Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

Chapter XXX

She returned on the morrow to Florence, under her cousin’s escort, and Ralph Touchett, though usually restive under railway discipline, thought very well of the successive hours passed in the train that hurried his companion away from the city now distinguished by Gilbert Osmond’s preference — hours that were to form the first stage in a larger scheme of travel. Miss Stackpole had remained behind; she was planning a little trip to Naples, to be carried out with Mr. Bantling’s aid. Isabel was to have three days in Florence before the 4th of June, the date of Mrs. Touchett’s departure, and she determined to devote the last of these to her promise to call on Pansy Osmond. Her plan, however, seemed for a moment likely to modify itself in deference to an idea of Madame Merle’s. This lady was still at Casa Touchett; but she too was on the point of leaving Florence, her next station being an ancient castle in the mountains of Tuscany, the residence of a noble family of that country, whose acquaintance (she had known them, as she said, “forever”) seemed to Isabel, in the light of certain photographs of their immense crenellated dwelling which her friend was able to show her, a precious privilege. She mentioned to this fortunate woman that Mr. Osmond had asked her to take a look at his daughter, but didn’t mention that he had also made her a declaration of love.

“Ah, comme cela se trouve!” Madame Merle exclaimed. “I myself have been thinking it would be a kindness to pay the child a little visit before I go off.”

“We can go together then,” Isabel reasonably said: “reasonably” because the proposal was not uttered in the spirit of enthusiasm. She had prefigured her small pilgrimage as made in solitude; she should like it better so. She was nevertheless prepared to sacrifice this mystic sentiment to her great consideration for her friend.

That personage finely meditated. “After all, why should we both go; having, each of us, so much to do during these last hours?”

“Very good; I can easily go alone.”

“I don’t know about your going alone — to the house of a handsome bachelor. He has been married — but so long ago!”

Isabel stared. “When Mr. Osmond’s away what does it matter?”

“They don’t know he’s away, you see.”

“They? Whom do you mean?”

“Every one. But perhaps it doesn’t signify.”

“If you were going why shouldn’t I?” Isabel asked.

“Because I’m an old frump and you’re a beautiful young woman.”

“Granting all that, you’ve not promised.”

“How much you think of your promises!” said the elder woman in mild mockery.

“I think a great deal of my promises. Does that surprise you?”

“You’re right,” Madame Merle audibly reflected. “I really think you wish to be kind to the child.”

“I wish very much to be kind to her.”

“Go and see her then; no one will be the wiser. And tell her I’d have come if you hadn’t. Or rather,” Madame Merle added, “DON’T tell her. She won’t care.”

As Isabel drove, in the publicity of an open vehicle, along the winding way which led to Mr. Osmond’s hill-top, she wondered what her friend had meant by no one’s being the wiser. Once in a while, at large intervals, this lady, whose voyaging discretion, as a general thing, was rather of the open sea than of the risky channel, dropped a remark of ambiguous quality, struck a note that sounded false. What cared Isabel Archer for the vulgar judgements of obscure people? and did Madame Merle suppose that she was capable of doing a thing at all if it had to be sneakingly done? Of course not: she must have meant something else — something which in the press of the hours that preceded her departure she had not had time to explain. Isabel would return to this some day; there were sorts of things as to which she liked to be clear. She heard Pansy strumming at the piano in another place as she herself was ushered into Mr. Osmond’s drawing-room; the little girl was “practising,” and Isabel was pleased to think she performed this duty with rigour. She immediately came in, smoothing down her frock, and did the honours of her father’s house with a wide-eyed earnestness of courtesy. Isabel sat there half an hour, and Pansy rose to the occasion as the small, winged fairy in the pantomime soars by the aid of the dissimulated wire — not chattering, but conversing, and showing the same respectful interest in Isabel’s affairs that Isabel was so good as to take in hers. Isabel wondered at her; she had never had so directly presented to her nose the white flower of cultivated sweetness. How well the child had been taught, said our admiring young woman; how prettily she had been directed and fashioned; and yet how simple, how natural, how innocent she had been kept! Isabel was fond, ever, of the question of character and quality, of sounding, as who should say, the deep personal mystery, and it had pleased her, up to this time, to be in doubt as to whether this tender slip were not really all-knowing. Was the extremity of her candour but the perfection of self-consciousness? Was it put on to please her father’s visitor, or was it the direct expression of an unspotted nature? The hour that Isabel spent in Mr. Osmond’s beautiful empty, dusky rooms — the windows had been half-darkened, to keep out the heat, and here and there, through an easy crevice, the splendid summer day peeped in, lighting a gleam of faded colour or tarnished gilt in the rich gloom — her interview with the daughter of the house, I say, effectually settled this question. Pansy was really a blank page, a pure white surface, successfully kept so; she had neither art, nor guile, nor temper, nor talent — only two or three small exquisite instincts: for knowing a friend, for avoiding a mistake, for taking care of an old toy or a new frock. Yet to be so tender was to be touching withal, and she could be felt as an easy victim of fate. She would have no will, no power to resist, no sense of her own importance; she would easily be mystified, easily crushed: her force would be all in knowing when and where to cling. She moved about the place with her visitor, who had asked leave to walk through the other rooms again, where Pansy gave her judgement on several works of art. She spoke of her prospects, her occupations, her father’s intentions; she was not egotistical, but felt the propriety of supplying the information so distinguished a guest would naturally expect.

“Please tell me,” she said, “did papa, in Rome, go to see Madame Catherine? He told me he would if he had time. Perhaps he had not time. Papa likes a great deal of time. He wished to speak about my education; it isn’t finished yet, you know. I don’t know what they can do with me more; but it appears it’s far from finished. Papa told me one day he thought he would finish it himself; for the last year or two, at the convent, the masters that teach the tall girls are so very dear. Papa’s not rich, and I should be very sorry if he were to pay much money for me, because I don’t think I’m worth it. I don’t learn quickly enough, and I have no memory. For what I’m told, yes — especially when it’s pleasant; but not for what I learn in a book. There was a young girl who was my best friend, and they took her away from the convent, when she was fourteen, to make — how do you say it in English? — to make a dot. You don’t say it in English? I hope it isn’t wrong; I only mean they wished to keep the money to marry her. I don’t know whether it is for that that papa wishes to keep the money — to marry me. It costs so much to marry!” Pansy went on with a sigh; “I think papa might make that economy. At any rate I’m too young to think about it yet, and I don’t care for any gentleman; I mean for any but him. If he were not my papa I should like to marry him; I would rather be his daughter than the wife of — of some strange person. I miss him very much, but not so much as you might think, for I’ve been so much away from him. Papa has always been principally for holidays. I miss Madame Catherine almost more; but you must not tell him that. You shall not see him again? I’m very sorry, and he’ll be sorry too. Of everyone who comes here I like you the best. That’s not a great compliment, for there are not many people. It was very kind of you to come to-day — so far from your house; for I’m really as yet only a child. Oh, yes, I’ve only the occupations of a child. When did YOU give them up, the occupations of a child? I should like to know how old you are, but I don’t know whether it’s right to ask. At the convent they told us that we must never ask the age. I don’t like to do anything that’s not expected; it looks as if one had not been properly taught. I myself — I should never like to be taken by surprise. Papa left directions for everything. I go to bed very early. When the sun goes off that side I go into the garden. Papa left strict orders that I was not to get scorched. I always enjoy the view; the mountains are so graceful. In Rome, from the convent, we saw nothing but roofs and bell-towers. I practise three hours. I don’t play very well. You play yourself? I wish very much you’d play something for me; papa has the idea that I should hear good music. Madame Merle has played for me several times; that’s what I like best about Madame Merle; she has great facility. I shall never have facility. And I’ve no voice — just a small sound like the squeak of a slate-pencil making flourishes.”

Isabel gratified this respectful wish, drew off her gloves and sat down to the piano, while Pansy, standing beside her, watched her white hands move quickly over the keys. When she stopped she kissed the child good-bye, held her close, looked at her long. “Be very good,” she said; “give pleasure to your father.”

“I think that’s what I live for,” Pansy answered. “He has not much pleasure; he’s rather a sad man.”

Isabel listened to this assertion with an interest which she felt it almost a torment to be obliged to conceal. It was her pride that obliged her, and a certain sense of decency; there were still other things in her head which she felt a strong impulse, instantly checked, to say to Pansy about her father; there were things it would have given her pleasure to hear the child, to make the child, say. But she no sooner became conscious of these things than her imagination was hushed with horror at the idea of taking advantage of the little girl — it was of this she would have accused herself — and of exhaling into that air where he might still have a subtle sense for it any breath of her charmed state. She had come — she had come; but she had stayed only an hour. She rose quickly from the music-stool; even then, however, she lingered a moment, still holding her small companion, drawing the child’s sweet slimness closer and looking down at her almost in envy. She was obliged to confess it to herself — she would have taken a passionate pleasure in talking of Gilbert Osmond to this innocent, diminutive creature who was so near him. But she said no other word; she only kissed Pansy once again. They went together through the vestibule, to the door that opened on the court; and there her young hostess stopped, looking rather wistfully beyond. “I may go no further. I’ve promised papa not to pass this door.”

“You’re right to obey him; he’ll never ask you anything unreasonable.”

“I shall always obey him. But when will you come again?”

“Not for a long time, I’m afraid.”

“As soon as you can, I hope. I’m only a little girl,” said Pansy, “but I shall always expect you.” And the small figure stood in the high, dark doorway, watching Isabel cross the clear, grey court and disappear into the brightness beyond the big portone, which gave a wider dazzle as it opened.

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