by die 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 diey see my motive, in the light of diat 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 die air for them of a really equivocal, sinister bargain between us - something quite unholy and louche}'95
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,jwith his felicities, tliat 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 die 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,96my dear; and stranger things still - as I needn't tell you\ Very good then,' she wound up; 'there is a perfecdy 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 biases, are brought up, from the first, to prowling and mauling. It does give us, you'll admit, sometliing to think about. My relief is luckily, however, in what I finally do diink.'
He was well enough aware, by this time, of what she finally did
THE GOLDEN BOWL
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 Mm.'
'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.'97
'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?'
O8 THE GOLDEN BOWL
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