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Chapter 25

THE GOLDEN BOWL, VOLUME II

BOOK SECOND: THE PRINCESS


PART FOURTH


XXV

It was not till many days had passed that the Princess began to
accept the idea of having done, a little, something she was not
always doing, or indeed that of having listened to any inward
voice that spoke in a new tone. Yet these instinctive
postponements of reflection were the fruit, positively, of
recognitions and perceptions already active; of the sense, above
all, that she had made, at a particular hour, made by the mere
touch of her hand, a difference in the situation so long present
to her as practically unattackable. This situation had been
occupying, for months and months, the very centre of the garden
of her life, but it had reared itself there like some strange,
tall tower of ivory, or perhaps rather some wonderful, beautiful,
but outlandish pagoda, a structure plated with hard, bright
porcelain, coloured and figured and adorned, at the overhanging
eaves, with silver bells that tinkled, ever so charmingly, when
stirred by chance airs. She had walked round and round it--that
was what she felt; she had carried on her existence in the space
left her for circulation, a space that sometimes seemed ample and
sometimes narrow: looking up, all the while, at the fair
structure that spread itself so amply and rose so high, but never
quite making out, as yet, where she might have entered had she
wished. She had not wished till now--such was the odd case; and
what was doubtless equally odd, besides, was that, though her
raised eyes seemed to distinguish places that must serve, from
within, and especially far aloft, as apertures and outlooks, no
door appeared to give access from her convenient garden level.
The great decorated surface had remained consistently
impenetrable and inscrutable. At present, however, to her
considering mind, it was as if she had ceased merely to circle
and to scan the elevation, ceased so vaguely, so quite helplessly
to stare and wonder: she had caught herself distinctly in the act
of pausing, then in that of lingering, and finally in that of
stepping unprecedentedly near. The thing might have been, by the
distance at which it kept her, a Mahometan mosque, with which no
base heretic could take a liberty; there so hung about it the
vision of one's putting off one's shoes to enter, and even,
verily, of one's paying with one's life if found there as an
interloper. She had not, certainly, arrived at the conception of
paying with her life for anything she might do; but it was
nevertheless quite as if she had sounded with a tap or two one of
the rare porcelain plates. She had knocked, in short--though she
could scarce have said whether for admission or for what; she had
applied her hand to a cool smooth spot and had waited to see what
would happen. Something had happened; it was as if a sound, at
her touch, after a little, had come back to her from within; a
sound sufficiently suggesting that her approach had been noted.

If this image, however, may represent our young woman's
consciousness of a recent change in her life--a change now but a
few days old--it must at the same time be observed that she both
sought and found in renewed circulation, as I have called it, a
measure of relief from the idea of having perhaps to answer for
what she had done. The pagoda in her blooming garden figured the
arrangement--how otherwise was it to be named?--by which, so
strikingly, she had been able to marry without breaking, as she
liked to put it, with the past. She had surrendered herself to
her husband without the shadow of a reserve or a condition, and
yet she had not, all the while, given up her father--the least
little inch. She had compassed the high city of seeing the two
men beautifully take to each other, and nothing in her marriage
had marked it as more happy than this fact of its having
practically given the elder, the lonelier, a new friend. What had
moreover all the while enriched the whole aspect of success was
that the latter's marriage had been no more meassurably paid for
than her own. His having taken the same great step in the same
free way had not in the least involved the relegation of his
daughter. That it was remarkable they should have been able at
once so to separate and so to keep together had never for a
moment, from however far back, been equivocal to her; that it was
remarkable had in fact quite counted, at first and always, and
for each of them equally, as part of their inspiration and their
support. There were plenty of singular things they were NOT
enamoured of--flights of brilliancy, of audacity, of originality,
that, speaking at least for the dear man and herself, were not at
all in their line; but they liked to think they had given their
life this unusual extension and this liberal form, which many
families, many couples, and still more many pairs of couples,
would not have found workable. That last truth had been
distinctly brought home to them by the bright testimony, the
quite explicit envy, of most of their friends, who had remarked
to them again and again that they must, on all the showing, to
keep on such terms, be people of the highest amiability--equally
including in the praise, of course, Amerigo and Charlotte. It had
given them pleasure--as how should it not?--to find themselves
shed such a glamour; it had certainly, that is, given pleasure to
her father and herself, both of them distinguishably of a nature
so slow to presume that they would scarce have been sure of their
triumph without this pretty reflection of it. So it was that
their felicity had fructified; so it was that the ivory tower,
visible and admirable doubtless, from any point of the social
field, had risen stage by stage. Maggie's actual reluctance to
ask herself with proportionate sharpness why she had ceased to
take comfort in the sight of it represented accordingly a lapse
from that ideal consistency on which her moral comfort almost at
any time depended. To remain consistent she had always been
capable of cutting down more or less her prior term.

Moving for the first time in her life as in the darkening shadow
of a false position, she reflected that she should either not
have ceased to be right--that is, to be confident--or have
recognised that she was wrong; though she tried to deal with
herself, for a space, only as a silken-coated spaniel who has
scrambled out of a pond and who rattles the water from his ears.
Her shake of her head, again and again, as she went, was much of
that order, and she had the resource, to which, save for the rude
equivalent of his generalising bark, the spaniel would have been
a stranger, of humming to herself hard as a sign that nothing had
happened to her. She had not, so to speak, fallen in; she had had
no accident and had not got wet; this at any rate was her
pretension until after she began a little to wonder if she
mightn't, with or without exposure, have taken cold. She could at
all events remember no time at which she had felt so excited, and
certainly none--which was another special point--that so brought
with it as well the necessity for concealing excitement. This
birth of a new eagerness became a high pastime, in her view,
precisely by reason of the ingenuity required for keeping the
thing born out of sight. The ingenuity was thus a private and
absorbing exercise, in the light of which, might I so far
multiply my metaphors, I should compare her to the frightened but
clinging young mother of an unlawful child. The idea that had
possession of her would be, by our new analogy, the proof of her
misadventure, but likewise, all the while, only another sign of a
relation that was more to her than anything on earth. She had
lived long enough to make out for herself that any deep-seated
passion has its pangs as well as its joys, and that we are made
by its aches and its anxieties most richly conscious of it. She
had never doubted of the force of the feeling that bound her to
her husband; but to become aware, almost suddenly, that it had
begun to vibrate with a violence that had some of the effect of a
strain would, rightly looked at, after all but show that she was,
like thousands of women, every day, acting up to the full
privilege of passion. Why in the world shouldn't she, with every
right--if, on consideration, she saw no good reason against it?
The best reason against it would have been the possibility of
some consequence disagreeable or inconvenient to others--
especially to such others as had never incommoded her by the
egotism of THEIR passions; but if once that danger were duly
guarded against the fulness of one's measure amounted to no more
than the equal use of one's faculties or the proper playing of
one's part. It had come to the Princess, obscurely at first, but
little by little more conceivably, that her faculties had not for
a good while been concomitantly used; the case resembled in a
manner that of her once-loved dancing, a matter of remembered
steps that had grown vague from her ceasing to go to balls. She
would go to balls again--that seemed, freely, even crudely,
stated, the remedy; she would take out of the deep receptacles in
which she had laid them away the various ornaments
congruous with the greater occasions, and of which her store, she
liked to think, was none of the smallest. She would have been
easily to be figured for us at this occupation; dipping, at off
moments and quiet hours, in snatched visits and by draughty
candle-light, into her rich collections and seeing her jewels
again a little shyly, but all unmistakably, glow. That in fact
may pass as the very picture of her semi-smothered agitation, of
the diversion she to some extent successfully found in referring
her crisis, so far as was possible, to the mere working of her
own needs.

It must be added, however, that she would have been at a loss to
determine--and certainly at first--to which order, that of
self-control or that of large expression, the step she had taken
the afternoon of her husband's return from Matcham with his
companion properly belonged. For it had been a step, distinctly,
on Maggie's part, her deciding to do something, just then and
there, which would strike Amerigo as unusual, and this even
though her departure from custom had merely consisted in her so
arranging that he wouldn't find her, as he would definitely
expect to do, in Eaton Square. He would have, strangely enough,
as might seem to him, to come back home for it, and there get the
impression of her rather pointedly, or at least all impatiently
and independently, awaiting him. These were small variations and
mild manoeuvres, but they went accompanied on Maggie's part, as
we have mentioned, with an infinite sense of intention. Her
watching by his fireside for her husband's return from an absence
might superficially have presented itself as the most natural act
in the world, and the only one, into the bargain, on which he
would positively have reckoned. It fell by this circumstance into
the order of plain matters, and yet the very aspect by which it
was, in the event, handed over to her brooding fancy was the fact
that she had done with it all she had designed. She had put her
thought to the proof, and the proof had shown its edge; this was
what was before her, that she was no longer playing with blunt
and idle tools, with weapons that didn't cut. There passed across
her vision ten times a day the gleam of a bare blade, and at this
it was that she most shut her eyes, most knew the impulse to
cheat herself with motion and sound. She had merely driven, on a
certain Wednesday, to Portland Place, instead of remaining in
Eaton Square, and she privately repeated it again and again--
there had appeared beforehand no reason why she should have seen
the mantle of history flung, by a single sharp sweep, over so
commonplace a deed. That, all the same, was what had happened; it
had been bitten into her mind, all in an hour, that nothing she
had ever done would hereafter, in some way yet to be determined,
so count for her--perhaps not even what she had done in
accepting, in their old golden Rome, Amerigo's proposal of
marriage. And yet, by her little crouching posture there, that of
a timid tigress, she had meant nothing recklessly ultimate,
nothing clumsily fundamental; so that she called it names, the
invidious, the grotesque attitude, holding it up to her own
ridicule, reducing so far as she could the portee of what had
followed it. She had but wanted to get nearer--nearer to
something indeed that she couldn't, that she wouldn't, even to
herself, describe; and the degree of this achieved nearness was
what had been in advance incalculable. Her actual multiplication
of distractions and suppressions, whatever it did for her, failed
to prevent her living over again any chosen minute--for she could
choose them, she could fix them--of the freshness of relation
produced by her having administered to her husband the first
surprise to which she had ever treated him. It had been a poor
thing, but it had been all her own, and the whole passage was
backwardly there, a great picture hung on the wall of her daily
life, for her to make what she would of.

It fell, for retrospect, into a succession of moments that were
WATCHABLE still; almost in the manner of the different things
done during a scene on the stage, some scene so acted as to have
left a great impression on the tenant of one of the stalls.
Several of these moments stood out beyond the others, and those
she could feel again most, count again like the firm pearls on a
string, had belonged more particularly to the lapse of time
before dinner--dinner which had been so late, quite at nine
o'clock, that evening, thanks to the final lateness of Amerigo's
own advent. These were parts of the experience--though in fact
there had been a good many of them--between which her impression
could continue sharply to discriminate. Before the subsequent
passages, much later on, it was to be said, the flame of memory
turned to an equalising glow, that of a lamp in some side-chapel
in which incense was thick. The great moment, at any rate, for
conscious repossession, was doubtless the first: the strange
little timed silence which she had fully gauged, on the spot, as
altogether beyond her own intention, but which--for just how
long? should she ever really know for just how long?--she could
do nothing to break. She was in the smaller drawing-room, in
which she always "sat," and she had, by calculation, dressed for
dinner on finally coming in. It was a wonder how many things she
had calculated in respect to this small incident--a matter for
the importance of which she had so quite indefinite a measure. He
would be late--he would be very late; that was the one certainty
that seemed to look her in the face. There was still also the
possibility that if he drove with Charlotte straight to Eaton
Square he might think it best to remain there even on learning
she had come away. She had left no message for him on any such
chance; this was another of her small shades of decision, though
the effect of it might be to keep him still longer absent. He
might suppose she would already have dined; he might stay, with
all he would have to tell, just on purpose to be nice to her
father. She had known him to stretch the point, to these
beautiful ends, far beyond that; he had more than once stretched
it to the sacrifice of the opportunity of dressing.

If she herself had now avoided any such sacrifice, and had made
herself, during the time at her disposal, quite inordinately
fresh and quite positively smart, this had probably added, while
she waited and waited, to that very tension of spirit in which
she was afterwards to find the image of her having crouched. She
did her best, quite intensely, by herself, to banish any such
appearance; she couldn't help it if she couldn't read her pale
novel--ah, that, par exemple, was beyond her! but she could at
least sit by the lamp with the book, sit there with her newest
frock, worn for the first time, sticking out, all round her,
quite stiff and grand; even perhaps a little too stiff and too
grand for a familiar and domestic frock, yet marked none the
less, this time, she ventured to hope, by incontestable intrinsic
merit. She had glanced repeatedly at the clock, but she had
refused herself the weak indulgence of walking up and down,
though the act of doing so, she knew, would make her feel, on the
polished floor, with the rustle and the "hang," still more
beautifully bedecked. The difficulty was that it would also make
her feel herself still more sharply in a state; which was exactly
what she proposed not to do. The only drops of her anxiety had
been when her thought strayed complacently, with her eyes, to the
front of her gown, which was in a manner a refuge, a beguilement,
especially when she was able to fix it long enough to wonder if
it would at last really satisfy Charlotte. She had ever been, in
respect to her clothes, rather timorous and uncertain; for the
last year, above all, she had lived in the light of Charlotte's
possible and rather inscrutable judgment of them. Charlotte's own
were simply the most charming and interesting that any woman had
ever put on; there was a kind of poetic justice in her being at
last able, in this particular, thanks to means, thanks quite to
omnipotence, freely to exercise her genius. But Maggie would have
described herself as, in these connections, constantly and
intimately "torn"; conscious on one side of the impossibility of
copying her companion and conscious on the other of the
impossibility of sounding her, independently, to the bottom. Yes,
it was one of the things she should go down to her grave without
having known--how Charlotte, after all had been said, really
thought her stepdaughter looked under any supposedly ingenious
personal experiment. She had always been lovely about the
stepdaughter's material braveries--had done, for her, the very
best with them; but there had ever fitfully danced at the back of
Maggie's head the suspicion that these expressions were mercies,
not judgments, embodying no absolute, but only a relative,
frankness. Hadn't Charlotte, with so perfect a critical vision,
if the truth were known, given her up as hopeless--hopeless by a
serious standard, and thereby invented for her a different and
inferior one, in which, as the only thing to be done, she
patiently and soothingly abetted her? Hadn't she, in other words,
assented in secret despair, perhaps even in secret irritation, to
her being ridiculous?--so that the best now possible was to
wonder, once in a great while, whether one mightn't give her the
surprise of something a little less out of the true note than
usual. Something of this kind was the question that Maggie, while
the absentees still delayed, asked of the appearance she was
endeavouring to present; but with the result, repeatedly again,
that it only went and lost itself in the thick air that had begun
more and more to hang, for our young woman, over her
accumulations of the unanswered. They were THERE, these
accumulations; they were like a roomful of confused objects,
never as yet "sorted," which for some time now she had been
passing and re-passing, along the corridor of her life. She
passed it when she could without opening the door; then, on
occasion, she turned the key to throw in a fresh contribution. So
it was that she had been getting things out of the way. They
rejoined the rest of the confusion; it was as if they found their
place, by some instinct of affinity, in the heap. They knew, in
short, where to go; and when she, at present, by a mental act,
once more pushed the door open, she had practically a sense of
method and experience. What she should never know about
Charlotte's thought--she tossed THAT in. It would find itself in
company, and she might at last have been standing there long
enough to see it fall into its corner. The sight moreover would
doubtless have made her stare, had her attention been more free--
the sight of the mass of vain things, congruous, incongruous,
that awaited every addition. It made her in fact, with a vague
gasp, turn away, and what had further determined this was the
final sharp extinction of the inward scene by the outward. The
quite different door had opened and her husband was there.

It had been as strange as she could consent, afterwards, to think
it; it had been, essentially, what had made the abrupt bend in
her life: he had come back, had followed her from the other
house, VISIBLY uncertain--this was written in the face he for the
first minute showed her. It had been written only for those
seconds, and it had appeared to go, quickly, after they
began to talk; but while it lasted it had been written large,
and, though she didn't quite know what she had expected of him,
she felt she hadn't expected the least shade of embarrassment.
What had made the embarrassment--she called it embarrassment so
as to be able to assure herself she put it at the very worst--
what had made the particular look was his thus distinguishably
wishing to see how he should find her. Why FIRST--that had, later
on, kept coming to her; the question dangled there as if it were
the key to everything. With the sense of it on the spot, she had
felt, overwhelmingly, that she was significant, that so she must
instantly strike him, and that this had a kind of violence beyond
what she had intended. It was in fact even at the moment not
absent from her view that he might easily have made an abject
fool of her--at least for the time. She had indeed, for just ten
seconds, been afraid of some such turn: the uncertainty in his
face had become so, the next thing, an uncertainty in the very
air. Three words of impatience the least bit loud, some outbreak
of "What in the world are you 'up to', and what do you mean?" any
note of that sort would instantly have brought her low--and this
all the more that heaven knew she hadn't in any manner designed
to be high. It was such a trifle, her small breach with custom,
or at any rate with his natural presumption, that all magnitude
of wonder had already had, before one could deprecate the shadow
of it, the effect of a complication. It had made for him some
difference that she couldn't measure, this meeting him at home
and alone instead of elsewhere and with others, and back
and back it kept coming to her that the blankness he showed her
before he was able to SEE might, should she choose to insist on
it, have a meaning--have, as who should say, an historic value--
beyond the importance of momentary expressions in general. She
had naturally had on the spot no ready notion of what he might
want to see; it was enough for a ready notion, not to speak of a
beating heart, that he DID see, that he saw his wife in her own
drawing-room at the hour when she would most properly be there.
He hadn't in any way challenged her, it was true, and, after
those instants during which she now believed him to have been
harbouring the impression of something unusually prepared and
pointed in her attitude and array, he had advanced upon her
smiling and smiling, and thus, without hesitation at the last,
had taken her into his arms. The hesitation had been at the
first, and she at present saw that he had surmounted it without
her help. She had given him no help; for if, on the one hand, she
couldn't speak for hesitation, so on the other--and especially as
he didn't ask her--she couldn't explain why she was agitated. She
had known it all the while down to her toes, known it in his
presence with fresh intensity, and if he had uttered but a
question it would have pressed in her the spring of recklessness.
It had been strange that the most natural thing of all to say to
him should have had that appearance; but she was more than ever
conscious that any appearance she had would come round, more or
less straight, to her father, whose life was now so quiet, on the
basis accepted for it, that any alteration of his consciousness
even in the possible sense of enlivenment, would make their
precious equilibrium waver. THAT was at the bottom of her mind,
that their equilibrium was everything, and that it was
practically precarious, a matter of a hair's breadth for the loss
of the balance. It was the equilibrium, or at all events her
conscious fear about it, that had brought her heart into her
mouth; and the same fear was, on either side, in the silent look
she and Amerigo had exchanged. The happy balance that demanded
this amount of consideration was truly thus, as by its own
confession, a delicate matter; but that her husband had also HIS
habit of anxiety and his general caution only brought them, after
all, more closely together. It would have been most beautifully,
therefore, in the name of the equilibrium, and in that of her joy
at their feeling so exactly the same about it, that she might
have spoken if she had permitted the truth on the subject of her
behaviour to ring out--on the subject of that poor little
behaviour which was for the moment so very limited a case of
eccentricity.

"'Why, why' have I made this evening such a point of our not all
dining together? Well, because I've all day been so wanting you
alone that I finally couldn't bear it, and that there didn't seem
any great reason why I should try to. THAT came to me--funny as
it may at first sound, with all the things we've so wonderfully
got into the way of bearing for each other. You've seemed these
last days--I don't know what: more absent than ever before, too
absent for us merely to go on so. It's all very well, and I
perfectly see how beautiful it is, all round; but there comes a
day when something snaps, when the full cup, filled to the very
brim, begins to flow over. That's what has happened to my need of
you--the cup, all day, has been too full to carry. So here I am
with it, spilling it over you--and just for the reason that is
the reason of my life. After all, I've scarcely to explain that
I'm as much in love with you now as the first hour; except that
there are some hours--which I know when they come, because they
almost frighten me--that show me I'm even more so. They come of
themselves--and, ah, they've been coming! After all, after
all--!" Some such words as those were what DIDN'T ring out, yet
it was as if even the unuttered sound had been quenched here in
its own quaver. It was where utterance would have broken down by
its very weight if he had let it get so far. Without that
extremity, at the end of a moment, he had taken in what he needed
to take--that his wife was TESTIFYING, that she adored and missed
and desired him. "After all, after all," since she put it so, she
was right. That was what he had to respond to; that was what,
from the moment that, as has been said, he "saw," he had to treat
as the most pertinent thing possible. He held her close and long,
in expression of their personal reunion--this, obviously, was one
way of doing so. He rubbed his cheek, tenderly, and with a deep
vague murmur, against her face, that side of her face she was not
pressing to his breast. That was, not less obviously, another
way, and there were ways enough, in short, for his extemporised
ease, for the good humour she was afterwards to find herself
thinking of as his infinite tact. This last was partly, no doubt,
because the question of tact might be felt as having come up at
the end of a quarter of an hour during which he had liberally
talked and she had genially questioned. He had told her of his
day, the happy thought of his roundabout journey with Charlotte,
all their cathedral-hunting adventure, and how it had turned out
rather more of an affair than they expected. The moral of it was,
at any rate, that he was tired, verily, and must have a bath and
dress--to which end she would kindly excuse him for the shortest
time possible. She was to remember afterwards something that had
passed between them on this--how he had looked, for her, during
an instant, at the door, before going out, how he had met her
asking him, in hesitation first, then quickly in decision,
whether she couldn't help him by going up with him. He had
perhaps also for a moment hesitated, but he had declined her
offer, and she was to preserve, as I say, the memory of the smile
with which he had opined that at that rate they wouldn't dine
till ten o'clock and that he should go straighter and faster
alone. Such things, as I say, were to come back to her--they
played, through her full after-sense, like lights on the whole
impression; the subsequent parts of the experience were not to
have blurred their distinctness. One of these subsequent parts,
the first, had been the not inconsiderable length, to her later
and more analytic consciousness, of this second wait for her
husband's reappearance. She might certainly, with the best will
in the world, had she gone up with him, have been more in his way
than not, since people could really, almost always, hurry better
without help than with it. Still, she could actually hardly have
made him take more time than he struck her taking, though it must
indeed be added that there was now in this much-thinking little
person's state of mind no mere crudity of impatience. Something
had happened, rapidly, with the beautiful sight of him and with
the drop of her fear of having annoyed him by making him go to
and fro. Subsidence of the fearsome, for Maggie's spirit, was
always, at first, positive emergence of the sweet, and it was
long since anything had been so sweet to her as the particular
quality suddenly given by her present emotion to the sense of
possession.

Henry James

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