Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

Chapter XXVIII

On the morrow, in the evening, Lord Warburton went again to see his friends at their hotel, and at this establishment he learned that they had gone to the opera. He drove to the opera with the idea of paying them a visit in their box after the easy Italian fashion; and when he had obtained his admittance — it was one of the secondary theatres — looked about the large, bare, ill-lighted house. An act had just terminated and he was at liberty to pursue his quest. After scanning two or three tiers of boxes he perceived in one of the largest of these receptacles a lady whom he easily recognised. Miss Archer was seated facing the stage and partly screened by the curtain of the box; and beside her, leaning back in his chair, was Mr. Gilbert Osmond. They appeared to have the place to themselves, and Warburton supposed their companions had taken advantage of the recess to enjoy the relative coolness of the lobby. He stood a while with his eyes on the interesting pair; he asked himself if he should go up and interrupt the harmony. At last he judged that Isabel had seen him, and this accident determined him. There should be no marked holding off. He took his way to the upper regions and on the staircase met Ralph Touchett slowly descending, his hat at the inclination of ennui and his hands where they usually were.

“I saw you below a moment since and was going down to you. I feel lonely and want company,” was Ralph’s greeting.

“You’ve some that’s very good which you’ve yet deserted.”

“Do you mean my cousin? Oh, she has a visitor and doesn’t want me. Then Miss Stackpole and Bantling have gone out to a cafe to eat an ice — Miss Stackpole delights in an ice. I didn’t think they wanted me either. The opera’s very bad; the women look like laundresses and sing like peacocks. I feel very low.”

“You had better go home,” Lord Warburton said without affectation.

“And leave my young lady in this sad place? Ah no, I must watch over her.”

“She seems to have plenty of friends.”

“Yes, that’s why I must watch,” said Ralph with the same large mock-melancholy.

“If she doesn’t want you it’s probable she doesn’t want me.”

“No, you’re different. Go to the box and stay there while I walk about.”

Lord Warburton went to the box, where Isabel’s welcome was as to a friend so honourably old that he vaguely asked himself what queer temporal province she was annexing. He exchanged greetings with Mr. Osmond, to whom he had been introduced the day before and who, after he came in, sat blandly apart and silent, as if repudiating competence in the subjects of allusion now probable. It struck her second visitor that Miss Archer had, in operatic conditions, a radiance, even a slight exaltation; as she was, however, at all times a keenly-glancing, quickly-moving, completely animated young woman, he may have been mistaken on this point. Her talk with him moreover pointed to presence of mind; it expressed a kindness so ingenious and deliberate as to indicate that she was in undisturbed possession of her faculties. Poor Lord Warburton had moments of bewilderment. She had discouraged him, formally, as much as a woman could; what business had she then with such arts and such felicities, above all with such tones of reparation — preparation? Her voice had tricks of sweetness, but why play them on HIM? The others came back; the bare, familiar, trivial opera began again. The box was large, and there was room for him to remain if he would sit a little behind and in the dark. He did so for half an hour, while Mr. Osmond remained in front, leaning forward, his elbows on his knees, just behind Isabel. Lord Warburton heard nothing, and from his gloomy corner saw nothing but the clear profile of this young lady defined against the dim illumination of the house. When there was another interval no one moved. Mr. Osmond talked to Isabel, and Lord Warburton kept his corner. He did so but for a short time, however; after which he got up and bade good-night to the ladies. Isabel said nothing to detain him, but it didn’t prevent his being puzzled again. Why should she mark so one of his values — quite the wrong one — when she would have nothing to do with another, which was quite the right? He was angry with himself for being puzzled, and then angry for being angry. Verdi’s music did little to comfort him, and he left the theatre and walked homeward, without knowing his way, through the tortuous, tragic streets of Rome, where heavier sorrows than his had been carried under the stars.

“What’s the character of that gentleman?” Osmond asked of Isabel after he had retired.

“Irreproachable — don’t you see it?”

“He owns about half England; that’s his character,” Henrietta remarked. “That’s what they call a free country!”

“Ah, he’s a great proprietor? Happy man!” said Gilbert Osmond.

“Do you call that happiness — the ownership of wretched human beings?” cried Miss Stackpole. “He owns his tenants and has thousands of them. It’s pleasant to own something, but inanimate objects are enough for me. I don’t insist on flesh and blood and minds and consciences.”

“It seems to me you own a human being or two,” Mr. Bantling suggested jocosely. “I wonder if Warburton orders his tenants about as you do me.”

“Lord Warburton’s a great radical,” Isabel said. “He has very advanced opinions.”

“He has very advanced stone walls. His park’s enclosed by a gigantic iron fence, some thirty miles round,” Henrietta announced for the information of Mr. Osmond. “I should like him to converse with a few of our Boston radicals.”

“Don’t they approve of iron fences?” asked Mr. Bantling.

“Only to shut up wicked conservatives. I always feel as if I were talking to YOU over something with a neat top-finish of broken glass.”

“Do you know him well, this unreformed reformer?” Osmond went on, questioning Isabel.

“Well enough for all the use I have for him.”

“And how much of a use is that?”

“Well, I like to like him.”

“‘Liking to like’— why, it makes a passion!” said Osmond.

“No”— she considered —“keep that for liking to DISlike.”

“Do you wish to provoke me then,” Osmond laughed, “to a passion for HIM?”

She said nothing for a moment, but then met the light question with a disproportionate gravity. “No, Mr. Osmond; I don’t think I should ever dare to provoke you. Lord Warburton, at any rate,” she more easily added, “is a very nice man.”

“Of great ability?” her friend enquired.

“Of excellent ability, and as good as he looks.”

“As good as he’s good-looking do you mean? He’s very good-looking. How detestably fortunate! — to be a great English magnate, to be clever and handsome into the bargain, and, by way of finishing off, to enjoy your high favour! That’s a man I could envy.”

Isabel considered him with interest. “You seem to me to be always envying some one. Yesterday it was the Pope; to-day it’s poor Lord Warburton.”

“My envy’s not dangerous; it wouldn’t hurt a mouse. I don’t want to destroy the people — I only want to BE them. You see it would destroy only myself.”

“You’d like to be the Pope?” said Isabel.

“I should love it — but I should have gone in for it earlier. But why”— Osmond reverted —“do you speak of your friend as poor?”

“Women — when they are very, very good sometimes pity men after they’ve hurt them; that’s their great way of showing kindness,” said Ralph, joining in the conversation for the first time and with a cynicism so transparently ingenious as to be virtually innocent.

“Pray, have I hurt Lord Warburton?” Isabel asked, raising her eyebrows as if the idea were perfectly fresh.

“It serves him right if you have,” said Henrietta while the curtain rose for the ballet.

Isabel saw no more of her attributive victim for the next twenty-four hours, but on the second day after the visit to the opera she encountered him in the gallery of the Capitol, where he stood before the lion of the collection, the statue of the Dying Gladiator. She had come in with her companions, among whom, on this occasion again, Gilbert Osmond had his place, and the party, having ascended the staircase, entered the first and finest of the rooms. Lord Warburton addressed her alertly enough, but said in a moment that he was leaving the gallery. “And I’m leaving Rome,” he added. “I must bid you goodbye.” Isabel, inconsequently enough, was now sorry to hear it. This was perhaps because she had ceased to be afraid of his renewing his suit; she was thinking of something else. She was on the point of naming her regret, but she checked herself and simply wished him a happy journey; which made him look at her rather unlightedly. “I’m afraid you’ll think me very ‘volatile.’ I told you the other day I wanted so much to stop.”

“Oh no; you could easily change your mind.”

“That’s what I have done.”

“Bon voyage then.”

“You’re in a great hurry to get rid of me,” said his lordship quite dismally.

“Not in the least. But I hate partings.”

“You don’t care what I do,” he went on pitifully.

Isabel looked at him a moment. “Ah,” she said, “you’re not keeping your promise!”

He coloured like a boy of fifteen. “If I’m not, then it’s because I can’t; and that’s why I’m going.”

“Good-bye then.”

“Good-bye.” He lingered still, however. “When shall I see you again?”

Isabel hesitated, but soon, as if she had had a happy inspiration: “Some day after you’re married.”

“That will never be. It will be after you are.”

“That will do as well,” she smiled.

“Yes, quite as well. Good-bye.”

They shook hands, and he left her alone in the glorious room, among the shining antique marbles. She sat down in the centre of the circle of these presences, regarding them vaguely, resting her eyes on their beautiful blank faces; listening, as it were, to their eternal silence. It is impossible, in Rome at least, to look long at a great company of Greek sculptures without feeling the effect of their noble quietude; which, as with a high door closed for the ceremony, slowly drops on the spirit the large white mantle of peace. I say in Rome especially, because the Roman air is an exquisite medium for such impressions. The golden sunshine mingles with them, the deep stillness of the past, so vivid yet, though it is nothing but a void full of names, seems to throw a solemn spell upon them. The blinds were partly closed in the windows of the Capitol, and a clear, warm shadow rested on the figures and made them more mildly human. Isabel sat there a long time, under the charm of their motionless grace, wondering to what, of their experience, their absent eyes were open, and how, to our ears, their alien lips would sound. The dark red walls of the room threw them into relief; the polished marble floor reflected their beauty. She had seen them all before, but her enjoyment repeated itself, and it was all the greater because she was glad again, for the time, to be alone. At last, however, her attention lapsed, drawn off by a deeper tide of life. An occasional tourist came in, stopped and stared a moment at the Dying Gladiator, and then passed out of the other door, creaking over the smooth pavement. At the end of half an hour Gilbert Osmond reappeared, apparently in advance of his companions. He strolled toward her slowly, with his hands behind him and his usual enquiring, yet not quite appealing smile. “I’m surprised to find you alone, I thought you had company.

“So I have — the best.” And she glanced at the Antinous and the Faun.

“Do you call them better company than an English peer?”

“Ah, my English peer left me some time ago.” She got up, speaking with intention a little dryly.

Mr. Osmond noted her dryness, which contributed for him to the interest of his question. “I’m afraid that what I heard the other evening is true: you’re rather cruel to that nobleman.”

Isabel looked a moment at the vanquished Gladiator. “It’s not true. I’m scrupulously kind.”

“That’s exactly what I mean!” Gilbert Osmond returned, and with such happy hilarity that his joke needs to be explained. We know that he was fond of originals, of rarities, of the superior and the exquisite; and now that he had seen Lord Warburton, whom he thought a very fine example of his race and order, he perceived a new attraction in the idea of taking to himself a young lady who had qualified herself to figure in his collection of choice objects by declining so noble a hand. Gilbert Osmond had a high appreciation of this particular patriciate; not so much for its distinction, which he thought easily surpassable, as for its solid actuality. He had never forgiven his star for not appointing him to an English dukedom, and he could measure the unexpectedness of such conduct as Isabel’s. It would be proper that the woman he might marry should have done something of that sort.

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