Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

Chapter XXXV

Isabel, when she strolled in the Cascine with her lover, felt no impulse to tell him how little he was approved at Palazzo Crescentini. The discreet opposition offered to her marriage by her aunt and her cousin made on the whole no great impression upon her; the moral of it was simply that they disliked Gilbert Osmond. This dislike was not alarming to Isabel; she scarcely even regretted it; for it served mainly to throw into higher relief the fact, in every way so honourable, that she married to please herself. One did other things to please other people; one did this for a more personal satisfaction; and Isabel’s satisfaction was confirmed by her lover’s admirable good conduct. Gilbert Osmond was in love, and he had never deserved less than during these still, bright days, each of them numbered, which preceded the fulfilment of his hopes, the harsh criticism passed upon him by Ralph Touchett. The chief impression produced on Isabel’s spirit by this criticism was that the passion of love separated its victim terribly from every one but the loved object. She felt herself disjoined from every one she had ever known before — from her two sisters, who wrote to express a dutiful hope that she would be happy, and a surprise, somewhat more vague, at her not having chosen a consort who was the hero of a richer accumulation of anecdote; from Henrietta, who, she was sure, would come out, too late, on purpose to remonstrate; from Lord Warburton, who would certainly console himself, and from Caspar Goodwood, who perhaps would not; from her aunt, who had cold, shallow ideas about marriage, for which she was not sorry to display her contempt; and from Ralph, whose talk about having great views for her was surely but a whimsical cover for a personal disappointment. Ralph apparently wished her not to marry at all — that was what it really meant — because he was amused with the spectacle of her adventures as a single woman. His disappointment made him say angry things about the man she had preferred even to him: Isabel flattered herself that she believed Ralph had been angry. It was the more easy for her to believe this because, as I say, she had now little free or unemployed emotion for minor needs, and accepted as an incident, in fact quite as an ornament, of her lot the idea that to prefer Gilbert Osmond as she preferred him was perforce to break all other ties. She tasted of the sweets of this preference, and they made her conscious, almost with awe, of the invidious and remorseless tide of the charmed and possessed condition, great as was the traditional honour and imputed virtue of being in love. It was the tragic part of happiness; one’s right was always made of the wrong of some one else.

The elation of success, which surely now flamed high in Osmond, emitted meanwhile very little smoke for so brilliant a blaze. Contentment, on his part, took no vulgar form; excitement, in the most self-conscious of men, was a kind of ecstasy of self-control. This disposition, however, made him an admirable lover; it gave him a constant view of the smitten and dedicated state. He never forgot himself, as I say; and so he never forgot to be graceful and tender, to wear the appearance — which presented indeed no difficulty — of stirred senses and deep intentions. He was immensely pleased with his young lady; Madame Merle had made him a present of incalculable value. What could be a finer thing to live with than a high spirit attuned to softness? For would not the softness be all for one’s self, and the strenuousness for society, which admired the air of superiority? What could be a happier gift in a companion than a quick, fanciful mind which saved one repetitions and reflected one’s thought on a polished, elegant surface? Osmond hated to see his thought reproduced literally — that made it look stale and stupid; he preferred it to be freshened in the reproduction even as “words” by music. His egotism had never taken the crude form of desiring a dull wife; this lady’s intelligence was to be a silver plate, not an earthen one — a plate that he might heap up with ripe fruits, to which it would give a decorative value, so that talk might become for him a sort of served dessert. He found the silver quality in this perfection in Isabel; he could tap her imagination with his knuckle and make it ring. He knew perfectly, though he had not been told, that their union enjoyed little favour with the girl’s relations; but he had always treated her so completely as an independent person that it hardly seemed necessary to express regret for the attitude of her family. Nevertheless, one morning, he made an abrupt allusion to it. “It’s the difference in our fortune they don’t like,” he said. “They think I’m in love with your money.”

“Are you speaking of my aunt — of my cousin?” Isabel asked. “How do you know what they think?”

“You’ve not told me they’re pleased, and when I wrote to Mrs. Touchett the other day she never answered my note. If they had been delighted I should have had some sign of it, and the fact of my being poor and you rich is the most obvious explanation of their reserve. But of course when a poor man marries a rich girl he must be prepared for imputations. I don’t mind them; I only care for one thing — for your not having the shadow of a doubt. I don’t care what people of whom I ask nothing think — I’m not even capable perhaps of wanting to know. I’ve never so concerned myself, God forgive me, and why should I begin to-day, when I have taken to myself a compensation for everything? I won’t pretend I’m sorry you’re rich; I’m delighted. I delight in everything that’s yours — whether it be money or virtue. Money’s a horrid thing to follow, but a charming thing to meet. It seems to me, however, that I’ve sufficiently proved the limits of my itch for it: I never in my life tried to earn a penny, and I ought to be less subject to suspicion than most of the people one sees grubbing and grabbing. I suppose it’s their business to suspect — that of your family; it’s proper on the whole they should. They’ll like me better some day; so will you, for that matter. Meanwhile my business is not to make myself bad blood, but simply to be thankful for life and love.” “It has made me better, loving you,” he said on another occasion; “it has made me wiser and easier and — I won’t pretend to deny — brighter and nicer and even stronger. I used to want a great many things before and to be angry I didn’t have them. Theoretically I was satisfied, as I once told you. I flattered myself I had limited my wants. But I was subject to irritation; I used to have morbid, sterile, hateful fits of hunger, of desire. Now I’m really satisfied, because I can’t think of anything better. It’s just as when one has been trying to spell out a book in the twilight and suddenly the lamp comes in. I had been putting out my eyes over the book of life and finding nothing to reward me for my pains; but now that I can read it properly I see it’s a delightful story. My dear girl, I can’t tell you how life seems to stretch there before us — what a long summer afternoon awaits us. It’s the latter half of an Italian day — with a golden haze, and the shadows just lengthening, and that divine delicacy in the light, the air, the landscape, which I have loved all my life and which you love to-day. Upon my honour, I don’t see why we shouldn’t get on. We’ve got what we like — to say nothing of having each other. We’ve the faculty of admiration and several capital convictions. We’re not stupid, we’re not mean, we’re not under bonds to any kind of ignorance or dreariness. You’re remarkably fresh, and I’m remarkably well-seasoned. We’ve my poor child to amuse us; we’ll try and make up some little life for her. It’s all soft and mellow — it has the Italian colouring.”

They made a good many plans, but they left themselves also a good deal of latitude; it was a matter of course, however, that they should live for the present in Italy. It was in Italy that they had met, Italy had been a party to their first impressions of each other, and Italy should be a party to their happiness. Osmond had the attachment of old acquaintance and Isabel the stimulus of new, which seemed to assure her a future at a high level of consciousness of the beautiful. The desire for unlimited expansion had been succeeded in her soul by the sense that life was vacant without some private duty that might gather one’s energies to a point. She had told Ralph she had “seen life” in a year or two and that she was already tired, not of the act of living, but of that of observing. What had become of all her ardours, her aspirations, her theories, her high estimate of her independence and her incipient conviction that she should never marry? These things had been absorbed in a more primitive need — a need the answer to which brushed away numberless questions, yet gratified infinite desires. It simplified the situation at a stroke, it came down from above like the light of the stars, and it needed no explanation. There was explanation enough in the fact that he was her lover, her own, and that she should be able to be of use to him. She could surrender to him with a kind of humility, she could marry him with a kind of pride; she was not only taking, she was giving.

He brought Pansy with him two or three times to the Cascine — Pansy who was very little taller than a year before, and not much older. That she would always be a child was the conviction expressed by her father, who held her by the hand when she was in her sixteenth year and told her to go and play while he sat down a little with the pretty lady. Pansy wore a short dress and a long coat; her hat always seemed too big for her. She found pleasure in walking off, with quick, short steps, to the end of the alley, and then in walking back with a smile that seemed an appeal for approbation. Isabel approved in abundance, and the abundance had the personal touch that the child’s affectionate nature craved. She watched her indications as if for herself also much depended on them — Pansy already so represented part of the service she could render, part of the responsibility she could face. Her father took so the childish view of her that he had not yet explained to her the new relation in which he stood to the elegant Miss Archer. “She doesn’t know,” he said to Isabel; “she doesn’t guess; she thinks it perfectly natural that you and I should come and walk here together simply as good friends. There seems to me something enchantingly innocent in that; it’s the way I like her to be. No, I’m not a failure, as I used to think; I’ve succeeded in two things. I’m to marry the woman I adore, and I’ve brought up my child, as I wished, in the old way.”

He was very fond, in all things, of the “old way”; that had struck Isabel as one of his fine, quiet, sincere notes. “It occurs to me that you’ll not know whether you’ve succeeded until you’ve told her,” she said. “You must see how she takes your news, She may be horrified — she may be jealous.”

“I’m not afraid of that; she’s too fond of you on her own account. I should like to leave her in the dark a little longer — to see if it will come into her head that if we’re not engaged we ought to be.”

Isabel was impressed by Osmond’s artistic, the plastic view, as it somehow appeared, of Pansy’s innocence — her own appreciation of it being more anxiously moral. She was perhaps not the less pleased when he told her a few days later that he had communicated the fact to his daughter, who had made such a pretty little speech —“Oh, then I shall have a beautiful sister!” She was neither surprised nor alarmed; she had not cried, as he expected.

“Perhaps she had guessed it,” said Isabel.

“Don’t say that; I should be disgusted if I believed that. I thought it would be just a little shock; but the way she took it proves that her good manners are paramount. That’s also what I wished. You shall see for yourself; to-morrow she shall make you her congratulations in person.”

The meeting, on the morrow, took place at the Countess Gemini’s, whither Pansy had been conducted by her father, who knew that Isabel was to come in the afternoon to return a visit made her by the Countess on learning that they were to become sisters-in-law. Calling at Casa Touchett the visitor had not found Isabel at home; but after our young woman had been ushered into the Countess’s drawing-room Pansy arrived to say that her aunt would presently appear. Pansy was spending the day with that lady, who thought her of an age to begin to learn how to carry herself in company. It was Isabel’s view that the little girl might have given lessons in deportment to her relative, and nothing could have justified this conviction more than the manner in which Pansy acquitted herself while they waited together for the Countess. Her father’s decision, the year before, had finally been to send her back to the convent to receive the last graces, and Madame Catherine had evidently carried out her theory that Pansy was to be fitted for the great world.

“Papa has told me that you’ve kindly consented to marry him,” said this excellent woman’s pupil. “It’s very delightful; I think you’ll suit very well.”

“You think I shall suit YOU?”

“You’ll suit me beautifully; but what I mean is that you and papa will suit each other. You’re both so quiet and so serious. You’re not so quiet as he — or even as Madame Merle; but you’re more quiet than many others. He should not for instance have a wife like my aunt. She’s always in motion, in agitation — to-day especially; you’ll see when she comes in. They told us at the convent it was wrong to judge our elders, but I suppose there’s no harm if we judge them favourably. You’ll be a delightful companion for papa.”

“For you too, I hope,” Isabel said.

“I speak first of him on purpose. I’ve told you already what I myself think of you; I liked you from the first. I admire you so much that I think it will be a good fortune to have you always before me. You’ll be my model; I shall try to imitate you though I’m afraid it will be very feeble. I’m very glad for papa — he needed something more than me. Without you I don’t see how he could have got it. You’ll be my stepmother, but we mustn’t use that word. They’re always said to be cruel; but I don’t think you’ll ever so much as pinch or even push me. I’m not afraid at all.”

“My good little Pansy,” said Isabel gently, “I shall be ever so kind to you.” A vague, inconsequent vision of her coming in some odd way to need it had intervened with the effect of a chill.

“Very well then, I’ve nothing to fear,” the child returned with her note of prepared promptitude. What teaching she had had, it seemed to suggest — or what penalties for non-performance she dreaded!

Her description of her aunt had not been incorrect; the Countess Gemini was further than ever from having folded her wings. She entered the room with a flutter through the air and kissed Isabel first on the forehead and then on each cheek as if according to some ancient prescribed rite. She drew the visitor to a sofa and, looking at her with a variety of turns of the head, began to talk very much as if, seated brush in hand before an easel, she were applying a series of considered touches to a composition of figures already sketched in. “If you expect me to congratulate you I must beg you to excuse me. I don’t suppose you care if I do or not; I believe you’re supposed not to care — through being so clever — for all sorts of ordinary things. But I care myself if I tell fibs; I never tell them unless there’s something rather good to be gained. I don’t see what’s to be gained with you — especially as you wouldn’t believe me. I don’t make professions any more than I make paper flowers or flouncey lampshades — I don’t know how. My lampshades would be sure to take fire, my roses and my fibs to be larger than life. I’m very glad for my own sake that you’re to marry Osmond; but I won’t pretend I’m glad for yours. You’re very brilliant — you know that’s the way you’re always spoken of; you’re an heiress and very good-looking and original, not banal; so it’s a good thing to have you in the family. Our family’s very good, you know; Osmond will have told you that; and my mother was rather distinguished — she was called the American Corinne. But we’re dreadfully fallen, I think, and perhaps you’ll pick us up. I’ve great confidence in you; there are ever so many things I want to talk to you about. I never congratulate any girl on marrying; I think they ought to make it somehow not quite so awful a steel trap. I suppose Pansy oughtn’t to hear all this; but that’s what she has come to me for — to acquire the tone of society. There’s no harm in her knowing what horrors she may be in for. When first I got an idea that my brother had designs on you I thought of writing to you, to recommend you, in the strongest terms, not to listen to him. Then I thought it would be disloyal, and I hate anything of that kind. Besides, as I say, I was enchanted for myself; and after all I’m very selfish. By the way, you won’t respect me, not one little mite, and we shall never be intimate. I should like it, but you won’t. Some day, all the same, we shall be better friends than you will believe at first. My husband will come and see you, though, as you probably know, he’s on no sort of terms with Osmond. He’s very fond of going to see pretty women, but I’m not afraid of you. In the first place I don’t care what he does. In the second, you won’t care a straw for him; he won’t be a bit, at any time, your affair, and, stupid as he is, he’ll see you’re not his. Some day, if you can stand it, I’ll tell you all about him. Do you think my niece ought to go out of the room? Pansy, go and practise a little in my boudoir.”

“Let her stay, please,” said Isabel. “I would rather hear nothing that Pansy may not!”

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