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Chapter 2

"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."

"Mine?"--he wondered.

"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."

Henry James

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