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Chapter 4

"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?
How will it do, how will it do?"

"It will do, I daresay, without your wringing your hands over it.
When, my dear," the Colonel pursued as he smoked, "have you ever
seen anything of yours--anything that you've done--NOT do?"

"Ah, I didn't do this!" It brought her answer straight. "I didn't
bring her back."

"Did you expect her to stay over there all her days to oblige
you?"

"Not a bit--for I shouldn't have minded her coming after their
marriage. It's her coming, this way, before." To which she added
with inconsequence: "I'm too sorry for her--of course she can't
enjoy it. But I don't see what perversity rides her. She needn't
have looked it all so in the face--as she doesn't do it, I
suppose, simply for discipline. It's almost--that's the bore of
it--discipline to ME."

"Perhaps then," said Bob Assingham, "that's what has been her
idea. Take it, for God's sake, as discipline to you and have done
with it. It will do," he added, "for discipline to me as well."

She was far, however, from having done with it; it was a
situation with such different sides, as she said, and to none of
which one could, in justice, be blind. "It isn't in the least,
you know, for instance, that I believe she's bad. Never, never,"
Mrs. Assingham declared. "I don't think that of her."

"Then why isn't that enough?"

Nothing was enough, Mrs. Assingham signified, but that she should
develop her thought. "She doesn't deliberately intend, she
doesn't consciously wish, the least complication. It's perfectly
true that she thinks Maggie a dear--as who doesn't? She's
incapable of any PLAN to hurt a hair of her head. Yet here she
is--and there THEY are," she wound up.

Her husband again, for a little, smoked in silence. "What in the
world, between them, ever took place?"

"Between Charlotte and the Prince? Why, nothing--except their
having to recognise that nothing COULD. That was their little
romance--it was even their little tragedy."

"But what the deuce did they DO?"

"Do? They fell in love with each other--but, seeing it wasn't
possible, gave each other up."

"Then where was the romance?"

"Why, in their frustration, in their having the courage to look
the facts in the face."

"What facts?" the Colonel went on.

"Well, to begin with, that of their neither of them having the
means to marry. If she had had even a little--a little, I mean,
for two--I believe he would bravely have done it." After which,
as her husband but emitted an odd vague sound, she corrected
herself. "I mean if he himself had had only a little--or a little
more than a little, a little for a prince. They would have done
what they could"--she did them justice"--if there had been a way.
But there wasn't a way, and Charlotte, quite to her honour, I
consider, understood it. He HAD to have money--it was a question
of life and death. It wouldn't have been a bit amusing, either,
to marry him as a pauper--I mean leaving him one. That was what
she had--as HE had--the reason to see."

"And their reason is what you call their romance?"

She looked at him a moment. "What do you want more?"

"Didn't HE," the Colonel inquired, "want anything more? Or
didn't, for that matter, poor Charlotte herself?"

She kept her eyes on him; there was a manner in it that half
answered. "They were thoroughly in love. She might have been
his--" She checked herself; she even for a minute lost herself.
"She might have been anything she liked--except his wife."

"But she wasn't," said the Colonel very smokingly.

"She wasn't," Mrs. Assingham echoed.

The echo, not loud but deep, filled for a little the room. He
seemed to listen to it die away; then he began again. "How are
you sure?"

She waited before saying, but when she spoke it was definite.
"There wasn't time."

He had a small laugh for her reason; he might have expected some
other. "Does it take so much time?"

She herself, however, remained serious. "It takes more than they
had."

He was detached, but he wondered. "What was the matter with their
time?" After which, as, remembering it all, living it over and
piecing it together, she only considered, "You mean that you came
in with your idea?" he demanded.

It brought her quickly to the point, and as if also in a measure
to answer herself. "Not a bit of it--THEN. But you surely
recall," she went on, "the way, a year ago, everything took
place. They had parted before he had ever heard of Maggie."

"Why hadn't he heard of her from Charlotte herself?"

"Because she had never spoken of her."

"Is that also," the Colonel inquired, "what she has told you?"

"I'm not speaking," his wife returned, "of what she has told me.
That's one thing. I'm speaking of what I know by myself. That's
another."

"You feel, in other words, that she lies to you?" Bob Assingham
more sociably asked.

She neglected the question, treating it as gross. "She never so
much, at the time, as named Maggie."

It was so positive that it appeared to strike him. "It's he then
who has told you?"

She after a moment admitted it. "It's he."

"And he doesn't lie?"

"No--to do him justice. I believe he absolutely doesn't. If I
hadn't believed it," Mrs. Assingham declared, for her general
justification, "I would have had nothing to do with him--that is
in this connection. He's a gentleman--I mean ALL as much of one
as he ought to be. And he had nothing to gain. That helps," she
added, "even a gentleman. It was I who named Maggie to him--a
year from last May. He had never heard of her before."

"Then it's grave," said the Colonel.

She hesitated. "Do you mean grave for me?"

"Oh, that everything's grave for 'you' is what we take for
granted and are fundamentally talking about. It's grave--it WAS--
for Charlotte. And it's grave for Maggie. That is it WAS--when he
did see her. Or when she did see HIM."

"You don't torment me as much as you would like," she presently
went on, "because you think of nothing that I haven't a thousand
times thought of, and because I think of everything that you
never will. It would all," she recognised, "have been grave if it
hadn't all been right. You can't make out," she contended, "that
we got to Rome before the end of February."

He more than agreed. "There's nothing in life, my dear, that I
CAN make out."

Well, there was nothing in life, apparently, that she, at real
need, couldn't. "Charlotte, who had been there, that year, from
early, quite from November, left suddenly, you'll quite remember,
about the 10th of April. She was to have stayed on--she was to
have stayed, naturally, more or less, for us; and she was to have
stayed all the more that the Ververs, due all winter, but
delayed, week after week, in Paris, were at last really coming.
They were coming--that is Maggie was--largely to see her, and
above all to be with her THERE. It was all altered--by
Charlotte's going to Florence. She went from one day to the
other--you forget everything. She gave her reasons, but I thought
it odd, at the time; I had a sense that something must have
happened. The difficulty was that, though I knew a little, I
didn't know enough. I didn't know her relation with him had been,
as you say, a 'near' thing--that is I didn't know HOW near. The
poor girl's departure was a flight--she went to save herself."

He had listened more than he showed--as came out in his tone.
"To save herself?"

"Well, also, really, I think, to save HIM too. I saw it
afterwards--I see it all now. He would have been sorry--he didn't
want to hurt her."

"Oh, I daresay," the Colonel laughed. "They generally don't!"

"At all events," his wife pursued, "she escaped--they both did;
for they had had simply to face it. Their marriage couldn't be,
and, if that was so, the sooner they put the Apennines between
them the better. It had taken them, it is true, some time to feel
this and to find it out. They had met constantly, and not always
publicly, all that winter; they had met more than was known--
though it was a good deal known. More, certainly," she said,
"than I then imagined--though I don't know what difference it
would after all have made with me. I liked him, I thought him
charming, from the first of our knowing him; and now, after more
than a year, he has done nothing to spoil it. And there are
things he might have done--things that many men easily would.
Therefore I believe in him, and I was right, at first, in knowing
I was going to. So I haven't"--and she stated it as she might
have quoted from a slate, after adding up the items, the sum of a
column of figures--"so I haven't, I say to myself, been a fool."

"Well, are you trying to make out that I've said you have? All
their case wants, at any rate," Bob Assingham declared, "is that
you should leave it well alone. It's theirs now; they've bought
it, over the counter, and paid for it. It has ceased to be
yours."

"Of which case," she asked, "are you speaking?"

He smoked a minute: then with a groan: "Lord, are there so many?"

"There's Maggie's and the Prince's, and there's the Prince's and
Charlotte's."

"Oh yes; and then," the Colonel scoffed, "there's Charlotte's and
the Prince's."

"There's Maggie's and Charlotte's," she went on--"and there's
also Maggie's and mine. I think too that there's Charlotte's and
mine. Yes," she mused, "Charlotte's and mine is certainly a case.
In short, you see, there are plenty. But I mean," she said, "to
keep my head."

"Are we to settle them all," he inquired, "to-night?"

"I should lose it if things had happened otherwise--if I had
acted with any folly." She had gone on in her earnestness,
unheeding of his question. "I shouldn't be able to bear that now.
But my good conscience is my strength; no one can accuse me.
The Ververs came on to Rome alone--Charlotte, after their days
with her in Florence, had decided about America. Maggie, I
daresay, had helped her; she must have made her a present, and a
handsome one, so that many things were easy. Charlotte left them,
came to England, 'joined' somebody or other, sailed for New York.
I have still her letter from Milan, telling me; I didn't know at
the moment all that was behind it, but I felt in it nevertheless
the undertaking of a new life. Certainly, in any case, it cleared
THAT air--I mean the dear old Roman, in which we were steeped.
It left the field free--it gave me a free hand. There was no
question for me of anybody else when I brought the two others
together. More than that, there was no question for them. So you
see," she concluded, "where that puts me." She got up, on the
words, very much as if they were the blue daylight towards which,
through a darksome tunnel, she had been pushing her way, and the
elation in her voice, combined with her recovered alertness,
might have signified the sharp whistle of the train that shoots
at last into the open. She turned about the room; she looked out
a moment into the August night; she stopped, here and there,
before the flowers in bowls and vases. Yes, it was distinctly as
if she had proved what was needing proof, as if the issue of her
operation had been, almost unexpectedly, a success. Old
arithmetic had perhaps been fallacious, but the new settled the
question. Her husband, oddly, however, kept his place without
apparently measuring these results. As he had been amused at her
intensity, so he was not uplifted by her relief; his interest
might in fact have been more enlisted than he allowed. "Do you
mean," he presently asked, "that he had already forgot about
Charlotte?"

She faced round as if he had touched a spring. "He WANTED to,
naturally--and it was much the best thing he could do." She was
in possession of the main case, as it truly seemed; she had it
all now. "He was capable of the effort, and he took the best way.
Remember too what Maggie then seemed to us."

"She's very nice; but she always seems to me, more than anything
else, the young woman who has a million a year. If you mean that
that's what she especially seemed to him, you of course place the
thing in your light. The effort to forget Charlotte couldn't, I
grant you, have been so difficult."

This pulled her up but for an instant. "I never said he didn't
from the first--I never said that he doesn't more and more--like
Maggie's money."

"I never said I shouldn't have liked it myself," Bob Assingham
returned. He made no movement; he smoked another minute. "How
much did Maggie know?"

"How much?" She seemed to consider--as if it were between quarts
and gallons--how best to express the quantity. "She knew what
Charlotte, in Florence, had told her."

"And what had Charlotte told her?"

"Very little."

"What makes you so sure?"

"Why, this--that she couldn't tell her." And she explained a
little what she meant. "There are things, my dear--haven't you
felt it yourself, coarse as you are?--that no one could tell
Maggie. There are things that, upon my word, I shouldn't care to
attempt to tell her now."

The Colonel smoked on it. "She'd be so scandalised?"

"She'd be so frightened. She'd be, in her strange little way, so
hurt. She wasn't born to know evil. She must never know it."
Bob Assingham had a queer grim laugh; the sound of which, in
fact, fixed his wife before him. "We're taking grand ways to
prevent it."

But she stood there to protest. "We're not taking any ways. The
ways are all taken; they were taken from the moment he came up to
our carriage that day in Villa Borghese--the second or third of
her days in Rome, when, as you remember, you went off somewhere
with Mr. Verver, and the Prince, who had got into the carriage
with us, came home with us to tea. They had met; they had seen
each other well; they were in relation: the rest was to come of
itself and as it could. It began, practically, I recollect, in
our drive. Maggie happened to learn, by some other man's greeting
of him, in the bright Roman way, from a streetcorner as we
passed, that one of the Prince's baptismal names, the one always
used for him among his relations, was Amerigo: which (as you
probably don't know, however, even after a lifetime of ME), was
the name, four hundred years ago, or whenever, of the pushing man
who followed, across the sea, in the wake of Columbus and
succeeded, where Columbus had failed, in becoming godfather, or
name-father, to the new Continent; so that the thought of any
connection with him can even now thrill our artless breasts."

The Colonel's grim placidity could always quite adequately meet
his wife's not infrequent imputation of ignorances, on the score
of the land of her birth, unperturbed and unashamed; and these
dark depths were even at the present moment not directly lighted
by an inquiry that managed to be curious without being
apologetic. "But where does the connection come in?"

His wife was prompt. "By the women--that is by some obliging
woman, of old, who was a descendant of the pushing man, the
make-believe discoverer, and whom the Prince is therefore luckily
able to refer to as an ancestress. A branch of the other family
had become great--great enough, at least, to marry into his; and
the name of the navigator, crowned with glory, was, very
naturally, to become so the fashion among them that some son, of
every generation, was appointed to wear it. My point is, at any
rate, that I recall noticing at the time how the Prince was, from
the start, helped with the dear Ververs by his wearing it. The
connection became romantic for Maggie the moment she took it in;
she filled out, in a flash, every link that might be vague. 'By
that sign,' I quite said to myself, 'he'll conquer'--with his
good fortune, of course, of having the other necessary signs too.
It really," said Mrs. Assingham, "was, practically, the fine side
of the wedge. Which struck me as also," she wound up, "a lovely
note for the candour of the Ververs."

The Colonel took in the tale, but his comment was prosaic. "He
knew, Amerigo, what he was about. And I don't mean the OLD one."

"I know what you mean!" his wife bravely threw off.

"The old one"--he pointed his effect "isn't the only discoverer
in the family."

"Oh, as much as you like! If he discovered America--or got
himself honoured as if he had--his successors were, in due time,
to discover the Americans. And it was one of them in particular,
doubtless, who was to discover how patriotic we are."

"Wouldn't this be the same one," the Colonel asked, "who really
discovered what you call the connection?"

She gave him a look. "The connection's a true thing--the
connection's perfectly historic, Your insinuations recoil upon
your cynical mind. Don't you understand," she asked, "that the
history of such people is known, root and branch, at every moment
of its course?"

"Oh, it's all right," said Bob Assingham.

"Go to the British Museum," his companion continued with spirit.

"And what am I to do there?"

"There's a whole immense room, or recess, or department, or
whatever, filled with books written about his family alone. You
can see for yourself."

"Have you seen for YOUR self?"

She faltered but an instant. "Certainly--I went one day with
Maggie. We looked him up, so to say. They were most civil." And
she fell again into the current her husband had slightly ruffled.
"The effect was produced, the charm began to work, at all events,
in Rome, from that hour of the Prince's drive with us. My only
course, afterwards, had to be to make the best of it. It was
certainly good enough for that," Mrs. Assingham hastened to add,
"and I didn't in the least see my duty in making the worst. In
the same situation, to-day; I wouldn't act differently. I entered
into the case as it then appeared to me--and as, for the matter
of that, it still does. I LIKED it, I thought all sorts of good
of it, and nothing can even now," she said with some intensity,
"make me think anything else."

"Nothing can ever make you think anything you don't want to," the
Colonel, still in his chair, remarked over his pipe. "You've got
a precious power of thinking whatever you do want. You want also,
from moment to moment, to think such desperately different
things. What happened," he went on, "was that you fell violently
in love with the Prince yourself, and that as you couldn't get me
out of the way you had to take some roundabout course. You
couldn't marry him, any more than Charlotte could--that is not to
yourself. But you could to somebody else--it was always the
Prince, it was always marriage. You could to your little friend,
to whom there were no objections."

"Not only there were no objections, but there were reasons,
positive ones--and all excellent, all charming." She spoke with
an absence of all repudiation of his exposure of the spring of
her conduct; and this abstention, clearly and effectively
conscious, evidently cost her nothing. "It IS always the Prince;
and it IS always, thank heaven, marriage. And these are the
things, God grant, that it will always be. That I could help, a
year ago, most assuredly made me happy, and it continues to make
me happy."

"Then why aren't you quiet?"

"I AM quiet," said Fanny Assingham.

He looked at her, with his colourless candour, still in his
place; she moved about again, a little, emphasising by her unrest
her declaration of her tranquillity. He was as silent, at first,
as if he had taken her answer, but he was not to keep it long.
"What do you make of it that, by your own show, Charlotte
couldn't tell her all? What do you make of it that the Prince
didn't tell her anything? Say one understands that there are
things she can't be told--since, as you put it, she is so easily
scared and shocked." He produced these objections slowly, giving
her time, by his pauses, to stop roaming and come back to him.
But she was roaming still when he concluded his inquiry. "If
there hadn't been anything there shouldn't have been between the
pair before Charlotte bolted--in order, precisely, as you say,
that there SHOULDN'T be: why in the world was what there HAD
been too bad to be spoken of?"

Mrs. Assingham, after this question, continued still to
circulate--not directly meeting it even when at last she stopped.

"I thought you wanted me to be quiet."

"So I do--and I'm trying to make you so much so that you won't
worry more. Can't you be quiet on THAT?"

She thought a moment--then seemed to try. "To relate that she had
to 'bolt' for the reasons we speak of, even though the bolting
had done for her what she wished--THAT I can perfectly feel
Charlotte's not wanting to do."

"Ah then, if it HAS done for her what she wished-!" But the
Colonel's conclusion hung by the "if" which his wife didn't take
up. So it hung but the longer when he presently spoke again. "All
one wonders, in that case, is why then she has come back to him."

"Say she hasn't come back to him. Not really to HIM."

"I'll say anything you like. But that won't do me the same good
as your saying it."

"Nothing, my dear, will do you good," Mrs. Assingham returned.
"You don't care for anything in itself; you care for nothing but
to be grossly amused because I don't keep washing my hands--!"

"I thought your whole argument was that everything is so right
that this is precisely what you do."

But his wife, as it was a point she had often made, could go on
as she had gone on before. "You're perfectly indifferent, really;
you're perfectly immoral. You've taken part in the sack of
cities, and I'm sure you've done dreadful things yourself. But I
DON'T trouble my head, if you like. 'So now there!'" she laughed.

He accepted her laugh, but he kept his way. "Well, I back poor
Charlotte."

"'Back' her?"

"To know what she wants."

"Ah then, so do I. She does know what she wants." And Mrs.
Assingham produced this quantity, at last, on the girl's behalf,
as the ripe result of her late wanderings and musings. She had
groped through their talk, for the thread, and now she had got
it. "She wants to be magnificent."

"She is," said the Colonel almost cynically.

"She wants"--his wife now had it fast "to be thoroughly superior,
and she's capable of that."

"Of wanting to?"

"Of carrying out her idea."

"And what IS her idea?"

"To see Maggie through."

Bob Assingham wondered. "Through what?"

"Through everything. She KNOWS the Prince."

"And Maggie doesn't. No, dear thing"--Mrs. Assingham had to
recognise it--"she doesn't."

"So that Charlotte has come out to give her lessons?"

She continued, Fanny Assingham, to work out her thought. "She has
done this great thing for him. That is, a year ago, she
practically did it. She practically, at any rate, helped him to
do it himself--and helped me to help him. She kept off, she
stayed away, she left him free; and what, moreover, were her
silences to Maggie but a direct aid to him? If she had spoken in
Florence; if she had told her own poor story; if she had, come
back at any time--till within a few weeks ago; if she hadn't gone
to New York and hadn't held out there: if she hadn't done these
things all that has happened since would certainly have been
different. Therefore she's in a position to be consistent now.
She knows the Prince," Mrs. Assingham repeated. It involved even
again her former recognition. "And Maggie, dear thing, doesn't."

She was high, she was lucid, she was almost inspired; and it was
but the deeper drop therefore to her husband's flat common sense.
"In other words Maggie is, by her ignorance, in danger? Then if
she's in danger, there IS danger."

"There WON'T be--with Charlotte's understanding of it. That's
where she has had her conception of being able to be heroic, of
being able in fact to be sublime. She is, she will be"--the good
lady by this time glowed. "So she sees it--to become, for her
best friend, an element of POSITIVE safety."

Bob Assingham looked at it hard. "Which of them do you call her
best friend?"

She gave a toss of impatience. "I'll leave you to discover!" But
the grand truth thus made out she had now completely adopted.
"It's for US, therefore, to be hers."

"'Hers'?"

"You and I. It's for us to be Charlotte's. It's for us, on our
side, to see HER through."

"Through her sublimity?"

"Through her noble, lonely life. Only--that's essential--it
mustn't be lonely. It will be all right if she marries."

"So we're to marry her?"

"We're to marry her. It will be," Mrs. Assingham continued, "the
great thing I can do." She made it out more and more. "It will
make up."

"Make up for what?" As she said nothing, however, his desire for
lucidity renewed itself. "If everything's so all right what is
there to make up for?"

"Why, if I did do either of them, by any chance, a wrong. If I
made a mistake."

"You'll make up for it by making another?" And then as she again
took her time: "I thought your whole point is just that you're
sure."

"One can never be ideally sure of anything. There are always
possibilities."

"Then, if we can but strike so wild, why keep meddling?"

It made her again look at him. "Where would you have been, my
dear, if I hadn't meddled with YOU?"

"Ah, that wasn't meddling--I was your own. I was your own," said
the Colonel, "from the moment I didn't object."

"Well, these people won't object. They are my own too--in the
sense that I'm awfully fond of them. Also in the sense," she
continued, "that I think they're not so very much less fond of
me. Our relation, all round, exists--it's a reality, and a very
good one; we're mixed up, so to speak, and it's too late to
change it. We must live IN it and with it. Therefore to see that
Charlotte gets a good husband as soon as possible--that, as I
say, will be one of my ways of living. It will cover," she said
with conviction, "all the ground." And then as his own conviction
appeared to continue as little to match: "The ground, I mean, of
any nervousness I may ever feel. It will be in fact my duty
and I shan't rest till my duty's performed." She had arrived by
this time at something like exaltation. "I shall give, for the
next year or two if necessary, my life to it. I shall have done
in that case what I can."

He took it at last as it came. "You hold there's no limit to what
you 'can'?"

"I don't say there's no limit, or anything of the sort. I say
there are good chances--enough of them for hope. Why shouldn't
there be when a girl is, after all, all that she is?"

"By after 'all' you mean after she's in love with somebody else?"

The Colonel put his question with a quietude doubtless designed
to be fatal; but it scarcely pulled her up. "She's not too much
in love not herself to want to marry. She would now particularly
like to."

"Has she told you so?"

"Not yet. It's too soon. But she will. Meanwhile, however, I
don't require the information. Her marrying will prove the
truth."

"And what truth?"

"The truth of everything I say."

"Prove it to whom?"

"Well, to myself, to begin with. That will be enough for me--to
work for her. What it will prove," Mrs. Assingham presently went
on, "will be that she's cured. That she accepts the situation."

He paid this the tribute of a long pull at his pipe. "The
situation of doing the one thing she can that will really seem to
cover her tracks?"

His wife looked at him, the good dry man, as if now at last he
was merely vulgar. "The one thing she can do that will really
make new tracks altogether. The thing that, before any other,
will be wise and right. The thing that will best give her her
chance to be magnificent."

He slowly emitted his smoke. "And best give you, by the same
token, yours to be magnificent with her?"

"I shall be as magnificent, at least, as I can."

Bob Assingham got up. "And you call ME immoral?"

She hesitated. "I'll call you stupid if you prefer. But stupidity
pushed to a certain point IS, you know, immorality. Just so what
is morality but high intelligence?" This he was unable to tell
her; which left her more definitely to conclude. "Besides, it's
all, at the worst, great fun."

"Oh, if you simply put it at THAT--!"

His implication was that in this case they had a common ground;
yet even thus he couldn't catch her by it. "Oh, I don't mean,"
she said from the threshold, "the fun that you mean. Good-night."
In answer to which, as he turned out the electric light, he gave
an odd, short groan, almost a grunt. He HAD apparently meant some
particular kind.


Henry James

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