taken but the desire for some new history that should, so far as possible, contradict, and even if need be flatly dishonour, the old? If what had come to him wouldn’t do he must MAKE something different. He perfectly recognised–always in his humility–that the material for the making had to be Mr. Verver’s millions. There was nothing else for him on earth to make it with; he had tried before–had had to look about and see the truth. Humble as he was, at the same time, he was not so humble as if he had known himself frivolous or stupid. He had an idea–which may amuse his historian–that when you were stupid enough to be mistaken about such a matter you did know it. Therefore he wasn’t mistaken–his future might be MIGHT be scientific. There was nothing in himself, at all events, to prevent it. He was allying himself to science, for it was science but the absence of prejudice backed by the presence of money? His life would be full of machinery, which was the antidote to superstition, which was in its turn, too much, the consequence, or at least the exhalation, of archives. He thought of these–of his not being at all events futile, and of his absolute acceptance of the developments of the coming age to redress the balance of his being so differently considered. The moments when he most winced were those at which he found himself believing that, really, futility would have been forgiven him. Even WITH it, in that absurd view, he would have been good enough. Such was the laxity, in the Ververs, of the romantic spirit. They didn’t, indeed, poor dears, know what, in that line–the line of futility–the real thing meant. HE did– having seen it, having tried it, having taken its measure. This was a memory in fact simply to screen out–much as, just in front of him while he walked, the iron shutter of a shop, closing early to the stale summer day, rattled down at the turn of some crank. There was machinery again, just as the plate glass, all about him, was money, was power, the power of the rich peoples. Well, he was OF them now, of the rich peoples; he was on their side–if it wasn’t rather the pleasanter way of putting it that they were on his.
Something of this sort was in any case the moral and the murmur of his walk. It would have been ridiculous–such a moral from such a source–if it hadn’t all somehow fitted to the gravity of the hour, that gravity the oppression of which I began by recording. Another feature was the immediate nearness of the arrival of the contingent from home. He was to meet them at Charing Cross on the morrow: his younger brother, who had married before him, but whose wife, of Hebrew race, with a portion that had gilded the pill, was not in a condition to travel; his sister and her husband, the most anglicised of Milanesi, his maternal uncle, the most shelved of diplomatists, and his Roman cousin, Don Ottavio, the most disponible of ex-deputies and of relatives–a scant handful of the consanguineous who, in spite of Maggie’s plea for hymeneal reserve, were to accompany him to the altar. It was no great array, yet it was apparently to be a more numerous muster than any possible to the bride herself, having no wealth of kinship to choose from and making it up, on the other hand, by loose invitations. He had been interested in the girl’s attitude on the matter and had wholly deferred to it, giving him, as it did, a glimpse, distinctly pleasing, of the kind of ruminations she would in general be governed by–which were quite such as fell in with his own taste. They hadn’t natural relations, she and her father, she had explained; so they wouldn’t try to supply the place by artificial, by make-believe ones, by any searching of highways and hedges. Oh yes, they had acquaintances enough–but a marriage was an intimate thing. You asked acquaintances when you HAD your kith and kin–you asked them over and above. But you didn’t ask them alone, to cover your nudity and look like what they weren’t. She knew what she meant and what she liked, and he was all ready to take from her, finding a good omen in both of the facts. He expected her, desired her, to have character; his wife SHOULD have it, and he wasn’t afraid of her having much. He had had, in his earlier time, to deal with plenty of people who had had it; notably with the three four ecclesiastics, his great-uncle, the Cardinal, above all, who had taken a hand and played a part in his education: the effect of all of which had never been to upset him. He was thus fairly on the look-out for the characteristic in this most intimate, as she was to come, of his associates. He encouraged it when it appeared.
He felt therefore, just at present, as if his papers were in order, as if his accounts so balanced as they had never done in his life before and he might close the portfolio with a snap. It would open again, doubtless, of itself, with the arrival of the Romans; it would even perhaps open with his dining to-night in Portland Place, where Mr. Verver had pitched a tent suggesting that of Alexander furnished with the spoils of Darius. But what meanwhile marked his crisis, as I have said, was his sense of the immediate two or three hours. He paused on corners, at crossings; there kept rising for him, in waves, that consciousness, sharp as to its source while vague as to its end, which I began by speaking of–the consciousness of an appeal to do something or other, before it was too late, for himself. By any friend to whom he might have mentioned it the appeal could have been turned to frank derision. For what, for whom indeed but himself and the high advantages attached, was he about to marry an extraordinarily charming girl, whose “prospects,” of the solid sort, were as guaranteed as her amiability? He wasn’t to do it, assuredly, all for her. The Prince, as happened, however, was so free to feel and yet not to formulate that there rose before him after a little, definitely, the image of a friend whom he had often found ironic. He withheld the tribute of attention from passing faces only to let his impulse accumulate. Youth and beauty made him scarcely turn, but the image of Mrs. Assingham made him presently stop a hansom. HER youth, her beauty were things more or less of the past, but to find her at home, as he possibly might, would be “doing” what he still had time for, would put something of a reason into his restlessness and thereby probably soothe it. To recognise the propriety of this particular pilgrimage–she lived far enough off, in long Cadogan Place–was already in fact to work it off a little. A perception of the propriety of formally thanking her, and of timing the act just as he happened to be doing–this, he made out as he went, was obviously all that had been the matter with him. It was true that he had mistaken the mood of the moment, misread it rather, superficially, as an impulse to look the other way–the other way from where his pledges had accumulated. Mrs. Assingham, precisely, represented, embodied his pledges–was, in her pleasant person, the force that had set them successively in motion. She had MADE his marriage, quite as truly as his papal ancestor had made his family–though he could scarce see what she had made it for unless because she too was perversely romantic. He had neither bribed nor persuaded her, had given her nothing– scarce even till now articulate thanks; so that her profit-to think of it vulgarly–must have all had to come from the Ververs.
Yet he was far, he could still remind himself, from supposing that she had been grossly remunerated. He was wholly sure she hadn’t; for if there were people who took presents and people who didn’t she would be quite on the right side and of the proud class. Only then, on the other hand, her disinterestedness was rather awful–it implied, that is, such abysses of confidence. She was admirably attached to Maggie–whose possession of such a friend might moreover quite rank as one of her “assets”; but the great proof of her affection had been in bringing them, with her design, together. Meeting him during a winter in Rome, meeting him afterwards in Paris, and “liking” him, as she had in time frankly let him know from the first, she had marked him for her young friend’s own and had then, unmistakably, presented him in a light. But the interest in Maggie–that was the point–would have achieved but little without her interest in HIM. On what did that sentiment, unsolicited and unrecompensed, rest? what good, again–for it was much like his question about Mr. Verver–should he ever have done her? The Prince’s notion of a recompense to women–similar in this to his notion of an appeal–was more or less to make love to them. Now he hadn’t, as he believed, made love the least little bit to Mrs. Assingham–nor did he think she had for a moment supposed it. He liked in these days, to mark them off, the women to whom he hadn’t made love: it represented– and that was what pleased him in it–a different stage of existence from the time at which he liked to mark off the women to whom he had. Neither, with all this, had Mrs. Assingham herself been either aggressive or resentful. On what occasion, ever, had she appeared to find him wanting? These things, the motives of such people, were obscure–a little alarmingly so; they contributed to that element of the impenetrable which alone slightly qualified his sense of his good fortune. He remembered to have read, as a boy, a wonderful tale by Allan Poe, his prospective wife’s countryman-which was a thing to show, by the way, what imagination Americans COULD have: the story of the shipwrecked Gordon Pym, who, drifting in a small boat further toward the North Pole–or was it the South?–than anyone had ever done, found at a given moment before him a thickness of white air that was like a dazzling curtain of light, concealing as darkness conceals, yet of the colour of milk or of snow. There were moments when he felt his own boat move upon some such mystery. The state of mind of his new friends, including Mrs. Assingham herself, had resemblances to a great white curtain. He had never known curtains but as purple even to blackness–but as producing where they hung a darkness intended and ominous. When they were so disposed as to shelter surprises the surprises were apt to be shocks.
Shocks, however, from these quite different depths, were not what he saw reason to apprehend; what he rather seemed to himself not yet to have measured was something that, seeking a name for it, he would have called the quantity of confidence reposed in him. He had stood still, at many a moment of the previous month, with the thought, freshly determined or renewed, of the general expectation–to define it roughly–of which he was the subject. What was singular was that it seemed not so much an expectation of anything in particular as a large, bland, blank assumption of merits almost beyond notation, of essential quality and value. It was as if he had been some old embossed coin, of a purity of gold no longer used, stamped with glorious arms, mediaeval, wonderful, of which the “worth” in mere modern change, sovereigns and half crowns, would be great enough, but as to which, since there were finer ways of using it, such taking to pieces was superfluous. That was the image for the security in which it was open to him to rest; he was to constitute a possession, yet was to escape being reduced to his component parts. What would this mean but that, practically, he was never to be tried or tested? What would it mean but that, if they didn’t “change” him, they really wouldn’t know–he wouldn’t know himself–how many pounds, shillings and pence he had to give? These at any rate, for the present, were unanswerable questions; all that was before him was that he was invested with attributes. He was taken seriously. Lost there in the white mist was the seriousness in them that made them so take him. It was even in Mrs. Assingham, in spite of her having, as she had frequently shown, a more mocking spirit. All he could say as yet was that he had done nothing, so far as to break any charm. What should he do if he were to ask her frankly this afternoon what was, morally speaking, behind their veil. It would come to asking what they expected him to do. She would answer him probably: “Oh, you know, it’s what we expect you to be!” on which he would have no resource but to deny his knowledge. Would that break the spell, his saying he had no idea? What idea in fact could he have? He also took himself seriously– made a point of it; but it wasn’t simply a question of fancy and pretension. His own estimate he saw ways, at one time and another, of dealing with: but theirs, sooner or later, say what they might, would put him to the practical proof. As the practical proof, accordingly, would naturally be proportionate to the cluster of his attributes, one arrived at a scale that he was not, honestly, the man to calculate. Who but a billionaire could say what was fair exchange for a billion? That measure was the shrouded object, but he felt really, as his cab stopped in Cadogan Place, a little nearer the shroud. He promised himself, virtually, to give the latter a twitch.
“They’re not good days, you know,” he had said to Fanny Assingham after declaring himself grateful for finding her, and then, with his cup of tea, putting her in possession of the latest news–the documents signed an hour ago, de part et d’autre, and the telegram from his backers, who had reached Paris the morning before, and who, pausing there a little, poor dears, seemed to think the whole thing a tremendous lark. “We’re very simple folk, mere country cousins compared with you,” he had also observed, “and Paris, for my sister and her husband, is the end of the world. London therefore will be more or less another planet. It has always been, as with so many of us, quite their Mecca, but this is their first real caravan; they’ve mainly known ‘old England’ as a shop for articles in india-rubber and leather, in which they’ve dressed themselves as much as possible. Which all means, however, that you’ll see them, all of them, wreathed in smiles. We must be very easy with them. Maggie’s too wonderful– her preparations are on a scale! She insists on taking in the sposi and my uncle. The, others will come to me. I’ve been engaging their rooms at the hotel, and, with all those solemn signatures of an hour ago, that brings the case home to me.”
“Do you mean you’re afraid?” his hostess had amusedly asked.
“Terribly afraid. I’ve now but to wait to see the monster come. They’re not good days; they’re neither one thing nor the other. I’ve really got nothing, yet I’ve everything to lose. One doesn’t know what still may happen.”
The way she laughed at him was for an instant almost irritating; it came out, for his fancy, from behind the white curtain. It was a sign, that is, of her deep serenity, which worried instead of soothing him. And to be soothed, after all, to be tided over, in his mystic impatience, to be told what he could understand and believe–that was what he had come for. “Marriage then,” said Mrs. Assingham, “is what you call the monster? I admit it’s a fearful thing at the best; but, for heaven’s sake, if that’s what you’re thinking of, don’t run away from it.”
“Ah, to run away from it would be to run away from you,” the Prince replied; “and I’ve already told you often enough how I depend on you to see me through.” He so liked the way she took this, from the corner of her sofa, that he gave his sincerity– for it WAS sincerity–fuller expression. “I’m starting on the great voyage–across the unknown sea; my ship’s all rigged and appointed, the cargo’s stowed away and the company complete. But what seems the matter with me is that I can’t sail alone; my ship must be one of a pair, must have, in the waste of waters, a–what do you call it?–a consort. I don’t ask you to stay on board with me, but I must keep your sail in sight for orientation. I don’t in the least myself know, I assure you, the points of the compass. But with a lead I can perfectly follow. You MUST be my lead.”
“How can you be sure,” she asked, “where I should take you?”
“Why, from your having brought me safely thus far. I should never have got here without you. You’ve provided the ship itself, and, if you’ve not quite seen me aboard, you’ve attended me, ever so kindly, to the dock. Your own vessel is, all conveniently, in the next berth, and you can’t desert me now.”
She showed him again her amusement, which struck him even as excessive, as if, to his surprise, he made her also a little nervous; she treated him in fine as if he were not uttering truths, but making pretty figures for her diversion. “My vessel, dear Prince?” she smiled. “What vessel, in the world, have I? This little house is all our ship, Bob’s and mine–and thankful we are, now, to have it. We’ve wandered far, living, as you may say, from hand to mouth, without rest for the soles of our feet. But the time has come for us at last to draw in.”
He made at this, the young man, an indignant protest. “You talk about rest–it’s too selfish!–when you’re just launching me on adventures?”
She shook her head with her kind lucidity. “Not adventures– heaven forbid! You’ve had yours–as I’ve had mine; and my idea has been, all along, that we should neither of us begin again. My own last, precisely, has been doing for you all you so prettily mention. But it consists simply in having conducted you to rest. You talk about ships, but they’re not the comparison. Your tossings are over–you’re practically IN port. The port,” she concluded, “of the Golden Isles.”
He looked about, to put himself more in relation with the place; then, after an hesitation, seemed to speak certain words instead of certain others. “Oh, I know where I AM–! I do decline to be left, but what I came for, of course, was to thank you. If to-day has seemed, for the first time, the end of preliminaries, I feel how little there would have been any at all without you. The first were wholly yours.”
“Well,” said Mrs. Assingham, “they were remarkably easy. I’ve seen them, I’ve HAD them,” she smiled, “more difficult. Everything, you must feel, went of itself. So, you must feel, everything still goes.”
The Prince quickly agreed. “Oh, beautifully! But you had the conception.”
“Ah, Prince, so had you!”
He looked at her harder a moment. “You had it first. You had it most.”
She returned his look as if it had made her wonder. “I LIKED it, if that’s what you mean. But you liked it surely yourself. I protest, that I had easy work with you. I had only at last–when I thought it was time–to speak for you.”
“All that is quite true. But you’re leaving me, all the same, you’re leaving me–you’re washing your hands of me,” he went on. “However, that won’t be easy; I won’t BE left.” And he had turned his eyes about again, taking in the pretty room that she had just described as her final refuge, the place of peace for a world- worn couple, to which she had lately retired with “Bob.” “I shall keep this spot in sight. Say what you will, I shall need you. I’m not, you know,” he declared, “going to give you up for anybody.”
“If you’re afraid–which of course you’re not–are you trying to make me the same?” she asked after a moment.
He waited a minute too, then answered her with a question. “You say you ‘liked’ it, your undertaking to make my engagement possible. It remains beautiful for me that you did; it’s charming and unforgettable. But, still more, it’s mysterious and wonderful. WHY, you dear delightful woman, did you like it?”
“I scarce know what to make,” she said, “of such an inquiry. If you haven’t by this time found out yourself, what meaning can anything I say have for you? Don’t you really after all feel,” she added while nothing came from him–“aren’t you conscious every minute, of the perfection of the creature of whom I’ve put you into possession?”
“Every minute–gratefully conscious. But that’s exactly the ground of my question. It wasn’t only a matter of your handing me over–it was a matter of your handing her. It was a matter of HER fate still more than of mine. You thought all the good of her that one woman can think of another, and yet, by your account, you enjoyed assisting at her risk.”
She had kept her eyes on him while he spoke, and this was what, visibly, determined a repetition for her. “Are you trying to frighten me?”
“Ah, that’s a foolish view–I should be too vulgar. You apparently can’t understand either my good faith or my humility. I’m awfully humble,” the young man insisted; “that’s the way I’ve been feeling to-day, with everything so finished and ready. And you won’t take me for serious.”
She continued to face him as if he really troubled her a little. “Oh, you deep old Italians!”
“There you are,” he returned–“it’s what I wanted you to come to. That’s the responsible note.”
“Yes,” she went on–“if you’re ‘humble’ you MUST be dangerous.”
She had a pause while he only smiled; then she said: “I don’t in the least want to lose sight of you. But even if I did I shouldn’t think it right.”
“Thank you for that–it’s what I needed of you. I’m sure, after all, that the more you’re with me the more I shall understand. It’s the only thing in the world I want. I’m excellent, I really think, all round–except that I’m stupid. I can do pretty well anything I SEE. But I’ve got to see it first.” And he pursued his demonstration. “I don’t in the least mind its having to be shown me–in fact I like that better. Therefore it is that I want, that I shall always want, your eyes. Through THEM I wish to look–even at any risk of their showing me what I mayn’t like. For then,” he wound up, “I shall know. And of that I shall never be afraid.”
She might quite have been waiting to see what he would come to, but she spoke with a certain impatience. “What on earth are you talking about?”
But he could perfectly say: “Of my real, honest fear of being ‘off’ some day, of being wrong, WITHOUT knowing it. That’s what I shall always trust you for–to tell me when I am. No–with you people it’s a sense. We haven’t got it–not as you have. Therefore–!” But he had said enough. “Ecco!” he simply smiled.
It was not to be concealed that he worked upon her, but of course she had always liked him. “I should be interested,” she presently remarked, “to see some sense you don’t possess.”
Well, he produced one on the spot. “The moral, dear Mrs. Assingham. I mean, always, as you others consider it. I’ve of course something that in our poor dear backward old Rome sufficiently passes for it. But it’s no more like yours than the tortuous stone staircase–half-ruined into the bargain!–in some castle of our quattrocento is like the `lightning elevator’ in one of Mr. Verver’s fifteen-storey buildings. Your moral sense works by steam–it sends you up like a rocket. Ours is slow and steep and unlighted, with so many of the steps missing that– well, that it’s as short, in almost any case, to turn round and come down again.”
“Trusting,” Mrs. Assingham smiled, “to get up some other way?”
“Yes–or not to have to get up at all. However,” he added, “I told you that at the beginning.”
“Machiavelli!” she simply exclaimed.
“You do me too much honour. I wish indeed I had his genius. However, if you really believe I have his perversity you wouldn’t say it. But it’s all right,” he gaily enough concluded; “I shall always have you to come to.”
On this, for a little, they sat face to face; after which, without comment, she asked him if he would have more tea. All she would give him, he promptly signified; and he developed, making her laugh, his idea that the tea of the English race was somehow their morality, “made,” with boiling water, in a little pot, so that the more of it one drank the more moral one would become. His drollery served as a transition, and she put to him several questions about his sister and the others, questions as to what Bob, in particular, Colonel Assingham, her husband, could do for the arriving gentlemen, whom, by the Prince’s leave, he would immediately go to see. He was funny, while they talked, about his own people too, whom he described, with anecdotes of their habits, imitations of their manners and prophecies of their conduct, as more rococo than anything Cadogan Place would ever have known. This, Mrs. Assingham professed, was exactly what would endear them to her, and that, in turn, drew from her visitor a fresh declaration of all the comfort of his being able so to depend on her. He had been with her, at this point, some twenty minutes; but he had paid her much longer visits, and he stayed now as if to make his attitude prove his appreciation. He stayed moreover–THAT was really the sign of the hour–in spite of the nervous unrest that had brought him and that had in truth much rather fed on the scepticism by which she had apparently meant to soothe it. She had not soothed him, and there arrived, remarkably, a moment when the cause of her failure gleamed out. He had not frightened her, as she called it–he felt that; yet she was herself not at ease. She had been nervous, though trying to disguise it; the sight of him, following on the announcement of his name, had shown her as disconcerted. This conviction, for the young man, deepened and sharpened; yet with the effect, too, of making him glad in spite of it. It was as if, in calling, he had done even better than he intended. For it was somehow IMPORTANT–that was what it was–that there should be at this hour something the matter with Mrs. Assingham, with whom, in all their acquaintance, so considerable now, there had never been the least little thing the matter. To wait thus and watch for it was to know, of a truth, that there was something the matter with HIM; since strangely, with so little to go upon–his heart had positively begun to beat to the tune of suspense. It fairly befell at last, for a climax, that they almost ceased to pretend–to pretend, that is, to cheat each other with forms. The unspoken had come up, and there was a crisis–neither could have said how long it lasted–during which they were reduced, for all interchange, to looking at each other on quite an inordinate scale. They might at this moment, in their positively portentous stillness, have been keeping it up for a wager, sitting for their photograph or even enacting a tableau-vivant.
The spectator of whom they would thus well have been worthy might have read meanings of his own into the intensity of their communion–or indeed, even without meanings, have found his account, aesthetically, in some gratified play of our modern sense of type, so scantly to be distinguished from our modern sense of beauty. Type was there, at the worst, in Mrs. Assingham’s dark, neat head, on which the crisp black hair made waves so fine and so numerous that she looked even more in the fashion of the hour than she desired. Full of discriminations against the obvious, she had yet to accept a flagrant appearance and to make the best of misleading signs. Her richness of hue, her generous nose, her eyebrows marked like those of an actress– these things, with an added amplitude of person on which middle age had set its seal, seemed to present her insistently as a daughter of the south, or still more of the east, a creature formed by hammocks and divans, fed upon sherbets and waited upon by slaves. She looked as if her most active effort might be to take up, as she lay back, her mandolin, or to share a sugared fruit with a pet gazelle. She was in fact, however, neither a pampered Jewess nor a lazy Creole; New York had been, recordedly, her birthplace and “Europe” punctually her discipline. She wore yellow and purple because she thought it better, as she said, while one was about it, to look like the Queen of Sheba than like a revendeuse; she put pearls in her hair and crimson and gold in her tea-gown for the same reason: it was her theory that nature itself had overdressed her and that her only course was to drown, as it was hopeless to try to chasten, the overdressing. So she was covered and surrounded with “things,” which were frankly toys and shams, a part of the amusement with which she rejoiced to supply her friends. These friends were in the game that of playing with the disparity between her aspect and her character. Her character was attested by the second movement of her face, which convinced the beholder that her vision of the humours of the world was not supine, not passive. She enjoyed, she needed the warm air of friendship, but the eyes of the American city looked out, somehow, for the opportunity of it, from under the lids of Jerusalem. With her false indolence, in short, her false leisure, her false pearls and palms and courts and fountains, she was a person for whom life was multitudinous detail, detail that left her, as it at any moment found her, unappalled and unwearied.
“Sophisticated as I may appear”–it was her frequent phrase–she had found sympathy her best resource. It gave her plenty to do; it made her, as she also said, sit up. She had in her life two great holes to fill, and she described herself as dropping social scraps into them as she had known old ladies, in her early American time, drop morsels of silk into the baskets in which they collected the material for some eventual patchwork quilt.
One of these gaps in Mrs. Assingham’s completeness was her want of children; the other was her want of wealth. It was wonderful how little either, in the fulness of time, came to show; sympathy and curiosity could render their objects practically filial, just as an English husband who in his military years had “run” everything in his regiment could make economy blossom like the rose. Colonel Bob had, a few years after his marriage, left the army, which had clearly, by that time, done its laudable all for the enrichment of his personal experience, and he could thus give his whole time to the gardening in question. There reigned among the younger friends of this couple a legend, almost too venerable for historical criticism, that the marriage itself, the happiest of its class, dated from the far twilight of the age, a primitive period when such things–such things as American girls accepted as “good enough”–had not begun to be;–so that the pleasant pair had been, as to the risk taken on either side, bold and original, honourably marked, for the evening of life, as discoverers of a kind of hymeneal Northwest Passage. Mrs. Assingham knew better, knew there had been no historic hour, from that of Pocahontas down, when some young Englishman hadn’t precipitately believed and some American girl hadn’t, with a few more gradations, availed herself to the full of her incapacity to doubt; but she accepted resignedly the laurel of the founder, since she was in fact pretty well the doyenne, above ground, of her transplanted tribe, and since, above all, she HAD invented combinations, though she had not invented Bob’s own. It was he who had done that, absolutely puzzled it out, by himself, from his first odd glimmer-resting upon it moreover, through the years to come, as proof enough, in him, by itself, of the higher cleverness. If she kept her own cleverness up it was largely that he should have full credit. There were moments in truth when she privately felt how little–striking out as he had done–he could have afforded that she should show the common limits. But Mrs. Assingham’s cleverness was in truth tested when her present visitor at last said to her: “I don’t think, you know, that you’re treating me quite right. You’ve something on your mind that you don’t tell me.”
It was positive too that her smile, in reply, was a trifle dim. “Am I obliged to tell you everything I have on my mind?”
“It isn’t a question of everything, but it’s a question of anything that may particularly concern me. Then you shouldn’t keep it back. You know with what care I desire to proceed, taking everything into account and making no mistake that may possibly injure HER.”
Mrs. Assingham, at this, had after an instant an odd interrogation. “‘Her’?”
“Her and him. Both our friends. Either Maggie or her father.”
“I have something on my mind,” Mrs. Assingham presently returned; “something has happened for which I hadn’t been prepared. But it isn’t anything that properly concerns you.”
The Prince, with immediate gaiety, threw back his head. “What do you mean by ‘properly’? I somehow see volumes in it. It’s the way people put a thing when they put it–well, wrong. _I_ put things right. What is it that has happened for me?”
His hostess, the next moment, had drawn spirit from his tone.
“Oh, I shall be delighted if you’ll take your share of it. Charlotte Stant is in London. She has just been here.”
“Miss Stant? Oh really?” The Prince expressed clear surprise–a transparency through which his eyes met his friend’s with a certain hardness of concussion. “She has arrived from America?” he then quickly asked.
“She appears to have arrived this noon–coming up from Southampton; at an hotel. She dropped upon me after luncheon and was here for more than an hour.”
The young man heard with interest, though not with an interest too great for his gaiety. “You think then I’ve a share in it? What IS my share?”
“Why, any you like–the one you seemed just now eager to take. It was you yourself who insisted.”
He looked at her on this with conscious inconsistency, and she could now see that he had changed colour. But he was always easy.
“I didn’t know then what the matter was.”
“You didn’t think it could be so bad?”
“Do you call it very bad?” the young man asked. “Only,” she smiled, “because that’s the way it seems to affect YOU.”
He hesitated, still with the trace of his quickened colour, still looking at her, still adjusting his manner. “But you allowed you were upset.”
“To the extent–yes–of not having in the least looked for her. Any more,” said Mrs. Assingham, “than I judge Maggie to have done.”
The Prince thought; then as if glad to be able to say something very natural and true: “No–quite right. Maggie hasn’t looked for her. But I’m sure,” he added, “she’ll be delighted to see her.”
“That, certainly”–and his hostess spoke with a different shade of gravity.
“She’ll be quite overjoyed,” the Prince went on. “Has Miss Stant now gone to her?”
“She has gone back to her hotel, to bring her things here. I can’t have her,” said Mrs. Assingham, “alone at an hotel.”
“No; I see.”
“If she’s here at all she must stay with me.” He quite took it in. “So she’s coming now?”
“I expect her at any moment. If you wait you’ll see her.”
“Oh,” he promptly declared–“charming!” But this word came out as if, a little, in sudden substitution for some other. It sounded accidental, whereas he wished to be firm. That accordingly was what he next showed himself. “If it wasn’t for what’s going on these next days Maggie would certainly want to have her. In fact,” he lucidly continued, “isn’t what’s happening just a reason to MAKE her want to?” Mrs. Assingham, for answer, only looked at him, and this, the next instant, had apparently had more effect than if she had spoken. For he asked a question that seemed incongruous. “What has she come for!”
It made his companion laugh. “Why, for just what you say. For your marriage.”
“Maggie’s–it’s the same thing. It’s ‘for’ your great event. And then,” said Mrs. Assingham, “she’s so lonely.”
“Has she given you that as a reason?”
“I scarcely remember–she gave me so many. She abounds, poor dear, in reasons. But there’s one that, whatever she does, I always remember for myself.”
“And which is that?” He looked as if he ought to guess but couldn’t.
“Why, the fact that she has no home–absolutely none whatever. She’s extraordinarily alone.”
Again he took it in. “And also has no great means.”
“Very small ones. Which is not, however, with the expense of railways and hotels, a reason for her running to and fro.”
“On the contrary. But she doesn’t like her country.”
“Hers, my dear man?–it’s little enough ‘hers.'” The attribution, for the moment, amused his hostess. “She has rebounded now–but she has had little enough else to do with it.”
“Oh, I say hers,” the Prince pleasantly explained, “very much as, at this time of day, I might say mine. I quite feel, I assure you, as if the great place already more or less belonged to ME.”
“That’s your good fortune and your point of view. You own–or you soon practically WILL own–so much of it. Charlotte owns almost nothing in the world, she tells me, but two colossal trunks-only one of which I have given her leave to introduce into this house. She’ll depreciate to you,” Mrs. Assingham added, “your property.”
He thought of these things, he thought of every thing; but he had always his resource at hand of turning all to the easy. “Has she come with designs upon me?” And then in a moment, as if even this were almost too grave, he sounded the note that had least to do with himself. “Est-elle toujours aussi belle?” That was the furthest point, somehow, to which Charlotte Stant could be relegated.
Mrs. Assingham treated it freely. “Just the same. The person in the world, to my sense, whose looks are most subject to appreciation. It’s all in the way she affects you. One admires her if one doesn’t happen not to. So, as well, one criticises her.”
“Ah, that’s not fair!” said the Prince.
“To criticise her? Then there you are! You’re answered.”
“I’m answered.” He took it, humorously, as his lesson–sank his previous self-consciousness, with excellent effect, in grateful docility. “I only meant that there are perhaps better things to be done with Miss Stant than to criticise her. When once you begin THAT, with anyone–!” He was vague and kind.
“I quite agree that it’s better to keep out of it as long as one can. But when one MUST do it–“
“Yes?” he asked as she paused. “Then know what you mean.”
“I see. Perhaps,” he smiled, “_I_ don’t know what I mean.”
“Well, it’s what, just now, in all ways, you particularly should know.” Mrs. Assingham, however, made no more of this, having, before anything else, apparently, a scruple about the tone she had just used. “I quite understand, of course, that, given her great friendship with Maggie, she should have wanted to be present. She has acted impulsively–but she has acted generously.”
“She has acted beautifully,” said the Prince.
“I say ‘generously’ because I mean she hasn’t, in any way, counted the cost. She’ll have it to count, in a manner, now,” his hostess continued. “But that doesn’t matter.”
He could see how little. “You’ll look after her.”
“I’ll look after her.”
“So it’s all right.”
“It’s all right,” said Mrs. Assingham. “Then why are you troubled?”
It pulled her up–but only for a minute. “I’m not–any more than you.”
The Prince’s dark blue eyes were of the finest, and, on occasion, precisely, resembled nothing so much as the high windows of a Roman palace, of an historic front by one of the great old designers, thrown open on a feast-day to the golden air. His look itself, at such times, suggested an image–that of some very noble personage who, expected, acclaimed by the crowd in the street and with old precious stuffs falling over the sill for his support, had gaily and gallantly come to show himself: always moreover less in his own interest than in that of spectators and subjects whose need to admire, even to gape, was periodically to be considered. The young man’s expression became, after this fashion, something vivid and concrete–a beautiful personal presence, that of a prince in very truth, a ruler, warrior, patron, lighting up brave architecture and diffusing the sense of a function. It had been happily said of his face that the figure thus appearing in the great frame was the ghost of some proudest ancestor. Whoever the ancestor now, at all events, the Prince was, for Mrs. Assingham’s benefit, in view of the people. He seemed, leaning on crimson damask, to take in the bright day. He looked younger than his years; he was beautiful, innocent, vague.
“Oh, well, I’M not!” he rang out clear.
“I should like to SEE you, sir!” she said. “For you wouldn’t have a shadow of excuse.” He showed how he agreed that he would have been at a loss for one, and the fact of their serenity was thus made as important as if some danger of its opposite had directly menaced them. The only thing was that if the evidence of their cheer was so established Mrs. Assingham had a little to explain her original manner, and she came to this before they dropped the question. “My first impulse is always to behave, about everything, as if I feared complications. But I don’t fear them– I really like them. They’re quite my element.”
He deferred, for her, to this account of herself. “But still,” he said, “if we’re not in the presence of a complication.”
She hesitated. “A handsome, clever, odd girl staying with one is always a complication.”
The young man weighed it almost as if the question were new to him. “And will she stay very long?”
His friend gave a laugh. “How in the world can I know? I’ve scarcely asked her.”
“Ah yes. You can’t.”
But something in the tone of it amused her afresh. “Do you think you could?”
“I?” he wondered.
“Do you think you could get it out of her for me–the probable length of her stay?”
He rose bravely enough to the occasion and the challenge. “I daresay, if you were to give me the chance.”
“Here it is then for you,” she answered; for she had heard, within the minute, the stop of a cab at her door. “She’s back.”
It had been said as a joke, but as, after this, they awaited their friend in silence, the effect of the silence was to turn the time to gravity–a gravity not dissipated even when the Prince next spoke. He had been thinking the case over and making up his mind. A handsome, clever, odd girl staying with one was a complication. Mrs. Assingham, so far, was right. But there were the facts–the good relations, from schooldays, of the two young women, and the clear confidence with which one of them had arrived. “She can come, you know, at any time, to US.”
Mrs. Assingham took it up with an irony beyond laughter. “You’d like her for your honeymoon?”
“Oh no, you must keep her for that. But why not after?”
She had looked at him a minute; then, at the sound of a voice in the corridor, they had got up. “Why not? You’re splendid!” Charlotte Stant, the next minute, was with them, ushered in as she had alighted from her cab, and prepared for not finding Mrs. Assingham alone–this would have been to be noticed–by the butler’s answer, on the stairs, to a question put to him. She could have looked at her hostess with such straightness and brightness only from knowing that the Prince was also there–the discrimination of but a moment, yet which let him take her in still better than if she had instantly faced him. He availed himself of the chance thus given him, for he was conscious of all these things. What he accordingly saw, for some seconds, with intensity, was a tall, strong, charming girl who wore for him, at first, exactly the look of her adventurous situation, a suggestion, in all her person, in motion and gesture, in free, vivid, yet altogether happy indications of dress, from the becoming compactness of her hat to the shade of tan in her shoes, of winds and waves and custom-houses, of far countries and long journeys, the knowledge of how and where and the habit, founded on experience, of not being afraid. He was aware, at the same time, that of this combination the “strongminded” note was not, as might have been apprehended, the basis; he was now sufficiently familiar with English-speaking types, he had sounded attentively enough such possibilities, for a quick vision of differences. He had, besides, his own view of this young lady’s strength of mind. It was great, he had ground to believe, but it would never interfere with the play of her extremely personal, her always amusing taste. This last was the thing in her–for she threw it out positively, on the spot, like a light–that she might have reappeared, during these moments, just to cool his worried eyes with. He saw her in her light that immediate, exclusive address to their friend was like a lamp she was holding aloft for his benefit and for his pleasure. It showed him everything–above all her presence in the world, so closely, so irretrievably contemporaneous with his own: a sharp, sharp fact, sharper during these instants than any other at all, even than that of his marriage, but accompanied, in a subordinate and controlled way, with those others, facial, physiognomic, that Mrs. Assingham had been speaking of as subject to appreciation. So they were, these others, as he met them again, and that was the connection they instantly established with him. If they had to be interpreted, this made at least for intimacy. There was but one way certainly for HIM–to interpret them in the sense of the already known.
Making use then of clumsy terms of excess, the face was too narrow and too long, the eyes not large, and the mouth, on the other hand, by no means small, with substance in its lips and a slight, the very slightest, tendency to protrusion in the solid teeth, otherwise indeed well arrayed and flashingly white. But it was, strangely, as a cluster of possessions of his own that these things, in Charlotte Stant, now affected him; items in a full list, items recognised, each of them, as if, for the long interval, they had been “stored” wrapped up, numbered, put away in a cabinet. While she faced Mrs. Assingham the door of the cabinet had opened of itself; he took the relics out, one by one, and it was more and more, each instant, as if she were giving him time. He saw again that her thick hair was, vulgarly speaking, brown, but that there was a shade of tawny autumn leaf in it, for “appreciation”–a colour indescribable and of which he had known no other case, something that gave her at moments the sylvan head of a huntress. He saw the sleeves of her jacket drawn to her wrists, but he again made out the free arms within them to be of the completely rounded, the polished slimness that Florentine sculptors, in the great time, had loved, and of which the apparent firmness is expressed in their old silver and old bronze. He knew her narrow hands, he knew her long fingers and the shape and colour of her finger-nails, he knew her special beauty of movement and line when she turned her back, and the perfect working of all her main attachments, that of some wonderful finished instrument, something intently made for exhibition, for a prize. He knew above all the extraordinary fineness of her flexible waist, the stem of an expanded flower, which gave her a likeness also to some long, loose silk purse, well filled with gold pieces, but having been passed, empty, through a finger-ring that held it together. It was as if, before she turned to him, he had weighed the whole thing in his open palm and even heard a little the chink of the metal. When she did turn to him it was to recognise with her eyes what he might have been doing. She made no circumstance of thus coming upon him, save so far as the intelligence in her face could at any moment make a circumstance of almost anything. If when she moved off she looked like a huntress, she looked when she came nearer like his notion, perhaps not wholly correct, of a muse. But what she said was simply: “You see you’re not rid of me. How is dear Maggie?”
It was to come soon enough by the quite unforced operation of chance, the young man’s opportunity to ask her the question suggested by Mrs. Assingham shortly before her entrance. The license, had he chosen to embrace it, was within a few minutes all there–the license given him literally to inquire of this young lady how long she was likely to be with them. For a matter of the mere domestic order had quickly determined, on Mrs. Assingham’s part, a withdrawal, of a few moments, which had the effect of leaving her visitors free. “Mrs. Betterman’s there?” she had said to Charlotte in allusion to some member of the household who was to have received her and seen her belongings settled; to which Charlotte had replied that she had encountered only the butler, who had been quite charming. She had deprecated any action taken on behalf of her effects; but her hostess, rebounding from accumulated cushions, evidently saw more in Mrs. Betterman’s non-appearance than could meet the casual eye. What she saw, in short, demanded her intervention, in spite of an earnest “Let ME go!” from the girl, and a prolonged smiling wail over the trouble she was giving. The Prince was quite aware, at this moment, that departure, for himself, was indicated; the question of Miss Stant’s installation didn’t demand his presence; it was a case for one to go away–if one hadn’t a reason for staying. He had a reason, however–of that he was equally aware; and he had not for a good while done anything more conscious and intentional than not, quickly, to take leave. His visible insistence–for it came to that–even demanded of him a certain disagreeable effort, the sort of effort he had mostly associated with acting for an idea. His idea was there, his idea was to find out something, something he wanted much to know, and to find it out not tomorrow, not at some future time, not in short with waiting and wondering, but if possible before quitting the place. This particular curiosity, moreover, confounded itself a little with the occasion offered him to satisfy Mrs. Assingham’s own; he wouldn’t have admitted that he was staying to ask a rude question–there was distinctly nothing rude in his having his reasons. It would be rude, for that matter, to turn one’s back, without a word or two, on an old friend.
Well, as it came to pass, he got the word or two, for Mrs. Assingham’s preoccupation was practically simplifying. The little crisis was of shorter duration than our account of it; duration, naturally, would have forced him to take up his hat. He was somehow glad, on finding himself alone with Charlotte, that he had not been guilty of that inconsequence. Not to be flurried was the kind of consistency he wanted, just as consistency was the kind of dignity. And why couldn’t he have dignity when he had so much of the good conscience, as it were, on which such advantages rested? He had done nothing he oughtn’t–he had in fact done nothing at all. Once more, as a man conscious of having known many women, he could assist, as he would have called it, at the recurrent, the predestined phenomenon, the thing always as certain as sunrise or the coming round of Saints’ days, the doing by the woman of the thing that gave her away. She did it, ever, inevitably, infallibly–she couldn’t possibly not do it. It was her nature, it was her life, and the man could always expect it without lifting a finger. This was HIS, the man’s, any man’s, position and strength–that he had necessarily the advantage, that he only had to wait, with a decent patience, to be placed, in spite of himself, it might really be said, in the right. Just so the punctuality of performance on the part of the other creature was her weakness and her deep misfortune–not less, no doubt, than her beauty. It produced for the man that extraordinary mixture of pity and profit in which his relation with her, when he was not a mere brute, mainly consisted; and gave him in fact his most pertinent ground of being always nice to her, nice about her, nice FOR her. She always dressed her act up, of course, she muffled and disguised and arranged it, showing in fact in these dissimulations a cleverness equal to but one thing in the world, equal to her abjection: she would let it be known for anything, for everything, but the truth of which it was made. That was what, precisely, Charlotte Stant would be doing now; that was the present motive and support, to a certainty, of each of her looks and motions. She was the twentieth woman, she was possessed by her doom, but her doom was also to arrange appearances, and what now concerned him was to learn how she proposed. He would help her, would arrange WITH her to any point in reason; the only thing was to know what appearance could best be produced and best be preserved. Produced and preserved on her part of course; since on his own there had been luckily no folly to cover up, nothing but a perfect accord between conduct and obligation.
They stood there together, at all events, when the door had closed behind their friend, with a conscious, strained smile and very much as if each waited for the other to strike the note or give the pitch. The young man held himself, in his silent suspense–only not more afraid because he felt her own fear. She was afraid of herself, however; whereas, to his gain of lucidity, he was afraid only of her. Would she throw herself into his arms, or would she be otherwise wonderful? She would see what he would do–so their queer minute without words told him; and she would act accordingly. But what could he do but just let her see that he would make anything, everything, for her, as honourably easy as possible? Even if she should throw herself into his arms he would make that easy–easy, that is, to overlook, to ignore, not to remember, and not, by the same token, either, to regret. This was not what in fact happened, though it was also not at a single touch, but by the finest gradations, that his tension subsided. “It’s too delightful to be back!” she said at last; and it was all she definitely gave him–being moreover nothing but what anyone else might have said. Yet with two or three other things that, on his response, followed it, it quite pointed the path, while the tone of it, and her whole attitude, were as far removed as need have been from the truth of her situation. The abjection that was present to him as of the essence quite failed to peep out, and he soon enough saw that if she was arranging she could be trusted to arrange. Good–it was all he asked; and all the more that he could admire and like her for it,
The particular appearance she would, as they said, go in for was that of having no account whatever to give him–it would be in fact that of having none to give anybody–of reasons or of motives, of comings or of goings. She was a charming young woman who had met him before, but she was also a charming young woman with a life of her own. She would take it high–up, up, up, ever so high. Well then, he would do the same; no height would be too great for them, not even the dizziest conceivable to a young person so subtle. The dizziest seemed indeed attained when, after another moment, she came as near as she was to come to an apology for her abruptness.
“I’ve been thinking of Maggie, and at last I yearned for her. I wanted to see her happy–and it doesn’t strike me I find you too shy to tell me I SHALL.”
“Of course she’s happy, thank God! Only it’s almost terrible, you know, the happiness of young, good, generous creatures. It rather frightens one. But the Blessed Virgin and all the Saints,” said the Prince, “have her in their keeping.”
“Certainly they have. She’s the dearest of the dear. But I needn’t tell you,” the girl added.
“Ah,” he returned with gravity, “I feel that I’ve still much to learn about her.” To which he subjoined “She’ll rejoice awfully in your being with us.”
“Oh, you don’t need me!” Charlotte smiled. “It’s her hour. It’s a great hour. One has seen often enough, with girls, what it is. But that,” she said, “is exactly why. Why I’ve wanted, I mean, not to miss it.”
He bent on her a kind, comprehending face. “You mustn’t miss anything.” He had got it, the pitch, and he could keep it now, for all he had needed was to have it given him. The pitch was the happiness of his wife that was to be–the sight of that happiness as a joy for an old friend. It was, yes, magnificent, and not the less so for its coming to him, suddenly, as sincere, as nobly exalted. Something in Charlotte’s eyes seemed to tell him this, seemed to plead with him in advance as to what he was to find in it. He was eager–and he tried to show her that too–to find what she liked; mindful as he easily could be of what the friendship had been for Maggie. It had been armed with the wings of young imagination, young generosity; it had been, he believed–always counting out her intense devotion to her father–the liveliest emotion she had known before the dawn of the sentiment inspired by himself. She had not, to his knowledge, invited the object of it to their wedding, had not thought of proposing to her, for a matter of a couple of hours, an arduous and expensive journey. But she had kept her connected and informed, from week to week, in spite of preparations and absorptions. “Oh, I’ve been writing to Charlotte–I wish you knew her better:” he could still hear, from recent weeks, this record of the fact, just as he could still be conscious, not otherwise than queerly, of the gratuitous element in Maggie’s wish, which he had failed as yet to indicate to her. Older and perhaps more intelligent, at any rate, why shouldn’t Charlotte respond–and be quite FREE to respond–to such fidelities with something more than mere formal good manners? The relations of women with each other were of the strangest, it was true, and he probably wouldn’t have trusted here a young person of his own race. He was proceeding throughout on the ground of the immense difference–difficult indeed as it might have been to disembroil in this young person HER race- quality. Nothing in her definitely placed her; she was a rare, a special product. Her singleness, her solitude, her want of means, that is her want of ramifications and other advantages, contributed to enrich her somehow with an odd, precious neutrality, to constitute for her, so detached yet so aware, a sort of small social capital. It was the only one she had–it was the only one a lonely, gregarious girl COULD have, since few, surely, had in anything like the same degree arrived at it, and since this one indeed had compassed it but through the play of some gift of nature to which you could scarce give a definite name.
It wasn’t a question of her strange sense for tongues, with which she juggled as a conjuror at a show juggled with balls or hoops or lighted brands–it wasn’t at least entirely that, for he had known people almost as polyglot whom their accomplishment had quite failed to make interesting. He was polyglot himself, for that matter–as was the case too with so many of his friends and relations; for none of whom, more than for himself, was it anything but a common convenience. The point was that in this young woman it was a beauty in itself, and almost a mystery: so, certainly, he had more than once felt in noting, on her lips, that rarest, among the Barbarians, of all civil graces, a perfect felicity in the use of Italian. He had known strangers–a few, and mostly men–who spoke his own language agreeably; but he had known neither man nor woman who showed for it Charlotte’s almost mystifying instinct. He remembered how, from the first of their acquaintance, she had made no display of it, quite as if English, between them, his English so matching with hers, were their inevitable medium. He had perceived all by accident–by hearing her talk before him to somebody else that they had an alternative as good; an alternative in fact as much better as the amusement for him was greater in watching her for the slips that never came. Her account of the mystery didn’t suffice: her recall of her birth in Florence and Florentine childhood; her parents, from the great country, but themselves already of a corrupt generation, demoralised, falsified, polyglot well before her, with the Tuscan balia who was her first remembrance; the servants of the villa, the dear contadini of the poder, the little girls and the other peasants of the next podere, all the rather shabby but still ever so pretty human furniture of her early time, including the good sisters of the poor convent of the Tuscan hills, the convent shabbier than almost anything else, but prettier too, in which she had been kept at school till the subsequent phase, the phase of the much grander institution in Paris at which Maggie was to arrive, terribly frightened, and as a smaller girl, three years before her own ending of her period of five. Such reminiscences, naturally, gave a ground, but they had not prevented him from insisting that some strictly civil ancestor–generations back, and from the Tuscan hills if she would-made himself felt, ineffaceably, in her blood and in her tone. She knew nothing of the ancestor, but she had taken his theory from him, gracefully enough, as one of the little presents that make friendship flourish. These matters, however, all melted together now, though a sense of them was doubtless concerned, not unnaturally, in the next thing, of the nature of a surmise, that his discretion let him articulate. “You haven’t, I rather gather, particularly liked your country?” They would stick, for the time, to their English.
“It doesn’t, I fear, seem particularly mine. And it doesn’t in the least matter, over there, whether one likes it or not–that is to anyone but one’s self. But I didn’t like it,” said Charlotte Stant.
“That’s not encouraging then to me, is it?” the Prince went on.
“Do you mean because you’re going?”
“Oh yes, of course we’re going. I’ve wanted immensely to go.” She hesitated. “But now?–immediately?”
“In a month or two–it seems to be the new idea.” On which there was something in her face–as he imagined–that made him say: “Didn’t Maggie write to you?”
“Not of your going at once. But of course you must go. And of course you must stay”–Charlotte was easily clear–“as long as possible.”
“Is that what you did?” he laughed. “You stayed as long as possible?”
“Well, it seemed to me so–but I hadn’t ‘interests.’ You’ll have them–on a great scale. It’s the country for interests,” said Charlotte. “If I had only had a few I doubtless wouldn’t have left it.”
He waited an instant; they were still on their feet. “Yours then are rather here?”
“Oh, mine!”–the girl smiled. “They take up little room, wherever they are.”
It determined in him, the way this came from her and what it somehow did for her-it determined in him a speech that would have seemed a few minutes before precarious and in questionable taste. The lead she had given him made the difference, and he felt it as really a lift on finding an honest and natural word rise, by its license, to his lips. Nothing surely could be, for both of them, more in the note of a high bravery. “I’ve been thinking it all the while so probable, you know, that you would have seen your way to marrying.”
She looked at him an instant, and, just for these seconds, he feared for what he might have spoiled. “To marrying whom?”
“Why, some good, kind, clever, rich American.”
Again his security hung in the balance–then she was, as he felt, admirable.
“I tried everyone I came across. I did my best. I showed I had come, quite publicly, FOR that. Perhaps I showed it too much. At any rate it was no use. I had to recognise it. No one would have me.” Then she seemed to show as sorry for his having to hear of her anything so disconcerting. She pitied his feeling about it; if he was disappointed she would cheer him up. “Existence, you know, all the same, doesn’t depend on that. I mean,” she smiled, “on having caught a husband.”
“Oh–existence!” the Prince vaguely commented. “You think I ought to argue for more than mere existence?” she asked. “I don’t see why MY existence–even reduced as much as you like to being merely mine–should be so impossible. There are things, of sorts, I should be able to have–things I should be able to be. The position of a single woman to-day is very favourable, you know.”
“Favourable to what?”
“Why, just TO existence–which may contain, after all, in one way and another, so much. It may contain, at the worst, even affections; affections in fact quite particularly; fixed, that is, on one’s friends. I’m extremely fond of Maggie, for instance –I quite adore her. How could I adore her more if I were married to one of the people you speak of?”
The Prince gave a laugh. “You might adore HIM more–!”
“Ah, but it isn’t, is it?” she asked, “a question of that.”
“My dear friend,” he returned, “it’s always a question of doing the best for one’s self one can–without injury to others.” He felt by this time that they were indeed on an excellent basis; so he went on again, as if to show frankly his sense of its firmness. “I venture therefore to repeat my hope that you’ll marry some capital fellow; and also to repeat my belief that such a marriage will be more favourable to you, as you call it, than even the spirit of the age.”
She looked at him at first only for answer, and would have appeared to take it with meekness had she not perhaps appeared a little more to take it with gaiety. “Thank you very much,” she simply said; but at that moment their friend was with them again. It was undeniable that, as she came in, Mrs. Assingham looked, with a certain smiling sharpness, from one of them to the other; the perception of which was perhaps what led Charlotte, for reassurance, to pass the question on. “The Prince hopes so much I shall still marry some good person.”
Whether it worked for Mrs. Assingham or not, the Prince was himself, at this, more than ever reassured. He was SAFE, in a word–that was what it all meant; and he had required to be safe. He was really safe enough for almost any joke. “It’s only,” he explained to their hostess, “because of what Miss Stant has been telling me. Don’t we want to keep up her courage?” If the joke was broad he had at least not begun it–not, that is, AS a joke; which was what his companion’s address to their friend made of it. “She has been trying in America, she says, but hasn’t brought it off.”
The tone was somehow not what Mrs. Assingham had expected, but she made the best of it. “Well then,” she replied to the young man, “if you take such an interest you must bring it off.”
“And you must help, dear,” Charlotte said unperturbed–“as you’ve helped, so beautifully, in such things before.” With which, before Mrs. Assingham could meet the appeal, she had addressed herself to the Prince on a matter much nearer to him. “YOUR mar- riage is on Friday?–on Saturday?”
“Oh, on Friday, no! For what do you take us? There’s not a vulgar omen we’re neglecting. On Saturday, please, at the Oratory, at three o’clock–before twelve assistants exactly.”
“Twelve including ME?”
It struck him–he laughed. “You’ll make the thirteenth. It won’t do!”
“Not,” said Charlotte, “if you’re going in for ‘omens.’ Should you like me to stay away?”
“Dear no–we’ll manage. We’ll make the round number–we’ll have in some old woman. They must keep them there for that, don’t they?”
Mrs. Assingham’s return had at last indicated for him his departure; he had possessed himself again of his hat and approached her to take leave. But he had another word for Charlotte. “I dine to-night with Mr. Verver. Have you any message?”
The girl seemed to wonder a little. “For Mr. Verver?”
“For Maggie–about her seeing you early. That, I know, is what she’ll like.”
“Then I’ll come early–thanks.”
“I daresay,” he went on, “she’ll send for you. I mean send a carriage.”
“Oh, I don’t require that, thanks. I can go, for a penny, can’t I?” she asked of Mrs. Assingham, “in an omnibus.”
“Oh, I say!” said the Prince while Mrs. Assingham looked at her blandly.
“Yes, love–and I’ll give you the penny. She shall get there,” the good lady added to their friend.
But Charlotte, as the latter took leave of her, thought of something else. “There’s a great favour, Prince, that I want to ask of you. I want, between this and Saturday, to make Maggie a marriage-present.”
“Oh, I say!” the young man again soothingly exclaimed.
“Ah, but I MUST,” she went on. “It’s really almost for that I came back. It was impossible to get in America what I wanted.”
Mrs. Assingham showed anxiety. “What is it then, dear, you want?”
But the girl looked only at their companion. “That’s what the Prince, if he’ll be so good, must help me to decide.”
“Can’t _I_,” Mrs. Assingham asked, “help you to decide?”
“Certainly, darling, we must talk it well over.” And she kept her eyes on the Prince. “But I want him, if he kindly will, to go with me to look. I want him to judge with me and choose. That, if you can spare the hour,” she said, “is the great favour I mean.”
He raised his eyebrows at her–he wonderfully smiled. “What you came back from America to ask? Ah, certainly then, I must find the hour!” He wonderfully smiled, but it was rather more, after all, than he had been reckoning with. It went somehow so little with the rest that, directly, for him, it wasn’t the note of safety; it preserved this character, at the best, but by being the note of publicity. Quickly, quickly, however, the note of publicity struck him as better than any other. In another moment even it seemed positively what he wanted; for what so much as publicity put their relation on the right footing? By this appeal to Mrs. Assingham it was established as right, and she immediately showed that such was her own understanding.
“Certainly, Prince,” she laughed, “you must find the hour!” And it was really so express a license from her, as representing friendly judgment, public opinion, the moral law, the margin allowed a husband about to be, or whatever, that, after observing to Charlotte that, should she come to Portland Place in the morn- ing, he would make a point of being there to see her and so, easily, arrange with her about a time, he took his departure with the absolutely confirmed impression of knowing, as he put it to himself, where he was. Which was what he had prolonged his visit for. He was where he could stay.
“I don’t quite see, my dear,” Colonel Assingham said to his wife the night of Charlotte’s arrival, “I don’t quite see, I’m bound to say, why you take it, even at the worst, so ferociously hard. It isn’t your fault, after all, is it? I’ll be hanged, at any rate, if it’s mine.”
The hour was late, and the young lady who had disembarked at Southampton that morning to come up by the “steamer special,” and who had then settled herself at an hotel only to re-settle herself a couple of hours later at a private house, was by this time, they might hope, peacefully resting from her exploits. There had been two men at dinner, rather battered brothers-in-arms, of his own period, casually picked up by her host the day before, and when the gentlemen, after the meal, rejoined the ladies in the drawing-room, Charlotte, pleading fatigue, had already excused herself. The beguiled warriors, however, had stayed till after eleven–Mrs. Assingham, though finally quite without illusions, as she said, about the military character, was always beguiling to old soldiers; and as the Colonel had come in, before dinner, only in time to dress, he had not till this moment really been summoned to meet his companion over the situation that, as he was now to learn, their visitor’s advent had created for them. It was actually more than midnight, the servants had been sent to bed, the rattle of the wheels had ceased to come in through a window still open to the August air, and Robert Assingham had been steadily learning, all the while, what it thus behoved him to know. But the words just quoted from him presented themselves, for the moment, as the essence of his spirit and his attitude. He disengaged, he would be damned if he didn’t–they were both phrases he repeatedly used–his responsibility. The simplest, the sanest, the most obliging of men, he habitually indulged in extravagant language. His wife had once told him, in relation to his violence of speech; that such excesses, on his part, made her think of a retired General whom she had once seen playing with toy soldiers, fighting and winning battles, carrying on sieges and annihilating enemies with little fortresses of wood and little armies of tin. Her husband’s exaggerated emphasis was his box of toy soldiers, his military game. It harmlessly gratified in him, for his declining years, the military instinct; bad words, when sufficiently numerous and arrayed in their might, could represent battalions, squadrons, tremendous cannonades and glorious charges of cavalry. It was natural, it was delightful–the romance, and for her as well, of camp life and of the perpetual booming of guns. It was fighting to the end, to the death, but no one was ever killed.
Less fortunate than she, nevertheless, in spite of his wealth of expression, he had not yet found the image that described her favourite game; all he could do was practically to leave it to her, emulating her own philosophy. He had again and again sat up late to discuss those situations in which her finer consciousness abounded, but he had never failed to deny that anything in life, anything of hers, could be a situation for himself. She might be in fifty at once if she liked–and it was what women did like, at their ease, after all; there always being, when they had too much of any, some man, as they were well aware, to get them out. He wouldn’t at any price, have one, of any sort whatever, of his own, or even be in one along with her. He watched her, accordingly, in her favourite element, very much as he had sometimes watched, at the Aquarium, the celebrated lady who, in a slight, though tight, bathing-suit, turned somersaults and did tricks in the tank of water which looked so cold and uncomfortable to the non-amphibious. He listened to his companion to-night, while he smoked his last pipe, he watched her through her demonstration, quite as if he had paid a shilling. But it was true that, this being the case, he desired the value of his money. What was it, in the name of wonder, that she was so bent on being responsible FOR? What did she pretend was going to happen, and what, at the worst, could the poor girl do, even granting she wanted to do anything? What, at the worst, for that matter, could she be conceived to have in her head?
“If she had told me the moment she got here,” Mrs. Assingham replied, “I shouldn’t have my difficulty in finding out. But she wasn’t so obliging, and I see no sign at all of her becoming so. What’s certain is that she didn’t come for nothing. She wants”– she worked it out at her leisure–“to see the Prince again. THAT isn’t what troubles me. I mean that such a fact, as a fact, isn’t. But what I ask myself is, What does she want it FOR?”
“What’s the good of asking yourself if you know you don’t know?” The Colonel sat back at his own ease, with an ankle resting on the other knee and his eyes attentive to the good appearance of an extremely slender foot which he kept jerking in its neat integument of fine-spun black silk and patent leather. It seemed to confess, this member, to consciousness of military discipline, everything about it being as polished and perfect, as straight and tight and trim, as a soldier on parade. It went so far as to imply that someone or other would have “got” something or other, confinement to barracks or suppression of pay, if it hadn’t been just as it was. Bob Assingham was distinguished altogether by a leanness of person, a leanness quite distinct from physical laxity, which might have been determined, on the part of superior powers, by views of transport and accommodation, and which in fact verged on the abnormal. He “did” himself as well as his friends mostly knew, yet remained hungrily thin, with facial, with abdominal cavities quite grim in their effect, and with a consequent looseness of apparel that, combined with a choice of queer light shades and of strange straw-like textures, of the aspect of Chinese mats, provocative of wonder at his sources of supply, suggested the habit of tropic islands, a continual cane-bottomed chair, a governorship exercised on wide verandahs. His smooth round head, with the particular shade of its white hair, was like a silver pot reversed; his cheekbones and the bristle of his moustache were worthy of Attila the Hun. The hollows of his eyes were deep and darksome, but the eyes within them, were like little blue flowers plucked that morning. He knew everything that could be known about life, which he regarded as, for far the greater part, a matter of pecuniary arrangement. His wife accused him of a want, alike, of moral and of intellectual reaction, or rather indeed of a complete incapacity for either. He never went even so far as to understand what she meant, and it didn’t at all matter, since he could be in spite of the limitation a perfectly social creature. The infirmities, the predicaments of men neither surprised nor shocked him, and indeed–which was perhaps his only real loss in a thrifty career –scarce even amused; he took them for granted without horror, classifying them after their kind and calculating results and chances. He might, in old bewildering climates, in old campaigns of cruelty and license, have had such revelations and known such amazements that he had nothing more to learn. But he was wholly content, in spite of his fondness, in domestic discussion, for the superlative degree; and his kindness, in the oddest way, seemed to have nothing to do with his experience. He could deal with things perfectly, for all his needs, without getting near them.
This was the way he dealt with his wife, a large proportion of whose meanings he knew he could neglect. He edited, for their general economy, the play of her mind, just as he edited, savingly, with the stump of a pencil, her redundant telegrams. The thing in the world that was least of a mystery to him was his Club, which he was accepted as perhaps too completely managing, and which he managed on lines of perfect penetration. His connection with it was really a master-piece of editing. This was in fact, to come back, very much the process he might have been proposing to apply to Mrs. Assingham’s view of what was now before them; that is to their connection with Charlotte Stant’s possibilities. They wouldn’t lavish on them all their little fortune of curiosity and alarm; certainly they wouldn’t spend their cherished savings so early in the day. He liked Charlotte, moreover, who was a smooth and compact inmate, and whom he felt as, with her instincts that made against waste, much more of his own sort than his wife. He could talk with her about Fanny almost better than he could talk with Fanny about Charlotte. However, he made at present the best of the latter necessity, even to the pressing of the question he has been noted as having last uttered. “If you can’t think what to be afraid of, wait till you can think. Then you’ll do it much better. Or otherwise, if that’s waiting too long, find out from HER. Don’t try to find out from ME. Ask her herself.”
Mrs. Assingham denied, as we know, that her husband had a play of mind; so that she could, on her side, treat these remarks only as if they had been senseless physical gestures or nervous facial movements. She overlooked them as from habit and kindness; yet there was no one to whom she talked so persistently of such intimate things. “It’s her friendship with Maggie that’s the immense complication. Because THAT,” she audibly mused, “is so natural.”
“Then why can’t she have come out for it?”
“She came out,” Mrs. Assingham continued to meditate, “because she hates America. There was no place for her there–she didn’t fit in. She wasn’t in sympathy–no more were the people she saw. Then it’s hideously dear; she can’t, on her means, begin to live there. Not at all as she can, in a way, here.”
“In the way, you mean, of living with US?”
“Of living with anyone. She can’t live by visits alone–and she doesn’t want to. She’s too good for it even if she could. But she will–she MUST, sooner or later–stay with THEM. Maggie will want her–Maggie will make her. Besides, she’ll want to herself.”
“Then why won’t that do,” the Colonel asked, “for you to think it’s what she has come for?”
“How will it do, HOW?”–she went on as without hearing him.
“That’s what one keeps feeling.”
“Why shouldn’t it do beautifully?”
“That anything of the past,” she brooded, “should come back NOW?