Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 16

Later on, when their hired brougham had, with the long
vociferation that tormented her impatience, been extricated from
the endless rank, she rolled into the London night, beside her
husband, as into a sheltering darkness where she could muffle
herself and draw breath. She had stood for the previous half-hour
in a merciless glare, beaten upon, stared out of countenance, it
fairly seemed to her, by intimations of her mistake. For what she
was most immediately feeling was that she had, in the past, been
active, for these people, to ends that were now bearing fruit and
that might yet bear a larger crop. She but brooded, at first, in
her corner of the carriage: it was like burying her exposed face,
a face too helplessly exposed, in the cool lap of the common
indifference, of the dispeopled streets, of the closed shops and
darkened houses seen through the window of the brougham, a world
mercifully unconscious and unreproachful. It wouldn't, like the
world she had just left, know sooner or later what she had done,
or would know it, at least, only if the final consequence should
be some quite overwhelming publicity. She fixed this possibility
itself so hard, however, for a few moments, that the misery of
her fear produced the next minute a reaction; and when the
carriage happened, while it grazed a turn, to catch the straight
shaft from the lamp of a policeman in the act of playing his
inquisitive flash over an opposite house-front, she let herself
wince at being thus incriminated only that she might protest, not
less quickly, against mere blind terror. It had become, for the
occasion, preposterously, terror--of which she must shake herself
free before she could properly measure her ground. The perception
of this necessity had in truth soon aided her; since she found,
on trying, that, lurid as her prospect might hover there, she
could none the less give it no name. The sense of seeing was
strong in her, but she clutched at the comfort of not being sure
of what she saw. Not to know what it would represent on a longer
view was a help, in turn, to not making out that her hands were
embrued; since if she had stood in the position of a producing
cause she should surely be less vague about what she had
produced. This, further, in its way, was a step toward reflecting
that when one's connection with any matter was too indirect to be
traced it might be described also as too slight to be deplored.
By the time they were nearing Cadogan Place she had in fact
recognised that she couldn't be as curious as she desired without
arriving at some conviction of her being as innocent. But there
had been a moment, in the dim desert of Eaton Square, when she
broke into speech.

"It's only their defending themselves so much more than they
need--it's only THAT that makes me wonder. It's their having so
remarkably much to say for themselves."

Her husband had, as usual, lighted his cigar, remaining
apparently as busy with it as she with her agitation. "You mean
it makes you feel that you have nothing?" To which, as she made
no answer, the Colonel added: "What in the world did you ever
suppose was going to happen? The man's in a position in which he
has nothing in life to do."

Her silence seemed to characterise this statement as superficial,
and her thoughts, as always in her husband's company, pursued an
independent course. He made her, when they were together, talk,
but as if for some other person; who was in fact for the most
part herself. Yet she addressed herself with him as she could
never have done without him. "He has behaved beautifully--he did
from the first. I've thought it, all along, wonderful of him; and
I've more than once, when I've had a chance, told him so.
Therefore, therefore--!" But it died away as she mused.

"Therefore he has a right, for a change, to kick up his heels?"

"It isn't a question, of course, however," she undivertedly went
on, "of their behaving beautifully apart. It's a question of
their doing as they should when together--which is another
matter."

"And how do you think then," the Colonel asked with interest,
"that, when together, they SHOULD do? The less they do, one would
say, the better--if you see so much in it."

His wife, at this, appeared to hear him. "I don't see in it what
YOU'D see. And don't, my dear," she further answered, "think it
necessary to be horrid or low about them. They're the last
people, really, to make anything of that sort come in right."

"I'm surely never horrid or low," he returned, "about anyone but
my extravagant wife. I can do with all our friends--as I see them
myself: what I can't do with is the figures you make of them. And
when you take to adding your figures up--!" But he exhaled it
again in smoke.

"My additions don't matter when you've not to pay the bill." With
which her meditation again bore her through the air. "The great
thing was that when it so suddenly came up for her he wasn't
afraid. If he had been afraid he could perfectly have prevented
it. And if I had seen he was--if I hadn't seen he wasn't--so,"
said Mrs. Assingham, "could I. So," she declared, "WOULD I. It's
perfectly true," she went on--"it was too good a thing for her,
such a chance in life, not to be accepted. And I LIKED his not
keeping her out of it merely from a fear of his own nature. It
was so wonderful it should come to her. The only thing would have
been if Charlotte herself couldn't have faced it. Then, if SHE
had not had confidence, we might have talked. But she had it to
any amount."

"Did you ask her how much?" Bob Assingham patiently inquired.

He had put the question with no more than his usual modest hope
of reward, but he had pressed, this time, the sharpest spring of
response. "Never, never--it wasn't a time to 'ask.' Asking is
suggesting--and it wasn't a time to suggest. One had to make up
one's mind, as quietly as possible, by what one could judge. And
I judge, as I say, that Charlotte felt she could face it. For
which she struck me at the time as--for so proud a creature--
almost touchingly grateful. The thing I should never forgive her
for would be her forgetting to whom it is her thanks have
remained most due."

"That is to Mrs. Assingham?"

She said nothing for a little--there were, after all,
alternatives. "Maggie herself of course--astonishing little
Maggie."

"Is Maggie then astonishing too?"--and he gloomed out of his
window.

His wife, on her side now, as they rolled, projected the same
look. "I'm not sure that I don't begin to see more in her than--
dear little person as I've always thought--I ever supposed there
was. I'm not sure that, putting a good many things together, I'm
not beginning to make her out rather extraordinary."

"You certainly will if you can," the Colonel resignedly remarked.

Again his companion said nothing; then again she broke out. "In
fact--I do begin to feel it--Maggie's the great comfort. I'm
getting hold of it. It will be SHE who'll see us through. In fact
she'll have to. And she'll be able."

Touch by touch her meditation had completed it, but with a
cumulative effect for her husband's general sense of her method
that caused him to overflow, whimsically enough, in his corner,
into an ejaculation now frequent on his lips for the relief that,
especially in communion like the present, it gave him, and that
Fanny had critically traced to the quaint example, the aboriginal
homeliness, still so delightful, of Mr. Verver. "Oh, Lordy,
Lordy!"

"If she is, however," Mrs. Assingham continued, "she'll be
extraordinary enough--and that's what I'm thinking of. But I'm
not indeed so very sure," she added, "of the person to whom
Charlotte ought in decency to be most grateful. I mean I'm not
sure if that person is even almost the incredible little idealist
who has made her his wife."

"I shouldn't think you would be, love," the Colonel with some
promptness responded. "Charlotte as the wife of an incredible
little idealist--!" His cigar, in short, once more, could alone
express it.

"Yet what is that, when one thinks, but just what she struck one
as more or less persuaded that she herself was really going to
be?"--this memory, for the full view, Fanny found herself also
invoking.

It made her companion, in truth, slightly gape. "An incredible
little idealist--Charlotte herself?"

"And she was sincere," his wife simply proceeded "she was
unmistakably sincere. The question is only how much is left of
it."

"And that--I see--happens to be another of the questions you
can't ask her. You have to do it all," said Bob Assingham, "as if
you were playing some game with its rules drawn up--though who's
to come down on you if you break them I don't quite see. Or must
you do it in three guesses--like forfeits on Christmas eve?" To
which, as his ribaldry but dropped from her, he further added:
"How much of anything will have to be left for you to be able to
go on with it?"

"I shall go on," Fanny Assingham a trifle grimly declared, "while
there's a scrap as big as your nail. But we're not yet, luckily,
reduced only to that." She had another pause, holding the while
the thread of that larger perception into which her view of Mrs.
Verver's obligation to Maggie had suddenly expanded. "even if her
debt was not to the others--even then it ought to be quite
sufficiently to the Prince himself to keep her straight. For
what, really, did the Prince do," she asked herself, "but
generously trust her? What did he do but take it from her that if
she felt herself willing it was because she felt herself strong?
That creates for her, upon my word," Mrs. Assingham pursued, "a
duty of considering him, of honourably repaying his trust, which
--well, which she'll be really a fiend if she doesn't make the
law of her conduct. I mean of course his trust that she wouldn't
interfere with him--expressed by his holding himself quiet at the
critical time."

The brougham was nearing home, and it was perhaps this sense of
ebbing opportunity that caused the Colonel's next meditation to
flower in a fashion almost surprising to his wife. They were
united, for the most part, but by his exhausted patience; so that
indulgent despair was generally, at the best, his note. He at
present, however, actually compromised with his despair to the
extent of practically admitting that he had followed her steps.
He literally asked, in short, an intelligent, well nigh a
sympathising, question. "Gratitude to the Prince for not having
put a spoke in her wheel--that, you mean, should, taking it in
the right way, be precisely the ballast of her boat?"

"Taking it in the right way." Fanny, catching at this gleam,
emphasised the proviso.

"But doesn't it rather depend on what she may most feel to BE the
right way?"

"No--it depends on nothing. Because there's only one way--for
duty or delicacy."

"Oh--delicacy!" Bob Assingham rather crudely murmured.

"I mean the highest kind--moral. Charlotte's perfectly capable of
appreciating that. By every dictate of moral delicacy she must
let him alone."

"Then you've made up your mind it's all poor Charlotte?" he asked
with an effect of abruptness.

The effect, whether intended or not, reached her--brought her
face short round. It was a touch at which she again lost her
balance, at which, somehow, the bottom dropped out of her
recovered comfort. "Then you've made up yours differently? It
really struck you that there IS something?"

The movement itself, apparently, made him once more stand off. He
had felt on his nearer approach the high temperature of the
question. "Perhaps that's just what she's doing: showing him how
much she's letting him alone--pointing it out to him from day to
day."

"Did she point it out by waiting for him to-night on the stair-
case in the manner you described to me?"

"I really, my dear, described to you a manner?" the Colonel,
clearly, from want of habit, scarce recognised himself in the
imputation.

"Yes--for once in a way; in those few words we had after you had
watched them come up you told me something of what you had seen.
You didn't tell me very much--THAT you couldn't for your life;
but I saw for myself that, strange to say, you had received your
impression, and I felt therefore that there must indeed have been
something out of the way for you so to betray it." She was fully
upon him now, and she confronted him with his proved sensibility
to the occasion--confronted him because of her own uneasy need to
profit by it. It came over her still more than at the time, it
came over her that he had been struck with something, even HE,
poor dear man; and that for this to have occurred there must have
been much to be struck with. She tried in fact to corner him, to
pack him insistently down, in the truth of his plain vision, the
very plainness of which was its value; for so recorded, she felt,
none of it would escape--she should have it at hand for
reference. "Come, my dear--you thought what you thought: in the
presence of what you saw you couldn't resist thinking. I don't
ask more of it than that. And your idea is worth, this time,
quite as much as any of mine--so that you can't pretend, as
usual, that mine has run away with me. I haven't caught up with
you. I stay where I am. But I see," she concluded, "where you
are, and I'm much obliged to you for letting me. You give me a
point de repere outside myself--which is where I like it. Now I
can work round you."

Their conveyance, as she spoke, stopped at their door, and it
was, on the spot, another fact of value for her that her husband,
though seated on the side by which they must alight, made no
movement. They were in a high degree votaries of the latch-key,
so that their household had gone to bed; and as they were
unaccompanied by a footman the coachman waited in peace. It was
so indeed that for a minute Bob Assingham waited--conscious of a
reason for replying to this address otherwise than by the so
obvious method of turning his back. He didn't turn his face, but
he stared straight before him, and his wife had already perceived
in the fact of his not moving all the proof she could desire--
proof, that is, of her own contention. She knew he never cared
what she said, and his neglect of his chance to show it was
thereby the more eloquent. "Leave it," he at last remarked, "to
THEM."

"'Leave' it--?" She wondered.

"Let them alone. They'll manage."

"They'll manage, you mean, to do everything they want? Ah, there
then you are!"

"They'll manage in their own way," the Colonel almost cryptically
repeated.

It had its effect for her: quite apart from its light on the
familiar phenomenon of her husband's indurated conscience, it
gave her, full in her face, the particular evocation of which she
had made him guilty. It was wonderful truly, then, the evocation.
"So cleverly--THAT'S your idea?--that no one will be the wiser?
It's your idea that we shall have done all that's required of us
if we simply protect them?"

The Colonel, still in his place, declined, however, to be drawn
into a statement of his idea. Statements were too much like
theories, in which one lost one's way; he only knew what he said,
and what he said represented the limited vibration of which his
confirmed old toughness had been capable. Still, none the less,
he had his point to make--for which he took another instant. But
he made it, for the third time, in the same fashion. "They'll
manage in their own way." With which he got out.

Oh yes, at this, for his companion, it had indeed its effect, and
while he mounted their steps she but stared, without following
him, at his opening of their door. Their hall was lighted, and as
he stood in the aperture looking back at her, his tall lean
figure outlined in darkness and with his crush-hat, according to
his wont, worn cavalierly, rather diabolically, askew, he seemed
to prolong the sinister emphasis of his meaning. In general, on
these returns, he came back for her when he had prepared their
entrance; so that it was now as if he were ashamed to face her in
closer quarters. He looked at her across the interval, and, still
in her seat, weighing his charge, she felt her whole view of
everything flare up. Wasn't it simply what had been written in
the Prince's own face BENEATH what he was saying?--didn't it
correspond with the mocking presence there that she had had her
troubled glimpse of? Wasn't, in fine, the pledge that they would
"manage in their own way" the thing he had been feeling for his
chance to invite her to take from him? Her husband's tone somehow
fitted Amerigo's look--the one that had, for her, so strangely,
peeped, from behind, over the shoulder of the one in front. She
had not then read it--but wasn't she reading it when she now saw
in it his surmise that she was perhaps to be squared? She wasn't
to be squared, and while she heard her companion call across to
her "Well, what's the matter?" she also took time to remind
herself that she had decided she couldn't be frightened. The
"matter"?--why, it was sufficiently the matter, with all this,
that she felt a little sick. For it was not the Prince that she
had been prepared to regard as primarily the shaky one. Shakiness
in Charlotte she had, at the most, perhaps postulated--it would
be, she somehow felt, more easy to deal with. Therefore if HE had
come so far it was a different pair of sleeves. There was nothing
to choose between them. It made her so helpless that, as the time
passed without her alighting, the Colonel came back and fairly
drew her forth; after which, on the pavement, under the
street-lamp, their very silence might have been the mark of
something grave--their silence eked out for her by his giving her
his arm and their then crawling up their steps quite mildly and
unitedly together, like some old Darby and Joan who have had a
disappointment. It almost resembled a return from a funeral--
unless indeed it resembled more the hushed approach to a house of
mourning. What indeed had she come home for but to bury, as
decently as possible, her mistake?

Henry James

Sorry, no summary available yet.