Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

Chapter XXIX

Ralph Touchett, in talk with his excellent friend, had rather markedly qualified, as we know, his recognition of Gilbert Osmond’s personal merits; but he might really have felt himself illiberal in the light of that gentleman’s conduct during the rest of the visit to Rome. Osmond spent a portion of each day with Isabel and her companions, and ended by affecting them as the easiest of men to live with. Who wouldn’t have seen that he could command, as it were, both tact and gaiety? — which perhaps was exactly why Ralph had made his old-time look of superficial sociability a reproach to him. Even Isabel’s invidious kinsman was obliged to admit that he was just now a delightful associate. His good humour was imperturbable, his knowledge of the right fact, his production of the right word, as convenient as the friendly flicker of a match for your cigarette. Clearly he was amused — as amused as a man could be who was so little ever surprised, and that made him almost applausive. It was not that his spirits were visibly high — he would never, in the concert of pleasure, touch the big drum by so much as a knuckle: he had a mortal dislike to the high, ragged note, to what he called random ravings. He thought Miss Archer sometimes of too precipitate a readiness. It was pity she had that fault, because if she had not had it she would really have had none; she would have been as smooth to his general need of her as handled ivory to the palm. If he was not personally loud, however, he was deep, and during these closing days of the Roman May he knew a complacency that matched with slow irregular walks under the pines of the Villa Borghese, among the small sweet meadow-flowers and the mossy marbles. He was pleased with everything; he had never before been pleased with so many things at once. Old impressions, old enjoyments, renewed themselves; one evening, going home to his room at the inn, he wrote down a little sonnet to which he prefixed the title of “Rome Revisited.” A day or two later he showed this piece of correct and ingenious verse to Isabel, explaining to her that it was an Italian fashion to commemorate the occasions of life by a tribute to the muse.

He took his pleasures in general singly; he was too often — he would have admitted that — too sorely aware of something wrong, something ugly; the fertilising dew of a conceivable felicity too seldom descended on his spirit. But at present he was happy — happier than he had perhaps ever been in his life, and the feeling had a large foundation. This was simply the sense of success — the most agreeable emotion of the human heart. Osmond had never had too much of it; in this respect he had the irritation of satiety, as he knew perfectly well and often reminded himself. “Ah no, I’ve not been spoiled; certainly I’ve not been spoiled,” he used inwardly to repeat. “If I do succeed before I die I shall thoroughly have earned it.” He was too apt to reason as if “earning” this boon consisted above all of covertly aching for it and might be confined to that exercise. Absolutely void of it, also, his career had not been; he might indeed have suggested to a spectator here and there that he was resting on vague laurels. But his triumphs were, some of them, now too old; others had been too easy. The present one had been less arduous than might have been expected, but had been easy — that is had been rapid — only because he had made an altogether exceptional effort, a greater effort than he had believed it in him to make. The desire to have something or other to show for his “parts”— to show somehow or other — had been the dream of his youth; but as the years went on the conditions attached to any marked proof of rarity had affected him more and more as gross and detestable; like the swallowing of mugs of beer to advertise what one could “stand.” If an anonymous drawing on a museum wall had been conscious and watchful it might have known this peculiar pleasure of being at last and all of a sudden identified — as from the hand of a great master — by the so high and so unnoticed fact of style. His “style” was what the girl had discovered with a little help; and now, beside herself enjoying it, she should publish it to the world without his having any of the trouble. She should do the thing FOR him, and he would not have waited in vain.

Shortly before the time fixed in advance for her departure this young lady received from Mrs. Touchett a telegram running as follows: “Leave Florence 4th June for Bellaggio, and take you if you have not other views. But can’t wait if you dawdle in Rome.” The dawdling in Rome was very pleasant, but Isabel had different views, and she let her aunt know she would immediately join her. She told Gilbert Osmond that she had done so, and he replied that, spending many of his summers as well as his winters in Italy, he himself would loiter a little longer in the cool shadow of Saint Peter’s. He would not return to Florence for ten days more, and in that time she would have started for Bellaggio. It might be months in this case before he should see her again. This exchange took place in the large decorated sitting-room occupied by our friends at the hotel; it was late in the evening, and Ralph Touchett was to take his cousin back to Florence on the morrow. Osmond had found the girl alone; Miss Stackpole had contracted a friendship with a delightful American family on the fourth floor and had mounted the interminable staircase to pay them a visit. Henrietta contracted friendships, in travelling, with great freedom, and had formed in railway-carriages several that were among her most valued ties. Ralph was making arrangements for the morrow’s journey, and Isabel sat alone in a wilderness of yellow upholstery. The chairs and sofas were orange; the walls and windows were draped in purple and gilt. The mirrors, the pictures had great flamboyant frames; the ceiling was deeply vaulted and painted over with naked muses and cherubs. For Osmond the place was ugly to distress; the false colours, the sham splendour were like vulgar, bragging, lying talk. Isabel had taken in hand a volume of Ampere, presented, on their arrival in Rome, by Ralph; but though she held it in her lap with her finger vaguely kept in the place she was not impatient to pursue her study. A lamp covered with a drooping veil of pink tissue-paper burned on the table beside her and diffused a strange pale rosiness over the scene.

“You say you’ll come back; but who knows?” Gilbert Osmond said.

“I think you’re much more likely to start on your voyage round the world. You’re under no obligation to come back; you can do exactly what you choose; you can roam through space.”

“Well, Italy’s a part of space,” Isabel answered. “I can take it on the way.”

“On the way round the world? No, don’t do that. Don’t put us in a parenthesis — give us a chapter to ourselves. I don’t want to see you on your travels. I’d rather see you when they’re over. I should like to see you when you’re tired and satiated,” Osmond added in a moment. “I shall prefer you in that state.”

Isabel, with her eyes bent, fingered the pages of M. Ampere. “You turn things into ridicule without seeming to do it, though not, I think, without intending it. You’ve no respect for my travels — you think them ridiculous.”

“Where do you find that?”

She went on in the same tone, fretting the edge of her book with the paper-knife. “You see my ignorance, my blunders, the way I wander about as if the world belonged to me, simply because — because it has been put into my power to do so. You don’t think a woman ought to do that. You think it bold and ungraceful.”

“I think it beautiful,” said Osmond. “You know my opinions — I’ve treated you to enough of them. Don’t you remember my telling you that one ought to make one’s life a work of art? You looked rather shocked at first; but then I told you that it was exactly what you seemed to me to be trying to do with your own.”

She looked up from her book. “What you despise most in the world is bad, is stupid art.”

“Possibly. But yours seem to me very clear and very good.”

“If I were to go to Japan next winter you would laugh at me,” she went on.

Osmond gave a smile — a keen one, but not a laugh, for the tone of their conversation was not jocose. Isabel had in fact her solemnity; he had seen it before. “You have one!”

“That’s exactly what I say. You think such an idea absurd.”

“I would give my little finger to go to Japan; it’s one of the countries I want most to see. Can’t you believe that, with my taste for old lacquer?”

“I haven’t a taste for old lacquer to excuse me,” said Isabel.

“You’ve a better excuse — the means of going. You’re quite wrong in your theory that I laugh at you. I don’t know what has put it into your head.”

“It wouldn’t be remarkable if you did think it ridiculous that I should have the means to travel when you’ve not; for you know everything and I know nothing.”

“The more reason why you should travel and learn,” smiled Osmond. “Besides,” he added as if it were a point to be made, “I don’t know everything.”

Isabel was not struck with the oddity of his saying this gravely; she was thinking that the pleasantest incident of her life — so it pleased her to qualify these too few days in Rome, which she might musingly have likened to the figure of some small princess of one of the ages of dress overmuffled in a mantle of state and dragging a train that it took pages or historians to hold up — that this felicity was coming to an end. That most of the interest of the time had been owing to Mr. Osmond was a reflexion she was not just now at pains to make; she had already done the point abundant justice. But she said to herself that if there were a danger they should never meet again, perhaps after all it would be as well. Happy things don’t repeat themselves, and her adventure wore already the changed, the seaward face of some romantic island from which, after feasting on purple grapes, she was putting off while the breeze rose. She might come back to Italy and find him different — this strange man who pleased her just as he was; and it would be better not to come than run the risk of that. But if she was not to come the greater the pity that the chapter was closed; she felt for a moment a pang that touched the source of tears. The sensation kept her silent, and Gilbert Osmond was silent too; he was looking at her. “Go everywhere,” he said at last, in a low, kind voice; “do everything; get everything out of life. Be happy — be triumphant.”

“What do you mean by being triumphant?”

“Well, doing what you like.”

“To triumph, then, it seems to me, is to fail! Doing all the vain things one likes is often very tiresome.”

“Exactly,” said Osmond with his quiet quickness. “As I intimated just now, you’ll be tired some day.” He paused a moment and then he went on: “I don’t know whether I had better not wait till then for something I want to say to you.”

“Ah, I can’t advise you without knowing what it is. But I’m horrid when I’m tired,” Isabel added with due inconsequence.

“I don’t believe that. You’re angry, sometimes — that I can believe, though I’ve never seen it. But I’m sure you’re never ‘cross.’”

“Not even when I lose my temper?”

“You don’t lose it — you find it, and that must be beautiful.” Osmond spoke with a noble earnestness. “They must be great moments to see.”

“If I could only find it now!” Isabel nervously cried.

“I’m not afraid; I should fold my arms and admire you. I’m speaking very seriously.” He leaned forward, a hand on each knee; for some moments he bent his eyes on the floor. “What I wish to say to you,” he went on at last, looking up, “is that I find I’m in love with you.”

She instantly rose. “Ah, keep that till I am tired!”

“Tired of hearing it from others?” He sat there raising his eyes to her. “No, you may heed it now or never, as you please. But after all I must say it now.” She had turned away, but in the movement she had stopped herself and dropped her gaze upon him. The two remained a while in this situation, exchanging a long look — the large, conscious look of the critical hours of life. Then he got up and came near her, deeply respectful, as if he were afraid he had been too familiar. “I’m absolutely in love with you.”

He had repeated the announcement in a tone of almost impersonal discretion, like a man who expected very little from it but who spoke for his own needed relief. The tears came into her eyes: this time they obeyed the sharpness of the pang that suggested to her somehow the slipping of a fine bolt — backward, forward, she couldn’t have said which. The words he had uttered made him, as he stood there, beautiful and generous, invested him as with the golden air of early autumn; but, morally speaking, she retreated before them — facing him still — as she had retreated in the other cases before a like encounter. “Oh don’t say that, please,” she answered with an intensity that expressed the dread of having, in this case too, to choose and decide. What made her dread great was precisely the force which, as it would seem, ought to have banished all dread — the sense of something within herself, deep down, that she supposed to be inspired and trustful passion. It was there like a large sum stored in a bank — which there was a terror in having to begin to spend. If she touched it, it would all come out.

“I haven’t the idea that it will matter much to you,” said Osmond. “I’ve too little to offer you. What I have — it’s enough for me; but it’s not enough for you. I’ve neither fortune, nor fame, nor extrinsic advantages of any kind. So I offer nothing. I only tell you because I think it can’t offend you, and some day or other it may give you pleasure. It gives me pleasure, I assure you,” he went on, standing there before her, considerately inclined to her, turning his hat, which he had taken up, slowly round with a movement which had all the decent tremor of awkwardness and none of its oddity, and presenting to her his firm, refined, slightly ravaged face. “It gives me no pain, because it’s perfectly simple. For me you’ll always be the most important woman in the world.”

Isabel looked at herself in this character — looked intently, thinking she filled it with a certain grace. But what she said was not an expression of any such complacency. “You don’t offend me; but you ought to remember that, without being offended, one may be incommoded, troubled.” “Incommoded,” she heard herself saying that, and it struck her as a ridiculous word. But it was what stupidly came to her.

“I remember perfectly. Of course you’re surprised and startled. But if it’s nothing but that, it will pass away. And it will perhaps leave something that I may not be ashamed of.”

“I don’t know what it may leave. You see at all events that I’m not overwhelmed,” said Isabel with rather a pale smile. “I’m not too troubled to think. And I think that I’m glad I leave Rome to-morrow.”

“Of course I don’t agree with you there.”

“I don’t at all KNOW you,” she added abruptly; and then she coloured as she heard herself saying what she had said almost a year before to Lord Warburton.

“If you were not going away you’d know me better.”

“I shall do that some other time.”

“I hope so. I’m very easy to know.”

“No, no,” she emphatically answered —“there you’re not sincere. You’re not easy to know; no one could be less so.”

“Well,” he laughed, “I said that because I know myself. It may be a boast, but I do.”

“Very likely; but you’re very wise.”

“So are you, Miss Archer!” Osmond exclaimed.

“I don’t feel so just now. Still, I’m wise enough to think you had better go. Good-night.”

“God bless you!” said Gilbert Osmond, taking the hand which she failed to surrender. After which he added: “If we meet again you’ll find me as you leave me. If we don’t I shall be so all the same.”

“Thank you very much. Good-bye.”

There was something quietly firm about Isabel’s visitor; he might go of his own movement, but wouldn’t be dismissed. “There’s one thing more. I haven’t asked anything of you — not even a thought in the future; you must do me that justice. But there’s a little service I should like to ask. I shall not return home for several days; Rome’s delightful, and it’s a good place for a man in my state of mind. Oh, I know you’re sorry to leave it; but you’re right to do what your aunt wishes.”

“She doesn’t even wish it!” Isabel broke out strangely.

Osmond was apparently on the point of saying something that would match these words, but he changed his mind and rejoined simply: “Ah well, it’s proper you should go with her, very proper. Do everything that’s proper; I go in for that. Excuse my being so patronising. You say you don’t know me, but when you do you’ll discover what a worship I have for propriety.”

“You’re not conventional?” Isabel gravely asked.

“I like the way you utter that word! No, I’m not conventional: I’m convention itself. You don’t understand that?” And he paused a moment, smiling. “I should like to explain it.” Then with a sudden, quick, bright naturalness, “Do come back again,” he pleaded. “There are so many things we might talk about.”

She stood there with lowered eyes. “What service did you speak of just now?”

“Go and see my little daughter before you leave Florence. She’s alone at the villa; I decided not to send her to my sister, who hasn’t at all my ideas. Tell her she must love her poor father very much,” said Gilbert Osmond gently.

“It will be a great pleasure to me to go,” Isabel answered. “I’ll tell her what you say. Once more good-bye.”

On this he took a rapid, respectful leave. When he had gone she stood a moment looking about her and seated herself slowly and with an air of deliberation. She sat there till her companions came back, with folded hands, gazing at the ugly carpet. Her agitation — for it had not diminished — was very still, very deep. What had happened was something that for a week past her imagination had been going forward to meet; but here, when it came, she stopped — that sublime principle somehow broke down. The working of this young lady’s spirit was strange, and I can only give it to you as I see it, not hoping to make it seem altogether natural. Her imagination, as I say, now hung back: there was a last vague space it couldn’t cross — a dusky, uncertain tract which looked ambiguous and even slightly treacherous, like a moorland seen in the winter twilight. But she was to cross it yet.

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