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Chapter 36

They had been alone that evening--alone as a party of six, and
four of them, after dinner, under suggestion not to be resisted,
sat down to "bridge" in the smoking-room. They had passed
together to that apartment, on rising from table, Charlotte and
Mrs. Assingham alike indulgent, always, to tobacco, and in fact
practising an emulation which, as Fanny said, would, for herself,
had the Colonel not issued an interdict based on the fear of her
stealing his cigars, have stopped only at the short pipe. Here
cards had with inevitable promptness asserted their rule, the
game forming itself, as had often happened before, of Mr. Verver
with Mrs. Assingham for partner and of the Prince with Mrs.
Verver. The Colonel, who had then asked of Maggie license to
relieve his mind of a couple of letters for the earliest post out
on the morrow, was addressing himself to this task at the other
end of the room, and the Princess herself had welcomed the
comparatively hushed hour--for the bridge-players were serious
and silent--much in the mood of a tired actress who has the good
fortune to be "off," while her mates are on, almost long enough
for a nap on the property sofa in the wing. Maggie's nap, had she
been able to snatch forty winks, would have been of the spirit
rather than of the sense; yet as she subsided, near a lamp, with
the last salmon-coloured French periodical, she was to fail, for
refreshment, even of that sip of independence.

There was no question for her, as she found, of closing her eyes
and getting away; they strayed back to life, in the stillness,
over the top of her Review; she could lend herself to none of
those refinements of the higher criticism with which its pages
bristled; she was there, where her companions were, there again
and more than ever there; it was as if, of a sudden, they had
been made, in their personal intensity and their rare complexity
of relation, freshly importunate to her. It was the first evening
there had been no one else. Mrs. Rance and the Lutches were due
the next day; but meanwhile the facts of the situation were
upright for her round the green cloth and the silver flambeaux;
the fact of her father's wife's lover facing his mistress; the
fact of her father sitting, all unsounded and unblinking, between
them; the fact of Charlotte keeping it up, keeping up everything,
across the table, with her husband beside her; the fact of Fanny
Assingham, wonderful creature, placed opposite to the three and
knowing more about each, probably, when one came to think, than
either of them knew of either. Erect above all for her was the
sharp-edged fact of the relation of the whole group, individually
and collectively, to herself--herself so speciously eliminated
for the hour, but presumably more present to the attention of
each than the next card to be played.

Yes, under that imputation, to her sense, they sat--the
imputation of wondering, beneath and behind all their apparently
straight play, if she weren't really watching them from her
corner and consciously, as might be said, holding them in her
hand. She was asking herself at last how they could bear it--for,
though cards were as nought to her and she could follow no move,
so that she was always, on such occasions, out of the party, they
struck her as conforming alike, in the matter of gravity and
propriety, to the stiff standard of the house. Her father, she
knew, was a high adept, one of the greatest--she had been ever,
in her stupidity, his small, his sole despair; Amerigo excelled
easily, as he understood and practised every art that could
beguile large leisure; Mrs. Assingham and Charlotte, moreover,
were accounted as "good" as members of a sex incapable of the
nobler consistency could be. Therefore, evidently, they were not,
all so up to their usual form, merely passing it off, whether for
her or for themselves; and the amount of enjoyed, or at least
achieved, security represented by so complete a conquest of
appearances was what acted on her nerves, precisely, with a kind
of provocative force. She found herself, for five minutes,
thrilling with the idea of the prodigious effect that, just as
she sat there near them, she had at her command; with the sense
that if she were but different--oh, ever so different!--all this
high decorum would hang by a hair. There reigned for her,
absolutely, during these vertiginous moments, that fascination of
the monstrous, that temptation of the horribly possible, which we
so often trace by its breaking out suddenly, lest it should go
further, in unexplained retreats and reactions.

After it had been thus vividly before her for a little that,
springing up under her wrong and making them all start, stare and
turn pale, she might sound out their doom in a single sentence, a
sentence easy to choose among several of the lurid--after she had
faced that blinding light and felt it turn to blackness, she rose
from her place, laying aside her magazine, and moved slowly round
the room, passing near the card-players and pausing an instant
behind the chairs in turn. Silent and discreet, she bent a vague
mild face upon them, as if to signify that, little as she
followed their doings, she wished them well; and she took from
each, across the table, in the common solemnity, an upward
recognition which she was to carry away with her on her moving
out to the terrace, a few minutes later. Her father and her
husband, Mrs. Assingham and Charlotte, had done nothing but meet
her eyes; yet the difference in these demonstrations made each a
separate passage--which was all the more wonderful since, with
the secret behind every face, they had alike tried to look at her
THROUGH it and in denial of it.

It all left her, as she wandered off, with the strangest of
impressions--the sense, forced upon her as never yet, of an
appeal, a positive confidence, from the four pairs of eyes, that
was deeper than any negation, and that seemed to speak, on the
part of each, of some relation to be contrived by her, a relation
with herself, which would spare the individual the danger, the
actual present strain, of the relation with the others. They
thus tacitly put it upon her to be disposed of, the whole
complexity of their peril, and she promptly saw why because she
was there, and there just as she was, to lift it off them and
take it; to charge herself with it as the scapegoat of old, of
whom she had once seen a terrible picture, had been charged with
the sins of the people and had gone forth into the desert to sink
under his burden and die. That indeed wasn't THEIR design and
their interest, that she should sink under hers; it wouldn't be
their feeling that she should do anything but live, live on
somehow for their benefit, and even as much as possible in their
company, to keep proving to them that they had truly escaped and
that she was still there to simplify. This idea of her
simplifying, and of their combined struggle, dim as yet but
steadily growing, toward the perception of her adopting it from
them, clung to her while she hovered on the terrace, where the
summer night was so soft that she scarce needed the light shawl
she had picked up. Several of the long windows of the occupied
rooms stood open to it, and the light came out in vague shafts
and fell upon the old smooth stones. The hour was moonless and
starless and the air heavy and still--which was why, in her
evening dress, she need fear no chill and could get away, in the
outer darkness, from that provocation of opportunity which had
assaulted her, within, on her sofa, as a beast might have leaped
at her throat.

Nothing in fact was stranger than the way in which, when she had
remained there a little, her companions, watched by her through
one of the windows, actually struck her as almost consciously and
gratefully safer. They might have been--really charming as they
showed in the beautiful room, and Charlotte certainly, as always,
magnificently handsome and supremely distinguished--they might
have been figures rehearsing some play of which she herself was
the author; they might even, for the happy appearance they
continued to present, have been such figures as would, by the
strong note of character in each, fill any author with the
certitude of success, especially of their own histrionic. They
might in short have represented any mystery they would; the point
being predominantly that the key to the mystery, the key that
could wind and unwind it without a snap of the spring, was there
in her pocket--or rather, no doubt, clasped at this crisis in her
hand and pressed, as she walked back and forth, to her breast.
She walked to the end and far out of the light; she returned and
saw the others still where she had left them; she passed round
the house and looked into the drawing-room, lighted also, but
empty now, and seeming to speak the more, in its own voice, of
all the possibilities she controlled. Spacious and splendid, like
a stage again awaiting a drama, it was a scene she might people,
by the press of her spring, either with serenities and dignities
and decencies, or with terrors and shames and ruins, things as
ugly as those formless fragments of her golden bowl she was
trying so hard to pick up.

She continued to walk and continued to pause; she stopped afresh
for the look into the smoking-room, and by this time--it was as
if the recognition had of itself arrested her--she saw as in a
picture, with the temptation she had fled from quite extinct, why
it was she had been able to give herself so little, from the
first, to the vulgar heat of her wrong. She might fairly, as she
watched them, have missed it as a lost thing; have yearned for
it, for the straight vindictive view, the rights of resentment,
the rages of jealousy, the protests of passion, as for something
she had been cheated of not least: a range of feelings which for
many women would have meant so much, but which for HER husband's
wife, for HER father's daughter, figured nothing nearer to
experience than a wild eastern caravan, looming into view with
crude colours in the sun, fierce pipes in the air, high spears
against the sky, all a thrill, a natural joy to mingle with, but
turning off short before it reached her and plunging into other
defiles. She saw at all events why horror itself had almost
failed her; the horror that, foreshadowed in advance, would, by
her thought, have made everything that was unaccustomed in her
cry out with pain; the horror of finding evil seated, all at its
ease, where she had only dreamed of good; the horror of the thing
HIDEOUSLY behind, behind so much trusted, so much pretended,
nobleness, cleverness, tenderness. It was the first sharp falsity
she had known in her life, to touch at all, or be touched by; it
had met her like some bad-faced stranger surprised in one of the
thick-carpeted corridors of a house of quiet on a Sunday
afternoon; and yet, yes, amazingly, she had been able to look at
terror and disgust only to know that she must put away from her
the bitter-sweet of their freshness. The sight, from the window,
of the group so constituted, TOLD her why, told her how, named to
her, as with hard lips, named straight AT her, so that she must
take it full in the face, that other possible relation to the
whole fact which alone would bear upon her irresistibly. It was
extraordinary: they positively brought home to her that to feel
about them in any of the immediate, inevitable, assuaging ways,
the ways usually open to innocence outraged and generosity
betrayed, would have been to give them up, and that giving them
up was, marvellously, not to be thought of. She had never, from
the first hour of her state of acquired conviction, given them up
so little as now; though she was, no doubt, as the consequence of
a step taken a few minutes later, to invoke the conception of
doing that, if might be, even less. She had resumed her walk--
stopping here and there, while she rested on the cool smooth
stone balustrade, to draw it out; in the course of which, after a
little, she passed again the lights of the empty drawing-room and
paused again for what she saw and felt there.

It was not at once, however, that this became quite concrete;
that was the effect of her presently making out that Charlotte
was in the room, launched and erect there, in the middle, and
looking about her; that she had evidently just come round to it,
from her card-table, by one of the passages--with the
expectation, to all appearance, of joining her stepdaughter. She
had pulled up at seeing the great room empty--Maggie not having
passed out, on leaving the group, in a manner to be observed. So
definite a quest of her, with the bridge-party interrupted or
altered for it, was an impression that fairly assailed the
Princess, and to which something of attitude and aspect, of the
air of arrested pursuit and purpose, in Charlotte, together with
the suggestion of her next vague movements, quickly added its
meaning. This meaning was that she had decided, that she had been
infinitely conscious of Maggie's presence before, that she knew
that she would at last find her alone, and that she wanted her,
for some reason, enough to have presumably called on Bob
Assingham for aid. He had taken her chair and let her go, and the
arrangement was for Maggie a signal proof of her earnestness; of
the energy, in fact, that, though superficially commonplace in a
situation in which people weren't supposed to be watching each
other, was what affected our young woman, on the spot, as a
breaking of bars. The splendid shining supple creature was out of
the cage, was at large; and the question now almost grotesquely
rose of whether she mightn't by some art, just where she was and
before she could go further, be hemmed in and secured. It would
have been for a moment, in this case, a matter of quickly closing
the windows and giving the alarm--with poor Maggie's sense that,
though she couldn't know what she wanted of her, it was enough
for trepidation that, at these firm hands, anything should be to
say nothing of the sequel of a flight taken again along the
terrace, even under the shame of the confessed feebleness of such
evasions on the part of an outraged wife. It was to this
feebleness, none the less, that the outraged wife had presently
resorted; the most that could be said for her being, as she felt
while she finally stopped short, at a distance, that she could at
any rate resist her abjection sufficiently not to sneak into the
house by another way and safely reach her room. She had literally
caught herself in the act of dodging and ducking, and it told her
there, vividly, in a single word, what she had all along been
most afraid of.

She had been afraid of the particular passage with Charlotte that
would determine her father's wife to take him into her confidence
as she couldn't possibly as yet have done, to prepare for him a
statement of her wrong, to lay before him the infamy of what she
was apparently suspected of. This, should she have made up her
mind to do it, would rest on a calculation the thought of which
evoked, strangely, other possibilities and visions. It would show
her as sufficiently believing in her grasp of her husband to be
able to assure herself that, with his daughter thrown on the
defensive, with Maggie's cause and Maggie's word, in fine,
against her own, it wasn't Maggie's that would most certainly
carry the day. Such a glimpse of her conceivable idea, which
would be founded on reasons all her own, reasons of experience
and assurance, impenetrable to others, but intimately familiar to
herself--such a glimpse opened out wide as soon as it had come
into view; for if so much as this was still firm ground between
the elder pair, if the beauty of appearances had been so
consistently preserved, it was only the golden bowl as Maggie
herself knew it that had been broken. The breakage stood not for
any wrought discomposure among the triumphant three--it stood
merely for the dire deformity of her attitude toward them. She
was unable at the minute, of course, fully to measure the
difference thus involved for her, and it remained inevitably an
agitating image, the way it might be held over her that if she
didn't, of her own prudence, satisfy Charlotte as to the
reference, in her mocking spirit, of so much of the unuttered and
unutterable, of the constantly and unmistakably implied, her
father would be invited without further ceremony to recommend her
to do so. But ANY confidence, ANY latent operating insolence,
that Mrs. Verver should, thanks to her large native resources,
continue to be possessed of and to hold in reserve, glimmered
suddenly as a possible working light and seemed to offer, for
meeting her, a new basis and something like a new system.
Maggie felt, truly, a rare contraction of the heart on making
out, the next instant, what the new system would probably have to
be--and she had practically done that before perceiving that the
thing she feared had already taken place. Charlotte, extending
her search, appeared now to define herself vaguely in the
distance; of this, after an instant, the Princess was sure,
though the darkness was thick, for the projected clearness of the
smoking-room windows had presently contributed its help. Her
friend came slowly into that circle--having also, for herself, by
this time, not indistinguishably discovered that Maggie was on
the terrace. Maggie, from the end, saw her stop before one of the
windows to look at the group within, and then saw her come nearer
and pause again, still with a considerable length of the place
between them.

Yes, Charlotte had seen she was watching her from afar, and had
stopped now to put her further attention to the test. Her face
was fixed on her, through the night; she was the creature who had
escaped by force from her cage, yet there was in her whole motion
assuredly, even as so dimly discerned, a kind of portentous
intelligent stillness. She had escaped with an intention, but
with an intention the more definite that it could so accord with
quiet measures. The two women, at all events, only hovered there,
for these first minutes, face to face over their interval and
exchanging no sign; the intensity of their mutual look might have
pierced the night, and Maggie was at last to start with the
scared sense of having thus yielded to doubt, to dread, to
hesitation, for a time that, with no other proof needed, would
have completely given her away. How long had she stood staring?--
a single minute or five? Long enough, in any case, to have felt
herself absolutely take from her visitor something that the
latter threw upon her, irresistibly, by this effect of silence,
by this effect of waiting and watching, by this effect,
unmistakably, of timing her indecision and her fear. If then,
scared and hanging back, she had, as was so evident, sacrificed
all past pretences, it would have been with the instant knowledge
of an immense advantage gained that Charlotte finally saw her
come on. Maggie came on with her heart in her hands; she came on
with the definite prevision, throbbing like the tick of a watch,
of a doom impossibly sharp and hard, but to which, after looking
at it with her eyes wide open, she had none the less bowed her
head. By the time she was at her companion's side, for that
matter, by the time Charlotte had, without a motion, without a
word, simply let her approach and stand there, her head was
already on the block, so that the consciousness that everything
had now gone blurred all perception of whether or no the axe had
fallen. Oh, the "advantage," it was perfectly enough, in truth,
with Mrs. Verver; for what was Maggie's own sense but that of
having been thrown over on her back, with her neck, from the
first, half broken and her helpless face staring up? That
position only could account for the positive grimace of weakness
and pain produced there by Charlotte's dignity.

"I've come to join you--I thought you would be here."

"Oh yes, I'm here," Maggie heard herself return a little flatly.
"It's too close in-doors."

"Very--but close even here." Charlotte was still and grave--she
had even uttered her remark about the temperature with an
expressive weight that verged upon solemnity; so that Maggie,
reduced to looking vaguely about at the sky, could only feel her
not fail of her purpose. "The air's heavy as if with thunder--I
think there'll be a storm." She made the suggestion to carry off
an awkwardness--which was a part, always, of her companion's
gain; but the awkwardness didn't diminish in the silence that
followed. Charlotte had said nothing in reply; her brow was dark
as with a fixed expression, and her high elegance, her handsome
head and long, straight neck testified, through the dusk, to
their inveterate completeness and noble erectness. It was as if
what she had come out to do had already begun, and when, as a
consequence, Maggie had said helplessly, "Don't you want
something? won't you have my shawl?" everything might have
crumbled away in the comparative poverty of the tribute. Mrs.
Verver's rejection of it had the brevity of a sign that they
hadn't closed in for idle words, just as her dim, serious face,
uninterruptedly presented until they moved again, might have
represented the success with which she watched all her message
penetrate. They presently went back the way she had come, but she
stopped Maggie again within range of the smoking-room window and
made her stand where the party at cards would be before her. Side
by side, for three minutes, they fixed this picture of quiet
harmonies, the positive charm of it and, as might have been said,
the full significance--which, as was now brought home to Maggie,
could be no more, after all, than a matter of interpretation,
differing always for a different interpreter. As she herself had
hovered in sight of it a quarter-of-an-hour before, it would have
been a thing for her to show Charlotte--to show in righteous
irony, in reproach too stern for anything but silence. But now it
was she who was being shown it, and shown it by Charlotte, and
she saw quickly enough that, as Charlotte showed it, so she must
at present submissively seem to take it.

The others were absorbed and unconscious, either silent over
their game or dropping remarks unheard on the terrace; and it was
to her father's quiet face, discernibly expressive of nothing
that was in his daughter's mind, that our young woman's attention
was most directly given. His wife and his daughter were both
closely watching him, and to which of them, could he have been
notified of this, would his raised eyes first, all impulsively,
have responded; in which of them would he have felt it most
important to destroy--for HIS clutch at the equilibrium--any germ
of uneasiness? Not yet, since his marriage, had Maggie so sharply
and so formidably known her old possession of him as a thing
divided and contested. She was looking at him by Charlotte's
leave and under Charlotte's direction; quite in fact as if the
particular way she should look at him were prescribed to her;
quite, even, as if she had been defied to look at him in any
other. It came home to her too that the challenge wasn't, as
might be said, in his interest and for his protection, but,
pressingly, insistently, in Charlotte's, for that of HER security
at any price. She might verily, by this dumb demonstration, have
been naming to Maggie the price, naming it as a question for
Maggie herself, a sum of money that she, properly, was to find.
She must remain safe and Maggie must pay--what she was to pay
with being her own affair.

Straighter than ever, thus, the Princess again felt it all put
upon her, and there was a minute, just a supreme instant, during
which there burned in her a wild wish that her father would only
look up. It throbbed for these seconds as a yearning appeal to
him--she would chance it, that is, if he would but just raise his
eyes and catch them, across the larger space, standing in the
outer dark together. Then he might be affected by the sight,
taking them as they were; he might make some sign--she scarce
knew what--that would save her; save her from being the one, this
way, to pay all. He might somehow show a preference--
distinguishing between them; might, out of pity for her, signal
to her that this extremity of her effort for him was more than he
asked. That represented Maggie's one little lapse from
consistency--the sole small deflection in the whole course of her
scheme. It had come to nothing the next minute, for the dear
man's eyes had never moved, and Charlotte's hand, promptly passed
into her arm, had already, had very firmly drawn her on--quite,
for that matter, as from some sudden, some equal perception on
her part too of the more ways than one in which their impression
could appeal. They retraced their steps along the rest of the
terrace, turning the corner of the house, and presently came
abreast of the other windows, those of the pompous drawing-room,
still lighted and still empty. Here Charlotte again paused, and
it was again as if she were pointing out what Maggie had observed
for herself, the very look the place had of being vivid in its
stillness, of having, with all its great objects as ordered and
balanced as for a formal reception, been appointed for some high
transaction, some real affair of state. In presence of this
opportunity she faced her companion once more; she traced in her
the effect of everything she had already communicated; she
signified, with the same success, that the terrace and the sullen
night would bear too meagre witness to the completion of her
idea. Soon enough then, within the room, under the old lustres of
Venice and the eyes of the several great portraits, more or less
contemporary with these, that awaited on the walls of Fawns their
final far migration--soon enough Maggie found herself staring,
and at first all too gaspingly, at the grand total to which each
separate demand Mrs. Verver had hitherto made upon her, however
she had made it, now amounted.

"I've been wanting--and longer than you'd perhaps believe--to put
a question to you for which no opportunity has seemed to me yet
quite so good as this. It would have been easier perhaps if you
had struck me as in the least disposed ever to give me one. I
have to take it now, you see, as I find it." They stood in the
centre of the immense room, and Maggie could feel that the scene
of life her imagination had made of it twenty minutes before was
by this time sufficiently peopled. These few straight words
filled it to its uttermost reaches, and nothing was now absent
from her consciousness, either, of the part she was called upon
to play in it. Charlotte had marched straight in, dragging her
rich train; she rose there beautiful and free, with her whole
aspect and action attuned to the firmness of her speech. Maggie
had kept the shawl she had taken out with her, and, clutching it
tight in her nervousness, drew it round her as if huddling in it
for shelter, covering herself with it for humility. She looked
out as from under an improvised hood--the sole headgear of some
poor woman at somebody's proud door; she waited even like the
poor woman; she met her friend's eyes with recognitions she
couldn't suppress. She might sound it as she could--"What
question then?"--everything in her, from head to foot, crowded it
upon Charlotte that she knew. She knew too well--that she was
showing; so that successful vagueness, to save some scrap of her
dignity from the imminence of her defeat, was already a lost
cause, and the one thing left was if possible, at any cost, even
that of stupid inconsequence, to try to look as if she weren't
afraid. If she could but appear at all not afraid she might
appear a little not ashamed--that is not ashamed to be afraid,
which was the kind of shame that could be fastened on her, it
being fear all the while that moved her. Her challenge, at any
rate, her wonder, her terror--the blank, blurred surface,
whatever it was that she presented became a mixture that ceased
to signify; for to the accumulated advantage by which Charlotte
was at present sustained her next words themselves had little to
add.

"Have you any ground of complaint of me? Is there any wrong you
consider I've done you? I feel at last that I've a right to ask
you."

Their eyes had to meet on it, and to meet long; Maggie's avoided
at least the disgrace of looking away. "What makes you want to
ask it?"

"My natural desire to know. You've done that, for so long, little
justice."

Maggie waited a moment. "For so long? You mean you've
thought--?"

"I mean, my dear, that I've seen. I've seen, week after week,
that YOU seemed to be thinking--of something that perplexed or
worried you. Is it anything for which I'm in any degree
responsible?"

Maggie summoned all her powers. "What in the world SHOULD it be?"

"Ah, that's not for me to imagine, and I should be very sorry to
have to try to say! I'm aware of no point whatever at which I may
have failed you," said Charlotte; "nor of any at which I may have
failed any one in whom I can suppose you sufficiently interested
to care. If I've been guilty of some fault I've committed it all
unconsciously, and am only anxious to hear from you honestly
about it. But if I've been mistaken as to what I speak of--the
difference, more and more marked, as I've thought, in all your
manner to me--why, obviously, so much the better. No form of
correction received from you could give me greater satisfaction."

She spoke, it struck her companion, with rising, with
extraordinary ease; as if hearing herself say it all, besides
seeing the way it was listened to, helped her from point to
point. She saw she was right--that this WAS the tone for her to
take and the thing for her to do, the thing as to which she was
probably feeling that she had in advance, in her delays and
uncertainties, much exaggerated the difficulty. The difficulty
was small, and it grew smaller as her adversary continued to
shrink; she was not only doing as she wanted, but had by this
time effectively done it and hung it up. All of which but
deepened Maggie's sense of the sharp and simple need, now, of
seeing her through to the end. "'If' you've been mistaken, you
say?"--and the Princess but barely faltered. "You HAVE been
mistaken."

Charlotte looked at her splendidly hard. "You're perfectly sure
it's ALL my mistake?"

"All I can say is that you've received a false impression."

"Ah then--so much the better! From the moment I HAD received it I
knew I must sooner or later speak of it--for that, you see, is,
systematically, my way. And now," Charlotte added, "you make me
glad I've spoken. I thank you very much."

It was strange how for Maggie too, with this, the difficulty
seemed to sink. Her companion's acceptance of her denial was like
a general pledge not to keep things any worse for her than they
essentially had to be; it positively helped her to build up her
falsehood--to which, accordingly, she contributed another block.
"I've affected you evidently--quite accidentally--in some way of
which I've been all unaware. I've NOT felt at any time that
you've wronged me."

"How could I come within a mile," Charlotte inquired, "of such a
possibility?"

Maggie, with her eyes on her more easily now, made no attempt to
say; she said, after a little, something more to the present
point. "I accuse you--I accuse you of nothing."

"Ah, that's lucky!"

Charlotte had brought this out with the richness, almost, of
gaiety; and Maggie, to go on, had to think, with her own
intensity, of Amerigo--to think how he, on his side, had had to
go through with his lie to her, how it was for his wife he had
done so, and how his doing so had given her the clue and set her
the example. He must have had his own difficulty about it, and
she was not, after all, falling below him. It was in fact as if,
thanks to her hovering image of him confronted with this
admirable creature even as she was confronted, there glowed upon
her from afar, yet straight and strong, a deep explanatory light
which covered the last inch of the ground. He had given her
something to conform to, and she hadn't unintelligently turned on
him, "gone back on" him, as he would have said, by not
conforming. They were together thus, he and she, close, close
together--whereas Charlotte, though rising there radiantly before
her, was really off in some darkness of space that would steep
her in solitude and harass her with care. The heart of the
Princess swelled, accordingly, even in her abasement; she had
kept in tune with the right, and something, certainly, something
that might be like a rare flower snatched from an impossible
ledge, would, and possibly soon, come of it for her. The right,
the right--yes, it took this extraordinary form of her
humbugging, as she had called it, to the end. It was only a
question of not, by a hair's breadth, deflecting into the truth.
So, supremely, was she braced. "You must take it from me that
your anxiety rests quite on a misconception. You must take it
from me that I've never at any moment fancied I could suffer by
you." And, marvellously, she kept it up--not only kept it up, but
improved on it. "You must take it from me that I've never thought
of you but as beautiful, wonderful and good. Which is all, I
think, that you can possibly ask."

Charlotte held her a moment longer: she needed--not then to have
appeared only tactless--the last word. "It's much more, my dear,
than I dreamed of asking. I only wanted your denial."

"Well then, you have it."

"Upon your honour?"

"Upon my honour:"

And she made a point even, our young woman, of not turning away.
Her grip of her shawl had loosened--she had let it fall behind
her; but she stood there for anything more and till the weight
should be lifted. With which she saw soon enough what more was to
come. She saw it in Charlotte's face, and felt it make between
them, in the air, a chill that completed the coldness of their
conscious perjury. "Will you kiss me on it then?"

She couldn't say yes, but she didn't say no; what availed her
still, however, was to measure, in her passivity, how much too
far Charlotte had come to retreat. But there was something
different also, something for which, while her cheek received the
prodigious kiss, she had her opportunity--the sight of the
others, who, having risen from their cards to join the absent
members of their party, had reached the open door at the end of
the room and stopped short, evidently, in presence of the
demonstration that awaited them. Her husband and her father were
in front, and Charlotte's embrace of her--which wasn't to be
distinguished, for them, either, she felt, from her embrace of
Charlotte--took on with their arrival a high publicity.

Henry James

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