Of decent old gold, old silver, old bronze, of old chased and jewelled artistry, were the objects that, successively produced, had ended by numerously dotting the counter
The dealer waived the question – he practically disposed of it by turning straightway toward a receptacle to which he hadn’t yet resorted and from which, after unlocking it, he extracted a square box, of some twenty inches in height, covered with worn-looking leather. He placed the box on the counter, pushed back a pair of small hooks, lifted the lid and removed from its nest a drinking-vessel larger than a common cup, yet not of exorbitant size, and formed, to appearance, either of old fine gold or of some material once richly gilt. He handled it with tenderness, with ceremony, making a place for it on a small satin mat. “My Golden Bowl,” he observed – and it sounded on his lips as if it said everything. He left the important object – for as “important” it did somehow present itself – to produce its certain effect. Simple but singularly elegant, it stood on a circular foot, a short pedestal with a slightly spreading base, and, though not of signal depth, justified its title by the charm of its shape as well as by the tone of its surface. It might have been a large goblet diminished, to the enhancement of its happy curve, by half its original height. As formed of solid gold it was impressive; it seemed indeed to warn off the prudent admirer. Charlotte, with care, immediately took it up, while the Prince, who had after a minute shifted his position again, regarded it from a distance.
It was heavier than Charlotte had thought. “Gold, really gold?” she asked of their companion.
He waited. “Look a little, and perhaps you’ll make out.”
She looked, holding it up in both her fine hands, turning it to the light. “It may be cheap for what it is, but it will be dear, I’m afraid, for me.”
“Well,” said the man, “I can part with it for less than its value. I got it, you see, for less.”
“For how much then?”
Again he waited, always with his serene stare. “Do you like it then?”
Charlotte turned to her friend. “Do you like it?”
He came no nearer; he looked at their entertainer. “Cos’e?”
“Well, signori miei, if you must know, it’s just a perfect crystal.”
“Of course we must know, per Dio!” said the Prince. But he turned away again – he went back to his glass door.
Charlotte set down the bowl; she was evidently taken. “Do you mean it’s cut out of a single crystal?”
“If it isn’t I think I can promise you that you’ll never find any joint or any piecing.”
She wondered. “Even if I were to scrape off the gold?”
He showed, though with due respect, that she amused him. “You couldn’t scrape it off – it has been too well put on; put on I don’t know when and I don’t know how. But by some very fine old worker and by some beautiful old process.”
Charlotte, frankly charmed with the cup, smiled back at him now. “A lost art?”
“Call it a lost art.”
“But of what time then is the whole thing?”
“Well, say also of a lost time.”
The girl considered. “Then if it’s so precious how comes it to be cheap?”
The dealer once more hung fire, but by this time the Prince had lost patience. “I’ll wait for you out in the air,” he said to his companion, and though he spoke without irritation he pointed his remark by passing immediately into the street, where during the next minutes the others saw him, his back to the shop-window, philosophically enough hover and light a fresh cigarette. Charlotte even took, a little, her time; she was aware of his funny Italian taste for London street-life.
Her host meanwhile, at any rate, answered her question. “Ah, I’ve had it a long time without selling it. I think I must have been keeping it, madam, for you.”
“You’ve kept it for me because you’ve thought I mightn’t see what’s the matter with it?”
He only continued to face her – he only continued to appear to follow the play of her mind. “What is the matter with it?”
“Oh it’s not for me to say; it’s for you honestly to tell me. Of course I know something must be.”
“But if it’s something you can’t find out isn’t that as good as if it were nothing?”
“I probably should find out as soon as I had paid for it.”
“Not,” her host lucidly insisted, “if you hadn’t paid too much.”
“What do you call,” she asked, “little enough?”
“Well, what should you say to fifteen pounds?”
“I should say,” said Charlotte with the utmost promptitude, “that it’s altogether too much.”
The dealer shook his head slowly and sadly, but firmly. “It’s my price, madam – and if you admire the thing I think it really might be yours. It’s not too much. It’s too little. It’s almost nothing. I can’t go lower.”
Charlotte, wondering but resisting, bent over the bowl again. “Then it’s impossible. It’s more than I can afford.”
“Ah,” the man returned, “one can sometimes afford for a present more than one can afford for one’s self.”
He said it so coaxingly that she found herself going on without, as might be said, putting him in his place. “Oh of course it would be only for a present – !”
“Then it would be a lovely one.”
“Does one make a present,” she asked, “of an object that contains to one’s knowledge a flaw?”
“Well, if one knows of it one has only to mention it. The good faith,” the man smiled, “is always there.”
“And leave the person to whom one gives the thing, you mean, to discover it?”
“He wouldn’t discover it – if you’re speaking of a gentleman.”
“I’m not speaking of any one in particular,” Charlotte said.
“Well, whoever it might be. He might know – and he might try. But he wouldn’t find.”
She kept her eyes on him as if, though unsatisfied, mystified, she yet had a fancy for the bowl. “Not even if the thing should come to pieces?” And then as he was silent: “Not even if he should have to say to me ‘The Golden Bowl is broken’?”
He was still silent; after which he had his strangest smile. “Ah if any one should want to smash it – !”
She laughed; she almost admired the little man’s expression. “You mean one could smash it with a hammer?”
“Yes, if nothing else would do. Or perhaps even by dashing it with violence – say upon a marble floor.”
“Oh marble floors – !” But she might have been thinking – for they were a connexion, marble floors; a connexion with many things: with her old Rome, and with his; with the palaces of his past and, a little, of hers; with the possibilities of his future, with the sumptuosities of his marriage, with the wealth of the Ververs. All the same, however, there were other things; and they all together held for a moment her fancy. “Does crystal then break – when it is crystal? I thought its beauty was its hardness.”
Her friend, in his way, discriminated. “Its beauty is its being crystal. But its hardness is certainly its safety. It doesn’t break,” he went on, “like vile glass. It splits – if there is a split.”
“Ah!” – Charlotte breathed with interest. “If there is a split.” And she looked down again at the bowl. “There is a split, eh? Crystal does split, eh?”
“On lines and by laws of its own.”
“You mean if there’s a weak place?”
For all answer, after a hesitation, he took the bowl up again, holding it aloft and tapping it with a key. It rang with the finest sweetest sound. “Where’s the weak place?”
She then did the question justice. “Well, for me, only the price. I’m poor, you see – very poor. But I thank you and I’ll think.” The Prince, on the other side of the shop-window, had finally faced about and, as to see if she hadn’t done, was trying to reach with his eyes the comparatively dim interior. “I like it,” she said – “I want it. But I must decide what I can do.”
The man, not ungraciously, resigned himself. “Well, I’ll keep it for you.”
From chapter six of The Golden Bowl by Henry James, 1904
There are certain sheets of the one-inch Ordnance Survey maps which one can sit down and read like a book for an hour on end, with growing pleasure and imaginative excitement. One dwells upon the infinite variety of the place-names (and yet there is a characteristic flavour for each region of England), the delicate nerve-like complexity of roads and villages, the siting of the villages and hamlets, the romantic moated farmsteads in deep country, the churches standing alone in the fields, the patterns made by the contours or by the way parish boundaries fit into one another. One dissects such a map mentally, piece by piece, and in doing so learns a good deal of local history, whether or not one knows the country itself.
Such an exciting map is that of the country around the Wash, particularly the country on the western and southern sides – the Lincolnshire and Norfolk Marshland. One can no more do justice to this beautiful map in a few lines than programme notes can convey the quality of a symphony. The very names like Bicker Haven and Fleet Haven, now many miles inland; of Mouton Seas End and Surfleet Seas End and Seadyke Farm, all far back today from the shore-line; the so-called Roman Bank twisting across the open levels, and the chapels far out on the salt marshes – all these matters of observation set the mind working at once about the past history of this piece of country. One observes also the intricate tangle of the road and lane pattern between Boston and Wainfleet, along the western side of the Wash, in marked contrast to the great open spaces of the Fen behind where the roads are few and straight, or to the Marsh in front where they fade out altogether and give us a landscape of nothing but scores of drains running straight ahead to the mud-flats and the sea and sky beyond. The belt of tangled roads and lanes is only a mile or two wide for the greater part of its length and is thickly sprinkled with dispersed farmsteads and a few hamlets. At intervals of every few miles one finds a considerable village. And one notices one other remarkable thing – that the main road from Boston to Wainfleet is as full of bends and corners as any of the little lanes that lie on either side of it; it must be the most difficult main road in England for motorists. It runs roughly parallel, so far as anything is parallel to anything else in this irregular landscape, to what the map calls the Roman Bank and the Old Sea Bank, and roughly parallel also to a string of lanes. By now we are convinced that this piece of country, like that along the southern side of the Wash which it so much resembles, has had an exceptional history: and so indeed it has. It is a landscape of a few ancient villages and of centuries or reclamation from the marsh on one side and the fen on the other; a landscape created largely between the seventh century and the seventeenth, where many of the winding lanes represent successive frontiers in the conquest of the salt marshes from the sea.
from The Making of the English Landscape, W.G. Hoskins, 1955.