Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

Chapter XXVI

Gilbert Osmond came to see Isabel again; that is he came to Palazzo Crescentini. He had other friends there as well, and to Mrs. Touchett and Madame Merle he was always impartially civil; but the former of these ladies noted the fact that in the course of a fortnight he called five times, and compared it with another fact that she found no difficulty in remembering. Two visits a year had hitherto constituted his regular tribute to Mrs. Touchett’s worth, and she had never observed him select for such visits those moments, of almost periodical recurrence, when Madame Merle was under her roof. It was not for Madame Merle that he came; these two were old friends and he never put himself out for her. He was not fond of Ralph — Ralph had told her so — and it was not supposable that Mr. Osmond had suddenly taken a fancy to her son. Ralph was imperturbable — Ralph had a kind of loose-fitting urbanity that wrapped him about like an ill-made overcoat, but of which he never divested himself; he thought Mr. Osmond very good company and was willing at any time to look at him in the light of hospitality. But he didn’t flatter himself that the desire to repair a past injustice was the motive of their visitor’s calls; he read the situation more clearly. Isabel was the attraction, and in all conscience a sufficient one. Osmond was a critic, a student of the exquisite, and it was natural he should be curious of so rare an apparition. So when his mother observed to him that it was plain what Mr. Osmond was thinking of, Ralph replied that he was quite of her opinion. Mrs. Touchett had from far back found a place on her scant list for this gentleman, though wondering dimly by what art and what process — so negative and so wise as they were — he had everywhere effectively imposed himself. As he had never been an importunate visitor he had had no chance to be offensive, and he was recommended to her by his appearance of being as well able to do without her as she was to do without him — a quality that always, oddly enough, affected her as providing ground for a relation with her. It gave her no satisfaction, however, to think that he had taken it into his head to marry her niece. Such an alliance, on Isabel’s part, would have an air of almost morbid perversity. Mrs. Touchett easily remembered that the girl had refused an English peer; and that a young lady with whom Lord Warburton had not successfully wrestled should content herself with an obscure American dilettante, a middle-aged widower with an uncanny child and an ambiguous income, this answered to nothing in Mrs. Touchett’s conception of success. She took, it will be observed, not the sentimental, but the political, view of matrimony — a view which has always had much to recommend it. “I trust she won’t have the folly to listen to him,” she said to her son; to which Ralph replied that Isabel’s listening was one thing and Isabel’s answering quite another. He knew she had listened to several parties, as his father would have said, but had made them listen in return; and he found much entertainment in the idea that in these few months of his knowing her he should observe a fresh suitor at her gate. She had wanted to see life, and fortune was serving her to her taste; a succession of fine gentlemen going down on their knees to her would do as well as anything else. Ralph looked forward to a fourth, a fifth, a tenth besieger; he had no conviction she would stop at a third. She would keep the gate ajar and open a parley; she would certainly not allow number three to come in. He expressed this view, somewhat after this fashion, to his mother, who looked at him as if he had been dancing a jig. He had such a fanciful, pictorial way of saying things that he might as well address her in the deaf-mute’s alphabet.

“I don’t think I know what you mean,” she said; “you use too many figures of speech; I could never understand allegories. The two words in the language I most respect are Yes and No. If Isabel wants to marry Mr. Osmond she’ll do so in spite of all your comparisons. Let her alone to find a fine one herself for anything she undertakes. I know very little about the young man in America; I don’t think she spends much of her time in thinking of him, and I suspect he has got tired of waiting for her. There’s nothing in life to prevent her marrying Mr. Osmond if she only looks at him in a certain way. That’s all very well; no one approves more than I of one’s pleasing one’s self. But she takes her pleasure in such odd things; she’s capable of marrying Mr. Osmond for the beauty of his opinions or for his autograph of Michael Angelo. She wants to be disinterested: as if she were the only person who’s in danger of not being so! Will HE be so disinterested when he has the spending of her money? That was her idea before your father’s death, and it has acquired new charms for her since. She ought to marry some one of whose disinterestedness she shall herself be sure; and there would be no such proof of that as his having a fortune of his own.”

“My dear mother, I’m not afraid,” Ralph answered. “She’s making fools of us all. She’ll please herself, of course; but she’ll do so by studying human nature at close quarters and yet retaining her liberty. She has started on an exploring expedition, and I don’t think she’ll change her course, at the outset, at a signal from Gilbert Osmond. She may have slackened speed for an hour, but before we know it she’ll be steaming away again. Excuse another metaphor.”

Mrs. Touchett excused it perhaps, but was not so much reassured as to withhold from Madame Merle the expression of her fears. “You who know everything,” she said, “you must know this: whether that curious creature’s really making love to my niece.”

“Gilbert Osmond?” Madame Merle widened her clear eyes and, with a full intelligence, “Heaven help us,” she exclaimed, “that’s an idea!”

“Hadn’t it occurred to you?”

“You make me feel an idiot, but I confess it hadn’t. I wonder,” she added, “if it has occurred to Isabel.”

“Oh, I shall now ask her,” said Mrs. Touchett.

Madame Merle reflected. “Don’t put it into her head. The thing would be to ask Mr. Osmond.”

“I can’t do that,” said Mrs. Touchett. “I won’t have him enquire of me — as he perfectly may with that air of his, given Isabel’s situation — what business it is of mine.”

“I’ll ask him myself,” Madame Merle bravely declared.

“But what business — for HIM— is it of yours?”

“It’s being none whatever is just why I can afford to speak. It’s so much less my business than any one’s else that he can put me off with anything he chooses. But it will be by the way he does this that I shall know.”

“Pray let me hear then,” said Mrs. Touchett, “of the fruits of your penetration. If I can’t speak to him, however, at least I can speak to Isabel.”

Her companion sounded at this the note of warning. “Don’t be too quick with her. Don’t inflame her imagination.”

“I never did anything in life to any one’s imagination. But I’m always sure of her doing something — well, not of MY kind.”

“No, you wouldn’t like this,” Madame Merle observed without the point of interrogation.

“Why in the world should I, pray? Mr. Osmond has nothing the least solid to offer.”

Again Madame Merle was silent while her thoughtful smile drew up her mouth even more charmingly than usual toward the left corner. “Let us distinguish. Gilbert Osmond’s certainly not the first comer. He’s a man who in favourable conditions might very well make a great impression. He has made a great impression, to my knowledge, more than once.”

“Don’t tell me about his probably quite cold-blooded love-affairs; they’re nothing to me!” Mrs. Touchett cried. “What you say’s precisely why I wish he would cease his visits. He has nothing in the world that I know of but a dozen or two of early masters and a more or less pert little daughter.”

“The early masters are now worth a good deal of money,” said Madame Merle, “and the daughter’s a very young and very innocent and very harmless person.”

“In other words she’s an insipid little chit. Is that what you mean? Having no fortune she can’t hope to marry as they marry here; so that Isabel will have to furnish her either with a maintenance or with a dowry.”

“Isabel probably wouldn’t object to being kind to her. I think she likes the poor child.”

“Another reason then for Mr. Osmond’s stopping at home! Otherwise, a week hence, we shall have my niece arriving at the conviction that her mission in life’s to prove that a stepmother may sacrifice herself — and that, to prove it, she must first become one.”

“She would make a charming stepmother,” smiled Madame Merle; “but I quite agree with you that she had better not decide upon her mission too hastily. Changing the form of one’s mission’s almost as difficult as changing the shape of one’s nose: there they are, each, in the middle of one’s face and one’s character — one has to begin too far back. But I’ll investigate and report to you.”

All this went on quite over Isabel’s head; she had no suspicions that her relations with Mr. Osmond were being discussed. Madame Merle had said nothing to put her on her guard; she alluded no more pointedly to him than to the other gentlemen of Florence, native and foreign, who now arrived in considerable numbers to pay their respects to Miss Archer’s aunt. Isabel thought him interesting — she came back to that; she liked so to think of him. She had carried away an image from her visit to his hill-top which her subsequent knowledge of him did nothing to efface and which put on for her a particular harmony with other supposed and divined things, histories within histories: the image of a quiet, clever, sensitive, distinguished man, strolling on a moss-grown terrace above the sweet Val d’Arno and holding by the hand a little girl whose bell-like clearness gave a new grace to childhood. The picture had no flourishes, but she liked its lowness of tone and the atmosphere of summer twilight that pervaded it. It spoke of the kind of personal issue that touched her most nearly; of the choice between objects, subjects, contacts — what might she call them? — of a thin and those of a rich association; of a lonely, studious life in a lovely land; of an old sorrow that sometimes ached to-day; of a feeling of pride that was perhaps exaggerated, but that had an element of nobleness; of a care for beauty and perfection so natural and so cultivated together that the career appeared to stretch beneath it in the disposed vistas and with the ranges of steps and terraces and fountains of a formal Italian garden — allowing only for arid places freshened by the natural dews of a quaint half-anxious, half-helpless fatherhood. At Palazzo Crescentini Mr. Osmond’s manner remained the same; diffident at first — oh self-conscious beyond doubt! and full of the effort (visible only to a sympathetic eye) to overcome this disadvantage; an effort which usually resulted in a great deal of easy, lively, very positive, rather aggressive, always suggestive talk. Mr. Osmond’s talk was not injured by the indication of an eagerness to shine; Isabel found no difficulty in believing that a person was sincere who had so many of the signs of strong conviction — as for instance an explicit and graceful appreciation of anything that might be said on his own side of the question, said perhaps by Miss Archer in especial. What continued to please this young woman was that while he talked so for amusement he didn’t talk, as she had heard people, for “effect.” He uttered his ideas as if, odd as they often appeared, he were used to them and had lived with them; old polished knobs and heads and handles, of precious substance, that could be fitted if necessary to new walking-sticks — not switches plucked in destitution from the common tree and then too elegantly waved about. One day he brought his small daughter with him, and she rejoiced to renew acquaintance with the child, who, as she presented her forehead to be kissed by every member of the circle, reminded her vividly of an ingenue in a French play. Isabel had never seen a little person of this pattern; American girls were very different — different too were the maidens of England. Pansy was so formed and finished for her tiny place in the world, and yet in imagination, as one could see, so innocent and infantine. She sat on the sofa by Isabel; she wore a small grenadine mantle and a pair of the useful gloves that Madame Merle had given her — little grey gloves with a single button. She was like a sheet of blank paper — the ideal jeune fille of foreign fiction. Isabel hoped that so fair and smooth a page would be covered with an edifying text.

The Countess Gemini also came to call upon her, but the Countess was quite another affair. She was by no means a blank sheet; she had been written over in a variety of hands, and Mrs. Touchett, who felt by no means honoured by her visit, pronounced that a number of unmistakeable blots were to be seen upon her surface. The Countess gave rise indeed to some discussion between the mistress of the house and the visitor from Rome, in which Madame Merle (who was not such a fool as to irritate people by always agreeing with them) availed herself felicitously enough of that large licence of dissent which her hostess permitted as freely as she practised it. Mrs. Touchett had declared it a piece of audacity that this highly compromised character should have presented herself at such a time of day at the door of a house in which she was esteemed so little as she must long have known herself to be at Palazzo Crescentini. Isabel had been made acquainted with the estimate prevailing under that roof: it represented Mr. Osmond’s sister as a lady who had so mismanaged her improprieties that they had ceased to hang together at all — which was at the least what one asked of such matters — and had become the mere floating fragments of a wrecked renown, incommoding social circulation. She had been married by her mother — a more administrative person, with an appreciation of foreign titles which the daughter, to do her justice, had probably by this time thrown off — to an Italian nobleman who had perhaps given her some excuse for attempting to quench the consciousness of outrage. The Countess, however, had consoled herself outrageously, and the list of her excuses had now lost itself in the labyrinth of her adventures. Mrs. Touchett had never consented to receive her, though the Countess had made overtures of old. Florence was not an austere city; but, as Mrs. Touchett said, she had to draw the line somewhere.

Madame Merle defended the luckless lady with a great deal of zeal and wit. She couldn’t see why Mrs. Touchett should make a scapegoat of a woman who had really done no harm, who had only done good in the wrong way. One must certainly draw the line, but while one was about it one should draw it straight: it was a very crooked chalk-mark that would exclude the Countess Gemini. In that case Mrs. Touchett had better shut up her house; this perhaps would be the best course so long as she remained in Florence. One must be fair and not make arbitrary differences: the Countess had doubtless been imprudent, she had not been so clever as other women. She was a good creature, not clever at all; but since when had that been a ground of exclusion from the best society? For ever so long now one had heard nothing about her, and there could be no better proof of her having renounced the error of her ways than her desire to become a member of Mrs. Touchett’s circle. Isabel could contribute nothing to this interesting dispute, not even a patient attention; she contented herself with having given a friendly welcome to the unfortunate lady, who, whatever her defects, had at least the merit of being Mr. Osmond’s sister. As she liked the brother Isabel thought it proper to try and like the sister: in spite of the growing complexity of things she was still capable of these primitive sequences. She had not received the happiest impression of the Countess on meeting her at the villa, but was thankful for an opportunity to repair the accident. Had not Mr. Osmond remarked that she was a respectable person? To have proceeded from Gilbert Osmond this was a crude proposition, but Madame Merle bestowed upon it a certain improving polish. She told Isabel more about the poor Countess than Mr. Osmond had done, and related the history of her marriage and its consequences. The Count was a member of an ancient Tuscan family, but of such small estate that he had been glad to accept Amy Osmond, in spite of the questionable beauty which had yet not hampered her career, with the modest dowry her mother was able to offer — a sum about equivalent to that which had already formed her brother’s share of their patrimony. Count Gemini since then, however, had inherited money, and now they were well enough off, as Italians went, though Amy was horribly extravagant. The Count was a low-lived brute; he had given his wife every pretext. She had no children; she had lost three within a year of their birth. Her mother, who had bristled with pretensions to elegant learning and published descriptive poems and corresponded on Italian subjects with the English weekly journals, her mother had died three years after the Countess’s marriage, the father, lost in the grey American dawn of the situation, but reputed originally rich and wild, having died much earlier. One could see this in Gilbert Osmond, Madame Merle held — see that he had been brought up by a woman; though, to do him justice, one would suppose it had been by a more sensible woman than the American Corinne, as Mrs. Osmond had liked to be called. She had brought her children to Italy after her husband’s death, and Mrs. Touchett remembered her during the year that followed her arrival. She thought her a horrible snob; but this was an irregularity of judgement on Mrs. Touchett’s part, for she, like Mrs. Osmond, approved of political marriages. The Countess was very good company and not really the featherhead she seemed; all one had to do with her was to observe the simple condition of not believing a word she said. Madame Merle had always made the best of her for her brother’s sake; he appreciated any kindness shown to Amy, because (if it had to be confessed for him) he rather felt she let down their common name. Naturally he couldn’t like her style, her shrillness, her egotism, her violations of taste and above all of truth: she acted badly on his nerves, she was not HIS sort of woman. What was his sort of woman? Oh, the very opposite of the Countess, a woman to whom the truth should be habitually sacred. Isabel was unable to estimate the number of times her visitor had, in half an hour, profaned it: the Countess indeed had given her an impression of rather silly sincerity. She had talked almost exclusively about herself; how much she should like to know Miss Archer; how thankful she should be for a real friend; how base the people in Florence were; how tired she was of the place; how much she should like to live somewhere else — in Paris, in London, in Washington; how impossible it was to get anything nice to wear in Italy except a little old lace; how dear the world was growing everywhere; what a life of suffering and privation she had led. Madame Merle listened with interest to Isabel’s account of this passage, but she had not needed it to feel exempt from anxiety. On the whole she was not afraid of the Countess, and she could afford to do what was altogether best — not to appear so.

Isabel had meanwhile another visitor, whom it was not, even behind her back, so easy a matter to patronise. Henrietta Stackpole, who had left Paris after Mrs. Touchett’s departure for San Remo and had worked her way down, as she said, through the cities of North Italy, reached the banks of the Arno about the middle of May. Madame Merle surveyed her with a single glance, took her in from head to foot, and after a pang of despair determined to endure her. She determined indeed to delight in her. She mightn’t be inhaled as a rose, but she might be grasped as a nettle. Madame Merle genially squeezed her into insignificance, and Isabel felt that in foreseeing this liberality she had done justice to her friend’s intelligence. Henrietta’s arrival had been announced by Mr. Bantling, who, coming down from Nice while she was at Venice, and expecting to find her in Florence, which she had not yet reached, called at Palazzo Crescentini to express his disappointment. Henrietta’s own advent occurred two days later and produced in Mr. Bantling an emotion amply accounted for by the fact that he had not seen her since the termination of the episode at Versailles. The humorous view of his situation was generally taken, but it was uttered only by Ralph Touchett, who, in the privacy of his own apartment, when Bantling smoked a cigar there, indulged in goodness knew what strong comedy on the subject of the all-judging one and her British backer. This gentleman took the joke in perfectly good part and candidly confessed that he regarded the affair as a positive intellectual adventure. He liked Miss Stackpole extremely; he thought she had a wonderful head on her shoulders, and found great comfort in the society of a woman who was not perpetually thinking about what would be said and how what she did, how what they did — and they had done things! — would look. Miss Stackpole never cared how anything looked, and, if she didn’t care, pray why should he? But his curiosity had been roused; he wanted awfully to see if she ever WOULD care. He was prepared to go as far as she — he didn’t see why he should break down first.

Henrietta showed no signs of breaking down. Her prospects had brightened on her leaving England, and she was now in the full enjoyment of her copious resources. She had indeed been obliged to sacrifice her hopes with regard to the inner life; the social question, on the Continent, bristled with difficulties even more numerous than those she had encountered in England. But on the Continent there was the outer life, which was palpable and visible at every turn, and more easily convertible to literary uses than the customs of those opaque islanders. Out of doors in foreign lands, as she ingeniously remarked, one seemed to see the right side of the tapestry; out of doors in England one seemed to see the wrong side, which gave one no notion of the figure. The admission costs her historian a pang, but Henrietta, despairing of more occult things, was now paying much attention to the outer life. She had been studying it for two months at Venice, from which city she sent to the Interviewer a conscientious account of the gondolas, the Piazza, the Bridge of Sighs, the pigeons and the young boatman who chanted Tasso. The Interviewer was perhaps disappointed, but Henrietta was at least seeing Europe. Her present purpose was to get down to Rome before the malaria should come on — she apparently supposed that it began on a fixed day; and with this design she was to spend at present but few days in Florence. Mr. Bantling was to go with her to Rome, and she pointed out to Isabel that as he had been there before, as he was a military man and as he had had a classical education — he had been bred at Eton, where they study nothing but Latin and Whyte-Melville, said Miss Stackpole — he would be a most useful companion in the city of the Caesars. At this juncture Ralph had the happy idea of proposing to Isabel that she also, under his own escort, should make a pilgrimage to Rome. She expected to pass a portion of the next winter there — that was very well; but meantime there was no harm in surveying the field. There were ten days left of the beautiful month of May — the most precious month of all to the true Rome-lover. Isabel would become a Rome-lover; that was a foregone conclusion. She was provided with a trusty companion of her own sex, whose society, thanks to the fact of other calls on this lady’s attention, would probably not be oppressive. Madame Merle would remain with Mrs. Touchett; she had left Rome for the summer and wouldn’t care to return. She professed herself delighted to be left at peace in Florence; she had locked up her apartment and sent her cook home to Palestrina. She urged Isabel, however, to assent to Ralph’s proposal, and assured her that a good introduction to Rome was not a thing to be despised. Isabel in truth needed no urging, and the party of four arranged its little journey. Mrs. Touchett, on this occasion, had resigned herself to the absence of a duenna; we have seen that she now inclined to the belief that her niece should stand alone. One of Isabel’s preparations consisted of her seeing Gilbert Osmond before she started and mentioning her intention to him.

“I should like to be in Rome with you,” he commented. “I should like to see you on that wonderful ground.”

She scarcely faltered. “You might come then.”

“But you’ll have a lot of people with you.”

“Ah,” Isabel admitted, “of course I shall not be alone.”

For a moment he said nothing more. “You’ll like it,” he went on at last. “They’ve spoiled it, but you’ll rave about it.”

“Ought I to dislike it because, poor old dear — the Niobe of Nations, you know — it has been spoiled?” she asked.

“No, I think not. It has been spoiled so often,” he smiled. “If I were to go, what should I do with my little girl?”

“Can’t you leave her at the villa?”

“I don’t know that I like that — though there’s a very good old woman who looks after her. I can’t afford a governess.”

“Bring her with you then,” said Isabel promptly.

Mr. Osmond looked grave. “She has been in Rome all winter, at her convent; and she’s too young to make journeys of pleasure.”

“You don’t like bringing her forward?” Isabel enquired.

“No, I think young girls should be kept out of the world.”

“I was brought up on a different system.”

“You? Oh, with you it succeeded, because you — you were exceptional.”

“I don’t see why,” said Isabel, who, however, was not sure there was not some truth in the speech.

Mr. Osmond didn’t explain; he simply went on: “If I thought it would make her resemble you to join a social group in Rome I’d take her there to-morrow.”

“Don’t make her resemble me,” said Isabel. “Keep her like herself.”

“I might send her to my sister,” Mr. Osmond observed. He had almost the air of asking advice; he seemed to like to talk over his domestic matters with Miss Archer.

“Yes,” she concurred; “I think that wouldn’t do much towards making her resemble me!”

After she had left Florence Gilbert Osmond met Madame Merle at the Countess Gemini’s. There were other people present; the Countess’s drawing-room was usually well filled, and the talk had been general, but after a while Osmond left his place and came and sat on an ottoman half-behind, half-beside Madame Merle’s chair. “She wants me to go to Rome with her,” he remarked in a low voice.

“To go with her?”

“To be there while she’s there. She proposed it.

“I suppose you mean that you proposed it and she assented.”

“Of course I gave her a chance. But she’s encouraging — she’s very encouraging.”

“I rejoice to hear it — but don’t cry victory too soon. Of course you’ll go to Rome.”

“Ah,” said Osmond, “it makes one work, this idea of yours!”

“Don’t pretend you don’t enjoy it — you’re very ungrateful. You’ve not been so well occupied these many years.”

“The way you take it’s beautiful,” said Osmond. “I ought to be grateful for that.”

“Not too much so, however,” Madame Merle answered. She talked with her usual smile, leaning back in her chair and looking round the room. “You’ve made a very good impression, and I’ve seen for myself that you’ve received one. You’ve not come to Mrs. Touchett’s seven times to oblige me.”

“The girl’s not disagreeable,” Osmond quietly conceded.

Madame Merle dropped her eye on him a moment, during which her lips closed with a certain firmness. “Is that all you can find to say about that fine creature?”

“All? Isn’t it enough? Of how many people have you heard me say more?”

She made no answer to this, but still presented her talkative grace to the room. “You’re unfathomable,” she murmured at last. “I’m frightened at the abyss into which I shall have cast her.”

He took it almost gaily. “You can’t draw back — you’ve gone too far.”

“Very good; but you must do the rest yourself.”

“I shall do it,” said Gilbert Osmond.

Madame Merle remained silent and he changed his place again; but when she rose to go he also took leave. Mrs. Touchett’s victoria was awaiting her guest in the court, and after he had helped his friend into it he stood there detaining her. “You’re very indiscreet,” she said rather wearily; “you shouldn’t have moved when I did.”

He had taken off his hat; he passed his hand over his forehead. “I always forget; I’m out of the habit.”

“You’re quite unfathomable,” she repeated, glancing up at the windows of the house, a modern structure in the new part of the town.

He paid no heed to this remark, but spoke in his own sense. “She’s really very charming. I’ve scarcely known any one more graceful.”

“It does me good to hear you say that. The better you like her the better for me.”

“I like her very much. She’s all you described her, and into the bargain capable, I feel, of great devotion. She has only one fault.”

“What’s that?”

“Too many ideas.”

“I warned you she was clever.”

“Fortunately they’re very bad ones,” said Osmond.

“Why is that fortunate?”

“Dame, if they must be sacrificed!”

Madame Merle leaned back, looking straight before her; then she spoke to the coachman. But her friend again detained her. “If I go to Rome what shall I do with Pansy?”

“I’ll go and see her,” said Madame Merle.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38