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Chapter 15

It may be recorded none the less that the Prince was the next
moment to see how little any such assumption was founded. Alone
with him now Mrs. Assingham was incorruptible. "They send for
Charlotte through YOU?"

"No, my dear; as you see, through the Ambassador."

"Ah, but the Ambassador and you, for the last quarter-of-an-hour,
have been for them as one. He's YOUR ambassador." It may indeed
be further mentioned that the more Fanny looked at it the more
she saw in it. "They've connected her with you--she's treated as
your appendage."

"Oh, my 'appendage,'" the Prince amusedly exclaimed--"cara mia,
what a name! She's treated, rather, say, as my ornament and my
glory. And it's so remarkable a case for a mother-in-law that you
surely can't find fault with it."

"You've ornaments enough, it seems to me--as you've certainly
glories enough--without her. And she's not the least little bit,"
Mrs. Assingham observed, "your mother-in-law. In such a matter a
shade of difference is enormous. She's no relation to you
whatever, and if she's known in high quarters but as going about
with you, then--then--!" She failed, however, as from positive
intensity of vision. "Then, then what?" he asked with perfect

"She had better in such a case not be known at all."

"But I assure you I never, just now, so much as mentioned her. Do
you suppose I asked them," said the young man, still amused, "if
they didn't want to see her? You surely don't need to be shown
that Charlotte speaks for herself--that she does so above all on
such an occasion as this and looking as she does to-night. How,
so looking, can she pass unnoticed? How can she not have
'success'? Besides," he added as she but watched his face,
letting him say what he would, as if she wanted to see how he
would say it, "besides, there IS always the fact that we're of
the same connection, of--what is your word?--the same 'concern.'
We're certainly not, with the relation of our respective sposi,
simply formal acquaintances. We're in the same boat"--and the
Prince smiled with a candour that added an accent to his

Fanny Assingham was full of the special sense of his manner: it
caused her to turn for a moment's refuge to a corner of her
general consciousness in which she could say to herself that she
was glad SHE wasn't in love with such a man. As with Charlotte
just before, she was embarrassed by the difference between what
she took in and what she could say, what she felt and what she
could show. "It only appears to me of great importance that--now
that you all seem more settled here--Charlotte should be known,
for any presentation, any further circulation or introduction,
as, in particular, her husband's wife; known in the least
possible degree as anything else. I don't know what you mean by
the 'same' boat. Charlotte is naturally in Mr. Verver's boat."

"And, pray, am _I_ not in Mr. Verver's boat too? Why, but for Mr.
Verver's boat, I should have been by this time"--and his quick
Italian gesture, an expressive direction and motion of his
forefinger, pointed to deepest depths--"away down, down, down."
She knew of course what he meant--how it had taken his
father-in-law's great fortune, and taken no small slice, to
surround him with an element in which, all too fatally weighted
as he had originally been, he could pecuniarily float; and with
this reminder other things came to her--how strange it was that,
with all allowance for their merit, it should befall some people
to be so inordinately valued, quoted, as they said in the
stock-market, so high, and how still stranger, perhaps, that
there should be cases in which, for some reason, one didn't mind
the so frequently marked absence in them of the purpose really to
represent their price. She was thinking, feeling, at any rate,
for herself; she was thinking that the pleasure SHE could take in
this specimen of the class didn't suffer from his consent to be
merely made buoyant: partly because it was one of those pleasures
(he inspired them) that, by their nature, COULDN'T suffer, to
whatever proof they were put; and partly because, besides, he
after all visibly had on his conscience some sort of return for
services rendered. He was a huge expense assuredly--but it had
been up to now her conviction that his idea was to behave
beautifully enough to make the beauty well nigh an equivalent.
And that he had carried out his idea, carried it out by
continuing to lead the life, to breathe the air, very nearly to
think the thoughts, that best suited his wife and her father--
this she had till lately enjoyed the comfort of so distinctly
perceiving as to have even been moved more than once, to express
to him the happiness it gave her. He had that in his favour as
against other matters; yet it discouraged her too, and rather
oddly, that he should so keep moving, and be able to show her
that he moved, on the firm ground of the truth. His
acknowledgment of obligation was far from unimportant, but she
could find in his grasp of the real itself a kind of ominous
intimation. The intimation appeared to peep at her even out of
his next word, lightly as he produced it.

"Isn't it rather as if we had, Charlotte and I, for bringing us
together, a benefactor in common?" And the effect, for his
interlocutress, was still further to be deepened. "I somehow
feel, half the time, as if he were her father-in-law too. It's as
if he had saved us both--which is a fact in our lives, or at any
rate in our hearts, to make of itself a link. Don't you
remember"--he kept it up--"how, the day she suddenly turned up
for you, just before my wedding, we so frankly and funnily
talked, in her presence, of the advisability, for her, of some
good marriage?" And then as his friend's face, in her extremity,
quite again as with Charlotte, but continued to fly the black
flag of general repudiation: "Well, we really began then, as it
seems to me, the work of placing her where she is. We were wholly
right--and so was she. That it was exactly the thing is shown by
its success. We recommended a good marriage at almost any price,
so to speak, and, taking us at our word, she has made the very
best. That was really what we meant, wasn't it? Only--what she
has got--something thoroughly good. It would be difficult, it
seems to me, for her to have anything better--once you allow her
the way it's to be taken. Of course if you don't allow her that
the case is different. Her offset is a certain decent freedom--
which, I judge, she'll be quite contented with. You may say that
will be very good of her, but she strikes me as perfectly humble
about it. She proposes neither to claim it nor to use it with any
sort of retentissement. She would enjoy it, I think, quite as
quietly as it might be given. The 'boat,' you see"--the Prince
explained it no less considerately and lucidly--"is a good deal
tied up at the dock, or anchored, if you like, out in the stream.
I have to jump out from time to time to stretch my legs, and
you'll probably perceive, if you give it your attention, that
Charlotte really can't help occasionally doing the same. It isn't
even a question, sometimes, of one's getting to the dock--one has
to take a header and splash about in the water. Call our having
remained here together to-night, call the accident of my having
put them, put our illustrious friends there, on my companion's
track--for I grant you this as a practical result of our
combination--call the whole thing one of the harmless little
plunges off the deck, inevitable for each of us. Why not take
them, when they occur, as inevitable--and, above all, as not
endangering life or limb? We shan't drown, we shan't sink--at
least I can answer for myself. Mrs. Verver too, moreover--do her
the justice--visibly knows how to swim."

He could easily go on, for she didn't interrupt him; Fanny felt
now that she wouldn't have interrupted him for the world. She
found his eloquence precious; there was not a drop of it that she
didn't, in a manner, catch, as it came, for immediate bottling,
for future preservation. The crystal flask of her innermost
attention really received it on the spot, and she had even
already the vision of how, in the snug laboratory of her
afterthought, she should be able chemically to analyse it. There
were moments, positively, still beyond this, when, with the
meeting of their eyes, something as yet unnamable came out for
her in his look, when something strange and subtle and at
variance with his words, something that GAVE THEM AWAY, glimmered
deep down, as an appeal, almost an incredible one, to her finer
comprehension. What, inconceivably, was it like? Wasn't it,
however gross, such a rendering of anything so occult, fairly
like a quintessential wink, a hint of the possibility of their
REALLY treating their subject--of course on some better
occasion--and thereby, as well, finding it much more interesting?
If this far red spark, which might have been figured by her mind
as the head-light of an approaching train seen through the length
of a tunnel, was not, on her side, an ignis fatuus, a mere
subjective phenomenon, it twinkled there at the direct expense of
what the Prince was inviting her to understand. Meanwhile too,
however, and unmistakably, the real treatment of their subject
did, at a given moment, sound. This was when he proceeded, with
just the same perfect possession of his thought--on the manner of
which he couldn't have improved--to complete his successful
simile by another, in fact by just the supreme touch, the touch
for which it had till now been waiting. "For Mrs. Verver to be
known to people so intensely and exclusively as her husband's
wife, something is wanted that, you know, they haven't exactly
got. He should manage to be known--or at least to be seen--a
little more as his wife's husband. You surely must by this time
have seen for yourself that he has his own habits and his own
ways, and that he makes, more and more--as of course he has a
perfect right to do--his own discriminations. He's so perfect, so
ideal a father, and, doubtless largely by that very fact, a
generous, a comfortable, an admirable father-in-law, that I
should really feel it base to avail myself of any standpoint
whatever to criticise him. To YOU, nevertheless, I may make just
one remark; for you're not stupid--you always understand so
blessedly what one means."

He paused an instant, as if even this one remark might be
difficult for him should she give no sign of encouraging him to
produce it. Nothing would have induced her, however, to encourage
him; she was now conscious of having never in her life stood so
still or sat, inwardly, as it were, so tight; she felt like the
horse of the adage, brought--and brought by her own fault--to the
water, but strong, for the occasion, in the one fact that she
couldn't be forced to drink. Invited, in other words, to
understand, she held her breath for fear of showing she did, and
this for the excellent reason that she was at last fairly afraid
to. It was sharp for her, at the same time, that she was certain,
in advance, of his remark; that she heard it before it had
sounded, that she already tasted, in fine, the bitterness it
would have for her special sensibility. But her companion, from
an inward and different need of his own, was presently not
deterred by her silence. "What I really don't see is why, from
his own point of view--given, that is, his conditions, so
fortunate as they stood--he should have wished to marry at all."
There it was then--exactly what she knew would come, and exactly,
for reasons that seemed now to thump at her heart, as distressing
to her. Yet she was resolved, meanwhile, not to suffer, as they
used to say of the martyrs, then and there; not to suffer,
odiously, helplessly, in public--which could be prevented but by
her breaking off, with whatever inconsequence; by her treating
their discussion as ended and getting away. She suddenly wanted
to go home much as she had wanted, an hour or two before, to
come. She wanted to leave well behind her both her question and
the couple in whom it had, abruptly, taken such vivid form--but
it was dreadful to have the appearance of disconcerted flight.
Discussion had of itself, to her sense, become danger--such
light, as from open crevices, it let in; and the overt
recognition of danger was worse than anything else. The worst in
fact came while she was thinking how she could retreat and still
not overtly recognise. Her face had betrayed her trouble, and
with that she was lost. "I'm afraid, however," the Prince said,
"that I, for some reason, distress you--for which I beg your
pardon. We've always talked so well together--it has been, from
the beginning, the greatest pull for me." Nothing so much as such
a tone could have quickened her collapse; she felt he had her now
at his mercy, and he showed, as he went on, that he knew it. "We
shall talk again, all the same, better than ever--I depend on it
too much. Don't you remember what I told you, so definitely, one
day before my marriage?--that, moving as I did in so many ways
among new things, mysteries, conditions, expectations,
assumptions different from any I had known, I looked to you, as
my original sponsor, my fairy godmother, to see me through. I beg
you to believe," he added, "that I look to you yet."

His very insistence had, fortunately, the next moment, affected
her as bringing her help; with which, at least, she could hold up
her head to speak. "Ah, you ARE through--you were through long
ago. Or if you aren't you ought to be."

"Well then, if I ought to be it's all the more reason why you
should continue to help me. Because, very distinctly, I assure
you, I'm not. The new things or ever so many of them--are still
for me new things; the mysteries and expectations and assumptions
still contain an immense element that I've failed to puzzle out.
As we've happened, so luckily, to find ourselves again really
taking hold together, you must let me, as soon as possible, come
to see you; you must give me a good, kind hour. If you refuse it
me"--and he addressed himself to her continued reserve--"I shall
feel that you deny, with a stony stare, your responsibility."

At this, as from a sudden shake, her reserve proved an inadequate
vessel. She could bear her own, her private reference to the
weight on her mind, but the touch of another hand made it too
horribly press. "Oh, I deny responsibility--to YOU. So far as I
ever had it I've done with it."

He had been, all the while, beautifully smiling; but she made his
look, now, penetrate her again more. "As to whom then do you
confess it?"

"Ah, mio caro, that's--if to anyone--my own business!"

He continued to look at her hard. "You give me up then?"

It was what Charlotte had asked her ten minutes before, and its
coming from him so much in the same way shook her in her place.
She was on the point of replying "Do you and she agree together
for what you'll say to me?"--but she was glad afterwards to have
checked herself in time, little as her actual answer had perhaps
bettered it. "I think I don't know what to make of you."

"You must receive me at least," he said.

"Oh, please, not till I'm ready for you!"--and, though she found
a laugh for it, she had to turn away. She had never turned away
from him before, and it was quite positively for her as if she
were altogether afraid of him.

Henry James

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