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Chapter 20

The main interest of these hours for us, however, will have been
in the way the Prince continued to know, during a particular
succession of others, separated from the evening in Eaton Square
by a short interval, a certain persistent aftertaste. This was
the lingering savour of a cup presented to him by Fanny
Assingham's hand after dinner, while the clustered quartette kept
their ranged companions, in the music-room, moved if one would,
but conveniently motionless. Mrs. Assingham contrived, after a
couple of pieces, to convey to her friend that, for her part, she
was moved--by the genius of Brahms--beyond what she could bear;
so that, without apparent deliberation, she had presently floated
away, at the young man's side, to such a distance as permitted
them to converse without the effect of disdain. It was the twenty
minutes enjoyed with her, during the rest of the concert, in the
less associated electric glare of one of the empty rooms--it was
their achieved and, as he would have said, successful, most
pleasantly successful, talk on one of the sequestered sofas, it
was this that was substantially to underlie his consciousness of
the later occasion. The later occasion, then mere matter of
discussion, had formed her ground for desiring--in a light
undertone into which his quick ear read indeed some nervousness--
these independent words with him: she had sounded, covertly but
distinctly, by the time they were seated together, the great
question of what it might involve. It had come out for him before
anything else, and so abruptly that this almost needed an
explanation. Then the abruptness itself had appeared to explain--
which had introduced, in turn, a slight awkwardness. "Do you know
that they're not, after all, going to Matcham; so that, if they
don't--if, at least, Maggie doesn't--you won't, I suppose, go by
yourself?" It was, as I say, at Matcham, where the event had
placed him, it was at Matcham during the Easter days, that it
most befell him, oddly enough, to live over, inwardly, for its
wealth of special significance, this passage by which the event
had been really a good deal determined. He had paid, first and
last, many an English country visit; he had learned, even from of
old, to do the English things, and to do them, all sufficiently,
in the English way; if he didn't always enjoy them madly he
enjoyed them at any rate as much, to an appearance, as the good
people who had, in the night of time, unanimously invented them,
and who still, in the prolonged afternoon of their good faith,
unanimously, even if a trifle automatically, practised them; yet,
with it all, he had never so much as during such sojourns the
trick of a certain detached, the amusement of a certain inward
critical, life; the determined need, which apparently all
participant, of returning upon itself, of backing noiselessly in,
far in again, and rejoining there, as it were, that part of his
mind that was not engaged at the front. His body, very
constantly, was engaged at the front--in shooting, in riding, in
golfing, in walking, over the fine diagonals of meadow-paths or
round the pocketed corners of billiard-tables; it sufficiently,
on the whole, in fact, bore the brunt of bridge-playing, of
breakfasting, lunching, tea-drinking, dining, and of the nightly
climax over the bottigliera, as he called it, of the bristling
tray; it met, finally, to the extent of the limited tax on lip,
on gesture, on wit, most of the current demands of conversation
and expression. Therefore something of him, he often felt at
these times, was left out; it was much more when he was alone, or
when he was with his own people--or when he was, say, with Mrs.
Verver and nobody else--that he moved, that he talked, that he
listened, that he felt, as a congruous whole.

"English society," as he would have said, cut him, accordingly,
in two, and he reminded himself often, in his relations with it,
of a man possessed of a shining star, a decoration, an order of
some sort, something so ornamental as to make his identity not
complete, ideally, without it, yet who, finding no other such
object generally worn, should be perpetually, and the least bit
ruefully, unpinning it from his breast to transfer it to his
pocket. The Prince's shining star may, no doubt, having been
nothing more precious than his private subtlety; but whatever the
object was he just now fingered it a good deal, out of sight--
amounting as it mainly did for him to a restless play of memory
and a fine embroidery of thought. Something had rather
momentously occurred, in Eaton Square, during his enjoyed minutes
with his old friend: his present perspective made definitely
clear to him that she had plumped out for him her first little
lie. That took on--and he could scarce have said why--a sharpness
of importance: she had never lied to him before--if only because
it had never come up for her, properly, intelligibly, morally,
that she must. As soon as she had put to him the question of what
he would do--by which she meant of what Charlotte would also do--
in that event of Maggie's and Mr. Verver's not embracing the
proposal they had appeared for a day or two resignedly to
entertain; as soon as she had betrayed her curiosity as to the
line the other pair, so left to themselves, might take, a desire
to avoid the appearance of at all too directly prying had become
marked in her. Betrayed by the solicitude of which she had,
already, three weeks before, given him a view, she had been
obliged, on a second thought, to name, intelligibly, a reason for
her appeal; while the Prince, on his side, had had, not without
mercy, his glimpse of her momentarily groping for one and yet
remaining unprovided. Not without mercy because, absolutely, he
had on the spot, in his friendliness, invented one for her use,
presenting it to her with a look no more significant than if he
had picked up, to hand back to her, a dropped flower. "You ask if
I'm likely also to back out then, because it may make a
difference in what you and the Colonel decide?"--he had gone as
far as that for her, fairly inviting her to assent, though not
having had his impression, from any indication offered him by
Charlotte, that the Assinghams were really in question for the
large Matcham party. The wonderful thing, after this, was that
the active couple had, in the interval, managed to inscribe
themselves on the golden roll; an exertion of a sort that, to do
her justice, he had never before observed Fanny to make. This
last passage of the chapter but proved, after all, with what
success she could work when she would.

Once launched, himself, at any rate, as he had been directed by
all the terms of the intercourse between Portland Place and Eaton
Square, once steeped, at Matcham, in the enjoyment of a splendid
hospitality, he found everything, for his interpretation, for his
convenience, fall easily enough into place; and all the more that
Mrs. Verver was at hand to exchange ideas and impressions with.
The great house was full of people, of possible new combinations,
of the quickened play of possible propinquity, and no appearance,
of course, was less to be cultivated than that of his having
sought an opportunity to foregather with his friend at a safe
distance from their respective sposi. There was a happy boldness,
at the best, in their mingling thus, each unaccompanied, in the
same sustained sociability--just exactly a touch of that
eccentricity of associated freedom which sat so lightly on the
imagination of the relatives left behind. They were exposed as
much as one would to its being pronounced funny that they should,
at such a rate, go about together--though, on the other hand,
this consideration drew relief from the fact that, in their high
conditions and with the easy tradition, the almost inspiring
allowances, of the house in question, no individual line, however
freely marked, was pronounced anything more than funny. Both our
friends felt afresh, as they had felt before, the convenience of
a society so placed that it had only its own sensibility to
consider--looking as it did well over the heads of all lower
growths; and that moreover treated its own sensibility quite as
the easiest, friendliest, most informal and domesticated party to
the general alliance. What anyone "thought" of anyone else--above
all of anyone else with anyone else--was a matter incurring in
these lulls so little awkward formulation that hovering judgment,
the spirit with the scales, might perfectly have been imaged
there as some rather snubbed and subdued, but quite trained and
tactful poor relation, of equal, of the properest, lineage, only
of aspect a little dingy, doubtless from too limited a change of
dress, for whose tacit and abstemious presence, never betrayed by
a rattle of her rusty machine, a room in the attic and a plate at
the side-table were decently usual. It was amusing, in such
lightness of air, that the Prince should again present himself
only to speak for the Princess, so unfortunately unable, again,
to leave home; and that Mrs. Verver should as regularly figure as
an embodied, a beautifully deprecating apology for her husband,
who was all geniality and humility among his own treasures, but
as to whom the legend had grown up that he couldn't bear, with
the height of his standards and the tone of the company, in the
way of sofas and cabinets, habitually kept by him, the irritation
and depression to which promiscuous visiting, even at pompous
houses, had been found to expose him. That was all right, the
noted working harmony of the clever son-in-law and the charming
stepmother, so long as the relation was, for the effect in
question, maintained at the proper point between sufficiency and
excess.

What with the noble fairness of the place, meanwhile, the
generous mood of the sunny, gusty, lusty English April, all
panting and heaving with impatience, or kicking and crying, even,
at moments, like some infant Hercules who wouldn't be dressed;
what with these things and the bravery of youth and beauty, the
insolence of fortune and appetite so diffused among his
fellow-guests that the poor Assinghams, in their comparatively
marked maturity and their comparatively small splendour, were the
only approach to a false note in the concert, the stir of the air
was such, for going, in a degree, to one's head, that, as a mere
matter of exposure, almost grotesque in its flagrancy, his
situation resembled some elaborate practical joke carried out at
his expense. Every voice in the great bright house was a call to
the ingenuities and impunities of pleasure; every echo was a
defiance of difficulty, doubt or danger; every aspect of the
picture, a glowing plea for the immediate, and as with plenty
more to come, was another phase of the spell. For a world so
constituted was governed by a spell, that of the smile of the
gods and the favour of the powers; the only handsome, the only
gallant, in fact the only intelligent acceptance of which was a
faith in its guarantees and a high spirit for its chances. Its
demand--to that the thing came back--was above all for courage
and good-humour; and the value of this as a general assurance--
that is for seeing one through at the worst--had not even in the
easiest hours of his old Roman life struck the Prince so
convincingly. His old Roman life had had more poetry, no doubt,
but as he looked back upon it now it seemed to hang in the air of
mere iridescent horizons, to have been loose and vague and thin,
with large languorous unaccountable blanks. The present order, as
it spread about him, had somehow the ground under its feet, and a
trumpet in its ears, and a bottomless bag of solid shining
British sovereigns--which was much to the point--in its hand.
Courage and good-humour therefore were the breath of the day;
though for ourselves at least it would have been also much to the
point that, with Amerigo, really, the innermost effect of all
this perceptive ease was perhaps a strange final irritation. He
compared the lucid result with the extraordinary substitute for
perception that presided, in the bosom of his wife, at so
contented a view of his conduct and course--a state of mind that
was positively like a vicarious good conscience, cultivated
ingeniously on his behalf, a perversity of pressure innocently
persisted in; and this wonder of irony became on occasion too
intense to be kept wholly to himself. It wasn't that, at Matcham,
anything particular, anything monstrous, anything that had to be
noticed permitted itself, as they said, to "happen"; there were
only odd moments when the breath of the day, as it has been
called, struck him so full in the face that he broke out with all
the hilarity of "What indeed would THEY have made of it?" "They"
were of course Maggie and her father, moping--so far as they ever
consented to mope in monotonous Eaton Square, but placid too in
the belief that they knew beautifully what their expert
companions were in for. They knew, it might have appeared in
these lights, absolutely nothing on earth worth speaking of--
whether beautifully or cynically; and they would perhaps
sometimes be a little less trying if they would only once for all
peacefully admit that knowledge wasn't one of their needs and
that they were in fact constitutionally inaccessible to it. They
were good children, bless their hearts, and the children of good
children; so that, verily, the Principino himself, as less
consistently of that descent, might figure to the fancy as the
ripest genius of the trio.

The difficulty was, for the nerves of daily intercourse with
Maggie in particular, that her imagination was clearly never
ruffled by the sense of any anomaly. The great anomaly would have
been that her husband, or even that her father's wife, should
prove to have been made, for the long run, after the pattern set
from so far back to the Ververs. If one was so made one had
certainly no business, on any terms, at Matcham; whereas if one
wasn't one had no business there on the particular terms--terms
of conformity with the principles of Eaton Square--under which
one had been so absurdly dedicated. Deep at the heart of that
resurgent unrest in our young man which we have had to content
ourselves with calling his irritation--deep in the bosom of this
falsity of position glowed the red spark of his inextinguishable
sense of a higher and braver propriety. There were situations
that were ridiculous, but that one couldn't yet help, as for
instance when one's wife chose, in the most usual way, to make
one so. Precisely here, however, was the difference; it had taken
poor Maggie to invent a way so extremely unusual--yet to which,
none the less, it would be too absurd that he should merely lend
himself. Being thrust, systematically, with another woman, and a
woman one happened, by the same token, exceedingly to like, and
being so thrust that the theory of it seemed to publish one as
idiotic or incapable--this WAS a predicament of which the dignity
depended all on one's own handling. What was supremely grotesque,
in fact, was the essential opposition of theories--as if a
galantuomo, as HE at least constitutionally conceived
galantuomini, could do anything BUT blush to "go about" at such a
rate with such a person as Mrs. Verver in a state of childlike
innocence, the state of our primitive parents before the Fall.
The grotesque theory, as he would have called it, was perhaps an
odd one to resent with violence, and he did it--also as a man of
the world--all merciful justice; but, assuredly, none the less,
there was but one way REALLY to mark, and for his companion as
much as for himself, the commiseration in which they held it.
Adequate comment on it could only be private, but it could also
at least be active, and of rich and effectual comment Charlotte
and he were fortunately alike capable. Wasn't this consensus
literally their only way not to be ungracious? It was positively
as if the measure of their escape from that danger were given by
the growth between them, during their auspicious visit, of an
exquisite sense of complicity.

Henry James

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