Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

Chapter XXVII

I may not attempt to report in its fulness our young woman’s response to the deep appeal of Rome, to analyse her feelings as she trod the pavement of the Forum or to number her pulsations as she crossed the threshold of Saint Peter’s. It is enough to say that her impression was such as might have been expected of a person of her freshness and her eagerness. She had always been fond of history, and here was history in the stones of the street and the atoms of the sunshine. She had an imagination that kindled at the mention of great deeds, and wherever she turned some great deed had been acted. These things strongly moved her, but moved her all inwardly. It seemed to her companions that she talked less than usual, and Ralph Touchett, when he appeared to be looking listlessly and awkwardly over her head, was really dropping on her an intensity of observation. By her own measure she was very happy; she would even have been willing to take these hours for the happiest she was ever to know. The sense of the terrible human past was heavy to her, but that of something altogether contemporary would suddenly give it wings that it could wave in the blue. Her consciousness was so mixed that she scarcely knew where the different parts of it would lead her, and she went about in a repressed ecstasy of contemplation, seeing often in the things she looked at a great deal more than was there, and yet not seeing many of the items enumerated in her Murray. Rome, as Ralph said, confessed to the psychological moment. The herd of reechoing tourists had departed and most of the solemn places had relapsed into solemnity. The sky was a blaze of blue, and the plash of the fountains in their mossy niches had lost its chill and doubled its music. On the corners of the warm, bright streets one stumbled on bundles of flowers. Our friends had gone one afternoon — it was the third of their stay — to look at the latest excavations in the Forum, these labours having been for some time previous largely extended. They had descended from the modern street to the level of the Sacred Way, along which they wandered with a reverence of step which was not the same on the part of each. Henrietta Stackpole was struck with the fact that ancient Rome had been paved a good deal like New York, and even found an analogy between the deep chariot-ruts traceable in the antique street and the overjangled iron grooves which express the intensity of American life. The sun had begun to sink, the air was a golden haze, and the long shadows of broken column and vague pedestal leaned across the field of ruin. Henrietta wandered away with Mr. Bantling, whom it was apparently delightful to her to hear speak of Julius Caesar as a “cheeky old boy,” and Ralph addressed such elucidations as he was prepared to offer to the attentive ear of our heroine. One of the humble archeologists who hover about the place had put himself at the disposal of the two, and repeated his lesson with a fluency which the decline of the season had done nothing to impair. A process of digging was on view in a remote corner of the Forum, and he presently remarked that if it should please the signori to go and watch it a little they might see something of interest. The proposal commended itself more to Ralph than to Isabel, weary with much wandering; so that she admonished her companion to satisfy his curiosity while she patiently awaited his return. The hour and the place were much to her taste — she should enjoy being briefly alone. Ralph accordingly went off with the cicerone while Isabel sat down on a prostrate column near the foundations of the Capitol. She wanted a short solitude, but she was not long to enjoy it. Keen as was her interest in the rugged relics of the Roman past that lay scattered about her and in which the corrosion of centuries had still left so much of individual life, her thoughts, after resting a while on these things, had wandered, by a concatenation of stages it might require some subtlety to trace, to regions and objects charged with a more active appeal. From the Roman past to Isabel Archer’s future was a long stride, but her imagination had taken it in a single flight and now hovered in slow circles over the nearer and richer field. She was so absorbed in her thoughts, as she bent her eyes upon a row of cracked but not dislocated slabs covering the ground at her feet, that she had not heard the sound of approaching footsteps before a shadow was thrown across the line of her vision. She looked up and saw a gentleman — a gentleman who was not Ralph come back to say that the excavations were a bore. This personage was startled as she was startled; he stood there baring his head to her perceptibly pale surprise.

“Lord Warburton!” Isabel exclaimed as she rose.

“I had no idea it was you. I turned that corner and came upon you.”

She looked about her to explain. “I’m alone, but my companions have just left me. My cousin’s gone to look at the work over there.”

“Ah yes; I see.” And Lord Warburton’s eyes wandered vaguely in the direction she had indicated. He stood firmly before her now; he had recovered his balance and seemed to wish to show it, though very kindly. “Don’t let me disturb you,” he went on, looking at her dejected pillar. “I’m afraid you’re tired.”

“Yes, I’m rather tired.” She hesitated a moment, but sat down again. “Don’t let me interrupt you,” she added.

“Oh dear, I’m quite alone, I’ve nothing on earth to do. I had no idea you were in Rome. I’ve just come from the East. I’m only passing through.”

“You’ve been making a long journey,” said Isabel, who had learned from Ralph that Lord Warburton was absent from England.

“Yes, I came abroad for six months — soon after I saw you last. I’ve been in Turkey and Asia Minor; I came the other day from Athens.” He managed not to be awkward, but he wasn’t easy, and after a longer look at the girl he came down to nature. “Do you wish me to leave you, or will you let me stay a little?”

She took it all humanely. “I don’t wish you to leave me, Lord Warburton; I’m very glad to see you.”

“Thank you for saying that. May I sit down?”

The fluted shaft on which she had taken her seat would have afforded a resting-place to several persons, and there was plenty of room even for a highly-developed Englishman. This fine specimen of that great class seated himself near our young lady, and in the course of five minutes he had asked her several questions, taken rather at random and to which, as he put some of them twice over, he apparently somewhat missed catching the answer; had given her too some information about himself which was not wasted upon her calmer feminine sense. He repeated more than once that he had not expected to meet her, and it was evident that the encounter touched him in a way that would have made preparation advisable. He began abruptly to pass from the impunity of things to their solemnity, and from their being delightful to their being impossible. He was splendidly sunburnt; even his multitudinous beard had been burnished by the fire of Asia. He was dressed in the loose-fitting, heterogeneous garments in which the English traveller in foreign lands is wont to consult his comfort and affirm his nationality; and with his pleasant steady eyes, his bronzed complexion, fresh beneath its seasoning, his manly figure, his minimising manner and his general air of being a gentleman and an explorer, he was such a representative of the British race as need not in any clime have been disavowed by those who have a kindness for it. Isabel noted these things and was glad she had always liked him. He had kept, evidently in spite of shocks, every one of his merits — properties these partaking of the essence of great decent houses, as one might put it; resembling their innermost fixtures and ornaments, not subject to vulgar shifting and removable only by some whole break-up. They talked of the matters naturally in order; her uncle’s death, Ralph’s state of health, the way she had passed her winter, her visit to Rome, her return to Florence, her plans for the summer, the hotel she was staying at; and then of Lord Warburton’s own adventures, movements, intentions, impressions and present domicile. At last there was a silence, and it said so much more than either had said that it scarce needed his final words. “I’ve written to you several times.”

“Written to me? I’ve never had your letters.”

“I never sent them. I burned them up.”

“Ah,” laughed Isabel, “it was better that you should do that than I!”

“I thought you wouldn’t care for them,” he went on with a simplicity that touched her. “It seemed to me that after all I had no right to trouble you with letters.”

“I should have been very glad to have news of you. You know how I hoped that — that —” But she stopped; there would be such a flatness in the utterance of her thought.

“I know what you’re going to say. You hoped we should always remain good friends.” This formula, as Lord Warburton uttered it, was certainly flat enough; but then he was interested in making it appear so.

She found herself reduced simply to “Please don’t talk of all that”; a speech which hardly struck her as improvement on the other.

“It’s a small consolation to allow me!” her companion exclaimed with force.

“I can’t pretend to console you,” said the girl, who, all still as she sat there, threw herself back with a sort of inward triumph on the answer that had satisfied him so little six months before. He was pleasant, he was powerful, he was gallant; there was no better man than he. But her answer remained.

“It’s very well you don’t try to console me; it wouldn’t be in your power,” she heard him say through the medium of her strange elation.

“I hoped we should meet again, because I had no fear you would attempt to make me feel I had wronged you. But when you do that — the pain’s greater than the pleasure.” And she got up with a small conscious majesty, looking for her companions.

“I don’t want to make you feel that; of course I can’t say that. I only just want you to know one or two things — in fairness to myself, as it were. I won’t return to the subject again. I felt very strongly what I expressed to you last year; I couldn’t think of anything else. I tried to forget — energetically, systematically. I tried to take an interest in somebody else. I tell you this because I want you to know I did my duty. I didn’t succeed. It was for the same purpose I went abroad — as far away as possible. They say travelling distracts the mind, but it didn’t distract mine. I’ve thought of you perpetually, ever since I last saw you. I’m exactly the same. I love you just as much, and everything I said to you then is just as true. This instant at which I speak to you shows me again exactly how, to my great misfortune, you just insuperably charm me. There — I can’t say less. I don’t mean, however, to insist; it’s only for a moment. I may add that when I came upon you a few minutes since, without the smallest idea of seeing you, I was, upon my honour, in the very act of wishing I knew where you were.” He had recovered his self-control, and while he spoke it became complete. He might have been addressing a small committee — making all quietly and clearly a statement of importance; aided by an occasional look at a paper of notes concealed in his hat, which he had not again put on. And the committee, assuredly, would have felt the point proved.

“I’ve often thought of you, Lord Warburton,” Isabel answered. “You may be sure I shall always do that.” And she added in a tone of which she tried to keep up the kindness and keep down the meaning: “There’s no harm in that on either side.”

They walked along together, and she was prompt to ask about his sisters and request him to let them know she had done so. He made for the moment no further reference to their great question, but dipped again into shallower and safer waters. But he wished to know when she was to leave Rome, and on her mentioning the limit of her stay declared he was glad it was still so distant.

“Why do you say that if you yourself are only passing through?” she enquired with some anxiety.

“Ah, when I said I was passing through I didn’t mean that one would treat Rome as if it were Clapham Junction. To pass through Rome is to stop a week or two.”

“Say frankly that you mean to stay as long as I do!”

His flushed smile, for a little, seemed to sound her. “You won’t like that. You’re afraid you’ll see too much of me.”

“It doesn’t matter what I like. I certainly can’t expect you to leave this delightful place on my account. But I confess I’m afraid of you.”

“Afraid I’ll begin again? I promise to be very careful.”

They had gradually stopped and they stood a moment face to face. “Poor Lord Warburton!” she said with a compassion intended to be good for both of them.

“Poor Lord Warburton indeed! But I’ll be careful.”

“You may be unhappy, but you shall not make ME so. That I can’t allow.”

“If I believed I could make you unhappy I think I should try it.” At this she walked in advance and he also proceeded. “I’ll never say a word to displease you.”

“Very good. If you do, our friendship’s at an end.”

“Perhaps some day — after a while — you’ll give me leave.”

“Give you leave to make me unhappy?”

He hesitated. “To tell you again —” But he checked himself. “I’ll keep it down. I’ll keep it down always.”

Ralph Touchett had been joined in his visit to the excavation by Miss Stackpole and her attendant, and these three now emerged from among the mounds of earth and stone collected round the aperture and came into sight of Isabel and her companion. Poor Ralph hailed his friend with joy qualified by wonder, and Henrietta exclaimed in a high voice “Gracious, there’s that lord!” Ralph and his English neighbour greeted with the austerity with which, after long separations, English neighbours greet, and Miss Stackpole rested her large intellectual gaze upon the sunburnt traveller. But she soon established her relation to the crisis. “I don’t suppose you remember me, sir.”

“Indeed I do remember you,” said Lord Warburton. “I asked you to come and see me, and you never came.”

“I don’t go everywhere I’m asked,” Miss Stackpole answered coldly.

“Ah well, I won’t ask you again,” laughed the master of Lockleigh.

“If you do I’ll go; so be sure!”

Lord Warburton, for all his hilarity, seemed sure enough. Mr. Bantling had stood by without claiming a recognition, but he now took occasion to nod to his lordship, who answered him with a friendly “Oh, you here, Bantling?” and a hand-shake.

“Well,” said Henrietta, “I didn’t know you knew him!”

“I guess you don’t know every one I know,” Mr. Bantling rejoined facetiously.

“I thought that when an Englishman knew a lord he always told you.”

“Ah, I’m afraid Bantling was ashamed of me,” Lord Warburton laughed again. Isabel took pleasure in that note; she gave a small sigh of relief as they kept their course homeward.

The next day was Sunday; she spent her morning over two long letters — one to her sister Lily, the other to Madame Merle; but in neither of these epistles did she mention the fact that a rejected suitor had threatened her with another appeal. Of a Sunday afternoon all good Romans (and the best Romans are often the northern barbarians) follow the custom of going to vespers at Saint Peter’s; and it had been agreed among our friends that they would drive together to the great church. After lunch, an hour before the carriage came, Lord Warburton presented himself at the Hotel de Paris and paid a visit to the two ladies, Ralph Touchett and Mr. Bantling having gone out together. The visitor seemed to have wished to give Isabel a proof of his intention to keep the promise made her the evening before; he was both discreet and frank — not even dumbly importunate or remotely intense. He thus left her to judge what a mere good friend he could be. He talked about his travels, about Persia, about Turkey, and when Miss Stackpole asked him whether it would “pay” for her to visit those countries assured her they offered a great field to female enterprise. Isabel did him justice, but she wondered what his purpose was and what he expected to gain even by proving the superior strain of his sincerity. If he expected to melt her by showing what a good fellow he was, he might spare himself the trouble. She knew the superior strain of everything about him, and nothing he could now do was required to light the view. Moreover his being in Rome at all affected her as a complication of the wrong sort — she liked so complications of the right. Nevertheless, when, on bringing his call to a close, he said he too should be at Saint Peter’s and should look out for her and her friends, she was obliged to reply that he must follow his convenience.

In the church, as she strolled over its tesselated acres, he was the first person she encountered. She had not been one of the superior tourists who are “disappointed” in Saint Peter’s and find it smaller than its fame; the first time she passed beneath the huge leathern curtain that strains and bangs at the entrance, the first time she found herself beneath the far-arching dome and saw the light drizzle down through the air thickened with incense and with the reflections of marble and gilt, of mosaic and bronze, her conception of greatness rose and dizzily rose. After this it never lacked space to soar. She gazed and wondered like a child or a peasant, she paid her silent tribute to the seated sublime. Lord Warburton walked beside her and talked of Saint Sophia of Constantinople; she feared for instance that he would end by calling attention to his exemplary conduct. The service had not yet begun, but at Saint Peter’s there is much to observe, and as there is something almost profane in the vastness of the place, which seems meant as much for physical as for spiritual exercise, the different figures and groups, the mingled worshippers and spectators, may follow their various intentions without conflict or scandal. In that splendid immensity individual indiscretion carries but a short distance. Isabel and her companions, however, were guilty of none; for though Henrietta was obliged in candour to declare that Michael Angelo’s dome suffered by comparison with that of the Capitol at Washington, she addressed her protest chiefly to Mr. Bantling’s ear and reserved it in its more accentuated form for the columns of the Interviewer. Isabel made the circuit of the church with his lordship, and as they drew near the choir on the left of the entrance the voices of the Pope’s singers were borne to them over the heads of the large number of persons clustered outside the doors. They paused a while on the skirts of this crowd, composed in equal measure of Roman cockneys and inquisitive strangers, and while they stood there the sacred concert went forward. Ralph, with Henrietta and Mr. Bantling, was apparently within, where Isabel, looking beyond the dense group in front of her, saw the afternoon light, silvered by clouds of incense that seemed to mingle with the splendid chant, slope through the embossed recesses of high windows. After a while the singing stopped and then Lord Warburton seemed disposed to move off with her. Isabel could only accompany him; whereupon she found herself confronted with Gilbert Osmond, who appeared to have been standing at a short distance behind her. He now approached with all the forms — he appeared to have multiplied them on this occasion to suit the place.

“So you decided to come?” she said as she put out her hand.

“Yes, I came last night and called this afternoon at your hotel. They told me you had come here, and I looked about for you.”

“The others are inside,” she decided to say.

“I didn’t come for the others,” he promptly returned.

She looked away; Lord Warburton was watching them; perhaps he had heard this. Suddenly she remembered it to be just what he had said to her the morning he came to Gardencourt to ask her to marry him. Mr. Osmond’s words had brought the colour to her cheek, and this reminiscence had not the effect of dispelling it. She repaired any betrayal by mentioning to each companion the name of the other, and fortunately at this moment Mr. Bantling emerged from the choir, cleaving the crowd with British valour and followed by Miss Stackpole and Ralph Touchett. I say fortunately, but this is perhaps a superficial view of the matter; since on perceiving the gentleman from Florence Ralph Touchett appeared to take the case as not committing him to joy. He didn’t hang back, however, from civility, and presently observed to Isabel, with due benevolence, that she would soon have all her friends about her. Miss Stackpole had met Mr. Osmond in Florence, but she had already found occasion to say to Isabel that she liked him no better than her other admirers — than Mr. Touchett and Lord Warburton, and even than little Mr. Rosier in Paris. “I don’t know what it’s in you,” she had been pleased to remark, “but for a nice girl you do attract the most unnatural people. Mr. Goodwood’s the only one I’ve any respect for, and he’s just the one you don’t appreciate.”

“What’s your opinion of Saint Peter’s?” Mr. Osmond was meanwhile enquiring of our young lady.

“It’s very large and very bright,” she contented herself with replying.

“It’s too large; it makes one feel like an atom.”

“Isn’t that the right way to feel in the greatest of human temples?” she asked with rather a liking for her phrase.

“I suppose it’s the right way to feel everywhere, when one IS nobody. But I like it in a church as little as anywhere else.”

“You ought indeed to be a Pope!” Isabel exclaimed, remembering something he had referred to in Florence.

“Ah, I should have enjoyed that!” said Gilbert Osmond.

Lord Warburton meanwhile had joined Ralph Touchett, and the two strolled away together. “Who’s the fellow speaking to Miss Archer?” his lordship demanded.

“His name’s Gilbert Osmond — he lives in Florence,” Ralph said.

“What is he besides?”

“Nothing at all. Oh yes, he’s an American; but one forgets that — he’s so little of one.”

“Has he known Miss Archer long?”

“Three or four weeks.”

“Does she like him?”

“She’s trying to find out.”

“And will she?”

“Find out —?” Ralph asked.

“Will she like him?”

“Do you mean will she accept him?”

“Yes,” said Lord Warburton after an instant; “I suppose that’s what I horribly mean.”

“Perhaps not if one does nothing to prevent it,” Ralph replied.

His lordship stared a moment, but apprehended. “Then we must be perfectly quiet?”

“As quiet as the grave. And only on the chance!” Ralph added.

“The chance she may?”

“The chance she may not?”

Lord Warburton took this at first in silence, but he spoke again. “Is he awfully clever?”

“Awfully,” said Ralph.

His companion thought. “And what else?”

“What more do you want?” Ralph groaned.

“Do you mean what more does SHE?”

Ralph took him by the arm to turn him: they had to rejoin the others. “She wants nothing that WE can give her.”

“Ah well, if she won’t have You —!” said his lordship handsomely as they went.

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