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

Chapter 31

The understanding appeared to have come to be that the Colonel
and his wife were to present themselves toward the middle of July
for the "good long visit" at Fawns on which Maggie had obtained
from her father that he should genially insist; as well as that
the couple from Eaton Square should welcome there earlier in the
month, and less than a week after their own arrival, the advent
of the couple from Portland Place. "Oh, we shall give you time to
breathe!" Fanny remarked, in reference to the general prospect,
with a gaiety that announced itself as heedless of criticism, to
each member of the party in turn; sustaining and bracing herself
by her emphasis, pushed even to an amiable cynicism, of the
confident view of these punctualities of the Assinghams. The
ground she could best occupy, to her sense, was that of her being
moved, as in this connexion she had always been moved, by the
admitted grossness of her avidity, the way the hospitality of the
Ververs met her convenience and ministered to her ease, destitute
as the Colonel had kept her, from the first, of any rustic
retreat, any leafy bower of her own, any fixed base for the stale
season now at hand. She had explained at home, she had repeatedly
reexplained, the terms of her dilemma, the real difficulty of
her, or--as she now put it--of their, position. When the pair
could do nothing else, in Cadogan Place, they could still talk of
marvellous little Maggie, and of the charm, the sinister charm,
of their having to hold their breath to watch her; a topic the
momentous midnight discussion at which we have been present was
so far from having exhausted. It came up, irrepressibly, at all
private hours; they had planted it there between them, and it
grew, from day to day, in a manner to make their sense of
responsibility almost yield to their sense of fascination. Mrs.
Assingham declared at such moments that in the interest of this
admirable young thing--to whom, she also declared, she had quite
"come over"--she was ready to pass with all the world else, even
with the Prince himself, the object, inconsequently, as well, of
her continued, her explicitly shameless appreciation, for a
vulgar, indelicate, pestilential woman, showing her true
character in an abandoned old age. The Colonel's confessed
attention had been enlisted, we have seen, as never yet, under
pressure from his wife, by any guaranteed imbroglio; but this,
she could assure him she perfectly knew, was not a bit because he
was sorry for her, or touched by what she had let herself in for,
but because, when once they had been opened, he couldn't keep his
eyes from resting complacently, resting almost intelligently, on
the Princess. If he was in love with HER now, however, so much
the better; it would help them both not to wince at what they
would have to do for her. Mrs. Assingham had come back to that,
whenever he groaned or grunted; she had at no beguiled moment--
since Maggie's little march WAS positively beguiling--let him
lose sight of the grim necessity awaiting them. "We shall have,
as I've again and again told you, to lie for her--to lie till
we're black in the face."

"To lie 'for' her?" The Colonel often, at these hours, as from a
vague vision of old chivalry in a new form, wandered into
apparent lapses from lucidity.

"To lie TO her, up and down, and in and out--it comes to the same
thing. It will consist just as much of lying to the others too:
to the Prince about one's belief in HIM; to Charlotte about one's
belief in HER; to Mr. Verver, dear sweet man, about one's belief
in everyone. So we've work cut out--with the biggest lie, on top
of all, being that we LIKE to be there for such a purpose. We
hate it unspeakably--I'm more ready to be a coward before it, to
let the whole thing, to let everyone, selfishly and
pusillanimously slide, than before any social duty, any felt
human call, that has ever forced me to be decent. I speak at
least for myself. For you," she had added, "as I've given you so
perfect an opportunity to fall in love with Maggie, you'll
doubtless find your account in being so much nearer to her."

"And what do you make," the Colonel could, at this, always
imperturbably enough ask, "of the account you yourself will find
in being so much nearer to the Prince; of your confirmed, if not
exasperated, infatuation with whom--to say nothing of my weak
good-nature about it--you give such a pretty picture?"

To the picture in question she had been always, in fact, able
contemplatively to return. "The difficulty of my enjoyment of
that is, don't you see? that I'm making, in my loyalty to Maggie,
a sad hash of his affection for me."

"You find means to call it then, this whitewashing of his crime,
being 'loyal' to Maggie?"

"Oh, about that particular crime there is always much to say. It
is always more interesting to us than any other crime; it has at
least that for it. But of course I call everything I have in mind
at all being loyal to Maggie. Being loyal to her is, more than
anything else, helping her with her father--which is what she
most wants and needs."

The Colonel had had it before, but he could apparently never have
too much of it. "Helping her 'with' him--?"

"Helping her against him then. Against what we've already so
fully talked of--its having to be recognised between them that he
doubts. That's where my part is so plain--to see her through, to
see her through to the end." Exaltation, for the moment, always
lighted Mrs. Assingham's reference to this plainness; yet she at
the same time seldom failed, the next instant, to qualify her
view of it. "When I talk of my obligation as clear I mean that
it's absolute; for just HOW, from day to day and through thick
and thin, to keep the thing up is, I grant you, another matter.
There's one way, luckily, nevertheless, in which I'm strong. I
can perfectly count on her."

The Colonel seldom failed here, as from the insidious growth of
an excitement, to wonder, to encourage. "Not to see you're
lying?"

"To stick to me fast, whatever she sees. If I stick to her--that
is to my own poor struggling way, under providence, of watching
over them ALL--she'll stand by me to the death. She won't give me
away. For, you know, she easily can."

This, regularly, was the most lurid turn of their road; but Bob
Assingham, with each journey, met it as for the first time.
"Easily?"

"She can utterly dishonour me with her father. She can let him
know that I was aware, at the time of his marriage--as I had been
aware at the time of her own--of the relations that had pre-
existed between his wife and her husband."

"And how can she do so if, up to this minute, by your own
statement, she is herself in ignorance of your knowledge?"

It was a question that Mrs. Assingham had ever, for dealing with,
a manner to which repeated practice had given almost a grand
effect; very much as if she was invited by it to say that about
this, exactly, she proposed to do her best lying. But she said,
and with full lucidity, something quite other: it could give
itself a little the air, still, of a triumph over his coarseness.
"By acting, immediately with the blind resentment with which, in
her place, ninety-nine women out of a hundred would act; and by
so making Mr. Verver, in turn, act with the same natural passion,
the passion of ninety-nine men out of a hundred. They've only to
agree about me," the poor lady said; "they've only to feel at one
over it, feel bitterly practised upon, cheated and injured;
they've only to denounce me to each other as false and infamous,
for me to be quite irretrievably dished. Of course it's I who
have been, and who continue to be, cheated--cheated by the Prince
and Charlotte; but they're not obliged to give me the benefit of
that, or to give either of us the benefit of anything. They'll be
within their rights to lump us all together as a false, cruel,
conspiring crew, and, if they can find the right facts to support
them, get rid of us root and branch."

This, on each occasion, put the matter so at the worst that
repetition even scarce controlled the hot flush with which she
was compelled to see the parts of the whole history, all its ugly
consistency and its temporary gloss, hang together. She enjoyed,
invariably, the sense of making her danger present, of making it
real, to her husband, and of his almost turning pale, when their
eyes met, at this possibility of their compromised state and
their shared discredit. The beauty was that, as under a touch of
one of the ivory notes at the left of the keyboard, he sounded
out with the short sharpness of the dear fond stupid uneasy man.
"Conspiring--so far as YOU were concerned--to what end?"

"Why, to the obvious end of getting the Prince a wife--at
Maggie's expense. And then to that of getting Charlotte a husband
at Mr. Verver's."

"Of rendering friendly services, yes--which have produced, as it
turns out, complications. But from the moment you didn't do it
FOR the complications, why shouldn't you have rendered them?"

It was extraordinary for her, always, in this connexion, how,
with time given him, he fell to speaking better for her than she
could, in the presence of her clear-cut image of the "worst,"
speak for herself. Troubled as she was she thus never wholly
failed of her amusement by the way. "Oh, isn't what I may have
meddled 'for'--so far as it can be proved I did meddle--open to
interpretation; by which I mean to Mr. Verver's and Maggie's?
Mayn't they see my motive, in the light of that appreciation, as
the wish to be decidedly more friendly to the others than to the
victimised father and daughter?" She positively liked to keep it
up. "Mayn't they see my motive as the determination to serve the
Prince, in any case, and at any price, first; to 'place' him
comfortably; in other words to find him his fill of money? Mayn't
it have all the air for them of a really equivocal, sinister
bargain between us--something quite unholy and louche?"

It produced in the poor Colonel, infallibly, the echo. "'Louche,'
love--?"

"Why, haven't you said as much yourself?--haven't you put your
finger on that awful possibility?"

She had a way now, with his felicities, that made him enjoy being
reminded of them. "In speaking of your having always had such a
'mash'--?"

"Such a mash, precisely, for the man I was to help to put so
splendidly at his ease. A motherly mash an impartial look at it
would show it only as likely to have been--but we're not talking,
of course, about impartial looks. We're talking of good innocent
people deeply worked upon by a horrid discovery, and going much
further, in their view of the lurid, as such people almost always
do, than those who have been wider awake, all round, from the
first. What I was to have got from my friend, in such a view, in
exchange for what I had been able to do for him--well, that would
have been an equivalent, of a kind best known to myself, for me
shrewdly to consider." And she easily lost herself, each time, in
the anxious satisfaction of filling out the picture. "It would
have been seen, it would have been heard of, before, the case of
the woman a man doesn't want, or of whom he's tired, or for whom
he has no use but SUCH uses, and who is capable, in her
infatuation, in her passion, of promoting his interests with
other women rather than lose sight of him, lose touch of him,
cease to have to do with him at all. Cela s'est vu, my dear; and
stranger things still--as I needn't tell YOU! Very good then,"
she wound up; "there is a perfectly possible conception of the
behaviour of your sweet wife; since, as I say, there's no
imagination so lively, once it's started, as that of really
agitated lambs. Lions are nothing to them, for lions are
sophisticated, are blases, are brought up, from the first, to
prowling and mauling. It does give us, you'll admit, something to
think about. My relief is luckily, however, in what I finally do
think."

He was well enough aware, by this time, of what she finally did
think; but he was not without a sense, again, also for his
amusement by the way. It would have made him, for a spectator of
these passages between the pair, resemble not a little the
artless child who hears his favourite story told for the
twentieth time and enjoys it exactly because he knows what is
next to happen. "What of course will pull them up, if they turn
out to have less imagination than you assume, is the profit you
can have found in furthering Mrs. Verver's marriage. You weren't
at least in love with Charlotte."

"Oh," Mrs. Assingham, at this, always brought out, "my hand in
that is easily accounted for by my desire to be agreeable to
HIM."

"To Mr. Verver?"

"To the Prince--by preventing her in that way from taking, as he
was in danger of seeing her do, some husband with whom he
wouldn't be able to open, to keep open, so large an account as
with his father-in-law. I've brought her near him, kept her
within his reach, as she could never have remained either as a
single woman or as the wife of a different man."

"Kept her, on that sweet construction, to be his mistress?"

"Kept her, on that sweet construction, to be his mistress." She
brought it out grandly--it had always so, for her own ear as well
as, visibly, for her husband's, its effect. "The facilities in
the case, thanks to the particular conditions, being so quite
ideal."

"Down even to the facility of your minding everything so little--
from your own point of view--as to have supplied him with the
enjoyment of TWO beautiful women."

"Down even to THAT--to the monstrosity of my folly. But not,"
Mrs. Assingham added, "'two' of anything. One beautiful woman--
and one beautiful fortune. That's what a creature of pure virtue
exposes herself to when she suffers her pure virtue, suffers her
sympathy, her disinterestedness, her exquisite sense for the
lives of others, to carry her too far. Voila."

"I see. It's the way the Ververs have you."

"It's the way the Ververs 'have' me. It's in other words the way
they would be able to make such a show to each other of having
me--if Maggie weren't so divine."

"She lets you off?" He never failed to insist on all this to the
very end; which was how he had become so versed in what she
finally thought.

"She lets me off. So that now, horrified and contrite at what
I've done, I may work to help her out. And Mr. Verver," she was
fond of adding, "lets me off too."

"Then you do believe he knows?"

It determined in her always, there, with a significant pause, a
deep immersion in her thought. "I believe he would let me off if
he did know--so that I might work to help HIM out. Or rather,
really," she went on, "that I might work to help Maggie. That
would be his motive, that would be his condition, in forgiving
me; just as hers, for me, in fact, her motive and her condition,
are my acting to spare her father. But it's with Maggie only that
I'm directly concerned; nothing, ever--not a breath, not a look,
I'll guarantee--shall I have, whatever happens, from Mr. Verver
himself. So it is, therefore, that I shall probably, by the
closest possible shave, escape the penalty of my crimes."

"You mean being held responsible."

"I mean being held responsible. My advantage will be that
Maggie's such a trump."

"Such a trump that, as you say, she'll stick to you."

"Stick to me, on our understanding--stick to me. For our
understanding's signed and sealed." And to brood over it again
was ever, for Mrs. Assingham, to break out again with exaltation.
"It's a grand, high compact. She has solemnly promised."

"But in words--?"

"Oh yes, in words enough--since it's a matter of words. To keep
up HER lie so long as I keep up mine."

"And what do you call 'her' lie?"

"Why, the pretence that she believes me. Believes they're
innocent."

"She positively believes then they're guilty? She has arrived at
that, she's really content with it, in the absence of proof?"
It was here, each time, that Fanny Assingham most faltered; but
always at last to get the matter, for her own sense, and with a
long sigh, sufficiently straight. "It isn't a question of belief
or of proof, absent or present; it's inevitably, with her, a
question of natural perception, of insurmountable feeling. She
irresistibly knows that there's something between them. But she
hasn't 'arrived' at it, as you say, at all; that's exactly what
she hasn't done, what she so steadily and intensely refuses to
do. She stands off and off, so as not to arrive; she keeps out to
sea and away from the rocks, and what she most wants of me is to
keep at a safe distance with her--as I, for my own skin, only ask
not to come nearer." After which, invariably, she let him have it
all. "So far from wanting proof--which she must get, in a manner,
by my siding with her--she wants DISproof, as against herself,
and has appealed to me, so extraordinarily, to side against her.
It's really magnificent, when you come to think of it, the spirit
of her appeal. If I'll but cover them up brazenly enough, the
others, so as to show, round and about them, as happy as a bird,
she on her side will do what she can. If I'll keep them quiet, in
a word, it will enable her to gain time--time as against any idea
of her father's--and so, somehow, come out. If I'll take care of
Charlotte, in particular, she'll take care of the Prince; and
it's beautiful and wonderful, really pathetic and exquisite, to
see what she feels that time may do for her."

"Ah, but what does she call, poor little thing, 'time'?"

"Well, this summer at Fawns, to begin with. She can live as yet,
of course, but from hand to mouth; but she has worked it out for
herself, I think, that the very danger of Fawns, superficially
looked at, may practically amount to a greater protection. THERE
the lovers--if they ARE lovers!--will have to mind. They'll feel
it for themselves, unless things are too utterly far gone with
them."

"And things are NOT too utterly far gone with them?"

She had inevitably, poor woman, her hesitation for this, but she
put down her answer as, for the purchase of some absolutely
indispensable article, she would have put down her last shilling.
"No."

It made him always grin at her. "Is THAT a lie?"

"Do you think you're worth lying to? If it weren't the truth, for
me," she added, "I wouldn't have accepted for Fawns. I CAN, I
believe, keep the wretches quiet."

"But how--at the worst?"

"Oh, 'the worst'--don't talk about the worst! I can keep them
quiet at the best, I seem to feel, simply by our being there. It
will work, from week to week, of itself. You'll see."

He was willing enough to see, but he desired to provide--! "Yet
if it doesn't work?"

"Ah, that's talking about the worst!"

Well, it might be; but what were they doing, from morning to
night, at this crisis, but talk? "Who'll keep the others?"

"The others--?"

"Who'll keep THEM quiet? If your couple have had a life together,
they can't have had it completely without witnesses, without the
help of persons, however few, who must have some knowledge, some
idea about them. They've had to meet, secretly, protectedly,
they've had to arrange; for if they haven't met, and haven't
arranged, and haven't thereby, in some quarter or other, had to
give themselves away, why are we piling it up so? Therefore if
there's evidence, up and down London--"

"There must be people in possession of it? Ah, it isn't all," she
always remembered, "up and down London. Some of it must connect
them--I mean," she musingly added, "it naturally WOULD--with
other places; with who knows what strange adventures,
opportunities, dissimulations? But whatever there may have been,
it will also all have been buried on the spot. Oh, they've known
HOW--too beautifully! But nothing, all the same, is likely to
find its way to Maggie of itself."

"Because every one who may have anything to tell, you hold, will
have been so squared?" And then inveterately, before she could
say--he enjoyed so much coming to this: "What will have squared
Lady Castledean?"

"The consciousness"--she had never lost her promptness--"of
having no stones to throw at any one else's windows. She has
enough to do to guard her own glass. That was what she was
doing," Fanny said, "that last morning at Matcham when all of us
went off and she kept the Prince and Charlotte over. She helped
them simply that she might herself be helped--if it wasn't
perhaps, rather, with her ridiculous Mr. Blint, that HE might be.
They put in together, therefore, of course, that day; they got it
clear--and quite under her eyes; inasmuch as they didn't become
traceable again, as we know, till late in the evening." On this
historic circumstance Mrs. Assingham was always ready afresh to
brood; but she was no less ready, after her brooding, devoutly to
add "Only we know nothing whatever else--for which all our stars
be thanked!"

The Colonel's gratitude was apt to be less marked. "What did they
do for themselves, all the same, from the moment they got that
free hand to the moment (long after dinner-time, haven't you told
me?) of their turning up at their respective homes?"

"Well, it's none of your business!"

"I don't speak of it as mine, but it's only too much theirs.
People are always traceable, in England, when tracings are
required. Something, sooner or later, happens; somebody, sooner
or later, breaks the holy calm. Murder will out."

"Murder will--but this isn't murder. Quite the contrary perhaps!
I verily believe," she had her moments of adding, "that, for the
amusement of the row, you would prefer an explosion."

This, however, was a remark he seldom noticed; he wound up, for
the most part, after a long, contemplative smoke, with a
transition from which no exposed futility in it had succeeded in
weaning him. "What I can't for my life make out is your idea of
the old boy."

"Charlotte's too inconceivably funny husband? I HAVE no idea."

"I beg your pardon--you've just shown it. You never speak of him
but as too inconceivably funny."

"Well, he is," she always confessed. "That is he may be, for all
I know, too inconceivably great. But that's not an idea. It
represents only my weak necessity of feeling that he's beyond
me--which isn't an idea either. You see he MAY be stupid too."

"Precisely--there you are."

"Yet on the other hand," she always went on, "he MAY be sublime:
sublimer even than Maggie herself. He may in fact have already
been. But we shall never know." With which her tone betrayed
perhaps a shade of soreness for the single exemption she didn't
yearningly welcome. "THAT I can see."

"Oh, I say--!" It came to affect the Colonel himself with a sense
of privation.

"I'm not sure, even, that Charlotte will."

"Oh, my dear, what Charlotte doesn't know--!"

But she brooded and brooded. "I'm not sure even that the Prince
will." It seemed privation, in short, for them all. "They'll be
mystified, confounded, tormented. But they won't know--and all
their possible putting their heads together won't make them.
That," said Fanny Assingham, "will be their punishment." And she
ended, ever, when she had come so far, at the same pitch. "It
will probably also--if I get off with so little--be mine."

"And what," her husband liked to ask, "will be mine?"

"Nothing--you're not worthy of any. One's punishment is in what
one feels, and what will make ours effective is that we SHALL
feel." She was splendid with her "ours"; she flared up with this
prophecy. "It will be Maggie herself who will mete it out."

"Maggie--?"

"SHE'LL know--about her father; everything. Everything," she
repeated. On the vision of which, each time, Mrs. Assingham, as
with the presentiment of an odd despair, turned away from it.
"But she'll never tell us."

Henry James

Sorry, no summary available yet.